The current state of the world is often compared with turbulence in the atmosphere, a storm. The Flemish political philosopher has written an essay, or should I say a pamphlet, with the title “A paradise blows from the storm” (Een paradijs waait uit de storm). The title refers to a phrase by the German social critic Walter Benjamin, describing Angelus Novus, a painting by Paul Klee:
“The face of the angel of history is turned toward the past. Where we perceived a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistably propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.”
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920
Oil transfer and watercolor on paper
Decreus argues that only resistance is truly democratic. The current organisation of democracy is to him an elective aristocracy because access to mandates is reserved to an elite and elections usually lead to re-elections of the same elites. But the question is against what one should resist. Decreus argues that the predominance of the market ideology is in itself totalitarian. Moreover it is based on selfishness and assumes that this individual selfishness will be benificary to the group as it allows individuals to experience pleasure and entrepreneurs to make a profit. Competitiveness leads to optimal solutions and creativity. But the market is not perfect and not egalitarian. And in this state, the market creates elites.
Decreus’ criticism on the free markets is not new. And he is right that the free market needs corrections. He is also right when he states that the inequality that has been created is harming the general interest. But these arguments are hardly new. Decreus returns to the foundations of democracy and quotes from the writings of Plato and Aristoteles and describes the Polis or political system as a way to go beyond selfishness and allow people to achieve a higher level of being. For that, inequality cannot be too big. This adagium has been repeated by many in the past 2000 years. John Rawls (1990) defines justice as fairness, which is an even access to resources and corrective measures if this access is not general. Joseph Stiglitz (2012) makes a brilliant analysis of the price of inequality and he comes with a plan.
Decreus does not come with a plan. He says that a philosopher should not solve problems, but reframe them or create new ones. This is quite apalling as a statement from someone who criticizes the current situation and belittles recent initiatives to strive for a more participative or deliberative democracy.
So after reading this essay, the question remains. How to realize progress? How to learn from the current storm(s) ? Resistance against what exactly? In Europe there is a corrected market ideology. There are redistributive systems. In many countries there is a minimum wage (I am still puzzled by the fact that Germany has no minimum wage). Unions exist and collective bargaining is part of the organization of the labour market. Employers increasingly focus on the human side of enterprise and strive to create societal value.
The current storm to me is not a storm of a crumbling ideology, a failure of the free market. It’s a leadership crisis. It’s based on greed. And Decreus argues that the ideology of the free market gets out the worst in people. This is not necessarily true. If there are bad human characteristics, they will be present in all ideologies and human systems. Horrible things have happened in the name of any ideology or religion: crusades in the name of Catholicism, genocide in the name of racial suppremacy (fascism), organised famins in the planned economy of the Soviet Union (Communism), … Any human organisation is not free of “sin” and in all systems elites have abused their power but in all systems elites have been around.
This is just an observation. Maybe an elite is a human characteristic, whatever the nature of the elite (religious, economic, political, …). But there is no reason for an elite to not accept something like the general interest. So the economy is a part of society and should not be treated seperately. So I agree with Decreus that state and economy are not to be divided. But I see no answer in Decreus’ pamphlet.
So far there hasn’t been any civilization that has reached a moral equilibrium that has eradicated immoral behaviour. Only cooperation and leadership could solve that. And I guess the trip towards interdependence and moral equilibrium will be eternal. So the paradise after the storm will remain utopian, but nevertheless desirable.
So even when I agree that crisis (storm) is the basis for progress (after the great flood of 1953 the Netherlands build dams to avoid this kind of disaster), I find Decreus’ analysis quite reductory. As if only resistance is the key to progress. The base of progress is leadership and cooperation. This leadership and cooperation can be anywhere, at any level. And acts of leadership or cooperation do not have to be against something, can be found in various cohabitating ideological systems or can be neutral. And I do see a new world of we arriving (cfr previous blog), in which everyone can play a part, even philosophers, through cooperation and leadership.
Decreus, Thomas (2013). Een Paradijs waait uit de Storm. Over markt, democratie en verzet. Berchem, Epo.
Rawls, John (1990). A theory of Justice.
Stiglitz, Joseph (2012). The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. W.W. Norton & Company.
Source of the picture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Klee,_Angelus_novus.png