The Lie of Responsibility

“It’s up to you,” we hear up and down the country. Or: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” This sounds so good and is so well-intentioned that a lot of people put on their shoes and are plagued with feelings of guilt. Our sphere of responsibility seems to be growing, while the authoritarian policies of the powerful are gradually shrinking our real influence. Individuals are encouraged to correct the mistakes of politics and the economy by making ethical consumption decisions at their own expense. There is talk of ‘self-responsibility’ whenever the institutions withdraw from responsibility. And if they want to force an aggravation of our situation on us. Thus, ownership is above all the favourite word of the irresponsible nowadays.

“I think a bit of personal responsibility is right,” my dentist said when he presented me with the high bill. My health insurance would not take a penny from it. Former FDP parliamentary group leader Rainer Brüderle also called for more personal responsibility. As with the pension, everyone should take care of their own care insurance. On the labour market, the following has long been true: “promoting and challenging”. The low unemployment benefit is intended to “strengthen the personal responsibility of the beneficiary”.

That sounds good. Apparently behind this is the ideal of an autonomous personality. One frees oneanother from dependencies and makes decisions for one’s life. If things go wrong, you have the responsibility for it. I am moved that people like Brüderle and my dentist are so committed to my development into a mature personality.

Have we made it too easy for ourselves so far? Angela Merkel, in any case, accuses us: “We have all lived beyond our means.” Prince Charles says: “We are destroying the air conditioning of our planet.” Dirk Fleck, author of an eco-thriller, calls us the “generation of perpetrators”. We destroy the livelihoods of our descendants with our way of life and economics. This depresses me all the more because I belong from birth to the perpetrator’s people (Germany) and the perpetrator’s sex (men). Overwhelming lyrism for a really quite harmless-looking guy. I’ve been sleeping badly lately.

We are always to blame

The drastic and blanket attribution of responsibility to the general public, to you and me, is common rhetoric today. If I want a better world, I start with the change in myself. In fact, one could be pleased that responsibility has become such a topic of the zeitgeist. And there is real responsibility and real guilt. However, I strongly oppose exaggerations and the abuse of the term ‘self-responsibility’.

Light bulbs

It is pretended that the use of the right light bulb is the fulcrum for saving the world. The truth is that only about one-tenth of CO2 emissions are accounted for by private households, of which about one-twentieth is lighting, i.e. two hundredths. And by the large energy users, for example the nuclear industry, huge amounts of CO2 are blown into the air senselessly. For Hans Arpke, an energy expert from Weilheim, the responsibility of the end user in terms of light is close to zero: “Light bulbs of old type give off heat. If they are replaced by temperature-neutral energy-saving lamps, the consumer could compensate for this in winter by turning the heating on further.”

“We have lived beyond our means”

The fact is that more and more people are being pushed below the poverty line. The Prassers are above all the richest ten percent. And politics is doing everything it can to make their vast fortunes swell even further.

Peace policy

There is often a responsible mentality here that falls short. Spiritual people argue: “Peace begins in you”. Peace in one’s own heart, however, has only marginal to do with world peace. It must be carried outward in order to become a social reality. The peace psychologist Professor Gert Sommer urges political commitment: “Being at peace with yourself is also nice. But even if 99 percent of the world’s population is at peace and 1 percent is not, that is enough to wage wars.”


The buyer can actually do something here, but with restrictions. First, the price makes it harder for him to act ethically. Well-meaning people pay a kind of ethics penalty fee. Second, wholesalers deliberately disguise the unfair manufacturing conditions of most overseas products. At the same time, massive advertising campaigns are constantly perverting consumers to be unconcerned. It takes a lot of time and energy to be informed and to rule out wrong decisions. So the question is: why don’t powerful multinationals buy only fair products in advance? Or why doesn’t the state simply ban unfair trade?

“Responsible” in small, powerless on the whole

The end user should therefore compensate for the mistakes made previously by large, powerful organisations.

There is a kind of crowdsourcing of the sense of responsibility. The well-meaning consumer invites all the misery of the world to his conscience: “If I shop correctly, there will be no more exploitation”. This could be a mistake.

The main problems can only be solved by structural change and political decisions on a large scale. It would be obvious, for example, to drastically reduce the profit margin of the Aldi brothers or their heirs (assets estimated at 34 billion). The money could be used to pay fairer prices to manufacturers. The profit levy would also have to be prevented by persons who do not provide their own services (shareholders).

Within the old system, however, we are constantly experiencing the old game: workers and end users should divide the small piece of the cake among themselves, which the rip-offs leave. The Austrian non-fiction author Christian Felber sees a perfidious system behind this:

“We are kept away from the real place of political events and sent to the supermarkets, where we are to live out our democratic responsibility, in an assigned reserve of freedom of choice as a substitute for real democracy.”

Felber hits the heart of the issue: citizens are systematically excluded from important decisions. For example, by refusing direct democracy (except in Switzerland) and by shifting decisions to EU level. At the same time, we should feel “increasingly responsible”.

Fighting concept of the irresponsible

With regard to the campaigns launched by the state and the embedded media, one can see that personal responsibility is always called for when someone wants to force us to accept deterioration sequalities in our living conditions. Any resistance would then be synonymous with regression to an immature stage of development. Ownership is being urged by those who want to withdraw from responsibility, even though they are well paid to bear it. For example, during the “bank bailout” in 2008, it became clear that banks, while unabashedly gambled with billions of dollars, did not see why they should bear the losses themselves. You have the taxpayer for that. Today, “self-responsibility” is above all the concept of the struggle of the irresponsible.

Our responsibility stands and falls with our real influence on what is happening. It is often smaller than we think. That is why well-meaning appeals from the activist scene often fall short. For example, we read in the web magazine “Being” that “change cannot be generated by political resistance and violence, but begins with each individual, in every single decision we make every day.” It is a pity that the author also disposed of the resistance with the violence. Those in power can only rejoice that such half-truths are circulating among the people. All they have to do is reduce our room for manoeuvre to a level that is harmless to them — and that is exactly what is happening.

Dangerous “responsibility burnout”

People’s energy and time budgets are limited, but their responsibilities are potentially unlimited. Particularly problematic is the sentence: “Whoever watches is complicit”. It leads, literally, very quickly to a “responsibility burnout.” Of course, if one is drowning, you should not stop on the shore — you should hop in and save it. But those who feel responsible for the whole globe will quickly reach their limits. The neo-liberal image of man is causing a negative spiral: as the collective increasingly refuses to take responsibility for us, we are constantly busy taking care of ourselves. As a result, we no longer have the strength to take responsibility for the collective.

Appeals to our sense of responsibility suggest that our area of responsibility could be extended at will. It is true that our influence can grow to a limited extent as long as we pay the bill for ethical behavior ourselves (e.g. Fairtrade). It becomes more difficult when our actions affect the interests of domination on a massive scale.

One example is the complementary or regional currencies. If they become dangerous to the system of control over the money system, they could be banned overnight. This is what happened in the famous money experiment of Wörgl in 1932. If this is not to happen, the power centers must be filled with more integer people — or the power of the central offices must be reduced overall.

Feelings of guilt make you small

The question arises as to how it was possible to pass responsibility so massively on to the ‘simple citizen’. First of all, the transfer of responsibility is, of course, a psychological self-relief for the truly powerful. Gerhard Polt scoffs in his sketch “The Responsible Man”: “You can’t blame the minister for this just because he caused it.” Secondly, of course, the financial disadvantages of responsible action should be shifted to us. But a third reason seems important to me: the dark sister of responsibility is to blame. And with feelings of guilt you can manipulate people.

Those who take responsibility without having the appropriate influence will quickly feel like failures. Crippling feelings of guilt, making us small and making us believe that we do not deserve an improvement in conditions.

Noam Chomsky, an American civil rights activist, writes: “Humanity should think that it is the only culprit of its non-success because of too little intelligence, competence or efforts. The ‘system’ thus counteracts a popular rebellion by suggesting to the citizen that he is to blame for all evil, thereby reducing his self-esteem.”

Why do many people seem willing to accept the responsibility that is being placed on them? I suspect that this is the desire to feel powerful. The king in the book “The Little Prince” orders the sun to rise every morning. In the evening, he orders her to go down again. And behold, she obeys. Also in esotericism it is customary to attribute to the individual the authorship of everything (“I am the creator of my reality”). I see this as a defence against feelings of powerlessness that are experienced as intolerable. The fantasies of size sprout to the extent that our actual design possibilities are pushed back by the institutions.


Do I want to shy myself from responsibility? I try to exonerate all of us from false self-reproaches. For this, however, I have to burden us with a responsibility that is usually not recognized as such: it consists in attacking and overthrowing the existing power structures. So the forces that decide that our taxpayers' money goes into war gear. Those who determine that the people can only receive money as debt money from private banks. Those who constantly pump the money from the bottom up in a mad legal raid.

We must act. Not because we are to blame for the fact that the poorly paid workers in the banana plantations are choking on the spraying agents, but because a world is created in which this can no longer happen.

There is a big difference between “because” and “with it”, as Noam Chomsky has shown: If we feel like failures, it makes us depressed and weak. On the other hand, if we feel that we are valuable people whose dignity has been violated by power cartels, we will confidently demand our right. Those who take responsibility for everything tend to look at navel-gazing instead of working on the upheaval of circumstances.

Beyond the megalomania

This is not a call to refrain from the “small steps” to a more decent life. I think it is important, for example, to refrain from unnecessary car journeys and to buy fair trade orange juice. But these things should happen on the side and gradually pass into flesh and blood. The life of the politically awakened man should be organized in such a way that there is still strength for the great struggles.

This can mean taking to the streets, occupying seats and encircling banks. This can mean standing outside in the rain and cold and marching through the menacing splinters of highly armed policemen. This can also mean rehearsing disobedience and accepting negative consequences for it.

Have you ever wondered why it is so popular to say, “I’d rather start with small changes with myself”? It’s just more convenient to buy Fairtrade roses for 3 euros than to take to the streets and get on with the power. The former gives a comfortable feeling of being on the right side. The latter causes fear, is risky. It is often associated with self-doubt or means tough wrestling with fellow competitors for the right way. But this would be real personal responsibility without false feelings of guilt and fantasies of greatness. Yes, the change must start with each individual. But it must not stop there. We have a responsibility, but it is first of all about recognising what we are not responsible for.