Peter Sloterdijk at the Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center symposium at St. John’s College of Divinity, Cambridge University. June 25, 2015. (Berggruen Institute)

Peter Sloterdijk is a celebrated and controversial German philosopher, cultural critic and TV host known for his reflections on globalization. “Stress and Freedom” is among his most recent books. He spoke this week with WorldPost Editor in Chief Nathan Gardels.

WorldPost: You have spoken about the conundrum of a synchronized world without a common narrative. Absent that common narrative, the world is breaking up into tribes like the shattering of the Tower of Babel, each with their own narrative, often nationalist and nativist. What is the root of the resurgence of this tribal mentality?

Peter Sloterdijk: Let’s first ask if the rumor of the return of the tribes is justified. It is true that different civilizations resort to vastly different narratives to describe their place in the present day world. Just as we observe a profound multitude of calendars — among Orthodox Christians, in the Muslim cultures, China or Iran, which depart from the Gregorian calendar that dominates in the West — we encounter an even larger number of different local narratives describing events in world history. These are not limited to mythology; even in the historical narratives where they have been witnessed, one can expect a fair degree of radical perspectivism.

It is therefore incorrect to claim that the world is breaking up into numerous tribes, as if these had ever been united in an all-inclusive synthesis at any point in history. What is actually happening today is the disintegration of the American camp.

This half-imaginary, half-pragmatic projection of reality alone had made the utopia of an all-pervasive occidentalizing of the world conceivable. Yet this projection has since proven to be illusionary, in part because America, as the leader of the Western world, presents itself, at least temporarily, as more repulsive than attractive; because Europe is expected to continue its position of relative political weakness; and lastly because the resilience of regional cultures has intensified the resistance against assimilating to the West.

This phenomenon is not limited to the Arabic, Iranian or Turkish zones of influence, but can be found equally in China, Indonesia, Central Asia, Africa and Latin America. The global post-colonial era has opened the door to anti-Western resentments in their numerous manifestations.

It would be a dangerous error to summarize these tendencies under the often-contemptuous heading of “neo-tribalism.” This concept expresses more the embarrassment of a helpless universalism than the willingness to analyze the reality of plurality and multi-polarity.

Moreover, the importance of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel is far from being as evident as the standard Christian writings would have us believe. The destruction of peoples into their multitude and multilingualism must not solely be understood as punishment of hubris, as it also represents the acknowledgment and restoration of the original plurality, which had existed until the coerced unification of all peoples into the imperial project of the “tower that reaches Heaven.” One could even interpret history as God’s rejection of the arrogance of the Babylonian monopolarity and his taking pleasure in the rebirth of the primordial multitude of the kaleidoscope of peoples.

Pieter Bruegel’s “The Tower of Babel.” 1563. (Google Arts & Culture)

WorldPost: If this return of plurality is not new in our present era, what then is new and unfamiliar about our situation?

Sloterdijk: The real cultural problem lies not in ethnic pluralism, with all its reflections in local narratives, even though these are referred to as nationalistic and nativist. It is reflected rather in the constantly deepening asymmetry between the past and the future within each culture.

In this respect, one could speak of an imminent clash between traditionalism and futurism. Although this occurs mostly at the fringes of cultural spheres, it can also be observed within the mainstream of each culture. It would be fair to say that the pressure toward modernization that leaves a unique past behind is today’s fate.

However, not all fates evolve equally. From a macro-historical viewpoint, all cultures must tackle two general realities. On the one hand, the fact that the Earth has been recognized as a finite, planetary ecosystem that must be managed through a global environmental policy, and on the other hand, the realization that the transition from passéism to futurism has become more or less unavoidable everywhere.

This implies that many cultures must understand that, while looking back at a mainly separate past, they will experience a primarily common future. This leads to the emergence of a global situationism — that inherent traits do not exist but are shaped by our environment — which places the single Earth in the forefront as a common site for all cultures.

The local narratives are being increasingly forced to coordinate the time horizons of their rooted history (idiochronic) with the virtual synchronic horizon of the common world time. It is all the better if these efforts would lead to a description of universal history that includes multiple perspectives.

“Pure Diversity” by artist Mirta Toledo. Mixed media on cotton paper. Fort Worth, Texas. 1993. (Mirta Toledo)

WorldPost: One condition of the global age you have noted is “connected isolation.” The challenge therefore is to balance “connectivity” and “isolation” (literally “island building”). What would that balance look like?   

Sloterdijk: The general vision of modern times must include tendencies toward increasing individualization in a world of increasing connectivity. One could call this what the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus called “the attunement of opposite tension.”

Whereas individuals increasingly assert their individuality and incomparability, they grow increasingly dependent on the social division of labor, the money economy and communications, as well as on the sharing of information streams beyond their “neighborhoods.” The architect Thom Mayne described this phenomenon from the perspective of architectural theory as “connected isolation” several decades ago.

This lucid expression can be easily related to a strong trend in contemporary living conditions. Statistics show that more and more people living in a Western metropolis live alone.

A clear majority of these so-called “singles” indicate that they feel sufficiently integrated into society and even laud the advantages of their way of life. It offers the advantages of both freely chosen closeness and the comfort of distance or isolation.

In this context, we discover one aspect of the phenomenon of tribalism, which plays only a secondary part in the conventional criticisms of the modern human condition. Historical anthropologists remind us of the fact that Homo sapiens initially evolved in small groups that were sometimes referred to as hordes, or selectively as tribes or clans. Humans seem to have been anthropologically designed initially to live in small groups before being reeducated to coexist with other members of the same people and to form larger social communities but not until the era of the first peoples and early kingdoms.

This change was brought about in no small measure by the written cultures and educational systems of more advanced civilizations. In late ancient Greece, we first encounter the concept of the cosmopolis, the most audacious attempt to put large cities on the same footing as outer space.

The inhabitants of this imaginary creation call themselves cosmopolitans. The idea of the city in the universe is based on the experiences of merchants, seafarers, officers and traveling intellectuals who propagated this philosophy. Their common interest was developing a doctrine based on being able to live anywhere and everywhere. They saw humanism as the art of being able to make friends abroad. Feeling at home everywhere meant living in exile everywhere.

From this perspective, “humanism” was the tribalism of people who served or worked abroad. It also implies that the world is full of friends, yet unknown. Humanism in ancient times already acknowledged that persons who are not “at home” tend to reconstruct a replacement for their primary small group environment, unless they opt to adopt the lifestyle of hermitic asceticism, which serves as the basis for wholly asocial living.

From this perspective, it becomes evident that the individualistic lifestyles of present times must be paired with a high degree of connectivity through telecommunications. Otherwise, the overwhelming success of the technology of expanded telephony, as well as the overflowing mass of social media, would be impossible to explain.

The Riesman diagnosis of the lonely crowd describes the smaller half of the truth, at best. A large part of the energies of individuals living in conditions of connected isolation is used to establish informal “tribes” composed of friends, acquaintances or memberships in local associations via postal or other means of telecommunication. They make it possible for those living alone in their own space to escape from the idiochronic isolation of their dwellings and to share common time with their contemporaries through a network.

In the absence of such spontaneously created “tribes,” socially and politically problematic situations often develop. The disoriented and uprooted individuals will then be attracted and absorbed by mass movements, which promise a place of belonging with abstract promises. The classical analyses of the phenomenon of “totalitarianism” have revealed that unattached isolated persons are more exposed to the danger of being seduced by totalitarian programs and authoritarian leaders.

Wherever the intermediate instances of social networking are lacking — let’s call them the spontaneous quasi-tribal groups — the danger increases that forlorn individuals may identify with pseudo-community ideologies of nationalistic ilk as well as with sects possessing a strong force of attraction.

A supporter of the Pegida movement holds a sign of the AfD party, gathering like other supporters for a march in their first Berlin demonstration, which they dubbed “Baergida.” Jan. 5, 2015. (Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

WorldPost: Let’s take the particular case of Germany. For the first time since the Nazi era, a nationalist party, the Alternative for Germany, has entered the Bundestag. What is behind this development in Germany? Where do you see it going? What does it mean for German identity?

Sloterdijk: The observations I’ve just made about “connected isolation,” although it should be taken with a large grain of salt, can be applied to the neo-nationalistic phenomena that have developed in Germany since about 2010 and have led to the creation of the AfD party in 2013. The name of the new party reveals how the motive of the “alternative,” launched in 1977 by the East German radical environmentalist Rudolf Bahro as a criticism of “real socialism,” has been coopted by the political right and diverted from its original meaning. This maneuver shows how the “dissidents” have changed camps and have become part of the rightist-populist current. Besides the classic leftist party, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which has long become a party of the center, the AfD is the only one of the larger groups in Parliament whose name includes the word “Germany.”

The normalization of the party as a member of Parliament leads us to expect that it will soon lose much of its attractiveness, especially as an escape valve for protests. It can be said, however, that it has already made its mark on the political climate by increasing the space for unpunished taunts and uninhibited and brutal utterances. In many respects, it constitutes the political counterpart to unchained hate speech on social media.

If anything, the emergence of the AfD proves that the heretofore seemingly invulnerable cultural hegemony of the leftist-liberal bloc has diminished in Germany. In this respect, the situation of the German intelligentsia resembles that of the Democrats in the U.S., who have so far failed to find rhyme and reason for President Donald Trump’s electoral victory and his bizarre way of governing.

However, while we seem to be witnessing an unstoppable transformation of the public sphere into a “society of entertainment” in the U.S., we should expect a long march toward mediocrity in Germany as well as in the rest of western and southern Europe. The eastern European belt, from Poland to Hungary, has been lost to liberal democracy until further notice. Only the flamboyance of the young French President Emmanuel Macron gives us hope that the star of freedom still retains some brightness in the old world.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.