War, Modesty and Good Life

Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem—in my opinion—to characterize our age.
(from Einstein, Albert: “The Common Language of Science”, a broadcast for Science, Conference, London, 28 September 1941. Published in Advancement of Science, London, Vol. 2, No. 5. Reprinted in Ideas and Opinions [1954])

As in discussions on Greece the metaphor “from tanks to banks” had been used frequently, it may be of some interest then to look back at another war, where tanks, bombs and furious invasion attacks played a role, an attack on at least two countries: Vietnam and the United States of Northern America itself, undermining any kind of legitimacy, but also and with it its own integrity.

There is one passage in the

Remarks at the University of Kansas made by Robert F. Kennedy on March 18, 1968 

And this is one of the great tasks of leadership for us, as individuals and citizens this year. But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all. Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.
If this is true here at home, so it is true elsewhere in world. From the beginning our proudest boast has been the promise of Jefferson, that we, here in this country would be the best hope of mankind. And now, as we look at the war in Vietnam, we wonder if we still hold a decent respect for the opinions of mankind and whether the opinion maintained a descent respect for us or whether like Athens of old, we will forfeit sympathy and support, and ultimately our very security, in the single-minded pursuit of our own goals and our own objectives. I do not want, and I do believe that most Americans do not want, to sell out America’s interest to simply withdraw – to raise the white flag of surrender in Vietnam – that would be unacceptable to us as a people, and unacceptable to us as a country. But I am concerned about the course of action that we are presently following in South Vietnam. I am concerned, I am concerned about the fact that this has been made America’s War. It was said, a number of years ago that this is “their war” “this is the war of the South Vietnamese” that “we can help them, but we can’t win it for them” but over the period of the last three years we have made the war and the struggle in South Vietnam our war, and I think that’s unacceptable.  I don’t accept the idea that this is just a military action, that this is just a military effort, and every time we have had difficulties in South Vietnam and Southeast Asia we have had only one response, we have had only one way to deal with it – month after month – year after year we have dealt with it in only on way and that’s to send more military men and increase our military power and I don’t think that’s what the kind of a struggle that it is in Southeast Asia.

He quotes William Allen White – and White’s remark should be guideline for all, still and especially today when countries of the capitalist core force for the sake of their pure power ambition others to maintain an economic strategy that is unsustainable, unreasonable and serves only one interest: further establishing and maintaining central power — the power of the one percent. We clearly saw another time that all these negotiations had not been about reason and appeals. In the Greek case,

The only weapons they could bring to the negotiating table were reason, logic and European solidarity. But apparently we will live in a Europe were none of those things mean anything.

So what did White say then? Here you are:

“If our colleges and universities do not breed men who riot, who rebel, who attack life with all their youthful vim and vigor, then there is something wrong with our colleges. The more riots that come on college campuses, the better world for tomorrow.”

This may be about riots, literally. But in any case, it definitely means to look for more radical answers to the current challenges – going beyond what we know for decades.
Kennedy’s reference to

mere accumulation of material things

can and to often is read as notion of changing values, asking all of us to change behaviour and move towards the appreciation of non-material values. In this context it is too often referred to modesty, suggested as means against supposed greed. The question, however, is that we have to look at some more fundamental issues which is suggested as five giant tensions:

  • the overproduction of goods and the turn of goods into ‘bads’
  • societal abundance versus inequality of access
  • abundance of knowledge and its misdirection towards skills
  • the individualisation of problems and their emergence as societal threat
  • the complexity of government and the limited scope of governance.

It may be another, hopefully not too modest proposal, not referring to overcoming the crises and their immediate devastating consequences today; but to think today about politics that help to avoid that we just move further from one crisis to another. There is no point to strive for growth where we produce already too much; there is no point in creating material wealth if there is enough that can be distributed; there is no point in creating faster computers and new IT-bases technologies that undermine developing wisdom to properly use it and making use of the results; there is no point in saving individuals to strangulate them afterwards; and their is no point in setting up more and more committees, consultations dcc as long as we do not find a way to legitimate them democratically and do not allow “stakeholders” to act based the money and power they have in form of private resources.
All this is not about greed, it is about combatting the objective laws of an economy that is embedded in a wrong society: a modernity that is plagued by the

Eclipse of Reason 

as Max Horkheimner titled his book from 1947
I presented this outline recently on the Conference of the Annual Conference of the Chinese Social Policy Association (the presentation will soon be online on youtube) and in various papers of which the publication will be announced here. In one or another way it is surely also reflected already in several contributors that are accessible on the researchgate-site.

If we bring things together, we can easily see another interesting point in the remarks by Kennedy, and linked to the devastating war:

we have made the war and the struggle … our war

And this is cum grano salis happening today: the bank-war is not about the interest of the rational functioning of an economy that serves people but it is about an economic system that serves itself, not disembedded, but embedded in a global society that serves the minority living in their gated communities … — an economy of financial markets where money is self-serving instead of being a means that keeps the economy spinning, a society where finally everybody establishes his/her own gated community: asking others to be good, without seeing that this individualist strive is exactly the spade that digs the grave in which we all will end.

Unfortunately those who are ending sooner in the grave are those who still maintain not just the ideas of

reason, logic and … solidarity

but who try to live it in there daily life instead of pompous declarations.


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