Things Should Not Return to Normal

Spain—the country closed down two weeks ago—Friday, March 13, to be exact. As an uninvited ‘guest,’ the Coronavirus invites all kinds of (perhaps premature) reflections. For instance, are European countries moving in a totalitarian direction?

They are not, I would claim, and for two reasons: Europeans would never allow it, and more importantly, democracies deal with threats like the Coronavirus better.

Although many European citizens are experiencing and will experience various limitations on their individual freedom—you can get a fine for strolling around without a justifiable purpose—democracy is not only about freedom, but also about duty and responsibility. Acting responsibly requires each one of us to be conscious about what we do and why we do it.

The core of democracy is that it teaches us that we should not be concerned only for ourselves. Rather, we are in this together. I have a responsibility not only for my own health, but also for the health of other citizens. In other words, I am responsible for the others’ well-being, as they are for mine.

As a consequence, I find it meaningful to limit my freedom of movement, minimize (physical) social contact and so forth, because I might become a risk for other, more vulnerable citizens.

***

Freedom and responsibility hang together. Our responsibility is the string that ties us together and what actually makes us free. Norms are meaningful—not because they are universal or come from a fictional god; on the contrary, norms are social artifacts made and remade by human beings.

The Danish philosopher K. E. Løgstrup said in The Ethical Demand (1956) that ‘trust is fundamental.’ Each person holds a part of the other’s life in his or her—hopefully clean—hands, and vice versa. By laying oneself open to the others, we accept our shared vulnerability. The ethical demand or obligation doesn’t refer to specific transcendental moral categories, only this basic trust.

“Human life could hardly exist if it were otherwise.” For example, I trust that it is not just my wife, our three children and me who are staying home. I trust that other families are doing the same. Any epidemic or pandemic exposes how well a society acts in a responsible and trustworthy manner. Do we care about one another, or just about our own opportunistic interests?

Trust and responsibility are the exact opposite of egoism. I might go out for a run because I—statistically—am not at risk. I might empty the supermarket, and thereby neglect other citizens’ well-being.

It appears as if trust and responsibility are threatened by the coronavirus. In contrast, I would claim that these fundamental qualities were already threatened by capitalism. Yet, the Coronavirus might reactivate our civic spirit. I see this virus as an invitation to reflect more deeply about our lives.

I think we’d like to remember at least three things. First, the huge amount of inventive and creative ways in which we share our loss and fear. For example, when we reach out to our fellow human beings through singing, clapping and helping. The amount of generosity in Spain (and elsewhere) is touching. Second, we are in this together. Third, we can only prevail if we trust each other.

Trust is what actually brings us together, much more than holding hands. Trust reaches further than our hugs. Trust reaches out to the future. If trust is fundamental, it is because it doesn’t distinguish between the lives worth preserving and those regarded as not worth preserving—at least not beforehand.

Trust, of course, can be broken, but only because it was already there to begin with. Trust, as I see it, is related to the kind of thinking about being interconnected that can be found in mindfulness and ecological thinking. For instance, if I neglect or ignore another person, I also neglect or ignore myself. None of us can exist alone.

***

I believe that the virus will make us remember that we can’t survive without trust and compassion, because we’re all interconnected. We depend on each other. This interdependency is what distinguishes totalitarian regimes from democracies.

Saying this is not the same as giving democratic governments carte blanche. In any democratic society, citizens must critically monitor the actions taken by the government. It’s part of the deal.

In today’s rigid, populistic world of identity politics, we rarely focus on healing the wounds between races, genders and sexual orientations. On the contrary, we often fertilize these, to create enmity and rigid group loyalty. Similarly, sometimes the precautions and arrangements made by politicians can create more panic than calm.

Still, I would contend that the panic is not so much related to the temporary limitations of our individual freedom as it is to how openly and honestly the politicians communicate. It’s obvious that some politicians are corrupted by money and power; they think in terms of voters and elections. Yet, others actually do think. To think is to care for matters beyond our own interests.

Therefore, the best solution is, of course, not a dictatorship but citizenship. In a trusted democracy, when a politician asks citizens to act responsibly (to activate their public spirit), they wash their hands, limit public transportation, keep their distance or stay at home for weeks, as my family does now in Spain (until April 11, as the situation is right now).

When democracy works, politicians don’t have to create new laws, but through honest and thoughtful communication, they can awaken civic spirit.

The civic spirit is not about rights, but about duty, and the silent demands that tie us together. Duty and obligation not only come before rights, they also encourage us to think and act consciously, evaluating whether we need to do a certain thing that may be within our rights.

Do I really need to fulfill my right to mingle, right now, when social contact ought to be minimized? Of course not. This is also why things should not return to ‘normal,’ because many things were abnormal before the Coronavirus: neoliberal greed, resource scarcity, climate destruction, stress, anxiety…

It’s not about our rights, but our shared obligations. Rights tend to reduce everything to a question of being for or against. Life is not that stubbornly simple. No one is for the Coronavirus. In the same vein, no one is for avoiding their grandparents; it is just a necessary and responsible choice.

Civic spirit stresses that the value of our lives is related to what we leave behind—thoughts, behaviours and gestures that enable future citizens to live and act freely.

The Coronavirus puts all of us in a difficult situation. It tests our attitude towards others, and our trust in their maturity and ability to act responsibly. The Coronavirus is not only a catastrophe; it is also an opportunity for us to see ourselves, to relate to the world with more kindness and compassion, and to change our capitalistic forms of life.

The better we act together, the sooner we can start kissing, hugging and drinking together again—like real democratic citizens.

– 26. March 2020

This essay was first publish in The Mindful Word

Kierkegaard: A Responsible Philosopher?

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855) is without a doubt the greatest Danish philosopher. The father of existentialism. In a very simple way, he lived his philosophy. After all, to exist means not only to be alive and breathing but also to “stand out.” 

I always visualized existentialism as a vibe board, where a particular life stands out in an ocean of other lives. The image is romantic but it fits with Kierkegaard. He stood out. 

To the world he is known for setting the tone for such themes as fear, guilt, and anxiety, but also for choosing the choice, freedom, and love. In Denmark, his name is spoken with a certain amount of reverence because it can be difficult not to be seduced by his vision of life and poetic style, but also because he was radical. For example, Kierkegaard was openly critical of democracy when he elevated the individual above the crowd. In fact, he would not see imprisonment in isolation as one of the worst forms of punishment, because the truth emerges, undisturbed, between the individual and God. 

For Kierkegaard, I suggest, it all comes down to four important concepts: the self, truth, freedom, and one’s relationship to God.

Read the rest of the essay in Erraticus

Learn to philosophize

Today, we live in a society organized mainly by capitalism. Not only is making money an objective that guides many people’s lives, but so are prestige, status, and social identity. Even when corporations claim that “people come first,” they refer to their employees’ skills and experiences as “human capital” or “cultural capital.”

Everything we do is a currency that can be counted. This problem can be seen through two concepts: power and freedom.

Today, the power that controls us (i.e. status, prestige, identity) appears invisible unless we pay very careful attention. But—and this is the problem—we rarely pay attention because that which works as an invisible or imperceptible power is also what seduces us not to pay attention.

The consequence is that we are not free. Freedom can be seen as both a problem and a possibility. It is becoming, emphasizing that we become by combining courage to stand against dominating ideals and norms with the imagination that things could be different. Thus, freedom is more than my individual liberty to do whatever I feel like doing because that neglects how everything is interconnected. Freedom is social; it’s about succeeding in creating a sustainable future—together.

Most philosophers – and this is probably no surprise – suggest that thinking is the best remedy against today’s maladies. But in order to think philosophically (i.e. reflect, contemplate, analyze) we must be capable of loving, that is, relating to others and the world with care.

Socrates is the example. He philosophized for free. And he showed that philosophy is social. Perhaps for that reason is it difficult to philosophize today when we have become too narcissistic. “The narcissistic-depressive subject only hears its own echo… Social media like Twitter and Facebook aggravate this development, they are narcissistic media,” wrote Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han In The Swarm.

The question, therefore, is: how do we learn to pay attention?

Philosophy and mindfulness in the schools

The answer is to bring philosophy and mindfulness to schools at all levels, although my errand here is at business schools. Business is, of course, part of the current problem as well as it can become a crucial part of the solution.

Mindfulness is easy to implement as a non-religious meditation practice which helps cultivate and strengthen our capacity to pay attention. With this in mind, future leaders can with greater success make sustainable and responsible decisions that are not grounded in their own egos, or the ego of the board members. The point is to cultivate an awareness that will gradually make it desirable to make decisions on behalf of others – if for no other reason, then because we are all connected.

The combination of philosophy and mindfulness, I believe, is one the strongest assets against today’s rigid achievement society that makes many of us suffer in a way that very few people realize that they themselves are the perpetrators of their own misery. It’s also a strong tool against the current idea that transparency per se is good, although it undermines the most elementary of human relations: trust.

Still, before future leaders can act in a sustainable way, they must be aware of what is actually going on. And it is here that business schools can be part of creating a better future for all, because instead of speaking about attention and concentration, we can develop it. And once future leaders are aware, they will also question some of the models used in business.

The blogpost was originally post at Esencialblog at Toulouse Business School – Barcelona.

What is happening in Catalonia?

The Spanish novelist Eduardo Mendoza has won many literary prices, including the Franz Kafka Prize, in 2015, and the Premio Cervantes, in 2016. Recently, he published a short essay entitled Que está pasando en Catalunya (What is happening in Catalonia).

Like many others, he wants to understand what is happening in the Spanish region of Catalonia, especially, as he notes, because of the “ignorance” and “prejudices” that affect many people’s images of Catalonia and Spain.

It is a mistake to reduce the Catalan nationalist and separatist movement solely to origins in the Spanish Civil War, Mendoza says. Franco’s dictatorial regime is gone. Since the late 1970s, Spain has undergone a difficult, but also impressive, democratic transition. Many of those today who refer to “Franco’s ghost” never lived under his regime; if they had, they would probably be more cautious when using terms such as “Francoism,” “fascism,” and “dictatorships” so carelessly. At the very least, they would be cautious out of respect for all those who suffered and died during that time.

It is true, however, that Catalonia, like the rest of Spain, suffered during the Franco years. Furthermore, the Catalans suffered with respect to their language, and many Catalans wanted to separate themselves from Franco (as did many other Spaniards). “No one doubts the antipathy of the Franco regime towards the Catalan language,” Mendoza writes. And yet, not all Catalans were against Franco. He continues, “we should forget that a good part of the young (and not so young) Catalans volunteered for the Falangist movement.”

The idea of Catalonia revolting against Spain is wrong, because this assumption is based on the naïve generalization of claiming that all Spanish or Catalan people are identical. Spain, as a country, suffered under Franco, just as some Catalans followed Franco freely.

Luckily – and I say this ironically – for the contemporary Catalan separatist, “the habit of adapting history to fit contemporary conviction is a distinctive Catalan identity,” Mendoza says.

Anyone with a little knowledge of what has happened in Catalonia will know that facts are treated with creative elegance that places the separatist within the post-truth, alternative facts, or fake news era. Illustratively, Mendoza draws a comparison between France and Catalonia. While France had a glorious past, one to which we can look for compassion, the Catalans never had one. Thus, “to hide what they considered shameful, the imagination and artistic talent of Catalans has been dedicated to inventing a past that the society would have loved to have.”

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the complexity of the separatist lie is by referring to Sartre’s concept of “bad faith,” a way of using freedom to deny ourselves the freedom we actually have. This is a strategic way in which some Catalans take away their own responsibility to choose by saying that they have no choice. As a consequence, the independence movement has created a culture of victimization where it is easier to blame Spain than to take responsibility for themselves. For example, blaming the centralization of power in Madrid. Interestingly, Mendoza writes, “if there is place where you can speak about savagely centralism it’s in Catalonia. Barcelona has always scorned the second ranked cities …”

Mendoza describes the Catalans as shy and a group whose thinking is not used to getting very far. “They are practical thinkers, but theory and abstraction bores them.” Perhaps, for this reason, some seem to speak of democracy and freedom that, at most, resembles Orwell’s Newspeak. As Mendoza has written elsewhere, if you can freely demonstrate in the street and participate in the Spanish government, then there is, indeed, democracy. However, if you do not wish to accept that democracy is a long and tiring process, then you simply need to organize an illegal election insisting that it is legal.

To begin with, “the participation of Catalans in the Spanish government was encouraged … during the years after the transition.” Unfortunately, with Jordi Pujol, who served as President of the Catalan Generalitat (i.e. the Catalan government) from 1980 to 2003, a systematic plan towards independence was in place: it was found in schools, the media (Mendoza mentions how the Catalan media outlets TV3 and Catalunya Radio moved from being neutral to “separatist organs”), the local government, and via less involvement in the Spanish government. All activities were aimed at creating a Spanish enemy by altering facts. Then came the financial crisis in 2008, which – as is many other places such as in Madrid, Athens, Lisbon – hit the younger generations, and created a healthy and global anticapitalistic movement that, unfortunately, quickly turned into a nationalistic protectionism.

Using his trademark easy-going style, Mendoza writes that, regardless of the mythical stories that Spain and Madrid is stealing, ”you live better in Barcelona than in Madrid.” The morale is: Life is hard, for all, not just the Catalans.

Towards the end of Mendoza’s pedagogical essay, he concludes that there is “no practice which can justify the desire for independence from Spain,” before adding, “Spain is not a bad country. It could be better.” This is true, but so can Denmark, where I am from, and all other countries. Democracy is, after all, a dynamic process.

Mendoza succeeds in killing a few myths, but whether these efforts are enough to make people less ignorant, only time will tell. Nevertheless, it is good to see that more and more Spanish and Catalan intellectuals are participating in uncovering the political theater, where politicians (most notably Puigdemont & co) play with the Catalan people’s emotions by selling certain beliefs, irrespectively whether these beliefs are true or false.

So, when Mendoza writes that there is “no practice which can justify the desire for independence from Spain,” then he emphasizes that the emotions and beliefs behind the separatist are unreasonable and unjustified, despite how some Catalans feel. Therefore, it is healthy, as Mendoza says, to question our ideas, to explain things to each other, and to eliminate prejudice, ignorance, and incomprehension.

Mendoza shows that sometimes thinking is painful. For example, Puigdemont & co use “freedom” and “democracy” as tranquilizing slogans, yet if we pay attention, it’s obvious that their use refer to a superficial understanding (if not simply a nationalistic misunderstanding). At most these slogans are sleeping pills that hinders an open and honest examination of a challenging conflict, an examination that requires empathy and compassion. Elsewhere, I ‘ve argued that compassion is needed in Catalonia, not as something artificial, but as something that arises naturally in complex and tense situations.

A difficult road lies ahead – for all parties.

 

Kierkegaard’s True Love

In the twilight of Søren Kierkegaard’s life, he begins to question his own philosophical fundament. He did not plan this. Actually, he would prefer to avoid it. But it is happening. While lying for nearly five weeks at the Royal Frederiks Hospital certain images, memories, and ideas surface.

Some of these trouble him.

He inscribed himself at the hospital after suffering from a blackout in the middle of the day. The purpose for this inscription is not recovery. Although he is only forty-two years old, he knows that this is a last preparation for the inevitable fact of life: that it ends. Soon he will meet his only master: God.

What he didn’t expect were the questions now emerging.

Read the rest of the short story here

Indifference to Power

A few weeks ago, I read an interview with Noam Chomsky, who claimed that neoliberalism is destroying democracy. He said something similar when I heard him in Barcelona just weeks before the US election that would bring Trump into power. Although always educational, Chomsky tends to be full of despair. Or, in other words, he is far better (and very good indeed) at analyzing than suggesting how to overcome neoliberalism.

Therefore, it was with great interest that I came upon the new book Postanarchism by Saul Newman, who is a professor of political theory at Goldsmith, University of London. It turned out to be a stimulating acquaintance.

Newman doesn’t counsel pessimism or despair; rather, he explores “the contours of a new kind of political terrain, one that is opened up by the nihilism of the contemporary condition.” We are witness, he says, of a new paradigm “that takes the form of an autonomous insurrection.”

Autonomous insurrection could have been the title of the book as well; what the book offers is not another theory of revolution, but rather how to stand up against power. That is, the rejection of the institutionalized forms of leadership as well as all the norms and ideals of neoliberalism that control our lives.

The book is mainly structured around Foucault, but debated illuminatingly with Benjamin, Sorel, Le Boétie, and Stirner—the latter I have never seen used so convincingly. In fact, the book is a strong case for an ethical and political transformation based on a singular will to embrace life.

The German philosopher Max Stirner helps Newman articulate why and how we may distance ourselves from power; from Sorel and Benjamin, he emphasizes how an ontological anarchism is “pure means without end,” and last from La Boétie, he suggests that “we are always and already free.”

The anarchistic ontology that underlies Newman’s project is related to the idea of thinking and action free from any predetermined end. If there are any predetermined ends, we are not really free. Anarchism, therefore, “is a form of politics and ethics which takes the value of human freedom and self-government—inextricably linked to equality—as central …” It is also here where Newman presents his strongest argument against neoliberalism, which is non-power.

Postanarchism, he says, “can be understood as starting from the non-acceptability of power …” Power affects all aspects of our lives—our bodies and minds. “The totalizing nature of the neoliberal regime lies in the fact that we are governed in the name of our own freedom.” We exploit ourselves through our own obedience to the controlling power structures, which only requires our “voluntary servitude.” It is also here—to overcome this problem, that we live as if we wished for our own destruction—that Newman introduces Stirner, who claims that we live in a haunted world, one of abstractions, or “spooks,” or “fixed ideas,” such as “human essence, morality, rational truth, society, freedom—which are claimed to be universally understood and to which we must aspire.” Yet, Stirner shows that there is no essential or unchangeable truth. The challenge, however, is not to follow along with neoliberalism’s favoring of individuals while it nurtures egoism, but to cultivate ourselves as autonomous beings. To take care of ourselves is to affirm ourselves, not some transcendental concepts that takes us away from life.

Stirner succeeds in pleading for such care without falling into selfishness because his idea of the self is a “creative nothing,” a constant flux of becoming.

Thus, the insurrection is a struggle for the autonomous life. Instead of liberating people from power, they should constitute their own freedom, Newman writes. Or constitute their “ownness,” their autonomy.

Newman follows Stirner and uses the concept of “ownness” instead of freedom, mainly because freedom is so problematic today. Ownness refers to self-ownership or mastery. Stirner is quoted for saying: “I am free from what I am rid of, owner of what I have in my power or what I control.”

Indifference to power, as presented in this book, is non-violent. Newman does not advocate for violence, but joy. “[T]he insurrection is a movement of joy, conviviality and the happiness experienced in being together with others.”

Perhaps for this reason, it is a joyous book—one that doesn’t leave the reader in despair, but full of strength to act in more beneficial and existential ways. It’s a book that cares about life. So, instead of launching an assault on power, one should affirm oneself. According to Newman’s reading of Stirner and La Boétie “power does not exist.” I believe he is right.

“To say that power is an illusion is not of course to say that is does not have real effects; rather, it is to deny power’s power over us,” the author clarifies. Rather the point is that power systems are always fragile and—just look at modern governments—and yet, they only become powerful through our free acceptance of them.

“We become free,” Newman writes, “only when we act as though we are already free.”

I highly recommend this book. It is clearly written, well-argued, and very convincing in its diagnosis of contemporary capitalism. But also—and perhaps more importantly—I recommend it because it shows us that another world is possible.