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Damned to expertocracy

The end of democracy? Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk talks with Marius Meller about Europe's crisis and authoritarian capitalism.

Tagesspiegel: Mr. Sloterdijk, in your books you promote the idea of a postnational Europe. In France during the debate on the constitution you advocated a 'decisive yes, one that's had enough of all the nos'. After the no and the failed Brussels summit, is your Europe at a dead end?

Peter Sloterdijk: A very particular version of Europe has now been declared bankrupt. The referendums showed we're sliding into a neo-protectionist phase in which the countries that profited most from Europe are belatedly attacking the Eastern expansion. England has profited enormously, the French agricultural industry is one big European-subsidised enterprise. The biggest takers are the ones where the overwhelming majority is now saying no. This shows that certain mechanisms that should unite them with the European supplier are no longer working. We've built up a brainless system of transnational bank transfers to spoiled countries where national culture still dominates. That's the real calamity of the whole thing.

Is Britain still dreaming of empire?

Britain has an age-old tradition of Euro scepticism that goes back to well before the Second World War. When Churchill talked of the "United States of Europe", he didn't assume Great Britain should be a part of it, because Britain is a universe unto itself. But as it had a privileged relationship to the United States of America, Churchill also made it clear that a complex called the United States of Europe could be a charming partner for Britain, no more and no less. And that's how things remained, even after England's entry into the European club of humiliated empires. The example in North-West Europe shows what awaits us with the Turks on the oriental front.

And Blair?

Blair speaks out in favour of Turkey's entry to ensure that Europe will remain ungovernable. This is part of his plan to reduce Europe to a free trade zone. Blair prefers a chaos of overstretched national states to a European superstate that he mistrusts out of traditional British phlegm. Nevertheless the continental core Europeans have started on the road to political integration. It could turn out to be too much of a challenge. Europeans learn each other's languages only hesitantly, and not enough bilateral and plurilateral cultural work is being done. Cultural nationalism is still a powerful force to be reckoned with. Seen in this light, it's admirable what the Brussels bureaucrats have managed to accomplish: a procedural unification of this heterogenous continent. National populations have turned into something like moody cantons. Without being aware of it for the most part, we live in a Helvetic experiment on a European scale.

Was the French referendum a formal mistake in view of the increasingly chaotic democracy of sentiment?

If you don't believe that the mood of the people is something akin to the mouth of truth, then a referendum is a mistake, not only for formal reasons but also in terms of political reality. If politicians need approval they should talk frankly beforehand. The French politicians failed to make it clear to voters what they were actually voting on. Instead they let them stage another French revolution. And on top of that they open the way for xenophobia to articulate itself as an expression of pride, which is a novelty. Many French intellectuals also made fools of themselves in the process.

Are we now in for a debate on democracy, in addition to the one on capitalism now raging in Germany? Do we have to redefine our distance to direct democracy in Europe? Even the Pope's critique of "relativism" conjures up the evils of majority belief.

It would be wrong to interpret Ratzinger as anti-democratic. In fact he's for a Christian democracy. And that fits in well with a theorem I've been working on for a long time now: What awaits us is a global change to "authoritarian capitalism" based on neo-authoritarian values. Ratzinger's visions can easily be situated in such a context. The 21st century is becoming a neo-authoritarian laboratory, one where capitalism no longer has a need for democracy.

Something you're in favour of?

Of course not. It's with feelings of deep regret that I watch the domain of freedom being eroded bit by bit. The current situation is similar to the 1930s, when several kinds of authoritarianism were on offer all over the world. I think political systems are again experiencing a transition to postliberal forms. You have a choice between China's 'party dictatorial' mode, the Soviet Union's 'state dictatorial' mode, the USA's 'sentiment dictatorial' mode and finally the 'media dictatorial' mode of Berlusconi's Italy. Berlusconiism is the European test balloon of the neo-authoritarian turn.

And how does Western Europe fit into this picture?

The perplexed liberal democracies in Central and Western Europe are increasingly egoistical, and are now teetering along an uncertain course. There's a great danger of a protectionist residual democracy developing. Obviously the conditions in Germany wont approach those of Asia or Russian. But the more direct confrontation we have with China, the more Asian flu we get. The Americans are the most infected, they've already developed symptoms of a neo-authoritarian "New Deal". The result is very reminiscent of the interwar period, when even liberals such as Thomas and Heinrich Mann said that no reasonable person could now doubt the time of liberalism was over, and only robust measures were going to get anywhere.

What would be the counter-model to authoritarian democracy? Can liberalism be saved?

It can only be saved at the paradoxical cost of an alliance between democracy and asceticism, that is a voluntary acceptance of competitive disadvantages. This would mean something like a greater-European Geusen movement would have to emerge, like when the Dutch faced Spanish hegemonic claims. In the 16th and 17th centuries the imperial Spanish wanted to extend their rule as far as the Netherlands. The slogan of the Geusen Resistance was: "Better dead than a slave", which today would translate as: "better poor than unfree".

Hardly anyone would voluntarily agree to that.

We're now leaning back on half a century of successful "Bonapartist" mass democracy under the broad awning of prosperity. There's a line from Büchner's "Danton's Death" that's relevant here about the revolution having a stroke: "A chicken in the pot of every farmer, and the revolution gets apoplexy." Consequently the chickens are the losers of the story. The owners of the pots they're cooked in have won. They sold their revolutionary verve for the price of a chicken. By the way, I doubt that this verve is worth holding onto. A certain from of habitual revoltism, especially among my dear French neighbours, gets right on my nerves.

After the failed referendum, some younger German intellectuals called for a "rebirth of the national". Is Europe threatened by re-nationalisation?

For a long time in Europe we've had both: forced re-nationalisation and forced supra-national integration. To my mind the antagonism between the two is now being consciously stepped up. I wonder how much time will go by before some authors come sailing sail back into the harbours of the nation. The SPD already showed them how it was done in the 70s. If you really wanted to make Europe attractive, you had to build up the transnational solidarity system by internationalising social security and introducing a European Hartz IV unemployment and social welfare programme, along with a European pension system. That way all the basic parts of the big heart-lung machine of prosperity that keeps the unconscious social body alive would be made from European components. And that's exactly what's not happening. Why not? Because we're trapped in national hallucination chambers. The nation state is our national park.

Europe, a museum of nations?

This museum should be maintained and expanded. But the curators of our museum of prosperity must be true Europeans, even when the visitors insist on settling down in the Germany or the France Room. The flight into the nation is always arduous. So we're damned to expertocracy.


The article originally appeared in German in Der Tagesspiegel, on June 24, 2005.

Peter Sloterdijk, born in 1947, teaches aesthetics and philosophy on the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Karlsruhe. Together with Rüdiger Safranski he hosts the television show "PhilosophischeQuartett" on ZDF. His new book "Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals" (inside the internal space of world capital) has just been published by Suhrkamp Verlag.

Translation: jab.

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