Today's date:
Summer 2006

Globalization and the Radical Loser

Hans Magnus Enzensberger is the German essayist. He spoke with NPQ correspondent Michael Skafidas in New York.

NPQ | Disappointment and a new wave of ignorance—that is what you see in today’s world. Can you explain what you mean by this dark view?

Hans Magnus Enzensberger | Progress has not put an end to human suffering. As a result people’s capacity for disappointment has increased. This does not make my stance either optimistic or pessimistic. It depends. You can be optimistic in one dimension and pessimistic in another. The so-called “intellectual” is not here to be only enthusiastic or apocalyptic. He should have an analytic frame of mind. Otherwise, it’s bullshit.

Ignorance is eternal, of course. But it might be magnified now because there has been a kind of evolution of stupidity. A peasant in the Middle Ages was not connected with the outside world, more or less, so he had no pretensions. He did not claim to understand the world. He understood his farm, he knew all about cows and that was it. And he went to church

Nowadays everybody has the notion that “I can judge everything because I know what is going on.” That’s not true, of course. It’s an illusion. Ignorance and stupidity always find new modifications, new modes of being. Certainly, though, the genetic level of human intelligence has not changed.

NPQ | You have proposed the idea of the “radical loser,” that isolated disillusioned creature who seeks revenge for his or her shortcomings—something which can lead to terrorism. How does this dynamic work?

Enzensberger | With the way humanity has organized itself—“capitalism,” “competition,” “empire,” “globalization”—not only does the number of losers increase every day, but as in any large group, fragmentation soon sets in. In a chaotic, unfathomable process the cohorts of the inferior, the defeated, the victims separate out. The loser may accept his fate and resign himself; the defeated may prepare again for the next round.

But the radical loser isolates himself, becomes invisible, guards his delusion and waits for his hour to come.

In the old times a loser generally remained isolated. He wasn’t part of anything big. Now, of course, you can organize the radical loser. That’s the legacy of the 20th century. If you look at German history, Hitler’s success was due to his ability to collect the energy of all these desperate losers who had no chance and felt humiliated. Thousands or millions of radical losers joined together is a very explosive potential. It has all the elements not only of aggression but also of self-determination.

NPQ | Is Osama bin Laden the leader of today’s radical losers?

Enzensberger | He could be, but I’m not quite sure to what extent he’s also made by the media into an emblem. To simplify the picture the media collaborated in establishing this icon, so you know to whom to address our fears. In this capacity Osama is well chosen: He has the right background. It’s also true that not all of what I call radical losers are necessarily poor people. It’s more of a mental state. You can feel humiliated, as we’ve seen, even if you have a lot of money.

NPQ | How do you recognize a radical loser before his terrorist actions make him famous?

Enzensberger | That’s a good question. It’s hard to detect him because he’s part of the crowd, he’s one of us. In some way you might say that most of us share his insecurities. We’re not immune. The specificity of the radical loser is that he takes things personally.

When he asks himself, “Why am I humiliated?” he comes up with two reasons: One is the outside world, somebody who “oppresses me,” “hates me,” “discriminates against me”; but there’s also something in him that makes him also believe that he’s a born loser. At that moment he becomes radical.

As long as someone believes that “well, at the moment I’m in a poor situation, but I can do something about it,” he is not radicalized. He still has a chance to make it. And that does not fit the logic of the fusion of destruction and self-destruction. But at the moment that someone enters into this realm, he gets blinded and is perfectly capable of going up the wall and shooting some schoolchildren. That is a radical loser.

Ultimately, he does not believe in his own worth. Acts of terror are a way of capitulation, but a very aggressive way. He could commit suicide, but, no, he wants revenge.

NPQ | Why does religion appeal to such losers?

Enzensberger | Religion is a good way of organizing this capitulation in a collective way. If you have a political or religious ideology to hang on to you are not a lonely loser; as part of a group you find validation in your loser status by joining others like yourself. This multiplies and magnifies your explosive potential. It then becomes like a political force.

NPQ | You told the recent PEN Festival in New York that “Some of the biggest bastards are deeply religious people.”

Enzensberger | Yes! Some of them pretend to be while some others are convinced they are. The President of the United States, for example. I think he sincerely believes that he’s an instrument of the will of God. He’s not a cynic like others in the government may be.

The better hypothesis would be to imagine that he’s just fooling you while he is also fooling himself. I wouldn’t even say, as most Europeans do, that he’s stupid. If so, how did he make it? A man of his perhaps not enormous talent must have smart political instincts. It’s easy to say that “Oh, these guys are only liars, they don’t believe what they say.” Sometimes it’s worse when they actually believe what they say. Hitler believed in what he said. If there’s real conviction it makes it much more serious.

If you have the Almighty on your side it helps, doesn’t it? But it’s not just the Almighty that helps. Probably Lenin sincerely believed in the idea of the new man that communism was supposed to create. If you effectively make others believe in the same thing, then you have a political stand.

NPQ | Famously, when George Bush was asked if he consulted his father on the Iraq war, he replied no because it is a higher father he addresses. How would it sound to Germans if your chancellor made a similar statement?

Enzensberger | She would be laughed at. She’d be considered a joke! People would feel sorry for her but I don’t think it would catch on. Not that sort of thing. It took two world wars for the Germans to come to their senses. But after these wars, I’d say, they have became more realistic. Their capacity for political belief is diminished. You can’t just tell them this and that and they’ll go along. That is no longer the case. They are skeptical.

It is not so much a matter of collective guilt for the past, but now of a sense of collective responsibility.