The Philosophers of Germany’s Anti-Islam Political Movement


“Alternative for Germany” (AfD) is a German political party, gaining in popularity, which supports “the idea of banning mosques” and has an official who has declared that “it may be necessary to shoot at migrants trying to enter the country illegally.” AfD has supported, and been supported by, a political movement known as “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West” (Pegida), whose members hold weekly demonstrations opposing Islam and the immigration of Muslims. The growth of these groups, say Jan-Werner Müller (Princeton) in The New York Review of Books, “indicates a potentially profound shift in German political culture: it is now possible to be an outspoken nationalist without being associated with—or, for that matter, without having to say anything about—the Nazi past.” There is a “fear among voters that the new arrivals pose a deep threat to German culture,” and this fear, argues Müller, is being stoked by some German philosophers and other intellectuals. He writes:

Journalists and academics have had a hard time understanding why the Pegida movement emerged when it did and why it has attracted so many people in Germany; there are branches of the Pegida movement in other parts of Europe, but they have gathered only marginal support thus far. Those who suggest it is driven by “anger” and “resentment” are being descriptive at best. What is remarkable, though, is that “rage” as a political stance has received the philosophical blessing of the leading AfD intellectual, Marc Jongen, who is a former assistant of the well-known philosopher Peter Sloterdijk.

Jongen has not only warned about the danger of Germany’s “cultural self-annihilation”; he has also argued that, because of the cold war and the security umbrella provided by the US, Germans have been forgetful about the importance of the military, the police, warrior virtues—and, more generally, what the ancient Greeks called thymos (variously translated as spiritedness, pride, righteous indignation, a sense of what is one’s own, or rage), in contrast to eros and logos, love and reason. Germany, Jongen says, is currently “undersupplied” with thymos. Only the Japanese have even less of it—presumably because they also lived through postwar pacifism. According to Jongen, Japan can afford such a shortage, because its inhabitants are not confronted with the “strong natures” of immigrants. It follows that the angry demonstrators are doing a damn good thing by helping to fire up thymos in German society.

Jongen, who is now deputy leader of the AfD in Baden-Württemberg, was virtually unknown until this spring. Not so Sloterdijk, one of Germany’s most prominent philosophers (and undoubtedly the most prolific) whose work has also become well-known in the US. Sloterdijk regularly takes on controversial subjects such as genetic engineering and delights in provoking what he sees as an intellectual left lacking in humor and esprit. His books, which sell extremely well, are not so much driven by clear-cut arguments as suggestively offering philosophical, and often poetic, re-descriptions of recent history, or even the history of the West as a whole. Like in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality—a continuous inspiration for Sloterdijk—these re-descriptions are supposed to jolt readers out of conventional understandings of the present. However, not much of his work lives up to Nietzsche’s image of the philosopher as a “doctor of culture” who might end up giving the patient an unpleasant or outright shocking diagnosis: Sloterdijk often simply reads back to the German mainstream what it is already thinking, just sounding much deeper because of the ingenuous metaphors and analogies, cute anachronisms, and cascading neologisms that are typical of his highly mannered style…

In his 2006 volume Rage and Time, in which he also takes his cues from Nietzsche, Sloterdijk argued that in the West thymos had been largely forgotten because of the dominance of eros in consumer capitalism, with the result that envy and resentment dominate the inner lives of citizens. He echoed Francis Fukuyama’s argument in his The End of History and the Last Man that pacified liberal democracies generally fail to find a proper place for “thymotic energies,” and Sloterdijk has said explicitly that, in confrontations with Islam, the West needs to rediscover the role of thymos… 

Sloterdijk has also invoked the concept of “the state of exception” developed by the right-wing jurist Carl Schmitt in the Twenties. As Schmitt saw it, the sovereign could, in order to save the polity in a situation of crisis, suspend the constitution by declaring a state of exception. He added that whoever decides whether there really is an existential threat to a state is revealed as the supreme power. Today, Sloterdijk holds, it is not the state, the nominal sovereign, but the refugee who decides on the state of exception. As a result of Merkel’s policy to allow the unrestricted entry of Syrians, Sloterdijk charges, Germany has waived its own sovereignty, and this “abdication” supposedly “continues day and night.”

The whole essay is here. Thanks to André Grahle for bringing it to my attention.

Comments welcome, especially from readers in Germany or those particularly knowledgeable about its current politics.

Pegida Rally (photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Pegida Rally (photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

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