Wednesday, November 16, 2011


The other week, while trying to write a fair and unbiased review of an article for the journal Organization & Environment, I felt a need to let off some steam. Unfortunately, I chose to do so here on Rawls & Me rather than over a beer with my colleagues.

Little did I expect the strong reactions that my blog post would provoke. On one hand, this is of course a good thing since it is shows that people are actually interested in these important topics. On the other hand, I am afraid that my quick and sloppy way of writing may have led to some unnecessary misunderstandings.

First, I should clarify that the references to Gramscians had nothing to do with this particular paper but more with the kind of general anti-capitalist rhetoric which seems to permeate much scholarship these days. It is rhetoric which spares no ammunition when it comes to describing the failings of global capitalism, yet offers very little in terms of what an alternative global order could look like.

One of the great ideas of social democracy was that it allowed for pluralism, that it offered a future that could inspire many different sorts of people rather than requiring homogenization around a single monolithic vision of society in the way communism or fascism did. I still believe that the future must be built on a similar compromise, that it must take seriously the possibility that not everyone who believes in capitalism suffers from “false consciousness”, but still make sure that we keep society moving in a progressive direction towards greater emancipation. It is about using markets for what they are good for (decentralized decision-making and the accumulation of wealth) while not using them for providing basic social functions such as healthcare or education (which should rather be based on duty or scientific curiosity).

Because of our fallibility as humans we need effective limits on authority and check-and-balances. I am scared by those who think that “science should trump politics” and who think that everyone must submit to their own worldview or die. At the same time, we urgently need to make progress towards sustainability and this is why I wish more scholars would dare to make the move from simply “deconstruction” of existing power relations to plausible ideas about how we can transform these relations in a progressive direction.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Scientific neutrality

I am currently reviewing an article which is using Foucault and Fairclough to uncover “the links between neo-liberalism (and its anti-democratic and repressive features) and sustainability”... Sounds like you can guess where it is heading? If not, it might help to know that the article also aims to challenge the “assumption that the political implications stemming from scientific research are ideologically free”...

Clearly, this article is an almost parodical representation of the post-modern consensus and its understanding that being “critical” never means being critical of one’s own ideological position. Obviously, very few Gramscians ask themselves in what way their own antagonistic worldview contributes to making political change “hopeless” or to what extent their own views may in fact have become “hegemonical” within Academia?

In this particular case, I think much confusion stems from the inability to make at least an analytic distinction between the scientific question of whether global environmental change is happening and the political question what we should do about it?

Sometimes progress in this world is really frustratingly slow. Many people still question the reality of environmental change even as humans have completely overrun the planet. Thinking back at the summer and the sulphur smoke in Beijing, I wonder what it would actually take to make these people understand the reality of the threat we are facing? Perhaps something as simple as telling them that accepting the reality of that threat does not mean that they necessarily have to accept the anti-capitalist remedies suggested by the environmental movement? But accepting that reality would of course put a moral pressure on them to actually come up with better and smarter solutions to the problem of global sustainability...


Thursday, November 03, 2011

Eine andere Welt ist möglich

It can be a morning commuter train in the Rhineland or school children walking along the river banks in Phnom Penh. As we travel the world, we experience the physical communality of humanity, how it finally seems to be within our grasp that we share the same common destiny as a species. Working on humanity’s long-term prospects as I do, it can be a brutal reminder that not everyone shares this insight and that many, even educated people, still think that we can afford a future of armed conflict and interstate animosity. At least to me it seems obvious that these people, while clinging to scientific euphemisms such as “security architecture”, “geostrategic balancing” and “power projections”, are not neutral observers but actually, to a large extent, the makers of the nightmarish futures that they fear.

Today at HUFS, the Graduate School of International and Area Studies together with Vrije Universiteit Brussel organized an EU-sponsored conference on “Europe and the Shifting Strategic Trends in East Asia”. The first presenter was a Dr Louis Simon who gave a paper entitled “Offshore Power Europe? A European Geostrategy in an Asian century”. Although I have spent many hours in conference rooms listening to the misanthropic autism of IR-realism, the last months of peaceful hikes and lofty scholarly pursuits had left me somewhat unprepared for what I was to hear:

“...the rise of China incentivises Europeans to think strategically – something that has been prevented by America’s benign penetration since WWII. It also offers Europeans an opportunity to get Russia off their backs, as China demands greater attention from Russian in eastern Eurasia. Europeans should therefore assist the rise of China as a means of shaking off external penetration in Europe and its greater neighbourhood. In turn, a united Europe playing an offshore power role in eastern Eurasia could, by threatening to provide China’s rivals with the necessary power to crush Beijing, extract key concessions from China in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East or Central Asia”.

At first, I could not wait until the floor would be open for comments. But soon I realized that this was a battle that I could ill afford in front of all my new colleagues. So, in a most unusual move, I decided to simply leave the room. Instead of investing more frustration into this, I will now have a beer with my friends from all over the world living here in Globee Dorm because I am absolutely confident that “eine andere Welt” is not only possible but necessary.

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