Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Concept of Politics

There are different approaches to 'politics' possible, one of them being Sabine's 'History of political ideas' in which he links politics to the creation of new laws, and therefore to a kind of creativity over time in history. Another approach would be Morgenthau and his model of politics as a conflict about power, but his model is in need of further explanation as to how politics gets out of all entanglements with diverse interests and subjegates power to the need for some regularity in life. The latter is deemed to be 'lawfulness' not only by necessity, but due to man bringing about some kind of regularity so that there is some predictability in life. Yet this leads to a kind of 'order' which can at least in the German context take on quite another turn in meaning.

Due to the kind of political philosophy (Kant, Hegel) prevailing in German history, political argumentation ends up relying on 'necessity' (Notwendigkeit), as if there is no alternative and thus one will have to do just that what the necessity of the order dictates. This strict interpretation reduces naturally all possibilities to a level where the system threatens to take on a coercive character. It contradicts simply the notion of man being free to decide.

The rule by necessity has always that bitter taste of a reduction to hardship like circumstances but it explains why identification of needs as much as visuality of reality play a role in how politics is shaped. Of interest here would be a cultural comparison, in order to see how these differences play out in the European and international context.

So to start with, if politics is to contribute to the clarification of common held assumptions, and this with the aim to make possible life in cities and in society, an elaboration of 'political reason' is needed. Thus to start with the reason for politics is not at all clear to many: why the need for a government, why a parliamentary system, why democracy? Definitely this Western orientation is being challenged, for instance, by those who wish to establish in their respective societies Islamic law, as has been the case already with Iran once Chomeiny returned in 1979. By comparison, the subject matter of politics, namely 'law' is not dealt with by the highest priest, but in the case Western Society by the constitutional court. Here some recent developments need some remarks.

In a most recent ruling the Constitutional Court in Germany (June 2012) reprimands the government for having by-passed the German Parliament during Euro-financial crisis related actions and measures. One wonders about this ruling. For the claim of national sovereignty and therefore upholding the national parliament, is incompatible with the need of economic governance in Europe especially due to having a single currency, but not only. Here Europe finds itself exactly at an interesting transitional point, namely how much national sovereignty should be given up, in order to make this European governance work? Jürgen Habermas makes here some crucial observations.

Moreover the question what constitutes not just any, but viable political solutions within Europe alters the dimension of politics. For one, constantly is being overlooked an interdependence between politics and culture. If linked to language, and therefore which voices are heard and listened to, then differences between national culture and European vision shall play a decisive role. In whose interest shall be decided upon shall make a difference within which tension field - an exclusive national one or one in-between many cultural and lingusitic dimensions - decisions are made. The European model has tried to be compatible with both cultural diversity and an unified vision for seeking European solutions. It has worked only so far as concessions were made to the member states who would reinforce their national cultural identifications to unify their interests but at the high risk of a much further going distortion than what is being realised by politicians engaged in all varieties of nationalist tendencies.

Besides culture is often shunned by politics since too elusive. Still, even if culture as atmosphere cannot be captured in so many words, most telling is already that journalists would describe a meeting between politicians as taking place in a tense or otherwise relaxed atmosphere. That is metaphorically speaking a hint at certain conditions prevailing but also it is something which happens to influence decision making in reality. But culture as tension may be too mild a word to capture everything which is going on.

For instance, it is no longer just a mere difference in atmosphere, if there are too many screaming citizens around due to austerity and equally unjust measures producing often unwanted injustices. Naturally, from the political side such wild fires need to be put out before they begin to storm parliament or the residence of the president, but then resurrections have happened in history. They were often decisive turning points.

Politics is precarious to say the least especially if unpopular decisions are in need to be taken. But many politicians have made enough experiences on how to bring things under control. That is why reference to short-term remedies and workable solutions is made quite often and why politicians are constantly being accused that they think of only short-term solutions as they also want to be re-elected. That would put into doubt the finding of any viable political solution, one which would be capable of linking short and long term processes, and thereby bring about a postive i.e. forward looking development. And this would still fall short of the more demanding concept of sustainable development to which many politicians claim to adhere to but rarely seem to focus on long enough to be really convincing in this crucial matter.

Interestingly enough both politics and culture have to do with the problem of recognition. While politicians look very differently at what can offer a solution insofar as they depend upon support i.e. people recognizing this is a solution to their problems (and always they have to anticipate from where shall come the opposition if they decide upon a certain course of actions), artists search for recognition as to the answers they try to give as to how they experience life in a city.  dominated by consumption and overt activities having little or nothing to do with setting the human spirit free.

A crucial cultural aspect would be that ‘language and silence’ no longer acts as juxtapositions and therefore would leave the majority outside the political process. Here culture in the broadest sense along with some very concrete measures would have to resolve the problem of articulation and therefore the negative trend to leave people in silence rather than cope with injustices, including abuses of children, and a growing aggression amongst youth and those who feel in rage after having been made by society at large into ‘radical losers’. Culture stands for civilized conduct and a way to seeking solutions in a non violent way. This is why common life has to be based on civic values passed on from generation to generations and incorporated as well into the way political decisions are arrived at.

Already acceptance of a political solution would say some kind of cultural consensus does prevail. In general, people tend to be reasonable when it comes to weighing options in order to know what goes, what not. They just do not wish to be fooled.

For instance, already the quality of political debate can provide a variety of insights into the knowledge base of politics, but also what level of literacy does exist when public figures argue about a way to go forward with the overall development of the city. The level of debate will very quickly tell how well informed are all participants and whether or not real options are being weighed as serious alternatives compared to just one group trying to press through a scheme of things so as to safeguard only their own interests. By taking interest in raising the level of debate everywhere in society, cultural initiatives can help specify issues, what citizens know and how to organise future debates as part of an overall learning process. Here would be important that stories told are as important as fact sheets. That would require, however, politicians able to deal with different representations of reality and come accordingly to terms with these newly emerging realities presented in quite a different, even novel way.

Often it is the case that politicians are over demanded by the complexity of issues while facing from many different sides at the same time a variety of demands. Consistently citizens and interest groups demand their projects are supported first. Rarely are Municipal governments approached by individuals or groups who have a proposal to make and who seek to clarify with the political side the conditions under which such a project could be realized.

Over and again it was pointed out that especially the more interesting cultural projects require the support not just from the cultural department, but equally from the labour, economic, social and technical departments since re-use of a former industrial plant for artistic purposes poses many questions and not always the spontaneous users have either money or knowledge to bring back to life such a premise. Cultural planning would require a mechanism by which the various cross boundaries co-operations would be realized so that truly interdisciplinary experts would find common terms of references and thereby allow a way forward in public spending for the arts and culture not yet practiced or foreseen in all too many cities.

That is exactly when the interlocutor is needed if another way is found to finance activities in the cultural sector while understanding the project is not really limited only to the cultural fields. If something has a broader base requirement to become viable, the political solution sought has to start with recognizing both the complexity and the potential as a way to challenge conventional wisdoms and ongoing practices. For every promising cultural project will already be from the outset a part of a cultural innovative process involving a new understanding of culture as much as another way of citizens working together with the various municipal administrations. As Bob Palmer would say, politicians must become therefore quasi surfers of cultural waves when seeking to bring about viable political solutions.

Wax figure photographed by Eleftheria Lialios, 'Uncanny Valley'

The painting by Eugene Delacroix Liberty Leading the People - 1830 - can be found in the Louvre. [1]

Equality, freedom and justice had become since the French Revolution key demands throughout the ages. People want to live in freedom, be treated fair and just, and enjoy equality. It presupposes mutual recognition in a way that does not require hierarchy as key principle of organisation to sustain work in and for society. Nevertheless, if top down measures are constantly introduced by modern politics and bottom-up success stories few and hard to find, it means that hierarchy remains a key stumbling bloc in the emancipation of people from their fears and inabilities to cope with all the challenges ahead.

Since the Enlightenment failed (see Adorno, Horkheimer), it is not clear what has become of people desiring to become world citizens. The confinement to a national framework meant also a single state laid claim to their identity. Today, in face of immigration problems, national politicians would reinforce that claim by demanding immigrants to become French, British or Dutch depending where they landed. Even the existence of the European Union has not brought any respite from that tightening demand and thereby increases the tension between people with very different cultural backgrounds.

Whether political and cultural identities differ so much to make a difference under which rule people want to subjugate themselves, that has not been so much debated, but after the many religious conflicts leading even to wars have subsided for the time being in Europe, it might be well the next big challenge. Former Yugoslavia is an example where ethnic assertiveness exploded and brought about hideous forms of violence fuelling still more extreme forms of nationalism.  That cannot be the political solution sought for the future. But Europe is now forced to deal with Kosovo to accommodate new forms of cultural independences seeking political recognition.

The French Revolution brought with it a desire for equality between men and women. Freedom became something concrete and justice was derived from a wish to be free from arbitrary rule. All these elements were sought to become a part of the new constitution being formulated under the advice of such knowledgeable persons as Constance de Volney.

The counter revolution did not wait for long. As shown by Jean Pierre Faye in his analysis of the Paris Commune, already the invention of a health police introduced reactionary forces into the Paris Commune. People following the figure of liberte freed themselves first of all from fear. It was echoed by Kant who asked how can rule by reason and not by fear be realized? But then the solution for the rule through institutions had to solve the problems for which they had been designed for, otherwise they would be overwhelmed by all the unresolved problems and not fulfilled expectations. The health factor disturbed and was taken serious. It was an effective method to make a clean sweep and to get rid of exactly those who would disturb the setting up of public order.

Hegel made the following observation about the French revolution: people would tear down institutions which they had helped to construct! Consequently he turned against the French revolution, but his was not a very accurate observation. For one, the people did not build the Bastille, but it had become for them a symbol of ruthless and arbitrary power becoming ever more unjust. They wanted justice to rule and thus tore down that what they had feared the most.

To date all political levels face the same demand, namely governance should entail such political solutions which do not give way to arbitrary rule.

Political philosophy – facing new challenges

“The first is the issue of social justice, which in one form or another has dominated political philosophy for much of the century. Most of the many liberal theories of justice on offer have had a broadly egalitarian flavour, demanding at least the partial offsetting of the economic and social inequalities thrown up by an unfettered market economy (see Market, ethics of the; Justice; Rawls, J.; Dworkin, R.; though for dissenting views see Hayek, F.A. von; Nozick, R.). These theories rested on the assumption that social and economic policy could be pursued largely within the borders of a self-contained political community, sheltered from the world market. This assumption has become increasingly questionable, and it presents liberals with the following dilemma: if the pursuit of social justice is integral to liberalism, how can this be now be reconciled with individual freedoms to move, communicate, work, and trade across state boundaries?” [2]

Translated into physical terms the urban environment must maintain a balance of complexity to what any natural or physical landscape entails. The urban environment can become a cultural landscape only under certain conditions. It cannot rely solely on outstanding landmarks but must involve everyone on how they treat their immediate and more mediate surroundings as the handling of waste shows. Many people do not wish a rubbish dump near their homes but then they do not care how much waste they produce on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis. The campaign to reduce use of plastic bags is one recent initiative to be linked to a growing awareness that the consumer world of affluent society has its negative side with costs in terms of damages done to the environment over exceeding any gain to be claimed on the side of living quality by having larger houses with three or more bathrooms and a swimming pool. The latter does not make sense when a country faces drought.

Consequently the ecological movement or the Environmentalists have started to challenge basic principles of governance based on economic growth and free market i.e. de-regulation:

“Liberalism is challenged by the environmental movement, whose adherents claim that liberal political principles cannot successfully address urgent environmental concerns, and more fundamentally that the liberal image of the self-sufficient, self-directing individual is at odds with the ecological picture of humanity's subordinate place in the system of nature as a whole (see Green political philosophy; Environmental ethics; SUSTAINABILITY). Liberalism, it is said, is too firmly wedded to the market economy and to consumption as the means of achieving personal well-being, to be able to embrace the radical policies needed to avoid environmental disaster.” [3]

Unfortunately as seen just before, leading ideologies cling not only to tradition to distort perception of the present. Under the influence of cynical philosophers like Leo Strauss public lie is not merely advocated but any meaningful collaboration between different groups distorted so as to maintain a top-down model for the exercise of power. It includes the love for the public lie or what is known as mendacity. Martin Jay is correct in pointing out even philosophers like Adorno were sceptical what truth can be imparted to the general public and masses of people. He preferred to bestow anything having to do with an attempt at truth to the ‘imaginary witness’. It would mean only a dialogue with the imagination could give people access to this other vital information described by Umberto Eco in ‘The Name of the Rose’ as those books no one is allowed to read lest it would reveal what manipulations are going on and how business is being conducted under the umbrella of a powerful political constellation. By setting terms of trade the aim is to influence the purchasing power. People quite often embed abstract power with their own real life and therefore are asked to make sacrifices. It leaves people entangled on the one side in rituals of power while on the other hand politicians are free to do what they like. They do so outside any public sphere and in reality without any legitimacy. This is why accountability and transparency are key issues when calling for political reform.

Hatto Fischer



[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_philosophy

[2] David Miller (1998), Political philosophy. In E. Craig (ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London: Routledge, Retrieved March 4, 2008, from www.rep.routledge.com/article/5099

[3] Op.cit. David Miller

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