Tag Archives: Liberalism

A Short Introduction to the Proceedings of the Conference “The Reason of Passions: Emotion and Rationality in the Landscape of (Contemporary) Politics”

We are well aware that political life has always dealt with passions. But today it seems, in fact, that the liberal, rationalistic approach to politics has been almost completely replaced by its emotional dimension. Therefore, it seems necessary to explore the changing ways in which thought and feeling, rationality and passion, reason and sentiments, have been understood both in practice and in theoretical discussions, focusing on their public standing.

This issue contains the refined version of the papers presented at the conference on this topic, held in a period of two days at the University of Bergen in November 2019. The conference was organised as a joint effort by the Department of Philosophy of the University of Bergen (UiB), Norway, and the Department of Antiquity, Philosophy and History (DAFIST) of the University of Genoa, Italy.

The purpose of this conference was to approach the topic of the relations between rationality and emotions, wondering which part do they actually play in politics. In many ways, politics is the art of persuasion and often people are indeed persuaded to position  themselves on a given subject by emotional appeals rather than reasonable arguments. Within the political sphere, both past and present, one can actually find a complex mixture of rational arguments and emotional discourses.

In the dominant Western philosophical tradition, the relationship between reason and emotions has been marked by a conflict between various contrasting models of rationality and emotions. The sphere of rationality and that of passions have been often categorized according to a fundamental dichotomy: either the triumph of reason against the weakness of sentiments or, in the popular interpretation of Hume, the triumph of passions over reason. This dichotomy has also served as a starting base for conceptualizing politics, where already early-modern political theorists defined political autonomy as reason dominating the emotions and passions.

In The Passions and the Interests (1977), Albert Hirschman described how, in the process of modernization, the “passions”, motivating social and political behavior were transformed into modern “interests” and they were thereby assigned the role of containing the social and political destructive passions.

Until recent times, theorists have described both political movements and political affiliation as based on beliefs, ethics, and sentiments. In the last years, though, an “Affective Turn” has taken place both in analytic and continental philosophy, and in contemporary political studies. Emotions and affects are now becoming the object of extensive, multidisciplinary studies that challenge political liberalism’s idea that the emotions must be relegated to the private sphere. This “turn” highlights that the political cannot be understood without reference to human feelings.

However, the fundamental dichotomy between emotions and reason has not at all been overcome in the forms of current politics. While it is true that, today, emotions and passions are returning to the centre of the political scene, they often do so in a passive form. Contemporary politics consists more and more in an abuse and manipulation of the passions. Social media, for instance, has redefined the public sphere in ways that allow charismatic, intimidating and even hateful rhetoric to stand unchecked by editorial control. The space of public discussion has also increased to the point where quick “instinctive reactions” replace careful reasoning. One could ask if the “affective” political change consists in an increasingly oppressive use of the passions as forms of domination. The active function of passions and the way they can contribute to the processes of political democratisation and the conscious involvement of citizens need to be duly analysed; albeit always keeping in mind that  passions are ambiguous, for any feeling within a given political context, even the noblest – compassion and love, inter alia –, holds its limits and presupposes dangers.

This motivates the following questions: Do emotions, of any kind, pose a dangerous threat to rationality and political life? What, for instance, becomes of democracy when a rigorous and rational language in political debates is replaced by one that focuses on emotions, like hope or fear? Is it possible to build  up a democratic society with no recourse to passions, mutual trust and a belief in the right of every individual to participate in the social and political debates? If so, what kind of emotions are positive and what kind of emotions do hinder this development?

A key aim of the conference was seeking to define the possible paths of reflection on this topic and study the relationships between reason and emotions, concepts of rationality and “structures of feelings” as a marker of the political arena.

The European research team that has long been engaged in social and ethical reflection about cultural changes in the modern and contemporary epoch chose to address these questions by a variety of approaches.

At the opening of the conference Anat Biletzki questions populism in the light of the relationship between reasons and passions, and wonders if it is an ideology or a tool. Retracing different definitions given by political scholars, Biletzki notes how some such as Kazin and Urbinati define populism as an instrument while others, such as Mudde, Kaltwasser and Pappas, consider it as an ideology. Through an in-depth analysis of the different forms of populism, the article highlights how, understood as a rhetorical tool, it can be used for the most different and contrasting ideologies of the right or left. If populism is an ideology, that is to say, a vision of the world that has people as the highest value, it implies a form of politics that combines reason and passion. And although on the right it can deteriorate into fascism, it can work on the left to extend democracy, as it requires to overcome a purely rationalist idea of ​​politics.

Some of articles have a common starting point in our time politics, that sees the advance of populism even in democratic countries; a populism characterized and also empowered by an emotional rhetoric, focused on what we could call negative passions such as hatred and anger.

Many papers try to understand this phenomenon and propose politically positive emotions, not without critical remarks. As Anne Granberg does: faced with Marta Nussbaum’s proposal to encourage socially positive emotions including compassion, she detects the limits of this suggestion and takes up Hanna Arendt’s observation that compassion is essentially an apolitical emotion.

After recalling several scholars, from Walter Lippmann to Edward Bernays and, closer to us, William Davies, according to whom politics was increasingly connected and based on both individual and collective emotions, Alberto Giordano highlights how post-truth and polarization threaten liberal democracy, since they persuade people to rely more on feelings rather than facts, in such a way as to manipulate collective decision-making. Recent suggestions to limit the influence of political emotions, such as epistocracy and e-democracy, seem not sufficiently sound both theoretically and practically. Giordano thus proposes an intergenerational republican compact as a possible and provisional solution to post-truth dilemmas.

More oriented towards overcoming the rigid dualism of reason and passions, Juliette Grange tries to define the “reasoned feeling”. After highlighting the convergence of the “affective sciences”, and the philosophical attention to emotions delivered by populism, Grange argues that the “reasoned feeling” is embodied by the republican passion for certain political ideals. Enthusiasm for an idea or an ideal, altruism and a culture based on knowledge and science, are basic traits of this feeling. The reasoned feeling is the founder of a civilization and a social morality proper to scientific and technical modernity. In order to be realized, this feeling must be combined with political rationality understood as a form of rationalism that allows “a plurality of axiological and social choices and the public space of their confrontation”.

The solution to the emotional dangers inherent in political options, regimes, opinions given by classical utopias is analysed by Jean Christophe Merle and compared with the imaginary dystopias of the 20th century. The utopias of the early modern times were proposed as a solution to the absolute political evil, namely discord, rivalry, desire to possess, domination and glory; and as an alternative to the classical theories of social contract. Dystopias, in so far as they constitute the opposite of the democratic and liberal rule of law, are based on the eradication of its members’ ability to think and act rationally. The failure of both shows the human inability to live without confronting the evil and the extreme difficulty in which attempts to resist the dystopian order often occur.

New signs of kindness and politeness to follow in social relations can help counteract the increase in passions and violent reaction in our democratic societies: here is Mirella Pasini’s proposal. After going over the old Galateo of Monsignor Della Casa and the new one by Melchiorre Gioia, she wonders if Gioia’s prescriptive goal of spreading civil education as part of the process of training citizens of a democratic nation could be a suggestion for our time. Almost the same proposal is virtually opposed by the agonistic and competitive rhetoric of the Norwegian public intellectual and author Georg Johannesen (1931-2005), illustrated by Hans Marius Hansteen, and proposed as a way to promote peace.

The speeches by Giorgio Baruchello and Pascal Nouvel, respectively, open to the epistemological dimension and the positive and negative role of emotions in the construction of knowledge, with its obvious ethical and political consequences.

Baruchello addresses the prejudice issue, whose area ranges from the cognitive sphere to the social dimension, according to a plurality and multiplicity of meanings that cannot be reduced to a single negative level. Faced with the inevitability of prejudice or the not-so-argued need to overcome it as a “poorly formed opinion, an unreasonable belief, an unjustified false assumption, a negative feeling”, Baruchello affirms the need to investigate its polysemy, also in the history of philosophical thought. By following this path, we could overcome prejudice as a source of error and bad behaviour.

Pascal Nouvel, on his side, questions the nature of political errors; because, if emotions and affects play a key role in politics, they can also play a role in political errors. A better knowledge of what is specific in political errors could therefore help to understand the relationships between reason and emotions, between rationality and “structures of feelings”. His starting point is the modern distinction – laid down by Machiavelli – between political errors and other fashions, with which they have long been mixed. In a brief “history of error”, Nouvel distinguishes four types, that is: perceptual error, conceptual error, moral error and, finally, political error, still not well defined. A key point is the distinction between moral error and political error, which appears to be speculative rather than factual. Understanding the nature of the political error can be useful in order to modify the affects: this is the basic thesis. As for the method, the narrative approach is in Nouvel’s intention a powerful way to manage political issues and, in some cases, avoid political errors.

The importance of political affections in contemporary European society is underlined by Paola de Cuzzani, who remembers at the beginning of her paper the rapid spread of growing xenophobic and racist sentiments, anti-Semitism, discrimination and violence against migrants, blacks and Muslims. For de Cuzzani the implications of these sentiments for the stability of our liberal democratic societies are evident. Spinoza’s theory of imitation of affects can help us in our attempt to understand the ease with which negative feelings come to be diffused even in the most civilized and democratic societies. It also clarifies the dangers that these negative feelings pose for the stability of the body politic.

It remains to be asked whether Spinoza’s lesson can also be useful in a positive way, in order to provide us with tools to fight negative affects, while not running the risk to erase affectivity but rather promoting a positive one.

Such is the legacy that this rich selection of papers offers for future studies and meetings of the research group.

Post-Truth, Polarization and Other Emotional Threats to Democracy

On a cold pre-winter evening in London, November 23, 2019, the celebrated comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was awarded a prize by the Anti-Diffamation League. During the ceremony, he delivered a passionate speech focused on the threats posed by fake news, new media and their intensive stimulation of the emotive sphere of individual citizens, linking it all to the crisis presently hitting Western democracies:

Democracy, which depends on shared truths, is in retreat; and autocracy, which depends on shared lies, is on the march. Today, around the world, demagogues appeal to our worst instincts. Conspiracy theories once confined to the fringe are going mainstream. Hate crimes are surging as are murderous attacks on religious and ethnic minorities. All this hate and violence is being facilitated by a handful of internet companies that amount to the greatest propaganda machine in history (Baron Cohen 2019).

As long as it goes, the speech raises many questions which deserve to be dealt with in academic debates as well. Why do emotions shape the arena of contemporary politics? Are post-truth and polarization the most powerful tools of the populist approach to politics? Do they pose a challenge to liberal democracy? How can we bring back rationality in public deliberation and political discourse?

In this short paper I will try to show how intellectuals are treating these issues, at first sketching briefly the role of emotions both in classical propaganda and contemporary analyses; secondly, I will focus on the dispute regarding post-truth and polarization by connecting these issues to the spread of populism. Additionally I will offer a critical survey of some up-to-date theoretical solutions to those dilemmas and finally try to assess a partial and provisional proposal, hopefully useful to build a working paradigm to take hold of passions and bind politics to a more rational and prospective approach.


Propaganda and Emotions

There is nothing new in the attempt to get rid of rationality and strike the emotional side of our perceptions. Walter Lippmann, in his classical study on public opinion, insisted on the gnoseological weakness of mankind and the persistence of stereotypes which, for a great number of individuals, were nothing but «an ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves» (Lippmann 1991 [1922]: 95). This is why war propaganda, in the years of WWI, had revealed so effective, since it was targeted to stimulate an emotional answer through a more or less overt appeal to stereotypes and prejudices.

But it was Edward Bernays to make clear, in some astonishingly explicit statements, that commercial and political communication was increasingly connected and grounded on both individual and collective emotions, shaped by a bunch of professionals:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. […] Trotter and Le Bon concluded that the group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits and emotions. […] By playing upon an old cliché, or manipulating a new one, the propagandist can sometimes swing a whole mass of group emotions. […] Men are rarely aware of the main reasons which motivate their actions. A man may believe that he buys a motor car because, after careful study of the technical features of all makes on the market, he has concluded that this is the best. He is almost certainly fooling himself (Bernays 1928: 9, 50, 51).

Bernays had learned much from his participation to the celebrated Committee on Public Information, created by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 to persuade American public opinion of the necessity to enter the war. The head himself of the Committee, the journalist George Creel, described its proceedings in terms of an attempt to convey public emotions in an effort to sell a product: the American commitment in WWI (Creel 1920). In fact it was precisely the industry of advertising, both commercial and political, to benefit more and more from the growing challenge to bypass the threshold of rationality.

It was precisely this phenomenon to be denounced by Vance Packard in his well-known book The Hidden Persuaders, where he spoke with the loudest voice against «the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions and our thought processes» (Packard 1957: 1). The pattern is still valid; something more needs to be added, though.

In the last decades, according to William Davies, the building blocks of modernity have fallen apart. And what we see is a widespread decline of reason in favour of a concrete state of public and private phrenzy:

The modern world was founded upon two fundamental distinctions, both inaugurated in the mid-seventeenth century: between mind and body and between war and peace. These two distinctions appear to have lost credibility altogether, with the result that we now experience conflict intruding into everyday life [] As society has been flooded by digital technology, it has grown harder to specify what belongs to the mind and what to the body, what is peaceful dialogue and what is conflict. In the murky space between body and mind, between war and peace, lie nervous states: individuals and governments living in a state of constant and heightened alertness, relying increasingly on feelings rather than facts (Davies 2019: xi-xii).

But if emotions rule the world, the political impact of this very fact cannot but be huge. Davies explicitly states that «feelings of nostalgia, resentment, anger and fear» were involved in «populist uprisings, as manifest in the victories of Donald Trump, the Brexit campaign and a wave of nationalist surges across Europe» (Davies 2019: xiv). And even though he is prudent and honest in admitting that these are mere symptoms, not the cause of nervous states, he nonetheless depicts a scenario which deserves to be fully appreciated:

Since the late nineteenth century, nationalists have sought to manufacture popular mobilizations by conjuring up memories of past wars and enthusiasm for future ones. But something else has happened more recently, which has quietly fed the spirit of warfare into civilian life, making us increasingly combative. The emphasis on “real time” knowledge that was originally privileged in war has become a feature of the business world, of Silicon Valley in particular. The speed of knowledge and decision making becomes crucial, and consensus is sidelined in the process. Rather than trusting experts, on the basis that they are neutral and outside the fray, we have come to rely on services that are fast, but whose public status is unclear (Davies 2019: xvi).

Therefore, we should address the following question: are post-truth and polarization somehow connected with contemporary populism and fostered by new media?


Post-truth, Populism and Polarization  

The phenomenon called ‘post-truth’ has been defined as «relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief» (Oxford Dictionaries 2016). Quite a controversial definition, indeed, since contemporary philosophy has been teaching us that “facts” and “truth” are very contested concepts (Schantz [ed.] 2002). Aside from the epistemological quarrels, however, Lee McIntyre has correctly suggested that «what is striking about the idea of post-truth is not just that truth is been challenged, but that it is being challenged as a mechanism for asserting political dominance». But it’s not just that: «what seems new in the post-truth era is a challenge just not to the idea of knowing reality but to the existence of reality itself» (McIntyre 2018: xiv, 10).

Both points are essential in order to understand why the most relevant political events of the last 5 years are somehow connected to the post-truth paradigm. Quoting again from McIntyre’s brilliant research:

With the largely fact-free campaign over Brexit in Great Britain – where hundreds of buses advertised the bogus statistic that the UK was sending 350 millions euros a week to the EU – and the growing use of disinformation campaigns by politicians against their own people in Hungary, Russia, and Turkey, many see post-truth as part of a growing international trend where some feel emboldened to try to bend reality to fit their opinions, rather than the other way around. This is not a campaign to say that facts do not matter, but instead a conviction that facts can always be shaded, selected and presented within a political context that favors one interpretation of truth over another (McIntyre 2018: 5-6).

No surprise that Donald Trump revealed himself a champion of this trend. The day after his inaugural address the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, told journalists that «this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe» (Spicer 2017). What’s the reason behind such a harsh statement? The fact that many international newspapers published a photograph which portrayed the not-so-exciting popular attendance to Trump’s inaugural compared to Obama’s 2009 (the most attended inaugural so far). The press reacted with both irony and dismay, criticizing the White House’s improbable strategy; so that the senior aide to the President, Kellyanne Conway, felt compelled to address the astonished NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd with a sentence that soon became considerably popular: «don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood…Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that» (Conway 2017).

It is common knowledge that populism plays with a wide range of emotions, in order to flatter ‘the people’: anger, pride, loyalty, hate, mistrust, insecurity and so many more. Populists, though, deal especially with fear: Ruth Wodak correctly wrote, in her most relevant book, that «currently we observe a normalization of nationalistic, xenophobic, racist and antisemitic rhetoric, which primarily works with fear» (Wodak 2015: x). And yet something new happened in the last few years: populism dances systematically with the denial of facts and dismiss the search for truth as a shared social goal. Why? The Australian scholar Silvio Waisbord recently offered a persuading response:

Populism rejects the possibility of truth as a common normative horizon and collective endeavour in democratic life. […] The root of populism’s opposition to truth is its binary vision of politics. For populism, ‘the people’ and ‘the elites’ hold their own version of truth. All truths are necessarily partial and anchored social interests. Truth does not exist as collective, common goal. A common truth is impossible given the essential nature of agonistic, conflict-centred politics. Instead, truth-seeking politics entails the reaffirmation of ‘popular’ truths against ‘elite’ lies. […] Facts never change the unfalsifiable premise of populism – the eternal division of ‘pure people’ and ‘evil elites’. This conception of politics turns into a political fantasy that cannot ever be proven wrong. Populism dismisses facts that challenge overriding narratives. No matter what happens, populism obstinately clings to the notion that elites are always in power and continue to distort the truth through their institutions. Populism can never be corrected by its critics. […] Preserving a populist, fact-proof narrative is necessary to safeguard the vision that truth is always on one the side and that lies are inevitably on the other side. Facts belong to one or other camp. Facts are not neutral, but they are political owned and produced. Post-truth communication is exactly where populism wants politics to be – the realm of divided truth, binary thinking, and broken-up communication (Waisbord 2018: 25-26, 30).

This being true, we’d find it easier to understand why populists foster polarization, mostly by means of social media. According to Cass Sunstein, polarization occurs «when members of a deliberating group move toward a more extreme point in whatever direction is indicated by the members’ pre-deliberation tendency» (Sunstein 1999: 3-4). Because of polarization a free and fair public debate becomes virtually impossible since citizens are trapped inside the so-called ‘echo-chambers’. This is particularly valid when applied to many political communities online, most notably belonging to the alt-right (Neiwert 2017: 213-261). Polarization, of course, shouldn’t be confused with partisanship, which Jonathan White and Lea Ypi defined as «a practice that involves citizens acting to promote certain shared normative commitments according to a distinctive interpretation of the public good» and whose goal «is to make their concerns heard in the public sphere so that they may be brought to bear on the course of collective decision making» (White and Ypi 2011: 382). What is more, social media play a significant role in a wide series of collateral phenomena connected with polarization and the poisoning of public debate itself:

How might social media, the explosion of communication options, machine learning, and artificial intelligence alter the capacity of citizens to govern themselves? To the extent that social media allow us to create our very own feeds, and essentially live in them, they create serious problems. Self-insulation and personalization are solutions to some genuine problems, but they also spread falsehood, and promote polarization and fragmentation (Sunstein 2017: 5).

A recent report produced by the European Parliament Research Service (EPRS 2019) set forth a distinction between two types of polarization:

1) polarization by design;

2) polarization by manipulation.

The first is focused on the inner structure of social media and suggest that they «could be driving citizens apart by encouraging the dissemination of increasingly partisan and emotionally-charged content». But the second is even worse, since social media not only «have proven susceptible to amplifying the reach of polarising and conspiratorial content and spreading it into the public mainstream» but they host «influence campaigns designed to sow division and manipulate the public thrive» by means of «bots, junk news and propaganda». The result is that «these tactics have become entrenched in political discourse where foreign and domestic actors rely on them to influence political life» (EPRS 2019: 17, 24).

Post-truth and polarization, in sum, threaten democracy in so far as they emphasize disruptive emotions in order to manipulate procedures of collective (as well as individual) opinion and decision-making. The question thus now being: how can we anchor politics to a more rational pattern and minimize both the explosion of manipulated emotiveness and the dangers of authoritarian populism?


Two Alleged Remedies: A Critical Survey

Aside from ‘technical’ interventions (social media self-regulation, anti-fake news/hate speech laws, digital literacy etc.) we can find on the marketplace of ideas a bunch of normative approaches which aim to bring back rationality by means of two principles: knowledge and participation. In this paragraph I will offer a quick but (hopefully) consistent critical survey of the most relevant two: epistocracy and e-democracy.

In his ground-breaking book Against Democracy, the American philosopher Jason Brennan argues that we should give epistocracy a try given the (low) epistemic skills of the citizenry. In fact, he distinguishes between three categories of citizens, conceived as ideal types in Max Weber’s terms:

1) Hobbits: individuals who do not care about politics nor know anything about it. They may sometimes vote but their behaviour is irrational, and their ignorance certified.

2) Hooligans: deeply polarized and biased voters. They seek information only in so far as it confirms their political beliefs and «tend to despise people who disagree with them, holding that people with alternative worldviews are stupid, evil, selfish, or at best, deeply misguided».

3) Vulcans: a restricted minority of citizens who «think scientifically and rationally about politics. Their opinions are strongly grounded in social science and philosophy. They are interested in politics, but at the same time, dispassionate, in part because they actively try to avoid being biased and irrational» (Brennan 2016a: 4-5).

Though admitting that the majority of democratic citizens belong to the first two groups, Brennan points out that the final destination of a political regime shouldn’t consist in investing Vulcans with power, given the fact that «no one manages to be a true vulcan; everyone is at least a little biased». But he is pretty sure that democratic participation doesn’t make us better: quite the reverse, the «most common forms of political engagements are more likely to corrupt and stultify than to ennoble and educate people» (Brennan 2016a: 6, 55), turning most citizens into hooligans. Therefore, we could and should put a strict limit to the damages caused by polarization, the rule of emotions and incompetence:

Consider an alternative political system called epistocracy. Epistocracies retain the same institutions as representative democracies, including imposing liberal constitutional limits on power, bills of rights, checks and balances, elected representatives and judicial review. But while democracies give every citizen an equal right to vote, epistocracies apportion political power, by law, according to knowledge or competence. The idea here is not that knowledgeable people deserve to rule – of course they don’t – but that the rest of us deserve not to be subjected to incompetently made political decisions. Political decisions are high stakes, and democracies entrust some of these high-stakes decisions to the ignorant and incompetent (Brennan 2016b).

Epistocracy, then, would put a brake to the disruptiveness of emotions by giving priority, in the participation to decision-making processes, to those individuals deemed rational and competent. Practical solutions may vary – restricted suffrage, plural voting, enfranchisement lottery, epistocratic veto or weighted voting (Brennan 2016a: 15) – but the inner logic is always the same.

On the opposite side of the political and theoretical spectrum, e-democracy theorists clam that digital technologies, and most notably the internet, may help us in re-shaping democracy as a shared practice grounded on the participation of any citizen to debate and decision-making. These beliefs have been cherished since the first days of the digital revolution; so that, for instance, Nicholas Negroponte claimed that «the change from atoms to bits is irrevocable and unstoppable» and that «computing is not about computers anymore. It is about living» (Negroponte 1995: 4, 6). Besides, being digital would have changed the face of politics like never before:

As we interconnect ourselves, many of the values of a nation-state will give way to those of both larger and smaller electronic communities. We will socialize in digital neighbourhoods in which digital space will be irrelevant and time will play a different role. […] While the politicians struggle with the baggage of history, a new generation is emerging from the digital landscape free of many of the old prejudices. These kids are released from the limitation of geographic proximity as the sole basis of friendship, collaboration, play and neighbourhood. Digital technology can be a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony (Negroponte 1995: 7, 230).

The last fifteen years have witnessed a strong and unprecedented «deployment of online decision-making platforms» that «has a clear utopian element» since it is «presented as the means of making politics more democratic and direct» (Gerbaudo 2018: 5). Of course we may find more technical and neutral approaches that focus on a new type of citizen, «surrounded by public administration digital services» and «the transition from his traditional role and behaviour to the new ones» (Ronchi 2019: 2). But the most relevant contributions to the e-democracy paradigm come from the recognition of the highly positive role of «the flexible organizational affordances and mass outreach potential of social media» (Gerbaudo 2018: 6) and digital technology in fostering popular participation both at a party level (such is the case of the platforms provided by Podemos, the Five Star Movement or the German Pirates) and, more broadly, in the realm of direct democracy, all over the world and particularly in Europe (Hennen et al. [ed.], 2020). Online participatory procedures, it is thought, not only will reduce the distance between the people and the establishment, but contribute to the attempt of neutering the emotion-led propaganda practices and bring the voice of public opinion inside the most sacred palaces of power – a reason very close to the one shared by those who support sortition as a means of selecting representatives (Van Reybrouck 2016).

Unfortunately enough, both epistocracy and e-democracy seem marked by a number of contradictions which would render them unable to stand as useful solutions to the dilemmas above mentioned. As to epistocracy, there is no serious guarantee – like many critics of Brennan’s account have duly noted (Christiano 2018: 68-72) – that superior knowledge necessarily imply more rational and less biased decisions, particularly if we forget to consider socio-economic cleavages and their effect on public opinion. What is more, granting every citizen equal political rights might help institutions to ‘sterilize’ emotions: that’s why Hans Kelsen classically praised proceduralism and mutual recognition between majority and minorities as the basis for constitutional democracy (Kelsen 2013 [1920]).

When it comes to e-democracy, we cannot but put forward the obvious reflection that, in absence of any instrument to lead individuals avoiding post-truth communication and polarization fuelled by social media, political participation by means of online platforms will not likely reduce personal and collective biases. This is why some authors have warned that «despite the promise to allow for a more bottom-up involvement in the political process, with authentic engagement from the base of participants in important decisions», it is «more top-down forms of democracy of the representative and plebiscitary kind that have ultimately prevailed in terms of the participation they have attracted and of the political impact they have produced» (Gerbaudo 2018: 127).

What do we need, then, to minimize the influence of post-truth, polarization and any other threat posed to liberal democracy by the predominance of unchecked emotions? In my view, we should try to implement a threefold strategy:

  • a long-term perspective embodied in an intergenerational constitutional compact;
  • the spread of informed and reasoned participation to decision-making;
  • the right to rational and discursive dissent within a democratic institutional arrangement.


A Modest Proposal: The Road Towards Intergenerational Republican Democracy

It is not my aim, in this brief, final section of the paper, to outline a plan able to translate into a comprehensive normative theory, but also to put into practice, the three aforementioned pillars. Rather, I will try to submit some modest suggestions for future attempts to sketch such a model, that I would provisionally label Intergenerational Republican Democracy.

As to the first point, it seems to me that the first step towards a more rational approach to politics must include the implementation of an intergenerational perspective in any field of the decision-making process. Intergenerational justice, we should recall, has made a significant comeback in the last decade (Gosseries and Meyer [eds.] 2012; Thompson 2013), substantially driven by the urgency to address environmental issues; but its scope goes even beyond this fundamental concern.

Even though we cannot accept the easy justification submitted by James Madison, according to whom «there seems then to be a foundation in the nature of things, in the relation which one generation bears to another, for the descent of obligations from one to another» since «equity requires it» and «mutual good is promoted by it» (Madison 2006 [1790]: 191), it wouldn’t be so hard to agree that an intergenerational, long-term view would suit the scope of rendering collective decisions less subject to manipulation, irrationality and haste. How? For instance, introducing into democratic constitutions the requirement for an intergenerational political compact, granting an equitable share to each generation’s future expectations in drafting the guidelines of public policy and law-making (even at a constitutional level) while binding every actor to the respect of fundamental human rights already enacted.

But how can each generation contribute to this complex procedure? By means, I would suggest, of a mechanism inspired by the so-called ‘deliberative opinion poll’ envisaged by James Fishkin (Fishkin 1991 and 1995), which consists in «exposing random samples to balanced information, encouraging them to weigh opposite arguments in discussions with heterogeneous interlocutors, and then harvesting their more considered opinions» (Fishkin and Luskin 2005: 287). The system would bear the advantages of rational deliberation – that is, being informed, balanced, conscientious, substantive and comprehensive – and political equality, since «every citizen has an equal chance of being chosen to participate» (Fishkin and Luskin 2005: 285, 286). This tool was conceived precisely in order to overcome polarization, misinformation and any other propaganda device, and seems particularly useful to supply policymakers with reasonable (in the Rawlsian sense) contributions, even from an intergenerational standpoint.

This all should be accompanied, in my view, by a series of special provisions which would grant a right to dissent very close to the model of ‘democratic contestability’ sketched by Philip Pettit, who maintained that «if a constitutionalist system of law is necessary for the promotion of freedom, then it should be clear that something else is needed too». This component may be represented by «the ideal of a democracy based, not on the alleged consent of the people, but rather on the contestability by the people of everything that government does», which practically means providing «systematic possibilities for ordinary people to contest the doings of government», in order «to ensure…that governmental doings are fit to survive popular contestation» (Pettit 1997: 183, 277). Institutionalizing dissent could possibly lead to freeze opposition conceived as a spread of polarized and biased hostility and foster constructive criticism within constitutional boundaries.

Are these approaches theoretically compatible? And will they suffice in establishing a working paradigm? I must confess I have no clear answers – not yet, at least. Likewise, it seems rather hard to make any serious forecast on the possible practical outcomes of the project, nor is this my main purpose right now. I just wanted to shed light on some troublesome challenges for each scholar in the realm of political sciences and start to add another little piece to the intricated puzzle of the long-debated connections between constitutional democracy, public opinion, populism and emotions in contemporary politics.



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Is There a Secular Hierarchy in the Norwegian Public Sphere?

Muslim women should have the opportunity to define on their own premises what freedom is for them, even when the definition deviates from our own definition of freedom[1]

– Bushra Ishaq in Hvem snakker for oss? (Who speaks on our behalf?)



This statement by Bushra Ishaq, a long time Norwegian media debater, is an appeal to listen to Muslim women in defining secular and feminist values like freedom and equality. According to Ishaq Muslim women have alternative definitions of freedom that should be recognized. And she is not alone in claiming this. Like one young Muslim woman, Sheima Ali, said about the demand that Muslim girls must be liberated from religious suppression: [It makes her] “boil with frustration. What am I supposed to be liberated from? My freedom lies in practicing my religion the way I want” (Ali 2016). On the other hand, some researchers claim that many Muslims “rarely anchor their arguments in explicitly “religious” discourse and/or references” (Bangstad 2013, 361), and that Muslim women do not necessarily aim to define alternative, non-secular, notions of freedom (Døving 2012). On the contrary, they have embraced a secular definition of freedom and with it an understanding of the notion “secular” as non-religious.

These seemingly opposing views among Muslim women addresses at least two questions. What notions of freedom, equality and secularity do Muslims in Norway have? And what are the conditions under which different views on these topics could be expressed? In this article, I will try to discuss the latter. As I see it, the various views all relate to a shared problem of finding a place in a social and discursive hierarchy. Thus, my claim is that hierarchy is a notion that could be used to shed light on some of the paradoxes and tensions that emerge when themes such as freedom, feminism, secular society and hijab are discussed.

However, in introducing hierarchy as an analytical tool we are facing two obstacles: First, since hierarchy does not fit with the egalitarian values in modern society (egalitarianism equals non-hierarchical) hierarchies are concealed. Secondly, there seems to be a theoretical deficit in the understanding of hierarchy where “hierarchy” is used to explain for instance how certain Muslim voices are excluded from the public sphere (Bangstad 2013).  Hierarchy is in the latter understanding taken as an order that excludes differences. But following the French anthropologist Louis Dumont’s hierarchy is something that primarily includes differences into a larger order (Dumont 1971). In the article I will try to show how Dumont’s work is relevant for a better theoretical understanding of the notion itself as well as for analyzing concrete discussion in the public sphere.


“Secular extremism”, “secular feminism” or… “secular hierarchy”?

Key notions like “secular”, “feminism”, “freedom”, and “equality” are at the core of the debates on religion in the Norwegian context. However, what do they mean, and who can decide what they mean? Are all citizens “free” and “equal” to decide what “secular” and “feminism” means? Are religious and non-religious citizen equal in the interpretation of values like freedom and equality? Or, are these values embedded in a hierarchical frame of interpretation where non-religious citizens are at the top? These are central questions when religion, and in particular Islam, in the public sphere is discussed. However, they remain often unarticulated due to an insufficient theoretical frame. Furthermore, many of the participants in the Norwegian public debate on religion in the public sphere and secular society attest to the problem with the power to define these key notions.

One prominent Muslim voice in the Norwegian public debate is Mohammad Usman Rana who in 2008 wrote the article “The secular extremism” in Aftenposten. Here he expressed his view on secularism in opposition to what he sees as the Norwegian mainstream version of secularism. What is interesting to us here is both his own view of secularism and the mainstream one. He considers the former moderate, which lays emphasis on both democracy and pluralism, and the latter as “extreme”:

Modern Norwegian society is to an increasingly extent hallmarked by a secular bias. In order for pluralism to be maintained, the degradation of people of faith must cease […] The challenge for the new Norway is to find an identity of faith- should Norway be a moderate secular nation who attend to religious freedom, or should society be secularly extreme, where the state and the political correctness is dominating and defines what Norwegian citizens shall believe in? […] The counterpart is the secular model in France and the radical version of the French model in Turkey. Public expression of religion in these countries [France and Turkey] are attempted to be obliterated, so that secularism and atheism can achieve a particular position in society” […] In the public discourse in the modern Norway it is an accelerating tendency that religious people who wants to have God at the center of their life are marginalized and characterized as brainwashed and narrow sighted fundamentalists (Rana 2008)[3].

I do not think Rana’s use of the adjective “extreme” helps us to understand what secularity means. Having said that, I think his points really make sense within a hierarchical context. How so? His concern is that Norway will be a society where “secularism and atheism” will “achieve a particular position in society”. Rana here seems immediately to confuse a political principle of separating the public and the private (secularism) with a life stance (atheism). However, as I will try to show throughout the text, from a hierarchical perspective these two are linked and in fact underlines the ambiguous meaning of the term “secular”. As far as I see it what Ranas “confusion” reveals is that the notion “secular” implicitly entails that atheism is the “gold standard” for citizens in a secular society. In other words, secular society is not a neutral society were all citizens are equal but a society where the citizens are subordinated according to a set of values and statuses. Inspired by the works of Louis Dumont (1971) I will try to show there is an ideal of the secular citizen, which is the “gold standard” from which all other secularity can be measured, as being either religiously ignorant, atheists or anti-religious. This is in line with what researchers such as Marianne Gullestad has shown to be a discrepancy between formal equality and social or practical inequality (Gullestad 2002). Religious people are not formally subordinated, but practically subordinated in a “secular hierarchy”.

Another important Muslim voice is the already mentioned debater and researcher Bushra Isahaq. In her book Hvem snakker for oss? Muslimer i dagens Norge-hvem er de og hva mener de? (Who speaks on our behalf? Muslims in present day Norway-who are they and what do they think?) (Ishaq 2017) Ishaq discusses among other things Muslim relations to secular and democratic values and Muslim women’s understanding of their own equality. Reflecting upon the question whether Islam is to blame for suppressing women she argues from examples in both history and the present that Muslim women utilize theological arguments in promoting ideals of freedom (Ibid, 161). She seems to reproduce a view that “secular feminism”, with a certain interpretation of “freedom”, stands in opposition to alternative (plural, Muslim, religious?) feminism, with an alternative interpretation of “freedom”:

Secular feminism seems to consist in that western definitions of freedom is the only one valid. This exclusiveness to define gives western actors an alleged right to speak and act on the behalf of Muslim women- without listening to the wishes these women themselves express. Within such an understanding to find alternatives to western definitions to freedom is either wrong or a threat to western values (Ibid, 180).

Ishaq’s points, about the existence of strong female Muslim voices, can be found elsewhere. And I will return to other examples of Muslim women arguing in a similar way in the public debate in Norway later. For now, what is interesting as far as I am concerned is that in addressing the problem of definition Ishaq is confronted with a paradoxical link between equality and hierarchy becomes visible. On the one hand, all women are free and equal. But on the other hand, some women (secular feminists) are freer and more equal than others. A “Muslim feminist” is not the equal to “secular feminist”, but subordinate to the latter. In other words, to hold up freedom and equality as values implicates a hierarchization of how these values can be interpreted. And if this is true, then this is not equality at all, but hierarchy.

Ishaq seems to claim that the “alternative” notion of freedom can be drawn from Muslim traditions and sources. We can interpret this in at least two ways: either can “freedom” be both religious and secular (two paths to the same destination), or religion can be a source for the secular value “freedom” (secularity and religion can be understood as linked). Either way Muslim women use religious reasons in their perception of “freedom”. The question is then if such “alternative” notions of freedom could fit within the same discourse: If we want to take equality for all seriously, then Muslim women should have the opportunity to define on their own premises what freedom is for them, even when the definition deviates from our own definition of freedom and entails something we do not like (Ibid, 182).

This is extremely paradoxical: on the one hand she appeals to equality, and I would also add freedom. On the other hand, she challenges the premises for this equality (and freedom). And yet it is understandable and even inevitable if we take hierarchy into account: In order to establish oneself as a serious participant in the discourse on freedom one must express a subordinate stance in relation to the primary value, equality. By referring to “equality for all” as a norm Ishaq appeals to what Dumont calls a “paramount value”. She thus complies, as far as I see it, with what Louis Dumont in Essais sur l’individualisme calls modern ideology (Dumont 1983). This modern ideology is hallmarked by two important things: it is an individualist ideology constituted by equality and freedom as core values (Dumont names it “egalitarian individualism”), and secondly it is a concealed hierarchy. And since this hierarchy is not recognized by Ishaq the argument ends in paradoxes. What seems impossible in her proposal is to have a definition of freedom which “deviates from our own definition of freedom”. Following Dumont, the values “freedom” and “equality” cannot be given a plural meaning unless the alternative definitions are subordinated to the hegemonic interpretation. And this would in its turn mean that the plural definition of freedom is not equal. This is the invisible hierarchy that she tries to break with and which ends up reproducing the paradoxes in “egalitarian individualism”. As far as I see it, alternative definitions of freedom can only be possible within this hierarchical structure through subordinating the alternatives to the hegemonic one.

In claiming the equality to define freedom on Muslim women’s own premises she is perhaps not that far from the findings of researcher Cora Alexa Døving. Analyzing Norwegian debates on hijab in 2004 and 2009 Døving’s conclusion is that Muslim women uses secular arguments for hijab. So, contrary to Ishaq, she claims that her informants have a secular notion of equality and freedom and that they do not draw on Muslim sources like the Quran or Hadith. According to Døving Muslim women subscribe directly to a secular discourse. As far as she sees it “the hijab represents for them women’s liberation, independency, identity, freedom of expression and freedom of religion as well as a sign of religious belonging” (Døving 2012, 42) and that the hijab “directly connotes to secular, universal values” (Ibid, 43). Similar questions have been discussed in other studies as well (Barli 2009, Heggertveit 2017). The question is whether we should interpret such expressions as secular and feminist, as alternative secularity and feminist, or not secular and feminist at all.

So, does Døving’s findings contradict what Bushra Ishaq claims? Immediately they seem to draw completely opposite conclusions about what kind of traditions and values Muslim women appeal to. Alternatively, they perhaps refer to two opposite and competing discourses within the Muslim community. Another approach would be to say that both the Muslim women who draw on a Muslim interpretation of freedom and those who draw on secular values like human rights both are forced to relate to the same hierarchy of values. And in the Norwegian society there seems to be a non-religious interpretation of secularity freedom, and feminism that has a hold over all the other interpretations. The problem is that hierarchy in modern ideologies is concealed and is believed to be non-existing.

Even though this article discusses these questions in a Norwegian context, they are of course relevant outside Norway. One prominent scholar who has highlighted the problematic connection between secularism, liberalism and feminism facing Islam and the use of hijab on the international scene is anthropologist Saba Mahmood. In her work she has critically explored what she calls “normative secularity”, “secular liberalism” and “secular feminism”. As an anthropologist she sets out to investigate how “normative secularity” is less of a political doctrine and more a way of (trans)forming religious subjectivity that can suit western liberal political regimes. She writes in the article Secularism, Hermeneutics and Empire: The politics of Islamic Reformation that: “One might go as far as to say that the political solution secularism offers consist not so much in “avoiding religious strife” but in making sure those religious life-forms that are deemed incompatible with a secular-political ethos are made provisional, if not extinct” (Mahmood 2006, 328). What Mahmood teach us is that being a citizen within western society depends on a certain kind of subjectivity which “is compatible with the rationality and exercise of liberal political rule” (Ibid, 344). This rationality, I would add, is governed through complying to a hierarchy of values. Integration into this (liberal) rationality depends on this.

In focusing on the production of subjectivity her approach seems more inspired by the likes of Foucault than Dumont. What relates Mahmood’s observations to the topic here is the close relation between liberal values and secularity in western societies. Mahmood has been criticized for being unclear on the nature of this connection since secularism does not necessarily depend on liberalism (Bangstad 2009, 80). However, in bringing in hierarchy as an analytical term I think it becomes clearer how they are linked.


Hierarchy and recognition of difference

In order to discuss the idea of a concealed hierarchy further I want to discuss some of the thoughts of the French anthropologist Louis Dumont. He has pointed out how “modern ideology” (Dumont 1983) – hallmarked by its rejection of hierarchies in favor of egalitarian individualism- has eclipsed our perception of social hierarchies in modern societies. The idea is that we do not perceive hierarchies because we ideologically got rid of them in the processes of modernization. But since we do not believe in them, it thus becomes difficult to both localize and understand them. According to Dumont, philosophers and sociologists alike are reluctantly uttering “hierarchy”:

Even sociologists and philosophers seem to speak of “hierarchy” reluctantly and with averted eyes, in the sense of residual or inevitable inequalities of aptitude and function, or of the chain of command which is presupposed by any artificial organization of multiple activities, briefly “power hierarchy”. However, that is not hierarchy proper, nor the deepest root of what is so called (Dumont 1998,19).

It seems to me that Dumont highlights two problems in one: firstly, we modern are blind to hierarchies because we think we have substituted hierarchy with equality. We believe only in the value of equality between human beings. But we also believe that we have in practice successfully substituted hierarchy with equality. Secondly, we confuse or equal hierarchy with a chain of commands. This stems from an inadequate understanding of what hierarchy is. Let us investigate the former problem before returning to the latter.

Whereas hierarchy seemingly belongs to the non-modern world of the past, modern secular society is based on the slogan from the French revolution of “freedom, equality and brotherhood”. But if hierarchies still exist, why do we fail to perceive them? A key for unlocking the question is Dumont’s analytical distinction between thinking and ideas on the one hand, and on acting and values on the other. In Homo hierarchicus Dumont praises Talcott Parsons for showing the link between action and values. Actions are directed towards certain ends which themselves are subject to evaluations. These evaluations have the consequence that they differentiate various “entities in a rank order” (Ibid) and integrate them within the same system of common values. According to Dumont Parsons teaches us that the human being does not only think, it acts. It has not only ideas but values. Hence: “To adopt a value is to introduce hierarchy, and a certain consensus of values, a certain hierarchy of ideas, things and people, is indispensable to social life” (Ibid, 20).

As far as I understand this Dumont’s point is that we remain blind to hierarchies because we do not see that social life regulated through action and values necessarily creates hierarchy. Our understanding and perception are mostly operating on the level of thinking and ideas, i.e. on an ideological level. But the organization of social life does not (always) correspond with the ideological scheme. Egalitarian societies are also hierarchical, but in a more implicit way than explicitly hierarchical societies.

Dumont highlights the distinction between thinking and acting, or between ideas and values. How does this distinction translate to the context of a Norwegian secular hierarchy and debates in the public sphere? After all, Dumont is talking about a distinction between thinking and acting. But are not the debates on topics such as secularity, freedom, and hijab on the level of thinking and ideas? How are social life, values and action relevant here? Even though Dumont’s distinction is analytically fruitful since it renders hierarchy visible, this does not mean that our thoughts and ideas are unmarked by social life and the values that creates hierarchies. Furthermore, the public sphere were values, thoughts and ideas are discussed could itself perhaps be regarded as influenced or even a part of social life. This takes us to a question I will discuss later of whether neutral institutions are possible.

The effect of Dumont’s anthropological research is to show that every society is upheld by a hierarchical order organized through certain and specific values. In western modern societies the central values are linked to the individual, its freedom and equality. In other words, even though modern ideology is based on equality, equality as the principal value of modern society creates the basis for a “new” hierarchy.

But before coming back to the value of equality, what exactly does Dumont mean by hierarchy? As we saw earlier, it is not to be confused with a chain of command. Dumont introduces in Homo hierarchicus his own understanding of hierarchy which is pivotal for our argument. Hierarchy is a relation that can be called “encompassment of the contrary”. Hierarchy is not a simple system of relations where a person, status, group, or gender is of less worth than another person, status, group, or gender. Hierarchy has to do with a whole (constituted by values) where all the parts have a place. Or, differently put, this whole can encompass and integrate parts into this whole or order. As the political scientist Dag Erik Berg writes, Dumont’s basic principle was that hierarchy is a universal phenomenon, but that modern ideology was also “systematically unconscious about hierarchy due to its adoption of equality as a paramount value” (Berg 2011, 34). This egalitarian principle was decisive for the “modern denial of hierarchy” (Ibid, 35).

The Norwegian sociologist Randi Gressgård has discussed similar issues- regarding Muslim utterances on homosexuality in the public sphere as well as discussing challenges with multicultural dialogue (Gressgård and Jacobsen 2008, Gressgård 2010)- in the light of Dumont’s thinking. Having already announced a discussion of Dumont’s interpretation of equality we can follow Gressgård’s Dumont-inspired reflection on this topic. Underpinning it all is a paradox: “I endeavor to show that the paradox of (in)equality- the fact that the ideal of equality leads to a subordination of those who are not identified with the whole- issues from a non-modern hierarchical structure” (Gressgård 2010, 40-42). This point seems in line with the discussion of arguments for hijab in the public sphere. But whereas Gressgård discusses the question by highlighting an ethnocentric fallacy where “others” become subordinated, what is at stake in the case where Muslims take part in the public debate and use secular arguments and appeal to secular values is what we could call “self-subordination”. By this, I mean that in taking part in the public debate we accept a subordination to the discourse and its values, which limits the degree to how much we can express deviating points of view. How to make of that? When “others” (religious muslims) argue on “our” (secular) premises we could read that as assimilation, we can read it as sensible, as ethnocentric or with suspicion.

Furthermore, if we take up the question of which kinds of voices we can recognize in the public sphere and which kinds of voices we can recognize as equal to our own (are muslim women arguing for hijab equally feminist to non-religious secular feminists?) we can read from Gressgård that: “recognition can only be hierarchical, because the act of recognizing means placing value on, or integrating into, a whole“ (Gressgård 2010, 50). Or as Dumont himself writes in the article On value: “If the advocates of difference claim for it both equality and recognition, they claim the impossible” (Dumont 2013, 312). We are here back to Dumonts “encompassment of the contrary”, which I think is central to our discussion of the public sphere and secular society. In order for an argument to be understood, recognized and separated from another argument it must be stripped of its singular and private character and placed within a whole which makes it accessible to everyone within.

A similar question is discussed in Vincent Descombes commentary to Louis Dumont (Descombes 2013, 232-233). He asks the question if it is possible to recognize the equality of another human being as yourself and at the same time recognize the other as other, i.e. different from me. His conclusion is that we must choose between either recognizing the other as equal to myself (egalitarian recognition) or recognizing the other as subordinate to myself (hierarchical recognition). The reason why it is impossible to combine equality and difference is that equality is the “paramount” value that institutes a hierarchy. Other values (for example the value of being different, or having alternative interpretations of equality and freedom) can be expressed, but only as subordinate to this paramount value. As far as I see it, Dumont and Descombes are both right. Furthermore, this choice between egalitarian recognition and hierarchical recognition seems to me to reflect the two possibilities for Muslim women in the Norwegian context. As a Muslim woman you can acquire recognition either as equal to secular/non-Muslim/non- religious women, or you can acquire recognition as different. In the first case you will be, at least to a certain degree, recognized as an equal citizen and contributor in the public sphere. In the second case, you will be allowed to express yourself and your difference, but you will not be recognized as an equal.


Neutrality, liberalism and secularity

The case of Norwegian Muslim views on secularity, freedom and feminism is, however, neither the only example where non-religious citizens are in a privileged position, nor am I the only one to highlight this. A similar case was presented by professor of law Joseph. H. H. Weilers in his intervention in the Lautsi v. Italy case regarding the removal of religious symbols from the public sphere. A chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held that the displaying in Italian public schools of the crucifix was a violation of the European Convention of human rights (Weiler 2010b). Weiler argued before the Court that “neutrality” within the meaning of secularism puts non-religious citizens in a position of privilege and does not promote equality for all. In his intervention Weiler stressed what he saw as two conceptual errors expressed in the premises for the Grand Chambers decision of removing crucifixes from Italian classrooms. The second of these concerned what he saw as “the conflation, pragmatic and conceptual, between secularism, laïcité, and secularity” (Weiler 2010a, 4). The error consists, for Weiler, in conflating laïcité with neutrality: “When one prohibits all religious dress in school, rather than allowing all religious dress, is one not making some kind of statement on religious belief?” (Weiler 2010b).

Even though Weiler’s points are basically directed at legal issues, they show on a more general level that it is harder to deal with a plurality (of values) than we think. The reason for this seems to be precisely what Weiler highlights: the neutral ground supposed to support the discussion of values and opinions within plural society is not so neutral after all, but rather expresses a perspective assumed to be neutral. However, if we do not take hierarchy into account, I do not think the problems addressed by Weiler can be fully comprehended. Differently put, Weiler fails to see that neutrality has a “double nature”: “Neutrality” is both the whole frame supporting a plurality of views on religion and one specific view of religion at the same time. Weiler sees the latter but cannot see the former as long as he does not take hierarchy into account.

A similar observation is made by John Rawls in the expanded edition of Political liberalism (2005). The work as a whole aims to shed light on how «reasonable pluralism» can support a constitutional democratic society. In a free society, citizens will have disparate worldviews, and yet there can be only one law. More importantly for us is his distinction between «public reason» and «secular reason». Whereas the idea of «public reason» in Rawls previous monumental work A theory of justice (1971) was given by a so called comprehensive liberal doctrine, «public reason» in Political liberalism is a way of reasoning about political values shared by free and equal citizens (Rawls 2005, 490). Rawls modifies his own position substantially compared to A theory of justice. Firstly, he takes pluralism into account. Secondly, Rawls makes a distinction between «political liberalism» and «comprehensive liberalism». The difference being that «political liberalism» does not include an overal theory of value. This is what makes it possible to make yet another distinction between «public reason» on the one hand and «secular reason» and values on the other:

We must distinguish public reason from what is sometimes referred to as secular reason and secular values. These are not the same as public reason. For I define secular reason as reasoning in terms of comprehensive nonreligious doctrines. Such doctrines and values are much too broad to serve the purposes of public reason. Political values are not moral doctrines, however available or accessible these may be to our reason and common sense reflection. Moral doctrines are on a level with religion and first philosophy. By contrast, liberal political principles and values, although intrinsically moral values, are specified by liberal politcal conceptions of justice and fall under the category of the political (Ibid, 452).

Rawls inclusion of pluralism and his emphasis on «political liberalism»/ «public reason»- as opposed to moral doctrines and reasonable «comprehensible doctrines» establised by both secular and religious reason- takes him one step away from a (previously?) biased conception of both rationality and liberalism. For instance, in distancing himself from «Enlightenment liberalism»’s attack on orthodox Christianity he shows that he has another kind of liberalism in mind (Ibid, 486). Furthermore, in distinguishing between political and moral values he distances himself from a liberalism à la John Stuart Mill where the individual is at the center for liberal philosohy:

Whatever we may think of autonomy as a purely moral value [Mills individualism], it fails to satisfy, given reasonable pluralism, the constraint of reciprocity, as many citizens, for example, those holding certain religious doctrines, may reject it. Thus moral autonomy is not a political value, whereas political autonomy is (Ibid,456)

The «constraint of reciprocity» which also is linked to the «duty of civility» involves two element: On the one hand, the ability to explain to others how principles and policies one advocate on fundamentalt questions can be supported by the political values of public reason. Or as Leif Wenar puts it: «Citizens must reasonably believe that all citizens can reasonably accept the enforcement of a particular set of basic laws» (Wenar 2017). On the other hand, citizens must also show willingness to listen to others and a fairmindedness in deciding when accomodations to other peoples views should be made (Rawls 2005, 217).

So, how does all this relate to the claim put forward in this article that all citizens are not equal in their equality? One answer would be that Rawls view of «secular reason» as connected to a doctrine and not as the gold standard of (political) reason is compatible with this claim. In stressing that those with a secular worldview do not have a priviledged access to public reason Rawls has, as I see it, (perhaps unintentionally) revealed an intrinsic hierarchy of reason (with non-religious doctrines and secular reason at the top in this hierarchy). The same counts for his view on more classical liberalism that lays emphasis for instance on individualism. Differently put, Rawls is critical to those who claim that liberalism and individualism are identical (one version of such a «comprehensive liberalism» would be Mill) since they cannot cope with pluralism. A liberalism coping with pluralism must be political, and not comprehensive.

Rawls claim that “secular reason” and “public reason” are not the same, and his distinction between “comprehensive” and “political” liberalism, seems to me not only to be reasonable. Even though hierarchy is probably not something Rawls himself would consider as part of his argument, it allows us to better understand why we confuse them and might give “secular reason” and “comprehensive” liberalism a privileged position.

Having said that, even though Rawls insist that his liberalism does not include an overall theory of value (Gaus et al. 2018) does not the idea of finding a common ground that gives no position a privileged position (given “reasonable pluralism” through the “constraint of reciprocity”) itself indicate “pluralism” and “reciprocity” as values? If so, then we have located the principles for a hierarchy. If pluralism is to be taken into account this plurality must be handled in such a way that it does not fragment society. After all, what is at stake is the value of a constitutional democracy and a political conception of justice. Now, Rawls would perhaps say that values like “freedom” and “equality” are ideas and values generated from the public political culture and not preconditions for the public political culture. But then what constituted the public political culture in the first place? Rawls has certainly addressed some interesting difficulties in liberal theory, but it seems to me very difficult to keep a political concept of liberalism completely separated from a comprehensive one and not including any kind of overall theory of value.


Dilemmas and paradoxes in the debates on hijab

At the end of the article, I want to look at some examples from Norwegian debates on hijab as well as the academic reflections on the debates from the last fifteen years. The questions I want to focus on are the same as we have already seen articulated by Muslim debaters and social scientists: What notions of secularity are at play? Are the arguments for hijab in the public discourse genuinely secular? Are the arguments for hijab in the public discourse expressions of feminism or undermining it? Are the arguments for hijab in the public discourse expressions of freedom or undermining it?  Are the the arguments for hijab in the public discourse expressions of equality or undermining it?

A very interesting article written by the social scientist Tordis Borchgrevink discusses the hijab debates in the mid-2000s with the French ban of religious artefacts in schools from 2004 as context. Her concern is basically the normative question in the liberal dilemma of how liberal one should and could be before the foundation of liberalism itself is undermined. Applied to the hijab case the problem is how to interpret the persistent use of liberal rights like equality and freedom of expression to claim the right to practice a religious-cultural tradition which (according to some) at the same time expresses the undermining of the same rights. She writes that:

The legal predicament illustrates perfectly the inherent dilemma of liberalism: How is liberal society to deal with illiberal practices without undermining its own principles? When these two systems of law, religious and secular, appear mutually exclusive, and both intervention and nonintervention in people’s religious belief appear self-defeating in terms of western norms the situation seems paralyzing. But within the framework of the present discussion one is led to ask whether this rather massive claim to wear hijab in secular contexts contributes to a lessening or a reinforcement of the pressure on liberal norms (Borchgrevink 2007, 114).

Even though liberalism has not been the major focus in the article, the theme is linked to some of the aforementioned key notions. The “liberal dilemma” resembles the dilemma of how much equality it is possible to recognize in another person’s point of view, before the principle of equality itself is at jeopardy. From what we have seen in Dumont’s critical assessment of egalitarian individualism, I think that a part of the “solution” to the liberal dilemma would be to admit that liberalism is hierarchical. The dilemma is apparent as long as it is understood from an ideological perspective. From the ideological perspective liberal values like liberty and equality are non-hierarchical in themselves. But in Dumont’s take liberal values, like all other values, tend to create the basis for hierarchical orders. In other words, we must shift from an ideological perspective to that of values and social practice. We are in a different position to analyze hierarchy when hierarchy no longer means a mere chain of authority but a relational order or whole that integrates and relates different statues and positions within that whole.

When looking into the perspective of the Muslim debaters themselves we can observe that this question of feminism and liberty is a pressing one for Muslim women[4]. But, as Saba Mahmood points out, it is also an academic pitfall:

It is widely assumed that the veil is a symbol whose variable meanings inhere either in the woman’s intentions or in the context of its adornment. Whether it is those who hail it as a symbol of their religious or cultural identity or those who spurn it as a symbol of women’s oppression (as do many feminists)[…] Such is the fate that must befall the veil in a secular imaginary: it can only symbolize the world of authority and tradition that already stands in a false relation to history and requisite progress; its proper meaning is decided by a prior verdict, namely that this tradition (often glossed as literalist) must be destroyed in order for reason, culture, and the free spirit to grasp the true meaning of religion (Mahmood 2006, 343-344).

Something similar can be seen in the Norwegian context. If we have in mind Sheima Ali’s quote seen in the introduction, the question here is whether wearing the hijab is a sign of suppression or liberty – And accordingly if wearing hijab is compatible with feminism. As another young muslim woman states in an interview with the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten: “Feminism is about social, political and economic equality. That is why it does not matter what one wears, as long as we can be united on these values” (Lereng 2016).

Here enters another question of the relation between different feminist voices or different feminist groups in the public sphere. Going back to Tordis Borchgrevink, she asks if European Muslim women are defying the very laws restricting their rights, or if the head-scarf is advertising their obedience to their own subordination (Borchgrevink 2007). Her perspective on the paradox can be related to what another Muslim debater, Amina H. Bile, writes in Aftenposten. She claims that Muslim women in fact have been abandoned by western feminists. This highlights the paradox from another angle: “This is the paradox: we criticize countries which with their restriction and sanction limits women, and still we maintain our own regulations…We can discuss what feminism means on an individual level, but one thing I think we can all agree on is that the freedom to choose what one wants to wear or not” (Bile 2016).[5]

It is neither entirely clear whom the critique is directed at, nor if she draws on secular values or not. But, as Bangstad has pointed out there are strong indications of the existence of a hierarchy governed by among others the editors of the major newspapers who prefer liberal and/or non-religious Muslim voices (Bangstad 2013). What is interesting is that there seems to be some kind of internal hierarchy among feminists and an internal secular hierarchy that the Muslim women are battling with. And, when western feminist does not support Muslim women then this stands out as a paradox: the freedom we criticize other countries for violating, is violated by ourselves when it comes to Muslim women. But this is not a paradox if we understand freedom as a hierarchical value. If freedom is a hierarchical value, then freedom has a fixed meaning that is not negotiable. We are here back to the problem Ishaq is facing when she demands recognition for alternative definitions of freedom.

There seems to be a double paradox here: 1) Muslim women who use secular language of equality and liberty in order to express subordination. 2) Equality and liberty are (anti-hierarchical) values that creates a hierarchy among the citizens. It seems to me that the paradox is not just underlying the role and arguments of Muslim Women as Borchgrevink has in mind, it is a paradox underlying the secular order and in the values of the secular order itself. As far as I can see Borchgervink and Bile here are describing two sides of the same coin (or of the same paradox). However, we seem to lack a theoretical frame that can render this paradox visible without claiming to solve it. The problem is that we do not seem to understand that equality and liberty are practiced within a hierarchy of values. So secular western feminists do not understand (or admit) that their interpretation of freedom, equality and feminism is creating the “paramount value” (Dumont 1971). Therefore, any other version of secular non-religious feminism will always be an inferior feminism.

What Dumont does is to deconstruct the foundation of modern ideology which is the value of egalitarianism: Since values are the basis for the construction of hierarchical orders, egalitarianism becomes the paramount value in an egalitarianist hierarchy. Thus, the paradox is that equality is linked to its opposite, i.e. hierarchy. In other words, the value regulating the public sphere would in that case be equality. The dilemma from the perspective of the Muslim women arguing for hijab would then be to consider how much is lost in being encompassed by the values of the secular public sphere, and how much could be achieved by doing it. As far as I see it Dumont reveals a paradox that resembles that of the so-called liberal dilemma. As Borchgrevink writes: “The puzzle is this: The object of theologically founded discrimination, i.e. the victim herself, demands her unrestricted right to demonstrate religious obedience in precisely those institutions which represent the entrance ticket to social and economic participation” (Borchgrevink 2007, 115).

What the author here expresses is well put, but to me it appears less of a puzzle if we do not see it through the eyes of modern ideology. Ideologically, liberalisms’ recognition of the equality and thus uniqueness and difference of every human being is a recognition of equality, but not of difference. If this difference is to be recognized it must be placed in a hierarchy. When Borchrevink says that it is a puzzle that the “institutions”, which secure equality in social and economic participation, are also used to demand the “unrestricted right to demonstrate religious obedience”; She, as far as I see it, expresses unknowingly a hierarchical value. In this hierarchy the egalitarian “non-subordinate” woman and the Muslim “subordinate” woman are not equal in their equality. But since equality is not regarded as a hierarchical value, the subordinate and the non-subordinate woman are placed at the same level. Since hierarchy breaks with our ethical ideology and standard, we cannot admit that there are some who are more equal than others.

As far as I can see the academic research on arguments for hijab in the public sphere do not seem to be focusing on the process of how these voices are integrated and received in the public sphere. Whereas the voices of Muslim men in these questions can be more easily discared by egalitarianist feminism, it seems more difficult to exclude Muslim female voices who draw on secular values. On the other hand, non-religious feminism finds it difficult to accept this version of secular feminism.

Here we again touch upon the supposed confusion, discussed above in relation to Rana, between secularity as a (non-religious) world view and as a political principle. Are those feminists having a non-religious world-view purer in their secularism – and is it a purer secular feminism than those professing a religious world-view ?  The Muslim feminist voices and the secular feminist voices are different (religious vs. non-religious), but also unified (universal equality). From the perspective of the secular feminism the ”solution” is thus to not exclude these voices but englobe them into a hierachy. From the perpective of  Muslim feminism the solution is to be englobed.

I think, however, that Borchgrevink’s paradox could be given an interpretation, if not a solution, in the light of Dumonts notion of hierarchy. If hierarchy is established through what he calls paramount values, then any expression of deviant/ alternative values or points of view must be evaluated in relation to the paramount one(s). Briefly put, even though religious citizens and their opinions and values could be integrated into secular society and public discourse, secular citizens and non-religious values are “purer”. Or to draw on Dumont’s account for the relation between sexes: man has a “double nature”. On the one hand man represents a part of humanity which is different from but equal to women, who represents another part of humanity. But on the other hand, man also represents the whole humanity (mankind) (Dumont 1971). In a similar manner, I would claim that we could analyze the relation between secular and religious citizens on two levels: they are parts or members of the same society, but non-religious citizens also represent the secular society as a whole.



In this text I have tried to show how Norwegian Muslims taking part in the Norwegian discussion on topics like secularity, freedom, feminism and hijab reveal a concealed hierarchy. This hierarchy is revealed partly because there seems to be a tension between the various Muslim voices themselves. These tensions concern aims and approaches to obtain these aims. But they all concern a question of being recognized as equal and/or different. By taking Louis Dumont’s concept of hierarchy into account I think it is possible to discern both some obstacles and some strategies to cope with these obstacles when it comes to how Muslim views on secularity, freedom, feminism and hijab can be recognized. Following Dumont and his interpreters like Descombes and Gressgård it is not possible to recognize equality and difference at the same time.

On the level of Muslim debaters, I think that we have discerned two possible approaches to this question. On one hand we have those, represented by Ishaq, who want to be recognized for their different points of view on these notions and themes. On the other hand, we have those Muslims who claim they have embraced a traditionally “western” version of these themes and notions. It seems to me like these Muslim women want to be recognized as equals to the western, European, non-religious, feminist, Norwegian woman. The question is whether the latter Muslims can obtain this status, or whether they too will be subordinate to the non-religious feminist making the “feminist hierarchy” a hierarchy with different levels.

On a research level it seems difficult to grasp both that hierarchy is a reality in western modern societies and/or that hierarchy is something more than just a value scale. I do not necessarily disagree with what the researchers say. I have rather tried to say something that has not been sufficiently discussed by interpreting the researchers own analysis and conclusions in the light of Dumont’s thoughts on hierarchy.



Ali S. A. (2017).” Hør meg når jeg skriker.”, Aftenposten, January 1, 2017. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from: https://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/sid/i/qempw/Hor-meg-nar-jeg-skriker-Min-hijab_-min-frihet–Sheima-Ali-18

Bangstad S. (2009). Sekularismens ansikter. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Bangstad S. (2013). “Inclusion and exclusion in the mediated public sphere: the case of Norway and its Muslims.” Social Anthropology, 21, no. 3: 356-370.

Barli A.-H. (2009). Hijab in norsk offentlighet- en diskursanalyse. Master diss., University of Oslo.

Berg D. E. (2011). Dalits and the constitutional state. PhD diss. University of Bergen.

Berger P. (1967). The secular canopy New York: Penguin.

Bile A. H. (2017). Vestlige feminister svikter muslimer, Aftenposten, November 24, 2017. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from: https://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/sid/i/1w2zX/Vestlige-feminister-svikter-muslimer–Amina-H-Bile

Borchgrevink T. (2007).” Whither Hijab? Religious freedom and the liberal dilemma”. Res Cogitans, 2, no. 4: 110-129.

Descombes V. (2013). Les embarras de l’identité Paris: NRF.

Dumont L. (1971). Homo hierarchicus. Essai sur le système des castes. Paris : Gallimard.

Dumont L. (1983). Essais sur l’individualisme. Une perspective anthropologique sur l’idéologie moderne. Paris : Gallimard.

Dumont L. (1998). Homo Hierarchicus. The Caste System and Its Implications. Oxford University Press.

Dumont L. (2013). « On value » in Hau : Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3 (1) : 287-315.

Døving C. A. (2012). «Religionens omveier-det sekulære argument i hijabdebattene» i Bangstad, Leirvik, Plesner (red.) Sekularisme-med norske briller, Oslo: UNIPUB.

Furseth I. ed. (2015). Religionens tilbakekomst i offentligheten. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Gaus, G., Courtland, S. D. and Schmidtz, D., “Liberalism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Downloaded at: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/liberalism/


Gressgård R. and Jacobsen C. M. (2008). “Krevende toleranse: Islam og homoseksualitet.” Tidsskrift  for kjønnsforskning, 2: 22-39.

Gressgård R. (2010). Multicultural dialogue. London: Berghan.

Gullestad M. (2002). “Invinsible fences: egalitarianism, nationalism and racism”, Royal anthropological institute 8: 45-63.

Habermas J. (2004). «Religion in der Öffentlichkeit» in Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion. Suhrkamp.

Habermas, J. (2006). “Religion in the Public Sphere”. I: European Journal of Philosophy, 14, 1: 1-25. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0378.2006.00241.x/pdf

Heggertveit I. (2017). «Skamløse jenter»-Diskursanalyse av kvinneperspektivet i mediedebatten om muslimske kvinner. Master diss. Volda university college.

Ishaq B. (2017). Hvem snakker for oss? Muslimer i dagens Norge-hvem er de og hva mener de? Oslo: Cappelen Damm.

Lereng A. (2016). “Dra tilbake der dere kommer fra!” Aftenposten, November 24, 2017. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from: https://www.aftenposten.no/meninger/sid/i/nrA8o/Dra-tilbake-dit-dere-kommer-fra-Tre-hijab-debattanter-svarer-pa-kommentarene-under-innleggene-sine

Mahmood S. (2006). «Secularism, Hermeneutics and Empire: The politics of Islamic Reformation», Public Culture 18 (2), pp.323-347.

Rawls J. (2005). «The idea of public reason revisited» in Political liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Weiler J.H.H. (2010a). ORAL SUBMISSION BY PROFESSOR JHH WEILER ON BEHALF OF AREMENIA, BULGARIA, CYPRUS, GREECE, LITHUANIA, MALTA, THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION AND SAN MARINO – THIRD PARTY INTERVENING STATES IN THE LAUTSI CASE BEFORE THE GRAND CHAMBER OF THE EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from: https://7676076fde29cb34e26d-759f611b127203e9f2a0021aa1b7da05.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/eclj/weiler_lautsi_third_parties_submission_by_jhh_weiler.pdf

Weiler J.H.H. (2010b). EJIL Editorial Vol 21:1- Lautsi: Crucifix in the Classroom Redux. Retrieved 13th February 2020 from: https://www.ejiltalk.org/lautsi-crucifix-in-the-classroom-redux/

Wenar, Leif, “John Rawls”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Retrieved 13th February 2020 from: <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2017/entries/rawls/>.



[1]  (Ishaq 2017, 182). All quotes from Ishaq’s book are translated by me.

[2] In addition to my colleagues at the department for religious studies at Volda University College, I would like to thank Alexandros Tsakos, Kjartan Leer-Salvesen, Erlend Walseth and Kishore Gajendra for helping me with developing the manuscript.

[3] Translated by me.

[4] I have drawn much on the master thesis of Ida Heggertveit regarding this material (Heggertveit 2017).

[5] Translated by me.

Asger Sørensen, Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics (Leiden: Brill, 2019)

The compilation of texts under the title Capitalism, Alienation and Critique: Studies in Economy and Dialectics is Volume one of a trilogy named Dialectics, Deontology and Democracy by Asger Sørensen. The collection is a child of its time: ambivalently modest and dashing when stating its aim, it scratches the surface of vital questions about human prospects impregnated in a global capitalist system and goes in-depth at others in the same class of issues, offering both less and more than what one might expect under certain headings.

The volume includes seven main Chapters divided in two parts (i.e. Economy and Dialectics) and throughout comes back to the initial argument that dialectics, deontology and democracy are “obligatory and necessary ways of relating to social reality” (p.11). Notwithstanding that ‘necessity’ arguments invoke primarily the necessity of immediate syllogistic precision, the exploration is generally done without being oblivious to the need to question various claims on ‘validity’ or to think of (social) science as a political practice. The included name index with bibliography and a separate subject index could well serve students stepping into the world of the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, getting inspired by the Hegelian dialectical nuances of Aufhebung, or discovering briefly Durkheim’s sociological conception of value as a way to situate persistent to this day realities, in which liberal politics ‘liberate’ the economic decision-making from moral reasoning.

An Interlude considers the potency of the classical Critical Theory and its current relevance, whereas the work concludes with a Postscript where the critique of political economy is continued from the first part and refreshingly deepened. This last and closing section in fact abounds with solid critique of several layers of capitalist ideology and is perhaps what one might prefer to read precisely in the first part dedicated to Economics, rather than an analysis of George Bataille’s quasi-political and neo-gnostic flow-of-energy concept on general economy in a macro- and micro- perspective.

The second part dedicated to Dialectics has a low start. Its beginning chapter dedicates only few lines to summarizing Aristotle’s contribution to the topic. The point is not that there is no mention of Topika or Analitika protera or that relevant works from Aristotle’s deeply political anthropoeia philosophia are, as if, footnoted (and briefly abstracted in other chapters), but that in the volume’s Introduction, the author summarizes this Chapter as the one where “dialectics is presented in a very classical philosophical way, i.e. taking it all the way from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Marx […]” (p.14). A careful reader (or simply a radical one in the sense of going back to the original ancient text in the spirit of the Hegelian Bildung tradition) can arrive to Aristotle’s dialectics either through his logic and the understanding of dialectic premises, or his Metaphysics and the theory of ousia. At least, this is what one would expect from a classical philosophical treatment.

Hence, the reader gets the impression that Aristotle somehow falls under the ‘et al.’ category, which the author uses throughout the entire volume. No matter how playfully or only practically intended, the ‘et al.’ practice is at points inadmissible for arguments’ sake, opening up with no need a dismissive context which inadvertently goes against the author’s own hailing of credible normative frameworks and emancipatory politics. At times the usage is outright obdurate as in “[…] and the discovery of Auschwitz et al. […]” (p.49). In any case, even if the promised classical treatment is missing as a simple consequence of preference or choice of focus, we should be mindful that these themselves might be due to a long tradition of ‘readings’ of Aristotle which sometimes impoverish dizzyingly (Kant), adapt fecundly (Hegel) or appropriate catachrestically (Heidegger) Aristotle’s potent theoretical system and dialectic approach.

In this sense, by being too eager to ‘move on’ in his argumentation at points too quickly, Sørensen risks being not radical enough in the most necessary sense, the political one. Leaving unmined treasures of insights and knots that could have been brought to light is evidenced also when the dynamic of lotteries, gambling halls, internet scams and casinos is put under the umbrella of ‘ideology of hope’ (p.290), without mining one’s own or contextual anthropological assumptions as crucial for giving a consistently critical perspective. The work itself, for instance, is seen as seeking to contribute to the establishment “of credible normative frameworks enabling us to comprehend conceptually, and hopefully also to cope with, the current human predicament, while remaining painfully aware that such an ambition may in fact be overly presumptuous” (p.20). Perhaps claiming an aim only to give it up rhetorically in the same assertion might be attractive to a certain readership, but some might see the claimed scope as complacent and missing any substantial ethico-political challenge. Moreover, even though Sørensen is afraid that Honneth’s critique might be politically impotent “due to its very radicality” (p.12), the reader might wonder what in particular is radical in reducing Critical Theory to social philosophy, given also the well-presented argument on Honneth’s approach in light of the classical critical project (p.67-82).

Imprecision, inaccuracies, and possible contradictions are thus somewhat burdensome, even though the volume is not lacking in solid demonstrations; among else, into how the ever-growing mathematization of political economy is covering up its deeply ideological violence, which leaves out the problem of social (and political) justice. Nonetheless, the claim that an apolitical relation to social reality fails to recognize the value of all intermediary institutions, since it subscribes to the idea of a single individual facing the absolute (p.122), is potentially ideological itself if left unpacked, despite one’s otherwise evident dedication to the critical project. The fact that Durkheim’s or our current intermediary institutions would condition an answer to relevant questions, or aim to eliminate the challenging ethico-political questions altogether, does not cancel or salvage us from the human condition and facing ‘the absolute’ whose historical trajectory, from God to State to Market, is only a potent soil to plough into critically.

The collection is therefore a good reminder of a struggle. A struggle of weakened States embedded in the new practices of imperialism and fragmented by the cynical ideology of global capitalism, which relies on the displaced likelihood that once something happens, it can be quickly renormalized as already having been possible. Examples abound, but think of a recent one: the imposition of a European State onto a non-European one to change its name even in its relation to all other states, against the clear will of the only sovereign (i.e., the people) and through an openly illegal and anti-constitutional process, but such that the first (politically) demarcates the (ethnic) identity of the ‘Other’ by claiming exclusivity over cultural history and even symbols. It is such political violence par excellence that defines our current world, alongside the direct one and the one that counts several millions of people as nothing, for they are neither consumers nor employees. But, if we do not see that all three orders of violence sit in the lap of greed, force and ‘this is mine’ ideology so typical of capitalism, we have understood nothing of its nature.

Hence, if our aim is effective change of the conditions currently guiding people’s lives, the grand problem might not even be how do we system-wise sustain such change and reach those that are most in need of justice and equality. Badiou has already addressed this question elsewhere. Rather, are we aware that an ‘all-inclusive’ proletarization is already underway? Such that we are all (beyond the classical image of proletarians) potentially stripped of our substance? We could, at least potentially, imagine a rich rather than a meagre symbolic life offered to newborns brought to a world of biogenetic manipulation (geared, likely, out of any democratic oversight) and threatening ecological breakdown, coupled exponentially with freedom reconfigured as being able to follow one’s whims: yet lo and behold, our political problem is deeply ethical. It reconfigures for each of us the quintessential question of what do you believe in and hope for, and how do you live in the name of it.

There was a reason why Marx was concerned with raising the awareness of the working class and the need for unity in making a change that will indeed not be in the interest of the few only, and why education is such a potent ‘game-changer’, or why for that matter Hegel was obsessed with Bildung in line with the tradition of the classical Athenian polis, and his view that critique presupposes alienation. Potentially excluded from our very substance, each-of-us a Homo Sacer might be the only proper conceptual start.

Conversion and Inclusiveness

The problem that I intend to try to tackle in this brief intervention of mine is the following: is the current notion of religious freedom or freedom of conscience – I do not mean to distinguish the two things even though one probably should – compatible with the current notion of tolerance? I will briefly try to prove: 1. that this problem exists, 2. that the setting given by Baroncelli to the problem of tolerance is the only way, at least among those I know, to set it correctly.

In the abstract, of course, the two concepts seem to fit together perfectly, after all they were almost always compatible in the internal forum (with the exception of the Catholic inquisition, as far as I know). If, however, we are striving to understand as we are trying to do today, the problem emerges immediately: it happens in fact that often the two concepts will involve, consciously or not, two opposing rhetorics, of inclusion and exclusion, often and willingly at the same time. On the other hand, from a public point of view the principle of religious freedom implies a form of public ignorance (even if almost always this is only very relatively true) with regard to the contents of this freedom; on the other hand, every religious freedom in which it is exercised implies a radical exclusivism: one cannot convert simultaneously to Christianity or Islam or practice different rites at the same time.

The same thing naturally applies to political liberty, but in this case, it is normally stated that the exercise of the aforementioned freedom is subordinated to the acceptance of a set of common values ​​- constitutional principles – and of common rules within which only political freedom is exercisable. This is because political confrontation exists in function of the exercise of a political power: everyone can disagree with any political proposal but must obey it when it turns into law correctly through a series of constitutionally guaranteed procedures. Every discussion or political confrontation is aimed at the conquest of a political monopoly. The purpose of constitutions, or at least of liberal constitutions, is to limit this monopoly to allow the survival of an adequate political dialectic through the protection of oppositions.

The problem lies in the fact that, unlike the political one, religious freedom implies the recognition of a right to a series of external and therefore public behaviours that by definition cannot be compulsively transformed into obligatory behaviours for all, under penalty of the abolition of religious freedom itself as external freedom. A quick examination of Hobbes Leviathan or of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologicus Politicus – from my point of view the two paradigmatic texts of modernity – would be sufficient to detect the dramatic centrality of the problem: on the one hand both Hobbes and Spinoza admit and defend the freedom of conscience in internal forum, on the other hand they  affirm at the same time the right of the sovereign in power to establish common dogmas and common rituals mandatory from a public point of view.[1] Locke’s ‘tolerance’ has – on the other hand within very clear limits – fortunately amended, not completely erased, from the paradigm of modernity this scheme, but the problem remains and is destined to emerge  periodically in particular situations.[2]

In a certain sense it could be argued that, at least after Locke, religious freedom could be assimilated more to economic freedom than to political freedom:[3] not surprisingly we hear about a religious market and about religious demands to which religions  offer religious supplies and even about a supermarket of the Sacred. That captures something essential that adequately describes the behaviour of many churches and sects within the modern open society.[4] The analogy, however, cannot be perfect because the goods put up – please allow my coarseness – for sale by the various religious denominations are metaphysical as Stark has often pointed out; in other words, while in theory it would always be possible to check the efficiency of any goods put up for sale obviously in relation to their price – and consumer companies take on this function primarily  – there is no metaphysical body that can control the qualities of the goods of ‘salvation’ put up for sale. In other words, the verification can only be internal. Religions are ultimately self-referential realities, even when they are in competition with one another.

The tools through which a hypothetical religious market can function may be, given the aforementioned self-reference, only two: fusion-syncretism and the transition from one perspective to another e.g. conversion. These two elements can be set against each other but are also strongly complementary to each other.[5] Here, with the help of William James, I will only deal with ‘conversion’.


What does being reborn mean?

As is well known, William James distinguished religious experiences into two categories: the religions of the healthy self and those of the sick self. Men, claimed James, on the basis of a statement by Francis William Newman,[6] the much lesser-known brother of the well-known cardinal, are divided into two basic categories, those who are content to be born once and those who want to be born twice. The former are in turn divided into two categories. Those who are naturally and instinctively happy with their state, who instinctively rejoice in the fullness of life that flows around them and those for whom optimism is a moral duty – in this regard the model is the hated-loved Ralph Waldo Emerson. The experience of conversion is irretrievably precluded to them: they are too healthy or at least they would like to be so too strongly and energetically. On the other hand, the experience of conversion concerns the second type of men because it implies a leap from a state of melancholy to one of exaltation. The religions of conversion are the most complete for James, although less widespread. Obviously, even if James does not take the trouble to highlight it, they are all of a biblical matrix, with the unique although an extremely important exception of Buddhism.

What  does distinguish these two types? James uses two technical terms in this regard: the first is threshold, the second is field of consciousness which is characterised by the indetermination of the margin; conversion is caused by the presence of an active subliminal self.

1) by ‘threshold’ James means a limit point that varies from individual to individual, and that can also vary within the consciousness of a single individual at different times, warning of the malum mundi.

2) in order to be converted a man must not only have a very or relatively low ‘threshold’ with regard to the malum mundi – or suffer as Job’s particularly tragic life experiences – but have a ‘second self’ available in the unconscious but not present on a conscious level.These two conditions must naturally be equally present. A man could have a very rich unconscious life but a very low threshold, or vice versa feel the malum mundi in a particularly tragic way but have no other ‘self’ in reserve, able to emerge or re-emerge at a decisive moment and therefore be completely devoid of ‘mythopoietic’ imagination.

It is therefore evident that the truly religious individuals are, have been and always will be very few: men, said James with an expression destined to become a common place, are divided into those that have their own religion and those that have the religion of someone else – the majority. One of the effects of secularisation is probably the, at least apparent, disappearance of this majority.

Given the theme of this conference, I will not critically address this approach, which I reserve the right to resume at the conclusion, but I will only briefly examine a passage that James uses to present the subject of his lectures to his Scottish listeners, perhaps to shock them enough to make them pay attention to his speech. This is a passage taken from the Journal of George Fox, notoriously the founder of the most open, reasonable and tolerant religious sect born of the reform. Here is the passage:

as I was walking with several friends I lifted up my head, and saw three steepled-hauses spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither. Being come to the house we were going to […] I stept away […] till I came within a mile of Lichfield, where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then I was commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter, and the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put of my shoes, and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished […] and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again saying; Cry, ‘Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!’ So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud voice, WO TO THE BLOODY CITY OF LICHFIELD! It being a market day. […] And no one laid hands on me. As I went thus crying through the streets, there seemed to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets, and the market-place appeared like a pool of blood. When I have declared what was upon me, and felt myself clear, I went out of the town in peace, and returning to the shepherds gave them some money, and took my shoes of them again. But the fire of the Lord was so in my feet, and all over me, that I did not matter to put on my shoes again, and was at a stand whether I should or not, till I felt freedom from the lord so to do: then, after I washed my feet, I put on my shoes again.[7]

To be noted that James had already taken steps to inform his listeners of the psychopath or détraqué nature of George Fox, and it is no coincidence that the passage is quoted in his first lecture entitled Religion and Neurology.

However, the interest in the passage resides not in the more or less pathological state that the passage testifies to. In a certain sense one could say that not only James and his learned listeners, but Fox himself was well aware of it, so much so that the passage goes on to tell how Fox himself strove, through the elaboration of a series of ad hoc hypotheses, to construct an a posteriori rationalisation of this embarrassing word of the Lord, which in its immediate meaning seemed senseless to him too: for what reason in fact would the quiet town of Lichfield have been a bloody city? Instead, I would like to focus on one central point of this narrative: George Fox emerges from the common universe of all men, and first of all pastors who are surprised and frightened by this, for an explicit divine command to take off his shoes, and return, always for another explicit divine command, putting them back on. It should be noted that if there had been a particularly heinous crime in Lichfield a few days earlier, even unbeknownst to George Fox, an essential element, a verifiable ‘fact’, would act as a trait d’union between the two planes of the discourse that would be appearing overall sensible even though he would have remained ‘foolish’ to George Fox, who knew nothing about it.

There is another interesting point in this narrative: George Fox is surprised that none of the peaceful citizens of Lichfield have beaten him up. If they had done, he probably would have understood and apologised – ‘forgive them Lord for they do not know what they do’ as per the Evangelical citation. This could mean that the peaceful citizens of Lichfield, unlike those of Jonah’s Nineveh, had accepted Fox’s behaviour in complete indifference. But I will return to this point at the end of my paper. The passage quoted has the merit of presenting the problem that interests me in a particularly radical way: there are two George Foxes, and above all two different levels of communication, the pathology of the situation has to do only with the fact that these two levels of communication they have no point in common and that therefore the self-referentiality of George Fox’s speech without shoes is total, while in almost all ‘normal’ religious discourses there is still a margin of common meanings that can be more or less broad – think for instance of the five ways of Thomas.

At this point let us try to rethink the notion of conversion set out above: it is clear that the concept of ‘threshold’ becomes central. Let us imagine making this aspect of the question clear that a ‘vegan’ of our days was miraculously present in Lichfield, or more precisely still in its bloody meat market that certainly George Fox must have gone through during his preaching. He would have found Fox’s invective to be perfectly sensible, indeed he would have found it even more sensible than Fox himself, who, as I have already mentioned, had to construct a complicated attempt at rationalisation afterwards, going back to the time of the Roman occupation. The example, however absurd it may be, allows us to understand the deep connection that links the two essential conditions of James: I do not think the horror of blood is a natural fact, since after all man has been an animal hunter since prehistoric times; but it is probable that it has characterised many human individuals throughout the history of our species, so much so that it has always been exorcised in many ways since prehistoric times. To produce a religion such as Jainism, it is necessary that in some individuals a very low threshold for horror for this practice is combined with the emergence from the unconscious of a positive feeling towards every living being. An original James-type of religious experience, and a subsequent mythical transcription of it, was probably essential both to become hunters and to become vegans.[8] An individual, one could conclude, is first and foremost his mythopoeic imagination, and the recognition of religious freedom is precisely for this essential.


Flavio Baroncelli and the virtue of indifference

At this point we are almost back to the starting point: how to reconcile the claim of universality of every serious religious discourse with its self-referentiality in external forum? Avoiding both the Talibanism of all the prophets and the inverse Talibanism of all the contemporary atheologists who think of the “religious” as, in the best case, sick to cure, with a very early scientific education.[9]

Probably the best solution remains the small one practised by the peaceful citizens of Lichfield. The virtue of indifference for which they avoided beating up poor George Fox. What is often missed is an adequate theoretical justification for this fact, which did not coincide with prudential arguments – repression would have too high a social cost – or a merciful one – we must tolerate wanderers to give them time to find the truth – or again of a sociological or pseudo-sociological nature – it is a question of residual behaviour destined to be absorbed with the progress of civilisation, or in any case of true religion.

Particularly significant was a theory, different, and in some way opposite and morally more demanding, that was fashionable about thirty years ago, supported by an illustrious Argentine professor, Ernesto Garzon Valdès, who was also a visiting professor in Genoa in those years.[10] Tolerance is a particularly worthy virtue because it forces us to bear the unbearable. The starting point of the article is a story of Manuel Vincent ten years before in which he told of a father willing to tolerate the asocial and rude behaviour of his daughter and her friends until the fateful date of 14th May 1980, when she tried to put her filthy hands on his Mozart to make her friends listen to him. Another important point of reference is an analogous position of Mary Warnock[11], inherent as well prima facieto the complex mother-child relationships. From these two particularly significant exempla Valdès drew an essential conclusion:

in both cases tolerance appears as a dispositional property which in different and repeated circumstances […] is tested. Common to all these circumstances is the rejection that the respective acts immediately arouse in the tolerant person.[12]

The inevitable consequences of this approach are the affirmation that the idea of tolerance is always accompanied by the idea of an evil which should be the object of tolerance itself and therefore the need for a judgment weighed between the evil to be tolerated and the evil of intolerance; secondly the weighting presupposed by tolerance and a good criterion to distinguish this from indifference. It was therefore a matter of finding a new Aristotelian medium between the opposing vices of intolerance and indifference.

It was a version of the virtue of tolerance that was particularly demanding and ascetic in that it imposed the tolerance of the intolerable through a form of castration – even if this term was not used – of our moral or simply aesthetic instinct which should have involved suffering and therefore a complacency of this suffering.

The merit of Flavio Baroncelli was to react to this approach through the elaboration of an alternative hypothesis – the development of which probably would have led to the defence of political correctness in Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti  and lastly to Il razzismo è una gaffe  – tolerance is a public virtue that concerns the public space where differences must not be seen or at least noticed even if they are accidentally glimpsed. It is therefore a question of building institutions – and in the broadest sense of the term, even language is an institution, or rather the first institution – that are tolerant, not castrations of our private preferences whose public manifestation becomes a blunder. In this decidedly non-Aristotelian perspective, indifference becomes a public virtue that should not necessarily imply the castration of our private preferences, but if ever their “relativisation” in public space. An intolerant person would become essentially a blunderer, ridiculous not only in front of others, but above all in front of himself.

Only within a framework of this kind can the right to religious freedom in the external forum find its place through the construction of a public space within which, like within a Goffmann-style ‘scenario’, behaviours of religious actors can move. This would imply the need to postulate more alternative, parallel but not necessarily self-excluding public spaces.

The difficulty will then be again in the exercise of what Walzer called the ‘art of separation’ proper to liberalism, the exercise of which is particularly complex and difficult, especially since the World Wide Web seems to have erased the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’. I fear it will fall back more and more on the ordinary magistracy. In a certain sense we could say that the need to re-delineate this essential distinction is the difficult task that Baroncelli has left us with.


Endnotes & references

[1] From this point of view, the credo minimumrepresents a weak attempt to find a balance between the internal and the external, public and private. In this regard I refer to my ‘Dual language’: ‘Le salut des ignorants‘ and the ‘Homo liber’.The paradoxes of the ‘credo minimum’ according to Spinoza in ‘La ragione della parola’. Religione ermeneutica e linguaggio  in Baruch Spinoza, edited by F. Camera and A. Sangiacomo, II prato, Saonara (PD). 2013, pp. 97-130.

[2] See for instance the problem of the Burka.

[3] In this regard I refer to the General theory of religionwhich Rodney Stark, with the help of William Sims Bainbridge, expounded in the ever valid A Theory of Religion(1sted. Lang, New York 1987).

[4] But not in Europe, considering that in all European countries, excluding France, which on the contrary seems to apply a kind of monopoly of non-religion, there is some weak form of religious monopoly of a dominant confession.

[5] Without syncretism no common religious lexicon could exist and therefore no new religious proposal could find an adequate listener, on the other hand without exclusivism any metaphysical advantage that would make it convenient to support the cost of abandoning the old rites, beliefs and habits would disappear.

[6] Cf.The Soul, its Sorrows, and its Aspirations. An Assay towards the Natural History of the Soul as the True Basis of Theology, 1sted. 1849.

[7] W. James,The Varieties of Religious Experience, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1985, p. 16.

[8] James’s unconscious appears from this point of view particularly ambiguous: first, taking James’s speech to the letter, it should be understood as a sort of spare wheel of the individual, who can save himself from anguish, allowing another of his possible ‘self’s to emerge; on the other hand, by just forcing James’s discourse, one could think of it as an alternative to Jung’s collective unconscious without its potentially reactionary ambiguities: we can only imagine what is part of our culture and can be understood starting from it, even if we can remix the pieces of a puzzle in a radically innovative way by building something totally innovative. After all, to use the terminology of Ernest Renan, every génie religieux (among which George Fox can certainly be counted) did just that.

[9] Cf. for instance the small volume by V. Girotto, T. Pievani, G. Vallortigara,Nati per credere, Codice edizioni, Milano 2008.

[10] Cf. his article of 1992 ‘No ponga tua sucia manos sobre Mozart’. Algunas consideraciones sobre el concepto de tolerancia, Italian translation in Tolleranza, responsabilità e stato di diritto, il Mulino, Bologna 2003.

[11] M. Warnock,Limiti della tolleranza, in S. Mendus – D. Edwards (eds), Saggi sulla tolleranza, II Saggiatore , Milan 1980.

[12] G. Valdés, op.cit. p.166.

Diversity, Otherness and the Politics of Recognition

To Flavio Baroncelli, a friend I met only too late,

whose lively intellect, critical sense, friendliness

and clever  irony I just had time to appreciate.


The whole and the part*

In introducing his article “Il riconoscimento e i suoi sofismi”[1], Flavio Baroncelli identifies the difficulties experienced by philosophical debate when dealing with the relationship between the whole and the part. He states: “For centuries, philosophers have debated extensively on ‘the whole and the part’, and their debates might appear totally gratuitous to the layperson. Does the whole or the part come first? In which sense ‘first’? Logical, axiological, temporal? What is meant is hardly ever clear.”[2] The reference to the above-mentioned difficulties is to be taken seriously, since it takes us back to the origins of philosophical thinking, when Plato, in his Sophist, develops the theory of the summa genera[3] and originates a fundamental aspect of Western culture, still very relevant today, that is, comparative reasoning, comparing in particular what is the same and what is other. This type of reasoning considers the other as not-being, since it is a being that is other[4].

Referred back to human relationships and transferred from separate beings (individuals) to the whole − the community absorbing the parts making it up to the point that it cannot conceive of their independent existence − the definition of what unites us (same) and what divides us (other) is of great consequence on the anthropological, ethical and political plane. It originates the distinction between us (those who identify themselves as belonging to a given community) and them (those who are other than us)[5], which is based on comparison: they do not have some quality characterising us or, conversely, have some quality that does not belong to us. They are therefore immediately identifiable as not us.

The debate between political liberalism and communitarianism, which is the backdrop of Baroncelli’s article, has much to do with the above-mentioned way of defining both in terms of the individual-community relationship and in terms of the relationship among different communities. This is not the place to look into detail at the terms of the debate between liberals and communitarians and the specificities of the contributions by individual philosophers. To get an idea of its extent, suffice it to mention the priority issue characterising it: should we favour justice over good, as the former claim, or rather the opposite, as the latter say? Political liberalism is willing to acknowledge the pluralism of comprehensive notions of good life (characterising individuals or groups) and to extinguish possible conflicts through procedures based on the neutrality of the State, intended as a cooperative and voluntary association. For communitarians, on the other hand, good must prevail over justice lest society be disrupted and means instrumental to pursuing specific interests dominate. Hence it would not be possible to try to make a political community survive independent of the telos determined by a unitary and all-embracing notion of good and by objectives with which participants in the political community may identify. The community defines not only what they have as fellow citizens, but also what they are− not a relationship they choose (as a voluntary association would be), but a tie they uncover, not a mere attribute, but a constitutive element of their identity, so that the whole prevails over the part and makes it conceivable only in relation to the whole itself.

Since in the above-mentioned article Baroncelli posed the question of the whole and the part in relation to the recognition and interpretation of it provided by communitarian philosophers, I will focus on the following interconnected notions, which I believe to be crucial to deal with this topic: otherness, identity and recognition. The aim of this analysis is to identify a perspective that may overcome the most blatant limitations of political liberalism, also in the light of the issues posed by communitarianism, while adopting a liberal standpoint.


Otherness and translatability

At the dawn of modernity, with the discovery of America, Europe had to confront the “trauma” of otherness[6].  It was basically dealt with by reassuringly changing the other into the different, transforming “the non-relation of otherness into the relation of diversity, the incommensurable into the commensurable»[7]. It was on this basis that the debate on the nature of the Indios, and later on the savages, was developed[8]. Independent of what they were considered to be, the yardstick for their assessment was what was in them the same as or different from Europeans, in terms of physical characteristics, culture, economic development.

Since otherness based on incommensurability between cultures[9] may provide reasons in favour of political liberalism and the principle of (political) neutrality, I find it necessary to make it explicit what it is and which its ethical and political implications are. According to P. Feyerabend, “[…]languages and the reaction patterns they involve are not merely instruments for describing events (facts, states of affair), but that they are also shapers of events (facts, states of affairs)[…]their ‘grammar’ contains a cosmology, a comprehensive view of the world, of society, of the situation of man which influences thought, behaviour, perception.”[10]. This means that each linguistic universe represents a world of its own, its descriptions are a way – the way in that universe – of “seeing” the world, but also a construction of the world. In language, moreover, there can be covert classificationsoriginating“[…] patterned resistances to widely divergent points of view’. If these resistances oppose not just the truth of the resisted alternatives but the presumption that an alternative has been presented, then we have an instance of incommensurability.”[11].

It is therefore a question of distinguishing between possible alternatives within a linguistic universe or, in any case, between translations already put in place, classifying the latter as typical of a weak otherness (or diversity), and the non-existence of alternatives since other languages describe and determine other worlds. In the latter case, we might be facing an instance of strong otherness and, in particular cases, of absolute otherness. A distinction is made between strong and absolute otherness because the former is referred to realities which are used to be confronted with translation, although they do not presuppose the existence of alternatives, Whereas the latter concerns cultures which are the expression of groups of humans which have long been separated and are therefore not used to mutual translation. These considerations allow us to understand how our recognition of individuals or cultures depends on forming standard judgements, stereotypes and prejudice, developed according to a comparative criterion,within linguistic universes. In addition, they may shed some light on how we may intend the criterion of truth, which cannot be solely reduced to the correspondence between what is and what is affirmed, but which has to assume as fact also views of the world which, within a certain linguistic universe, may seem to be bizarre.

When Cortés met Moteczuma[12], the latter was really convinced that a cosmic cycle was coming to an end and this represented afact of fundamental importance for the conquest of the Aztec Empire by the Spaniards. Thanks to Malinche’s[13] decisive help, Cortés very cleverly exploited Moteczuma’s convictions to his advantage, since he could enter his linguistic universe and translate it. As is well known, the relationship between Cortés and Moteczuma ended tragically. We should therefore ask ourselves this question: is it possible to have tolerant confrontation and dialogue between culture, theories and comprehensive notions of good life that are mutually incommensurable? This opens up a further question: which relationship (if any) can we establish between incommensurability and translatability? According to H.G. Gadamer, translation of texts is an interpretation of them implying the activation of a hermeneutic circle[14]. But how far may interpretation go before it turns into misrepresentation when you move from texts to the even more problematic translation between linguistic universes finding themselves in a state of strong or absolute otherness?

A first step may be to “[…]recognize each other as a member of different language communities[…]”[15]secondly, we should refer this recognition to cultures to become aware of the type of otherness involved. It should be borne in mind how translation does not concern individual words and their meanings nor formal logic understood as universal language. Confrontation pertains to such logics, that is, the inherent structures of languages. This is the confrontation making it possible to reshape ideas in one’s own language. This does not mean that there is commensurability, but that languages “[…] can be bent in many directions and that understanding does not depend on any particular set of rules.”[16]. As translation goes on, we could begin to understand why statements that to us are obscure, bizarre or even meaningless have an explanation within the linguistic universe in which they are located. Here a word of warning may be needed: “To translate a theory or worldview into one’s own language in not to make it one’s own.”[17]; furthermore, translation will hardly be really complete.

Lastly, translation may make it possible to construct a new language. This may happen independent of an informed decision[18], but also, in my view, as a result of an intentional process. On an ethical and political plane, the idea that cultures are incommensurable, but that translation puts them in a relationship, allows for a conception of cultures as open systems that import and export culture, that co-evolve and that may hybridise and originate new cultures. If interculture is not to be dealt with in general and misleading terms, we should deem the linguistic transition operated by translation the basis on which intercultural relations may be built. This may be carried out by maintaining the centrality of the crucial principle for establishing a real intercultural relationship: the awareness of the otherness at the heart of this process. Such awareness, like translation, refers back to the role of individuals. A process of dialogue and hybridisation between cultures may be constructed only thanks to their experiences, sensitivity, care, to their recognising themselves as bearers of a plurality of needs, interests, identities, to their recognising themselves as same and other at the same time, as belonging to the same species, and as situated individuals, with a history, a background, habits inherited by traditions. In other words, we should not consider communities from a holistic point of view as a homogeneous and cohesive whole on the basis of a single cultural identity, but as a hologram, a network of relations among individuals, groups, associations where communication, knowledge, different cultures and subcultures and their translations uninterruptedly flow within the system and out of it, opening it up to the innovation engendered by the combination of endogenous and exogenous factors.


Identity of the part or of the whole?  

In the light of what has been said, I believe Baroncelli had good reasons for thinking that the recognition philosophies and politics proposed by communitarians were based on rhetorical patterns that may be summed up by two strategies: “[…] the former is providing a poor image of the liberal enemy; the latter is presenting oneself as the champions of the cultural minorities the enemy cannot or will not protect.”[19]

Here is where two questions may be posed: which is the relationship between identity and recognition? Can we deal with individuals and communities in the same way, that is, moving from the recognition of individual rights characterising the liberal tradition to the recognition of cultural rights for each community? In this connection, Baroncelli emphasises a relevant feature: identity may be individual or collective (cultural, religious, etc.). Meditation on communitarianism, a holistic view holding that individuals are identifiable only as members of a community, as parts of a whole teleologically shaped by a comprehensive view of good life, implies coming to terms with the fact that communitarianism seems to embrace solidaristic values and be posed as a moral and political philosophy not proposing a conservative and illiberal view based on the community prevailing over individuals, but as a philosophy which, by opposing individualism, thehomo economicus,the preposterousness of cultural and e political majorities and Western modernity, defends, as Baroncelli says, the rights of the “parts that are also wholes”, of the cultural communities struggling to survive[20].

Individuals need other people to recognise what they are to perceive themselves as somebodies; what is more, individuals are mostly what other people recognise them to be; and they exist only within a culture, a set of shared values, hopes and fears, of life projects in common with others. […] when different communities live on the same territory, they need mutual respect and recognition […] For communitarians, this is tantamount to saying that the different value and sign systems we call cultures should be considered worthy of endless survival[21].

Hence communitarianism poses itself as a philosophy and as politics able to defend the community and the individuals making them up as parts of a whole, a form of non-abstract individualism, since it considers individuals as concrete and situated. In his critique to the foundations of liberalism[22], Sandel refers to Kant’s and Mill’s philosophies as particularly influential also for later developments of liberalism and for contemporary liberalism. The “deontological liberalism” of the former, characterised by the prevalence of justice over moral and political ideals, connects the two different meanings that may be assigned to deontology: the moral and the founding meaning. The former proposes deontology as a first level ethics by which certain duties (and prohibitions) are categorical and therefore have unconditional priority over other moral or practical needs; the latter defines deontology as a form of justification the founding principles of which do not presuppose a final aim or purpose, thus, no specific notion of good life. To put it shortly, according to Sandel, the prevalence of justice over good characterising Kantianism and related contemporary philosophical approaches, such as Rawls’ theory of justice[23], should have a foundation that precedes all empirical ends, including the pursuit of happiness.

From a Kantian perspective, the reply to this objection, concerning its foundations, is the subject of practical reason as the subject of an independent will, able to make choices that are not empirically conditional. This, however, poses a problem: to justify this view of the subject, a metaphysics of the transcendental moral subject would be needed, which, however, being noumenal, is not an unattainable object of knowledge, as it were. In this respect, what is also problematic is the particular version of the Kantian deontological approach provided by Rawls in A Theory of Justice: separating Kant’s theory from its background based on transcendental idealism to repropose it within the canons of a sensible empiricism[24]. A Hume-like deontology, where basic principles are derived from a hypothetical situation of discernment, the original position[25] characterised by conditions bound to produce a certain result suitable for real human beings. According to Sandel, Rawls fails in his attempt: the original position, a highly abstract hypothesis, only revives the incorporeal and noumenal subject it is trying to avoid[26].

As far as Mill and utilitarianism are concerned, Sandel underlines how he reaffirms the primacy of justice starting from a vision according to which having a right means having something whose possession society must guarantee[27]. The reason of such duty on the part of society lies in general usefulness[28]. Justice is therefore considered by Mill as the most sacred and binding part of morals, because its requirements are at the top of social utility and are the most binding of all[29]. In addition, the principles of justice, like other moral principles, are teleologically oriented towards the pursuit of happiness, which is the only desirable thing in terms of ends. Hence justice is what utility requires and if, in some specific cases, another moral duty may prevail over some principles of justice, it is because it depends on happiness[30].The conclusion Sandel makes is, very shortly, that the primacy assigned to justice by liberalism, in its variety and in its presumption of neutrality with respect to notions of good life, lies in a particular conception of person and of the abstract and disembodied moral subject of the strictly deontological view by Kant and Kantians; this appears to be too focussed on a teleological view where justice maintains its primacy because it is useful to the pursuit of individual and social happiness in the utilitarian approach.

According to Sandel, both versions of liberalism fail to effectively answer the question on what type of subjects we should be in order to make sense of justice rather than reduce it, on the one hand, to pure proceduralism, and, on the other, to calculations of social (welfare) utility[31]. Since individuals are situated rather than abstract subjects the primacy assigned to justice by the various forms of liberalism is misleading. Hence the fundamental function he assigns to thecommunity. It defines not only what individuals have as fellow citizens, but also what they are, not a relationship they choose (e.g., a voluntary partnership), but a bond they discover, not a mere attribute, but a constitutive part of their identity. In my opinion, the consequences of Sandel’s critique of liberalism are the incapability of recognising differences and alterities. Based on the neutrality principle, on the one hand this would condemn us to moral undecidedness, on the other its concreteness would end up imposing – which is only seemingly a paradox – a particular vision coinciding, as mentioned above, with the values of Western modernity considered to be universal and neutral (a blatant example would be human rights in opposition to community cultural rights because of the former’s abstract nature). In Sandel’s account, the double caricature ofliberalism mentioned by Baroncelli[32] emerges: the liberalism that is “too abstract” (by Kant and Kantians), the one that is “too concrete” (by Mill and utilitarians). What also emerges is an aspect he rightly emphasises: “Actually, there are liberalisms which are not neutral neither in practice (which is inevitable) nor  programmatically (which is evitable) and which do not have any superior universality to counter the particularistic and separatist drives by which they are challenged.”[33]. This concept is not elaborated in Baroncelli’s paper; given its complexity, however, it is worthy of a few considerations I will make very briefly[34].

The question of neutrality is indeed crucial for answering the objections made by communitarianism and by Sandel in particular. First, this question needs to deal with the nature of politics and of its relationship with morals. I believe the following statement by Larmore provides a good summary of a liberal view I personally share:

[…]our political thinking should not rely on all the truth we believe we have at hand, at least when it concerns the aimsof politics. What I mean is our thinking on politics aiming to establish the rules and principles of political society in such a way that those entering this political partnership will be able to see, discuss and recognise these principles; in this sense I intend political aims.[35].

Thus, politics concerns a sphere of human relationships in which the aim of decisions is not answering the question “how should I behave to others?”, but the definition of institutions, constitutions, rules and laws designed so as to make living together and cooperation possible among citizens expressing needs, interests, hierarchies in moral values, notions of good life which are mutually heterogeneous, incommensurable, sometimes openly conflictual, and wishing to act according to their needs and beliefs. More specifically, while the result of a debate outside the political sphere may not necessarily be bounding, also because it is not to be taken for granted that agreement or shared views are reached, in politics decisions binding for all citizens and the latter consider it legitimate to have recourse to force, coertion and sanctions to ensure behaviours conform to rules decided on by politics. Coercion in specific and well-defined cases is usually acceptable for all citizens, as long as it does not compel dissenters to behaviours that are in contrast with their morals or renouncing options that are consistent with the latter, provided that the latter do not jeopardise social and fellow citizens’ peace, or that dissenters, in case they would become a majority, are willing to accept the rules and practices characterising tolerance. This also takes into consideration that political decisions have feedback on our private lives and may influence them so much that our freedom may be significantly limited or increased. What has been said on the nature of political decision making allows for more clarity on the neutrality principle. It should not be intended in absolute terms, but as an exclusively political principle only related to controversial (reasonable) conceptions of good life[36].

Thus, any exception to the principle of political neutrality dismisses the legitimate use of coercion and undermines an essential function of the State: guaranteeing the opportunity to pursue one’s projects and lifestyles without harming others to all citizens, also independent of their community belonging, and allowing those who so wish to distance oneselves from it. The State being politically neutral with respect to what separates us from an ethical point of view, does not embrace a specific view – however mainstream − of good life in society, and provides everybody with a legalised space for dissenting in the form of conscientious objection. When it is not about abstaining from doing something, but acting in a certain way, if there is no danger for social peace, there should not be legal constraints[37].

It must be emphasised that, however specific political decision making is, it is based on deontological or consequentialist moral reasons. The political neutrality principle establishes itself as a deontological principle: when one is called to making political decisions they should take it as a duty to observe this principle as one of the foundations of political decision making. By the Seventeenth Century, it had become clear that those who are not willing to concede tolerance when they constitute a majority cannot claim tolerance for themselves and their own group when they constitute a minority[38]. In addition, those who are not willing to accept the principle of political neutrality as a deontological principle pave the way for those who have political recourse, at least on some topics, to all the truth they think they are entrusted with, when they are enabled to do so. The duty of respecting the neutrality principle also makes it possible to preserve the moral principle by which we cannot demand that others do what we are not willing to accept for ourselves, that a given behaviour is imposed by force of law on me that I do not share in terms of deep moral loyalty. The interpretation of the neutrality principle I propose seems to me to respond to the objections made by Sandel on this principle, also because this way “[…]we can circumvent one of the damaging paradoxes of later liberal theory, namely, its defense of political neutrality by appeal to ideals of the persons that are themselves rightly controversial.”[39], such as the Kantian one of the person as a transcendental moral subject or the perfectionist one by J.S. Mill of the person as a progressive subject perfecting themselves by having an opportunity to experiment life projects[40].


The recognition “leap”: from individuals to communities

The second strategy enacted by communitarians,the one on which Baroncelli dwells the most,consists in a theory and practice defending the cultural minorities the liberal enemy cannot and will not defend. The immediate reference is to those cultures “[…] whose identity is objectively jeopardised by illegitimate external agents.”[41] Such discourse is founded on the idea of cultures conceived as disadvantaged minorities. Baroncelli emphasises the weak points of communitarian rhetoric underlining how it avoids answering the question: “does this line of thought conceptually apply only to minorities, or are the same arguments just as sound if applied to majorities as well?”[42]

The answer is that communitarian arguments applying to minorities will then apply in the same way to majorities. This is because, from a communitarian perspective,every culture, even the most blatantly majority, may be conceived at all times by somebody within this culture as having the same urgencies as a minority. In other words, if the central reason is the defence and survival of cultures, communitarians do not have arguments against defending majority cultures. Thinking from within each culture, “[…] the arguments based on the need for envisaging a future for one’s culture apply to the Eskimo culture in the same way as they apply to capitalism causing the extinction of the Eskimo culture.”[43]. In so doing, communitarians interpret cultures as super-individuals: this is the only way of dealing with the rights of cultures, but within each single culture, beyond the way it is described from the outside, there are a large number of reasons why it should be perceived as endangered, and in the name of “danger” intolerance may be rationally justified[44].

If the individualism and cosmopolitarianism typical of liberal thinking cannot but give up to this transformation – the death of cultures – the indefinite survival of a given culture implies the possibility of supporting arguments against tolerance by basing them on the right to survival and by presenting them rationally within that culture. The historical examples of higher tolerance than a liberal regime may ensure feature peaceful coexistence of religious communities such as the millet system in the Turkish Empire[45]. Without discussing in detail whether this is an actual case of tolerance, at least in the modern sense of the term, I would like to emphasise two aspects: the former, considered by Baroncelli too, states that both the examples made and the ideal proposed by communitarians takes it for granted that individuals outside the community to which they belong are nothing and have no rights. They do not exist because they are not allowed to, and have no exit rights:

 […] where there is no territorial state assigning rights and civil and criminal responsibility to the individual as such, it is by no means possible to give an individual the right to abandon their community any time. […] if the misty area of intellectual communitarianism is abandoned and attention is focussed on real communitarianism, by which I mean the “serious” one by extremists, it is to be immediately understood that the logic behind it is that of exclusion. Either the individual or the community.[46]

As a consequence, while the recognition of rights to individuals may grant to those who identify with a particular community some typical advantages of communitarian life, it is not possible to grant anything to individuals as such under a communitarian perspective.

In addition, systems such as the millet hold as long as a strong central authority imposes them and make sure that they are complied with. Examples from the Turkish Empire and Yugoslavia after Titus’ death are quite telling. In short, with its sophistry, the rhetoric of communitarianism posing itself as a political theory and practice the aim of which is to defend weak, marginalised and neglected identities, ends up by making up arguments to the advantage of extremist, intolerant views in which the part (the individual) is subordinate to the whole. As A. Sen suggests, identity and, in particular, monoidentity, especially of a religious nature, can kill – and kill with abandon[47].


An impossible synthesis                                                                                                        

Provided that communitarian analyses on the limits of liberalism must be taken seriously and, as shown above, are important to make the limits of some liberal views comprehensible, I would look into some detail into a question, to which Baroncelli replies negatively in the light of the above-mentioned considerations, that is, the possible integration between the communitarian and the liberal logic to give birth to a new and improved synthesis. Under this perspective, a comparison with C. Taylor’s elaborations appears to be interesting[48]. The key concepts at the heart of the Canadian philosopher’s treatment are recognition, identity, authenticity and difference. His attempt consists in relating them to make the limits of liberalism apparent and proposing a new form of liberalism that may be able to overcome individualism and valorise belonging and, with it, cultural rights.

Although his appears to be the most serious effort to integrate liberalism and communitarianism, it is not convincing for two reasons: 1. It does not effectively counter criticism such as that advanced by Baroncelli; 2. It cannot utterly deal with the questions posed by otherness. According to Taylor, recognition is the central feature of multicultural societies and it poses more and more pressure because of the relationship between recognition and identity,the latter being “a vision a person has of what they are, of their fundamental characteristics defining them as a human being”. Identity is partially shaped by recognition, but also by lack of recognition on the part of other people or groups.Recognition overcomes respect and appears as “a vital human need”, since an individual or a group may be harmed if the people or societies around them construct a humiliating, limited or diminished image of them condemning them to low self-esteem.

Taylor underlines how recognition is a consequence of modernity in the light of two factors: 1. The collapse of social hierarchies made legitimate by honour as opposed to the universalist and egalitarian notion of human dignity; 2. The rise of individualised identity which can be expressed as an ideal of authenticity and loyalty to oneself. (1) implies democratic culture’s essential need for equal recognition,which today is posed a demand for cultural and gender equality; (2) refers back to the theory of moral sentiments (intended as means the aim of which is acting rightly), according to which we need to be in close touch with our sentiments if we want to become complete human beings. Referring explicitly to Herder and, more generally, to Romantic expressivism, Taylor highlights how each person has their own measure, and therefore not being faithful to oneself makes one lose their main reason for living, what being human is to them: every single voice of ours has something unique to say.

Herder’s fundamental contribution to putting recognition politics at the centre of attention lies in extending that vision from individual to peoples. Everybody has their own originality and culture. A people, like an individual, should be faithful to oneself. Moreover, discovering one’s own authenticity is not a monological process. We define our identity by negotiating with, and sometimes fighting against, what significant others want from us. Therefore identity connotes itself as the background against which our tastes, desires, opinions and wishes acquire a meaning. The rise of the modern notion of identity requires recognition of unrepeatable identity, different from everybody else’s, either individual or group, and at the same time poses a paradox:we take note of the existence of something universal (everybody has their own identity) because we recognise something that is uniquely one’s own for everybody. “The universal need promotes taking note of specificity”. The politics of difference redefines nondiscrimination as something that compels us to make of distinctions the basis for different treatment.

 The aim of these policies is not transient; rather, the aim is preserving and cultivating difference forever on the basis of the legitimate aspiration that one’s identity may never be lost. Classical liberalism cannot cope with the politics of difference because, from an ethical point of view, its commitment is procedural: we are compelled to treat one another equally, independent of the idea we have of our aims; on the other hand, the substantive commitment regarding life aims and what we deem worthy of fighting together is neglected. Liberal neutrality would therefore consist in the lack of the State’s and society’s interference in the affirmation of individual dignity, based on independence,that is, the ability of individuals to figure out an idea of good life for themselves. But this proceduralist liberalism, pursuing politics of equal respect among individuals, would not welcome difference, would impose a uniform application of rules defining rights, would view collective rights with suspicion and would not be able to accommodate the aspiration to survival of societies separated on the basis of the different conceptions of good life characterising them.

In addition, Taylor believes liberalism itself is not completely neutral: the separation of State and religion is incomprehensible in other contexts, such as the Islamic culture. A new kind of liberalism therefore becomes necessary, which he defines Liberalism 2, which maintains the habeas corpus, but distinguishes fundamental rights from the wide variety of immunities and presumptions of equal treatment. It is not a procedural liberalism, but one founded on judgments concerning good life, and in this sense these are judgments in which the integrity of cultures plays an important role. As a consequence, in a context where societies are increasingly multicultural and open to multinational migrations, what is needed is not only that cultures survive, but also that everybody recognise the equal value of different cultures and take note that they are precious.

The criterion for recognition refers to all those human cultures which have nurtured whole societies for a considerable lapse of time and have something important to say to each human being. Taylor highlights how this is a presumptive thesis, that is, an assumption with which we should approach the study of any other culture while aware that a real value judgment presupposes the fusion of normative horizons; it also presupposes that studying the other has transformed us so much that we do not judge by our original criteria any more. This transformation would be possible through the presumption of value of cultures. All cultures that have given a meaning horizon to a large number of human beings for a long time deserve respect and admiration. For this reason, we should become aware of the limits of our part in the entire history of humankind, also through comparative cultural studies.


A non-liberal liberalism 

The proposed integration of liberalism and communitarianism implied in Liberalism 2 is based on the acceptance of two assumptions that are by no means to be taken for granted and should be demonstrated: 1. Individuals, like cultures, have an identity; 2. Cultures are closed and impervious systems. Actually, the single-affiliation view is hardly justifiable: everybody belongs to a number of groups, nor it is demonstrable that a group has a natural primacy over others, which means we are not able to decide independently on the relative importance of the different categories of belonging. The importance we recognise to an identity depends on its social context and, in any case, not all identities necessarily have lasting importance. Finally, each individual not only does not possess a single or a predominant identity, but has to do with a plurality of identities that are, by the way, mobile.

We all constantly make choices on priorities to be given to our affiliations. In the light of these considerations, the argument on faithfulness to oneself is diminished, at least in the sense intended by Taylor. It is also questionable that the modern view of identity has created politics of difference. Communitarianism proposes two distinct but related lines of argumentation: 1. Individuals only have access to the notions of identity of the community they belong to: community and culture determine the reasoning and ethical models available to them; 2. Identity is something you discover. Particularly, community identity has an overwhelming importance and therefore ethical assessment is only possible within community values and norms. This is conflict with the modern idea that ethical pluralism is inherent in human rationality and cannot be reduced to the observance of traditions and community belonging.

As far as the view of cultures as closed and impervious systems is concerned, it does not take into account that cultures are not monolithic, but very complex (suffice it to mention subcultures) and, as it were, mobile and in constant coevolution. It is fact that cultures relate to one another when they get in contact, thus producing, in some cases, fully-fledged hybridizations – e.g. the relationship between Greek and Roman culture and between the latter cultures and the Judeo-Christian culture.

Cultures therefore cannot be treated as endangered animal or plant species, and cannot be “ecologically” defended as if they were protected species. There is a sharp distinction between cultural freedom and the importance of the preservation of cultures. In the end, also Taylor realises this when he introduces his presumptive thesis. Not all cultures would have a right to survival, but only those cultures which have given a meaning horizon to a large number of human beings, over a long period of time. How this sort of classification may be structured remains quite obscure. The only clue is reference to a comparative method, but, as mentioned above, comparativism belongs to a specific cultural view and is not free from ethnocentrism. Thus Taylor’s communitarian synthesis comes down to the far from democratic and respectful of differences idea that somebody (who?) may decide which culture is worthy of survival and which not. In this respect, I believe the most serious reply possible is taking note that the cultural richness of our world cannot be subdivided and categorised according to one single criterion.

Pursuing this view may cause conflict. On the contrary, imagining ourselves as differently different, to the point of realising cultural otherness, wherever the latter may emerge, and being willing to translate may allow us to understand the pluralities of human identity and lie at the basis of the recognition politics of a number of issues: these pluralities are cross-cultural; we are bound by our belonging to the same species; the ecosystem is our common home and we are all called to take care of it. If we value the heritage of modernity and focus our attention on freedom (including cultural freedom), then the importance of cultural diversity cannot be absolute, but must vary consistently with its causal linkages to human freedom and its weight in decision-making processes by single individuals. The relationship between cultural freedom and cultural diversity is not necessarily uniformly defined.                                         

In the name of cultural diversity, should we support conservatism and any tradition? Violation of freedom may also be induced by the tyranny of conformism to tradition, the more so if it is legally protected on the basis of the recognition of community cultural rights.



The unveiling of the sophistry supporting the politics of recognition championed by communitarians does not eliminate the need for rethinking classical liberalism in the light the big questions we are confronted with today. The basic idea is that we are not necessarily bound to moral estrangement based on our views of good and on our ethnic and cultural belonging. The perspective is that of policies recognising pluralism and cultural plurality, making it possible not only to live together peacefully, but also to promote relations beyond nation States. In this connection, Sartori’s words seem to be very important:

Pluralism will not identify with a multicultural descent, but rather with interculturalism [:::]. What does our European identity, our “feeling we are European”, depend upon? What created it? Interculturalism. And the same goes for Western identity, for our “being Western”[…]. Multiculturalism leads to Bosnia and Balkanisation; it is interculturalism that leads to Europe. Let us be careful, then. The multicultural project is really disruptive, as it reverses the pluralistic direction substantialising liberal civilisation. And it is really striking that this disruption is affirmed and legitimated by philosophers proclaiming themselves liberals[49].

In my view, however, it is necessary to bear in mind that, to get a convincing reply, communitarian claims should envisage a clarification of the neutrality principle, its justification and its nature and should take into consideration the social imagination of Western modernity. As to neutrality and its justification, the matter has been discussed above while looking at Kant’s and Mill’s visions. As to its nature, it must be made clear that it is to be intended as exclusively political (not ethical) and related to controversial notions of good life. In this respect one may make sense of the separation between religion and politics that is accepted also in countries with an Islamic majority and represents a well-accepted guarantee to those who practise this religion in countries where they are a minority. In this connection, one should bear in mind that there is not only one Islam and that it is inappropriate to refer to the Islamic community as if it were a homogeneous entity.

As far as the social imagination is concerned, we should take note of the crisis and the limits of what modernity has handed on to us. Here we will not look into detail at such a complex question concerning globalisation, the ethics-economics-politics relationship, inequalities, justice, citizenship, and many other topics. I will briefly look at the moral order acting as a backdrop for social imagination. Taylor has highlighted, and in my view rightly so, how the backdrop for social imagination in Western modernity is represented by the doctrine of natural law by Grotius and Locke. What Taylor fails to underline is that that vision was not meant to provide a moral order of the world with which the Western community could identify, but the principles on which the modern State was to be founded. These moral principles are certainly to be considered prepolitical, subtracted to contractual negotiation and constitutive of a shared civil ethos, but they acknowledged the discover of religious pluralism and of the notions of good life the State had to follow to guarantee the freedom, rights and private life of individuals.

The question might be asked how to envisage a shared civil ethos in a time of mobility, rapid obsolescence, uncertainty, plurality of decision makers beyond nation States? A promising view, worthy of study and elaboration, is E. Morin’s. First, he states the need “to abandon the obsessive idea of a project perfectly encapsulating the form of society to be constructed, in favour of the idea that political action may make new possible forms of freedom and solidarity emerge”[50]. What seems to me to be relevant is that Morin thinks that a new planetary consciousness is necessary, that is based on solidarity in the relations among humans and between humans and nature. What should be developed is what he calls an “ethics of reliance”[51]. But which principles may provide the foundation of these relations and may at least potentially be accepted in universal terms? First of all, human rights as a background for an idea of citizenship no longer constrained by fragmentation, but supranational and, in perspective, planetary[52].

This perspective is all the more relevant nowadays since “For the first time in human history the universal has become a concrete reality: it is the objective inter-solidarity of humankind, in which the global fate of the planet decides the individual destinies of nations and in which the individual destinies of nations upset or change the global destiny.»[53]. The suggestions of Morin’s “planetary ethics”[54] with its nine commandments[55] make it possible, on the one hand, to consider the emergencies of our time in unitary terms, on the other, to identify a possible pathway for further civilisation for the whole of humanity. In short, awareness that the earth is our home country and that the destiny of our species cannot be separated by the environment implies taking on ethical and political responsibility regarding the exploitation of resources, pollution, the development model to be used; the idea of world citizenship requires progressive liberation from national belonging to reach human belonging without this causing the disappearance of cultural pluralism which would rather become the basis for the development of intercultural relations.

This approach is therefore not holistic, but hologrammatic, because it valorises the relations network among all the components of the ecosystem, starting from human beings (as individuals and as a species). Thus, not only the whole does not prevail over parts and individuals, but is the ever changing result of the relations network existing among them. It is a way of providing a positive answer to Baroncelli’s concerns about the holistic vision characterising communitarians:

Through the powerful philosophical machine that has made the argument for the concrete and primary existence of the Whole prestigious as opposed to the secondary and abstract existence of the part, we are used to taking the metaphors of cultures as individuals seriously. There is, however, a fatal difference: while the claim that an individual’s life should be earthly and eternal at one time is usually considered foolish, thus very little popular, the claim that a culture should be at once earthly and eternal seems much more reasonable at a first glance; it is therefore much more infectious and dangerous[56].

*Translated from Italian into English by Ilaria Rizzato, University of Genoa



[1] See F. Baroncelli, Il riconoscimento e i suoi sofismi, inF. Manti (ed.), La tolleranza e le sue ragioni. Un approccio pluridisciplinare a un principio controverso, Macro Edizioni, Cesena, 1997, pp. 147-160.

[2] Ibid, p. 147.

[3] See Plato, Sophist, XL, 254b-255e. The summa genera are five: being, motion, rest, same and other. Not-being may therefore be defined as other (cfr. ibid, XLI 254b – 255e) and coextensive with being (see ibid, XLII, 257c-258c).

[4] In the light of the summa genera theory, not-being may be defined as other (see ibid, XLI 254b-255e) and coextensive with being at the same time (ibid, XLII, 257c-258c).

[5] See. A.N. Balslev Cultural Otherness. Correspondence with Richard Rorty, Indian Institute of Advanced Study in collaboration with Munshiram Manohar Lal, New Delhi, 1991.

[6] See N. Wachtel, La vision des vaincus: les Indiens du Pérou devant la conquête espagnole, 1530-1570, Gallimard, Paris 1992; T. Todorov, The Conquest of America. The question of the Other, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman Oklahoma, 1999; G. Bocchi, M. Ceruti, Origini di storie, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1993.

[7] D.A. Conci, L’invenzione della differenza. Fenomenologia di un latente motivo ideologico e metodologico, in F. Manti (a cura di) La tolleranza e le sue ragioni, op. cit., p. 138.

[8] See B. de Las Casas, J.G. de Sepúlveda, La controversia sugli indios, a cura e con introduzione di S. di Liso, Edizioni di Pagina, Bari 2006; cf. also, F. De Vitoria, Relectio de Indis o libertad de los indios. Edición critica bilingue por L. Perenay J. Pérez Prendes, CSIC, Madrid 1967; on the debate on savages, see G. Gliozzi, La scoperta dei selvaggi, Principato, 1971; S. Landucci, I filosofi e i selvaggi (1580-1780). Laterza, Bari, 1972; F. Cipriani, Un Dibattito Socioantropologico nel Settecento. Il Mito del Buon Selvaggio, in International Journal of Philosophy of Culture and Axiology, n.8, 2007, pp. 37-49.

[9] See F. Manti, Bios e polis. Etica, politica, responsabilità per la vita, Genova UP, Genova 2012, pp.126-145.

[10] P.K. Feyerabend, Against Method. Outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge, New Left Books, London- New York City 1975, third edition published by Verso London-New York City 1993, p.164; see B.L. Whorff, Language, Thought and Reality, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 1956, p. 121.

[11] Ibid, p. 186.

[12] Motēcuhzōma in the nahuatl language.

[13] Malinche was an Aztec woman, a slave of the Mayans, offered as a gift to Cortés. According to Todorov, her role went much beyond that of the interpreter since she succeeded in translation, adopting and adapting the Spaniards’ values and objectives. In short, an example of cultural hybridization (see T. Todorov, op. cit., pp. 100-103).

[14] See H.G. Gadamer, Hermeneutic I. Wahrheit und Methode, J.C.B Mohr (Paul Siebeck), Tübingen 1990, pp. 270-276.

[15] T. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, third edition, Chicago 1996, p. 202.

[16] P. Feyerabend, op. cit., p. 208.

[17] T. Kuhn, op. cit., p. 204.

[18] See ibidem.

[19] F. Baroncelli, op.cit., p. 150.

[20] Cfr. F. Baroncelli, op. cit., p. 148.

[21] Ibid, p.149.

[22] See M. Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Cambridge UP, second edition, Cambridge 1998, pp.1-14.

[23] See J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition, Oxford UP, Oxford New York, pp. 1-10.

[24] See J. Rawls, The basic structure as subject, in American Philosophical Quarterly, 1077, p.14.

[25] See J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice, op. cit., p. 11, pp.15-19.

[26] See M. Sandel, op. cit., p.14.

[27] See J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism, in The Utilitarians, Anchor Books Garden City. NY, 1973, p. 459.

[28] See ibidem.

[29] See ibid, p. 465 e p. 469; cfr., also, J.S. Mill, On Liberty, in The Utilitarians, op. cit., p. 14.

[30] See ibid, p. 469.

[31] See J. Harsanyi, Rational behavior and bargaining equilibrium in games and social situations, Cambridge UP, Cambridge 1977, pp. 48-84.

[32] See F. Baroncelli, op. cit., p. 150.

[33] Ibid, p. 151.

[34] For a closer examination, see F. Manti La neutralità politica come principio deontologico, in Etica e politica/Ethics and politics, vol. 17, n. 3, 2015, pp. 247-261.

[35] C. Larmore, Dare ragioni. Il soggetto, l’etica, la politica, Rosenberg & Sellier, Torino 2008, p. 99. In this regard, Rawls states that we should accept the imperfection of laws and institutions and “[…] it is only in this way, and by accepting that politics in a democratic society can never be guided by what we see as the whole truth, that we can realize the ideal expressed by the principle of legitimacy: to live politically with others in the light of reasons all might reasonably be expected to endorse.” (J. Rawls, Political Liberalism, Columbia UP, 2005, p. 243).

[36] By reasonable conceptions I mean conceptions that are willing to recognise the principle and the pratices of tolerance.

[37] Looking only at Italian laws, see L. n. 194 del 22 maggio 1978 Norme per la tutela sociale della maternità e sull’interruzione volontaria della gravidanza, op. cit., esp. art. 9 e L.n. 413 del 12ottobre 1993, Norme sull’obiezione di coscienza alla sperimentazione animale.

[38] See J. Locke, Saggio sulla tolleranza, It. transl., in Id. Sulla tolleranza, op. cit., p. 119.

[39] C. Larmore, Patterns of Moral Complexity, Preface, Cambridge UP, New York 1992,p. xiii.

[40]See J.S. Mill, On Liberty, in The Utilitarians, op. cit., p.14.

[41] F. Baroncelli, op. cit.,p. 151.

[42] Ibidem.

[43] Ibid, p. 153.

[44] See ibid, pp. 154-155.

[45] On millets and tolerance in multinational empires, see M. Walzer, On Toleration, Yale UP; Revised Edition, Yale 1997, pp. 14-18.

[46] F. Baroncelli, op. cit., p.157.

[47] See A. Sen, Identity and Violence. The Illusion of Destiny,W.W. Norton & Co, New York 2006.

[48] See C. Taylor, Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition, Princeton UP, Princeton 1992.

[49] G. Sartori, Pluralismo, multiculturalismo ed estranei, Rizzoli, Milano 1999, p. 112.

[50] G. Bocchi, M. Ceruti, E. Morin, L’Europa nell’era planetaria, Sperling & Kupfer, Milano 1991, p. 182.

[51] See E. Morin, La Méthod VI, Éthique, Le Seuil, Paris 2004, pp. 113-120. The term reliance was coined by M. Bolle de Bal and refers to the blending of relier (to tie) and alliance (alliance); see La tentation communitaire. Les paradoxes de la reliance et de la contre-culture, Éditions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1985 and Id., Reliance, déliance, liance? Emergence de trois notions sociologique?, Sociétés, n. 80, 2003, pp. 99-131.

[52] European citizenship is seen by Morin as an important element in this sense.

[53] E. Morin, Éthique, op. cit., p. 204.

[54] Ibid, pp. 210-212

[55] See ibid, pp. 206-209.

[56] F. Baroncelli, op. cit., p. 160.


In Lightning Memory: A Philosophical Dictionary à la Baroncelli

The following definitions combine insightful personal memories and personally memorable insights that I recall from, or associate with, Flavio Baroncelli (1944–2007) qua eloquent and witty teacher, brilliant and ingenious writer, fast and sharp conversationalist, generous and kind human being, and committed promoter of the teacher- and student exchange programmes linking together Iceland, my adoptive country, and the University of Genoa, my alma mater. Not all of them must be taken literally or too seriously; besides, I would not agree with some of them myself! All of them are, however, sincere tokens of gratitude, friendship and love to a truly remarkable individual, who enjoyed entertaining and shocking his audiences, but above all liked making them think, debate, and think some more. Furthermore, these definitions are a creative and inevitably poor attempt at exemplifying for the Anglophone public the sort of pithy and humorous style that, inter alia, made Baroncelli famous in Italy in his day.



Another word for potentiality.



A disease mistaken for moral failure.



Causing pleasure by sly words, even when the listener knows that they are lies. Philosophers, in their stately parlance, would call it a perlocutionary speech act.



The daily demonstration of how little control we have over our own will.



A polite way for educated people to be open-minded pluralists in theory but narrow-minded atheists in practice.


Analysis (of concepts)

The bizarre tendency to turn ambiguous profundity into unambiguous superficiality.


Analytic (philosophy)

A typically modern attempt at making self-conscious philosophers sound like respectable scientists.



The best way to acquire power in a capitalist society, especially if one wishes to destroy it.


Beauty (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the good luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.



A seemingly private place where both neighbours and State authorities seem often eager to enter.



The least understood yet most important principle of the French Revolution: without a modicum of genuinely felt compassion among fellow citizens, both liberty and equality will get used to ruin someone else’s life.



A dangerous and stupid way not to listen to dangerous and stupid claims.



When rasping hopelessly and continuously on a hard road surface, they exemplify instinctual behaviour as opposed to deliberate.



Powerful, sweet, devious killers.



The curse of any philosopher who may wish to come across as deep, original and worthy of enduring attention.


Coherence (aka consistency)

The unhealthy obsession with getting rid of all the instances of personal diversity, creativity, capriciousness and experimentalism that make individual life interesting and collective life possible.



The 20th-century political scarecrow that, for the duration of about one generation, made the de iure liberal countries of the world be actually a little more liberal than their de facto oligarchic past and present flag out.



The most important virtue cultivated by Christianity.



A much-cherished liberal value, as long as it does not apply to oneself.



Generally loathed by the very same people who have most reason to complain—an instance of slave morality.


Continental (philosophy)

A not-so-modern attempt at making self-important philosophers sound like profound mystics.



Someone else’s form of madness.



The folklore of the rich.



Coping with far-too-real nightmares.



Its training in infancy reveals how people prefer freedom to be qualified and circumscribed.


Discipline (and Punish)

The most important book by Michel Foucault, who taught us that the more societies publicly incense liberty and call themselves “liberal”, the less freedom common people truly enjoy in order to do as they please.



The ideal sort of loyal, selfless, hard-working and simple-mindedly grateful employees that employers would like to have.


Economics (contemporary)

A branch of mathematics mistaken for empirical science.


Economics (modern)

A branch of philosophy mistaken for empirical science.



Clarification articulating possible meanings of a pithy expression, with consequent loss of aesthetic and thought-provoking value of the latter. Sterilisation by explanation. (E.g. paraphrasing a poem, explaining a joke.)



The possibility for all people to be as bad and as silly as the rich and powerful minorities frequently are.



Aristocracy’s last ditch at controlling modern society.



See “Get lost!” below.



It is only after Darwin that people understood what the heck Lucretius and Telesio were talking about.


Exceptions (making)

The first step towards tolerance and pluralism.



An option generally available only to a person who stops doubting.



The culture of the poor.



Birds that can be confused with swans, especially in Iceland.



An exact formal science that can be used rhetorically as a persuasive labelling method for inexact metaphysical reasoning.


Get (lost!)

Uttered in a timely fashion, it can save a person the trouble of having to answer a difficult question.



If ancient, it is an excellent way to display one’s own erudition.



The true source of happiness, yet regularly forgotten until missing.


Hegel (Georg Friedrich)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that nothing stays the same.


History (of ideas)

A way to find out why we think the way we think.



The equalising social process deplored by anthropologists whereby identifying the poor, the outcast, the loathed, the derided and the downtrodden becomes a little less easy.


Hume (David)

An uncharacteristically prodigal Scotsman, he noticed that the only way to be sure that all matches in the box do work is to light them all up.



The misunderstood virtue of avoiding conflict in reality by accepting conflict in principle.



A set of loosely interconnected concepts, some of which may be even mutually contradictory, that allow people to feel justified in their claims and actions, or at least to project an air of justification for them.



The demonstration of the bodily basis of the mind.



The least acknowledged yet most important virtue in a pluralist society: by caring little about what other people believe or do, mutual tolerance can be the norm.


Insight (aka Intuition)

Prejudice we like.



The remarkable social invention whereby to preserve the memory of past errors and make the inexorably ignorant new generations somewhat less likely to repeat them.


Intervention (by the State)

A much-loathed socialist value, which liberals accept as soon as they are in trouble.



A valuable means of instruction that can reach even those who do not wish to be instructed.


Kant (Immanuel)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote two tomes to undo an earlier one.



That which philosophers seek and analyse most, and yet have the least of.



The precious and inevitable source of all misunderstandings.


Lashes (by whip)

As long as someone else gets more than you do, most slaves will not rebel against slavery.



Another good way to show one’s own erudition.



The political wisdom teaching that State authority should be used only to protect a person from her worst enemies: her neighbours.



A rather bothersome business, but also the only one in town.



An open motive among men; less so among women. Gender equality’s lewd horizon.



Another way to understand religion.


Marx (Karl)

A typical German philosopher, he wrote several tomes to demonstrate that, normally, if the employer gets more, the employee gets less—and vice versa.



A neologism by the privileged.


Mixed (marriage)

The easiest and fastest way to explain why a marriage did not last. No such option is available for divorces between people of the same ethnic origin, the explanation of which may then take years of keen psychological scrutiny.


Montaigne (Michel de)

His essays became so famous and commonplace that later philosophers forgot to mention the source of the ideas that they discussed and, eventually, Montaigne himself. There can be such a thing as too much fame.


More (Thomas)

Great wisdom expressed with clarity.


Nietzsche (Friedrich)

An atypical German philosopher, he wrote aphorisms to acknowledge a major yet neglected motive of human thought and action: resentment.



The likeliest outcome of a person’s life, which we spend trying not to think about it.



In practice, the supreme official principle of social life.



The future outcome of the present ignorance about the past.


Pain (and Pleasure)

The fabric of our inner tapestry.



When good, it is the playful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to break apart, toy with and recombine concepts, beliefs and habits of thought, in order to make better sense of them. When bad, it is the skillful use of our imagination and of our reason in order to do the same and, in the end, be even more confused.



An artificial reminder of life’s beauty.


Political (correctness)

The ungainly social process whereby the less respected members of a community can have a chance to be paid a little more respect.



A widespread yet uncomfortable signpost of liberal freedom.



Another word for actuality.



A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes deplorable or intolerable to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.



Insights we dislike.



A vice leading frequently to virtuous behaviour.



Often confused with quantity.



Often confused with quality.



The best instrument available to reveal how ignorant we are, no matter the number of university degrees we may have.



A historically popular but unnecessary notion which justifies people being nasty to one another. In its absence, freckles or bad pronunciation can serve the same purpose.



The art of making outlandish ideas sound plausible, thus duly impressing unsuspecting young minds and potential sexual partners.



The perplexing faculty to take apart whatever solid conclusion we had reached before.



The unjustly neglected study of how language shapes people’s life under all circumstances.



The most dangerous virtue cultivated by Christianity.



Unwise over-intelligent overthinking—it is by far too delightful an endeavour for most philosophers to resist the temptation of indulging in it despite their own better judgment.



A natural reminder of life’s beauty.


Spinoza (Baruch)

Great wisdom could be expressed with more clarity.



Having someone below you is usually more important than having someone above—another instance of slave morality.


Straw-man (fallacies)

Mistaken by logicians as fictional errors, they are the far-too-real claims of ordinary men and women; if one is willing, and brave enough, to listen to real people.



The regularly underplayed yet visibly increased outcome of greater freedom in human societies.



Birds that can be confused with geese, especially in Iceland.



A structured way of thinking and talking that allows the person using it to come across as astoundingly intelligent and thereby force another to shut up, even if the latter may actually be right.



The socially crucial ability to endure people that we dislike.



The perplexing notion whereby tolerance is not enough in society, for we must also like the people that we dislike.



The most efficient way to get bad information from innocent weaklings and no information at all from guilty brutes.



To modern eyes, an old form of cannibalism.


Ugliness (physical)

One of the most important life-defining characteristics that a person can have the ill luck to possess and that philosophers keep stating not to matter.



That from which all great ideologies wish to free us once and for all, but which all great historians tell us that we must accept for any human endeavour to have a chance to work at all.



See defecation.



Whether threatened or applied, it is in practice the supreme unofficial principle of social life.



The best example of how being a master of style condemns a man to being remembered as a minor thinker.



A person’s attribute that, if conspicuous, makes other significant attributes invisible to the surrounding individuals: age, race, religious affiliation, ignorance, ugliness, etc.



We like thinking of it as free, despite all contrary evidence.


Wittgenstein (Ludwig)

A Continental philosopher mistaken for an analytical one.



One of the many words for the imaginary place of endless joy that all cultures have concocted and that only some silly philosophers would state not to want to go to.



The time of peak performance in a person’s life, the rest of which is spent trying to make use of ridiculous concepts that can help that person to enjoy some respect and self-respect: the wisdom of old age, the charm of grey hair, the value of experience, etc.



Often confused with “Jewish” and “Israeli”, it can be combined with them in the following matrix:

Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Zionist

Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Israeli and Non-Zionist

Non-Jewish, Non-Israeli and Non-Zionist

Flavio Baroncelli: A Personal Recollection

This memoire begins, as it must, by recounting some of the facts about the academic life of a good friend—too early departed and profoundly missed—Flavio Baroncelli.1


Flavio the Academic: A Brief Curriculum

Flavio was born in Savona on January 15th, 1944. He attended the University of Genoa and completed his laurea degree in 1969 with a dissertation on David Hume, written under the supervision of Professor Romeo Crippa. Between 1969 and 1975, Flavio worked as Crippa’s assistant and in 1976, in the light of independent research conducted in the U.K., published his first book, Un inquietante filosofo perbene – Saggio su David Hume (A Disquieting, Respectable Philosopher – Essay on David Hume; Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1976).Between 1974 and 1977, Flavio taught History of the Age of Enlightenment at the University of Trieste, returning to Genoa in 1977 to teach History of Modern Philosophy. He was co-founder, with Gianni Francioni, of the journal, Studi settecenteschi, and worked together with Giovanni Assereto, Franz Brunetti, Salvatore Rotta and other historians of the Enlightenment.In the early 80’s, Flavio’s examination of the cultural and political processes of modernity caused his attention to shift towards the ideological and social aspects of inequality and poverty. In 1983 he and Giovanni Assereto co-authored a book entitled Sulla povertà, idee leggi e progetti nell’Europa moderna (On Poverty. Ideas, Laws and Projects in Modern Europe; Genova-Ivrea: Herodote), whose content is indicated by its title.

In 1981, Flavio was appointed Full Professor in Moral Philosophy at the University of Calabria, returning once more to the University of Genoa in 1982 as Full Professor in Moral Philosophy.

In the early 90’s, his interests shifted once again towards issues in contemporary political philosophy: the theory and practice of toleration, the causes and evils of racism, the standing of liberal theory vs. the communitarian challenge, and the faults and virtues of “political correctness”. Along with many journal articles on these topics, he published two books: Il razzismo è una gaffe. Eccessi e virtù del “politically correct” (Racism Is a Gaffe. Excesses and Virtues of the “Politically Correct”; Rome: Donzelli, 1996) and Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti. Perché gli americani votano Bush e se ne vantano (Voyage To the Limits of the United States. Why the Americans Elected Bush And Boast About It; Rome: Donzelli, 2006).Il razzismo è una gaffe is an analysis of political correctness as a cultural phenomenon. Flavio explains how it came about in the United States and examines the main debates that it generated. The first part of the book, which is mainly reconstructive, paints a very illuminating fresco of the cultural and political processes behind the battles around speech codes on American campuses and their reception in Italy. In the second part of the book, through a very deep analysis that resorts to the conceptual tools of moral and political philosophy and pragmatics, Flavio defends political correctness as a way to achieve a fairer and more tolerant society, notwithstanding its excesses and faults. To Flavio’s surprise and delight, this book was adopted as an introductory text in sociolinguistics in more than one university course in Italy.In his last book, Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti, Flavio follows a formula very similar to the one used in the preceding book: he intertwines a narrative description of a long trip to the United States (written in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was intermittently treated for the protracted illness that ultimately killed him) with philosophical reflections on the opposition between the liberal culture and the neo-conservative culture that was at its apex at the time.

In 2006, Flavio changed the institutional disciplinary area of his professorship to political philosophy.

Flavio died on February 20th, 2007, at Saint Martin’s Hospital of Genoa after a long battle with leukemia. He was in his 64th year2.


Flavio the Philosopher

Flavio Baroncelli was a formidable philosopher, albeit an unusual—and even “disquieting”—one. His work is well known in Italy, but little known in other countries. The obvious explanation for this is that Flavio wrote and published almost exclusively in Italian. And that was no accident, for he knew English well and could easily have written much more in English in order to raise his international profile. But for Flavio, the Italian language was a basic philosophical instrument. He employed a great deal of straightforward (and clever) analytical argument. But he also argued (like Nietzsche) by means of humor, irony, story-telling and various forms of linguistic artistry. For this, he needed Italian, in which language he was a master craftsman.

Flavio understood and cultivated the rhetorical aspect of philosophical writing. He seems not to have viewed rhetoric and reasoning as disjoint enterprises, in the manner of Socrates (who also viewed them as antagonistic enterprises), but rather as intersecting. Of course he understood that rhetoric could be malignant, but, like Aristotle, thought that there was also benign, or constructive rhetoric—rhetoric with a legitimate, and thus rational, persuasive force. His admiration for Hume was in large part based upon his appreciation of Hume’s skill as a rhetorician, but what he valued was Hume’s employment of constructive rhetoric, while he rejected Hume’s all-too-frequent descents into sophistry.

In a short piece that recently appeared in English translation, “Rawls and Hume: A Fable” (tr. Gillian Parker),3 Flavio imagines a conversation between Hume and Rawls upon the latter’s arrival at the Elysian Fields. Hume there is made to remark to Rawls that “rhetoric really isn’t your strong point”; and this is meant as a criticism. More specifically, Flavio’s Hume chastises Rawls for having “invented a ridiculous term”—the original position—to describe a “simple and brilliant idea”. Part of constructive rhetoric consists in the apt, lucid and illuminating choice of terminology. On the other hand, Hume is made to chastise himself for being unable to make his own account of justice sound appealing “except by adulterating, by subjecting to the most bombastic propaganda, the psychological mechanisms available to me”.4 This is the sort of rhetoric for which Flavio had little tolerance.

The philosophical methodology that recognizes rhetorical, or perhaps one should say, aesthetic, modes of rational persuasion is indicative of a deeper commitment that Flavio shared with Hume. Humean scholars tend to call this “sentimentalism”, a label Flavio would surely have resisted. But whatever one calls it, the idea is that there is a shared human nature which is at once discursive and sympathetic. Rational appeals may be made discursively or sympathetically; it may even be difficult to view these two elements as entirely distinct. As I understand Flavio, this was his view; and I perceive it to be Hume’s as well. Indeed, I think that this was Hume’s main appeal for Flavio. Flavio felt that the Socratic (or ancient Greek) disjunction between reason and sentiment—or between reason and sympathy—was a false one: one that distorted the nature of human rationality. It was therefore that Flavio rejected all forms of traditional rationalism. In the fable of Rawls and Hume mentioned earlier, Hume confronts Rawls in the following manner:

There’s something I just don’t get; for instance, resorting to practical reason for stability seems odd to me, a sort of oxymoron, because I’m used to thinking it’s the passions that create a minimum of stability, of similarity between us . . . as well as a semblance . . . of brotherhood. . . . [F]or the last two hundred years now you’ve been ashamed of having an idea of human nature and pretend you can do without it, but what’s the result? That you, for example, . . . try to restrict the things for which you require mutual consent, as if all you were worried about were restricting the grounds on which someone different from you could say no, while in this way you actually exclude the grounds on which someone different from you could say yes.5

Of course, Flavio is here speaking for Hume; but I believe that he was also, in this place, speaking for himself.Both Flavio and Hume treated philosophy as a human activity, situated in history, culture and tradition. It addresses itself to people who have the shared nature mentioned above, who have specific traditions and concerns, and who, in any particular discussion, share a certain language which resonates with their beliefs, emotions and sympathies. Rationalism, on their view, attempts to address bloodless wraiths—parodies of the human being. It is exaggeratedly discursive, ahistorical, unsituated, and liable to slide into fanaticism.While one can never, I think, fully appreciate Flavio as a philosopher without reading him in Italian (for the reasons I have explained), I believe that understanding the way in which he conceived and practiced philosophy can help those who read him in other languages (and it is to be fervently hoped that his works will be widely translated) to appreciate his work6.


Flavio the Humanist

Flavio identified himself as a philosopher, and he was, indeed, a philosopher by any standard. But he was perhaps even more a humanist.If you conceive and practice philosophy in Flavio’s way, you are almost necessarily drawn to humanistic subjects and are less concerned with the analytic-synthetic distinction or the question whether it would be possible for something to be red and green all over. Flavio began his philosophical researches in the history of modern philosophy; but even in that period, it is clear that what interested him most was the significance of philosophical movements and they way they shaped Modernity: the way they influenced the manner in which people understood themselves, one another, and human relationships (especially moral and political relationships). What did Modernity have to offer in the face of poverty? In the face of war? In the face of racism and oppression?

These are the things that Flavio thought and wrote about—and he cared what philosophy could say about them and wanted philosophy to have a positive and wholesome influence. And of course he moved on from thinking about the significance of modern philosophy for the human condition (Locke, Smith, Hume, Kant) to thinking and writing about the significance of contemporary philosophy (Rawls, Walzer, Rorty and others). His movement from the history of philosophy and the history of ideas into moral and political philosophy was inevitable and inexorable.

Flavio’s humanism found expression in his intense activity as a contributor to various Italian national magazines and newspapers, such as La VoceVillageIl diario della settimana and Il Secolo XIX. His writings there focussed almost exclusively upon cultural, social and political issues, and he was an insightful and incisive critic of the contemporary scene. Unlike many such critics, he eschewed all forms of fanaticism, while at the same time offering scathing critiques of the beliefs and practices that conduce to human misery.Flavio’s humanism also expressed itself in research. He co-directed various research projects at local and the national level, sponsored by the Italian Ministry of Universities. Particularly important projects were The Ethico-political Philosophical Lexicon in the Italian Culture of the Eighteenth Century (part of a larger project for the creation of an internet library of the Italian culture, Biblioteca Italiana Telematica), and the work on Equal Respect: Its Nature and Its Normative Implications for Institutions, co-ordinated at the national level by Salvatore Veca.


Flavio the Human Being

Flavio’s philosophy and philosophical humanism were of course reflections of the soul of Flavio the man. Like the author of this memoire, Flavio was in certain respects a superannuated hippy. He was, after all, 24 years old in 1968. There were no doubt many earlier occasions; but the only time that I actually saw Flavio dressed in a dark suit was when I paid my respects to him, or rather to his earthly remains, in the hospital morgue. He most often appeared at the university dressed in blue jeans and a sports shirt. He confronted people on a social, intellectual and emotional basis—not a sartorial one.

And Flavio was a biker! Of course, many if not most younger Italians are devotees of scooters and cycles, but Flavio continued to ride and travel on his motorcycle long after most of his colleagues had moved over to their more comfortable Lancias (or whatnot). In 1988, Flavio had a serious motorcycle accident while traveling in Turkey that incapacitated him for more than a year and kept him from teaching and research. Right up until his death, he suffered from pain in his foot and leg that made it difficult for him to walk for long distances and sometimes kept him in bed.

Flavio was not a softie. He set severe standards for himself and others but was generally (although not always!) gentle in applying them. Humor, irony and sometimes sarcasm were his weapons, rather than aggression or intimidation.

He was typically adored by his students and had the ability to get them deeply engaged in philosophical questions. A class with Flavio did not end when everyone left the room; some of his classes may never end, even now that he’s gone.

The highlights of Flavio’s personal life were his marriage to Annalisa Siri and the adoption of Gurol, their Turkish son. I met them both at the hospital on a very sad day in February, 2007. In 1997, Annalisa had arranged for my own son to participate in cancer research at the institute where she worked as part of his medical education. This was an indirect consequence of my cooperation with Flavio in the Erasmus program, discussed further below.

During his long, final illness, Flavio was often unable to work at the university. His colleagues missed him and his influence in university affairs, and they were mostly in denial about what from the outside looked clearly like a terminal sickness. “When is Flavio going to come back to work?” one of his close colleagues complained; “We need him!” Of course, I had no answer.

The final period of Flavio’s life was unfortunate for more reasons than one. He had had to spend a number of years caring for his aged, and rather difficult, father, which prevented him from traveling and, often, from working as he wished. And when at last liberated from the duties of a faithful son, he became aware of the illness that eventually ended his life.

Being unable to travel was a serious loss for Flavio. He was fascinated by the similarities and differences among peoples and nations and relished international contact in a way that could not be fully served by the Internet. In 1991-92 he was an honorary fellow at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and he was a Visiting Professor at the University of Iceland (1994), Glasgow University (1994) and the University of Bergen (1996). He was also instrumental in organizing Erasmus exchanges for students and colleagues in philosophy.It was through the Erasmus program that I first met Flavio; and it was also through this program that he visited—and became a friend of—Iceland.

We went together with a group of students to a country retreat in mid-winter. Ever the speculator about human motivation, Flavio gazed wonderingly out of the window of our bus at the bleak, frozen landscape. “What did those people think when they came here?” he asked, referring to the settlement of Iceland, which began in 874. “What could they have been thinking of?” He also warned me, “I hope that you are not sleeping with me in the same cabin. I snore like a bear!” He did snore a bit, but not really with bear-like intensity (as I imagine it).

The Icelandic students were as inspired by him as his Italian students, and discussions continued far into the night. Flavio arranged to send students, and a number of colleagues to Iceland, and to receive Icelandic students and colleagues in Genoa. Eventually, others took over this work, but the lively interchanges between the University of Iceland and the University of Genoa continue.

Socrates described philosophy as a preparation for death. But Socrates viewed the body as a kind of prison for the soul, and daily life (and perhaps even human intercourse generally) as a distraction—at least so Plato tells us. Socrates looked forward to bodily death as a liberation of the soul. This was not Flavio’s view. For Flavio, as I maintained earlier, human nature was inseparably discursive, sentimental and sympathetic, with human rationality encompassing all of these elements. This, I maintained, was a Humean vision. Flavio did not understand himself as a soul imprisoned in a body; and he reveled in human intercourse. Despite his fable about a meeting of Hume and Rawls in the Elysian Fields, Flavio did not (I think) believe in an afterlife, any more than Hume did. Even if Flavio had believed in an afterlife, he would surely have wanted to put it off as long as it was possible to live fulfillingly in an earthly life: a life of language, culture, history, society—and in short what I have twice referred to as “human intercourse”. I know from our personal conversations that Flavio—long before he became terminally ill—was disquieted by death. He was afraid of contracting breast cancer, as had one of his male relatives. Philosophy for Flavio was not a preparation for death; it was a preparation for continuing, deepening and advancing the dialogue.Flavio faced illness and death bravely, and was able, despite weakness and pain, to write out of his experience a remarkable book (Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti); but I doubt that he “went gentle into that good night”; and why should he have?


Flavio Altogether

I have given a somewhat kaleidoscopic recounting of Flavio as a human being. This was the only way I could think of to present him to the reader, not as an academic, but as a person of flesh and blood.

But what unified the kaleidoscopic Flavio was his curiosity about the human animal and about human relations and his passionate hope that people might grow to treat one another better than they do. This curiosity and hope guided his personal life, his interaction with friends, students, and colleagues, his choice of a career, and his philosophical humanism: the honed instrument of his life pursuit.

We have now lost the bodily Flavio, but the spiritual Flavio lives on—not in the fifth dimension, but in Flavio’s own way, in this world. He lives on as long as we remember him, study his work, and are moved by his influence. We will be the better for it.



1 I express my special thanks to Valeria Ottonelli, who helped me to collect together some of the essential material concerning Flavio’s life and work.

2 A bibliography of Flavio’s most important work can be found here:

1975 Un inquietante filosofo perbene. Saggio su David Hume, La Nuova Italia, Firenze
1977 Blaise Pascal, Solitudine e storia, antologia degli scritti, scelta, introduzione e note di F. Baroncelli, La Nuova Italia, Firenze
1980 Pauperismo e religione nell’eta moderna (con G. Assereto), «Società e storia», n. 7, 1980
1981 Tra Locke e Smith. Alcune immagini del rapporto col “povero”, «Studi Settecenteschi», n. 2
1982 La droga, il sesso, l’Iliade e l’Odissea in Piacere e felicità: fortuna e declino. Atti del 3° Convegno tra studiosi di Filosofia Morale (Chiavari – S.Margherita Ligure, 15-17 maggio 1980), a cura di Romeo Crippa, Liviana, Padova, pp. 247-63.
1983 (con Giovanni Assereto) Sulla povertà, idee leggi e progetti nell’Europa moderna, Herodote, Genova-Ivrea
1985 Contro la carità discreta. Misericordia, raziocinio e volontà di non sapere in una polemica cinquecentesca sulla povertà, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XV (1985), 1
1987 D. Hume, Scritti morali, traduzione, introduzione e note a cura di F. Baroncelli, La scuola, Brescia
1987 I filosofi e la pace. Atti del 5° Convegno tra studiosi di Filosofia Morale in memoria di Romeo Crippa (Sanremo, Villa Nobel, 13-15 dicembre 1984), a cura di F. Baroncelli e M. Pasini, Ecig, Genova
1987 Corpo e cosmo nell’esperienza morale. Atti del 4° Convegno tra studiosi di Filosofia morale (Pietrasanta, 30 settembre-2 ottobre 1982) a cura di Romeo Crippa, edizione a cura di F. Baroncelli e D. Rolando, Paideia, Brescia
1989 Suicidio e garanzie. Riflessioni a proposito di un libro recente, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XIX (1989), 2
1993 L’incerta fortuna della critica all’immaginazionismo di James Augustus Blondel, «Studi Settecenteschi»
Cinici e scimmie. Osservazioni sull’anti-etnocentrismo di Montaigne e Rousseau, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXIII (1993), 1
1994 Il linguaggio non offending come strategia di tolleranza, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXIV (1994), 1
1995 Razzismo e verità, «Ragion pratica», III (1995), pp. 79-97
1996 Il razzismo è una gaffe, Eccessi e virtù del “politically correct”, Donzelli, Roma
1997 Giustizialismo, «Ragion Pratica», n.7, pp. 119-137
Post-fazione a Lysander Spooner, No treason n.6. La costituzione senza autorità, ed. e trad. di V.Ottonelli, Il Melangolo, Roma
Etica e razionalità. Un finto divorzio?, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXVII (1997), 1, pp. 230-260
Il riconoscimento e i suoi sofismi, in F. Manti (a cura di), La tolleranza e le sue ragioni, pp. 120-147.
1998 Il riconoscimento e i suoi sofismi, «Quaderni di Bioetica», pp. 120-147.
Come scrivere sulla tolleranza, «Materiali per una storia della cultura giuridica», XXVIII (1998), 1, pp. 49-68.
2000 Razzismo e correttezza politica: la riscossa della natura, in Mezzadra, I confini della globalizzazione, Manifestolibri, Roma
Giudizio, giustizia, giustizialismo, in S. Nicosia (a cura di), Il giudizio. Filosofia, teologia, diritto, estetica. Carocci, Roma, pp. 320-339.
2001 Liberalismo e multiculturalismo in Liberalismo e società giusta, a cura di M. Marsonet, Name, Genova
Le quattro indegnità dei liberali irresoluti. Teoria politica, XVII (2001), pp. 23-47
Il chiliagono della politica mondiale e la povertà della nostra immaginazione, «Ragion pratica», 16 (2001), pp. 135-138
La tolleranza dell’errore e del disvalore, in V. Dini (a cura di), Tolleranza e libertà, Eleuthera, Milano, pp. 257-276
2005 L’onore dei Labdacidi: religione, politica e familismo nell’ Antigone di Sofocle, in M. Ripoli – M. Rubino (a cura di), Antigone. Il mito, il diritto, lo spettacolo, pp. 21-44
2006 Viaggio al termine degli Stati Uniti. Perché gli americani votano Bush e se ne vantano, Donzelli, Roma.

3 Published in Emilio Mazza & Emanuele Ronchetti, eds. New Essays on David Hume (Milano: FrancoAngeli, 2007), pp. 259-63, and originally presented in Italian at the seminar “La filosofia è politica”, held in honor of John Rawls at the University of Milan, 31 Janary 2003.

4 “Rawls and Hume: A Fable”, p. 260.

5 “Rawls and Hume: A Fable”, p. 261.

6 Others who know Flavio’s work may think differently than I about how it should be understood. This piece reflects my personal view, and should at least be of help to those who have yet to encounter Flavio’s philosophy.

Alain Badiou and Marcel Gauchet, What Is To Be Done? A Dialogue on Communism, Capitalism, and the Future of Democracy (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016)

Translated from the French by Susan Spitzer, this book reports three sessions held in 2014 and moderated by Martin Duru and Martin Legros, during which two of the most celebrated French philosophers of our time discuss the future of democratic institutions. Alain Badiou, perhaps the more famous of the two, offers a defence and reinterpretation of communism. Marcel Gauchet, instead, outlines a social-democratic approach. Their differences and disagreements are palpable and vocal; they are nothing short of “battle lines” (66). Both, however, agree on the utter and cruel untenability of capitalism, especially after the collapse of international finance in 2008 and the many years of austerity imposed upon the innocent for the sake of keeping a broken system afloat at any cost.

While Badiou became a communist after being raised and being active in a social-democratic milieu, Gauchet followed exactly the “opposite” itinerary (3): he began his life as a political activist and a scholar in the communist camp, but later moved to the social-democratic one. Philosophy was always a central concern for them both. Rousseau, Marx, Sartre and structuralism are the shared influences of Badiou and Gauchet, who do not seem to fully realise in their exchanges how much they both have been trying to recover the notion of a meaningful human subjectivity vis-à-vis the seemingly objective “linguistic, economic, and psychic structures” into which the successful structuralist schools of thought of their youth had dissolved it (12).

As concerns the idea or hypothesis of communism, which both thinkers distinguish from its historical manifestations, Marx and Lenin are regarded as the key-references on the subject. Their reciprocal continuity in thought is, grosso modo, agreed upon, while disagreement starts unfolding more clearly between Badiou and Gauchet with regard to the particular historical consequences that the successful 1917 Bolshevik revolution had for Russia and the world at large. Gauchet stresses the “totalitarian” character of the Soviet experience that emerged thereof, very similar in this to the fascist experiences of the 20thcentury, all of which reveal how the great hopes of 18th– and 19th-century modernity in popular self-rule—the “autonomous mode of structuration”—produced so many novel conflicts in practice and engendered such a dismay in theory that a return to the “heteronomous mode of structuration” characterising pre-modern religious societies was sought once again, though by novel and terrifying political means (16-17).

Badiou, on his part, stresses the profound differences between Russian communism and the fascist experiences and fascist experiments, which both thinkers believe will never “happen again” (66), as well as those inherent to the communist camp (Soviet Russia and “the People’s Republic of China” in particular; 35). Unlike the fascist countries, these communist nations were far less unified internally, and whatever despotic, tyrannical or totalitarian character may be attributed to them has more to do with the traditional “criminal dimension” of State power than with communism as such (39). It may be rhetorically commonplace to list “the number of victims” of communist revolutions and regimes, as Gauchet eventually does, but Badiou believes it to be a cheap trick, given the far worse human losses caused by liberal revolutions and capitalist horrors, such as “colonial wars and global conflicts” such as the so-called Great War (44). It is curious, as Badiou notes, that such horrors are never used to disqualify liberal, republican and parliamentary principles; only communist death tolls are, to disqualify the communist hypothesis.

History, however, cannot have the last word about communism. Both authors agree on this point. Seventy years of Soviet history cannot be in any logical sense the means for the decisive refutation of a much older and far more general hypothesis. Nobody would use the much-longer terrors of “the Spanish Inquisition” in order to reject the Christian religion or religion per se (48). “Moving monolithically and violently from private property to state ownership”, as it was done in Soviet Russia, may have been a major mistake, but “local, progressive, multi-layered experiments” can, have been and are being tried all over the world (e.g. workers’ “self-management”, 119-120). Badiou and Gauchet agree also on the chief characteristics of communism that they derive from Marx, i.e.: “the conviction that it is possible to extricate the becoming of all humanity from the evil grip of capitalism” (50); “the hypothesis that the state… is not a natural, inevitable form of the structuration of human society” (51); and the claim “that the division of labor… is in no way absolute necessity for organizing economic production.” (51) Additionally, Badiou emphasises “four teachings” of Marx that he regards as crucial to comprehend the communist hypothesis and the possibility of its success: “communists are… directly involved in a pre-existing general movement that they’ll later be responsible for directing” (52); “the bearers of the communist Idea are characterized by an ability to communicate what the next step is” (53); which “must follow an internationalist logic” (54); and “a global strategic vision… whose matrix is anti-capitalism.” (54)

If the communist Idea or hypothesis–both expressions appear frequently in the book–can be separated from historical events and circumstances, so does Gauchet believe that “democracy” can be distinguished from “capital’s control over it”, which is certainly the  sad norm in today’s societies (69). According to him, “democratic pluralism” can be a fruitful means of progress and “moderation”, especially when it comes to smoothing strong differences of interests and opinions by including “opposition” rather than fighting it violently (72). This time, history can teach useful lessons, according to him. “[T]he Thirty Glorious Years” following World War II and displaying strong unions, political participation, redistributive progressive taxation and financial regulation are still a case worth studying, though it should never turn into a “blind faith in the progress of capitalism” which, rather, can be modified and civilised (78). The post-1970s culture of individualism, on the one hand, and global “financial liberalization”, on the other hand, show also that modifications can occur which make capitalism more barbaric (82).

Badiou is, under this respect, most sceptical. Individualism and globalisation are, in his view, of the essence; without them, capitalism would cease to exist. Today’s world, marked by astounding inequalities and planet-wide eco-destruction, is nothing new under the sun. It is “the normal, that is, imperial, state of capitalism” (89), in which big powers compete for resources and opportunities at the service of “the financial oligarchy” benefitting from it (101). Even major financial crashes are part of it, whether we look at the 1920s or the 2000s. Badiou finds simply absurd Gauchet’s notions that today’s polycentric capitalism is somehow essentially different, that parliamentary institutions and liberal conceptions have changed substantially, and that piecemeal reformist alternatives may be open within the current global order (e.g. business accounting standards, 114). Gauchet’s “de-imperialization” and “veritable neoliberalism” sound catchy; but they are, according to Badiou, mere slogans (109-110). Party politics, parliaments and liberal institutions in general do not grant genuine chances for “the individual to become a subject”, namely an authentically autonomous person, and even less so do capitalist economies based upon individuals’ manufactured “personal appetites” and superficial “petty freedoms” that do not challenge the status quo (136-137).

In the end, Badiou and Gauchet find an uneasy terrain for agreement: political tactics aimed at defying and defeating “the financial oligarchy’s overwhelming power” (140). On the one hand, communists like Badiou can be active and can be heard in their polity thanks to the democratic institutions that Gauchet defends. On the other hand, a strong and vocal movement promoting communism can “scare the hell out of” the financial oligarchs and lead them to accept compromises that could make societies more democratic, more prosperous, more egalitarian and less oppressive (148).

The debates reported in this book are lively and interesting. The readership familiar with Badiou’s and/or Gauchet’s writings will find some of their better-known theses formulated or exemplified in mundane terms and charged with a lively tone that is not typical of their usual, stately academic prose. The readership unfamiliar with the two French thinkers, instead, will find a wealth of clever considerations, insights and informed short arguments. As to the future of democracy, or of the communist Idea, history alone can and shall tell.

Poets/Trump/Philosophers: Reflections on Richard Rorty’s Liberalism, Ten Years after His Death

Starting with a prescient 1998 quote on the impending decline of US liberal democracy into right-wing, strong-man-based demagogy, this paper outlines Richard Rorty’s political philosophy, which I believe can help us understand perplexing political trends in today’s political reality well beyond the US alone. Specifically, I tackle three key-terms encapsulating the thrust of Rorty’s political philosophy, i.e. “liberalism of fear”, “bourgeois” and “postmodernism”. Also, I address a contraposition that explains how Rorty would approach and attempt to defend liberal democracy from contemporary right-wing, strong-man-based degenerations, namely the priority of “poetry” over “philosophy”. Essentially, if one wishes to win in the political arena, she must be armed with the most effective rhetorical weaponry, however good, solid and well-argued her political views may be. Finally, some remarks are offered on the role that “philosophy” can still play within the same arena.


Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty (1931–2007) was probably the most famous American philosopher at the end of the last century. As I pen this introduction, ten years after his death, his name has re-appeared on the pages of many newspapers, at least in the Anglophone press, and some aspects of his political thought are going ‘viral’ across the world-wide-web. We live in the age of Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter, after all. Various passages of his 1998 book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), have been ‘unearthed’ and variously circulated. Among them we read what follows:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized and unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else… At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots… Once the strongman takes office, no one can predict what will happen. [However, o]ne thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion… All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet… [e.g. in] socially accepted sadism… directed toward people such as gays and lesbians[.] (ibid., 81ff)

To past European generations and probably most modern historians, a socio-political picture like the one portrayed above is likely to recall the rise of autocratic demagogues such as Napoleon III or Benito Mussolini. Today, however, this passage sounds like an eerily accurate prediction of the bitter conclusion of triumphant post-Cold-War globalisation and its ‘inevitable’ sacrifices, epitomised by the rise of Donald Trump. And so it has been taken by media outlets and opinion-makers, e.g. Stephen Metcalf’s 10th January 2017 “cultural comment” for The New Yorker, entitled “Richard Rorty’s Philosophical Argument for National Pride” and discussing also the media attention received by the passage above.


Donald Trump

Fresh US President and long-time billionaire, Mr Trump won in 2016 a harsh electoral campaign against a seasoned politician, Ms Hillary Clinton, who, it should be noted, was the publicly vocal and politically proactive US First Lady when Rorty’s book was published qua, inter alia, scathing critique of the increasingly right-wing, free-market policies promoted by the Democratic Party, which Rorty regarded as his own party of choice in the US. Whilst describing the leading 20th-century Democrats, from F.D. Roosevelt to L.B. Johnson, as outright social-democrats, Rorty did not approve of several decisions taken by the Clinton’s administration, such as the controversial 1994 NAFTA agreement with Canada and Mexico and the 1999 repealing of the long-lived Glass-Stegall Act, a child of the Great Depression and a piece of legislation that had limited the systemic threat of unbridled finance (cf. Richard Rorty, “Una filosofia tra conversazione e politica”, interview by Giorgio Baruchello, Iride, 11(25), 1998, 457–84; translation mine). Those of us who remember the roots and the fruits of the 2008 financial collapse, namely the Great Moderation at one end and the Great Recession at the other, should not find it difficult to realise what momentous consequences the Clintons’ friendliness toward Wall Street has been outpouring. It is in fact in a climate of unresolved under- and un-employment, globalisation-induced economic insecurity, and increasingly strong anti-immigration and anti-establishment feelings that Donald Trump came to prominence qua political leader.

Prominent, if not brazen or simply unusual, were his language and many of his declared stances throughout the electoral campaign of 2016. As recorded and frequently criticised by mainstream media, Mr Trump often: (1) uttered racist, sexist and homophobic slurs; (2) fashioned himself qua anti-establishment champion of the impoverished, economically insecure, and primarily white working class of his country; (3) paraded his willingness to cooperate with foreign dictators and political leaders whose human-rights record is far from spotless; and (4) insouciantly condoned words and concepts that make violence, torture included, seemingly acceptable in the public sphere, both domestically and internationally. Evidence of all this is not hard to find. Trump’s electoral speeches are archived and available online (cf. also a selection of his statements by The Telegraph). In power for only few weeks at the time of writing, Trump has already started delivering on his electoral agenda, at least as regards tightening immigration rules in the US, though it is far too soon to pass any trenchant judgment yet. Cruelty, in the shape of “socially accepted sadism” or worse (e.g. extensive warfare), might regain the front stage as a major ingredient in the political life of the world’s sole nuclear super-power, whose 500 and more military sites outside US borders and territories span across most continents, and a fortiori in the political life of all countries at large. I write “front stage” because Trump’s predecessor did not halt, say, police violence in the US or the bombing of the populations of foreign countries by US drones (e.g. Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen), but he never spoke publicly of such issues in as cavalier a manner (concerning the US military foreign sites, cf. Department of Defense, Base Structure Report – Fiscal Year 2015 Baseline). Bombs may have been dropped throughout the two-term Obama administration, but not verbal ones.

For all we know, the new US presidency might prove less prone to endorse the highly destructive forms of legally termed humanitarian intervention and politically proclaimed promotion of Western-style democratic institutions seen, say, in 21st-century Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan under George W. Bush and Barak Obama (e.g. military occupation, air raids and killings by remote-controlled drones). On the domestic front, Trump himself might succeed in becoming an effective tribune of the common people, or at least of a large segment of it. Chronically disenfranchised blue-collar Americans might end up enjoying more and better jobs than they have over the previous three decades. Who knows? They might even witness the end of the gross – when not grotesque – imbalance in incomes and influence between Wall Street and Main Street that Ronald Reagan’s economic policies kick-started in the 1980s, and that Bill Clinton’s aforementioned abolition of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act definitively entrenched. Rather than christening involuntarily a shantytown, as some of his predecessors did (i.e. post-1929 “Hooverville” and post-2008 “Bushville”), the name of a flamboyant US billionaire might go down in history for reverting the forceful re-affirmation of patrimonial capitalism that has been occurring in most countries on Earth since the days of Thatcherism. Unlike Obama, Trump might not “stand between [the bankers] and the pitchforks” (Lindsay Ellerson, “Obama to Bankers: I’m Standing ‘Between You and the Pitchforks’“, ABC News, 7th April 2009). Alternatively, as Rorty suggests in the same foreboding pages of Achieving Our Country, the elected “strongman” will just “make peace” with “the international super-rich” and appease the masses via jingoistic militarism and charismatic posturing. Time, as always, will tell. Cruelty, whether in the shape of petty humiliation of minorities or military extermination of scores of people, is never too far away.



Cruelty matters a lot, at least for Richard Rorty, who championed one specific school of political thought that, in the late 20th century, made this notion central to the understanding of social and political life, claiming that Western liberalism is characterised by a unique abhorrence of cruelty in the public sphere. Called “liberalism of fear”, this school of thought was a theoretical creation of Harvard political scientist Judith Shklar (1928–1992), but it is commonly recalled today in connection with Richard Rorty, who was and still is far more famous than Judith Shklar. The quintessence of their political stance is simple to express: “liberals… think that cruelty is the worst thing we do” (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989, 73). Therefore, they draw a clear distinction “between cruel military and moral repression and violence, and a self-restraining tolerance that fences in the powerful to protect the freedom and safety of every citizen” (Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices, Cambridge: Belknap, 1984, 237). Liberals opt for the latter option and defend all those institutions (e.g. parliaments, constitutions, human rights, judiciary independence, freedom of the press, etc.) that foster peaceful coexistence over violent oppression, debate over force, individual liberty over State control, and people’s safety over their systemic endangerment.

Rhetoric also matters a lot for Rorty. Ironically, it is of the essence. According to Rorty: “The principal backup [for liberals] is not philosophy but the arts, which serve to develop and modify a group’s self-image by, for example, apotheosizing its heroes, diabolizing its enemies, mounting dialogues among its members, and refocusing its attention” (“Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism”, The Journal of Philosophy, 80(10), 1983, 587). The art of rhetoric must be understood in a catholic manner here. In his texts, Rorty would normally speak of “arts”, “narrative”, “poetry” or “literature”. What he means, however, is that he does not trust traditional philosophical argument and repeated appeals to reason to do the job. Reason matters, of course. Rigour too. But relevance vis-à-vis the context and the audience is the actual key, hence the ability to persuade that one can attain by reaching people’s hearts as well as their minds, especially when fundamental social values are at issue, rather than the day-to-day activities of tribunals or elected councils. Only in this manner can liberals hope to achieve any progressive aim. Truth does not imply per se any victory whatsoever in the public arena; nor does it matter much, in the end. Speaking and writing well in favour of liberal principles and institutions do, instead; they are much more crucial, even if we may not be able to demonstrate once and for all why we should prefer liberalism to Nazism or Social Darwinism. As Rorty writes: “Whereas the liberal metaphysician thinks that the good liberal knows certain crucial propositions to be true, the liberal ironist thinks the good liberal has a certain kind of know-how. Whereas he thinks of the high culture of liberalism as centering around theory, she thinks of it as centering around literature (in the older and narrower sense of that term – plays, poems, and, especially, novels)” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 93).

Rorty did actually speak of “rhetoric” as well, but only occasionally. Nonetheless, it has been argued that, as far as the 20th-century American academic community is concerned, the ancient art of rhetoric regained ground primarily thanks to him, pace Kenneth Burke’s (1897–1993) efforts in this sense since the 1930s. First came the 1979 publication of Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press), by now a widely acknowledged modern classic, which excavated the metaphorical roots of all objectivist, rigorous, scientific and pseudo-scientific terminologies. Then, a series of conferences were held in the mid-1980s at Iowa and Temple Universities, out of which was launched the “Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry” (POROI). Richard Rorty participated in them and another participant, Herbert W. Simons, credits him with coining at one of the meetings the now-popular slogan “the rhetorical turn” (The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in the Conduct of Inquiry, Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1990, vii).

Interested in persuading wide audiences rather than producing bullet-proof arguments for academic circles, Rorty declares himself to be candidly partial to “the Hegelian attempt to defend the institutions and practices of the rich North Atlantic democracies… [i.e.] ‘postmodernist bourgeois liberalism’.” (“Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism”, 585). As he writes: “I call it ‘bourgeois’ to emphasize that most of the people I am talking about would have no quarrel with the Marxist claim that a lot of those institutions and practices are possible and justifiable only in certain historical, and especially economic, conditions.” (ibid.) Money matters too, then. Liberal institutions, high and low, depend upon appropriate material conditions. This is the fundamental insight and theoretical legacy of Marxism, according to Rorty. We must take the “structure” seriously into account, if we wish to make sense of the “superstructure”, even if we consider the latter to be partially independent from the former and not fully determined by it, i.e. a sort of mere epiphenomenon. That is why economic insecurity and inequality matter so much in liberal polities, as Donald Trump’s election has further confirmed.

Rorty’s acknowledment that material conditions are important does not mean that he subscribed to Marxism, Chicago-style liberalism, Randian Objectivism or any fundamental claim about the nature of the human soul and human societies. According to Rorty: “There is no answer to the question ‘Why not be cruel?’ – no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible … Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question – algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort – is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician.” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, xv-i). A self-declared champion of American neo-pragmatism, Rorty followed this tradition in believing that “morality is a matter of… ‘we-intentions’… the core meaning of ‘immoral action’ [being] ‘the sort of thing we don’t do’.” (ibid., 59) There is no grand narrative; no ultimate vocabulary as Kenneth Burke understood this term, i.e. a theory or discourse capable of ordering all relevant conceptual elements, including apparently conflicting ones, into one synthetic vision, account or system. As Rorty explains: “I use ‘postmodernist’ in a sense given to this term by Jean-Francois Lyotard, who says that the postmodern attitude is that of ‘distrust of metanarratives,’ narratives which describe or predict the activities of such entities as the noumenal self or the Absolute Spirit or the Proletariat. These meta-narratives are stories which purport to justify loyalty to, or breaks with, certain contemporary communities, but which are neither historical narratives about what these or other communities have done in the past nor scenarios about what they might do in the future.” (“Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism”, 585)

Let me add that, according to Rorty, postmodernism is not relativism: “Relativism certainly is self-refuting, but there is a difference between saying that every community is as good as every other and saying that we have to work out from the networks we are, from the communities with which we presently identify. Post-modernism is no more relativistic than Hilary Putnam’s suggestion that we stop trying for a ‘God’s-eye view’ and realize that ‘We can only hope to produce a more rational conception of rationality or a better conception of morality if we operate from within our tradition’.” (ibid., 589) One thing is to say that we can, in theory, set all moral or political options beside one another and state that they all have the same value. Another thing is to say that we cannot do it, because we can only and must operate from within one option at the time, building or burning bridges with the others. The latter being Rorty’s stance on the matter.



We are philosophers, scientists, academics. Rational argumentation is our bread and butter. Yet, it is ours. It is probably also the judges’, the lawyers, the engineers’ and some others’. It is not theirs, though, i.e. ‘common’ human beings’ at large. Talk to your relatives; your neighbours; the ‘man of the street’; have a conversation in a bar, shop, or parish hall. Arguments matter, generally, but only to a point. Sometimes, it is plainly futile to even present one and expect it to be listened to, not to mention being taken so seriously as to change the listener’s beliefs. Let us ask ourselves, why do we engage in rational debate? Because we expect it to bear fruit. In other words, we do so under two major assumptions: (1) we can find reasons; and (2) reasons matter. As Rorty once stated: “To take the philosophical ideal of redemptive truth seriously one must believe both that the life that cannot be successfully argued for is not worth living, and that persistent argument will lead all inquirers to the same set of beliefs” (“The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of a Literary Culture“, 2000).

Perhaps we can find some reasons. Perhaps even good reasons. No final, ultimate reasons can be found, though, according to Rorty, who claims chimeric any conclusive philosophical grounds of agreement that correspond to a universal and unchanging human nature, the essence of things, pure rationality, the hidden structure of historical dialectics, God’s plan for the universe, etc. According to Rorty, when we look deep and hard into ourselves, the most profound things that we can get a glimpse of are the most entrenched prejudices of our own culture, our ethnos or, as quoted above, “our tradition”. But this is not everything. Even if there were any such deeper, ultimate reasons, who would listen to them? Some people would. Perhaps a fair amount. Not most human beings, however. Religion, politics, marketing, economic history, psychology and many ordinary experiences bear witness to the limits of human rationality. Albeit not irrational, people are frequently unreasonable, impervious to logical thinking, biased in many ways, and unwilling to reconsider their basic, often deeply engrained and sometimes blissfully unaware assumptions. If this is a plausibly correct assessment of humankind under contemporary democracy, how can liberals win in the public arena? Rorty’s answer is patent: a “turn against theory and toward narrative” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, xvi). In other words, rhetoric is needed. A good one, of course, in both content and form.

As regards the content, Rorty’s own political plans and works show what it should be: the principles and institutions of liberalism. To them, he then adds specific projects that liberals should focus upon (e.g. universal healthcare; cf. “Una filosofia tra conversazione e politica”). As regards the form, that is where “poets” excel or, as Rorty also calls them, successful “agents of love” (i.e. ‘missionaries’ reaching non-liberals) and “justice” (i.e. enforcers of liberal principles within liberal ethnoi; “On Ethnocentrism”, Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth – Philosophical Papers vol. I, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991[1981], 206). Let us learn from them: read good books; watch good films; read good books; practice your communication skills; read good books; engage in your own ethnos’ ongoing moral and political conversation (e.g. by joining a political party, charitable organisation or a trade union); and, to top it all, read good books. There are no ideal Platonic philosopher-kings here; poets are the kingmakers. “Poets” too must be understood in a catholic manner, though. They can be priests, film-makers, propagandists, teachers, political leaders, etc. They may not be able to produce a definitive demonstration of why liberalism is to be preferred and pursued; however, at least for us children of liberal institutions, it is not a serious issue. What really matters is to keep them going; and that is what poets can help us with. What is left for us as philosophers? I have three suggestions:

(A) We can and, perhaps, should join the ranks of the “agents of love” and “justice”. Become better at speaking and writing well, and use your skills to fight the good fight—the liberal fight, according to Rorty. Be an engaged intellectual. Be a promoter of democracy in the schools, as the US pragmatist John Dewey (1859–1952) had already tried to do and let American teachers do. If you cannot be a leader, help one to emerge. Rorty himself regarded his work as making room for, or paving the road to, greater minds, such as Jacques Derrida (1930–2004; cf. “Una conversazione tra filosofia e politica”).

(B) As Rorty never denied, there are people, a minority of course, who do respond to philosophical arguments; philosophers can still be useful in finding ways “of making political liberalism look good to persons with philosophical tastes” (“On Ethnocentrism”, 211).

(C) My personal contribution is that philosophers can provide ideas, social legitimacy and psychological encouragement to poets. In our culture, pace Rorty’s “turn against theory”, poets are not expected to give us rational arguments and axiological foundations, whereas philosophers still are. Then, even if such an aim is ultimately utopian and as long as this division of intellectual labour holds in our culture, poets can find things to say and work upon. The rhetorician’s inventio and topoi can unfold in close contact with the texts by philosophers that they admire and may decide to rely upon. Dante Alighieri had Thomas Aquinas, Ugo Foscolo Condorcet, George Bernard Shaw Friedrich Nietzsche, Luigi Pirandello Henri Bergson, Mahatma Gandhi Lev Tolstoy, James Joyce Giambattista Vico, and Zeitgeist’s Peter Joseph John McMurtry. Through their association with established philosophers and philosophies, moreover, the same poets can obtain a higher degree of social acceptance, insofar as their ethnos still acknowledges the special status of philosophers as those members of society who grasp ‘deeper’ or ‘higher’ things. Poets themselves may be reassured and sustained in their fights by the knowledge that there are thinkers who, in more analytical and articulate ways, agree with them.

(A)–(C) may not seem much, prima facie, especially if one recalls the Platonic ideal of philosopher-kings; but they are more than enough for a meaningful existence, both personal and professional, in a contemporary liberal ethnos, which political leaders like Donald Trump would seem to endanger and, at the same time, reveal to us all – as sceptical and blasé as some of us may have become – as awfully valuable.

Asger Sørensen, Capitalism, Alienation and Critique (Aarhus: Nordic Summer University Press, 2016)

As concerns the main contents of the new book by prolific Danish philosopher and social scientist Asger Sørensen, they are certainly relevant and urgent, for they constitute an articulate critical reflection upon the grim reality of avoidable human degradation and suffering within the capitalist order, as well as upon their callous and hopeless acceptance therein, all of which are important features of contemporary social life worth thinking about and, possibly, acting against.

Building upon a variety of essays written independently of one another and published individually elsewhere on previous occasions (e.g. the prestigious scholalrly journal Philosophy & Social Criticism), the book is internally diverse, but it is neither contradictory nor overwhelmingly heterogeneous. Rather, the book’s structure is sensibly and comprehensibly open, for it comprises:

(A) An introduction, a presentation and an interlude that, somewhat redundantly but very usefully, lead the reader into the rich intellectual panorama to follow, highlighting above all: (1) the common conceptual threads linking together the two subsequent, admittedly uneven parts; (2) their being the result of a single process of intellectual growth and maturation lasted many years; and (3) their more or less direct impinging upon the Continental school of thought known as Critical Theory, to which the book’s author claims to belong himself.

(B) A first part, entitled “Economy” and focussing on the classic social thinkers Émile Durkheim and Bataille, whose reflections provide a profound and complex theoretical backdrop for the correct understanding of the axiological significance of the emancipatory movements emerged in capitalist countries in our young new century (e.g. the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, the Indignados of Spain, etc.). Although admired and mined for important insights in existing realities and problems, neither classic social thinker is idealised and extensive criticism of their views, especially Bataille’s, is offered too;

(C) A second part, called “Dialectics”, covering a much wider spectrum of intellectual sources in all senses, i.e. disciplinary, geographical, historical and linguistic. It is also a more complex section, which requires closer attention to detail and serious efforts of synthesis in order to appreciate how the different notions of dialectics explored and explained in its five chapters (i.e. Aristotle’s, Hegel’s, Marx’s, Bataille’s, Tong Shijun’s, Mao’s, and the Frankfurt School’s) can be combined together so as to shed light on contemporary capitalism, its many woes and their possible solutions;

(D) A postscript that expands upon and integrates (A), developing a critique of key-aspects of liberal and neoliberal political economy, especially Ricardo’s doctrine of comparative advantage and the macroeconomic practical manifestations of the Austrian school of economics in pre-2008 developing countries and in post-2008 Europe, under the banner of austerity. Somewhat disconnected from both (A) and (B), it is per se a very interesting piece of intellectual reflection, and one that should appeal to open-minded economists as much as to social scientists at large and philosophers.

Noteworthy and original is the book’s attempt to give a better-contoured and more positive shape to the notion of cultural Marxism, which has been used very loosely in contemporary social discourse and, typically, with an almost taken-for-granted negative connotation. In this manner, the book can be useful both to the friends and to the foes of the broadly humanitarian, democratic and socialist (i.e. not liberal, as the book’s author vehemently states in his postscript) cultural tradition that goes under this name and that the book’s author identifies, investigates, interrogates and invigorates. Whether trying to promote it or to demote it, both sides can benefit from having a conceptually more refined version of it to dissect, debate and disagree upon.

From a scholarly perspective, the book is verily informed and informative. If anything, it is scholarly thorough and thoroughly scholarly. Its main arguments are sensible and sensibly constructed, but a reader unfamiliar with the classics of philosophy and of social thought that are so frequently referred to therein is unlikely to be able to grasp such arguments with ease, if at all. The spectrum of ideas and ideologies presented and toyed with in the book is immense, even if inevitably partial, and what is presented and toyed with is done so in a competent, intelligent and perceptive manner, as well as in an articulate, meticulous and subtle one. The overall style of the book is plainly academic. Positively clear and professionally tailored, no reader will find thrilling passages, stimulating wit or spiritually inspiring prose to ponder upon. Yet, it is unlikely that any reader but an academic one will purchase the book and read it.

Tea Torbenfeldt Bengtsson, Morten Frederiksen & Jørgen Elm Larsen (eds.), The Danish Welfare State. A Sociological Investigation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

How is the welfare state transforming in an era of globalization, individualization and hence increased competition, and how are the changes seen on a macro and micro level? This is the main question raised in this book, containing 15 chapters, including a thorough introduction and a conclusion. More specifically, it explores how risk concepts and risk thinking transform the welfare state from responding to and from protecting its citizens from threats putting them at risk, to risks being seen as threats to the welfare state itself.

The book addresses a current discussion in Denmark concerning whether the welfare state, instituted to protect its citizens, is developing into a competition state, mobilizing citizens to take part in the struggle for the state to be competitive. In this picture, so-called non-productive citizens such as the unemployed, chronically ill, or newly arrived refugees, are increasingly seen as risk factors or even threats, and not primarily as humans worthy of protection. According to the editors of the book, Denmark as a modern welfare state endorsing both universal welfare and individual responsibility is an interesting case illustrating this development. Thus, they provide a frame for discussing whether it is worth ‘getting to Denmark’, as Fukuyama claimed in The Origins of Political Order (2011) as a metaphor for democracy.

The state increasingly seems to respond to macro-level threats from globalization and economic crisis with micro-level initiatives; hence the anthology focuses on risks both on a macro- and micro-level. In the opening chapter a thorough introduction is given to four sociological approaches to risk, namely risk society (Beck); risk culture/cultural theory (Douglas); risk control/governmentality (Foucault); and risk as uncertainty/managed uncertainty (Luhmann). These theorists, of whom particularly Beck and Foucault are cited in the book, claim in different ways that risks are socially founded. The explanation of this theoretical framework does not only serve a didactical purpose but also helps to underline how a social understanding of the risks of modernity can be used when analyzing welfare states like Denmark. Whereas the competition state is often associated with neoliberalism and deregulation, the social investment state is associated with reregulation, which several of the chapters analyzing policies on a micro level illustrate. Both the competition and the social investment paradigm however rely on a highly educated, healthy and productive workforce. Accordingly, policies of education, activation, and health become important. However, there may be unintended consequences of such risk management policies. As pointed out in several chapters, new risks may occur especially among the poor and poorly educated classes, who do not respond adequately to activation policies and often meet sanctions and cuts in benefits. Thus, the welfare state may end up reproducing rather than overcoming inequalities.

The book comprises three parts. The first part concerns risks at a macro level, mainly explored comparatively. Hence, in chapter 2, “Denmark from an International Perspective”, Peter Abrahamsen discusses the social investment paradigm drawing the traditional Social Democratic Denmark closer to liberal and continental models. In chapter 3, “Social Investment as Risk Management” Jon Kvist compares social investment strategies of Denmark, Germany and United Kingdom. In Chapter 4, “Employment Relations, Flexicurity, and Risk: Explaining the Risk Profile of the Danish Flexicurity Model”, Carsten Strøby Jensen explains how flexicurity presently is under pressure by cuts in unemployment benefits and decreasing support for labor unions. In chapter 5, “Precarity and Public Risk Management: Trends in Denmark across Four Decades”, Stefan Andrade shows that the Danish labor market has not yet become more precarious than in other European countries, though low- and unskilled workers have become more vulnerable to risks of poverty and unemployment. In chapter 6, “Towards a New Culture of Blame?” Morten Frederiksen shows from survey data, that Danes’ attitudes towards social assistance and unemployment surprisingly have changed very little.

The second part of the book is devoted to risk perspectives on the universal welfare state at a micro level. Thus, in chapter 7 “When Family Life Is Risky Business – Immigrant Divorce in the Women-Friendly Welfare State”, Mai Heide Ottosen and Anika Liversage discuss whether new and unintended risks of exclusion follow divorces in immigrant families. Education is the focus of chapter 8, “The Risky Business of Educational Choice in the Meritocratic Society”, where Kristian Karlson and Anders Holm demonstrate how citizens’ ability to risk management in educational decisions is related to inequality in education. Unintended inequality is also the topic in chapter 9 “Health in a Risk Perspective: The Case of Overweight”, where Nanna Mik-Meyer explores the increased focus on health problematizing an already vulnerable group. A similar tendency is seen in chapter 10, “Failing Ageing? Risk Management in the Active Ageing Society”, Tine Rostgaard explains how the Danish ‘active approach’ to elder care problematizes inactive groups unwilling or incapable of change.

The third and last part of the book stays on the micro level and explores the Danish welfare state’s approach to social problems and marginalized groups. In chapter 11, “Controlling Young People Through Treatment and Punishment”, Tea Torbenfeldt Bengtsson shows how the Danish system for juvenile crime is currently strengthening control influenced by ‘fears of “being soft on crime”’. In chapter 12, “Alcohol and Risk Management in a Welfare State”, Margaretha Järvinen argues that the healthcare authorities’ governmentality perspective on alcohol consumption does not reach certain alcohol consumers. In chapter 13, “The Tough and the Brittle: Calculating and Managing the Risk of Refugees” Katrine Syppli Kohl explores how Denmark’s selection of quota refugees has developed from choosing the weakest to picking those deemed most ‘capable of integration’, thus presenting the background for the Parliament’s 2016 suspension of the entire quota refugee program in Denmark. Lastly, in Chapter 14, “Cash Benefit Recipients – Vulnerable or Villains?”, Dorte Caswell, Jørgen Elm Larsen and Stella Mia Sieling-Monas examine the Danish unemployment policy including evermore severe sanctions as means of encouraging job seeking.

To sum up, the anthology offers a comprehensive overview of the Danish welfare state on a macro- and micro level, convincingly applying risk theories and discussing the social investment paradigm. In an era where publishing in journals is given priority over anthologies, this volume demonstrates that the anthology format is still justified. The volume is highly recommendable to students, scholars, and not least, decision makers.

Maurizio Isabella & Konstantina Zanou (eds.), Mediterranean Diasporas: Politics and Ideas in the Long 19th Century (London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016)

This book consists of ten case studies of politics and ideas in the Mediterranean region. They are innovative and thought-provoking, particularly because they reveal that, due to long-distance cultural exchanges, the region was more diversified than previous research has suggested. For the most part, these contributions are biographical explorations of prominent characters, intellectuals and political activists. Broadly speaking, all of them exhibit the influence of Western liberalism, the ideology that helped to shape political systems and political discourse throughout Europe and North America in the course of the long nineteenth century.

This new book focuses upon intellectual networks and the circulation of ideas. All the individuals who are examined in these new studies share a diasporic background, as they spent at least part of their life separated from their principal cultural milieux. That experience clearly influenced their political outlooks, as a number of contributions in this volume reveal. In other words, these are surveys of a cultural transfer, even over long distances, within and outside of the region. Given the title of the book, one might have expected a more comprehensive regional survey, with more detailed elaboration of political thought in the Middle East and North-Africa. However, a 200-page collection of essays is really too small to be able provide such a wide survey and the editors’ decision to concentrate on European areas between the Balkans and Iberian Peninsula is sensible.

Until the end of the medieval period, the Mediterranean Sea was Europe’s main highway for cultural and material exchanges. Following the opening of the Atlantic route and the rise of the European powers on the Atlantic seaboard, the Mediterranean lost its central role. Historiography has generally intimated that these changes turned Mediterranean populations into receivers, rather than sources, of innovation in the modern age, including political and cultural innovation, and not least the liberal ideology. As this new book exemplifies, that interpretation oversimplifies the role of southern European intellectuals, as they undoubtedly contributed to the development of the liberal movements of the Continent.

Liberalism is one of the most difficult ideologies to define, particularly if we also examine it from a North-American perspective, where its content has been expanded considerably. It goes without saying that all liberal thought takes the individual to be an essential unit of society. What varies, however, is how inclusive liberals consider their ideology to be and, in particular, to what extent they regard the less cultivated/educated, as well as members of the lower social strata, to be capable of becoming full-fledged citizens. In this volume, the term “liberalism” is on the whole used in an inclusive way, socially and culturally. Moreover, the authors generally posit a close relationships between liberalism and nationalism, comparing the self-determination of the individual, on the one hand, to the independence of (imagined) nations on the other. But a detailed scrutiny, and deconstruction, of the symbiosis between liberalism and nationalism is not what one would expect to find in a collection of essays like this one.

Finally, as in most examinations of intellectuals and political activists, these are studies of male characters. That reflects the gender system of the nineteenth century. The authors might have examined the absence of female characters, but, again, the compact size of the collection allows little room for the many relevant discussions that might have found a place in a larger work.

All in all, this publication is significant and substantial. By focusing on the dynamic and multiple interactions between different cultural regions, this book enhances our understanding of political culture in a trans-Mediterranean mode.

Piketty’s Capital. The Revival of Political Philosophy, Political Economy and Social Sciences in the Light of the Declaration of Human and Citizens’ Rights in the French Revolution of 1789

Piketty’s Capital in Twenty-First Century has posed a totally new platform for the discussion of the economy and capitalism. Piketty has reinvented the classical political economy founded by Adam Smith in his 1776 Wealth of Nations. Piketty has shown via massive historical research how growth and inequality have developed since 1793. Piketty’s conclusion is that the French Revolution did not change the existing inequality either in the medium or in the long term. Piketty’s prediction is that a new form of global capitalism will arise, patrimonial capitalism, in which inequality will develop further and the 1% of the World population will control 95% of all wealth in the World.

Continue reading Piketty’s Capital. The Revival of Political Philosophy, Political Economy and Social Sciences in the Light of the Declaration of Human and Citizens’ Rights in the French Revolution of 1789

A Presentation of IDIN

The network has been established with financial support from NordForsk for four years, 2011-2014, and has initiated in the project period several scientific events. Many researchers and PhD candidates have participated in the activities, and the increasingly diversified realities in the Nordic context have been approached from various angles. Contributions have come from a wide range of disciplines in the social sciences, humanities and economics, and from network members as well as invited scholars. Continue reading A Presentation of IDIN

Freedom of the Press – Two Concepts



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

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

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

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



Freedom of speech and its limits

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

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

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



The English way

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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



The struggle in Germany

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



Kant’s heritage

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Milton. Areopagitica.

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

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

[8] Milton, Areopagitica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] P. 232.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hopeful Liberal. Reflections on Free Markets, Science and Ethics

[T]he idea of a self-regulating market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society

(Polanyi, 1944: 3)


The international economic crisis following the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers unleashed a flood of fiat money by selectively prodigal central banks that have seen fit to plunge the world into a recession in order to keep over-indebted private banks afloat (cf. Hudson, 2012). Also, it unleashed an outburst of academic literature on the crisis itself, its causes, its effects, and its possible solutions. With this literature, a modicum of doubt has re-entered the mainstream of public discourse on topics such as globalisation, capitalism and the free market, to the point that even corporate newspapers have reported renowned liberals’ and conservatives’ statements that, until few years ago, would have been associated with leftist ‘radicals’ and ignored by mainstream media:


  1. “The doctrine of the dictatorship of the market is dead” (Nicolas Sarkozy, former French president, 2008);[1]
  2. “We need…  humaneness…  rules…  and abandoning the idea of… massive pro?ts” (MIT Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Samuelson, 2008);
  3. “The dictatorship of the [credit] spread… nullifies… universal suffrage… [for] those who hold economic power… have every decisional power” (former liberal MP and current head of Italy’s securities and exchange commission [CONSOB] Giuseppe Vegas, 2012);
  4. “There emerge… in civil Europe the first signs of a new type of fascism: financial fascism, white fascism“ (Italy’s liberal MP and former finance minister Giulio Tremonti, 2012).


Aims and methodology

International crises and their dramatic outcomes notwithstanding, certain long-lived, deeply rooted beliefs are hard to die. Thus we keep hearing leading politicians and revered economic advisors who call for a return to growth and assert that structural reforms are imperative so that market confidence may be re-established and increased competitiveness achieved, without ever pondering upon the fact that these aims are precisely those that guided the global economy before the crisis. Could it ever be that endless growth, market confidence or competitiveness are misguided aims for the world’s economies?

In these reflections of mine, I wish to address one of these resilient beliefs. Specifically, in the traditional philosophical way initiated by Socrates, I shall assess some logical knots arising from a hypothesis, that is, the commonplace liberal notion that the so-called “free market” possesses a unique capacity to generate prosperity.

This hypothesis is highly generic, diversely instantiated and potentially vague. Nevertheless, it pervades the whole spectrum of the liberal conceptions of the economy, such as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, whereby the individual’s pursuit of self-interest results often into collective wellbeing (1776, IV.ii.9), or the textbook category of “market imperfections”, according to which explaining is needed when the outcomes of market transactions are not optimal (e.g. Sloman, 2006). There exists an extensive literature for each of these conceptions, which I could address in a book, but not in a short piece like the present one. Rather, I shall select one representative liberal formulation of the hypothesis at issue and deal with those logical knots that I deem most likely to be of interest to a scholarly audience.


Rhonheimer’s formulation

The formulation that I now refer to is a recent book chapter written by the Swiss liberal thinker Martin Rhonheimer (2012),[2] who claims that the “free market” is “a necessary condition” of human prosperity (9; emphasis in the original). In his eloquent account of Eucken’s ordoliberalism and the related critique of laissez-faire liberalism, Rhonheimer offers in support of his claim:


(A) one elucidation; and

(B) one generic token of empirical proof.


(A) The elucidation is that no central planner would be able to coordinate all economic activities as efficiently as the “free market”, in which individual agents pursue their own particular self-interest and, by so doing, unintentionally produce prosperity, in accordance with Smith’s principle of the “invisible hand” (9-10). Though not all conditions for prosperity may arise this way, none would arise without it. The “free market” is a necessary condition for prosperity, albeit not a sufficient one, which is what more trenchant laissez-faire liberals believe. States must also be involved, according to ordoliberalism and many other streaks of liberalism, to secure fair market transactions, enforce beneficial rules, correct market distortions, and redress socially and morally harmful market outcomes. However, to think that “central planning and state regulation… through several government-run agencies” could ever achieve any prosperity without the “free market” is discarded at once (5).


(B) The generic token of empirical proof is that “history teaches” all this: “a capitalist economy based on a free market, entrepreneurial activity, and free trade without tariff barriers is more realistic and in the long run beneficial for everybody” (24). In this respect, the unrealised failure of Roosevelt’s New Deal and a passing reference to Soviet Union are the two cases of “socialism” that the author utilises to give strength to his point (4-7).


The critique

1. Indemonstrable necessity

Rhonheimer’s elucidation, though very commonly heard, is not much of an empirical proof. At best, it is an enthymeme, i.e. a rhetorical proof. To make it stick more convincingly, it would require itself many empirical proofs for adequate scientific substantiation. Yet here emerges a severe and unflinchingly by-passed methodo-logical issue. How can anyone prove a thesis as comprehensive as the one presented in Rhonheimer’s essay and, in general, upheld by the liberal community?

The necessary character of any economic system cannot be determined in a scientific way, for we have only one planet, one humankind and one very short historical span at our disposal for any empirical verification and/or falsification of the “free market” and, for that matter, of “socialism”. Apart from mere logical possibility, which cannot exclude a plurality of ways to prosperity, it should be observed that for any claim of such a necessary character to be ascertained, we should investigate a set of entirely alternative and separate systems over a certain period of time, probably a very long one, so as to determine that only the ones operating upon the “free market” produce prosperity, whatever this may be like. Unfortunately, to this day, such a test has been impossible to perform.

Moreover, focussing onto the “market” versus “socialist” dichotomy can be misleading, for it shifts the gaze away from what is undeniably necessary for the meaningful survival of our species, i.e. the continued satisfaction of human needs across generational time. That is the prime end, whatever additional feature we may wish to add to the notion of prosperity. Economies are the means to attain in primis this prime end.[3]

As the past is concerned, we know that some civilisations have made it this far. In this connection, we might think of prehistoric, ancient and medieval Earth, let us say before the age of European exploration, as a plausible set of sufficiently separate and alternative economic systems to conduct a comparative study. Yet, apart from the fact that hardly any of the known ones would count as a free-market system, we know far too little, if anything, about most of them to make any valid scientific comparison, whatever notion of prosperity we may wish to employ (cf. Boldizzoni, 2011). If we look at what history has produced until now, we may be in a better position to determine which system has been the most ruthless, hence the one that has imposed itself over the others. However, that would be a banal and, I suspect, rather degrading notion of superiority, not to consider the very thin or quite absent link that such a superiority may have to human needs or prosperity (cf. Castoriadis, 1997).

As the present is concerned, there may be alternative but no separate systems, given that even the most isolated indigenous communities in the world are being affected by the environmental changes produced by the advanced economies of the planet (e.g. Itkadmin. 2007).

As the future is concerned, unless we deny the ability of humankind to change creatively its collective organisation, which has varied enormously throughout the known history of our species, we cannot even begin to fathom what awaits our descendants: a Star-Trek-like society without money, need and greed; or a Mad-Max-like post-atomic age of barbarism? But this is the territory of science-fiction, not of science.


2. Lack of prosperity

If we follow Rhonheimer’s representative formulation and understand prosperity as “consumption, that is, the satisfaction of the needs of all the persons living in a determinate territory” (19; emphasis in the original), we quite simply lack information about most human communities in most parts of the world throughout most of human history. Presently, the past is closed to us; and so is the future, for we cannot predict what will happen on our planet tomorrow, not to mention in two years or two centuries.

As the history of today’s world is concerned i.e. the so-called ‘global market’, which is usually claimed to be an imperfect instantiation of the “free market”, we know for sure the following: it fails regularly to satisfy the needs of all the persons living on the planet, as the UN’s annual statistics on death by malnourishment and starvation regularly report. And while failing these persons’ needs, the current imperfect instantiation of the “free market” also caters to artificially instilled wants of others, including the desire for carcinogenic cigarettes and life-shortening junk food. In other words, the global market fails not only to secure planet-wide need-satisfaction, which is what Rhonheimer appears to be taking as genuine consumption, but also to distinguish between, say, the need for bread of the starving paupers and the desire for golden toilets of oil tycoons, so as to prioritise the former above the latter. What sets in motion the “free market” in both theory and practice is money-backed demand, i.e. preferences or wants of market agents endowed with pecuniary means, not the genuine needs of humans or other living beings, whose possession of pecuniary means may be nil. Money, not need, is what determines consumption in today’s world, pace Rhonheimer’s noteworthy equation (cf. McMurtry, 1999).

Revealingly, many liberal economists and, above all, the actual economy treat both bread and golden toilets as marketable ‘goods’. No axiological compass is present for basic distinctions between that which is of real value and that which is not, or that which is good and that which is bad. Neither any economic ‘good’, nor all economic ‘goods’ are good. Some are bad. For example, financial speculation over the price of staples such as rice and wheat may be deemed “rational” and a form of “wealth creation”, but it does increase malnutrition and illnesses. In other terms, the invisible hand seems to possess an invisible brain, which is why ordoliberals à la Rhonheimer, unlike libertarians and radical laissez-faire liberals, have long recognised the importance of at least some State intervention.


3. Imperfect imperfections

In connection with the importance of State intervention, Rhonheimer introduces a number of additional qualifications that cause the “free market” to come across as more inefficient than initially stated in the thesis. Albeit a necessary one, this mechanism is not a sufficient condition for prosperity or consumption. It is said that it “frequently” leads to prosperity, i.e. not always (10). It is incapable of providing many “public goods” (14). It is prone to “failures” (13). If the State does not intervene, it generates “cartels” (15). Indeed it possesses “a tendency to destroy itself” (15), given also that it causes major social “problems” such as “inequality” (25).

These qualifications are unlikely to sound surprising to most liberals, for, in varying degrees, the near-totality of them acknowledge that some imperfections do affect the market system. However, it is perplexing to notice that, under their perspective, qualifications of the actual market economies such as the ones listed by Rhonheimer are not seen first of all for what they are, i.e. features of the existing markets. On the contrary, they are seen as exceptions to the implicit rule, which assumes markets to be perfect, even if they are clearly not perfect. Indeed, a few years before his death, liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith (2004) stated the very talk of “free market” to be nothing but a “fraud” (in the title) aimed at hiding the historical fact of capitalism, that is to say, a much more fitting term to describe Western economies, inside which there has always been a dominant group planning the economy to its own advantage (e.g. merchants, industrialists, absentee owners, managers, financial managers), conspicuous market manipulation (including creating demand by operant conditioning techniques) and extensive conditions of monopoly and oligopoly.

Textbooks often refer to methodological convenience when explaining why economists assume perfect markets. Though understandable, such a prioritisation of methodological convenience over empirical evidence is a grave departure from standard scientific methodology. Galileo may have invited the scientific inquirer to reason ex hypothesi, but he never maintained that contrary evidence should be systematically side-stepped in order not to change the starting hypothesis. In the natural sciences, hypotheses are meant to be tested and revised in light of empirical evidence. Only the formal sciences content themselves with coherent theoretical constructions (cf. Hintikka et al., 1981).


4. Vaguer and vaguer referents

The absence of exact instantiations of the clearly unempirical “free market” is only the beginning. If we allow for some State intervention, as Rhonheimer does, what should count then as truly “free market” and “socialist” economies? Where should we draw the line of demarcation?

These two terms are almost omnipresent in both recent political history and scholarship, yet their actual separation is far from obvious. Indeed, from a 19th-century conservative perspective, liberals and socialists were hardly distinguishable from each other, as the political critiques by Pope Pius X or Friedrich Nietzsche exemplify. Furthermore, before the 19th century, most societies in human history had not been market societies. They may have contained some markets (e.g. slave trade in the ancient Mediterranean), but most of their members did not participate in them (cf. Boldizzoni, 2011). As far as we can ascertain, subsistence and reciprocity were their main features, as reflected also in their culture, which kept the analogues of today’s economic rationality as limited secondary instruments to other primary social goals, such as community status, personal honour, or the salvation of each believer’s immortal soul.

Great achievements were possible in these older societies, whether in the arts, philosophy, mathematics, law, engineering or religious life. Such human accomplishments seem to have little to do with “free markets” or the size of a country’s GDP, and perhaps may be unrelated to whatever prosperity the hypothesis at issue implies. Still, it is not aimless to ponder upon the fact that even the great scientific discoveries that led to the technologies whereby 20th-century human populations boomed worldwide, in both self-proclaimed “capitalist” and “socialist” economies, were made in countries with smaller GDPs than today and limited “free markets” (cf. Galbraith, 2004). Moreover, modern societies, in which commercial and financial markets have become much more extensive and influential, have often retained—sometimes up to the present day—significant elements of subsistence and reciprocity (e.g. small-scale farms in Scotland, Poland and India), as well as many development-spurring elements of public ownership and public planning (e.g. Venice’s publicly owned merchant and military fleets; George C. Marshall’s post-WWII ERP; Germany’s, Brazil’s, North Dakota’s and China’s public banks).

Additionally, it should be noted that Ronheimer himself claims that genuine free markets existed worldwide only for a brief period of time, i.e. “between 1850 and 1870”, and that self-proclaimed “free market” post-WWII USA has resembled post-WWI Germany in maintaining the State-centred structures inherited from their war economies, which still allow the State, for example, to bail out bankrupt private firms (21). In short, the issue of identifying genuinely “free-market” and “socialist” economies is not an easy one. Not even post-war USA may count as a decent token of the former type of economy, at least according to Ronheimer, who compares them to the historical champion of cartel-friendly organised capitalism, i.e. Germany (cf. McGowan, 2010).

Any firm, trenchant scientific evaluation of the historical experience of concrete societies seems therefore less and less likely, at least if we take Rhonheimer’s considerations seriously, for we lack clear referents for the key-terms of “market” and “socialist” economies.


5. Non-existence

The distance from concrete societies increases further whenever liberals like Rhonheimer assert that the “free market” is an ideal, i.e. something that does not truly exist in reality (I shall not dwell on the contradiction entailed by the claim that he makes about free markets having existed worldwide only for a brief period of time). In other words, it is a purely theoretical construct, an empirical impossibility, for the human being is actually incapable of operating according to it. Perfect markets as such, in whatever Hyperuranus they may be located, are therefore not to be blamed for crises, unemployment or whatever other misfortune may befall upon us. People are. The former are not around. The latter are.

Liberals seem not to notice the troublesome logical implications of such an approach, for not only does it mean that there is no clear empirical evidence that free markets are the one and only way to prosperity, but also that there cannot be any, for they have never been truly present, since they are not suited to “the human condition” (15).

Moreover, liberals do not seem generally to notice that their approach is analogous to that of many 20th-century Marxist zealots who, when confronted with the failures of Eastern Europe’s “real socialism”, argued that their theory was correct, since its practice alone had failed, given various and varying human flaws. In short, no amount of contrary evidence could disprove their stance.


6. Unfalsifiability

The Marxist zealots’ case leads us to the most fundamental and most intractable logical knot of the liberal position with regard to the markets’ unique ability to generate prosperity.  If (a) the genuine “free market” cannot be established, for it is a theoretical construct inconsistent with “the human condition”; and if (b) the actual historical experience of what is commonly referred to as the “free market” or “capitalism”, i.e. the history of mostly Western developed countries over the past three centuries, is one of considerably imperfect applications involving significant elements of State intervention and ownership (e.g. post-bellic Germany and USA), why is the market necessarily responsible for wealth and, to some extent, well-being, whereas significant State intervention and ownership are not? Why not the two of them together, on a par? Or why not either of them, depending on the specific circumstances of each particular case, duly investigated by means of close historical, economic, medical, sociological, anthropological, environmental and axiological analyses? Principled comparisons are possible, but they must rest on solid empirical ground. And why should we ignore other factors altogether, such as gifted individuals, fortunate circumstances, scientific discoveries, cheap energy sources, literacy levels, or religious dispositions? Must it be always the markets that save the day?

By his own account and qualifications, Rhonheimer has no real answer to these questions. Quite simply, he states his thesis and uses it to read history so as to be allowed to state it. In other words, Rhonheimer is assuming a priori that the “free market” produces necessarily wealth and, to some extent, wellbeing. By means of that assumption he then proceeds to read human history as its verification—State-led development, recurrent crises, environmental degradation and social tragedies notwithstanding. Verification is open; falsification is not. This is a profound methodological flaw not just in Rhonheimer’s essay, but also in much economic thinking. In fact, it does begin with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and reaches its highest peak in laissez-faire economics, which argues that the “free market” is the necessary and sufficient condition for human prosperity. In all of its forms, it is an example of scientific unfalsifiability, or pseudo-science, for such an assumption, whereby “free markets” are bound to generate prosperity, admits of no counterevidence. Let me explain better how this unfalsifiability is the case:


  1. In the first place, insofar as it is assumed that unhindered markets bring about prosperity, if we do not have prosperity now, then we must simply wait and abstain from causing undue hindrance. As Christians and Marxists have long known, eschatology calls for patience; hence the recurrent phrases commonly attached to so-called “market reforms”: “in the long run”, “future generations”, “long-term benefits”, etc.
  2. Secondly, if waiting is not a credible option and we do not have prosperity yet, then we can always blame the government (e.g. ‘corruption’, ‘red tape’) or some dishonest private actors (e.g. ‘crony capitalism’, ‘State capture’ by special interests) for being unfaithful to the actual spirit of “free markets” and therefore causing hindrance. Markets fail not, people do—although one can legitimately wonder what markets may be if not people transacting with one another within a certain normative setting (cf. Barden & Murphy, 2010).
  3. Furthermore, insofar as Smith’s followers and ordoliberals à la Rhonheimer argue as well, though often reluctantly, for the desirability of some, however limited State intervention (e.g. Smith’s progressive taxation, Presbyterian-style education of the youth, public regulation of banks and mentally destructive working conditions; Eucken’s redressing of socially detrimental unfavourable market outcomes), they corner public authorities in a hopeless argumentative position. Given the starting point, growth and prosperity can always be seen as the result of the markets’ enduring degree of freedom—i.e. not of the State’s intervention—while crisis and misery can always be blamed onto the State—i.e. not onto the markets being actually unable to generate growth and prosperity.


Operating under such an assumption, markets can never be wrong, whatever environmental or social ills may have arisen. Thus, not only can prejudicial favour for the free market go on unchallenged. Also, if the markets do not deliver the promised bounty, the cure can be said to be only more of the same. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what happens in Rhonheimer’s essay: “markets”, he writes, are “normally and as a matter of principle the solution” (12; emphasis in the original). And equally unsurprisingly, many leadings statesmen and politicians seek too more of the same (e.g. Italy’s PM Mario Monti, 2012).



Rhonheimer’s essay is fallacious, given the self-contradictory confusion that results from insisting upon the markets’ necessary beneficence whilst also piling up observations and qualifications that point precisely to the opposite conclusion. Like all analogous liberal assessments, it is built upon an unfalsifiable hypothesis that makes liberals highly unlikely to:


(a) Read historical experience in ways that may render more complex or contradict the original assumption (e.g. Earth-wide ecologic collapse, recurrent crises, continuing unemployment, the wasteful failure of most enterprises and products launched every year, successful development by public planning of industrial production or strategic public subsidies), so as to acknowledge that capitalism à la Galbraith is at work and, though driven by the same principles of the “free market” (e.g. growth, market confidence), it is not necessarily beneficial to societies at large and must be therefore integrated, constrained and/or contrasted by other principles (e.g. sustainability, human rights; cf. Polanyi, 1944)


(b) Avoid engaging in pseudo-scientific ad hoc explanations, or de facto exculpations, so as not to revise the original assumption (e.g. people fail markets and not vice versa; the State’s pro-market legislation, liberalisations and privatisations are to blame, for they were erroneous, corrupt or insufficient; State institutions are to blame for financial crashes, because of some minor change in the laws that unleashed an otherwise impossible flood of private greed; Mexican, Korean, Russian, Icelandic…, X culture or human nature itself is not suited for the actual application of the “free market” and therefore leads to its historical failure)


(c) Envision different, hybrid, pragmatic, contingent or case-specific solutions to economic problems (e.g. mixed economies; voluntary communes, cooperatives and social enterprises; State ownership of crucial assets qua cost-abating fourth factor of production; Georgist taxation of economic rent from natural resources; constructive cooperation with cartels and oligopolies; ecologically sound rationing in view of gradual retreat from the environment and life-sustaining de-growth)


(d) Conceive of possible major alternatives, whether based on past experiences (e.g. monastic communities, the Israeli kibbutzim) or untested and novel ones. Human freedom entails creativity and change that cannot be predicted in advance. (cf. Castoriadis, 1998)


(f) Realise clearly that by assuming the markets’ beneficence as necessary, promoting freedom to trade as paramount and reinforcing scepticism vis-à-vis public intervention and regulation, liberals make it more difficult, if not impossible, to discriminate effectively between good and bad growth, good and bad market confidence, good and bad markets, and good and bad goods. Thus, ecologically and biologically destructive economic growth keeps being pursued instead of growth in life-capacity alone; wealthy investors’ desiderata keep being prioritised over the life-needs and related demands of deprived local communities; and cigarettes, junk foods, armaments and speculative assets keep being traded because profitable (cf. McMurtry, 2013).

In nuce, the fictional notion of free markets impinges upon reality by buttressing in theory and fostering in practice unfettered capitalism, which has led to disastrous results on economic, social and environmental levels. Yet none of them is blamed upon free markets, since free markets are already assumed to be the paramount way to prosperity, with all good results numbered as proofs of this assumption and all bad results blinkered out—the self-enclosing frame of mind behind all possible interpretations of past and present experiences. Blame for the disastrous results is, in turn, shifted onto other agents, especially the State, on which the near-totality of free-markets adherents first of all depend and the limited intervention of which, albeit grudgingly, they require. It is then easy to use the State as the scapegoat whenever things do not work out as the doctrine assumes they must. And since things do not work out the way they should, then more free market, hence more unfettered capitalism, can be the only answer within such a closed metaphysical circle, which reduces from the beginning all possible solutions to itself.

Yet there is more. Given how pervasive the hypothesis at iusse has been, it follows that politics, policies and entire academic programmes have been built upon a fundamentally unscientific assumption. I do not object to having unscientific assumptions. Indeed, some of the most important dimensions of human existence are built upon unscientific assumptions, such as intimate love and religious life. I do object to doing so, though, and not admitting it. Were liberal economists to state that they offer an essentially religious interpretation of reality, based upon some successful partial instantiations—analogous to the proofs of reasonability of scholastic theology—and the hope that the markets left largely unhindered may provide us with prosperity, then they would be intellectually honest. They could follow in the steps of Richard Rorty (1998), who advocates political liberalism qua civil religion of democracy. They would be consistent with Friedrich Hayek’s (1992) characterisation of the market order as “transcendent” and analogous to the religious one in assuming that its own unfathomable will, “not mine” i.e. humankind’s, “be done” (72). They would be reminiscent of the likely Providential character of Adam Smith’s (1776, IV.ii.9) “invisible hand” (e.g. Oslington, 2011).

But economic liberals do not. Economics textbooks say nothing of the sort. They assume the free markets’ existence, which is itself empirically doubtful and at best historically limited, assume away any flaw by way of a priori methodological perfection, and ascribe to them the necessary generation of human prosperity, whatever contrary evidence there has been in human experience, such as State-led development (e.g. Communist China), prosperous cartel-intensive economies (e.g. Bismark’s Germany), the collapse of the first age of market globalisation (1870s-1914) and the ensuing Great War and Great Depression, the booming populations of 20th-century socialist nations (e.g. USSR), or the on-going worldwide depletion of natural and human systems upon which “the life and health of the billions [are] supported” (Hayek, 1992: 75). Their reticence and assumption are not only unscientific; they are also unprofessional. In truth, they are a nothing less than a lie. And lying is, under normal circumstances, unethical.





Barden, G. & Murphy, T. (2010), Law and Justice in Community, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Baruchello, G. & Johnstone, R.L. (2011), “Rights and Value. Construing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as Civil Commons”, Studies in Social Justice, 5(1), 91-125.


Boldizzoni, F. (2011), The Poverty of Clio, Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Castoriadis, C. (1997), “The ‘Rationality’ of Capitalism”, Figures of the Thinkable, available at http://www.notbored.org/FTPK.pdf


Castoriadis, C. (1998), The Imaginary Institution of Society, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.


Galbraith, J. K. (2004), The Economics of Innocent Fraud, Boston: Allen Lane.


Hayek, F.A. (1992), Collected Works, vol. I, London: Routledge.


Hintikka, J. et al. (eds. 1981), Theory Change, Ancient Axiomatics, and Galileo’s Methodology, vol. I, Leiden: Springer.


Hudson, M. (2012), The Bubble and Beyond, Dresden: Islet.


Itkadmin (2007). Inuit Recommend Changes to Canadian Environmental Protection Act, Inuit Nunangat: Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.


McGowan, L. (2010) The Antitrust Revolution in Europe: Exploring the European Commission’s Cartel Policy, Cheltenham, UK & Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar.


McMurtry, J. (1999; 2nd ed. 2013), The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, London: Pluto.


Monti, M. (2012, 10 September) “Italy to return to growth in 2013”, Reuters, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/10/italy-gdp-idUSL1E8KAH6720120910


Oslington,P. (2011), Adam Smith as Theologian, London: Routledge.

Polanyi, K. (2001/1944), The Great Transformation, Boston: Beacon. 

Rhonheimer, M. (2012), “Capitalism, Free Market Economy, and the Common Good: the Role of State Authorities in the Economic Sector”, first chapter in Martin Schlag & Juan Andrés Mercado (eds.), Free Markets and the Culture of Common Good, Dordrecht: Springer.


Rorty, R. (1998), Achieving Our Country, Harvard: Harvard University Press.


Samuelson, P. (2008), “È’ l’ultimo regalo dell’era  Bush“, La Repubblica, retrieved from http://rassegna.governo.it/testo.asp?d=33912628


Sarkozy, N. (2008, 23 October), “Morta ideologia della dittatura dei mercati”, La Repubblica. retrieved from http://www.repubblica.it


Sloman, J. (2006), Economics, 6th ed., Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.


Smith, A. (1776/1904), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations available at http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html


Tremonti, G. (2012), Uscita di sicurezza, Milan: Rizzoli.


Vegas, G. (2012, 14 May), “Vegas: ‘C’e’ il rischio dittatura dello spread’”, Il Sole 24 Ore, retrieved from http://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/finanza-e-mercati/2012-05-14/relazione-consob-vegas-lancia-110722.shtml?uuid=AbXHvNcF




[1] All translations are mine, unless stated otherwise.

[2] I have published a critical essay of this volume in the fourth 2012 issue of Economics, Management and Financial Markets.

[3] On this point, the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has long espoused an aim-driven approach: the specific economic system of each member nation is not important, as long as human rights are protected, respected and fulfilled (cf. Baruchello & Johnstone, 2011).

Sustainable Liberalism: A Modest Proposal for Global Recovery


Actually the same crisis, apparently caused by a severe drop of investors’ faith, given the huge amount of national public debts, has already devoured the other so-called “Pigs” (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain), and even the iron economy of Germany, as ECB’s Governor Dr. Mario Draghi has recently pointed out, seems to be threatened by this European plague. In turn, global economic growth shows signs of indisputable weakness: along with Europe and the USA, almost all emerging countries – with the notable exception of Brazil, for now – experience a substantial slow-down in their glorious path towards well-being.


That’s the story. At least, the story we have been told in the last five years. And it conveys a bunch of sickening, although necessary, consequences: cuts in the public budget, decline of welfare-State policies, shakeups in the labour market, higher taxes etc. Will this strategy carry us out of the crisis, soon or later? Honestly, I’m afraid it won’t. Quite the reverse, we should seize the day and reconsider the most basic patterns of our social and economic model.


It is a common belief that market liberalism, whose dictatorship seems to mark the last three decades, led to the complete deregulation of global financial economy, together with a growing emphasis on capital gains as the main source of wealth and the corresponding decrease of labour incomes – not to speak of the continuing depredation of natural resources that caused a long series of catastrophic environmental tragedies. We should question, however, if those achievements be really consistent with core liberal principles.


Rather correctly, French economist Valérie Charolles has stated that “we are indeed widely persuaded to live in a liberal world, while the variety of capitalism that governs us has little to do with liberal theory”. In fact, “the liberal model doesn’t serve as the basis of the system. It merely provides a justification for the liberalization of public services, but it is quickly put aside in the face of too rapid a process of concentration undergone by the private sector. These processes blatantly contradict the theoretical corpus of liberalism, which claims competition to act as a tool capable of multiplying the number of actors and limiting any position of power” (Charolles 2006: 13, 52).


Furthermore, classical liberals were perfectly aware of the dangers – though social, moral and political – posed by an endless economic growth. And even when they did support development and progress, as in the case of David Hume and Adam Smith, the most negative consequences were never forgotten nor ignored.[1] If Hume strongly encouraged commerce, since “it increases frugality by giving occupation to men, and employing them in the arts of gain, which soon engage their affection, and remove all relish for pleasure and expense”, promoting “the greatness of a state, and the happiness of its subjects”, he soon added that “a too great disproportion among the citizens weakens any state”, so that “every person, if possible, ought to enjoy the fruits of his labour, in a full possession of the necessaries, and many of the conveniencies of life” (Hume 1987: 255, 265, 301). Similarly Benjamin Franklin, trying to preserve Americans from European corruption and depravity, advocated “a general happy mediocrity” by which, obliging people “to follow some business for subsistence, those vices that arise usually from idleness, are in a great measure prevented” (Franklin 1959: 274, 282).


Not merely inequalities did Smith fear indeed. True, “no society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable”; but, although “commerce and manufactures gradually introduced order and good government, and with them the liberty and security of individuals” (Smith 1981: 96, 412), an extensive division of labour could produce serious moral and psychological consequences on “the great body of the people”, preventing a conscious citizenship and their natural search for “happiness [which] consists in tranquility and enjoyment” (Smith 1982: 149).[2] His friend Henry Home, Lord Kames, was far more categorical: “great opulence opens a wide door to indolence, sensuality, corruption, prostitution, perdition” (Kames 2007: 333).


We should, then, try to disclose the hidden roots of the present crisis – and I believe that, in so doing, we’d be forced to go back and back in time. We can find many traces of the path taken by the global economic system in the last 40 years: the end of the new gold standard in 1971, the great oil crisis of 1973-74, the emergence of neo-conservative policies along with the election of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the deregulation wave of the 1990s (culminated in 1999, when the Glass-Steagall Act was finally repealed by President Bill Clinton), the growth of international investment banks and the naissance of computer-managed financial dealings. 


Therefore, the greatest crisis since 1929 has been prepared by a long series of economic mistakes, as well as by an intentional implementation of misleading public (and private) policies. While most scholars and policymakers silently accepted such a new paradigm, few voices were raised to warn against the likely dangers. Among these, the case of Michel Albert still deserves some consideration: a social economist and former CEO of Assurances Générales de France, in his brilliant book Capitalisme contre capitalisme (1991) he foresaw the aftermaths of an economic regime – notably dubbed “the Anglo-Saxon model” – relying more on financial means and less on production and trade of goods and services, with growing inequalities and a troublesome lessening of social security (Albert 1991: chap. viii, ix).


But there is something more – so much more, indeed – he did not foresee: that such a model has reached quite soon the point of no return, becoming no longer sustainable upon a strictly financial, as well as social and ecological, view. How to reconcile economic development, human flourishing and the preservation of natural capital? How to settle a dynamic and free economy with the promotion of labour and a structural safeguard of biodiversity? A contribution to unravel this intricate puzzle might come from an approach that I will call sustainable liberalism: an attempt to revive the ethical, political and economic discourse of classical liberalism in strict dialogue with contemporary sustainable-development theories.


It must surely sound quite bizarre, since liberal economists and philosophers mostly look with a skeptical eye at any effort to sketch a theoretical framework capable of merging individual liberty with social equality and a systematic protection of the environment. However a number of scholars, by the middle of the 20th century, had tried to reconsider the feedback of economic growth on social and natural organisms within the wider context of a novel humanistic philosophy, claiming that every measure was to be implemented à la taille de l’homme. Among these ‘neo-liberals’ – as they labeled themselves to avoid any association with Hobhouse, Keynes and Beveridge’s new liberalism – were Walter Lippmann, Wilhelm Röpke, Luigi Einaudi and many more, who had tied up ethics, politics and economics in a comprehensive design of the ‘good society’.[3]


Their most cherished aim was, for sure, the reestablishment of political and economic freedom after the tragedy of totalitarianism; even so, they did assume that “we [humankind] represent by no means the dizzy summit of a steady development; that the unique mechanical and quantitative achievements of a technical civilization do not disembarrass us of the eternal problems of an ordered society and an existence compatible with human dignity” (Röpke 1950: 2). In their view, “economic liberalism, true to its rationalist origin, exhibited a supreme disregard for the organic and anthropological conditions which must limit the development of capitalist industrialism unless a wholly unnatural form of existence is to be forced upon men” (Röpke 1950: 52).


Hence they advocated an extensive program of social, political and economic reforms aimed at restoring justice, equality of opportunities and social market economy, given that “progress and economic development rely much more on moral values than on mere efficiency” (Einaudi 1987: 48). Such a development, however, should absolutely avoid “the rape of irreplaceable natural reserves [whose] consequences are already making themselves felt in many instances and in an alarming manner», among which they pointed at «the annihilation campaigns against the forests on all continents and against the whales of the oceans”, not to speak of “the inevitable consequences of the excessive use of artificial manure and the progressively more serious problems of every country’s water supplies” (Röpke 1950: 144).


 Curiously enough, their intellectual heirs weren’t (and still aren’t) ready to capture the spirit of such an innovative attitude. Quite the reverse, after the pioneering warning launched by the Club of Rome in 1972, sustainable-development theorists (almost) alone have tried to handle – at both levels, normative and practical – the overwhelming burden of forecasting a transition towards a ‘humane economy’, as Röpke called it once. The truth being that “we have, today, reached the end of a template for life and business that, for 200 years, has been extremely successful – one that worked quite magnificently under the old conditions. Those conditions – namely the availability of an entire planet for a small part of humanity and its economic model – however, no longer exist” (Welzer 2011: 33).


We need, then, an integrate approach to economics, since “the conventional wisdom is mistaken in seeing priorities in economic, environmental, and social policy as competing. The best solutions are based not on tradeoffs or ‘balance’ between these objectives but on design integration achieving all of them together – at every level, from technical devices to production systems to companies to economic sectors to entire cities and societies” (Hawken – Lovins – Hunter Lovins 1999: xi). Whatever opponents may think of it, there would still be room for economic liberty. Bill McKibben has recently reminded us in his remarkable book Deep Economy, devoted to advocate a large-scale reform centred on a huge process of downsizing, that “shifting our focus to local economies will not mean abandoning Adam Smith or doing away with markets. Markets, obviously, work. Building a local economy will mean, however, ceasing to worship markets as infallible and consciously setting limits on their scope. We will need to downplay efficiency and pay attention to other goals” (McKibben 2008: 2).  


Other goals, by the way, require new tools for their own analysis, study and measurement. That’s why, in recent times, the former President of the French Republic, Nicholas Sarkozy, appointed a Commission led by Professors Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen and Jean-Paul Fitoussi in order “to identify the limits of GDP as an indicator of economic performance and social progress [and] to consider what additional information might be required for the production of more relevant indicators of social progress”.[4] The Commission’s report, lengthy and well-reasoned, is nonetheless crystal clear on the absolute inadequacy of the conceptual background underneath contemporary economics; so that, for instance, “choices between promoting GDP and protecting the environment may be false choices, once environmental degradation is appropriately included in our measurement of economic performance” (Stiglitz – Sen – Fitoussi 2009: 7).  


Sustainable liberalism should not pretend to stand as the sole theoretical framework, nor to provide the most useful solutions. It is, rather, an intellectual approach that might help social scientists and policymakers, as well as every citizen on Earth, to imagine new life-styles and eventually put up an alternative scenario, in which individual liberty, equality and preservation of the biosphere could really walk side by side towards the only, valuable end of social and economic life: the well-being of every sentient organism on our planet.




– Albert, M. (1991), Capitalisme contre capitalisme, Paris: Editions du Seuil.

– Audier, S. (2012), Néo-libéralisme(s). Une archéologie intellectuelle, Paris: Bernard Grasset.

– Bruni, L. and Porta, P. L. (eds., 2005),  Economics and Happiness, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

– Charolles, V. (2006), Le libéralisme contre le capitalisme, Paris: Arthème Fayard.

– Einaudi, L. (1987), Le prediche della domenica, with an introduction by G. Carli, Turin: Einaudi.

– Franklin, B. (1959), Autobiography and Selected Writings, edited by D. Wecter and L. Ziff, Toronto: Rinehart and Co.

– Hawken, P., Lovins, A. and Hunter Lovins, L., (1999), Natural Capitalism. Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Boston: Little Brown and Co.

– Hume, D. (1987), Essays. Moral, Political and Literary, edited by E. F. Miller, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

– Kames, H. Home Lord (2007), Sketches of the History of Men, vol. I, edited with an introduction by James A. Harris, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.   

– McCoy, D. R. (1982), The Elusive Republic: Political Economy in Jeffersonian America, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Co.

– McKibben, B. (2008), Deep Economy. The Wealth of the Communities and the Durable Future, New York: Times Books/Henry Holt & Co.

– Rasmussen, D. C. (2006), “Does ‘Bettering Our Condition’ Really Makes Us Better Off? Adam Smith on Progress and Happiness”, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 100, No. 3.

– Röpke W. (1950), The Social Crisis of Our Time, translated by A. and P. Schiffer Jacobsohn, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

– Smith A. (1981), An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, edited by R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

– Smith A. (1982), The Theory of Moral Sentiments, edited by A. L. Macfie and D. D. Raphael, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

– Stiglitz, J., Sen, A. and Fitoussi, J.P. (eds., 2009), Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, www.stiglitz-sen-fitoussi.fr/documents/rapport_anglais

– Welzer H. (2011), Mental Infrastructures. How Growth Entered the World and Our Souls, Berlin: Heinrich Böll Foundation.


[1] For a concise yet complete overview of this approach, see especially McCoy 1982, 13-47.

[2] Here I follow the sketch drawn by Rasmussen 2006.

[3] On neo-liberals, their saga and place in American and European culture see Audier 2012.

[4] Individual and common happiness could fit perfectly into the agenda. The theoretical connections between economics and happiness have been largely investigated by economists, psychologists and philosophers alike; a rich collection of essays on these topics may be found in Bruni – Porta (2005).


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.


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.

Garrett Barden and Tim Murphy. Law and Justice in Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

The authors state at the beginning that they reject the idea that humans somehow are independent of each other and at some stage consent to becoming members of society; this is usually presented either as an actual historical fact or a conditional requirement on any public decision or as an idea of reason in Kant. The authors think of human beings as naturally social meaning that living in society comes naturally to humans and it is misleading or downright false to think that the primary fact about them is that they are separate individuals that at some stage decide to form a society. Society is part of human life from time immemorial and from the time that any human being is born she is a part of society; she would not stand a chance if she did not have a family to nurture her until she could provide for herself. A family is a social institution. From an evolutionary point of view many developed animals form groups where patterns of behaviour emerge from which human society may have developed. The point is that the question how or when human society was invented does not arise; human society was not invented, it is a basic, internal fact about human life.

One thing the authors discuss is the story behind Grágás (grey goose), the first written Icelandic law book. In 1117 the Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, decided that the law should be written down and published. Alþingi had been established in 930 and for nearly two centuries the laws were recited there during the weeks in late June when the parliament was sitting. It took three years to recite the laws in full so one third was recited every year; they were not all recited annually as it says on p. 1 in the book. Now the question is what is going on from the point of view of the law in this process from the settlement of Iceland in late ninth century AD, in 930 when the parliament was established, and the law recited until it was written down in the winter of 1117-1118? How should we account for this development of the law? The authors´ idea is that in any society there is something that might be called a living law which is not judge made law, positive law, in a sense state law, but the living law is the judgements and choices that people in any society make and become gradually accepted and approved in that society when they recur time and again. This process of gradually creating the living law is not formal in any sense, there is no formal debate or decree that establishes this law but it creates habits, practices, customs and mutual expectations that establish the jural relationships in that community. There is no sharp distinction between a legal realm and a moral realm. It is part of what the authors call “the communal law” or “the communal moral law” p. 3-4). So the living law is a moral tradition. Any moral tradition is such that some parts of it are implicit, others are explicit, and it is not possible to codify fully a moral tradition; there is no way that it is possible to write down all the moral rules and practices that make up a moral tradition. Historically the living law of any community is not written down, but it is a defining feature of the community and establishes entitlements which evolve through the interactions of people living together dealing with the jural demands that this imposes on them. Some of the entitlements may be written down when the communal sense of justice provides a basis for formulated law. Written laws can be either natural or conventional but according to these authors they are not understood as new laws imposed on the community, but are parts of the living law that emerges within the developing communal moral context. So the account to be given of Icelandic law until it was written down in 1117-18 is that at first it grew out of the concerns that the new environment in Iceland created, the judgements and choices of the inhabitants about their own lives and how they resolved their disputes, establishing mutual expectations, a sense of justice and jural relationships and social institutions like Alþingi. Ultimately this leads to the writing down of the law, but it does not mean that being written down created in any sense new laws, rather it was part of the living law of the community and had developed out of it.

This is a very interesting view of the origin of Grágás. I guess there may be differing opinions about how it squares with all the historical accounts that have been preserved about the development of Icelandic law until it was written down. But it is persuasive. This theory of the development of law is intended by the authors as a general account of how law develops and how various parts of the living law are related, so it should apply to any system of laws we care to examine at least in the European tradition. Their theory is also descriptive, it aims to explain law as a social phenomenon in terms of its function in human affairs. They avoid all normative assumptions in their theory. The third important feature of the theory argued for and applied in this book is a number of distinctions that are used throughout the book between the natural and the conventional, the internal and the external, the intrinsic and the extrinsic. I am not sure that the authors would be willing to call this a theory, but rather a method they use to figure out what is just.

The authors discuss many of the most important topics in modern jurisprudence such as justice, natural and conventional, ownership, law, force of law, natural law, justice and the trading order, to name some of them. There is no way in a short review to give the flavour of the analysis of these different issues but I want to mention one: justice and the trading order. This area is of great importance to modern societies and has been extensively analysed and theorised in various academic disciplines. One obvious question is whether there is anything to be gained from analysing the trading order from the Aristotelian perspective of the authors. The answer is yes; there is surprisingly much to be gained from doing so. The trading order is where reciprocal justice is the proper justice. The authors start by suggesting that “in the trading order free exchanges are reciprocally just.” (p. 91). They make another plausible assumption that it is only in the context of exchange and the trading order that reciprocal justice exists. The trading order exists only as a part of a wider, more complex social order and is constantly influenced by this wider order. Hence, there is no trading order governed only by reciprocal justice. The authors contend that if a trading order has developed one must first understand how it works to figure out what legislation is necessary. They also argue that it is a difficult question of fact whether the trading order can be centrally managed. It is the considered opinion of the authors that a trading order cannot be centrally managed. They are careful to point out that it does not follow from this that the trading order cannot cause all sorts of social problems that must be dealt with and that there are those who cannot sustain their lives by trading. The idea is that these are not problems of the trading order but must be dealt with by other means. The central idea of the trading order is that the two or more persons who want to trade must always be free not to for the exchange to be just. Any legislation and management, central or otherwise, of the trading order must respect this fact. It seems that any central management aiming to control correct the result of the innumerable exchanges of the trading order becomes problematic given these assumptions.

In modern political philosophy normative issues are contentious and important. Aristotelian political philosophy has not shied away from normative assumptions and issues. It is very informative to see the Aristotelian way of analysing political and jurisprudential problems working from different premises than is ordinarily done. This book is both radical and traditional and it is splendidly argued. It deserves to be widely read and to be influential.

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


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

            William Lyon Mackenzie King

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

      Albert Einstein

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Will anyone undergo this cure? History will tell. The past is known or, at least, it should not be forgotten: by way of poetic license granted by decades of financial deregulation, “2008” rhymes with “1929”. What happened after 1929? As some clever graffiti on a wall near my home in Italy did state crudely but concisely: “The bourgeois bitch makes fascist puppies”; all that she needs are a severe crisis and the stubborn refusal to take the medication outlined in this sketch of mine. Yet history does not have to repeat itself. If anything, it is full of surprises. Who would have ever thought, for example, that little furry animals could outlive giant dinosaurs and become the first species ever capable of destroying the ecological structures that allow them to live!


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

         John Maynard Keynes

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

       John Foster Dulles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

  Gilbert Keith Chesterton

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

  Lawrence “Larry” Summers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

   Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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

Isaiah Berlin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flavio Baroncelli, Mi manda Platone, edited by Annalisa Siri and Emilio Mazza (Genoa: il melangolo, 2009)

Flavio Baroncelli’s posthumous collection of short pieces by il melangolo is a splendid exception to standard philosophical literature. It is a slender book (157 pp.) that can be read purely and simply. Indeed, to the extent available to hopeless academically minded professional philosophers like myself, it can be enjoyed as a string of exquisite literary-philosophical vignettes. These short pieces, originally published in various Italian periodicals and newspapers, range from scholarly debates on Plato’s role in Western culture to the pride of showing scars and tattoos on one’s own body. They are divided in two parts, the former dealing with philosophical themes (15-83) and the latter dealing with ordinary life and socio-political affairs (87-149). Witty and concise, they retain the inventiveness and the curiosity that characterised Baroncelli’s life, of which Armando Massarenti, Emilio Mazza, Annalisa Siri and Gürol Sagiroglu Baroncelli provide a useful account via the preface (5-8), a short biography (151-3) and an editorial note (155-7).

Some professional philosophers, like the undersigned, may attempt to make some use of Baroncelli’s book, e.g. by writing a review of it. However, the review is bound to be fairly unorthodox. What can one say of a book that reads: refreshingly colloquial yet deep; humbly self-depreciating but highly learned; ironically sceptical though warmly humane; both open to the general public and pregnant nonetheless with precious insights for actual academics? Baroncelli’s prose, full of abstraction-averse, real-life examples and academic-pomposity-shattering vernacular gems, flows like the prose of his eighteenth-century role-models. Most of all, it recalls Voltaire’s prose, whose humour and compassion it evokes when dealing with topics such as tolerance, liberty, dignity, multiculturalism, religion and scientific realism.

Perhaps, the author of this slender book would have preferred to be compared to David Hume, whom Baroncelli admired and studied. Or even to Hume’s and the French philosophes’ much older mentor, i.e. Michel de Montaigne, to whom Baroncelli devotes a delightful sketch (23-6). Still, it is Voltaire the name that springs to mind when Baroncelli combines together, with a few touches of his pen, experience, irony, linguistic analysis, moral wisdom and intellectual acumen.

Professional philosophers may fear such a facility of expression. Clear and pleasant language is often seen as a threat to an argument’s poignancy and visibility. Long, tedious, difficult passages abound in philosophical literature. This happens not solely because philosophers are not poets or novelists, though they may be failed ones, but also because philosophers want the full load of reasoning poured into their works to be felt and borne by the reader. Whenever reasoning seems too unhindered and beautifully rendered, professional philosophers are likely to accuse it of being either “shallow” or “rhetorical”, if not even both. Nonetheless Baroncelli was a professional philosopher, and a good one. His arguments are sound, they stand on solid ground, and they are written so well and humorously – there is enough to become bitterly envious.

Certainly, the same philosophers that treat as “shallow” and “rhetorical” their literarily gifted colleagues are likely to accuse me of being partial. After all, I knew personally Flavio Baroncelli as a teacher, mentor, and friend. That is why I shall invite them to attempt to read simply his latest and, probably, last book. They should follow the advice that he himself gave with regard to Plato, whom one should read “because he is useless” (66). Hopefully, they will appreciate Baroncelli’s gentle and humorous way of being a genuine, unpretentious source of enlightenment.