woensdag 29 mei 2013

Totalitarianism is with us

Hannah Arendt showed in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem that totalitarian Germany partly relied on organizational skills and an oiled bureaucracy. Could this statement possibly be reversed by saying that organizations have a totalitarian character? This suggestion is frequently aroused indeed, even by myself. But how exact is that statement?

To begin with one must conclude that a number of parallels is absent. And fortunately so, because I’m talking about the physical violence, the murderousness and the racial discrimination which made Hitler’s Germany the criminal state it was.

But there is also a number of parallels which dó exist, too obvious so to declare the association of organization with totalitarianism as nonsense. And in many cases those parallels refer to aspects which Arendt mentions as characteristic of totalitarian Germany.

A key aspect which she points at is ‘thoughtlessness’. Frankly, I encounter that in organizations with frightening frequency. Too often I hear - otherwise sane-thinking - people say that they get rather unsympathetic or nonsensical things assigned from within the organization. And that they have unlearned to ask critical questions thereabout because they were punished for that already too often.

Thus, on a daily basis many people practice what according to Arendt provides the foundation for any totalitarian regime: thoughtlessness. They practice ignoring their own or other people’s critical voice.

And that happens in an environment which simultaneously is full of rhetoric. It’s all about transparency, making the most of yourself, following your passion, empowerment and other pep talk. Also in this respect a parallel may be discovered with a totalitarian regime: the ubiquitous presence of sweetly colored or inciting propaganda that in the last resort mainly serves to strengthen the grip of the bosses – serving the common good, of course. This rhetoric is an essential part of the control system.

A third parallel is located in the dire situation in which people may find themselves. “Resistance was impossible for the Jews”, Hannah Arendt says in the film about her that recently appeared, “but there is something between resistance and cooperation”. Though in organizations one’s life is not at stake, one’s mortgage, income, or pension may be. So a feeling of being clamped-in may definitely be there, and the job is to seek the vital room for maneuver. Perhaps we have too much to lose, especially in terms of rights and expensive houses. Maybe we are therefore more blackmailable than necessary, and we therewith unintentionally strengthen the totalitarian grip organizations have on us.

Possibly other parallels can be found in the ways in which unwanted persons are systematically blackened, isolated and ostracized. All these parallels together make the question of the relationship between totalitarianism and modern organizational life certainly relevant. Especially since they come together in a frequently encountered cynical view of organizations: these are simply inhuman machines and you better adapt to them. A daily training in this cynicism does not seem to be harmless to me.

Also see Levinas, Bauman and Business Ethics

woensdag 22 mei 2013

The heroic cosmopolitical Individual

To think in complete independence, free from bonds of a national or religious nature, recognizing no collectivity except humanity as a whole.

That’s what Hannah Arendt wanted, and she rightly may be called an icon of autonomous humanistic individuality and uncompromising universality. In the film Hannah Arendt which I saw the other week these features are dramatically expressed when she tells her old friend and Zionist Kurt Blumenfeld on his deathbed that for her the Jewish people means nothing, but his friendship does. He turns off hurt.

In intellectual circles in the Netherlands such a radically individualistic stance as Arendt’s for decades was viewed as an ideal. It was the image progressive Dutch people used to cherish about themselves. That image we, as universally oriented ethical missionaries, coúld have of ourselves because we in those days ignored the fact that also Holland is organized according to the arbitrary principle of the nation state. The underlying illusion – facilitated by our geopolitical insignificance – was that universal values and nationality can merge in an unproblematic way.

But for the attentive onlooker that idyll was pierced with some regularity. Thus, strictly humanistically spoken, a thinker in terms of global citizenship can have no peace with strangers quotas. Because a policy based on the inalienable rights and dignity of every individual can not distinguish between refugees, or view borders as absolute. However, that’s precisely what we do already for years, also because the streams of refugees are getting bigger.

Another example of persistent national-Dutch defensiveness concerns our loitering in acknowledging our guilt to Indonesia. Making excuses for our colonialist behaviour may be considered as the least that such a progressive minded people can do, but to this day it remains problematic. And not necessarily because of any financial implications.

Hannah Arendt definitely cannot be blamed for such double standards. She was not held back by any loyalty to say painful things about Jews or Americans or other groups, if her reasoning led her there. She braved the scorn and hate campaigns she then had to endure from those groups and took the loss of old friends for granted.

What you possibly cán reproach her is that she made such an independence of mind to the standard to which every thinker should comply. In this requirement show up, in my opinion, a form of utopian impatience and a deficient appreciation of the extent to which people simply need group identities.

For it is not that easy for people and populations to break free from ordering principles like ‘nation’ or ‘people’ or ‘religion’, and it is a serious question whether that actually is not too much to ask. You don’t have to be fascistic when you can only limitedly identify with an abstract, cosmopolitan citizenship. It could very well be an existential necessity for many people to primarily identify with a local or ethnic group, before the rest of the world is covered.

Besides, there are pragmatic motives for drawing boundaries. If you do not want to immediately take the suffering of the world on your shoulders, a clear unity like the nationstate provides the most effective scale for organizing (more or less) sustainable arrangements of social security, health insurance and wealth distribution.

From that perspective Arendt could be blamed for a certain severity. She wanted, despite her efforts to practice thinking within context, not to be disturbed too much by historically developed, or pragmatic and therefore random elements. Even though for its bearers these could be of great significance.

I honestly think that Arendt aims a bit too high. That does not mean that attachment to nations or peoples should still have the stone-carved shape of classical Zionism or German or British nationalism. Actually, partly due to the scale of migration and globalization, the rise is observable of various forms of multiple identity in which one culturally focuses on more than one country or nation.

This trend seems to me a valuable correction or addition to traditional identities and nationalisms. Indeed, I would say double – preferably conflicting – passports for one person is a good thing. But that’s still different from the boundless, almost abstract universalism that Hannah Arendt had in mind. Also see Why Heidegger doesn't bring us any further and Hannah Arendt's Heroes

vrijdag 17 mei 2013

Thick and thin morals

Very often anti-Semitism is just vulgar. Historically, it is attributable to fear of an unknown,  different religion, or to jealousy because of a certain prosperity. And up to this day these factors are still effective.

That does not mean that anti-Semitism is easy to combat, but in a sense one can stand above it. Why should one not be different, why should one not be prosperous?

But it’s not always that easy. Certainly in the past there was more than prejudice or jealousy, then philosophical positions were at stake. An important one was the appreciation by ancient and Christian traditions of universalism in our thoughts and actions. For Socrates and Plato something was only true if a reasonable person thought so, because then it would be true for everyone. And for Jesus and Christianity charity is only authentic if it is performed to everyone, no matter how far away and how unknown.

Opposite this kind of love for globality any particularism is in a difficult position. And particularistic the Jewish people has always been and has always wanted to be in some degree. It constituted a clearly defined group, with its own identity, its own tradition and preferably its own country. That could not but collide with a philosophical tradition that never did with less than universal validity. And defense of its own particularism was certainly not easy because many Jews themselves were not immune to the beauty of a universal morality and law.

This ode to universalism is still widely sung. Recently by a Dutch columnist who wrote disparagingly about the morality of monkeys that would be focused only on the own group. The lots of attention for that morality under the influence of primatologist De Waal makes him fear for the universalism of the Christian message. And without universal Christian message, all morality will break adrift, so he fears.

But this love of universalism already for a long time lost the obviousness it once had. A few decades ago postmodern philosophers already put the Great Universal Stories on a side track. More important is that nowadays an increasing number of sober, modest philosophers have an eye for the fact that universalism as a guideline creates abstract, sterile, say thin relationships, which may well be worldwide, but at the same time lack content. The philosopher and historian Ankersmit says it like this: “If you are in solidarity with everyone, you’re with no one in particular; in fact then you are in solidarity with no one”.

More than before there is the realization that people and groups always have to start somewhere, in a limited, manageable context, in particularism. That’s to say in thick relationships, in which you feel comfortable, and of which you hope you can expand the circle of people that belong to it.

That this is so, could be inferred from the fact that nationalist feelings nowhere were so virulent as in universally orientated Christian Europe. It is amenable to consider this as compensation for too lofty universalist ambitions.

This plea for thick, rooted relationships is not a license to indulge in ethnic or racist prejudices targeted at other groups. But it is a plea for a revaluation of particularism which does justice to the complex reality and thereby can achieve more than a sterile universalism ever could.

Also see The Trap of universalizing Reason

vrijdag 10 mei 2013

Venus and Mars

Sometimes it seems like the traditional stereotypes and roles of men and women are back again. There was a period when it was fashionable for men to show their soft side and above all not to act macho. Emancipated, feminist mothers set the tone then and taught their sons to never to do anything that the girl does not want.

In the media a kind of new sexual firmness is the trend already for a while. Research shows that women want a real man again and no dish-washing and hoovering good guy. And too many men appear to have suffered from atrophy of their libido due to the imposed sexual correctness.

Should one conclude that the sexual correctness offensive failed? That attempts to curb the male sexual aggression ricocheted on an unshakable biological pattern? That would be a pity. Because I do not like coercive sexual correctness, but neither the traditional roles of men and women. I would regret if we were completely back to square one.

Gloom may strike the stronger when you add to these Western European trend a global trend. By this I mean the increasing sex segregation on religious grounds in many areas, measures imposed by men to curb the freedom of women, increasing rape in war zones from Bosnia to Rwanda and form Libya to Sierra Leone. Observation of these trends may give rise to the feeling that an already unbridgeable gap is only widening and cannot but bring more misery. Venus and Mars embroiled in a hopeless cruel and unequal struggle.

So, I am not optimistic at this moment about large parts of the world. But yet for our region things are somewhat different, I think. Because the new emphasis on male and female identity is much more nuanced than the former rigid roles were.

According to current discourse, there might be features that you can call female, for example a focus on the relationship or an attitude of restraint. And other features that you can call male, such as the wish to quickly grasp the moment of satisfaction. But then, these properties could very well be more evenly distributed about men and women than the stereotypes would have it.

Such views make the conversation about these things more open and complete. To get at this point we probably had to pass through the phase of the rigid feminist sexual correctness.