European Elections Special

Shock Value

Self-proclaimed intellectuals complain that there is too much complaining. Does one need to say more?

Isn’t it too much of a coincidence to be true? Just because the dawn of World War One happens to have been 100 years ago, history is supposed to repeat itself. But people much more qualified than I am have already debunked this myth: It is not only shortsighted; it also fails to consider our contemporary world’s complexity. Even today it isn’t fully clear which of the many possible factors ultimately caused that seminal European catastrophe we now call World War One.

More than a hundred years ago, Tolstoi included a passage in his famous work “War and Peace” that already summarized the dilemma: “It is impossible,” he wrote, “to explain war.” Let us therefore move on to a related issue, a more contemporary one that is more in tune with our modern way of thinking: the collectivization of thought and the erosion of Western values!

Pessimism, alarmism and apocalypticism

I am talking about the “culture of complaining”: about the diagnoses made by mostly self-proclaimed experts ranging from talk-show psychologists and economic commentators to futurists. They all frequently conjure up a vivid threat composed of pessimism, alarmism and apocalypticism.

But seen logically, the people complaining about the erosion of values are the same ones who complain about an alleged culture of complaining. Even worse: These people call themselves intellectuals. And successfully so, because hardly any of the true intellectuals ever feature on television talk shows. Adhering to Tolstoi’s thinking, they not only avoid complexity, they also point out a curious dialectic: The people who are the most pessimistic act that way in order to conveniently turn around and conveniently present a solution.

This threat seems to be particularly intense when external enemies come into play. And what is more alarming than the idea that our “Western values” have become so brittle that the skeleton of our culture will soon collapse upon itself, paving the way for a new Asian century?

Meanwhile, Asians want the most Western of all our values to themselves: Self-determination, recognition of their own work, and a share of the world’s riches. These things motivate millions of individuals to agree on a common goal: the pursuit of happiness, without war. This value exerts a pull stronger than ever before, even though no one could contest that the disparity between elegance and proletarianism, decency and embarrassingly pornographic self-promotion, between social responsibility and limitless greed has grown. The old utopia of a future that is as much socially as it is economically consolidated has remained undamaged.

Does it require strategy or genius?

I am so sure of this because of my profession. Firstly, having worked in academia for more than forty years, I have met a steady stream of young, enthusiastic people who want to shape the future and are free of alarmism. They are motivated, innovative and positive about the future. They display a healthy mix of critical rationalism and dreamy emotionality.

My second reason is scientific: In 2001, during the optimistic pre-crisis years, I began researching the views and intentions of the upcoming generation. Surprisingly, they displayed a remarkably consistent set of values – friendship, faithfulness and optimism – in spite of the volatility they experienced on the job market.

Thirdly, I feel confirmed by my work with corporations large and small. They are primarily concerned with the question of dealing with an uncertain future. Does it require strategy or genius? Or should it be left to chance? While the answer was always “strategy”, I never failed to notice that each strategy required the genius of individual pragmatism – as well as the unrelenting belief in the ability to solve problems collectively.

No common ground

Why, then, is the mood so different in the economy? Apparently, the wish alone doesn’t suffice to silence the noise from the opportunists who profit from ready-made solutions to a threat that they themselves created. Or to put it another way: The problem is caused by a majority of people who strive for a different capitalist economy but can’t find common ground.

Not yet, that is. But they do have a common set of values. One based on the worldwide fascination with enlightened thought, not inspired by Nietzsche or Sprengler, but by Kant and Voltaire.

Translated from German

Read more in this debate: Matthias Horx.


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