“All truths – not only the various kinds of rational truth but also factual truth – are opposed to opinion in their mode of asserting validity. Truth carries within itself an element of coercion, and the frequently tyrannical truthtellers may be caused less by a failing of character than by the strain of habitually living under a kind of compulsion.” – Hannah Arendt (Between Past and Future. 1954, p. 243)
During the period immediately before someone leaves one city and moves to another, they seem to liberate themselves and experiment with abandon during that window of freedom, or fearfully adhere to the tired routines of a forgone order. Having witnessed the Eurocrisis unfold over the past two years from a window in Berlin, I recently thought I would have to move elsewhere due to conflict with the archaic hierarchy of a German university. I naturally rebelled and charged heedlessly into the freedom inherent in a contingent situation – refusing to comply with the hierarchy and arbitrary exercise of power so prevalent in the German university. With the comfortable order of my German life on the brink, I attempted to understand my position in German academia, as well as the European position under German hegemony. In so doing, I came to discover that the latter is not a debate between Keynesianism vs. neoliberal austerity, but a particularly virulent condition of wider academic and German culture: the need for truth.
If a traditional German university is a window into German culture as a whole, then the problem of truth becomes immediately apparent. Imagine riding horseback through the patchwork of political entities in medieval Germany, each with an independent lord holding absolute power over a small slice of territory, beholden only to the good grace of a distant and disinterested central authority. While riding through this landscape, the casual observer cannot help but notice that when moving from one lordship to another, the organization of labor and adherence to a unifying conception of community is entirely dictated by the lord. Some territories have jovial lords who interact with their subjects, interested in seeing smiling faces on their townsfolk and full bellies in the peasantry. Others sit aloof in marble palaces patronizing a small circle of followers and sycophants, while browbeating the remainder into perpetual worship and servitude. In each case, the truth is held by the lord, and the lords themselves are at almost constant war with each other, attempting to extend their vision of truth across the land. Because each professor in a German university effectively governs an entire department, with an army of student assistants, research assistants and post-docs, this medieval image illuminates the culture of a traditional German university. Unsurprisingly, the “market” for those lower but rather well-paid positions is brutal and precarious, and switching between lords becomes an exercise in switching between truths.
Extended to the German dominions themselves, certain truths are self-evident among the mainstream, functioning at the federal level. The law is sacred. The state is sacred. The economy is sacred. The currency is sacred. The four mainstream parties, the Conservatives, the Social Democrats, the Liberals and the Greens are surprisingly adept at working togetherafter accepting these truths – at least compared to the polarized American environment. Of course, the Left, emerging from the Communist East and persisting over the years, has been a pariah to the mainstream, while the recent success of the Pirates is just downright baffling. The response to these outsiders is a mixture of aggressive repudiation, particularly towards the Left (You dangerous lunatics want to bring the GDR back!), or sneering contempt (what do these pothead idiots dressed as Pirates want anyway?). In each case, the outsider is considered a threat not only in the traditional understanding of violence and theft, but also because their positions are invalid. Thus, they are simply wrong, false, in error – a threat not simply to order, but to the truth.
Brought to the European level, behind the intractable German position on austerity is not so much an essentialist identity, moralizing about hard work and responsibility, but a feeling of compulsion among the elites driven by “the truth” of the situation. After all, how can a Haushalt spend more than it takes in? What other solution is there but for Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (“the PIIGS”) to “get their houses in order”? What can open market operations by the European Central Bank (ECB) lead to but inflation? These are truths!
Of course, there is no “German Truth” to which all citizens adhere. The political culture is quite vibrant, diverse and filled with plenty of activists who have been at the forefront of anti-fascism as well as movements similar to Occupy. Nevertheless, there is a tendency, particularly among those in positions of power, to possess a form of aggressive self-assurance that they themselves hold the truth in isolation from all others. Because it is the truth, those in inferior positions must comply. Yet, it is precisely this combination, holding the truth in isolation and expecting others to comply, which generates the result any casual observer would expect: the social isolation of that person. This alienating self-assurance manifests itself not only in the lordships of German academia, but also in the acrimonious conflicts over the Eurocrisis. The two best examples of this are probably the two most important Germans in Europe at the moment: Angela Merkel and Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann – the most powerful council member on the board of the European Central Bank (ECB).
Merkel, a consistent advocate of austerity under the folksy belief that national budgets are just like household budgets – something John Maynard Keynes laboriously tried to discredit – finally got what she deserved this summer: isolation. With the replacement of French President Sarkozy by Socialist François Hollande, Italian Prime Minster Mario Monti quickly formed an alliance against Merkel’s dominance and effectively forced her into isolation. The result was a defeat for Merkel’s beliefs and the further extension of European-level credit to troubled countries.
On the other hand, if Merkel is stubborn in her timeless wisdom, Weidmann is as unyielding as a mathematical equation. Following his interview in Der Spiegel, one wonders if this trained economist would like to see Europe in ruins just to prove true whatever macroeconomic paradigm he functions under. Although quite young and only on the job for little over a year, scarcely a month after Merkel’s defeat, Weidmann was likewise isolated on the board of the ECB. The ECB subsequently plans to move forward with open market operations – exactly what Weidmann wanted to avoid.
In the end, it is clear Europe is moving towards a new order, or, more figuratively, moving from one city to another. If “the truth” of the old order is already forgone, we can only hope that the leaders of the transition liberate themselves from its routines. But, if my personal experience with the German university is any indication, or perhaps also that of Monti and his allies, directly challenging the truth tellers of the old city is the only way to move forward to a new one. We can only hope that such a challenge brings the truth out of isolation and into rational public debate.