Adaptation, not fossilization

Two responses to the ‘refugee crisis’

The ethno-nationalist response to immigration entrenches the very alienation that it purports to overcome. In order to escape inertia and rejuvenate our societies, what we need instead is a politics of adaptation, argues sociologist Hartmut Rosa.

Yes, it’s true. If we let refugees in and engage with them, they will change us; we will be transformed and, before long, we will no longer be the same, we will be different people! It would therefore most definitely be wrong to argue that the refugee question does not represent a challenge for our society. And yet to acknowledge this is by no means to imply that the correct strategy for dealing with this issue is to dismiss the challenge as far as possible or to trivialize it.

In this essay I would like to outline two strategic responses. The first is the ethnocentric response advocated by rightwing populists: it is geared towards forms of conflict resolution that seek amalgamation along lines of (national) identity. This is in my opinion a misguided response that attempts, as best it can, to keep at bay what is foreign and different, what forces us to change, and to keep it as far away as possible; essentially, to render oneself culturally rigid and inflexible. In the process, this approach fails to recognize that it is precisely this attitude that leads to a sclerotic relationship with the world, one that inevitably prompts feelings of alienation.

This is why I would like to propose a second way of dealing with the challenge, one that is not ethnocentric but that aims to create a space in which people and cultures can encounter one another through dialogue in a way that enables resonance. One valuable source of inspiration for this kind of approach can be found in the observations on multiculturalism that the Canadian social philosopher Charles Taylor made in the 1980s and 1990s, and that he reaffirms in his latest studies.1 Given that they emerged in the context of debates about Canada’s cultural unity and diversity, Taylor’s conclusions cannot simply be transposed directly onto the situation we face today. That said, it is clear – and here the Canadian example can serve as evidence – that the celebration of diversity and difference alone is insufficient to overcome our present challenges. For this to be achieved, a renewed process must ensue of adapting to a world that to those involved has apparently become alien.

I would therefore like to conclude by combining my discussion of this second strategic response with a cautious practical suggestion about linking refugee policy to infrastructure policy. This suggestion aims to overcome alienation and to foster a vigorous, non-regressive form of democratic solidarity that allows actors to see themselves as political subjects in their own right.

More of the same: The rightwing populist response to alienation

The findings of a recently published study by sociologist Arlie R. Hochschild convey in just a few words what large parts of the American population feel, a sentiment that seems to be shared by many in Germany and, indeed, the rest of Europe: the feeling of being ‘strangers in their own country’.2 In both Europe and the United States, very similar political responses to this sentiment can be seen. Just as Hochschild observes overwhelming support among her interviewees for the Tea Party movement and for the messages of politicians such as Donald Trump, who at the time of the study was still a candidate for the US presidency, similarly disaffected citizens in Germany also feel drawn to parties and movements such as the ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ (AfD) or Pegida (‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West’), which argue for closed borders and isolationism and demand strict assimilation from new immigrants. Recent political developments in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and also in Austria, France and the Netherlands, seem to point in the same direction, regardless of the differences between each national context. But what causes the formation of these new political preferences?

To answer this question, we have to explore the underlying relationships these people have with the world; I tried to lay the groundwork for this task in my book Resonance: A Sociology of the Relationship to the World.3 The basic conviction, often more felt than articulated, behind the attraction people feel to Pegida, AfD and others, can be described more or less as follows: ‘This is our country. We want to be who we are and stay that way. We understand our homeland to be the embodiment of the idea that nothing can or should change. We do not want any strangers here or any ideas that are not our own, any customs that we do not know, any people who look different or live differently. We reject everything that is different, be it religious belief, sexual orientation, political conviction, appearance or the way people pray, speak and celebrate – or to be precise, we want to drive it out.’

What is expressed in this attitude is a sclerotic relationship with the world. When people perceive the world around them, the world they encounter, as a combat zone to be viewed at best with indifference but more often with hostility – a world in which their own position was always precarious anyway – they see the vital, the foreign, the strange that confront them as a danger and a threat. Indeed, their own very real experience has led them to associate change above all with decadence and decline.4 This kind of relationship with the world can indeed be encapsulated, in a more far-reaching philosophical sense than Hochschild’s purely semantic usage suggests, in the concept of alienation: alienated people shun contact with others because they perceive in such contact a danger that they may be harmed. They lack the experience of being in control of their own destiny that would allow them to engage in open and active dialogue with the unfamiliar – be it a person, an idea or an architectural expression in the form of a minaret – a dialogue that may even enable them to assimilate these new experiences in a self-transformative way.5 Their relationship with the world is precarious and rebarbative, they feel unheard, unseen, isolated and voiceless in an indifferent or even threatening environment, where the most important thing is, as far as possible, to keep this world at bay. The Other, the vital, the young, the intangible must not affect them, either physically or spiritually, let alone transform them. The more disillusioned and depressed, the more alienated people feel, the more drastic becomes their craving for a strategy of immurement. The world that seems a threat to them must be kept at a distance and their relationships with it reduced to a minimum.

This relationship to the world is superimposed onto the refugee crisis: the figure of the refugee appears to be the reason for one’s own alienation from the world. Consequently, the recent success of rightwing populists and far-right parties and movements throughout the European continent and beyond is hardly surprising. Where parties such as the AfD (Alternative for Germany) in Germany, the PiS (Law and Justice) in Poland, the SPO (Party of Civic Rights) in the Czech Republic, the Front National in France, the Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party of Freedom) in the Netherlands and the FPÖ (Freedom Party) in Austria all converge is their repressive and at times racist refugee policies, which are geared towards the radical exclusion of foreigners. This is the ‘essence of their brand’, and it is no coincidence that this is also the key to Donald Trump’s success. Foreigners and their ways are to be kept out with walls and fences – and if necessary with mines and guns. Rightwing populists in all countries, it seems, know exactly how to profit from this rampant sense of alienation. Even where rightwing populists are not (yet) in power, government policies have eagerly picked up on this supposed patent recipe; as a result, the dominant images in the media’s political coverage are of border walls and barbed wire fences.6 They are expressions of the urge to stop the world from surging in, to shut out the vital, intangible Other – by force if necessary.

It could be said that these rightwing populist movements have reacted astutely to an existing sense of unease. They appeal to the basic promise of democracy to give individuals a voice by vowing to ensure that they can be heard and acknowledged in the public sphere. We need only think of Donald Trump, who in one of his election rallies promised, to tumultuous cheers, to fight for the citizens who had been ignored and made irrelevant, ending his speech with the slogan ‘I am your voice!’ The Brexit campaign promised to return political control to the people in a similar fashion. And indeed, such promises do give rise to something like hope that this alienation can be overcome, that there is a way out of this fossilization.7

Except that the political objective that these movements pursue undermines this hope in two senses: fossilization and alienation can be overcome only when we can allow ourselves to be addressed and touched by other voices, and to respond in turn with our own voice. Indeed, we can only hear, develop and realize the full scope of our own voice when in dialogue with others. It is precisely these other voices that populist rightwing movements want to exclude, silence, ban or shout down. Sure enough, the logical consequence is that each individual voice cannot be properly heard. Rightwing populism promises (or aspires to) convergence in a homogeneous ‘national whole’, in which the voice of the people is an undifferentiated, identical, single voice – ‘our’ voice. Instead of resonance between two or more individual voices, each with its own nuance, there is an echo chamber: the same thing must be heard everywhere and must echo back, greatly amplified. The Trumps, Höckes, Haiders, Wilders et al. thrive on this vision of noisy fusion into collective harmony, which is to replace silent fossilization. The price is high: not only must everything that is different or deviant be excluded, silenced or even annihilated, but every change, every development, every dynamic and ultimately every vital encounter – and thus life itself – must be ruled out. The populist rightwing response to the problem of alienation in capitalist late modernity amounts to another fatal variant of the strategy of more of the same.

A collective project: For a democratic policy of adaptation

If the premises of the (populist rightwing) diagnosis outlined above are fundamentally wrong, then the proposed response to the diagnosis is also flawed. Because if we go on the defensive and try to shut ourselves off from the world and what it says to us, we fall prey to a fatal misapprehension. The outward and inward building of walls – to put in simple terms what I spelled out in more detail in my theory of ‘resonance’ – ultimately destroys every chance of successfully relating to the world. In this way anything that could overcome voicelessness, a lack of resonance and the hardening of attitudes, anything that could reinvest the community with dynamism and life, is excluded and driven out. This is the bitter irony of the situation we currently face: in order to overcome alienation, a politics of adaptation is needed, or rather, a form of politics that creates the conditions for the possibility of adaptation – and yet adaptation is not, at present, a stance that is politically viable.

‘Adaptation’ here means being open to different things and, in the process, to change – not simply passively, in the sense of being affected, but actively too, in the experience of reaching out to the ‘other’ and transforming it so that it can become one’s own. I argue that individual and collective ways of being in the world are successful when people enter into resonance with the world; which means, when they are open to encounters and contact with other people and things that are unfamiliar, whose own voice they are willing to hear and to understand and which, at the same time, they are able to answer to with their own voice, allowing for a relationship based on listening and responding. This kind of resonant relationship presupposes an openness to the world that inevitably entails vulnerability. To engage in such an encounter, one must have no fear of being offended, and be sufficiently confident in being able to assert oneself, so that one can make one’s voice heard in a dialogue and not lose it.8 Yet these very preconditions are conspicuous by their absence in Europe at the moment, and this is precisely what underlies the supposed attractiveness of the rightwing populists promise. The populist diagnosis is simplistic; the pathic projection (as Horkheimer and Adorno called it) of the cause of alienation onto encounters with foreigners is not only counterproductive but dangerous and repellent. The true cause is to be found in the constitution of a dynamically stabilizing modernity that etches its imperatives of growth and acceleration, of perpetual innovation and individualization via a ruthless principle of competition onto people’s hearts and minds. Modernity, by its very nature, demands a materialistic attitude towards the world.9 Its subjects can never be sure of their ‘place’ or of their position in the world. They do not live in resonant, but in alienated relationships to the world: they experience the political, as well as the social, world (or environment) as indifferent or hostile.

Taking all this into consideration, it might make sense at first glance to suppose that the unreasonable demands which everyday life makes on people to be flexible can only be overcome if the infrastructure of life remains stable, and if one’s neighbours do not start speaking different languages and observing different festivals. Globalization, in the sense of the unrestrained acceleration of flows of currencies, capital and commodities, does indeed produce losers, particularly among those who are settled and less flexible. So it is understandable if these people are up in arms against ‘globalization’. But in taking the populist rightwing approach, they are operating on the wrong level: they fight changes in their lifeworld even when such changes make sense and, worse still, they fight foreign people who themselves are often victims of these same processes. With this kind of structural conservatism we encourage and perpetuate the motors of the very processes we condemn. To blame refugees responsible for these changes is to collude in this conflation of different levels.

On the contrary, I would like to make the case that refugees represent possibly our last great chance to overcome alienation, to escape fossilization and to rejuvenate ourselves. Refugees have the potential to loosen those very structures that have become sclerotic. Through and in them we encounter the voice of a foreigner, of an Other, that can prompt us to become conscious once again of our own voice, to give expression to it and, by both listening and responding, to transform ourselves. But how could such a positive change be conceived in practical and political terms?

If we take these considerations of ‘resonance’ seriously, then there can be no collaborative project that aims at democratic coexistence based on mutual respect, where all are equal before the law, if a dominant culture of the majority is imposed that all other groups have to assimilate to, as is being called for today in many quarters. This is the first and most important condition. Contrary to a CDU election slogan of 1957 (‘No Experiments’), and very much in the spirit of John Dewey, the key is now, more than ever, to ‘dare to experiment’. Very much in the spirit of Charles Taylor, we need to proactively ask the question of how we should live together in solidarity.10 But what might a political project that takes this basic agenda as its starting point involve? Although hopes for a universal remedy are always illusory, observations made in the context of the multiculturalism debate of the early 1990s could still be a valuable source of inspiration to enrich our current debates on these issues.11 The way we treat refugees today, albeit under completely different circumstances, demands a clarification of the legal, political and philosophical questions that arise from the coexistence of different cultures within one community. Charles Taylor’s early discussion of the nature of dialogue-based societies could also turn out to be groundbreaking in the pursuit of a creative, solidarity-based answer to our present-day challenges – societies, that is to say, that are characterized not only by their tolerance of diversity and difference, but by their very acceptance of such diversity as an asset.12 Differences, Taylor argues, need not be suppressed or eliminated in a dialogue-based society, because they do not represent a threat to people’s own identities or should not be perceived as such.

© Lisa Neuhalfen

In order for this feeling of togetherness to flourish, and so that society does not collapse into a mosaic of ghettos – a collapse provoked in the first instance by an indifferent or even hostile attitude towards the Other – we ultimately require nothing short of a cultural and institutional paradigm shift. This would create the foundation for a relationship to the world that incorporates listening and enables resonance in equal measure. If we do not wish to limit ourselves to the mere celebration of diversity and difference, a number of pressing institutional questions immediately arise. To conclude, I would like to propose the outline of a solution, one that could open up a way out of the muddled situation we currently face and that seems to me to have some potential for success, particularly given my observations on the theory of resonance.

If we view the breeding ground for populist rightwing propaganda from a socio-geographical perspective, we can see that the consequences of dynamic globalization discussed above tend to be noticeable especially in rural areas that have been affected, not to say devastated by it – in towns and villages where there is often a shortage of young people, dynamism, entrepreneurial spirit and daring. And yet all of these qualities are in abundance among the vast majority of young people who come to us, or want to. They are seen as a threat as long as they are perceived as an anonymous, faceless mass on the one hand, and as yet another political imposition on the other: ‘Every village must show solidarity and accept some refugees’ is the political message currently used to encourage acceptance. It is little wonder that this message is not understood as an opportunity.

What needs to be done in light of this is twofold: first, the new arrivals must have a name and a face. They must be known to established residents in advance by name, origin, and perhaps even with a picture: they would then no longer be nameless and faceless, without a history, but would have a face and a story. Second, their arrival should not exclusively signal ‘costs and sacrifices’ but should imply hope, a new start, and in a very real sense. It should go hand in hand with a tangible infrastructure programme that, in return for communities accepting a certain number of new residents, guarantees the maintenance and development of their own infrastructure. ‘If you are prepared to take in, let’s say, five refugee families, you will keep your school and your nursery, we will guarantee the maintenance of the bus line and the local bank, of the doctor’s surgery and of the chemist’s and improvements to roads. And the newcomers will no doubt be very happy to run the local shop.’ Combining refugee policy with infrastructure policy in this way would certainly be expensive. But both need to be done anyway and, in this way, both would have a future and even potential for improvement.

What’s more: in resolving the common challenge of finding suitable accommodation and meaningful employment for the newcomers, paid for through the structural programme, the emerging village community would have a collective focus and a purpose that could foster hope and a new community spirit. Realistically, this might involve temporary restrictions on freedom of movement, after a period of getting to know one another it becomes clear whether the newcomers are sufficiently happy in their new home and community and can even identify with it, so that a common path for the future can be assured in the medium term. The emergence of a community not through tradition and ancestry but through democratic participation in a collective project – this has always been the underlying idea behind political republicanism and the progressive communitarianism that Taylor also espoused. It entails that participants in such a project change the way they think and act and so transform themselves in the pursuit of a common good. This common good – such is the hope that inspires these ideas – would be the realization of democratic politics as a vital sphere of resonance, of reciprocal exchange, whose modus operandi consists not in fighting to get one’s way, but in an outspoken, confident and self-transformative process of listening and responding.


Cf. for example Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism and ‘The Politics of Recognition’, edited and introduced by Amy Gutman, Princeton University Press, 1992; and also Taylor’s Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993; also Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor, ‘Building the future; Time for Reconciliation’, Government of Quebec, 2008.

Arlie R. Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, The New Press, 2016; Hartmut Rosa, ‘Fremd im eigenen Land?’ (‘Strangers in their own country?’), Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 20 April 2015, 6.

Hartmut Rosa, Resonanz: Eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung, Suhrkamp/Insel, 2016; English translation forthcoming from Polity.

Cf. Oliver Nachtwey, Die Abstiegsgesellschaft: Über das Aufbegehren in der regressiven Moderne [‘Downward Mobility: Dissent in the age of regressive modernity’], Suhrkamp, 2016.

On the distinction between appropriation, in the sense of ‘bringing under control’ and ‘making subject to the power of disposition’, and incorporation, as a form of engagement whereby an encounter (with a person, but also for example with a book, a piece of music, a landscape or a way of life) leads to a kind of transformation, cf. Rosa, Resonanz.

Cf., for a discussion of the aspects of political theory here, Wendy Brown, Walled States – Waning Sovereignty, MIT, 2014.

Cf., for a political theory of alienation that, in a nuanced fashion, also sounds out the possibilities of a political reappropriation of a world perceived to be alienated, Paul Sörensen, Entfremdung als Schlüsselbegriff einer kritischen Theorie der Politik: Eine Systematisierung im Ausgang von Karl Marx, Hannah Arendt und Cornelius Castoriadis [‘Alienation as a key concept in a critical theory of politics: A systematization following Karl Marx, Hannah Arendt and Cornelius Castoriadis’], Nomos, 2016.

On this cf. my detailed explanations in Rosa, Resonanz, Part I.

Cf. Hartmut Rosa, Klaus Dörre and Stephan Lessenich, “Appropriation, Activation and Acceleration: The Escalatory Logics of Capitalist Modernity and the Crises of Dynamic Stabilization”, in Theory, Culture & Society 34, no. 1 (2017): 53–73.

This question takes on a constant and central significance in Taylor’s entire œuvre, as is convincingly demonstrated in Ulf Bohmann (ed.), Wie wollen wir leben? Das politische Denken und Staatsverständnis von Charles Taylor [‘How do we want to live? Charles Taylor’s political thought and his concept of the state’], Nomos, 2014.

Besides Taylor (footnote 1), it is worth referencing the work of Will Kymlicka, for example his book Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, Clarendon Press, 1995.

Cf. Charles Taylor, The Patterns of Politics, McClelland & Stewart, 1970; and for further discussion Hartmut Rosa, Identität und kulturelle Praxis: Politische Philosophie nach Charles Taylor [‘Identity and Cultural Experience: Political Philosophy after Charles Taylor’], Campus, 1998, 464 ff.

Published 14 July 2017
Original in German
Translated by Saul Lipetz
First published by Mittelweg 36 2/2017

Contributed by Mittelweg 36 © Harmut Rosa / Mittelwag 36 / Eurozine



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