The Aristotle Address 2019 - “On the State of Democracy in Our Changing World”
The Stoa of Attalos at the Ancient Agora of Athens, Thursday 10th October 2019
It is a great honour for Sabina and me to be here, in your presence. It is also a great pleasure indeed to return to Athens following our State Visit last year to what is a special, and I know will be a memorable, occasion for us. I appreciate deeply the special privilege it is to be addressing you in this unique and historic setting of the Stoa of Attalos here in the Ancient Agora.
Distinguished Guests, Friends,
A Aíonna Oirirce, a chairde,
May I express my profound thanks to Stephen Dunbar-Johnson and to Achilles Tsaltas, President of the Athens Democracy Forum, for the invitation to deliver the third Aristotle Address; I appreciate the honour that is contained in your invitation.
May I also thank you for the warm welcome which you have extended to Sabina and myself, to the Delegation that has accompanied us from Ireland and to our Embassy in Athens.
Reflecting on this visit to the Agora, I was aware of course of its significance in the history of ancient Athens, and for democracy itself, as a particular gathering place for discourse here in the heart of the capital. To speak at this site is a moving experience for anybody aware of the debt we all, in generation after generation, owe to that founding exchange of ideas, that pursuit of truth and beauty in its wholeness of mind and body, that was the Greek contribution, and let us be grateful too to those who saved it for us, leaving after their expulsion from Europe a legacy of translation of thought that was not confined by borders.
The Stoa, as we know, served not only as a vital point of new dialogue and ideas, but also as a place of shelter. Perhaps, therefore, as we face the many challenges for democracy today and concerned for all of our European family, it is especially fitting that we gather here this evening, in advance of our meeting of the Arraiolos Group kindly hosted by you, President, which coincides with the broader dialogue and debate taking place under the aegis of the Athens Democracy Forum.
All of the Irish playwrights, from John Millington Synge, William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and on to Brian Friel, Tom Murphy and Marina Carr in the modern period; the major poets including Seamus Heaney, one of our Nobel Laureates, Brendan Kennelly, Tom Paulin, and Michael Longley have all published work based on the Athenian tragedies. As with many Irish poets, Seamus Heaney, in particular, was drawn to Greece time and again over the years.
Then too in the contemporary period a critical literature is rich with work such as that of Professor Brian Arkin’s Irish appreciation of Greek tragedy and Hellenising Ireland, a major work of scholarship and Professor Fran O’Rourke’s Aristotelian Interpretations, to which I will refer.
It has been, is and will always be, a pleasure, a moral renewal in intellectual terms through the resonances it suggests, to visit Greece, a country and a people that has given, and continues to give, so much to Europe, indeed to the world, by way of its contribution to civilisation, both ancient and contemporary, in culture, aesthetics and philosophy including founding discourses on democracy itself. For this is the very reason we are all gathered here today in the Agora where Athenians, dating back to the 6th century BC of Cleisthenes, gathered to host their assemblies that would after major political upheaval as Professor Arkin tells us, all adults, male citizens at birth, were members of the Assembly ‘Ecclesia’, with regular attendances of 6,000, thus making that discourse on this hill one of the earliest and most important wellsprings of democracy.
It is a discourse that found its way into the creative work of all the nations of Europe and beyond. In our own Gaelic language, the mythical stories of Greece have always been present, and some of our modern plays recall the specific use that was made of the classical sources of Greek myths in the Gaelic hedge schools that preceded the founding of primary education institutions that would promote the widespread use of the English language in Ireland.
Indeed, the distinguished Professor, and Scholar of Classics, George Thompson who in the early 1930s taught at University College Galway, an institution in which I taught myself for decades, in discussing his translation of Homer’s Odyssey into Gaelic, a task he undertook on the Irish-speaking Blasket Islands off the Kerry coast in the west of Ireland in opening what was a seminal contribution on oral culture, stressed the role of oral culture in the genesis of Homer’s great work.
The lessons of that period and its discourses remain for us. Yes, they include the price paid for imperial tendency, the price of war, the ethics, that might or might not be present in the relationship of victor and vanquished, but it also includes, let us never forget the importance of the performative – taking an idea and making it happen for the people beyond the Agora. Accepting the responsibility of extending the understanding and the discourse to amplification by the performative is also something for which we are indebted to Greece.
A constant in the Greek emphasis is wholeness, of life, the body community, it informs the architecture of that early period, and on through centuries it privileges the indivisibility of culture. We should never forget that for the Festival of Dionysus a comedy had to be submitted for consideration, together with the tragedy, thus recognising that all of life was also in the comedy, the movement in the tragedy being towards an emancipatory catharsis.
In both there was the privileging of the performance. From this let us take perhaps just two lessons: the achievement of authenticity was sought to be delivered through words to the collective, and thus in the movement from monologue through dialogue we can make our way to the lodgement of the wisdom that is in the words given to the chorus, with the message that engaged the audience. What an empowering analogy this can be for our own times – engaging with the European Street as our Agora, turning our words into the discernible shape of proposed resolution in action.
A further lesson is that through the privileging of the performative the contribution of the heart in the achievement of truth was necessary. Aristotelian reason would not suffice on its own to offer a glimpse of the fulness of life’s wonder, hope or grief.
Our nations, Ireland and Greece, may stand at different corners of this beautiful, fascinating and varied continent, yet it is easily recognised what connections we have had from earliest times and, even more importantly, how those values that invoke reason and culture, in performances that we might share in common in the future, may assist us as we work together in the crafting and making of a Union of European publics that will have the capacity to acknowledge, respect and celebrate Europe in all its diversity – a European Union which we might offer as not only a regional achievement, but, because of its far-seeing humanity, a global, inter-generational exemplar.
Such a Union, I suggest, must be built on the production and preservation of pluralist interdisciplinary intellectual work by citizens who have the courage to make an interrogation of how life is to be lived. It can draw on the memory and experience of our various but shared historical struggles for independence, experience that includes a large and valuable migratory component. Both Greece and Ireland will mark important anniversaries, of 1821 and 1921, on our respective paths to independence and I am sure that over the coming period we will finds ways of reflecting on that shared history. Drawing on all of this, but also on the imaginative, humanistic values in our peoples and their culture, surely we are capable of giving an ethical, inclusive dimension to life and the structures on which our shared future on a vulnerable planet might be based.
For all of our peoples, our experience is a rich one, one that contains moments of emancipation as well as anguish, experiences that equip us well for the challenge of envisioning and constructing a European Union of humanity, shaped to meet the needs of all of our citizens. We must, to achieve this, become ever closer, become better listeners to each other and others beyond our vision, in our discourse-sharing, our hopes, our shared challenges, and it is through a recognition of the healing and life-enhancing power of culture we can call up again that indomitable courage that is needed to be different, to take a stand, to endure.
What we are seeking is not omniscience but rather the materials and instruments for achieving, or restoring, trust, and in doing that we will always have to acknowledge fallibility and an inexhaustible wonder. Professor Fran O’Rourke has told us that the Irish, who valued Aristotle as a treasure, did not regard him as omniscient. Professor O’Rourke refers to James Joyce’s ‘scribbledehobble’, his workbook for Finnegan’s Wake, where he wrote of “three things Aristotle didn’t know: labour of bees, flow of tide, mind of women”.
We in the European Union have resources of mind and heart, performances of agony and shared joy, and compassion to call upon. For despite its mixed historical experience, including the numerous historic achievements of our continent, many centuries of which were tarnished by war and suffering, the European Union today still retains a capacity from its legacy of thought, importantly from its Greek contribution on the rational, from its historic commitment to intellectual discourse that led to the undoing of the trammels of empire and that informed the struggle against imperialism.
We in our time have been given a unique opportunity and indeed responsibility to assert, deepen, and where necessary, reassert, those founding values of democracy, cohesion, shared prospects, human rights and the rule of law in an increasingly interdependent world of vulnerabilities in which those values are challenged.
These values are neither abstract, nor are they optional extras, nor are they ever confined by borders. They go to the very core of our humanity, and such values should be respected and upheld by all Member States. Central to these values, and their vindication, is the concept of the constitution, respect for, treatment of ‘The Other’; of meeting ‘The Other’ with what the cultures and belief systems of the world have called ‘hospitality’, to acknowledging the importance of recognising and understanding the circumstance of the movement of people, who in the exercise of their hopes, are bringing with them their stories and their cultural endowments. For we Europeans are, all of us, the product of migratory beings ourselves, sometimes forced, other times voluntary. That is the evidence of millennia.
Paul Valéry wrote in 1919 of how, after the needless catastrophe of World War One that was the collision of empires, “an extraordinary shudder ran through the marrow of Europe”. We, too, in our times have felt a similar shudder. Nowhere more so than during the recent financial crisis, the subsequent sovereign debt crisis, and the so-called Great Recession that affected much of the Western World, including Europe.
I am so aware of the high price that was paid and most acutely by those most vulnerable peoples who were at a far distance from the speculative forces that were its source. If this is the country of Aristotle, Plato, Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Euripides, Herodotus, Xenophon, it is above all, let us never forget, the country of our fellow citizens of Greece, who in the modern period, too, have given us a world-class cultural contribution. The recession impacted greatest in the communities of the peripheral Member States of the EU.
Today, we find ourselves confronted by the challenge of a keen and growing awareness that, in some critical respects, in institutional terms, and in the quality of our responses, we have been failing to live up to the needs, ideas and expectations of citizens of the European Union.
It is clear now that, as a direct result of the somewhat blunt and often insensitive handling of the crisis, social cohesion has been significantly damaged. This has had a consequence in fuelling the rise of euro-scepticism, exclusionary forms of neo-nationalism and austerity-sourced populism, nativism, reactions that are built on negative invocations of fear and ignorance, including a fear and exploitation of ignorance that scapegoats the stranger, ‘The Other’.
These manifestations, however, are not the root causes of the discontent on the European Street. They are symptoms only. To come to grips with their source, we must delve deeper into structures, drill down to the assumptions on which policy is based, its processes utilised. We must ask how did a single hegemonic role come to prevail for four decades, for a market theory that was extreme, and which was accompanied with the exclusion of a role for the State, come to be?
To answer such a question, we are called to engage in mind work and, beyond that, to reassert the right and space for mind work, critical scholarship, examine the assumption of the paradigm that has failed, allow for a new inclusive paradigm to come to prevail.
It is only when we take the necessary steps to address the underlying sources of anxiety – including social insecurity, uncertainty as to the future of work, the yawning equality gap, and the crisis of democratic unaccountability in global economics, that we can recapture the desire for cohesion originally envisaged in the best instincts of our founders. We are, after all, not inventing the concept of the ‘social’ when we speak of ‘social Europe’. Was it not there as a principle in all of the better language of our heritage, including the founding moments of the European Union, for example, in the words of such as Altieri Spinelli in the Ventetone Manifesto? But is it a social Europe we seek?
The future of the European Union must be discussed in ethical and inclusive terms, I suggest, taking account above all else of the anxieties from below. The future must be crafted from connections to the European Street. This requires a process that is open, honest and genuinely inclusive, one that does not recoil from asking difficult, challenging questions. It requires an honest critique as to the distribution of life choices, one that constitutes an attempt to re-imagine and re-build, involves recognising how we look at each other in our vulnerabilities, and recognising that we will be judged by future generations as to whether we averted our gaze from the vulnerabilities of our planet, our continent, or humanity itself or had the empathy necessary to celebrate our interdependency.
The prevailing political economy discourse for almost four decades now has not been sufficiently challenged intellectually, or scrutinised with sufficient courage, by the body politic, even if there have been cracks that have occasionally let in the light. The recent embrace by many institutions of ‘behavioural economics’, such as that by the World Bank, constitutes an overdue recognition of what is failing, but that recognition is simply insufficient to the challenge we now face. Neither is any simplistic, often facile, placing of new lenses over the orthodox neoliberal paradigm sufficient to the task at hand. We cannot continue with a paradigm that has, not merely failed, but which has imprisoned intellectually so many policy-makers and their supporting intellectuals and commentators.
Such an approach would simply mask the manner in which context was abandoned in the hegemonic policies of recent decades and how, in doing that, the critical care and emancipatory potential of disciplines such as sociology and political science were eschewed in a narrow practice that had no tolerance for discussion as to the adequacy of theoretical insight, methodological rigour, or empirical validation.
We have, as a result, had a lesser economics; one that, at best, is descriptive of a set of measures that sought to satisfy an ideological position rather than assist in creating policy options that could be social and emancipatory in their reach. The moving of economics away from philosophy, the contraction of philosophy to an internal scholasticising, has left social studies as a form that is, at best, one of description, rather than analysis or narrative suggestion.
It is heart-breaking, too, to me as a former university teacher, to realise how, with a diminished role for the State being pursued, those institutions gifted with the responsibility for independent, critical thought, having been made fragile as to funding, bowed to pressure and became colluders in a neo-utilitarian myth that substituted uncritical description, and thus rationalisation of what is failing, for creative collective scholarly thought.
With neoliberalism as the dominant ideology that has been shaping our world today, notions such as democracy, social justice, equality and humanitarianism have been replaced at the personal level by a crude and forceful individualism which is driven by an insatiable consumerism, social indifference and an aggressive self-aggrandisement, thus further reinforcing the decline of ethically inspired political advocacy that results so often in the divorce of the purpose of intellectual practice from the pursuit of universal values like truth, justice and peace.
Those who benefit from such a flawed model are never the public, now or in the future. It is a minority who benefit and who, in the defence of an unregulated accumulation, can ignore the consequences of their model, be it in ecological or social terms. This minority is often footloose, existing beyond the reach of regulation, of accountability, by state or parliament, out of democratic reach itself. Data indicate that this minority is getting wealthier at the expense of the poorest. The growth of an unaccountable form of speculative capital activity can dislodge even the efforts of governments. This must change. The survival of democracy itself requires it.
However, there is a growing light. Because of the work of brave scholars, some who endured, others with new work, I believe we are now at the cusp of a paradigm shift in the political economy discourse, a shift that has the potential, if lodged among the body politic, and should it gain widespread institutional legitimacy, can be transformative, can assist in the great challenges we face to deepen democracy, achieve accountability over a growing and threatening global realm of unaccountable corporations, and turn the tide on yawning inequality.
Paradigm shifts do happen, even in economic theory or practice. We last saw such a paradigm shift in economic thinking in the early 1980s, as Keynesian thinking gave way to the neoliberal paradigm, advocated by Friedrich Von Hayek and Milton Friedman, which much of Western society embraced with what was a determined, unfettered abandon.
A new paradigm of economy is now urgently required, one that might steer us back towards what will be a long but essential road of societal and ecological reparation, one that will address and reduce inequality whilst simultaneously operating within an ecological awareness of the planet’s natural systems and their constraints, not easy, but necessary for survival itself, and our best prospect for an enduring form of cohesion as we live together.
Such a new form of economic heterodoxy is an ecological-social paradigm, and it has been so well advanced by engaged public intellectuals such as Professor Ian Gough, and others. Professor Gough, in his book, Heat, Greed and Human Need, outlines how the alternative paradigm is rooted in the concept of human need over insatiability. It promotes notions of gender equality, redistribution of income, wealth and resources, and a reconfigured social consumption and investment strategy that transfers resources and capital from developed countries to developing countries in such a way as to achieve this eco-social welfare state.
The eco-social policies that underpin such a paradigm must concurrently pursue both equity as well as wider social justice, through sustainability and sufficiency goals within an activist innovation state, yes working with partners, but with substantial state investment and transparent and robust regulation and planning.
Socio-economic measures are also required to negate any adverse impacts of the ecological transition for the poorest in society and to ameliorate, rather than threaten to deepen, growing levels of inequality. The approach that scholars such as Professor Gough offer is an approach that is garnering support as one that represents our best response towards intergenerational justice.
This is a responsible economics. It accepts that the concept of accelerated economic growth ad infinitum is inherently flawed. Scholars such as Ian Gough are, I suggest, recovering a discourse and a political economy discipline that has fallen prey to an uncritical embrace of neoliberal refrains. They advocate for an economic model of pluralism which emphasises the finite nature of the Earth’s natural resources and the role that rich nations must play in ameliorating the crises in which we find ourselves.
As Gough puts it himself:
“Consumption and consumption-based emissions, ignored by the green growth agenda, must be given equal priority in the rich world. (...) Issues of global equity, almost entirely absent from international climate negotiations so far, must be discussed and confronted. (…) ‘Affluence’ has a class as well as a national dimension”.
Such work as that of Ian Gough, Kate Raworth, Mariana Mazzucato, Sylvia Walby and others offers hope by showing us how we can, as a global community, ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. Such ideas of balancing outcomes were, of course, at the heart of discourse here in the Stoa.
Public intellectuals in Western democracies have, historically, vociferously denounced war and imperialism, oppression and the violation of universal values such as truth, social justice, freedom whenever and wherever they occurred. I am concerned that this is not now the case as the deployment of human, scientific, and technological capacities are once again being delivered to preparations for war, exploitation of conflict, a diplomacy surrendered to fear, and livelihoods made fragile in a trade war provoked by the strong for their unique and sole benefit, ignoring all consequences.
I believe public intellectuals have a particular ethical obligation, as an educated elite, to take a stand against the increasingly aggressive orthodoxies of the marketplace, of extreme individualism, that have permeated all aspects of life, including academia. Is it not as important to experience the development of the social self through others, and one’s connection to citizenship and history as it is to accept one’s role as a useful unit in a consuming culture? Universities function within a culture, and how they negotiate that relationship defines their atmosphere. Their ethos, establishes, too, whether they are contributing to the culture, or surrendering to its excesses.
The challenge for us all now is to achieve, for all of our citizens in their different generations, a capacity and an institutional space to debate and seek a version of eco-social political economy that meets our demands for a deepening of democracy. We must not despair even if, at present, that capacity at so many institutional levels is not so much in evidence. We must encourage and support the growing body of academic thought that is advocating for an alternative.
There is work to be done. There is no clear evidence in European thinking that collective welfare is replacing the aggregation of individual property-based wealth as an aspiration. The prevailing narrative seems to be trapped intellectually in a structure of thought which it appears unable to challenge, from which it seems unable, or at times even unwilling, to escape or exit. This being rendered “mute”, as Professor Hartmut Rosa puts it in his recent work ‘Resonance - A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World’, presents a fundamental challenge for those of us wishing for a renaissance of democracy and cohesion in Europe and elsewhere.
I believe that the transformation that is required must seek to extend and deepen democracy and initiate changes in our political structures, our institutions, our language of discourse, our way of dealing with each other, and in our consciousness. Such a programme requires not just intellectual work, but its delivery with moral courage. It needs a commitment to dialogical thought, and the patience to listen to the assumptions of the other is essential, observing the essential courtesies of discourse.
Sylvia Walby has argued in her book, Crisis, that the economic and fiscal crises which we have lived through over the past decade, and the resulting recession (experienced severely in Ireland and Greece) has cascaded through society, and the ensuing fiscal crisis over government budget deficits and austerity has led to a political crisis which, in turn, now threatens to become a democratic crisis and a wider crisis of legitimacy for the European Union.
Parliaments matter. Centuries of effort have been invested by European citizens in securing the vote, indeed in extending the vote. It is to parliament that citizens look for accountability, for strategic alternatives. If national parliaments, if the European Parliament, lose the capacity to deliver accountability, where else might it be found?
The political-economic concept of deliberative democracy, provides us with a means with which we may engage and promote our vision across the citizenries of Europe, actively encouraging societal participation. Jürgen Habermas has contributed persuasively on this topic, asserting that political decisions should be the product of fair and reasonable discussion and debate among citizens.
It follows that we must become more aware as citizens about the often obscured, or consciously hidden, ideological assumptions that lie behind policy decisions. We must, thus, foster universal political-economic literacy to deal with new and existing challenges, and a better understanding of the nature of value and what constitutes happiness and well-being.
Habermas is critical of the technocratic policies advocated by several Member States that continue to be imposed on the populations of the economically weaker, crisis-stricken Member States, and which have had the effect of undermining solidarity across the EU. He argues for an alternative: to the technocratic, austerity-centric approach, that it be replaced by a deeper democratisation of European institutions, through which the EU might have the possibility of fulfilling its core founding principles and thus ensuring that, as he puts it:
“rampant market capitalism can once more be brought under political control at the supranational level”.
He argues for more profound political integration in Europe so as to create a shift in the balance between politics and the market, which is continuing to the present day in the wake of the neoliberal self-disempowerment of politics.
This disempowerment of politics was evidenced during the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent economic recessions across the EU as pressure being exerted by the financial markets on politically fragmented national budgets, which quite scandalously fostered a collectivising pejorative self-perception of those populations afflicted by the crisis.
Habermas asserts that the response by markets, lead governments, key international organisations and the mainstream neoliberal commentariat all contributed greatly to the punitive character and grounds on which assistance was offered to ‘programme’ countries by,
“turning the ‘donor’ and the ‘beneficiary’ countries against each other and fomenting nationalism”.
Are there any lessons we have learned from the economic crisis, the ‘self-regulating market’, and the long, devastating period of austerity imposed on millions of European citizens?
I believe there are many – in politics, policymaking, academia, the commentariat, citizens at large – who have re-assessed what were sometimes strongly held beliefs, with a new-found appreciation that the state does, and should have, an important role to play across all spheres of public policy, that good regulation does matter. The legitimation crisis is not, of course, confined to the European Union, or its members. The role of the State at a global level will be crucial in approaching issues such as climate change and sustainability.
As to the growing realm of unaccountability, there is a serious problem. What of institutions not answerable to parliament, people, or their laws? It is an issue that was addressed by His Excellency the President of Greece, in the Aristotle Lecture in 2016. He spoke of those non-state entities of international scope devoid of democratic legitimacy – financial markets, credit-rating agencies – and the President spoke of the declining discourse on social welfare and the rule of law.
The European Union was born with an invocation for solidarity. What does solidarity demand of us now? That is the challenge to us all. I suggest its focus must be intergenerational, be defined as a multi-dimensional concept embracing ecosystem, society, culture and economy. There must be a collective approach in bringing what is unaccountable into accountability, for it is this combined with lack of institutional transparency that is contributing to an undermining public trust in democracy.
Where do we go from here? I believe the impressive setting of today’s address carries weight and begs a number of important questions: -
* Can we make such a similar space as the Agora of the past was available to us today, an Agora whose participants will help us keep traditions such as the Socratic tradition alive, allow for the questioning of assumptions and methods?
* Can we move society away from the current trajectory of unrestrained concentration and accumulation, deepening inequality, ever-falling social cohesion and ecological chaos, to a civilisation of simplicity and equality?
* Can the music of our hearts send a new beat to our mind, one from which ideas, in a Hellenic way, become truthful words, and actions follow that might be remembered by future generations as having been informed by both rationality and soul?
Of course, it is possible.
If it is radical reform that is necessary, let us be courageous. Let us remember that in the energetic pursuit of new thought that characterised the European Enlightenment, there were some powerful European examples within it of dissident and radical thought, such as Diderot, Kant and Herder. They, in their times, identified that flaw in the Enlightenment thinking that had led to support for empire, with its insatiable drive, which they courageously challenged. They, in their time, sought to dislodge the paradigm of unaccountable imperialism, domination and cultural extinction.
We should collectively support the concept of an ambitious new European social dimension in which a binding and effective pillar of European social rights is not just enshrined but delivered - one that should be achieved with the involvement and co-operation of the International Labour Organisation, one that will not only support decent minimum wages and improve workers’ rights across the EU, but facilitate participation in all areas of life, of the public space. Above all, we need to offer the European social model as a gendered eco-social one, and move on from, escape from, the blinkered neoliberal agenda.
I believe that the often radical institutional reforms to which I have referred could yield a deepening of deliberative democracy, address the growing alienation from the EU felt by so many of its citizens, offer an alternative to, for example, austerity populism, provide the European institutions with greater legitimacy, that it is by fostering deeper political economic literacy among our peoples we bring about the necessary ecological-social paradigm shift of which I speak. Democracy demands it, and the world requires it. We should all help, and in doing so we will be invoking and benefitting from the power of reason and the grace of thought that is the Greek gift to humanity. A gift that endures.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.