There is something profoundly strange about Peter Sloterdijk’s attempt to assert – as the solution to what one is tempted to call the “antinomies of the Welfare State” – an “ethics of gift” over against mere egotistic market exchange. His proposal brings us unexpectedly close to what can only be called the Communist vision.
Sloterdijk is guided by the elementary lesson of dialectics: sometimes, the opposition between maintaining the old and changing things does not cover the entire field – in other words, sometimes the only way to retaining the old is by change things radically. So, if today one wants to save the core of the Welfare State, one should abandon any nostalgia for twentieth-century Social Democracy.
What Sloterdijk proposes is a kind of new cultural revolution, a radical psycho-social shift based on the insight that, today, the exploited productive strata is no longer the working class, but the (upper-)middle class: they are the true “givers” whose heavy taxation finances the education, health and general well-being of the majority. In order to achieve this change, one should leave behind statism, this absolutist remainder which has strangely survived in our democratic era: the idea, surprisingly strong even among the traditional left, that the State has the unquestionable right to tax its citizens, to determine and seize through legal coercion, if necessary, part of their product.
It is not that citizens give part of their income to the State – they are treated as if they are a priori indebted to the State. This attitude is sustained by a misanthropic premise strongest among the very left which otherwise preaches solidarity: that people are basically egotists, they have to be forced to contribute something to the common good, and it is only the State which, by means of its coercive legal apparatus, can do the job of ensuring the necessary solidarity and redistribution.
According to Sloterdijk, the ultimate cause of this strange social perversion is the disturbed balance between eros and thymos, between the erotic-possessive drive to amass things and the drive (predominant in premodern societies) to pride and generosity, to that mode of gift-giving which brings honour and respect. The way to reestablish this balance is to give full recognition to thymos: to treat those that produce wealth, not as a group which is a priori under suspicion for refusing to pay its debt to society, but as the true givers whose contribution should be fully recognized, so that they can be proud of their generosity.
[Extract. Appeared in ABC on August 14th 2012.]