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Ríki maðurinn

Um miðjan desember sótti ég ráðstefnu á vegum Institute for Cultural Diplomcy, ICD, í Berlín. Á ráðstefnunni voru samankomnir stjórnmálamenn, fræðimenn og fulltrúar aðskiljanlegra stofnana, sem láta sig stjórnmál og stjórnmálaþróun varða og telja til góðs og til þess fallið að draga úr fordómum að leiða saman fólk af ólíkum menningarheimum.   

Ljóst er að áhyggjur fara vaxandi yfir því hvert kunni að stefna í stjórnmálalífi margra þjóða þótt mér finnist það sem kalla má stofnanaveldi stjórnmálanna, ekki gera sér grein fyrir því hve alvarlegt það er þegar hin formlegu stjórnmál verða viðskila við grasrót samfélagsins. Nákvæmlega þetta virðist mér vera að gerast víða í Evrópu og þessa gætir einnig víðar í heiminum að því er best verður síð. Margir hirða ekki um að kjósa, gera það með hangandi hendi eða kjósajafnvel  gegn hefðbundnum gildum sem við gjarnan tengjum mannréttinda og réttarríkinu.

Sem betur fer hafa Íslendingar sloppið við öfgafulla stjórnmálaflokka hingað til en það er ekki á vísan að róa.

Ég flutti erindi á ráðstefnunni og tók jafnframt þátt í almennri umræðu. Ég leiddi þar fram í rökræðunni Bogesen hans Halldórs Laxness í Sölku Völku, máli mínu til stuðnings.

Erindið flutti ég á ensku og nefndi, Democracy in an Age of Uncertainty, Lýðræði á Öld Óvissunnar.


I would tend to place myself amongst those who would claim that in spite of two world wars, totalitarian regimes in large parts of the world, famines, plagues and calamities of various kinds, mankind in its collectivity nevertheless experienced more progress in the 20th century than at any other given time in history.

I am referring to progress in science - not the least in medical science, in various techniques that make life easier, in our dwellings, i.e. their construction, heating and lighting; in the possibility of communicating across the globe through sattellites and in transportation of people and goods by jet planes, not to mention the automobile which indeed is becoming so greedy on our scarce oil recources and contaminating the atmoshpere to such an extent that it is being branded as one of the worst culprits when it comes to global warming.

Which of course reminds us that there are two sides to the coin when evaluating progress on the one side and the price of progress on the other.

But progress - at least in my part of the world - Western Europe - was something people beleived in. People beleived the world was getting better, or at least conditions were constantly being created, for improvement and progress and the media reinforced this feeling. They were tireless in providing us with all sorts of yardsticks showing to what extent we were progerssing in this field or the other, and the way in which this could be measured.

In other words, progress was the normal thing - almost a historical law. The general sentiment was that the road ahead led to a better world.

Not any more. At least, that is how i see it. Not that this is based on any scientific research, rather on instinct or insight, but then there are more and more people expressing themselves to this same effect, that now we may even be going backwards. I think therefore it is safe to say that there are growing doubts about the road ahead.

In any case, the predictability that was characteristic of yesterday´s world is no more. Nothing is to be counted on.

I want to say a few words about predictability, the twin sister to stability; namely the knowledge that if I do this, you will do that, that there is a logical cause and effect in the world of politics and that we know this logic.

When we look back to the past century there were of course political differences and divergencies in Western Europe and North America which are my centre of attention, on how to tackle social ills. Nevertheless there was general concensus that when unemployment became widespread or social inequalities became glaringly apparent - the have-nots in society too numerous - something had to be done about it. Otherwise social stability was endangered. Very much as was the case when the upper classses of 19th century Europe disvovered that the cholera bacteria did not ask about social class when it selected its victims. An open sewage system was therefore a threat to all, and hence a concern and responsibility of society at large.

On both sides of the Atlantic mechanisms were developed to deal with economic ills. Even if the right and the left did not agree to what extent to follow the blueprint of Roosewelt´s New Deal or Keynesian econmics in times of recession, there were at least discussions around the table on such issues with trade unions playing a vital role. Indeed sometimes there were confrontations. All this you could take for given. And you could also predict that labour would be voting for labour- or social democtatic parties, while business intersts would rally around conservative or liberal parties. This was the general pattern.

In the 1980´s this began to change. Margareth Thatcher and a group of strongmined right wing politicians  had come along, heeding the advice of Hayek, Freedman and Buchannan to revisit the liberal doctrine, and put it untainted into practice  in the spirit of those days before the nature of the cholera bacteria had been discovered

Neo-liberalism, as it now was called,  demanded a sharp right turn in politics and more than that a change in moral values. „Greed is good", it was now exclaimed. No wrappings were thought to be needed any more to dampen this crude message, such as the persuance of self interest is for the general good. No, „greed is good", said Margarth Thatcher and added to those infamous words of hers that there was no such thing as society, implying that there were only competing individuals in the market. People are „casting their problem on society", to quote her word by word, not remembering  that there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."

I remember well from this time - then for a while resident in the UK - that Margareth Thatcher said that in order to pave the way for a truly free-market economy she would set out to destroy monopolistic power. And that she would start with the worst monopolies of all, the trade unions. They used their monopolistic power to harmonize demands for pay and rights for all labourers, thus preventing them competing amongst each other and against each other.

And this is exactly what happened. The power of the trade unions was diminshed, starting a trend in all European contries which still is ongoing. As we came to the close of the 20th century harmonized and well organized collective action was on the way out. I might add that I have just prepared a report for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the causal relationhip of diminishing influence of trade uninons and increased inequalities in Europe. The results are very definitive.

Not only has social dialogue been undermined, but also can there be discerned, I believe, a change in the whole methodology or culture of politics. I recall Anthony Sampson, the well known British political analyst of the 20th century, observing an important deviation from the politics of consensus making, that is instead of trying to move society forward by force it was more a question of recognising the need for consensus. A good example of such consencus making, Sampson pointed out, was the role the so-called White paper had played  in Bristish political admininstration for a long period of time.

A white paper is an authoritative report or guide that informs readers in a systematic manner about a complex issue and discusses the underlying social, political and philosophical dimensions involved.

The tradition in Britain was to call experts and stake-holders who would see to it that the relevant subject matter would be analyzed from different angles in order to get a balanced overview. This overview was eventually presented in the white paper.

With Margareth Thatcher, there was a break in this tradition. The Thatcherites were inclined to a different approach, namely to set a clear objective, this is where we want to go, and then create a team or think-tank to tell the politicians, how to get there, how to achieve that objective.

Before leaving Thatcher and the neo-liberals I want to call to your attention how she answered when asked what was her greatest political achievement in her career:  

"Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds."

And exactly this had happened. As we got neo-liberals we now got new Labour  not only in Britain but in most western European countries and if I recall correctly Bill Clinton, west of the Atlantic, began to refer to the New Democrats, although of course, I hasten to add that great reservations should be made when comparing European and North American politics.

But while the neo-liberals sought their ideological roots, the neo-labourites abandoned theirs. There was talk of a Third way where theorists like Anthony Giddens tried to find a compromise. The institutional world of politics found this heaven-sent, especially the social democratic parties, while I believe the public at large simply became perplexed. Uncertainty began to creep in and gradually also disillusionment. 

Even the trade unions were seen, especially by younger people as institutions apart and removed from their daily life world.

The German economist Wolfgang Streeck said in an interview published in the Guardian a few days ago that capitalism was broken and more specifically he said, and I want to quote him directly since this is relevant to my argumentation, "modern capitalism has relied on its enemies to wade in with the lifebelt of reform. During the Great Depression of the 30s, it was FDR's Democrats who rolled out the New Deal, while Britain´s unionists allied with Keynes ... Compare that with now. Over 40 years, neoliberal capitalism has destroyed its opposition."

So, the life-boat is gone. And with it has also gone the relative stability and predictability my generation in Western Europe grew up with.

But the changes are much more drastic I believe. The Icelandic Nobel Prize winner in literature, Halldór Laxnes in his books dealt with the realities of life. One such book is called Salka Valka and tells the story of a poor working class girl and her relationship with the big wealthy merchant, Mr. Bogesen who owned everything in in the fishing village where they both lived. He had the life of the entire community in his hands. But he was there and he was visible. And the fate of the people was visible to him.

Not any more. The Bogesens of our day have long since left the village. They are aware of the source of their wealth only through the stock exchange where they, far removed from the reality of society, make their decisions on where to invest at this or that moment in time!

And their money we are now told, is stored away in money heavens like Panama.  For these people there indeed is no such thing as society.

Before I come to concluding remarks in these considerations about the new age, I call the Age  of Uncertainty  I want to say a few words  also in this context about interstate relations in Europe with focus on the European Union. At first it was a common market, created to facilitate trade and indeed diminish tensions on a continent that had experienced death and devastiotion through war. This was a noble vision and no doubt in some ways successful.

But then the Common market wanted to go further and decide on most issues small and large within this common market. The European Union as it developed set up a common currency and introduced the idea of a common monetary policy orchestrated in the European Central Bank in Frankfurt which should be given punitive powers over those stepping out of line. Who were those states most likey to step out of line drawn by the rich countries of the north? Obviously the poorer member countries of the south.

And exactly this has happened and consequently the tensions the founders of the European Union wanted to avoid are now being aggravated.

On top of all this we have an unprecedented influx of immigrants from war torn countries creating concern amongst the poorer segments of society in the host countries, who themselves have been suffering unemployment and receding living standards.

Resentment and insecurity is a deadly cocktail. Clashes between social groups and between newcomers and residents of long standing are becoming more frequent, security measuers become high on the agenda. In this atmosphere people look for unconventional solutions. No longer can you count on laboring workers to vote for their traditional protectors and guardians. They might just as well support Trump, the Pirate party, Natoinalist or even vote fascist and then they might vote for Brexit, what somebody from the institutional world contemptuously and arrogantly called self-harming behavour.   

All this the conventional parties call populist vote. Indeed there may be politicians and parties who use the  insecurity of people to gain their support by playing on fear and prejudice. These politicians will say what serves this end and then change their message as the wind blows.

But why not call them what they are, opportunist or even fascist, why use the term populist?

Let us refrain from using that term. It is all too relatetd to people and what is popular amongst people. We are coming all too close to the very heart of democracy. We indeed may be undermining democracy by such an approach.

We should recognize that we live in an age of uncertainty where nothing can be taken for granted. Certainly not democracy! That is something we all should think about very seriously and that is the essence of what wanted to say here today under the heading: Democracy in an Age of Uncertainty.

People who in former days were first and foremost occupied with their own condition now have the whole world in view and observe in amazement and with growing concern and anger what is happening in the upper echelons, the enormous profits and bonuses of capital speculation and then the revelations of hidden fortunes, by people who do not recognize that there is such a thing as society and social responsibilities.  

No wonder the institutional world of politics which has provided no convincing answers or even tried to tackle these immoralities on the one hand, and grassroot politics on the other, are drifting apart.

In order to bring them together we must rethink politics. Try to understand how unemployment and insecurity are to be dealt with in order to prevent oppurtunist and fascist movements coming into being and triving; understand the political and moral undertones of Brexit and see it as a warning sign for the European Union against too much centralization, too much emphasis on market and too little on human rights and social equlity.

And above all we must always side with democracy.

In every person there is good to be found. We must create conditions for the good to thrive and flourish. Everybody wants to lead a good live and to live in peace and security in a just society. How about starting by agreeing that there ought to be something such as society?