Surplus Men

The groundbreaking work of Hannah Arendt, The Origin of Totalitarianism, should be on the reading (or rereading) list of every politically engaged citizen – no matter country. The book, written right after WW II, is deeply analytical, opinionated, too extreme – and fantastic! Tragically, it provides so much food for thought of relevance for our societies today.

There is one key observation that permeates all her analysis, and that we need to reflect on much more, and that is Arendt’s concept of ‘surplus men’ (which nowadays should be understood as ‘surplus people’, given the role of women in the employment market), and what such surpluses lead to.

Arendt explains in a most brutal fashion, but correctly, how the surplus of employable men drove imperialism, since those who could not find a foothold in their home countries turned into adventurers without morals abroad. They became buccaneers in the far-flung regions that they and imperialism made their own. The boys of Cecil Rhodes and the East India Company. The lesson is grosso modo that morals vanish in step with the marginalisation that flows from being ‘surplus men’.

Between the two World Wars there were evidently many surplus men, and they became the breeding ground for the extremism that ultimately led to the Nazi regime. If you doubt Arendt’s view then look at the SS: Himmler, an obvious failure in civil society; the circle around him, Wolff, Eicke, Heissmeyer, Wege, for whom the common glue was their previous failure! And Adolf himself was, of course, an unsuccessful postcard painter. Social class was, however, not the determinant for becoming a surplus man, the surplus cut across all classes – something we would be wise to remember today. The liberal elite likes to think that populism is a ‘no high school diploma’ thing but obviously that is wrong. Populism is a surplus thing.

The loss of morals that flows from being surplus, that flows from having to fight with all means to retain social status, is also not primarily an issue of material sufficiency – it is about not being surplus as a person!

Nowadays, the erosion of middle class status is a clear driver of the acceptance by its denizens of the maxim that fighting dirty is alright. The middle class was always the protector of the rule of law, but it now sees that the law no longer protects, because the middle class rather than being threatened in its privileges is itself increasingly becoming surplus. No good reason to adhere to ethics norms then is the logic. Inequality and eroding social status is internalised to mean that it is neither possible nor necessary to uphold moral standards. Where screwing the system used to be the preserve of the upper classes (and the absolutely destitute) it is now entirely salonfähig.

This should give us pause. In the future, we will all become surplus because AI and machines will eliminate the human being as a part of productive processes. When we have all landed there, social status will no longer be determined by profession. A new status system will have to be invented. On the way there, will we see an ever increasing abandonment of moral considerations in our individual decisions?

See also blog posts: ‘The Proletarisation of the Middle Class’ and ‘Capital in Any Century’

A Heart’s Beat

On the way back from the gym one evening recently I got very annoyed by a passing car full of youngsters listening to techno music at highest volume. The two step beat seemed incessant and there was no tune, no lyrics. Pure noise pollution as it seemed. Yet, suddenly I realised that there was a most surprising connection between those teenagers and my mother, a woman of great refinement, sensitivity and warmth, who sadly died many years ago.

My mother had an ability I never experienced with anyone else to squeeze a piece of fabric between the thumb and the middle finger and then press it down with the index finger. As a result, the fabric made a clicking noise when it was released. With repetition a continuous beat ensued similar to that of the techno music, albeit it civilised and non-aggressive. This sound was a frequent accompaniment of my mother – most pronounced when she was worried. A clever friend once told her that he thought that she made this sound because it emulated the beat of the mother’s heart as the embryo hears it in the womb. It was the sound of safety. Despite the aggression of the techno music perhaps the teenagers were also ultimately seeking safety in the music without knowing it.

I thought that I had not inherited this instrument of comfort – I certainly cannot move the fabric as my mother could. Yet, in another form it is with me as well. One of my favourite pieces of music is Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No 5. An advanced construction, for sure, but when you hear it you will immediately recognise its pulse. Its insistent rhythm enthralls and embraces you, as does its wildest longing, the nature of every heartbeat.

Outer space as another warfighting domain

Space-powers are rushing to create space forces, and assume that outer space will become a new theater of war. In assuming so, the power doctrines of the Earth are applied. Yet, deterrence in outer space does not work well when an opponent might have little reliance on space capabilities and when satellites are sitting ducks and almost impossible to defend. Disarmament paradigms are called for – not armament. This is particularly so because when the shooting in space starts, space will be ruined for all of us, not only for those from the combatant states. Debris will inevitably be created that will remain in space for a long time, making affected orbits impossible to use for everybody for decades. A world without use of outer space is not going to be pretty, although few people understand that.

A poem to explain:  

        While you were sleeping

Did you not hear the drums of war,

heralding strife in Nature’s bosom, between the stars?

Was your dream so deep that doom did not disturb?

They lied that strength makes strong,

when the ant can kill the elephant,

the carcass poison the well.

Your dream turns nightmare,

when Mars beats out Minerva;

when the heavens become the field of manly sports,

and prudence orphan.

Your bed is warm and soft,

yet sleep is far too dear!

 

 

The death of ethics

Over the last few years many thoughtful discussions have taken place on the tragedy of the death of truth. Of course, those discussions do normally not involve the peddlers of untruth, even when they advance crazy stuff like the concept of alternative facts. Cleverly, perhaps, populists will allow liberals to get angry about the selling of untruth as a respectable position, but as a matter of demagogic principle populists only discuss what they want to discuss and a debate about the soundness of something like alternative facts is certainly not it. They know that without a counterpart for the liberals the discussions will soon die out. Instead, notorious liars turn the table on truth seekers by attacking the truth as fake news. They exploit the relativity of truth they themselves have invented to make obvious truths relative. All part of Demagogy 101.

The relativity and death of truth are associated with another phenomenon much less discussed, but even more serious, and that is the death of ethics. We have forgotten, or are been led to forget, that there are things that are right and need no further explanation. A statement like ‘it is wrong to let human beings drown in the Mediterranean when it can be avoided’ requires no further justification. If you need justification for not justifying such a statement you can, of course, look to Kant and his categorical imperative, but why bother: it is obvious. Defenders of obvious ethical stances cannot help themselves providing further justification, however, despite it being entirely unnecessary. In itself this is not a problem, except that by making an obvious ethical stance contingent they make what is obviously right vulnerable. When liberals start to argue that any problem associated with rescue of the drowning is resolvable, they have opened the door to the populist. That sort of discussion is their chosen playing field. Liberals will immediately be met with immoral provocations like ‘we have to let them drown because it is a deterrent’   – and they do not see that they have made this sort of view part of the mix entirely unnecessarily. What it worse, they have ended up becoming the mid-wives of a position that is now official policy, see the criminalisation of the rescue efforts of SOS Mediterranée, for example.

That there are obvious ethical positions that require no justification does not mean that people of good will should become blinkered or unquestioning, of course. But it does mean that people of good will must be far more conscious of what can and should be debated and what not. Liberals should learn just one lesson from the populists – and that is how to define the playing field. To date, only two voices on the left have shown any ability in this respect and that is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the shining example, and Bernie Sanders. The tragedy of the immigration policy of Angela Merkel, so obviously right, was that it did not have voices like those of Alexandria and Bernie to defend it. Instead liberals resorted to their favourite game of finding faults with their own.

What is needed most of all, however, is a revival of ethics in general. We are being sucked into a news cycle where only provocation and politics matter, and in the process we are starting to forget what is obviously right and the search for the more complicated right. The word ‘moral’ has been discredited and identified with ‘repressive’, often of a sexual kind. That is a distortion, of course. ‘Moral’ in its true sense is about repression of evil and a search for what is good! We may sometimes disagree on what is good, and that is alright. The worst thing is if we just do not care, and that, tragically, is our current trajectory!

Capital in any century

 

At a recent lunch I discussed with a friend the perennial issue of populism and how difficult it is for the liberal elite to colport truer statements without oversimplifying. I mentioned as an example of such oversimplification an incident in the seventies at my high school when an in-crowd hippie told a large meeting how unjust it was that a normal worker would earn less than hundred thousand kroners when Denmark’s richest man would earn hundreds of millions.

My friend immediately said: don’t give me the trickle-down story now. And he was right, of course. Trickle-down is another oversimplification, partly because it does not distinguish between unequal consumption and unequal capital ownership.

Inequality is a moral and economic outrage. The moral aspect requires no explanation, but it is important to understand the economics in this respect. And it is important not to oversimplify.

What disturbs us the most is not necessarily that capital ownership is so unequally distributed. Our concern is mostly about the inequality in living conditions, the inequality in consumption. This inequality in consumption makes little sense from an economics perspective, since a healthy economy requires prosperous consumers. The current expanding global economy is largely driven by exporting to underserved markets, which is fine since this helps inter-regional equality. However, in the long run export markets will start to saturate, and start to be more self-sufficient, and the lessons of the Industrial Revolution is that that is when the purchasing power of the domestic consumer will start to become critical. Marx and Engels explained very clearly that the bourgeoisie ultimately requires a better paid proletariat in order to hang on to its wealth. Social democracy was the handmaiden to a blinkered capitalist class.

Capital that does not go into consumption must be invested. When we question unequal capital ownership we are implicitly also questioning whether the capital owners that be are the best to allocate capital. And this is an exceedingly pertinent question, and one that should be explicit, not just implicit. With a very high percentage of capital ownership concentrated in very few hands we are approximating the planned economy paradigm. The difference to Marxism is only that those who in our society are allocating capital are not politically chosen, but, in the best case, chosen by entrepreneurship, in the worst case by inheritance, and in many cases by the ability to climb a corporate ladder not dissimilar to that of a government bureaucracy. John Kenneth Galbraith explained fifty years ago how large corporations in the Industrial State exercise a planned economy function. That fundamental truth has only been exacerbated nowadays by capital ownership residing in so few hands.

Capitalists are genetically aligned with Adam Smith. Yet, the vision of Adam Smith was not an economy planned by the few and the quasi-monopolists. Adam Smith imagined a vibrant society of mainly middle class entrepreneurs. Ironically, if we want to pursue the Adam Smith ideas we must thus break the stranglehold on capital by the few. Adam Smith would have voted for a much higher degree of capital equality! But also, in a democracy we must believe that capital allocation should harness the wisdom of the population at large. Yet for that to happen capital ownership must be far more broadly distributed!

Evolving Human Rights

Many see the human rights defined in the Declaration of Human Rights, the two UN human rights covenants and the European Convention of Human Rights as absolute. They may accept that the relatively broad norms are filled more expansively as time passes, but they reject, correctly, that human rights are culturally or geographically contingent. The individual heads of right are sacrosanct.

Now, it is pragmatic and good that the specifics of a human right can evolve though interpretation of the individual heads of right; that the prohibition of discrimination can be re-interpreted to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, for instance. This is in line with all reasonable approaches to interpretation of domestic constitutional instruments. The rights set forth in the Magna Carta have changed radically over the last 800 years, yet four provisions remain on the statute books in England, notably the habeas corpus clauses. The proud product of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen, is understood as the mother of all later human rights treaties, and, indeed, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic has bestowed constitutional authority on the declaration. In the 230 years since its adoption the interpretation has changed very significantly, however. The Declaration was largely co-created with the Constitution of the United States, and despite all protestation of so-called originalists, of course, the interpretation of the US Constitution has also moved dramatically with the times. Even newer instruments such as the human rights covenants or the European convention are in a constant process of refinement and evolution. That is the way it should be.

What is concerning is that new heads of right do not arise as society changes. And it is equally concerning that we do not define more stringent or more demanding rights as our societies grow wealthier and wealthier.

Given that no universal adherence to the rights defined in the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen has been achieved of the last 230 years and that the newer social, economic and cultural rights are woefully disregarded in many, many states, it is perhaps understandable that there is little appetite for defining new heads of right, and that we leave expansion to be done by interpretation of current instruments or by treaties that are essentially interpretative of existing rights. It may also be understandable that we have not embarked on the creation of more ambitious regional human rights, because this could appear to relativise what we consider absolute rights, and hence undermine them.

Yet, these reluctances are in the final analysis wrong. If we do not define new heads of right after 60 years without more than piecemeal evolution of social, economic and cultural rights and 230 years of fight for civil and political right we are signalling that our societies are stagnant and hidebound. When we disregard an existing fundamental right like that of asylum in order to protect our comfort we are sowing the wind and will reap the whirlwind. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you!

The concern that we relativise basic human rights if wealthy regions develop more demanding human rights is ill conceived, because it is a process of adding. So the basic human rights remain absolute whereas the add-ons are relative to wealth. As the global community becomes wealthier relative rights might transform into basic ones, but while awaiting that, these new rights become a beacon for even the less wealthy nations to ultimate achieve. These new rights become path finders and inspiration where they cannot be fully respected yet.

So what to do in concrete?

One of the structural flaws in current human rights that should be cured is that human rights are understood to be state centred. The entity addressed by human rights is the state, and the obligations are obligations on the state to enable the rights for its citizens or within its territory. This is one of the terrible legacies of the Peace of Westphalia. As Steven Krasner has pointed out, human rights are an imposition from outside on domestic rulers. However, obligations remain with the domestic rulers. No solidarity considerations between rulers are contemplated, let alone obligations on citizens towards fellow citizens. This means that there is no obligation on an able state to come to the aid of a disaster-struck neighbour. This is entirely illogical and a debate on this obvious point has sadly been overtaken by the many reflections on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) (admittedly a new head of right of sorts). In practical terms it is likely that a responsibility to help is more important than a responsibility to protect in terms of the number of victims at risk. Of course, one does not exclude the other, but it would be salutary, and perhaps less controversial, if a responsibility to help would be put on the front burner.

If that would be the case, the corollary would also have to be discussed, namely the duty of disaster-stricken states to allow help, both from other governments and NGOs. A government that is overwhelmed by a disaster has no valid reason to deny its citizens help from outside, if such would be forthcoming. In fact, it should be an international crime to refuse genuine and needed help from other states or NGOs, despite all the definitional work required on what ‘genuine’ and ‘needed’ means.

There is so much that should be pushed as new human rights. Surely, a most fundamental right for every individual is to live on an intact planet. Hence freedom from climate change is a must – and one of the rights that must be tackled collectively by states, as the Kyoto Protocol sought to do. Yet, even if it is a collective task, the consequence is that there are obligations on each state to undertake all necessary measures within its borders to limit the emission of greenhouse gases. Addressing the avoidance of climate change as a human right would alter the nature of the political discourse.

It is also a mistake to believe that only states or collectivities thereof are at the receiving end of human rights obligations. The good neighbour obligation that should sit with a state adjacent to a state living through a disaster should also attach at the level of individuals. Many states do not make it an obligation of individuals to help other individuals in distress, even if they could. Thus it might not be an obligation, or a crime, to pass a fellow human being dying from thirst with a 2-liter bottle of potable water. This is absurd. Surely the thirsty has a human right to be helped and surely the possessor of the 2-liter bottle must be under a human rights obligation to help. If you open the box of citizen-to-citizen rights, quite a number of new rights will pop out, such as rights of employees vis-à-vis employers.

The obsession with the relationship between state and its citizens has also meant that collectivities of citizens enjoy limited protection. There are rights of association and the like, for sure, but NGOs are not accorded specific rights within states despite the fundamental role they play in our societies. A charter of rights of NGOs would be a very welcome innovation.

Inequality is a scourge of our times and could also be regulated through new heads of right. For instance, inequality is much less pronounced in Germany and the Nordic countries than in Anglo-Saxony, despite the great overall wealth of all these countries. One reason is surely the role of union representation on company boards in Germany and the Nordic countries. This is obviously not a panacea, but it should clearly be a human right to have worker representation on the boards of companies of a certain size.

In terms of regional human rights, in a rich region like Europe it is hardly understandable that there are no human rights specifically addressing the plight of the youth. The right to education is not enough. Unpaid internships are modern slavery. Yet, internships are indispensable for the young in many professional fields. Why is there not a human right to be paid for honest work? Such a human right must not stand in the way of volunteer work, but it is not impossible to distinguish between interns and volunteers. Yet, in the final analysis, why tinker? Should there not be right for the young in Europe to be offered a job in their chosen profession for at least 2 years after their professional qualification? Europe can certainly afford that, and would in any event be richly repaid.

Further along that line of thought, should there not also be a right to have a youth representative on company boards, similar to the suggested general right to have worker representation? And radically, should governments not be obliged to have a ministry dedicated to the concerns of the young, rather than always make that representation toothless by joining it with sports and culture?

Finally, human rights do not occupy themselves with the rights of succeeding generations. They should! The rights of succeeding generations are not only to have a liveable Earth, free of major pollution, passed down, but also to take over a society which did not already mortgage its economic future. In private law we are not in doubt that a child cannot be forced to take over the debts of its parents. Should there not be a human right for succeeding generations to take over communities free of major debt?

Your duty to be happy!

A friend came to my office looking miserable. I asked him whether anything was wrong. No, nothing, he answered, but ‘he was not obliged to be happy’. What a terribly wrong answer that was.

You have an ethical obligation to be happy unless you have specific reasons not to be.

Life is a present of immense value, and that is true whether you are religious or not. You are the product of millions of years of evolution. You are an instrument of incredible complexity, allowing you to feel, to think, to see, to smell, to cry and to swear. To be happy or unhappy.

The instrument you are is also a result of amazing luck. That you became exactly you was improbable in the extreme. That exactly your spermatozoid met your egg and became you was more than unlikely. And this luck you have had ever since the start of life. If your mother had not become your mother you would not have become you. If her mother had not become her mother, she would not have become your mother and you would not have become you. And so on, all the way back to the beginning of time. Winning El Gordo is far likelier than you becoming exactly you. You may, ungratefully, argue, ah, but I would have liked to be handsomer, thinner, a genius. But the point is, of course, that then you would not have been you. You would have been someone else, not an improved version of yourself. So you better accept yourself. And you better accept your loved ones as they are, because  otherwise they would have been somebody else as well. You might have loved them also, but they would not have been the ones you love now. All of which does not go to say that you should not try to improve yourself, but you should be happy that you are you. And, of course, as Oscar Wilde said, everybody else is already taken.

Kierkegaard proposed that you can lead an aesthetic, ethical or religious life. But I am convinced that whatever of these lives you lead you are under an obligation to be happy. You have been given the most precious of gifts. Do you have proper cause not to appreciate it?