First-Person Activism The Revolution at Home

The inflexion points of global history -- the storming of the Bastille or the Boston Tea Party -- were not isolated events but preludes to the silent, broad-based revolution transforming society and institutions today, argues the Handelsblatt publisher, Gabor Steingart.
The modern revolutionaries are you and I, argues the Handelsblatt publisher.

We don’t have to attend a political party academy to get a better handle on today's new breed of revolutionary, and we can save ourselves a trip to the ghettos on the outskirts of our cities.

All we have to do is step in the bathroom in the morning and take a good look in the mirror to see the modern, sleepy-eyed revolutionary: He or she looks just like you and me. Because he or she is you and me. We are reminded of the stranger in Albert Camus' eponymous novel, who says: "For a moment I had an odd impression, as if I were being scrutinized by myself."

The more thoroughly we contemplate our own mirror image, the more absurd seems the notion that we are facing something of historical impact. We imagine the new Che Guevara as a more passionate person.

A born fighter such as German communist Rosa Luxemburg, to whom we owe the sentence "Revolution is great, but everything else is nonsense," was probably in hardcore revoluntary mode by the time she entered her bathroom each morning in the Weimar Republic.

At this point, we begin to experience self-doubt and question whether we are indeed today's revolutionary. We may not know much, but we know that the most difficult form of control is self-control.

In short, there must be a mistake. Perhaps the revolutionary you seek is the one who lives next door.

Thoughts of running away are understandable but premature. Because you dear reader, even as you are beset by doubt, are not only a passive recipient, but the originator of this this story. It's your story too.

What began 500 years ago with the first intellectual renunciations of church and the monarchy, and led to revolutions in France and the United States a few centuries later, is continuing in our modern, everyday world.

 

Quelle: dpa
The march in Paris of government leaders after the terrorist murders at journal Charlie Hebdo.
(Source: dpa)

 

Our teachers were wrong when they tried to sell the "Enlightenment" as the static period of a bygone era. In reality, what happened around the Bastille prison in Paris in 1789, at Boston Harbor in 1773 and at the Hambach Palace the Palatinate in 1830, the birthplace of German democracy, were isolated inflection points in world history that ended long ago, but the prelude to our new revolutionary era.

Since then, we have been rushing through cycles of disruption at high speed and with great vitality. There has been no lack of dramatic climaxes. It is human nature, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant told us, "to expand our knowledge, purify ourselves of errors and advance in our enlightenment." This is precisely what today's revolutionary is doing, and with an unprecedented level of passion.

He doesn’t believe but instead wants to know; he doesn't break open chains but removes them; he doesn’t demand but takes; he doesn’t follow but leads, which includes taking charge of his own life.

The modern revolutionary doesn’t even require a familiarity with French essayist Baudelaire to coolly and matter-of-factly take advantage of two basic rights he proclaimed: the right to contradict yourself and the right to walk away.

Unlike the rowdies of earlier centuries, who proclaimed the latest versions of modernity from balconies and barricades, today's revolt is a silent one. Banks are not being stormed, just regulated. The factories of the nuclear industry are not threatened by explosions but by shutdowns. Food plants are not the subject of strikes, but are merely threatened by the reeducated consumer, who is often a vegetarian or even a vegan. Party officials do not fall prey to lynch-mob justice but to mere comatose indifference.

The revolt doesn’t hate, it ignores. It needs no pistol to do so. A remote control is sometimes all it takes. To quote Camus again: "What is a man in revolt? A man who says no."

The phenomena of silent revolt are evident throughout the West, where society is being transformed. But it does not adhere to any grande plan determined by a higher authority. Society is in flux, but this time it is moving without guidance.

The "current of the revolution," described by Hannah Arendt, the German political theorist, is a spectacle of nature, pushing its way through our villages and cities like a lava flow, but unlike its predecessors, it didn’t begin with an eruption. The revolution of our day lacks the erective and the explosive, which is why many do not recognize it for what it is.

Unlike their predecessors, the new revolutionaries are not to be found on the battlements, but in offices or – as patient and regimented as canned sardines – in lecture halls at nearby universities. He or she isn't belting out slogans, writing manifestos or singing revolutionary songs, and prefers strolling to marching.

But nevertheless in a very real way, these new citizen revolutionaries are storming the bastions of an authoritarian corporate world, the arrogance of the party-controlled state, the court-like rituals of the media aristocracy and the sovereign territories of an archaically informed, male-dominated world. And the infantilizing institutions we disarmingly refer to as schools will not be able to resist these onslaughts for much longer. All of these institutions see themselves being besieged by a new form of silent flooding.

"The divine right of the masses is about to replace the divine right of kings," Gustave Le Bon, the first great expert on mass psychology, predicted back in 1911.

In the 20th century, politics and partisan politics were two terms for the same thing.

Since the end of World War I, the exercise of control in Germany came from partisan political groups. Even in postwar West Germany, there was no political life outside the parties until the student revolts of 1968. And even this uprising among young academics did not result in a break with the old party logic, especially as the short summer of anarchy ended with the promise to engage in politics within the existing system once again.

The doors of Kommune I were closed once again, the blouse of Uschi Obermaier, a German fashion model and erotic symbol of the experimental 1960s, was buttoned up, and the long march through institutions began. Revolutionaries became Social Democrats, now the junior party in Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition. The party state had been saved and had made it to the next round.

But for some time now, the politically aware are no longer interested in joining one of the existing parties. Instead of resigning to their supposed fate, they establish new parties -- the Greens, the Democratic Awakening, Alliance 90, the Pirate Party, the Free Citizens and, most recently, Alternative for Germany. And those who don’t find political parties appealing at all become activists with movements and organizations like Foodwatch, Greenpeace, Amnesty International or Pegida, the anti-immigrant group from Dresden.

Nowadays political life, which is the only important thing in this context, unfolds outside the major German political parties, like the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU).

We no longer have any illusions about our traditional politicians. Suddenly, the citizen is standing in a clearing, proud and self-confident, hungry for new forms of participation. The party state, whose dual natures are the dogmatic and the noncommittal, is no longer perceived as the fulfillment of democratic longing, which is why even new train stations, Olympic Games or the notion of free trade between Germany and the United States, previously seen as unproblematic, now require direct approval from citizens.

The people are demanding a greater say, something never intended in the constitutions of a representative democracy. The people want to feel themselves, as they awaken from apathy and assimilation.

Nowadays political life, which is the only important thing in this context, unfolds outside the major German political parties, like the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU).

The timing and place for exiting the existing system are opportune, because the old regime reveals its frailty when, in a plaintive voice, it urges citizens to vote once every four years. Democracy is in jeopardy, so get out and vote! the system tells us. The callers are right, because the people are depriving the party state of its authority – by cancelling their party memberships, not voting and not watching the television programs in which the prototypical party politician – three mouths, no ears – appears. Party politics has lost some of its narcotic power over citizens. For the first time, people are no longer interested in following.

The birthplace of political action is shifting from the domaines of parties to the outskirts of our restless society. This, most of all, is where dreams of a better world are taking hold, as well as the suffering brought on by reality. By contrast, for decades the old powers have done nothing more than argue over the right way to treat new things, and about tolerating, ignoring and forming coalitions, the new reshufflings of the same old deck.

But even elected decisionmakers are no longer the nucleus of political action. Instead, they are trying to use the energy of others to keep themselves warm. This borrowed energy is enough for headlines in tomorrow's morning paper, but it isn't enough to inject new life into political parties.

The activities that the party state still knows how to manage – steering committee meetings and policy framework resolutions, rhythmic clapping at party conventions and the showiness of arriving and departing in sleek, dark limousines – cannot belie the fact that circumstances have become mummy-like.

The party headquarters have become mausoleums of the past. Their innermost cores no longer consist of the embers of political ancestors, but merely their ashes. Primary political energy is being created elsewhere. Citizens have become political self-creators.

This inner uprising could have consequences for the relationship between the church and its faithful. What began with adoration and submission has been degraded into spiritual accessories, nice to have but not essential. Papal encyclicals and bishop epistles still serve the purpose of edification, exhilaration and instruction, but they are no longer mandatory reading as instruction books for life.

The modern church must suit its members, not the other way around. And if a bishop is incapable of this, as was the case in Limburg, where a German prelate was caught in a lavish spending scandal, he is expected to give in. The clergy's relentlessness in the past is coming back to haunt it. The penalty for building a €30 million ($34 million) bishop's complex in Limburg is a new solitary life in a monastery.

 

Grass-roots movements are affecting previously off-limit decisions -- such as the proposed trans-Atlantic trade agreement between the United States and European Union.

 

 

Even Pope Francis had no choice but to obey the vote of the faithful. Unlike his predecessors, the Latin American pope knows that unless the church is a church from the bottom up, it is forfeiting its raison d'être.

This is not to say that the church is not an important authority for its members, but it is no longer the only one and certainly the last one. The more quickly and radically it weans itself away from its overbearing and authoritarian behavior, the greater its chances of survival. Under pressure from the civil emancipation movement, the church must secularize itself.

Companies and industrial sectors that refuse to acknowledge changes in the social balance of power are in no better position that the Pope and the political parties.

Nowadays, business models must be submitted to society at large for ratification, not just a company's supervisory board. The German utility industry knows what this means. It had already lost public support before the lifespans of its power plants were cut short by popular demand. Citizens had long been thinking about residual risk when the nuclear reactor exploded in Fukushima, Japan. And Chancellor Merkel was merely carrying out the wishes of civil society when she began the phase-out of nuclear power in Germany.

It was no parliamentary or administrative but social momentum that led to the establishment of what we today call the Energiewende, the energy transformation, that is, the shut-down and dismantling of all German nuclear power plants and their replacement with more environmentally friendly wind, solar and biogas alternatives.

The Bundestag only became involved after the decision had been made. Ms. Merkel saved her chancellorship, which had been limping along until then, by exercising unilateral authority for the time as chancellor. The source of her authority was not the party, the parliament or her own personal charisma and charm, but the people. In light of the nuclear meltdown, the evacuation and Japan's helplessness, security-conscious Germans saw their ultimate fears become reality.

The black swan, a symbol of calamity, had landed, and it seemed to be only a matter of time before it left Japan and flew to German nuclear power plants like Biblis and Kalkar. Chancellor Merkel, a physicist by training and a fervent supporter of nuclear power until then, became an accomplice of the revolt.

In the financial industry, we are seeing a similar civic uprising, whose poorly veiled intention is to liquidate the current business model of the major retail bank. Lehman Brothers was the Fukushima of the financial world.

Out of consideration for the feelings of the financial industry's managers, the word regulation has been used since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, but its purpose is actually to serve as camouflage. The term communization would be more honest, but the fear is that it would unsettle the financial sector so much that the money cycle would come to a standstill.

The activities that the party state still knows how to manage – steering committee meetings and policy framework resolutions, rhythmic clapping at party conventions and the showiness of arriving and departing in sleek, dark limousines – cannot belie the fact that circumstances have become mummy-like.

But anyone who has retained sensitivity to social changes can see that guardsmen of the revolutionary brigade standing behind every banker, poorly disguised as public prosecutors or employees of a regulatory agency or an investigative committee. Deutsche Bank alone currently faces more than 6,000 lawsuits, for which it created reserves of €1.6 billion on last year's balance sheet (compared to €3 billion in 2013).

Sometimes a new wave of revolutionary impatience forges ahead, as it did on the day armed officials occupied the lobby of Deutsche Bank. Police and investigators searched for and found documents, and they seized several boxes of confidential documents on the executive floor. A police helicopter circled above the bank's towers in Frankfurt, as if the top executives still had the choice of escaping via the roof.

The only way to escape the subversives is to join them, and terms that were jettisoned long ago, such as fairness and customer service, are being revived. "Culture change" is the latest buzzword, a white flag bankers are waving at a skeptical citizenry.

In this fashion, the rules are being rewritten behind the façade of normalcy, but not always voluntarily. The masters of money are no longer allowed to fleece us with interest rates, are required to reveal risks and commissions, and because they did not always do this in the past, even someone with a tiny savings account can now sue his bank retroactively, all the way back to 2004.

Experts expect German banks will have to transfer back billions of euros to the customer. For the first time, money will flow from the top to the bottom. This reversal is unprecedented in the physics of the German banking industry.

This latter-day revolution, as we can see from this example, is cleverer than any revolution that has come before.

It does not liquidate banks, but rather subjugates them. Although it may all look like private industry, in reality the state has control.

As electronic tags are to ordinary criminals, new banking laws are to board members in the financial sector. They are assumed to be guilty without exciting indignation from legal scholars. A stray dog will get more sympathy today than the board members of a private bank.

 

The Handelsblatt publisher uses an old Soviet flag to illustrate a presentation on the modern revolutionary trends at an event held on May 1 in Berlin called Pathfinder, which featured top executives from Deutsche Bank, Daimler, Deloitte, Bayer and Techniker Krankenkasse.

 

The boards of Germany's savings banks (Sparkassen) have responded to this by seeking to distance themselves from their bigger, more notorious colleagues. Their new advertising campaign, "Der Unterschied beginnt beim Namen," or "The difference starts with the name," argues that savings banks are fair, safe, in touch with the man on the street -- and by this very description, not a "bank'' at all.

Yet the old powers that be are still underestimating the force of this new upheaval, particularly because it eludes their classification of power. What is threatening for them in this new revolution is precisely the fact that it does not threaten.

If banks, energy corporations, food giants and political parties open the doors of their head offices to look for the enemy, they will not find him. The revolution has no name, only a lot of faces; it has a home in society, but no address. There are only so many people who will allow themselves to be intimidated, eavesdropped on, incarcerated, flattered or bribed.

We are experiencing a revolution without tradtional revolutionaries, a radical upheaval without destruction. Our current revolution keeps quiet and gets on with it. It is powerful precisely because it has no center of power. It inhabits the fluid spaces in a world that has torn down all barriers between the real and the virtual. If you try to chase it, you will only end up catching yourself on the wrong foot.

The media are no exception. The century of snobbery and of institutions that know it all is coming to an end. A modern newspaper must comply with the same rules on transparency as a manufacturer of preserved meat or pharmaceuticals.

Ultimately, people want to know where information comes from as a commodity. What ideologically tinted additives does it contain? What kind of shelf life do the printed assertions have?

The revolution saw through the self-appointed guardians of taste, public mores and political reality that populate editorial offices long ago. It knows that institution of journalistic synchronicity - one person telepathically feels what the other does not think - leads to a mind-numbing uniformity of content that must even to the casual reader appear like enforced political correctness, which it is.

A study found that it only takes a few days before almost every newspaper in Germany takes the same position on a given subject. Media outlets march in lockstep against polarizing figures such as the former German President Christian Wulff, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or in favor of solar power and vegetarian food. This monotony - and this is where the problem becomes dangerous - is the antithesis of a vibrant society that is in the process of reinventing itself.

 

As electronic tags are to ordinary criminals, new banking laws are to board members in the financial sector. They are assumed to be guilty without exciting indignation from legal scholars. A stray dog will get more sympathy today than the board members of a private bank.

It is rather a throwback to gilded age of conformity and dull obedience.

But on the planet surface today, we are experiencing an explosion in lifestyles and in ways of thinking and feeling, while journalism continues to condescend to us like a large media landowner. The diverse range of new media possibilities is ignored when possible.

The media sometimes seeks to provide disinformation through information.

What's new is that we can now see through them when they blow up every banal and incidental piece of information about government affairs with excessive attention to detail: a candidate for the position of chancellor uses his Bundestag rail ticket for private purposes, the presidential couple buy their child a Bobby-Car, the parliamentary leader of the Free Democratic Party gossips in a pub, supposedly among friends. The excitement this is supposed to generate in newspaper readers generally ends in bewilderment.

The revolution may have a direction, but it has no goal. But what it lacks makes it noble. It does not wave its index finger like a weapon. Where a traditional revolutionary would have been instantly recognizable going to work with a trumpet and a hacksaw, the modern insurgent is as discreet as a negligee. His eyes are alert but do not flicker. No fire of eternal truth burns inside his skull.

The old-school insurgent, in contrast, was a feverish fellow who dipped his manifesto in the blood of the revolution. He despised the present with the same passion with which he idolized the future. When seized by revolutionary fervor, he got out the matches without advance warning.

 

Berlin's Brandenburg Gate has become Germany's Hyde Park for causes and activists. Here a group opposes the trans-Atlantic trade pact as well as government collection of private data.

 

Revolution! - translated by Lenin as "breaks in gradualness" - was the lightning bolt that struck the world back in the day.

Once in swing, the revolution gave way to an insatiable brutality. Its story is above all a story of violence. The ecosystem created by the insurgents fed off its own wickedness and the lives of others. Human beings and the society that surrounded them were reduced to mere guinea pigs in an experiment, while the revolutionary proclaimed himself the new Caesar.

From the Bastille in Paris to the Killing Fields of Vietnam, from the Czar's Palace in Russia to the tent of Libyan revolutionary leader Muammar Al Gaddafi, we can trace the self-crowned emperors in the kingdom of eternal world improvement through the centuries, just by following the trail of blood.

If the revolution had a logo, which modern marketing experts would certainly recommend, a stick of dynamite might be suitable. The power of previous revolutions lay in their destructive power. The new situation that they created was built on the ruins of what had been there previously. Their aim was to make a clean sweep.

What had been gained through violence soon had to be defended with violence. Robespierre's "enlightened revolutionary guard," Lenin's "new man," Che Guevara's "bright and beautiful type of person" - they all turned out to be frivolous torturers upon closer inspection, who gained supremacy mainly by suppressing compassion.

 

The old-school insurgent, in contrast, was a feverish fellow who dipped his manifesto in the blood of the revolution. He despised the present with the same passion with which he idolized the future. When seized by revolutionary fervor, he got out the matches without advance warning.

Robespierre liquidated Danton, Miguel de Hortias guillotined Robespierre.

Lenin had Trotsky tortured, Stalin had leading Leninists sent to a labor camp. The French Jacobins ordered the "September murders" in the very same month in which the Republic was proclaimed. The Soviet Republic opened with a "week of blood", to which around 25,000 people who had criticized the regime fell victim within seven days.

For the men of the insurgency, compromise was just another word for betrayal.

Viewed in this way, terror simply means a shortcut along the road to paradise. The ugly became a prerequisite for the beautiful. Or, to put it in economic terms, brutality was an initial investment that would pay interest only later, in the new currency of revolutionary humanism.

 

Anti-immigrant demonstrators in Dresden meet weekly, although their movement has lost steam under government pressure and disclosures of racism and xenophobia among some supporters.

 

These vampiric standard bearers of the revolution have been replaced by a new, more humane type that we can still call a revolutionary, even if he or she is lacking all of the ingredients we considered the unmistakable and essential features of a revolutionary.

No one is screaming, no one is dying; no barricades are burning.

What we are witnessing today is not classed as an epoch-defining event only because no one is declaring it to be such and no one is claiming it as theirs. This revolution may have a beginning but it has no end, which means that it is a new type of revolution, the first "révolution en permanence" to have truly earned this name.

The modern revolt knows no hatred; its form of rebellion against existing conditions is a cheerful indifference towards those powers that make life darker.

This revolution can be called a philosophical revolution, as it does not place a collectivistic dream, a social utopia or a colorfully costumed madness at the center of its action.

For the first time, the subject and the object of the revolution have fused together. The "I" does not want to dominate the "we," partly because the individual does not want others to make decisions for him.

He has lost his belief in the infallible and the absolute after the frenzy of the last century, when fascism and communism led straight to brutality. This "I" speaks with a quiet voice, partly because the hoarse propagandist echoing to us from the din of the last century was part of a painful collective experience.

 

A German protestor who crashed an ECB meeting in April and performed a quasi-lapdance in front of ECB President Mario Draghi to protest the central bank's loose fiscal policy is carried off, stage right.

 

The new revolutionaries are therefore not better people, or at least they do not feel so. That is precisely what is revolutionary about them. They are structurally modest because they do not expect anyone to model their own life on theirs. They do not even require themselves to adhere to their own principles, because principles should adapt to humans and not the other way around.

The new human is the most humane human that a revolution has ever produced, because he is aware of his own mistakes and his own flightiness, because he lacks severity and absolute ideals. He knows he can contain both - talent and foolishness, argument and counterargument, genius and idiocy.

And if he ever loses this awareness, he only needs to walk into his own bathroom: his mirror will be his tribunal.

 

Gabor Steingart is the publisher of Handelsblatt Publishing Group and the former editor in chief of Handelsblatt and Der Spiegel, a German weekly newsmagazine. Mr. Steingart grew up in Berlin-Charlottenburg, the son of a Hungarian political exile and a native Berliner. To reach the author: [email protected]