Right now we’re experiencing the return of big government. And it’s not hard to see how the huge tasks we face could be mastered without one: We must stand up to terrorism without succumbing to hysteria; we must assimilate hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of refugees; and regulate the influx of additional migrants.
And we must recognize that for the first time since 1989, the European Union is no longer surrounded by potential partners and aspirants wanting to join, but rather more and more by states that are either sliding into instability or becoming more authoritarian.
In view of the Americans turning away from Europe and the Middle East, we must defend ourselves in the future to a degree that seemed barely imaginable just recently and goes against Germany’s pacifist grain. Likewise, the decision to engage in Syria is presumably just the beginning.
All that needs government. Civil society can’t manage alone – or not forever, and nor can the market, nor Google and Co., those digital companies that despise big government.
Public safety and order, law and justice, these are classic jobs for the state that no one else can handle. All signs point to our needing more police, more judges, more teachers, and presumably more soldiers and spies in the future. And, in each case, more means a lot more. We aren’t talking about a handful of additional social workers and public prosecutors here and there, but hundreds.
Integration, domestic security, intelligence, meaning information collected by secret services – the government will have to focus on these three major tasks, and will only be able to do so if it has sufficient means.
This is the same government that people called incompetent not too long ago, and said should be scaled back. Now, the government is experiencing a much-needed renaissance.
All this doesn’t mean we need more laws nor more powers for security services. It’s about creating the structures and the institutions that are needed for the government to be able to do its work – such as the call for an integration ministry, by Markus Kerber, the director general and member of the presidential board of the Federation of German Industries (BDI).
It’s also about tough issues and hard decisions.
At some point we won’t be able to avoid the debate in Germany about whether we want to stay dependent on the Americans, British, and French for intelligence gathering. We’ll have to consider whether we, as supplicants, just accept it when they break the rules.
We have to decide whether a central power like Germany shouldn’t take on a greater role in gathering intelligence, which would mean expanding the security services against all the political reflexes we’ve worked to acquire.
Integration, domestic security, intelligence – all of that will cost money. A lot of it. That’s money that’ll be missed elsewhere. We have to get ready to accept that.
A strange thing is that no matter where you stand on the refugee issue, a stronger state will be needed – whether you want the borders open or shut.
Those who want to close the borders, or just greatly limit the influx of refugees, can’t do it without police officers and checkpoints, without expelling and deporting people – when necessary, through force.
But also those who don’t want to turn away the refugees but accept them, need the strong state. In that case, more internal controls will be needed and better protection of refugee housing. Government officials will be needed who work to help integrate hundreds of thousands of refugees from dysfunctional societies, of traumatized, of illiterate and educationally-deprived people into a highly-diversified, liberal culture. Government officials will be needed to prevent friction between the various groups of refugees and also enforce the laws here.
None of that will work without difficulties and there may be ugly side-effects.
Experts are already saying that jihadist terrorism and the massive influx of refugees coming at the same time could fuel the emergence of a right-wing underground, and lead to the creation of right-wing groups and networks.
Some security experts are already warning about a generation of right-wing terrorists along the lines of the NSU.
Only a strong government can address these issues.
Presumably that also means we will have cultivate a new, easygoing response despite more inconveniences like security controls at train stations and government offices and body searches at concerts and department stores.
To put it more pointedly, a little less idyll, a little more Israel.
No one wants that, no one likes that, but hardly anybody will think it to be intolerable as long as there’s a threat. And that can be for a long time to come.
Briefly put, the more unsettled the times, the more important an effective and powerful government is that ensures laws are adhered to and has the means to do it.
You can’t catch arsonists through nudging alone, or cope with right-wing or Islamic terrorists.
That is a break with how Germany sees itself and its significance can hardly be overestimated. For years and decades, actually since the founding of the federal republic, strengthened by the protests of 1968 and accelerated again after 1989, the basic drift has always been in the opposite direction.
The government has been disarming, becoming less authoritarian, less invasive, withdrawing from many areas of society – such as out of sexual morals.
And that was good: subjects became citizens, governmental administrative bodies became service agencies. Sometimes you might get annoyed with people working in government offices in Germany, but you aren’t afraid of them anymore. That alone is an enormous achievement of civilization.
But that’s not all. The pendulum moved further. The slow decline of the state’s legitimacy was powered also by neo-liberals and by communitarians, by the elite of globalization and by the elite of grassroots movements, partly out of idealism, partly out of not caring, often due to massive economic interests.
These elite successfully propagated that it was nigh on inevitable that the state dissolve upward and downward. Upward into NGOs, into supranational forms of government, into a European form or right into the United Nations. And downward into the communitarian, the subsidiary structures of digital self-government that at some point will make the state superfluous. In the thinking of Silicon Valley in California, these notions that the state is more the problem than the solution and algorithms make better policies are solidifying into a potent libertarian ideology that is radiating out to the whole world.
What remains, particularly in Germany and Europe, is almost just a social-technocratic welfare state that distributes and supports, manages and balances, an agency for the perfection of social justice. It is not by chance that at the moment constitutional theoreticians like to discuss the statecraft of nudging, which only warns and instructs, which gently shoves its citizens in the right direction, with friendly persuasion and all kinds of incentives, with subsidies, traffic-light food labels and linguistic policies.
That is by no means just a theoretical discussion. The police in Germany were almost systemically deprived for years, jobs were cut or not filled, the equipment only improved at a slow pace. The consequences are painfully evident. In a major investigation by ZEIT and ZEIT ONLINE, a team of reports just this last week disclosed how scandalously little success there has been in the manhunts relating to the violent attacks on refugee homes everywhere in Germany. Only two percent of the cases were able to be solved.
There are many reasons for that, but one of the most important is the thinning out of personnel in the police. There is a lack of officers on the ground, a lack of officers overall, a lack of experts, fire investigation experts, for example.
That is not way that this state will be able to deal with the new, intensified pressure facing us. You can’t catch arsonists through nudging alone, or cope with right-wing or Islamic terrorists.
Or, to formulate it differently, in the words of the former judge of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, Udo Di Fabio, “The creed of the elite, according to which the state is incapable of mastering the problems of the 21st century, may be right or wrong. However, it stands in downright perilous contradiction to the experience that nothing is possible without an organized statehood: no human rights, no peace, no climate protection, no justice.”
And that is no simple theoretical idea. It is much more what we are experiencing at the moment, unwillingly, right in the middle of Europe. Namely the refugee crisis is showing us in a dramatic way that the hope is shattered that sooner or later the national government will dissolve into a supranational one.
We are experiencing exactly the opposite. The E.U. is proving itself to be an executive midget. It can’t secure its outer borders and it can’t enforce its regulations. Dublin has failed, Schengen, meaning the freedom of travel, is just about to fail, and the so-called hot spots for receiving and registering the refugees is turning out to be a bureaucratic phantasm.
Everywhere in the world, the border, the secured border, is an essential characteristic of a state. Only the E.U. thinks it can do without – simply because it is at best an abstraction of a state.
That doesn’t mean that Europe has failed as a whole or is doomed to soon fail. It functions very well in many areas and remains indispensable. But under the epochal pressure of the wave of refugees, the action has shifted, as it did once before in the financial crisis, from the top downward, from the abstract to the concrete, from the Brussels’ level to the national states. And they are seizing the moment with all resolve. Controlling borders, closing crossings, building fences, having the military march in and helicopters circling overhead.
In other words, Europe’s weaknesses are also making the strong state necessary.
Do we really need a strong, an even stronger state? Have we not had enough bad, catastrophic experiences with the overly strong state, above all in Germany?
Finally, there remains the hope in the digital, the most modern form of despising the state. But it, as well, proves to be illusory. It is a mistaken belief that the world is only getting more digital. It is also occasionally becoming more analog again. Flesh and blood are retaining their roles in world history, above all blood. And, at the same time, occasionally digital becomes a catalyst for problems that can’t be resolved digitally.
As already in the Arab Spring, this can also be seen in the refugee crisis. It is unthinkable without cell phones and apps, without the online self-organization of the migrants. The immigrants don’t come, naturally not, because they have cell phones. But because they have cell phones, they come quickly in such huge numbers and can, at any time, switch to the other routes.
Google and the other digital corporations, the financial markets, as well as the propagandists of post-nationalism, and the E.U. people in Brussels, they all already saw the state on the garbage heap of history – or transitioning into its own abolition. But that was apparently somewhat hasty. Perhaps, at any rate at least until proven otherwise, we should assume that the national state is, after all, the most functional vessel for contemporary democracy.
That, however, changes the direct of the state debate, probably for the first time at all since the founding of the republic.
It was already possible to gain an inkling of the changed role of the state years ago during the global crisis. There, as well, the state had withdrawn, had uninhibitedly deregulated and, in doing so, disempowered itself until the unfettered markets collapsed. And, in the end, there was nothing left for the derided state to do but step in as rescuer. First the state had to save the banks, then the strong states the weak ones.
Nevertheless, despite this rather recent experience, it is still almost something of a provocation to speak of a strong state. The term inevitably gets a defensive knee-jerk response. Strong state, that sounds like Kaiser Wilhelm’s authoritarian government or American police brutality, like mass surveillance, Guantánamo and waterboarding.
The dangers of the abuse of powers by a state are obvious, they exist, and they are real. Some of them, which President Holland now plans for France – extended emergency, house searches without judicial decisions, withdrawal of citizenship –, is actually reminiscent in an unsettling way of the USA’s Patriot Act, the hysterical reaction of the Americans to September 11, 2001. Even more surveillance, more laws, more authorities for the security officials.
Do we really need a strong, an even stronger state? Have we not had enough bad, catastrophic experiences with the overly strong state, above all in Germany? Are not all of our political tormentors simultaneously advocates of the strong state, autocrats such as Messrs. Putin, Erdogan, Orban? Have they not endlessly ridiculed the gay and the weak of the West – and do we now also want to give them the right? And lastly: are the states of the West not showing off right now as more than strong?
France is changing its constitution, is going into the war against ISIS. In Brussels, heavily armed soldiers are patrolling the pedestrian areas, the subways stood still for a weekend. Germany is discussing deploying the armed forces internally, is sending tornadoes to Syria and a frigate to the Mediterranean.
In the face of such martial incantations, such auto of its own strength, we do not only need a strong state, we need above all a new concept of why the state must be strong and what determines that. And how it differentiates itself from an authoritarian state.
Whoever wants to grasp that must only ask the people, who now come to us in the hundreds of thousands. They are not fleeing from too much state, rather from too little. They come from fluctuating and collapsing states. They know that everywhere, where state order is disintegrating, where there is no freedom but rather corruption, deprivation of rights, fanaticism and violence. They know: where the state is weak, the right of the stronger counts. They therefore search for a functioning state: the state where human rights are guaranteed, and stands at the side of the needy.
They search for a police that protects rights, not those who have power. They search for courts that regulate battles rather than legitimize oppression. They look for authorities and officials, who do not serve a clan, a religion or ethnicity, also not an ideology, but a communal good.
Naturally this is simply also the constant promise of authoritarians everywhere in the world, in Putin’s Russia just as in Erdogan’s Turkey or Orban’s Hungary: they create order, offer security, control chaos. So that people can calmly send their children to school and can go about their business. Then what differentiates the authoritarian state from the strong state? And how can we make sure that the strong state does not fall into the authoritarian?
The strong state differentiates itself in all brevity from an authoritarian state, because it makes freedom possible, rather than fighting it. There are states without freedom, but there is no freedom without the state.
The strong state knows zones of crackdowns, and they will not always necessarily become smaller. But it also knows zones, in which it does not intervene, the freedoms of which it protects. It respects the differentiated subsystems of society – economy, culture, sciences, private spheres – and draws its power from that. The authoritarian state in contrast, cracks down everywhere, and must at some point falter from this delusion of grandeur.
The strong state is a state that does not allow itself to be blackmailed. Not by the markets, not by organized interests, and certainly not by terrorists. How serious can it be, deadly serious, there, one is reminded once again of the funereal services for Helmut Schmidt. The strong state must however also have the means, to not become open to blackmail.
The strong state is a state that has strong controlling institutions, checks and balances, strong courts, self confident parliaments, a free press.
Above all, however, the strong state is a state, that takes its own rules seriously. The law sets rules and also enforces. Both belong together freely, and in the West, it has recently often been lacking there.
In the European Union, which knew no border regime, it gave up the Dublin-system, out of weakness and thoughtlessness. But also in Germany, which has ignored its own asylum and law enforcement for years. Even the asylum seekers who have been turned away are hardly sent back to their countries of origin, the officials responsible for that hardly had the means and staff for that, and the politicians never showed the courage to carry out an applicable law.
The strong state, however, is also the state that does not weaken the law, in that it places it under the reserve of alleged values. The law is the democratically solidified form that the values have found, not their opposite.
The opponents of the West, the terrorists as well as the autocrats, ultimately want to jam us into their binary logic. That is the intellectual center of the upcoming confrontations. They want to suggest to us that we must at sometime decide between chaos and the authoritarian. To that, however, there can only be one answer: neither nor. There is a third way, the Western way: that of the liberal and strong state.
And the last guarantee against the strong state faltering is us, the citizens.
Because the liberalization of the state has not only changed the state, but rather, also society. The commanding tone, the ordering around and subjugating have disappeared from the offices, but also out of most families, schools and many companies. It may be that this development is not eternally irreversible. But for a start and for a long time, it immunizes us against the temptation of the authoritarians.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: email@example.com