#71: The Improvement of Society Never Ends

“Aren’t we tired of change? Can’t things just stay the same? Why can’t we just fix our society once and for all and be done with it? Just do it, do it right, have the right people in charge, and we’ll all be happy and can go back to our own lives.”

This fictitious quote probably represents what a lot of people are feeling, and have been feeling, around the world, throughout all time. It’s a familiar desire, it is at the core also of any utopian promise: Create the perfect society, let us be happy, and leave us be.

Such a promise is deeply anti-political: Politics is the domain of the constant management and improvement of society. No matter which political model is followed, this will always apply. Aristotle categorized societies according to two parameters: number of rules, and good/bad implementations of such a model. He distinguishes between rule by one (Monarchy1/Tyranny2), few (Aristocracy3/Oligarchy4) or many/all (Democracy5/Ochlocracy6). Notwithstanding these distinctions, there will always be politics, but the reach of political participation will be limited.

You could argue that if you limit participation, you spare most people from having to deal with politics. They can live in peace and quiet while people who know what they’re doing are taking care of things for them. Even in democracies, many people who would have citizenship rights self-limit their engagement out of a variety of reasons.

In a utopian society – or so the fantasy goes – that should be ok. Yet we are not living in a utopia, no matter what you believe. Thus if you do not have political participation rights, or choose not to execute them, you are relying to others doing that work for you. You will be at the receiving end of decisions made by others. These others may or may not be well-meaning; but even if you grant that (you shouldn’t always, but let’s just for sake of nicety do so), they will always be human beings, or – in the case of algorithms or artificial intelligence – be programmed by human beings. They will always be imperfect, always be flawed. Monarchies may claim to draw their power from that one which is perfect (typically called God), but no monarch themselves will be God, not even Pharaohs, Emperors or God-Kings.

In addition to that, you may have created the perfect society, but challenges will continue, life goes on, history will continue. There will be external threats, technological and economic changes, environmental challenges, weather, diseases, dangers from events in space, you name it. Unless you freeze society in time, change will happen always. Time is the master of us all. The longer we live, the longer our society lives, challenges will keep coming. No single state has ever lasted for ever. Even the biggest, most powerful, most resourceful empires, and the smallest, most secluded, most protected states, have all disappeared over time. Mortality is the essence of all our being, and all our institutions, and we can fight it only for so long.

This means that change cannot ever be avoided. Now you can choose to prefer a societal and political model that limits your ability to fight those challenges yourself, and to promote positive change. Of course, this is a constant struggle, and it will be unending. Once change brings about countless others, and so on and so on. The Greek story of Sisyphus shows him continuing to push a boulder up a hill, but the bolder keeps rolling back, and his work will never be finished. This is life, this is all of us.

But maybe this is a good thing. We cannot not be political – either we are participating in society, or we will be society’s victim. Participation thus is critical, in whatever form possible, and fighting for participation is part of the human struggle forever.

Is it worth it? Maybe Albert Camus has an answer here: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


Footnotes:

1 μόνος / monos = one; archein = to rule
2 τύραννος / tyrannos = tyrant
3 ἄριστοι / aristoi = the best
4 ὀλίγοι / oligoi = the few
5 δῆμος / dêmos = the portion of the people that are allowed (and expected!) to be politically active, typically called citizens, in distinction from strangers, unfree people, and sometimes relatives of citizens without citizenship rights themselves (typically children and – historically or still in some countries – women, or others with minority status)
6 ὄχλος / ochlos = the mob. Sometimes, the distinction for rule of many/all is called Polity/Democracy, in which “polity” just means “political community”, and democracy means “mob rule”. Athens called its democracy ἰσονομία / isonomy, which means same law for all.

#70: Poem: WAKE FOR A WORLD OUT OF BALANCE

Corvallis, December 31st, 2020 – January 10th, 2021 – P#749



stand we here in judgement
of a world that’s gone awry

?

whose judgement is there
we should listen to?
who’s left among us
that should judge?

we see the signs
we hear the words
and there are countless other ones we don’t

and judgements,
judgements,
there are plenty of those now today

thus maybe
it would be much preferred
just this one time
to simply
not judge
to simply
not opinionate
to simply
not here declamate:

and maybe
just maybe
we should just
be
just be
just in this moment
simply be

and take in
and be still:
and still be

in this world of fullness
true nothingness
just for a moment
may just be
all we need

wake
but don’t make
not tonight
not today
just be

philjohn.com/poems

#69: No, American Democracy is Not Dead

The gloating of the assembled dictators of the world and their cronies had a certain unintended humor in it. After a few ragtag misfits decided to play the role of domestic terrorists and invade US congress, causing a half-day of mayhem and chaos, including four casualties, the premature glee and schadenfreude coming out of Iran, Russia, China and Venezuela heralded the end and decay of US democracy. This was predictable Soviet-style propaganda – I grew up with that, and it feels very familiar to me. It is the propaganda of those whose biggest fear is the victory of their own people over their corrupt and criminal governments.

Surely, the pictures were worrisome, embarrassing, sometimes shocking. But nowhere to be seen were police or paramilitary or military troops shooting on unarmed civilians. Nowhere to be seen was the mass arrest of protesters. Action was taken, eventually, against those who took up arms against the democratically elected representatives of the people. But the freedom of speech of those otherwise protesting peacefully was not harmed, even though they clearly voiced opinions from beyond the pale.

At the end of the day, Congress resumed the business that was so rudely and criminally interrupted. The election of Joe Biden was certified, Trump uttered a quasi-sincere message of peacefulness, Republicans discovered their backbone, and the nation – having stared into a small abyss for a few hours – came to their senses. Criminal behavior will be punished, peacefully uttered democratic dissent will not.

The lesson here is the opposite to what “concerned critics” are wanting to see: This nation has survived a more than imperfect founding, a Civil War, the seductions of both fascism and socialism, the Cold War, Watergate and 9/11. It will survive Trump. It will survive because of democracy, but it will need to address the conditions that brought up so much mass discontent. Whatever problems the US has, and it has quite a few, they pale in comparison to those countries mentioned above.

Predictably, there were also “concerned voices” coming from democratic allies like Germany. Ironically, Germany had witnessed a similar event rather recently – the storming of the Reichstag steps by a similar mix of people, including the harassment of parliamentarians in the building by known agitators brought in by the extremist party Alternative for Germany. Surely, what happened in DC looked more dramatic – but in all honesty, the scenes in Germany were more foreboding. Nazis on the steps of the Reichstag (and their cronies inside of it) still look more ominous than a guy in Viking dress together with his ragtag co-conspirators rummaging through the halls of Congress.

Today, Trump realized he lost the election, and announced a regular transition. He understood that what happened was much more damaging to himself and the cause of his supporters than to democracy. He is now in damage control mode, while the country has been shocked back to attention. The US has survived its four-year stress test of democracy, and will survive many more.

#68: We Do Not Need Enemies

We are seeing increasing tension in the world again. There were a few years, namely the 1990s, when the world seemed to be growing more closely together, overcoming differences and seeking understanding over division (with a few painful exceptions). Then, 9/11 happened, which brought new wars. The transatlantic alliance was put under strain, globalization brought out new players, strengthened older ones, and a slow shift began to recalibrate the power dynamics on a planet that in its current path towards global climate change could need cooperation more than antagonism. The West appears more fractured than ever in the last decades, China’s dictatorship is making gains, Russia, Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan are flexing their muscles, and only in the Middle East are some signs of hope (how ironic!).

While a global pandemic is still out of control, and other challenges await, we are entertaining the luxury of having arch-enemies again. This is not how civilizations survive, it is how they end.

I grew up under Soviet rule. I have little patience for theoretical discussions over the value of real-existing socialism or communism. As a German, I deeply loathe and oppose any form of fascism and national socialism. There is no value in extremism – on either side, if those are even sides. Between the extermination camps and the killing fields, I fail to see the difference. But these were ideologies run amuck, and people and countries fell succumbed to their spell. Our fight is with the kind of ideas that want to radically remake the world politically, exert absolute power, and create the new man, to cast out the old in the process, mercilessly. But our enemy is not the people themselves, neither the countries.

I may have had to learn Russian at grade 5, which was the language of our Soviet occupiers. The Soviets, as needs mentioning, had a hand in defeating National Socialism together with the West, and in liberating the Germans from a toxic idea, sadly, enabling another toxic idea, but that does not take away from the Soviet sacrifices made to rid the world of Hitler and his ilk. The Soviet Union as an idea and organization also oppressed its people, and their ideas. When learning Russian, I learned about the people and their culture, and I know that without Russian music, I would feel majorly deprived.

We need to see people first, systems second. If we don’t, we enter the domain of arch-enemies and perpetual wars. France and Germany were enemies for so long that it seemed genetic almost, but European integration changed this unhealthy and deadly dynamic completely. This brings hope also to Israel and the Arab world, to Cyprus and Greece, to Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the Congo, to Kashmir, etc. Peace is possible, but it has to be made with great effort. It needs cooperation, shared institutional frameworks, and most of all, a shared conviction that your benefit will be mine also.

Surely, differences and problems need to be addressed. Dictatorships are wrong because they never work in the long run, as they never can allow the development of the full potential of their peoples. For that, it would need absolute free speech and free criticism, and dictatorships are intolerant of that. Once we can make clear that we want peace and cooperation, above all, and that – while we are prepared for war – we will never seek it unless in defense, and that we take a genuine and sincere interest in helping each other face the challenges of today and tomorrow, then things can change.

I have had students and colleagues from all continents, from dozens upon dozens of countries, from every race, color, gender and creed imaginable. We are all the same. I know that sounds preachy, hippie-esque, too optimistic, whatever. It has to be. Hope starts inside, and once we recognize each other, their face, their value, their humanity, their being alive, we can see that what divides us can be overcome. Read Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving, and Martin Buber, I and Thou.

These days, any of our outdated conceptions of who an enemy is will stand in the way of saving the best parts of our way of life, saving our planet’s living beings, and ourselves. The stakes are high. We are also seeing new opportunities out there. A galaxy with more planets than ever thought possible. Sky’s the limit.

Maybe I have just watched too much Stargate. I just finished re-watching an episode dealing with Americans and Russians working together on interplanetary travel. It is a show from the 1990s. We could dream it then, and we should be dreaming it now.

Happy New Year!