Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Cure (or: Confessions of a Liberal Anti-Neoliberal, with Recommendations)

Make Holland Great Again...?


Who am I?
What do I stand for?
What is it that unites me with those who are like me?
What is it that divides me from those who are unlike me?
  
The current wave of rightwing populism answers these questions along lines of nationality and ethnicity, often with strong racial connotations. The slogan “Make America Great Again” really means “I want to be proud again of being an American.” Likewise, in my own country, followers of Geert Wilders want to be proud again to be Dutch. The French want to be proud again to be French, the English to be English, and so on. Only in Germany such sentiments of national pride have long been taboo, for obvious historical reasons: if Germans should be proud of anything, it had to be of being exemplary Europeans. They still are, but even in Germany the tide is beginning to turn.
I understand these sentiments very well, for once upon a time I used to be proud of being Dutch. This was in the mid-1990s, when I was living in Paris and began seeing my own native culture and mentality in a new light. Not that I disliked the French – on the contrary, there was much that I admired about them – but I liked the values of my own little country even more. I felt that in the Netherlands, small as we might be, we had excellent reasons to be proud of our long and thoroughly sympathetic tradition of openness and pragmatic tolerance in dealing with the facts of cultural or religious diversity. Those values of Dutchness went at least as far back as the seventeenth century, when my country was a relatively safe haven for refugees persecuted for their beliefs elsewhere in Europe. And for a Dutchman of my generation, such values were connected on a deep emotional level to the stories my parents had passed on to me, about Dutch resistance against totalitarian oppression during World War II. True: today we know that these heroic stories were partly idealized and romanticized. Still, there was an important movement of resistance. Many ordinary people did risk their lives to stand up for those who were being persecuted. These stories helped define my way of looking at the world. I am grateful to my parents for passing them on.
And then everything changed. While I used to be proud of being Dutch, during the years after 9/11 I have grown to be deeply ashamed of how my country abandoned and betrayed its core values. With surprising speed, we descended downwards along a negative spiral ending up in a poisonous climate of intolerance, suspicion, xenophobia, egoism, hatred, and verbal and sometimes even physical violence against minorities of all kinds. This development began with Pim Fortuyn, a flamboyant figure on the right, a political outsider who began saying things that many people were thinking but did not dare to admit. With hindsight, I still look at him with some sympathy. I did not share his political stance, but I respected his attitude of saying what I think and doing what I say” and his disregard of bourgeois morality (for example, even while running an election campaign for becoming Prime Minister, he was perfectly open about his homosexuality). However, Fortuyn opened the gate for a whole second wave of much more vicious rightwingers, demagogues, and opportunists such as Theo van Gogh, Rita Verdonk, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and many others. Finally we ended up with Geert Wilders. Fortuyn was murdered by an animal rights activist, and van Gogh was butchered in the street by a radical Islamist. Those were deeply shocking events, and my country has never recovered. We have not been able or willing to find our way back to what used to “make Holland great”: our traditions of tolerance and acceptance, of “live and let live,” our openness towards others, our nondogmatic mentality, our way of dealing in a low-key and pragmatic manner with the facts of cultural or religious or sexual diversity – ideally with a sense of self-relativizing humor that befitted such a small country, and that somehow seemed to capture what it meant to be Dutch.
All of that vanished almost overnight. Today I feel that my country has betrayed me – or rather, that it has betrayed itself and what it once stood for. Dutch “identity” seems to have become an empty shell, a vacuum ready to be filled with depressing debates about zwarte Piet and groundless paranoia about refugees and what they might be up to. Refugees from countries such as Syria – normal people, ordinary people like ourselves who have lost everything and had to run for their lives to escape from murderers, torturers and rapists – are routinely portrayed as though they are dangerous criminals themselves. What happened to common decency? What happened to our willingness to empathize with other human beings? Watching the public debate, I cannot but look with feelings of deep shame at what the Netherlands have become.
“Make Holland great again”? Never before have we been so small.

The Takeover


Now does all this imply that I embrace “Europe”? Isn’t that what stereotypical “liberals” or “lefties” like myself are supposed to do? Well, no! Around the same time, during the mid-1990s when I began discovering my positive Dutch identity, I also became aware of a very different phenomenon. People all around me seemed to be getting quite obsessed with “the economy.” Why was that? With hindsight it is clear to me that I was perfectly naïve and ignorant about what was going on at the time. For instance, it puzzled me that we suddenly needed to have a separate block for “economic news” on the evening news. Why make such a big fuss about money, I wondered, we had been doing just fine without that – thank you very much! At the time, I did not grasp why politicians on the Social-Democrat left, such as our Prime Minister Wim Kok or Tony Blair in the UK, were so proud to “shed their ideological feathers” and began looking and behaving exactly like the capitalist rightwingers that I had always disliked. And I did not understand why, all of a sudden, public services such as transport, health care, or education needed to be “privatized” and turned into commercial enterprises. They had served us quite well, hadn’t they? We were being told that those measures would “reduce prices and increase quality,” but it was clear for all to see that the opposite was true. Prices went up, quality decreased, and worst of all, everything became infected by the slick dishonest language of commerce. Hospitals once used to exist to cure the sick – but now patients became “consumers,” health care became a “product,” and the bottom line became financial profit rather than making people well. Was I naïve? I certainly was, and I was ignorant too. Like so many others, I simply could not see what was causing these changes.
Very similar developments were taking place everywhere else around me, and it all became wrapped up with another New Thing called “European integration.” It wasn’t just that politicians, across the spectrum from “left” to “right,” all began spouting the same economic newspeak about privatization and deregulation, so that if you didn’t like the economization of everything you were left pretty much without a credible candidate to vote for. But on top of that, it became clear that those politicians who were supposed to be in charge had less and less control over what was happening in my country. They kept handing big chunks of national sovereignty over to Europe, without ever asking their own citizens for permission to do so. They had no respect for the truth: to give just one small and mostly symbolic example, after the introduction of the Euro everybody could see that a glass of beer in downtown Amsterdam was suddenly more than twice as expensive, but I stil remember well-known politicians simply denying it. “No no, you’re mistaken, the price has not gone up.” Everybody could see that the sky had turned green, but they insisted it was still blue. Such dishonesty was shocking, but we learned to get used to it, for it kept happening all the time. Eventually, it became perfectly clear to me what this thing called “Europe” really meant. Of course: it was “the economy” again – what else? The slogans are well known: “It’s the economy, stupid!” (Bill Clinton) “There Is No Alternative” (Margaret Thatcher).
No alternative indeed. We pretty much ended up with no credible politicians to vote for because they were all saying more or less the same thing. Hence we ended up with no opportunity for citizens to influence what happened to their own country. And we lost our opportunity to choose for anything that actually meant something real to human beings unless it had first been quantified and converted into economic terms. In short, it was not enough that the Netherlands had forgotten and betrayed their identity: the very country itself seemed to be taken away from us and handed over to some remote, abstract, democratically deficient economic entity called “Europe”. Did anybody ever ask me, or my fellow citizens, whether we agreed with all of this? No, our politicians felt sure they knew best what was good for us all. Even at those rare moments when European citizens managed to get a word in, and used it to say “no!” (as in the case of the European “Constitution,” rejected in 2005 by the Dutch and the French), those leaders found a way to work around the problem and end up doing what they wanted anyway (the Lisbon treaty of 2007). They had learned their lesson though: better not ask your citizens for permission again, just do it. This type of arrogance became typical of the managerial “elites”.
I repeat: I was perfectly clueless at the time. It was only much later that I began to understand a bit better what was happening, and why. The story is well known by now: the move from Keynesian “embedded liberalism” to the triumph of Hayek’s and Friedman’s ideology of Neoliberalism under Thatcher and Reagan, leading to the “Washington Consensus” after the end of the Cold War, and so on and so forth. After the Wall had come down, Neoliberalism would deliver “the End of History.” American-style capitalism would spread all over the world, bringing the blessings of freedom and democracy wherever it went. The global free market would make us all into one big happy family.
Of course it didn’t work out that way. How is it possible that so many people even believed in such a story – and some still do? The problem with any dominant ideology is that it is blind to whatever does not fit its own narrative. In this particular case, the grand narrative is incapable of perceiving any dimensions of reality that do not fit the particular logic that governs neoliberal economics or cannot be translated into its language. From the outset, the whole thing was based on wholly unrealistic and perfectly utopian dreams unchecked by historical awareness. And perhaps most of all, it reflected a shocking disregard of basic human psychology. Which brings me full circle: human beings need more than money and security. They need identity too. We need to know who we are, what we stand for, what unites us with others like ourselves, and what divides us from others unlike ourselves. That is the bottom line.

Human vs Neoliberal


Finally then, after several decades of neoliberal brainwashing, the chickens have come home to roost. The populist revolt is telling us what those who have been dreaming of a neoliberal world order refused to see, or were incapable of seeing. It is not a pretty sight. As regards identity, this is how I imagine the conversation between an average Human Being and a neoliberal ideologue:

Human: “Who am I?”
Neoliberal: “You are a consumer. Or let me be more specific, you are an individual. That is to say: you are a rational agent who is driven exclusively by your own self-interest.”
Human: “What do I stand for?”
Neoliberal: “Well, ehm, didn’t I just tell you? You are a consumer on a market. So you stand for yourself. For maximizing your own interest!”
Human: “But what unites me with others like myself?”
Neoliberal: “Ehm… nothing really, to be quite honest. Except that all those others are self-interested individuals too! You have that in common.”
Human: “What then divides me from others unlike myself?”
Neoliberal: “They hate your freedom!”
Human: “Excuse me? How so? Can you please explain?”
Neoliberal: “Isn’t it clear? Your freedom as a consumer is your freedom to choose, and it is the market that gives you that freedom. Make sure that you remain a consumer! Make sure you value nothing higher than your own personal interest: make sure that you get what you want. And for God’s sake, don’t act irrationally! I mean, don’t be so stupid to ever think of others first, or imagine that you should share what you have. Never put their interest above your own interest. If they win, you lose. Think of yourself first, for that is what everybody else is doing.”

The problem is that the neoliberal, in this conversation, is in fact not much of a human being – at least he doesn’t behave like one. And this is what makes it so easy and natural for our generic Human to morph into a populist. See how that goes:

Human: “OK, OK, you made your point. But now shut up, for I have something to tell you. Yes, I will put my own interest first – all right. But here’s the thing: I am not ‘interested’ in being just a consumer! I do not want to be just some disconnected atom in some impersonal machine that is just trying to manipulate me to squeeze money out of me. That is not my ‘interest.’ And don’t you tell me that I’m all about making ‘rational choices.’ No, I care! I care deeply, you idiot, that’s why I’m so fucking angry! Don’t you get it? I’m a human being. I have feelings. I care about people. I care about my people. I want to be with people who are like me. I want our leaders to be people like me: I want them to be people who care about me and who care about people who are like me. And you know what? You are not like me at all! Just now, you were trying to tell me that those who are unlike me ‘hate our freedom’. Well, I have news for you buddy: it is you who hates my freedom! You just want me to follow your rules. You want to turn me into a ‘consumer’ who does what he’s being told so that you can take advantage of me. I suppose that’s how you ‘maximize your own interest’. Well, I’m not interested in what you want, or what anyone else wants. I’m interested in what I want, and I sure do not want that F$%^&*@#$%! system of yours! And by the way, don’t you dare lecture me about ‘democracy’ or ‘equality’ or ‘human rights’. You least of all! You’re so full of shit, you don’t even believe in that stuff yourself – look at how you behave! So how do you expect me to believe in those things? You have no decency. You talk about ‘democracy’ but you don’t listen to people. You talk about ‘equality’ but you look at folks like us as deplorables. You talk about ‘human rights’ but you don’t believe in any ‘rights’ except your own god-given right to pursue your own individual interests at the expense of others. How could I possibly have any respect for you and your so-called humanitarian ‘values’? Get out of my face! I’d trust anyone rather than trust you – I’d even rather vote for some idiot with funny blond hair, just to piss you off.”

What a dilemma! 

I recently discovered that some of my friends hate the “neoliberal world order” so much that they even seemed willing to welcome Donald Trump and keep trying to defend him as “the lesser evil.” Anything but Hillary! Anyone who will blow up the system for us! Then again, some of my friends are so scared of Trump (as they should) that they are tempted to forgive even the neoliberal world order. By comparison, its defenders now look almost benevolent. Anything but Trump, anything but Le Pen, and so on. As should be perfectly obvious by now, I see the choice between neoliberalism and rightwing populism as a choice between the Devil and Beëlzebub. They are both enemies of humanity. I perfectly understand the fury of my “Human” against the “Neoliberal” and his system, for I share that fury, and I even understand quite well how s/he turns into a populist. But here’s the thing: the Human revolts against neoliberalism because s/he is Human. Human beings are not made to live in an inhuman world, they cannot stand it. It is for that very reason that the politics of hate, intolerance, egoism and xenophobia do not offer any real alternative, and never will – not even to the rightwing populists who think they will. They are the symptoms of a disease, not the cure.

So What is the Cure?


The cure is that we care. The cure is that we care about what is happening to the world around us, that we care about human beings and what is happening to them right now and everywhere around us. Not just what is happening to ourselves, to “our own,” to “people like us” – no, the cure is that we care about what is happening to people, period. Please note that I'm not talking about some kind of generic love for humanity” in the abstract: no, I mean caring for human beings because they are human beings, people like us. Why do we care? We care because we empathize. We happen to know very well what it is to be a human being – after all, we are human beings ourselves. We know what it’s all about. Underneath the anger there is fear, and underneath the fear there is suffering. Unvariably, that is what you find when you get past all the bullshit.
The cure lies in rediscovering what it really was that those people used to mean, once upon a time a long while ago, when they were using such very big words: “freedom”, “democracy”, “equality”, or “human rights” – and used them wholeheartedly, with full conviction, without irony, and without apologies. These are big words for a reason: they refer to big ideals. They have absolutely nothing to do with the small stuff that neoliberalism has been selling us (!) under those names. In fact they are the very opposites of what they have been made out to be. They need to be rediscovered.
The cure lies in rediscovering our common humanity, because that is what really unites us. Make no mistake: it unites us not just with our friends or our facebook buddies in our facebook bubble. It unites us even with those who oppose us, even with those who hate us, even with those who are trying to kill us, who seem to have forgotten what it means to be human because they have forgotten themselves. The cure is to go - not halfheartedly but with full force and full conviction - for true values: the kind that cannot be quantified and converted into money, statistics, or other tools of power and domination. Not by any coincidence, such values are basic (or should be basic) to what is called the “Humanities.” In the most profound sense, they are what still remains when all else vanishes, for unlike their opposites they cannot be destroyed. What are those values? The big ones, of course, the classics (traditionally known as the trancendentals): goodness, beauty, truth. What else could they be? There’s no room for irony or cynicism here: if we are afraid to be serious even about these matters, then we might as well give up for then we have already lost.
So that is the cure: that we care for whatever is good, whatever is beautiful, and whatever is true.

All else is secondary. 

Friday, December 30, 2016

Horizon 2020: Walking the Road with Robert Musil


Last year, during these dark days before Christmas, I posted an even darker text with the title “Profile 2016”. I made an attempt to highlight and analyze the main structural problems with which Western society is struggling, especially the Reign of Neoliberalism combined with Information Overkill. Insiders from the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Amsterdam will have noted that my title alluded to the notorious Profile 2016 document that had been one of the triggers for the occupation of the administrative centers first of the Faculty of Humanities (the Bungehuis) and then of the whole university (the Maagdenhuis), in a large and inspiring revolt against the neoliberal takeover of academia. This time I have taken inspiration from another typical product of neoliberalism in academia, the “EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation”. 


However, my true reason for choosing this particular title “Horizon 2020” has less to do with either neoliberalism or the reign of information as such than with the child that was born from those two parents last November. 2016 will be remembered as the year when fascism (or at least the kind of populism traditionally known by its literal German equivalent, referred to as völkisch) announced its return to the center stage of American society. It is all set to become the most powerful force in the world. One night in February 2016 I found myself waking up in the middle of the night, my heart booming, in a sudden surge of panic at the idea that Donald Trump could win the election. But when he actually did “win” (I know, he lost the popular vote, and about half of the US population didn't bother to vote at all), this still came as an utter shock, a sudden nightmare from which quite honestly I may not yet have woken up and have certainly not recovered. Profile 2017 looks even darker than its predecessor; so on the screen of my imagination, “Horizon 2020” has now become the closest horizon of hope. Barring impeachments or other extreme events (which might well happen, of course: see below), it seems that Sauron alias Voldemort will be running the show for the next four years at least.

Looking at the sudden rise to prominence of forums such as Alt Right, including a new breed of right-wing intellectuals who take inspiration from Traditionalism and certain other forms of esotericism in their assault on “the evils of the modern world” (liberalism, democracy, cultural and religious plurality, human rights, gay marriage, LGBT rights, and so on), I couldn’t help being reminded of a speech I gave at the opening of the 2nd biannual conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism. I now realize that at that time, in 2009, I hadn’t yet grasped the true nature of neoliberalism, and did not yet fully understand its centrality to how the European Union had worked out in practice; but with that minor reservation, I still stand behind every word I said. The lecture was never published and was not made generally available at the time, but because of what I see as its relevance to the present situation in Europe and the United States, especially for scholars of Western esotericism, I just put it online for whoever might be interested.

It seems to me that the new völkisch movement is the child of two parents who have been running the show for quite a while now. One of them, neoliberalism, has made it possible for an international power elite of multinational corporations and financial institutions to gain far more power than has ever been enjoyed by any democratically elected government. As a result, regular or mainstream politicians have become puppets of the true powers that are running the world: if your prime minister wants to have influence at all, s/he will need to make deals with the international corporations and financial institutions, on terms that are dictated or are at least acceptable to the latter. No surprise then that the general electorate feels disempowered. Most of us have come to realize that the politicians that we “vote into power” do not actually have that power anymore: it is the international corporate and financial system that is pushing the buttons. This system functions not as a top-down hierarchy but as a non-hierarchical self-governing network (for the emergence of the “network mode” out of the 1960s Counterculture and its relation to both cyberculture and neoliberal economics, see this fascinating study); but any strings that are still there to be pulled are in the hands of unelected leaders whose business interests decide what is done or left undone. As regards the economic system as a whole, it functions very much like an airplane on autopilot with an empty cockpit and no licensed pilot on board.
For the general electorate, the penny has dropped a long time ago. Voters understand that it doesn’t matter whether you vote “left” or “right”: surely there are some differences in emphasis between the various political parties, but these are marginal and largely cosmetic. Basically all political parties are dancing to the same tune of the international market, which is presented as “the only option”, so what the voter thinks of it does not really matter. Therefore what happens? The “common people” play the only card that is left to them: their vote. They are using the only tool they still have to fight against the educated “elites”: those guys (and girls) who keep claiming they represent the people’s best interests while clearly they are serving their own.
That is one part of the story. The other part has to do with knowledge and information: increasingly, over the last decade or so, we have been losing sight of the difference between those two. The important thing about knowledge is that it is true by definition: if it isn’t, then it isn’t knowledge but something else (delusion, falsehood, misperception, misunderstanding, ignorance, and so on). Information, by contrast, is just data: it doesn’t matter to the system whether it is true or false. Computers or information networks do not differentiate between statements such as “Hillary is an advocate of human rights” or “Hillary is a reptile in disguise”. Both are just pieces of information; to decide whether they are true or false you need a human being. However, as human beings we have grown remarkably reluctant to accept that responsibility. Intellectuals have grown suspicious of anyone who dares to make claims of “truth”: we have learned how often such claims are just masks of power and domination, we have come to appreciate that there are “different kinds of truth”, we know that people may disagree about almost everything, and so we have sort of given up and decided that it’s all just a matter of personal opinion. Who is to judge? But if the educated have lost their faith in searching for truth, and hence in the value (or even the very possibility) of knowledge, inevitably this realization trickles down to the broader population: “Even those educated elites no longer know what is true. Look at them: they no longer speak with any confidence. Their so-called ‘knowledge’ is really just another opinion. If so, then why should we keep funding those guys with taxpayers’ money? No, we will make up our own minds, thank you very much. We can very well find out for ourselves: it’s all on the Internet!”
The reign of Neoliberalism has created an ever-growing reservoir of pent-up resentment and anger: the pressure has been building up for a long time, and is now breaking through to the surface. Simultaneously, as knowledge has tacitly been replaced by information, intellectuals (who have been very much complicit in this phenomenon) have lost their ability to question power by appealing to standards of truth: welcome to the “post-truth society”. 
So that is what we are up against: fury and ignorance. A deadly combination.

I will try to resist the temptation of predicting what will happen between now and the 2020 horizon. It's depressing and pointless. Why repeat the well-known litany of dangers and destructive trends that will certainly continue into the New Year? We know that they are very real, but if we allow our imagination to be colonized by fear and depression, we endanger the most important source of hope: the simple fact that while we are perfectly capable of imagining what might happen, we simply do not know the future. Hope lies precisely in that realization.
What we can know is the nature of the evil that we are facing. We can learn to recognize it when we encounter it, and we can learn how best to deal with it. Last week I have been re-reading Robert Musil’s great novel of modernity, The Man without Qualities, and came across a long passage that impressed me so much that I decided to translate it. Beware, this is no food for hasty readers! 

Musil has just been describing how a carefully selected group of writers and other literary figures has been invited to the home of a highminded patroness of culture, Diotima, together with a selection of scientists. The writers have been giving speeches, and the scientists have been listening. Here we go.


Science smiles in its beard; or, first extensive encounter with evil

Now some words must be added about a smile, and what is more: a masculine smile – one that involved a beard (indispensable to the masculine practice of smiling in it). It is about the smile of the scientists who had accepted Diotima’s invitation and were listening to those famous fine spirits. Although they were smiling, one should certainly not think that they did this ironically. On the contrary, it was their way of showing their feelings of respect and incompetence ... But this, too, should not delude us. It is correct according to their conscious opinion, but in their unconscious – to use that fashionable term, or better, in their totality – these were people in whom a tendency towards Evil was crackling like fire under a cauldron.
Of course, at first sight that might seem a paradoxical statement. If an ordinary professor would be told this to his face, he would probably respond that he was simply serving the cause of Truth and Progress and for the rest didn’t know of any such thing; for that is his professional ideology. But all professional ideologies are noble. It never occurs to hunters to call themselves the butchers of the woods, they rather call themselves the friends of animal and natural sustainability, just as merchants uphold the principle of fair profit, and thieves in turn appeal to the god of merchants, that is to say, to the distinguished international god Mercury, who brings nations together. Therefore one should better not attach too much value to what an activity looks like in the mind of those who practice it.
If we ask ourselves frankly how science came to assume its present shape – and this is important because, after all, we are ruled by her, and even an illiterate person is not safe from her, since he must learn to live with countless things that were born in learning – then a different image emerges. According to credible tradition it is in the sixteenth century, a period of intense spiritual excitement, that science gave up on trying to penetrate the secrets of nature (as had been the custom for twenty centuries of religious and philosophical speculation), henceforth to be satisfied, in a manner that can only be described as superficial, with studying its surface. For instance, the great Galileo Galilei (who is always mentioned first here) did away with the problem of what is the reason lying in Nature’s essence that causes her to abhor a vacuum, so that she makes a falling body enter and occupy space after space until it finally hits solid ground, and contented himself with something much more trivial: he simply established the speed at which such a body falls, the course it takes, the time it takes, and its rate of acceleration. The Catholic Church made a grave mistake in threatening this man with death and forcing him to recant, instead of just killing him without much further ado; for from the way he and people like him were looking at things, there sprang – in almost no time at all, if we think in terms of historical periods – railway time-tables, factory machines, physiological psychology, and the moral corruption of our time, against which she (the Church) no longer stands a chance. This mistake she probably made out of an excess of shrewdness – after all, Galileo was not just the discoverer of the law of gravitation and of the earth’s motion, but also an inventor in whom, as one would put it today, the commercial world took an interest; and moreover, he was not the only one seized by the new spirit. On the contrary, the historical record shows that the matter-of-factness which inspired him spread far and wide like an infectious disease; and although today it may sound offensive to speak of somebody as being “inspired” by matter-of-factness, of which we already think we have too much, at the time (according to witnesses of all kinds) the awakening from metaphysics to the sharp observation of things must truly have been a frenzy and a blazing fire of matter-of-factness! But if we ask ourselves how humanity got it into her head to change herself in this manner, then the answer is that she did what every sensible child does when it has tried walking too soon; it sat down on the ground, making contact through a dependable but not very dignified part of the body. It must be said: she did it simply with that part on which one sits. For the remarkable thing is that the earth has shown itself so extraordinarily receptive to this, and, ever since this touchdown, has offered up such a wealth of inventions, conveniences, and discoveries that it can almost be called a miracle.
After this bit of prehistory, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is the wonder of the Anti-Christ in the midst of which we find ourselves; for the simile of sitting down that was just used can be understood not only in the direction of reliability, but also in the direction of the indecent and forbidden. And indeed, before intellectuals discovered their passion for the facts, only soldiers, hunters and merchants had it – that is to say, only shrewd and violent types. In the battle for survival there is no room for philosophical sentimentalities: all that counts is the wish to dispose of one’s opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible – here, everybody is a positivist. Nor would it count as a virtue in business to allow oneself to be bamboozled instead of staying with the established facts – profit boiling down, in the end, to a psychological process that makes use of circumstance to overpower the other. On the other hand, if we consider the qualities that lead to discoveries, we find an absence of all traditional scruples and inhibitions, courage, a spirit of enterprise as much as of destruction, annihilation of moral considerations, patient bargaining for the tiniest advantage, dogged endurance on the way towards the goal, if necessary, and a respect for measure and number that is the sharpest expression of distrust towards all that is uncertain. In other words, we observe nothing but those old sins of hunters, soldiers, and merchants; only now they are translated into intellectual terms and explained as virtues. And although this may have placed them at a distance from the quest for personal and relatively lowly profit, the element of primal Evil, as one could call it, has not vanished after this transformation. For it seems to be indestructible and eternal, at least as eternal as everything humanly sublime, because it consists of nothing more, nor less, than the pleasure of tripping that sublimity up and watching it fall flat on its face. Who does not know the malicious temptation, while watching a beautifully voluptuous glazed vase, that lies in the thought that one could smash it to smithereens with one single blow of one’s stick? Intensified up to the heroism of bitter realization that in one’s life one can rely on nothing but what can be nailed down with iron certainty, that temptation is a basic feeling engrained in the matter-of-factness of science – and if for reasons of reverence one does not want to call it the devil, there is at least a faint smell of sulfur about it.
We can start right away with the remarkable preference that scientific thinking has for mechanical, statistic, and material explanations from which, as it were, the heart has been cut out. Considering goodness only a special form of egoism; relating emotions to internal secretions; establishing that a human being consists for eighty or ninety percent of water; explaining the famous moral freedom of human character as an automatic side-product of free trade; reducing beauty to good digestion and well-developed fat-tissue; reducing procreation and suicide to annual curves that unmask what seems to be the most free of all decisions as a matter of compulsion; experiencing ecstasy and insanity as akin; identifying anus and mouth as the rectal and oral extremity of one and the same thing – : ideas like those, which to some extent expose the trick in the magical act of human illusions, always encounter a kind of positive prejudice and are then considered to be particularly scientific. In this, undoubtedly, it is the truth that one loves; but all around this blank love lies a preference for disillusion, compulsion, implacability, cold intimidation and dry rebuke, a malicious preference or at least an unintentional energy that comes from such feelings.
                                 (Robert Musil, Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften. vol. 1 [1930], ch. 72; transl. W.J. Hanegraaff)

Please note: if you think that Musil is just blaming science for the evils of the modern world, you need to read again. “It is the truth that one loves”, and yes, the truth can be hard. The fact that knowledge can be bitter is no reason at all to prefer illusions: what we are reading here is not an argument against science and rationality, but against cynicism and despair.
There are many reasons why I love this passage. Of course, the image of science as a toddler that sits down on its bottom because it has failed in its attempt to walk is unforgettable. But most of all, this passage is a reminder of what it is that makes us human; that is to say, of the unique and amazing faculty that distinguishes us from all other animals, and the denial of which (or so we can learn from Musil) is what we refer to as “evil”. 
What is this faculty? It is the ability - not just of our intellect, but of our heart and soul - to be deeply concerned with what traditional metaphysics used to refer to as the three “transcendentals”: the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. About at least the first two of those, and to a larger extent than we might realize even about the third, it just so happens that neither the natural nor the social sciences have much to tell us: it is here, more than anywhere else, that we need those arts and disciplines that are – appropriately – known as the Humanities. When all is said and done, their true concern is and should be - do we need to be reminded? - with what it is that makes us human. There are those who find pleasure in “tripping such values up” and watching them fall flat on their face. And there are those who love those beautifully voluptuous glazed vases (vessels of goodness, beauty, and truth) for what they are: inherently fragile expressions of “all that is uncertain” and therefore worthy of protection and care. So that's the choice: two mentalities. As formulated by David Foster Wallace in this luminous speech of 2005, there is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
Let's try to keep that in mind as we start walking the path towards horizon 2020. 





Saturday, December 26, 2015

Profile 2016



The world is changing. At this end of the year, with Christmas coming up and a New Year just around the corner, I feel a need to gain some perspective on what is happening all around us, and how it is affecting our very ways of thinking, our very ways of living, our very conceptions of what is possible, our very expectations of where we are going, and most importantly, our very ways of imagining where we should be going.
The reflections that follow have had a long gestation period. For years now, the realization has been slowly dawning upon me that we are living in extraordinary times of irreversible transformation for which there is no historical precedent. We are entering uncharted territory and have no script to predict, or even begin to understand, what might be ahead of us. Of course, as a historian I know very well that the world has always been changing: creative innovation is the rule, stasis is an illusion, and unheard-of events may happen any time. That’s how it has always been. But something larger is happening now. Until rather recently I still felt that as an academic and intellectual, I was playing my little part in a great story that might be described (for better or worse) as the story of “Western Culture” – and I saw no reason why it wouldn’t last. Let me hasten to add that I don’t mean this in a provincial manner: I’ve always been extremely interested in the rest of the world, in different cultures and different ways of life, because I’m a curious person who likes to look beyond the boundaries of his familiar world. Nevertheless, my identity and guiding values have been formed by the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual history of Europe. That has always been my world.
And now it is changing. In my darker moods I fear that very soon – sooner than I used to consider possible – a time may come when (to paraphrase Galadriel at the opening of the Lord of the Rings movie) much that is of great value will be lost forever, because “no one will live who still remembers it”. Yes, I feel a bit like the Elves… Increasingly, I fear that the culture that I love and care for is disintegrating and vanishing around me, and the leaves are falling. Winter is coming.


I don’t mean to stay with such a dark and pessimistic mood. Towards the end of this text I will be looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. But first I want to take a few steps back to try and gain some perspective. What are the essential changes happening around us, that might explain my feelings of decline and loss?

1. The Reign of Neoliberalism

Firstly we have seen the global ascendency of what, for lack of a better word, I will call neoliberal capitalism. I don’t mean to go into any deep analysis here, because I think most of us have a pretty good idea of what it is. Since the Thatcher/Reagan era of the 1980s, slowly but surely our minds have been taken over by the idea that everything in the world can be described in terms of “markets”, and that the only ultimate values are economic values. The result is a systematic reversal of the normal relation between means and ends. We used to think that money was the means to achieve desirable ends: you obviously needed money to create good systems of healthcare, you needed money to create good institutions of learning, and so on. Money was a means that served non-economic ends that we valued in and for themselves. That logic has been reversed. Healthcare and education (to stay with those examples) are now defined as products on a market. As such, they are no longer desirable ends that are considered intrinsically valuable, just for what they are, but have become the means to achieve a new and different end: that of maximizing profit. Healthcare and education are now sold for money. The internal logic of this system says that we do not really care that much whether people are actually healthy or well educated: what counts is whether they are buying healthcare or education, at minimal costs and for maximum profit. In short, health and knowledge are no longer basic values. The only true value left is monetary or economic value.
We are seeing this dynamic everywhere, including, of course, the universities. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, and kick-started by the most extreme right-wing government in Dutch history (Rutte I), I watched it spiraling wholly out of control. Like many of my colleagues, I began to feel that if I was still doing my work (trying to teach my students something real, trying to focus on content, trying to keep my eye on the ball), I was doing so not thanks to the University system but in spite of it. The institution had been turned into a factory, designed to produce a product for profit: although administrators and politicians keep invoking “excellence” and emphasizing the need for “quality” in education, the truth is that (like everywhere else in the neoliberal economy) quality has become irrelevant to how the system works. It recognizes only quantifiable data that lend themselves to statistical analysis and can be translated into economic and financial terms. As a result, universities are no longer institutions devoted to “higher learning”: they are now running on an operating system that subverts the very ends (goals, objectives) they were once supposed to be promoting. Last year, at the University of Amsterdam, students and staff revolted against the systemic financialization and corporatization of the academy. They occupied the administrative center of the Faculty of Humanities, and after they got expelled, they occupied the Maagdenhuis, the University’s administrative center. Similar protests are happening at other universities around the world, and I very much hope that these grassroots revolutions will have a positive effect. However, I’m afraid that real and lasting change will prove to be impossible as long as neoliberal capitalism remains in place as the operating system of higher learning in Europe. An upgrade of that system is not enough. On the contrary: by perfecting its functionality even further, we will only make matters worse. We need a new operating system grounded in the very principle that is anathema to the current one: that quality in education and research cannot be quantified and translated into financial terms, but is an irreducible core value entirely independent of (and incommensurable with) the logic of economic calculation.


 2. Information Overkill

The second major change I observe in our world is information overkill. The information revolution has been gathering steam roughly since the early 1990s, in perfect parallel with the ascendency of neoliberal capitalism. Of course, the basic facts hardly need to be stated here: we all know how incredibly powerful the new information technologies are, how much we are benefiting from the miracles they accomplish, and how utterly dependent we have become on them. But while the benefits are very real (of course, like everybody else, I’m profiting from them every day and would hate to miss them) they come at a heavy price. In this case the problem is not the reversal of means and ends, but the ever-increasing impossibility of distinguishing between reliable, less reliable, and unreliable information. There is another way of saying this: it gets harder and harder for all of us to draw the crucial distinction between information and knowledge (in fact, I have found that more and more people respond with profound puzzlement to the very idea that there is a difference at all). We have unlimited amounts of information at our fingertips, but just cannot tell anymore what is true and what is not. This goes even for highly specialized fields of knowledge. There was a time when I could gain a reasonably complete and accurate overview of the scholarly literature on a given topic; but nowadays I am overwhelmed, even in areas that I know very well, by a daily tsunami of publications online (which, by the way, almost inevitably tend to be given preference over offline materials, simply because it’s already far too much to handle anyway). Nobody can keep up anymore, and the situation is aggravated by the fact that traditional selection criteria no longer have much of a bearing on the actual quality of publications: truly excellent stuff appears online for free, while too much that makes it into peer-reviewed “top journals” is of unremarkable or even mediocre quality. This in itself can be explained largely through the two developments under discussion here. The impact of neoliberal capitalism on academic publishing means that selling the product (in this case: getting your stuff published in a peer-reviewed journal) has become much more important than the actual quality of that product. And moreover, authors need to anticipate what the market seems to want from them: if your work is too daring, original, or creative, too “out of the box”, that may lessen your chance of acceptance. As for the dynamics of information overkill, it results in journal editors and anonymous peer reviewers receiving far too many requests, resulting in hasty and superficial reviews, processed hastily and superficially by journal editors, who do not have the time either – all in the context of an increasingly impersonal bureaucratic machinery of editorial decision-making. As a result of all this, scholars are no longer working the way they used to work. The really good ones among us used to be studying a given topic thoroughly and systematically, attempting to get to the very bottom of things because we still felt there was a bottom to be reached. But that illusion is gone, and so we find ourselves “mining data” instead, or just cherry-picking more or less at random. Too often we feel we just don’t have the time for deep and concentrated study of just one particular source, or one particular scholar’s work. For what about all those countless other sources? What about all those other scholars whose work is still waiting in line to be read too? Are we sure we are reading the right article at this moment? Perhaps we should be reading one of all those countless others out there… But how should we choose? How can we possibly know which ones deserve our attention and which ones are just a waste of time, if we haven’t at least “scanned” them first? And so we keep “mining”, hastily and superficially; or otherwise we resign ourselves to the inevitable and just start picking selectively, more or less at random.

It seems to me that these two core developments are intimately related to four further new developments. These, too, are irreversibly changing our world at present. They might be seen as a second level built upon the first.

 a. Disempowerment

To begin with, we are witnessing a systematic disempowerment of citizens, resulting in a huge democratic deficit. Neoliberal capitalism has created a situation where international banks and corporations run by unelected CEOs and managers are much more powerful than national states, so that the results of democratic elections lose most of their relevance. Ordinary citizens feel in their guts that it doesn’t matter anymore what political party they vote for, because politicians have no other choice than pursuing “business as usual” anyway (see, for instance, the recent Greek Drama): what little power we used to have to determine our fate has been taken away from us. Deep resentment and frustration over this fact is then channeled towards convenient scapegoats such as “the immigrants” or “the Muslims”, diverting attention away from those who are actually responsible (for instance, although it is evident that the financial crisis is product of neoliberal capitalism, the Dutch neoliberal capitalists won the next election and remain in the driving seat!). This dynamics has been analyzed endlessly, but perhaps there has been less attention to the disempowering effects of the second element highlighted above: that of information overkill. Even where we still have something to choose, we no longer know what to choose, because we no longer know how to select reliable information from the staggering amounts of online disinformation, mythmaking, fear-mongering, propaganda, “spin”, and sheer nonsense. 



 b. Brain Change

A second and very different development could be described as brain change. The rise of information technology and its omnipresence in our daily lives – the fact that all of us are spending more and more of our lives gazing at computer screens or portable devices – means that we are using our brains to do things that are very different from what they used to be doing. We are continually training them to excel in those kinds of tasks that we need to handle our computers efficiently, but the flip side is that we are no longer training those skills that are needed for different but equally important tasks. We are especially good at switching our attention quickly from one thing to another, but we are losing our ability to concentrate on one single thing and stay concentrated for a long time. We are very good at “scanning” information quickly, but we are losing the ability of deep thinking and the sustained reflection required for converting data into actual knowledge. Having a lot of information available says absolutely nothing about how well we understand what that information really means. But such understanding requires muscles in the brain that are being trained less and less.  

c. Historical Amnesia

A third development I would describe as historical amnesia. For me, as a scholar in the Humanities, this one is particularly painful, because it undermines the very foundations of what my own work has always been about. Over the last decades, education reforms have been dominated by the idea that students need to learn skills rather than acquire knowledge: what you know is not so important, as long as you can find the information you need at the moment you need it. This educational philosophy is based upon a fundamental mistake. We have overlooked the fact that in the absence of knowledge, information becomes meaningless, and data selection (informed choice) becomes impossible. Having placed the cart before the horse, we find ourselves helpless in the face of information overkill. As for my second element, the logic of neoliberal market capitalism: within that context, historical knowledge has no practical utility or economic value and is reduced essentially to the status of a “hobby” (more specifically: a left-wing hobby, as right-wing politicians in my country like to add). It is perceived as an object of mere private interest or leisure activities, like going to the Opera, so why should society support it with taxpayers’ money? The results of these ideas have become obvious in recent years. In so far as we are still learning history at all, we tend to focus on isolated episodes from the modern and contemporary period (with World War II as an all-time favorite) and on social, political, and economic history. Ancient and pre-modern history is becoming irrelevant (“it’s all over, isn’t it?”); and most importantly, we are losing sight of the general storylines of Western cultural and intellectual history (not to mention non-Western history, in spite of all the talk about globalization). Over the last ten years or so, I have seen my students become ever more clueless whenever I referred to such things as “Late Antiquity”, “the Middle Ages”, “the Renaissance”, “the Scientific Revolution”, “the Enlightenment”, “Romanticism”, and so on and so forth. Most of them have only the vaguest ideas about when that was, what it all meant, where it all came from, and why they should care. In short, we are rapidly losing our sense of orientation in historical time. But if we no longer know where we come from, this means we cannot tell where we are; and as a result, we will finally lose our sense of who we are. This is because human beings are wired to define their identity through memory: individual amnesia means we no longer know who we are and what we’re all about, and historical amnesia does the same for society as large. We become clueless, disoriented, directionless.

 d. Evaporation of Values

 Which brings me to my fourth point. At the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, there’s no better way to describe it than as a fundamental evaporation of values. In a way, this brings me full circle, for I began by highlighting the fact that neoliberal capitalism recognizes no other values than those that lend themselves to economic calculation. The notion that something has value in and for itself – intrinsic quality, not measurable in terms of quantity – is literally impossible to consider or even imagine within the neoliberal/capitalist paradigm. It’s like asking a mechanic to take account of the color of a machine: he won’t see the point. He will tell you that it runs just as well, regardless of whether the cogwheels are painted green or blue. And he is right, of course. But colors do have value for us as human beings, and so do values. Color doesn’t matter to the machine, but it matters to us: we attach value to it. Now where will we get our values under conditions of historical amnesia? This is not a matter that can be figured out by “finding the right data, getting the right information”. Beyond some very basic values grounded in animal biology (e.g. “pleasure = good / pain = bad” – but even those can be reprogrammed, as anyone knows who has studied the history of martyrdom), we basically get them not from information but from culture and memory: values are literally “cultivated” from one generation to the next, on the basis of what is remembered. We used to pass on values derived from European culture, notably classical antiquity, Jewish and Christian religion, Enlightenment rationality, and modern science; but instead of living traditions, these have all become mere options of consumer choice, available to us as a bewildering mass of unassorted data that come without criteria or guidelines for selection and evaluation. Please note: none of this implies that values are necessarily good. For instance, Islamic State is currently cultivating a set of values that not just condone but actually advocate the murder, rape, and torture of “infidels”. But horrible as they may be, these are values, part of a much larger and functional valuation system for which these people are willing to sacrifice their lives. So we have no reason whatsoever to sentimentalize “values”; but we should recognize their incredible power of motivation, of bestowing a sense of meaning and direction, of telling people what things are worth living and dying for. What I’m claiming here is that our reigning paradigm of neoliberal capitalism combined with rampant information overkill and historical amnesia leaves us clueless in that regard. We are deeply insecure about our values, because neither “the market” nor “the data” can provide them. This makes us incredibly weak in the face of cultures or ideologies that know perfectly well why we are here and where we should be going.

Quality

So where should we be going, and why? I began by admitting that, these days, I often feel like the Elves. Winter is coming. But perhaps I’m too much wedded to the past. Perhaps I’m in a state of mourning, simply because I’m too much in love with European culture. In spite of all its horrors, crimes, and tragedies, I still love and admire it. I hold it dear for its incredible beauty, wisdom and – not in the last place – its profound ambivalences and never-ending struggles. At the end of the day, I prefer to see the history of Europe as a hero’s story, a story of how we have been trying to improve ourselves in spite of ourselves, setting ourselves goals that might be impossible to attain but that we tried to reach anyway - often at great cost to ourselves and to others. I don’t want to believe that this struggle has been pointless. 
So where is the light at the end of the tunnel? I don’t presume to have the answer, and I surely cannot look into the future. I’m just trying to gain some perspective here. One thing seems clear to me: surely the only way forward is by setting our sails precisely towards what we are currently lacking. To discover what that is, we might ask ourselves what the two basic factors of neoliberal capitalism and information overkill share in common. It seems to me the answer is very simple: the absence of quality. Neoliberal capitalism is incapable of handling quality and therefore converts it into quantity; and the replacement of knowledge cultivation by information overkill requires that quality be sacrificed to data accumulation.
So what we need to do is ask ourselves the question that Robert Pirsig asked in his classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974): what is quality? Don’t be fooled by appearances or first impressions: this is not just an abstract or philosophical question, suitable for polite discussion with a glass of red wine in the evening. It’s an existential pursuit, inseparable from the search for true values. If taken with full seriousness, and if deeply understood (and I don't pretend that I'm so successful in doing either, for it’s very hard to do) it will claim the whole of our lives and determine all that we do. We might ask this question explicitly, or just implicitly, perhaps using different terms, or expressing it through action rather than through words. But it will still be the pursuit of quality.


So that is my suggestion for a light to guide us towards the exit of a long tunnel that, admittedly, I have been painting in very dark colors. Perhaps it’s not much, but it’s the best I have to offer. It is not an answer but a question – not a fixed goal to be reached, but an open path towards the future. If we stop asking this question – because we have lost interest or just don’t see the point – then I’m afraid it’s all over with us. But I don’t think that will happen. Even with “brain change” working against us, I have to believe that the search for quality is just too deeply ingrained in what it means to be human. Even with the daily attacks of hypnosis by the popular media, to which we are all exposed, human beings will keep looking for values and meaning – simply because we cannot help ourselves. So I guess that’s my message for the New Year: Stay awake! Let’s refuse to be fooled. Let’s not allow ourselves to be lulled into compliance with a meaningless world made of markets and data, for though it dominates the present, it literally has no future: nothing to strive or hope for. Let’s keep using our imagination to look for what’s real.