A Global Crisis of Identity

Reports reach us daily about the state of the world, which should induce us to worry about its future: mass killings in Paris; a criminal, misogynist mob greets the New Year in Cologne; the Hungarian press pours out heaps of insults over the German chancellor for accepting refugees in the country; Islamist bombings in Istanbul and Jakarta; the Russian economy plummets into ever deeper crisis while Putin plans new, global adventures; even China seems to lose its appeal as an economic power house. ISIS and crisis everywhere.

To take the cake, a little known French novelist by the name of Michel Houellebecq has wasted his (and our) precious time fantasizing about what would happen if France were governed by Muslims. Submitting this fantasy to us, he ignores the far more likely scenario: France being governed by its neo-fascist right. It seems he has chosen his horror scenario for our future poorly: Wouldn’t it be more interesting to read a disinterested account about French fascists bringing back the concentration camps to European shores, all-out persecution of alterity, and its accompanying degeneration of society into cultural unity and boring simplicity? Houellebecq is, however, putting his finger on the pulse of time because he rightly diagnoses Western societies as disoriented about their future.

It is difficult to discern what all the seemingly isolated events, which I mentioned at the outset, really mean. How are we to read their common message? In fact, is there one? Perhaps, Houellebecq is right and the barbarians, in the guise of Muslims, are indeed right in front of our gates? But rather than fantasizing about possible horror scenarios, I argue that it is important for us to understand that the events mentioned above are connected in a different manner. These events point to super-structural issues as they amply document a fundamental crisis of identity, which has taken hold of the project of globalization. This is a crisis of a positive vision for the future and, therefore, a crisis of identity. Our contemporary times are afflicted with this crisis like a disease and this disease is as difficult to diagnose as it is to cure.

The idea of globalization was democratized and disseminated to a wider public in the 1990s. Its promise was clear: more global connections would automatically (like an invisible hand!) lead to things such as economic prosperity or the automatic implementation of democratic principles.

To achieve these lofty goals, globalization has rapidly eroded away traditional, ancient modes of collective identification and replaced them with its universal vision of prosperity. Globalization even assaulted our modern ways of imagining ourselves as members of national communities – take the development of new media as a case in point. As a result, we have been left without appropriate means for collective identity. Those transnational organizations – the EU, UN, etc. – that were supposed to fill the identity gap have failed to deliver. The EU provides a good example with its slogan ‘unity in diversity’. It aims to mask that there is no collective vision that can hold this newly emerging community together beyond the ever increasing profit margins for large companies. While Europhiles have been busily emphasizing the benefits we all share of a common European market, the large majority of Europeans have long turned away and are looking elsewhere for alternatives. For instance among the many possibilities on the right edge of the political spectrum. The problem lies not with the slogan itself. The motto of unity in diversity is actually well chosen to characterize the present situation in Europe. But this is not what Europeans, as a community, are craving for. At a time when it is difficult to discern important political differences between, say, conservatives and social democrats, people are looking for a new vision: the EU slogan is devoid of meaning and this vacuity is intentional because politically correct politicians wanted to be inclusive of everyone and not step on any toes. Of course, this is merely another case where attempts for too much political correctness have been the undoing of a powerful elite. Europeans today are seeking orientation – what shall be the vision of a united Europe as it preserves its diversity? Very little is heard about this from Brussels these days but it is what Europeans are most interested in (ironically uniting them from Finland to Portugal and Greece to Ireland). Yet, in the face of overwhelming evidence, the political leadership merely repeats that there is simply no alternative to globalization and that there is, in addition, also no alternative to the adopted route. This is their mantra and ideology: unity in diversity. But such meaningless mantras have, over the years, lost their discursive purchase power. Today, many are following those who propose to return to the good old times of some archaic community – whether it be ethnic (as in the case of fascists) or religious (as in the case of Christian and Muslim fundamentalists).

What is needed today, therefore, is a substantial effort to create a new vision of what globalization can (and cannot) accomplish. Crucially, this vision must not propagate the need to return to some idealized past society or community where, allegedly, everything was perfect. Ironically, this is the domain where Nazis and Islamists meet and we should leave it to them since it provides no solution. The past is a lost continent to which we will never be able to return. Leaving the facile dreams of Nazis and Islamists behind, we need to develop a vision that creates clear boundaries for our communities and regulates their relations with others. Our hopes for a global community were a bit premature or, possibly, impossible altogether. Yet, instead of quickly giving it up to follow one of the right-wing rat catchers, we need to fill the, thus far, empty concept of globalization with meaning, vision, and truth. Conceptually, this is our only true alternative even if, within it, there lay many possibilities.

This short polemic can, of course, only provide an all-too-brief glimpse onto these problems. In our program, however, we study them in detail and, collectively, search for concepts to understand and solutions to solve them.

By: Tilman Lanz