Plea for a politics with ethics

A remark on current affairs

by Karl Müller

Election results during the past four years in nearly all European countries, the few national referenda that were permitted in EU countries, but also the recent US elections have shown that a large number of citizens in the “western” world are looking towards alternatives for the current rulers and their decisions. At the moment it is even possible to find electorate majorities for persons and positions which are not just unsupported by the so-called mainstream, the “establishment” in politics, economy and society, but even strongly opposed.
On the one hand every citizen searching for a path towards a fundamental change in politics can be glad about this. Indeed there are many reasons for a desire to criticize and to change the state of our society, our economic order and our political life.

Change may not mean improvement

On the other hand, change is no proof for improvement and unfortunately history is full of changes which did not keep their promises. Just recall the radical changes of the past 250 years whose protagonists were busy with lofty ideas, then forgot about any ethics in their relentless power struggles and finally drowned in blood. We should be particularly watchful in times when reason and humanity are faltering.
Now is the time: The tiny voices of reason and humanity which are so numerous in every country are called upon to not just watch things move, to complain privately and to leave the field of public controversy to others. They need to speak out.
Indeed: The wind of public controversy is rough and it seems that the polarisers and the clever spokesmen of soft-totalitarism on the various sides are setting the tone (cf. Current Concerns No 2 from 24 January 2017; our outgoing German Federal President is one example), that things are reduced to power struggles and that the people are to be sworn to new “leaders”.

About the Germans

Recently I came across a booklet which goes back to 1944. 70 years later, in 2014, it was also printed in German language: “Instructions for British Servicemen in Germany 1944”. There we can read about the Germans: “The Germans have, of course, many good qualities. They are very hard working and thorough; they are obedient and have a great love of tidiness and order. They are keen on education of a formal sort, and are proud of their ‘culture’ and their appreciation of music, art and literature. But for centuries they have been trained to submit to authority – not because they thought their rulers wise and just, but because obedience was imposed on them by force.” This is a remarkable verdict from 1944, formulated by a war opponent. Was it just war propaganda? Preparation for a planned “re-education”? Or a piece of true diagnosis? And what was it used for? Have the old authorities been simply replaced by new ones – under cover of an “anti-authoritarian” movement? And what is the Germans’ position in 2017?
It is probably true: many Germans are struggling with a self-defined inner orientation. This has a lot to do with German history and how the victors of two World Wars and also the Germans themselves have dealt with their history and the German people. There is still no honest, comprehensive and reliable historiography about Germany and the Germans. Too strongly was it subject to political restrictions – as the other side’s historiography was entangled in opposition and revisionism.
Attempts to write about German history with affection for the country and its people, appreciating their achievements, but also honestly towards their transgressions, are no longer a public issue in Germany. But in these tempestuous times it can do us good to take one step back - and to read.

Klaus Hornung: “Freedom or despotism”

Klaus Hornung, professor emeritus for political science at the University of Stuttgart, will turn 90 this year. He is a Protestant scholar with a conservative-liberal foundation. To this day he speaks out again and again. His so far last book publication which appeared in 2015 has the title “Freiheit oder Despotismus. Die Erfahrung des 20. Jahrhunderts” [Freedom or Despotism. The experience of the 20th century.] It contains his selected essays from three decades. the book’s preface states about Klaus Hornung, he was “an advocate of an unobstructed ethically founded practical politics”. This is not the right place to relate the book’s contents. This is just an invitation to read it: with his explanations on various areas of politics (20th century totalitarianisms, German security politics and political education), he shows what honest conservative-liberal thinking is and why this thinking is also today - better: especially today – so important. One example is the essay “Liberal democracy and totalitarian threat - the conflict of our times”, which was published ten years ago but is still up to date.
The book’s preface aptly formulates Klaus Hornung’s central concern “to give a political and philosophical culture of freedom shape and conviction towards old and new despotisms.”

Bernard Sutor: “Political ethics”

A bit younger than Klaus Hornung is Bernhard Sutor, born in 1930, professor emeritus for political science at Eichstätt University (Germany). In 1991 he has published the book “Politische Ethik. Gesamtdarstellung auf der Basis der Christlichen Gesellschaftslehre” [Political ethics. Overall view on the basis of Christian social ethics]. The cover states: “This book is closing the gap between Catholic social doctrine, its scientific development as Christian social ethics and the issues of current politics. It develops political ethics from the foundations of this doctrine and applies it to the three great areas of politics, domestic politics, economic and social politics and international politics. Thus it gives fundamental ethical orientation for political education.” And at the end of his treatise, Bernhard Sutor writes: “So who wants to prove himself as a Christian in politics has to be prepared to enter the daily struggle of groups and powers, to stand up for what he has understood as the better, fairer alternative. He has to do it with prudence and patience and without claiming he was in possession of a superior political truth. […] Christians may not be religious-political fundamentalists; instead they should make use of all their reason to support the institutional protection of peace and freedom and the increase of social justice. It is this success that love commands Christians to strive for in politics.”

Human dignity, autonomy and direct democracy

It is a pity that positions like those of Bernhard Sutor or Klaus Hornung are currently a miss in public debate. We need them dearly. Currently, protagonists of dubious political positions are even trying to instrumentalise the Pope for their purposes – most likely also in order to dismantle all ethics. The more we have a need for voices publicly supporting ethics in politics.
Ethics in politics also means to respect and to protect human dignity. This is the content of the first article of the German constitution as an obligation for all state power… we just urgently need to discuss and to substantiate the consequences from it. The central consequences are: respect of human rights, state of law and democracy.
But democracy means autonomy and sovereignty, sovereignty of citizens, direct democracy. Hans Köchler has presented and derived this in the first edition of this newspaper in this year. A reflection on this and more active steps in this direction would benefit all European states and help solving many problems.    •

“Jacobins and Chicago Boys in one”

“Not much noticed by the majority of the contemporaries, nor sufficiently discussed by the relevant sciences, a constitutional change has begun in the European world of states since the end of the last century, the significance of which is still to be foreseen: from the liberal and decisively anti-totalitarian democracy at the end of the Second World War  to new forms of controlled political order which make the classical principles of popular sovereignty, division of powers, and protection of personal freedom into waste, or transform them into a different constitutional reality. It operates through formal democratic procedures with general elections, parliaments, elected governments.
However, it is unmistakable that new ruling alliances have emerged in the background, global economic, media and ideological powers, which do not only dominate the means of production, but also the publicly effective ideas, opinions and debates. In continuation of the concept of the “industrial-military complex“ having emerged fifty years ago, one could speak of a “politico-economic-ideological-medial“ domaine, which not least serves the practice of political correctness, in order to keep the people in obedience of the consumption companies. Peculiar emotional sanctions, such as against “racism“, “xenophobia“, and “historical revisionism,“ are reminiscent of the return of a new medieval age for the conditioning of the masses‘ behaviour and judgment. The American Conservative Paul Gott­fried speaks aptly of the postmodern “therapeutic state“, a peculiar development of the totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth century to new manipulative forms of rule.
The following basic principles can be observed: – the subjugation of the States to agencies of global economic and ideological interests in a strange alliance of ‘Jacobins and Chicago Boys in one’ […];

  • the tendency to abolish the political and cultural boundaries in the boundlessness of a global market and an unstoppable, alternative ’progress‘ that takes the role of a quasi-divine providence;
  • The systematic eradication and ploughing up of the historically grown, the destruction of cultures, religions, and ethnic groups into a universal, unified culture of American-‘western’ style […].“

Hornung, Klaus. “Freiheitliche Demokratie und ­totalitäre Bedrohung – Der Konflikt unserer Epoche, in: id.. Freiheit oder Despotismus. Die Erfahrung des 20. Jahrhunderts”, 2015, S. 95f. [Free democracy and totalitarian threat – The conflict of our era, in: id. Freedom or despotism. The experience of the 20th century, 2015, pp. 95f]
(Translation Current Concerns)

Peace building

“Peace building is a task that goes far beyond the scope of politics. It also comprises the diverse societal relations and forces both in and between states as well as individual behaviour in small groups. A society that is unpeaceful in itself, which cannot regulate its internal conflicts in a controlled and orderly manner, can hardly produce peace-oriented political organs and representatives. This opens up a wide range of possibilities and tasks to contribute individually and socially to the promotion of peace. There is this possibility in family and school, in ecclesiastical communities and groups, in associations and enterprises. There are opportunities for large groups, their associations and institutions, to go beyond national boundaries, to promote communication, cooperation and understanding between peoples and cultures.
[...] Peace is not a new object of social cooperation, for which, as it were, new specialists would have to be trained based on the division of labour or new special areas would have to be set up. Peace is, on the contrary, a way of dealing with each other in all social spheres and structures; interpersonal dealings characterised by reason, by striving for understanding, through regular procedures, precisely in conflicts and in the face of ever-threatening violence. Wherever human interaction is successful in this way, there is social peace. And social peace can develop into a support for political peace.
Needless to say, this requires a corresponding peaceful mind respectively readiness for peace. This is why peace education is possible and indispensable. But even here, contrary to some idealistic and naive ideas, it must be specified what can sensibly be meant by it. It is not an area of pedagogy among others, but the virtually natural training of communication and cooperation. Children should learn to avoid violence, to seek compromise; to control their emotions; to comply with the rules of the game, to bear a defeat; to respect the differentness of others and cooperate with them. It is a matter of building behavioural dispositions, virtues of conflict (courage) and self-mastery (measure) as well as cooperation (justice), which are necessary for social life always and everywhere, and must therefore continue to be practiced in adult life.“

Sutor, Bernhard. Politische Ethik. Gesamtdarstellung auf der Basis der Christlichen Gesellschaftslehre [Political Ethics. Complete presentation on the basis of the Christian social ethics], 1991, pp. 295.

(Translation Current Concerns)