There Is No Outside Out There

by Jonas Marx

‹Action is a WE, not an I.›
Hannah Arendt1

By now I avoid the news. I can’t stand to listen to what they tell me anymore. The same story again and again and I’m getting more and more exhausted by it. After the Paris shooting in November I was shocked, like many other people around me. And I was worried, that kind of worry that deeply mixes with anger, because I already knew that the same story would repeat itself. That the way we treat these events only guides us into a stream where these things repeat again and again, as in an echo chamber. And now, a few weeks after Brussels, where the same thing did happen again, I’m not able to take it anymore. I’m not only tired but emotionally collapsing, my anger has frozen me.

I want to give an example of what I mean – not of becoming frozen, but of the anger that leads to it. This example is totally random but it represents a general feeling of mine. It was a week or two ago, I think it was the last time when I felt anger about the way we let things appear in the media. At least this time I was capable of making something like an inner snapshot of this feeling, to describe it, and to take a closer look at what triggered it: the news on TV. Of course, TV is worse than the newspaper, but the general scheme is the same. On that particular day IS was beaten in Mossul und Palmyra, one alleged backer of the Brussels attacks was arrested and – somehow most importantly – a football match between Germany and England took place in Berlin – with high security attention. The news speaker welcomed me with threatening anxiety on his face, speaking with a hard voice to avoid any doubt about his words, conveying to me the fear that – as he assumed – we all experienced watching the game (at home on our couches), and the other two events ‹are all connected›. He left everything unclear, he seemed perfectly satisfied with his terrifying but meaningful facial expression.

Of course these events – like many others – are all connected. But that’s not the point. The point is of course: How are they connected? And here the guy left everything unclear, and yet meaningfully suggested: Now that we in Europe experience terror from religious terrorists and now as we in Germany already have to be frightened about our most joyful pleasure – football – we must look to where ‹all this› is coming from.

Yes, everything is connected, I agree. But in an entirely different way than the way this guy suggests. For me, this episode shows our strategy of blaming others (in this case IS) in order to distance ourselves: to say that everything we are suffering and are afraid of comes from elsewhere. I feel that, on the contrary, what precisely connects all these things is our attempt to treat them as something far away from us. We create a gap between us and the others, and exactly this gap – and its aggressive maintenance – is what connects us to those on the other side of the gap.

We, and here I mean especially us here in Germany, are increasingly relying on a bubble to hide from the world around us. A constant stream of non-recognition in our media and public debate of the conflicts around us persists, while at the same time, every area around us that is not separated from us by a vast ocean is sinking in chaos. And the Mediterranean Sea is definitely not vast enough. Just take a map of Europe and its direct neighbours and have a look where there is serious trouble and where we are. Then you see the bubble, unmistakable and precise. Most areas of the Maghreb and Middle East are on fire, but also the southern and eastern border countries of Europe are sliding increasingly into chaos. And we are sitting here in the centre pretending it has nothing to do with us?! As if only the refugees and some terrorists were bringing the trouble? But I must have forgotten this… the refugees are coming because Assad is a bad guy and the terrorists don’t like us because Islam has its enlightenment yet to come – we are simply the ones who must now suffer from the fallout, and beforehand, of course, we had nothing to do with it. And because of this, we can now do dirty deals with neighbouring countries in order to distract the refugees from coming here… As if this would change anything.

There is a gap running straight through Europe, a gap in welfare that already exists; and a gap that, increasingly, is also a gap of peace and not-peace. And this is my point: It is we who hold up this gap. We, here, on the ‹peaceful› side of it. You don’t even have to look to the other side of the gap to see this. The constant stream of non-recognition in our media and public debate is not a passive thing. It is not just about ignoring, about not naming things. There is a will in it, there is an aggression. And this is what makes me so angry, when I read the news, when I see the face of the news man. There is an active attitude, there is an aggression in refusing to put these things together, to avoid recognizing what is going on around us and that we are a part of.


Two basic principles of political action

So how are all the things connected and what is our role in it? I believe that in politics all actions can be broken down to two basic principles: conflict and cooperation. They are as simple as they are opposed, on many levels. Conflict is a vertical principle while cooperation is horizontal. Conflict seeks separation while cooperation works by support. The first is a closed system that claims mistrust as the basic foundation of human interactions and therefore seeks control by domination. The second is an open system that simply believes in security by trust. Conflict is to seek one’s own advantage to the disadvantage of others (or at least that this should be a price to pay), while cooperation believes in the merit of shared advantages. Even more, while conflict is based on the belief of individual strength, cooperation knows about the power of shared interests, that support is something where all gain more then they give.

Of course, groups can also be formed through the principle of conflict. But this is then also motivated by conflict: the often described mechanism of unifying a group by defining an opposed third party, and then using this conflict to streamline all internal differences in the own group. And this streamlining of differences generates further conflicts in the group that can only be overshadowed as long as there is a greater external conflict. So groups that are formed in this way not only have conflicts, they need conflict.

Although they appear to be abstract principles at work here, I mean this concretely. I’m talking about principles of action that can be observed by posing some questions: Is an action addressed to a horizontal or a vertical realm? Does it offer support or does it claim non-involvement? This, in particular, is something I witness a lot and find frightening: That someone claims to not be involved in something. Why then even claim it? As said, separation is a driving force of conflict. That is something I feel especially when someone tries to convince me (or her/himself) that she or he is not involved in whatever. I will return to this later.

Integral to these principles is that, despite their clear differences, they share the same characteristic: to produce constant self-affirmation. That means whenever you follow one of these principles you receive constant affirmation that this is the correct and only principle to follow. If you follow the principle of conflict, you will again and again reproduce events that cause mistrust between people and accordingly, you will receive affirmation that you are right to dominate in order to avoid being dominated. On the other hand, if you follow the principle of cooperation you gain trust and create a realm of mutual support that invites you to give even more support.

This self-affirmation is very important. It shows that there is no morality in these principles; they operate somehow below moral demands. Morality and also religion are in this sense academic enterprises, as both seek truth outside of the worldly realm of humans. Here, in the political realm of action, there is no normative rule that tells you which principle to follow. Both principles simply are the logic of action. If you set conflict you get conflict, if you give trust you get trust. From any moral or external point of view, both principles are neutral. There is no external reason operating behind or above them. It is purely and only our choice: which principle do we want to follow? According to which principle do we want to shape our world?

And this goes even further. Morals are often not neutral, and feed the principle of conflict. We can see that often when it is claimed that actions should be grounded in ‹values›. The idea that one can have ‹good values› or the ‹right values› never comes – whether outspoken or not – without the assumption that someone else has ‹bad› and therefore ‹wrong values›. And so by claiming values you install a separation and claim a superiority, and this then becomes one of the driving forces of conflict.


On responsibility

Associated with this self-affirmation is another characteristic of both principles. They work as communicating vessels between various settings in the political realm, between inside and outside. This means that whenever one principle is the basis of action other situations are automatically influenced. And this applies even more to our contemporary world, where everything is connected. Inside and outside always belong together. The principle we follow to the outside also sets the stage for how we act with each other and vice versa. There is no outside out there – and that is how ‹all things are connected›.

So here I’m back to my anger. In our public debate here in Germany we mostly separate ourselves from the crises taking place around us. But you don’t even have to look at a few very obvious facts, such as arms exports or military invasions, to understand that this claim follows the conflict principle. The conditions that ground the world around us unavoidably ground us. And for that we bear responsibility.

For example: The way in which the civil war in Syria has became a surrogate war between the western world and some very dubious so-called allies of ours, such as Saudi-Arabia, on the one side and Russia and Iran on the other, directly corresponds to the way we dealt, within Europe, with the financial crisis. This was, at base, a crisis of the banking sector. However, instead of finding a solution together with our partners in the EU, we created a situation that led to a series of crises of state finances and thereby a conflict between Greece and Germany. And here it was chiefly we Germans (almost the entire public debate) dealing with the problem as if it was only the fault of the Greeks, and so they must carry out reforms we dictate. Both of these contexts are situations of mistrust that are founded on an inability to accept the other as an equal to talk with in order to define shared interests. No horizontal approach at all.

The conflict between Germany and Greece corresponds to another conflict here in Germany which has passed out of public debate for over ten years: how we distribute welfare inside our own country. This, too, we carried out in a conflictual manner: by setting up a debate in which it seemed as if unemployment was mainly the fault of the single individual, and so therefore we can decrease social benefits. The way in which the German government treated Greece is directly related to this – it was ‹alternativlos› only to that extent that Merkel didn’t want to open up this can of worms on home ground. And we bought it. That is the bubble I am referring to.

Everyone has the choice of which principle to follow and so everyone has responsibility for their choice. But responsibility increases with the possibilities of choices one has. And this is true for us here in Germany, in the centre of Europe. Currently, I don’t see any country with a broader range of choice. Right now we dominate in Europe economically and take this as the reason to do it also politically. So we bear responsibility for the EU losing more and more of its binding power and falling apart into conflict. And this is not just due to the actions of our government, it is all of us because we all remain silent about this. Instead, we follow the fated pattern of acting as if the weakest were the strongest, as if the one who acts with the fewest choices were the one who dictates the agenda: Putin, Greece, Terrorists… That is a choice we make, and for which we bear responsibility. To reject this choice, or to not recognize we have made a choice, is not a passive thing. To not choose cooperation means to choose conflict.

Jonas Marx ist an artist and writer, based in Berlin.