two great stories about messy politics and story telling

Today my digital grazing delivered two great short stories about the mess of politics. The first,  Fanatics, Charlatans, and Economists, a short poignant opinion piece by Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping at the United Nations, and currently President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. It laments a crisis gripping national politics (was there ever a time there wasn’t one?). The story he tells, about the fiction of economic man and the resulting triumph of the individual over the collective makes for fascinating reading, despite his argument also only being just that, a story, not a shred of evidence that the culprits in his story are the real evildoers. But his story about that other story resonates with me, confirms my preconceptions, is well written, fits my frame. He brings the right stuff to my table. No escape for me.

Throughout the world, it seems, crisis is gripping national politics. In election after election, voter turnout has hit historic lows. Politicians are universally reviled. Mainstream parties, desperate to remain relevant, are caught in a vice, forced to choose between pandering to extremism and the risk of being overwhelmed by populist, anti-establishment movements.

Meanwhile, not since the end of World War II has money played such an important role in politics, trumping the power of ideas. In the United States, for example, the sound of billions of dollars flowing into election-campaign coffers is drowning out the voices of individual voters. In parts of the world where the rule of law is weak, criminal networks and corruption displace democratic processes. In short, the pursuit of the collective good looks sadly quaint.

The trouble began at the end of the Cold War, when the collapse of a bankrupt communist ideology was complacently interpreted as the triumph of the market. As communism was discarded, so was the concept of the state as an agent around which our collective interests and ambitions could be organized.

The individual became the ultimate agent of change – an individual conceived as the type of rational actor that populates economists’ models. Such an individual’s identity is not derived from class interests or other sociological characteristics, but from the logic of the market, which dictates maximization of self-interest, whether as a producer, a consumer, or a voter.

Indeed, economics has been placed on a pedestal and enshrined in institutions like central banks and competition authorities, which have been intentionally separated and made independent from politics. As a result, governments have been confined to tinkering at the margins of markets’ allocation of resources.

The 2008 global financial crisis, the resulting recession, and rapidly widening income and wealth inequality have punctured the glib triumphalism of economics. But politics, far from rising to take its place, continues to be discredited, as mainstream leaders – particularly in North America and Europe – call on economic theories to justify their policy choices.

The pursuit of individual attainment is the hallmark of our time, eclipsing the collective dimension of human destiny. And yet the deep human need to be part of a group has yet to disappear. It lingers, but without a credible outlet. National projects ring hollow, and the so-called international community remains an abstraction. This unfulfilled desire for community may be felt particularly acutely by young people – including, for example, young jihadists.

Indeed, nationalist politicians and religious leaders have been the first to spot the vacuum, and they are rapidly filling it. Pope Francis, Vladimir Putin, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and Marine Le Pen have little in common. But they share one insight: There is a deep longing for the creation of communities defined by shared values, not functional needs.

The crisis of national politics has consequences that echo far beyond the borders of individual countries. National chauvinism and religious fundamentalism are here to stay, and with them the terrorism that extremists of all stripes embrace, because both phenomena are ideally suited to the age of the individual: They provide imaginary answers to personal angst, instead of political answers to collective challenges. These movements’ amorphous nature – often channeled through charismatic leaders – allows each individual to project onto them his or her dreams, making them difficult to counter within the framework of traditional politics.

But this strength can also be a weakness. When tasked with managing territories and governing populations, these movements begin to face the same bothersome logistical and organizational constraints as their rivals. As a result, bureaucracy is constantly at their heels, leaving them in perpetual need of upheaval and renewal.

If politics is to retake the field of values from the fanatics, the charlatans, and the economists, it must be rebuilt from the ground up. More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities, and any political renaissance must counterbalance the appeal of vast virtual communities with resilient urban societies. Citizens must become reengaged with the political process, educated in public affairs, and provided with real (not merely virtual) platforms to air their differences and debate alternative views.

Furthermore, institutions that provide bridges between states and the global community, such as the European Union, must be strengthened and refocused. In particular, their technical functions must be clearly distinguished from their political roles.

But, above all, politicians must stop trying to shore up their diminished credibility with the pretense of economic science. Politics begins where contemporary economics ends – with ethics and the attempt to create a justly ordered society.

Time for another break. John Butler cum suis performing in the park after their scheduled big stage performance was cancelled because of a storm. And yes, it is appropriate after a plea for the importance of community.

And this how it would have sounded on a big stage:

The second story is more specific, the political mess in Europe, by Dutch journalist and historian Geert Mak whom I greatly admire. He’s mostly a big fish in our very small pond, but his history  of the 20st century In Europe received international acclaim. Another great example of arguing for the mess a story can create,. this one a bit more substantial (and thus a bit longer). Published in national daily NRC Handelsblad today (behind a pay wall), but also published on his personal site. translated here for your enjoyment of a well written story:

Finally the cricket spoke

Why did Syriza win? Geert Mak: ‘The fairytale of the cricket and the ant has brought enormous, probably even irreparable damage onto the European project.’ 

What a terrific gift the story is! What joy, and also solace, our human inclination to tell stories brings. We humans are as historian Philipp Blom so beautifully calls ‘a storytelling species’ . And that has a purpose. Stories bring structure to the chaos of history and politics. They offer lessons for the future, strengthen a certain order, give us heroes to look up to, bad guys and traitors to despise.

Silently, stories are a deep driving force underlying public opinion. They regularly determine the priorities of politicians. But do these old stories still fit the 21st century? Can they even be dangerous in our new reality? We rarely think about it. 

Last weekend the Greeks have given one story a completely new turn: the fable of the cricket and the ant. The cricket who all summer only danced and sang while the ant laboured collecting his stock for the winter. It turned cold, the cricket got hungry, but the ant refused to help him: he should have worked. The door remained closed. In the words of Joost van den Vondel: ‘the cricket now bears it guilty punishment, now carries its curse’.

How we North Europeans agreed on this story during the recent crisis! Isn’t it like this: while we worked hard, deep into old age, those Southeners  just frolic about and spend our savings. Tighten their belt, that’s what they need to do those crickets, and learn some discipline!

How well that story fit our stereotypes. Even though we knew from the start that the Eurocrisis was primarily a banking crisis, especially in countries like Spain, Portugal and Ireland where state finances were not problematic. A crisis for which the responsibility was redirected, from the private to the public sector, and the bill had ended up with the innocent tax payers. 

Sure, the eurofire had been competently smothered. But let’s be frank, the euro remains a very problematic currency because it forces eighteen very different economic cultures – with emphasis on ‘culture’ – into one monetary straightjacket. Because of that the eurozone lacks the required monetary flexibility which blocks chances for recovery. The room for manoeuvre within that straightjacket is being determined by the North. And how addictive the fairytale of the cricket and the ant has been in that!

Especially through the morality promoted in this parable, a morality that goes way beyond financial prudence. Because it is a morality in which thrift also functions as punishment. It is no accident that The Netherlands and Germany are the only two countries worldwide that use the same word for financial debt and moral guilt, ‘schuld’ and ‘Schuld’. Schuld/Guilt that merits penalty.  Schuld/Debt also that doesn’t merit relief. While Germany itself, burdened by huge debt after the war, has experienced how important debt relief is for the revival of normal economic life. The debt reduction of more than 110 billion Deutsch Marks – official deferral of payment until forever – during the London conference of 1953 saved the German economy, even more than all Marshall aid. 

Despite this we, Dutch and Germans, have enforced the ant morality on Europe, and also on ourselves. We called it ‘our responsibility’ – even if that obsession with a ‘strong’ euro, according to most outsiders, even including the IMF, was highly irresponsible. What we now live through in Europe: permanent high unemployment, muddling through economies, in combination with an unending  austerity policy and a constant threat of long-term deflation, it had all been predicted, by an army of experts, ad nauseam. The US, that implemented the opposite policy, stared its recovery long ago. We remain stuck. But we keep economizing, even though by now we know better, like anorexia patients unable to stop dieting. 

And now Syriza has spoken, soon it is going to be Podemos turn in Spain, and more will follow. A child could have predicted this development. Because the weight loss program was all about financial markets and trust in the financial sector.  No price was to high. The trust of European populations in the European project has been ruthlessly sacrificed for it – with all social and political consequences that entailed. The fairytale of the cricket and the ant has thus seriously harmed the European project, maybe even lethally. In Southern Europe , with youth employment now at more than 50%, a whole generation is more or less being depreciated and forgotten. We, the ants, talk about ‘the’ crickets, ‘the’ Greeks. If there is one place where such a generalization doesn’t apply it is here. In Greece a third of the population lives around the poverty line, the oligarchs, the pilferers and the rich have by now safely transferred their wealth elsewhere. The poorest only receive support from the churches, the communists and the nazi’s. Young talent emigrates on a massive scale, a brain drain that increases the disruption. Modernity, the magic word of the ants, has become even more an illusion. Everything is being penetrated by the sour air of austerity. 

And of decay, that also. Because the euro crisis was also a moral crisis. The impunity and even rewards with which the responsible bankers walked away, the genuflection to the demands of the financial markets, the division between winners and losers, the desolation and devastation of the price that so many normal Europeans had to pay for the atrocious behaviors of the financial sector, it showed us, even if only momentarily, a glimpse of the reigning values of the contemporary EU.

What we see at work here is the ideology of 21st century super capitalism, an Anglo-saxon ideology, that by now is far removed from all those European versions of a moderate, Rhineland or Scandinavian capitalism. No, it is not an attractive sight.

The increasing number of tasks, hitherto executed by humans, taken over by robots, and the danger of human values loosing out in that mechanisation is being often discussed these days. Well, this dehumanizing process is operating at full force already in the economy and the financial sector – and in some sectors has reached near completion. 

That we too, North Europeans, once had our own values regarding this, that we ever realized that also a capitalist system cannot endure without a moral counter-culture, that there ever was a time when we didn’t consider unemployment and poverty as collateral damage, but as big moral problems, we seem to have forgotten. We have turned cold as ice, we perennial ants.

‘Many feel themselves strangers and outsiders in their own city or country of birth’ British political commentator Frank Furedi recently wrote in an essay about European populism. They feel disconnected from their governments and institutions, patronized by their politicians who only pursue power, stability and resignation. This makes for all kinds of new stories hiding underneath all European protest, be it left, right, populist or not, stories with one shared message: an intense deep longing for solidarity.

Crickets remain crickets, that too. Syriza works hard, now it has reached the seat of power, at confirming all our antsy stereotypes: dogmatic, sometimes full-fledged unrealistic, diplomatically clumsy – with very dodgy allies. However, Syriza is more than a mouse that hollers. It is the visible flame of a peat-moor fire raging everywhere outside the centres of power.  The Greeks forced Brussels to consider a dilemma that it should have acknowledged a long time ago. Finally, humiliated to the core, the cricket said: ‘No”.

It’s  really ironic how important stories are in our understanding, in our causal reasoning, in our ideological and legitimatory blabberings, while so much of our social life (and certainly much of the rest of it) is not primarily in reaction to them stories. Don’t know yet how to give stories their proper due because it would also be very untrue to argue they don’t matter. They do, more than facts. But that’s another story.

To end on something terrible that nevertheless unavoidably gets you and thus proves my point as well as whitewash whatever darkness I have introduced to you today:



About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
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