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Gregor Thüsing & Gerrit Forst (eds.), Whistleblowing: A comparative study (Dordrecht: Springer, 2016)

Whistleblowing is a hot topic in contemporary society. We can just mention Wiki-leaks, undertaken by Julien Assange and his team. Or the infamous scandal of Edward Snowden, who made classified information about the US government surveillance of private citizens public and, as a consequence, had to flee his country and go to Russia. Or we can mention Bradley (Now Chelsea) Manning, who also made public classified government information and was put into prison in the US with a severe sentence by the courts. Nevertheless, even before these whistleblowing cases of making public classified information about governments, the topic of whistleblowing created much controversy and fascination. We can mention here the many cases of whistleblowing in relation to business firms and private organizations. Often such cases refer to situations where individuals feel moral responsibility to “blow the whistle” in the public about wrongdoing and fraud in their organizations. Indeed, from this perspective, whistleblowing emerges “as a potential weapon against corruption, mismanagement and general non-compliance with legal obligations by a broader public” (v). In the US, famous cases where whistleblowing was important include the Enron and World Com Scandals, with the ensuing breakdown of Arthur Andersen Accounting firm, which lead to the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation.

Starting from this definition, the book edited by Gregor Thüsing and Gerrit Forst with the title Whistleblowing: A comparative study, offers a compilation of articles about the law, legislation and legal dimensions of whistleblowing in different countries around the world. The book begins by a general presentation of its topic by the editors, who co-authored “Whistle-blowing around the world. A Comparative Analysis of Whistle-blowing in 23 Countries”. In their essay and in the anthology at large, legislations and legal practices of whistleblowing in different countries are compared, and it is shown how whistleblowing is not always seen as something positive and therefore constitutes a problem for the law. In European history, especially in the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, whistleblowing was not accepted, but rather considered as problematic for the regimes. As a result, possibly because of inertia or inherent self-interest, there has been often little protection of whistleblowers even in the following European legislations. The book is based upon a symposium held in Vienna by the International Academy of Comparative Law at the XIX International congress of Comparative Law. The aim of the book is to give researchers, judges and legislators an overview of the different approaches to legislation on whistleblowing around the world. The contributions are by leading national experts from the countries that are investigated in the book. Overall, the book shows that there is no common basis for legislation on whistleblowing in the countries that have been investigated. Even though there exist some general laws protecting whistleblowers, the countries investigated have very different approaches to whistleblowing due to historical and cultural reasons. Based on overviews of the differences in the legislations about whistleblowing, the anthology emphasizes some issues, which are important in legislation and legal practice concerning whistleblowing.

Of primary importance is of course the need to define who should be protected by legislation on whistleblowing. Is it only one definite whistleblower or should it also be supporters of whistleblowers who should be protected too? Here, whistleblower legislation needs to define the content and scope of protection of whistleblowers in law and legislation. Again, we see huge differences in legislations about who qualifies as whistleblowers and how they are protected and what kind of rights they have. Indeed, there is a potential conflict between freedom of expression and whistleblowing and many whistleblowers are taking a lot of risks if they decide to reveal classified or secret information from their organizations to the public. In this context, it is also a problem how supporters of whistleblowers and witnesses of whistleblowing should be protected by the law and how the law can ensure just and fair treatment of whistleblowers, supporters and witnesses. Important issues to be addressed in this context are issues relating to internal and external reporting of whistleblowing; what happens if the whistleblower allegations are untrue? Is the motivation of the whistleblower relevant? What if this motivation is based on personal interest? What kind of information may the whistleblower report? Is there an ethical or legal obligation to blow the whistle and inform about injustice, corruption or fraud in the organization?  What kind of protection should be offered to the whistleblowers? What kind of reprisal should whistleblowers be protected against? Who has the burden of proof in dismissal cases? What is the function of whistleblowing in society and how could we support whistleblowers in society as a contribution to collective action? In addition, a further issue is whether there should be financial support and incentives for whistleblowers.

Although the comparison of legal practices, laws and legislations relating to all these issues may be difficult, it is the aim of the anthology to identify some general patterns in the different jurisdictions that have been surveyed. The report shows that countries like the UK, Japan and South Korea are leading in advanced legislation in the field. In the US, there has also been legislation actively encouraging whistleblowers since 1863. The anthology shows that there is a growing awareness of the problem of whistleblowing and the need to have whistleblower protection in Europe too, although many countries are not very far yet in establishing general rules and legislations about whistleblowing. Countries like Italy, Malta and Romania are on their way to legislation, but even countries that already have legislation on this matter, like Germany and other EU-member states, could do a lot to improve their legislation. The anthology is based on the view that there is both need and room for improvement of even the most advanced legislations on whistleblowing in the world. We need improvements in the legislations concerning protection of witnesses and supporters of whistleblowers, since this is a topic that has been neglected. A further topic for improvement is the possible support of whistleblowing by giving whistleblowers better financial incentives. This is something where the US, after many business scandals, are a leading country.

The different national reports in the anthology vary according to the cultural particularity of the legislation in each country. In Canada, the legislation on whistleblowing has been based on the “up the ladder” principle, meaning that the whistleblower is supposed to first disclosure information about wrongdoing by internal mechanisms and then later by public disclosure of wrongdoing. The presentation of whistleblower legislation in Croatia focusses on the legal framework and the specific issues concerning whistleblowers in the public sector. Cyprus is characterized by a dichotomy between public- and private-sector whistleblower protection and the legal framework lacks independent whistleblower protection. The Czech republic has no comprehensive special whistleblowing protection legislation, but laws concerning personal data and employee loyalty may apply. In France, whistleblower legislation has been inspired by the American model in Sarbanes-Oxley, which was introduced in 2002. Freedom of expression and good faith are important principles for protecting whistleblowers. There is some mistrust against whistleblowing, but there is also a growing understanding of the need to protect the rights of persons who become whistleblowers. The German regulation of whistleblowing is characterized by a lack of general regulation. Traditionally there was a lack of protection of whistleblowers because the labor courts saw it as a breach of the loyalty of the employees. Nevertheless, by shifting the focus onto human rights, the attitude is now more open. In Ireland there has been established a new legislation that provides comprehensive protection of whistleblowers. In Malta, for many years there has not been any law at all, but some protection has recently emerged. However, whistleblowing remains very risky for the individual in many other countries. In the Netherlands, there is in contrast much civil and cultural focus on whistleblowers and there is indeed support for whistleblowing by the institutionalization of a center for advice on whistleblowing. In Poland, there has been increased focus in case law on better support for whistleblowers, although the general legal framework is not very developed. Also in Portugal there is no specific legislation and there is very little regulation for the protection of whistleblowers. In Romania, we see a first step to whistleblower protection in new labor legislation that tends to regulate the status of whistleblowers. In Slovenia the protection of persons reporting corruption and other whistleblowers is sanctioned by a specific law on integrity and corruption, which includes rules of protection of the person of the whistleblower. The US is probably the country with the most conflicted history of the legislation and legal regulation of whistleblowers. On the one hand, the government needs whistleblowers to detect wrongdoing and fraud. On the other hand, when the government itself is subject to whistleblowing, e.g. famous cases such as Watergate and Snowden, whistleblowers face reprisal from political power, even though there is an increased understanding of the need to motivate whistleblowers at large, for example with financial incentives for truth-telling in fraud cases. In addition to these discussions of different countries, the book also gives a useful synopsis of whistleblowing material from 23 different jurisdictions.

This anthology is indeed a very interesting book about a hot topic today. The book is mostly a presentation of the legal situation in a comparative perspective. More material on the ethics and legal philosophy of whistleblowing could have improved the book. Nevertheless, the book is an important compilation of material about legislations on whistleblowing. After reading the book, the reader gets a good understanding of the complexity and differences of whistleblowing legislations. In fact, the protection of the whistleblower is not very great in many countries. We see how state interests and corporate protection of their internal information often prevail over the protection of the human rights and the freedom of expression of individuals. With such legislations, it can be argued that it is very dangerous to become a whistleblower and that the legal protection of whistleblowers needs to be improved. Without it, state and corporate power over citizens and employees becomes absolute. The book is a very strong contribution to the clarification of the importance of whistleblowing and it can spur more legal debate, better legislation and deeper jurisprudence and scholarship in the field.

What is True? What is False?

Mikael M. Karlsson made the above reference to Pinter in his lecture entitled “Free Speech, Freedom of the Press, and the Tapestry of Lies” delivered at the international conference Freedom of Expression and Social Responsibility: Theory and Practice, that was and organised by the Media Studies Programme and Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Akureyri in Iceland on the 29th of September 2014.

Continue reading What is True? What is False?

Freedom of the Press – Two Concepts



Within Western democracies there exists a well-established agreement on the importance of a free press, which figures prominently in their constitutions since the nineteenth century. However, disagreement emerged as soon as the limits of this freedom had to be defined. As much as everyone agreed on the necessity of having limits, there seemed to be no accord on where these limits should be. The history of freedom of the press is a history of the debates on the limits and borders of a free press.[1]

There is no “original meaning of freedom of the press,”[2] a formula which is often used in order to give weight to an argument. Our modern understanding of freedom of the press is the result of different historic developments and philosophical ideas from the nineteenth century, which explain the different limits for a free press in the twenty-first century.

In the western world, the two main reasons for limiting freedom of the press are defending state interests and/or personal rights. There is a stronger emphasis in the Anglo-American world towards limiting the free press for reasons of state security than in the Federal Republic of Germany and vice versa when personal rights where are involved. In the first decades after the war, these differences did not play an important role as long the Cold War had a unifying impact on western societies, but with the end of the Cold War differences became apparent. The different perceptions on the limits of a free press were the result of two arguments used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for justifying a free press combined with a different historical context. By tracing the debate in the English-speaking world and in Germany, these two different arguments will become visible.

In 1644 the debate for freedom of expression started in modern times thanks to John Milton’s Areopagitica, where he still argued about God in order to justify his quest for freedom. With the enlightenment God lost his unifying role for society and could no longer serve as justification. Two arguments were brought then forward to justify freedom of the press: One by the continental movement of the enlightenment; the other from within the movement of utilitarianism, and most influentially by John Stuart Mill. Both underlined the importance of truth; however, they differed in their understanding on what truth was good for. This difference in their arguments had a lasting impact on the debate of the limits of freedom of the press. 



Freedom of speech and its limits

Formally the argument for free speech or free press[3] has been the same since John Milton’s time. Freedom was seen as a necessary means of realizing an aim for which wide social acceptance existed.  Milton needed to justify his quest for freedom of expression with an argument understandable to his contemporaries and for a man of the seventeenth century only God provided the basis for this argument. It was Milton´s challenge to connect freedom of expression to God. He did it in two ways. Firstly, in a purely rhetorical way, he linked censorship to the Catholic Church, reminding his reader that it was their invention and therefore unworthy of a country such as England.[4] This argument sounded convincing in a society where he could be sure that the Catholic Church was seen as an enemy. In his second more sophisticated argument, he linked truth to God: “Truth is strong, next to the Almighty”[5] and argued that it is our duty to God to seek truth.[6]

A large part of his argument was dedicated to demonstrating that freedom of expression was necessary to searching for truth. The role of freedom as a means for reaching a higher aim became evident when he set its limits. Freedom, he pointed out, was not intended for “popery, and open superstition”[7]. In other words, as the Catholic Church could not, for Milton, contribute towards truth-finding, they had no right to publicity. For him, the Catholic Church, described as the most “anti-Christian”[8] institution, was by definition excluded from enjoying any freedom of expression.

More broadly, however, Milton outlined with this text the construction of the argument for a free press. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the argument was the same; only God needed to be replaced with something else.



The English way

When Milton wrote Areopagitica, the newspaper had just been invented and it was not so much the journalist – a profession which did not exist in his time – whose freedom he had in mind, but more the righteous intellectual like himself. It was only in the nineteenth century that the newspaper became mass media and the debate on freedom of expression was led under the headline of freedom of the press. The newspaper could hardly be linked to the promotion of God’s truth and, due to the enlightenment, God as an ultimate justification could no more be taken for granted. The argument that Milton had brought forward needed therefore to be adapted to the changing times.

James Mill is a good example on how to do so, by replacing God with the social goals of utilitarianism. As a good friend of Jeremy Bentham, he believed utilitarianism would provide the ultimate fundament for society. In his 1823 essay Liberty of the Press he appealed first of all to common sense, such that everyone must be convinced that a society based on moral principles would achieve the highest happiness for all, which is the crucial criterion of utilitarian ethics. He needed to emphasize this since, unlike Milton, he had to justify the aim that he was striving for, whereas Milton, as a religious man of his time, was able to take God for granted.

However, just like Milton, he had to connect freedom of the press to the best possible society:  

We may then ask, if there are any possible means by which the people can make a good choice, besides the liberty of the press? The very foundation of a good choice is knowledge. The fuller and more perfect the knowledge, the better the chance, where all sinister interest is absent, of a good choice. How can the people receive the most perfect knowledge relative to the characters of those who present themselves to their choice, but by information conveyed freely, and without reserve, from one to another? There is another use of the freedom of the press, no less deserving the most profound attention, that of making known the conduct of the individuals who have been chosen. This latter service is of so much importance, that upon it the whole value of the former depends.[9]


James Mill – like Milton before him – saw a link between knowledge and freedom. The results of the last Pisa survey seemed not to suggest this, though. The difference vis-à-vis Milton consists in knowledge no longer serving God but allowing the creation of the ideal society.[10] An ideal society being for him a moral society and the freedom of the press promoting morality, since the individual would be scared that his sinful ways could be exposed to the public[11]

Everybody believes and proclaims, that the universal practice of the moral virtues would ensure the highest measure of human happiness; no one doubts that the misery which, to so deplorable a degree, overspreads the globe, while men injure men, and instead of helping and benefiting, supplant, defraud, mislead, pillage, and oppress, one another, would thus be nearly exterminated, and something better than the dreams of the golden age would be realized upon earth. Toward the attainment of this most desirable state of things, nothing in the world is capable of contributing so much as the full exercise of truth upon all immoral actions.[12]


In his argument he could no longer refer to religious authority; he had to refer instead to the intellectual authorities of his time in order to strengthen his position.[13] Like Milton, the aim he strived for defined the limits of the freedom:  

It will be said, however, that though all opinions may be delivered, and the grounds of them stated, it must be done in calm and gentle language. Vehement expressions, all words and phrases calculated to inflame, may justly be regarded as indecent, because they have a tendency rather to pervert than rectify the judgment.[14]


His argument sounds in the twenty-first century rather weak since it might provide reason for censorship instead for a free press. Any front-page of the yellow press might fail James Mill’s criteria for decency. 

It was left to his son John Stuart Mill to provide the argument with the biggest impact to the debate. Without the moral tone of his father argued for the necessity of a free press in order to create the best possible society. And his text On Liberty provided the printing press with the argument against “stamp duty” and censorship:

If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.


The printing press in England got with Mill a moral justification for their business. And they needed it, since the reputation of the journalist in the beginning of the nineteenth century was rather low seen as a “greedy adventurer”. With Mill they could claim an important social role in the society. By promoting the idea that the media was the fourth estate, a watchdog for the public interest and a speaker of public opinion a remarkable change occurred in the nineteenth century in England – the once distrusted media became an important and recognized player in society. Of course Mill himself was interested in it, since he saw the media also as a tool to promote his ideas as George Boyce concluded: “Like many political philosophers, the Utilitarians directed their ideas to a practical aim; and not only did they provide the press with an ideology but they also had contacts with the press which enabled them to advance their principles.”[15]

Even when it was obvious that the development and use of the freedom was not conducted in “calm and gentle language” as his father James had thought “the myth of the Forth estate continued to prosper” [16].



The struggle in Germany

The debate in Germany differed for a number of reasons: first of all Utilitarianism was never a strong philosophical or political movement in Germany. Mill wanted to reform English society with his liberal ideas, while Hegel left this to the Weltgeist. Nietzsche made it clear what he thought of a philosophy striving for happiness: “Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does.”[17]

Also early German contributions to the debate of press freedom were emerging from the Romantic Movement, and as in the case of Ludwig Börne, had little practical impact:

Public opinion is not the friend of the established order of the bourgeois society, and that makes the freedom of speech all the more necessary. Public opinion is a lake, which, if you curb him and put stays as long rises until he falls foaming over his place, flooded the land and sweeps everything away by itself. But where he is given an unimpeded run because it breaks up into a thousand streams varied speech and writing, which, peaceful flowing through the land, irrigate and fertilize it . The governments that suppress freedom of speech, because the truths they spread, they are annoying, make it as little children, which shut the eyes to be seen. Fruitless efforts! Where the Living Word is feared, since the death of the troubled soul will not bring peace. The ghost of the murdered thoughts frighten the suspicious prosecutor who slew them, no less than this even done in life. The free flow of public opinion, whose waves are the days writings , is the German Rubicon on which bore the lust for power and might ponder whether they pass him and take the expensive country and the world with him in bloody mess , or whether they themselves to defeat and stick out.[18] 


Even if it is beautifully written, the Weltgeist didn’t think Germany ready for it. When social reformers such as Karl Marx and Ferdinand Lassalle, in the middle of the nineteenth century, had finally an impact on society, it was not possible to integrate their ideas into a common struggle for freedom of the press as was the case in England.

In England Mill’s ideas could be integrated and taken up by the media as the Utilitarians provided the press with the arguments needed for claiming their role as the fourth estate. In Germany social reformers positioned themselves in opposition to the press and provided the press with arguments to reject their ideas. Ferdinand Lassalle, one of the founders of the workers’ movement in Germany, claimed: “Our main enemy, the main enemy of the healthy development of the German spirit and the German people, is the press nowadays. (…) Its mendacity, their depravity, their immorality is only outbid by nothing other than perhaps by its ignorance. “[19]

Calling the work of the journalist “prostitution of the spirit”[20] might not have helped improve his standing in the media world. So when Lassalle like Mill called for a free press, the publishing houses were as much on the alert as the government, since he saw not only state interference as a problem, but he questioned also the impact of business interests on freedom of the press: “If someone wants to make money, he may fabricate cotton or cloth or play on the stock market. But that for the sake of filthy gain one is ready to poisoning all the fountains of the spirit of the people and serves the people their spiritual death daily from a thousand tubes – it is the highest crime I can imagine.” [21]

He wished to free the press from advertisements, since he saw in the economic strength of the media an obstacle to its freedom. Lassalle was therefore in line with Karl Marx, who defended freedom of the press in his early writings, underlying that “that the first freedom of the press is not being a business. The writer which degrades it to a material mean deserves as a punishment for this inner lack of freedom also the outer lack of freedom, the censor.”[22] The publisher of the nineteenth century who turned printing into an enterprise could not have taken Börne, Marx or Lassalle on board in their struggle for a free press.



Kant’s heritage

There is however one German philosopher who has had a lasting impact on the debate and on the perception of freedom of the press in Germany: Immanuel Kant. Kant’s argument differs fundamentally from John Stuart Mill’s. Mill is interested in negative freedom, which means absence of regulation to ensure the best possible society; while Kant’s concern is positive freedom,[23] having an enlightened individual able to accept laws made through rational choice. Therefore Kant called for the Enlightenment so that “Man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” could occur[24]. For Kant this immaturity kept man unfree. In order to achieve enlightenment, Kant asked for the free use of reason: “And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.”[25] However, Kant’s practical suggestion to allow “public use of one’s reason” is a means; the liberated self is the aim. The debate in the Mittwochsgesellschaft  one of the most important German societies in the eighteenth century that promoted enlightenment – showed this when one of the members concluded: “I believe completely unlimited press freedom would surely be misused, most by the unenlightened, and it cannot therefore be a means of enlightenment.”[26] The members of the society wanted to promote enlightenment and the debate about freedom of the press centered on the question of the extent to which freedom of press might be a means to achieve it.

When, after the first World War, the Weimar republic created its first democratic constitution, freedom of the press was included; however, as Jürgen Wilke remarked:  “In this respect, one can say that although the idea of freedom of expression as a human right entered the Weimar Constitution, but not its traditional utilitarian justification.”[27] 

After the Second World War and its dramatic experiences, the Kantian categorical imperative to treat man “never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end” did materialize by having the “dignity of man” as the first article of the German Basic Law. In a study by Katja Stamm concerning the judgments of the highest courts in Germany, she pointed out that of course press freedom was recognized as a necessity for a functional democratic society, but it also emphasized this Kantian heritage in seeing the value “freedom of expression for the individual development of the personality.”[28]

There is the explanation for German judges limiting freedom of the press when it threatened dignity e.g. as in the case of hate-speech, while for example in the English-speaking world David Irving with his denying of the Holocaust was described as a “free speech martyr”.[29]

It also explains the different reactions to the latest National Security Agencies revelations. Living in a Benthamite panopticum might be safe and happy and, as the British tabloid journalist Paul McMullan expressed it, “Privacy is for peados,”[30] but it signals equally the end of the Kantian autonomous individual.




The discussion of free press in the English-speaking world is about the correct interpretation of John Stuart Mill. In the recently published Free speech. A very short introduction, by Oxford University Press, Mill figures prominently and his ideas are getting a whole chapter in it, while Kant is never mentioned. Contrary to a recently published Eine Ideengeschichte der Freiheit, where Mill is mentioned 23 times, compared to Kant’s 457.

The Kantian link between negative freedom as one’s use of reason in public to the idea of the autonomous individual, which is always an end to itself and cannot be a just a means for a utilitarian better society, allows German journalists and editors to have a self-regulation in place where they underline this Kantian idea of “preservation of human dignity”. The first article of the German journalist code of ethics reads therefore: “Respect for the truth, preservation of human dignity and accurate informing of the public are the overriding principles of the press.”[31] 

In the US, the Hutchins Commission concluded already in 1947 that “Freedom of the press for the coming period can only continue as an accountable freedom. Its moral right will be conditioned on its acceptance of this accountability. Its legal right will stand unaltered as its moral duty is performed.”[32] However, instead of following the findings of the commission, twenty years later freedom of expression was the winning argument for Larry Flint in the legal battle for publications of pornography.

State security, however, seemed to be to a much wider extent an acceptable reason for interfering with press freedom in Britain than in Germany. In 2007 the prosecutors dropped all charges against 17 journalists in Germany for disclosing state secrets, while in England in the same year David Keogh and Leo O’Connor were “jailed under the Official Secret Act 1989 for leaking a secret memo detailing discussions between Tony Blair and George Bush in August 2004 about an alleged American proposal to bomb the Arabic television channel al-Jazeere.”[33]

The differences between the German- and the English-speaking will increase as freedom versus security and privacy continue to be seen under either a Kantian or Millian view.


[1] This was pointed out by Friedrich von Gentz already in 1838: “Die große Spaltung der Meinung hebt erst an, wenn die Frage aufgeworfen wird, welche Art gesetzlicher Schranken die beste und zweckmäßigste sei, um in Rücksicht auf den Gebrauch der Presse, das Interesse der Gesamtheit zu sichern, ohne die Freiheit der Einzelnen zu zerstören.“ Friedrich von Gentz, Die Pre?freiheit in England, 1838, in: Pressefreiheit, p. 144.

[2]  A formula which gives you thousands of search results on google.

[3] I do not distinguish in this paper between freedom of press and freedom of expression as it is not valid for the argument made in this paper.

[4] After which time the Popes of Rome, engrossing what they pleased of political rule into their own hands, extended their dominion over men’s eyes, as they had before over their judgments, burning and prohibiting to be read what they fancied not;(…) And thus ye have the inventors and the original of book-licensing ripped up and drawn as lineally as any pedigree. We have it not, that can be heard of, from any ancient state, or polity or church; nor by any statute left us by our ancestors elder or later; nor from the modern custom of any reformed city or church abroad, but from the most anti-christian council and the most tyrannous inquisition that ever inquired. John Milton. Areopagitica, The Harvard Classics. http://www.bartleby.com/3/3/3.html last visited 25 April 2014.

[5] Milton. Areopagitica.

[6] “Truth indeed came once into the world with her divine Master, and was a perfect shape most glorious to look on: but when he ascended, and his Apostles after him were laid asleep, then straight arose a wicked race of deceivers, who, as that story goes of the Egyptian Typhon with his conspirators, how they dealt with the good Osiris, took the virgin Truth, hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds. From that time ever since, the sad friends of Truth, such as durst appear, imitating the careful search that Isis made for the mangled body of Osiris, went up and down gathering up limb by limb, still as they could find them. We have not yet found them all, Lords and Commons, nor ever shall do, till her Master’s second coming; he shall bring together every joint and member, and shall mould them into an immortal feature of loveliness and perfection. Suffer not these licensing prohibitions to stand at every place of opportunity, forbidding and disturbing them that continue seeking, that continue to do our obsequies to the torn body of our martyred saint.” Milton, Areopagitica.

[7] “Yet if all cannot be of one mind–as who looks they should be?–this doubtless is more wholesome, more prudent, and more Christian, that many be tolerated, rather than all compelled. I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which, as it extirpates all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win and regain the weak and the misled: that also which is impious or evil absolutely either against faith or manners no law can possibly permit, that intends not to unlaw itself:” Milton, Areopagitica.

[8] Milton, Areopagitica.

[9] James Mill, Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica (London: J. Innes, 1825). 3/25/2014. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/mill-liberty-of-the-press#Mill_0888_88

[10] Also this link can be doubted, see for example Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985).

[11] His argument does not sound very convincing in a world where Paris Hilton and her like are heroes.

[12] James Mill, Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica (London: J. Innes, 1825). 3/26/2014. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/mill-liberty-of-the-press#Mill_0888_52

[13] There is, indeed, hardly any law of human nature more generally recognized, wherever there is not a motive to deny its existence. “To the position of Tully, that if Virtue could be seen, she must be loved, may be added,” says Dr. Johnson, “that if Truth could be heard, she must be obeyed.” (Rambler, No. 87.)—“Je vous plains, mes Péres,” says Mons. Pascal to the Jesuits, “d’avoir recours à de tels remèdes. Vous croyez avoir la force et l’impunité: mais je crois avoir la verité, et l’innocence. C’est une etrange et longue guerre que celle ou la violence essaie d’opprimer la verité. Tous les efforts de la violence ne peuvent affoiblir la verité, et ne servent qu’à la relever davantage: toutes les lumières de la verité ne peuvent rien pour arrêter la violence, et ne font que l’irriter encore plus. Quand la force combat la force, la plus puissante detruit la moindre: quand l’on expose les discours aux discours, ceux qui sont veritables et convainquants confondent et dissipent ceux qui n’ont que la vanité et le mensonge.” (Lett. Provinc. [23] 12.)—“Reason,” says Burke, “clearly and manfully delivered, has in itself a mighty force; but reason, in the mouth of legal authority, is, I may fairly say, irresistible.” (Lett. on Regicide Peace.) James Mill, Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica (London: J. Innes, 1825). 3/31/2014. http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/mill-liberty-of-the-press#Mill_0888_108 .

[14] The text can be found here: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/mill-liberty-of-the-press#Mill_0888_151

[15] “W.T. Stead, (…): A newspaperman must have good copy, and a good copy was ‘oftener to be found among the outcast and the disinherited of the earth than among the fat and well fed citizens.’ Hence, ‘selfishness makes the editor more concerned about the vagabond, the landless man, and the deserted child. (…) It was, for example the sensationalism of the ‘Bitter cry of outcast London’, (…) that led to the appointment of a Royal Commission on the Housing of the poor.”George Boyce, The Fourth Estate: the reappraisal of a concept, in: Newspaper History from the 17th century to the present day, edited by George Boyce, Thomas Curan and Pauline Wingate, Constable, 1978

[16] Boyce, The Fourth Estate, p. 25.

[17] Friedrich Nietzsche, Die Götzen-Dämmerung – Twilight of the Idols 1895, http://www.handprint.com/SC/NIE/GotDamer.html, last visited at 25 April 2014.

[18] „Die öffentliche Meinung ist der bestehenden Ordnung der bürgerlichen Dinge nicht hold, und das macht die Freiheit der Rede um so nötiger. Die öffentliche Meinung ist ein See, der, wenn man ihn dämmt und aufhält, so lange steigt, bis er schäumend über seine Schranken stürzt, das Land überschwemmt und alles mit sich fortreißt. Wo ihm aber ein ungehinderter Lauf gegeben ist, da zerteilt er sich in tausend Bäche mannigfaltiger Rede und Schrift, die, friedlich durch das Land strömend, es bewässern und befruchten. Die Regierungen, welche die Freiheit der Rede unterdrücken, weil die Wahrheiten, die sie verbreiten, ihnen lästig sind, machen es wie die Kinder, welche die Augen zuschließen, um nicht gesehen zu werden. Fruchtloses Bemühen! Wo das lebendige Wort gefürchtet wird, da bringt auch dessen Tod der unruhigen Seele keinen Frieden. Die Geister der ermordeten Gedanken ängstigen den argwöhnischen Verfolger, der sie erschlug, nicht minder, als diese selbst im Leben es getan. Der freie Strom der öffentlichen Meinung, dessen Wellen die Tagesschriften sind, ist der deutsche Rubikon, an welchem die Herrschsucht weilen und sinnen mag, ob sie ihn überschreiten und das teure Vaterland und mit ihm die Welt in blutige Verwirrung bringen, oder ob sie sich selbst besiegen und abstehen soll.“ Ludwig Börne, Die Freiheit der Presse in Bayern, 1818, http://www.zeno.org/Literatur/M/B%C3%B6rne,+Ludwig/Schriften/Aufs%C3%A4tze+und+Erz%C3%A4hlungen/Die+Freiheit+der+Presse+in+Bayern.

[19] Unser Hauptfeind, der Hauptfeind aller gesunden Entwicklung des deutschen Geistes und des deutschen Volkstums, das ist heutzutage die Presse. (…) Ihre Lügenhaftigkeit, ihre Verkommenheit, ihre Unsittlichkeit werden von nichts anderen überboten als vielleicht von ihrer Unwissenheit.“ Ferdinand Lassalle, Die Presse. Ein Symptom des öffentlichen Geistes, 1863, hier zitiert nch Pressefreiheit, S. 222.

[20] P. 232.

[21] „Wenn jemand Geld verdienen will, so mag er Cotton fabrizieren oder Tuche oder auf der Börse spielen. Aber dass man um schnöden Gewinstes willen alle Brunnen des Volksgeistes vergifte und dem Volk den geistigen Tod täglich aus tausend Röhren kredenze – – es ist das höchste Verbrechen, das ich fassen kann.“ Ferdinand LASAALLE, Die Presse, 1863, hier zotiert nach, Pressefreiheit, S. 232.

[22] „Die erste Freiheit der Presse besteht darin, kein Gewerbe zu sien. Dem Schriftsteller, der sie zum materiallen Mittel herabsetzt, gebuehrt als Strafe dieser inneren Unfreiheit die aeussere, die Zensur.“, Karl Max, Die Verhandlungen des 6. Rheinischen Landtags, in Rheinische Zeitung, Nr. 139, 19 May 1842, hier zitiert nach Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Pressefreiheit und Zensur, edited by Iring Fetcher, Europäische Verlagsanstalt, Frankfurt am Main 1969, p. 92

[23] For the defintitions of negative and positive freedom, see: Isaiah Berlin, Two concepts of freedom.

[24] Immanuel Kant, Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?, in: Berlinische Monatsschrift, 1784, pp. 484-485.

[25] Immanuel Kant, Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?, in: Berlinische Monatsschrift, 1784, p. 484.

[26] Eckart Hellmuth, Enlightement and Freedom of the Press: The Debate in the Berlin Mittwochsgesellschaft, 1783-1784, p. 431.

[27] „Insofern kann man sagen, dass zwar die Vorstellung von Meinungsfreiheit als Menschenrecht, nicht aber ihre überlieferte utilitaristische  Begründung in die Weimarer Reichsverfassung einging.“ Pressefreiheit, hrsg. Jürgen Wilke, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft Darmstadt, 1984.  P. 34.

[28] „Hohen Wert der Meinungsfreiheit für die individuelle Entfaltung der Persönlichkeit anerkannt.” Katja Stamm, Das Bundesverfassungs-Gericht und die Meinungsfreiheit, AUS POLITIK UND ZEITGESCHICHTE (B 37-38/2001), http://www.bpb.de/apuz/26023/bundesverfassungs-gericht

[29] David Irving two pages  after dealing with Mill as “from discredited historian to free speech martyr.” Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction. By Nigel Warburton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 36.

[30] Paul McMullan lays bare newspaper dark arts at Leveson inquiry, The Guardian 29 November 2011,  http://www.theguardian.com/media/2011/nov/29/paul-mcmullan-leveson-inquiry-phone-hacking, retrieved the 7 April 2014

[31] See German press code, first article: http://ethicnet.uta.fi/germany/german_press_code, last visited 29 April 2014.

[32] THE COMMISSION ON FREEDOM OF THE PRESS,  A FREE  AND RESPONSIBLE PRESS, A General Report on Mass Communication: Newspapers, Radio, Motion Pictures, Magazines, and Books https://archive.org/details/freeandresponsib029216mbp. Last visited 29 April 2014.

[33] Juilian Petley, Censorship and Freedom of Speech, in: The Media. An Introduction, edited by Daniele Albertazzi and Paul Cobley, Third edition, Pearson Essex, 2010, p. 322.

Axel Honneth: The law of freedom – Institutionalization of freedom in modern societies – A reconstruction and some remarks



Introduction: A theory of institutionalization of freedom

I understand Honneth’s book Das Recht der Freiheit (Suhrkamp 2011) as an argument for human freedom and autonomy in modern society that is based on a normative interpretation of legal, moral and social institutionalization of freedom in modern societies. In this sense Honneth’s book represents a re-interpretation and application of G.W.F Hegel’s concept of Freiheit als Sittlichkeit der bürgerlichen Gesellschaft. I would argue that the central theme of the book is the description of processes of institutionalization that lead to the emergence of freedom as the most important legal, moral and social value of the modern society.


The book begins with a presentation of Honneth’s method that can be characterized as a kind of normative sociology or sociological philosophy in the sense that he characterizes theory of justice as analysis of society. The method is based on “normative reconstruction” of the basis of the social institutions of liberal democracy. Here we can say that the starting point is closer to the later Habermas’ idea of facticity and validity and to the later Rawls’ idea of overlapping consensus than it is to the more idealist and metaphysical positions proposed by these authors in their early works (p. 21). Honneth describes the prevailing norms of justice and morality of freedom in liberal democracies of the Western world with Hegel’s philosophy of rights as points of inspiration. Normative reconstruction also means reconstruction of the legal and moral legitimacy of the institutions of liberal democracy. Normative reconstruction leads to an analysis of the social reality of liberal democracies. The idea is to describe the institutionalized conditions of normativity. The premises for this are: 1) Social reproduction of a society is determined by the shared universal values of such a society; 2) Justice cannot be understood independently of these generally shared values and ideals; 3) The plurality of these values and ideas can be found in the social practices of this society that must be distilled out of the society; 4) This leads to the understanding of the Sittlichen institutions and practices of this society (p. 30). This concept of justice is to be considered as a post-traditional concept of Sittlichkeit in society.


Honneth begins by considering the historical conditions of the emergence of the values and ideals of justice of modern society (p. 35). Important for the emergence of modern society is the idea of individual autonomy and authenticity as the meaning of life. Individual freedom has replaced collective conceptions of the good. Honneth sees the focus on autonomy and self-determination as essential to modernity. In particular we can speak about a negative, a reflective and a social conception of freedom that express a differentiation of the concept due to the complexity of modern society. Negative freedom is linked to the philosophy of the social contract coming from Hobbes. But we also find this concept of negative freedom in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and finally in Nozick’s his philosophy of the social contract. Honneth argues that this concept is not enough to constitute the goals for the subject, because something must be presupposed. Therefore the reflective and the social conception of freedom become important. The reflective concept implies that the free individual can determine rationally his or her actions. This is based on a distinction between heteronymous and autonomic action. Rousseau and Kant are representatives of this conception. Autonomy and self-realization according to the idea of rationality are important dimensions of this concept, which forgets however the institutional dimension of freedom that we find in the social concept of freedom. This concept of freedom goes beyond the individual concepts of freedom in Habermas and Apel and goes back to the concept of freedom in Hegel’s philosophy of right. Mutual recognition in social institutions is an important part of this idea of freedom (p. 85). This is what Hegel calls the mutual institutions of mutual recognition. In this context, the central aspect of Honneth’s argument is Hegel’s concept of recognition of freedom as essential to the institutions of liberty in the modern society that are realized not only in the state, but also in the market and in civil society. Honneth gives a detailed account of the concepts of recognition and institutions at the basis of Hegel’s concept of law and justice as emerging as a part of the social institutions of the “Sittlichkeit of society” (p. 85-118).


On the basis of this discussion of Hegel, Honneth is able to present his own conception of “democratic Sittlichkeit” as essential to the institutions of freedom in modern liberal societies (p. 199) . Here Honneth understands his theory of democratic freedom as a theory of the legitimacy of the social order. He researches into the institutionalizations of values and conceptions of justice in liberal democracies where the value of freedom and equality through recognition become integrated in the institutional spheres of action in society. In this sense the idea of freedom is essential to justice and we can use this concept of universal freedom and recognition as a defense for correction of social pathologies and deviances in relation to the generally accepted normative ideas of freedom and justice. In this, through the research on the conditions for freedom and justice, the normative ideas of the democratic Sittlichkeit are explained.


On this basis Honneth discusses the possibility of freedom (p. 129) in relation to law and ethics. He begins with the presentation of the concept of legal freedom. This freedom is the condition of collective autonomy in civil society’s cooperation and also for democratic decision-making based on collective autonomy. The ethical idea of legal freedom is the effort to ensure private autonomy. In this sense legal freedom is understood as individual freedom. Honneth defines legal freedom on the basis of Hegel’s concept of personal rights (p. 134). Hegel proposed a system of positive rights in modernity. With Hannah Arendt we can refer to legal personhood as “protective mask” of the individual. The law of freedom implies this development of the legal rights of the subject. Subjective and negative rights are essential for the freedom of individual action, as suggested by Mill in his defense of the rights of belief, opinion and freedom of expression. This category of subjective rights includes rights of freedom and of participatory rights as the foundation of democratic communication and decision-making. However, it is also a limit to this idea of freedom that it is built on private autonomy and rights defined by its negative character. It is true that the law shall protect personal autonomy and freedom, but this is not enough – behind this lies the development of a society built on communal practices and cooperation in civil society (p. 156). 


Indeed, Honneth is well aware of the social pathologies of legal freedom in modern society. Social pathology is defined as something that emerges when people don’t understand the meaning of social norms of freedom and law and here we can speak about social pathologies. These pathologies can be people who misuse the system and ignore the rationality of subjective rights. They use the law to promote their own interest. This happens for example in the increasing tendency of legalization of the human life world and of life communities. This dynamics of the social pathology can for example be found in the movie with Dustin Hoffman Kramer vs. Kramer, where a divorce ends in a bitter fight about the custody of the child in court. The pathology is that the life world is ignored and the legalization of human affairs becomes an end in itself and we experience alienation and misunderstanding of the significance of moral freedom (p. 172).


Honneth describes the institutionalization of moral freedom in modern society as closely related to the institutionalization of legal freedom. Originally morality was the regulation of desire and a sort of rationalization of life in nature. Morality can be said to constitute the intersubjective limitations on actions. Moral autonomy comes from the idea of self-determination, as discussed in Rousseau and Kant. The Kantian idea of moral freedom is built on the concept of moral autonomy. This implies that human beings should strive to be moral persons and valued by others as moral persons. Respect and recognition of human dignity in the social life world is an essential dimension of this concept of morality (p. 181). To have dignity is not only due to intrinsic dignity as being created in the image of God, but indeed also a social dignity to which the individual him- or herself is important. Dignity can be defined as linked to the moral self-definition and self- creation of individuals with good moral identity. Kirstine Korsgaard has in this context defined the Kantian approach as an approach to the building and construction of one’s own practical identity. What are important are not only the categorical imperatives but indeed also the practical identity of the subject. To have a moral identity is to have a moral aim with your own life where you take responsibility for your own humanity. Self-legislation and moral autonomy in the Kantian sense means to take responsibility for your own life as the moral self-legislator of your life.


Habermas contributes to this discussion by emphasizing the importance of the moral socialization process. Legal freedom is interpreted through social freedom. Here we have the institutionalization of moral freedom in modern societies. We can refer to a cultural idea of moral in post-traditional societies where the cultural institutionalization of freedom is a part of this institutionalization of recognition. This process is a communicative and dialogical process where there is an on-going public discussion about conceptions of dignity and appropriate intersubjective moral norms in civil society.


Like his description of the legal social pathologies Honneth also describes the social pathologies of morality. Here we can observe a focus on personal absolute morality in contrast to intersubjective norms. The pathologies of morality could for example be the moralism of personal autonomy, where the duty to follow a certain kind of universalism means that the individual fails to take into account the social context (p. 209). This kind of focus on personal autonomy leads to rigid morals where the moral conception can lead to personal moral self-destruction. This is for example described in the novels of Henry James where the will to do good is in danger of leading to self-destruction (p. 212). Here personal autonomy leads to bad moralism and ignorance of social conditions of recognition and dignity. A similar pathology can be found in the moralist political extremism of terrorism, for example in the position of Ulrike Meinhof, who adopted a personal leftist moralism as the justification of her terrorist actions.


On the basis of this reconstruction of the foundations of freedom Honneth goes on to describe the reality of freedom in democratic liberal democracies. The reconstruction of the social life practice as based on recognition and personal autonomy in moral decision-making has to be demonstrated as being institutionalized as patterns of social action in different aspects of society. Honneth distinguishes between three important spheres of institutionalization of the norms of freedom and moral autonomy: 1) friends, love and family relations; 2) market relations; 3) relations in the political community. The intersubjective dimensions in these different groups illustrate different determinations of decisions based on freedom in the different institutions of society.


Honneth emphasizes that personal relations between friends and love relations in personal relations and in the family are based on freedom rather than on paternalism or pre-established social norms and hierarchies. Although it is considered informal, friendship may be conceived as social institution today. There is a difference between the ancient and modern concept of friendship, because friendship today is build on mutual affection without interest. Friendship is based on the romantic concept of the free encounter between friends. As an institution friendship can be said to illustrate the institutionalization of common ideas of community in a common normative structure. Even though it is based on freedom and mutual affection we can now say that friendship based on freedom has become an important institution in modern society.


With regard to love and intimacy, freedom is also considered an essential concept. Honneth argues that we can perceive the institutionalization of the principle of romantic love as the basis for intimate encounters. We are free to make our intimate connections and these are built on our own moral responsibility. Autonomous morality and freedom are proposed as the basis for sexual relations. The relations are based on love and freedom and the emergence of all kinds of couples or singles show this principle of freedom as essential in modernity.


The principle of free sexual relations has had an impact on the concept of the family where the encounter of man and women is also based on social freedom and the family as such is today becoming a place of social freedom. The family is now a place for individual self-realization. We see the emergence of different forms of constructed families that to a large extent are built on principles of free self-realization. Equality rather than authority is an important principle for organizing the family. Equality in families is indicated by the fact that the relation between man and woman is built on partnership between father and mother. Also recognition plays a much bigger role in the relations between children and parents in a situation where people live longer and mutual recognition between generations is emerging. In this sense moral autonomy plays a great importance in the social roles of family members. We see the institutionalization of a much more democratic family built on freedom and moral responsibility. This is a family based on mutual cooperation, love and recognition in contrast to a family based on authoritarianism and paternalism.


We can, according to Honneth, also see the emergence of the new law and morality of freedom if we look at the economic market. Honneth argues that the economic market also contributes to the institutionalization of social freedom in the capitalist economy. Honneth wants to provide a normative reconstruction of the contribution to social freedom of the market economy. He goes back to Adam Smith and takes up his problem about the morality of the market. The problem is how the market can be said to mediate social action. Here we can consider the market freedom as an extension of social freedom in the spheres of consumption and production. However, the question is whether this is an error in capitalism – a subversive doctrine that leads to the dissolution of capitalism.


Honneth defines capitalism and its markets as free economic exchange of goods and services. Historically speaking it was the legal subject (most of the time a man with property) who had the right to exchange in the market. The basis for behavior in the market was strategic utility maximization and calculation of cost/benefits. According to Honneth, both Hegel and Durkheim tried to investigate the normative dimensions of the capitalist system in order to go beyond that system and propose a new economic order with another value-orientation of the economic institutions. Honneth finds a paradox in this line of question that ask the questions about why the market should refer to pre-market norms when the market is about individual utility and utility maximization. The answer of Honneth is that intersubjective norms govern the market when we consider the market from the point of view of normative institutionalism, where morality is considered to be a part of the economic exchange. Honneth refers to Polanyi and Parsons to explain this dimension of the market economy. The question is “What is the Sittlichkeit of the Market System?” (p. 343) Such question have occupied the communitarian philosopher Etizioni and the German economist Hirsch and they search for the capacity of coordinating social action within the economy itself and contribute to legitimacy of the market system in society. With the focus on the principles of social cooperation it the market, Honneth wants to overcome Marx’s negative concept of capitalism and give a normative reconstruction of the concept of freedom within the market economy in liberal society.


Honneth focuses on the sphere of consumption and in particular the development of consumer culture where the market receives legitimation from the norms of the consumers. In fact, the culture of consumption can be seen as a medium for recognition, whilst the moral reaction of the consumers to corporations has an impact on the corporations. Honneth emphasizes that today the capitalist system requires its legitimacy from the consumer and these new conditions of consumption and production contribute to the legitimacy of the market through the consumer. We see how globalization of the market is realized through mass consumption and we see the emergence of morally and legally responsible critical consumers, what we can call “the consumer citizen” (p. 377). This critical consumer is aware of the necessity of having respect for human dignity (p. 377). At the same time reference to consumer citizens may be able to incorporate the critique of consumer society, since there is a struggle for recognition and a possible mutual recognition implied in the moral economy between seller and consumer where they struggle for the realization of the mutual legitimate recognition (p. 381). So Honneth emphasizes that the principles of legitimation are implicit in the consumer market. There is a search for ideal perfectibility regarding consumption built into the individual and corporations have to respond to this in order to get legitimacy. Moreover the consumer citizen takes up the criticism of mass consumption (Adorno, Arendt) and act critically in relation to this. In contributing to establishment of international institutions the consumer citizen also pushes for the establishment of national and international institutions that contribute to the moralization the economy.


After this normative reconstruction of market mediated consumption Honneth looks at the labor market. He reminds us that work was important for Hegel in his Philosophy of Right. Honneth also considers work and the labor market as central for the emergence of a moral economy. The capitalist organization of work has historically implied manipulation and oppression of the workers. Then they organized themselves in workers movement and organized struggle for recognition and social freedom on the labor market. This fight for social freedom implies a struggle for cooperation and recognition in the labor market (p. 431). The organization of workers in trade unions is an important dimension for establishing freedom in the capitalist system. It is important to humanize the work in this world. In particular, democratic organization of the economy and of business can contribute to this. Honneth argues that social freedom in the organizational sphere of corporations and business is dependent on the struggle for recognition by the workers. It is important to contribute to this humanization of work. Since the 1970s there has however been a neoliberal rationalization and technification of the capitalist system and workers have more to fight for in order to achieve freedom in the organized capitalism of the Western world. Here, all kinds of organizations, for example trade unions or welfare organizations, can contribute to the mutual recognition. In particular transnational unions in times of globalization are important for creating freedom in a civilization of capitalism.


The final section of the book presents the reality of democratic will formation in liberal democracies in a historical perspective. Honneth focuses on democratic public spheres, the democratic legal state and political culture. He begins by emphasizing that the potentiality of public deliberation in a free public sphere is essential to understand the reality of freedom in a modern society. Since the French revolution and the enlightenment this has been essential for creating social freedom in the public sphere. Deliberative decision making in a public sphere is an essential legitimation principle of a liberal democracy. We can say that we have experienced the social institutionalization of principles of democracy through the emergence of the free public sphere in Western democracies. Here equality of citizens and liberal rights of freedom based on the constitution are essential for creating a democratic public sphere. The morality of citizens is created through the institutionalization of social and democratic public spheres and debates. The normative idea of social freedom is a result of a democratic public sphere (p. 500). Public exchange of opinion is essential for this democratic public sphere in modern society. As Arendt and Habermas have shown, the media are important for democratic politics. Communicative freedom and the deliberative public sphere contribute to exchange of opinion and different points of view. With Habermas we can emphasize the importance of having both a national and international public sphere. With the new media and digital divide and the development of the internet we face, however, both possibilities and possible limitations of democratic freedom in open and free public spheres.


The democratic legal state built on the rule of law implies the realization of social liberty. The rule of law is a reflexive dimension of the state. The state is a reflexive notion and the democratic state was conceived as the opposite of National Socialism. This state is based on the legitimation by the people’s sovereignty in democratic legislation processes. Constitutional states follow specific norms of Sittlichkeit with a reflexive distance to the democratic legal state. The normative self-understanding of the European states implies a reaction against totalitarianism and in particular the rule of law against Hitler. In particular, we can talk about totalitarianism as the opposite to democracy. The universal declaration of human rights that was very modern even for modern democracy was established as a counter-reaction to the totalitarian regimes of the Second World War. We can also talk about the tension between nationalism and the rule of law in the Rechtsstaat or the tension between nationalism and people’s democracy. The concept by Habermas about Verfassungspatriotismus has been proposed to deal with this topic.


Finally Honneth discusses the concept of political culture as essential to the reality of the Rechtsstaat. Political culture is the reality of the realization of freedom in a democratic society. This institutionalization of the rule of law of the Rechtsstaat today also has an international dimension in the sense that the political public sphere, for example in the EU goes beyond the national borders towards the international community.


Some critical remarks to Honneth’s theory of the liberal state follow.

How should we evaluate his approach to the institutionalization of freedom in modern society? I will now propose three critical remarks for discussion.


The first remark concerns Honneth’s method of analysis. This method is very promising and I think that this constitutes the real novelty of the book. The focus on institutions and institutionalization is very important to make the bridge between philosophy and the social sciences. Moreover, I agree that this approach is very important for the definition of the relation between ethics and law in modern democratic states. However, it may be argued that this approach has already been worked out before. This is for example the case in Ricoeur’s work One-Self-as-Another from 2002, where the concept of institution as inspired by Hegel is a central concept. Ricoeur has an advantage with regard to Honneth because Ricoeur is able to introduce the concept of the good life that is not really there in Honneth’s approach. Ricoeur talks about “the good life for and with the other in just institutions”. Moreover there is no reference to the whole tradition of institutional theory within the social sciences in Honneth’s book. This is sad because then we don’t really have the dialogue between philosophical institutionalism and other kinds of institutionalisms. Moreover, it may be argued that the kind of combination of normative and descriptive analysis that Honneth proposes makes it difficult to advance any real argument of normative ethical, legal or political theory. In fact, this book is not so much a normative argument as a presentation of some lines of development in modern society. As such the book is confronted with competing arguments, as for example the Danish professor of political science Ove Kaj Petersen with his book about the recent developments of the state from welfare state to competition state in the book Konkurencestaten (the competition state). Why is the story that Honneth presents more compelling than the more negative story that is presented by Ove Kaj Pedersen? Here we need better and more advanced argument.


The proposal of the theory of law and morals may be conceived as the strongest part of the book. However, we can also propose some critical questions to this theory. In particular, we can address the substance of the theory that focuses so much on individual rights. I may be argued that it is not individual rights that are so important in the Rechtsstaat but rather democracy as community. It is not clear how this focus on individual rights makes the move from negative freedom to positive freedom. Indeed, it may be argued that the concept of rights may destroy the possibility of really founding a political community based on shared interests in the good. What Honneth seems to propose seems to be a very liberal theory that does not really correspond with his Hegelian starting point. Moreover, we may criticize his use of Kant to define the basis of his approach to the morality of freedom. It seems very idealistic to presuppose that people today act according to the moral law when they create their identity. Rather, we may refer to existentialist or postmodern concepts of identity, which seem much closer to the reality of life in the modern state and correspond to the elimination of politics in favor of individual rights. I cannot see that Honneth really achieves his point by reintroducing the Kantian concept of morality as a case of identity. In fact, Honneth’s position also becomes nearly neo-liberal, because so much emphasis is laid on individual rights rather to present the common good in the Res Publica as important. Here I also think that Ricoeur’s concept of the good life with and for the other in just institutions gives the communitarian elements of analysis that we really need to make Honneth’s argument convincing.


When we deal with the reality of freedom in modern society there are many problems in the book. The analysis of the spheres of recognition in the family seem to forget all the power relations that still persist in society and a Foucauldian approach to the family would be able to show many contradictions of the freedom of individuals in the family. Moreover, there are many critical questions to ask in relation to Honneth’s analysis of romantic love as the basis of intimacy. There may also be the manipulation of individual through forcing them to be free. As Rousseau says “L’homme est libre mais partout il est en fer”.


Moreover, the analysis of economic life and freedom in the market is far from convincing, although the general intention of moralizing the economy is very important. Honneth has understood the necessity of rethinking the capitalist economy in the perspective of virtues and ethics, but his Marxist basis of analysis and the prejudices of critical theory make it impossible for him to take the final step and understand the real emancipator elements of the idea of the moral economy. Here we should look at the whole basis for ethical interaction in the economy and, taking the Weberian perspective of looking at the ideal values of economic exchange, make it possible to understand much more of the functions of the moral economy. Honneth mentions the work of Etizioni on this point but he does not get into deeper analysis of much more recent literature on business ethics and corporate social responsibility and this makes his analysis rather general and not very innovative in relation to the recent debates in business ethics and management ethics.


Honneth has a good argument for the political consumer and legitimacy of consumption but he does not include recent literature in business ethics and institutions and therefore he does not really contribute something new or relevant. To propose unions as the basis for political freedom in the workplace also seems to be not very new in today’s discussions. Much more detailed analysis is needed here. For example of the interactions between unions and top management and how they contribute to develop stakeholder management in large corporations.


Indeed, in his final discussions of the deliberative politics and the importance of critical public space as essential for a democratic political culture, I can hardly see that Honneth presents anything new in comparison with Habermas. In fact we may argue that Honneth is much too positive to the reality of this political culture and that he does not take into account the many recent distortions of that culture. However, the critical remarks on the internet and the digital divide and democracy show a certain awareness of the important contradiction of democracy in the present context of society.



Axel Honneth: Das Recht der Freiheit. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2011.


Beyond Subjectivity. Levinas, Kierkegaard and the Absolute Other


However, since the thinkers both passed away, there are two possibilities: to side with one of them, thus criticizing the other, or to analyze their writings, in order to individuate analogies and differences from a third perspective. I would be a very bad lawyer, so I prefer to be a peace officer, opting for the second choice. I will show that, notwithstanding the deep divergences separating Levinas and Kierkegaard, there are also clear points in common, that the former (and perhaps even the latter) would never have admitted. The tension of subjectivity beyond itself, toward Infinity, will be the key point of their encounter.

1. The refusal of impersonal totality

First of all, Levinas and Kierkegaard are thinkers of singularity. Their philosophical reflection starts with a critique to Hegel and to the universal Spirit. The latter manifests itself in history, knowledge and ethics. The so-called Totality involves all the aspect of human life, considering individuals as parts of a greater plan, the immanent becoming of the Spirit toward the highest awareness of Itself.1 Each man is considered as a necessary, but only functional element of a super-individual entity, whose norms rule thinking and action.

Kierkegaard strongly lashes out against Hegel and his oblivion of singularity. It does not mean that the former denies the existence of universal principles of knowledge and ethics. As a matter of fact, societies are ruled by norms that everyone is expected to follow. One of these norms is the respect of human life, especially of the members of one’s family.

When Abraham, in Fear and Trembling, is commanded by God to kill his own son, he falls into a deep crisis.

There is no higher expression for the ethical in Abraham’s life than that the father shall love the son. The ethical in the sense of moral is entirely beside the point. Insofar as the universal was present, it was cryptically in Isaac, hidden, so to speak, in Isaac’s loins, and must cry out with Isaac’s mouth: Do not do this, you are destroying everything.2

Abraham knows that the sacrifice of Isaac means both a transgression of Jewish ethics and an unbearable suffering for the lost of his only child. God wants His gift back, without giving any reason. Abraham, a man of faith, obeys to the divine command and prepares his son for the sacrifice. His knife is ready to get dirty of his own blood. God then decides to hold the hand of the patriarch, who has proved his obedience enough.

Notwithstanding the reassuring epilogue, Abraham makes his choice for God’s sake and despite ethics. Silentio, Kierkegaard’s pseudonym in Fear and Trembling, justifies this decision as the highest expression of singularity. Faith is defined as a paradoxical push, according to which “the single individual is higher than the universal” and “determines his relation to the universal by his relation to the absolute, not his relation to absolute by his relation to the universal”3.

The highness of singularity is then due to its relation to the Absolute. Totality and God are the two extremes among which the individual takes place. To follow the former or the latter is due to a choice.4 The weight of each alternative is different: faith requires a leap, an act of courage and will directed to the highest task of a human being, ethics is a renounce to a real subjectivity. Shortly, the utmost duty of a person is to become singular, which requires one to be a believer.

Even if Silentio does not understand the movements of faith, because he does not experience them, he sees them through other men’s actions. The example of Abraham, and of other knights of faith, is the expression of a path toward infinity and real happiness.5 Silentio, talking about the story of the patriarch, admits the impossibility to know the secret of his interiority. He describes the experience of another man, without understanding it, without grasping the relation between the latter and God. Here two important aspects come out: the first is the irreducibility of an individual to another, the second is the uniqueness of the relation to Infinity.

Levinas seems to forget both when he criticizes Kierkegaard in Difficult Freedom and Proper Names. He denies every commitment of the latter with Jewish philosophy. First of all, the concept of faith as a leap, as a decision of free will, has to be excluded. Judaism believes in the Torah, in the law belonging to the religious tradition.6 Secondly, Levinas reproaches Kierkegaard to put religion above ethics. According to the former, the latter is guilty of the amoralism of Nietzsche and other contemporary thinkers, who philosophize with the hammer, regardless of everything.7

Defining ethics as belonging to Totality means confusing the tyranny of the Same with the one-for-the-other, the pre-original push of first philosophy. If the faith was an act of freedom, it would be considered prior to responsibility. And the latter is, in Levinas’ thought, the principal feature of ethics.

Subjectivity is in that responsibility and only irreducible subjectivity can assume a responsibility. That is what constitute the ethical. 8

Levinas does not agree with the concept of ethics expressed by Silentio in Fear and Trembling and proposes another view, which is not in contrast with religion. The author of Difficult Freedom is right in underlining the differences between Jewish tradition and Kierkegaard’s thought, but he seems to ignore what the latter writes in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

Here another pseudonym, Climacus, expresses his concept of ethics. If becoming a subject is the highest duty of a human being, as it was said before, it is what both ethics and religion ask him. While objective thought, and totality, demand the individual to become an observer, giving birth to an impersonal ethics, subjective thought does not claim to grasp external truth but inner one. Ethics is present everywhere God is, in the historical process as in the secret of inwardness.9 However, the individual cannot have a perfect knowledge of the former as he has of the latter. According to both ethics and religion, the man has to become a subject.

Therefore, says the ethical, dare, dare to renounce everything, including this loftily pretentious and yet delusive intercourse with world-historical contemplation; dare to become nothing at all, to become a particular individual, of whom God requires everything, without your being relieved of the necessity of being enthusiastic; behold, that is the venture! But then you will also have gained that God cannot in all eternity get rid of you, for only in the ethical is your eternal consciousness; behold, that is the reward! 10

Even if Levinas has read the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, criticizing the “becoming subject” of the individual,11 he does not consider that religion here agrees with ethics. He seems to ignore that Kierkegaard always writes through pseudonyms and that every pseudonym has a singular perspective, which never coincides with the perspective of another pseudonym. This is why Silentio and Climacus have different views of ethics and religion. What Climacus says seems to be more detailed and, perhaps, similar to Kierkegaard’s thought: he underlines the difference between objective and subjective ethics. While the former expresses totality, the latter belongs to singularity.

Subjective ethics is very close to Levinas’ one, since the individual is seen in his uniqueness of election. He emancipates from totality and objectivity, looking for his principles in relation to God, to Infinity. The criticism of Hegelian thought is strong both in Levinas and Kierkegaard, thus leading to singularity and to a responsibility which cannot be transferred to anyone else.

The philosophers both contest the absorption of the Other in the Same and state the necessity of an individual ethical answer. They are, generally, against every impersonal system, even if Levinas does not recognize this aspect in Kierkegaard’s thinking. Accusing the latter of violence and amoralism seems really unjustified.12

Anyway, Levinas is not always severe with his predecessor. He appreciates Kierkegaard’s scepticism towards objective truth and the immanence of thought. Actually, in the Postscript, Climacus points out the limits of disciplines as mathematics or history, which are inevitably incomplete and make the subject accidental. Becoming an observer deprives the latter of its individuality, whose existence is wholly indifferent.13 Levinas makes the same criticism to Husserl’s intentionality, which sees the ego as an impersonal “who”. The immanence of thought, the sleep of il y a (“there is”), is the greatest alienation for a human being. He becomes an individual only when he is independent from theoretical activity.14

Being subjective is thus a necessary task for both philosophers. It implies a separation from universal knowledge and, furthermore, a relation to absolute alterity. Kierkegaard states that subjective truth involves a passion of the infinite. What really matters is not the correspondence between the thought and the object, that is the idea of God and God Himself. Subjective thought is focused on inwardness, on the relation between God and the ego. Subjective truth is nothing else than faith. Objectively, it is a paradox and implies uncertainty.15 However, Kierkegaard gives it the highest value and Levinas clearly appreciates it.

Thus Kierkegaard brings something absolutely new to European philosophy: the possibility of attaining truth through the ever-recurrent inner rending of doubt, which is not only an invitation to verify evidence, but a part of evidence itself. I think that Kierkegaard’s philosophical novelty is in his idea of belief. Belief is not, for him, an imperfect knowledge of truth, a truth without certainty, a degradation of knowledge.16

Doubt implies a continuous retreat from certainty, presumed by the right sciences and historical knowledge. It pushes toward the pursuit of something else, whose existence is not proved. Doubt is inseparable from belief, from subjective truth. Objectively, it is an expression of an imperfect knowledge, while, subjectively, it is the expression of truth itself. The uncertainty of the latter implies justification, or even silence.17 The choice of “Silentio” as a pseudonym for Fear and Trembling reflects the impossibility of Abraham to communicate his behaviour to his people. Subjective truth is an individual experience, requiring a relation with an absolute and unknowable alterity.

The uncertainty of faith does not imply either degradation or negativity. The same can be said about the idea of God in Levinas’ philosophy. In Totality and Infinity, the Infinite in the finite causes a breach in theoretic intentionality, overflowing every concept. Human thought is imperfect, because it is incapable of containing God. It does not mean that the perfect (infinite) is a negation of the imperfect (finite), but that the perfect transcends the imperfect. The idea of Infinity is then positive: it is not a lack of relation, but a relation to the absolutely distant.18

This relation, according to both Kierkegaard and Levinas, cannot be expressed with an objective knowledge. Turning to transcendence means separating from universal thought and becoming a subject. Furthermore, recognizing one’s own individuality means, at the same time, recognizing the irreducibility of the other person.

Even if the philosophers agree on this general statement, there are some differences separating them. While Kierkegaard is more concerned for the subject, Levinas gives priority to the other. According to the former, truth is subjectivity because it is focused on individual experience: “that every human being is such an entity existing for himself, is a truth I cannot too often repeat”19. It implies that one is able to know one’s inwardness, one’s own existence, but is unable to grasp alterity.20 The irreducibility of the subject is the condition of the irreducibility of the other.

The author of Totality and Infinity thinks in the opposite way: the irreducibility of the other is prior to the individuation of the self. While Kierkegaard focuses only on the separation of the ego from totality, Levinas has two concerns: the individuation of the subject and the irreducibility of the other to the violence of the ego. Thinking through intentionality and acting through free will are means of power on the other person. This is why Levinas puts responsibility before freedom and the other before the self.21

The subject, in Kierkegaard, follows its own will: the leap of faith is an act of freedom. It does not mean that life involves egoism, since the other person is important. The relation to God does not make sense without a commitment to the neighbour.22 Levinas does not say that the subject is not free, but that responsibility precedes will. At this point, the subject is considered in a passive acceptation (“subject to”), not as an “I”, but as a “me”.23

The priority of the other on the self is what differentiates Levinas from Kierkegaard. That aside, they both refuse impersonal totality, conceived as a theoretical and/or ethical system. They also assert the relation to Infinity as a modality of subjective uniqueness, that leads to recognize the irreducibility of the other person.

2. The irreducibility of the Infinite

Another point in common between Levinas and Kierkegaard is the view of Infinity itself. It coincides with God, who is absolutely Other and distant from the subject.

Precisely because there is the absolute difference between God and man, man expresses himself most perfectly when he absolutely expresses the difference. 24

Kierkegaard’s thought is extraordinary. This sentence places him in the middle of Christian tradition and contemporary philosophy. The author of Fear and Trembling never hides his protestant culture and concern for the life of faith. Anyway, his thought is not strictly theological, but primarily existential. The relation to Infinity, apart from its religious meaning, gives the highest sense to individual life. It does not matter if God exists or not, if He is a supreme being or something else. This is a concern of observers, of objective thinkers. What is really important is the relation between the subject and the divine, the finite and the infinite. Turning to transcendence, to the absolutely Other, is the only way for the individual to be itself. God is distant and irreducible to the subject, but, at the same time, extremely close. Dealing with infinity means dealing with one’s inwardness, with one’s utmost secret (Deus in interiore homine).

This secret cannot be communicated, only justified or expressed with silence. Saying the difference means exactly this: going beyond thought and language, thus facing incomprehension. The only way to express difference is manifesting Infinity in a finite existence.

Becoming subjective means becoming an extraordinary being, in the middle of worldly immanence and divine transcendence.25 The individual is called by God to follow a vocation in everyday life, to be a witness of His will. It implies going against the universal systems of thought and ethics, against an established order, to affirm individuality and follow what is asked to inwardness.

Notwithstanding the impossibility to grasp Infinity, the finite being answers to its call. The relation between the two goes beyond ontology and leads to ethics (not the universal one, but the one following religion). Infinity manifests itself through the evidence of a singular existence, so that the latter is, at the same time, the object of transcendence and the condition for its incarnation.26 There is a sort of exchange between Infinity and a finite being: the latter gives space to the former through transfiguration, while the former knows itself through the gaze of absolute alterity.27 Transfiguration (Forklarelse) is not an explanation (Forklaring), but an expression without words, recalled by the witness of faith.

The separation between man and God, that initially causes anxiety and a sense of alienation, becomes a push towards one’s own existence. When Abraham raises the knife over Isaac, he is answering to the divine call, even if he does not understand it. Leaving aside his people’s ethics and his sadness for the lost of the only child, he directs his free will toward the will of God. Abraham expresses Infinity through a finite action. And, when his hand is drawn back by a new command, he rejoices. He has obeyed and, at the same time, his son is alive. The epilogue of the story gives sense to the choice of Abraham: only through the paradox of the patriarch’s action the goodness of God is revealed. The passion for divinity, that pushes the individual toward an incomprehensible choice, leads to transfiguration. Infinity is expressed through the existence of a finite being.

Even according to Levinas, the distance between the finite and the infinite is overwhelming, though the latter is inside the former. The subject is separated from God and lives an independent life. It does not need anything else, but feels a tension inside. The relation between the finite and the infinite is Desire, which is not directed to fulfilment, but to absolute alterity.

Desire is absolute if the desiring being is mortal and the Desired invisible. Invisibility does not denote an absence in relation; it implies relations with what is not given, of which there is no idea. Vision is an adequation of the idea with the thing, a comprehension that encompasses. Non-adequation does not denote a simple negation or an obscurity of the idea, but – beyond the light and the night, beyond the knowledge measuring beings – the inordinateness of Desire. Desire is desire for the absolutely other. 28

This tension towards the absolutely Other is primarily affective. It goes beyond the limits of thought and the adequation of the object to its idea. The Desire of Infinity originally belongs to subjectivity, which is affected by transcendence in an exceptional way. It is the trace of absence, of otherwise than being. It is called illeity (from the latin ille, “he”) and is nothing else but the mark of an original creation. It cannot be grasped by thought, because it goes beyond ontology and does not imply the existence of the creator. It is a semantic ambiguity, what unsays itself without negating. The trace of Infinity cannot thus be represented, since there is nothing in common between the subject and God.29 Levinas’ concept of transcendence refuses theology and every interpretation of the man as representing God. The affective relation to an absolute alterity, paradoxical and impossible to be explained in words, thus unites both Levinas and Kierkegaard.

However, the former does not agree with the latter, when he describes the nature of the metaphysical desire. First of all, it has nothing to do with need or passion. The subject feels a tension to Infinity when its separation is complete: the ego is wholly atheist and its material needs are satisfied by the external world (“without separation there would not have been truth; there would have been only being”30). The Desire of God is not looking for fulfilment, but pushes the subject to ethics. The command of Infinity indicates the other person as the addressee of moral action and establishes freedom on responsibility.31

Levinas’ desire of Infinity is thus very different from Kierkegaard’s passion of Infinity. First of all, the latter has its root in anxiety, the former in responsibility. The revelation of God strikes Levinas’ subject when it is quiet and satisfied, pushing it towards the other person. Kierkegaard’s individual, instead, is troubled by doubt and looks for the unity with Infinity. Secondly, Kierkegaard’s passion is oriented towards activity, Levinas’ desire to passivity. Even if they are both sources of morality, the former is based on freedom, the latter on responsibility, which precedes freedom itself.

Shortly, the infinite is, according to both the thinkers, absolutely different from the finite. The latter is moved by the desire of the former, even if the authors do not agree on its nature: the tension is active and passionate for Kierkegaard, passive and responsible for Levinas. However, the desire of Infinity leads, according to both, to the ethical/religious behaviour.

3. From the absolute Other to the singular other

The desire of Infinity is that which primarily constitutes the subject. However, according to Levinas and Kierkegaard, it is not enough for the fulfilment of individual existence. Being subjective means, at the same time, put in practice one’s tension to ethics, whose direction is indicated by the divine command. The relation to the absolute Other thus leads to the relation to the singular other.

Levinas accuses Kierkegaard of transcending the ethical stage and ignoring the other person for the sake of religion.32 He seems not to have read the Works of Love, where the neighbour is essential for the life of faith: “the single individual is committed in the debt of love to other people”33. Stating the irreducibility of the subject and of the other person is not enough for Kierkegaard. It could lead to an egoistic life, where the relation to Infinity would be purely ascetical. The love towards the other person, instead, is a commitment that cannot be avoided.

Levinas is the philosopher of alterity par excellence, since the relation to the other, both singular and absolute, is constitutive of the subject. And this relation implies a radical view, that is the impossibility for the I to exercise its power on the other person. Even if the latter can be partially reduced to phenomenality or submitted to freedom, there is something escaping the grasp of the ego. When the subject is wholly constituted as separated, the other person reveals, through the Face, the command of Infinity.

Freedom is then inhibited, not as countered by a resistance, but as arbitrary, guilty, and timid; but in its guilt it rises to responsibility. […] The relation with the Other as a relation with his transcendence – the relation with the Other who puts in question the brutal spontaneity of one’s immanent destiny – introduces into me what was not in me.34

Immanence is considered brutal, because it submits the individual to the anonymity of Totality. The violence of thought and freedom are nothing but expressions of the tyranny of the Same. The encounter with the other person makes the subject aware not only of its own individuality (already discovered in the atheistic separation), but even of its own uniqueness. The transcendence of the Face is a transfiguration, not an incarnation, of the transcendence of God. The call of Infinity indicates the other person as the addressee of ethics, pushing the subject to responsibility. The latter cannot be assumed by anybody else, it is the sign of a uniqueness in election. The transcendence undoes the deepest core of the ego with an unavoidable assignation.35

Ethico-religious life is then directed by the divine call to the other person. Both Levinas and Kierkegaard see absolute alterity as directed towards singular alterity. It is a threefold relation, whose terms are the subject, God and the other person. However, the two thinkers have different views about its modality.

Kierkegaard thinks of the subject as directly relating to God, who is the very link between the self and the other: “in love for the neighbor, God is the middle term. Love God is above all else; then you also love the neighbor and in the neighbor every human being.”36 There is not any mediation between the finite and the infinite. Paradoxically, the mediation is between the finite ego and the finite other. The relation to Infinity is then primary, the real condition of the encounter with the other person.

Levinas thinks exactly in the opposite way. Even if the infinite is in the finite as a trace of creation, one has to meet the other to be aware of illeity. The middle term is, in this case, not God, but the other person.37 Singular alterity is the place where absolute alterity reveals itself. The call to responsibility happens simultaneously to the encounter of the Face. The phenomenal dimension of the other man refers to what transcends phenomenon itself. The paradox is that, without seeing the finite, it is impossible to relate to Infinity. Kierkegaard and Levinas describe the threefold relation among the subject, God and the other in two opposite, but equally paradoxical ways: according to the former, the finite needs the infinite to relate to the finite, according to the latter, the finite needs the finite to relate to the infinite.

Other differences between the two philosophers concern their general view on the subject and on the other. These poles are both important, but, as it was stated before, Kierkegaard gives priority to the former, Levinas to the latter. The author of Totality and Infinity takes the risk of alienating the subject, while his predecessor tends to fall into solipsism.

In Fear and Trembling, for instance, subjectivity experiences its vocation without being understood. Abraham, going against the ethics of his people, feels a tension between his behaviour and the external judgement. Kierkegaard’s knight of faith cannot help but feel a deep solitude.

His behaviour leads him to detach himself from the system of needs of his community, in order to follow his vocation. He is extraordinary and, for this reason, runs the risk of being misunderstood. The “tribunal of the world” condemns his actions, which are oriented to please the “tribunal of God”.38 And, since the former is always there and the latter does not need him, the individual is always on the verge of falling into the abyss of nothing.

What has been said about ethico-religious behaviour is valid also for subjective thinking, well described in the Postscript.

The reflection of inwardness is the subjective thinker’s double reflection. In thinking, he thinks the universal, but as existing in this thinking, as assimilating this in his inwardness, he becomes more and more subjectively isolated.39

The risk of solitude is then unavoidable. Even if the individual thinks to universality, he is not an abstract entity. He is a singular and concrete being, whose thought cannot be separated from his existence. It does not imply subjectivism, because the truth of an object does not depend from the belief of the subject. It is possible to have a general concept of how a human being thinks, since it is a matter of observation. The latter implies the possibility of communication and is not submitted to anxiety or other emotional states. This saves Kierkegaard’s philosophy from the extremes of solipsism, subjectivism and irrationality.40 However, subjective truth is more important than objective one. The highest task of a human being is not becoming an observer, but becoming subjective: one has to focus primarily on the relation between oneself and the object, that depends on the perception of one’s own inwardness.

Levinas, on his side, is worried about the violence of subjective thought and freedom. This is why he develops an asymmetrical ethics and puts the other above the I. The latter is called by the Infinite to a pre-original and unavoidable responsibility. This election makes the subject wholly unique, but is connected to a risk of alienation.

The subject in responsibility is alienated in the depths of its identity with an alienation that does not empty the same of its identity, but constrains it to it, with an unimpeachable assignation, constrains it to it as no one else, where no one could replace it.41

In Otherwise Than Being, the very core of the subject is undone by the other, who is inside the ego as ipseity. It is an expression of Levinas’ mature thought, where ethics is took to an extreme and identity is destroyed from inside. In Totality and Infinity, instead, the risk of alienation is avoided, because ipseity is still a nucleus of genuine egoism.42

Levinas, as much as he strives to save the subject from alienation, gives way to it in his mature thought. Kierkegaard, on the other side, is able not to fall in solipsism, but is on the edge of a cliff. Focusing on the subject or on the other leads the two thinkers to opposite forms of extremism. Notwithstanding this and the modal differences, they are united by a threefold view of the relation between the finite and the infinite: the subject (finite) relates to God (infinite), who leads it toward the other person (finite).

4. A lifelong suffering

The last aspect of the relation between the infinite and the finite in Levinas and Kierkegaard is an unavoidable suffering of the subject. The latter, in its tension towards God, cannot help but experience a pathos, inextricably connected to the conscience of its own limits.

Individual existence is, according to Kierkegaard, a synthesis of the finite and the infinite. It is the place where transcendence reveals itself through the actions of an exceptional singularity. The subject is thus in the middle between its own needs as a worldly entity and the tension to go beyond the systems regulating these needs and their satisfaction. Becoming subjective means living in this world and striving for another world. The individual who follows his vocation knows already what his priority is: he has to renounce to satisfy his needs, when they hinder the pursuit of eternal happiness.43

It is not a matter of doing something and avoiding something else. The tension to Infinity is not only a limit to hedonism or to universal ethical life. It completely changes the existence of an individual, orienting it to that which is always there. A finite need disappears according to the subjective mood or to its satisfaction, while Infinity is eternal. It does not matter if it exists in an ontological sense, because it is constitutive of the individual and transcends his inwardness.

The choice of a religious life, of following “that which is always there”, causes an unavoidable pathos.

But suffering as the essential expression for existential pathos means that suffering is real, or that the reality of the suffering constitutes the existential pathos; and by the reality of the suffering is meant its persistence as essential for the pathetic relationship to an eternal happiness. It follows that the suffering is not deceptively recalled, nor does the individual transcend it, which constitutes a retreat from the task […] Viewed religiously, it is necessary […] to comprehend the suffering and to remain in it, so that reflection is directed upon the suffering and not away from it.44

The reality of suffering implies the persistence of the tension to Infinity. God is constitutively inside the individual, but following His will is a choice. Who pursues eternal happiness cannot avoid suffering and has to remain in it. The voluntary component of Kierkegaard’s philosophy is here strongly evident.

Levinas’ thought, on the other side, refuses the power of free will in relation to Infinity.

But giving has a meaning only as a tearing from oneself despite oneself, and not only without me. And to be torn from oneself despite oneself has meaning only as a being torn from the complacency in oneself characteristic of enjoyment, snatching the bread from one’s mouth. […] Signification, the-one-for-the-other, has meaning only among beings of flesh and blood.45

The suffering of the subject does not depend on a choice, but happens “despite oneself” and comes from one’s original constitution. Being sensible means being permeated by the other in the fibres of one’s own skin. The divine command, which urges upon responsibility for the other person, is directed to the spoliation of one’s flesh. There is no distinction between body and soul: the man, as a sensitive being, is affected by the enjoyment of its pleasure and, at the same time, by the indigence of the other person.

Suffering is then involuntary in Levinas and voluntary in Kierkegaard. However, both agree on considering pain as constitutive of the relation to Infinity and ethical life. The individual who follows the divine command puts aside the satisfaction of his needs, in order to give himself to the other person.

The reason for suffering is the same in Levinas and Kierkegaard. What really separates them is its aim. Accepting pain of one’s existence makes sense only if oriented to afterlife, writes Kierkegaard. The pursuit of eternal happiness is the reason of renouncing to one’s need and pleasures. According to Levinas, on the other side, it does not matter if there is life after death. Responsibility has to be undertook despite any other reason.46

However, there is no certainty of an eternal happiness, neither in Kierkegaard nor in Levinas. According to the former, it is an orientation toward Infinity, a relational modality, according to the latter it has nothing to do with responsibility. They both theorize a life of possibility, of uncertainty and doubt, which, paradoxically, has a higher value than objective truth.

Levinas recognizes the positivity of possibility in Kierkegaard,47 even if he does not acknowledge the existence of a religious ethics in the Postscript. As it was stated before, Climacus distinguishes universal morality from subjective one: the former constitutes a dogmatic system, while the latter is inconclusive and ongoing. The tension to God, driving force of religious ethics, does not lead to the certainty of beatitude, but at least deploys its possibility.

Levinas and Kierkegaard, notwithstanding some differences, agree in stating the singularity of the subject, which primarily explicates itself in relation to Infinity. The absolute difference between man and God hinders whatsoever objective certainty, but it does not make it less important. To face Infinity inside oneself is inevitable and leads to the realization of one’s own existence. What is more, the divine command indicates the other person as its real addressee. Life means giving oneself to singular alterity. However, in spite of a correct ethical behaviour, striving for Infinity is connected with suffering.

An intense and almost unbearable pain, involving the body and the soul, accompanies the subject until the end of its life. Levinas and Kierkegaard both assert the inevitability of suffering, due to a uniqueness in election. Individual existence is where God reveals Himself and shows the way of giving. This path never ends, until life stops, until worldly existence gives space to a new existence, or, if faith is meaningless, to nothing else (the anxiety over doubt never ends). Subjectivity, despite its finiteness, infinitely strives for what goes beyond.


1 Cf. Hegel G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. by Miller A. V., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, §§ 793, 805, 808.

2 Kierkegaard S., Fear and Trembling (FT), in Fear and Trembling/Repetition, ed. and trans. by Hong H. V. and Hong E. H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, p. 59.

3 Ibid., p. 70.

4 According to Pojman, the leap of faith is an act of pure free will (cf. Pojman L., Religious Belief and the Will, London : Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986, pp. 143-8), while Sagi asserts that it has its root in existence (cf. Sagi A., Kierkegaard, Religion and Existence. The Voyage of the Self, Amsterdam-Atlanta: Rodopi B. V., 2000, p. 41).

5 Cf. FT, p. 33-9.

6 Cf. Levinas E., Difficult Freedom (DF), trans. by Hand S., London: The Athlone Press, 1990, p. 144.

7 Cf. DF, p. 117; Id., “Existence and Ethics”, in Proper Names (PN), trans. by Smith M. B., London: The Athlone Press, 1996, pp. 72-3; Id., “A propos of Kierkegaard vivant”, in op. cit., p. 76.

8 Cf. PN, p. 73.

9 Cf. Kierkegaard S., Concluding Unscientific Postscript (CUP), trans. by Swenson D. F., London: Humphrey Milford Oxford University Press, 1941, pp. 118-23.

10 Ibid., pp. 133-4.

11 Cf. PN, p. 76.

12 Cf. Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D., “Introduction: Good Fences May Not Make Good Neighbours After all”, in Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D. (eds.), Kierkegaard and Levinas: ethics, politics, and religion, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008, p. 2; Westphal M., “The Many Faces of Levinas as a Reader of Kierkegaard”, in op. cit., pp. 22-5, 32-9. According to Simmons, Levinas criticism of Kierkegaard is due to the influence of Jean Wahl (cf. Simmons A. J., “Existential Appropriation: The Influence of Jean Wahl on Levinas’s Reading of Kierkegaard”, in op. cit., pp. 51-67).

13 Cf. CUP, pp. 175-9.

14 Cf. Levinas E., Totality and Infinity: an Essay on Exteriority (TI), Duquesne: Pittsburgh, 1969, p. 119.

15 Cf. CUP, pp. 181-2.

16 PN, p. 77.

17 Cf. Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D., op. cit., p. 3; Simmons A. J., op. cit., pp. 48-9.

18 Cf. TI, pp. 24-5, 41.

19 CUP, p. 169.

20 This is even the presupposition of Kierkegaard’s deconstructive readers, who are against logocentric and one-way interpretations. Cf. Jegstrup E., “Introduction”, in Jegstrup E. (ed.), The New Kierkegaard, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004, pp. 1-2.

21 Cf. TI, pp. 21-7, 203-4; Id., Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence (OB), Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1981, pp. 15, 19-20, 88, 114-5, 138-9. Cf. also Janiaud J., Singularité et responsabilité. Kierkegaard, Simone Weil, Levinas, Paris: Honoré Champion, 2006, pp. 311-4.

22 Cf. Kierkegaard S., Works of Love (WOL), ed. and trans. by Hong H. V. and Hong E. H., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, p. 190. Cf. also Westphal M., op. cit., pp. 25-32.

23 Cf. OB, pp. 15-6, 50-6, 72-5, 142. Cf. also Llewelyn J., “Who or What or Whot”, in Simmons Aaron J. – Wood D. (eds.), op. cit., p. 72; Lellouche R., Difficile Levinas. Peut-on ne pas être levinassien ?, Paris-Tel Aviv : Editions de l’éclat, 2006, pp. 81-3.

24 CUP, p. 412.

25 Cf. Janiaud J., op. cit., pp. 155, 158.

26 Cf. Sagi A., op. cit., p. 134.

27 Cf. Podmore S. D., Kierkegaard and the Self Before God : Anatomy of the Abyss, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011, pp. xii-xiii, 180.

28 TI, p. 34.

29 Cf. OB, pp. 12-3, 151-2; TI, p. 104. On metaphysical Desire, cf. Ciaramelli F., “Levinas e la fenomenologia del desiderio”, in Moscato A. (ed.), Levinas. Filosofia e trascendenza, Genova: Marietti, 1992, pp. 144-58; Baccarini E., Lévinas. Soggettività e Infinito, Roma: Studium, 1985, pp. 40, 46-7. Lellouche defines it as a hetero-affection (cf. Lellouche R., op. cit., pp. 86-7). About the semantic ambiguity and non-representativeness of Infinity, cf. Baccarini E., op. cit., pp. 30-8; Chalier C., La trace de l’Infini. Emmanuel Levinas et la source hébraïque, Paris : Cerf, 2002, pp. 65-73 ; Moscato A., “Semantica della trascendenza. Note critiche su E. Levinas”, in Moscato A. (ed.), op. cit., pp. 58-9, 73-8; Plourde S., Emmanuel Lévinas. Altérité et responsabilité, Paris : Cerf, 1996, pp. 136-7 ; Rolland J., Parcours de l’autrement, Paris : PUF, 2000, pp. 1-2. According to Visker, the intrigue of the Infinite is anything but il y a, where the subject, being one-for-the-other, loses its individuality (cf. Visker R., Truth and Singularity. Taking Foucault into Phenomenology, Dordrecht-Boston-London: Kluwer, 1999, pp. 236-7, 241-6, 265-72).

30 TI, p. 60.

31 Cf. TI, pp. 50, 203-4. Cf. also Chalier C., op. cit., pp. 44-8, 56-60; Plourde S., op. cit., pp. 19-21; Petitdemange G., “Au dehors : les enjeux de l’alterité chez Emmanuel Lévinas”, in A. Münster (ed.), La différence comme non-indifférence. Éthique et altérité chez Emmanuel Lévinas, Paris : Kimé, 1995, pp. 30-2 ; Rolland J., op. cit., pp. 111-4. According to Westphal, Levinas’ transcendence is traumatic because it destabilizes the inwardness of the subject (cf. M. Westphal, “The Trauma of Transcendence as Heteronomous Intersubjectivity”, in M. M. Olivetti (ed.), Intersubjectivité et théologie philosophique, Padova : CEDAM, 2001, pp. 92-8).

32 Cf. PN, pp. 76-7.

33 WOL, p. 190.

34 TI, p. 203.

35 Cf. ibid., p. 279; OB, pp. 141-2.

36 WOL, p. 58. Cf. also ibid., p. 108. Gibbs points out that the alterity of the other person is mediated by the alterity of God (cf. Gibbs R., “I or You: The Dash of Ethics”, in Jegstrup E. (ed.), op. cit., p. 146). Seeskin states that the transcendence of Kierkegaard’s God is anonymous and excludes every form of dialogue (cf. Seeskin K., Jewish Philosophy in a Secular Age, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990, p. 134).

37 OB, p. 12. Cf. also Haar M., “L’obsession de l’autre. L’éthique comme traumatisme”, Cahiers de l’Herne : Lévinas 1991, pp. 444-5; Plourde S., op. cit., pp. 119-24; Rolland J., op. cit., pp. 106-9; Westphal M., “The Many Faces of Levinas as a Reader of Kierkegaard”, op. cit., p. 24.

38 Cf. Janiaud J., op. cit., pp. 191, 197, 308-10.

39 CUP, p. 61.

40 Cf. Gouwens D. J., Kierkegaard as religious thinker, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 49-53, 56.

41 OB, pp. 141-2.

42 Cf. TI, pp. 39, 44, 60, 117-8, 208, 277-9.

43 Cf. CUP, p. 350-3. According to Sagi, the voyage to Infinity and to the self are the same, since obeying to God’s will means realizing one’s own existence. Notwithstanding its weakness in understanding Infinity, the subject has the strenght to follow it. (cf. Sagi A., op. cit., p. 16, 147).

44 Ibid., pp. 396-7.

45 OB, p. 74. Unlike Westphal, Lellouche defines Levinas’ ethics as traumatic because it coincides with suffering (cf. Lellouche R., op. cit., pp. 54-7, 70-1).

46 Cf. OB, pp. 6, 117.

47 Cf. Sheil P., Kierkegaard and Levinas. The Subjunctive Mood, Farnham: Ashgate, 2010, pp. 4, 144-5.

Eight Noble Opinions and the Economic Crisis: Four Literary-philosophical Sketches à la Eduardo Galeano


Until control of the issue of currency and credit is restored to government and recognised as its most conspicuous and sacred responsibility, all talk of the sovereignty of Parliament and of democracy is idle and futile… Once a nation parts with control of its credit, it matters not who makes the nation’s laws… Usury once in control will wreck any nation.

            William Lyon Mackenzie King

Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.

      Albert Einstein

Philosophers are often and rightly accused of dealing too much with the past, pondering endlessly upon origins, reasons and causes, and too little with the future, leaving hardly any room to proposals, solutions, or calls to arms. To prove myself capable of the latter kind of activity, and despite the unavoidably old noble opinions quoted above, I shall keep Minerva’s owl nailed to a perch. Though Pythonesque, this little cruelty should delay any backward-looking blathering of mine, which is to come eventually in the other sketches.

After all, we are facing a dramatic twofold crisis, ecological and economic, which even uninfluential public figures like the current UN Secretary and US President have acknowledged and denounced as deadly. As for the title under which I allow myself to do so, I shall be content with declaring myself a professor of philosophy who has studied value for some time, i.e. what is important and what is not. In this pursuit, which I regard as valuable, I have reached a fairly simple conclusion: that which keeps all of us and our descendants alive and well is very, very important indeed. Those who deny it or claim my claim to be unscientific can do so because they are tacitly doing all that is necessary in order to stay alive and well enough to be able to talk a lot of nonsense.

But let us dwell no further on this simple subject, about which I have written around fifteen complicated essays in the past ten years—I need another nail… Worthy of Epicurus, I can offer a tetrapharmakos to today’s world, confident to be received by no-one in useful time, for that seems to be the fate for all who dare criticise—as I am going to do—large-scale private banking, the profit motive as paramount,  the private ownership of strategic resources, deregulation, and the managerial mind. Some may even call me a “socialist”, as though it were a derogatory and disqualifying term, similar to “criminal”, “pervert” or “rascal”. Probably, given the notoriety of Italians and academics, “old pig” or “bore” would be more fitting insults. Politically, however, I would describe myself as “life-grounded”, not “socialist”. Still, I shall not mind and endure the epitaph with grace, even gratefulness. I shall keep company with Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte of Saint-Simon, Albert Einstein, and Bertrand Russell. An aristocrat, a physicist, and a logician…


First, fundamental medication, upon which all else depends: nations should establish, or in most cases re-establish, good public banks. Why? Well, here is something that should have become obvious to anyone who has eyes to see and a fat wallet. As stated by Russian President Vladimir Putin when speaking last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the economic crisis that we are witnessing today has destroyed, in about one year, approximately twenty-five years of pecuniary wealth, i.e. the sort of wealth that our intrepid yet “virtual” capitalists were aimed to produce in the first place. Private banks and financial institutions, left to their own devices by prolonged tidal waves of worldwide deregulation, brought themselves down and, with them, much of the world’s “real” economy. Do you remember the real economy? If it goes down, down go also the starving children of unemployed sub-Saharan family fathers. Down into the earth they go, whilst shareholders moan for lost profits and fire a few more people to ease their pain.

Clearly, many private banks cannot do their job unaided. As they were busy concocting mathematically byzantine derivatives and variously vehicled securisation packages in the deregulated shadow of global finance, they forgot about honest bookkeeping, sound reserves, mutual trust, and other basic old-fashioned principles of chronically anachronistic banking. They even forgot about that primitive slave invention, morality. Alas! Such is the genius of the invisible hand free from State direction or, as Icelandic philosopher Mikael Karlsson dubs it, “the invisible brain.” This is not meant to be an insult to anyone, unlike “socialist” or “pervert”. The so-called “Free Market” promoted by “deregulators” has no visible brain, insofar as State-centred social and public planning is regularly rejected as anathema. Still, who came to the rescue of self- (and other-) destructive private banks? The State.

Turned into the banks’ pork-barrel, the State has thrown trillions at the banks in order to keep them afloat—in the Land of the Free, in Great Britain, in Benelux. Was it necessary? No, for the State could have simply taken over the banks. Was it desirable? No, for public banks, still run in communist countries such as China and North Dakota, can spur development, employment, and take far fewer risks than private ones.

It must be emphasised that it is not enough for the State to own the banks; these must be run like public banks i.e. banks for the public good. Some morality is required in the process. Prudently restricted by various strings, these public banks can respond more easily to the needs and aims of actual populations, rather than to the whims and fancies of absentee owners or of their volatile servants, that is to say their bonus-benefitting managers.

What am I saying? Have public banks and run them as such. They must spur real development, not inflate bubbles that transfer wealth from the bottom to the top. Will it hurt the shareholders and wealthier customers of private banks? Certainly. They have already enjoyed the State’s helping hand; it may be time to repay the State with gratitude. Doesn’t anyone remember how to do it? Read history books, study the European Payments Union of the 1950s, ask retired Italian or French bank managers, use your imagination. A few rules of thumb may assist those who lack enough imagination:

(a)  Ban financial and currency speculation, at least within and via public banks: the casino belongs to “competitive” gamblers. Yes, people who used to claim that they would succeed or fail like Promethean heroes… Before they all asked for help to the Great Nanny, of course, lost as they were on their er-rand. And please, let the State never again salvage these hypocrites from their own myopic greed. They are now trying to wash their guilty conscience by returning one hundredth of what they have received from the public purse, whilst re-filling their pockets at the State’s expense, with fierce bearish appetite

(b)  Lubricate the real economy, if forward-looking, so as to launch much-needed public works, create long-term employment, and generate steady streams of income within the nation. Public banks can do so, at low interest rates: they must be profitable, but not at all costs

(c)  Monitor inbound and outbound capital flows, so as to direct investments to socially beneficial areas, and counter tax evasion as well as tax avoidance: far too much has been denied in the past to the very public purse that has then saved the incompetent affluent from themselves. And remember that a stable currency and genuine economic sovereignty can only be secured by abandoning the disastrous freedom of capital flows that has flooded the world with crisis upon crisis since the 1980s: tequila, vodka, whiskey or brennivín, ouzo, they all taste the same

(d)  Secure reserves by compelling the capitals of public bodies, pension and social security savings, and the revenues of public banks to be invested in the public banks themselves. The State must be as free as possible from the bondage and the blackmail of its current masters i.e. foreign direct investment and international bondholders

(e)  Pay bank managers State salaries comparable to those of other leading promoters of public wellbeing—surgeons, health-&-safety inspectors, judges—and avoid attracting the covetous, self-indulging, big-jet and big-penthouse penis-length-comparing “best and brightest” who plunged the world into a massive crisis. Communities need not such beastly best and brittle brightness. Forget them and their barbaric macho ethos—made of turrets of money, performance-enhancing bonuses (as though they alone were working), fee-demanding buddies-consultants, and PR companies using invariably words like “aggressively” and “targets”.

Finally, do not underestimate the fact that it is difficult to deal with cronyism by voting new governments into office. Yet it is much more difficult to do the same thing by waiting for anonymous and short-lived shareholders to reform their servants, who are so free from supervision as to jot down any number they like in the books without anyone finding out. As Adam Smith forewarned us some time ago, the corporation is amongst the least competitive and the most corruptible of human institutions, hence amongst the most damaging to the proper functioning of capitalism.

And inflation? Don’t worry. Nobody talks about it—a sudden silence. After all, common people are no longer able to buy anything, not even on credit. If anything, the real problem to come will be deflation. Besides, more than 90% of the money circulating around the globe is the result of financial leverage by private institutions. Still, old-fashioned, knee-jerk reactions may be reoccurring soon: pensions and salaries must not go up, for the poor must repay the money lost by the rich; States must rein in public expenditures, which they have been doing for thirty years, unless there was a war to be fought; public assets must be privatised, so as to further enrich the incompetent and further weaken their only saviour; cheap money must stop (now), lest we tax the wealthy to give some jobs to the restless youth, etc. By the way, how is it that bonuses for bank managers could always go up? It must be the same people who think that only private firms can be valid multipliers…

It is ironic that, after two decades during which we had been told that the State and, for that matter, its independent Central Banks could not issue money for schools, hospitals, public works and social projects, quite mysteriously they started printing so much money. Sure, they now tell us that we need private banks to keep credit flowing, for credit is the life-blood of the economy. Without it, there shall be no green-spanning across the meadows. And yet, enterprises and households worldwide are still struggling to get the credit that they need. In truth, the selectively generous Central Banks’ cheap money benefits financial speculation, which is where the trouble started in the first place. How could ever a heartless economy pump any actual life-blood?

Indeed, in California, the local government is at risk of being terminated by the refusal of private banks to subscribe local public bonds because “unsafe” i.e. the State of California could go bankrupt. “What a cheek!” my mother would say, and she has dealt with banks for most of her life. The banks refusing to purchase these sunny bonds today are the same banks that were saved by public money yesterday, when it was raining. But there is more.

Were even these banks to provide enterprises, households and public authorities with the credit they need, they would not do it for free, for the common good, or for a little interest; they would do it for profit, and for as much of it as they can get. Thus, things would be so arranged and, sadly enough, they are being so arranged, as to have public money given very prodigally to private banks, so that these banks may give it to the public far less prodigally.

What is more, in order to be worthy of the bailed-out banks’ money:

  • Enterprises have been reducing their workforce to be more “competitive”
  • Households have been returning their homes to banks that had sold highly reliable mortgages towards the purchase of… homes
  • The State has been thinning out its already skinny body in order to be attractive to the banks, which the State has just rescued from themselves

After decades of TINA-like reduction of all that is public, public money is being given to glaringly incompetent private banks so that their losses be made public and their profits, which were always private, recover and be still private. In the process, public money is not used to counter dwindling employment, secure houses, and, say, fund hospitals, schools, university research, care for the elderly and the mentally ill, public gardens, public football fields, archaeological preservation programmes, amelioration of penal institutions, better garbage collection, sanitation and, why not, aid to starving children. How many tramps will get trapped in the revolving doors of the wealthy’s tower?

That the State may have money for the bankrupt banks but not for its own social functions, it is something that defies imagination, morality, and even legal obligations. Many of them ratified the International Covenant on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights, didn’t they?


Second, life-saving medication: if you skip the middle man, operate good public banks, and have money to use for the common good, then launch a vast programme of green public works. More severe and threatening than the economic crisis itself is the ecological crisis. Ask the United Nations about that. The former crisis threatens fat wallets at the top and starving children at the bottom, yet at different degrees of dangerousness. The latter crisis threatens all equally with death. The grim reaper is the great leveller. Since so much private enterprise has caused the ecological crisis in the first place—the smoky days of the Industrial Revolution—and has continued it in the face of scientific alarm calls as old as Britney Spears, then it is advisable that the State be able and willing to step in and, both by regulation and by direct economic action, reverse the tide.

Forget speculative carbon emission quotas and reduce carbon emissions; ban outright or force rapid conversion of the most obvious forms of life-destructive economic activity; tax the remaining polluting activities and de-tax non- or less-polluting ones; have a major public company undertaking proper refitting of houses on a massive scale so as to make them less energy-consuming; create large public recycling facilities so as to counter illegal dumping of waste at large; found and fund new public research centres for the development of green technologies, free from the yoke of short-term corporate desiderata; ration carbon-based power and use it only for vital and life-enhancing activities…

There are so many tokens of environmentally constructive planning, yet so few that have not been resisted as “too costly”, “too rigid”, “too much for us, who have already done so much”, etc. Were only the people uttering such phrases to consider seriously the fact that they can be so garrulous because the environment is still, barely, able to support them, their bodies, their minds, and the natural and social infrastructures that have allowed them to grow, socialise and, limitedly, mature…

In addition to a life-enabling aim and a counter-cyclical alternative to depressing austerity, politics would also regain its dignity by having a green mission. Strangled by powerful yet incompetent lobbies, and fettered by incompetent yet powerful central banks, politics has been reduced for far too long a time to day-to-day management of production costs in the domestic market and salesmanship in the foreign ones.


Third, important medication: since some neighbours may not like your policies and your currency, then they might respect your resources. States should increase or secure public control of strategic assets: water, oil, gas, the knowledge of its own population—this knowledge having been fostered by public education, healthcare provision, and cultural activities.

Whether by safeguarding the revenues originating in natural resources that would otherwise enrich few and often foreign shareholders, or by reclaiming a knowledge-based industry that would otherwise be outsourced by corporate giants, the State must secure a steady source of income for itself and for the nation’s economy. This income alone should help democratic governments to respond to their constitutional sovereigns, not to rating agencies and “markets” whose lords regularly reside offshore.

As Norway’s long experience in State-run oil extraction and refining illustrates, it is the one and only “trickle-down” strategy that has produced tangible results for an entire nation. States’ assets are not a factor of market distortion, but a factor of production—and one that can help businesses to grow by providing cheap goods and services, as opposed to the endless and costly bloodsucking of postmodern privatised economies. Ideally, it would be good for States to regain control over money-creating central banks, but there are limits even to one’s dreams.

Incidentally, even the many wars paid by the American public purse to secure control over other nations’ oil, or at least force its trade in US dollars, indicate that the public control of strategic assets is not so foolish an idea. And yes, also that getting bombed may be a risk for the nations pursuing the path recommended hereby. Apart from the landowners, cunning agents and financial moguls who have charged prices well over any real cost of production, for all others there is no such thing as a free lunch—Miltons have always known the devil very well.


Fourth, integrative medication: since some powers-that-are may not be pleased with your plans, make sure you can deal with them. Create a just fiscal and regulatory framework, which empowers the population at large and weakens the usual lobbies: close tax loopholes and tax breaks for the usual lobbies; withdraw passports and freeze assets of tax fugitives; tax rents (land, inheritances, capital gains) and de-tax hard work, so as to reward merit and distinguish sharply between earned and unearned income; end subsidies, legal privileges (e.g. limited liability) and tax-breaks to private companies, lest they never compete in a truly free market; nationalise the companies that are too big to fail, as John Kenneth Galbraith advised us to do long ago; reclaim research and development grants and whichever other public credit given to private firms leaving the country; confiscate the assets of companies outsourcing to countries with lower labour and environmental standards; put regulatory agencies and grassroots associations on the boards of private and public companies to fight corruption; inspect constantly and reward those inspectors who discover illicit activities.

Taxes matter. Especially when there is an ever-richer tiny elite of super-rich whose fortune comes as a long free lunch over accumulated wealth, whether in property or capital. They hardly ever pay taxes. They pay fewer than most, since someone else paid taxes before them: those who actually earned that property or capital in the first place. In truth, they may quite simply avoid taxes by shoring their assets off to tiny islands or Alpine valleys. The members of this tiny elite are above and beyond the common citizen, whilst their trusted and highly paid managers rarely go to jail when guilty of fraud or cheating. Above-and-beyondness is a transferrable asset too. If and when hijacked by this elite, States are likely to commit suicide by taxing those who work instead. And if the people sweating and bleeding don’t have enough money, then State activities are to be reduced in the name of, say, the Big Society–of the hopeless and of their hopeless resilience.

In brief, internalise costs that have been externalised regularly and mercilessly at the expense of natural and societal well-being; and effectively re-regulate the disastrously de-regulated playground of the free enterprise–especially but not exclusively of the virtual type–whose only known freedom is that which cages every possible aspect of reality into the life-blind logic of profit-making.

Will anyone undergo this cure? History will tell. And history is full of surprises. Who would have ever thought, for example, that little furry animals could outlive giant dinosaurs and become the first species ever capable of destroying the ecological structures that allow them to live!


Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation.

         John Maynard Keynes

There are two ways of conquering a foreign nation. One is to gain control of its people by force of arms. The other is to gain control of its economy by financial means.

       John Foster Dulles

In the year 2003 I published a review of Value Wars, written by Canada’s leading value theorist John McMurtry. In it I provided an account of the stunning whistle-blowing by World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz vis-à-vis “deregulation” and “globalisation”, two terms that had been dominating economic and political discourse for some time. Quite unexpectedly, and rather shockingly, a well-connected, mainstream, Nobel-prize-winning economist denounced the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for implementing over a period of at least twenty years a merciless four-step process of re-colonisation of independent nations by international private capital. This was the sort of suspicion that radicals like pop singer Bono Vox and Polish actor Karol Woitila, better known as Pope John Paul II, had been voicing for a long time. As for John McMurtry, he took due notice, since Stiglitz’s revelation was consistent with his own description of world affairs as directed by the profit-motive of the few versus the vital interests of all others. Preferring truth to originality, I endeavoured to spread this description of world affairs around me. In fact, I had given lectures about it, also in Iceland, before 2003.

Nobody seemed to care, however, at least here in the north. Stiglitz’s views were not widely discussed and even less were they taught at the university level, except by a few—sometimes foreign—eccentrics. McMurtry’s views, hadn’t it been for the same eccentrics, would have been left to gather dust in local libraries. Meanwhile, the policies of deregulation and enthusiastic participation in globalisation were not halted. On the contrary, in the year 2003, the three largest public banks were privatised. Immediately, they started to sail the seas of international speculation, never seen before in Icelandic history. “Carry trades” and “financial leverage” became mantras recited on the first page of all newspapers, whilst the businessmen who were dubbed the “new Vikings” set out to raid foreign banks, enterprises, supermarkets, and football clubs, with money that they did not have. But such is late- (or post-) modern capitalism, or “the Icelandic way of doing business”, as I was told back then. Besides, it would appear that only professional economists are entitled to teach about why they, unlike a mere philosopher like McMurtry, got it so wrong. And there’s so much to learn!

What did Stiglitz’s whistle-blowing describe? And how does it apply to the Icelandic case?

First, the permeability of the nation’s borders to private foreign capital is increased by deregulating capital trade and privatising strategic national assets. Barriers, bottlenecks, and “obsolete” protections are removed, whether material or immaterial. Nobody quite remembers why they were there, and even fewer wonder why. Above all else, money must flow. That’s the consensus, at least in the district of Columbia, which is obviously populated by zealous reformers. Their principles are crystal-clear: “public is bad, private is good.” They believe in “The Free Market”, whatever that may be thought to be; and they believe in it so ardently and unflinchingly that Stiglitz and others refer to them as “market fundamentalists.” They even set complicated rules at roundtables to force dissenting markets to be free. Anyhow, this very first step, which may take some time, is achieved by lubricating slow-moving and slow-thinking local politicians, business leaders, present and future ideologues with adequate amounts of grease. Grease, yes, such as co-opting these people into the international jet- and yacht-set, promising or securing that they will have their own golden toilets, washing their brains at spectacular conferences and exclusive think-tank meetings, baptising their best and brightest first-borns in the sacred founts at the sacred shrines, stirring their simmering jingoistic sentiments, or bribing them straightforwardly—indeed Stiglitz talks of this process as “briberization”.

Secondly, money flows into the country. A bubble ensues; in fact, a cyst. Depending on the country’s economic conditions, the cyst can take different forms, but all of them eventually become painful. In the case of a reasonably well-off country, glittering streams of foreign capital inundate the land, turning modest entrepreneurial fields into a glorious harvest of unprecedented projects. Thus refreshed, the local currency and the local shares pupate into surprisingly light-winged and seemingly fertile young fairies, whose well is said to be full of diamonds. Moreover, the nation’s financial institutions become large fountains that can quench the thirst of anyone who is eager to drink from them, including those who do not need it, but have the misfortune to possess a belly. New buildings spring up like mushrooms in the vast new wetlands, luxury and consumer spending—mostly dependent upon credit—fly high like gleaming droplets out of a geyser’s mouth. So mesmerising is this sight, that more permeability is actively sought.

Then, the cyst bursts. As swiftly as it flew in, so does the money flow out. A rumour, a token of gossip, an unfortunate diplomatic incident, a well-paid expert report, or a speculator’s premeditated signal to his colleagues rapidly reverses the tide. The flood ends. A drought follows. Projects—and buildings—remain unfinished, half-mast, like flags at a funeral. The wombs of local currency and local shares reveal themselves sterile; it was all make-up, they now say, even the wings; you should never trust the books. The well in the garden is dry, and full of stones. Moreover, the fountains are dry too. Around them, stunned, jobless, emaciated peons, indebted up to their eyeballs, drown into whirling sand clutching their plasma TV sets. And their TV heroes have not come to save them, be they crusading party leaders or Viking raiders. Who will?

Nobody is without friends, especially after having become part of the international jet- and yacht-set, educating his own children in the best schools, or attending eye-opening conferences and meetings. Not to mention those friends who have already proven so generous in the past. In truth, after having advised on how to render the country prosperous, they now spare no saliva explaining what can be done in order to rescue it from its unfortunate plight. Thus, money is poured back into the nation. High interest rates are, however, de rigueur. One does not give much to drink too easily to a friend who has already drunk too much. What kind of a friend would he be?

The third step is therefore to make up for the mistakes of the past and repay one’s generous friends. Whatever wealth remains must be scrupulously collected so as to honour the debt—or so as to secure further loans. Debt gives salvation from debt, as gamblers understand so well. Certainly, the wealth of the wealthy is better left untouched: they are the producers, the life-givers, blessed fountainheads of the nation’s wellbeing, which needs them so badly under the burning sun of the new sad day. They must be treated kindly, lest they or their wealth be forced to flee by too rapacious and visible a hand—some have already fled, they whisper. The wealth of the poor—or of the poor-to-be—is a better starting point. After all, they may have little, but there are many of them. Besides, since they have little, they cannot flee as easily as the rich, nor can their wealth flee. And whereas the wealthy can go bankrupt and be resurrected cleansed of their debt, like the imperishable Phoenix, ordinary mortals honour their debts, willingly or not. They may protest, but law and order are the last two public sectors whose resources are cut off, unless successful ways are found to privatise them too.

Finally, as the nation struggles in debt and turmoil, groaning so loudly as to disturb its neighbours, the generous friends come back to help. They cannot remain untouched in the face of so much poverty and violence. They have new “plans”, “strategies” and “packages” to sort things out. Yet, to implement them, national borders must be removed completely and an iron framework of conditions for investment and development must be imposed in order for the nation to become a proud participant in fully liberalised, multinational free trade. For example, its tax environment must be suited to foreign investors—may God bless them—and its population as flexible as unthinking reeds in gushing new brooks, to which they contribute sweat and tears.

By the way, where does Iceland stand now? Probably it stands at the threshold of deciding whether to plunge headlong into step three, with signs of the fourth step already lurking behind the waterfalls harnessed for hydropower.


In all normal civilisations the trader existed and must exist. But in all normal civilisations the trader was the exception; certainly he was never the rule; and most certainly he was never the ruler. The predominance which he has gained in the modern world is the cause of all the disasters of the modern world.

  Gilbert Keith Chesterton

The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable, and we should face up to that.

  Lawrence “Larry” Summers

It has been long known that Europe catches a cold whenever the United States sneezes. Yet things get even worse when the immune system of rules and restrictions to international capital and currency trade has been removed altogether. Iceland and some young, yet already former, free-market miracles on the Baltic Sea did catch pneumonia this time. Ironic indeed, as they are just another group of market miracles turned into meltdowns—Asia had a few of them in the 1990s. Miracles seem short-lived these past few decades… Though if truth be told, even Lazarus died, after having been brought back to life.

Historians of the future, if there shall be any and if they will be honest, are going to wonder and ponder upon how such intelligent and highly educated “knowledge economies”, capable of the finest mathematical-financial wizardry via the fanciest computer technologies, could bestow upon themselves so much avoidable pain, destroying in the process not solely further scores of planetary life support systems, but also man-made social infrastructures that have generated, depending on the country, genuine welfare for up to three or four generations. These future historians will be at pains to conceive of powerful, well-off, democratically elected representatives who listened to foreign bankers, and not to their own citizens, rushing to implement, whenever they could, multilateral agreements on investment robbing their own cabinets of much of their power.

These future historians will probably fail to empathise with and understand such bizarre people, very much like Voltaire, who could not really explain why our forefathers were willing to slaughter one another over the correct interpretation of the Holy Trinity. After all, they had never seen it (or them?) and Jesus himself had never said anything clear, if anything, about it (or them?). Not to mention the centuries that humankind spent warring, raping, disembowelling, burning, maiming, chaining, flogging and excommunicating one another because of errors of interpretation. Obtuseness is incredibly resilient. And we are not so different today. Check the Athenian cradle of our civilisation if you don’t believe it.

Yes, embodied and expressed by the very same conventional people at the helm of the world’s public and private financial affairs, the wisdom arising from the ashes of the current crisis is astoundingly similar to the one that caused the crisis. Are you indebted? Take on another loan. The private banking sector has betrayed you? Restore it with public money and run it as before. The world’s economy is a gilded cage run on behest of under-taxed oligopolists, tax-evading rentiers and idle absentee owners that squeeze money out of the real economy through banking charges, debt repayments, service fees, monopoly and land rents? Keep it going and call it a “free market”. People are suffering, jobless, and with their tax money siphoned to the creditors that inflated the bubble? Show them tough love and deprive them of further healthcare, education, culture, wages, pensions, childcare, subsidised water and power. Austerity measures turn a crisis into a depression? Implement more of the same measures. The environment is running amok in the so-called free-market environment? The market will fix it; in the meantime, profit will keep being extracted from increased prices in oil, gas, polluting consumer goods, and cancer treatments due to the ecological collapse of the planet. Apparently, the only green rules acceptable are those that transfer further money from the public purse into private pockets. All others are resisted as “costly”, “distorting”, “rigidifying”, “liberticidal”, which may be true—and good. The one and only truly binding international environmental regulation that, so far, has saved us from extinction, preventing excessive UV-irradiation, was a top-down imposition from Montreal.

But life, not to mention a happy and healthy life, has never been the paramount goal of the pursuit of profit. War was and still is a major source of profit, towards which public subsidies to private firms are given generously… Well, they call them “research & development” grants or “national security” strategies… Disease-causing pollution has been mostly an externality that had nothing to do with profit, until pharmaceutical conglomerates found a way to exploit that too. Slaves and their children were most profitable for many, many centuries. Wage slaves… Oops! The flexible working poor and their children are very profitable today too.

And for what must all this wisdom be endured? To give money to people who have money. They have enough, one would believe. They should start communicating it to those who have nothing… little… less. Jesus and Aquinas regarded this as obvious. No, it is not obvious. Money is never enough, especially to those who need yet another fancy dress. But why are these people non-satiable? Why do they complain, lobby and shift electoral allegiance whenever taxation on capital gains is vented? Why do they transfer their fiscal residence to tax havens, whilst benefitting from handouts of the State they are deserting? Why do they outsource productive structures to countries squeezing labour out of turnips, if youngsters are not available? Why do they say that “they have already done enough” whenever life-saving regulation is discussed? Why do they care more about the interest rate they can get, than they care about how their money is invested? Why do they oppose healthcare, old-age pensions, education and culture for all, while they enjoy it for themselves?

It is competition, they answer. There isn’t enough around for all of us, only for the really tough ones, who can then live in much-deserved luxury. But why do people compete for having more for themselves, instead of, say, competing for beauty, generosity, selflessness, equal distribution, full employment? There can be so many different and more constructive competitive aims in life: just look around. Nuns, school teachers, barefoot physicians, rocket scientists, marine biologists, old fishermen, young artists… They may not all dislike some cash, but they do not live for it, or at least they try not to. Since Divine Will is out of fashion, and if you press them long enough, the luxury-deserving competitors are going to tell you, eventually, that we are cruel wolves. How naïve was I! I thought that they were cruel wolves… The world is a cruel place—those ferocious nuns… Nobody waits for those left behind—and they don’t. The market forces accept no barrier. As one of their fairest ideologues so frequently stated, there is no alternative; it is human nature. A hidden philosophical anthropology…

And yet, none less than their poorly understood hero Adam Smith taught us long ago something very different in the opening page of his greatest book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

This is certainly not the one and only betrayal of Smith by current capitalism. After all, his market was meant to be free from rentiers, who now run the show. Anyhow, why so much mercilessness, then? Have we become worse human beings? Have we lost our humanity? Have we found ways to outcruel the cruel, underfed, superstitious peasants, who, when not breaking skulls in the name of God or King or Country, killed and maimed animals on a farm? Well, as modern and proud of our science-technology as we can be… Well, yes… Overall, subtly, we have. The thinning of solidarity that embraces the whole humankind, which a German-sounding French warmonger studied in depth, is a weaker barrier to the undergoing evil drives.

Or, at least, we have done our best to train impressionable young minds to being ordinarily callous and participating in the most spectacularly life-destructive economic system ever seen on Earth—a system that, as denounced by the scientific community for the past thirty years, has turned the survival of our species into a big question mark. Much is done in this direction, routinely, thousands of times a day, so that our youth may become more beastly than ruffians and more abrasive than criminals. But how? Simple. We (mis-)educate them, and we have tools for (mis-)education that no emperor or church of old has ever owned or mastered. Only a couple of totalitarian dictators gave it a go or two in the blood-drenched century of Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen… But how, where? Open your eyes. Watch.

Our TVs and media are replete with commercials. They are meant to accompany you from the cradle to the grave. Selectively and scientifically trained marketing strategists, creative psychologists and advertising gurus are paid to induce desires in the subtlest and most effective manners, starting with our children’s delicate souls. These desires will blossom into poisonous “new needs”, as these “experts” call them. These weed-like flowers being sheer wants perceived as genuine individual needs, the delayed satisfaction of which is to generate a sense of inadequacy, anguish, frustration, isolation, or envy towards those who do satisfy them. And these are the only flowers that must grow; hence they are everywhere. Children no longer need an imagination. Marketing strategists make sure that the only pictures that children can have in their mind are those that sell. They speak already like TVs: why shouldn’t they replicate TVs in their brain? Eventually, as grown-ups, these children will be branded, like slaves of old, or cattle still is today. Perhaps, like the slaves of old, they will enjoy freedom one day a year. Or maybe all the days will have been taken away by marketing strategists, who wish to celebrate the sales of Valentine’s Day, Mother’s day, Father’s Day, Marketing Strategist’s Day…

You don’t believe me? Go to any primary school and you will meet hordes of little creatures dressed according to the latest fashion code, or pestering their parents to be so dressed. Those who are not there, because they are busy sewing the actual fashion items, may well try to rob them from the horde one day. These little brats! They want and want and want scores of items that they do not need, the possession of which, moreover, does not grant happiness at all, despite the glittering promises. Were it so, no new purchase would be “needed”, and that would be bad for business. Certainly, one may learn to control such a powerful impetus, but it takes years of self-re-training. Not even hunger and utter destitution placate it. Not even the full awareness of not being able to afford those consumer goods. Nothing will ever erase the deep-rooted psychological mechanisms implanted into our souls when we were little. Is this enough? No, there is more to it.

Our TVs and media are replete with role models—and the medium is the message. Rich and wanna-be-rich people of all sorts shine even when performing the most ordinary activities, such as shaving or concealing their stench with perfume. From slutty heiresses to pimping rappers, from cosmetically mummified bad actors to ignorant footballers, from divorce-addict hair-died tycoons to soon-to-be-millionaires answering questions or showing their private parts in public—these are the saints and blessed inspirers of the modern secular creed. They may be confessing their own sins to a TV host, confident that their words will be forgotten. What remains, instead, is the scent of money that perspires through their placenta-creamed pores. A powerful aura.

The same aura surrounding the action hero, who fights, kills and kidnaps for the sake of justice, peace and freedom…  There he comes! Dressed in an Armani suit, he jumps out of a Mercedes, talking briefly on his Nokia. He checks his Rolex, then gets into a Ferrari and drives to Chez Maxim’s. There, he meets a beautiful young lady, whose Valentino dress will soon be ripped at the Hilton’s. And there he’ll kick the guts out of the villain, smashing his Patek Philippe and ruining forever his Dolce & Gabbana jacket… Justice is served. Peace is conquered. Freedom triumphs. That’s the message, isn’t it? And if not much of the beautiful young lady is shown, then children can watch too.

Poor people are less frequently shown. They don’t sell as well as our hero. Moreover, they don’t buy. There exist notable exceptions, though. Poor men and poor women are sometimes on display, like animals at the zoo, to be observed, mocked and, on Christmas day, to feel sorry for. Other times, they are actively humiliated on screen by policemen, judges and other masters of entertainment. Crime, ignorance, savagery: what a show! Once again, as long as it sells, keep it up. There, in the spotlight, for less than fifteen minutes and amidst commercial ads, the poor can shine like greasy piglets on spits, or like the tin their most unfortunate children collect in garbage dumps.

What is the result of this Blendungsroman? Go to any secondary school and you will meet cell-phone-talking walking replicas of the rich, parading themselves in the corridors. Give them an opportunity to put down a “loser”, and they will savour it like their own parents, whose SUVs and triple-mortgaged houses are punches into the Joneses’ stomachs. Even poverty is a risk worth taking to cast the rich’s aura.

The silent walking replicas of the poor are usually in other schools, unless they have dropped out of school already to find a job that will secure their poverty. Some are hiding in the toilets. They are poor and they know it. They look poor. It is not only their clothes that say it, but their bodies. They have bad teeth, small tits, big noses. Their parents have wrinkles. They can’t get fixed, like those people on TV, or their replicas and the replicas’ parents. To cope with this obvious inferiority, they breathe in. In Italy, they sniff cocaine to think that they too are rich. In Rumania, they sniff glue to think that they too are sniffing cocaine.

Either way, none of these kids must worry about being politically active. It is too dangerous. Yes, youngsters still remember how to bark: they haven’t been beaten up into silent submission, yet. Some will have to be locked up, so that trade be free. Don’t give them any wrong ideas. That’s socialism—or any bad “ism” of the day. Don’t give them hope. That’s socialism. Politics is best left to corporate employees, who siphon public money to their shareholders and, God be gracious, to their own bank accounts. That’s the free market. These employees alone are capable of understanding why unemployment is natural and inequality good. They’ve got talent. They’ve got the degrees that get you good jobs. Therefore, unless they are corporate employees, not even the kids’ parents have to worry about politics. Like these happy few, the kids’ parents can take happy pills too or, if pills are too expensive, drink themselves out blind.

Drunk, the poor parents can cope better with the trauma of seeing their children die. Each country has its own special way of sending new winged angels to God. In high-tech market-miracle India, they die of cholera in open-air sewers, where they were looking for edible scraps. In coup-idity-ruled Honduras they die poisoned by pesticides in a free-market plantation, so that the bananas people eat in Canada be not too pricy. In revolutionary France they die stabbed by an angry pusher in a dark alley, but they were not really French after all. In peace-loving America, they die fighting for human rights in another country, since their own country denied them a future. How was it possible? They had trained them at killing people since they were three, on a stolen X-box… Maybe they should have trained them at doing something else, but there is no videogame that teaches you how to free a political party from corporate diktats or join a trade union… Is this enough? No, there is more.

Our TVs and media are replete with experts telling us that greed is good. They are the most interviewed and consulted members of the intelligentsia of our community. Sometimes they even become our presidents, ministers, mayors and godfathers. Go to any university. Some of them feed on tenure and enjoy healthcare and pension benefits, whilst arguing that you shouldn’t have them. You will discover that there is an entire discipline built upon that notion.

If truth be told, a few of its adherents do remind their students, on leap years, that the profit-motive of the homunculus œconomicus is just one drive amongst many. This drive becomes one and insatiable for the sake of toying with mathematical formulae, not for the sake of describing reality, which never works quite like the models do. Facts can be so obstinate. Theory is much more flexible. Occasionally, on elective days, these beautiful souls mention even mysterious, metaphysical, unscientific words: “ethics”, “morality”, “duty”, “respect”, “goodness”, “virtue”, “governance”, “responsibility”… They don’t fully grasp them, though, for they slip out of books and balance sheets. Sometimes they even get their students to learn some history, thus half-stuttering what sort of devastation this homunculus and its leit-motive have caused. Still, these are exceptions, divagations, and the students, between the end of their studies and the beginning of their careers, know it very well.

Our MBAs and the many branches of science and engineering dependent upon private sponsors and future corporate employers are the convent-barracks where our crusading novices, more or less geeky and asocial, are told that only numbers really matter. The fate of a paterfamilias and of his family does not. They are told that persons are not persons: they are costs, opportunities, capital, markets… They are all sorts of things that can be converted into monetary units—numbers, in fact—though most definitively they are not persons. In fact, such things, be they free individuals or free communities, can turn into dependent variables. And if some of these things are laid off by a firm that rationalises an otherwise irrational workplace—what a madness it must have been!—then it may be time to invest money in that firm. If the right numbers go up, then things are just as they should be. If they don’t, they can be massaged. If they still don’t, they can be fixed. If they still refuse to go up, then a couple of hospitals plus half a university, as long as they are public, can be sacrificed to a return to growth.

In the streamlined world there can be recoveries without jobs, business opportunities in famines, increased flexibility via insecurity of employment and future bread, full employment at the natural unemployment rate, goods that do a lot of bad things, and market miracles that melt into destitution because of something bad but the pious market. What lesson is learnt? Everything in the world exists in order to maximise the money of investors and/or their managers. Even old, wrinkly countries must be attractive to such people or face their own demise. Make the rich richer. That is the one and paramount commandment. Such merciless homunculi are no fiction; they are science-fiction: they drive around in Dalek machines. Indeed, to those who do not simply rob and run, being merciless is a fiduciary duty. Apart from this, everything else goes.

Yes, everything else, unless you get caught and cannot pay the best lawyers—what a shame. Business words of the business world tell no lies: lack of scruples is “determination”, mercilessness is “having balls”, inhumanity is “being committed”, callousness is “professionalism”, locust-like behaviour is a “hedging”, stealing traditional knowledge is a “patent”, depriving people of knowledge is a “copyright”, poisoning the destitute is “mutually beneficial trade”, taking public-sector resources to guarantee private profits is “hard work”, threatening employees with unemployment is “personnel management”, gambling is “trading futures” and other cabalistic formulae “over the counter”, oligopolies are “economies of scale” and cartels are “free markets”, sending knowingly drivers to die because of a few faulty cars is a “cost-saving measure”, sending knowingly air passengers to die because of reduced safety controls is a “cost-saving measure”, corruption of inspectors is a “cost-saving measure”, corruption of politicians is “lobbying”, and rent-exacting parasites are “the productive class”. The list goes on and on. Read the news and enjoy the game: destroying peoples is “restructuring”, keeping them poor is “preventing inflation”, colonising a nation is “opening markets”, withdrawing rights is “reform”… By the end of it, you almost believe what they say.

Has any student still doubts or feels uneasy? Then he is told that all is well, for all ends well. Yes, those things that we unscientifically call “people” may seem to be suffering, poor things. And the others, crony criminals who have nothing to do with the free market, are the exception, though the rule just wants to be like them. After all, those exceptional exceptions were on the cover of glossy magazines like Capital, the Cosmopolitan of people who “have balls”… Don’t worry. Everything will be alright. Just wait—that’s what my old priest and the party commissar would say… The invisible hand of the self-regulating market is going to look after all of them. Free from State intervention and from trade unions—for only capitals may associate and go on strike if they don’t like a government—the invisible hand is to generate endless bounty for all—the invisible bounty? Most of the world’s trade is virtual, after all…

Such is orthodoxy today, for which even a Pope’s distribution chests are heresy, utter hilaireous bellocs… If you claim that small is beautiful, the giants get angry: go make your shoes elsewhere! Today, you no longer need to be red to be a danger. It is enough to be as white as a dove. The Market God likes hawks, whose endless preying is the source of all that is good. His transparent hand turns into water all the blood that these hawks spill. As to the tallest shrines, they are no longer erected for the glory of the Sun, Athena or Almighty God, but for the likes of Morgan Stanley. Behind all this, a hidden theology… Maybe Divine Will should be in fashion again.


The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

   Franklin Delano Roosevelt

 To avoid glaring inequality or widespread misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all, of my freedom… I should be guilt-stricken, and rightly so, if I were not.

Isaiah Berlin


The child empathises with the dying bird. The adult empathises with the starving child. The nurse attempts to ease the pain of the terminal patient. The teacher smiles patiently at the pupils playing in the courtyard. The schoolmaster hides his unease as the ancient oak is felled. The gardener watches wildlife documentaries on the TV. The mayor goes on holyday to his cottage on the lakeside. None of them likes to be ill. All of them fear death. All of them experienced curiosity or elation as they held a newborn creature in their arms. All of them have been compassionate at some point. All religions have praised divinity as the fountainhead of all that is. Whether physically, emotionally or mentally, all of the above have exemplified the ultimate source of all values.

Years of research about value have led me to conclude that nothing is more valuable than that which allows value itself to emerge: life. Without life—biological, emotional and mental—there can be no value, whether ethical, aesthetic, economic or political. Those that deem life’s value instrumental acknowledge its value nevertheless. Besides, none of them seems likely to prefer beauty or other values to eating every day and being in good health: take away their bread, and they will sell their dearest painting… Of all crazy philosophers ever alive, only a handful rejected life as a value and one alone behaved in a way that denounced actual indifference to life: Pyrrho the sceptic, whom his friends prevented from walking under carts and falling off cliffs. One. As for the few who told us that life is a valley of tears and an endless stream of horrors, none of them ever stopped eating, drinking, and philosophising, i.e. one of the activities that they clearly enjoyed the most. But what can the lives of crazy philosophers teach us about economic matters?

As usual, philosophy can reveal the heart of an issue. If life is so crucial, indeed the source of all values, then it can be inferred that a successful economic system provides universal access to vital goods across generations. Economic efficiency means that the lives of all benefit from it and nothing is spoiled to the point that those who come after us may not benefit too: resources are left for others the way in which we would like to have them left for us, if not better. Improvement is a possibility. An economic system that achieves its vital aims more effectively, thus opening the door to a richer fulfilment of planetary and human potential, is yet a better system. On the contrary, an economic system that does not fulfil its vital aims, either because access is limited to few or some, past or present, or because it delivers goods that are deadly, detrimental to life or irrelevant to life needs, whilst leaving some of these needs unanswered, is a failure.

The current economic system is a failure. As repeatedly denounced by the international scientific community at its highest and most representative levels, human civilisation has become for the first time in its history a threat to the planetary environment that allows for humanity’s own existence. There is no aspect of the Earth’s environment that has not been depleted in the three centuries that have seen the affirmation of capitalism worldwide: the biosphere-protecting Ozone-layer, breathable-air-producing and reproducing pluvial forests and oceanic life-systems, self-regenerating water aquifers, nourishing-food-producing arable spaces, and natural-equilibrium-maintaining and science- and technology-inspiring biodiversity. The continuation of life as we know and enjoy it is at risk.

Much has already been destroyed beyond repair, to the point that bioengineering is being discussed as a tool to cope with the most tragic consequences of “development” awaiting us. Emblematically, one nation of the world is planning already the purchase of land in India in order to transfer its entire population there upon the day when the ocean will have swallowed their ancestral islands. And yet, in the face of current profit losses, all this is treated as secondary. Just read the news and you shall see that the focus of collective action is upon a “return to growth”, as though the sad and deadly harvest of greed were not still vivid before our eyes.

What is more, the mantra of competition goes on unchallenged. But competition for what? To generate profits? And why? Why should rich people become richer? There’s more than enough to go around. Even more ludicrous is the idea that schools, healthcare, free time, old-age security, peace of mind and all those gains for life that people acquired in decades of blood and humanity should be dismantled so that competition be won. By whom? What sort of victory is the augmentation of the money heaps of people who already have it, whilst the quality of life and the living conditions of most are worsened?

F.D. Roosevelt told us seventy years ago that greed is not only bad morals, it is also bad business. When business’ sole purpose is to make as much money as possible as soon as possible, then the somewhat constructive role that business may play in society disappears altogether. It doesn’t matter if any private business actually makes a lot more money, gets bigger internationally or pervades even more diffusely the lives of millions: the standards of evaluation and appreciation for the constructive role of private business belong to the sphere of public wellbeing. And public wellbeing cares about long-term indicators: happy workers retiring in good health, healthy mothers making plans for their children’s education, educated youngsters looking forward to playing on the beach with their grandchildren. If this horizon disappears, then you’d better start to worry. Private business is known to have played far too often a destructive role, as everything, the long-term survival of private business included, can be sacrificed to man-eating Baal.

Short-termism, combined with the relentless pursuit of profit, characterised roaming Goths, wooden-legged pirates and cigar-loving gangsters. The entrepreneur, the glorious creation of modern capitalism, has always been expected to be something different. Restrained by family and personal pride, religious morals, annual dividends, trade unions and other 20th-century legal suasions, his horizon has been defined as a somewhat distant future, his playground the real world of flesh-and-bone persons like him, his reward the admiration of affluent or fully employed fellow citizens that participate in and benefit from his endeavours.

As long as alternative economic systems were either widely discussed or experimented with, the entrepreneur had to justify his existence by creating some tangible, albeit sometimes debatable, token of social worth, such as employment, community networks, or nice new gadgets. Only the speculator, hardly distinguishable from fraudsters, trotted relentlessly upon a different path. But speculators were said to be the exception, not the rule…

Yet the day came when Gordon Gekko and his friends got to control more than three quarters of what is still incautiously dubbed “world trade”. The decades of my life, infested by Maggies, yuppies and wall-less oligarchs, launched “The Financial Revolution”, a pivotal process in contemporary history that no historian has yet so baptised: let this label be my grand legacy to international scholarship.

An equally bombastic historian used this term in the 1960s to describe the emergence of public creditors in 18th-century England… It doesn’t quite compare, I’m sorry. We’ve just witnessed thirty long years of national barriers coming down—and how long it took for both nations and their barriers to come into existence!—so as to allow for a gigantic flood of miraculously leveraged liquidity springing out of… books and vast pools of capital formed by privatising public money in all of its shapes, squeezing profit from de-unionised workforces threatened by—what a coincidence!—unbarred international competition, and such ingenious tokens of financial engineering that only professional mathematicians could make sense of them. All this money travelling much faster than any good or service ever before: computers have replaced the pens and ink of old. The world of Gekko and other reptilian inhabitants of city hedges and wall streets is indeed a very bizarre world.

Originally, these creatures were meant to trade pieces of paper granting a share of the profits made by fairly large private companies. It is something that had begun in Genoa a long time ago and that their trading partners, the Dutch, had brought to the North Sea around the year 1600, sailing thence to the New World, another Genoese discovery… But a share of the profits may be less remunerative than profiting from shares. Gekko’s forefathers started betting on rises and falls in the price of those pieces of paper, sometimes causing them by moving massive amounts of money or dropping a few words into the nearest ear…

In the days of poor old Nixon, in the Big Apple, they traded about 20 million stocks every day. Today they trade 1600 million or so—and there’s more fruit in the basket than just a big apple. Also, as of Nixon’s time, they started playing games with the world’s currencies, namely the money with which common people buy their bread. Again, they started slowly, about 20 billion USD a day, but now, after “freeing” trade worldwide, they are up to 2 trillion. It is by far the largest chunk of trade in the world and it has one severe drawback: it makes the form of trade that normal people think of when they hear the world “trade”—buying and selling bananas, timber, cars, computers, etc.—much more complicated. Not to mention buying bread. But the reptiles don’t worry: they own the future. They buy and sell it.

Actually, they take bets—only a tiny fraction of trade in existing “futures” fulfils the official excuse that these are ways to hedge against risks on purchases of actual goods—on nearly anything that can be grown, mined or brought into existence, influencing the price of all sorts of goods, including the bread that common people wish to buy. Still, since even this casino was not big enough, the reptiles added onto the table the so-called “derivatives”, which are pieces of paper whose value is derived—hence the name—from something else, whether another piece of paper or a price arising from combining a few of them. Anything goes. Also because you can buy or sell these pieces of paper any way you like—over the counter, under the counter, beside the counter… You can actually buy and sell the option to buy or sell them, for short-termism can be so short that, to spare time, it allows certain persons to sell what they don’t have.

Is this too complicated? Too silly? Well, today, around the globe, there’s an ocean of derivatives, for a value of about 500 trillion USD. It is a lot of money… Strangely enough, however, the reptiles that invented them also felt the need to insure themselves against any risk that may ensue from trading in… derivative paper. So they started buying “credit default swaps” from insurance companies and let their friends and colleagues, the bankers, pile them up as assets, claiming that these “swaps” were as sound and good as gold itself. Probably they would have started taking major bets on them as well, had the entire mathematically engineered and economic-science-backed system failed from collapsing under its own virtual weight. Too much genius had been spent for the business world to bear. Under so much talent and foresight, the reptiles’ joints felt suddenly empty of market force. Amazingly, the invisible hand was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, the State ran to their rescue and gave them a visible, reinvigorating bailout with other people’s money, lest the bank’s own mouthpiece uttered “BBB” or some other silly rating. And that’s where we stand today. The real suffering surrounding us, from the unemployed Spanish worker to the starving Senegalese farmer, is due to a virtual catastrophe. And if the starving Senegalese farmer tries to move to Spain, he shall meet a wall and possibly drown in the sea, while frustrated unemployed Spaniards, trained by modern corporate journalists, will hate guts those that didn’t. Strangely enough, these migrants are to be loathed, not the freely migrating virtual capital that cannibalised both Senegal and Spain.

Like all human endeavours, business can be either good or bad. To know what makes it good or bad, what is nobler than money, means to know how to measure real growth, real development, real utility, real goodness. Who, though, after Pareto’s Protagorean reinvention of economics, is allowed to know what real value is? Certainly not serious economists, who can only acknowledge preferences… The Pope may know, perhaps. He claims to be right like no-one else and that’s maybe why so many people cannot stand him: who likes an old moralising grandpa, in an age in which we are told by our media gurus to give into any juvenile urge of ours that can make them a buck?

Or maybe any living creature knows: they’re all God’s creatures, after all. Yes, even by watching slugs and bugs we can evince something important, which degree-honoured geeks may have neglected while sitting in front of an inanimate computer screen. They are not forgivable, though: no matter how much you masturbate, avatars are not human beings. Here comes the slap; Zen masters should love it: entomology can rescue economics from its value slumber. Vade ad formicam. What a twist! Or maybe not. It all started with Mandeville’s bees, to be honest…

Let me be brief and clear on this. What consistent pattern of behaviour can be observed amongst slugs and bugs? Watch them in your garden, if you have one. Or go and watch them in a public garden, if it hasn’t been sold to developers. As small and allegedly stupid as they are believed to be, all invertebrates try to do their best to survive at all times. And when they take risks, it is because they either look for food, shelter, safety, or attempt to ensure the survival of their species. As economically irrational as animals can be, these small beings can even sacrifice individual utility—one’s safety, food or head—for the sake of keeping, indeed at times just making, their young. Future generations matter, to them. Some seem even to care for their fellows in the anthill, hive or nest in which they live… Life, in truth, matters to living creatures, and yet life can be sacrificed, for more life may thus ensue. The only higher value that life acknowledges is, in fact, life.

And yet, in today’s world, money is still prioritised over life. Listen to our leaders, and with the exception of a pair of Caribbean politicians that corporate media describe regularly as lunatics, what matters most to most who matter most is to keep “growth” going. Capitalism or the “free market”, as they like labelling it despite its dictatorial logic, must keep generating profit, free from State intervention, which does not serve that one paramount end. All this is held, despite the well-known biocide implications of such a process. Yes, capitalism is responsible for the ecological degradation that we are living in with, and leaving to, our children. Has nobody really put together the Industrial Revolution and the collapse of the planet’s life support systems?

I shall help you: the causal link between the pursuit of profit and environmental degradation becomes visible every time environmental regulation is resisted as “too costly” or by-passed by illicit behaviour or by off-sourcing to countries that have actually little such regulation or none at all. Unless business is forced forcefully to comply with existing regulation, which is much more difficult in a barrier-free worldwide market, common praxes show that the primacy of profit persists over, say, not killing other people by dumping toxic waste onto them.

Indeed, in economics, it is methodologically impossible to address the environmental preconditions that make life possible and can secure its long-term flourishing. To the eyes of the economic observer, bread is as much and legitimately a “good” as nuclear waste, as long as a lawful market exists for both of them. It is only through direct State intervention that a bad “good” becomes officially what it is: a bad—and that is just the first step, for enforcement is yet to be secured from lobbying and bribes.

States alone can ban slavery, organ trafficking, child labour, exploitation, air pollution or aquifer poisoning as the bads they are. States alone can make the real economy and earned income primary, and the virtual economy and unearned income secondary. There is nothing intrinsic to market mechanisms leading to that and we have known it for nearly two hundreds of years. Read Charles Dickens’ subversive novels to get a clearly bleak picture. Also, ecosystems are “externalities”, as the language of economics reveals, at least as long as they are not turned into a cost by environmental legislation, into a loss of profit by reduction in reputation and actual sales, or into a market opportunity by persistent spoliation of it—see the oxygen cans sold in the subway in Tokyo.

Protecting life and the environment is something that runs against the logic of profit, even if some business leaders may themselves desire it ardently. Profit can only relate to the value of life instrumentally: as a means to further profit. Money is a fetish, and one that eats living creatures and their dwelling spaces if that generates revenue. Nothing leads profit-driven “rational” agents to doing that which is necessary for planetary survival and, for that matter, for a decent social life on a vast scale. Even public health, the most obvious case of socially beneficial public agency, is opposed as unprofitable hence bad. Not to mention all the money that is made by “growth” via sales of carcinogenic “goods”.

As the world’s money is controlled by gargantuan private institutions and managed to enrich their rich shareholders, even if it means strangling debt-ridden public authorities and diverting resources from public sewers to private coffers, there is little hope that the dominating logic may change. Some used to argue that money should be controlled by public authorities and managed for the public good, as written in certain constitutions… But we have already talked about such a peculiar notion. For the moment, let’s see whether the Philosopher-Kings of Greece will crumble because of the Goths, after being failed by Chelsea-resident haven-seekers and the advice of Goldmen-sackers.