Is Bonhoeffer worth Hitler? Isn’t modern life, with all its existential anxiety, the loss of absolutism, Pluralism, and fragmentation, preferable to Nazi Germany and “the banality of evil”? Isn’t erasing Bonhoeffer to erase Hitler rational? This returns us to another question: is it possible for humans not to be communal? No, we don’t have communities like we once did, but if humans are necessarily social, they will still make some kind of community, but without all the classical authorities it once had, it is unlikely these communities will be “robust” enough to provide people with a sense of “belonging again.” But who cares if that stops “the banality of evil” from forming, right? I’m not sure it will: as long as humans are social — as long as humans are around — that possibility seems unavoidable. Though there’s reason to think so, it’s not clear if a world where Bonhoeffer isn’t possible is a world where Hitler cannot return. The reason for my concern is the very way that communities decline: as argued in The Long Truce by A.J. Conyers, it is through the growth of the State.
A large State helped Nazi Germany commit atrocities, but perhaps today, though the State continues to grow, in communities waning, we don’t have to worry about “the banality of evil” developing? Perhaps, but if not, as the State grows, the “Bonhoeffer/Hitler dialectic” (as I will call it) is increasingly “pushed up the scale” from a local level to a national level: Hitlers and Bonhoeffers, when they develop, do so relative to an increasingly “national community” versus “local community,” because “community” is increasingly centralized as “nationalism” (and even “globalism”). This perhaps multiplies both the magnitude of the Bonhoeffers and Hitlers who might emerge, but that said, I worry that Bonhoeffers are necessarily local-bound while Hitlers are not (for though character may require “givens,” destruction does not), but I’m not sure.
Nazi Germany was a community in which character was defined in terms of Nazi ideology: “the banality of evil” occurs within community, but I don’t believe it possible to exist in a world without any kind of social arrangement at all. There will be something like society, and hence there will always be the possibility of both Hitler and Bonhoeffer. Today, uniquely, that dialectical possibility is increasingly centralized in a growing State, and only possible to lesser degrees on small scales. Does this mean character is still possible? In a way, but perhaps “character” loses its distinct meaning from words like “patriot” or “national identity,” it being indistinguishable from terms signifying “observance of the State,” and since the general State is that which hangs “over” people more so than compose the localities in which people live, “character” becomes vague, general, and even alienating. The values against which “character” (if that word should even be used) are defined are the values that make one an “American,” “British,” “German,” etc. — again, “national identity” and “character” become indistinguishable in meaning. Character thus becomes nationalistic (which may leave those who oppose nationalism similarly devoid of sources of meaningful character), and problematically, what is nationalistic is primed to be exploited by totalitarian forces.
Today, I believe people are increasingly defining themselves in terms of their national identities — even global, continental, and transnational identities — for as the State grows, the authority and meaning of “smaller” communities and their corresponding identities are reduced, taking away the incentive for people to identify with them — to think of themselves as “Virginians” versus “Americans,” per se. Smaller communities are increasingly “fragile” and “less absolute,” but what seems more “robust” is the State, and increasingly it becomes the authority and “ground” for community/identity.1 Perhaps a reason for the emphasis on race, sex, and gender as anchors for identity today is because they feel unbound by Nation State boundaries — like they move beyond them — and thus able to compete with the State, unlike State-bound localities.
A source of authority and identity that seems able to compete with the State is the market (perhaps because business also doesn’t have to be contained to State boundaries): people define themselves as “florists,” “bankers,” and the like. State and market identities can overlap, but at least regarding identities people have that are based in structures of government, the local and particular are increasingly irrelevant (as if people prefer a humanity-based-identity versus a particular-person-identity). This is certainly aided by market forces that have increased the amount of movement people undergo in their lifetimes, the migration of people to universities (described by Charles Murray in Coming Apart) — universities ‘pluck the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens” ’ — and the like, but the other overarching force that this paper will focus on is the growth of the State through its doctrine of “toleration,” an argument made by A.J. Conyers that will be expounded upon shortly.2
What exactly does this new community/identity look like and how does it live? To start, there is a reduction of the meaning of borders: where one civilization ends and another begins is increasingly viewed as irrelevant. Due to work and business, people cross between borders so regularly and live in so many different places that their identities are increasingly “un-rooted,” and furthermore they are defined in terms of their work versus according to community. Moving between Pennsylvania and Virginia, for example, they are likely to tell people they are “from PA” versus “from Berwyn,” seeing as people who don’t live in PA aren’t likely to know where exactly is Berwyn; moving between America and China, they are likely to say “I’m American” for similar reasons (even our language reflects a need to identify with greater abstractions due to Globalization). The younger the people, the higher the likelihood they are ever-moving between locations. As Alastair Roberts brilliantly writes:
‘In past generations, these young people would have been much more likely to have been pillars of their local communities, tied to those communities through upbringing, vocational training, marriage, and family, and, by virtue of those ties profoundly and primarily invested in the common good of their locality, rather than in that of an individualistic class of cosmopolitans. The transformation of the university may be an important factor in the growing inequality and mutual alienation of classes that we experience today.’3
“Cosmopolitans” I think is a good word to describe the new community/identity that is emerging today (I will use that word moving forward). For many, especially those who aren’t members of the Cosmopolitan (but are increasingly eclipsed by them), the Cosmopolitan “social arrangements” that are emerging like “the EU,” for example, fail to represent any ‘demos’ or ‘people that can exist as a political unit’.4 Again, Roberts writes:
‘The market state is deeply corrosive of democracy, as it steadily undermines and destroys the conditions for the existence of the demos. Whether operating in the abstraction of supra-national agencies, or in the politically stifling immediacy of atomizing consumerism, the market state does not truly engage with or represent the demos. Breaking down the differentiated forms of peoples and encouraging social transience, atomization, and fungibility through radical choice and the rapid circulation of “labour,” market statism cuts off democracy at its root. Concern about the corrosion of democracy will primarily be expressed by persons who belong to a well-defined demos.
‘In place of the demos, the market state emphasizes the deracinated transactional person and the entitled dependent (“rights” now being the operative language in articulating the citizen’s relationship with the state). The EU, an inscrutable and Kafkaesque web of bureaucratic agencies, neither represents any demos, nor renders itself accessible, visible, and truly accountable to such a demos. The opacity of the EU to many Britons is indicative of its ambivalence or hostility to democracy. Yet, as the EU advances a neoliberal order that empowers deracinated individuals and advocates an expansive vision of human rights, its anti-democratic character will not be experienced as a problem by many.’5
Cosmopolitans tend to have ‘a post-national consciousness, for which the assertion of a nation’s peoplehood is widely perceived to be threatening.’6 To Cosmopolitans, the protection of borders can seem petty and backwards, but for those who aren’t Cosmopolitan:
‘The border can never be an abstraction, but is the basic condition for the definition and differentiation of the nation in its particular existence. Where borders are compromised, [a people’s] capacity to say “we” is undermined along with them […]’7
For many Cosmopolitans, ‘cultural and religious “identities” can be easily shed or assumed, as if [people] were merely engaged in a form of live action role playing,’ and for this reason it can seem silly, bigoted, and irrational for a people to sacrifice “progress” for cultural or religious identities.8 Yes. Cosmopolitans tend to favor multiculturalism, but they tend to favor a very shallow version of these cultures, no deeper than what is necessary for the creation of “an impression” of differences. If religious or cultural difference lead a people to opposing “progress,” these differences for the Cosmopolitan should obviously be abandoned, but for those who aren’t Cosmopolitan, the choice isn’t so easy.
Two more points worth mentioning before closing this section.
What primarily leads a person into becoming a Cosmopolitan is graduating from college, which everyone today is pressured to do mostly because of the college monopoly on credentials (as discussed in “Innovating Credentials” by O.G. Rose). This can lead to resentment as those who aren’t Cosmopolitan see their children transform before their very eyes into people who don’t share their values, rootedness, and the like, all due to something the parents worked hard to provide for their children so that their children might have brighter futures. This might cause dire cognitive dissonance.
Also important to note: those who aren’t Cosmopolitan today aren’t necessarily defining themselves in terms of their local communities either: they mostly think of themselves as “Americans” (not Charlottesvillians, for example) (while Cosmopolitans may consider themselves “global citizens” or primarily “investment bankers”). Yes, Cosmopolitans may consider themselves members of their local communities, but I believe it is likely that what captures the majority of their thoughts is “America” more so than “Lynchburg” — “what’s happening D.C.?” versus “what’s happening at the local court house?”. The “pushing up the scale” of identities has happened to everyone, not just Cosmopolitans in who the change is perhaps most acute. Yes, those who aren’t Cosmopolitan might see themselves in terms of nation-states more so than continents or the globe, but this is still a dramatic change in identification for people today compared to the past. But perhaps this is for the better?
Is there in Cosmopolitanism less chance for both Bonhoeffer and “the banality of evil?” If so, though perhaps Cosmopolitanism entails problems of rootlessness and alienation, perhaps the trade-off is worth it? This is a fair and important question, but again I would note that it is impossible for humans not to (emergently) organize “social arrangements” of some kind, and hence that “the Hitler/Bonhoeffer dialectic” will always be with us (to some degree). Perhaps though thanks to Cosmopolitanism (which is a manifestation of Globalization, and Globalization seems to reduce the possibility of WWIII, though it may increase the horror of WWIII if it were to happen), the likelihood of a Hitler and/or Bonhoeffer emerging in our midst is much less, justifying the costs of Cosmopolitanism? Perhaps, but if this is the case, I’m afraid it is thanks not to erasing the possibility of “the banality of evil” (and character arising against it), but by making it so that if “the banality of evil” happened again, it would be much worse. I fear we’ve made it “too bad to happen” by making the State “too big to fail” (and ever-growing), though I’m not so sure that there actually is such thing as “too big to fail.”
Personally, I’m concerned that Cosmopolitanism has emerged out of Globalization, which has either accidentally or essentially occurred alongside a global phenomenon of ever-growing States. I believe this growth has primarily been funded by debt, resulting in a “Global Debt Bubble.” If that bubble were to pop, I’m concerned “the banality of evil” we would experience would be extraordinary. That said, as “nuclear deterrence” arguably saved us during the Cold War, it is very possible that “debt deterrence” and States being “too big to fail” will save us from ever suffering another example of “the banality of evil” as we suffered through Nazi Germany. It is hard to say: we very well might be better off for not feeling like we belong. If we come to feel like we “belong again,” the world might be in great danger.
Moving on, I would like to expound upon The Long Truce by A.J. Conyers, which gives an account of how the State grew and eclipsed other communal models. Certainly, Globalization, Pluralism, and Cosmopolitanism have helped facilitate the change in extraordinary ways; as Hunter writes, ‘Pluralism and social mobility undermine the plausibility and coherence of personal beliefs and their capacity to provide a stable sense of meaning,’ all of which contributes to the creation of ideological conditions in which State growth is permitted and even applauded.9 Capitalism and Globalization are certainly threats to culture, community, and identity: “The Tragedy of Us” by O.G. Rose explores this problem. Here though, I would like to focus on Conyers work. He has convincingly argued that the doctrine of tolerance has played a key role in eroding culture, community, and identity, if not the role.
1Both Trump and Brexit may at least partially symbolize reactions against this development.
2Allusion to “Brexit and the Moral Vision of Nationhood” by Alastair Roberts, as can be found here:
3Allusion to “Brexit and the Moral Vision of Nationhood” by Alastair Roberts, as can be found here:
4Allusion to “Brexit and the Moral Vision of Nationhood” by Alastair Roberts, as can be found here:
5Allusion to “Brexit and the Moral Vision of Nationhood” by Alastair Roberts, as can be found here:
6Allusion to “Brexit and the Moral Vision of Nationhood” by Alastair Roberts, as can be found here:
7Allusion to “Brexit and the Moral Vision of Nationhood” by Alastair Roberts, as can be found here:
8Allusion to “Brexit and the Moral Vision of Nationhood” by Alastair Roberts, as can be found here:
9Hunter, James Davison. The Death of Character: Moral Education in an Age Without Good or Evil. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000: xiv.