In the last few days I have watched some documentaries dealing with the topic of the greed and megalomania of German banks and large companies. Amongst others I watched documentaries about the West LB and the Bavarian Landesbank, Quelle (Karstadt) and Schlecker. In none of them was there a mention of the migration crisis. But even at that time the topic already divided society. Unnoticed. And the decline of social democracy began at that same time. Unnoticed. We have moved further and further away from being a humanist society. We need a new enlightenment.
“These days you have to be in the majority”
This true and weighty sentence comes from one of my favourite works by Leonard Bernstein “Candide”. Bernstein would have been 100 years old this year. He was a 1908 vintage, so in 1938 he was 30 years old. For someone like me, who has been studying Leonard Bernstein for many years now, this is a strange fact.
It is astonishing that after the elections on October 15 we will harvest what the black-blue government sowed in 2000-2006. Not diametrically but head on. We are witnessing the demise of the social democratic ideal, something which the great German liberal thinker Ralf Dahrendorf already foresaw in the eighties of the last century. Paradoxically this is taking place in their struggle against the “right”, aka the party decision against a coalition with blue.
Even the 5th series of House of Cards can no longer compete with this. American Realpolitik has now trumped the supposedly implausible manoeuvring of Frank Underwood. But the pleasing thing about this is that Europe is the benefactor.
The debate is too polemical and undifferentiated. It implies that every Muslim woman with headscarf is a woman who “submits” to political Islam and its anti-liberal views. This is not the case. Until the advent of political Islam in our western world, the Muslim woman with headscarf was just as much part of our multicultural and liberal society as the orthodox Jewish woman (and no one talks about her religious oppression). This is precisely the situation that Alexander Van der Bellen highlighted, namely automatically stigmatizing a woman as an oppressed, right-wing Muslim because she wears a headscarf is simply wrong.
I am firmly convinced that many young Muslim women wear the headscarf as a sign of their new self-confidence and commitment to Islam and to the liberal Islam of the West. Wearing a headscarf does not evaluate a person and says nothing about him or her. This is exactly what VdB meant. It was not meant as a religious statement, but as a comment on the evaluation/ stigmatization of people on the basis of an external factor and expressed in the sense of freedom and personal rights of the individual. The fact that his statement is spot on is confirmed by the current discussion in social media.
Enlightenment – where r u?
What also amazes me is that the headscarf discussion shows how careless we are about keeping an eye on our values. These are the values of a Europe that was the cradle of enlightenment. Europe obviously does not stand for the unconditional application of the rights of the individual and of liberty in people’s minds. This is exactly what Alexander Van der Bellen means. To live in a liberal society and to live the values of a liberal society is a challenge. The reaction to the statement made by Alexander Van der Bellen shows that we are further from this than at some other times in our history. To live according to the values of a liberal democracy is a strong and impressive force. The EU is more the “land of the free” than the US will ever be. Voltaire inspired the authors of the American constitution, such as Alexander Hamilton. Catherine the Great was also an inquisitive interlocutor of his and we should be aware of this fact. Even if it can be exhausting at times.
I supported VdB actively in the presidential election campaign out of my deepest conviction. Exactly because of attitudes like these that characterize his statement.
Can you remember the “Shutdown”. That was in autumn 2013 when the Republicans voted to block the budget for 2013 in order to (amongst other things) derail Obamacare. In addition there was the risk of the global power USA going bankrupt because the right wing of the party, the so-called Tea Party, linked increasing the debt ceiling with the demand for delaying Obamacare. The US would no longer be creditworthy. A state bankruptcy threatened. 800,000 federal servants could temporarily not be paid. Washington shut down…..
2012 in Tokyo: at the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the European debt crisis (and risk) was the focus. ECB members sat on the podium. They defended the eurozone and spoke of the rescue of Greece with a correspondingly rigid austerity programme. And especially: keeping the state and the banks separate from each other.
“The more frequently a politician contradicts himself the bigger he becomes.” Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The question I have been asking myself for weeks now is: has public office been damaged by the developments of recent years such that politics in the near future will only be dominated by populists?
It is like it always has been: a change of government leaves some government members without a job, from one day to the next. This is a surprise to some of them and they have no way to prepare. Werner Faymann himself is said to have taken a taxi home after his resignation press conference because use of the official car had already been withdrawn from him.
This happened maliciously “thanks” to strong social media involvement. The slow dismantling of Werner Faymann was just like it was one and a half years before when Michael Spindelegger held office and was slowly dismantled in public. There was no one who protected the office itself, to protect it in its dignity and importance before the attacks on the person.
No follow up?
There is no legitimate follow-up for politicians who voluntarily leave office.
Jobs in the private sector are dismissed as jobs for the boys, having NO job is interpreted as being a proven failure, and for engaging entrepreneurial activity you get a dressing down and are accused of using networks that would not have been available to you without your previous job.
This scenario awaits every leading politician who takes public office. It is practically part of the political CV. That is why it is not surprising that fewer and fewer people are willing to voluntarily forego privacy and personal freedom for long periods of time and to immerse themselves knowingly in a kind of image damage operation.
Respect for public office?
In Germany there is a different political culture. Former presidents and former Chancellors are provided with an infrastructure for the period after they leave office. This is offered without malice of the population and out of respect for the fact that these people have given a certain period of their lives to public service. They are used as political observers and analysts for big events without a hint of this merely being jobs for the boys. They are like ambassadors of their country who are handed responsibility for a period of time by the voters. The opinions and the views of these “elder statesman” are desired and sought after. Former American presidents have made this a business model with related community service in the form of foundations.
The populists profit
It is clear nevertheless that tangible policy making is essential and necessary. This is because it has never been so easy – especially through social media – to scrutinize policy and its actors, to take them apart and criticize without much background knowledge. This is a great moment for populists who through their activities paradoxically cause damage to the office to which they aspire. They do this perhaps in the knowledge that they might never be able to fill and shape the public office as their predecessors have done. Therefore the public office itself will systematically be damaged. And not just from its attacker but also by its defenders. The current US election campaign is an example of this. And the European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker is still struggling to build a respectful relationship with his office and the European Commission. The reasons for this are varied and often even self-inflicted when you think of TTIP, Russia sanctions, the EU-Turkey Agreement, aid to Greece etc.
The consequence of this is a massive anti-EU stance within the EU population taken by populists.
Austrian presidential election: the most recent Austrian example
The media proclaimed it to be a “partisan campaign.” This has led both sides presenting the Office of the President in the Constitution completely inappropriately and to put it in an improper light. The two candidates have been interviewed on issues that have nothing to do with the office itself. They were pressed into media confrontations that were not only unworthy but also harmed the office.
Political education 4.0
To once again learn how to maintain a respectful relationship with the office requires a massive increase in civic education. At the same it requires training in how to carry out the discourse with political office holders in the social networks. The willingness of politicians to communicate directly with the voters in these networks also requires respectful interaction. Just as politicians need to accept the will of voters and their opinions, so voters need to understand the role of political office and to deal accordingly and respectfully again with the person they are engaging with. This respectful interaction must be carried out in both directions and in all the direct and indirect relationships that exist between each other.
The conference organized by the Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs in Brussels was exciting. It dealt with structural reforms and the deepening of the economic and monetary union. Reforms! Said Draghi. Reforms! Demanded Dombrovskis. Reforms! Summed up Moscovici.
“The secret of freedom is courage.”
Even Pericles would have looked favourably upon Alexander Van der Bellen. Van der Bellen is courageous. His inner conviction has led him to stand as a candidate once again for the highest office in the land and to devote his life to public service for the Republic of Austria. He will stand as an independent coming from the Green Party. Or as I would put it as an independent spirit.
The reactions to Van der Bellen’s independent candidacy show once more how little digitization has entered public consciousness. Open innovation, which is increasingly gaining traction in the economy, remains foreign to realm of politics. The idea that someone has stature, is independent, has an inner freedom of spirit and can reach out to others across the political divide giving them courage and is a viable candidate for them, is something that is seldom recognized because of political ignorance. It is attractive to stay comfortably in the “mediocrity trap” (Hengstenschläger) and to risk nothing by putting your head above the parapet. Those people who are stuck in the analogue world of thought and of political unimaginativeness discredit independent candidates, who stand for a new form of society, throw traditional approaches overboard and take new and intellectually novel challenges upon themselves. Social Media reinforces old ways of thinking and behaving.
Van der Bellen’s candidacy: open innovation
The Van der Bellen candidacy represents a turning point:
- Yes, it is supported by the Greens. Why should the Greens not set such a sign of solidarity?
- Yes, the word “independent” was not the best one in this case because it was temporally occupied by Irmgard Griss. But how could a person like Alexander van der Bellen otherwise be described?
- Van der Bellen has always demonstrated in the course of his political career that he is not an apparatchik. His attitude has repeatedly stirred up “his” party. He often made speeches in the National Assembly that support a strong parliamentary system and centre-liberal approaches. Liberalism is freedom and independence. A fact that many choose to ignore and also fear.
- Van der Bellen is the first political candidate in the sense of open innovation. He is not obliged to follow classic party programmes and leaves much content and many ideas as they are. This approach is immediately attacked as fickleness rather than being seen as Van der Bellen’s open innovation approach.
- The most important thing for me is that Van der Bellen makes the classic zoon politikon, modelled on Plato and Aristotle, once again acceptable to the Imperial Palace where the Austrian president resides. Not because President Fischer and his predecessors did also not ascribe to this but because this has completely been lost in the policy making of recent years. This is although it must be said that Van der Bellen does not identify himself as a dedicated follower of Plato in his book “The Art of Freedom”.
His independent spirit, his intellect, his experience in the National Parliament, his support for the European Union, his commitment to parliamentarianism and to the eco-social market economy in his role as farsighted economist have prompted me to join his support committee. This is also because I can once again outwardly be my independent self.
Alexander van der Bellen is the first politician who heads an open innovation campaign and also has a corresponding vision for it. Perhaps he calls open innovation by another name but it stands for change.
Freedom and independence of mind and thinking are essential in such a process. Alexander van der Bellen will accompany us “courageously into these new times.” I trust him and believe that he will make something great out of the change.