Recently translated into Norwegian, Peter Sloterdijk’s latest little book, In the Same Boat, thematises the challenges of hyper-politics in a globalised society.
Recently translated into Norwegian, Peter Sloterdijk’s latest little book, In the Same Boat, thematises the challenges of hyper-politics in a globalised society. The noted German philosopher posits the notion that hyper-politics must gather people ‘into one boat’ in order to solve the problems we are facing. Sloterdijk begins his depiction with the political history of ideas. And not the higher culture that Karl Jaspers has called the Axial Age (800–200 B.C.), but with smaller human gatherings occurring in the period before recent state formations.
A society is a society as long as it imagines itself as one. Sloterdijk describes three versions of ‘society forming realisations with the ship as a symbol: the wooden fleet representing the paleo-politics of the hunter-gatherer society (palaio – ‘ancient’); ruler frigates and state galleys point to the classic politics of the farming community; and finally, the global trade community of the third era that arrives with its ‘super-ferries which due to their vast dimensions, are barely able to be anchored. They speed through a sea of drowning people, with tragic turbulences alongside the hull, and depressing on-board conferences on the art of the possible’.
The herd. Sloterdijk paints with broad strokes, which, ironically, he attributes to Hegel. However, weirdly enough, there is no mention of Marx. The relationship between production method and form of government is clear: a hunter-gatherer society is unable to form the basis for larger state formations. Sloterdijk makes a good point that it would be a sham to start with the higher cultures that followed in the wake of the agricultural society. As a norm, political philosophy has a tendency to predict the political human (see Aristotle) from high culture, as a norm. This is despite the fact humans have been hunter-gatherers through ninety five percent of history. This is where the wandering human herd that socialises the individual and the idea that individuals join each other via contracts – a prerequisite in much of political philosophy – is in this case an untenable fiction.
«After our liquidation of both God and the soul, we are left with the world […] But although we have the world, we have no information points.»
Sloterdijk builds on sociologist Dieter Claessen’s (1921–1997) theory of the her as human incubator – a starting point which provided humans with psycho-cultural traits. In other words, without the herd you are nothing and, early on, banishment became a psycho-social death penalty.
Homo Politicus. With such a starting point, how will it be possible for humans to create a non-herd based community to solve global problems? How will we be able to withstand further abstractions?
Within higher cultures, friendship and new abstract positions replace the old clan-and family relations. This new format creates a new form of soul which Sloterdijk calls ‘state athletics’. Homo Politicus comes into existence through hard training, a sort of mental weightlifting, and an obviously aristocratic education. The rulers develop ‘a functional cruelty’ from their ‘abstraction centres’ or governing position. Politics produces two types of people: high ranking individuals created through philosophical training programmes, or controllable human masses for manual labour.
After Nietzsche and the death of God, there are attempts to find new common platforms. Human rights being one such platform. People’s lives are no longer defined by home or family, but by networks and what Sloterdijk terms ‘hyper-civilisation mobility.’
City monsters. Today’s contempt for politicians springs from being governed by leaders not in control of the new situation. ‘In fact, we do not know what kind of personality is needed to fill the void, or which training programmes that need to be developed to decrease the enormous cavity between global world format and local psyches,’ writes Sloterdijk. Hyper-politics is politics for an era without kingdoms. The alliance between an industrial society and democracy is not a necessity, thus creating problems for political science theory.
Sloterdijk is a good observer of the bigger picture, the relationship between the Levels of the herd, the state and the globalised hyper-politics and how they interact, could have been better. There is no mention of tendencies that may counteract the urbanising through technological development. But technology makes it possible to drive population into the districts! To Sloterdijk, cities have become a sort of monster which have devoured traditional rural communities. The collective reproductive abilities of the herd are to some degree idealised in relation to the individualism of the cities. Negative aspects about group mentality – akin to a rural version of the Law of Jante – are undervalued. Several of Sloterdijk’s intellectual weaknesses hide behind his elegant style, impeccably translated into Norwegian by Anders Dunker and Eirik Høyer Leivestad.
After God. In his recently released title After God (Nach Gott), Sloterdijk uses the same manner of dividing historical eras as he does In the Same Boat. He celebrates the Lutheran jubilee with the title After God. What are we left with in a post-metaphysical society? Modern man does not want to obey a higher power but instead yearns to be the power itself. As Laplace claimed, God is a hypothesis we no longer need. After liquidating both non-secular entities, God and the soul, we are left with the world. And the world is ‘all that is the case,’ the way Wittgenstein formulated it during his logical-positivistic period. According to Sloterdijk, a purposeless energy idly unfolds in this ‘hyper-immanent’ room. Although people have the world, there are no information points. The world has turned into a monster, and philosophy must attempt to interpret the monstrous, whilst science works with the world without emphasising its monstrosity. In an extension of William James’ pragmatic view on religion, Sloterdijk also discusses the Americanising of religion: God has become an inner Texas where you can drill after spiritual oil. God has turned into a vitamin pill with religion a belief in dietary supplements and slimming regimes. If one of these salvation methods becomes generalised, we could end up with an absurd situation whereby the Valium-addicted accuse those who swear by Paracetamol of heresy.
Sloterdijk does not believe in the return of religion in the usual sense. To him, only various immunisation systems exist. And we have not located any immunisation system for the era of globalised hyper politics. Nonetheless, religion will momentarily strengthen as the Welfare State is weakened.
«The world has become a monster, with philosophy trying to interpret the monstrously, whilst science works with the world without putting weight on its monstrosity.»
Co-immunity. Sloterdijk expressed himself most clearly during a 2009 Paris speech on absolute and categorical imperatives. In his address, he attempts to answer the question what to do in a bewildering era riddled with angst and worries, but also with constructive provocations and bold deviations from what usually occurs. The demoralising must be conquered. Here Sloterdijk is supported by immunology: life is conditioned by successful immune systems.
There are three such systems: biological, social and symbolic/ritual. Social immunities are systems of solidarity where people support each other. The symbolic and ritual immune systems supply the individual with powers from a higher sovereignty whenever they feel powerless. The final two immune systems exceed selfishness. But there is no doubt that the process of secularisation and individualism (‘farewell solidarity’) has considerably weakened the social and ritual/symbolic immune systems. Private immunity is only able to be preserved through an active social collective-immunity. Co-immunity is thus a key word for all political and social success stories, says Sloterdijk. But there is no efficient co-immunity for world society. Sloterdijk reformulates Kant’s famous imperative: Act in such a way that the consequences of your actions will create a global system of solidarity!
The current cultural struggle. Sloterdijk’s latest title contributes to a prevention of the regressive escape possibilities that lead back to religion. Sloterdijk’s philosophical unravelling of the history of Jesus and the Trinity dogma will warm the heart of any atheist. Jesus is described as Western culture’s worst child. He is an illegitimate bastard lying about a father in heaven. Through his religious interest, Sloterdijk’s philosophical exegesis helps liberate us from it. This in itself makes the situation following God’s demise more credible.
«We could get into a situation where the Valium-addicted accuse those who swear by paracetamol of heretics.»
The religious and social immune systems are faltering. Self-help books, health gurus, religious movements, multimedia and a hysterical fascination with technology try to compensate for what we have eradicated. The liberated streams of energy must be steered in a direction that does not exploit the newly created uncertainty, by promoting further superfluous or damaging production or consumption – or bureaucracy. This is both a social, cultural and political task. This is the position of today’s cultural struggle! Sloterdijk’s efforts mostly consist of formulating and describing the problems in new and surprising ways rather than actually presenting solutions. On the other hand, his stance during the refugee crisis and other current affairs have been rather unfortunate. Sloterdijk’s strength lies in taking the burden by thinking freely. His writing style does not comply with syntactic timetables that enable trains of thought to roll on set tracks through the pages of a book.