donderdag 15 december 2011

Levinas and Egoism

Egoism is bad. That's what we learned and the idea is deeply embedded in the surrounding Christian culture. But the idea is definitely not limited to Christians. The well known British Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman for example propagates the same idea in his numerous books. He opposes to the strivings of the ego selfless devotion to the Other and thereby confirms a mindset that is deeply rooted in the West.

Many people who think this way believe their views about the badness of the ego and selfishness to be confirmed in the writings of Levinas. By his emphasis on the ‘Face of the Other’ and on the inroad the Other makes on the I, Levinas seems perfectly ready for annexation into the originally Christian ideas about original sin, the wickedness of man and his selfishness. That could also explain why, precisely in the Calvinist Netherlands, Levinas relatively early became popular. Levinas is thus placed in line with the Christian denouncers of human selfishness and messengers of neighbourly love. According to this view he is, in short, an outstanding example of a moralist.

I have always objected against this view and fortunately recently a thesis has been published which goes into this matter more deeply. The thesis has been written by Henk den Uijl, who graduated in Philosophy of Management and Organization at the Amsterdam Vrije Universiteit, and is entitled Beyond Egoism and Altruism. A Levinasian Approach. In it Den Uijl calls, using the work of Levinas, for considering egoism as morally neutral.

That’s quite something, precisely because this call conflicts with the prevailing thought which by Den Uijl is characterized as a form of dualistic thinking. With dualism he means a polarized system of two opposing poles, of which one pole is good and the other bad. In this case, altruism is good, egoism is bad.

According to Den Uijl the prevalence of this dualism comes to the fore in the observation that “when theorized about it, people will say that altruism is better than egoism”. To this Den Uijl opposes that, “to say this (the ego) is wrong or good is a categorical mistake, the egoism is the (not yet) about ethics or morals”. Egoism has its own area where it is in place and should not be seen in a hierarchical relation to altruism. “Egoism is ethically neutral, and is good in the sense of enjoying life, yet not in an ethical sense. There is no definite hierarchy between egoism and altruism. Egoism is not something condemnable; it is no normative notion at all”.

How for this position Den Uijl harks back to Levinas becomes clear in his presentation of Levinas’ assessment of egoism. From that presentation I will present a few sentences that together summarize Den Uijl’s argument and which for the occasion I cite one after another. “He (Levinas) does not see egoism as a vice, rather, it is the very way a subject in solitude behaves through intentionality; the ego wants to understand, or better, grasp the world so to suspense anonymous being”. “Egoism is the very way an ego stands in the world. It is strange to say that the ego perceives the world wrong, for who else should perceive the world than the ego?”

Den Uijl tells us that when he talks about egoism in these terms to managers and economists, they sometimes find this very hard to swallow. Their reactions are often defensive. Den Uijl explains this because of the negative load the word egoism got under the influence of Christianity.

Apart from that, in those very circles of managers and economists, he also encounters the exact opposite. In those cases altruism is seen as naive and therefore bad, and egoism is hailed because individual ambitions and covetousness could engender the collective’s prosperity. Here dualism appears again, says Den Uijl, with its associated but now inverted hierarchy.

Apparently it’s hard to stay calm when it comes to egoism and quickly ideological terms slip into our discourses : there is either total rejection (as in Christianity) or total embrace (as in the extreme market-ideology). To these extremes Den Uijl (in line with Levinas) rightly opposes the idea that there is no hierarchy between egoism and altruism, and that they constantly alternate.

Once one realizes this, it starts sounding quite outdatedly dualistic to hear philosophers say that in our time the Christian emphasis on charity is crucial. As for example the Dutch philosopher Andreas Kinneging did when he said that “Christianity, based on neighbourly love, makes people less selfish and makes them more focused on the community and the other”. For this reason, according to Kinneging, Christianity coexists better with democracy than Judaism and Islam do.

Kinneging says so despite the fact that by now the Christian dualism and the privileging of altruism are experienced by many people as an overstrained ideology and have lost much of their credibility. It is no coincidence that Alexis De Tocqueville, whom Kinneging holds in high esteem, could define himself as still only a ”Christian by culture”, not by faith. He could not really believe all that anymore.

Also see A Real Shame and Emergency Shelter

dinsdag 6 december 2011

Greek and Jew

Hannah Arendt's observations about Eichmann remain to the point. They show it is not necessarily far-fetched to see a connection between totalitarian thinking, bureaucracy and our common desire for the creation of order. If such connections exist indeed, honest family men just can become schreibtischmörder à la Eichmann and evil can get a somehow banal character.

But occasionally Arendt could be off and run on. At such moments she had ideas in her head and she was only interested in events that corresponded with those ideas. One of the prosecutors in the Eichmann trial, Gabriel Bach, recounts: “A few days before the trial at once a philosopher arrived, who only used the testimonies and documents which fitted her ideas. With us, the prosecutors, she never even wanted to talk”.

Moreover Arendt could be very severe in her opinion, especially when she speaks about the attitude of the Jews during World War II. According to Bernard Wasserstein she divides Jews roughly into two categories: on the one hand, the passive majority that let itself be led to the slaughter, and on the other hand the members of the collaborationist Jewish councils.

I am inclined to link Arendt's harsh assessment of the Jewish attitude during the Second World War to her predilection of the autonomous, sovereignly acting subject. This predilection is associated with a certain disregard towards people in situations in which their free agency is seriously hampered or absent. That is: people in a tight corner, for example by persecution, poverty, or other kinds of dependency. This contempt is there despite the fact that Arendt, as a German Jew, experienced firsthand what it means to be unwanted. She had to flight to France and finally to America to find safe shelter.

Maybe she found that to be the only dignified way out for independent thinking people. In any event philosophically she felt most at home with the ancient Greeks, who also believed that there is little glory to be gained by carrying out activities directed at earning a living or at creating a minimum of security. Entirely in the classical Greek vein she sees unbound thinking and acting as the most sophisticated and the most pleasant thing a person can do.

It is true the Greeks went a step further and organized things in such a way that servants and slaves performed the lower types of work. Thus free citizens could be completely devoted to the worthy work, such as politics and philosophy. Arendt definitely doesn’t go that far, because in her book The Human Condition she pays much attention to those inferior kinds of work which she calls ‘labor’ and ‘work’. Together with the (political) ‘acting’ which for her embodies the highest species, they constitute the human condition.

Yet Arendt was not unequivocal in this respect, she sometimes contradicts herself. On the one hand she says: one cannot cut up reality, all types of work are part of being human. But elsewhere she argues to sharp distinguish between different types of work, and she puts the lower kinds of work on their place: laboring man is actually an animal laborans, a toiling animal. And no craftsman transcends the result-directedness in the same way as the unbound polismember could. Between the lines it is possible to hear Arendt’s craving for the sovereign existence of the Greek free man.

From that predilection I explain the reserve she shows on more than one occasion towards the Jewish conception of human existence. Because the latter deviates at this point in an important way from the Greek conception. Whereas the Greek view extols a life purified of labor and work, in the Jewish tradition there is no question of such a strive for purity. Sure, a person shall be praised for the time he spends on Torah and study, but the depending economic existence that we lead should be taken fully seriously. Purifying that away would mean, for the Jewish mind, nothing less than a reduction of reality.

Also see Hannah Arendt's Heroes and Levinas and Arendt

zaterdag 19 november 2011

Are Jews smarter?

It is sometimes claimed that Jews are smarter than other people. Indeed, that they are richer as well. I do not know if that’s true. I hear enough stupid things in shul. And I encounter plenty of people there who like me earn average or less.

That does not mean that there are no differences between the Jewish tradition and other traditions when it comes to the place of the intellect. I myself have experience with the Catholic tradition as well, and I daresay that piety there did not primarily engage the intellect. Rather it combined with simplicity, subservenience, humility. The innocence of small children and the statement “Blessed are the poor in spirit” are doing well in Catholic circles. And the Dutch Catholic newspaper De Volkskrant until long after the war considered its readers to be subjects who were to be instructed and entertained (respectively by the bishops and popular novelists).

That does not mean that in those circles people don’t think. But the real thinking is preferably not left to the average believer. That can better be done by intellectual elite troops, such as the orders of the Dominicans or the Jesuits. They are allowed to indulge their theological, philosophical and scientific passions to the full. The responsibility to intellectually lead the Catholic faithful rests mainly on their shoulders.

Within the Jewish tradition it applies that learning befits an ordinary believer as well. Indeed, it is considered an achievement for every Jew to lern, that is to intensively study the sacred texts and to discuss them.

Whether one becomes smarter because of that I do not know. That actually is what René Kahn argues in his Ten Commandments for the brain: ten tips to make the brain perform better. These commandments are, in Kahn’s order: Study, Sleep, Make music, Don’t stress, Make friends, Enjoy prestige, Don’t drink, Sweat, Play. Finally is added: Choose your parents carefully, but that one is not meant seriously because it is obvious that you do not provide the implementation of that commandment yourself. This one only serves to put the rest in perspective.

Whether Kahn really assigns a prominent place to studying, can only be known for sure if for him the order of his tips is important. And if it would be clear that his order runs from major to minor or vice versa. Does he deliberately put "Study" at the beginning and "Play" at the end? That makes a big difference, because when play is more important than study then the Catholic Church may again have an advantage in the maintenance of the brains.

See also La Trahison des Clercs

vrijdag 4 november 2011


Obviously they have all been asleep, the Moodys, the Standard&Poors and the Fitches, when the banks wholesaled their worthless mortgages and doomed debts. The credit rating agencies just continued awarding them top status unblinkingly. With the result that the bubbles grew bigger and bigger, as did the explosions which followed.

But now we are four years from then and now it are mostly state debts which are at stake, I am slightly more inclined to listen to them and to the markets. It might be true that the rating agencies at the moment puncture as much bubbles as they create.

I think so firstly because the rating agencies themselves are shocked by the extent to which they have let themselves be carried away in the financial charade. They seem to have resolved to be more critical in their assessments and to explicitly name and shame obscure and misleading financial constructs.

And secondly because the credit rating agencies, with in their wake the markets, seem to operate in a way which is less speculative and alienated from reality. This I gather from the fact that on the rare occasions that the EU and individual governments show some willingness to really put their financial affairs in order, markets react immediately. At such a moment the interest rate on government bonds goes down and the stock markets go up. Apparently then serious calculations are being made by rating agencies and financial institutions that demonstrate that trust is justified again and that investing can pay again.

The circumstance that what governments announce is generally felt not to be enough for a lasting effect, in my opinion does not alter that conclusion: apparently there are bottoms and ceilings. To that I connect the conclusion that, despite the disproportionate financial fictions, there still is a connection to the real economy. So that there is question of a reality check which aims at serious returns on investments.

The importance of this can be clear when you consider that it could be quite different. It is not inconceivable that markets at some point do no longer respond at all to political initiatives, that there is not any inhibition left whatsoever to interest rise and to speculating the euro to death, and that you no longer need any credit rating. Except for a number of speculators, that’s what we rightly fear the most.

zaterdag 24 september 2011

A Palestinian state

What arguments can you bring in for not wanting a Palestinian state right now?

The idea can be: we must add the West Bank to Israel because that is ancient Jewish territory. This is an ideological position which has for its aim to annex the area. That is simply illegal.

You can say: If Israel can no longer fly over the West Bank, it loses the military control over the airspace and it becomes harder to control the borders. I think that’s true. But I would like to connect this with another thought: if military power is so important, make sure you – unlike minister Lieberman does – maintain contacts with your neighbors in a proper way. Because the loss thereof is probably of more importance when it comes to controlling your military position.

You may think: the Palestinians want to drive in Israel into the sea. Hamas says so explicitly, and that makes negotiating quite impossible in my eyes. Abbas and his club recognizes, at least verbally, the existence of Israel. I think we should cherish that.

The thought may be: besides the rockets from Gaza we will now get them from the West Bank as well. That could very well be the case indeed because Abbas’ authority is not large enough to be able to prevent that from happening. I would not know what you can do against it, so this seems to me to be a real problem.

Thus I arrive at three arguments for and one against. Of course there are many more issues and arguments to bring in, but I think my considerations soon will follow the pattern that just came out: more arguments for the Palestinian state than otherwise.

What I fear is that for the current Israeli government the first argument has the heaviest weight, that’s to say it embraces the ideology of Greater Israel. And that all other arguments must give way to this argument. Over against that position, I like to think that if we let go of the ideology, business can be done about the rest.

Also see Thought Police

vrijdag 9 september 2011

Levinas and Israel

In a weblog which among other things is interested in Levinas, Judaism and Israel the following question cannot be missed: what was Levinas’ position vis-à-vis Israel?

The first thing to notice when answering this question, is Levinas's commitment to the state of Israel. That attachment was not immediately there – like many others in the Orthodox Jewish environment in which he moved, he initially did not care a lot. But from the fifties onwards to Levinas applied what applied to his compatriot of equal age Raymond Aron: if he was to see that country disappear, he had not had the strength to live on any longer. Not that he has ever thought of migration to Israel, because he was simultaneously too much attached to France for that.

As to the political situation in and around the Jewish state, he generally kept himself away from that. He shrank from publicly commenting on current events.

Based on the rare occasions that he actually did comment, you could reproach him with a certain naivety or Schöngeisterei. Such as in a commentary in which he shows his enthusiasm for the ideas which he believes underly the modern states in which he feels at home, namely France and Israel. Solemnly he writes, after his first visit to Israel: “When a Jew is attached to a large modern Western state, or if he establishes a just state on ancestral land, then he joins again the true tradition of thinking”.

But he also realizes that philosophy cannot do much in the confrontation between politics and ethics, which he thinks is at issue in Israel. Thus he says in an interview with Alain Finkielkraut following the massacre in Sabra and Shatila in 1982: “Conflicts such as between morality and politics are unfortunately not likely to be solved by philosophical reflection”. The thing we should refrain of anyway, he says, is “invoking the Holocaust to say that God is with us in all circumstances. Because that is as odious as was the Gott Mit Uns that was written on the couple belts of the executioners”.

Maybe at this point his naivety gets an assertive trait, because when Finkielkraut in that discussion suggests that the pure reflective soul may well escape the quagmire of history, then he turns Schöngeisterei as it were into a badge of honor by embracing it: “For fear of being called a beautiful soul, one is rather an ugly soul”.

More problematic is that, on one of the few occasions that indeed he philosophically addresses a question on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Levinas does with his ideas not add much new or enlightening value. He was asked whether for the Israeli the other is not primarily the Palestinian. “The Other”, he responded, “that’s the fellow-man, not necessarily the close neighbor, but the latter also. And in that sense being-for-the-other is: being for the close neighbor. But if your close neighbor attacks another close neighbor or does an injustice to him, what can you do? At that time the otherness changes of nature; the otherness then can appear as an enemy, or at least the problem poses itself that you need to know who is righteous and who is unrighteous, who is right and who is wrong. Sometimes people are wrong”.

For the length of such a passage Levinas to me becomes instantly irrelevant. Because therein he simply joins in the common discourse of the legal and historical sciences and of the rational considerations of legitimate interests, as they are known to us from social and political philosophy. This is not to say that this discourse is not important - on the contrary - but simply that Levinas does not add anything original to the sophisticated ideas that others have already formed in this field.

Thus I come to a conclusion that I reached already before. In the political field – that is the macro level of human interaction – the use of Levinas is very limited. However, at the meso and micro level, at which for instance the human interaction in organizations takes place, he may be useful all the more.

See also How naïve is Levinas really?

vrijdag 26 augustus 2011

The village of Norway

After the attacks in Norway I read a few comments about the village-like character of Norway. There there still is a sense of community, people trust each other and they keep Europe and cosmopolitanism out. It sounds almost like Geert Wilders’s dream, if only those damned socialists would not cherish their Muslims so dearly. In this village, ritual slaughter is allowed to Muslims and not to Jews, and Geert would rather have that exactly the other way round.

Indeed, something village-like cannot be denied to Norway. Attacks were unknown from personal experience. Perhaps therefore Breivik’s crime hit the people extra hard, though the kind of suffering which is caused this way is universally terrible, wherever it occurs.

Something remarkable, I would say village-like, there was also to the first reactions of the conference participants on the shots of the terrorist, namely immediate associations with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To clarify this reaction, it is important to know that the day before on the island Utoya the people had been extensively involved in promoting the Palestinian cause.

Among the issues discussed some were, to my opinion, important and worthy of consideration, such as calls for ending the occupation of the West Bank and support to the formation of a Palestinian state.

But there were also problematic issues. The Foreign Minister Gahr Stoere, for instance, who attended the conference, would without problems approve of a plea for a boycott of Israel – see photo –, which is something else than a boycott of the settlements. And he brought to the conference the demonizing set of ideas which after the attack was expressed once again by Norway's ambassador to Israel: that Hamas’s terrorism against Israel is more justified than other terrorism. In short, they were bashing Israel a few days long already.

In this situation of village-like convenient arrangement of good guys versus bad guys, the following can happen. According to a report by Adrian Pracon, a survivor of the massacre, when the shooting began some people immediately thought of Gaza. This was going to be a simulation of what they had learned just now, so of what according to the conference Israel uses to do in Gaza.

“Some of my friends tried to stop him by talking to him. Many people thought that it was a test ... comparing it to how it is to live in Gaza. So many people went to him and tried to talk to him, but they were shot immediately”, tells Adrian Pracon.

Except that the idea that it might be serious was (happily) far away, the only connection the conference participants were able to establish between the shooting and the rest of the world was the thought of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Apparently to these people words like ‘violence’, ‘shooting’, ‘quarrel’ are largely synonymous with that conflict. It has become proverbial for everything which has to do with shooting, you can think of nothing else anymore.

When people start to think as schematically as this, what happened in their heads? Because something must have happened, unmistakeably. People have done something to images in their heads, or they have let others do something to them.

Somehow distortion of information takes place. Indeed, in substance, there is no justification for such stereotyping and for attributing such negative symbolic value only to Israel. Not because there are no terrible things to report. But because that is not unique to Israel and not highly distinctive either.

It is true, I agree with everyone who thinks that the creeping colonization of the West Bank is a dirty trick, and that every victim that falls in the fight against missiles from Gaza is one too many. But it must also be said that about this situation in Israel there is a lot of discussion. There are historians who with unprecedented openness figure out what exactly happened and happens and who do not spare Israel. And this summer 60,000 Palestinians are on vacation in Israel.

In addition, there are quite a few regimes and militias in the world that make as many or more victims and in more horrible ways. And such for many years already, and among its own people. Or would the idea be that in those cases it is just the leaders who are bad? They are depraved – the common people in all these countries are, as noble savages, only victims. And would it be thought perhaps that in Israel the whole community is bad?

Yes, something like that must be the case. A suchlike distortion must take place in people’s minds, otherwise I cannot explain the exclusive demonization of Israel. Because objectively spoken, there is no reason why the demoncard should be played exclusively to Israel. So if nevertheless you do so, then you do something yourself - in your head. It happens more often than can be justified, I'm afraid.

Or than well-minded people want to account for, I hope – even in a village. I am justified in hoping so because, after all, the village of Norway has been the scene of the first treaty between Israel and the Palestinians.

See also Thought Police

dinsdag 2 augustus 2011

Thought Police

Moral decisions can be extremely difficult.

Some people point their finger at members of the Jewish Councils of the Second World War or to others who by a wicked enemy were forced into the impossible choice between saving what could be saved or total resistance.

I really would not have known. The most important thing in these matters is, I believe, that we do not too quickly condemn and judge.

There are also questions which are made to look very difficult but which, morally spoken, are cristal clear . For me, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is such an issue. There is nothing difficult about it, that area belongs to the Palestinians and Israël has no business there. In my eyes therefore there is nothing wrong with a boycott of settlement products - easily distinguished from a boycott of Israel or Israeli products in general.

I am sufficiently historian to understand that these areas are attractive for Jews to settle there. After all in Biblical times Judea and Samaria were key parts of the Jewish territory. There are also safety considerations that hint towards occupation, because Israel’s military position is more firm with the West Bank included. And finally ordinary power and land hunger play their parts.

But these considerations don’t make the issue morally more difficult. Given Israël’s foundation in the UN decision of 1947, in the West Bank Israël momentarily literally exceeds its limits, it does not belong there. Moreover, this transgression of borders causes a lot of damage for Israël at the political-diplomatic level. Its safety position suffers more thereby than can be compensated by physical-military positions.

This situation is bad enough, but I think worst of all may be that since the adoption of the anti-boycott law by the Israeli parliament two weeks ago an open discussion on these issues is prohibited. Anyone who objects to the occupation and for that reason calls for a boycott of settlement products is now in violation of the law.

Here no longer only the Jewish country is at stake, but the entire Jewish tradition. This touches the heart of that tradition. Because if there is anything that characterized Judaism for centuries, it were the culture of debate and the many angles of (moral) positions. One may be in favour or against a boycott, but a free discussion on the subject should be guaranteed. Therefore I can completely identify with the condemnation of the law by the Israeli Council of Liberal Rabbis: “This is an unprecedented dangerous step onto a slippery slope that continuously erodes the Jewish character and democratic nature of Israel”.

Thought police does not suit Israël.

maandag 1 augustus 2011


Not seldom the Jewish tradition is praised by people (including myself) for the multitude of opinions that can exist therein. The Talmud takes seriously different interpretations of transmitted texts and encourages discussion about them. Dogmatic coercion is not an issue, and that can be viewed as a pleasant and mature way of dealing with tradition and texts.

But there’s another current within the Jewish tradition which is equally old and respected. This current stresses harmony and a kind of mystical unity of the Jewish people. So, with the two currents taken together, how much polyphony is actually possible within the Jewish tradition as a whole? Let us have a closer look at that question.

Then at a first glance it appears that there is little question of polyphony. Because for example the book of Exodus describes how Moses went up the mountain and was there all alone with God when he received the Torah. The Midrash elaborates on that when it underlines the unequivocality of the revelation by the statement that where there is only the slightest division, the presence of God does not want to dwell. Philo of Alexandria connects to that when he says that all who rebel will be consumed by their inner desires, and Jehuda Halevi emphasizes the existence of a Jewish folk-soul that unites all Jews.

But it also says in Exodus that all the people have been listening to what happened at Sinai. Or rather, have been watching the voices. Furthermore, God proclaimed to Moses on Mount Sinai not only the Torah which afterwards was written down by Moses, but he also gave oral explanations, including any explanations that there ever would be, however contemporary they might be. Because, says the Talmud, even whatever any clever and serious student in the future will ask his teacher, has been revealed to Moses at Sinai. This means that the Torah cannot be but an explosive mixture, which includes many different things, or even contradictory things.

I emphatically confess myself to the current that cherishes the multiplicity of forms and voices. Because I associate the recognition of the multiplicity with a form of maturity. In that sense, I think the Jewish tradition is mature. There is that desire for an idyllic, smooth unity, but the tolerance for dissent is also well developed. This is evident from the multitude of discussing voices in the Talmud.

In our days this appears in yet another way. Namely in the way the Jewish image of the state of Israel is becoming more mature.

For a long time there was only one and therefore dominant image of Israel and its creation among Israeli historians. That was the picture of the small, brave Israel that stood alone against all-powerful Arab enemies. Like David against Goliath. In which picture the state was seen as the messianic, triumphant outcome of two thousand years diaspora and persecution. And in which the failure of peace plans was entirely due to the Arabs.

This was a way for historians to contribute to the unity and morale of the new state. It was their contribution to the myth-creation, a sort of feel-good history that the people needed to achieve the necessary efforts.

But, as happens with idyllic images and myths, they sooner or later get shattered. In the eighties there was a new group of Israeli historians (who are therefore called the New Historians) who opposed that idyllic image of Israel. They call that image one-sided and propagandistic. They are committed to view matters not only from the Israeli perspective. In their view, there is not just one single player (Israël) with the others as puppets. The Palestinians and Arabs are full players.

The self-criticism that is practiced by these historians caused a great deal of fuss: they were accused of befouling their own nest and even left-wing politicians were talking about a suicidal strategy. My point is that these historians have been able to break through the oppressiveness and coercion that is always connected with a closed dominant historical image. Now there is something to choose. There are now several documented and legitimate ways to look at the same thing, there are multiple voices, even if the discussions take place mainly in academic circles.

I myself am inclined to consider the emergence of these countervoices as evidence of the strength of Israeli society. I think it testifies of maturity if a society is able to produce and take seriously this kind of internal critical voices. Comparable to the way Torah always inspired people to take responsibility and to break the atmosphere of mystical unity that can surround the Torah as well. The New Historians are an expression of critical Jewish consciousness and therefore an asset to be proud of.

See also History as an exact science

zaterdag 16 juli 2011

Just in time

Last week The Shame of Reason appeared, the English translation by David Bevan of my book Schaamte en verandering. Right before the holidays, just in time for all those Englishmen, Americans and Australians who on their beaches en masse start reading the book.

Nonsense of course, but perhaps the ‘just-in-time’ may hold with regard to a quite different trend that occupies the media: the impending demise of the traditional booktrade. Within a few years from now, such a book as mine might not find an editor anymore, at least for a paper edition.

Everywhere I hear sad news from the side of publishers and bookshops. In Holland sales of general books shrank in the last five months by 3.8 percent and 4.7 percent in 2010. Publishers delete jobs and titles and join with one another in order to survive. Bookstores are struggling and cut staff. The book-selling markets which are currently best performing are those at the petrol station and supermarket. As causes for this development are mentioned the digitization, the economic crisis and the trend that people read less and less.

Do I myself get sad because of this trend?

Well, if the trend would stand for the demise of interesting ideas that are being well expressed, I certainly would, because I can not easily do without. And indeed, the traditional publishers and bookstores are precisely the places where one can find that. There one may even physically enjoy the nice combination of style and thinking, with or without a cup of coffee. But the question is whether those physical places are really essential and whether good writing in electronic form cannot as well meet my needs.

My gloom is even further relativized because I, frankly, never was a fan of strict literary bookshops, of the psychological novel "as a pillar of our literacy" (Maartje Somers) and of the cliques that go with them. As for me, I am rather sympathetic to those who, as Theodore de Boer recently described with respect to the Dutch poets of the fifties, radically break away from an age-old tradition of adoration of letters. Which break in the vision of De Boer is also a departure from Platonic metaphysics and classical aesthetics.

What remains is that I am pleased with the print publication of my book. Actually I have the best of both worlds, because the full electronic version is already available at the same time.

dinsdag 31 mei 2011

Everybody CEO

I want to expand a bit on the observation of a paradigm shift by which I concluded the previous message. Because that is quite a thing, a suchlike overturning of values, through which what was low-valued acquires more respectability: the real work, the trivial. If it were true, of course.

Confirmation of this trend may be found in the book Everybody CEO by Menno Lanting. In the book the author elaborates on the said paradigm shift, from contempt to appreciation for ordinary work, but now with the focus on organizations. He indicates the implications of this shift in the way we talk about work, leadership and management.

The impact of this shift may in fact be very large. Because the high esteem which traditionally exists with respect to thinking, overview and policymaking was always accompanied by a prestige for a certain - rather narrowly conceived - form of leadership and concomitant reward. That can not continue of course, once you call ‘everyone CEO’, because who is going to pay for that? Moreover, if you take seriously that slogan, then the monolithic image of The Real Leader pulverizes into many images of leadership, because then anyone can be one.

Then a leader is no longer necessarily dominant, or to be found at a distance from work, or heroically taking his the difficult decisions in utter solitude. Then leaders, as Lanting says, suddenly are to be found in the middle of organizations, close to the workfloor. Then it might be that the same people are leaders in one situation and followers in another.

Then it becomes conceivable that more leaders arise like Jos de Blok of a Dutch Neighbourhood Care organization who mentions as his main concern “that I don’t make my own role and position too big. I keep talking about ordinary things and professional content. I’m not really into management and management language and prefer to talk about client situations and the problems that professionals encounter. My assumption is that everything can be solved in the teams. This makes me to have the least (management) consulting as possible”.

This is truly revolutionary. Paradoxically, it means that we (temporarily) still need to rely on the heroic leadership which traditionally is in so high esteem. Indeed, there should be somebody to reduce the number of management meetings, to cut out overhead and to eliminate the woolly language in which we imprison each other. In short, to saw off the branch on which he sits. For a while there is still room for (very) heroic managers.

donderdag 19 mei 2011

Aristotle and the bonuses

The Dutch legal philosopher Thierry Baudet recently wrote a nice article on Ronald Dworkin, Martha Nussbaum and the sustainability of our morality. However interesting the content of the article, on this place I am primarily interested in the end of Baudet’s article. After his discussion of the subtle polemics of Dworkin with his opponents and the activism of Nussbaum, Baudet concludes with the observation that both thinkers don’t show any shortcoming when it comes to high ideals, but fail to translate these into concrete practice.

Is that never ever going to change? I wonder in bewilderment at such a conclusion every time again. Do thinkers time and again accept that they are not relevant to everyday practice and keep critics being satisfied with just noticing that lack of relevance?

Indeed, these observations on the tiresome relationship of thinking to daily life are anything but new. Thus I recently came across a statement of Goethe in which he denounces the speculative, unsensuous and disputatious nature of the work of his philosophical contemporaries. He opposes to them the fellow German countrymen “who, being businessmen, standing in the middle of life, just pay attention to practical matters: they write the best”. And the English of course, “being born as orators and as practical, reality-oriented people”. And Marx formulated his opposition to the prevailing philosophy by saying that it comes to changing the world instead of interpreting it theoretically.

But from that perspective, I find it equally appalling that Baudet promotes Aristotle as a possible remedy for too much high-mindedness and philosophical isolation. Aristotle! The one who said that knowledge of eternal things is much loftier than practical knowledge. And for whom there was nothing more preferable than to dwell in contemplation.

True, among the ancient Greeks Aristotle was the one with his feet most firmly on the ground. Probably it is even for that reason that Baudet recommends him in his article, he can serve as an example against the theorizing of Dworkin and Nussbaum. Indeed, Aristotle has, more than they have, an eye for the paradoxical character of man as a being that is constantly torn between conflicting desires and needs. Moreover, Aristotle gave more close attention to the manifestations of biological and social life than any other ancient thinker.

But when it comes to the point, as far as his fundamental orientation is concerned, Aristotle is entirely in the Greek tradition. He does not really get out of the circle of his ancient Greek colleagues who maintain a hierarchical world view with contemplation at the top and labor at the base. And where the main concern is to stay away as far as possible from labor and as close as possible to the top.

It seems to me that this focus is for a large part responsible for the continuing irrelevance of our Western thinking. As long as Plato and Aristotle remain the ultimate benchmark of our thinking this is not going to change easily. Then the gap keeps reproducing itself.

The intriguing thing is that this reproduction has a parallel in the world of management and organization. The fascination for reflection at a distance to working life is reflected in the practice of our organizations. Up to the striving to make the distance between the thinker / manager and the work as large as possible. The degree of frustration that this causes may be derived from reports, for instance from the world of care and nursing homes. “The distance between the top and the workfloor becomes astronomical. In fact, the two don’t meet anymore”. And the rewards grow along with the distance. Here the Greek ideal of a sublime distance to labor has been realized alsmost perfectly, I would say.

Almost ... and maybe not forever everywhere. Because for instance the Dutch Council for Social Development (RMO) recently gave a revolutionary opinion. It was about excellent social workers in child welfare, which now too often make the transition to management because it pays better and gives more prestige. The RMO wants to keep them in the operational work by better rewarding them, precisely if they refrain from a management position.

This actually is a paradigm shift of the first order, a break with the ancient Greeks.

dinsdag 12 april 2011


The transition from bondage to freedom, is it a jump, or even an absolute break? Or, to put the question differently: a bit more freedom, is that possible to exist once you've got a taste of freedom? Or is a bit more freedom something like being a bit pregnant? Something that does not stop until the freedom or the fruit matures?

That question may be posed in response to the rebellions in North Africa. Are the ghosts completely out of control, will the insurgents in Tunis, Cairo and Benghazi still accept anything less than full democracy and participation? Or is there space left for a half-half situation, for a little more freedom within an autocratic framework?

So, for example, for a little more freedom in a state still run by the military, as now in Egypt. Or for greater involvement of the people while maintaining a powerful and popular king, as in Morocco. Or, as in China, for a bit of freedom in combination with rapid economic growth under an authoritarian party.

Or would half-half not last and should one radically march on? Have the Chinese leaders reached the borders of their ability to keep stupefying their population’s drive for freedom by offering prosperity and will they therefore have to allow more freedom? Will the Egyptian army have to give in to radical freedom-loving forces in the country? Or, if half-half is no option, are they going to choose, as in Iran, for completely stifling all freedom?

Closer to us in Western Europe the above question may be posed as well, be it that, fortunately, we know less physical and statedriven violence. And, another difference, I want to apply the question to the leadership in our companies. There we used to have directive and more or less top-down ways of leadership, but does that still work well? There is a growing number of voices that think it does not work any longer as a standard approach.

Carney and Getz for example state in their book Freedom, Inc. that the hierarchical model has run out. According to them the future belongs to companies that give their employees the freedom to do their job as they think it should be done. Because otherwise these freedom-loving people just walk away. Knowledge workers can not be managed in a controlling manner. The task of the leader is merely to create optimal acting space for his employees.

Another radical sound comes from Alan Murray. In his view managers are only a barrier to the full deployment of their employees and the prosperity of a company. "Their fundamental tendency is to maintain themselves. They are, almost by definition, averse to any change". Moreover, the younger generations don’t let themselves be commanded by parents or bosses. They listen to whát is being said. Not for nothing many people choose a position as worker without fixed tenure.

When you view the radicality of these statements, the opening question of this piece comes up again: once you have smelt freedom, will you not be at odds with any authority? Or is there space left for mixed forms of the authoritarian and the democratic, of hierarchy and freedom. Can these styles co-exist, or has the unfettered, free knowledge worker unmasked the manager as being a conservative potentate in such a way that the two are no longer compatible? That would mean the end of management. If so then we are living in historic times and experiencing a mega trend in both North Africa and in our own organizations.

But, to be honest, I think we must be prepared to manage with the hybrids. Complete freedom, both in North Africa and in our organizations, is something we will have to wait for a little longer. I feel strengthened in this thought – as far organizations are concerned – by a newspaper article that emphasized the indispensability of the organizational controlmodel. It was about the Belgian juridical system which had failed in an investigation into the murder of a student. The report on the police action can be read as a tribute to classical bureaucratic management because its absence is identified as the cause of failure: there was "no team manager, no file manager, no coordinator, (...) no structure, no information management, and leadership was absent. All this could be read as the chronicle of an announced failure".

Also see Must work be fun

zondag 20 maart 2011

Must work be fun

Should work really be fun? Wouldn’t it be enough for work not to be maddening, humiliating, mind-numbing, infantile, or enslaving any longer?

At times the gap may be very large, between the fancy rhetoric about work as selfrealization and the reality that we offer each other in organizations on a daily basis. Probably a more than two and a half thousand years old, classical dichotomy plays us tricks here. Namely the dichotomy between things that are respectable to do and things that are not respectable.

Actually, rather than a dichotomy this is a tripartition, as Hannah Arendt makes clear in her book The Human Condition. It lists 'labor', 'work' and 'action', in which sequence labor stands for activities that always comes back and are never finished, such as cleaning, caring, feeding. Work is the activity of making something, always new: writing a book, building a house, making a deal. Action is done in decision-making and politics.

I take this tripartition as a bipartition because, according to that venerable but overrated classical tradition, two of these activities are more or less respectable, and the third - labor - definitely not. Hence, in our Western culture since antiquity, we do our best to keep the right side of the division line. The white collar is held in higher esteem than the blue collar.

The echo of that hierarchy of values I come across in my own organization, the Amsterdam Municipality. A foremost, widely disseminated striving with us is that people practice their daily work with passion, joy and in full self-realization. Perhaps that striving is precisely the reason why in daily practice the atmosphere within the organization can get so sour. Because by focusing on ‘passion’ we feel justified to ignore labor. Indeed, labor offers little chance for self-realization.

But, of course, such a labor-less situation cannot exist. In Amsterdam streets should be cobbled, bins placed, digital address books cleaned up and invoices sent. Not the right things ‘to make flourish your personality’. But certainly things you really suffer from when they are disregarded.

Actually, in Amsterdam we are hampered a lot by, for instance, messed up digital address books. I am convinced that this situation is rooted in the hierarchy of action-work-labor that Arendt describes. By the way, Arendt in her descriptions can hardly disguise her own aversion to labor. So it is not surprising that people in organizations are trying to escape it. But the impact of that escape remains devastating, because this predilection for fun and self-realization bites in its own tail. If we all just want to have fun the adressbooks get messed up, and the working atmosphere as well.

Also see Nice Work

woensdag 2 februari 2011

Nice work

For an explanation of the Holocaust and its streamlined industrial execution some philosophers point to the high flight of rational thinking in our Western culture. Zygmunt Bauman for example, argues that Western rationality may not have caused the Holocaust, but made it possible and in any event did not help prevent it from happening. The historian Philipp Blom follows him when he says that rationalization in our society is potentially problematic.

Other philosophers, such as Hannah Arendt, offer an entirely different, almost opposite explanation for the functioning of Hitler's extermination machine. They point to the thoughtlessness, the very refusal to use one’s own brainpower on the part of planners like Eichmann and other bureaucrats of the destruction. Such careless stupidity is in the eyes of Arendt the outcome of the banality of evil, or perhaps that banality itself.

I for myself arrive at a position right in the middle between the two mentioned explanations. This can best be formulated as follows: people just want to enjoy working. I mean to say that a person, especially if he also is diligent and wants to do his best, will enjoy having a job, coming up with a strategy, preparing plans and executing them orderly. Banal on the one hand, but with the satisfaction of a certain ordering thought on the other hand.

There is nothing wrong with that, you might say. We use to associate agreeable work quite naturally with working out undisturbed what we have in mind. Without children around, without too many insoluble dilemmas, preferably in an orderly environment, supported by clear goals and adequate resources. That has its own satisfaction.

However innocent that job satisfaction may seem, on closer inspection there are snags to it. Look for instance at what is being done by many executive boards of educational and health organizations and at their inclination to grow and merge, the consequences of which we in some cases very much regret. And by that I do not even refer to those executives who consider those mergers as opportunities for manipulation and personal enrichment, although there certainly are. No, I refer primarily to the bona fide executives among them.

These top executives just enjoy themselves. They come up with one plan after another, dropping them to the level below with the instruction to further roll it out to the underlying levels in order to implement them there. The designers at the top have their fling, but below, and certainly on the work floors, things get clogged up. Or a shadowy maze arises in which people keep each other imprisoned in a web of often conflicting directives and orders. The top prefers not to know too much about those effects because that only would disturb the flow of their zest for work. Viewed from this perspective the objective to ‘just enjoy work’ looks a lot more problematic.

Something similar, but much more horrible and catastrophic, may have played a role in the case of Eichmann and his associates. Besides blinding obedience as a motive for Schreibtischmörder (on which subject Stanley Milgram has written a lot), the simple satisfaction of an orderly performance of duties could have yielded an additional kind of blindness.

’Nice work’ as a blinding motive is perhaps even more banal than is the obedience to - whatever the consequences - just continue the proper performance of an assigned task. What plays a role both in nice work and in obedience, is the influence of the distance between the actor and the person(s) to whom he interacts: the greater the distance, the less you will be distracted from your task by the consequences of your actions. That’s what they have well understood, those executive boards on their upper floors.

The two situations - the one of blind modern management and the one of the blind Nazi extermination bureaucracy – cannot in earnest be compared. But in terms of an underlying pattern they might be comparable. It may be that they both go back to the same source: our desire to come up with plans and our pleasure in working them out straightly and unimpeded. Just being busy nicely and not looking too much at the consequences.

The question is whether the high-minded planners among us could perhaps restrain themselves a bit more and better realize what the actual impact is in reality of their cheerful zeal. And whether street sweepers, youth workers or homeless helpers might perhaps offer us a different model of nice work can offer. In any case, those seem to me to be jobs in which the euphoria of one’s own organizing activity is quickly called to order and in which reality remains soberingly close.