The ‘New Squares’, Christian Rickens calls them in his new book, Die Neuen Spiesser: Von der Fatalen Sehnsucht nach einer überholten Gesellschaft ("The New Squares: On the Fatal Yearning for an Outdated Society"). It’s a provocative title, Spiesser (roughly, "square") is a mildly pejorative term.
The New Squares range from the Federal Constitutional Court Judge Udo di Fabio, whose recent book Kultur der Freiheit ("Culture of Freedom") warns us that the collapse of common sense puts the "west in danger"; to Paul Nolte (G), historian at the Freie Universität Berlin, who denounces a new permanent underclass of alienated, tattoed Gameboy addicts cut loose from stabilizing bourgeois values; to Eva Herman, a peppy TV celebrity whose new book Das Eva-Prinzip: Fuer eine neue Weiblichkeit ("The Eva Principle: For a New Femininity" (G)) calls on German women to admit that the attempt to combine children and career cannot succeed, and return to the comforts of hearth and home. This is a pretty European brand of conservatism; fond of talk about ancient customs and traditional values, and skeptical of the free market. You could call the New Squares throne-and-altar conservatives adrift in a throneless cosmopolis.
Now comes Christian Rickens, an editor at Manager Magazine (G), to give them the back of his hand in this crisply-written, entertaining polemic. The tone throughout is lightly ironic, although not flippant. Rickens doesn’t intend to confront right-wing doom-mongering with its left-wing Doppelgaenger. In fact, he mocks doom-mongering. Issue by issue, he sets out the New Squares’ claims and demonstrates, by a bit of research and clear thinking, that the problems they describe are nowhere near as grim as they’d have us believe, and that their proposed solutions are generally unworkable.
Rickens acknowledges differences in temperament and intellectual caliber among the New Squares — some are university professors, others tabloid columnists. However, Rickens identifies two typical thought-mistakes (Denkfehler) common to them all. The first is a weakness for spongy pseudo-scientific phrase-mongering: stuff like "the erosion of our cultural substance," or the "declining sense of togetherness and being bound together by fate" (Schicksalsgemeinschaft). The New Squares, he comments, seem to be reading "too much Nietzsche and too little Popper." Many of their arguments are, therefore, unfalsifiable — dinner-table banter wrapped up in pretty rhetorical ribbons. How are we supposed to tell whether a nation’s "cultural substance" is disappearing?
The second error is the conservative tic of confusing social change with collapse or decay. What Fritz Stern wrote of an earlier crop of German cultural conservatives still holds true: "[O]ften they mistook change for decline, and, consistent with their conception of history, attributed the decline to a moral failing." German society is changing, argues Rickens, but many of the problems bemoaned by the New Squares are much more manageable than they let on, and some of them aren’t problems at all.
Take, for example, the extinction-of-the-Germans meme. German women now have about 1.4 children during their lifetime, fewer than the 2.1 generally needed to maintain the population. However, smaller family size accompanies increased prosperity in all societies, and Germany’s actually in the middle of the European league table here. Further, there’s no epidemic of childlessness. In 1925, 75% of German women had children and 25% did not. The same holds true today. The difference? Women choose smaller families now, and those who remain childless do so by choice, not because disease or malnutrition made them infertile. Rickens calls that progress. As for Eva Herman’s suggestion that women stay home and care for the children, fine — for ones who wish to and can afford to. However, Rickens eviscerates the idea that this is woman’s "traditional" role: human societies rich enough to permit women (and children, for that matter) to choose not to work are historical exceptions. The fact that women find it difficult to balance child-rearing and a career means we should develop better policies to help them, not urge them to stay home.
Besides, Rickens asks mischievously, if having plenty of children is good for society, then the New Squares are surely praising Germany’s baby-happy immigrants! Err, not so much. Immigrants are a focus of tooth-gnashing anguish. They do poorly in school, they don’t learn proper German, their women wear strange headgear. Yes, there are problems here, Rickens admits, but keep them in perspective. The vast majority of immigrants in German find jobs and contribute to society, although they will never memorize Schiller or buy a Gamsbarthut. Further, Germany’s immigrants are nowhere near as dangerously alienated as those in other European countries.
Many of the problems the New Squares describe can be traced to bad immigration policy — one designed largely by conservative governments. Most German immigrants are asylum-seekers or "guest workers" and their family members. That is, people who came to Germany to escape poverty or oppression, not because they specifically wanted to settle in Germany. Until recently, national policy treated immigrants as temporary visitors, instead of acknowledging these immigrants are here to stay and devising a flexible, tolerant concept of integration. Although the New Squares are concerned about the failure of a minority of immigrants (and their children) to adapt to German society, they generally offer no practical suggestions for helping them, or improving Germany’s immigration policy. This is so, Rickens suggests, because the New Squares do not wish to have larger numbers of immigrants in Germany, period.
This tribal suspicion of foreigners, Rickens argues, is much more dangerous to Germany’s future than the foreigners themselves. The numbers leave no doubt: to alleviate its demographic problems, Germany must attract skilled, adaptable immigrants. Lots of them. Starting yesterday. This means creating an immigrant-friendly society. Drawing on his experience meeting "Muslim Yuppies" in the USA, Rickens lays out his view of the issue. A skilled Indian programmer might come to Germany hoping to start a company, but she’s not going to stay if she’s constantly made to feel inadequate because of her imperfect German; people point out her ethnic difference everywhere she goes; and she can’t start a business because she’s hamstrung by cumbersome regulations. The Red-Green coalition government that ruled Germany until recently put together an imperfect but sensible immigration bill designed to attract these sort of skilled immigrants, and supported an atmosphere of cultural tolerance to make them feel welcome. Who torpedoed the immigration bill and howled with outrage at the "politically correct multiculturalism" allegedly being forced down Germany’s throat? Why, the New Squares and their ideological allies, of course.
But you don’t have to go to immigrant neighborhoods to find maladjustment. What about all those disconnected, alienated members of the German underclass, with their Arschgeweih, their alcohol problems, and their antisocial habits? To the New Squares, (especially Paul Nolte (G)) these uncouth, directionless people symbolize Germany’s cultural rot. Rickens, however, sees them as a product of social trends. Globalization has closed thousands of low-tech factories, mines, and farms in the West. German workers will never be cheap enough to compete with developing nations in these low-value added industries. Thus, working-class Germans, whose lives were once given structure by a job at the the factory or the machine-shop, now have nothing to do all day, and feel disposable.
The welfare system, in turn, discourages them from working, since their social welfare benefits may drop by 70-80% for every Euro they earn. So some of them begin drinking too much and numbing themselves with mindless distractions. But keep in mind, Rickens insists, that the problematic, self-destructive behavior of some members of the underclass is (a) historically seen, nothing new; and (b) a by-product of the social changes that pushed them to the edge of society, not a harbinger of that society’s collapse. These people are globalization’s losers, and they should be compensated by globalization’s winners: Rickens proposes a "guaranteed minimum income" model that would provide a a basic living to all and allow recipients to keep most of every extra Euro they earn.
There will still be people who dress poorly and play more Gameboy than they should, but that’s part of living in a free society, and there’s not much use getting upset about it. In the book’s conclusion, Rickens hazards a guess as to why so many middle-class Germans snobbishly criticize mass taste: they themselves feel the icy breath of global competition on their necks, threatening their comfy middle-class jobs. (Next victims: German radiologists). If the day comes when they, too have to apply for government benefits, they can at least point to their superior taste and cultivated habits to maintain that crucial sense of distinction and superiority.
And now to patriotism. Why, ask many of the New Squares, must Germans still hang their heads in shame for the 12 unfortunate years of Hitler, a "freak-accident" of history? (to quote a phrase used by Matthias Matussek, culture editor of the Spiegel and author of a book called "We Germans: Why Other People Can be Fond of Germany"). Rickens doesn’t begrudge his fellow-citizens their World Cup flag-waving or justifiable national pride in Germany’s present-day institutions. However, the New Squares have an unhealthy urge to go farther and move aside the heavy brown "bar" of National Socialism that stands athwart German history. If you’re going to evoke the lost innocence and sounder values of a bygone era, you going to have to develop some strategy about the "bygone era" of 1933-45, and everything that made it possible.
An example: Rickens catches Judge di Fabio, who really should know better, ‘reasoning’ thus: "Hitler was not a German — not because he was of Austrian ancestry, but because he had not the slightest jot of a Prussian civil servant’s sense of duty, had neither the local patriotism or the joie de vivre of Bavarian Catholicism, had no tendency whatsoever towards diligence and hard work, no feeling for the German way of life, for bourgeois habits, or Christian traditions. He was only disguised as a German, he was a rootless gutter-impostor who sucked up all the energy and cultural treasure of the German people and accepted its utter destruction with indifference." Those poor Germans! How could they have been so naïve?
The fact that Hitler was originally Austrian is, Rickens notes, painfully irrelevant, despite di Fabio’s impressive rhetoric. There are two agendas at work behind these subtle attempts to relativize and revise German history. First, the New Squares need to distract readers from the role that some of their most beloved "German virtues" (discipline, loyalty, love of order, respect for authority) played in allowing Hitler to turn Germany into a genocidal war machine. The classic formulation, which helped thousands of SS officers and Wehrmacht soldiers win light sentences before indulgent German courts in the 1950s, went something like this: "Personally, I had nothing against the Jews/Poles, and deeply regret what happened to them. But I’ve always been a disciplined person, and orders are orders." The second subtext: the New Squares’ historical arguments devalue the achievements of the ’68 generation, the New Squares’ favorite whipping-boy. The ’68 generation was the first to directly confront these excuses and rationalizations, shove their fellow citizens’ noses deep into the horror that they had inflicted, and subject some of the most-abused "German virtues" to a shattering critique.
The social ferment of the late 1960s was, of course, a mixed blessing. But one thing the ’68 generation did was to create, for the first time, a liberal, pluralistic German society which trusted its people to live their lives more or less as they pleased. Until 1957, Rickens reminds us, German husbands were permitted to decide whether their wives could work or not. Now, the mayor of Berlin can show up with his homosexual partner at public functions. It’s this freewheeling live-and-let live liberalism that is the target of many New Square arguments: in the name of Germany, they want us all to share some set of common ‘German’ values, they want us all to disapprove of people who get divorced or wear piercings, they want all foreigners to satisfy some ‘test’ of Germanness or be shunned or excluded. They exaggerate Germany’s problems, and prescribe more conformity to their own particular idea of ‘traditional values’ as the only solution. There’s nothing new here folks, Rickens assures us, just a conformist longing for some sort of conflict-free "community," an unhealthy undercurrent of German conservative thought that’s been around in one form or another for centuries.
Rickens’ book is a polemic; and it’s hardly the last word on the subject; I am sure that his targets could, and probably will, eloquently defend themselves against some of his charges. To his credit, though, Rickens doesn’t just critique the critique; he lays out some of his own reform ideas which would help tackle some of the real problems the New Squares highlight — while preserving pluralism and diversity. Rickens is by no means a traditional leftist (he writes for Manager magazine, after all). Many of his assumptions (Germany can do nothing to prevent deep social changes brought about by globalization) and solutions (a minimum income a la Milton Friedman, instead of job-creation measures) will not please old-fashioned leftists. However, Rickens’ ideas are usually stimulating, and the final chapter, in which he sets out ten theses to explain why the New Squares came about and why they appeal to so many Germans, contained many insightful points.
I should openly declare my bias: I liked the book partially is because I agree with Rickens on many points. After hearing and reading so much po-faced fustian about ‘traditional values’ and ‘social decay’, it’s refreshing to read someone who bursts out laughing at language like this. Rickens’ style is lucid, witty, and often laugh-out-loud funny. However, he never loses sight of his argument, which is, at heart, optimistic. Yes, there are a lot more different ways of being German now than there were in 1950, but remember, that’s a good thing. Diversity, freedom, and social change raise challenges, but Germany can best meet these challenges with flexible, enlightened policies (or sometimes, no policies at all), not by shoving Germans into the straight-jacket of ‘traditional’ values.
[Die Neuen Spiesser by Christian Rickens, Ullstein Verlag 2006. All translations in this review by Andrew Hammel.]