Posts Tagged ‘Debat de Barcelona’

Todorov, a CCCB Stalwart

February 15th, 2017 No Comments

John Berger, Zygmunt Bauman, Tzvetan Todorov. These renowned authors who have made extraordinary contributions to culture and critical thought have left us this winter of 2017. With them, we are losing a generation that is central to European history, a group of thinkers who still had direct or indirect memory of the continent’s horrors. They were all united in their denunciation of totalitarian thought, their tenaciousness in trying to understand human complexity, and their resolute defence of democracy and diversity. Last week we received the sad news of the death, at the age of seventy-seven, of the Bulgarian historian and essayist, Tzvetan Todorov. A gentle, friendly man with an unhurried way of speaking, Todorov was a thinker in every sense of the word, one who shunned disciplinary confines and encouraged reflection without dogmatism. Todorov was one of the guest speakers at the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) from its early days and, during the years of forging this relationship, his influence was considerable. He gave four lectures at the CCCB, all of them highly topical today, and available in the BREUS collection.

Tzvetan Todorov al Debat de Barcelona Virtuts CCCB (c) Miquel Taverna, 2012

Tzvetan Todorov en el Debat de Barcelona Virtuts CCCB (c) Miquel Taverna, 2012

In his first lecture in 2004, he spoke of Europe’s frontiers, a subject of all-important relevance today which we tackle in this year’s Barcelona Debate. Even then, Todorov was calling on the European Union not to restrict itself to being an economic and administrative entity, and asking it to take on its “complement of soul” so that it could also become a cultural Europe. Aware that the continent does not have a single cultural essence and that diversity is its identity, Todorov upheld a European project based on shared political principles and a critical spirit as a mechanism of continuous self-questioning.

At the Kosmopolis Festival in 2008, he spoke about terrorism, decrying the progressive legalisation of torture as a political instrument. At the height of the debate raging around the effects of America’s invasion of Iraq, Todorov recalled that torture has existed since antiquity but now, for the first time, it is no longer presented as a lamentable but excusable infraction. It is becoming the norm. His judgement left no room for doubt: “A state that legalises torture is no longer a democracy”.

In 2009, he joined the writers Juan Goytisolo and Monika Zgustova in a discussion on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In a text published in the BREUS Collection, Murs caiguts, murs erigits (Walls Brought Down, Walls Built), Todorov had the following to say: “The fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to proclaim the end of other walls built in other places. Twenty years on, we must acknowledge that this hope has not borne the fruit of success. Far from vanishing from the face of the earth, the walls have multiplied. How can this be explained?” A thinker of otherness, Todorov denounced the use of “fear of the barbarians” to justify the proliferation of borders and recalled, “[…] the stranger is not only like us but, at the mercy of the uncertainties of fate, yesterday we ourselves were, or tomorrow we will be the strangers: we are all potential strangers.”

Tzvetan Todorov’s last lecture at the CCCB, given at a time when the economic crisis was having devastating effects among the population, dwelled on the virtue of moderation. A fervent defender of pluralism, Todorov warned of the fragile foundations of democratic societies and the risks of abuse of power. On this occasion, he roundly praised moderation as a political and social principle, while criticising the oversimplifications of monolithic thinking. He said, “Individual freedom is a basic demand of democracy, but absolute freedom is not a desirable aim”, and also pointed out that, “Guaranteeing the material wellbeing of the population is a desirable result but if others are excluded when this goal is pursued, we will end up living in a world worshipping at the altar of a money cult. The prosperity of a country is a means, not an end.” In an interview he gave to the CCCB he warned, “We need to remind ourselves about the importance of fundamental values like moderation because, if we forget them, we will become victims of mechanisms that only favour the most powerful.”

The last document Todorov left us is, without a doubt, one of the most moving of all and that which best shows his warm affability. In March 2011, when we opened the Teatre CCCB, we asked several people associated with the CCCB for their views about it. Todorov agreed to speak about the CCCB in an interview which was recorded in his home in Paris in the winter of 2011. We shall never forget the experience or his words.

Joan-Francesc Mira: “The Mediterranean isn’t a zone of harmony. It’s a zone of conflict”

February 1st, 2017 No Comments

I tell Joan-Francesc Mira that the 2017 “Barcelona Debate”, “Old Europe, New Utopias” discusses, among other matters, whether there is a relationship between the ageing of the European population and the ageing of the European project. He gives me a severe look and says that the correlation might work intuitively but, on paper, it’s not so clear. We talk about identities, of clean people and people who defile, of cities that triumph and fail, of Napoleon, Adenauer and the feats and villainy of Mitterrand.

Joan Francesc Mira al CCCB © CCCB, 2016, Glòria Solsona

Joan Francesc Mira at CCCB © CCCB, 2016, Glòria Solsona

AP: Lyon, Avignon, Ravenna and Montpellier, the cities you mentioned in your lecture “Dante and Llull: Cultures, Languages and Worlds”, citing them as important urban centres in the lives of these two thinkers, now play no role in Europe. Do the political splendour and cultural splendour of cities go together? 

Joan Francesc Mira: On the one hand, they do. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, London was only relatively important on the European scale, and more in dynastic than economic or cultural terms. Hamburg, Amsterdam and Vienna didn’t have the importance they would later attain. Berlin, needless to say, only began to figure towards the end of the eighteenth century. Munich was something else. So was Prague. The more you move down, the more important the urban centres were. Milan began its rise with that of the Visconti family. Venice, yes, was important in every domain, especially in trade with the East. And Florence was a great centre of finance.

The European cities of the north didn’t yet have the power they would acquire after the industrial revolution. But, on the other hand, I also cited Paris, which was an extremely important centre in the ninth and tenth centuries. The French dynasty wielded so much power that it even began to overshadow the papacy. Moreover, with its university, Paris was a great centre of philosophical and theological authority.

Vista de la universitat de la Sorbona en 1550. CC Edward August, Fourquemin, Nousveaux

University of the Sorbonne view in 1550. CC Edward August, Fourquemin, Nousveaux

You need to remember that neither Llull nor Dante thought in global terms, as we do now. For Dante, Naples was something remote. His itinerary took him to Rome, which was important but, demographically speaking, it only had 30,000 inhabitants. Valencia, by the time the Borjas arrived, already had twice as many inhabitants.

So, the answer is yes and no. It’s not that the cities of Ramon Llull and Dante were very important, though they had a lot of autonomy in the political realm and this made them stand out with their intrigues, military pacts and trade agreements. But the active life of these cities isn’t the same as their real significance.

AP: What kind of relations did these Mediterranean cities have?

JFM: Conflict. The Mediterranean isn’t a zone of harmony. It’s a zone of conflict. It was only under the Roman Empire that there was unity among the Mediterranean peoples. The territorial unity came to an end with the barbarian invasions and the expansion of Islam with its religious unity. We are still living in a duality, with a south—North Africa and the Middle East —of Semitic, Islamised origins, and a European, Christian north.

But we need to be careful about Christian Europe. Recall that the Turks reached the gates of Vienna at the end of the seventeenth century and that Hungary, which is now part of Central Europe, belonged to the Turkish Empire for centuries.

“Europe is an ideological product of the Enlightenment and romanticism”

AP: There is no millenarian European Christian identity.

JFM: Well, the Turks and the “Europeans” thought in terms of Christendom rather than Europe. Europe was then a geographical reference, as America was to become. Europe is an ideological product of the Enlightenment and romanticism and, above all, of the twentieth century when attempts were made to reinterpret history in terms of the identity of an old project that never existed.

The old project which certainly was important was that resulting from the breakup of the Roman Empire. In the eastern Empire, where Constantine built the new capital in Constantinople—the ancient Byzantium which was later to become Istanbul—they still spoke Greek and had a Christianised Greek culture, which then became part of the Slavic world. This Greek Empire developed a kind of Caesaropapism, a structure in which civil authority—the Byzantine emperor—was also the religious authority. In the Western Empire there was no unified civil authority. This was only recovered with Charlemagne but then it fell apart again.

AP: And this means…

JFM: An eastern Christendom and a western Christendom with totally different characteristics. It’s also explained by the evolution of cities, as you mentioned. In the east there were no urban communes in the style of Florence or Barcelona with, for example the community councils, autonomy, codes of law, statutes, regulated trade and universities. There were no medieval, Renaissance, Enlightenment or bourgeois universities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Although they were frequently ruled by a king, the autonomous Mediterranean communes were the forerunners of representative democracy. Or culturally speaking, Dante was a pre-humanist and was interested in the ancient Roman model, an ethical, ideological and aesthetic model which is independent from the Christian model. Here, there is an independence of thought and aesthetics vis-à-vis sacred doctrine, an autonomy which never existed in eastern Christianity.

«Putin ha reactivado la hostilidad oriental contra el occidentalismo»

AP: And where does this western Christianity begin and end?

JFM: Well, wherever there’s a gothic cathedral, there’s been this whole kind of western culture and society. Take, for example, the idea of studying law or medicine at the university. The university gives you a licence to teach, or it recognises you as a doctor or, in other words, it endows you with the capacity to establish doctrine. All of this represents a very specific mentality, kind of politics, artistic expressions and way of living extending from Finland to Venice, and including the Croatian coast (indeed, what is now Dubrovnik was the Republic of Ragusa in Italian culture).

Putin is bringing about a revival of this difference between the two worlds and the Orthodox Church is recognising him as a kind of tsar, as the authority over the church. He is the great backer of universal reactionism. He finances Marine Le Pen, Hungarian reactionism, the adversaries of the European Union and the restoration of the monasteries on Mount Athos. He has reignited eastern hostility against Occidentalism.

AP: Occidentalism is also a strange concept. For many centuries—and, in fact, it seems like a cyclical phenomenon—it was believed that there was a gulf between Latin and Anglo-Saxon cultures which was impossible to bridge.

JFM: This has a real basis. In the beginning it was an ethnic contrast: Romans versus Germanic “barbarians”. But the peoples were slowly mixing and, by the Late Middle Ages, the division no longer mattered. But what happened is that there was a resurgence because the two peoples embarked on different forms of economic evolution. The people of the north began to prosper and modernise more quickly. There is a kind of mercantile capitalism that works better there because there is more economic freedom. In the protestant zone, in particular, the activation of an advanced urban culture was faster, with cleaner, tidier and better organised cities. And after the eighteenth century, this gave rise to different ways of life and forms of collective consciousness. Nevertheless, a citizen of Hamburg, or Rotterdam or London or Edinburgh will mistakenly still keep seeing us as a backward people.

AP: And, despite these differences, there has been an attempt to construct a European identity.

JFM: The first to try it was Napoleon but, naturally, not out of any ideological conviction regarding some kind of European culture. What he wanted was to give a historical or cultural veneer to his military empire. After him the Nazis tried it, mainly because of their opposition to the Soviet Union which, for them, represented Asian peoples. During the Second World War, this opposition you noted between north and south was superseded by an opposition between east and west.

The idea of Europe as a political structure built by communal agreement between different peoples made its appearance after the Second World War. Since the eighteenth century with its Thirty Years’ War, we have never stopped killing each other. Europe is sixty years old and it was designed to bring peace.

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Quadre Entry of Napoleon I into Berlin, 27th October 1806. CC C. Meynie, 1810

Entry of Napoleon I into Berlin, 27th October 1806. CC C. Meynie, 1810

AP: Also, maybe, so that its countries could play a role in the global world. 

JFM: No. You have to see it from within. In 1945, for the first time in two centuries, Germany was totally destroyed and occupied. Only then could it be submitted to a union which—or so the other countries believed—would lessen its power. In fact, the first attempt was the European Cole and Steel Community. Why? Because if you control the production and use of steel, you control the war industry. Without that control, you can’t deploy your own heavy weapons. Hence, this was the definitive proof of Germany’s good faith: steel production had to be submitted to the scrutiny of a supranational authority.

Remember that in 1946 and 1947 the Germans lost more than a third of their territory. That means fourteen or fifteen million Germans expelled from what is now Poland or the Czech Republic or the Königsberg zone—which is now Russian—and subsequently taken in by East Germany. Now we are scandalised by the 400,000 Palestinians uprooted by the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, but the neighbouring Arab countries were never able to take them in.

«The three great ideological and political fathers of the Union were Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi and Robert Schuman»

AP: Let’s go back to Germany’s weakness? Who benefits?

JFM: Who indeed! The ones who joined the Union as a dominant power were the French who, despite the myth of the resistance and de Gaulle, had lost the war. By means of the Union, they tried to control the Germans and, moreover, gratify their craving for historic grandeur.

The three great ideological and political fathers of the Union were Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi and Robert Schuman, all three of them from borderlands, or of mixed origins, and all German speakers. By this I mean that Adenauer came from the most French-influenced part of Germany, De Gasperi was a northern Italian born in the old Austria-Hungary, and Schuman was a Frenchman of German origin. Forty years on, Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand would represent the spiritual European reconciliation. Mitterrand was a great politician and also a great crook who protected French war criminals who had worked with the Nazis. But he was a great politician who was able to see that the time had come to consolidate the project.

AP: ¿Quo vadis, Europa?

JFM: Well look, first of all, since the end of the communist era there has been an impressive resurrection of the Christian faith right across orthodox Europe. And not just in Putin’s Russia. Don’t forget that Tsipras is in power thanks to an ultra-nationalist, ultra-religious and ultra-Greek party supported by both the military and the church.

In our Europe everything is more uncertain. I wouldn’t say that there is a revival of Catholic religious practice here. There’s a permanent need for some kind of religion but religion has been replaced by absurd esoteric beliefs. And there’s also a wave of evangelical Protestantism coming from South America and the United States. This is very reactionary, totally literal in its interpretation of the Bible, completely divorced from the original Protestantism, and increasingly visible. Then again, there are 45 million Muslims in Europe with beliefs akin to those of the most rigorous Christians centuries ago. And this has a potential for mobilisation that is lacking the values on which our democracies are founded, as is demonstrated by the way we have to confront jihadist attacks. I don’t know about the future, but this will be the linchpin. I don’t like having to say it. But that’s the way things are.

Zygmunt Bauman’s Bequest to the CCCB

January 18th, 2017 No Comments

Recalling anecdotes and moments shared with the sociologist-philosopher

Zygmunt Bauman en el ciclo Fronteres, CCCB, 2004

Zygmunt Bauman in the cycle Fronteres, CCCB, 2004

If there is one name that will remain forever linked with the history of the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona, it is that of the sociologist-philosopher Zygmunt Bauman who died in Leeds on 9 January 2017 at the age of ninety-one. A few weeks before his death, the Centre for Documentation and Debates had contacted him to ask him to open the next Barcelona Debate, “Old Europe, New Utopias” . In his affable response, he did not decline the invitation but regretted that his state of health was delicate so, given the risk, said he would leave the final decision to the CCCB team.

The period from this recent contact and going back to 2004, which was the first time Bauman (who was then relatively unknown, at least in Barcelona) set foot in the CCCB, covers thirteen years and fourteen lectures, more than a decade of working together and relationship. We mourn our loss because Bauman was pleasant, friendly and loveable, but we also look back with pride because we have worked with one of the most lucid thinkers of our times and we have conserved a good part of his ideas in our archive.

We have published six books of lectures he has given at the CCCB in the series BREUS CCCB (published in Catalan and English): Noves fronteres i valors universals (New Frontiers and Universal Values), Arxipèlag d’excepcions (Archipelago of Exceptions), La felicitat es fa, no es compra (Joys of Life Made, Not Bought), and El destí de la desigualtat social en la fase líquida de la modernitat (The Fate of Social Inequality in Liquid-Modern Times) and, in the DIXIT series (in Spanish), Archipiélago de excepciones (Archipelago of Exceptions) and Múltiples culturas, una sola humanidad (Many Cultures, One Humanity) as well as two articles in the publications Fronteres and Europe City.

On our website it is also possible to consult videos of his lectures, an interview and a chronicle of the last debate in which he appeared. This, in 2013, was followed by more than 700 people in the CCCB hall, which made him not just one of the oldest speakers at the CCCB but also one of the most popular with the public. He was our very own rock star (and we were his fans!), so we would like to remember him from a more personal standpoint. We have asked several members of the CCCB team who had more direct dealings with him—the former director of the CCCB Josep Ramoneda; the head of the Centre for Documentation and Debates, Judit Carrera; the head of press, Mònica Muñoz; and the debates coordinator Susana Arias—to share their memories of Zygmunt Bauman with us.

“Bauman’s words were totally in tune with the spirit of the CCCB” Josep Ramoneda, former director of the CCCB

On 22 March 2004, Zygmunt Bauman gave his first lecture at the CCCB. Small, full of energy, accompanying his words with gesticulating arms and hands which made him fill the stage more and more, he gave a true lesson in a genre which is antiquated, or so it is fashionable to believe. Yet I have found few forms of presentation and discussion of ideas that can improve upon a good lecture. Bauman’s was precisely that. PowerPoint and panel discussions have wrecked a genre that is highly exigent. In order to give a good lecture, it is not enough to think about it and write it up. You have to deliver it. And delivering it is very difficult. PowerPoint is a great enemy of the good lecture. A lecture is an act of creation which, as such, is submitted for the interpretation and consideration of the audience.

Zygmunt Bauman i Josep Ramoneda al cicle Fronteres, CCCB, 2004

Zygmunt Bauman and Josep Ramoneda in the cycle Fronteres, CCCB, 2004

That day, Bauman explained to us how, in the city, general and abstract statements about conflicts between civilisations and cultures are translated into the experience of relationships with specific individuals, for example the people next door or from the neighbourhood. To paraphrase, he said that you don’t know these people as walking embodiments of an imminent clash of civilisations but as shopkeepers, waiters, workers, people who work in the same factory as you do, neighbours, parents of your children’s classmates and, little by little but unfailingly, they keep shifting from the abstract category of “alien civilisation” to that of individual human beings. Hence, slowly, and not without moments of conflict, fear of the great unknown begins to dissipate and the terrifying foreigners are no more than ordinary human beings with the same desires and wishes as you.

Bauman’s skilfulness with metaphors, the secret of his publishing success—and how much sociological soup has been cooked up from his liquid society!—has meant that he is also sometimes pigeonholed. But, that day, his words were totally in tune with the spirit of the CCCB.

Another memory I have is the day we opened a seminar with a discussion between him and Giorgio Agamben. I was impressed by the compelling power of the maestro’s presence. Everyone expected a certain theoretical confrontation and yet Agamben behaved like a young man intimidated by authority. He simply let Bauman lead the way.

Bauman has many potent expressions, but one will always be with me. To paraphrase again, he pointed out that one of the great catchwords of the twentieth century was liquidate: liquidate the Jew, liquidate the class enemy. We must make sure that the main programme of the twenty-first century does not turn out to be that of liquidating mankind. These words sum up an intellectual life that was very typical of the last century: a Polish Jew who escapes the Holocaust, who grows up and is trained under the post-war communist regime in which he comes to occupy a position of responsibility in the military, and who goes into exile in 1968 at a time of a certain anti-Semitic crusade, first to Israel and then to Leeds where he forges his intellectual career. His vigour emanated life and his cordiality was warming.

A Most Surprising Interview. Mònica Muñoz-Castanyer, head of press at the CCCB

I remember most especially Lluís Amiguet’s interview with Bauman in November 2005. In order to ensure a good interview, it is necessary to give both interviewee and interviewer sufficient time and a comfortable setting. Neither of these was provided on the occasion of this interview for La Contra (the back page) of the daily La Vanguardia. Having prepared a lot of interviews for Bauman, which he resignedly and gracefully accepted, we led him to different parts of the CCCB, always in the company of his wife. First, there were photos in the courtyard, the Pati de les Dones, then a meeting with journalists in the Mirador space and, next, a recorded interview for the CCCB Archive. Bauman was showing signs of impatience and his wife was nodding her approval. But the main interview was yet to come: one hour with Amiguet!

We had already crossed the passageway on the first floor, heading for a meeting room in the CCCB office space where we had planned to hold the interview, when Zygmunt Bauman raised his arms, opened his left hand (in the right hand he was holding his inseparable pipe) and, in the middle of the chill-out area (a break space for workers on the office floor on the CCCB with coffee and snacks machines), said, “We’ll do the interview right here.” Before I could convince him to change his mind, he and his wife were sitting in the chairs of the chill-out space. I broke out in a sweat. The journalist sat down beside him, turned on his recorder and started the interview. It was a total disaster. Added to the infernal racket of the old escalators, were the rumbling of the dispensing machines, footsteps, voices of the Centre’s workers moving from here to there, and sounds of visitors wandering around the CCCB at the time. It was one hour of utter torment which, nonetheless, turned into this Contra in La Vanguardia. We have never again held an interview in the chill-out space and, thanks to Zygmunt Bauman, I will always be well-equipped to tell people where one should never hold an interview.

Visiting Bauman in Leeds. Judit Carrera, head of the Centre for Documentation and Debates

I visited Zygmunt Bauman at his home in Leeds in the winter of 2008. The father of the theory of liquid modernity had been living in that house for thirty-seven years, sharing it with his wife Janina in a marriage that lasted 62 years until she died in 2009. They both welcomed me with their usual friendliness and, displaying an excellent sense of humour, assured me that their long marriage was the exception that confirmed the rule of a liquid world. Their mutual deep understanding was evident. They spoke Polish together and, at times, rather stiff English. They worked in different parts of the house and met twice a day to smoke together. They said that smoking was a routine, a way of thinking. And they smoked non-stop

Their house was a typical two-storey English home in a narrow street near a big avenue which cut them off from the centre of Leeds. Cosy and with a Central European feel, it was austere but full of books. Their messy library had not diminished even though they had ceded 2,500 volumes to Prague University to express their gratitude to a city which had taken them in after they were expelled from Poland when the communist regime embarked on an anti-Semitic campaign in 1968. Three years later, in 1971, they arrived in Leeds, invited by the university there. After that Zygmunt Bauman never moved from Leeds or its university. It was surprising that a man with such solid pillars in his life should have been so able to interpret the uncertainty and fluidity of today’s world.

Judit Carrera entrevista Zygmunt Bauman l’última vegada que el sociòleg va visitar el CCCB, Jordi Gomez, 2013

Judit Carrera entrevista Zygmunt Bauman l’última vegada que el sociòleg va visitar el CCCB, Jordi Gomez, 2013

Despite their advanced age, they were lucid, very well informed and up-to-date. They asked me about the CCCB, about the newly inaugurated high-speed train between Barcelona and Madrid, and the Law of Historical Memory. Owing to Janina’s delicate health, they were no longer travelling but were still writing because writing, they said, was their way of life. Their manners were exquisite and their happiness contagious. Yet there was also a hint of a certain tension between their vivacious curiosity and the slowness imposed by age.

After some hours, Bauman walked with me to the taxi and authorised me to publish one of his texts in the “BREUS” collection. Saying goodbye, he added that, as long as he lived, we could always count on him.

Bauman’s Last Email. Susana Arias, debates coordinator

Our last correspondence with Bauman was just a few weeks ago when we invited him to open this year’s Barcelona Debate. With his usual loyalty to the CCCB, he thought about the invitation to return to “my beloved Barcelona” but warned us that his fragile health all but ruled out travel. He ended his email saying, “Think about whether it’s worth running the risk,” and closing with “Love – Z”.

In his memory and to farewell him in the company of the audience that so greatly admired him, we shall dedicate the Barcelona Debate 2017, “Old Europe, New Utopias”, to Zygmunt Bauman. The Debate opens on 6 February.

We have opened a space in the CCCB Archive where members of the public can consult a collection of Zygmunt Bauman’s work.

 

Peter Wagner: “The mechanism of domination and resistance to domination is what brought about progress”

March 3rd, 2015 No Comments

Barcelona Debate 2015 is about to end with the lecture that will be given by the sociologist Peter Wagner, who will situate the concepts of “progress” and “modernity” within the framework of today’s political vocabulary and propose new readings and perspectives in order to update their meanings.

In your lecture on 9 March you will be revising the political concepts of “progress” and “modernity”.

I’ll be talking about the notion of “progress” in relation with that of “modernity” by starting to look at how western societies have grown considerably with the progress they’ve made over the past two centuries, when progress was understood not only as a possibility but as something that was really happening: it was believed that society would keep improving. Things went on like that until thirty or forty years ago but, between 1979 and 1989, something happened which made us lose our faith in progress. In my lecture I’ll discuss the reasons for this loss of faith and explain that, as a society, we have too many things that need improving so we can’t give up and abandon the idea of “progress”. We must try to recover it and, probably, give it new meaning.

LLEGIR MÉS-LEER MÁS-READ MORE

Interview with Bo Stråth

February 16th, 2015 No Comments

After very well-attended lectures by Axel Honneth and Saskia Sassen and a panel discussion on the work of the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, The Barcelona Debate 2015 now continues, this time reconsidering the present-day sense of the main political concepts we habitually use. Bo Stråth, Emeritus Professor of Nordic, European and World History at the University of Helsinki, will take the floor to rethink, revise and discuss the concepts of “capitalism” and “welfare”. We have interviewed him, asking him to tell us in advance some of the key themes of his lecture next Monday 16 February.

Are capitalism and welfare compatible?
I shall illustrate the relationship between capitalism and welfare, and whether they are compatible, and whether they can be mutually supportive, starting by analysing how the concept of “reform” has changed. This notion first appeared 150 years ago as a counter to the idea of revolution, shortly after which it became a concept that was “in favour of something”: for a better future, for a more just society, et cetera. After that, reforms were always associated with social reform. Now I wonder: how did it happen that, nowadays, “reforms” no longer have any social dimension? All reforms today are economic and the less social the better. This transformation, or the 180o turnaround in the meaning of the word, began in the 1970s with sweeping changes in the job market.

You say that the concept of “reform” underwent a radical change in the 1970s. What happened exactly?
Until the 1960s, the idea of reform referred to social reforms, but these social reforms were not opposed to economic reforms since economic efficiency and social efficiency were mutually supportive and reinforcing. Social improvements meant economic improvements and vice versa. However, this changed in the 1970s with the crisis of the dollar after the Vietnam War which had channelled economic resources into arms production. That was the context in which welfare disappeared from the concept of reform. Ever since then, the idea of “reform” has lost its social component to become a tool exclusively geared to economic efficiency, associated with restricted production, lower labour costs, and so on.

Might the concept of “reform” come to include the social component again?
This is the big question and we don’t have the answer. There is nothing in the present structure that would allow us venture an opinion as to whether things will change or stay the same. The European political leaders are the ones who have to decide what they want to do and what Europe must do. Is it necessary to let people go hungry, as in Greece? Is it possible to re-create a social Europe? These are the big questions today.

Bo Stråth, Emeritus Professor of Nordic, European and World History at the University of Helsinki will be speaking in The Barcelona Debate, “Wield the Word” on Monday 16 February with the lecture “Capitalism and Welfare: On the Changing Meaning of the Concept of Reform”.

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