A Celebrity Philosopher Explains the Populist Insurgency
Peter Sloterdijk has spent decades railing against the pieties of liberal democracy. Now his ideas seem prophetic.
One weekend last June, in an auditorium in the German city of Karlsruhe, the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk celebrated his seventieth birthday by listening to twenty lectures about himself. A cluster of Europe’s leading intellectuals, academics, and artists, along with a smattering of billionaires, were paying tribute to Germany’s most controversial thinker, in the town where he was born and where he recently concluded a two-decade tenure as the rector of the State Academy for Design. There were lectures on Sloterdijk’s thoughts on Europe, democracy, religion, love, war, anger, the family, and space.
There were lectures on his commentaries on Shakespeare and Clausewitz, and on his witty diaries, and slides of buildings inspired by his insights. Between sessions, Sloterdijk, who has long, straw-colored hair and a straggly mustache, prowled among luminaries of the various disciplines he has strayed into, like a Frankish king greeting lords of recently subdued fiefdoms. The academy bookstore was selling most of his books—sixty-odd titles produced over the past forty years. The latest, “After God,” was displayed on a pedestal in a glass cube.
At a dinner in his honor, Sloterdijk surveyed the scene with a Dutch friend, Babs van den Bergh. “Do you think I should read out the letter?” he asked. In his hand was a note from Chancellor Angela Merkel praising his contributions to German culture.
“You really shouldn’t read it,” van den Bergh said.
“It’s not even a good letter, is it?” Sloterdijk said. “It’s so short. She probably didn’t even write it.”
“Of course she didn’t write it,” van den Bergh said. “But you would never get a letter like that in the Netherlands or anywhere else. Someone in her office worked very hard on it.”
Reverence for intellectual culture is waning in much of the world, but it remains strong in Germany. Sloterdijk’s books vie with soccer-star memoirs on the German best-seller lists. A late-night TV talk show that he co-hosted, “The Philosophical Quartet,” ran for a decade. He has written an opera libretto, published a bawdy epistolary novel lampooning the foundation that funds the country’s scientific research, and advised some of Europe’s leading politicians.
Sloterdijk’s colleagues offered encomiums. The architect Daniel Libeskind said that his books have inspired a rethinking of European public space. Bruno Latour, the sociologist and historian of science, apologized for not knowing German, and recited in French a long, droll poem he had written, describing Sloterdijk as a scribe of God. There was a video montage of Sloterdijk’s television appearances across the decades, in which a young blond mystic with arctic-blue eyes and torn sweaters gradually morphed into the burgherly figure before us.
On the second night of the symposium, Sloterdijk and his partner, the journalist Beatrice Schmidt, invited some friends to their apartment, on a stately street next door to a Buddhist meditation center. A picture by Anselm Kiefer of a bomber plane hung in the hallway to the kitchen. In the building’s untamed back garden, Sloterdijk began pouring bottles of white Rhône wine for his guests. There were whispers about the wonders of his cellar. On a small wooden porch, Sloterdijk spoke to two young women about his recent travails while getting his driver’s license renewed. “It’s a complete horror,” he said. “It takes nine hours in Germany. Only your most maniacally loyal friends are willing to go with you.” When Sloterdijk goes into one of his conversational riffs, there is a feeling of liftoff. A rhythmic nasal hum develops momentum and eventually breaks into more ethereal climes, creating the sense that you have cleared the quotidian. “The car is like a uterus on wheels,” he says. “It has the advantage over its biological model for being linked to independent movement and a feeling of autonomy. The car also has phallic and anal components—the primitive-aggressive competitive behavior, and the revving up and overtaking which turns the other, slower person into an expelled turd.”
In Germany, where academic philosophers still equate dryness with seriousness, Sloterdijk has a near-monopoly on irreverence. This is an important element of his wide appeal, as is his eagerness to offer an opinion on absolutely anything—from psychoanalysis to finance, Islam to Soviet modernism, the ozone layer to Neanderthal sexuality. An essay on anger can suddenly plunge into a history of smiling; a meditation on America may veer into a history of frivolity. His magnum opus, the “Spheres” trilogy, nearly three thousand pages long, includes a rhapsodic excursus on rituals of human-placenta disposal. He is almost farcically productive. As his editor told me, “The problem with Sloterdijk is that you are always eight thousand pages behind.”
This profligacy makes Sloterdijk hard to pin down. He is known not for a single grand thesis but for a shrapnel-burst of impressionistic coinages—“anthropotechnics,” “negative gynecology,” “co-immunism”—that occasionally suggest the lurking presence of some larger system. Yet his prominence as a public intellectual comes from a career-long rebellion against the pieties of liberal democracy, which, now that liberal democracy is in crisis worldwide, seems prophetic. A signature theme of his work is the persistence of ancient urges in supposedly advanced societies. In 2006, he published a book arguing that the contemporary revolt against globalization can be seen as a misguided expression of “noble” sentiments, which, rather than being curbed, should be redirected in ways that left-liberals cannot imagine. He has described the Presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as a choice “between two helplessly gesticulating models of normality, one of which appeared to be delegitimatized, the other unproven,” and is unsurprised that so many people preferred the latter. Few philosophers are as fixated on the current moment or as gleefully ready to explain it.
Sloterdijk’s comfort with social rupture has made him a contentious figure in Germany, where stability, prosperity, and a robust welfare state are seen as central to the country’s postwar achievement. Many Germans define themselves by their moral rectitude, as exhibited by their reckoning with the Nazi past and, more recently, by the government’s decision to accept more refugees from the Syrian civil war than any other Western country. Sloterdijk is determined to disabuse his countrymen of their polite illusions. He calls Germany a “lethargocracy” and the welfare state a “fiscal kleptocracy.” He has decried Merkel’s attitude toward refugees, drawn on right-wing thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Arnold Gehlen, and even speculated about genetic enhancement of the human race. As a result, some progressives refuse to utter his name in public. In 2016, the head of one centrist party denounced him as a stooge for the AfD, a new far-right party that won thirteen per cent of the vote in last year’s federal elections.
The rise of the German right has made life more complicated for Sloterdijk. Positions that, at another time, might have been forgiven as attempts to stir debate now appear dangerous. A decade ago, Sloterdijk predicted a nativist resurgence in Europe, a time when “we will look back nostalgically to the days when we considered a dashing populist showman like Jörg Haider”—the late Austrian far-right leader—“a menace.” Now Sloterdijk has found himself in the predicament of a thinker whose reality has caught up with his pronouncements.
The rest of Germany thinks of Karlsruhe, when it thinks of it at all, as a placid city where the Supreme Court is situated. Nestled in the far southwest, where Germany begins to blend into France, Karlsruhe was one of the first planned cities of Europe and an oasis of the Enlightenment. When Thomas Jefferson passed through, in 1788, he sent a sketch of the street plan back home, as a possible template for the layout of Washington, D.C.
The town is also the birthplace of the inventor of the bicycle, an entrepreneurial baron named Karl von Drais—a fact that Sloterdijk, who loves cycling, cherishes. When I met him a few weeks after his birthday celebrations, he suggested riding into town to try a new steak restaurant. He talked about advances in bicycle design, which got him onto one of his favorite topics: inventors. “There are people who are all around us who have invented something essential,” he said. “There’s a man in Germany who invented the retractable dog leash. Can you imagine? Millions of people have them now. Of course, these leashes present an existential threat to me, since I’m an avid cyclist. Sometimes I’m riding fast and there’s an owner over there, and the dog over there, and in between—!”
We embarked. On his bike, Sloterdijk seemed massive. In the light wind, his plaid short-sleeved shirt became a billowing tube. The fusion of man and machine looked top-heavy and precarious, but his pedalling was strikingly efficient, unstrenuous yet powerful. From the chest up, he appeared no different from the way he does in a seminar room.
At the restaurant, Sloterdijk ordered a glass of rosé. I asked him about the German federal elections, which were a few months away.
Sloterdijk spoke disparagingly of all the major parties, except for the F.D.P., Germany’s closest equivalent to libertarians. “The most appealing scenario would be for the F.D.P. to share a coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats,” he said. “They could inject some sense into them.”
Most Germans think of health care, education, and other basic services as rights, not privileges, but the F.D.P. has argued that the country’s welfare state has become hypertrophied, a view close to Sloterdijk’s own. “It creates a double current of resentment,” he said. “You have the people making money who feel no gratitude in return for all they give in taxes. Then you have the people who receive the money. They also feel resentment. They would like to trade places with the rich who give to them. So both sides feel bitterly betrayed and angry.” Sloterdijk argues that taxation should be replaced with a system in which the richest members voluntarily fund great civic and artistic works.
He believes that this kind of social web of happy givers and receivers existed until around the end of the Renaissance but was then obliterated by the rise of the European state. He gets excited about the profusion of philanthropic schemes emanating from Silicon Valley and sees in them an attractive model for the future.
Compared with many other countries in the West, Germany still has a relatively high level of social equality. The Second World War decimated the German aristocracy, and anti-élitist sentiment surged during the protests of 1968, as a generation of German students began to question the bourgeois priorities of their parents. There is a widespread skepticism of unbridled American-style capitalism and consumer culture. German bankers earn a fraction of what their American counterparts do, and avoid ostentation. It is not uncommon for C.E.O.s and C.F.O.s to painstakingly sort through their household recycling on the weekends. People are wary of credit—nearly eighty per cent of German transactions are made in cash—and customers in hardware shops and bakeries pay, with unfathomable diligence, in exact change.
But even in Germany inequality is growing. Sharp hikes in apartment-rental prices in major cities have dissolved neighborhoods and pushed ordinary workers into long commutes. Last year, the government put forward a plan to privatize the Autobahn. Deutsche Bank, once a stolid provincial lender, has transformed itself in the past two decades into a steroidal, Wall Street-style multinational, a leader in the collateralization of debt, and a major creditor of Donald Trump. Hippie beach enclaves on the Baltic Sea have become resorts for trust-funders.
Germany’s embrace of luxury delights Sloterdijk. He believes that it was a historic mistake of the international left to “declare war on the beautiful people,” and welcomes signs that Germans are allowing themselves to take pleasure in extravagance. The proliferation of sleek steak restaurants, such as the one we were in, is but one promising sign among many.
The waiter stopped by our table, and Sloterdijk handed him back his second glass of wine. “Was it not cold?” the waiter asked. “Yes, but I want it colder,” Sloterdijk said. Later, as we got up to leave, the waiter tentatively approached him and asked, “Are you Herr Sloterdijk?” For a second, it seemed as if he was going to kiss his hand.
As we rode our bikes through Karlsruhe, I asked Sloterdijk what he remembered of his childhood. “We lived in another part of town,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ve gone back to visit it, looking for traces, but nothing came back: there was no temps retrouvé! ”
Sloterdijk was born in 1947, part of the generation that Germans call “rubble children”; he remembers playing in the ruins left behind by the Allied bombing campaigns. His mother worked at a radar center during the war, and met his father, a Dutch sailor, after the German collapse. The marriage did not last long, and Sloterdijk lost contact with his father in early youth. “I had to find my own father and mentors, which meant that I had to look in the world around me,” he has said. “Somehow I managed to divide myself into teacher and student.”
Part of the “somehow” involved his mother, who taught him ancient Greek sayings and harbored no doubts about her son’s genius.
When Sloterdijk was a teen-ager, they moved to Munich, where, outside school, he started consuming large amounts of expressionist poetry. In the late nineteen-sixties, he studied literature and philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Munich, where his friend Rachel Salamander, now an editor and the owner of a Jewish-literature bookshop in the city, remembers him as a dazzling presence. “He spoke faster than everyone thought, and wrote faster than they spoke,” she told me. “I was not surprised at all by what he became.”
Sloterdijk pursued a doctorate at the University of Hamburg but received only a middling grade on his dissertation, and, for a while, his academic prospects were uncertain. In 1979, he moved to India, where he studied with the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, near Pune. He says that the greatest discussions of Adorno he ever heard were on the fringes of an ashram there. His time in India led him to challenge many of his intellectual assumptions. “In the German philosophical tradition, we were told that we humans were poor devils,” he said to me. “But in India the message was: we weren’t poor devils, we contained hidden gods!”
In 1983, a few years after his return, Sloterdijk published a thousand-page book that has sold more copies than any other postwar book of German philosophy. The title, “The Critique of Cynical Reason,” seemed to promise a cheeky update of Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” but the book instead delivered a wildly personal polemic about the deterioration of the utopian spirit of 1968 and called for Sloterdijk’s generation to take stock of itself. His peers, as they reached middle age, were pragmatically adjusting to global capitalism and to the nuclear stalemate of the Cold War. He issued a challenge to readers to scour history and art for ways of overcoming social atomization. Punning on Kant’s concept of the thing-in-itself, he asked, “Have we not become the isolated thing-for-yourself in the middle of similar beings?”
The antidote to cynicism, he suggested, was a re-immersion in the heritage of the Cynics of ancient Greece. He looked to the philosopher Diogenes, who rejected the social conventions that governed human behavior and said that people should live instinctively, like dogs. The word “cynic” comes from the Greek kynikos, meaning “doglike,” and Sloterdijk coined the term “kynicism” to differentiate Diogenes’ active assault on prevailing norms from the passive disengagement of the late twentieth century. He celebrated the direct way that Diogenes made his points—masturbating in the marketplace, defecating in the theatre—and suggested that the answer to his generation’s malaise was to repurpose the spontaneous currents of sixties counterculture.
The book caught a moment and made philosophy seem both relevant and fun, beguiling readers with arguments about the philosophical import of breasts and farts. But although it made Sloterdijk’s name, he remained an academic outsider, drifting from post to post for almost a decade. His response was to dismiss those who dismissed him—“Their codes and rituals are reliably antithetical to thought,” he told me—and to forge his reputation instead with articles in magazines and newspapers. He received job offers from America, but it was becoming clear that he was by nature a gadfly—that he and Germany needed each other because they agitated each other so much.
Sloterdijk began picking fights with some of the most renowned members of the German academic establishment, in particular the leftist theorists of the Frankfurt School. “It’s not advisable to go up against Sloterdijk in a public setting,” Axel Honneth, a leading figure of the school, told me. “He wins on points of rhetoric that are in inverse proportion to the irresponsibility of his ideas.” A French-Canadian academic recently produced a diagram of Sloterdijk’s feuds with other German intellectuals; it looks like a trick play in football.
The most notorious episode occurred in 1999, after Sloterdijk published “Rules for the Human Zoo,” an essay about the fate of humanism. Since Roman times, he argued, humanism’s latent message had been that “reading the right books calms the inner beast” and its function was to select a “secret élite” of the literate. Now, in the age of media-saturated mass culture, reading great books had lost its selective function. “What can tame man, when the role of humanism as the school for humanity has collapsed?” he wrote.
Channelling Heidegger and Nietzsche, Sloterdijk imagined an “Über-humanist” who might use “genetic reform” to insure “that an élite is reared with certain characteristics.”
In Germany, where the very word “selection” is enough to set off alarms, Sloterdijk’s essay invited antagonism. Was he making a plea for eugenics? Jürgen Habermas, the country’s most revered philosopher, declared that Sloterdijk’s work had “fascist implications,” and encouraged other writers to attack him.
Sloterdijk responded by proclaiming the death of the Frankfurt School, to which Habermas belongs, writing that “the days of hyper-moral sons of national-socialist fathers are coming to an end.” German intellectuals mostly sided with Habermas, but Sloterdijk emerged from the scuffle with his status considerably enhanced. He was now a national figure who stood for everything that Habermas did not.
Sloterdijk’s professional uncertainties resolved themselves in the early nineties, when his appointment to a prime post at the academy in Karlsruhe gave him the freedom to do whatever he liked. Since then, his newspaper articles and TV appearances have gradually established him as a media celebrity. Over the summer, ordinary Germans who spotted his books in my hands engaged me in conversation on trains, in coffee shops, at universities, and in bookshops. “Sloterdijk creates for his readers the feeling that they are suddenly in possession of the solutions to the greatest problems in philosophy,” the German literary critic Gustav Seibt told me. He also has a strong following among wealthy élites, who value the intellectual patina he provides for their world views. Nicolas Berggruen, a billionaire investor who recently established an annual million-dollar philosophy prize, told me, “Sloterdijk takes on the biggest issues, but in the least conventional ways.”
In the academy, he is still regarded with suspicion. The English philosopher John Gray argued, in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, that, sentence by sentence, much of his output is simply incomprehensible. It’s a common reaction among Anglophone readers, who are often baffled by the scale of his reputation. This is in part because his metaphorical, image-addicted style of philosophy has been in short supply in English since Coleridge. But in Europe it finds a ready audience. His writings, abstruse yet popularizing, have made him an uplifting guru for some and a convenient devil for others—the crucial fact being that he is never ignored. “The most interesting thing about Sloterdijk may not be anything particular he has written,” the Berkeley intellectual historian Martin Jay told me, “but simply the fact that he exists.”
Shortly after the German federal elections in September, I met Sloterdijk for lunch, at a small Italian restaurant in the west of Berlin. “This is a restaurant where Gerhard Schröder used to come,” Sloterdijk told me with satisfaction. The former German Chancellor began inviting Sloterdijk to gatherings of intellectuals in the nineties, when his broadsides against left-leaning public moralists were first winning him a following among conservative and centrist politicians. After our lunch, Sloterdijk was going to see the country’s current President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. I asked if he ever saw Angela Merkel, and he laughed, saying, “She’s got to this point where she exudes the persona of a woman who no longer needs anyone’s advice.”
Since I had last seen Sloterdijk, Merkel and her party, the C.D.U., had pulled off a narrow victory in the federal elections, but major gains achieved by previously marginal parties were making it hard for Merkel to assemble a governing coalition. The leftist party Die Linke had made inroads into the youth vote, recalling the successes of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. The libertarian F.D.P., which Sloterdijk had praised months before, had done well, too, but eventually turned down the opportunity to join Merkel in a coalition government. Overshadowing everything else in the headlines were the advances made by the nationalist AfD.
When I brought up the AfD, Sloterdijk sank his head in his hands, and his expansive manner gave way to something more cautious. For years, the German media have been making connections between Sloterdijk’s thought and new right-wing groups, and he’s become used to rebutting the charge of harboring far-right sympathies. In my conversations with him, his political preoccupations seemed closer to libertarianism than to anything more blood and soil, but he has a habit of saying things that, depending on your view, seem either like dog whistles to the far right or like the bomb-throwing reflexes of a born controversialist.
When Sloterdijk said, of Merkel’s refugee policy, that “no society has the moral obligation to self-destruct,” his words called to mind Thilo Sarrazin, a former board member of the Bundesbank, who, in 2010, published an anti-Muslim tract with the title “Germany Abolishes Itself,” which became a huge best-seller and made racial purity a respectable concern of national discussion.
I asked Sloterdijk about Marc Jongen, a former doctoral student of his who became the AfD’s “party philosopher” and recently took up a seat in the Bundestag. “In a perfect world, you are not responsible for your students,” he said. “But we live in a half-perfect world, and so now people try to pin Jongen to me.” I asked if there was any common ground between him and Jongen, and he replied with an emphatic no, calling Jongen “a complete impostor.” He went on, “He came to the university to study Sanskrit classics like the Upanishads, but then he gave it all up. A political career is the way out for him.” The response was unequivocal, but couched less in terms of moral abhorrence than of professional disdain.
Sloterdijk deplored the rise of the right, but he couldn’t resist seeing something salutary in the spectacle. “It’s been coming for a long time,” he said. “It’s also a sign that Germans are more like the rest of humanity than they like to believe.” He started talking about “rage banks,” his term for the way that disparate grievances can be organized into larger reserves of political capital.
He described this concept in his 2006 book “Rage and Time,” an examination of the loathing of liberal democracy by nativist, populist, anarchic, and terrorist movements. The book follows his usual detour-giddy historical method, comparing political uses of anger, and of related emotions such as pride and resentment, from Homer to the present.
In premodern societies, he argues, vengeance and blood feuds provided ample outlet for these impulses. Later, loyalty to the nation-state performed a similar function, and international Communism managed to direct class rage into utopian projects. But modern capitalism presents a particular problem. “Ever more irritated and isolated individuals find themselves surrounded by impossible offers,” he writes, and, out of this frustrated desire, “an impulse to hate everything emerges.” It was this kind of rage, Sloterdijk believes, that was on display in the riots in the banlieuesof Paris in 2005.
In “Rage and Time,” Sloterdijk writes that the discontents of capitalism leave societies susceptible to “rage entrepreneurs”—a phrase that uncannily foreshadows the advent of Donald Trump. When we spoke about Trump, Sloterdijk explained him as part of a shift in Western history. “This is a moment that won’t come again,” he told me. “Both of the old Anglophone empires have within a short period withdrawn from the universal perspective.” Sloterdijk went so far as to claim that Trump uses fears of ecological devastation in his favor. “The moment for me was when I first heard him say ‘America First,’ ” he said. “That means: America to the front of the line! But it’s not the line for globalization anymore, but the line for resources. Trump channels this global feeling of ecological doom.”
I asked Sloterdijk if there was something specifically American about Trumpism. “You can’t go looking for Trump in Europe,” he told me. “You know, Hegel in his time was convinced that the state in the form of the rule of law had not yet arrived in the new world. He thought that the individual—private, virtuous—had to anticipate the state. You see this in American Westerns, where the good sheriff has to imagine the not-yet-existent state in his own private morality. But Trump is a degenerate sheriff. He acts as if he doesn’t care if the state comes into being or not, and mocks the upright townsfolk. What makes Trump dangerous is that he exposes parts of liberal democracies that were only shadowily visible up until now. In democracies, there is always an oligarchic element, but Trump makes it extremely, comically visible.” For Sloterdijk, Trump’s true significance lies in the way that he instinctively subverts the norms of modern governance. “He’s an innovator when it comes to fear,” Sloterdijk told me. “Instead of waiting for the crisis to impose his decree, his decrees get him the emergencies he needs. The playground for madness is vast.”
The day after our lunch was the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. The city of Wittenberg, half an hour outside Berlin, where Luther had—allegedly—nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of the Castle Church, had suddenly been transformed into something like an American Christian-college campus. Midwesterners and Californians mixed with fellow-pilgrims in squares and outside churches, discussing the doings of St. Paul and debating whether Luther was a monk or a friar. Faux-medieval stalls were selling Reformation souvenirs, including T-shirts that said “Viva la Reformation!” and Luther socks that read “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
Sloterdijk had come to speak at a local Protestant academy about the meaning of the Reformation. “Luther had the great fortune to be followed by Bach,” Sloterdijk told his audience. “His form of individualism was illuminated by the most beautiful music.”
“But he was also followed by Hitler!” a young man in the audience said.
“Hitler was a degraded Papist,” Sloterdijk shot back.
Little by little, the discussion gravitated to assaults on Sloterdijk’s positions. “You sound like the right-wingers when you speak of the refugees,” an elderly doctor stood up and declared. “We cared about refugees after the war and we can do it again.”
Sloterdijk replied impatiently. “The Americans gave us this idea of multiculturalism that suited their society fine, but which, as software, is not compatible with our German hardware of the welfare state,” he said. “There’s this family metaphor spreading everywhere: the idea that all of humanity is our family. That idea helped destroy the Roman Empire. Now we’re in danger of letting that metaphor get out of control all over again. People are not ready to feel the full pressure of coexistence with billions of their contemporaries.” He went on, “In the past, geography created discretionary boundaries between nations and cultures. Distances that were difficult to overcome allowed for mental and political space.” Space and distance, he argued, had allowed for a kind of liberality and generosity that was now under siege—by refugees, by social media, by everything.
At the end of the talk, the faithful of all ages lined up to buy copies of “After God.” The polite chatter momentarily gave way to the brisk ritual of book-signing. Sloterdijk scrawled on the open books offered to him. Bearing a freshly signed copy, a pastor visiting from the Rhineland sympathized with Sloterdijk’s predicament as a salesman. “We become more like America every day,” he told him. “Isn’t it a pity?” ♦
Alan: I voted for John Anderson in 1980 because I was disillusioned with Carter's attempted rescue of American hostages rather than apologize to Iran for Uncle Sam's manipulation of Iranian politics)... and because John Anderson proposed a 50 cent per gallon federal tax hike.
I only wish Trump had raised the tax to at least 50 cents a gallon.
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