The Precarity of Critique: Cultures of Mistrust and the Refusal of Justification

  • Daniel Witte Käte Hamburger Center for Advanced Study “Law as Culture”; Department for Political Sciences and Sociology, University of Bonn
Keywords: mistrust, distrust, trust, paranoia, right-wing populism, PEGIDA, justification, critique, Luc Boltanski, Bruno Latour


The paper reflects on recent developments towards authoritarianism and right-wing populism that have become apparent in a number of Western societies and aims at pinpointing possible cultural foundations for this trend. Using the example of the German PEGIDA movement and the wider milieu in which it is embedded, it identifies and describes a rapidly spreading culture of mistrust and discusses some of its political and epistemological implications. In a second step, the paper draws on Luc Boltanski’s theory of justification in order to attain a better understanding of this political movement’s specificities. It is argued that it is a quasi-violent refusal of justification which is constitutive for the movement in question, thereby transcending the reach of Boltanski’s framework to some extent. In a third step, a closer look is taken at the epistemological paradox that results from the fact that a number of the PEGIDA movement’s
crucial points of criticism are effectively shared by a larger part of the overall population, raising severe problems for the question of sociological critique. The paper utilizes ideas by Bruno Latour in order to illuminate this paradox further and examine its consequences. It closes with remarks on the possibility to “reassemble” trust and critique as crucial but contested – and, hence, precarious – foundations of modern society.


Boltanski, Luc (2011), On Critique. A Sociology of Emancipation. Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press.

Boltanski, Luc (2012), Love and Justice as Competences. Three Essays on the Sociology of Action. Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press.

Boltanski, Luc (2014): Mysteries and Conspiracies. Detective Stories, Spy Novels and the Making of Modern Societies. Cambridge/Malden: Polity Press.

Boltanski, Luc / Thévenot, Laurent (2006), On Justification. Economies of Worth. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Calmbach, Marc (2017), “Generation What? Zum Institutionenvertrauen junger Menschen in Deutschland und Europa”, Die Politische Meinung 543 (March/April 2017): 21–26.

Cicero (2016), “Peter Sloterdijk über Merkel und die Flüchtlingskrise: ‘Es gibt keine moralische Pflicht zur Selbstzerstörung’”, Cicero. Magazin für politische Kultur, 28 Januar, available at: (viewed 15 May, 2017).

Crease, Robert / Ihde, Don / Bruun Jensen, Casper / Selinger, Evan (2003), “Interview with Bruno Latour”, in Chasing Technoscience. Matrix for Materiality, ed. by Don Ihde and Evan Selinger, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp. 15–26.

Dyrberg, Torben Bech (2014), Foucault on the Politics of Parrhesia. Houndmills/New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Foucault, Michel (2011), The Courage of Truth. The Government of Self and Others II, Lectures at the Collège de France 1983-1984. Houndmills/New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Kubitschek, Götz (2015), “PEGIDA-Rede von Götz Kubitschek vom 13. 4.”, Sezession, 14 April, available at: (viewed 15 May, 2017).

Latour, Bruno (1993), We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno (1998), “To Modernize or to Ecologize, That Is the Question”, in Remaking Reality: Nature at the Millennium, ed. by Bruce Braun and Noel Castree, London/New York: Routledge, pp. 221–242.

Latour, Bruno (2004a), Politics of Nature. How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno (2004b), “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, Critical Inquiry 30 (2): 225–248.

Latour, Bruno (2005), Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press.

Latour, Bruno (2010), “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’”, New Literary History 41 (3): 471–490.

Latour, Bruno (2013), An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. An Anthropology of the Moderns. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Matussek, Matthias (2015), “Rüdiger Safranski: ‘Deutschland fluten? Da möchte ich gefragt werden’”, Die Welt, 28 September, available at: (viewed 15 May, 2017).

Müller, Jan-Werner (2016), “Behind the New German Right”, The New York Review of Books, 14 April, available at: (viewed 15 May, 2017).

Popper, Karl (2002 [1945]), The Open Society and Its Enemies. With a preface by Václav Havel. London/New York: Routledge.

Sarraute, Nathalie (1963 [1956]), The Age of Suspicion. Essays on the Novel. New York: George Braziller.

Savage, Mike (2009), “Contemporary Sociology and the Challenge of Descriptive Assemblage”, European Journal of Social Theory 12 (1): 155–174.

Strauß, Botho (2015), “Der letzte Deutsche. Uns wird die Souveränität geraubt, dagegen zu sein”, DER SPIEGEL 41/2015, available at: (viewed 15 May, 2017).

Telepolis (2014), “Ukraine-Konflikt: ARD-Programmbeirat bestätigt Publikumskritik”, 18 September, available at: (viewed 15 May, 2017).

Ulfkotte, Udo (2014), Gekaufte Journalisten. Wie Politiker, Geheimdienste und Hochfinanz Deutschlands Massenmedien lenken. Rottenburg: Kopp Verlag.

Ulrich, Bernd / Geis, Matthias (2016), “‘Hitler hat den Deutschen das Rückgrat gebrochen’. Ein Gespräch mit dem AfD-Politiker Alexander Gauland über deutsche Komplexe, Homosexuelle und Hindenburg, den Islam und Frauke Petry”, Die ZEIT 17/2016, available at: (viewed 15 May, 2017).

Walzer, Michael (1983), Spheres of Justice. A Defense of Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books.

Weber, Max (1978), Economy and Society. An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, ed. by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley et al.: University of California Press.

Weber, Max (2004), “The ‘Objectivity’ of Knowledge in Social Science and Social Policy”, in: The Essential Weber. A Reader, ed. by Sam Whimster, Abingdon/New York: Routledge, pp. 359–404.

ZEIT Online (2015), “Deutsche haben wenig Vertrauen in die Medien. Fehlinformation, Einseitigkeit, schlechte Recherche – das sind laut einer Umfrage der ZEIT einige Kritikpunkte an der politischen Berichterstattung. Das Vertrauen sinkt”, 24 June, available at:
vertrauen (viewed 15 May, 2017).