Friday, February 27, 2009

226 pages

Back in Gothenburg in time for the sunset. Eating some Special-K as I play around with search strings and Blogger, apparently, if I turn Rawls & Me into one long document the total page count stops first at 2-2-6! Written over more than three years across four different continents, I only wish it could also qualify as my doctoral dissertation :-)

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

King Théoden and the fate of Swedish social democracy

Three years after the election, the centre-right coalition in Sweden continues to undermine the foundations of solidarity upon which our society used to rest. By reforming the tax system in a more regressive direction, by enacting repressive laws on electronic surveillance and by further promoting “free choice” in health care and education, the coalition has struck a devastating blow to our international standing as being the vanguard of progressive politics.

Lamentable as this may be, it should come as no surprise given the stagnating social democratic rule that preceded the current government. Yielding to pragmatism, the former leader of the social democratic party, Göran Persson, failed in the most profound sense to see the possibilities of our times. As I often have argued, the problem was not so much what he did (prescribing fiscal austerity, deregulating markets and so forth) as what he did not do.

After Göran came Mona Sahlin, the lexical definition of a “post-political politician”. Mainly concerned with questions of identity and recognition, Mona has further consolidated the image of the social democrats as a party deprived of all ideological content. As the financial crisis has escalated, this lack of visionary direction has become impossible to hide.


Like the cursed king Théoden, the Swedish social democrats remain incapacitated with a leader unable to make hard choices. While the conservatives take a special pride in the embodiment of their ideas in terms of lifestyle (MQ-shopping in Täby), the social democrats are generally perceived as hypocritical (remember Mona’s “time-out” on the Maldives). I am not implying that leading social democrats should take on the values and attitudes of the working class but rather that they should reconnect with their original emancipatorial project. Social democracy was, from the beginning, always about transformation, about believing that development is possible, both at the individual and the social level.

Today, this faith in the modern project has waned. With fearful eyes we look back upon the transgressions of the welfare state (be it compulsory sterilizations, mental institutions, or the sense of acquired passivity) and think that we can equate these phenomena with the project as such. Nothing could more false. The last hundred years have given us indisputable evidence that social improvement is indeed possible. I can understand those who in the 18th century were sceptical about the prospects of democracy or the value of bold dreams. But not today! Given how far we have come, we give up on those who struggled before us when we resign from our duty to imagine a better future. It has never been about building Utopia but rather about the approximation of regulative ideas through piecemeal reforms, about the constant application of critical thinking and an openness to democratic deliberation about the direction of our enterprise.

With the next election in 2010, it remains uncertain if the curse can be lifted in time, if new leaders can step up and formulate a progressive vision for Sweden, a vision that can “play ball” and expose the flawed economic reasoning of the centre-right, that can show why equality is a key and not a hindrance to economic growth, why we should reverse the trend and strengthen our collective health insurances, why schools should not be left in the hands of religious or commercial interests but be platforms for social cohesion and integration, why we should study more and not less and, finally, why innovation and not flagellantism is the appropriate response to the ecological crisis...

Mare Pacificum

Encompassing almost a third of the planet’s surface, the Pacific continues to play an equally significant role in my imagination.


I remember walking down Bancroft Way in Berkeley on a summer’s day, still high noon with the giddying sensation of convergence as I inhaled the ethereal substance that for so long had been the fuel of my escapism. Between the trees I could see the ocean and I knew this would someday come back.

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Tonight it was Malmö, Debaser at Folkets Park with a Morrissey cover concert, reconnecting me with memories of driving along those other far shores of the Pacific in N.Z. listening to the same music and thinking that somehow I can now mark the boundaries.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

How things fall apart

At the ISA convention in New York I came across a paper entitled “The Sheep Look Back: Counterfactuals, Dystopias, and are We Really Going to Hell in a Handbasket?”. Written by the Berkeley-based scholar Kate O’Neil, the paper caught my immediate interest. Not only was I flattered to find myself quoted but also intrigued by how closely the paper reflected my own concerns about our current situation.

While most eco-dystopian writings tend to take their starting point in some single future disaster, be it a nuclear war or a climate catastrophe, O’Neil brings our attention to the work of John Brunner and his 1972 novel “The Sheep Look Up” which instead portrays a future about to collapse under the accumulated pressure from a multitude of different problems or, to borrow the original wording, from “death by a thousand cuts”.

Though probably far more realistic than the standard all-out apocalyptic event, moral philosophers and political scientists alike have had surprisingly little to say about the possibility of systemic collapse, especially in the context of ever shorter political time horizons and the rise of single-issue politics. Fractured by post-modern thinking, our politicians have retreated into a reactive stance of “fire fighting”. With less room for agency they find themselves confronted by a constant flow of structure; ever day there is a new crisis to attend.

And even if the dots may be there, it takes a credible theory of causality to connect them. Without such a theory and an associated progressive vision, we are left with nothing but our own fears and the stagnating memory of what was once politically possible.

Instead of advancing the open society we are tempted to think that we can stop terrorism by repression and surveillance. Instead of seeing the rise of the world’s poor as a chance to achieve sustainability we regard it as a threat. Instead of boldly innovating ourselves out of the zero-sum equations we return to the dated language of 19th century geo-politics.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

01:34 - Mitteleuropäische Zeit

Another night in a dimmed Airbus cabin. Our landing in Düsseldorf is still several hours and more than three thousand kilometres away. At this time most flights tend to enter into an atemporal state of common drowsiness, only interrupted by the shrill sound of crying infants and the passing turbulence as we ride the North Atlantic jet-streams towards the east.

With our brief America adventure coming to its end, I must say that it is with renewed enthusiasm that I look to the tasks that lie ahead. Giving my talk at UGA and then presenting my research in New York convinced me that, demoralizing as the post-modern consensus may seem at times, the prospect of a bright emancipating future still has the capacity to inspire. Far from defining “modernity’s end in ecological terms” (as argued by a recent Routledge best-seller), climate change may be the transformative challenge which finally brings humanity out of its adolescence of territorial war, narrowly defined “national interests” and passivity towards the future.

Over the next weeks, I will bring further structure to my doctoral dissertation and continue working on my Potsdam ECPR-paper on technological innovation and planetary solidarity. I will also take the train to Uppsala on a few occasions where I will be instructing my sister on her first driving lessons!

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The Way I See It

“In 2008, military spending world-wide amounted to approximately 1.47 trillion USD. The irony is that all this money is used to protect us, not from any external threat, but from ourselves.”

(submitted by R Karlsson at the 44th Street store, New York City, 18 February 2009, highly unlikely to ever appear on a white paper mug)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Space Coast Odyssey

It takes a few hundred miles to get back into it, to start counting highway exits and line up quarters for the next toll, but inevitably the road is once again there, and it is time to explore a new corner of the American continent.

First, a morning drive up to the lush green liberal enclave of Athens, GA, where we were cordially received by my old friend Piers. Unseasonably warm, it turned into a great Tuesday full of university sight-seeing, meetings with the faculty and, then finally, my own appearance as the invited EECP-speaker. Sitting at a bar later that night, drinking a pint of the local Terrapin rye ale, I still felt surprised by how well my talk had resonated with the audience. Instead of rotten deep-green tomatoes I had been given supportive nods and intelligent questions.

Unsurprisingly for those who know me, already early the next morning it was time to drive on, this time eastwards along Interstate 16 to fabled Savannah. Despite an immediate déjà-vu of Batumi (in the other Georgia), the city could not be any more beautiful! The day Lina and I spent walking around its colonial parks and anchored paddle steamers left us with a definite must-return note on the map.

And then, straight as the crow flies, I-95 south for many hot hours, tempting us to retract the roof of our Mustang convertible and throw ourselves fully into the wind tunnel. Just before sunset we made it all the way to Melbourne, Florida, and our waiting Doubletree hotel at the beach.


According to our original plan we were to be in Florida for the launch of STS-119 on 12 February. Unfortunately, the flight readiness review turned up some mechanical issues and the flight had to be postponed for more than a week (which had the good thing with it that we got to see Savannah on the way down). Yet, even as we missed the launch itself, just visiting the space coast has been a long standing dream for me. And even as the long-term future of the space program remains uncertain, the words of John F Kennedy were still very much in my thoughts as we drove out on the headland once known by the Spanish as “Cabo Cañaveral”:
"We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills"

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Liberal education

Last week, New York Times had a column by the conservative political commentator David Brooks which caught my attention. In it, Brooks disparagingly quoted a recent Harvard faculty report on the purpose of liberal education. However unlike Brookes, I must say that I appreciated reading the report (pdf), despite its occasional post-modern flair.

“[T]he aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them to find ways to reorient themselves. A liberal education aims to accomplish these things by questioning assumptions, by inducing self-reflection, by teaching students to think critically and analytically, by exposing them to the sense of alienation produced by encounters with radically different historical moments and cultural formations and with phenomena that exceed their, and even our own, capacity fully to understand”.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Hickory smoke

The rich, faintly sweet flavour of Southern hickory wood adds a taste of imminent departure to my traditional Swedish hash (pyttipanna). I listen to the Islamic afternoon prayer asr being filtered through the walls, it is already that late and I am still struggling to find a working structure for my talk in Athens.

Originally, my plan was to base the talk entirely around my newly published article in Environmental Science & Policy but, given the program’s focus on environmental ethics, I have decided to tilt it more in favour of my recent work on environmental citizenship theory. The main argument will be that environmental citizenship theory instantiates a particular conception of what sustainability is and how it is to be achieved. By shifting down responsibility from states to individuals, the question of environmental sustainability is not only politically neutralized but also “framed” as one of great personal sacrifice.

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Searching for a popular cultural illustration to this survivalism I came to think of the remake of the 1951 science fiction classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. In the original movie, the aliens come to Earth to warn us about the risk of nuclear cataclysm. Now the threat has of course been updated to, guess what, climate change! And the solution? Outright rejection of instrumental rationality as all Earth’s technology is rendered immobile in order to save the environment.

Though maybe just one movie, I would still say that its reasoning is symptomatic for the lack of imagination that I mentioned in my previous post. If only there was one new episode of Star Trek for every such movie...

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