NNot only the sheer masses who make the pilgrimage to rallies, but also their almost ritualized return suggests that they are not only concerned about the political thrust against the AfD, but also about unmet needs. To explain this, there is a lot of talk about civil society, which needs to be cultivated, mobilized and defended. Some see this as a departure for new horizons, for democratic empowerment, others as instrumentalization for the benefit of a political camp. The Chancellor encouraged this interpretation by declaring the upcoming elections to be protest elections “against the right” and deliberately left open whether the right meant everything that was not left-wing.

Civil society has had this issue since the days when a distinction was made between a lazy and bourgeois society, the awakened citizen and the state establishment. You up there, we down there – that was and still is a popular justification for politicized “civil society engagement”. Has anything changed about that now? Is the movement that is currently taking place on the streets a sign that what belongs together, state and society, is growing together again?

Civil society with a list

At least it is a confession of that. The people who have been polemicizing against the “elite”, against the establishment, against the “political caste” for years have therefore not owned the truth, do not have “the” people behind them, or even close to the majority like them always like to claim. The front position is comparable to previous confrontations, when the roles between left and right were reversed, when the “caste” consisted of “notables” and the mainstream smelled of the “stuff under the robes”. But then, as now, even the greatest efforts did not lead back to where movements that want to gain or defend cultural upper hand would like to dream of. The gap between top and bottom cannot be filled up.

Even now, it is the non-governmental organizations, not the factions in the local council, that one should think of when the word “civil society” is mentioned; it is citizens' initiatives that are meant, not the job center; they are activists, not district administrators; it is Fridays for Future, not the Christian Democratic Union. A civil society that organizes itself, takes its affairs into its own hands and defends its interests can be effectively staged.

But what Baron vom Stein once understood in Prussia by local self-government, the identification of the citizenry with their affairs, which leads to them taking care of everything themselves without having to rely on the non-local “tenants” in offices, councils and authorities, this ideal is very far removed from modern everyday life. In view of the challenges of modernity, which are only hinted at with the keyword “public services”, one should add: It is a beautiful illusion.

There are only viable solutions “with the right” and “with the left”

This has led to an attitude of entitlement that has schizophrenic traits. Needs at the highest level should be satisfied and problems of the greatest complexity should be solved without hassle, in the spirit of a citizenry that demands self-determination but cannot fulfill it and senses alienation and heteronomy even in the representation of its interests. Now it is being said again that “the” parties finally have to wake up, have had enough time, still don’t get it, but under no circumstances should they fall for the AfD, whose protagonists say exactly the same thing.

This creates a shrill talk of political illusionists past each other between the warring political camps. On German streets, the mountain of unresolved problems – migration, integration, transformation, recession – seems to be dissolving for the moment of democratic bliss as a citizens' movement reassures itself that it is against Nazis. On the other side, there is a radicalizing minority that indulges in the utopia that the mountain should be completely demolished and, since that is not possible, wants a reactionary-revolutionary citizens' movement that would put an end to party bickering, mainstream and hirelings.

What if the rallies talked about migration, transformation and recession? And not just in phrases? There are only viable solutions for this “with the right” and “with the left”, not “against the right” or “against the left”. The often invoked solidarity that is necessary for this is, in Stein's successor, practiced daily in the municipalities and in their self-administration. This is the precious reflection of a beautiful illusion. Those up there should actually know how those down there do it.