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Social developments and their consequences for projects aimed at promoting democracy – Speech manuscript for German Foundation Day in Mannheim

At a school concert recently, I heard a cover version of "Wind of Change" – that Scorpions’ hymn in the revolutionary times around 1989/90. It encapsulated the exhilarating mood back then – not least in the whistling intro – this hope for freedom, liberalism, democracy and international solidarity, for a new European House, for rapprochement, affluence and overcoming deep fissures between ethnic communities, but also within the societies themselves.
Now – just one generation later – old and new societal dividing lines are being manifested, with huge political consequences. Optimism is retreating, fears seem stronger than ever. The unthinkable has come true. What exactly is going on here?

Let’s begin with the societal dividing lines: the social issue, the old conflict between the establishment and the hoi polloi had in the Western world never been resolved. It has merely been receiving less coverage, and in some cases been superseded in the public’s awareness, not least by globalization. Some of the poverty and exploitation has been internationally externalized even more extensively than hitherto – to poorer countries. Within Western societies, the unifying, politically mediating middle classes are shrinking; the social and cultural milieus are rigidifying. Due to continuing segregation in the cities, too, the situational biographies are drifting further and further apart: “The underclass is doomed to eternal servitude,” to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, an attitude that is meanwhile reproducing itself over the generations, occasionally exploding in particular urban districts, known as social flashpoints – which primarily capture the public’s attention when they become a literally burning issue, as once did the French suburbs, or when schools in their helplessness write incendiary letters. This sometimes occurs in the context of migration experiences, but sometimes without them. At the same time, too, on the other side of the social demarcation line, a financial and cultural elite is progressing their detachment and sequestration from the abysses of social inequities. The increasing privatization of what used to be state benefits in the education, health service and care systems helps them, as does the rise in rents and the concomitant displacement effects, to increasingly remain among themselves even in the quotidian environment, and no longer to perceive other situational biographies at all, let alone feeling obliged to understand them.

For the idea of democracy, these processes of mutual non-communication have fundamental consequences, as we know. Hermann Heller, the great and far-too-frequently-forgotten constitutional theorist of the Weimar Republic, warned over a hundred years ago: democracy needs a minimum of social equality and communication extending beyond social strata and classes in order to survive. If the strong, in particular, no longer have any communication with or knowledge of how the weak are living, then compromises, and thus a key element in democratic give-and-take, become impossible. What’s more, democratic majority decisions then also threaten to become a tyranny of the majority over the minority. Succinctly put: when societies become too fractured, democracy becomes impossible. Nobody knows precisely when this point is reached. Which is why it’s all the more dangerous simply to allow developments of this kind to proceed unopposed.

Another dividing line, increasingly observable on the international stage as well, is seemingly manifested between the big cities and their directly adjoining rural spheres of influence on the one hand and the primarily peripheral rural regions on the other. Due above all to the rapidity of change in the cities, accelerated by digitalization and processes of globalization, situational biographies and concomitant attitudes are progressively drifting apart. That is one explanation. I regard it as more important that a more fundamental problem is being manifested here: namely a dividing line between those who advocate an “open” society and those who think they can retrogress into a “closed” society. An open society in this context denotes ideas of an increasingly diverse immigration society, of international cooperation and solidarity, of options for overcoming nation-state action levels in new international systems such as the European Union. The advocates of the “closed” society want to live in a less complicated world, with less differentiated situational biographies, clear rules, e.g. in the relationship between genders. Their primary concern is to create a homogeneous ethnic grouping within the framework of a sovereign nation state. This dividing line appears to have become significantly deeper more recently – even though it does not affect all of society, as recent international studies show. These speak of a third grouping, tending more towards an open society, to whom, however, material values are more important than the ideas of the open society, rendering them potentially reachable for charismatic leaders advocating a closed society.

These higher-order trends are all manifested on the national level as well: here exemplified specifically by a success story featuring radicalization in the midst of society. Since 2002, the Bielefeld-based social scientist Wilhelm Heitmeyer has been warning against the syndrome of group-referenced prejudices in the midst of society. In the political system, this syndrome initially failed to find any genuine political representation. The openly right-wing-extremist parties possessed limited attractions for these people, and the existing mainstream parties, in particular, the Christian Democrats (CDU), their Bavarian counterparts (CSU), the Social Democrats (SPD) and in the east of Germany the Left (Die Linken) as well, succeeded in attracting part of this milieu. This is less the case today: a first partial success for the radicals came during the discussions in what was called the Sarrazin debate. Open racism and anti-Semitism from the mouth of a Social Democrat member of Berlin’s Senate could now be symbolically ordered in a bookshop and acclaimed in respectable drawing-rooms. At the same time, the radical online debates have become more acrimonious and professionalized. PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) then took the attitudes onto the streets – at first with more, but increasingly with less distance from openly militant right-wing extremism. The AfD is now the party-political and parliamentary arm of this milieu. In it, you can openly say things that hitherto were possible only in the right-wing-extremist parties like the NPD and nonetheless remain socially acceptable. This is really something new. Many former taboos regarding racism and anti-Semitism have thus disappeared, and are now in regionally disparate speeds spreading their insidious poison for democratic culture and above all for social minorities too.

In some municipalities and in future perhaps German states as well, the AfD will presumptively be capable of gaining a majority. One excuse I then often hear is this: if the democrats were to join forces, absolute majorities could indeed be prevented. I very much hope that this is correct. However, the only thing I’m sure about is that this attitude vastly underestimates the present-day consequences of the AfD’s rise. Its success has already shifted the ongoing discourse towards the closed concepts. This has become clear in the debate on the refugees: Angela Merkel’s “We can do this” has long since mutated into the old “We’ll frighten them off”; the integration of refugees, the “biggest social challenge since reunification” as former German President Joachim Gauck has put it, has almost disappeared from the public debate – despite numerous unresolved questions and problems in practice. Too great is the fear that the AfD might benefit. But precisely this is timid and wrong: problems have to be frequently stated if they are to be solved. The whole issue, however, needs an unequivocally expressed commitment to human rights and proactive advocacy of one’s own values. Pre-emptive cowardice has never been an accelerator of freedom and democracy. There is much, I feel, seriously amiss here!

Above all, civil society is coming under increasing pressure. Empirical feedback from Austria, Hungary and Poland clearly shows how the sister parties of the AfD there are purposefully rendering it more difficult to advocate liberal concepts based on human rights or even preventing this altogether, and in some case even criminalizing it. Here, too, I often hear an objection: the federal government, through its “Democracy Programs”, is still providing extensive funding for civil society in the east of Germany, in particular. This is true, and is also indispensable, but has weaknesses in terms of detail: a large proportion of the programs are directly tied to control by the local councils, e.g. in what are called partnerships for democracy. As long as action of this kind depends on decisions of local councils, however, then by definition we can hardly speak of a civil society. There is also a deficit in terms of an honest quality debate and at least an attempt to critically analyze the effects. Many of the campaigns, festivals, exhibitions, announcements, conferences, brochures and events being funded come across as oddly detached from any analysis of the problem. But sizeable funding isn’t always translated into sizeable effects – if it isn’t effectively targeted. Occasionally, the term “democracy” thus even degenerates into a normatively empty slogan, and its specific installation into a façade of democracy.

Against this background, too, the involvement of charitable foundations in these issue categories is indispensable – but especially needs urgent intensification. Supporting civil society, particularly against the background of the escalations and threats I have outlined above, must not be left to the state – it is also a task for civil society.
I am speaking here today at the invitation of the Freudenberg Foundation – a foundation that is perhaps smaller than some others, but excels in terms of creativity and sustainable efficacy. Its two major substantive focuses seem to me, in view of the social and political developments I have mentioned, logical and well-founded: social inclusion on the one hand and promoting democracy on the other. And here the foundation primarily goes where people are hurting: to the flashpoint schools in the western cities, who in their despair have recourse to incendiary letters, because they see no alternative, or also to the peripheral rural areas of Germany’s eastern states, which others have secretly written off for democracy already – to cite only two examples. I fully welcome both these thrusts, which at the same time show that new questions sometimes need new answers, but sometimes also old, tried-and-tested ones.

Some foundations continually operate in line with the very latest innovation. The consequence is an endless chain of model projects. This may be intellectually inspiring, but it is not always practicable. To give an example: it’s not really a fresh insight that schools can or even have to be an essential location for learning democracy and for social inclusion. But in order to render them seriously capable of this, you don’t need a new fashionable project every couple of months – you need to work on the foundations, on the system, and above all on involving the schools in the municipal environment, in the neighborhood, the local economy, civil society and social work. This is possible only if schools are also given the time to effect this change, and the “One Square Kilometer of Education” project shows in the evaluation that it can also succeed under certain premises. That, however, is viable only with foundations that also have the courage to support frontline projects on a long-term basis, to help them with professionalization and quality development, which does not preclude decoupling well-meaning practice from well-executed practice, and accordingly to discontinue the funding involved.

Or let’s take a look at the peripheral rural areas in the east of Germany. The most recent municipal elections reveal some dramatic shifts in favor of the authoritarian right-wingers. The tender roots of democratic civil society will for years to come be exposed to bitter winds here. They are, however, the roots of a democratic mindset, democratic learning and often also social inclusion, through their support for weak groupings in local society. They are already experiencing a barrage of insinuations, hostilities and sometimes even open attacks. So their need for the solidarity of potent partners is all the more exigent.

So far this has sounded rather passive, but it also has an active side. Civil-societal initiatives are indispensable in local preventive work; but they also shape discourses, attitudes and moods. Together with art and culture, they can reconquer discursive and social spaces, and take democratic and positive possession of lost terms like “homeland”. It’s no accident that right-wing populists are wielding their axes here. They simply know what can and intends to pose a danger to them.

In the song I mentioned at the beginning, called “Wind of Change”, there’s a passage that runs: “Take me to the magic of the moment. On a glory night. Where the children of tomorrow dream away." I had completely forgotten the song. But it was an optimistic look into the future, providing a momentary surge of emboldenment. We should preserve or revive this optimism and this courage – despite all difficulties and opposition. Against this background, I am delighted to familiarize myself with no fewer than three brilliant frontline projects. All of them are committed to the possibility of positive change and are compellingly infectious in use. This said: thank you very much for your attention.

Prof. Dr. Dierk Borstel, Dortmund University of Applied Science