Is Sloterdijk Conservative?

In terms of his social and political views, Peter Sloterdijk is sometimes described as a conservative thinker. Is that right? Is Sloterdijk a conservative? That question itself depends upon the hermeneutic question: What do you mean by “conservative”? He’s definitely not a neocon or a paleocon. He’s not a Reagan conservative. But he’s not exactly a social democrat, progressive, or libertarian either. He doesn’t easily fit into conventional definitions of political positions, as he interrogates, displaces, and redesigns those positions. So, is Sloterdijk a conservative? I’d suggest that he can be described with the same phrase he uses to describe Theodor Adorno, an “ambivalent conservative” (Foams, 630). A crucial difference between him and Adorno is that Sloterdijk aims to carry out a transition from critical theory to a more affirmative theory of General Immunology (by way of a Nietzschean-Deleuzian sense of affirmation). Of course, the idea that he’s a conservative who wants to protect immune systems (Whose? How?) does not necessarily inspire confidence. It demands some explication.

In You Must Change Your Life, Sloterdijk develops a general theory of practice or a general ascetology (alongside General Immunology, Spherology), that is, a theory of the various kinds of practice or exercise (askesis) through which humans make themselves (“anthropotechnics”). The differences between secular, religious, spiritual, and ethical domains of experience are thus redistributed in terms of differences of practice, e.g., Catholic Mass and the Olympics are both examples of anthropotechnics, and it is misleading to call one religious and the other secular. By the end of the book, it is clear that Sloterdijk is calling for globally cooperative asceticisms, advocating for a postsecular “co-immunism” that sounds close to communism. Yet, he does not define his task of articulating a general theory of practice as a communist enterprise. It’s a conservative enterprise. “The translation suggested here of the religious, spiritual and ethical facts into the language and perspective of the general theory of practising defines itself as an Enlightenment-conservative enterprise—a conservatory one, in fact, in the matter itself” (6).

What is he conserving? Two things: first, his theory “declares allegiance to the continuum of cumulative knowledge that we call Enlightenment,” and second, “it takes up the threads, some of them millennia old, that tie us to early manifestations of human knowledge about practice and animation.” His retrieval of early manifestations of human knowledge is a retrieval of a kind of “primary conservatism”:

During the last forty thousand years of human evolution, the standard reaction to the increased conspicuity of additional improbability was, as far as one can see, an unconditionally defensive one. On their habitual surfaces, all old cultures, extending back to their early Paleolithic forms, are consummatively conservative. They seem infused with a visceral enmity towards innovation, presumably because the task of transferring their conscious content, their symbolic and technical conventions to subsequent generations with consistent intensity already taxes them to the limits of their capacity. (119-20)

In the tension between neophilic and neophobic aspects of human existence, what Sloterdijk calls primary conservatism tends toward the latter. Stick with habits and traditions; don’t jump on the bandwagon of every promise of the new and improved. However, a problem arises in the process of humans becoming conscious. Consciousness emerges amid habits, and once you realize that there is a habit conditioning your consciousness, you are already somewhat distant from that habit: there’s you, and there’s your habit. Now you face a decision—continue differentiating yourself from your habits or stick with your habits; overcome your habits or let your habits overcome you.

One cannot discover the habits without adopting a certain distance from them—in other words, without getting into a duel that clarifies who dominates the ring. Not everyone wants to win this right; conservatives of all periods feign weakness in order to be overcome by habit—and then to be allowed to serve it after its victory as if it were invincible. Others, by contrast, are convinced that habits are foreign rulers under which no real life can be lived. (191-92)

Those others are the ancients that Foucault saw practicing care of the self, transitioning toward the art of turning habits into inventive impulses: “a new handling art that turns possessions into manipulable dispositions. In this transition, the enchanters disenchant themselves and change into teachers. They are provocateurs of the future, who build the catapults for shots into the supra-ordinary” (192). This provocative disturbance of habit started spreading worldwide as some kind of “Axial Age effect” (193). The conservative meets this disturbance with pessimistic or neophobic reactions. This resonates with Sloterdijk’s discussion of conservatism in the final volume of his Spheres trilogy, Foams:

One can define conservatism as the political form of melancholy. It remained decisive for the conservative syndrome which took shape in Europe after 1789 that it had resulted from looking back at the irretrievable goods, life forms and arts of pre-bourgeois times. […] It acquired elegiac hues by emphasizing the habit of expecting the darker constants of human nature. To be conservative is to continue believing that good and noble things are tied to places and unique phenomena—for vulgar things, on the other hand, the majority principle and mechanical repetition are sufficient. (627-8)

A serious problem for the conservative perspective is that some new things have happened that aren’t all bad; good and noble things have extended beyond unique, rare, local circumstances, and they have spread around the globe throughout the twentieth century in waves of luxury, amusement, pampering, and affluence. This is definitely not to say that there have not also been waves of violence, poverty, and destruction, but the point is that the human condition changed sufficiently to falsify the idea that human existence is fundamentally depraved or deprived. The notion of “homo pauper” must be replaced with a notion of the enriched human being. “Homo sapiens is a basally pampered, polymorphically luxuriating, multiply improvable intermediate being whose formation resulted from the combined action of genetic and symbolic-technical forces” (657-8).

In You Must Change Your Life, Sloterdijk puts this in classical mythospeculative terms. We are not in the Iron Age anymore, contra conservatism, but we aren’t building the new Golden Age that pervades the fantasies of the far left either. Sloterdijk advocates a middle, a sort of rhizomatic milieu, which is not a centrist compromise between Iron Age and Golden Age fantasies. It’s a new Silver Age.

The grandiloquent conservatives, who continue to cultivate the idiom of the Iron Age as if nothing had happened, must be challenged in a language of the middle. The same tone must be used to counter the far left ideologies still virulent at a local level, which, out of disappointment at the failed return to the Golden Age, do everything in power to smear the Silver Age as a farce. (423-24)

The new Silver Age is what comes after the “end of history.

The end of history is a metaphor for the disablement of the dominant reality principle of the Iron Age following non-heroic measures against the five needs. These include the industrial-political switch from scarcity to oversupply; the division of labour between the topic achievers and the moderately working in business and sport; the general deregulation of sexuality; the transition to a mass culture without masters and a politics of co-operation without enemies; and attempts toward a post-heroic thanatology. (424)

The inhabitants of the new Silver Age don’t understand themselves. They don’t understand their constitutive luxury. Enter postmodernity. “What we call post-modernity is largely no more than the medial exploitation of unease at the second best—including all the risks that go with luxury pessimisms” (424).

Sloterdijk is advocating a middle between the Iron limitations of the Right and the Golden fantasies of the Left. He advocates stabilizing the conditions of this Silver Age, avoiding regression to the Iron Age conditions that much of the world never left. Sloterdijk is conservative insofar as he is advocating stability, conserving immunological integrity, stabilizing the spheres of our Silver Age. The outbursts of ressentiment on the Right and the Left throughout the 19th and 20th centuries impeded the kind of training necessary to affirm and stabilize our solidaristic and symbolic immune systems. “These outbursts constituted terminations of training that did grave damage to modernity fitness—and the danger of new terminations has not passed, as the omnipresence of far left, far right, conservative and ecological fundamentalisms proves” (424).

In response to the twofold global disaster overtaxing humans today—the integration disaster we call “globalization” and the disintegration disaster we call “progress”—we are called to build a cooperative immune system at a planetary scale, “a global co-immunity structure” (451). The classical and modern political binaries of self/other, friend/enemy, and own/foreign will be displaced and redesigned by the boundaries of a planetary immune system “when the earth, spanned by networks and built over by foams, was conceived as the own, and the previously dominant exploitative excess as the foreign” (451). With a Stoic tone, the “Enlightenment-conservative enterprise” of Sloterdijk’s philosophy urges us to take up cooperative training for a post-heroic Silver Age. A planetary co-immunism isn’t something to get too excited about. It’s precisely the opposite; something to help us not get too excited, something to relieve of us the overtaxing burdens of our global crisis so that we might practice composing the collectives of an enriched coexistence.

The very idea of “Operation Enrichment” (Foams, 647) still demands further explication, since it resonates with tones of breeding, control, and selection, which are associated with eugenics and social engineering. Sloterdijk has dealt with controversy around those issues before, notably in light of his essay “Rules for the Human Park [Menschenpark].” It’s safe to say that the controversy surrounding this essay is based on misunderstanding, which is at least a double misunderstanding: failing to understand the context of the essay (a response to the posthumanist ethos of Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism”), and failing to understand Sloterdijk’s cheekiness in terms of a Nietzschean-Deleuzian sense of affirmation. The rules for the Menschenpark are postsecular rules of coexistential building, dwelling, and thinking—the anthropotechnic design principles of planetary co-immunism.

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