Sunday, May 09, 2010

Slow lane

I am not a frequent reader of FT but during the weekend, their “Life & Arts” section sometimes offers rather good reading, this time about sex in Shakespeare’s writing, glasnost art and then the concluding two columns called “Slow lane” and “The Fast Lane” respectively. In the latter, the Monocle editor-in-chief Tyler Brûlé writes about the shallow world of international travel, one that I can easily identify with as I down another mouthful of crisp silvaner in the Senator lounge here in Düsseldorf :-)

However, looking towards the summer, I hope there will be more slow life than fast lane. Unusually enough I do not have any bold travel plans but rather look forward to bicycle rides, archipelago excursions around Gothenburg and academic work. With my viva rescheduled for October I plan to make some revisions to the manuscript but will also take the train up to Oslo for a week-long summer school on environmental security. Another high priority is to finally submit the revised version of my article “Individual guilt or collective progressive action?” to Environmental Politics.

Meanwhile, I am not sure really what to make of Rawls & Me. It feels like I will take a little break after the latest flood of postings.

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At the Wembley Hilton

Bar writing in my Moleskine. After a long day of academic excellence I feel like moving into some less formal territory. Every time I do this on Rawls & Me, I get uncertain about what language actually can express.

It must have been in Kenmare on the West coast of Ireland, my first real encounter with incommensurability, the idea that language simply cannot bridge our metaphysical divides. It is like there are those fundamental ontological building blocks and that we simply do not share them. As a Christian, I can maybe accept a fractured epistemology, but not that the underlying experience of reality could be so different between different people. Especially with those you love.

Sitting here now, much later, I still have this feeling that it was not so much the actual words, because they can always be chosen with greater care, but rather that no matter what I would have said back there, communication would have been impossible. Accepting that conclusion opens up a rift that is difficult to close. For if it is so then people deeply in love can not only be separated by unfortunate circumstances or egoism but also by metaphysics.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Some thoughts on basic income

Beside the election, the other reason I am in Britain right now is for the inaugural Brian Barry memorial symposium. Organized by Chandran Kukathas at the London School of Economics and featuring an impressive list of distinguished scholars, it is a two day event honouring a political theorist who was not only a great source of theoretical inspiration for me but also someone who shared many of my normative beliefs.

Today, I have had the privilege of listening to, among others, Philippe Van Parijs and Simon Caney. The first reminded me of a paper I long have wanted to write in order to explain why I am critical of the idea of an unconditional basic income.

While I can imagine some future state of post-scarcity and universal affluence in which we could completely decouple productive work and monetary remuneration (think Star Trek), it seems to me that for the present there is an urgent need for all of us to contribute productively to the world. With billions of people starving and formidable problems of sustainability ahead of us, this hardly seem like the right time for any of us to retire into being solely consumers, be it to play computer games or to become Malibu surfers (as the famous example goes).

What I am afraid of is that an unconditional basic income would give people, who are already alienated from society, an exit route that would further undermine the idea of society as a collective and collaborative project. While the present capitalistic system is obviously imperfect and we can easily think of jobs that are destructive rather than productive (say, marketing cigarettes), that rather calls upon us to use democratic means to better orient society towards the kind of work needed. In that process, money remains one of the most effective motivational tools in our arsenal. While I am a great defender of having a generous welfare system with extensive unemployment benefits, I think it is crucial that such benefits are seen as a temporary rather than a permanent form of income.

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Politics

After a late evening at Nuffield College in Oxford, we all seemed to agree that the outcome was the best we could have hoped for. After all, the Tories did not get an outright majority and, looking at their actual policies, a Lib-Lab coalition would make the most sense. Unlike the free market German Free Democrats (FDP), the Liberal Democrats are in many ways more of European-style social democrats (see below). But such an analysis fails to take into account a number of things. First, Nick Glegg has promised to first seek a coalition with the largest party, second, what the lib-dems most of all want is electoral reform and third, with this in mind, if Brown is seen as desperately clinging to power, a future referendum on whether or not to switch to a proportional electoral system may in effect become a referendum on the coalition instead.

In any case, I must admit that as a foreigner I know too little to really speculate. Meanwhile, all hell seems to have broken out on the world markets. In the best of worlds, judicious politicians would use the current economic crisis to complete the European monetary union with a strong fiscal and political union. In reality, Merkel in particular has shown an exemplary lack of leadership and a profound inability to communicate to her voters how dependent the European countries already are on each other. With idealism already in short supply throughout the continent, and leading intellectuals retreating into being “critical” rather than recognizing how fragile the liberal project really is, we seem to be in for a rough ride.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Another election

In Frankfurt, waiting for flight LH 4728 which will take me right into the closing moments of the British general election. Tonight I plan to be in Oxford with some political theorists, watching what I am afraid will be a pretty miserable affair. Though I of course hope that Brown will make some surprise gains, it makes me sad that people are still buying into “compassionate conservatism” (for a bit of reality check on what it actually means, I recommend this piece by Johann Hari in The Independent). As for the liberal democrats and Nick Glegg they may have some very good policy ideas such as abolishing tuition fees for universities, rising the taxes on capital-gains and not spending £20+ billion to maintain Britain’s nuclear deterrent but they will in any case remain the junior partner in a future government.

Unlike the Swedish social democrats, Labour does not have a track record of being fiscal responsible and it is uncertain if they, or anyone for that matter, will be able to make the very harsh cuts that will be necessary to come to terms with the £175 billion deficit, not to mention the trillion pounds or so in debt that Britain has accumulated. Much like Sweden in the nineties, these will be hard times and a challenge to all progressive ambitions. One can only hope that they will have the courage to let the majority of the burden fall on the rich.

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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A hopeful future

Yesterday as I was walking home from the library, I stumbled upon an election rally with all the leaders of the Swedish centre-right coalition. Surrounded by orange balloons and cheerful supporters they were hammering in their message about how fiscal responsible they have been over the last four years, about the need to continue rewarding work rather than benefits, and, of course, what devastating effects another €0.05 per litre of gasoline taxation (as suggested by the red-green opposition) would have on the economy...

Looking at them standing there at the podium I was reminded of a blog post I wrote last year called “King Théoden and the fate of Swedish social democracy”. I cannot say that much has changed since then. Though the good guys are leading in the polls by a 5-10 percent margin they still lack a theoretical analysis of their own, an ability to connect the dots and to challenge head-on the misanthropic views of the right.

In order to contest everything from seemingly innocent reforms (such as the school voucher system undermining social cohesion) to the perverse idea that we need inequality to have economic growth, progressives have to trust their own history and use an informed historical analysis to show that many of the arguments employed by the right today were used already a hundred years ago (think Hirschman). But looking forward, progressives also have to project their own vision of the future, to take up the great themes of the present, like the fundamental choice between social trust and surveillance, and show how their future will simply be more hopeful.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Svenska Amerika Linien

Back in Gothenburg with blue skies and a photo excursion on my own. I should be honest and say upfront that my relationship with Gothenburg has never been easy. The city is, for the most part, brutally ugly with few green spaces. The Preemraff diesel refinery tends to fill the morning mist with fumes more akin to life on an oil platform. And the ocean is still a few kilometres to the west, meaning there is no unbroken horizon for the sun to sink into.

Yet, circumstances have meant that I have been coming back now and then ever since that first summer job when I was 19. More recently, Gothenburg has been my home since I returned from Melbourne last winter. Obviously, there are good things with any city and I have learned to appreciate the small islands: the outdoor patio of the Da Matteo café on Vallgatan, the Saturday ferry trips across the harbour (the ferries are an integrated part of the public transport system!) and then of course the ethereal memories of the past. For more than half a century, Svenska Amerika Linien (S.A.L.) operated an ocean liner service from Gothenburg to New York and it is a heritage that always has sparked my imagination. Today, one can still see some remnants, such as “Amerikahuset” and the actual terminal building which is now used for visiting cruise ships.