Saturday, March 25, 2017


308. Resurrection of the political left

The political left has failed, as demonstrated, for example, by a dramatic drop of votes in the recent election in the Netherlands. This is no doubt due to its submission to neoclassical market ideology, with deregulation, privatization, and austerity measures, as a misguided policy to combat the economic crisis. The inequities that this generated, and a sense of being betrayed, has bred the present populist anger and rebellion.

Now that the left has nothing left to lose, there is not only a need but also room for a drastic re-orientation. Here is a proposal.

The central orientation that I propose is not to go along with populism, as some liberal and conservative parties have begun to do (e.g. in the Netherlands), pulled into the vortex of electoral pressure, giving in to nationalist sentiments and demands for majority decision making (as in referenda) that run the danger of violating the rule of law, with a tendency to bypass the judiciary if needed, and have already produced such effects (e.g. in Switserland).

The right way is not to abolish international trade, break down the EU and hide in nationalism, and slide into dictatorships of the majority. There is an alternative.  

The challenge, I believe, is to take the wake-up call of populism seriously, listen to its justified grievances, and produce solutions. I propose three points for a new social vision.

First, save international trade, vital for prosperity, in two ways. One: compensate those who lost out in globalization, with programmes to bring new economic activity to areas of poverty, programmes for re-schooling, and, if necessary, re-distribution of income. Two: block he perversities of globalization, with multinational companies avoiding taxes, benefiting from subsidies to lure them or prevent them from leaving, and holding national governments hostage to the threat of leaving when not accommodated.

Second, save the EU by transforming it from a union only for the market to a union also for the people. The union is needed to effect the measures indicated above, and to bundle clout for an effective foreign policy, fiscal policy, policy for refugees, defence, environmental protection, and economic position vis a vis the US and China. It can focus more on such priorities and leave other things to the nations.

Third, save democracy by satisfying also the populist demand for bringing citizens closer to politics, in a drastic decentralization of government to local communities, in what is called the ‘commons’. The underlying idea is that democracy should no longer be seen as a periodic positioning, in electing a party with a pre-fabricated political programme, or voting yes or no in a referendum. It should rather be seen as an ongoing process, in which citizens participate in the identification of issues and the development of policies. Use may be made of citizen councils, appointed at random from a pool of he willing. The main role of a municipality would be to facilitate and support that process.

Such decentralization and citizen initiative is greatly facilitated by means of social media, and with local apps. Those media also have worrying negative effects, but here they can help.  

A political condition for such decentralization of government is acceptance of some inequality between localities of services offered. One cannot have more freedom of policy making without room for diversity. However, a task of task of government that may remain, is to prevent extremes of such inequality.        


Sunday, March 19, 2017


307. Open building

There is something odd in the bascs logic of traditional building. Two types of logic that do not fit together are combined in one system, of two hierarchical levels. One concerns the basic support or carrying structure of the building, and the other concerns the ‘infill’ of apartments or offices. This was shown in a publication 55 years ago by architect John Habraken[i], followed by later publications.

The basic support structure, of, say, an apartment or office building, consists of the foundations, roof, support structure, access (to people and utilities), and possibly the fa├žade. That has a long life, of some 100 years. It is subject to efficiencies of size, in design and construction. It contains all that serves the community of occupants, as a collective. Hence central control is required.

The infill of apartments or offices serves the individual occupant, without need for central control. It
has a life of some 10 years, after which spaces are re-designed and re-built, in renovation and transformation, to suit new users, tastes, fashions, and practices, and to utilize or accommodate new materials, parts, technologies, etc. for walls, ducts, installations, furnishings and facilities.

Different as they are, they have been integrated in one long process of design and construction. In time, it starts with few people (architect, developer), abstractly (in design). Then, as the process develops, more people become involved, such as builders, financiers, suppliers, installators, and then estate agents and users, and the structure becomes increasingly concrete. It also is under central control throughout.

Since at the start future use and users are unknown, there is an inclination to design uniform stereotypes that can also be built cheaply. It is not oriented to users but to cost control.

Renovation and transformation of the infill, however, is a shorter term process, concrete, and with many people, and involvement of users, and therefore oriented to diversity, and tailor-made, from the start.

To combine the two into one process is like combining the building of roads (also with a life of some 100 years, with little involvement of users) with the production of cars (with a life of some 10 years, involvement of users in choice of design).

It would be much more logical to separate the two processes, while taking into account the connections between the two, concerning access, the fit of ducts etc., and standardized measures. Such connections also apply to the separate systems of roads and cars: width of the road, type of surfacing, tarmac, signalling, etc.

For the infill one could use pre-fabricated modules from which users can choose, that can easily be assembled on location, and computer-based design aids for their configuration, with the users involved. Those modules can be made so that they can be disassembled and re-used. The user might sell them when moving out, or even lease them. Like cars. With novel technologies, old logics of the efficiency of large scale, uniform production are falling apart, with the use of computer-aided design and production of unique forms, shapes and functions.  

John Habraken has battled to get his idea implemented, with some success, e.g. in Finland and Japan. Yet the established institutional structure of the old process is tenacious and difficult to shift. It entails a tangle of legal regulations and control concerning finance, safety, liability, lending, mortgage, insurance, etc., which are apparently difficult to disentangle, against established mind frames, positions, and interests. The ruling ideology of architects is that only centralized control without distinction of levels can produce good architecture. 

This yields another case of what earlier in this blog I have called ‘system tragedy’: the perpetuation of dysfunctional social systems, due to rigidities and entanglements of roles and positions, blindness due to habit, and ideological entrenchment. 

On a more fundamental, philosophical level, what we see here is also a manifestation of the contrast and tension between on the one hand the general, abstract, universal, and permanent,  in ‘one size fits all’, controlled from the centre, versus the decentralized, differentiated, individualized, and variable. In building, the first may still apply, more or less, to the base structure, but the latter applies to the infill. They should be separated.


[i] In 1961: ‘The carriers and the people; the end of mass home building’ (in Dutch).

Saturday, March 11, 2017


306. Public and private causes of action

In the preceding item in this blog I discussed which virtues are a matter of public concern, and which are private. Here is another way of looking at the issue of public and private. I use the multiple causality of action, derived from Aristotle, that I used several times before, in this blog. To recall, this causality includes: who does the doing (efficient cause), and why (final cause), with what material or means (material cause), according to what method, knowledge, skill, or technology (formal cause), under what external enabling or blocking conditions (conditional cause), according to what guiding examples or role models (exemplary cause).

In a market economy, who does what (efficient cause) is a private matter, and in a democracy the goal of action (final cause) also is a private matter. The provision of means (material cause) is a public matter of economy and government. The provision of knowledge and skill, and to a large extent also of enabling technology (formal cause), is a public matter, and so is the institutional environment, to provide the necessary enabling conditions (conditional cause). The exemplary cause also is private: different people have different heroes or role models.

How does this relate to the public and private virtues discussed in the preceding item?

The efficient cause, of who acts where, is largely a matter of private virtues of taking initiative, committing to a choice, and responsibility, and the virtue of courage to do that.

The final cause also is in the realm of private virtue: ‘thymos’, the drive to manifest oneself, ambition, drive for excellence, in a striving for profit, wealth, or respect, or a striving for balance and harmony, or for knowledge, wisdom, or discovery, or for pleasure, or for making a contribution to society, offering care, education, etc., or combinations of any of those.

Especially the conditional cause is in the realm of the cardinal virtues of reason, courage, moderation, and justice, and the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. Those are public virtues, and procedural, aimed at creating the conditions for people to strive for the good life , in peace and cooperation with each other. Justice must also ensure the conditions for the efficient cause, in offering freedom of initiative and access to the resources needed for the good life, equality under the law, being innocent until proven guilty. It also includes safety and protection from violence.

Public also are the material causes of income, consumer goods, raw materials, and infrastructure, and the formal causes of education, training, science, and research.

In communism, public causes also include the efficient and final causes: who does what and with what goal. In radically libertarian societies, the private encroaches upon much of the material and formal causes, with private provision of services of infrastructure, safety, education, and even justice.

In populism, the largest part of the private swells up into the public. A decent society protects its private parts especially when they are small.    


Saturday, March 4, 2017


305. Public and private virtues

In preceding items of this blog, I adopted the definition of virtues as needed for the good life, and I struggled with the following problem. On the one hand, I want to move from the liberal ethics of only utility, where virtues are a matter to be left to individuals, not a matter of public concern, to a virtue ethic, where at least some virtues are a matter of public concern. On the other hand, I am wary of paternalism and loss of freedom for individuals to make their own choice of what the good life is. As I put it in one item (nr. 280): I want to fight liberalism with liberal means. Here, I make a further attempt at clarification.

While the term ‘virtue’ may suggest an imposition on people to behave in a certain way, to ‘act normal’, as the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte put it recently, my intention is to lay a basis for diversity, allowing for quirks and weirdo’s, compatriots and refugees.  

The paragon of the paradox of combining diversity, going your own way, and normality, conforming to norms, arises in the combination of democracy and the law.[i] Democracy aims at diversity, with the liberal freedoms to allow for it, to be guaranteed by universal law, applying indiscriminately to all.

Democracy is substantive, concerns the content, the substance of life. The law is procedural, concerns how to proceed in dealings with other people in order to provide the room for diversity.

But laws alone do not suffice. Those say mostly what is not allowed, not to encroach upon the room for action of others. That is only negative power: constraining the room for choice. We also need positive power: providing the room and the competencies for choice.

I recall that trust is giving room for conduct, distrust is constraining it. We need as much trust as wisdom permits, giving room for action and accepting the risk of it, without becoming blind to it. 

Earlier, I adopted the definition of virtues as character traits needed for the good life. Here, I change my mind. Like trust, virtue has a competence side and an intentional side. One needs virtues for the competence of leading a good life, but also for the will, the intention and commitment to do so to the best of one’s competence. Perhaps this is precisely what character entails. Those virtues, the competence and the will, need to be developed in upbringing and education.

Now, I propose that some virtues are public, as extensions of the law, and partly lying behind the law, as the source from which the law emerges, in democratic debate. Those virtues are  mostly procedural, and need to be shared, as public virtues, as a basis for allowing and enabling people to exercise their choices of the good life. Other virtues are more private, substantial, and vary with the choices that people make for the good life.

The ‘cardinal’ virtues of reason, courage, moderation, and justice are mostly, but not entirely, public. Reason is needed for being reasonable, being able and willing to listen and understand others, give and take criticism. The virtue of justice is needed to grant people their right to existence and dignity, acknowledge equality under the law, and empathy: being able and willing to understand people in their views, positions, and predicaments. That also requires the virtue of moderation, in give and take. One may be immodest in ambition and a drive for excellence, but not at the expense of others. The virtue of courage is partly private, to strive and take risks in the pursuit of the good life, but also public, in the courage to face one’s shortcomings, and to take personal and public responsibility.

Next to those classical virtues there are the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. Those also can be public next to private, or would preferably be so. Faith in the potential for the good in people and in relations, hope that it will be realised, and the courage to risk it.

And then there is a whole range of possible, more personal virtues, depending on one’s choice of the good life, with more or less emphasis on ambition, courage, risk-taking, strength, truthfulness, loyalty, generosity, gentleness, adventure seeking, excitement, change, equilibrium, peace of mind, solitude, gregariousness, spirituality, material enjoyment, humour, seriousness, etc.


[i] I was inspired to this by a lecture by Herman Tjeenk Willink.

Saturday, February 25, 2017


304.  Romanticism, religion and populism

Instead of the word ‘religion’ I would here prefer to use the word ‘godservice’ but while in literal translation that word exists in Dutch (‘godsdienst’) and German (‘Gottesdienst’), it does not, alas, exist in English. I have defined religion as offering transcendence, a connection to something bigger than  oneself, but that need not be God, in vertical transcendence. Transcendence can be horizontal, in feeling connected to something in this world, such as nature, or posterity, or an ideology.

In this blog, I have adopted, as is customary, three forms of romanticism. First, putting feelings above reason. Second, feeling connected to something bigger than oneself. Third, the romantic hero transgressing boundaries, being a discoverer, genius artist or scientist, or a master criminal.

Godservice, in contrast with religion, offers all three. God is beyond reason, you belong to the whole of divine creation, and you expect to cross, in death, the boundary between existence on earth and that in heaven. Religion offers the transcendence, but not necessarily the discounting of reason, nor the transgression of boundaries.  

The three forms of romanticism do not all apply equally to all forms of godservice. In the Islam, the Shia can live with reason next to God, for the Sunni that is blasphemy. Thus the Sunni is purer, more ‘pristine’ as someone said, and therefore more attractive to those reaching out for the absolute in vertical transcendence. Better fodder for fanaticism.

Seen in this way, godservice is the mother of all romanticism. Perhaps people are now lured by other manifestations of romanticism because they have lost godservice.

The Nazi’s also did well in combining in one package all three forms of romanticism. Putting feelings of racial supremacy above reason. Belonging to the whole of the nation (‘Das Volk’, the people), united under its leader. Transgressing boundaries of humanity in the lustful aggression of the fascist.

The communists did not do quite so well. They did offer a belonging to the great, international, inevitable, inexorable, march of history towards a communist utopia. They did offer the transgression of the violent purging of capitalists and revisionists. But they made the mistake of not putting feelings above reason but, on the contrary, putting up their march as the march of reason. In that it was closer to the Enlightenment than to Romanticism. However, along the way, revolutionary zeal and fanatic ideology managed to make up for that.

The Cultural  Revolution in China, between 1966 and 1976, offered the complete package, in being taken up in a transcendent revolutionary movement, transcending boundaries, uprooting the relics of old , carried along by rhetoric and zealotry, yielding ‘a world of enchantment, mesmerisation, and danger, one that combined a sense of infinite possibilities and hopes with a sense of danger and threat … that gave urgency and potency.’[ii]

President Trump isn’t quite there yet. He is making headway in putting feelings above truth and reason. He offers the emotion of belonging to the nation of a privileged people to be made great again, united under his leadership. He is doing an excellent performance in transgressing a number of  boundaries, of coherence, truthtelling, receptiveness to criticism, separation of private interests from politics, and acceptance of judicial verdicts in the rule of law.

One cannot accuse him of fascism. But who knows what will happen when he mobilizes his constituency, in defence against movements to depose him that are now gathering force. Or when some attack or crisis is taken to warrant martial law and purges. That is what Hitler did, with the fire of the Reichstag building. Please note that I am not now comparing Trump with Hitler but imagining what might happen.

ii Ian Johnson, ‘China: The virtues of the awful convulsion’, New York Review of Books, October 27, 2016, p. 70.

Monday, February 20, 2017


303. Populism and the political right

The notion of the political right is confused. There are at least two forms. They have been called old versus new or alt(ernative) right, and economic versus cultural right. In the preceding item in this blog I distinguished two forms of liberalism, and the question now also is how the two rights are related to the two liberalisms.

One right is the old, libertarian, economic right. It is focused on the identity of the individual, who is seen as autonomous, and responsible for its own future. It is based on laissez faire, maximally untrammelled markets, with next to no government intervention, apart from liberal-democratic constitutional safeguards. It does uphold those. Thus, the old right is a combination of libertarian and democratic liberalism discussed in the preceding item in this blog.

The new right, or alt-right, is cultural, in a re-emergence of nationalism. This is appropriated by rightist populism. The focus is on cultural, not individual identity. As I argued in the preceding item, while it challenges free market liberalism it also carries threats to democratic liberalism. It appears to be becoming illiberal in two ways. 

Rightist and leftist populism, such as that of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, have a number of things in common. They both aim to ‘do  right’ to the ‘ordinary’, or ‘real’ people, claiming that those have been betrayed, neglected and damaged by ‘the elite’. Both are against free markets and excesses of the financial sector. The free flow of labour is seen as threatening to employment, at least for rightist populism.

However, I do not see populism on the left as gravitating towards a destruction of liberal democracy, rather the contrary, in trying to practice it more fully. It seems to be more radically reformist concerning markets than rightist populism. This may be utopian, but that is a different matter. Later in this blog I will discuss possible ways of preserving markets while preventing their perversities. I suppose that left populism can be classified as anti-libertarian, economically illiberal, and democratically liberal. 

Rightist populism, at least in the form of president Trumps plans, does aim to limit trade to protect low-wage jobs, but on the other hand maintains free markets, in renewed deregulation of the financial industries that he criticised heavily during the election, lower taxes for the rich, lifting environmental regulation, in a denial of human-made climate change, and stopping a rise of the minimum wage. Could one say that it is libertarian domestically and anti-libertarian internationally? That would fit with its nationalist pre-occupation.

‘Right’ is generally associated with conservatism, and left with progressiveness. How does that fit, if at all? These categories are also mixed-up and ambiguous. Is defending the constitution of liberal democracy conservative? Then the old right, the old left and the new left are conservative. Is an attack on libertarianism progressive? Then both the new left and the new right (more or less) are progressive.   

The old right is very much nested, in one country more than the another, in the elites of politics and business. So is the old left. They both seem conservative in trying to preserve the elite. But that applies equally to leftist elites (take communist regimes). The elite is the revolution grasping power, and then entrenching and maintaining itself. Clearly, both right and left populism are anti-conservative in attacking the incumbent elite, to craft a new one. Is that progressive? 

 There are also different forms of romanticism involved. Libertarians have the romanticism of the Homeric, Nietzschean, lone, transgressive hero from the work of Ayn Rand, who thrashes out his own future, with determination, strength of purpose, against the lethargy and moral blackmail of the masses.

The new, nationalist, populist alt-right, reverts to the romanticism of transcendent, superior cultural or ethnic roots, blood and soil, exemplified in a largely illusory, mythical past.  

How about leftist populism? The romanticism of utopia, if that is romantic? How romantic was More’s utopia? Arcadia? As the classical saying goes (‘et ego in Arcadia’) mortality is there as well. Imperfection on the move.    

Saturday, February 11, 2017


302. How illiberal is nationalistic populism?[i]

In item 287 of this blog I discussed what I called ‘The crisis of liberalism’, but there I considered only one face of liberalism: the libertarian, neo-liberal form, which I criticized. I neglected what I would call liberal democracy, which I want to uphold. Liberal democracy entails constitutional constraints on government, in the rule of law, equality under the law, being innocent until proven guilty, freedom of speech, of association, and of religion, openness, tolerance, and separation of powers (legislative, executive, judicial).  

The latter does not necessarily include the autonomy of the individual, free trade and laissez faire, with minimal government intervention. In my understanding, those are features added in libertarian liberalism. Neo-liberalism develops this further into a striving for deregulation and liberalization of markets. Libertarians claim that you cannot have the one without the other: no democratic liberalism without free markets. I contest that. I propose that underlying all this are a utility ethics and a preoccupation with only negative freedom, only absence of interference, as discussed previously in this blog.

The distinction between the two liberalisms is important for an adequate understanding of the present populist revolt, on the right and on the left, and an adequate response to it. I think that populism (left and right) has legitimate grievances against libertarianism, whose free market ideology has caused injustice to large segments of the middle and lower classes. The injustice was economic, in the loss of jobs, in globalization, but also ethical, in derision of lower class values and their craving for security and social identity in communities, which were seen as backward, misplaced in present cosmopolitan society. Those people felt loss of recognition, which has been seen, by Hegel, for example, as an existential abyss.   

The problem, however, is that the nationalistic populism on the right, in contrast with populism on the left, threatens to become illiberal also in the sense of eroding democratic liberalism, with authoritarian rule, leading to erosion of equality under the law (for women, immigrants, foreigners, transgenders, muslims, and non-white races), freedom and independence of the press and the judiciary, and rights of people who are excluded from ‘the people’ by the mere act of opposing the populist leader. That leader represents the people, so if you do not agree with him you do not belong to the people. We see this happening in Russia, Turkey, with beginnings of it in Hungary, Poland, and forebodings of it in the US, the Netherlands, France, and Germany, among others 

What now? I am seeking a way, in this blog and elsewhere, to replace libertarian politics and ‘old economics’ with a new politics and economics that still uphold democratic liberalism. An important element in this is to see the individual not as fully autonomous but as socially constituted. Also, I have pleaded, in this blog, for a shift from utility ethics to a form of virtue ethics, with attention to positive next to negative freedom: not just absence of interference with people striving for the good life, but also enabling them to engage in that striving. A puzzle then is how to include virtues that sustain ‘the good life’ without falling back into old paternalism, maintaining the freedom of choice of what that good life is. I note that liberal democracy, which I want to maintain, already includes virtues such as justice, reasonableness, moderation, tolerance and openness.

I do not have the space here to show what the new economics might be. I will dedicate a number of later items in this blog to that. One of the challenges for a new politics is to ‘bring democracy closer to the people’. I explored that in item 283, proposing to employ new opportunities from internet and social media, dodging their pitfalls and perversities, to go from democracy as a periodic positioning, choosing sides in an election or referendum, to democracy as a process, locally, in communities, with direct involvement of citizens, in the preparation and execution of public policies, in forms of ‘commons’ (such as internet-based communities, joint public-private projects, and citizens forums).

My hope is that with a combination of such new economics and politics we can address the legitimate grievances of populism, and save the basic principles of democratic liberalism.



[i] I thank Teije de Jong for his comments on an earlier version.