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Johannes Angermueller

Germany’s “European European” turn: The public sphere between hegemony and power


In this paper I will discuss the question how power comes into play with the hegemonic constitution of a public sphere. While for some theorists the public sphere designates a corrective to the wielding of brute power, I propose that the public sphere and power have to be thought as the flip sides of one and the same discursive phenomenon. This paper will consist of two parts: In the first part I will trace the formation of an anti-war hegemony in Germany’s political public sphere in the summer of 2002. The second part will shed some thought on the question of how a global system of military power and capital might give rise to hegemonic resistance and to post-national public spheres.

Western Germany’s foreign policy has had a long tradition of “Westintegration”, the post-war policy giving priority to the alliance with Western countries under American leadership. During the last national election campaign in summer 2002, however, a major shift took place. In refusing the American war plans against Iraq, the Schröder government decided to help establish an anti-war majority in the U.N. security council. Not only did the German government’s move prepare the way for an anti-war hegemony on the global level; it also rearticulated the hegemonic constitution of German domestic politics.

The German government’s decision not to align with the American strategy has triggered a whole series of new hegemonic articulations, which against all odds led to a victory at the polls in September 2002. Up to early August the red-green government's chances of winning the looming elections seemed more than bleak. Not only the economic downturn, but the fragile hegemonic position were sapping the government's chances of success. After four years in power and with no more convincing political projects in the pipeline social-democracy and the green movement had lost much of their hegemonic profile. The surprise of the preceding elections, when for the first time in modern German history a government without liberal or conservative participation was swept to power, seemed highly unlikely to take place again.

The government's sudden decision in late July 2002 not to support the American war effort turned out to be the turning point of this unusual campaign. Even though a few voices had been heard during the 1990s which expressed their criticism of America's dominant role after the cold war, the post-war pro-American consensus was still shared by all major political parties. In the government's first year Schröder's attempt at forging a special tie with Blair's New Labor, certain tensions with the Jospin government and the rapid dismission of Oskar Lafontaine gave every reason to expect an even closer German approach towards the Anglo-American sphere. At this time everything pointed to a distinctively pro-American attitude which was a hallmark of the generation now in power. 

With George W. Bush's presidency, however, things began to change. A series of conflicts between the German (or European) and the American governments - such as over the presidency of the IMF and the World Bank, the Kyoto convention, and the Hague tribunal - cooled down the government's pro-American orientation. Finally, the resolution of the Bush administration to lead a war on the basis of feeble evidence and against international law forced the government to take sides. The decision not to enter the coalition of the willing has started a whole process of hegemonic articulation and rearticulation - a process which is still far from having terminated.

The anti-war hegemony which has been built in the aftermath of the government's decision comprises far more than the “anti-imperialist” stance of the traditional far left and the far right. A great deal of heterogeneous elements have been articulated as a result of the German-American conflict: The unionist criticism of American-style capitalism, both old and new supporters of an international legal and political order (epitomized by the Hague tribunal), pacifist movements (especially dominant in Eastern Germany and among Christians), “nationalist” calls for a “German foreign policy” (which Schröder has labeled “Deutscher Weg”), defenders of democracy and civil rights (who, amongst others, have cast into doubt the democratic legitimacy of the Bush presidency), supporters of a strong German army, NGOs and Third World activists, the ecological agenda (after Bush’s refusal of the Kyoto convention), intellectual voices (e.g. Günter Grass), the adherents of an independent European voice - all these elements have formed a new “hegemonic bloc” and have become identified with Germany's official position in foreign affairs. In an unexpected way, the government’s hegemonic repositioning has articulated discursive elements widely dispersed on the political spectrum so as to give a boost to a well-nigh defunct red-green hegemony and to lead to Schröder’s unexpected electoral success in September 2002.

The common narrative has it that the hegemonic mobilization of the public sphere in Germany as well as in other countries has emerged as a counter-force against the wielding of brute political, economic or military power. But especially in this case things seem to be more complicated than that. Contrary to the view that takes the formation of an anti-war hegemony as a result of “freely deliberating people”, power will be seen as being at the very heart of the hegemonic constitution of the public sphere. For how could the constitution of an anti-war hegemony have been possible without the looming prospect of global military domination? Is not the anti-war hegemony the consequence of the enaction of this new system of military power? From a Laclauian point of view this may not come as a surprise since it can be argued that a hegemonic system of differences always presupposes something which blocks its full constitution - a constitutive outside which cannot be represented as such within the system while being necessary for its constitution. Seen from this angle, the hegemonic transformation of summer 2002 has articulated the coming into existence of a new constitutive outside of the public sphere in Germany. After the demise of real socialism, a globally operating power system seems to be taking the vacant place of the Big Other of public discourse. This power system has given rise to new hegemonies all over the globe, and the German case can illustrate how power is at work with these new hegemonies.

If we accept the Foucauldian view that power is not a zero-sum game which is distributed between those who have it and those who don't, power has to be seen as something which is both inside and outside discourse: it is outside discourse since it blocks the full constitution of the system, and it is inside since it is that which makes discursive practice possible. Military power is antagonistic to the hegemonic bloc precisely in the sense that it is a constitutive outside which makes hegemonic resistance possible in the first place. Power strives not only for the legitimation of its practices; it also produces the practices of hegemonic resistance. Thus the government's hegemonic move can be seen as a product of power: Given the looming war the government at the time is not free not to take sides. Power comes into play just when some discursive event has to take place - whatever its content and be it a decision or a "non-decision". Power does not determine the outcome of hegemonic articulations, rather it makes possible and forces into being hegemonic articulations which are nevertheless irreducibly contingent. Power does not operate on the structural level of the system of differences; rather it produces discursive events which can then be appropriated by the individuals entering the discourse. Power does not realize a given will or project; rather it makes contingent events take place. 

With the American government preparing a new world order by means of political pressure and military force, the Schröder government couldn't but take a decision. It is in this sense that we can say with Butler that power produces subjectivity - a subjectivity which does not limit the irreducible contingency of the discursive event. It is by assuming the contingent character of the event, that the individuals entering the discourse turn into subjects. 

In the German case, the hegemonic negotiations have conjured up what might be called a European European subjectivity. This subjectivity effect has renewed the illusion of "coherence" and "unity" of the existing red-green hegemonic formation and helped to articulate new elements, e.g. nationalist, Christian and Eastern German discursive positions.

As soon as the elections and the war were over the high hegemonic profile of the government rapidly began to unravel again. Nevertheless, the government's refusal of the war has left a permanently rearticulated discursive space. Germany's public sphere is now divided between a European European Left and a vaguely pro-American Right. Thus every future hegemonic articulation will have to be inscribed into this new antagonism, whose constitutive outside is no longer designated by the specter of Communism but by the specter of a global power system. 
To conclude I wonder what the future development could look like. In my view, the two major questions will be 1) whether the new European European subjectivity will be confirmed or dismantled in coming hegemonic conflicts and 2) whether the European European subjectivity will replace European nation state ideologies or will lead to something altogether different. The fact that the European European subjectivity has been articulated in the name of international law seems to point to the latter. Far from giving birth to another nation state subjectivity European Europeanism may suggest that the contours of some thoroughly new, postnational legal and institutional framework are being under construction.

However, it remains to be seen whether the European project of a globalized legal order and global civil society is not just some parasitical other of the current global power system. Or, to speak in the terms of deconstruction, it is not yet clear whether it is multilateral legalism – the European position – which will subvert the unipolar power system or whether it will be the American position which will undermine the European position. Whatever the future will look like, the two positions are mutually dependent. The global power system and the coming of a postnational civil society cannot be thought but as the flip sides of one and the same discursive phenomenon.