I found myself on a greyhound bus driving through Kansas. I was on a trip across the USA, from Georgia to California, and everything and everyone in my life were far away. Following years of wandering, I was attempting to start over again. After a rough night trying to sleep on metallic benches under the fluorescent lights of a Kansas City, Missouri, bus station, I was awakened that morning in Kansas by a warm sensation across my chest. It was the rays of the rising sun at 6am, reflecting off fields of wheat so gold and endless undulating on either side of me. In that ethereal barely conscious state, I realized that the art of the possible was not about how we could achieve some end goal, but about the pursuit of the humanity within each waking moment of the journey that fills the gap between birth and death.
In my first letter for Distilled Magazine, I talked about the crisis of confidence that was enveloping our world, and how we desperately needed a vision for the future, one that would supplant the ideological vacuum that threatened to destroy us all. I wanted to explore who we are and where we were going, and I guessed that telling this story would require several long uncomfortable struggles with friends, enemies, admirers, critics, and most importantly, ourselves. Such a journey, I surmised, would take us into the intellectual wilderness, where there are no beaten paths to safe salvation. Little did I know that this wilderness was soon to be fate for me and not just some errant prediction.
Since founding Distilled, I have moved from Cambridge to London to Washington to Atlanta and finally, Berkeley. I saw first-hand the corruption that beats at the heart of Washington and London. I have seen the results of brutality and war in the Caucasus and at the edge of Syria. I have struggled with the pain of being surrounded by poverty in the forgotten corners of my own country. I had to wrestle with my own demons, the feeling of powerlessness and foolhardiness that made me simultaneously think I could change the world and that the world was unchangeable. I began repeating to myself the following: This world we lived in – it was not okay. We are not okay. I am not okay.
Like me, you may be afraid and wary of the direction we're headed in. You may worry about the journey being lonely and rife with isolation. You may worry that everything you hold dear will be lost in the conflagration that is consuming the whole world. You may worry that it is impossible to reconcile principles with actions. I’m worried too. Since we published our first issue, little has truly changed. Sadly, fear and uncertainty have worsened our situation, limiting what we consider possible. Yet, in my times of doubt, isolation, and poverty, I have seen what undercurrents surge beneath the thin skin of human society. I now understand that no civilization or society has ever been overturned all at once. I have seen first hand that the capacity of rebirth, reform, and enlightenment lie within all of us. This revolution within all our hearts is expressed through our capacity and need to give and receive compassion, empathy, and love. It is what leads me to believe that I am you, you are me, and that we are vulnerable and we are flawed, that we shall overcome together.
We don't need to desperately search for the grand vision for the future we demanded in our first issue; we already have it. Our future lies within every tender embrace, every silent moment of pain and longing, every occasion where unity and love have triumphed over discord and hate, every bout of desperate personal loneliness, and every persistent hope and dream we have yet to give up on. In this modern world, our future lies in reassuring text messages from thousands of miles away, watching the Olympics with a crowd of foreigners rooting for a country you've never heard of, arguing over Skype with a dear friend, holding a loved one in times of grief, and confessing your failures and fears realizing that the person on the other line has already forgiven you long before you uttered a word. This future, our future, resides within the quiet daily sobs about the brutal injustice of the world and the cruelty we inflict on each other.
These are the unheralded moments of humanity that defy all the rules and games that have led us to the slowly crumbling world we live in today.
We have been discussing the art of the possible at Distilled ever since we were founded in the Lee Room at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge last year. Since then, we have spread out over continents and cities – constantly moving, constantly growing. From our very first issue, we believed in the power and importance of principles, debate, and story-telling in envisioning our future in a time of chaos. These principles are essential in the dark ages we live in, where the highest echelons of politics, economics, academia, and culture seek to erase humanity from human society. But how do we at Distilled turn principles into action?
To answer this question we, like the rest of global society, wandered into the wilderness – a wilderness in which our journey seemed interminable, where there was no clear path or end in sight. All seemed lost. We felt like our wildly ambitious project was to come to an end.
We have now re-emerged from that lonely wilderness with a profound realization. We realized that the only way for global society to find a path out of our present darkness is for us at Distilled to form a movement based around asserting the beautiful unknowable grandeur of humanity against the relentless mechanization of our public and private affairs. We must learn to understand how to appreciate the full weight of humanity behind social dynamics, and how to organize a global community around this understanding under the relentless pressures of inhumanity. We must learn that rather than sculpting perfection out of the crooked timber of humanity, we must bring all disciplines and walks of life together to embrace these very human flaws and virtues many human systems seek to eradicate. The Art of the Possible is about acknowledging all those tender moments of humanity that occur within and without ourselves every moment of every day. The art of the possible is about embracing the never ceasing human condition. The art of the possible is the art of realizing that this task will be a constant struggle. The art of the possible is about growing to love ourselves, and everything we are capable of.
After an eventful first year for Distilled, I have now seen that everything will be alright. We will find our way out of that vast wilderness that often engulfs us all. We shall save ourselves. Why? Because we have each other. Together, we shall master the art of the possible.
Last week saw the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s celebrated "I have a dream" speech at the March on Washington. King, like John Maynard Keynes in our first issue, aptly describes what we hope to accomplish at Distilled: "Through our scientific genius, we have made this world a neighborhood; now through our moral and spiritual development, we must make it a brotherhood. In a sense we must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools."
There are a group of people who cause me distress. These people are those who say ‘X is wrong’ and ‘X is harmful to society’, but nevertheless ‘X should be legal’. I call these people Libertarians. In any matter of social policy they interject their view: that the matter in hand should always be left to the choice of the individual. What is their basis for their belief in freedom – conceived as the idea that people should be allowed to do whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the ability of others to do the same? It seems to be a naïve sort of rationalism, a descendent of the Enlightenment view of man, that people will always do what is rational and best for themselves, so that we had better not interfere. Moreover it is one of those insidious beliefs which sees its confirmation in everything. From such a perspective, the fact that someone has chosen something is already a confirmation of the fact that it was the best thing for them. Why did John buy the sweeties? “Well because he derives pleasure from the sweeties and so, as a rational agent, he sought to maximize his happiness and pleasure by buying them” the Libertarian says.
Is Libertarianism Impossible?
There are at least two flaws with the libertarian image of human decision making. The first is to suppose that people are capable of rationally weighing up what is actually beneficial for them overall, of considering the activity in all its consequences. Failures to do so sometimes arise from a simple lack of knowledge – e.g. not being aware that smoking is bad for you – hence the need for public information campaigns on various issues. However, having this sort of abstract or intellectual knowledge of a topic does not mean we have an intuitive or emotional knowledge of it, and it is only with this latter that our akrasia dries up. Everyone more or less knows what smoking does to you. But only someone who has seen a friend or relative lying in a hospital bed, coughing up blood and slowly suffocating, will understand the folly of smoking in an intuitive and emotional way that unfailingly stops them from doing it. Related to this weakness of will is our irrational attitude towards effects which are distant in time. Almost all of us would prefer a sweetie now than two sweeties in 50 years’ time. This defect in our reasoning is so common that even Utilitarianism, that ethical school which purports to make a science of morality, has in the algorithm of its Felicific Calculus the variable of Propinquity as against Remoteness. To my mind including this variable is completely unjustified. Rationally considered, if we assume tomorrow will come, why is one unit of happiness today worth more than one tomorrow?
The second, and perhaps more fundamental, flaw with this view of decision making is that it suggests that when we make choices we are actually considering our well-being and happiness. Why do we drink water? For pleasure? Because life is so plainly a joy and we want so much to perpetuate it? No. We do it on a purely instinctual basis, and any pleasure we derive from it is incidental. The causes for most of our behaviours are similarly non-rational. In many cases the cause is biological, as with drinking water. Sometimes it is from habit – I always cursorily rinse my hands after using the toilet, although I have learnt of late that this has no effect at all on bacterial hygiene. In other cases it is social; we just like to do as one does, because to do otherwise causes us great discomfort. Most of all however – credit to Schopenhauer for this insight – we do things to deal with the boredom of bare existence. Social norms and habits can modulate what exactly it is we do, but well... We have to do something. Be it getting drunk every night, smoking a cigarette every hour, or reading Thomas Hardy novels, you need to do something or other. Passing the time, rather than rationally maximising our well-being or pleasure, is the real end of almost all our leisure activities.
Is Libertarianism Desirable?
These two factors tend therefore to make our individual behaviour highly irrational. Added to these two is the general vulgarity of our capitalist age which peddles all manner of dross – drinking, internet gambling, American sitcoms, “women’s magazines” – as the nutrition-less paste with which we can fill ourselves. The result is a mess. There is however one tried-and-tested way by which we can help ourselves and each other. It isn’t perfect, and has problems of its own, which I hope to discuss elsewhere. It is called collective action, or self-government. When we are asked to sit and reflect abstractly on what is good for us personally, we tend to come up with the same results: keeping fit, eating well, socialising, doing something creative and fulfilling with our time, and so on. However, when it comes to actually doing these things we – for reasons discussed above – fall quite short of our ideals. We must constantly exercise willpower in order to avoid the bad things and attain the good things. I know I can just sit here and watch youtube all day instead of revising. There is another, indirect, means of self-control however, and that is rationally and deliberately putting something beyond your reach. For instance, if you’re a “person of size”, you can put a lock on the snack cupboard and give your wife the key. Then you won’t have a choice at all, so you will attain the right path by default. This is what it is for a democracy to ban something: we better ourselves by making a rational decision once and for all, so that we don’t have to decide anymore. Libertarianism is so corrosive to society’s wellbeing because it prevents us from taking such rational collective action and throw us all back upon our own meagre resources.
Libertarians might object that this indirect kind of self-control is infantilising because it prevents us from ever truly developing the first kind of direct self-control, which seems in some way to be intuitively more valuable. I take the point of this objection: it is indeed better morally to be a complete master of oneself and to directly resist objects of temptation. However I think it is more important again to actually abstain from such objects by any means: better to be a healthy non-smoker in a prohibitionist society, then a lung cancer patient who valiantly tried and failed the art of self-mastery. Indeed doesn’t this Libertarian objection have absurd consequences? Wouldn’t it recommend that we try to expand our powers and faculties to the utmost to maximise opportunities for self-control? For instance, doesn’t it recommend that we allow everyone to own machine guns so that the independent individuals amongst us could demonstrate their responsibility and self-mastery by not shooting a school full of children? Such thinking reminds me of the practice of women paying young escorts to seduce their husbands to test their fidelity. Of course the husband fails. But that is not a sign of prior infidelity. After all how many balding middle-aged men are randomly propositioned by blonde 23 year olds? None. And in the ordinary course of life, of how much value is the kind of self-mastery that allows a middle-aged man to resist blonde 23 year olds? Not very much.
For Issue IV of Distilled Magazine, our goal is the possible. How do we make things happen the way we want them to happen? How do we successfully contribute to change in an immensely complex global world? One simple answer could be by looking at people who already did so. Therefore, Distilled Magazine spoke to Ambassador Neelam Deo, a distinguished representative of the Republic of India. Ambassador Deo holds a degree from the Delhi School of Economics, and amongst her numerous postings have been Denmark, Ivory Coast, Washington D.C. and New York. Besides her function in the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), she is also active in numerous political and nonpolitical organizations, such as Breakthrough, Oxfam India and Gateway House. For Distilled Magazine, she was prepared to shed light on her own work and career, and how she managed to procure change through them.
But before delving into this, Ambassador Deo wanted to have some things clarified about the idea of making a difference. For one, the discourse of changing the world was not really present when she started working for the IFS. Moreover, the question needs to be put about the objective of using this particular language at the start of your career. ‘I think it is a legitimate question to ask to what you want to make a difference’, she stated at the beginning of our talk. And indeed, any good plan starts with a good objective.
The Indian professional scene
For her personally, the objective at the start was to push back existing limitations. ‘There were lots of constraints within which women grew up and what their possibilities for the future were. So for me it was important to work. At all.’ ‘When I started working’, she mentioned further on, ‘the percentage of women working was not very high. Therefore, getting the job, having the job was the objective. But of course we certainly thought about which profession implied what, and what this job might do. Which is exactly one of the reasons why I taught at the University for three years. Nevertheless we perceived our jobs differently than they are perceived now.’
To a degree, one can expect that this has changed in India in recent years. As the country’s economic and diplomatic power grows, do Indian young professionals believe that they can use this power to better their world? The Ambassador is rather realistic in this respect: ‘People are more interested in pursuing their own interests than framing it in moral terms. But lots of people do go into the social or non-governmental sector. Clearly, they are hoping to change the current social setting.’
Serving in the IFS
Moving back to her own career, she felt that academia was too constraining and frustrating for her. Therefore, the future Ambassador quickly moved to the civil service, which suited her better. Nevertheless, moving as a young woman to work you like better does not immediately imply that your voice is heard and that your ideas are valued. Still, she remains very positive about this period of her life. ‘You do need to realize that the work in the diplomatic service is a confluence of the political and the professional’, she clarifies. And in her early years, much like most assistants today, it was professional work that was expected of her. ‘Nevertheless, I always felt that the analysis I put up was found valuable.’
The big difference with her later position as an Ambassador, a function which on the outlook still implies that you merely execute the political will of your government, was that she managed to be the initiator of much of her own work. This meant that there was much more freedom. ‘For example, when I served as an Ambassador in Denmark, it was for me to suggest what we could do. What I needed to work on was suggested to me by my own or by the Danish Government, but it was up to me to widen the order and be creative with it. It was a freedom in thinking about what could be achieved bilaterally.’
Within this freedom, there still would have been limitations nonetheless. These were not only determined by politics, but also by different working cultures. Therefore, does each country require a separate approach when you try to achieve diplomatic results, or are there similarities on which you can build? For Ambassador Deo, the differences however stretch much further than this: ‘It is always a dance of two people’, she highlighted. ‘I might have been the same, but my partner was always different or in a different position. So yes, it required a change in approach. When I was in Africa for example, the equation with Ivory Coast was different from the equation with Denmark. So in any case we were crafting different tactics.’
But does this mean that there is only flexibility, or are there some factors that remained the same? According to the Ambassador, some things were indeed invariable: ‘Yes there are constants. Projection of ourselves as Indians, what India seeks in its foreign policy, what India seeks from different partners. So there is a standard core to it, Namely, how we want to present India.’
But besides this returning theme, Ambassador Deo also had her own set of methods from which she could draw. ‘One of the things we always tried to do was to engage with the parliament of the country we were based in. In Washington, all the work I did was interact with the congress, and in Denmark I worked with the committee on foreign policy of their parliament. But because each parliament and each legislator is different, the way in which you do it still needs to be adapted.’ All things considered, the Ambassador therefore never had the feeling that she was working with distinct operational strategies depending on whom she was talking to. ‘There were certainly tactical differences, but strategy remained largely the same. What I am saying and doing is interacting with my interlocutors.’
Beyond foreign policy
So with her working methods within the IFS clarified, Distilled Magazine also inquired about her work at Breakthrough (a Human Rights organization), and the Climate Group (which, as the name suggests, deals with climate change). Two difficult topics, but which one is the more difficult to achieve results in?
Certainly, Ambassador Deo is rather pessimistic towards the possibilities in both fields, despite their importance and urgency. ‘With breakthrough the focus is on fighting (domestic) violence against women, and we have the hope to influence the thinking of young people. But I think you have to take a long term perspective on this. It is pretty discouraging. Sometimes it feels like there has not been a change in India regarding the attitudes towards women. And at times, you even feel that the violence has in fact increased. This in contrast to the increased opportunities for women, as they have appeared more and more in the public and are now more confident and sure of themselves. But there is some sense of a backlash. Nevertheless, it is one of those areas where one hardens in it, and it remains very satisfying to be in it.’
So what are the differences then with her support for climate activists? For Deo, there are not too many: ‘It is a topic as important as the work surrounding the attitudes towards women. It is our collective future.’ However, according to the Ambassador the results that can be expected for the Climate Group are also pretty much the same as those for Breakthrough: ‘As humanity, as a government, we do not seem to be taking climate change seriously. It is frustrating as well, but again it is something you care about and therefore engage with. I do have a daughter and now a grandson, so this is highly important for them as well. Coming out of culture dating back to an ancient civilisation, there is this idea that there is an anima within everything, both animate and inanimate. Indians are often laughed at for worshiping stones or trees, but the totality of the universe is something with which we grew up. So working with the environment is certainly important. And occasionally satisfying.’
Infuencing the public debate
With respect to these two organizations, Ambassador Deo is mainly supportive through her role as a member of the board, and, as she stresses, she is not engaged in any grassroots work. This is rather different for her work in Gateway House, a group that has seen it as its mission to get foreign policy much more debated in the Indian society, and the final topic of our talk.
The main question put to the Ambassador was how Gateway House intends to achieve its goals. And here it seems that a comparison with almost all small activist groups is possible, as their constraints are first and foremost created by limited financial means. ‘We are a membership organization, and therefore have to raise our own funds. We have to do things according to the smallness of our budget, which means that the website is our main tool to propagate our goals.’ But how then can these limitations be circumvented? ‘We try to be with the times so to speak. We are not academics and once we have an idea, we will simply put it up in op-ed style pieces. We are not yet ready to produce really deep scholarship. But we are really a generator of ideas, more than anything else, and want to see these infused into the national debate.’
So with this last statement, we seem to have come full circle. Distilled Magazine reached out to Ambassador Deo to have her discuss the Art of the Possible, only to find out that she herself is engaged in an enterprise that seeks the boundaries of what can be achieved. So in this respect, with the Ambassadors example set, it seems fair to say that the times are right for everyone, whatever their previous functions might be, to pursue all sorts of possibilities and to make a difference.
It definitely wasn't the most diplomatic thing to say on 16 September 2001. On that day Karlheinz Stockhausen went from being a modern classical composer of enormous stature, an early pioneer of electronic music, to an intellectual pariah. From that point until his death in 2007, his monumental career was eclipsed by a single quote about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Tact aside though, this controversial quote remains the most interesting, challenging, and indeed instructive analysis of the events to date. According to Stockhausen, the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that week were "the greatest work of art that ever existed".
For this he was understandably ostracised back then, but it's about time we forgive him for it. Not only to restore his well-deserved status as a true Black Swan figure in the development of electronic music, but more importantly because he was right. Although his words remain shocking even after twelve years — let alone at the time, a mere six days after the attacks — they are fundamentally correct. We shouldn't see terrorist attacks as acts of war, but as art. To see why, let's move beyond the soundbite and look into the full answer he gave at that fateful press conference.
"What happened there is, is of course — now you all have to adjust your brains — the greatest work of art that has ever existed. That spirits achieve in one act something we could never dream of in music, that people practice like mad for ten years, totally fanatically, for one concert. And then die. And that is the greatest work of art that exists for the whole cosmos. Just imagine what happened there. These are people who are so concentrated on this single performance—and then five thousand people are driven into resurrection. In one moment. I couldn’t do that. Compared to that, we are nothing, as composers that is."
If Al Qaeda were a conceptual art collective, they'd have been over the moon with that smashing review. Actually, they are more like an art collective than you'd think. Definitely more so than they are like, say, a conventional army. Have you ever heard a conventional general publicly claiming responsibility for a successful surprise attack? Also, the way new and very different offshoots of their network appear and disappear is more reminiscent of an artistic movement than an army — see for example how many very different kinds of writers, painters, and sculptors have gathered under the flag of "surrealism". Moreover, terrorists aren't like guerrilla fighters either, because guerilla fighters still aim to win strategic victories over the enemy. Terrorist attacks don't do that. Strategically speaking, even 9/11 itself didn't affect the military and political power of the U.S. in the world. Rather, the battle terrorists try to win is a cultural one. They want to convince us (the audience) that we should be afraid of them (the actors) by putting up a terrifying show (the act of terror) to make us listen to their message. That's not just like performance art, that is performance art.
It seems Stockhausen was right after all; terrorists are performance artists. If you disagree with this premise you can stop reading here, because I will use this as the cornerstone for the rest of my article. (Do skip to the comments section though, to tell the world why you disagree. Or just to point out that this outrageous claim makes me literally worse than Hitler.) Still here? Great, then let's consider the next — and far more important — issue: If terrorism is art, we can't defeat it militarily. And if we can't defeat it militarily, then what should we do about it? As well as alerting us to this problem, the legacy of Karlheinz Stockhausen contains some possible answers to this question.
The Wagnerian Response
Sometimes a single movie scene can capture an entire essay. In this case it's one of the most famous scenes in film history — so famous that people who haven't actually seen the movie can still use its imagery in their articles — and it reminds me of Stockhausen's ideas about art and violence. I'm talking about the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now. When the squadron approaches the targeted village, they start playing Richard Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries at full volume through their speakers, to boost the morale of their own men, but at the same time also to terrify their Vietnamese targets. The most disturbing part of the scene is how the music draws you to the side of the attackers rather than the victims; it makes you feel complicit. Now imagine the same score played underneath footage of the 9/11 attacks...
So if we go along with Stockhausen, the ideal soundtrack for ultra-violence is Richard Wagner, better than "a bit of the old Ludwig Van". But looking solely at the Apocalypse Now scene does create an unfair caricature of Wagner's work. A much more representative introduction for the Wagner novice is the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon What's Opera, Doc?. You'll hear music that contains much more nuances and variety than the aggressive horn section introducing Kill Da Wabbit! would make you believe. Neither do Wagner's librettos only sing the praise of the kind of belligerent mythical heroes we now refer to as "Wagnerian". (N.B. Wagner is one of the very few big opera composer who also wrote the librettos himself.) For instance, he also created a character called Walther von Stolzing, a young knight who wins the hand of a beautiful woman by winning a singing contest. He does so by beating a conservative pedant called Beckmesser with a very unconventional, experimental song. That all sounds like a bit of harmless fun, doesn't it? Nevertheless, Walther is the protagonist of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the opera that became the direct inspiration for the infamous Nazi rallies in the same city.
And that brings home Stockhausen's criticism of Wagnerian art. According to him, it's not outspoken aggressiveness that's the problem. Rather, he believed that any form of emotion in art would eventually lead to violent reactions in real life. It was the highly emotional style of the German Romantic art in the nineteenth century that according to him formed the breeding ground for totalitarian ideologies and violent German nationalism in the next century. He wanted to avoid this from happening again by creating a new kind of music. In the early 1950s he started writing music that was deliberately sterile and scientific, devoid of any personal expression or ideology. Taking this approach back to my terrorism-as-performance-art argument, it gives us some very straightforward advice on how to deal with terrorist attacks. If we follow this line the only good response is stoicism, as an emotional reaction would only lead to more violence and extremism in the long run.
This "Stockhausen solution" is never going to work. It is bio- and psychologically impossible to "switch off" emotions, especially in cases as extreme as acts of terror. That is unless we'd find a way to do this through our scientific superiority. We could try to advance our understanding of psychiatry and social psychology to a level where we learn to tame our instincts; we could even try to genetically modify them out of our systems. But of course, this would never happen voluntarily. I for one wouldn't queue for any of these treatments.
Even if it were possible to eliminate our strongest emotions concerning terrorism — be it by science, technology, or Zen Buddhism — the Stockhausen solution would be admitting defeat; it would go in against every notion we hold about freedom and human rights. And those are the reason why we're fighting these guys in the first place — the "we" in this sentence including the entire Western world except Dick Cheney. So it seems like we (this time including Dick Cheney) are doomed to remain Wagnerian in our responses to terrorism, because we just can't change those without surrendering the very principles we're trying to defend.
A Critical Response
In this piece, I've tried to find a new way to win the War on Terror. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a fruitless and rather disturbing quest. In the first part we established that it would be more appropriate to stop seeing terrorists as enemy combatants and start treating them as performance artists instead. If that wasn't uncomfortable enough yet, the second part made things even worse. We found out that this new approach — seeing terrorism as performance art — would lead us to an unattainable ideal of extreme stoicism when faced with terrorist attacks. The "Stockhausen solution" didn't turn out to be much of a solution in the end. Time to cancel our production line of "WWSD?" bumper stickers, I guess.
Unless... maybe we got things the wrong way around? Maybe it's not the internal qualities of a work of art that define its appeal. After all, Wagner's bad reputation has very little to do with the intrinsic emotionality of his music; it has everything to do with the fact that in 1850 he himself published an anti-semitic rant against Jewish influence on German music, which urged critics to start interpreting his work in this light. Without this moronic piece of drivel, grumpy old Richard would probably be considered one of the very best composers of all time, sharing lonely heights with maybe only Bach. Because of this essay though, he's been given a much more modest spot in the Classical Music Hall of Fame. The stoic Stockhausen got burned in an ironically similar way: he instantly lost over half a century of critical acclaim with the very quote I started this story with. His music didn't enter into it! So if terrorists are like performance artists, the same rules must apply to them: it's not their actions that determine their impact, it's the way we receive them.
So WWSD? And WWWD? Getting hammered by critics, that's what both Stockhausen and Wagner would do. And that is why we should stop getting into full GI-Joe-mode in the face of terrorist threats, and instead be the most pretentious art critics imaginable. Let's tweet, blog, or talk about those bastards. Let's do so calmly or animated, with disgust or with contempt; the "how" doesn't really matter. Or maybe just ignore them, if that's what you prefer. The only thing you shouldn't do is take terrorists seriously. Think about it this way: imagine if German society after 1924 had taken the example of the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts in its treatment of a certain Adolf H.; modern history could have taken a completely different course. So let's start reviewing the underwear bombers of this world like the shitty performance artists they are: "Your terrorism is bad, and you should feel bad!"
Special thanks to Jan De Schutter for granting me unlimited access to the musicological library in his brain.
There is a widely shared consensus in Western culture that the goods of love and friendship are highly personal goods; they belong to the intimate sphere of one’s private life. As goods reserved to the private realm, it seems natural that governments, legislators, and judges never appeal to them. Political rule can appeal to values such as freedom, justice, and peace, but not to love.
At first sight, there certainly seems something salutary about our (secular?, liberal?, modern?, post-modern?, western?) reluctance to appeal to the goods of love and friendship in public matters. Would the introduction of such values into political discourse not devalue them? After all, it seems a mark of good judgement to reserve love to those closest to us. Similarly, it is to be welcomed that state officials are excluded from our love relationships except when and where the relationship breaks down, as in cases of domestic violence. A state preoccupied with its citizens’ feelings of friendships has, moreover, the potential to degenerate into totalitarianism. We are all too familiar with societies in which the state controlled or still controls the people’s feelings towards the leader, chairman, general, or king.
In light of the risk of diluting our dearest values or of paternalistic or totalitarian supervision of our feelings, it seems only reasonable that the state’s jurisdiction is limited to people’s external acts, to the exclusion of their internal feelings, and that the public debate never draws on the values of love and friendship. There seems an interesting, albeit rarely noticed, parallel between the absence of love and the absence of religion from politics and public discourse. At least to the European mind, political debate without appeal to people’s faith seems a more stable guarantee for life in a peaceful society than with such appeal. Perhaps, then, it should be welcomed that neither arguments from religion nor arguments from love and friendship have succeeded in making a comeback in the political discourse—despite the fact that fraternité featured among the triad of the French Revolution of 1789, as Bram De Ridder observed in the last issue of this magazine.
At the same time there can be little doubt about the importance of love in a complete human life as well as about the incomparable energy that love instils in us. Given the power of love, it seems tempting to reflect on what became possible if we succeeded in drawing on love in our public actions without thereby devaluing this good or opening the doors to state supervision of our most intimate feelings or even to totalitarian ends. Is it possible to thus free love from its confinement in the private realm?
Love in Pre-Modern Politics
The values of love and friendship were not always banished from the public sphere in Europe. They became confined to the private realm when the state succeeded in subjecting the church under its unlimited rule. The subjection of the church under temporal rule led to a retreat of religion into people’s private home and fostered the disappearance of love and friendship from politics. This parallel disappearance of religion and love need not surprise us since love is the central ideal of the Christian religion (perhaps best captured in the Sermon on the Mount).
However, this claim that love is the central Christian ideal is problematic for two reasons. First, Christianity has no religious or cultural monopoly over love. Thus, if I mention here the parallel between the disappearance of love and Christianity from the public sphere, it is not to affirm Christianity’s exclusive rights over love: love and friendship are first and foremost human ideals, only then they are also Christian ideals. I am not writing as a Christian, but as someone who believes in human love. What I want to highlight by considering the parallel historical disappearance of love and religion is that love, like religion, has not always been absent from public life.
Secondly, to atheists and agnostics it will seem almost cynical to highlight the centrality of love for the Christian religion when some Christians, including many ministers, continue to incite intolerance vis-à-vis gay love, and when ever more cases of child abuse by clerics are revealed. Yet, those who voice such criticism in order to present Christianity as the enemy rather than the guardian of love are unfair vis-à-vis ‘true’ Christianity, for they judge not genuine Christianity, but a mere contortion. The denial of love through words and deeds by would-be Christians leaves love intact as the central value of Christianity (even when, as in campaigns against gay love, the campaigners appeal to ‘Christian morality’). The problem of defending an ideal against internal ‘traitors’ is of course not unique to religious groups: any serious liberal would defend liberalism against the criticism that George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq proves that liberal values such as freedom and the rule of law are merely a rhetorical guise for Western hegemonic attitudes.
In what follows I am interested in a possible recovery of human love, not of Christian love (or of Christian love only insofar as it is identical to human love). We should look first, however, into the disappearance of love and friendship from political discourse since the history of this disappearance may reveal possible ways of helping these goods to a comeback. Unlike the demise of religious arguments in Western politics over the past five hundred years, a demise well documented in our political histories, little attention has been paid to the demise of love and friendship in public discourse. Indeed, I suspect that most contemporary historians assume that these goods never played a role in politics.
This is, however, a mistaken assumption. From the well-known philosopher-theologians Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) to the less well-known Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) and beyond, moral theologians treated even the prime political issue, the question of war, under the heading of love (caritas) rather than under the heading of mere justice. Drawing not only on the Bible and the Church fathers, but also on pagan sources such as Aristotle, they held that the demands of love required that the ruler needed not only a just cause such as self-defence, but that he also had to act with the right intention, including love for his subjects.
What made this, for our modern minds, surprising connection between justice and love possible was the moral theologians’ understanding that justice is a form of loving others. In the Aristotelian tradition, the love of true friends consists in willing good to the other: it is willing that the friend is well in every aspect of his or her being and to will this for his or her good. As a sub-form of love, justice consists in willing good to others under a limited aspect: willing to accord them their right. The ruler could only wage war against someone who did not accord him his right and only out of love of the innocent whom he sought to protect by war.
The importance which the Christian authors attributed to love in what has to be considered the paramount political question, the question of war, shows that this good played a central political role well into the 18th century. Indeed, in confession and conscience — which we can equate with the perspective of Christian ethics — rulers were required not just in the case of war, but in all their actions to pursue a moral end: the common good of the state consisting of peace, justice, and a minimum of prosperity for all. As a good shared like the love which friends share in common, the common good was inherently bound up with willing and doing good to others. The requirement of intending the good of others was only removed once the State subordinated the Church under its rule and declared that state action need only meet the requirements of state law: state law (ius civile and ius gentium) had never required pursuing a moral motive (i.e. intending doing good to others), but only doing what is just in one’s external actions (e.g. having a just cause of war).
State Law is our Horizon
At the end of the 18th and in the 19th century, the perspective of governments and politics changed dramatically. It was narrowed down from a holistic perspective that included religion, ethics, and of course state law to a perspective that recognised only the latter. As I just noted, state law had never required right intention; unlike moral theology and ethics it also stayed aloof of values such as love and friendship. All that was required was external acts in conformity with the will of the legislator.
This narrowing of perspective was consolidated in Europe with the codification of private law and criminal law and the introduction of written constitutions in the nineteenth century. The move from traditional customary rules to publicly recorded law has been aptly labelled ‘Positivism’, i.e. the laying down or positing of written law. We are still very much the heirs of this shift.
The availability of written laws has led to a further limitation of the horizon of reasonable arguments: it enables us to appeal in public debates to legal provisions instead of substantive reasons. If you don’t perform your contractual duties, I can simply refer to ‘article x’ or ‘section y’ of this or that law to support my claim that you owe me performance of the promised good and/or damages. This implies that we both accept the given law as binding. But why should the law be binding on us? The most likely answer nowadays is: because the law was enacted by (or not altered by) a parliament that you and I democratically elected. The whole burden for the justification of our claims is thus shifted from the concrete reasons that apply in the particular case to the justification of the overarching political institutions and above all to justifying democracy.
What has dropped out of the picture on this account are the substantive reasons that make it reasonable (in my example) to perform contractual duties; reasons such as the value of treating my contractual partner as an equal person who deserves what I promised, the value of truthfulness to one’s word, the value of contributing to a functioning market in which parties live up to their contractual duties, and the prosperity of one’s society that results from such just and truthful action.
Thus, first we lost public references to religion — with its need to live up to the demands of love — and then we lost the practice of publicly appealing to the substantive reasons for our individual actions. The availability of written laws has dispensed us from knowing the real reasons and values that justify the legal rules of conduct, or at least from endorsing those values and making them our own. This has made life convenient, but it has also tremendously impoverished our ability to summon those substantive reasons.
We have now reached a point where it has become all too rare to meet anyone who is able to state the substantive values that underpin our actions: people have started to conceive of themselves as doing what they do merely ‘because they feel like it’ and of seeing the value of their actions in having chosen them autonomously. As a consequence, people have come to feel naked in the face of the sheer will that backs our laws. They have gradually come to depict situations of conflict not as an invitation to reflect on morality, but as experiences of sheer force and, in times of economic decline, as class struggle.
It is a task of urgent need to regain an understanding of the moral values that underpin our institutions and our communal life; values such as love and friendship which are richer and more concrete than abstract goods such as freedom and equality. The task is an urgent one since appeal to love and friendship can only take hold of people’s hearts as long as there is social peace. In what follows I will try to contribute to a conscious recovery of the central place of love and friendship in our lives and to show how these goods can be brought to bear on our public lives without devaluing their status.
Restoring Love in Public Life
But what characterises love and friendship? The love of friendship consists in me willing someone else good for the sake of that other person. This is captured nicely by the Latin term benevolentia which literally means ‘well willing’. Friendship is expressed in our willing or wishing our friends what fulfils their lives: love, health, success, and so forth, in short happiness.
As good friends we do not leave it at mere willing or wishing. We seek to contribute to our friends’ happiness through acts that are directed at actualising their love by sharing time with them, giving them attention and tenderness. We try to contribute to their health by bringing them medication, visiting them in hospital, or voicing concern about the smoking habits. We try to contribute to their emotional well-being by sharing their sorrow (for example through acts and words of comfort) as well as their joy (for example by celebrating their wedding) and so forth. The concern we have for our friends’ well-being exceeds the respect we have for strangers. Thus acts of generosity (think only of birthday presents) are paradigmatic instances of friendship.
What characterises true friendship, moreover, is that I am not just concerned about my friend’s well-being for my friend’s sake, but my friend is also concerned about my well-being for my own sake. As a consequence, if I want to honour my friend’s concern for my well-being I need to take care of myself for the sake of my friend’s well-being. This leads our mutual concerns to merge into one shared concern, one common good: I cannot be fully happy unless my friend is fully happy and I am fully happy if my friend is fully happy.
If the three preceding paragraphs captured the essence of love and friendship we may well wonder how love could ever play a role in reinforcing the ties of citizenship. After all, it seems right to do less for a stranger, including a citizen we have never seen before, than for our friends. So how can we avoid the kind of devaluation of love that I mentioned at the outset?
If we take the medieval model, there are at least two ways in which love can come to bear on our public actions. First, there is the possibility of turning our respect of other people’s rights to life, physical integrity, property, and so forth, from unintended side-effects of our private projects, to a conscious goal. Respecting other people and avoiding to cause them any harm makes only a microscopic contribution to their well-being. However little the contribution, it is not too small to be included as one of the intended goals of our actions. Far from expecting any praise for doing this little good to others the insignificance of the contribution is a humbling reminder of the limited resources we have to give what is most important in life: love. Of course, it does not matter for the purpose of state law that we respect others for the sake of their well-being; state law is for the most part only interested in external compliance with the law. Yet we should not allow state law to restrict our outlook on the world and the moral good to be realised in it.
Second, we can perform public acts out of love for our family and friends. The most widely applicable example is perhaps that of paying taxes. Our taxes are not just a contribution to a faceless revenue office, they are also a way of financing the infrastructure used by our family and friends, the police that makes their lives safer, the hospitals and elderly homes that take care of them when they are old, the schools and universities that help them to gain a good education, and so forth. If paying taxes is the most widely applicable example, the most paradigmatic example for a public act performed out of love of one’s friends and family is defensive war. The many millions of mostly young men who died in freeing Europe from Nazi occupation knew for what good they were fighting: they fought out of loving concern for their families behind the battle lines.
The possibility for bringing love to bear on our public acts is by no means exhausted in a different attitude to paying taxes and in defending our families in war. Love for our family and friends can infuse all actions that sustain the state and the community. Every little public contribution, from respecting the rights of strangers to being a reliable employee, helps to make the society in which our family and friends live a little more honest, just, and peaceful. Love can give even our small contributions a larger meaning; a meaning that gives us determination, firmness, and strength to furnish our contribution even at a personal cost. There is not much we can contribute to a just and peaceful society, too many things depend on the contribution of others, but the little we contribute can be performed as acts of love; acts to be complemented by other, more important acts of love in our direct relationship with our family and friends.
It seems time to overcome the narrow perspective of state law that has been reigning since the nineteenth century and that led us to confine love and friendship entirely to the private sphere. For too long, state law and the abstract value of freedom have defined for us the limits of our capacities. Governments do well not to appeal to love and to limit the purpose of state law to the conservation of peace, justice, and a minimum of prosperity for all. Yet, we as individuals and citizens should break free from the self-imposed limitations and become once more aware that every small public contribution to our society can be an act of love. The art of the possible is also the art of loving.
Since September 11th, America’s international reputation has seen a downward spin from the most respected superpower status it held from World War II onwards. From the economic wealth and innovation that saw the lives of its citizens ranking supreme to its military prowess and involvement in international security affairs, America was the standard by which most other nations set their principles. However, the rise of China has spearheaded a rapidly developing group of countries to challenge the US in economic terms. Even more so, terrorism and non-state actors have presented America with security and foreign-policy challenges that test the very principles of the nation.
Barack Obama assumed the role of American president in one of the most hostile periods of US history, taking over from President Bush when the world and the Middle East in particular, presented America with a quagmire-ish foreign-policy landscape to navigate. The great question regarding Barack Obama’s presidency was whether he would be able to rebuild America’s reputation abroad and keep it safe.
The presidency of George Bush left impressions upon the world of the U.S. as a belligerent empire, solely focused upon its self-interest and betraying its global watchdog status. The everyday peoples from Britain to Japan were turning against the superpower, with none more so than the Arabic nations of the Middle East. During the Bush years, the Pew Research Center noted that British favourability of the US dropped from 83% to 53%, between 2000 and 2008, and from 25% to 19% in the Arabic Kingdom of Jordan, in which U.S. favourability even ranked in the single digits in the early years of the Iraq war. Overall, America’s likeability decreased dramatically in the international community. This political topography was a far cry from the American exceptionalism that fuelled the rhetoric of a young Senator Obama, who would employ his presidential primary speeches to construct narratives of how America would once again “lead by deed and example” and be “a beacon of freedom and justice for the world”. With the exodus of the Bush administration, the opportunity arose for Obama to attempt to rebuild America’s reputation on the international stage.
Use all your well-learned Politesse
Shortly into Obama’s assumption of the American presidency, he addressed the Arabic world from Cairo with a speech entitled ‘A New Beginning’. The speech offered the Obama Administration an opportunity to begin rebuilding distressed U.S.-Arab relations, which were damaged during the ‘good versus evil’ rhetoric of the Bush presidency. Obama presented the world with an American president who seemed to be more aware of what Edward Said referred to as the “complex mosaic of traditions, religions, cultures, ethnicities and histories that make up the Arab world”, enlightenment which Said deemed lost to the US strategic planners of his lifetime.
As such, ‘A New Beginning’ opened with an introduction built upon the positive impacts of Islam and was completely focused upon the Muslim faith with no allusions to America or its place in the world, a tactic in stark contrast to the international policy speeches of Bush regarding the region. Koran recitation replaced bible thumping. Obama was aware of the fact that due to its de facto power, America would automatically provoke fear and resentment from others. A new way to make America strong was to deliberately downplay the U.S.’s dominance, a theory put forward by the once Neo-Conservative Fukayama. References were made to Islam’s “remarkable institutions”, “the hospitality of the people” and “centuries of coexistence and cooperation”. The immediate need to place America as a city upon a shining hill was not present as Obama assured his audience and the world that “America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition”. There was no need for either tradition to fear the other. There was a difference between tackling extremism and fighting a religion. To the observant listener, Obama was proving himself more aware of the Arab mosaic than his predecessors. And as such, Obama’s ratings took a subsequent bump in the Middle East and elsewhere.
However, fast-track through to the beginning of Obama’s second term and his promising start has not materialised into progressive US-Arab relations. Obama has failed to produce a foreign-policy strategy that follows the rhetoric of his Cairo speech. The damage of his drone policy has far outweighed the value of his words and Arabic opinions of Obama have plummeted since his ‘New Beginnings’ speech. The intricacy of foreign-policy relationships has fast become a reality and the election time quip of competitor-turned-ally Hillary Clinton that “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose” is ringing in the ears of an administration that has failed to follow through on its early rhetoric. The US has failed to win the hearts and minds of a post-Arab Spring Middle East and in a 2011 poll, six Middle Eastern countries rated Obama’s approval at 10% or less, according to the Arab American Institute. Their biggest perceived opposition to peace and stability within the region was US intervention, perhaps leading to the sheepish foreign-policy manoeuvres America continued to make in regard to the Syrian civil war. As the whispers of chemical weapon use become shouts and the US continues to fail in controlling Israeli spin doctors, America’s reluctance to get stung once more may in fact be a blessing in disguise for the superpower. While an outraged world calls upon its watchdog, the Middle Eastern region itself may not be shouting as loud as the rest for Obama to intervene.
Roadmap to American Leadership
Obama must attempt once more to reshape America’s international reputation. He must look to reign in America’s international sphere of military dominance beginning with his drone policy which has a detrimental effect upon mass population opinions in the Middle Eastern countries in which the attacks are deployed. Obama noted in a 2013 speech to young Israeli’s in Jerusalem that “peace begins not just in the plans of leaders, but in the hearts of people”, and it is the Arabic counterparts of these young Israeli’s whose hearts and minds he must gain access to. In order to do so, Obama must look to a new tactic and remove the narrative of fear and ‘the other’ upon which America has so long relied. In 2013, the hope of the 2008 campaign narrative and the spectre of the 2009 Cairo speech are faint, yet not un-ignitable. Obama must recapture America’s policy response and through improved awareness of cultural and societal difference, tackle growing descent towards America. U.S. foreign-policy must begin to achieve recognisable victories, something that has been identified by Obama, judging by the shuttle diplomacy of John Kerry between all the current topographic hotspots: Israel/Palestine to Syria and beyond to North Korea.
A way to do this is to return to America’s founding principles that Obama has previously acknowledged were drifted from during the war on terror (principles that America actually has drifted from on and off throughout the 20th century to suit its imperial desires). Even though America must retain a strong military force for the deterrence of antagonists — for both the US and the world’s sake — use of this force must become more restrained. Instead of these arms, America may increase its implementation of soft power policy in the international arena, leading by example and recapture the ‘shining city upon a hill’-element of its history. It must not merely implement American power through the neo-conservative “Rumsfeldian” ideal, American exceptionalism as military strength. It is no longer enough for the U.S. to make Beckettian “try again, fail again, fail better” attempts in the Middle East. It is not simply enough for American administrations to deal with threats by removing dictators and despotic governments and walking away from the pieces, leaving the United Nations to take care of the rebuilds. It is in failed states that the concepts of extremism and theoterrorism grow the fastest.
If America wants to recapture its role as the world’s leader, as the ideal, it can do so through increased humanitarian assistance. Capturing a little of Scandinavia’s altruistic approach to development aid would be a start. By increasing the percentage of GDP that is donated as aid to foreign countries it will make the empire’s de facto power less abrasive. As the world’s leader in R&D, access to American technologies, AIDS drugs and treatments, without the patent barriers and high costs of production would be an overwhelming adjustment of good-will from the US to the developing world. Actions such as this will present to the world as positive an image as John Kerry’s increased frequent flier miles.
A massive downscaling of the drone policy would have further positive effects. Citizen populations on the ground of affected countries have greater access to information through social media than ever before, prevalently seen in the Arab Spring. If drone strikes continue to hit non-combatants or, even still, enemy combatants with large amounts of local traction, foreign opinion of American actions will only plummet further and appear cowardly. For this reason, the Obama administration must reel in its drone policy. This is something that recent press briefings on the topic would suggest the presidency has become aware of.
Finally, America needs to take ownership of its role in world security affairs through more decisive action and smarter deployment of its military personnel. For too long, the U.S. stalled on the topic of the Syrian conflict, and entered the fray (supplying armaments to the rebels) only at a time when it became completely necessary to do so in mid-June 2013 in order to protect the creditability of Obama’s foreign policy. This action came at a point in the conflict that the U.N. estimated 93,000 people minimum had already died. Shades and whispers of Rwanda and U.S. failure to act were in fast increase.
A New Kind of Politics
In comparison to the U.S., a state as small as Ireland has played a significant role in this kind of conflicts. As a nation, Ireland has had a constant presence in U.N. peacekeeping, using the role to somewhat repair a violent domestic history. In a speech in 2009, Ban-Ki Moon recalled the facts of Ireland’s efforts: “Every day for more than half a century, an Irish soldier has been walking point for peace under the UN’s blue flag.” If a country the size of Ireland can reshape its reputation in world peace affairs to this magnitude, the U.S. can redefine itself as the superpower for peace with the right motivation, just as it can in development terms with the altruism of Scandinavian nations.
Not to start throwing around clichés like the current administration has done with the term ‘red line’, America under Obama’s leadership, must begin to ‘walk the walk’, not simply employ rhetoric in order to rebuild its reputation and keep it safe. The time for soaring rhetorical turn of phrase is during election campaigns and Obama will never run in another election in his life. The big wins could be yet to come and the prize of a respected international legacy is one worth fighting for. Obama has the capabilities and the diplomatic tools to convince people to pull in a peaceful direction. He has the personal narrative to spur hope. He now needs the courage to take risks. He must open up America’s actions to embrace the “exceptionalism” of the more constrained European players, whose international actions lead by dead and example, and are beacons of freedom and justice to the world. Through these methods, Obama might possibly leave America safer and more respected than when he inherited it. A return to its principles might leave a modal for which it could follow for years to come. And may even justify a prematurely endowed Noble Peace Prize.
Everyday, I witness events wherein people all over the world occupy streets, parks and pavements. And as spaces, media, and even people are being taken hostage, it is hard not to notice how the power to define the rules atis lay — this sovereign power — seems to have trickled long down from ideas of divinity and monarchy. As such, the recent increase and subsequent legitimization of uprisings and civil disobedience tells me a story about how the power to define has hit the streets and found a place in the people. It is a story about how questions of ‘what is possible’ and ‘what should be’ have been pluralized and democratized. However, as the consequences of this story are still unfolding – and as the end results seem yet to be defined – I allow myself to make a small appeal directed towards those with the power to define: namely you.
I am convinced that impressions and questions of social change are — now more than ever — not only in the hands ‘professionals’ or students of politics alone. We are entering a new century, wherein the world has become increasingly tightened and interconnected, wherein the media facilitates the spread of information and the means of communication. These developments result in the normality of one knowing more about ethnic conflicts in Syria than one’s own neighbor. We are all becoming ever more aware and knowing, and whilst being aware and knowing might not initiate immediate action, it does initiate the construction of a more globally-inspired consciousness and, subsequently, wider moral ideas of right and wrong.
As we all find ourselves reflecting upon the great challenges of the world — through revolutionary Twitter statements, shared Facebook updates, and YouTube revelations — one could imagine that what is possible would get expanded by these new means of representation and communication. One could imagine that political solutions and possibilities would proliferate through the increased compositions of common public spaces and debate forums. These are after all, considered central to any political development and creation of consensus. Whilst it has often been hoped that this processes of increased globalization and interconnectedness would lead to a more homogenous world community of moral consensus, this seems, well into the 21st century, not to have been the immediate outcome. Rather, interconnecting the world - both vertically and horizontally — seems to have shun light upon a human palette of contrasting beliefs and opinions.
Increasingly laying our eyes on processes of social change and in some places revolution (expressed through media, art and politics, initiated by the new power: the people) we also increasingly lay our eyes on religious, political and social tensions and uprisings at local, domestic and international levels. What I would always prefer to interpret as the beautiful diversity of humanity has in places where change is fought for also led to confusion, and even oppression. Syria, Turkey, Egypt and Greece stand out as recent examples of places where people have decided to act in the belief of what should be — whether this entailed the promotion of something new or merely the rebellion against something existing — but have also been characterized by a certain truism of our time; moral disagreement, contested principles and confusion about how to handle.
Moral ideas are tied to ideas of right and wrong. They are based on value judgments believed to be inherently right. As such, morality is central to any act deeming something unjust, which in turn motivates change. But as morality is also normative and subjective, the externalization of such inner beliefs often carries a fine line between providing and imposing ‘good’, a line which has often been blurred throughout history. Whilst this may come in handy when dealing with existential challenges, even initiatives such as peace treaties may — through their purpose to sustain a set of principles — become infringing. Central is, that whether provided or imposed, the ‘good’ itself poses a problem. So far, we have no uncontroversial method to judge whether one moral belief of good is more correct than another; we cannot through ‘natural’ inner feelings of morality decide how to handle moral disagreement. The Kantian absolute conception of moral principles, proposing them as universal claims (subsequently turning all actions of a certain category wrong) shows how even immoral principles can in theory be held universal. So what has maybe become a newfound pride in fundamental values of our time — the right to freedom, self-determination, and expression — hence also constitutes one of the biggest challenges: can we, in an interconnected global world fragmented by differing beliefs and contrasting moral ideas (where no one holds the right to enhance one moral answer over another) discuss differing moral questions ‘rationally’ and reach consensus about important questions?
Fragmentation and diversification are to me not negative parts of the present globalized time. Rather, it seems to me that politics has re-found its moral origins. In the aftermath of a century where states and state ideologies held privilege — and where questions of social change were often privileged for those holding or studying power — several differing logics and ideas now increasingly interact and contest one another. These logics defy homogeneity and show humanity through a palette of emotions, values and moral ideas. Resistance and disobedience are healthy signs for any democracy. Still, facing a growing amount of transnational and global issues, it is inevitable not to contemplate upon how people locally and internationally can reach solutions and new possibilities without necessarily agreeing. The task of defining morality in diversity is not an easy one. In the acceptance of democracy and subsequently the recognition of differing moral ideas, universally valid and unquestionable principles certainly seem redundant. However, is it thinkable that any overall means or principles could be employed to lead moral disagreement away from realms of confusion and distrust, towards a realm of cooperation?
Whilst it would be an easy solution to take the standpoint of moral particularism — arguing that we are all culturally and morally different, that no general moral principles are defensible, and that any aim of consensus is one of utopia — I believe that it is possible to witness everyday people from different nationalities, ethnicities or religious belongings succeeding in working together for the same goals. Without arguing that this is the proof of some fundamental rational principles acting as causes of everything (which tends to make rationality divine), I do believe that general principles can serve as foundations to reason, though still with respect of diversity and plurality.
This belief came to me while studying international politics. I have been taught how the principles of international relations were founded to accommodate a ‘solution’ to the very question of whether differing moral ideas and values can be discussed rationally and whether we can reach rational outcomes, enable peaceful cooperation, and avoid war. As one of the highest examples of such a wish to obtain liberty and peaceful cooperation through the respect of plurality stands the United Nations Charter. Herein no world ideology or general principle has been formulated, other than one based on minimal codes of conduct. Rather than enforcing rules, these principles protect against infringement: completely dependent on principles of mutual recognition and respect of integrity, the international sphere is characterized by an absolute lack of any sovereign power.
The field of international relations has often been understood through the analogy of basic human relationships. However, in the question of which principles one should apply to obtain cooperation in a context of diversity, I find that one can also turn the analogy around and look at which principles of international relations, normally confined to states, could be drawn to obtain more general principles for all social actors. For whilst the idea of respecting pluralism through the organizing principles of equal rights and self-determination – in other words, sovereignty – has theoretically long been held high by the international society, the right to integrity and self-determination of peoples within such states exists internationally only in effect of the state. Nonetheless today, when sovereignty seems to have trickled down, could one not be inspired to look at whether international principles of cooperation could do so too?
Whilst the UN Charter is often frowned upon for only enhancing principles of conduct and its assumed inability to enforce rules and bring about salvation, I argue that this is exactly what should be cherished. As processes of social change and revolution seems to be exploding around the world, so do ideas of ends and overall principles. I do not believe that social life is the result of any definite principle or beginning essence. In the social sciences, no principle should act as a final cause or finality: not only does any finality of social principles remain normative and rather unprovable, but it also tends to legitimize doubtable means, smelling of imposition and lock-step consensus. As has been said wisely before, the messiah of humanity has often seemed not to be one of simply redemption, but instead one of redemption of salvation. In fleeing or refusing the diversity and humaneness of social life, we can become subjects to exceptional dimensions of law and imposing regimes and ideologies. But by making principles means rather than finalities, we can define social life by its possible power of transformation rather than its inherent, principal or eternal state of nature.
I am not suggesting an abandonment of all general ideas or authority (and authorities do certainly exist in international realms as well), but rather just that we could draw inspiration from international norms to refocus on using principles as guiding norms of cooperation, legitimating ends rather than the opposite. Hence, principles — acting externally — should do nothing more than protecting different morals. And in this respect, the protection of different morals and hence, moral ‘rights’ such as political equality, arguably overrides the respect of legal authority. Although it might seem naive, an appeal of adherence to principles of conduct rather than to such of belief can lead into safe realms of coordination and predictable expectations and as such, if not promoting consensus, at least increased trust through predictability.
Hence, it should be clear that principles are here argued to be functioning best when they are far removed from being only universal laws or ends, but rather that they should formulate minimal codes of conduct through respect of self-determination and equal rights of all social actors: the duty of respecting these through the respect of integrity, and the principle of maintaining order through diplomacy rather than violence.
Returning to the questions of how to approach ‘what should be’ and ‘what could be’ in a time characterized by moral disagreement and contestation, I find that any finality is often also one resulting in an end of potentiality. As such, what carries the possibility of good is to me – and as Walter Benjamin proposed it – that which is not yet defined; that which can seize the possibilities of a moment and represent progress and rupture with reproductive and dominating logics. And what is bad is that which dissolves and constrains possibilities under the rule of law and already defined ideas and ideologies.o when
So asking which talents humans must master in order to achieve the most possible, I answer that the most possible lies in realizing humanity through the abandonment of any pre-defined concept of good, best or divine. In a time like this, it seems highly relevant to remind ourselves that we may not need to search to rescue people by making them exist in effect of a higher cause, power or ideology. Humans act and interact all the time. Constraints and compromises are set naturally in the constant interaction between social, political and natural forces and actors. As such, the art of the possible lies in the mere social existence - as existing is something naturally positive; something entailing constant action and production in itself.
I have attempted to argue that outmost of possibilities lie in the moment of a rupture with the past and before the future is defined. What this moment includes is hence for those living it – perhaps you – to decide. To retain is only that we can make anything possible - although this possibility will sometimes be as undefined, different, radical and violent in its impression as art; materializing and projecting how the dreams and productive possibilities of humanity seems to be ever-surprising and often at best, existing in resistance.
“Everyone’s bad. There’s nothing we can do. Let’s just stay at home and have tea.” That was the sentiment expressed in Adam Curtis’ 2009 short film The Rise of Oh-Dearism. In it, he chronicled how he believed the Western public had become overwhelmed with images of poverty and despair across their borders since the Biafran crisis, culminating in a sense of dread and apathy in which every new NGO campaign or news report about far-away tragedy triggered a reaction of "Oh Dear… well let’s just stay at home and have tea".
"Never fear!" we cried with the advent of the internet. Knowledge is power, is it not? With a universe of information now at our fingertips, we would escape such apathy, open the doors to online activism and embrace an Era of New Possibilities! Unfortunately, the rift between the possibilities and the reality of online activism is enormous. Rather than open the portals of cross-global communication and ignite the fires of outrage at rising inequality and persistent preventable poverty and death, it has given this generation an easy cop-out. With one simple click of a mouse, you can now 'like' or 'share' information from advocacy groups and NGOs and wipe our conscience clean. What had the possibility of becoming a means, has grounded to a halt, becoming an end.
Case and point was the now infamous viral video Kony2012 by the organization Invisible Children. On one day alone, forty-two of my Facebook friends had posted the video to their walls. It would go on to exceed 1 million views on YouTube. Now this piece is not going to be an analysis of the neo-colonial undertones of the video (advocating for a white American saviour to embark on an epic journey to the dark heart of Africa returning with warlord Joseph Kony’s head on a stake) because that horse has been bludgeoned to death. What it is, however, is a reflection on what the internet has done for this generation’s sense of activism. Let's ask the question why when seeing disaster unfold before our eyes, all we can do is 'like' and 'share', and then we're content.
When Michael Pollan coined the concept of the glass abattoir, he could hardly have expected what glass screens have done to Western society. He imagined that if we took those areas in which the horrors of the world were being perpetrated, and cased them in glass, things would change. We would look in, be appalled at what was unfolding before our eyes and subsequently be compelled to act against them. Pollan thought making us eye-witness to disaster would prompt shock, outrage, and most importantly, action. These hopes were identical to the possibilities that the internet offered. People on one side of the globe would now be directly confronted with the suffering of those at the other end, with a simple click.
The reality has been the opposite. All the world is a glass cage, and we can watch the less fortunate from the comfort of our cushy homes. We marvel at the spectacle and rejoice in our privilege, rather than taking actual action. Now, this generation is not lazy. It is not apathetic. It is not the 'Me Generation' that others make it out to be. It simply would not recognise genuine activism if it pepper-sprayed us in the eyes. It is not that we do not want to act, it is that we think we already are. Online activism has slipped into clicktivism, allowing us to feel that sharing a video equals taking to the streets.
Show us how much you care
Information is meant to empower. Yet, the internet has brought on such a smorgasbord of information, that it seems to have sedated us, lulled us into a false sense of accepting the status quo. Although it offers the amazing possibility of connecting to those a hemisphere away, we have failed to use it for that. Instead we seem to be reblogging gifs of babies licking lemons and photoshopping a dancing Beyoncé into the she-Hulk.
So where did it all go wrong? And why is the reality of our internet-usage so disheartening? Zuckerman’s ’cute cat theory of internet activism‘ would have us believing that platforms such as Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram could easily be converted to active spaces of meaningful activism as well as being used to share images of cute cats. It would seem, however, that these platforms have made internet activism too easy. We have become convinced that buying a (RED) iPod or sharing the image of an African child-soldier is equal to directly improving the lives of others. This story has become all about the 'self' and not about the distant 'other'. Our humanitarianism is no longer about a shared humanity, but about a constructed public persona.
The danger of the highly public 'glass' society that we live in is that not only can we witness the lives of others, they can also look right back. This has set in motion an individualising trend. Our online lives are open for all to see, and that brings pressure along with it. Because you would not want to be the one friend that did not share that video of beautiful spoken word poetry against xenophobia, would you?
The combination of social networking with sites like UpWorthy have welded a double-edged sword of awareness and self-importance. By calling upon viewers to share their videos, which are by turns heartbreaking, hilarious and inspiring, it has mastered the art of the 'cute cat theory'. Show me a video of a young African American boy speaking up against racism or a rapper standing up for same-sex marriage equality and you have piqued my interests and possibly broadened my mind on certain topics. What you’ve also done is preach to the choir. Liking and sharing certain causes fosters a self-congratulatory online community, rather than one that is open to debate.
On the other hand, the internet also allows for immediate, and sometimes anonymous, response. Rather than feeding peaceful, civil and informed discourse, this frequently descends into mud-flinging, name-calling and trolling. Thus, clicktivism takes on two forms – preaching to the choir or anchoring down. Either you share the video that all your friends have shared for fear of being the odd one out, or you prepare to battle it out in the comments section, preferably by pouring cement into your own boots. Ideas need communities to flourish, and these constant battles have caused our sense of community to crumble.
Shattering the Pane
Now, opening that window has not been disastrous on all fronts. Sites like Kiva, Avaaz and Kickstarter (criticism of their susceptibility to abuse aside) have made it possible for projects to reach an audience and receive funding quickly and efficiently. When used properly, the internet allows you to be parted with your money far easier than when someone rings your doorbell or stops you in the street. Thus now we are fools easily parted from our money: to good causes, but fools nonetheless.
Such sites may be circumventing the usual potholes of bureaucracy, corruption and issues of transparency, but they are perpetuated rather than changing how the West views the Global South. Knowing that your $5 will contribute to setting up a social entrepreneurship for marginalised women in Djibouti may soothe your conscience and improve their standard of living, but it is a drop in the ocean. As long as the internet is not used to stimulate thought about why exactly those women in Djibouti have a sub-par standard of living in the first place, the problem remains, the discourse unchanged and the global inequality unwavering.
If anything, online activism has become the end, rather than the means, for those growing up with the internet. Future revolutions will not be televised by the West. They will be tweeted, and that’s all they will be. As long as our experience of unfairness is mediated by screens, our society may be constructed by panes of glass, but that glass also provides us with safety. Knowing that you will never have to actually experience what is happening to others is the biggest obstacle to online activism.
The current reality of online activism does not have to be permanent. The realm of possibilities that the internet has to offer remains vast; all it has to do is call for offline action. We have to come to terms with the context of the videos we see and the processes that lead to the suffering we “share” before change will be brought about. The time has come for us to put our lofty words into practice and translate our online actions into offline change . We must bury the armchairs of our smug, shallow humanitarianism and cease using the internet as a self-obsessed pat on our own backs. Away from the screens and into the light is where the real change will take place.
It's my pleasure to share with you the successes we've achieved on behalf of Distilled Magazine in our first year. Although many questions are still unanswered, Distilled has helped increase intelligent discourse. We maximized the use of our four magazine issues and daily web publication to continually achieve our lofty goals of asking fundamentally difficult questions and answering them intelligently. We have worked hard in order to help you become thoughtfully engaged and connected with the global readership and author base acting as a bridge of educated discourse.
Since July 2012, we have brought together people from all corners of the globe to share, learn and act. Growing our web publication to a sustainable level of daily, new content and with four issues of our themed magazine has allowed us to understand and deal with the complex relationships among people, organizations, and institutions. This massive growth led to the decision for a more formal leadership structure. I have been brought on as Executive Director to help grow the organization and free up the resources of our editors, so that we may bring you more hard hitting, original articles, asking and answering the tough questions.
While working with various non-profits in an executive capacity, I have also served on the boards of directors of several non-profit, business, and community boards. In so doing, I have built extensive senior level managerial experience in the non-profit and business sector with a record of success in getting initiatives off the ground and flourishing. Through years of serving on civic and nonprofit boards, I have found that there is an effective way to help: to be present and to lend your expertise. By listening to the problem and assessing before acting, there is the chance to effect change in a positive and sustainable way. This is not only compatible with Distilled’s mission it is central to it.
With over 30,000 views since our inception in July 2012, we have published over 200 articles on an interdisciplinary range of topics and interests. Reaching over two thousand unique pageviews a month, we have doubled our readership this past month and the month before it. We have grown our interest, our scope, and our reach.
Acting on our belief that we all have a role to play, we have invited and continue to invite your submissions. We've increased our internal capacity, growing our editorial board, hiring an Executive Director, and welcoming several long-term, skilled contributors. I am delighted with the new perspectives they bring.
As our first year has come to a close, we developed a strategic direction that will guide our organization's activities for the next year. Our services and expertise are in high demand, and thanks to strong supporters, we have the capacity to respond. I invite you to read our latest issue of the magazine ‘The Art of the Possible.’
Together, we are bridging the gap of intelligent discourse.
Executive Director of Distilled Magazine
On February 25th 2013, the 16th European Union-Ukraine Summit took place in Brussels. We could say that these summits have become a tradition in recent years, but strangely enough there was no 2012 summit. How did it happen that a perfect – or so it seemed – example of international cooperation has changed into a simple exchange of opinions? Why did ambitious plans turn out to be not very important, and why was the Association Agreement between the two (which just needed to be signed) postponed as if it was completely useless?
The 2013 summit was carried out in accordance with all the unspoken rules concerning this kind of event: the meeting was hosted by the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, Herman Van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso, while Ukraine was represented by President Viktor Yanukovych. Both parties' representatives called for a closer cooperation and expressed their concern about the perspectives of mutual cooperation. They also expressed the belief that organizing a meeting after a year's break demonstrates the ability of the partners to break the deadlock in their relationship.
The February summit was therefore considered by most observers to be the ordinary, almost standardized meeting between the EU and the Ukraine. However, the only concrete decision taken was the obligation to provide Ukraine with financial assistance. Although the amount itself is not high (610 million Euro), the transfer is subject to a number of conditions that Ukraine must meet, meaning that the EU has gained a certain influence on Ukraine.
Ukraine's relations with the European Union over the last several months may indeed be described as bland. While in 2011 an acceleration of the integration process and the development of cooperation in all possible areas was still expected, from the beginning of 2012 the enthusiasm faded. This is due to Ukraine's difficulties to decide whether it wishes to be closer to the European Union or to the Russian Federation. President Yanukovych currently does not want to make any essential decisions regarding Ukraine's future – he still seems to believe that it is possible to seek closer cooperation with both Russia (through the Eurasian Union and other institutions managed by the Federation) and the West (through the European Union). Yanukovych explicitly expressed this belief on a press conference in Brussels, where a journalist asked him whether or not he believes it is possible to advance on two fronts at the same time. Alas, as neither Russia nor the European Union would accept this kind of disloyalty, the president’s enthusiasm is not well-grounded at all.
It is however not only Ukraine that has put integration on the back burner: the EU also focuses on other problems and only occasionally comes back to the unfinished Ukrainian case. For example, there was virtually no attention paid to the country by the European Council during the EU's foreign policy debates in November 2012. The February summit was a chance to change these cold relations, but the European leaders lacked the courage to take serious decisions. This might result from a lack of desire for further cooperation, or, even worse, from lack of will to deepen the existing cooperation.
Prospects for Improvement
But there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Both sides expressed the interest in signing the Association Agreement during autumn 2013 and, despite some uncertainty about this actually happening, its conclusion would mean assured improvement for both. From an economic point of view there are without a doubt more advantages than disadvantages for Ukraine.
From a political perspective things are much more complicated. Signing the Agreement would be a clear signal that the Ukrainians give priority to the EU over Russia. The arrangement will irritate Moscow, but can be recognized as a decision from which there is no turning back. If we however take into account that Ukraine is a beneficiary of Russian financial help, it is no surprise why Kiev has so many doubts about the Agreement. And it's not only the politicians who aren't sure about which type of cooperation is better for the country. The Ukrainian citizens also remain divided. The latest polls show that 52% of Ukrainians are in favour of membership of the European Union, whereas only 34% are against and 14% have no opinion. At the same time, 41% supports the idea of a joint state composed of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
An extra problem for the relatively good EU-Ukraine relationship was the decision of a court in Kiev to sentence ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko to seven years in prison for crimes committed during her time in power. As the EU judged this sentence to be politically motivated, it led to additional unwillingness to progress with the signing of the Association Agreement. Both parties are however responsible for bringing affairs to such a bad condition. The European Union on the one side requires President Yanukovych to intervene and change the conviction so that Tymoshenko would be freed from the penal colony she is convicted to. Yanukovych on the other keeps replying he is unable to do so as no mechanisms exist that can alter the judgment of an independent court – an independence which is from an EU perspective questionable in itself. If Yanukovych cannot change the court's sentence, the EU suggested that he should adapt the Criminal Code. This idea was not well-received by the Ukrainians, who consider the EU's actions as imposing solutions without prior discussion. Surprisingly, it seems that the EU politicians have not figured out that these continuous demands do not bring the EU and Ukraine closer. Although Ukraine announced earlier that cooperation with the EU is a top priority, it started negotiations with Russia concerning the Federation’s projects (the Eurasian Union, the Customs Union, etc.) and slowed down its attempts at democratization.
No matter how complicated mutual relations are, what we have to keep in mind is that the EU and Ukraine need each other, although they tend to say they do not. Despite its political shortcomings and failure to respect certain principles of the free market and fair trade, Ukraine remains a very attractive partner for the EU. It offers a large, capacious market, an extensive industrial base (though one requiring modernization), and a cheap but qualified labour force. Due to all of these advantages, the EU has not withdrawn the proposal to sign the Association Agreement, but only postponed it.
For Ukraine, the integration could bring many benefits such as the deepening of economic relations, a flow of financial aid (direct and indirect), and visa facilitation. Thirty percent of Ukraine's foreign trade depends on the EU countries, while the trade with countries of the Customs Union under the aegis of Russia represents a comparable value (around forty percent). Additionally, every now and then Ukraine is involved in so called 'gas wars' with Russia. Whenever the Russians are dissatisfied with the current energy collaboration, it heightens the prices of gas or threatens to reduce the supply. So far Ukraine has always been in a weaker position in the negotiations following these trade wars – mainly because it was the only country to face this kind of threat. If the Association Agreement were to be in force, Ukraine would automatically become a partner that needs to be taken more seriously by Russia in any negotiations. This means that signing the Association Agreement would help Ukraine to better shape its relations with its powerful neighbour, a perspective that definitely should be welcome by all Ukrainians.
The Future Looks Promising
Despite the above mentioned problems, the future seems brighter. A return to the pre-2012 relationship is possible, but both sides must agree on certain compromises. The EU must finally stop refusing to talk with Ukraine as long as Yulia Tymoshenko is imprisoned because this will not result in letting her free: the legal system just does not work this way. Obviously, it would be desirable if Tymoshenko was given a another chance in a fairer trial, but the EU should not expect this to happen anytime soon. What is more, shortly after the sentence was issued it came to light that Tymoshenko may not be as honest as European politicians want to see her. New pieces of evidence show she might be liable for political murder, which is going to be verified by the prosecutor. If this turns out to be true, the EU will have an image problem as it refrained from integration on the basis of wrong premises. Of course, Ukraine can be accused of other faults, primarily its human rights violations and the insufficient pace of democratization. Yet, the question related to Tymoshenko was being repeated over and over again and demonstrated to be the most significant one.
Another reason why the EU might try to keep good relations with Ukraine is its fear that Russia will mould Ukraine into a new bastion for its own security. It is clear to the EU that Ukraine is too weak to function outside alliances and that its choice is limited to two players. Having in mind this fear, as well as the plausible gains from cooperation with Ukraine, it seems clear that it is not in the best interest of the Union to give Russia exclusive rights to the use of these facilities.
It is therefore absolutely possible that the Association Agreement will be signed later this year – at least the parties seem to be more and more convinced to make it happen. To please the EU, the Ukrainian authorities decided to pardon Yuriy Lutsenko, former minister of internal affairs and a close ally of Tymoshenko, who had been sent to prison for four years for abuse of office and embezzlement. He was detained in December 2010 and was due to be released at the end of 2014. This gesture definitely pleased EU, but still does not fully satisfies its demands. This decision shows Yanukovych is determined to conclude the Association Agreement, as the EU very clearly expressed that if no progress is made and the work on the Agreement is not completed this year, the case will be postponed for a couple of years.
Assuming that the Association Agreement is signed this year, it however does not have to mark out the trace for further cooperation. The prospects for its development are largely dependent on how both sides decide to fulfil the intentions set out in the Agreement. It may happen that the parties will treat it very instrumental – they might appreciate the fact that it is concluded, but will not take obligations deriving from it seriously. This is a worst-case scenario, but is it also a possible one? To some extent yes, because the EU unfortunately tends to forget that Ukraine has been a Soviet state too long to be able to adopt democratic principles overnight. If Brussels accepts the Turkish attitude towards to EU principles, maybe it should also be more flexible when it comes to the Ukrainian case. Ukraine will learn democratic rules, but it just needs more time to do so than for example Poland or Lithuania did. It seems to me that the EU needs to work out the right way to motivate the country and its politicians in order to persuade them to change their attitude towards democratic institutions.
In any case, the final decision concerning the Association Agreement must be made soon. This will not only be a decision on signing or rejecting it – this will be a decision concerning the future of the entire Ukraine–EU relationship. Both parties seem to be making steps toward the conclusion of the Agreement which is, in my personal opinion, the right decision. I strongly believe the EU will benefit from cooperation with one of the biggest European countries, as Ukraine will likewise feel the positive effects of the agreement. Hopefully the most serious crisis in mutual relations is nearly over, and the 17th European Union-Ukraine Summit will be a time to discuss promising perspectives for the future.
Energy has become a “hot topic” in recent years. From green energy over climate change and geopolitics, to the unaddressed and growing needs of the emerging countries, it's an issue that has been discussed all over the world. To escape the crash course set out by our (not always wise) activities, we are advised to start looking for alternative patterns of development. We are told that more efficiency and better technology will lead us to a “green society”. Because of that, both the environment and our lifestyle will be saved and can go on indefinitely.
But is it really that easy? Is it really possible that more and better technology can solve these problems?
A History of Constraints
Undoubtedly, what sets us, living in the Western world, apart from our ancestors living hundreds of years ago is the level of affluence. The wealth achievable by pre-modern societies was severely limited by a fluctuating amount of resources. When the standard of living rose there was always a turning point when population outgrew resources. In other words, there was a glass ceiling that constrained development and made human life cyclical. Simple economic laws tell us why this was so. There are three basic factors of production – land, labour and physical capital – which are inputs to the production process. Following his well-known colleague Malthus, the British economist Ricardo wrote that if at least one of these three is fixed then the rising input of any other will ultimately provide diminishing returns. This meant that as population grew food prices also increased, simply because the available land was fixed and supply did not meet demand. This system pulled real wages down, causing fertility to fall. As a result, the population stopped growing and the cycle repeated. For this reason, constrained populations were perceived in a positive way, whereas evolutions that improved living standards were considered harmful. This is an astonishing and counter-intuitive reversal of the modern logic where “more is better”.
What happened during the Industrial Revolution is that these limits were broken. People realized that they could substitute some factors of production by using energy from coal. As a result they started using labour-saving technology to produce more goods. Cheap energy is indispensable in order to multiply the amount of physical capital needed for self-sustaining creation. Modern devices can only be made by other precise machines — which can only function if propelled by energy. We have saved our lands as we do not use animals any longer to produce power, allowing us to produce more food and let populations grow. The mechanization of agriculture has further strengthened this effect. The process of human development in the last two centuries can therefore be seen as the continuous spread of the law of substitution.
Building on this we created the structures of modern, enormously complex societies where the majority of people do not work in the agricultural or industrial professions. The downside of this is that we have become addicted to energy. We do not even realize how far the substitution goes. Everyday millions, if not billions of people commute and work in jobs that would not have been created in pre-modern times. This cannot be sustained without a constant flow of energy. We are able to work in service jobs because fossil fuels do the job that was previously done by human muscle. It is no exaggeration to say that everyone in the developed world has the equivalent of countless slaves at his or her disposal. Energy is embodied in our daily behaviour: working, commuting, living. In effect, the average person in the developed world uses 40,000 times more energy than a pre-historic hunter-gatherer, consuming 230,000 kilocalories a day compared with about 5,000 kilocalories a day 100,000 years ago. The energy addiction can especially be observed in cities where all the critical systems that provide us with essential services — such as transportation, heating, food — are fully dependent on the continuous and uninterrupted access to energy. Just imagine a blackout lasting few days to realize how addicted we are to electricity. As the urban fraction is growing faster than the overall population, the vulnerability of the global population to energy disruptions is severely increasing.
It is therefore very popular these days today to argue for energy efficiency, which should help us to combat climate change and increase our energy independence. This kind of thinking is delusive. Even though the effectiveness of current energy converters is absolutely incomparable to 18th century machines, high energy efficiency can be a disadvantage as much as an advantage. The problem is that it has helped to spread the substitution law worldwide. The issue was identified around 150 years ago, when the British economist Jevons observed that an increase in efficiency speeds up the spread of innovation, and, finally, the rise of overall consumption rates. Thus, efficiency, conservation, and technological improvement may actually worsen our energy prospects because once the cost of consuming a valued resource decreases, people will respond by increased consumption. Between 1950 and 2005 the energy efficiency of the US economy more than doubled, but the aggregate consumption of commercial energy actually tripled! The more effective our devices are, the more incentives people have to use them, and the more we are locked-in.
More unconventional alternative sources have been developed quite recently. The current shale gas revolution occurring in the US looks very promising, doesn't it? Aside from this example, there are other sources of unconventional fossil fuels like tar sands or deep-sea drillings for conventional oil and gas.
Unfortunately, the problems come in packages with these new energy sources. Their production is technologically and environmentally more challenging compared conventional sources. Its production is in itself also more energy-intensive, which means that a significant portion of the energy gained needs to be reinvested into the extraction of the next unit. This adds to already higher exploration and production costs. Separation of the oil and sand involves large quantities of water and energy for steam injection and refining. Nowadays, oil from the oil sands in the Alberta province of Canada – a land-locked and US-oriented exporter – is already cheaper than that from shale in the US. Yet, as Canada will be severely hit by these low prices, it indicates that its real price should be way higher. Marginal costs of production are higher for unconventional sources and renewables. Finally, the environmental risks involved in such production are various in character and include oil spillages, contamination of ground and freshwater, greenhouse gas emission and the release of toxic materials.
With the expanding global middle class and the increasing use of ever more energy-intensive technologies in homes and workplaces it is getting more and more difficult to satisfy this rapidly increasing demand for energy. Moreover, to do this with respect for the environment is becoming a mission impossible, and this without even mentioning the question of resource depletion. Humanity seems to be locked-in in a certain path of development. Cheap energy certainly provided a share of the global population with a satisfying level of wealth and a good quality of living. Yet, these people have no right to limit the access of the poor aspiring to enhance their way of life. However, the spread of the substitution law, multiplied by rising efficiency, provides strong incentive for increase in energy demand and, in effect, higher overall energy consumption. As we are unable to resign voluntarily from what we have achieved or consciously decrease the level of energy consumption, this seems to be a global vicious circle. Hence, technological solutions will not solve our problems. Rather, by keeping us addicted to cheap energy, they might well make our future even worse.
"Getting rich does not happen in a space outside the state and community, but involves (as a rule) a violent process of appropriation that casts serious doubt on the right of the rich achiever to own the wealth he may then go on to give generously." In his most recent book the popular philosopher Slavoj Zizek reiterates some of his earlier critiques of contemporary capitalism by challenging the underlying logic of charity giving. By emphasising the importance of charity giving, fair trade coffee at Starbucks (or as I will argue social entrepreneurship) we are only reiterating the social structures and relations that have caused the problems in the first place. By misinterpreting the ‘possible’ and being determined to change the world we live in we are often driven to act on a fallacy that attempts to solve the problems through the same mechanism that have created them in the first place.
So why are so many charities, NGO’s, student groups, and people who focus on eradicating poverty, addressing social exclusion and overcoming environmental degradation attempting to solve the issues by throwing money at them? Or worse creating programs that generate profits in a socially responsible way? Would it not make more sense to rally around systematic changes? Act on addressing the root causes of poverty, social exclusion and environmental degradation, rather than using the logic of the system to combat the symptoms of the system? I do not believe that it is because we refuse to agree with Zizek in that the accumulation of profit is a fundamentally violent process. Rather when it comes to transposing our principles into action we do exactly what this issue of Distilled Magazine is attempting to examine. We get trapped within the ‘Art of the Possible’ and believe that in order to act on our principle, in order to do something, we have to conform to the structures we are presented with.
Global capitalism is not just controlling the means of production but also to some extent the imagination of the most principled who are itching for action. It has defined what the ‘Art of the Possible’ entails and only within these narrow confines can we act. Genuine alternatives are hard to find and even when they exist in theory, the praxis is often riddled with contradictions, hypocrisy and unsustainable relations because they are attempts at escaping rather than changing the logic of capitalism.
The problem with doing in the age of contemporary capitalism is that it has successfully reified its modus operandi. The injustices we see are reduced to human failure or historical legacies and only occasionally attributed to the wider global system. In the failed socialist projects of the 20th century the root of evil and injustices were obvious. In a system that is based on state planning and control the responsible entity is and will always be the state and its elites. Unfortunately this is not the case with contemporary capitalism, in particular since the beginning of neoliberalism and its scrupulous expansion across the globe. The contemporary political system is not defined by capitalism but as an internationalist liberal project. We still believe that it is a utopian adventure and challenging its political and economic foundations means to challenge the values of equality, human rights and freedom we have so delicately acquired over the last 60 or so years.
The social relations present within this economic and political system are so far removed from public consciousness that democracy, liberalism and capitalism become one and the same. It takes multiple factories to collapse or burn down and hundreds of deaths until a genuine outcry over the Bangladeshi textile industry took hold and even then the companies who reap the most profits from these dismal conditions are largely unscathed. And the logic behind these disasters definitely is. It takes a global financial crisis with riots, protests and millions of white westerners to drift into poverty until the discussion behind capitalism even started again. And even then it was not capitalism but predatory capitalism and financial speculations that became the problem.
What resulted from this rather clever discourse was an emergence of so called social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship is quickly becoming our generation's answer to the collective trauma of global capitalism and its narrow paradigm of what is ‘possible’ and acceptable within ‘democratic and liberal’ societies. If being nice to one another and coming up with clever ideas that minimise the way in which we exploit each other and the environment has become something that is congratulated, something that is new and visionary, surely our fundamental paradigm of human interactions is wrong. If we are congratulating each other for finding ways to make the system in which we live that little bit less inhumane, don’t we all implicitly already agree that the system is inhumane? So why then not try and come up with ways to change it fundamentally? Surely we would all want to live in a global society where being social to each other is the basic requirement for everything we do, rather than something that is celebrated.
This might all seem rather utopian. And that is true. It is a radical utopian vision. And that is exactly what is needed. Frederic Jameson argues that without a utopia we will never be able to see or imagine the outlines for a new political reality. And for now all that our new utopian vision needs, is to clearly outline what the problem is.
The problem is not democracy, or human rights or even necessarily the post-war individual liberalism that has gripped the western hemisphere. The problem is the belief that these are the defining characteristics of our political system and creating a radical utopian vision will undermine those. Challenging the logic of capitalism does not have to mean challenging the logic of human rights and individual freedoms. It will mean challenging the way in which these concepts are used to promote and protect capitalism. In his analysis of the ‘society of security’ Foucault describes how democracy and liberties are accepted as long as the flow of commerce is not interrupted in any significant manner. The state no longer has to discipline and can grant its citizens the freedoms they want as long as the flow of capital accumulation is not interrupted.
Everyone is given free range within the confines of the ‘possible’. And possible is anything that does not interrupt the flow of commerce or the logic of capitalism. Unfortunately actions within these confines will be futile without an understanding of the impossible. Social entrepreneurship, philanthropy and charity giving are often praised for being ‘efficient’ or promoting ‘realistic change’. The problem with the reification of capitalist social relations, or operating within the confines of the ‘art of the possible’, is that if you are praised for realistic change you are by definition not changing the status quo.
So instead of attempting to act on our principles and be limited by the art of the possible, instead of expecting praise for being ‘realistic’ and ‘efficient’, actions need to appeal to the art of the impossible. Because only by acting on something that we perceive to be impossible we are challenging the status quo in a real way. And even if our actions show no tangible and immediate results, if they contribute to the development of a new utopia we will have contributed hugely to the realisation of our principles.
I often find myself agreeing with some of my contemporaries who decide to use social entrepreneurship in order to promote social change. In the same way that I find it difficult to denounce charity giving when it improves the livelihood of people around the world. But I refused to accept that the best way to eradicate poverty and suffering is through reiterating the same exploitative relationships. I do not think it is the only approach to acting upon our principles and more importantly I think the opportunity to use the current crisis as a chance to reinterpret the possible has not yet faded.
Often the drive to act focuses too much on the art of the possible and too little on the possibilities beyond that. The art of the impossible, the utopian challenge of the current status quo, modus operandi or capitalist social relations is what in my mind makes social movements great. Otherwise our actions become part of an ‘industry of change’ that only reinforces global inequalities. If we accept that the logic of the global political and economic system is responsible for creating much of the poverty, inequality, exclusion and injustices that we see around us, than acting according to that same logic to promote social change is not just a fallacy but a tragedy.