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The Crisis of the Democracies

By
March 15, 2012

Stéphane Hessel, editor of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Edgar Morin believe it is our right to do more than merely survive. (With free eBook download.)

03152012_fellow575_01.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by Giant Ginkgo

Download The Path to Hope as an eBook here, courtesy Other Press
Under good government, poverty is shameful; under bad government, wealth is shameful.
—Confucius

The true life is absent.
—Arthur Rimbaud

Why Reform and Transform?

Let us begin by listing a series of negative factors: the unbridled lust for profits; the deterioration of solid bonds of fellow feeling; the hyper-bureaucratization of both public and private administration; the intensity of cutthroat competition as fair trade degenerates under market pressures; the dominance of quantity over quality; the toxic nature of consumer culture that drives us to purchase products that possess illusory benefits at best; the sharp decline in the quality of food produced by industrialized agriculture and stockbreeding; the helplessness of consumers and small- and medium-scale manufacturers; a citizenry that is increasingly brainwashed and fragmented. Most important of all, the dire shortcomings of an educational system that fences off bodies of knowledge in such a way that it becomes impossible to deal with the fundamental and global challenges of our lives as individuals and as citizens in any organic manner. Finally, the looming crisis of a blind form of political thought that, in thrall to a generalized economic idiocy that subordinates all political problems to market issues, remains incapable of formulating any grand and overarching design.

The glittering success of individualism has brought with it the miserable deterioration of fellowship.

Let us now recite the ills of our civilization: Where it has taken root, material prosperity has failed to bring about any real increase in happiness or mental well-being, as is evidenced by the unbridled consumption of illegal narcotics, anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, and sleeping pills by the well-to-do. The larger goal of societal well-being has been downgraded and restricted to personal material comforts. Economic development has not resulted in corresponding moral or ethical progress. The application of unrealistic deadlines, hyperspecialization, and compartmentalization to the workplace, the business world, political administrations, and ultimately to our very lives, has far too often resulted in spreading bureaucratization, the loss of initiative, and the avoidance of personal responsibility. The glittering success of individualism has brought with it the miserable deterioration of fellowship.

In our society there is a shortage of empathy, sympathy, and compassion. It takes the form
of indifference and a lack of courtesy, often between neighbors and residents in the same apartment building. To say hello or good morning when you meet a stranger acknowledges that person as a human being who is deserving of fellow feeling. By the same token, there is often an estrangement among members of a single company, or even a single family. When a shared sense of mission is replaced by mere personal professional ambition, the previous love in the care given by physicians and hospitals is lost. The same thing happens in teaching, because, to use Plato’s words, “You must have eros in order to teach,” that is to say, love for both what you are teaching and those you are teaching. As the philosopher Axel Honneth rightly points out, “It is only through the experience of love that anyone can attain self-confidence.” The supreme form of the recognition of others is love.

The stock market crash of 1929 triggered the legal rise to power of the Nazis; that rise in turn began a process of spreading conflict that led to the Second World War.

Hence the malaise within the larger context of well-being, the loneliness of millions of individuals in our midst, the increasing number of calls to suicide hotlines. Hence the wide array of consequences: alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, psychic maladies that are symptoms of the loosening of the ties of social reliance (social and family solidarity, and the like). Let us add to this list the myriad minor ills that overwhelm, disrupt, and blight our lives: the endless lines at ticket windows, in banks, in emergency rooms; being sent from one office to another, from one window to the next, the result of overworked employees, in turn a product of overspecialization, each sealed into his or her small domain of expertise, or else the reduction of staff in the name of efficiency and competition. It is not only consumers and people seeking public services who suffer from the overwork and specialization of employees. Those employees themselves suffer from on-the-job stress, psychosomatic illness, depression, even suicide. We must smash the rising tide of bureaucracy and suppress excessive competition.

At the same time, the finest achievements of our own history are coming under fire. The French example is striking: Over the course of the twentieth century, secular, social, republican France had driven into the background a rival France—which was reactionary, closed-minded, xenophobic, racist, and authoritarian. It took World War II, the greatest military disaster that our country has ever suffered, before this second France—waxing nostalgic for authoritarian and reactionary ideas of the past, the xenophobic and racist France that is hostile to all that is foreign, the France that effaced from the pediments of its buildings the motto Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—triumphed under the banner of Vichy. But this second France, tainted by its collaboration with the occupying Nazi forces, collapsed in the face of the Liberation. For a while it seemed as if the democratic, socially responsible France had established itself once and for all. In recent years, however, we have witnessed the resurgence of a rampant Vichyism that cannot be attributed to any military disaster, campaign of collaboration, or occupying forces.

We do not have space to analyze the national and more generalized factors that have driven this plunge into the past. Let us just say that the dissolution of a strong belief in historical progress, the growing uncertainties of the present, waves of economic turbulence, and the crisis of civilization at large taken together are a source of anxiety and anguish that, in the absence of hope for a better future, drive many to take refuge in the certainties of the past, to retreat to a twisted conception of national identity, to make foreigners and immigrants scapegoats, viewing them as enemies who have infiltrated their own country.

A closed culture that has lost its inherent vitality can tolerate no more than a trickle of immigration. Such a culture is incapable of incorporating new arrivals into its social fabric. An open, living culture, in contrast, can take in immigrants in great numbers. The converging and worsening crises of civilization, society, and the economy combine to aggravate the danger. The cracks in society become fissures and crevices, the marginalized and the excluded grow in number, and we wander like so many sleepwalkers toward disasters that we can sense looming but that remain cloaked in the mists of the future. The stock market crash of 1929 triggered the legal rise to power of the Nazis in an anguished, frustrated, jangled society; that rise in turn began a process of spreading conflict that led to the Second World War. The current crisis is exacerbating all existing ruptures, fears, and hatreds, and is plunging us into new abysses. The crisis of the democracies is exacerbated by the economic slowdown, and these converging crises encourage the rise of extremists. The resulting picture is inadequately defined by the word “populism,” even less so given the fact that the left, itself in a state of crisis, has not yet succeeded in directing the growing sense of discontent toward any liberating outcome, and the populist forces, which have been so active in the past, are now fragmented or off-kilter. Moreover, the generalized feelings of powerlessness and resignation threaten in short order to turn into blind rage and frenzy. Hence the urgent need for a new form of thought and a new political approach in all domains.

The Politics of Quality of Life

All the major and minor ills that we have pointed out, factors in political, social, and cultural decline, are in turn sources of an array of multiple deteriorations of the quality of our everyday lives. To fight those ills, we must implement in-depth reforms of both the society we live in and the way we live. We need to overturn and invert the dictatorship of quantity over quality while continuing to supply the amount of goods and services needed to prevent need and destitution. It is essential that we ensure growth and the fulfillment of independence, while integrating those factors into larger communities, and revive a sense of fellowship and discourage selfishness. It is our right to do more than merely survive (that is, more than simply meet our obligations without joy or happiness). And it is our responsibility to see life as part and parcel of growth and fulfillment in relation to other people and with the world. Excitement and wonder and aesthetic pleasure are more than a set of luxuries reserved for the elite; everyone deserves them.

Well-being means quality of life, not quantity of possessions. It entails, first and foremost, emotional, psychic, and moral well-being.

With this end in mind, we propose a path that entails at once a new economic and social policy, a labor policy that both reduces bureaucracy and lessens emphasis on “competitivity,” a new urban strategy and a shift in priorities toward the countryside, new programs concerning agricultural production, a new attitude toward consumption—all of which are diverse and complementary components of an overall policy of quality of life.

Quality of life may at first sound like a synonym for welfare and well-being. But the very notion of well-being has dwindled in contemporary civilization to the strictly material sense that implies comfort, wealth and ownership. These have nothing to do with what really constitutes well-being: furthering personal growth and fulfillment, relationships of friendship and love, and a sense of community. Well-being and quality of life nowadays must certainly include material well-being, but not a merely quantitative conception that chases after always getting more. It means quality of life, not quantity of possessions. It entails, first and foremost, emotional, psychic, and moral well-being.

In opposition to the dictatorship of quantity, calculation, and ownership, we must encourage
a broader policy of quality of life, that is to say, once again, of living well (what the sociologist Alain Caillé calls a “politics of conviviality”). With that objective in mind, we must discourage the multiple factors that undermine the quality of air, food, water, health, and climate. Any gain in energy efficiency necessarily translates to an improvement in health and quality of life. Detoxifying city centers plagued by an addiction to automobiles will reduce the incidence of respiratory diseases and psychosomatic afflictions. Reducing our dependence upon industrial farming and livestock breeding will necessarily benefit rural farmers, and cleaning up and reclaiming our water tables—our source for clean, safe water—will help to restore the quality of our food supply and safeguard consumer safety and health. Weaning ourselves off our addiction to superfluous goods that pretend to offer seduction and enjoyment, our squandering of disposable objects, and the rapid succession of fashions that make products obsolete in the blink of an eye will allow us to reverse course and halt the frenzied race after the “new and improved” in favor of a calm pursuit of “truly good and better.” That pursuit will take place within a continuous process favoring two essential currents: the re-humanization of our cities and the revitalization of our countryside. Both of those processes are necessary if we are to maintain the quality of our lives. The latter process entails reviving small towns and villages by the introduction of telecommuting; the return of the local baker, the bistro, the post office, the elementary school; the maintenance of the local roads and public transportation. Revitalization and repopulation of the countryside go hand in hand.

At the same time, we must reform public administrations and corporate administration. In this context, we must debureaucratize, derigidify, and decompartmentalize. We must offer initiatives and opportunities to civil servants and corporate employees to become more agile. We have to make sure that kindness, patience, and attention are given to all those who interact with public offices, beginning with the elderly and those who face challenges with language or lack a solid command of mathematics. The reform of the state does not depend on increasing or decreasing the number of jobs, but rather results from no longer considering human beings as objects that can be quantified but as living beings endowed with autonomy, intelligence, and emotions.

Well-being entails individual growth and fulfillment within the context of a community of
relations. Our lives are polarized between the prose of everyday life, a life that we experience out of obligation or duty, and the poetic aspect, which brings fullness, fervor, and exaltation to our lives. This is the experience that we find in love, friendship, collective activities, celebrations, dances, and amusements. The prose of everyday life is necessary to our survival. But poetry is necessary for us truly to live. Our politics of a successful or vibrant civilization allows our fellow men and women to fully express their poetic inner lives.

Youth Policies

We must set forth a youth policy that recognizes what an adolescent is in sociological and cultural terms. Adolescents are the weakest links in society’s chain (because they are the least integrated into society’s fabric, caught between the cocoon of childhood and full membership in the ranks of adulthood) and at the same time the strongest links in that chain (because they are endowed with the greatest amount of energy, the most vigorous ambitions, the greatest capacity for revolt and rebellion). Youth can be an explosive and liberating force, but also an unbridled and destructive power when it is marginalized and ghettoized. We saw clear cases of this truth in the Paris region in 2005, and again in London in the summer of 2011. A youth policy not only engenders solidarity and fellowship through civil service. It also guides us to a fellow feeling for the problems of youth as well as recognition of the inherent dignity of all the young people that society has rejected.

Remoralization

Because ethics is drawn from personal responsibility and social solidarity, everything that we have set forth above contributes to the ethical revitalization and, more broadly, the general remoralization of a society that is currently being degraded and undermined by spreading irresponsibility and the expansion and amplification of corruption.

Corruption has become a major issue. It is a problem that plagues public administrations, the state, and candidates who win elections. Corruption has spread to all walks of life because of the reigning values of money and the deterioration of standards that tend to restrict selfishness and egotism. No process of remoralization can be satisfied with mere lessons in morality. It must begin by challenging the uncontrasted reign of the profit motive and by illuminating the importance of solidarity and fellowship. At the same time, it is necessary to restore standards of morality for public servants and officials—first of all by example, and over time by increasingly stringent enforcement. The same applies to all professions that involve a mission and a fiduciary responsibility toward society (physicians, teachers, judges, elected officials, and so on). That is why we advocate the creation of a state council for ethics (formed of elected officials, members of the judiciary and law enforcement, educators, well-known figures in the arts and humanities, humanitarian activists, and so on) that can plan and implement a campaign to teach values of Confucian benevolence and responsibility to all those who wish to undertake a public career that entails responsibility or power or both.

Labor and Employment

The crisis in the world of work is twofold, affecting working conditions and employment. Working conditions have become increasingly unpleasant and hostile. One main factor is the speedup imposed on workers by the pressures of cutthroat competition and the growing demands of productivity (taking the metrics we use for machinery and equipment and applying them to human beings). The reform that we have sketched out entails introducing into business and public administration an authentically human form of rational productivity. Such an approach would restore communications between compartmentalized sectors and encourage both creative initiatives and the involvement of one and all in the resulting whole. Scheduling should be based on the degree of interest of the work, the fatigue factor, and safety, rather than by dictating a fixed number of hours (the forty-hour workweek, for instance). Likewise, we propose modifying some retirement ages and eliminating a prescribed retirement age in those professions where age is irrelevant. This is already the case in politics, the arts, research, university teaching, and so on. Of course this requires regular checkups to monitor workers’ mental and physical health. Otherwise, depending on the nature of the work and the interests of the workers, retirement age would not be mandated.

The policy of budget cutting leads only to a worsening of the recession, more job losses, a drop in salaries and revenues, and a reduction in consumption.

In terms of employment, we propose stimulating the creation and development of all activities that contribute to the quality of life. The welfare state is in decline everywhere even though the basic achievements that it brought about still remain intact (though for how much longer?). A new kind of social assistance is necessary. Not only must we provide aid to the sick, the unemployed, and the poverty-stricken; public assistance must also extend to the creation of businesses and services necessary to the collective quality of life. Thus, the social-investment state must complement the existence of the welfare state.

The Economic Multi-reform: The Pluralistic Economy

We advocate a fair and equitable economy, both socially responsible and characterized by solidarity in the context of a larger and pluralistic economy.

Whenever lower prices are due to exploitation of workers who are paid below-subsistence wages, are forbidden to organize into unions, and who do not enjoy a pluralistic political system, a tariff should be leveled on those imports.

Those who denounce capitalism are incapable of theorizing an even minimally credible alternative; those who consider capitalism immortal are resigned to it. Social democracy has fallen silent on the subject of what was once its principal enemy.

Instead of resignation in the face of a capitalism that is considered immortal, or the contrary belief that capitalism is in its death throes, a pluralistic economy incorporates the capitalist
economy and the various multinational companies, but it progressively restricts its sphere of operation. The pluralistic economy abolishes its all-powerful status, while taking great care to exercise strict control over finance capitalism. A pluralistic economy works to develop small and medium-sized businesses, and encourages the economics of social solidarity, fair trade, and ethical business practices.

1. A socially responsible form of economics that promotes fellowship entails encouraging cooperatives of production and consumption, professional organizations and solidarity associations, ethical savings and loans and institutes of microcredit, and establishing new legislative and fiscal measures designed to finance local projects that create jobs.

2. An economy predicated on fairness leads to the deployment of a form of fair trade that
safeguards the interests of small producers and manufacturers, on the one hand, by restricting and eliminating predatory middlemen and, on the other hand, by maintaining a price level that is adequate to buffer the market against fluctuations in the availability and price of raw materials. It requires neutralizing predatory practices by large-scale middlemen, especially in terms of the consumption of foods, where producers are forced to accept too low a price and consumers are forced to pay too high a price.

3. A green economy entails not only replacing pollution-producing forms of energy with healthier forms, and therefore installing new means of production of green energy (solar power, wind power, hydraulic power, geothermal power). It also involves large-scale projects for urban humanization and depollution. It will lead to a reduction of government subsidies for industrialized agriculture and redistribute those same subventions to farm-based or organic agriculture. We must undertake a modern version of the New Deal by launching large-scale infrastructure projects. These projects create jobs, drastically lower unemployment, and improve the economy. In contrast, the policy of budget cutting leads only to a worsening of the recession, more job losses, a drop in salaries and revenues, and a reduction in consumption. That, in turn, worsens the social crisis while claiming to improve the economic crisis.

Encouraging local food consumption would provide us with farm-raised high-quality products and prepare us to better withstand the food crises that are increasingly likely to sweep the planet.

4. All politics must take into account environmental and ecological issues among the fundamental concerns bound up with quality of life, but it cannot be restricted to ecology. The progressive retreat from the realm of nuclear fission must go hand in hand with continuing research into nuclear fusion. In order to better inform the citizenry concerning these issues, we propose the creation of a panel of investigation into the overdevelopment of nuclear power, the shortage of reliable information about risks, and the underdevelopment of renewable power.

5. The state as an investor in society. The welfare state is increasingly being ravaged by globalization. We need to safeguard the basic guarantees that it has maintained or created. At the same time, it’s necessary to develop the state as a largescale social investor. Social investment by the state includes encouraging with credits (which can be repaid, in case of success) all the creations of small- and medium-scale businesses in the areas of health, community interaction, various forms of aid, and the aesthetics of everyday life. The state as investor must commit to a new New Deal by undertaking a policy of major public works in order to develop piggyback railroad facilities, widen and dredge canals, create belts of parking facilities around cities and downtown areas, encourage consumers to use nonpolluting public transportation and individual means of transport. All this will make it possible to create jobs and at the same time enhance the quality of life. The expense of major public works to increase healthful lifestyles in major cities will be more than paid for over the years by the decrease in sociopsychosomatic illnesses caused by stress, pollution, and poor health.

6. Free and fair competition can thrive only in a marketplace that is governed by rules. Cutthroat competition is an exaggerated version of free and fair competition that undermines working conditions and leads to firings. Those firings, in turn, increase the burden of work placed on those who still have their jobs. Because cutthroat competition is “justified” by the need to respond to the low costs of imported goods, we propose taxing imported goods whose low price is due to the extreme exploitation of workers who are not free, as in China. Whenever the lower prices are due to the exploitation of workers who are paid below-subsistence-level wages, are forbidden to organize into unions, and who do not enjoy a pluralistic political system, a tariff should be leveled on those imports. This is a clear illustration of our twofold imperative: globalize and deglobalize, with the latter resulting in variable and temporary customs tariffs in order to protect from utter destruction certain local, regional, or national economies.

7. We will restrict financial speculation by closely monitoring and controlling the banks, vigilantly supervising the credit-rating agencies, taxing short-term transactions, prohibiting speculation on price fluctuations, enacting an antitrust law against monopolies and oligopolies, and acting internationally to eliminate tax havens.

8. Develop subsidies for farm-based and organic agriculture rather than for industrialized agriculture and livestock breeding.

9. A payment for underprivileged families, modeled on the Brazilian Bolsa Família, will enable
them to pay for the education of their children and their most urgent needs.

All of these measures will restrict the domain of capitalism, the dictatorship of the profit motive, and the power of financial lobbies within our democratic system. They will bring about a genuine revival of the economy by directly fostering preferred sectors, especially the green economy, and by discouraging the worst aspects—the economics of waste, the superfluous, the disposable, as well as products with mythological or illusory value. This will lead to an enhanced quality of life.

Excerpted from The Path to Hope by Stéphane Hessel and Edgar Morin
Copyright © Librarie Arthème Fayard, 2011
Originally published in French as Le chemin de l’espérance
Translation copyright © 2012 Antony Shugaar
Published by arrangement with Other Press LLC

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Stéphane Hessel was a member of the French Resistance during World War II, a diplomat, editor of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and is a concentration camp survivor. His book Indignez-vous! (Time for Outrage!) has sold over three million copies worldwide.

Edgar Morin is a renowned French philosopher and sociologist, and was a Resistance fighter during World War II.

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