This excellent essay about the terminal sociopolitical rot that afflicts Western culture was published at Henryk Broder’s website Die Achse des Guten. Many thanks to JLH for the translation:
No Democracy Without Cultural Gratitude
Guest author Egon Flaig
December 13, 2017
“Western societies are completely demoralized. There is no longer notice taken of the whole which allows policy to be made… Western societies are practically not states anymore…They are just collections of lobbies… where everyone can prevent action against his interests.”
That is how Cornelius Castoriadis diagnosed the debilitation of institutionalized decision-making, in the newspaper Libération. The final stage of a pluralism, in which the social sectors pursue only their own particular interests and are no longer interested in subjecting themselves to the common good, ends in the inability of governments to carry out political decisions against the social sectors. The political loses its autonomy and the motto of republican pluralism — e pluribus unum — becomes meaningless. What was not yet obvious to Castoriadis 36 years ago was that society could fragment still further, i.e., into parallel societies which are in the same territory, but alien to one another, and do not integrate into a common political culture.
It is our task to consider what this fragmentation means for the future of democracy. European democracies are crumbling because our demos — the citizenry — is devolving into culturally hostile parallel societies. A shockingly high percentage of them resist the expectation that they should integrate into a people of participating citizens. Those who resist integration believe that they owe Western culture nothing. Even worse: this belief afflicts a growing portion of the citizenry. If this ingratitude continues to grow, we Europeans will lose three things — science, democracy and human rights. Societies depend on barter, communities on sacrifice. If we were merely members of society, we would be business partners with no further obligations to others. But communities, for one thing, are held together by common norms; for another, by the consciousness of a solidarity that enables its members to defend one another, even without remuneration, and possibly even to make the ultimate sacrifice for this solidarity.
Republican communities require even more of what distinguishes the citizen from the subject. They encourage their members to actively participate in common decisions. This is what constitutes the citizen and distinguishes him from the free subject. Since people are not born adult, the generations function as a hinge between a state’s biological reproduction and the mortality of its individuals. Every culture is realized through the communication and interaction between the generations. Cultural treasure manifests itself as an enormous collection of artifacts and institutions. This capital is solidified work and effort, objectified activity, accumulated by means of tradition, i.e., the handing on of accomplishments, skills and knowledge from one generation to another. This intergenerational transfer surpasses by multiples the transfer between cultures. Immanuel Kant left no doubt about what that means: “Gratitude is obligation […] As to the extending of this gratitude, it goes not only to contemporaries, but also to forebears, even those who cannot be named with certainty.” From this, Friedrich Schiller deduced the duty to feel an obligation to posterity, because only then does the duty of gratitude to forebears make sense.
The reason for being grateful cannot be gainsaid, because it appears to us in the form of a thousandfold accomplishments. Of the many features of Western culture, several are especially relevant to our present direction. Let us note three that are now in great danger: 1) European culture alone, in Greek antiquity, produced institutionalized republics and democracies, and again found its way to a republican order in the Middle Ages. 2) It was also alone in doing away with slavery in difficult battles worldwide, and thus formulating human rights. 3) And finally, during Greek Classicism, it was the first to develop scientific thinking and the sciences.
We are indebted to this culture for a great legal universalism and the equality of men and women. We are indebted for all that to the generations before us. All those accomplishments were hard won, and we can lose them so quickly. But precisely this “losability” has disappeared from discussions of cultural self-consciousness. The naive majority of the media and political elite has long since lost sight of it, and an increasing percentage of academic elite no longer considers that we could lose it all. Should it go so far that these accomplishments were considered unquestioned givens, then we would mutate to amnesiac troglodytes, stumbling through history as parasites.
When Gratitude Turns to Rejection
That is what is threatening the Western world. Ingratitude is the title of Alain Finkielkraut’s work, in which he ponders the relationship of cultural heritage and republican tradition. His thoughts are similar to those brought up against Habermas in the “battle of the historians” in 1986-87. If Western memorial culture predominantly recalls crimes, the reference to the collective past will be negative, and the gratitude to past generations will disappear and change to rejection. If that happens, orientation will be lost and the only traction will be in a hyper-moralism with no standards of its own. A glance at universities and schools confirms this diagnosis. A current in cultural scholarship that fancies itself “critical,” and its consequent effect on lower education levels, is dead set upon renovating alleged “historical injustice” and “remembering” it. Lesson plans in humanistic and sociological specialties have changed focus, to ripping historical epochs — with their attendant, specific moral and political conceptions — out of their diachronically anchored area of impact, to judge them by present-day standards of good and evil. So these things are de-historicized in order to moralize over them.
Thus, all the advanced civilizations to this point in history can be dismissed as slavery systems, sexist and xenophobic regimes. A sense of moral superiority can be instilled in pupils and students, disposing of any obligation to preserve the spiritual treasures of those epochs, and making any curiosity about them suspect. Ultimately, these are the remote control effects of “anti-colonialism,” i.e., the New Left ideology since the 1950s, which denied the colonialism of the Chinese, the Persians, the Turks and above all, the Arabs, in order to exclusively label European expansion since the end of the 15th century “colonialism.” The New Left created a radically new picture of world history. All that is bad in the world began with European expansion, and salvation depends on the victory of the peoples of the Third World over Western colonialism and imperialism. As this anti-imperialist view of history became hegemonic, about the middle of the 1970s, two denials of history came up — the first concerning racism and the second concerning slavery and its abolition. Anti-colonialist ideology has marked classic racism as a European product. But where did the racism of skin color begin? Not with the Greeks, not with the Romans not in the European Middle Ages. It comes from Arabic culture.
The Abolition of Slavery
Bernard Lewis and David Goldenberg documented this beginning. In hot and cold climates, Arab geographers perceived the reason that “Browns” are complete human beings, while “Whites” in the north and “Blacks” in the south turned out inferior. Not until 500 years later did this racism reach Europeans, brought by the many translations of the medical writings of Persian philosopher and scientist Avicenna (980-1037 AD). Skin color racism first found purchase In 17th century Europe, when the slavery practiced there was almost exclusively black. Historians could check the sources — they are all translated. Yet the dogma is firmly set in new generations of historians that racism is a European product.
The second denial concerns the abolition of slavery. As Orlando Patterson has established, all advanced civilizations practiced slavery, and even a fair number of pre-state societies. It is by no means a natural thing that we are living In a slavery-free society. We owe this privilege to the political destruction of the slavery system in the 19th century, carried out above all by the British, and later the French, effected by blockades of the West African coast and finally through direct intervention on the African continent to stop the perpetual slavery wars, which ultimately meant making the continent into a protectorate.
This fight to abolish slavery is unique in world history. The discussions with their poignant texts are among the significant sources for the rise of human rights. There is no trace of such a discussion in all the other advanced cultures of the world. In the Islamic world, there is not one fatwa forbidding slavery. Instead, slavery is considered impractical at the moment. That is a matter of scholarly certainty. And yet the New Left denies both these historical facts. And this denial continues today in the post-colonial studies whose ideologies still infect the cultural studies in Western universities.
Under cover of (quite anti-Kantian) “criticism,” a belief-based mindset is methodically being created — a presumption of being authorized to judge past times, and condemn them — and all of this by means of blatant falsifying of historical facts, that is, out-and-out fake history. In this way, enormous guilt relationships can be postulated between synchronously existing cultures. And so the idea of owing something to past generations can be rejected as malicious posturing.
The Generation of Destroyers Returns
This takes its toll. If the younger generation is released from its inter-generational obligations, then it is delivered helplessly to the tremendous power of “living in the moment.” Those normative and semantic guardrails that orient us and keep us from obeying the most ridiculous imperatives, and falling victim to every moral high, topple over. What philosopher Michael Großheim called the “shrinking of the time horizon” is expressed in political culture as a spiritual one-dimensionality. On the one hand, it understands Enlightenment to be that kind of “clearing up” of which the generation of destroyers so fatally boasted after WWI. On the other, it does not hold back from flooding society with towering waves of demands.
Our public culture suffers from a condemnation of gratitude in almost every respect. The entitled are ungrateful on principle, and the whole media world — in lockstep with almost all NGOs — is programmed to drive entitlements to the absurd or invent new ones. The attitude of “I owe nothing, so I must give nothing back” is suicidal for any culture, as it is for a political community. So we should be alarmed by statements that absolutely deny the existence of a national culture.
As French President Macron said on February 5, 2017 in Lyon, “There is no French culture, There is a culture in France — it is diverse.” Thus did the author of a pre-doctoral thesis on Hegel negate that culture that had for a long time justly enjoyed the reputation of being “the” culture. Any educated person will admit that Western commonalities of people in our cultural circle are much greater and more intensive than national particularities, for the national cultures rest upon a mighty Western pedestal. But that there are cultural particularities and they are lovingly tended — in daily discourse as well as in literature, music, theater and journals — can only be denied by someone who is without any education or fanatically ideological.
That distinguishes the French president from the social-democratic integration officer, Aydan Özoguz. When she maintains that there is no specific German culture, she reveals the extent to which she has personally and consciously refused to accept a culturally determined value system. If there is no German culture, then there is no obligation for immigrants to integrate into it. Therefore, she was able to demand legalizing child marriages and forced marriages in Germany.
Macron abolishes the idea of gratitude. Indeed, what the unenlightened barbarian Özoguz is saying in Germany is less threatening than the anathema of an intellectual who assisted Paul Ricoeur for two years in producing his book, “La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli.” Disclaiming the existence of French culture, Macron propagates that globalist ideology that reduces people to their potential as workers. Such a purely economically-motivated existence with no cultural content is expected to spread across the planet as unhindered as the flow of capital, making state borders an evil remnant of a world that has been discarded. And then, of course, as the chief ideologues of globalism maintain, every national culture becomes a barrier, excluding and discriminating. Out of an abundance of caution, this discussion of total inclusion leaves the question open, of what a “diverse culture” is supposed to be.
Actually, the intellectual Macron knows as well as any educated person that human cultures — as we have been told from Herodotus to Lévi-Strauss — must radically reduce diversity, just to construct semantic horizons and ensure normative orientation. Macron, with the self-contradictory concept of “diverse culture” liquidates the idea of any culture at all. This mindless concept is no sooner translated into the circular discourses on political usage, than it obviates that double integration without which human culture cannot endure. First, integrating the foreigner into our political culture; second, integrating following generations into our moral, esthetic, scientific and political value system.
Macron, who recently opined in Berlin that economic solidarity is the decisive component for a united Europe, is raising the rejection of gratitude to a cultural-political maxim. And meanwhile, the rejection of gratitude is destroying the foundations of every republic. Rejecting the cultural past means making the feeling of political belonging a burdensome discomfort. And thus disappears the consciousness of common bonds and with it the willingness to sacrifice for the community. So people of the present time are no longer capable of holding on to historical reference points. The belief in owing nothing is a principal cultural phenomenon of the Postmodern. It undermines not only knowledge but also democracy, because it creates a one-dimensional consciousness, consisting partly of a cobbled together past, and partly of a shriveled-up absolute synchrony. Such a consciousness drains the solidarity of citizens, a solidarity that is of existential importance to democracies. Democracy cannot be preserved without knowing what foundations it rests upon. That knowledge will disappear along with gratitude if our historical memory is replaced by fake history.
The Forebears to Whom We Owe Our Thanks
Gratitude to the cultural past is a cardinal prerequisite for a sufficiently civil self-image from which our democracies can be nourished. To avoid misunderstandings: This past is not a biological one, not a genealogical one, but a cultural one. The Liberal John Stuart Mill wrote in 1846 that the Battle of Marathon was more important for English history than the Battle of Hastings, in which the Normans conquered England. Mill did not hesitate to regard the victory of the Athenians over the Persians in 490 BC as an “event in English history.” Why? Because that small Greek state that defended itself against an Asian world empire brought democracy to fruition and handed it on to posterity. The political thought of the Greeks served as an intellectual reference point when self-governing municipal communes arose in the West in the Middle Ages and also when the English political system was republicanized. As we learn from Mill, cultural forebears are not the biological ones. They are the forebears we owe thanks to, because they have left us accomplishments that are decisive for our cultural identity. And if the historical culture in our educational institutions does not succeed in producing a gratitude for historical accomplishments, then a united Europe will not occur. For political solidarity never arises from economic interests but always from common values and a common history where there is something to hold onto and be thankful for.
Perhaps we need a political philosophy of gratitude. Should such a thing arise, it would be based on the disturbing sentence of Seneca: “Underneath everything is the ungrateful one. For all…evil comes from the ungrateful one, without whom hardly any great crime would occur.” Would it be gratitude, not just political community, that ultimately holds human society together?
The Greek philosophers never abandoned the idea of a social contract between free and independent individuals. Did the non-theoretical thinking and therefore underestimated Roman look deeper? Before any contract, there is a uniting, which even goes beyond what Plato invoked in his Crito as “silent agreement to the social contract.” Ultimately, every political community depends on gratitude to its forebears. Particular attention was paid to this fact in Roman culture. Because of that, the Romans possessed, in pietas, a virtue alien to the Greeks. In the Roman view of the world, forebears definitely did not have to be biological, but also those whose cultural and social heritage one enters, as if being adopted. If that gratitude loses its strength, then — for the Roman philosopher — all social obligations dissolve and all social discourse ends.
In Seneca’s terms, we may conclude: If gratitude to the founders of our enlightened culture turns into ingratitude, the European republics will disintegrate, and it won’t matter whether that happens in two generations, or in three. At first, a process like this is hardly noticeable. Anyone “living in the moment” will deny it. The fate of European culture is being decided in the contention of entitlement and sacrifice, and this battle will be decided by the forces of gratitude or ingratitude. It is not yet lost. It is up to us to follow the advice Hölderlin gave us:
The divine ones say, let the human being try everything,
So that, greatly nourished, he learns to be thankful for everything,
And understands the freedom
To set out to wherever he wants.
Egon Flaig, professor emeritus of ancient history, author of numerous books, among others, World History of Slavery (2009), Against the Current, For a Secular Republic Europe (2013), The Defeat of Political Reason (2017).
|1.||The DEA or “diplôme d’études approfondies” was a non-doctoral advanced degree in France from 1964 to 2005.|
|2.||“Memory, History, Forgetting” in University of Chicago published study.