Friday, September 13, 2019

440. Poverty of non-fiction literature?

In this blog and elsewhere, I have been trying to bridge the gap, in non-fiction literature,  between specialist scientific literature and popular literature, on a broad range of subjects, aimed at a wide but intellectual audience. I am making it as accessible as I can, but with nuance and some abstraction, in an interdisciplinary effort, trying to integrate insights from different branches of philosophy and sciences of humanity and society (economics, sociology, psychology, cognitive science, linguistics, and politics).

I think it is good for society if insights and debates from social science reach a wider public, and is not locked up in less accessible scientific journals and books. That would impoverish public debate, generating insufficiently informed policies, opinions and votes.

I have mostly published in English, to have access to a large audience, but being Dutch I also wanted to publish a few things in Dutch. I used to regularly publish pieces on the opinion pages of the top Dutch newspapers, but since a few years that stopped. My pieces were no longer accepted. I asked around why that was so, and I was told that newspapers had to aim at a wide general public, and my pieces were ‘too difficult’, and on subjects that ‘do not interest most people’. So, I took recourse to English, with this blog.

Recently, I wanted to publish some more books, also one or two in Dutch. One was a piece with radical criticism of economic science and the economic system, with some indications for improvement. It was rejected by a number of Dutch publishers and they also told me: the audience for this kind of intellectual book is simply too small, commercially not viable.

So I translated it into an English version, and that was instantly accepted by a British publisher: Edward Elgar. It will appear in December 2019 under the title Uprooting economics; a manifesto for change.

Against better judgement I tried another book in Dutch again, on ontology, the philosophy of what exists, which recently I also discussed in a number of items in this blog. Again, this also was rejected by Dutch publishers, with the same comment as before. So now I am self-publishing it, and I will again try produce a version in English (looking for a publisher in the UK or USA).

Perhaps I am making too quick an inference, based only on anecdotal, personal experience, not a representative sample. Perhaps I am simply not able to write well enough to reach the intended audience. But the fact that English versions do get an audience does seem to mean something. My point now is that apparently there is a poverty of serious non-fiction literature in Dutch, with some depth, nuance and abstraction, because there is no viable, large enough audience for it.

In the Netherlands objections have arisen against the gradual replacement of Dutch by English, at universities. But if serious non-fiction can no longer be published in Dutch, what do you expect? Scholars will have to seek refuge in English, as I did, even for non-specialist literature aimed at a wider than only academic audience.

I expect that a similar situation has developed in other small non-English speaking countries. I expect that countries like France, Germany, Italy and Spain should be large enough for the intended audience to be commercially viable, but I suspect that smaller countries face the same problem as the Netherlands.

Perhaps this should be seen as inevitable, not a big problem. Regional dialects and languages (Keltish, Basque, Frisian in the Netherlands) also have been bypassed, but are still alive in local culture.    

Saturday, September 7, 2019

439. Resisting liquidity?

In this blog, my attitude to change has been positive, overall, for the realisation of potential and perhaps the creation of new potential, and for the joy of action and construction. But of course, change can be negative, disastrous even.

Zygmunt Bauman[i] claimed that people are suffering from present ‘liquid times’, with increasingly pervasive and fast change, in technology, economies, society, and global politics, and seek ways to resist it.

I agree with Bauman in noting a number of fears and insecurities that people, some more than others, increasingly have been experiencing. There are specific reasons or that.

There is political uncertainty, in threats to democracy, the re-emergence of authoritarian regimes, and the rise of populism.   

Under neoliberal market ideology, social security has declined, health care and other public services have been privatised or brought under market mechanisms, and the scope, funding of care have decreased. I don’t deny the necessity of this in view of a larger share of the aged in the population, and technological progress that is offering ever new methods of diagnostics and therapy, but it all does contribute to feelings of insecurity.

There is economic insecurity in shifting markets, in globalisation, and resulting losses of employment. Labour conditions have worsened, with declining security and stability of employment, and wages have not risen anywhere near the rise of executive ‘compensation’.

Globalisation has destroyed the roots and continuity of local communities, thus robbing especially the lower educated, less mobile workers of the roots of social identity, in solidarity and mutual support. Under the force of market ideology, competition has been replacing solidarity.

To quote Bauman: ‘whereas in the past there was a public effort at socially produced solutions to individual problems, now people need to seek individual solutions to socially produced problems … all this does produce a “mood of precariousness”’[ii]   

As Bauman notes, this brings people into a ‘loss frame’. Social psychology has shown that under threat of loss people engage in more extreme conduct to resist the loss than when they are in a gain frame, expecting improvement. 

However, I do not think there is an overall, generic resistance to change in general. People go to considerable trouble and expense to generate new experiences, in more or less adventurous holidays, visiting exotic scenery, and hazardous sports. They hop from job to job to escape from stagnation in familiar routines and environments. People seek entrepreneurship, accepting its uncertainty. to try and realise original ideas they have.

HeHdeHere, I return to the ancient Greek notion of ‘thymos’ that I discussed before: the urge to manifest oneself and accept, even relish, the stress and risk involved. That Nietzschean drive is still alive and kicking.

The difference, of course, is that this change is voluntary, self-chosen, whereas the worsening of social conditions and labour is imposed, not voluntary.

So, I propose that it is not a fear of change in general that is at play, but more specific fears of some forms of change affecting political and economic conditions that affect social security, solidarity and prosperity.

[i] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid times, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.
[ii] Bauman, p. 14, 15.

Friday, August 30, 2019

438. Forms of populism: the case of Macron

Populism is varied, takes different forms. Its most distinctive characteristic is that it opposes ‘the’ elite in defense of ‘the’ people.

Increasingly, ambitious leaders see an opportunity to profit from this. They then claim to address the people directly, skirting the ruling elites, to create a personal bond and claiming to represent the people directly. They can go to the extreme of skirting parliament, dressing it down or even abolishing it, as superfluous since the leader knows his people and caters to them directly.

The irony, of course, is that with this they create a new one-man elite.

Opting for the people, populism tends to slide into nationalism, projecting the people as ‘one’s own’, uniquely deserving, with a superior cultural identity, dressed up in historical myths. Personal identity is wrapped up in national cultural identity.

There is a temptation to make excessive promises to the people and when those inevitably fail to be realised, this is loaded off onto some scapegoat. Jews, immigrants, the Islam, foreign races.

Populist leaders project themselves as more capable, efficient and fast in solving problems, making and implementing policy without the delay, the slow pussyfooting, going back and forth, the watered down compromises of parliamentary democracy.

With this pretended direct rapport with the people and his unique ability to rule, the populist leader is authoritarian, issuing decrees rather than consulting the people, or anyone.

There are the obvious cases: Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Orban, Johnson, and in the Netherlands Baudet. How about Macron? Here I base myself on an article in the London Review of Books by Didier Fassin.[i]   

Macron claims to side-track the traditional ruling elites on the left and the right, in a direct address to the people. In that sense already he can be seen as a populist.

In response to the uprising of the ‘yellow vests’, he did, one must grant, try to engage in debate with them, in, to quote Fassin, ‘.. dozens of hours of debates across the country, which he often turned into didactic monologues in front of impatient audiences’. And when the revolt did not subside, Macron resorted to extreme police violence, with unorthodox offensive weapons that seriously harmed many.

On the face of it, Macron does not slide into nationalism, and in fact opposes it, and indeed he also claims to oppose populism. He promotes further European integration, and he is against the ostracism and exclusion of immigrants. However, ‘On several occasions he addressed the theme of identity, championing “patriotism”, the “art of being French” and the “core values” that must be defended in order to achieve a “European renaissance.” He may not be nationalist but he certainly is a chauvinist. 

He certainly is authoritarian, issuing decrees, and, Fassin claims, with several measures he ‘diluted the power of the legislature and the judiciary’ … and ‘he is now installed as a “Jupiterian” (in his coinage) head of state’. He celebrates his elevated position with show and conspicuous consumption.

Distinctive also is Macrons leaning towards a continued neo-liberal economic regime, which he projects as ‘progressive’. Among other things, Macron abolished a wealth tax, re-wrote the labour code to enhance corporate power, ended inflation-indexed pensions, cut housing benefits to the poor, and privatised companies with a state majority holding. Concerning European policy, Didier Fassin sums it up as follows: ‘Macron is interested in the consolidation of the free market, not the expansion of social rights’.

Summing up: One cannot equate Macron with the brand of the more extreme populist leaders, but he certainly has a brand of his own.      

[i] Didier Fassin, ‘Macron’s war’, London Review of books, 4 July 2019, p. 23-24.

Friday, August 23, 2019

437. Elites

‘Elite’ is a phantom concept. It appeals to the imagination and haunts political debate. It is a ghost, difficult to grasp and pin down, because it has several different connotations,

One connotation is that of excellent achievement. This can apply to armed forces (Elite troops), sports, or science. And, why not, to top chefs, bakers and plumbers. Those elites serve as role models to be imitated, or as substitutes for fame that more pedestrian people lack, adopted by proxy, in reflection from the stars.

A different connotation of ‘elite’ entails leadership, authority and responsibility, a ruling elite. That is the connotation that drives present political discourse. It can apply to political, legal, business or scientific elites.

The present complaint, in particular concerning political leaders, is that they do not in fact have the competence they claim, and shirk the responsibility they have for representing and governing the people.

The prestige of scientific leaders, such as university professors, has eroded due to scandals of cheating with data and conclusions in experiments, and engaging in plagiarism.

The judiciary have lost prestige due to a suspicion of lack of competence, and for closing themselves off  from public scrutiny with formal language, and even of exercising class justice.

Business elites are castigated for their obsession with profits, salary and bonuses, to the neglect of employees and protection of the environment, and for muscling governments into concessions, on tax, environmental regulation, energy prices and labour regulations, on the threat of taking their employment elsewhere.

The political elites are most under fire, particularly concerning their ethics, or lack of it. They are seen to pursue their own careers rather than honouring their dedication to voters, circulating jobs between them, in a carousel of careers. They are accused of making promises during elections which they subsequently do not fulfil, and knew they would not be able to fulfil.    

But the shoe also pinches on the other foot, of the people themselves. It is too easy to blame only the elites, however much they may deserve it. How legitimate is the blame?  

There is no doubt a measure of envy of elites that raises resentment, and this is not new. But that is now enhanced by other forces. People have been told by postmodern philosophy that truth does not exist, that it is relative, and everyone has a right to his/her own truth. So how can scholars, and specialists of many kinds, or political representatives, claim to harbour a superior truth? Who do they think they are?

Under neo-liberal ideology of markets, with its drive towards privatisation or other market dynamics of public services, in that ideology voters have been told that they are customers, and in markets they have learned that ‘the customer is king’ and the ‘customer is always right’. So now they treat politicians, and doctors and teachers, as they have learned to treat hairdressers and pizza delivery. Doctors have to provide the cure that internet says is the best. Teachers have to deliver the certificate or degree that pupils or students deserve and it is the teachers’ task to supply. Or else ….

Cowed and pushed by the rise of populism, politicians are now driven to give citizens what they want, satisfy their wishes and prejudices. And here also they shirk their responsibility to be honest, open, and commit themselves to the good of society, even when that is not popular, and they have lost the trust needed for that. Electoral pressures force them to howl with wolves in the forest, against European integration, refugees and the Islam.

Societies need elites, since not everyone has the talent, capability, dedication and stamina for public service. But they require the classic virtues to achieve it: the virtues of reasonability/prudence, courage, moderation and justice, and those are largely lacking. Appointments should be open to outsiders. The bell should ring for the carousel to stop.

And citizens should appreciate anew that they are not consumers but constituents of civil society, sharing the responsibility for it.  

Saturday, August 17, 2019

436. Authenticity and identity

There is much talk of authenticity[i], and it is confused. Sometimes it refers to the nationalist concept of being a ‘true’… (English, French, German, Dutch …) person, at other times it refers to an opposite notion of standing out as an individual, being different from others, unique. This reflects the same confusion as that concerning identity: personal vs. collective/cultural identity, which I discussed elsewhere in this blog. In both cases the connotation is being ‘true’, not fake, not posed but genuine. So ‘genuine’ should also be distinguished from ‘authentic’.

To avoid the contradiction, I propose to accept only the latter, personal authenticity, as the meaning of authenticity. You are the ‘author’ of your own identity. There is no collective authorship, and conformance to collective identity or ‘authority’ is the opposite of authenticity, surrendering your authorship to authority.

This is Nietzschian authenticity, doing things no-one else is doing or has done, transcending the common.

However, this matter is not so simple. Personal identity builds on interaction with others and requires some commonality. The philosopher Wittgenstein said: there can be no private language. If I lived on an uninhabited island, hit my toe on a stone and called it ‘clink’, and hit a stone again and call it ‘clunk’, there is no one present to correct me, to point out my inconsistency. My assignment of meanings to words can fly off in all directions. If I utter something I believe it, or I would not have uttered it. Like having a pain: you have it and cannot doubt it. It is odd to say ‘I think I have a pain’.   

Earlier in this blog I contrasted Nietzsche and Levinas (item 63, 2012). According to Nietzsche one can transcend oneself by oneself, like the Baron of Munchhausen pulling himself out of a swamp by his bootstraps. According to Levinas one needs opposition from others to have a chance of being freed from one’s prejudices.

Rousseau at first celebrated the individual acting according to his nature, freeing herself from the suffocation and distortion of collective culture. Later he made the radical turn to the opposite, commanding the self to submit to the collective will. Heidegger at first pleaded a turn away from the collective (‘Das Man’), and later submitted to the lure of Nazi national identity.    

So, difficult as it may be, one has to balance authenticity and conformity. How can this be done?

Business makes a profit out of this dilemma and the inherent ambiguity of authenticity and identity. They make us believe that we are authentic if we buy their brand (of shoe, pants, dress ….), with symbols of conduct associated with the brand. Then one can feel authentic without the trouble and ostracism of going against the norm. Clever people then give that a personal flavour by adding or changing something (colour of shoestrings, a crazy shawl with the dress).

Foucault struggled with the problem, as he identified a number of institutions (prisons, laboratories, insane asylums) that impose their order on thinking and conduct, to the point that even the victims of the system acknowledged that this is the way it should be. Towards the end of his work the best he could offer for authenticity was the maxim: ‘Create your life like a work of art’.

Yes, but how does one do that? I offer the following idea, inspired by the distinction that Ferdinand de Saussure made, in linguistics, between ‘langue’ and ‘parole’.[ii] Langue is living, individual language, evolving in time (‘diachronically’), with idiosyncratic meanings that do not quite overlap with the intersubjective order of langue, at any moment (‘synchronically’), in langue.

This makes language ambiguous, to some extent, allowing for partly deviant clouds of individual meaning around what is generally accepted. That ambiguity is a good thing. It gives some leeway to hide in the shadows, in the periphery of order, to tinker with one’s deviance, for the sake of authenticity. 

[i] Among others in a recent Dutch television programme ‘The philosophical quintet’ (Sunday 21st July 2019)
[ii] De Saussure, Ferdinand, Cours de linguistique générale, Paris: Payot, 1972.

Friday, August 9, 2019

435. Parochial and kin-based altruism

Two sources of altruism are the following.

One, the strongest, is that of kinship, based on genetic similarity. The closer genetic similarity is, in parenthood, then siblings, cousins, etc., the greater mutual altruism is. That is a result of  evolution: it favours survival and proliferation of one’s genes.

The strong bonding of genes, with appeals to ‘family’, ‘brotherhood’, ‘blood’, and the like, is also borrowed, high-jacked, socially, beyond genetic similarity. Think of motor clubs, soldiers, soccer fans, gangs, etc., based on ‘brotherhood’.

Another source of altruism is ‘parochial altruism’, discussed earlier in this blog (205, 208 in 2015), with in-group solidarity and out-group suspicion and discrimination. Probably, this is also embodied in genes, but more universally, unrelated to family, not restricted to kin, as a basis for ‘group selection’. That works as follows. It is advantageous to people in a group to exercise solidarity, up to a point, next to an instinct for self-preservation. However, genes lie with the individual, not the group, so that there is a threat of opportunistic outsiders invading an altruistic society, and competing away the bearers of any altruistic gene. Thus, to survive, the altruistic inclination must be protected against opportunistic outsiders by a countervailing instinct of suspicion, for detecting and restraining or punishing egotistic invaders. 

The two, kinship and parochial altruism, can reinforce each other, especially in mobilizing the
‘pseudo-kin’ of seeing members of one’s group as family, or ‘of the same blood’.

Mentally, distrust of the foreign is housed in an area of the brain that seats distaste and disgust as a defence against poison. With that, the outsider is not just suspect but disgusting, or poisonous, contagious.

For dealing with the refugee problem, the trick now is to side-track these mechanisms.

Pseudo-kinship can be, and already is, mobilized for this, in trying to see outsiders as brothers in humanity, members of the same ‘family of man’. Or creatures of the same God, but then difference in God only exacerbates the problem. 

Another approach, discussed earlier (in item 208), is to bring in, as soon as possible, the experience of a shared activity, bringing in refugees into a variety of in-groups, entering employment as soon as possible, becoming members of local communities of life, education, profession, sports club, and culture. Nothing brings people together so much as working, doing things together, being dependent on each other in fulfilling a task.                 

The worst approach is the present one, of crowding them together in camps, keeping them idle and isolated, not letting them engage in activity until, far too late, they finally get the status of residence. They get frustrated by idleness, strife within their heterogeneous ranks inevitably breaks out, and then the judgement of their maladaptiveness gets comfortably confirmed.      

Friday, August 2, 2019

434. Identity and the meaning of life

This piece is inspired by an interview with the Flemish psychiatrist Dirk de Wachter[i]. In his practice he finds that people often suffer from a sense that their life has little meaning. Mark Fisher used the expression ‘the primordial sense of worthlessness’, Jenny Turner called it ‘the dreadful hole in the place of self-belief’[ii]. Here, I want to connect this with my discussion, in this blog, of identity. I propose that the sense of a lack of meaning goes together with a feeling of a loss of identity.

In item 419 of this blog I proposed that generally, in ontology, the essence of an object, which constitutes its identity, is its capacity to adopt or develop new qualities, during its existence, in interaction with other objects. This potential is open to new relations with new objects, but is also constrained, by its inner composition and coherence of elements, requirements for continued existence (homeostasis of the body), and by conditions in the environment, such as laws of nature and conduct and institutions (laws and regulations, organisations, language, educational facilities, job markets, and access to hem), which both enable and constrain further development.

Now, for human beings I would characterise the meaning of life as lying in the development and utilization of that potential, as the essence of oneself. That gives a feeling of making something of one’s life, of ‘going somewhere’, along a unique path of life. Especially when one feels that one is contributing to something beyond or larger than oneself. I proposed this before (in item 183 of this blog, 2015) in my definition of happiness as a combination of ‘sense and purpose’. Sense in contributing to something beyond oneself, corresponding with the notion of ‘transcendence’, and pleasure in doing that by utilizing one’s potential, developing and celebrating one’s talents.

In not doing that, I propose, one feels a sense of meaninglessness together with a sense of a loss of identity, in disregarding, not using one’s potential, leaving it fallow, or worse: the feeling of having no potential.

Developing and utilizing potential requires effort, commitment, and resilience, the ability to deal with setbacks, disappointments, accepting intervals of unhappiness. De Wachter also noted the lack of acceptance of that.

There are so many distractions that require less effort and yield less risk of disappointment. Here one goes for pleasure, or ease, to the neglect of purpose. This can be in addiction, recreation, seeking comfort in the echo chambers of social media, or idolatry, grasping an idol for an identity by proxy. Recreation turns into lack of creation. Mark Fisher called it ‘depressive hedonia’.[iii]  

Producing, creating, establishing something, together with others, gives direction, purpose, and builds identity.  

Concerning idolatry, I have to be careful. Earlier in this blog (item 99, 2013) I was positive about the value of role models, as yielding an ‘exemplary cause’, a leading example, of conduct: letting oneself  be inspired by an iconic sportsman, politician, scientist, and the like. The point about that it that it is active, not basking in another’s glory, but taking it up as a challenge to develop oneself. In its passive form it surrenders itself to the idol, replaces oneself with it.

The notion of ‘potential’ is a very broad one. What does it entail more concretely? Here I use inspiration from a review of a book by Jules Montague[iv]

Does memory constitute identity, as many people seem to think? Development potential is certainly formed, in part, by previous experience, but that would have such effects even when not consciously remembered. Also, memory is notoriously misleading, and memories that others have of oneself count as well.

Personal identity is a repertoire of character traits, propensities, talents, views and convictions that constitute potential.

As indicated above, realization and further development of potential requires courage and resilience, the ability to deal with disappointment and failure, and, I would add, curiosity, dedication and commitment, in other words ‘thymos’, spiritedness (see item 420).

Since for people realization and development of potential is to a large extent a product of interaction with others, they require morality, as noted by Montague, since that guides interaction or inhibits it. It requires openness to the other person as a source, as also noted by de Wachter, who was inspired by Levinas (as I was, see items 61 and 62, 2012).

Finally, these features of identity get expressed in habitual conduct, in ‘habitus’, with characteristic gestures and expressions, forming the face of identity. With that, Montague argues, even in Alzheimer not all traces of identity are lost.          

[i] In the Volkskrant, 30 March 2019.
[ii] Jenny Turner, 9 May 2019, London review of Books. 
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] By Ellen de Visser, in Volkskrant 30 March 2019, in a review of Jules Montague, ‘Lost and found’, 2019.