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A Storm

The current state of the world is often compared with turbulence in the atmosphere, a storm. The Flemish political philosopher has written an essay, or should I say a pamphlet, with the title “A paradise blows from the storm” (Een paradijs waait uit de storm). The title refers to a phrase by the German social critic Walter Benjamin, describing Angelus Novus, a painting by Paul Klee:

The face of the angel of history is turned toward the past. Where we perceived a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistably propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.

File:Klee, Angelus novus.png
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920
Oil transfer and watercolor on paper

Resistance

Decreus argues that only resistance is truly democratic. The current organization of democracy is, to him, an elective aristocracy because access to mandates is reserved for the elite, and elections usually lead to re-elections of the same elites. But the question is against what one should resist. Decreus argues that the predominance of the market ideology is in itself totalitarian. Moreover, it is based on selfishness and assumes that this individual selfishness will be beneficiary to the group as it allows individuals to experience pleasure and entrepreneurs to make a profit. Competitiveness leads to optimal solutions and creativity. But the market is not perfect and not egalitarian. And in this state, the market creates elites.

Decreus’ criticism of the free markets is not new. And he is right that the free market needs corrections. He is also right when he states that the inequality that has been created is harming the general interest. But these arguments are hardly new. Decreus returns to the foundations of democracy and quotes from the writings of Plato and Aristoteles and describes the Polis or political system as a way to go beyond selfishness and allow people to achieve a higher level of being. For that, inequality cannot be too big. This beat has been repeated by many in the past 2000 years. John Rawls (1990) defines justice as fairness, which is even access to resources and corrective measures if this access is not general. Joseph Stiglitz (2012) makes a brilliant analysis of the price of inequality, and he comes up with a plan.

Decreus does not come with a plan. He says a philosopher should not solve problems but reframe them or create new ones. This is quite appalling as a statement from someone who criticizes the current situation and belittles recent initiatives to strive for a more participative or deliberative democracy.
So after reading this essay, the question remains. How to realize progress? How to learn from the current storm(s)? Resistance against what exactly? In Europe, there is a corrected market ideology. There are redistributive systems. In many countries, there is a minimum wage (I am still puzzled by the fact that Germany has no minimum wage). Unions exist, and collective bargaining is part of the organization of the labor market. Employers increasingly focus on the human side of the enterprise and strive to create societal value.

The current storm, to me, is not a storm of a crumbling ideology, a failure of the free market. It’s a leadership crisis. It’s based on greed. And Decreus argues that the ideology of the free market gets out the worst in people. This is not necessarily true. If there are bad human characteristics, they will be present in all ideologies and human systems. Horrible things have happened in the name of any ideology or religion: crusades in the name of Catholicism, genocide in the name of racial supremacy (fascism), organized famines in the planned economy of the Soviet Union (Communism), … Any human organization is not free of “sin,” and in all systems, elites have abused their power but in all systems, elites have been around.

This is just an observation. Maybe an elite is a human characteristic, whatever the nature of the elite (religious, economic, political, …). But there is no reason for an elite not to accept something like the general interest. So the economy is a part of society and should not be treated separately. So I agree with Decreus that state and economy should not be divided. But I see no answer in Decreus’ pamphlet.

So far, there hasn’t been any civilization that has reached a moral equilibrium that has eradicated immoral behavior. Only cooperation and leadership could solve that. And I guess the trip towards interdependence and moral equilibrium will be eternal. So the paradise after the storm will remain utopian but desirable.

So even when I agree that crisis (storm) is the basis for progress (after the great flood of 1953, the Netherlands build dams to avoid this kind of disaster), I find Decreus’ analysis quite reductive. As if only resistance is the key to progress. The basis of progress is leadership and cooperation. This leadership and cooperation can be anywhere, at any level. And acts of leadership or cooperation do not have to be against something, they can be found in various cohabitating ideological systems. And I see a new world of “we” arriving, in which everyone can play a part, even philosophers, through cooperation and leadership.

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  • Decreus, Thomas (2013). Een Paradijs waait uit de Storm. Over markt, democratie en verzet. Berchem, Epo.
  • Rawls, John (1990). A theory of Justice.
  • Stiglitz, Joseph (2012). The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Source of the picture: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Klee,_Angelus_novus.png

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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