Tag Archives: Politics

Classical Political Philosophy and the Crisis of Modernity – An alternative to the competition State

Our times have be characterized as a post-political age at the end of history[1], where all political ideologies are dead and economic prioritization according to utility-maximization in the neoliberal competition state has become the only purpose of political decisions. The citizen of modern welfare society has become a work and consumption man that is not interested in the common good of community, but only wants to satisfy individual and often opportunistic preferences. At the same time modernity is characterized by wars and catastrophes (Holocaust, Yugoslavia and more recently Iraq and Syria) where the desire of power by tyrants lead to great suffering and unhappiness. On this basis of this perplexity of politics, the conservative Jewish, German and American philosopher Leo Strauss (1899-1973) proposes an interpretation of the causes of the crisis of modernity and argues that the only way in which we can reestablish social stability is to go back to classical political philosophy by Plato and Aristotle. In the following, I will introduce thought of Leo Strauss in order to show how we here can find a well-qualified concept of political conservativism. It is however clear, that this intellectual aristocratism is different from dominant conservative at the political right that also can be accused of having reduced politics to economics and utility maximization where focus is on promotion of personal privileges and interests rather than a concern for the common good in a strong political community.

A critique of radical conservatism

At the same time as he wants to distance himself from the contemporary conservative ideology, we can consider Strauss’ philosophy as a criticism of radical conservatism that in our time has resulted in Nazism and fascism. According to Strauss tyranny and totalitarianism, represent a disturbing consequence of the modern break-through of political thought by Machiavelli and Hobbes where politics is no longer concerned with the common good, but has become power politics in order to secure the privileges of the ruling tyrants and supporting classes.

This criticism of the radical conservatism is closely related to Strauss’ own lives. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish home in Hamburg and completed in 1922 his doctorate in a Neo-Kantian university environment. In the late 1920s, he was in Berlin and worked on a book about the Jewish philosopher Spinoza’s critique of religion. In this regard, began his political philosophy to take shape in a showdown with the famous Catholic-conservative constitutional theorist Carl Schmitt who, later for a short period (1934-35) was to become Hitler’s crown jurist and main ideologist. Schmitt had several times after Strauss-depth comments revised his work On the concept of the political.[2] At the same time, Schmitt helped paradoxically Strauss to escape from Nazism by making sure that he in 1932 was awarded a scholarship to first study in Paris and later in Cambridge. It was later the start of Strauss’ career in Anglo-Saxon political science where he after immigration to the United States, as a professor at the University of Chicago came to found a school of political philosophy. Moreover, he influenced several generations of American political scientists to be interested in the political philosophy classics instead of election research, “rational choice” theory and utilitarianism, disciplines that were on the top of the American political science. That Strauss’ influence is enormous proves an opinion of the philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who complained that the US Government had several employees who knew more about Plato and Aristotle, than they knew about empirical political science.

The dialogue between Strauss and Schmitt continued for some years after that Strauss had moved abroad. We can say that this discussion between the young unknown Jew and the famous Nazi law professor, who even stated that Strauss was the only one who really understood his philosophy,  shows how Strauss on the one hand shares Schmitt’s diagnosis of liberalism crisis, but at the same time will find another way out of this than Schmitt’s power politics. Schmitt defines the political as the choice of the enemy and, which accordingly, is the choice of the aim of one’s own life, because we have something to believe in. The political involves the permanent possibility of war. Schmitt sees liberalism in a Nietzschean perspective as a concept of the political which is doomed in a world where slaves have triumphed where people no longer have obligations and do not fight for their ideals and recognition, but simply are pursuing their own goals in a general nihilistic atmosphere. Schmitt was extremely concerned about the increasing fragmentation of the Weimar Republic’s social order as a threat to the state, because there was no empowered central body to ensure the political sovereignty of the state.

In fact, Thomas Hobbes’ notion that people let themselves subordinate the sovereign’s power to prevent the condition of unlimited war in the natural condition reflects a theoretical anti politics because he wants to avoid hostility by replacing the natural condition by a universal and homogenous state. Schmitt maintains instead that politics is defined by having enemies and he has no alternative to the liberal protection thinking other than power politics. He puts the permanent battle mode against Hobbes’ attempt to civilize the state of nature. This means, according to Strauss that Schmitt cannot avoid being a Nazi. For Carl Schmitt, the political legitimate sovereign is the one who has the strongest will and can seize the leadership position in society and thereby realize its set of core values based on the will and decision. For such a decisionistic political theology liberalism is the real enemy, because it dissolves religion and ideals of value pluralism and will not recognize politics as a struggle for absolute beliefs.[3]

Strauss puts his political philosophy up against Schmitt’s political theology. Unlike value-nihilism and power politics, he wants to go back to the perception of the political in the classic tradition of Plato and Aristotle as an alternative to liberalism’s dissolution of the concept of politics.

A Socratic quest for the best political regime

Strauss’ systematic position is hidden in a jumble of interpretations and comments to the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions in political philosophy. According to Strauss is a hermeneutics that aims to reconstruct the historical conditions of work a type of text explanation that is not true to the author’s message.[4] The consequence is that you do not get hold of the work’s real meaning, the esoteric saved opinion. There is always a political-philosophical text because the author has often been politically persecuted and therefore have not been able to present his or her opinion directly, but could only write for a select elite of smart aristocrats who in contrast to the vulgar mob could break through text’s surface and decipher its esoteric meaning.[5]

When Strauss defines interpretation doctrine as a reconstruction of the author’s original intention it is a problem, how he can avoid falling back into a subjectivist hermeneutics, where you will do the impossible by looking for the author’s psychology behind the work. This problem is solved by defining the author-intent as a meaningful whole in the work that can be deduced taking into account the esoteric terms of the production of the work. Meanwhile, Strauss’ position becomes an archeology in the sense that it comes to reconstruct the true message that has been forgotten by previous interpreters. The text of the past is a true mystery for the reader. The starting point of hermeneutics is ignorance, finality and interpret the certainty of their own prejudices, and thinking about past non-historicity must be understood on its own terms within the historical understanding of the text.[6]

Against this background Strauss defines the goal of political philosophy as to arrive at the proper nature of the case in relation to the whole. The starting point for reflection may be man’s participation and allegiance to the state. The understanding of man as a political animal comprehends the (city) state as a whole. To think politically is to think the “Politeia”, the “best regime” by fitting the nature of man in relation to the whole (The Whole). This concept of wholeness is not determined as a totality in the Hegelian sense and not as a definition of man as a part of the cosmos.[7] Strauss believes that it is wrong to understand the classic natural law and the Greek political thinking as based on the participation of man in a cosmic whole. Therefore, classical political philosophy cannot be accused of running an outdated cosmology. The whole does not imply a particular cosmological reference. Rather it should be interpreted as the logos that connects man and the state. But at the same time, to think the concept of a whole in Strauss’ political thinking seems to go beyond the concept of logos, because logos is often defined in the cosmology that political thinking rejects. Strauss emphasizes the phenomenological and pre-philosophical base that characterizes the classical political philosophy when it comes to describing the political phenomena as they appear in man’s everyday political reality.[8]

In this way, the concept of  the whole receives nature a basal function in Strauss’ view of politics. The concept of nature refers to the expression of the human soul and its relationship to the whole. The aim is to understand the policy limits and the difference between the best political regime and the here and now real possible state. The practical State of factual politics varies according to time and place. The form of the state depends on the particular circumstances and problematize whether there really is an Eidos for all states. The political reality of the state in practical political life means that the state’s idea is used differently in different states, so the notion of the best regime must be seen in relation to the particular circumstances of a specific political reality.

Thus, the philosophy of the best regime represents an alternative to historicism and power politics. The modern historicism argues that political regimes are nothing, but functions of ideological power relations and that there cannot exist an idea of the best state. Strauss believes that historicism is an expression of modernity’s oblivion of absolute values and that it nullifies itself because to assert that everything is historic in itself is a universal statement that require a trans-historical truth. Historicism contains an internal contradiction and therefore cannot counter Strauss’ project to find the good as the natural order of the best regime.[9]

To describe the political Eidos as the best regime also implies the abolition of the distinction between “facts” and “value”. The point is to show how political thought cannot work with this distinction and how the normative and descriptive are mixed in any theory of politics. Although Weber’s sociology, for example, can be value free, it is in itself a normative position to say that sociology should not have normative assumptions.[10] It is in itself a normative position to claim that sociology is value-free. Even science without values is based on values. Therefore, all political thought is normative science.[11]

Strauss illustrates the task of philosophy with reference to Plato’s cave image: philosophizing, it is to get from the darkness of the cave into the light of day, ie  the world of truth and cognition as opposed to the confused sense world in the cave.[12] In this way, Strauss’ philosophy is essentially a Platonic and Socratic mode of thinking. The separation between the state’s idea and the actual political reality remains a real possibility because the philosopher tend to seek world of ideas outside the cave, while the general state policy decisions are determined by rhetoric, power and subjective opinions. The truth about the political is obtained through the Socratic communication, a maieutic dialogue that modestly will rediscover the eternal ideas and philosophical realization of the political. Nevertheless, it is also facing the difficulty of realizing the political truth confronted with the variety of opinions in the actual political life.

The tension between City and Man

The basis of classical political thought is, according to Strauss the bond between man and the state and the notion that the state should be a good for man. It is also important to be aware of the limits in the relationship between man and state. In reality, the classical political philosophy shows that the ideal of the state’s perfect utopia can hardly be reconciled with human nature.

In his reading of Plato’s Republic Strauss shows how the philosophical man, despite the fact that he must be a philosopher-ruler in fact come into conflict with the state.[13] He would not be king, but would rather withdraw from the government to sacrifice himself for the wisdom and contemplation of the eternal ideas.[14] There is also no room for eroticism and poets in the ideal state and so the paradox is that the ideal state excludes what is very human and the humanness of humanity. Plato’s dialogue universe must be seen as an ironic and dialectical universe that juxtaposes different positions to emphasize the complexity of being.[15]

The ironic elements of the State in the Republic proves that the attempt to think the completely just, fair, ideal regime is contrary to human nature. This is because a state that is only conceivable after the idea of justice must isolate everything that is specifically human; Eros and poetry and also in the fact that the philosophers who are not interested in politics, but live for philosophical wisdom, suddenly have to rule in the ideal state. This original interpretation is in contrast to many modern interpretations of Plato’s philosophy.[16]

Plato is in many interpretations considered an authoritarian thinker that will make the philosophers to dictators and destroy the possibility of public opinion and democratic dialogue about the state’s future because philosophers are the only ones making the decisions. Therefore, the ideal state is changed into tyrannical totalitarianism. In addition, Plato was described by many interpretors as initiator of political idealism that had fatal and terrorist implications in modern society, for example in the form of Nazism, communism and fascism. Literally, the ideal state is also a representation of all the horrifying elements of utopia where citizens are sacrificed to state rationality and utility interests. The social classes are divided according to labor and natural capacity. Warriors, workers and merchants have each their function and philosophers then determines sovereignly, what is the best and most practical thing to do according to the idea of justice.

The irony of the fact that the regime envisaged by the idea of justice becomes an inhuman dictatorship shows that political philosophy cannot ignore human nature’s lack of perfection and arbitrariness by the historical situation. Strauss says that the Republic is the most profound analysis ever of the impossibility of political idealism and that the ideal state is impossible because it is contrary to the nature of the case and the whole.[17] The esoteric and ironic truth that lies behind the rhetorical game in Plato’s Republic is that a regime that is thought abstractly according to the idea of justice cannot overcome the fundamental tension between man and city. This tension between humans and the state, Eros and justice, philosophy and the real case of the political facticity continue to persist because the nature of facticity is not the same as the ideality of the world of ideas. Thinking about the best regime must not follow the idea of justice, but be balanced against the actual life of the state.

The ironic elements in Plato’s Republic are also illustrated in the course of development of the dialogue. The discussion about ideal justice begins with a critique of legal positivism, which claims that the righteous and just should be defined in terms of power, i.e., that the one who has the power decides what is fair. Socrates does not want to be involved in the dialogue, but is provoked to criticize this view, and he wants to show that justice as such is good, even though he does not yet know the content of the concept of justice. He then decides to drive the defense of the concept of justice ad absurdum in order to show the characteristics of the political. Later in the discussion of the guardians of the state, he points out the difference between the Eros and the idea of justice. In the ideal state, there is no room for eroticism and love, because sexuality is determined to serve the common good. The paradoxes of the State appear as follows: it should be the good and righteous state, it must be based on the absolute communism, but at the same time, the contingency and bodily existence is eliminated from the state, everything that characterizes the finite human nature.[18] Man in mainstream political life would by his very nature never be able to feel at home in the ideal state.

In this way, one should not interpret Plato’s Republic as a criticism of any political philosophy or as a defense of a political utopia. Instead, the book presents a description of the difficulties of thinking the best political regime, about the tension between the idea of justice and the concrete justice in relation to the whole, human nature and the state. The Socratic reflection can be considered as a reflection on the limits of the just state and the need to consider the justice in a realistic relation to human nature. However, according to Strauss there is implicitly in the Republic implied a different view of justice as the art that on the one hand, gives every citizen, what is good for him, and on the other hand, determines the common good of the state. The purpose of the good political regime is to shape a state that follows human needs and thus becomes a healthy and happy state. In this perspective, Eros, poetry and wisdom could also be present in the good political regime as the realization of justice in the relationship between historical facticity, human nature and the order of the whole.

The best regime and the political reality

A provision of the best political regime that realize the impossibility of utopia, is according to Strauss found in Plato’s Laws and Aristotle’s Politics. Here you will find the essence of the classical political thinking that is far removed from modern power politics and ideology. Plato’s  late dialogue Laws, where Socrates quite interestingly is not present, contains a vision of the best regime that is not based on abstract idealism, but is about how to solve specific practical problems in a state. In the dialogue a number of experienced state men are involved who must reach a common understanding about which laws the state should have. They do not justify the good state by virtue of a social contract as in the modern philosophy of Hobbes and Locke, but from the consideration of the best state in a natural law perspective. Practical sense and understanding of the good order, not inter-subjectivity, rights, equality or discursive rationality is the key element for ensuring the good laws.

The premise is that man only can be happy in the state, if he lives by what is natural and good for him, i.e. by the telos of virtues. Where the wise philosopher is placed as ruler of the utopian state, it is according to the classical natural law the most experienced, virtuous and best citizens who for the common good, and by force of law should govern in the actual state. The virtuous and good citizen appears as the one who cares for the state’s future. The good man is not just the good citizen, but the good citizen who govern in a good society.[19] To become a good and virtuous man, one must live in a good and orderly society.

The main characters of the Laws are the Athenian, Cleinias and McGillis, who in Crete  are discussing what would be the best and most virtuous laws at the same time as they try to understand the laws originating in human nature. The theme is not the tension between man and state, but the practical matter of a formulation of state laws here and now.[20] It is the stranger from Athens, who begins the discussion. He argues that experienced states men at a long day may well find the best laws for the state, and so they begin to ponder about the basis of the laws.

Because laws have divine origin, you might think that they have been justified by a cosmology, but the point is precisely that the Gods perfection is not human, and that laws should apply to the earthly life. Another interpretation is that the laws have their origin in logos. Yet another possibility would be that the laws are derived from the divine and ideal perfection, but at the same time humans are using the ideas in relation to the human reality. One must admit that the divine quest is part of the Platonic political thought and that Plato did not completely detach natural law from the divine reality, and that politics has a divine inspiration because it is important to realize virtue in society. Therefore, there is no conflict between the law and logos, reason and its dissemination in the actual state, even if the law on certain points depending on the situation goes beyond logos.

This view of natural law can be compared to Strauss’ analysis of the Jewish and Islamic philosophy by Farabi and Maimonides.[21] Here it is explicitly about a divine foundation of the law of human society, in which the philosopher has an important role to ensure the correct interpretation of the divine law. Although he takes the side of the Greek philosophy, for example, in his criticism of Carl Schmitt, Strauss believes that the theological-political problem about the law’s origin is extremely important. This is not to ignore the fact that religion is needed to hold together the state, and the state will collapse without a set of values as the foundation for social integration. Perhaps the philosophical prophet who interprets the divine law can function as an alternative to the tyrannical clergyman and thereby mediate between religion and philosophy to ensure that there will not be a complete questioning of the state’s Gods with potential disintegration as a result.[22]

After this discussion of the origin of the law, the question is who will govern in the actual state. Democracy is rejected because the mob does not have the experience and ability to take virtuous and right decisions. It is recommended that the city-state is ruled by a council of experienced wise men who take decisions based on the law, judgment and practical sense. Then is given an estimate of the city-state’s actual organization in the classic areas: Education, production, administration, sports, judiciary and election of judges. The rest of the Laws are about how to regulate these things and not on abstract political theory.[23]

Aristotle’s political philosophy in his Politics continues according to Strauss this project on the best political regime. Aristotle continues Plato’s analyzes by systematically comparing the constitutions of the various regimes in order to identify their advantages and disadvantages. Aristotle’s social science is at once ideal, hermeneutic and empirical.[24] Strauss says that for Aristotle, political philosophy is from the beginning the quest to find the best natural political order in any place and at any time.[25]

It is in a more modern perspective a question of finding the good life at the community level, to define what is good for a given factual political community. In this way, we must identify the community that is the best for the state’s population. Aristotle criticizes more explicitly the notion of an association of citizens in the ideal state. The State unity must not be absolute, and the policy should not include all areas of life. A state is defined in the Politics as a collection of citizens with a certain kind of constitution for a certain time at a certain place, and this means that citizens’ duties will change from state to state, from time to place. The ideal of the best regime is a series of links of friendship according to virtue, judgment and common sense to ensure the good life.

Aristotle also believes that the aristocracy, where it is the best, the most experienced and the wisest who rules, as opposed to democracy, oligarchy and tyranny is the best form of government. It is not whether you are a Democrat or non-Democrat that is the focus of Plato’s, Aristotle’s (and Strauss’) concepts of the best political regime. It is rather about safeguarding the best decisions in a given political order, and here one cannot escape the fact that a democratic majority rule tends to result in loss of practical reason, because it no longer is the best that rules for experience and wisdom, but instead the mediocre. Aristotle criticizes democracy as a state where everyone is made equal, although they are very different in virtue and character. On the other hand, there can be traced an egalitarian aspect of Aristotle’s thinking in the sense that the people who govern in the aristocratic state are equal and free. The government of the wise and experienced politicians can be seen as a limited democracy that can be translated into oligarchy or representative democracy, where the best people in society with practical wisdom discusses the state’s goals and future. This virtuous aristocratic equality is not the same as exists in democratic demagoguery, diversity and mediocrity, because we are talking about the best citizens who are above average in experience, virtue and judgment abilities.

Practical wisdom and political judgment

The question of virtue and justice is developed especially in the Nicomachean Ethics where Aristotle describes judgment and practical wisdom, which are the core concepts of classical political philosophy.[26] The purpose of the Aristotelian ethics is to think about the practical wisdom to form the elites who must be able to reign in the Greek city-state. For Aristotle, man is essentially a political animal, and he gives the practical wisdom great importance to the training of the aristocratic citizen. The aristocrat replaces philosopher-king of Plato, who in reality stands on the border of the state, because he would rather search the philosophical wisdom. And here the philosophical wisdom is on the contrary integrated in the good regents practical sense.

Aristotle discusses the Nicomachean Ethics the way to the good life, both individually and in society: justice, virtues and love of wisdom are pillars of happiness and the objective of the ethics and politics. Happiness is to live with each other in friendship in the just and the good state by the virtues throughout life. A distinction is made between the intellectual and practical virtues; wisdom, intelligence and practical sense towards moderation, temperance, courage and justice, virtue, practiced through the good and righteous deeds. Virtues as “Standards of Excellence” are realized through the experienced dispositions to act in a certain way. As virtue of deliberation, the practical wisdom is at once theoretical and practical. It must ensure the right action in the center between the city-state custom and culture, ideal justice principles and happiness.

The practical wisdom is about how to use a general principle in relation to the particular situation. Therefore, the practical wisdom must be thought of as an art because it deals with the arbitrary and contingent and not in relation to what is necessary as wisdom, science and intelligence. The good construction and the common sense of the good man is the political action art because it comes to applying the general principles of happiness in relation to the particular conditions. The Good Man follows the golden middle way virtue that implies always to find the right center relative to the extremes in a situation. In every situation the middle is different and virtue is reflected in the way the common sense is choosing the right center. In the practical reflection, the subject submits the will of reason to the detection of the right middle of the action, and the good man chooses from this experience center, the middle, and the virtue of moderation.[27]

Justice is understood not only as an idea of man, but as a virtue of action. It is applied directly in relation to the situation of action. As virtue justice is both proportional and egalitarian. You cannot treat unequal people and situations in an equal way. One should, for example, find the proper relationship between children and adults in order to understand justice. This fairness opinion of justice is based, as in Plato, on the fact that there are different justice spheres of society in law, economics, medicine, etc. Here, justice and equality are defined in relation to the natural order of things in that particular sphere, for example, the definition of the distribution of goods is not the same on the hospital as on the free market, and it is not the same goods to be distributed. It is the judge’s job with judgment to find the right middle between the parties involved, and he practices the practical reason and virtue as part of justice. He seeks the proper distribution of wealth from the right proportion and balance conditions to avoid too much and too little. This ensures the good laws of the State, based on the friendship between the virtuous people, a friendship that also applies to the political life and goes beyond the life as a citizen.

Also by Aristotle, one can detect the tension between man and state. Man transcends the state and seeks true happiness in the contemplation of the world of ideas and the intellectual virtues are more important than the practical life of politics.[28] Strauss emphasizes the contradiction between theory and practice in the state as an expression of man’s dual nature. The ethical and political life is pointing beyond itself to the intellectual wisdom. Strauss says that political life is a life in the cave, separated from the life of light of cognition where you know the world of ideas.[29]

The crisis of modernity and classical political philosophy

Based on this analysis of classical political philosophy, the question is how Strauss can make an offer for the solution of the crisis of modernity without falling into flat liberalism or radical conservatism. As I said, modernity crisis is primarily a loss of practical reason because the thinkers of modernity in different waves have more and more rejected the practical wisdom as the basis of political thinking.[30] This crisis of knowledge has led to historicism and positivism in the sciences, which appears as modernity’s two main philosophies. Martin Heidegger’s adherence to Nazism, but also as already demonstrated Carl Schmitt’s political philosophy illustrates this loss of reason in modern political philosophy.

The crisis of modernity is also a cultural and educational crisis.[31] The modern society has forgotten the virtues and classical culture as the real basis for training and shaping of the citizen to the state. The secularized modernity, described by Max Weber, with different value perceptions and different subjectivist conceptions of the good life has made it difficult to talk about a common good life as a guideline for state policy. The individual freedom is in contrast to the common good, and people do no longer respect the virtues of the classical political philosophy and natural law, but put an equality and rights philosophy against the notion of the common good.

It is against this background the big problem, how to avoid tyranny and the totalitarian regime and at the same time how to find the good regime of today’s society. By going back to the classical political philosophy Strauss finds an argument against tyranny. He analyzes Xenophanes’ dialogue Heiron as an attempt to show how tyranny is not an appropriate regime, because it is not a regime that can make people happy.[32] This dialogue between a tyrant and a poet shows that every tyrant will be appreciated by the people, but cannot be the because of his status as a tyrant. Even the tyrant is therefore happy in tyranny. The analysis is based on the question of happiness and the good life and on this basis it shows, that tyranny is a bad regime.

Should we thus draw some implications of Strauss’s political philosophy for today’s practical politics and political practices, it must primarily be made up with the widespread notion of politics as a power struggle and a party political dogfight. Also in today’s political life, we must let our actions and opinions be guided by concern for the common good (Res Publica) and the formation of the best state (Politeia) instead of just wanting to secure its own short-sighted personal or partisan interests. Politics should not be seen as a confrontation of subjective positions where everything can be a basis for negotiation and it should be maintained there could always be a rational and virtuous decision in the political process. It is important to see reason and philosophical reflection as a basis for political decisions, as the best way to ensure the common good.

The reason for the crisis of the modern liberal democracy is also linked to the ideology of equality, where the political culture forgets the difference between the wise, virtuous and the vulgar. In many cases, it is the vulgar and tyrannical, who follow their own interests, rather than the wise, who are in power. To avoid this we need recognition of the virtuous elites as the best rulers. The importance of the liberal constitutional democracy is not the democratic process as such, but that those who govern take the best decisions. The elite is the experienced, sensible politician that stands in contrast to the impulsive, charismatic tyrant.[33]

A minister and a governor should be a person who you can trust and admire for his practical sense. One must be able to trust the minister’s judgment and experience as decision-maker. This ruler type stands in contrast to the vulgar fool who has bartered his post to promote its own interests.

It is also about rediscovering and recognizing citizen virtue as an essential feature of a functioning democracy. Here the individual citizen not just follow their own interests but takes his responsibilities and his obligations to the community very seriously in a commitment for the common good.

Unlike many modern political ideologies that considers everything to be politics – included Carl Schmitt’s radical conservatism that tend to assert that man lives only authentic in the political state of emergency – Strauss’ philosophy includes an important definition of the limits of politics, which also can be applied to modern society. One never becomes a whole person if they do not live outside of public life with his friends in the erotic relationship, in the joy of the theoretical virtues, philosophy and literature. And this private life is also not possible without the good state and this is why the responsible and committed participation in public life must never be forgotten.

To reintroduce the notion of the best regime is a reaction against the reduction of politics to the economy and to the struggle to get the biggest slice of the pie. Instead, the political consideration, deliberation and action must be guided by a philosophical reason and conviction, based on an understanding of society and the whole of humanity. For example, social welfare, education and health cannot just build the economy, but implies a view of humanity and a vision of the citizen’s role in the good political regime.

At the same time, politics must fundamentally have a communitarian starting point where one requires cohesion between citizens and the state and consider the willingness to ensure that cohesion as policy basis. In contrast to other communitarians, emphasizing tradition and the importance of culture in the community,[34] Strauss highlights as shown philosophical reflection on the good life and trans-historical truth in relation to the political life of the state as it characterizes a communitarian view of political philosophy. Therefore, every culture and tradition could include meeting with philosophy’s critical distinction between quality and non-quality.

The political conservatism must however emphasize religion and values as an important communitarian foundation of modern society that can prevent social disintegration. Although “the wise” have understood that certain values cannot be justified philosophically, and are afraid of Nietzsche’s nihilism that may in reality be the truth, they may not say it to the people, the ignorant and vulgar, who should preferably stay in their childhood belief in order to avoid disintegration of society. From the point of view of social utility religion, tradition and values are great importance to social integration – even if they cannot be justified philosophically.

Strauss’ philosophy implies that the modern state must not understand justice as abstract equality, but always in relation to a situation. The concept of spheres of justice is important to include in the understanding of the welfare state, where increased differentiation makes it difficult to apply the same measure of justice in different sectors of society. Justice must be measured in the right proportions according to the context.[35]

Distribution of goods happens in relation to the various concepts of equity in the different spheres of justice. And there is the possibility to develop a complex equality, in which each person is assigned goods with respect to his nature and needs. For example, we can mention special education, health care and honors or services for the virtuous and talented in society.

This is also a criticism of a realistic and positivistic legal understanding that considers law as a function of power and perceive any argument for a particular law as subjective and ideological. Instead, we must restore political judgment as central in the judicial and political decision-making. Judgement was expelled as unscientific by legal realism that wanted to ensure the scientific objectivity and application of rules. Instead, following Strauss we should make the decision guided by an understanding of the nature and wholeness. At the same time, there is need for expansion of the sources of law to better include philosophical beliefs, culture, custom and tradition. Judgement presupposes a truth about the individual case, its nature as it is the good politician’s and lawmaker’s task to bring this to light.

One way to retrain today’s citizen to have and exercise judgment, is the concept of “Liberal Education”,[36] which could address training in classical formation and introduction to the European cultural heritage as an integral part of the education system. At the university, this could for example mean that not only students at the faculty of humanities, but also lawyers, economists, doctors, scientists and future decision-makers got a broader cultural and educational formation. Such a “Bildung” would put them in a position to take more informed decisions, which would be rooted in a view of humanity and imply a conception of the common good. With this we could achieve a higher standard of virtue as the basis for a better society that might help to realize Strauss’ aristocratic ideals as an alternative to the contemporary competition state.

 

 

Endnotes

[1] Francis Fukuyama: The End of History and the Last Man, New York (1989).This is the book where Fukuyama argues that economic liberalism with the end of the cold war has led to the end of history has replaced the political war of ideologies in the struggle of universal history. Instead, liberal democracy has been the dominant ideology with no real alternative.

[3] Heinrich Meier: Die Lehre Carl Schmitts: Vier Kapitel zur Unterscheidung Politischer Theologie und Politischer Philosophie, Stuttgart, (1994): Verlag J.B.Metzler.

[4] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing (1959), Chicago: Glencoe Press p. 143

[5] Ibid p. 25

[6] Leo Strauss: De la Tyrannie, (1954), Paris: Gallimard p. 46

[7] Ibid p. 4

[8] Ibid p. 24

[9] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 34.

[10] Ibid p. 50

[11] Ibid p. 23

[12] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. pp. 145-46.

[13] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 137

[14] Drew A. Hyland: “The Irony of Plato’s Republic”, Révue de Métaphysique et morale, Paris (1991): PUF. According to Hyland it is human nature that is the source of irony because the erotic in human nature is in tension with the world of ideas.

[15] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French Translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 161.

[16] A good example is Sir Karl Poppers critical Plato-interpretation in The Open Society and its enemies, London (1946): Routledge. Here Plato is characterized as the father of all totalitarianism.

[17] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French Translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 163.

[18] Ibid. p. 163

[19] Leo Strauss: Droit naturel et histoire, (1954) Paris: Plon p. 126-139.

[20] Leo Strass: The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), Chicago: University of Chicago Press p. 42.

[21] Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, Chicago (1959): Glencoe Press.

[22] In Socrates’ Apology this issue is discussed. The philosopher is persecuted by the state, because he will not accept its gods. According to Strauss, this is a modern problem. Nietzsche was persecuted because he pointed out that the gods do not exist. The lack of faith in the state’s values is serious because it ultimately leads to the dissolution of the state. Drury argues in this context that Strauss should be construed as a conservative who has discovered Nietzsche’s truth about the absence of God and morality in the state. The philosopher does not care. He does not see this as a political problem, but for the wise and experienced politician and a good man to govern the state this becomes a problem. He cannot tell the truth to the people, for it would lead to the dissolution of the state. It is therefore the hallmark of the conservative position that it from the point of view of social utilitarianism is very keen to keep religion as a basis for the state. Shada B. Drury: The Political Ideas of Leo Strauss (1988), London: Macmillan.

[23] Leo Strass, The Argument and Action of Plato’s Laws (1973), Chicago: University of Chicago Press p. 38.

[24] S. Salkever: “Aristotle’s Social Science” , Political Theory,  Vol 9, no. 4, (1987), New York: Sage Publications.

[25] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: French translation: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 28.

[26] Aristoteles, Den nikomakiske Etik, French translation, Tricot: Ethique à  Nicomaque, (1987), Paris: Vrin, p. 75.

[27] ibid s. 220.

[28] Malgan: “Aristotle and the Value of Political Participation”, Political Theory, Vol 18, no. 2.

[29] Leo Strauss: The City and Man, (1964), Chicago: La cité et l’homme, (1984), Paris: Agora. p. 43.

[30] Leo Strauss: “ Three Waves of Modernity” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy, Ten Essays by Leo Strauss (1989): Detroit: Wayne State University Press p. 82.

[31] Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind (1987), New York: Touchstone. In this book continues Bloom Strauss’ project by making a cultural, critical, intellectual aristocracy analysis of American society, and Bloom considers how consumption-ideology, value nihilism and relativism has destroyed American intellectual life and university system.

[32] Leo Strauss, De la Tyrannie, Paris 1954: Gallimard.

[33] Here it seems that Strauss is inspired by Max Weber’s discussion of charismatic identity and the possibility of a plebiszitär-charismatic domination, where the good manager is opposed to the colorless bureaucrat who heads the government. Weber was worried about that the Weimar Republic because of its constitution could get such a leader. An example of where time is de Gaulle’s status as France’s president. See also Max Weber: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, Tubingen (1972): J.B.C Mohr., p. 141.

[34] Alistair MacIntyre: After Virtue, London (1981): Duckwood.

[35] Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice, New York 1983: Blackwell

[36] Allan Bloom: The Closing of the American Mind (1987), New York: Touchstone.

The Fourth Age of Political Communication: Democratic decay or the rise of phronetic political communication?

Introduction

In the fourth season of the television-drama “House of Cards” digitization plays a vital role for the political communication with the public as well as the struggle between the political opponents involved in the presidential election campaign. “House of Cards” presents a rather dystopic scenario, where policy professionals help resourceful political actors to hijack and manipulate the public debate.

The role of policy professionals (lobbyist, public affairs consultants, communication and media advisers etc.) has become vital, in what have been called the fourth age of political communications (Blumer, 2013) (See table 2). An explosion of different digital media platforms, an overload of information, and communication in networks as a supplement to hierarchies characterize the fourth age. Both traditional mass media and social media are subjected to mediatization, and thereby become dominated by the logic of news media (Blach-Ørsten, 2016).

In the public sphere medialized political communication has become vital to the power play among different actors, and the agenda setting of policy professionals have transformed the public sphere into an arena for influence in itself. The result has been the emergence of a system of privileged pluralism among organized interests (Binderkrantz, Christiansen, & Pedersen, 2015). Today we have a mediatized form of democracy, where the state, organized interests and the fragmented public sphere interact and create channels of influence that mainly the privileged few among political actors benefits from.

Today the public sphere is highly fragmented in different, interconnected spheres of public awareness, media platforms, audiences, and agendas. It is an ecosystem, with niches inhabited by a broad range of more or less professionalized political organizations (Mazzoleni & Schulz, 1999). The ability to nurse your niche – or to create niche legitimacy, through social and mass media – is increasingly a challenge for political organization. Only the elite among political actors can be expected to have the resources to participate in the emerging data-driven form of political communication we see today. That may very well limit the amount of voices and views in the public debate to the professionalized and well-organized.

In general we know very little about the effects of the newest media development (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008: 716). There is a huge need to study how the mix of mediatization and digitization affect public debate and democracy. The purpose of the paper is partly to explore and discuss how mediatization and digitization becomes vital to and transforms the praxis of political communication – and partly to discuss how the stance of policy professionals is vital for creating an informed and democratic public debate. So the paper asks the following research question: How does the role of policy professionals become essential in the fourth age of political communication? And how can policy professionals play a constructive role in the creation of an informed public debate?

In the next section I will frame digitization, (policy) profession and mediatization as institutional logics (Friedland & Alford R., 1991; Thornton, Ocasio, & Lounsbury, 2012). Institutional logics is defined as “the socially constructed, historical patterns of cultural symbols and material practices, including assumptions, values, and beliefs” (See also Meyer & Hammerschmid, 2006; Reay & Hinings, 2009; Thornton et al., 2012: 2). Logics have a symbolic or ideational side as well as a material side, concerning praxis (Thornton et al., 2012). After the theory section I will present and critically discuss the characteristics of mediatization and digitization. Then I will discuss the role of policy professionals in the creation of a new form of political communication, which is shaped by practical wisdom and ethical orientation. A final section concludes.

Theory: Institutional logics

Contemporary, pluralistic societies can be described as consisting of “dependent but partly autonomous institutional spheres of thought and action” (Olsen, 2006: 16). These spheres are “partly supplementing and partly competing” (ibid: 17). These institutional spheres can also be described as different institutional logics operating at the macro level of society (Friedland & Alford R., 1991). But the logics can also be found at the meso and micro level of society. Here institutional logics focus the attention of actors “on particular features of the organizations” as well as the environment (Thornton et al., 2012: 18). In this way, institutional logics constitute the social identities and behavior of actors.

When macro-institutional settings transform due to the supplementation or competition between institutional logics, the change directly affects the performance of the actors inside organizations. Macro-logics are transformed to the meso- and micro-levels of organizations through new requests for accountability, shifts in market conditions, increased innovation pressure, or new demands for political control, new legislation, or new normative environments.

Institutional logics contain enough contradictions to conflict. In the field of political communication policy professional may oppose data driven campaigns to the extent data specialist would recommend. Especially praxis-oriented policy professionals would usually distrust algorithms and be skeptical towards formal method (Kahneman & Klein, 2009: 523). Data specialist may oppose mediatization, because more significant features like long time economic development much better predict voter behavior than the media hype created around current events and scandals.

These contradictions exist, but according to the institutional logics perspective contradictions is not the same as insuperable dichotomies. This means that the contradicting logics can also be combined or mixed in praxis (Pache & Santos, 2010). They can supplement each other.

Three different institutional logics are relevant in this paper (See table 1): The logic of mediatization, the logic of digitization and the logic of profession.

Table 1: Three institutional logics that shapes political communication

  Logic of mediatization Logic of digitization Logic of profession
Material praxis Communication – mass, network, mobile, online/offline Collecting data, surveillance, auditing, processing data through digital technology Interaction with leaders, citizens, peers, stakeholders
Symbolic praxis Aesthetics in drama, performance, framing. Futuristic, progress, upscaling Expertise, qualifications
Actor identities Journalists, editors, media advisors Data specialist, engineers, statistic specialist Professionals of praxis, experts, advisers, consultants
Source of identity Publish or perish, communication skills Natural science Association with quality of craft. Personal reputation
Type of system Communication system Digital, sensoric system Professional association, guild

While profession has a long history in Western countries (Friedland and Alford 1991), digitization and mediatization can be seen as rather new macro-institutional logics that constitutes the public sphere in modern society, due to historical and technological development.

Previously, in the premodern phase (1900-1960), the public sphere was dominated by a centralized party press (See table 2). Political elites communicated directly to a class-divided audience, who were seen as passive participants in the debate of the elites. Later on, in the modern phase (1960-1990) electronical mass media had their breakthrough to the broad national, but still passive audience. Organized interest groups gained more influence by direct participation in governmental decision making. In the post-modern phase (1990- ) party press has declined and increased competition among self-owned media enterprises and media organizations has emerged. A broad range of different political organizations participate in mediated communication: Private enterprises, local based interest groups, public organizations, unions, new political parties, think tanks etc. They are all inclined to engage in a mediatized form of political communication.

As an institutional logic mediatization evolves around personified politics, scandals, conflicts, dramatic events and infotainment (Strömbäck, 2008: 18). Mediatization not only influence politics, but also other forms of institutional macro-logics of modern society, like family, education, religion, etc. (Hjarvad 2016: 18). Mediatization can be viewed as as a partly independent institution of modern society, but also a distinct way of relating and communicating in highly modern societies (Hjarvad, 2016: 45). As such mediatization constitutes the public arena of interaction among different societal domains.

Today we may be standing on the brink of a new fourth age of political communication (Blumler 2013). An age still characterized by increased mediatization and professionalization, increased competition for attention and fragmentation of the public sphere (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008: 707). Furthermore, the fourth age is characterized by an explosion of different digital media platforms, an overload of information, and communication in networks as a supplement to hierarchies. Media platforms converge and become interconnected. Traditional mass media and social media are both expected to be subjected to mediatization (Ørsten 2016). But digitization also unfolds its own specific symbolic and materials forms of praxis. Symbolic praxis involves a rhetoric framing of digitization as progressive and as the road into a prosperous and upscaled future. Material praxis involved task like collecting data, surveillance and auditing.

In the next two sections the logics of mediatization and digitization will be outlined more thoroughly.

Table 2: Overview of the different phases of political communication development

Phase The public sphere Recipients Media Political actors State form
The premodern phase Centralized, party press Passive Newspapers, party press The elite, old political parties The nation state
The modern Phase two-step models emerge Passive Breakthrough of mass media, Still party press, state monopoly on electronic media Political parties, organized interests  groups The welfare state
The late modern phase Increased fragmentation, mediatization Passive, seen as an individualized citizen. Privatization of media, dying party press, increased professionalization Elites isolated in ‘Bermuda triangles’ increased professionalization The competition state
A fourth phase? Interactivity, continued fragmentation, mediatization, algorithms shape public awareness Increasingly active, but still individualized Stagnation of mass media, emergence of digital media. Everyone collects data The digital state

Mediatization and the distorted public debate

We live in a mediatized world. No part of society escape mediatization: politics, religion, private business, art, family life etc. When it comes to politics mediatization means that media and political actors have a tendency to favor huge events, polarized drama and personal conflicts. Events like political or administrative scandals would have a tendency to dominate political communication. Complicated stories are neglected, and in general attempts to create rational-critical debate suffer (Strömbäck 2008).

Mediatization means that media has become present everywhere in the administrative and political awareness of the modern state. Some bureaucrats see themselves as chased by the media from case to case or scandal to scandal. Civil servants are pressed to become whistleblowers and unwillingly sources for media stories (Smith, 2015: 71-72).

A range of scholars share this belief and argues that mediatization leads to less autonomy of political actors. Mediatization simply crowd out the logics of political debate and decision making. Strömback (2008) see mediatization as a logic that shapes politics on behalf of the power of politicians and the institutional logic of the state. According to Mazzoleni and Schulz (1999) mediatized politics is politics that has lost its autonomy and has become dependent on the mass media and are shaped by the mass media.

Seen from an institutional logics perspective, the outcome is somewhat different: Instead of crowding out state logic and political decision making, media logic and the political logic integrates – or become mixed. Different logics can very well conflict and crowd out each other, but they can also be combined and mixed. Hjarvad (2016:33) argues that mediatization contains two tendencies: First the independence of the media and creation of media as an institution – and secondly, the integration of the media in other spheres of society. Mediatization is both a macro- structure in the larger society, but also part of the internal structures of organizations. That means that the relations between media and other societal spheres are altered, while the conditions for communication and interaction in late modern societies are changed (ibid: 39). On the other hand mediatization not just changes other societal spheres. Media also adapts to the surrounding world, and other spheres become integrated in the media organizations (ibid: 49).

Actually, politicians can gain influence, if they adopt mediatization. Scandals are reported to be a driving force in the increased bureaucratization and centralization of the state. Scandals are used as a kind of change event, where politicians can decide and implement new bureaucratic standards and rules to prevent new scandals (J. S. Pedersen & Aagaard, 2015). Likewise, a limited amount of resourceful politicians are reported to be able to influence the public agenda with a limited set of subjects (Ørsten 2016: 211). The result is a centralized or rather elite form of public debate.

Not only bureaucrats and politicians use mediatization.  A range of huge, resourceful interest organizations does the same. Resourceful interest organizations are able to trade bits of news-worthy information with attention from the media. This means that the public sphere has become a distinct arena for caretaking of interest, side by side with the neo-cooperative decision making systems in modern governance, where interest organization participate in formal commissions and councils (Nielsen & Pedersen, 1989; O. K. Pedersen, 2006). In other words, mediatization has led to a state of privileged pluralism (Binderkrantz et al 2015).

Mediatization may not crowd-out political decision-making, but it may distort what we believe to be a democratic and informed public debate. Mediatization is often criticized for bringing along a trivialized form of public debate. Professionalized political communication can very well be approached as political marketing or branding (Marsh & Fawcett, 2011), where political actors engage in “permanent campaigns” in their attempt to conquer the public agenda (Bennett & Manheim, 2006: 228). But if political communication is just like selling soap powder, a mediatized form of public debate are deprived important value-orientation and information.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, mediatization tends to centralize the public debate on a smaller set of subjects, suppressing a broader and perhaps more vital public debate in the mass media as well as the social media. Getting attention becomes the hard currency among political actors. This means that mediatization changes the rules of the game, so to speak. Consequently, politicians and political actors must learn these new rules, it they want to obtain and maintain political influence. Those who do not have the resources to learn the rules – or even play the new game, can be expected to lose influence. So, political actors must at least be able to professionalize their political communication, if they what to be taken serious as players of the power game.

Also, as mentioned above, mediatization of social media seems to constitute the general belief that online political communication need to be structured along the lines of network. The networked form of mediatization is interactive. If you are online you are (in theory) able to communicate directly with even central decision makers. That means that political communication relations no longer consist of active communicators on the one side and passive audiences on the other side. The belief is that the audience becomes active communicators as well. That conceptualization may give us the impression that political communication also follows other structural features of network, like horizontal relations and power symmetry. Public affairs people often preach a similar kind of dialogue based relation to the broader society. They often do so to nurse a societal legitimacy of their organization (Merkelsen, 2007: 271). Public affairs consultants – and political actors in general – may preach interconnectedness, dialogue and interdependency with their constituencies through social media, but highly asymmetrical communication and power play will continuously be the correct characteristic of the political communication we see emerging. Power has always been and can still expect to be present everywhere in political communication. So, though the symbolic praxis of online mediatization draws on metaphors that may rime on increased democratization, the material praxis maintain asymmetrical power relations.

Digitization and the blindness to politics

Data specialist and statistic specialist constitute and are constituted by digitization as an institutional logic. Datasets, performance scoring, algorithms, evidence based analysis, and intelligent feedback systems materialize the logic in the field of political communication.

Digitization impact political communication in two ways: 1) In the growing use of data-mining the strategic planning of political communication – and 2) in the growing use of digital media in political communication.

Digitization provides ranking systems, based on score systems and self-reported data, data on quality, costs, effects, and user-satisfaction.  Digital media makes it possible to generate huge sets of data, especially when it comes to the habits and routines, likes and dislikes of the users of digital media. ‘Big data’ sets gathered through digital media can create almost online data on every part of the media production, on the quality of media content as well as the apparent efficiency of the communication. Digitization has made it possible to gather data on how political actors, like voters correlate with reactions to events like political statements, new laws etc.

This development opens up a whole range of opportunities for the strategic planning of political communication. Not only does the ‘permanent campaigns’ (Bennett & Manheim, 2006. 228) of political organizations increasingly become data-driven (Nickerson & Rogers, 2014). Since data makes it possible to compare the detailed preferences of very narrow targeted groups, or even individuals directly, digitization proponents believes that political communication can also become a lot more accountable and efficient. In other words, the big-data hype brings a promise of improved predictability. For example, the huge political parties in the United States bring in skillful analytics to predict voters behavior based on huge data sets (ibid). If political organization in general becomes able to store and data mine huge sets of data on habits, likes and dislikes, policy professionals may also be able to make trustworthy forecast on citizen’s attitudes towards policy ideas and future legislation. This improved predictability has the potential to restore the belief in linear effects in political communications.

But the gains cannot just be harvested by political organizations. Digitization creates a need for new capabilities. According to digitization proponent the technology is changing the framework conditions for policy professionals significantly. Policy professionals must now also be good at gathering data on media effects among target groups or purchase specified sets of data from media agencies. Policy professionals must also be good at using digitization strategically. The overall purpose is to improve media management and niche nursing.

Not only can the resourceful political organizations benefit. According to the digitization opponents the prize on algorithm-tools and dataset are expected to drop. So, if citizens embrace digitization, it can significantly subvert societal hierarchies; empower local based interests or even the single citizen. Every skilled and creative citizen can tap data, gain new insight and influence political communication (Whelan, 2012), through the interactivity of social media. Social media has significantly created new ways to communicate. The individual citizen is no longer dependent on strong ties to groups or collectives, like family or corporation, but is able to communicate more flexible and to exploit the weak ties that digital media gives access to (Hjarvad 2016: 53).

 

The benefits and promises of digitization are probably over-hyped. Though the prize on hardware, software and data-sets can be expected to drop over time, it may still be a very costly affair to actively pursue a digitization strategy in political communication. Adding to this, data-sets not always come in a neat and appropriate form, but are often messy. But the challenges and limits of digitization are even more profound.

Digitization makes it possible for political organizations to put numbers on their own activities. Those numbers can also be communicated externally to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public. In the public sector this mean that digitization becomes part of a mediatized game of distribution of resources. We already see this as a consequence of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) among public schools. The PISA test-results can be read as a ranking system among public schools based on the pupils performance. In a mediatized world organizations in extreme statistical position are always good news, though a complicated and not very news-worthy social situation may lie behind the numbers.

When it comes to digital media, digitization not only enables but also disables individuals in their communication. Digital media is built on and structured by pre-programmed algorithms that sets specific preferences and sustain digital interaction. Algorithms – rather than social awareness guide our choices, likes and dislikes on social media. Algorithms increasingly determine what we become aware of on the Internet. Algorithms sustain a networked type of mediatization, based on popularity, ranking, personal recommendations etc. (Hjarvad 2016: 53).

The limitation of numbers and algorithms can also be found in data-driven political campaigns. Though there may be clear advantages of using data in campaigns, data is also clearly limited: “Big data analytics may receive media attention, but its effectiveness is entirely reliant on the strength of more traditional aspect of the campaign. If a campaign does not have effective outreach to voters, then predictive analytics cannot solve that problem” (Nickerson & Rogers 2014:67).

There is a path dependency attached to digitization, based on the quest for an ideal world through quantifiable measures, formal methods and tangible elements. In consequence knowledge is seen as something that can be collected, stored and moved around in a database. This concept of knowledge bring along a belief and quest for causal predictability. It is a concept that thrives in the natural sciences, and it is familiar to the Aristotelian idea of episteme, where knowledge is seen as universal and generalized instead of context-bound and specific.

Because of these features there is a form of scientification attached to digitization, where the outcome of digitized organizations and societies is seen as hard based facts and evidence, which can hardly be debated in political terms. Similar, interpretations of big data correlations are often presented as scientific evidence for strong causality, though correlations aren’t the same as causality (Mayer-Schönberger & Cukier, 2013). This scientification tends to eradicate political and ethical questions from public debate. Digitization may create consistency in counting, in surveillance, in auditing, in categorizing, but it is blind to simple, obvious questions like: Why count? Why surveil? Why popularize? Why categorize?

Discussion: Can policy professionals be the drivers of phronetic political communication?

Today, it is difficult to comprehend the public sphere as an integrated distinct societal sphere. The public sphere in the age of late modernity is highly fragmented in different, interconnected spheres of public awareness, media platforms, audiences, and agendas. As mentioned in the introduction, the public sphere is best described as an ecosystem, with niches inhabited by a broad range of more or less professionalized political organizations (Mazzoleni and Schulz 1999). The ability to nurse your niche – or to create niche legitimacy, through social and mass media – is increasingly a challenge for political organizations.

Political organizations become populated by policy professionals (Esmark, 2012: 162) in the attempt to handle niche nursing. Policy professionals are often highly educated persons with university degrees and/or yearlong expertise from national government administration or media organization. They are typically employed as communication or media advisors, ‘spin doctors’, editors, public relations or public affairs consultants, lobbyists, etc. – all recognized for their expertise in agenda setting and ‘niche nursing’. They know how to influence policy and decision makers and how to ‘sell’ policy solutions at the right time and place. They are expected to be able to deliver trustworthy facts to decision makers, and to create and nurse networks (Hegelund & Mose, 2014).

They may still not be recognized at the top level of their political organizations as a profession on their own terms, but mediatization clearly elevates awareness of policy professionals in the eyes of the top management of political organizations (Moss, McGrath, Tonge, & Harris, 2012: 58). In general, a profession is characterized by trust in expertise and the quality of crafts in skilled persons (See table 1). Trust is based on reputation maintained in a relational network of peers, associations, guilds or likewise (Thornton et al 2012). So, the judging of true skilled expertise is based on the history of successful outcomes as well as peer judgment. Experts are the ones that are recognized as experts in their profession as skilled at the highest level (Kahneman & Klein 2009: 519). That is also the case, when it comes to policy professionals in political communication.

Often we connect the work of policy professionals with the caretaking of the power interest of elites. Policy professionalism tends to be excluding and preserve political communication for the elite and detach it from the broader public. Likewise professionalized ‘niche nursing’ may have a tendency to fragment the public sphere. Policy professionals do not nurse the interest of the public, but of political organizations. As the ‘hired guns’ of elites policy professional may very well make compromises on behalf of a higher ethics that in the long run may undermine an informed and democratic public debate (See for example Tynell, 2014: 321).

Power will always be part of political communication, and policy professionals will always serve the interests of political organizations. But this is not necessarily bad for an informed, democratic public debate. Different political organizations have different – and in general legitimate interest in influencing the public agenda. To put it short: morally speaking – policy professionals can make news, but they cannot fake news.

But policy professionals can play a much more profound and important role. Inherent with the position of a genuine profession also come a more ethical orientation as well as a quest for value based wisdom. To take care of their role in legitimate ways policy professionals must obtain and display practical wisdom (phronesis). Practical wisdom takes account of the contextual circumstances, hereunder the distribution of power. As such it is not objective, but rather a value based form of knowledge, which comes to life as ad a habitual disposition, when actor tries “to do the right thing, at the right time and for the right reason” (Küpers & Pauleen, 2015 (online version): 494). Practical wisdom thus places the experiences of professionals at the centre of attention, and puts practical knowledge and practical ethics into focus (Flyvbjerg, 2006: 371; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 2011: 59). This is clearly an ideal. Professionals may have a tendency to put practical knowledge and ethics into focus. But there is of course no guarantee that such a tendency qualifies to be wisdom.

But the need for professional judgment based on practical wisdom may be rising. When the technological possibilities for data-driven communication are growing, data is no longer what is missing. Numbers and categories do not make much sense in themselves. What instead becomes a challenge is the ability to ask clever questions of how to create public and political value. Only human narratives can make data meaningful and are able to expose the data to human justification. In other words: political, governmental and professional mindsets and values become a challenge and a key-asset. So, professional judgment may be even more important than before, and here policy professionals have a key-role to play.

Of course this is easier said than done. McGrath et al (2010: 338) argue that policy professionals are subjected to a double legitimacy-relationship, called window-in/window out. This means that policy professionals must both obtain legitimacy in the eyes of their organizational leadership. On the other hand they must also gain legitimacy in the eyes of external stakeholders. Such legitimacy may not be public or address the common good, but it can very well be so, if citizens, clients or media organizations are among the stakeholders.

There may not always be a conflict between window in and window out legitimacy, but often there is, and it is the task of policy professionals to navigate and handle this. Ideally, their navigation will be based on a phronetic form of political communication. Phronetic political communication should be based on simple questions, such us: Who benefits from your actions? And who loses? How do your actions affect the common good? What are the democratic consequences of your actions?

Though policy professionals should take the driver seat to impose a more ethical form of political communication, they may still benefit a lot from digitization. Proponents of professionalism often argue that professionals can make intuitive judgments during uncertain conditions and time-pressure. Based on their training, often yearlong experience and an increase of tacit knowledge many policy professionals believe that they are able to extract cues from the political environment and make skilled, intuitive judgments.

Sometimes professionals may be right, and in complex situation predictions made by experienced professionals can clearly be better than predictions made by inexperienced professionals. But most often professional judgement is flawed and based on simple heuristics. Also policy professional’s assessments, prognoses, feedback mechanisms and learning abilities are often weak and based on heuristics. Lack of systematic approach and consistency are the spoilers of their ability to make intuitive expert judgment.  History and politics is simply too complex to predict (Kahnemann & Klein 2009: 520). So the problem for policy professionals is that high-validity environments – and consequently opportunities to learn – almost never exists in politics.

Furthermore, professionals, even skilled ones, have a tendency to stick to what they already know. In other words:  professionals are often path-dependent.  Actors tend to stick what they already know would work in one context, until they are no longer successful (Thornton et al 2012). Any form of intuitive judgment will likewise tend to be biased, since professionals will be guided by logic of appropriateness (March, 1991).  In environments loaded with low validity, algorithms will perform better than humans. In such situations algorithms are more likely to find the weakly valid cues that judgment can be made upon. Furthermore, algorithms will be more consistent that humans. Humans get distracted; algorithms don’t (Kahneman and Klein 2009: 523). The point made here is that digitization cannot replace humans in political communication, but it can very well help policy professionals to become wiser.

Conclusion

How does the role of policy professionals become essential in the fourth age of political communication? And how can policy professionals play a constructive role in the creation of an informed public debate?

Political communication is not just a front stage exercise in the form of marketing, framing and branding.  Politics has not disappeared from the public arenas or have been crowded out by mediatization and digitization. Instead, as institutional logics digitization and mediatization are mixed and combined with other and more mature institutional logics – such as the market, the state and the profession. Policy professionals are the key actors in this development. Policy professionals have the potential to enact the role of institutional entrepreneurs and mix the different logics. While such a mix may very well lead us into democratic decay, based on elitism and a more centralized public debate, it may also hold fruitful potentials for a more democratic and ethical type of political communication.

Digitization may very likely alter the role of policy professionals, from hallway lobbyist, spin doctor or communication adviser towards a form of screen professional that uses sophisticated data systems in their intuitive judgment.  Digitization can surely improve professional political communication, when it comes to a long range of standard procedures, such as oversight, surveillance and data collection. Policy professionals broadly recognize this. On the other hand digitization systems cannot be compassionate, dream or understand common sense. They cannot exercise practical wisdom or create political outreach in campaigns. That is why digitization can make mindsets and the awareness of human and cultural values a key-asset, and that is why policy professionals cannot replace direct dialogue with citizens, media and stakeholders with data-driven campaigning. The belief in data-driven political communication, where algorithms substitute humans runs the risk of “automation bias”. People tend to be passive and less vigilant when algorithms are in charge (Klein and Kahnemann 2009:524).

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Francesco Giacomantonio, Sociologia dell’agire politico (Rome: Studium, 2014)

 

In his recently published Sociologia dell’agire politico (Sociology of Political Action) Francesco Giacomantonio focuses on the material and cultural conditions that are adversely affecting the possibility for effective political action, where the latter is broadly understood as “the set of all the activities that influence politics or have political repercussions” (16). Notwithstanding the book’s title, in fact, its main concern does not appear to be the study of political action itself, but rather a reflection on the nature and causes of its current crisis.

Giacomantonio understands the analysis undertaken in the book as an exercise in “theoretical sociology”, meaning by this that he does not engage directly with the sociological facts at stake, but tries instead to reconstruct the conceptual coordinates through which such phenomena can be understood and analysed. The central part of the book is devoted to the reconstruction of three leading paradigms that have had an enormous influence on the debate about the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies, as they are expounded in the works of Zygmunt Bauman, Jürgen Habermas and Slavoj Žižek.

 

Bauman’s account is presented by Giacomantonio as the most “apocalyptic” of the three; its dismal description of the “liquid society” cannot be redeemed by the counter-measures Bauman advocates, such as the appeal to personal responsibility and the re-establishment of a public agora, which appear to be vacuous and unfeasible. A more optimistic outlook, Giacomantonio points out, is the one proposed by Habermas. Even if Habermas insists on the depoliticization of the public sphere brought about by late capitalism and on the technocratic turn of the liberal state, his theory of democracy also points to the communicative resources that can still be mobilized in our societies. Giacomantonio also pauses to consider how Habermas tackles the challenge of multiculturalism and the role of religion in the public sphere. Žižek’s position, finally, is presented as a bold call for radical social change and the re-thinking of the very conceptual landscape on which our politics is taking place. Giacomantonio stresses the importance of Zizek’s reflection on the subject, his appeal to the re-politicization of the economic sphere, and his critique of the neo-liberal order.

 

In the final part of the book the author draws from the works of the authors discussed in the previous chapters in order to summarize the major sources of the crisis of political action in our societies. The main focus, here, is on the erosion of a shared social space, and of the common meanings and practices that are needed for individual action to have content and purpose, thus creating a world of “freedom without autonomy” (89). The erosion of a shared social space is connected to the privatization of the public sphere, which leaves individuals isolated, vulnerable, and voiceless, as public intellectuals are relinquishing their role and the leading cultural trends promote what Marcuse would have called a “closing of the universe of discourse” (94). Giacomantonio does not seem to have any ready solutions to this predicament; however, he suggests that a good starting point might consist in the rejection of radical individualism, by “freeing ourselves from egocentrism and utilitarianism” and learning “to be better rather than to have the best” (102). The closing pages of the book also remind us of the importance of imagination in politics, because only through imagination we can open the door to moral, cultural and social progress.

 

Giacomantonio’s reconstruction of the thought of Bauman’s, Hayek’s and Žižek is clear and accurate (only a couple of reservations might be raised, about the idea that Žižek can be taken as “last true heir” of the tradition of the Frankfurt School (84), and what I believe to be an overstatement of the role of religion in Habermas’s account of cohesion in contemporary societies (61-2)). Moreover, Giacomantonio’s choice of Habermas, Žižek and Bauman as guiding references for the critical analysis developed in the book is considered and fruitful; there is no doubt that these three authors deserve attention by whoever wants to reflect on the sociological conditions in which political action takes place in our societies.

 

Still, Giacomantonio’s way of tackling the issue of political agency seems to be somehow off-target. His analysis throughout the book focuses on the social processes that are depriving members of contemporary societies of the psychological and social resources that are needed for individual action to be meaningful, effective and genuinely free. There is no doubt that the erosion of these preconditions for successful individual action is also affecting the chances for constructive political engagement. However, in democratic politics – and indeed, we might argue with Arendt and other eminent thinkers of our tradition, in any kind of politics – political action is always and essentially the product of joint or collective action, rather than individual action. The crisis of politics in our time concerns above all the constitution and the operation of collective political subjects, and focusing on the sociology of individual action, like Giacomantonio does, tends to obscure this important fact about the ontology and the sociology of politics.

 

Giacomantonio’s discussion, then, should be taken as a useful – indeed, necessary – preliminary analysis of the sociological conditions that we need to consider when thinking on the possibility of political action. The study of the modes and sources of present and future political action needs to come next, and should have in view collective action as an essential element of politics.

A note on the papers from the winter symposium of the Nordic Summer University held in Akureyri, Iceland, March, 1st-3rd 2013

 

 

Among the themes tackled at the symposium there was one that gained special prominence, namely the sociological study of contemporary ethics, given that different papers presented and discussed current sociological theories and empirical sociological work about practical ethical issues. This theme revolved in particular around the foundations of ethical values in today’s societies and focused upon some developments in Scandinavia, such as the Protestant ethics of the environment and the ethical challenges arising from ongoing scientific research.

 

Another important issue debated at the symposium was the foundation of the ethics of capitalism, in particular in relation to the current crisis of the global capitalist system. In this context we discussed the relation between ethics and economics and the possibility of developing an ethics of the common good in the capitalist system.

 

Further, the symposium included different papers on democracy and ethics within the context of critical political philosophy. This also extended to the debate about the relation between ethics, law and democracy, conceived from the perspective of different influential social and political philosophers.

 

Concerning the Arctic theme, the discussion focussed upon select aspects of the many environmental, ethical, political and legal issues facing the Arctic region today. We had in particular a discussion of the new Icelandic constitution and the challenges that Iceland faces as a member of the Arctic community.

 

In this special issue we have collected some of the papers from this wonderful meeting, which benefitted from intense and thought-provoking discussions. We hope that the reader will be able to feel the same enthusiasm as the participants did during the two days of presentations and discussions.

A reply to the reviewer of “Totalitarismo, democrazia, etica pubblica. Scritti di filosofia morale, filosofia politica, etica”

As it is written in the foreword, what the book offers is, immediately, an overview on the current status of the moral and political philosophical debate (each chapter is a sort of piece of this mosaic). But reading deeply the book is possible to find, as is normal, a fil rouge, a background thesis, that runs through all the chapters: an attempt to define in a critical way the moral and political framework of the current society, trying to delineate alternatives in the way in which we intend our aggregative forms – especially starting from the idea and the practice of democracy, nowadays reduced into formal mechanisms –, and possible escape lines.

 

As for the quoted authors, as ever happens in the essays, I made a selection – it’s strange having to specifying this. And so, I chose the authors that, for me, are fundamentals and those that are secondary, in the economy of my speech, deepening the first – and the same with the arguments, some are main themes same are collateral analyses for me. And so, I criticized the authors with which I disagree, specifying why – without obscure them from the philosophical scene, for their impact on that –, and I used quotations with which agree, specifying the source – for not assign to me those ideas – but declining them in the economy of my personal speech. And about some mentioned contents of my discourse, I would like to clarify in short at least two important issues. First, Arendt and Jonas sit well together for me because in Arendt is possible to find an indirect but very cogent critique to the naive and dangerous stances of Jonas: the sacralization of biological life, the mythologizing and the normative use of the nature, is at the ground of the Nazi ideology, as Arendt shows speaking about the modern triumph of the anthropological figure of the animal laborans, emblematically represented by Eichmann. Second, to affirm that the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is universal, modern and Western, is not a disclaimer of its advancements – why should it be so is not clear for me – but is a reasoning on another level than that of the socio-political decisions: that of the conceptual background of our society – that contains also its advancements. This critical view is extremely important because permit us to intend our society – and its advancements – not as the only one possible society – like for example in the Eurocentrism or now, we can say, in the “Westerncentrism” – but as a possible society; avoiding so also the theoretical “Westerncentrism” that is given in the reading of authors that are not modern and/or Western with the eyes of a modern and Western person – e.g. the sui generis Popperian reading of Plato, Hegel and Marx.

 

For me too the book would have benefitted from an analytical index and a bibliography, it is a pity that the publisher has not made, however, as is written in the premise, the footnotes are enriched with the necessary bibliographic details.

Federico Sollazzo, Totalitarismo, democrazia, etica pubblica. Scritti di filosofia morale, filosofia politica, etica (Rome: Aracne, 2011)

In the first part, Sollazzo tracks recent evolutions in the theoretical and historical understanding of social and political control of human collectivities, such as: (1) “totalitarianism” (17) in the work of Vaclav Havel and his mentor Jan Patocka; (2) “system” (20) in that by Herbert Marcuse; (3) “terror” (25) in Max Horkheimer’s; (4) “stereotyped reasoning” (28) in Theodor Adorno’s; (5) “rationality deficit” (28) in Juergen Habermas’; (6) “empire” (30) in Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s (30); (7) and “culture” according to Pier Paolo Pasolini (34). This initial section is followed by an exposition of the philosophical anthropology of three great minds of the 20th century, namely Arnold Gehlen, Helmuth Plessner and Max Scheler. A common theme is retrieved in their thought about human nature and the human condition, that is, the uniqueness of humankind’s inextricable admixture of biological and psychical elements, which allow the human being to be part of nature as well as to transcend it through its “peculiar” (43) intellectual—for the first two authors—and spiritual—for the third—abilities. The ensuing chapter stresses the crucial role played by the species-wide biological and emotional make-up in providing a valid ground for the establishment of credibly universal philosophical anthropology and ethics. Remarkable is the attention paid to the notion of vital “needs” (47) as a stark and straightforward reminder of our common humanity. The field of ethics is further explored in a chapter devoted to communitarianism as a representative reaction to utilitarian individualism, which fails to acknowledge the deeply interpersonal preconditions for any meaningful human existence.

 

In the second part, Sollazzo explores the issue of totalitarianism with special reference to the seminal work of Hannah Arendt and her ability to perceive the totalitarian threat of numb conformism in modern mass cultures, and not just in the key examples of totalitarian regimes, namely Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. This line of analysis is deepened by means of a discussion of the notion of “bio-power” (84) and of different conceptions of totalitarianism beyond Arendt’s one, such as Marcuse’s, Horkeimer’s and Neumann’s. Sollazzo then returns to Arendt’s work and her study of the anonymous, grey “model citizen” (108) of modern societies, who is incapable of challenging the received views of her socio-political community and participates dutifully in whatever life-destructive systemic horror such received views may entail. This study is followed by a reflection on genuine democracy as Alexis de Tocqueville and Arendt would have it, so that model citizens be not as incapable of Socratic critical reflection as previously discussed. Considerations on democracy are furthered by a presentation of Karl Popper’s ideal of democracy as open society and his profound distrust for any “utopian engineering” (135) that may prevent tolerant coexistence of different worldviews in peaceful conversation with one another. Adorno, Norberto Bobbio and Zagrebelsky are then utiklised to criticise Popper’s seemingly wilful blindness to the darker areas of actual democratic communities, such as techno-scientific “chains” (150) to free human agency, dehumanising “mass conformism” (150), economic “commodification” (150) of human relations—including political ones—and “political apathy” (153). Zagrebelsky’s work is also utilised to assess the issues of social justice and human rights in allegedly democratic societies, whose enduring and entrenched inequalities fail regularly large sectors of the population.

 

The third part of the book opens with a survey of the so-called “rehabilitation of practical reason” in the German-speaking philosophical world of the 1960s and 1970s, especially with reference to Hans-Georg Gadamer and Habermas. The threat to social cohesion and human well-being emerging from pseudo-rational individualism is presented and then addressed in a chapter on leading libertarian thinkers, such as Robert Nozick and Friedrich Hayek. Bobbio and John Rawls are introduced and presented as attempts to rectify from within the liberal tradition the many weaknesses and blind spots of several libertarian stances. Communitarianism is addressed subsequently as an attempt to rectify them too, though this time from without the liberal tradition. Ferdinand Toennies, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre are the pivotal references in this context. Amartya Sen is used eventually to propose a tolerant, pluralist form of communitarianism that describes cultural identities as inherently diverse, “always in fieri” (212) and analogous to an ever-shifting mosaic requiring the person’s free consent and critical self-reflection. The theme of a species-wide ground for life-enhancing social and political self-organisation is brought back in a chapter devoted to Hans Jonas and his call for human ethical responsibility vis-à-vis the planetary environment, which human ingenuity and techno-scientific advances are threatening as never before in human history. The final chapter outlines the understanding of human alterity in the works by Emmanuel Lévinas, Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida.

 

The book is most erudite and shows how well-versed the author is in the works and terminology of the many thinkers that he cites and presents to the reader. Still, after reading the book, it is not clear what the author wished to accomplish with it, apart from charting a number of interesting issues and related reflections by famous thinkers. In short, the book has no clear thesis to offer. Also, the critical assessment of the thinkers tackled in the book varies considerably, thus a few thinkers are duly presented and equally criticised for what Sollazzo argues to be their theoretical weaknesses (e.g. Jonas), whilst others are just outlined and never criticised (e.g. Havel) or timidly rebuked in a few footnotes (e.g. Arendt). By this lack of critical evenness and courage, Sollazzo comes across as sharing claims by some of the thinkers that he refers to (e.g. Arendt’s negative assessment of the modern political emphasis upon human biological necessity) that do not sit well with those of other thinkers that he includes in his book (e.g. Jonas’ call for immediate global ethical responsibility in the face of the modern techno-scientific threat to the continuation of biological life on Earth). Analogously, it is not clear whether some rare yet conspicuously superficial analyses, such as the one that he provides about human rights (159-65), should be ascribed to him or to the thinkers that he makes use of therein. Specifically, as human rights are concerned, they are reduced to the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, which is claimed to be “universal, modern and Western” (163), as though there had never been thereafter any advancement, such as the actually binding sister covenants on civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic social and cultural rights on the other; or the pronunciations of the related United Nations’ human rights committes. Finally, the book would have benefitted from an analytical index and a bibliography.

 

Viorella Manolache (ed.), Centru si margine la Marea Mediterana. Filosofie politica si realitate internationala (Bucharest: Editura ISPRI, 2009)

This journal has proven a wide opening to a great diversity of recurrent themes present now within political sciences. Certain “marginal” areas of interdisciplinary investigation are also present, included in this same broad philosophical view. The volume maintains precisely this type of innovative ambitions and the manner of relating to contemporary tendencies as the journal, hence approaching through its several original studies select newer theoretical concepts adequate to the complexities associated with the research of the chosen theme. These studies are coming from different scientific areas. Estimating the present geo-political research of the Mediterranean community, it endeavours to enter into a dialogue within the Mediterranean scientific community. Center-Margin at the Mediterranean Sea (Political Philosophy and International Reality) accesses scientific contributions from seven countries (Romania, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Brazil, USA, Italy) providing a rich mix of theoretical and philosophical comparative, international and transnational issues, addressed to all who are interested in the contemporary political Mediterranean phenomena. The three constant investigated dimensions are placed into a dynamic formula described by the three parts of the volume: Political philosophy of Mediterranean Centre and Margin; Cultural approaches on the Mediterranean Margin and International Reality at the Mediterranean Sea.

 

The volume is integrated within a theoretical landscape and is justified by the anticipative answer offered by the authors to a series of variables with which the imperative of the current European politics operates, of the “maps projecting the macro regions” – a decentralized space of cooperation. The volume anticipates the conclusions of the European Council (June 24, 2011) which counts especially on the coincidence of culture and creative industries, on the capitalization of historical, linguistic and, in general, cultural diversity, and also on the application of a macro-regional strategy. All these dimensions illustrate the potential of catalyst of the “Union for the Mediterranean area”.

 

The volume’s approach indicates significant insights, pre-figurations of the European imperatives correlated with the analysed theme, with a double effect: the analysis of the international implications of the Mediterranean space and of the considerations concerning soft power; and a withdrawal within the philosophical, theoretical and political framework that configure the dimensions of this profile. The approach is explained in the introductory chapter – Political Philosophy of Mediterranean Centre and Margin.

 

According to Abderrazzak Essrhir, the idea of the centre is the indicative of the systematic invention of a peripheral space – racial, geographical, religious, cultural – resulting in a binary opposition that is the outcome of reciprocal experiences between the centre and its assumed periphery. It is in this very context that the relations between the East and the West can rightly be appreciated to have always been conducted, marked by conquest, demystification, subjection, or colonial confinement. The centre assumes in this perspective a position wherein it perceives itself as the nucleus of authority and power, the source of emanation of knowledge, the cradle of high culture and civilisation. The margin, as a consequence, turns out to be a mere indication of that “positioning is best defined in terms of the limitations of a subject’s access to power.” It is, in this respect, perceived, and indeed made to be, as the consumer, the dependent, the subaltern, or the anarchic space. This type of centre-margin binary opposition is multi-dimensional in the sense that the centre, conscious of its identity, systematically locates and confines its margin by devising a set of strategic practices such as othering, ethnic categorisation, subjugation, and discrimination (Abderrazzak Essrhir).

 

For Abdenbi Sarroukh, the question that arises is whether the new U.N partnership will contribute to the blossoming of at least a positive Mediterranean pluralism that goes beyond the borders of the nationalism that is still recast in ethnic identities, so as to reshape them to conform to the new cultural exigencies. The author refers to the universal values that tend to homogenise specificities and the spirit of communities that are irreducible and resist being explained away by the power of discourse from the point of view of the dominating centre.

 

The historical registration appears as architecture and even as a film of the Mediterranean space diving into the discourse of postmodernity as post-tradition, either rebuilding the cultural referential of the marginal discourse of the Mediterranean space – a system of indexes, emblems, constituents of a typical language that asks for deciphering, first and foremost politically speaking, in order to deserve to be termed of a Mediterranean polis  (Viorella Manolache), or the investigation of the communicational ethical and political implications of this fascination of the interlocutor via Richard Rorty, Jean Baudrillard or Simon Critchley (Henrieta ?erban).

 

The chapter Cultural Approaches on the Mediterranean Margin reaffirms the dependence of the imaginary on the mise-en-place of a very special Mediterranean syntax. The relationships between the “full and signifying forms” and the “determinations” of symbolical images, conferring them a “particularizing function” are emphasized (Gheorghe Manolache), within an analysis that employs essential (proto)types (present in the works of Eugen Lovinescu, Anton Naum – e.g. the Don Juanic character, Ulysses –, or Vasco da Gama). These profiles express the metaphoric idea that the waters of the Mediterranean space have a vocation of refrain: they are always the ones which bring boats, and invite the analyst to imagine Ulysses abandoned on the rocky shores of Portugal in distress; one sees Vasco da Gama directing his ships and people on the warm and quiet waters of the Mediterranean Sea, with an impact on the symbolic-cultural map of the countries washed by the Mediterranean waters. What remains behind is precisely what should happen: a silent revolt of the water and then, the numerous endless tides, the tides which charmed the sovereigns and awarded gold and glory, the waters of the bereaved bride named melancholy (Diana Adamek).

 

The philosophical and metaphorical level is completed by a more investigative and practical level in International Reality at the Mediterranean Sea that assesses the Mediterranean space as one of the important geopolitical and geostrategic pivots in world history. The geopolitical and geostrategic significance of the Mediterranean realm is not quite constant along the entire history of the region. For a while, the geopolitical and geostrategic significance of the Mediterranean decreased, because the “center” of the world gradually glided to the Atlantic. But, starting with the opening stages of the Cold War, the geostrategic importance of the Mediterranean realm grew again, a trend which is still maintained to a certain extent nowadays as well, in the context of the so-called ‘clash of civilizations’ and of the global war against terror. Other important events, connected with the war in the Caucasus region, prove again – similarly to the era of the Cold War – how important is for the West to control the Mediterranean Sea, and how ambitious post-communist Russia already is on the international arena (Florin Diaconu).

 

In this analytical key, the international realities operating in the Mediterranean space raise the question of how culture and identity contribute to the lasting peace, facing the geopolitical context and the efforts of a generation of intellectuals who have implemented this idea by building a unique and successful structure such as the European Union. It is thus important to examine the possibility of designing a community of security in the Mediterranean region through economic growth, with the contribution of this regional culture, without which any construction will be only short-lived and deprived of depth (Lucian Jora).

 

Beyond this snapshot of the main dimensions of the volume Center-Margin at the Mediterranean Sea (Political Philosophy and International Reality), one can easily identify the need to re-evaluate in a more complex light the Mediterranean space, accepting a cultural and reconciliatory mental map – a matrix where the Mediterranean space does not cease to provide to an equal extent, both philosophies and realities.

 

Joseph V. Femia and Alasdair J. Marshall (eds.), Vilfredo Pareto: Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries (Surrey, England and Burligton, USA: Ashgate, 2012)

The volume opens with a jewel introduction. It contextualizes Pareto historically and it offers the big pictures in which to fit all the pieces of Pareto’s intellectual production. Pareto was an engineer involved with the running the newly nationalized Italian railroad system, but his claim to fame is for his sociological work. He wrote hundreds of pamphlets calling for change, free trade, small government, and pacifism, all of which fell flat. And “his youthful idealism soon gave way to skepticism, even cynicism, about human potential” (p. 2) so that today he is best known for his theory of human rigidity and inflexibility which make the world fundamentally unchangeable. His mathematical training and skills made him a professor of economics at Lausanne University (1893-1900), but his discontent with the model of a rational homo economicus led to his interest in and research on human irrationalities. During a time in which disciplines fought to establish their boundaries, Pareto broke them and refused to be confined in any one. For him comprehension of the complexity of human behavior came from the complexity of a boundless knowledge.

 

The rest of the book reflects the introductory claims. The first chapter, “Pareto and the Elite”, by John Scott, describes the not always successful balance of an open definition of elite that Pareto offers us. This analysis smoothly continues in Chapter 2, “Talents and Obstacles: Pareto’s Morphological Schema and Contemporary Social Stratification” (Francois Nielsen). Pareto’s empiricism allows him to analyze data from across the world and across time and see patterns in the wealth elites. Wealth is not distributed normally, but more “like an arrow”. Regardless of time and place, income inequality seems to be a natural and inevitable pattern: 80 percent of income is distributed among 20 percent of the population. This 80-20 distribution seems to be a constant pattern in many natural phenomena, from elites to genes, not just income distribution. This raises a question, not raised by the author, but that any post-2011 reader may ask: does ‘Occupy Wall Street” know about Pareto? And assuming that by some miracle, Occupy Wall Street is successful in changing the distribution of wealth in rich societies, will it be a sustainable change? Or will we move back, inevitably, to the arrow-shaped income distribution that Pareto kept finding in his data? The inability of society to change, to be stuck with certain patterns or with certain equilibria becomes a major theme in Pareto’s thought. While some of his contemporary sociologists and political scientists would theorize beneficial changes in society, Pareto focuses on dysfunctional evolutions and sticky points where societies may be unable to get out of detrimental conditions. So Chapter 3 is the chapter where Charles Powers describes “The Role of Sticky Points in Pareto’s Theory of Social Systems”.

 

The empirical and pessimistic eye of Pareto is also present in his visions of political theory, as Joseph V. Femia describes in Chapter 4—“Pareto, Machiavelli, and the Critique of Ideal Political Theory”. A scientific understanding of human behavior requires that we look at human beings as real and not ideal creatures. This is why Pareto leans on the realism of Machiavelli, rather than the idealism of Kant, in his theories. And this realism, when combined with modern risk analysis, allows us to link Pareto to a variety of cultural and psychological patterns widely recognized and accepted today, as Alasdair Marshall and Marco Guidi demonstrate in Chapter 5—“The Idea of a Sociology of Risk and Uncertainty: Insight from Pareto”.

 

The relevance of Pareto in today’s debates and research agenda is pushed further by John Higley and Jan Pakulski in their chapter on “Pareto’s Theory of Elite Cycles: A Reconsideration and Application” (Chap. 6). They apply what may seem a vague theory of elite to the UK and the US governing elites of the twentieth century. It is unclear whether Pareto works or not when applied today. This question mark comes at a perfect time in the volume. So far one is exposed to the marvel of Pareto’s thinking, its correctness and applicability. One may be starting to question whether Pareto was this infallible intellect, underappreciated in his time and also in ours, who deserved a much larger role because of his continuous correctness. Higley and Pakulski remedy that sensation and bring back the fallibility, or at least imperfections, in a genius’ work. I see their chapter as sort of refreshing watershed, as it is followed by two other chapters more prone to see some of the deficiencies of Pareto. Alban Bouvier shows how Pareto may be more indebted to J.S. Mill than he is willing to admit—or than his readers are willing to admit (Chap. 7: “Pareto, Mill and the Cognitive Explanation of Collective Beliefs: Unnoticed ‘Middle-range Theories’ in the Trattato”). Similarly, Giorgio Baruchello shows how Pareto may be more indebted to Aristotle than to Plato in his understanding of the role of rhetoric.  Interestingly enough, in these two chapters, as well as in some preceding ones, there is subtle emphasis on the importance of language in communicating effectively and how Pareto may not have been gifted with it: a possible reason for the fact that his popularity does not necessarily reflects his contributions.

 

The breadth of Pareto’s understanding, or his willingness to accept the complexity of human behavior, is returned to in the last chapter of the volume (“Pareto’s manuscript on Money and the real Economy”) where Micheal McLure describes how Pareto rejects the quantity theory of money and is willing to integrate money in the general equilibrium model of Leon Walras, despite the unwillingness of the discipline to bridge the monetary and the real analysis.

 

The volume is an impressive and yet balanced testament of the breadth and stature of Pareto. Pareto does come out as a rounded Renaissance man, who for all that is pessimistic about the possibility of human improvement. He does come out as a scholar willing to break all disciplinary barriers and one who, as a consequence, stands alone. And probably today and more so in the future, when we also realize that many of the existing disciplinary boundaries are artificial constraints that limit our creativity and intellectual development, we will come to appreciate Pareto more. This volume is a step in that direction. 

 

“Karlson” – A Stasi “Kontakt Person”. An episode of Iceland’s Cold War legacy

 

Introduction

Iceland’s geographical position gave this small nation a special strategic importance in the political and military chess game between east and west during the Cold War era. Placed in the mid Atlantic, Iceland constituted an important post for the NATO defence forces and surveillance activities. This importance can be seen in the presence of American troops at a NATO base in Keflavik from 1951 until 2004. The military base and the NATO alignment created stark divisions among the population and was one of two major cleavages that characterized Icelandic politics throughout the post- WWII era, especially during the Cold War. The other cleavage that marked Icelandic politics of the time was the left-right dimension. The four traditional parties of the Icelandic party system ranked in a different order on these two continuums, with the right wing Independence Party allying with the Social Democrats in its support for NATO and the military base, while the centre agrarian Progressive Party supported NATO membership but joined forces with the Socialist Party in the opposition to the military base. The Socialists however were stern opponents of both the base and NATO membership, while they expressed sympathetic views for the People’s Democratic Republics in the eastern bloc.[1] Left wing socialists held up ties with their sister parties in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, while bourgeois politicians cultivated their links with western or mainly American liberal democracy.  The political discussion was framed in terms of the Cold War and the press, which throughout most of the 20th century was a party press, continuously suggested that the political motives of their opponents were conspicuously linked to or derived from either the interests of Soviet or Eastern European communism or US capitalist imperialism.

It was in this circumstances that in the fifties and sixties young left wing people sought to undertake their university education in the Eastern block and more often than not the Socialist Party in Iceland (SEI) was in one way or another the go-between in arranging for such student positions. Many of these left wing students kept contact with each other even though they did not study in the same place or country. At a point in the late fifties these students had formed an organisation, SÍA, Sósíalistafélag Íslendinga Austantjalds (The Society of Socialist Icelanders in the Eastern Bloc) that had considerable influence within SEI, the Icelandic Socialist Party.[2] In 1962 members of the youth organisation of the conservative Independence Party managed to get hold of – in fact steal – some of the internal correspondence of the SÍA group and subsequently the correspondence was published letter by letter in the daily newspaper Morgunblaðið along with some political explanations from a right wing standpoint. The correspondence was also published by the Conservative youth organization, Heimdallur, in a special booklet labelled the “Red Book”. Remarkable as it may sound, the correspondence between the Icelandic students in SÍA shows a great deal of criticism of the socialist system as practiced in the Eastern bloc, though in general of course their views were very sympathetic to the People’s Democratic Republics. From the standpoint of the conservatives in Iceland the purpose of the publication of the SÍA correspondence was to show that the students in Eastern Europe, along with the Socialist Party of Iceland, were plotting a communist takeover in cooperation with their communist allies in the east, even though they knew that the system was not working well and had all sorts of flaws.[3] This whole affair exemplifies the frenzy and the tone of the political discussion in Iceland during the Cold War and the suspicion that was created around the students that studied in the Eastern Bloc.

The legacy of heated feelings of the Cold War has in many ways survived the Cold War itself. The demand for some sort of reckoning or historical rectification has frequently come up, particularly in relation to the publication of documents that have become accessible after the fall of communism. This has been felt in Iceland mainly at a general political level but its implications have also been personal – putting the spotlight on the individuals that supported communism and in particular those who studied in the Democratic People’s Republics, not the least the German Democratic Republic. This paper will examine to what extent demands for a historical reckoning are relevant by looking at a particular case that can be found in the Stasi archives. By conducting a case study of this kind, a light is shed on important factors that tend to be lost in the more ideological and normative public political discussion. The case examined is the one of a young student who became a Stasi informer in the early 1960s, know as “Kontakt Person Karlsson”.

 

“Kontact Person (KP) Karlson”

According to the archives of East Germanys State security service (Stasi) one Icelandic student cooperated with the Stasi while studying in East Germany.[4] His name was Guðmundur Ágústsson, who after returning to Iceland became a bank manager. In 1959 he arrived as a young student via Vienna in East Germany, where he first attended a language course in Leipzig before taking up his studies at the University of Economics in Berlin-Karlshorst. Later his sister followed him to East Berlin.

On the 9 February 1963, four years after entering East Germany, a note is found in the Stasi files concerning “making contact with the person”.[5] Before this remark in the files, the Stasi had already gathered information about Guðmundur Ágústsson , since a report explains that he seemed to be “open towards our problems”.[6] In this first description of Guðmundur Ágústsson to be found in the files, his appearance is described as “modest and dutiful”, also his “perfect moral conduct” is underlined,[7] contrary to the one of his sister who, according to the report, is “in some cases very impulsive”.[8]

According to the minutes of the first meeting between the Lieutenant Koch as representative of the Stasi and Guðmundur Ágústsson, Koch explained to the Icelandic student that lately pubic disorder in East Germany was increasingly initiated through West Berlin and therefore it was necessary for GDR “to take measures against the enemy’s intentions. In order to do so we have to involve foreigners, and since we knew that he [Guðmundur Ágústsson] was a member of our brother party SEI, we have turned to his person”.[9] According to the minutes Guðmundur Ágústsson answered positively to the request of the Stasi; he agreed to visit West Berlin and establish contacts with students there as well as to report on activities at the University of Economics where he studied.

Guðmundur Ágústsson was, according to the Stasi files, one of 25 Icelandic students studying at the time in the GDR. All were members of the SEI. They all came to East Germany through the mediation of the SEI or the Federation of Icelandic Trade Unions. During their first meeting Lieutenant Koch asked Guðmundur Ágústsson not to talk with anyone about his contact to the Stasi and they agreed to use the codename “Karlson” for him. After this meeting the Stasi run “Karlson” as a “Kontakt Person” (KP) in its files. “Kontakt Persons” were individuals used by the Stasi, sometimes without their knowledge, but also, as in this case, people who knowingly cooperated with the Stasi. “Karlson” knew, as the documents indicate, that his interlocutors were working for the Stasi.

“Karlson’s” first job assignment consisted of establishing a contact with an Icelandic student in West Berlin, “with the aim of assessing if this contact could be further exploited”. In order to do so “Karlson” should find out, “with whom he [the friend] has contact”, and further, he should report about groups and “their participation in actions against the anti-fascist protective barrier” (meaning the Berlin Wall)[10] and evaluate the general mood in West Berlin. “Karlson”, according to the minutes, agreed to do so. But he did not agree to introduce his acquaintances in West Berlin to the Stasi.[11] The reason he gave was that in his opinion the friend “was politically not ready”.[12] However “Karlson” proposed approaching another Icelander in West Berlin who might be willing to cooperate with the Stasi. According to “Karlson” this was a friend who had gotten an invitation from the Free University of Berlin to become a lecturer. The minutes state that at this time it had not yet been decided whether the acquaintance would accept the job at the Free University or not, because in the words of “Karlson”, a “decision on this matter would be made by the SEI”.[13]

Five weeks later at the following meeting “Karlson” could not report much, because he had not traveled to West Berlin. However, he had by now learned that his friend would take the position at the Free University in West Berlin. Until the year 1962 the acquaintance had been working as a lecturer at the University of Greifswald. Both he and his wife were members of the SEI. “The KP estimated the [name blackened] as a very humorous and outgoing person, who sometimes because of his comical appearance, his physique and his facial expressions is viewed as ridiculous.”[14]

Furthermore, “Karlson” reported in this meeting that he had recently received another visit from an Icelander, but he was politically not organized and in “his political development not yet mature”. Therefore “Karlson” declined bringing him into contact with the Stasi. In addition the Stasi noted in the minutes of the meeting that the KP would “soon get his own flat on the basis of his collaboration and his political work.”[15]

In May 1963 Lieutenant Koch gave his first evaluation of his Icelandic spy:

The [Kontact Person] is honest in the cooperation, but had not yet been reviewed. He takes his tasks seriously, makes his own proposals and he is venturous. His [cooperation] is based on conviction.

Control: Regular meetings every 14 days in the CA [Conspiratorial Apartment].

Range of duty: Supply of suitable candidates for recruitment. Naming appropriate candidates, as well as being used on special occasions in West Berlin.”[16]

In the following meeting “Karlson” and his Stasi officer discussed mainly how to establish the actual contact with the Icelandic lecturer at the Free University in Berlin. First of all, it was agreed that there was “no need to pretend to be a member of the press, but the KP should just contact him as an employee of the Stasi”.[17] “Karlson” agreed to organize the meeting. During the meeting they discussed three more Icelandic students living in West Berlin, but the minutes state that “Karlson” did not want to be the person who “arranges the meeting”.[18] Therefore they agreed on a different approach: while “Karlson” would celebrate the moving into his new apartment with the Icelanders from West Berlin, he would contact the Stasi as soon as his Icelandic friends would leave. On the way back to West Berlin the Stasi would have then the possibility “to address” the Icelanders at the checkpoint in Friedrichstraße: “this way the (KP) would be kept out from the conversation and the staff can safely carry out their own conversation.”[19]

At this meeting it was further agreed that “Karlson” would participate at the upcoming regional Social Democratic Party Congress as a member of the media and report to the Stasi about it. Furthermore he should monitor the preparations for the rallies on May 1 in West Berlin. One day before the first of May “Karlson” received specific instructions. In particular, he should find out where the loudspeaker van with the “inflammatory agitation” was stationed that was supposed to “disturb the activities on May 1 in democratic Berlin”.[20]

During this meeting the status of the recruitment of the Icelandic lecturer was also discussed. According to “Karlson” the Icelandic lecturer wanted to find out whether the people whom he would meet were “really from the Stasi”.[21] Furthermore, the Icelandic lecturer informed “Karlson” that the Senate of the Free University of Berlin had told him that they were informed about his membership in the SEI. They also warned him not to get involved with “Russian agents”.[22]

At the next meeting, on the 1st of May, “the Kontakt Person ‘Karlson’ had returned from his excursion to West Berlin and shared his observations about the deployment of the police, the position of the radio car, the tribune and more, which were then immediately submitted to the headquarter.”[23]

According to the minutes of the meetings “Karlson” reported about his intended trip to England, France and Italy. The minutes end with the note that the next meetings will be arranged by phone. Although there are no further minutes of meetings to be found in the archives, one can assume that the contact continued, since a receipt exists for the 28 January 1964 with the note: “The Kontakt Person ‘Karlson’ was given 50 DM for costs.”[24]

On 20th of November 1964, Lieutenant Koch closed the file, since “Karlson” had returned to Iceland. The file contains also the exact statistics of the border crossings by “Karlson” to West Berlin, and thanks to the collection of data by the Stasi, we also know that “Karlson” for example, on the 4th of February 1964, brought “2 nylon shirts; 2 pairs of women’s stockings, 20 PCs. cigarillos (Intershop); 250 gr coffee and 1 kg bananas”[25] from West Berlin to East Berlin.

The Icelandic lecturer at the Free University in West Berlin refused being recruited by the Stasi. On the 19 December 1963 one meeting had taken place between the lecturer and the Stasi at Café Sofia in East Berlin. At this meeting the Icelander stressed the “security of his person”. He said that “if the contact should become known it would have serious consequences for the party and him.” He also pointed out in this context the “unprofessional work of the security organs of the Soviet Union concerning the radar station in Iceland, where arrests had been made and which greatly damaged the reputation of the Soviet Union and caused great dismay for the comrades of the SEI.”[26] Lieutenant Koch was not very optimistic about a possible cooperation, since the Icelandic lecturer said that he “does not want to have anything to do with the secret service”.[27] But at least the reader of the files learns that the Icelander was very “sloppily dressed”, wore summer shoes in December and “a grey suit, a red shirt and a blue tie”.[28]

 

“Kontakt Person Karlson” revisited

In Iceland a discussion of the relations between Icelanders, Communist parties and secret service organizations in the eastern bloc have regularly surfaced – not only throughout the Cold War but also in the post Cold War era. Several times the issue has come up whether some Icelander had been working for Stasi.[29]

In early February 1995 a documentary film, “Í nafni sósíalismans”, (In the Name of Socialism) by the historian Valur Ingimundarsson and the journalist Árni Snævarr was shown by RÚV, the Icelandic State Broadcasting Television. The film was based on some documents that the authors had had access to after the opening of the Stasi archives in Germany and it spurred some discussion in the Icelandic media.[30] The name of the banker Guðmundur Ágústsson came up, as it appeared that he had been a Stasi agent in the period 1963-1964. The documentary claimed that Guðmundur Ágústsson had the codename “Karlson” in the Stasi files, and that one of his missions was to recruit Árni Björnsson, who at the time was a guest lecturer at the Free University in West Berlin. Árni acknowledges in the film that he had had some encounters with the Stasi, but that he had not answered indirect requests for him to become an informer for the secret organization. He does however mention an incident when his nice had been visiting him and had gone to a theatre show in East Berlin. When she did not return, Árni Björnsson became worried and went to a border control gate to ask about her. There Árni was detained for a while, until a Stasi officer came and asked if he had not received a message from them some while ago. Árni Björnsson acknowledged that and asked about his nice. There were no news of the girl, but in light of the circumstances Árni Björnsson thought it would be wise to agree to meet with the officer two weeks later. He says that he met with a Stasi officer two weeks later in a coffee shop and that was the end of it.

On the other hand, Guðmundur Ágústsson, alias “Karlson”, had refused to talk to the makers of the documentary, so his side of the story appeared in a newspaper only after the film had been shown on national TV. In an exclusive interview with the newspaper DV, Guðmundur Ágústsson explains that he had agreed to do some trivial exercises for Stasi in order to secure his own peace and eventually a safe passage home for him, his German wife and their child. Guðmundur Ágústsson refers to his contact person at Stasi (Lieutenant Koch) as the “young man with the cigarette”. He tells of a “spy mission” to West Berlin in the following way:

I met the young man with the cigarette and he asked me if I could go over to West Berlin and check if there was a military truck convoy in a certain boulevard in the southern part of the city. I was also supposed to stop by the Wall there in the neighborhood and see if a big hole was being dug in the ground behind a hill. I went to these places, but there were no army trucks, no digging and no hole. So I stood there like a fool. I went back and told the young man that nothing was there. That was the last I heard from Stasi. I probably did not pass the test or possibly Stasi was just training the young man in talking to somebody.[31] 

Later in the interview Guðmundur Ágústsson reflects on the documentary value of the Stasi files about himself. “I understand that there is a large folder on me in the Stasi archives. I do not think I want to see it. But the documents are there and people must then remember that the text that is written there is just what a man with a cigarette thought about me. He might even have been trying to look good in the eyes of his superiors. I never wrote a single letter for them.”

As it is apparent by now, two parallel stories have been told of the same course of actions involving  “Karlson”. On the one hand there are the files written by Lieutenant Koch, whilst on the other there are the stories and experiences as these are remembered by both Guðmundur Ágústsson, the student, and Árni Björnsson, the lecturer. Much of the factual evidence comes forth in both stories, but the interpretation and explanations of what actually happened and what it meant is very different.
Whose truth? – a discussion

After the Berlin wall came down and the Stasi archives were opened the news came to Iceland that Guðmundur Ágústsson had been a Stasi informer in 1963-1964. More than 30 years later, in 1995, Guðmundur Ágústsson had to explain to the Icelandic press that by cooperating with Stasi he had “secured himself peace and a safe passage home with his German wife and child”.[32] And still just over ten years after the explanations in the DV newspaper, Árni Björnsson, who was the friend of Guðmundur Ágústsson that worked and lived in West Berlin in 1963-1964, came forth in the scholarly magazine Þjóðmál to explain his involvement with Guðmundur Ágústsson and Stasi. Árni Björnsson was reacting to another article in the magazine where he was named as a likely Stasi informant.[33] The title of Árni Björnsson’s article is “Stasi and I. What is the truth?” He does not takes issue with the Stasi files themselves or even the reports by the Stasi officer that approached him, but points out that they are based on the officer´s personal interpretation, social conditions and circumstances. He therefore asks whether that interpretation is necessarily the whole truth.  In other words, Árni Björnsson is suggesting a cautious approach in interpreting the files and documents that can be found in the Stasi archives.

At least two lessons can be derived from comparing the two different accounts at issue. Firstly, it seems clear that Stasi did not necessarily ask its Icelandic informers to collect sensitive or hidden information, but asked for all sorts of public information, such as reporting about public student meetings and the curriculum of the Free University. This could make the Stasi request for cooperation look almost trivial to the student in question, so much that it would seem irrational to refuse such a small favour and risk being considered uncooperative by such a powerful organization as Stasi was then.

Secondly, the Stasi files give us a fragmented and indeed limited view of what really was going on. This is due to three main factors:

a) The nature of the reports to be filled out gives limited space for accounting for different and sometimes complex situations.
b) The evaluation and interpretation of the writer of the report is subjective and coloured by Marxist ideological phrases. Furthermore the reports are written by officers for their superiors and it can be expected that things that might be thought interesting for the secret police are overemphasized.
c) The fact that some of the files and reports may be missing limits their comprehensiveness.

In light of the latter point, an important lesson can be learned about the way in which documents and reports of official agencies not meant for publication, be they secret agencies or ordinary embassies, should be interpreted. To be sure, uncovering such secret files can provide valuable and important information, as recent WikiLeaks documents on embassies have shown, for instance. However, such documents call for careful consideration of the circumstances in which they were written and of the values and motivations of those who wrote the files. The limitation of the files makes them useful for political polemics, since they leave so much space for interpretation, but not for careful, detailed historical accounts of the past. And last but not the least, one may also just be stunned by their banality.

 

References

Guðmundsson, Birgir and Meckl, Markus, 2008, Á sumarskóm í desember. Ísland í skýrslum austurþýsku öryggislögreglunnar Stasi, in Saga, Tímarit Sögufélags, XLVI: 2, 2008, pp. 86 – 113.

Knabe, Hubertus,1999, West-Arbeit des MfS. Das Zusammenspiel von „Aufklärung“ und „Abwehr“Ch. Links Verlag, Berlin

Ólafsson, Jón , 1999,  Kæru félagar.Íslenskir sósíalistar og Sovétríkin 1920-1960, Mál og menning, Reykjavík

Snævarr, Árni and Ingimundarson, Valur, 1992, Liðsmenn Moskvu, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík



Endnotes

[1] Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (1977) The Icelandic Multilevel Coalition System. Expanded version of a chapter in E. Browne (ed) Cabinet Coalitions in Western Democracies. Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Iceland, Reykjavík.

[2] Ólafsson, Jón , 1999,  Kæru félagar.Íslenskir sósíalistar og Sovétríkin 1920-1960, Mál og menning, Reykjavík bls. 212-213

[3] Ibid pp. 214

[4] In the archives of the Stasi there are approximately 250 pages concerning Iceland. Among the material is one folder concerning the collaboration of an Icelander with the secret service. A complete overview over the material found is given in Icelandic in the article: Birgir Guðmundsson and Markus Meckl, Á sumarskóm í desember. Ísland í skýrslum austurþýsku öryggislögreglunnar Stasi, in Saga, Tímarit Sögufélags, XLVI: 2, 2008, pp. 86 – 113.

[5] Report on the contact of the person, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, BL. 9.

[6] Investigation report, ibid. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 5

[9] Report on the contact of the person, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, BL. 10.

[10] Minutes of the Meeting, 20. 2. 1963, ibid. 13.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid. 14

[14] Minutes of the Meeting for the 15.3.1963, p. 15-16.

[15] Ibid p. 16.

[16] Assessment of “Carlsson”, dated on the 7.5. 1963, ibid p. 18. In the documents one can find different spellings for “Karlson”.

[17] Minutes of the Meeting for the 19. 4. 1963, ibid. 19.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid. 20.

[20] Minutes of the meeting, 30. 4.1963, p. 21.

[21]Ibid. 21.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Report from 6 May 1963, ibid, page 23.

[24] Recipt, 28.1.1964, ibid., page 27.

[25] BStU 12225/66

[26] Report of the 20 12 1963, BStU, central archives, 1496/65, p. 29 f. The matter the lecturer might be referring to here is an episode often called “The Hafravatns case” that came up in February 1963. Two deputies from the Soviet Embassy were expelled from Iceland for trying to recruit an Icelandic man as a spy. See: “Miklu fargi af mér létt”, Morgunblaðið 28th February, 1963 pp. 23-24

[27] Ibid. 33.

[28] Ibid.

[29] For a discussion of these connections between Icelanders and the Eastern Bloc see e.g.: Árni Snævarr and Valur Ingimundarson, 1992, Liðsmenn Moskvu, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík; Jón Ólafsson, 1999, Kæru félagar, Mál og menning, reykjavík ; Rauða bókin :leyniskýrslur SÍA, 1984, Heimdallur, Reykjaví k; Helgi Hannesson, 1989, “Sósíalistafélag Íslendinga austantjalds og SÍA skjölin 1956-63”, Háskóli Íslands. Sagnfræðistofnun Ritröð sagnfræðinema, Reykjavík.

[30] See Morgunblaðið web page: http://www.mbl.is/mm/gagnasafn/grein.html?grein_id=176466 and DV, daily on the 6th and the 7th of February 1995.

[31] „Fékk frið og heimferð fyrir konu og barn“, DV 7th of February 1995

[32] DV, daily newspaper. 7.th of February, 1995 pp. 1-2

[33] Árni Björnsson, „Stasi og ég. Hvað er sannleikur“. Þjóðmál II:4 (Winter 2006), pp. 28

Joseph Femia (ed.), Vilfredo Pareto (London: Ashgate, 2009)

However, apart from Pareto’s posthumous peak of fame in the 1930s and 1940s, when his work inspired a generation of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, genuine engagement with his studies has been actually quite rare over recent decades. To most contemporary researchers, Pareto is primarily little else but a name in the “rosary” of great dead white men encountered during one’s undergraduate studies, and then a label for two mathematical notions that young academics must familiarise themselves with. Even Pareto’s crucial contribution to political science, namely his theory about the circulation of the elites, seems to be poorly known these days.

Perhaps, as Joseph Femia—editor of the volume hereby reviewed—suggests in his concise yet comprehensive introduction to the life and work of “the hermit of Céligny”, it is true that Pareto’s cynical notion of social equilibrium, his lack of faith in human progress and collective enlightenment, his elusion of the comfortable categories of normal science, and the overwhelming theoretical as well as historical analyses in which he indulged for the sake of scientific completeness, scholarly precision, intellectual integrity, and academic pedantry make of Pareto one of the least inspiring authors that ever reached the status of “classic” in any discipline.

Yet, several scholars of the 20th century did read his work, no matter how uninspiring, depressing, tedious and taxing it could be. And they did not only read it, but also recognised its remarkable character and its profound insightfulness. In particular, many seemed to find Pareto’s work extremely appealing in connection with the general decline in individual liberty, social wellbeing and collective hope informing the aftermath of the First World War and of the ensuing boom-bust financial cycle of the 1920s, which unleashed the Great Depression and the affirmation of fascist regimes all over Continental Europe.

Some scholars, albeit fewer than in the inter-war grim interlude, have kept finding Pareto congenial after that time. Amongst them, Femia has proved himself to be one of today’s main experts on Pareto within Anglophone academia. In addition to the volume reviewed hereby, to him we owe two further recent books on Pareto: Pareto and Political Theory (New York: Routledge, 2006) and Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries (London: Ashgate, 2012). Whereas the former, as the title indicates, focuses upon the work of Pareto as a political thinker, the latter, co-edited with Alasdair Marshall, explores the ramifications of Pareto’s contribution for contemporary areas of inquiry, whether sociological (e.g. stratification research), economic (e.g. monetary issues) or humanistic (e.g. rhetorical reasoning).

The 2009 volume that Femia edits comprises three parts, each containing essays on Pareto by variously influential scholars of the 20th century. Specifically, Part I focuses upon methodological aspects of Pareto’s contribution to the social sciences, most notably sociology rather than economics, written in the 1930s and 1960s. Part II explores broader aspects of his social theory and includes studies written between the 1960s and 1990s. Two of them deserve a special mention, i.e. “Vilfredo Pareto’s Sociology in his Letters to Maffeo Pantaleoni” and “Introduction to Pareto’s Sociology” (pp. 67—87 and 89—112), for they were authored by Italy’s leading liberal thinker Norberto Bobbio and constitute a sort of “classics” in Italian Pareto studies. Noteworthy is also “Pareto, Vilfredo: Contributions to Sociology” (pp. 171—80), written by US action theorist Talcott Parsons, who is probably the most famous heir of Pareto’s in the Anglophone world. Part III discusses Pareto’s politics, especially with regard to English-speaking countries, and offers reflections over the last three decades of the 20th century by, inter alia, Nobel-prize economist Amartya Sen (“The Impossibility of a Paretan Liberal”, pp. 267—72) as well as Joseph Femia himself (“Pareto and the Critique of Justice”, pp. 317—29). All together, these essays represent the most articulate introduction to Pareto’s social and political thought, as well as its reception over the past 70 years, currently available in the English language.

What is more, given the high quality of the scholarly work selected by the editor, such an introduction avoids the unfortunate yet widespread oversimplifications and blatantly erroneous depictions of Pareto’s thought, which is often “pigeon-holed” into science-worshipping positivism, psychological reductionism and proto-fascist authoritarianism.

Certainly, Pareto did attempt to apply the induction- and experiment-based scientific methods of physics and chemistry to the study of social phenomena. He did so in order to stress and charter the uniformities of human behaviour due to fundamental instincts and mental dispositions characteristic of our species, as well as to criticise much-venerated democratic regimes qua demagogic plutocracies. Nevertheless, he never denied the limitations intrinsic to the observation-constrained, abstraction-prone, descriptive, probabilistic hypotheses of the natural sciences. Indeed, even the field of economics, which he himself had contributed to formalise by adopting elements of the mathematics used in physics, had been abandoned by Pareto because of its inability to grasp the non-rational elements of the human psyche, which caused rationality-based economic models to fail regularly and inevitably in their predictions about the future. As Pareto had come to realise, the actual social man was not much of an homo economicus. C.B. Macpherson’s 1937 essay “Pareto’s ‘General Sociology'” (pp. 3—16) in Part I of Femia’s book is most relevant in this respect, as it accuses Pareto of adhering too much to the allegedly value-free methods of empirical science, yet revealing as well Pareto’s awaraness of the profound differences existing between the study of inanimate or animal phenomena and the study of value-driven human beings.

Analogously, Pareto researched and categorised the fundamental instincts or sentiments (“residues”) determining human action within societies and commonly rationalised post-factum into fallacious arguments (“derivations”) and doctrines (“derivatives”) in order to please yet another sentiment of ours, that is, our desire for explanations that sound logical to us. However, he never denied the ever-changing creative power of the human being as a semiotic animal, who is capable of activating and intensifying certain instincts and dispositions by engaging in symbolic activities. The tension between the fundamentally non-rational universal constant of “residues” and the possibility for self-reflective, cunning minds to manipulate them intelligently is discussed in Bobbio’s work as well as in the 1972 essay by Vincent Tarascio chosen for this collection (“Marx and Pareto on Science and History: A Comparative Analysis”, pp. 145—58), which also belongs to Part II.

Even less did Pareto deny the dangers to social order and public wellbeing stemming from political doctrines fostering despotism, censorship, nationalism and racism. Indeed, Pareto was very much an old-fashioned 19th-century liberal, who certainly disapproved of universal suffrage and other socially “dangerous” socialist aims, but commended the peaceful, direct male democracy of small Swiss cantons as the best example of political life in his age and regarded the liberty of the individual as paramount. In nuce, Mussolini’s deification of the State and his charismatic leadership of the masses did not belong to Pareto and their common association is, as S.E. Finer called it, “a misfortune” (“Pareto and Pluto-Democracy: The Retreat to Galapagos”, pp. 305—15; 305).

A scientist but not a devotee of scientism, a pessimist about human reason but not an irrationalist, and a conservative liberal but not a fascist: Pareto was a complex man and a complex thinker. He tried to mirror in his work the complexities of human phenomena themselves, thus avoiding explanatory shortcuts and ideological simplifications that would have probably granted him a much wider audience and a much broader appreciation. Femia’s book, which contains selected essays by some of the most eminent intellectuals who have written about Pareto over the last seven decades, bears witness to such complexities. It is therefore no easy book to read; yet no more candid depiction of Pareto’s approach and investigations would be possible.

Kristina Kappelin, Berlusconi – Italienaren (Stockholm: Brombergs, 2010)

Kappelin knows, and loves, Italy: there is no trace, in her work, of a superiority complex towards Italians – such folkloristic people! ? which is on the contrary a common feature of some foreign media when dealing with Italy. Rather, Kappelin tries to understand how came that a country with a unique cultural and historical heritage has let itself be bluffed by a man who has – perhaps irreparably – compromised Italy’s reputation in the world.

And the book is indeed not only about the founder of “Forza Italia”, but instead, as it is made clear by the meaningful title (Berlusconi. The Italian), about Berlusconi as embodiment of some national peculiarities, so to say.

Italy in the whole have not yet been able to reflect about Berlusconi’s almost twenty-year dominance over the country’s political and economic life, pressed as it is just now (February 2012) by a never-ending emergency – the risk of a financial collapse – which caused, in November 2011, the appointment of a “technical government” (i.e. voted by the Parliament but not resulting from the last general election) being charged with the task of crisis management. Furthermore, although “style” is significant – professor Mario Monti does not “peekaboo” the German chancellor (Kappelin reminds Berlusconi’s blunders in chapter seven, Tittut i världen) and seems not to be used to spend his nights with twenty- to thirty young girls at the same time – the common feeling is that there has not occurred any shift in economic and social policies, which remain unfair and not effective (at least in the view of re-launching the economy and not only balancing public finances). This sense of continuity prevents to look at “Berlusconism” as a close (?) period in Italian history.

What does Berlusconi’s success reveal of Italy, according to Kappelin’s book? Basically, three aspects: the power of organised crime; the Catholic Church’s influence upon domestic politics and culture; the well-grounded male chauvinism.

The first two points (which particularly chapter sex, Maffian, and eight, Klockorna i Peterskyrkan, focuse on, although they are recurring issues all over the book) are frequently cause of embarrassments to Italians when talking with foreigners.

And indeed it would be unthinkable in Sweden – Kappelin is not so explicit, but the starting sentence of her book is: how come that Italians vote for Berlusconi? ? to pervert justice in the way Berlusconi did in Italy (by the notorious ad hoc laws, described in their origin and content in the chapter five, Konflikten med rättväsandet), and to witness powerless to the connivance between politics and criminality. This is due probably to a political tradition in Nordic countries which Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh have described as a high degree of social trust, meant both as trust in other people, including strangers, and confidence in common institutions due to their transparency[1].

However, Kappelin’s thesis is that what explains why  a politician, who from a Swedish point of view is completely incomprehensible, has been so successful is, besides his relationship with organised crime on one hand and with the Catholic Church on the other hand (at least until the last sex affaires), male chauvinism: a key factor, the Swedish journalist stresses already in the Introduction, in understanding Italy’s decline, from the economic stagnation (now recession) to the lack of trust in the future. And in chapter one (Italien och Italienarna. En introduktion) Kappelin points out indeed that the country is like a journey back in time, in a masculine and sensual world, where “l’apparenza” (look)[2] means all and where a downward compromise has been achieved between the individual and the State: as you (State) do not accomplish your duties towards me (citizen), I am not bound to accomplish mine towards you. It is the triumph of the “furbo” (cunning fellow)[3].

With such a background, it is quite obvious that women have no chance, with few exceptions, to establish themselves as political and economic independent actors. Their unhappy fortune in Berlusconi’s Italy is the subject of chapter three (Madonnan, horan och Silvio Berlusconi): those that are good looking are reduced to nothing more than ornamental elements in a society ruled by old and unappeasable men and therefore appointed as parliamentary members and even ministers exactly because of their “apparenza”; the others, the common women, who are not mistresses of some sultan, are mostly doomed to insignificance in the economy and in politics.

Berlusconi, Kappelin insists on this point, has not invented male chauvinism, which on the contrary is well-grounded in the country’s culture; his sin with no redemption is to have turned this national inclination into a rule and the “velina”[4] (young girls almost naked whose only task in Berlusconi’s TV programs is to shake their body in alluring ways) into the ideal model of womanhood.

And thus we come to another valuable contribution of Kappelin’s book, after the effective part on women’s role as mirror of Italy’s decadence (and again here we could remind that on the contrary Nordic countries are on the top in the world’s gender equality ratios): to the huge concentration of media power achieved by Berlusconi much attention is drawn upon (see particularly chapter four, Makten over medierna), but this problem is not presented at all as an Italian peculiarity. Rather, Kappelin warns that also countries which have repeatedly condemned Berlusconi for his conflict of interest have no safe defence against such a risk.

The final part of the book focuses on how Berlusconi has changed Italian political style, turning electoral campaigns into sales where even the promise of one million – and not half a million, as Kappelin writes – new jobs can be sold to people in search of an encouraging fairy-tale, with immigrants welcomed as scapegoats (chapter nine, Dragkampen i Italien – resultat och misslyckanden), and on the dangerous meeting between authoritarian democracy and media populism (chapter ten, Auktoritär demokrati och medial populism). No one before Berlusconi, Kappelin points out, had dared to draw a comparison between Mussolini and himself with a kind of self-congratulation. But what the author argues is not that the founder of “Forza Italia” is the new Mussolini: the difference is that the latter aimed at building a new Italian,  whilst the former is satisfied with the existing one. The point is rather that the centre-right parties, with Berlusconi in the forefront, have taken over and reverted the “cultural hegemony” based since 1945 on antifascism as the key-source of national identity, and have systematically put down liberal institutions (starting from parliamentary and judicial powers) – and politics itself.

In this perspective, Berlusconi’s Italy appears as a political laboratory for the whole Europe. This is the somehow not expected conclusion from a non-Italian author, which enables the book to be not only a commented review of stereotypes about Italians (and about differences between Northern and Southern Europe), but a more demanding reflection about possible future developments of democracy at an international level. Out of Italy many have laughed when seeing Berlusconi’s blunders and listening to his hymn (“Meno male che Silvio c’è”), but – Kappelin warns – his “style” has become a model for a new generation of right-wing politicians, starting from David Cameron in the UK.

Thus it is not easy to get rid of Berlusconism as though it were a mere interlude in Italian history, perhaps cherishing the always comfortable thesis that it has been a further demonstration of the Gattopardo’s core idea: in Italy everything is to be changed so that nothing changes. On the contrary, Berlusconi, this is Kappelin’s conclusion, has substantially changed the way Italians look at themselves – and at the the others – as well as the ways of contemporary politics. And it will take time to go back to previous ones – or to find something new.


[1] See H. Berggren, L. Trägårdh, Social Trust and Radical Individualism. The Paradox at the Heart of Nordic Capitalism, in The Nordic Way, Stockholm, Global Utmaning, 2010, pp. 18-19.

[2] In Italian in the book, see p. 18.

[3] In Italian in the book, see p. 29.

[4] The book has been written before the “Ruby affaire”.

Ingerid S Straume and J F Humphrey (eds.), Depoliticization: The Political Imaginary of Global Capitalism (Malmö: NSU Press, 2011)

This split, so the thesis goes, aims to stifle any truly creative political critique of our institutions, thereby avoiding genuine structural changes that might hurt private capital’s interests. In this view, ‘depoliticization’ is the diminishing of any public capacity to imagine, create or deploy new forms, such that the depoliticizing political-economy split is an inherently anti-democratic defence of capitalism.

For example, discussion on who should bear the cost of the economic crisis is depoliticised. In business, transnational corporations wriggle out of any democratic scrutiny exercised in national interests. In law, institutions and rights become fixed in a way that can tend to immobilise political thought and action. In the symbolic field, undermining everything, the capacity to think or posit new institutional forms is deadened by fear and indifference.

In this way, runs the thesis, global capitalism feeds on depoliticization, so capitalists promulgate it until the freedom and autonomy of a political life is no longer possible. This authoritarian state is, the book suggests, the inevitable and imminent outcome. However, this is not so much a warning about fascism’s resurgence. Rather it is an intricate, provocative and mostly quite convincing theoretical elucidation of the subtle, sub-conscious architecture on which the current drift towards authoritarianism is constructed. The benefit of this work lies in the way it points out opportunities for a redesign: reconnecting politics with economy – politicising the debate, imagining and implementing new forms – becomes a key objective with a new and significant value.

Depoliticization assembles its tally of authors from five countries, representing over a dozen disciplines spanning economics, history and philosophy as well as political and social theory. There is a preponderance of Scandinavian contributors, but nevertheless the stated intention is to urge more transnational debate on our (perhaps Western) political fate and legacy.

In accordance with its central theme, the essays are organised in two parts: Economy and Politics. Opening with Straume’s more in-depth look at how the depoliticizing political-economy split leads to personal suffering (principally, it detaches us from reality and creativity), part one goes on to dissect capitalism’s ‘economic logic’. Arnason cites Baechler, Wallerstein, Boltanski and Chiapello to expose not only the irrational ‘spirit’ that underpins its multiple manifestations, but also and critically, the social-historical context that spawns it all. D T Cochrane’s ‘power theory’ harmonises Thorstein Veblen and Castoriadis in order to critique Marx’s Labour Theory of Value and pin down capitalism as ‘the valuation of control’. According to Lundkvist, this control commodity is used unaccountably by an oligarchy of transnational corporations to choke off market competition. Their strategically managed alliances and mergers give the lie to any notion of a ‘global free market’. Instead they spiral inexorably towards a ‘capitalist planned economy’. J F Humphrey rounds off part one by connecting the discussion to the current economic crisis. He draws out from Marx how money transforms from a means of exchange to become the ultimate commodity: production determines distribution, exchange and consumption, such that what is produced has no (social) value other than to satisfy the need for accumulation; or as Cochrane might say, control.

Blinkenberg builds on this in part two, working from Jacques Rancière’s argument that money as power requires the exclusion of ‘virtue’ (or perhaps ‘social value’). Rather, an ‘authoritative allocation of values’ ascribes virtue in order to legitimise acceptable political actors. Here depoliticization is a method of ‘value-neutral’ policing that safeguards the hierarchical distribution of power against democratic egalitarianism. Changing the hierarchy’s regimes for ‘truth-production’ by disclosing the function of truth, is what Foucault sees as the purpose of intellectual and political action, according to Jacobsen. Yet relativism, Foucault’s ‘tyranny of perspectives’, means that any claim to objective truth always proceeds from an infinite regression of fundamental hegemonic discourses, dissolving objectivity. Such impotence is perhaps made manifest in Europe’s Kafkaesque language shift from ‘pedagogy’ and ‘education’ to ‘learning’, as argued by Straume. Commodified and assessed by endlessly uncertain tribunals, ‘learning’ comes packed with a capitalist payload of quantitative, computable subtexts: competition, employment, product and again control are deemed virtuous for the ‘entrepreneurial citizen’. The lost ethos of autonomous critique, inspired by love in Castoriadis’ pedagogic scheme, is de-valued, de-personalised and effectively de-commissioned. Finally, Nilsen’s analysis of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut illustrates the outcome of extreme wealth inequality and a switch from ‘productive capitalism’ (growth) to ‘finance capitalism’ (no growth). This is demonstrably a grand repetition of deteriorating trust, consciousness and intelligence that sets up the apparently imminent, unavoidable descent into despotism and dictatorship.

But democracy’s shallow grave may not be dug yet. If you’re prepared to bury your head in the text and not the ground, you can find some genuinely useful arguments here.  For example, Cochrane’s frankly excellent reading of capitalism as ‘the valuation of control’ provides a strong theoretical case for competing to command assets socially. Similarly Straume’s first essay shows that depoliticization rests on the inability to provide ‘sufficiently robust meaning’, such that teaching critical thinking to every citizen becomes a political as well as an educational mission.

‘Depoliticization’ is not directly addressed in every essay; for some it remains at the side. However, the papers overlap each other well enough to be stitched together with a good narrative, and so the eight authors cover the theme well. Collectively, they delve deep into capitalism’s depoliticizing traits, often working at the level of language and meaning. There are some quite fascinating technical constructions offered in explanation of unconscious or unobvious shifts, such as: controlled ‘free markets’; consumption determined by production; or money, power and control commodified for accumulation. There are also references to more popular economics (Stiglitz and Soros for example) and the odd graph (not listed in the contents) to explain relevant numeric data.

Given their intensity and density, some of the essays are wonderfully clear although in at least two, the author’s purpose or line of thought becomes obscured; whether by poor writing or poor translation is unclear. More of a practical problem was the lack of an index; while the use of footnotes rather than endnotes means locating a cited source requires endless flicking.

But the only real issue was in terms of a personal take on ideas. For me the capitalist paradigm of ‘growth’ appears to be accepted without question, despite its physical impossibility. Moreover, there was a tendency to dismiss ‘logic’ or ‘evidence’ too readily, while quantity always seemed subordinate to quality. I would have liked to have seen these points more clearly and fully discussed, not lost in the background as ‘value-neutral’ givens. But then, this is not so much a criticism of the work as a rejoinder to the discussion; which the authors would surely welcome.

Giulio Santagata, Il braccio destro. Quindici anni di politica con Romano Prodi (Bologna: Pendragon, 2010)

Perhaps, the nearly three dozens of foreign citizens–British, Canadian, American, Icelandic, German, Mexican, Taiwanese and Scandinavian–who asked me this question were simply devoid of the knowledge, the economic interests, the political background, or the spiritual attitudes that have led millions of Italians to choose Berlusconi as their national leader and international representative. On the contrary, far from being a neutral question, all of these inquisitive foreign citizens displayed invariantly their genuine astonishment at Berlusconi’s electoral success, for they were unable to perceive in his public persona anything positive or appealing.

Most commonly, their negative perception of Berlusconi was associated with sad, stereotypical notions about Italy and the Italians, such as being lecherously over-sexed, endemically corrupt, and in bed with the Mafia. Sometimes, however, their negative perception was more sophisticated. In particular, there appeared to be recurrent concerns that billionaires or media moguls à la Berlusconi could establish new parties and seize self-servingly the democratic processes of their own native countries. In this perspective, my interlocutors seemed worried that some sort of “Berlusconism” could cross Italy’s boundaries and take over the rest of Europe, analogously to the historical experience of fascism, which emerged in Italy and was later adopted in as different countries as Portugal and Germany.

Giulio Santagata’s new book offers a different answer to this frequent, value-laden question that I was put so often over the past fifteen years. It does so by recounting with great analytical skill, vivid personal participation and significant intellectual honesty his own experience as Romano Prodi’s “right hand” over the past two decades of Italian political life—Romano Prodi being the one and only left-wing candidate to ever beat, twice, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy’s general elections.

The book comprises three sections, which are devoted respectively to: the history of the political alliance called “the Olive tree” (13-46); Santagata’s organisation of numerous electoral campaigns (49-87); and Romano Prodi’s two short-lived governments (91-146). Together, these three sections reveal the inner frailty and the limited outreach of the political coalition that supported Prodi’s candidacy and governments.

The main factor at play with regard to the coalition’s inner frailty would appear to have been the sheer number and variability of the political parties that formed it. Many, short-lived, endlessly reinventing themselves in search for an invariably evanescent appeal, these parties shared a common fear and a common fault. First of all, they were all afraid of a strong leadership, whether Prodi’s or anyone else’s. Secondly, they regarded each other not much as allies, but as competitors. Eventually, the need for visibility of so many parties and party leaders worked against Romano Prodi, given that his alleged supporters were busier attacking each other than striking jointly at Berlusconi and at his right-wing agenda.

The limited outreach of the same parties was due in primis to the limited resources and media connections available to them. In this respect, Berlusconi’s being a media mogul and billionaire running for office who, more or less manifestly, told newspapers and TV broadcasters what to say, did make a difference. Still, the obstinately self-referential aims of left-wing professional politicians does strike Santagata as equally relevant, for these quarrelsome political leaders claimed incessantly to know better than their own voters, who clearly liked the notion of a unified Italian left. Inevitably, such better-knowing strategists were shown to be tragically out of touch with their potential voters’ hopes and demands.

It must be realised that some of the hopes and demands of the Italian voters were likely to be the result of cunningly induced dreams and fears, which right-wing politicians were better able to exploit. After all, these politicians had contributed decisively to give shape to them, thanks to Berlusconi’s tight grip on Italy’s mass media. Similarly, some hopes and demands were clearly the expression of the vocal plethora of small- and medium-scale interest groups that Prodi’s government was trying to overcome in the name of liberal “modernity” and ever-useful “national interest”. Others could be even the desiderata of Italy’s organised crime and endemic corruption—sad stereotypes are not necessarily off the mark all the time.

Yet, a third element should be considered as well. Santagata hints at it in the final section of the book, in which he discusses the disastrous effects of the ongoing global economic crisis. The recipes that were proposed in the fifteen years of Prodi’s political career were very much in tune with those of, say, Britain’s New Labour or Germany’s social-democrats. Prodi’s governments were eager to liberalise the economy, privatise what little was left of public banks and State-owned industrial concerns, and, to a significant extent, ride the wave of rampant financial activities. Like Blair and Schroeder, Prodi was willing to embrace globalisation as a positive force. In this economic perspective, the difference between his novel “post-communist” left and Berlusconi’s right was not so pronounced.

On the contrary, the only voices to criticise left-wing liberalisations, privatisations and the embrace of globalisation were a handful of so-called “radicals” on the left of Prodi’s left, and even fewer old-fashioned nationalists on the right. Everybody else, the “moderate” and “right-thinking” majority, had taken aboard the “univocally liberal and free-market thought” that had once characterised staunchly right-wing politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (144).

In brief, a monolithic faith in the correctness of free trade and free-market economics was established in Italy too, both left and right of the political spectrum, soon after the collapse of the USSR. Certainly, there were the few exceptions noted above, but they were marginalised as a nostalgic leftover of the Cold War era. The seventy-year-old Soviet alternative to liberal capitalism had been proven utopian by the collapse of the Eastern bloc and, with it, any serious challenge to free trade and free-market economics. As a result, liberal capitalism was glorified not solely as the only path ahead, but also as the right one, as though the failure of the Soviet remedy meant that there had never been any pathology to begin with. Yet, after twenty years of “moderate” and “right-thinking” Thatcherism, the global economy entered in 2008 such a dramatic global crisis that even Berlusconi’s own minister of financial affairs was heard calling for “more public intervention” in the economy and “the unspeakable communist word ‘nationalisation’.” (144)

Possibly, as Santagata suggests, the result of this global crisis is that the left will stop being ashamed of its traditional socialist lexicon and reformist aims, thus rediscovering “ethics, equality, welfare, labour, solidarity… capitalism, sustainability, redistribution of wealth.” (144) Whether Romani Prodi will be the most credible Italian political leader to be at the helm of this counter-counter-reformation, though, is far from clear.