When Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? was published during the last days of the Weimar Republic, his tale of economic depression and shattered petit-bourgeois aspirations made him famous in one fell swoop. In the novel, the daily humiliations of Johannes Pinneberg, a precariously employed department-store salesman failing to reach his monthly quota, intersect with specters of a self-cannibalizing working class, Communist radicalism, and rising National Socialist violence. When Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater staged Little Man in January 2016, it was almost impossible to get tickets. I was not surprised. After all, the Turkish-German owner of my local convenience store, a hole-in-the-wall selling newspapers, wine, sweets, and tobacco, had just asked me whether I also had the feeling that we were back in the 1930s.
Little Man is a literary analogue to Antonio Gramsci’s reflection on interregnum, written from within a Fascist prison around the same time: “The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.”1 Interregnum was the term used in ancient Rome to refer to the moment of legal and political in-betweenness that followed the death of the sovereign and preceded the enthronement of his successor. The declaration of interregnum was accompanied by the proclamation of justitium, for it was not only sovereignty but also legality that was suspended. Gramsci brilliantly played with these terms, extending them as he grappled with the generalized crisis of authority in his own time. Old hegemonies were crumbling. The ruling order had lost its capacity to lead through consent. The masses had drifted away from traditional ideologies and toward a structure of feeling that awaited full articulation. The horizon was open.
The rest, as we know, is history.
There was a more recent moment in Germany when the ongoing crisis of the ruling order became painfully apparent, a crisis that pitted cold reason against the pitiful emotions of the Gutmenschen (“do-gooders”), as well as the entire human-rights infrastructure that the world so laboriously built after the horrors of the early twentieth century. This was the moment when Angela Merkel’s now-infamous statement “Wir schaffen das!” (“We can do this!”) was met with refusal, ridicule, and hate. Merkel first uttered these words on August 31, 2015 after speaking about the challenge of integrating Syrian refugees into the country. Suddenly, Merkel switched her register away from somber statesmanship toward that decidedly motherly tone so loved by the millions of Germans who called her Mutti (mommy). Wir schaffen das! Merkel would repeat these three words like a refrain in the following months. They would electrify her supporters, including the refugees who began to hold “Mama Merkel” signs while protesting in Greek camps. They would also be taken up, twisted, reinterpreted, jeered at, and destroyed thousands of times. Some say that these three words are both her legacy and her downfall.
With Wir schaffen das!, Merkel voiced a form of state reason well aware of the challenges refugees posed to the bureaucracy and welfare apparatus. But she also sought to lift spirits and incite a collective affect that would transcend everyday difficulties through something akin to faith. Her motherly words were designed to perform a kind of alchemy whereby a profoundly shaken nation, unsure about what it meant to welcome more than one million Muslim refugees, would find strength and rise to the historical moment.
Almost immediately, journalists, politicians, and bloggers began to end that same sentence with a question mark (Wir schaffen das?) or, more unequivocally, with the negative (Wir schaffen das nicht!; “We can’t manage this!”). Protesters ridiculed her humanitarian gesture. Even the international press argued that Merkel’s refugee policy “didn’t seem to come from the head but the heart.” The approval ratings of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), 85 percent of whose supporters are male, hovered around 4 percent when Merkel first spoke those words. It has since surged to 15 percent in national polls. For the first time since World War II and despite many years of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the process whereby Germany has attempted to cope with its past), a right-wing party is sitting in nine of Germany’s sixteen regional parliaments. “You could say that we are Merkel’s children,” AfD’s leader, Frauke Petry, has said. Indeed, the German interregnum is taking the shape of matricide as Merkel’s approval ratings continue to slide.
This is a time of monsters. What unites them (in contrast to, say, the blatant irrationalities of a Donald Trump) is their reliance on an Enlightenment rationality that rails against the unreason of liberal humanitarian empathy. In early 2016, when thousands of refugees were arriving daily at Germany’s borders, Petry said that police might have to shoot them. Petry likes to flaunt the fact that she has a PhD in chemistry, particularly when humiliating critics by pointing out that their hypotheses are wrong. A monster speaking with the voice of reason, not the heart; science, not pathos; realism, not faith or idealism. Just across the border in Austria, the right-wing presidential hopeful Norbert Hofer is similarly campaigning with the slogan Stimme der Vernunft (Voice of Reason).
Like the monstrous Enlightenment described by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (2002, 89) so long ago, we see reason rising like a “chemical agent” that “absorbs the individual substance of things and volatilizes them in the mere autonomy of reason.” This is a fascism inhabiting the lexicon of practical reason: an illiberal politics ventriloquizing the liberal language of Vernunft—“We can’t let everyone in!” It is destroying the very infrastructures of compassion that Europe and the world built after World War II: the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, and so on. This return of reason as chemical agent means corroding—and possibly undoing—what no one ever dreamed would become so volatile, so fast.
1. Here, I quote a liberal translation of Gramsci popularized by Slavoj Žižek (2010), which renders “In this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear” as “Now is the time of monsters.”
Adorno, Theodor W., and Max Horkheimer. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Verso. Originally published in 1947.
Žižek, Slavoj. 2010. “A Permanent Economic Emergency.” New Left Review, no. 64.