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.