1989 – 25 years later. Cathérine Hug interviews Robert Menasse (III part)
Part III of the interview with Robert Menasse.
Catherine Hug (CH): In the meantime, a whole post-1989 generation has grown up, a generation that knows about the time of the Cold War and a bipolar world-order only through stories. These narratives and depictions are generally ideologically biased. Nostalgia, frustration and fatalism, as well as hope, can be found in the implementation of new perspectives. Do you agree with me that young people today think more freely? And that they might have learnt to cope better with what is foreign to them? At the same time, I have the impression – but maybe I am wrong - that we, especially young people, are more apolitical. Where does this come from? However, I want to hold against this assertion the visionary power of initiatives such as the Occupy movement on Wall Street and the demonstrations on Taksim Square or, more recently, in Ukraine. As different as they might be, what is their common denominator, what do they reveal about our understanding of democracy?
Robert Menasse (RM): First of all, I have to clear up a misunderstanding that appears repeatedly. One can no longer split a society into generations with regard to social awareness, social discourse, way of thinking, political behavior, et cetera. If we take a transient picture of how a society works as a collective, what unites it and what kind of contradictions prevail within it, then at this moment, all living people are contemporaries, no matter how old the individual is. Contemporaneity establishes itself in living beings as a whole, and not in dates of birth. If I, as a sixty-year-old, encounter a thirty-year-old, he might belong to another generation, but basically we are both equally characterized by what is impressed upon us by contemporary conditions, much more than by the erstwhile experiences that I might have had due to my greater age and that the other person has not had. Expressed very primitively, I am influenced by the smartphone culture to the very same degree as someone who has never experienced telephone booths. This is also the reason why age no longer necessarily commands respect, as it did in the olden days, when age meant many years of experience with respect to problems which young people also faced, as nothing really changed except for the seasons, and even they don’t change, they just alternate. This means that when I meet a thirty year-old, I as an adult encounter an adult, and we could both be dead tomorrow, even him, though he would not have lived as long. We are both inherently the same: contemporaries. That’s also why we cannot say that young today think more freely, or that they are more apolitical, or whatever. There are older people thinking more freely, and older people who are completely apolitical; this does not even depend on class consciousness any more. There are younger people from privileged families who are solidary, and working-class children who know no solidarity when it comes to fighting for their workplace. There are all kinds of things, but if it can be integrated into a description of contemporary zeitgeist, it has to do with today and not with age. Admittedly, it is true that the Erasmus-generation has opportunities and experiences that the older generation could barely dream of, but that is unfortunately a minority, and no politicians who check their slogans via opinion-polls would let themselves be guided by that. So if we want to understand ourselves in our contemporaneity, then the question of why younger people today are in part apolitical and whether that has something to do with the fact that they did not experience ’89, is completely nonsensical. There are younger people who are not apolitical and there are older people who experienced ’89 who are apolitical.
The truth is that the applicable parameters have changed again since 1989, and these new parameters are the pegs between which everyone today, both young and old, has to move and find their bearings. Younger people did not experience ’89, well yes, but for older people, the experience of ’89 vanished just as quickly as the time when they did not yet have cellphones. My daughter, for example, speaks five languages and has studied and lived in three different European cities. That is representative of today’s possibilities, but definitely not of her generation. That’s what I mean. The question of what might be typical for a generation is relatively insignificant to me; I have the impression that what is typical for our contemporaneity is typical for all generations, roughly speaking. And, bearing in mind all individual exceptions, that is the backlash of renationalization, the curse of the lucky year of 1989.
CH: Okay, then please forgive me my slightly naïve interjection concerning the generation question. Anyhow, one also speaks of youth mania nowadays. In cultural production, for example, everything has an extremely short half-life – partly artificially created, but partly because it has not historically evolved. Careers are short, memories fade… That is, of course, not the fault of the producers per se, but of an overheated art market, so maybe something similar is happening on the book market. A friend of mine, who is an author, recently told me how frustrating it can be to spend two or more years writing a novel, which is quickly out of date, if significant commercial success does not follow or no acknowledging prices are recorded. Something comparative is happening in fine art: young artists today concentrate far more on being well placed in the art market early on; unfortunately this mainly happens at the expense of creative ideas, as they are too keen to satisfy the market. That’s why free art spaces are so important as a counterbalance! In my previous remark, I might have wanted to create an analogy between this cultural phenomenon and the superordinate society. Obviously, it is not that easy to do this.
RM: Yes, for a simple reason: the “youth mania” which exists today is without a doubt a societal phenomenon. It is not a generational phenomenon. Your examples show that young people today have no advantages, even though youth has become a fetish. This fetish is not recognition of the self-evident beauty and strength of youth, but a lever forcing older people to somehow stay young in order to function and be needed. The sweat in fitness centers and the blood on the operating tables of plastic surgeons are the sweat and blood of the war of markets. Turbo-capitalism demands the faster reproduction of the capital invested, the product has to be fresh, the profits easily disposable. Man himself enters the market as a product, the art market too… But I was originally driving at something else.
CH: Yes, you mentioned the curse of the lucky year of 1989. What do you mean by that?
RM: 1989 was not only the opening of the Berlin Wall. 1989 also represented the beginning of the developments which quickly led to German reunification. At that time, as I have already said, everything was possible; however, the fall of the Berlin Wall, as if on an inclined plain, led unstoppably and almost unopposed to reunification and the national rebirth of Germany, as if there were no alternative. National rebirth! And that took place in the midst of the post-national development of Europe via the EU and the internal market. The train of history had, after all, been driving in a completely different direction for four decades. Now, the redemption of German trauma could take place and the liberation of all the misfortunes and crimes connected with the history of the German nation-building process. All of a sudden, the German nation stood there great and proud. And this fact, that there had actually been a misunderstanding, became completely lost in the initial euphoria: the world was celebrating the liberation of the people; Germany, however, was celebrating the liberation of a nation. And today, Germany is what the EU was founded to oppose, namely a leading power in Europe. This is rooted deep in the heart of Europe, knowingly or unknowingly, but in any case as an enduring political rage. The Germans have demonstrated that re-nationalization is a concept which can lead to success. And even if Germany honestly and sensibly seeks European policy solutions in some key issues, the reactionary and national forces in Europe are becoming stronger, as is the impetus for German nationalism. CH: And in Hungary, of all countries, where 25 years ago there was significant hope for the future of Europe, the most reactionary forces in Europe are in power today! And recently in Switzerland, the question arose of whether the free movement of people should be regulated within nation states –contrary to all the fundamental principles of the EU and the law of nations; this was unfortunately (although admittedly narrowly) accepted by the people. As a citizen of that country, this is a decision I deeply regret. Although democracy in this specific case openly displays its shortfalls, what would be the alternative? How responsible are neighboring states and what measures and initiatives could particularly creative artists use to participate actively in the process of redefining democracy?
RM: Yes, those are the misunderstood consequences of 1989 and also the pragmatic preconditions we have to deal with today. What should be done now and what artists can do, are two different questions. Artists accompany the process, knowingly or unknowingly, no matter how history develops. But it obviously matters how history develops further. What is necessary now, in my opinion, in the light of recent experiences in Switzerland, Hungary, the Crimean, etc., is in fact a new definition of democracy, the liberation of the perception that democracy has to express and defend national sovereignty, and that personal happiness thus depends on national pride and the enforcement of national stubbornness.
The world long ago became a transnational entity, as nothing of any importance can still be regulated within or stopped at national borders. We have transnational economic processes and financial currents, markets, investments and repayments of profits, everything functions transnationally, there is no such thing as a national economy anymore, ecological problems don’t stop at borders, streams of information, including their downsides such as surveillance, cultural exchanges, everything is completely without boundaries; all this can be handled and configured for the purposes of public welfare only through the development of a transnational democracy. 1989 was, and remains, the year that stood for an epoch change. But 2014/15 will be an even more important date, as it will have to result in a decision. Do you know what is strange? Centuries take a further one and a half decades to really die. In 1814/15, the 18th century died with the Congress of Vienna. In 1914, the 19th century died.
And in 2014/15, the 20th century, the century shaped by the criminal energy of nationalism and its consequences, will have to die. And if it does not die now, it will be the fault of world-history.
CH: Thank you for this conversation, Robert Menasse!
This is the last part of the interview.