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Peter Sloterdijk

¤  The Grasping Hand

The modern democratic state pillages its productive citizens   [Winter 2010]

To assess the unprecedented scale that the modern democratic state has attained in Europe, it is useful to recall the historical kinship between two movements that emerged at its birth: classical liberalism and anarchism. Both were motivated by the mistaken hypothesis that the world was heading toward an era of the weakening of the state. While liberalism wanted a minimal state that would guide citizens almost imperceptibly, leaving them to go about their business in peace, anarchism called for the total death of the state. Behind these two movements was a hope typical of the European nineteenth century: that man’s plunder of man would soon come to an end. In the first case, this would result from the elimination of exploitation by unproductive classes, that is, the nobility and the clergy. In the second case, the key was to reorganize traditional social classes into little groups that would consume what they produced. But the political history of the twentieth century, and not just in its totalitarian extremes, proved unkind to both classical liberalism and anarchism. The modern democratic state gradually transformed into the debtor state, within the space of a century metastasizing into a colossal monster—one that breathes and spits out money.

This metamorphosis has resulted, above all, from a prodigious enlargement of the tax base—most notably, with the introduction of the progressive income tax. This tax is the functional equivalent of socialist expropriation. It offers the remarkable advantage of being annually renewable—at least, in the case of those it has not bled dry the previous year. (To appreciate the current tolerance of well-off citizens, recall that when the very first income tax was levied in England, at the rate of 5 percent, Queen Victoria worried that it might have exceeded acceptable limits. Since that day, we have become accustomed to the fact that a handful of productive citizens provide more than half of national income-tax revenues.)

When this levy is combined with a long list of other fees and taxes, which target consumers most of all, this is the surprising result: each year, modern states claim half the economic proceeds of their productive classes and pass them on to tax collectors, and yet these productive classes do not attempt to remedy their situation with the most obvious reaction: an antitax civil rebellion. This submissiveness is a political tour de force that would have made a king’s finance minister swoon.

With these considerations in mind, we can see that the question that many European observers are asking during the current economic crisis—“Does capitalism have a future?”—is the wrong one. In fact, we do not live in a capitalist system but under a form of semi-socialism that Europeans tactfully refer to as a “social market economy.” The grasping hand of government releases its takings mainly for the ostensible public interest, funding Sisyphean tasks in the name of “social justice.”

Thus, the direct and selfish exploitation of a feudal era has been transformed in the modern age into a juridically constrained and almost disinterested state kleptocracy. Today, a finance minister is a Robin Hood who has sworn a constitutional oath. The capacity that characterizes the Treasury, to seize with a perfectly clear conscience, is justified in theory as well as in practice by the state’s undeniable utility in maintaining social peace—not to mention all the other benefits it hands out. (In all this, corruption remains a limited factor. To test this statement, it suffices to think of the situation in post-Communist Russia, where an ordinary party man like Vladimir Putin has been able, in just a few years as head of state, to amass a personal fortune of more than $20 billion.) Free-market observers of this kleptocratic monster do well to call attention to its dangers: overregulation, which impedes entrepreneurial energy; overtaxation, which punishes success; and excessive debt, the result of budgetary rigor giving way to speculative frivolity.

Free-market authors have also shown how the current situation turns the traditional meaning of exploitation upside down. In an earlier day, the rich lived at the expense of the poor, directly and unequivocally; in a modern economy, unproductive citizens increasingly live at the expense of productive ones—though in an equivocal way, since they are told, and believe, that they are disadvantaged and deserve more still. Today, in fact, a good half of the population of every modern nation is made up of people with little or no income, who are exempt from taxes and live, to a large extent, off the other half of the population, which pays taxes. If such a situation were to be radicalized, it could give rise to massive social conflict. The eminently plausible free-market thesis of exploitation by the unproductive would then have prevailed over the much less promising socialist thesis of the exploitation of labor by capital. This reversal would imply the coming of a post-democratic age.

At present, the main danger to the future of the system involves the growing indebtedness of states intoxicated by Keynesianism. Discreetly and ineluctably, we are heading toward a situation in which debtors will once again dispossess their creditors—as has so often happened in the history of taxation, from the era of the pharaohs to the monetary reforms of the twentieth century. What is new is the gargantuan scale of public debt. Mortgaging, insolvency, monetary reform, or inflation—no matter, the next great expropriations are under way. Today, the state’s grasping hand even reaches into the pockets of generations unborn. We have already written the title of the next chapter of our history: “The pillage of the future by the present.”

 …   •   …

Peter Sloterdijk is a German philosopher; his article was translated by Alexis Cornel, and taken from  City Journal, a quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.



Peter Sloterdijk is not someone, who would translate philosophy as ‘love of the truth’, because he is not concerned with the great metaphysical, ontological, and epistemological problems: the great themes, they were evasions and half truths. Those futile, beautiful, soaring flights – God, Universe, Theory, Praxis, Subject, Object, Body, Spirit, Meaning , Nothingness – all that is nothing. They are nouns for young people, for outsiders, clerics, sociologists. [Sloterdijk (1987b): P. xxvi]

His philosophy is about all the seemingly insignificant, apparently lower aspects of life.

The Zeitgeist has left its mark on us, and whoever wants to decipher it is faced with the task of working on the psychosomatics of Cynicism. This is what an integrating philosophy demands of itself. It is called integrating because it does not let itself be seduced by the attraction of the ‘great problems’, but instead initially finds its themes in the trivial, in everyday life, in the so-called unimportant, in those things that otherwise are not worth speaking about, in petty details. Whoever wants to can, in such a perspective, already recognise the kynical impulse for which the ‘low-brow themes’ are not too low. [Sloterdijk (1987b): P. 140 – 141]

He is still concerned with the questions of life, and of values, if we take values not only to refer to general principles, but include attitudes towards life as well. So, one could say that Sloterdijk understands philosophy as the ‘love of wisdom’. Thereby, he is one of Nietzsche’s philosopher’s of the future, who are the inventors of new values, and do not believe in the truth anymore. In other words, he is a post-modernist. I take the term ‘post-modernist’ to refer to someone who regards the possibility of human beings to get to know the truth, in respect to metaphysics as well as in respect to ethics, as impossible. This implies that for him there is also no set of values, or principles, which is absolutely valid. A couple of problems in respect to ones own life arise out of this attitude because each of us has to find answers to the following questions: How am I supposed to live? What are the values, and principles, I intend to stick to? What could be a possible basis for my actions? Sloterdijk does not provide direct answers to these questions.

If we took the notion ‘value’ to refer to general principles concerning the good life only, then Sloterdijk would not be a philosopher in the above mentioned sense because, in contrast to Marx, and Nietzsche, he is not building up a new immanent system of virtues and values to give answers to the aforementioned questions {“New values? No thanks!” [Sloterdijk (1987b): P. 6]}, but he accepts that currently our Western societies are mainly based on nihilism, and puts forward an altered attitude towards it. The present attitude human beings take in respect to life, if they believe in nihilism, is Cynicism, according to him. This he contrasts with Kynicism, and while doing so he describes Kynicism in such a way that this state of consciousness is much more appealing than the cynical one. Therefore, one can say that he is putting forward Kynicism as a better reaction to nihilism than Cynicism. Cynicism as well as Kynicism are states of consciousness, according to Sloterdijk, and they also agree insofar as they both are far beyond the belief in idealism, and stable, absolute values. Whenever Sloterdijk employs the term “idealism”, he does not mean typical idealism a la Hegel, but he refers to all types of belief in absolutes. The loss of the belief in stable values, idealism et cetera, e.g. nihilism, was brought about by the Enlightenment movement. This movement was accompanied by the cynical attitude, which he criticises in this work. His work is not primarily a critique of the Enlightenment, as Andreas Huyssen pointed out [Sloterdijk (1987b): Foreword], but rather a critique of the attitude of Cynicism, which accompanied the Enlightenment movement. It is not a critique of the Enlightenment at all, but only a critique of the state of consciousness, which is usually brought about by any form of enlightenment, e.g. Cynicism, or as he calls it: Cynical reason.

After having pointed out, where Peter Sloterdijk is to be found on the philosophical map, I now give a brief overview over the structure of the Critique of Cynical Reason. In the first part of his Critique, he provides us with the concepts of “Cynicism” and “Kynicism”, and states examples of the loss of absolutes from the Enlightenment period, which have brought about cynical reason in human beings. In the second main part, which is nearly three times longer than the first, he goes through masses of examples of Cynicism in the world process. These examples are divided up into four main categories. The first one deals with physionomy, the second with phenomenology, the third with logic, and the last with a historical example, e.g. the Weimar Republic. He does so to provide us with an understanding of the various variations and complexities of Cynicism.

Stefan Lorenz Sorgner

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