Maxeiner and Miersch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Opinion article published in The Wall Street Journal Europe
on February 10th 2005
(Copyright © 2005, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.) .


Welcome to Hobbitland

By Dirk Maxeiner and Michael Miersch


In a recent television survey, Germans chose the epic "Lord of the Rings" as their favorite book. In so doing, they were paying homage not only to J.R.R. Tolkien's literary abilities but apparently also to their own emotional state. A large portion of German society would prefer to live in the hobbits' pastoral idyll, surrounded by windmills and small-scale rural technology -- far from Mordor, the mirror of western industrial society, where evil wizards challenge nature.

Unfortunately, Middle Earth has a few problems. Windmills don't create enough prosperity. It's getting uncomfortable in Hobbitland. For some ten years, wise economists have been pointing out that the foundations of the German welfare state must be modernized. Committees and advisory boards have debated for thousands of hours and produced tons of papers; talk shows on the issue resemble a babbling, infinite loop.

Agreement exists that things can't continue as before. But there's no sign of an awakening; more like submission to fate. The country is about as excited as a sick person giving his permission for an operation. Usually, the word "reform" conjures images of progress, stepping forward into a brighter future. But to German ears, the word "reform" sounds as threatening as the theme music of "Jaws." No other nation is as pessimistic as the Germans. In an international Gallup poll, only 13% believed the future would be better than the present.

A fog of negativity obstructs the view of the possibilities. Only few citizens really want more responsibility and less state. Most would like the government to take care of its little hobbits. The future should preserve as much as possible of the present. The taste of freedom and adventure scares Germans; the future should have the cozy smell of Grandma's recipes. This is what happens in a society where "progress" has become a dirty word. Technology is perceived only as a sinister threat.

The German motto is "don't take any risks" (except for 250 kph on the autobahn). The land of the economic miracle, the land of inventors and entrepreneurs, has turned into Hobbitland. The most daring vision of the future is to optimize the system of deposits on bottles. Germany is being left behind at the station, waving good-bye to progress as it chugs away.

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A half century ago, when Ludwig Erhard promised "prosperity for all," the zeitgeist blew in the opposite direction. Even conservative intellectuals were infected with this faith in progress. They cleansed their political camps from the musty smell of retrograde hostility to technology and industry (emotions later taken up by the Greens). A period of unparalleled economic prosperity was set in motion.

Twenty years later, the German left shifted into reverse. In the late 1970s, the Greens succeeded in merging ultraconservative and left-wing positions into an apocalyptic worldview. The Green Party emerged from a combination of anti-capitalist ideology and conservative opposition to progress, which came together in the protest against nuclear power plants. The newly awakened pessimism about the future soon radiated deep into the Social Democratic Party and there led to an opportunistic greening. In the early 1980s, the Social Democrats took final leave of progress. This was illustrated, for example, in its change of heart on nuclear power: wholehearted support turned into uncompromising rejection.

Today, all parties are green; this attitude has taken over nearly the entire society. No technological innovation has been welcomed in Germany since the color television. New technologies are immediately blocked if a risk cannot be completely ruled out. This spirit has co-opted the rising elites in academia, churches, cultural institutions, media and the bureaucracy. Even at events organized by major industrial foundations, opponents of globalization, capitalism and genetic engineering, such as Vandana Shiva and Jeremy Rifkin, are firmly attached to the podiums. The hobbits have won.

The German hobbit's view of life is characterized by low expectations, constant emphasis on limits, nostalgia for the past, idealization of nature, and a deep-seated distrust of the workings of the market. When computers became affordable in the early 1980s, the German media discussed the new technologies from two points of view. First, computers were job-killers. Second, computers would lead to Orwellian surveillance of all citizens (the Green Party accordingly decided to boycott computers). When cell phones appeared, the danger of radiation from broadcast towers was the number one issue. The success of the Internet primarily triggered fears of being swamped with pornography and Nazi propaganda. Reproductive medicine? Frankenstein scientists are trying to clone people. Stem cell research? They're planning to use people for spare parts. Genetic engineering of plants? Monster tomatoes!

The idea that the future could perhaps be better than the present sounds like a crazy utopia in Hobbitland. Such views are no longer considered intellectually acceptable. Somewhere between "forest death" and "climate catastrophe," the yearning for progress died.

The German hobbits desperately want to be left alone. But the world won't do them this favor. Beyond their horizon of half-timbered houses and windmills, a restless, wide-awake world is surging. There, yesterday's poor are conquering today's markets. There, scientists are opening up new perspectives. There, people still want to rise to the challenge. Way too confusing and shrill for our hobbits.