Wolfgang Klotz was born 1954 in Lower Franconia as son of a workers family and in an environment deeply informed by traditional Catholicism. Studying Theology and Philosophy during the 1970s in Würzburg and Munich finally resulted in an emancipation from such tradition deeply rooted in the 19th century. Full emancipation, however, required another few years as taxi-driver and in various other jobs ending in a Frankfurt-based publishing house. Arriving, finally, in a milieu of mainly “post-68- leftists” he got engaged into the project of building- up the East-/West-European Cultural Centre Palais
Jalta followed by 10 years as managing director of the centre. In 1998 the idea and basic concept for the today Central and Eastern European Online Library was born and started under rather adverse conditions. While conditions didn’t really and considerably
improve, the library is constantly growing since then and he is engaged in it today among an international team of ten colleagues.
In the past few decades, an entire civilization (the prosperous part of the world and humankind) has begun to promote the “optimization” of everything and everyone as a kind of new “categorical imperative”. This imperative is intending primarily to the optimization of ourselves, with all sorts of technology now supporting us, all sorts of devices from which we can constantly read the key data, at least of our physical condition, on a bottom-up scale always showing on top: the optimum. Simultaneously, all industrial and administrative processes are as well subject to constant processes of optimization. Other terms that have been used to designate the “optimal world” for centuries have long since fallen out of use: for example the “Paradise” (Bible) or the “Golden Age” (Hesiod, Virgil, etc.) or “Utopia” (Th. More et al.) All these old terms had an intrinsic connotation of “the unattainable” and, therefore, they are no longer suitable for the 21 st century, when such modest acceptance of ideals being “out of reach” has somehow become alien. The self-confidence that we, human beings, are the “optimal” among all creatures thanks to divine creation, is no longer handed down to us by the anthropology of Christian dogmatic. In today’s everyday life, it is rather expressed by our strong “belief” in our ability to perfect, through our own efforts, what by nature is still deficient in our world. However, once you get used to understanding any deficiency as something that should be eliminated as quickly as possible through an optimization process, you are ill prepared for a more general crisis. Such perception always understands “crisis” as a state of sub-sub-optimum. Thus, “Crisis” is a priori perceived as a pejorative term. The Greek Κρίσις (crisis), however, simply referred to a situation that calls for a decision, and in which we are (or should be) looking for the right Κριτέρια (criteria) for such a decision. Hence, this search for the appropriate criteria was identified as “criticism” in the history of thought. Nevertheless, every search and every criticism can always go astray. Such
a mistake often does not happen in finding and applying the wrong
criteria; it happens much more often in a mix-up or a wrong use of criteria that, in other usage, might be absolutely correct. Would you like a little example? In his commentary on the Covid-19 crisis (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, April 20), the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes: “How could it happen that an entire country ethically and politically collapsed in the face of an illness without anyone noticing?” He is asking this question having in mind his own country: Italy. But if we take a look, from a Covid-19 related point of view, at the United States or Brazil, wouldn’t a slightly different formulation of the same question raise in our mind, namely: “How could it happen that an entire country ethically and politically collapsed, and that it became publicly obvious only when we faced a pandemic?” Agamben’s criterion for the “collapse” is the “threshold that separates humanity from barbarism”. Undoubtedly a very good criterion! However, we know about numerous countries in this world that are “ethically and politically” ruled by contemporaries who, since long time, are considering themselves as “the optimum” for their respective country. So where exactly that moment of “ethical and political collapse” could be found, the beginning of that “inhuman and barbaric” policy, which in the USA or in Brazil, as elsewhere, is responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives which, under different “circumstances”, still today could be with us? Human beings who consider themselves“optimal” individuals like to do so especially in a physical sense. Hence, it is peculiar for them to ascribe themselves a high degree of personal immunity, especially in the face of an epidemic. Of course, this cannot be done without the imagination – in the other half of your thinking universe – of a large number of those who are sub-optimal or, in the concrete example, highly susceptible to infection. In this part of their thinking universe, a wide space opens-up for social-Darwinist fantasies, from which the step to racist thinking is sometimes not far. How else should one interpret some recent statements by the Brazilian president? Wasn’t he convinced from the very beginning of the epidemic that only the sub-optimized individuals (and collectives – as the indigene tribes…?) would be carried away by it? In addition, what is
the disappearance of the “inferior” but the release of resources for the
“optimized”? – Even a slum inhabitant of Sao Paolo leaves behind her or him at least one thing with his death: she/he “makes room.” No, there are no countries (yet) which collapsed! Moreover, even if Agamben certainly knows his homeland infinitely better than the author of these lines does: Italy too did not “collapse ethically and politically in the face of an illness.” A physical, economic, cultural and political collapse threatens, as far as predictable today, much more likely in countries which (democratically indebted or not) are governed in a way that (and by rulers who…), long before Covid-19, suffered from the ethical and political collapse that only became evident in face of the pandemic. Another example? Agamben, in his commentary, also wrote about the attitude of the Church “in face of an illness” and stated: “The Church under a Pope who calls himself Francis has forgotten that Francis embraced the lepers.” Again, a quite good criterion slipped on the wrong side when used in this context, because the fact that St. Francis embraced the lepers is, as we are used to saying today, a “narrative” and cannot be accepted as historically guaranteed. It is, without a doubt, a very nice narrative, but… Some may be inclined (and they are completely free to do so) to attribute to Saint Francis’ trust in God the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The good Lord could not but immunize St. Francis against leprosy as a reward for his affectionate heroism. However, if Pope Francis in 2020 does not achieve such a degree of holy power as his titular Saint once did, this can be reproached to him only by someone who is regarding even a lack of holiness as a symptom of the “sub-optimal” to be eradicated. However, the philosopher Agamben is certainly familiar with the idea of the finiteness of all human effort and doing. Hence, even if we love, our love cannot be perfect, all the more if we speak about love in a context of society and politics. Here we can, at our best, find and achieve an ethical and political “sub-optimum”, which we may define as the Responsibility
of our thinking and doing. Moreover, any ethical and political thinking and
doing, which is based on Responsibility in the Κρίσις as the determining Κριτέριον for decision-making, we may briefly (but definitely) name with the term “Solidarity”. Hasn’t it become evident in the entire course of the Covid 19 crisis so far, that Solidarity (both with regard to individual behaviour and with regard to state governance) comes closest to the requirements of ethically and politically human action? We have seen many examples for a lack of Solidarity in the last few months – in individual behaviour (keywords “party” and “binge drinking” on Mallorca) as well as in political decision- making (keyword “Brussels” and “fight for a Budget of Europe-wide Solidarity”). In all such cases, the virus is “teaching” us that Solidarity is the only path we can still take with the prospect of limiting the social costs of the crisis. In the weekend nights of the crisis, thousands are gathering in the public squares of major European cities for parties in order to demonstratively defy the crisis. It may often happen that a healthy participant hugs an infected one. However, that’s not that embrace of St. Francis. It does not happen in a affectionate and conscious deferment of one’s own well-being and one’s own health. It happens as a defiant clinging to a habit of after- work-enjoyment, it happens as an assertion of one’s own optimization achieved (including immunity assumed). In addition, the small device, from which my current body mass index can be read, has long mastered the logarithm, which calculates the probability of a random infection regardless whether in Barcelona, Milan or Zagreb. Those who want can limit their sense of Responsibility to responsibility just for themselves. No one who feels “Solidarity” is doing so. If virology would have existed already in the 13th century, then the legend about St. Francis would perhaps also tell how intensely Francis washed his face and hands after hugging the leper and maybe even changed his habit. However, we are not told anything about it, and we, including Giorgio Agamben, can at best do a bit modernizing of the traditional narrative for the crisis year 2020.
A third example?
At the end of Agamben’s comment, we read the classic question: “Quare siletis iuristae in munere vestro? (Why are you silent, lawyers, when it comes to your task?)” He is posing the question in view of so the many “emergency acts” and in view of a “permanent state of emergency” which he perceives to be threatening. Again, without any doubt, it is a duty of lawyers in every democratic republic to prevent this or to make it impossible. Nevertheless: the danger that neither society as a whole nor the lawyers in particular will be able to prevent such a “permanent state of emergency” is far greater in Hungary or Poland or Turkey or Serbia or Russia or China…. than in Italy, Germany or France. Distinction is needed and would be helpful! It makes a difference to the whole in which country the “emergency acts” are enacted out of Responsibility and Solidarity, or in which they are only issued as a collateral benefit of the epidemic for the rulers to maintain power. In this paragraph, Agamben refers to an assertion that Adolf Eichmann once “never ceased to repeat, that what he had done was done on the basis of his conscience in order to comply with what he believed to be the commandments of Kantian morality.” In a debate about “ethical and political collapses” we are facing in 2020, we mainly have to discuss about political personnel as “relevant” to which may belong Viktor Orbán or Jaroslav Kaczyński, Tayyip Erdoğan or Vladimir Putin or Aleksandar Vučić and Xi Jinping as well. A reference to Eichmann in such a debate can only be helpful to draw the attention of us 2020ers to the following: that none of us would expect from any of the politicians named above an attempt to legitimate his or her political doings and decisions by invoking the “commandments of Kantian morality” as justification (even if Aleksandar Vučić, some years ago, had a short period when he liked to justify his politics as based on Max Weber). Perhaps, any politics of “making great again” (regardless whether America
or Russia or China) does not need any justification at all.
—————– Who today might dare to seriously design a picture of the ethical and political life of our societies in a post-Covid-19 era? Somehow the sympathetic utopia of a future era comes to mind in which the above- mentioned civilization of the prosperous part of the world and humanity has come to a new perception (or even only to a return) of our finitude, our mortality. And that this process of self-reconsideration has resulted in the fact that a newly anchored recognition of the values of Responsibility and Solidarity has been achieved in many social majorities. Far less utopian, however, is a perspective in which this civilization will register, at latest with the successful development of a vaccine, a further proof of its never-ending optimization potential. The epidemic will then have been a brief interruption, but it will not really call into question the general trend. The old tradition that we humans speak of ourselves as the “mortals” in order to distinguish ourselves from the gods (the “immortals”) will remain forgotten. This article here will remain one of the very few texts in which you briefly appeared again. Once the other crises (climate / biodiversity / world food) will really push themselves into an all-determining foreground (as Covid-19 has been doing for months now), then our descendants will no longer look into an uncertain future as mere “mortales”, but rather as “Morituri” (doomed).
The author expressly is asking for your forbearance for his pessimism.