The crisis must matter.
The most important divide in political and intellectual life today is between those who see society undergoing a transformative crisis and others who believe that the basic structures the 20th century industrial welfare state will persist.
The divide over how to understand the crisis of our times was front and center at the recent Hannah Arendt Center conference "Does the President Matter? A Conference on the American Age of Political Disrepair."
A number of speakers worried about the language of crisis. They rightly see talk about a "crisis" as code for an attack on the institutions of the welfare state. It can be an excuse to not only scale back the unsustainable aspects of our entitlement programs, but also to lower taxes on the wealthiest Americans while doing so.
It is true that many want to misuse the crisis as an attack on the poor and the middle class; that potential abuse, however, is not an excuse to deny the fact of the crisis itself. It is simply no longer possible to responsibly deny that we are living through a transformative crisis that will change the character of America and much of the world. The drivers of that crisis are many and include technology and globalization. The effects are profound and won't be fully understand for decades. At present, the first consequence is a crisis of institutional authority.
We in the US have indeed lost faith in our basic institutions. We don't trust scientists who warn us about global warming; we doubt economists who warn us about debt; we deny doctors who tell us that vaccines are safe. Very few people trust politicians or Ph.D.'s anymore. In fact, according to a 2009 General Social Survey, there are only two institutions in the United States that are said to have "A great deal" of confidence from the American people: the military and the police. This faith in the men with guns is, as Christopher Hayes writes in The Twilight of the Intellectuals, deeply disturbing. But it is not an illusion.
According to John Zogby, who spoke at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference last weekend, the crisis of faith in institutions is widespread and profound. Zogby said:
We call this the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression and it is. But this is much more than that. This is a transformational crisis. Much more than simply the Great Depression, this is equivalent on the global stage to the fall of the Roman Empire. To the demise of Feudalism. What we have at this moment in time is a myriad—if not almost all—of our familiar institutions unprepared to deal with multiple crises all at once. Whether it is the federal Government or the near bankrupt states or the Democratic Party or the Republican Party or the banking institutions or the brick and mortal halls of higher education. Whether it is the Boy Scouts of America or the Roman Catholic Church, a number of our institutions that make up the superstructure of our society are simply unprepared to deal with the force of change, where we find ourselves.
Zogby was not the only speaker at our conference who noted that "our minds as well as our institutions have not caught up with the failure that they represent." Tracy Strong pointed to the outdated capacity of political primaries and Jeffrey Tulis spoke of the ways that Congress has, over the last century, increasingly abdicated its governmental and constitutional responsibilities. Institutions today spend more resources on self-sustenance (like fund raising) than on problem solving. Today our most important institutions are not only unable to solve the problems we face; the institutions have themselves become the problem.
Walter Russell Mead compared our current period to that era of American politics between 1865 and 1905. Mead noted that few people can name the presidents in that period not because of a failure of leadership but, rather, because in that period the U.S. was going through a cultural and societal transformation from, on one level, an agrarian to an urban-industrial society. We today are experiencing something equally if not more disruptive with globalization, technology, and the Internet. It is a mistake, Mead argued, to think that government or any group can understand and plan for such profound changes. There will be dislocations and opportunities, most of which are invisible today. While Mead offered optimism, he made clear that the years before the new institutions of the future emerge will be difficult and at times dark. There is little a president or a leader can do to change that.
Todd Gitlin and Anne Norton spoke of Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party as U.S. movements founded upon the loss of political and institutional power. Gitlin began with the widely quoted quip that the system is not broken, its fixed, an expression that feeds upon the disaffection with mainstream institutions. Norton especially noted the difficulties of a movement that at once decries and yet needs governmental power. The one constant, she rightly noted, is that in a time of institutional decay, those with the least to lose will lose the most.
Rick Falkvinge, founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, situated his party precisely in the space of institutional distrust that Mead and Zogby described. Falkvinge noted that the primary value held by 17 year-olds today is openness and transparency, which he distinguished from free speech. While free speech respects the rights of government and the media to regulate and curate speech, the radical openness embodied by the new generation is something new. The Pirate parties, for example, follow the rule of three. If three members of the Party agree on a policy, then that policy can be a platform of the party. There is no hierarchy; instead the party members are empowered to act. Like Wikileaks, with which it has strong affinities, the Pirate Party is built upon a profound distrust of all institutional power structures that might claim the authority to edit, curate, or distill what ought to be published or how we should govern ourselves.
Hannah Arendt wrote frequently about crises. "A crisis," she saw, "becomes a disaster only when we respond to it with preformed judgments, that is, with prejudices." The recent Arendt Center Conference sought to think about one particular crisis, namely the crisis of leadership in responding to the various crises that beset our age. It was born from the sense that we are increasingly confronting problems before which we cower helpless.
There are, of course, dangers and pitfalls in leadership. I too worry about calls for a leader to redeem us. That said, the coming seismic shifts in our world will bring great pain amidst what may be even greater opportunity. Without a workable political system that can recognize and respond to the coming changes with honesty and inspiration, chances are that our crises will morph into a disaster. Our President must matter, since men rarely accomplish anything meaningful without it. How a president might matter, was the theme of the two day conference.
If you missed the conference, or if you just want to review a few of your favorite talks, now is your chance. The Conference proceedings are online and can be found here. They are your weekend "read".
At the heart of the task of political foundations and the complex task of reconstruction in postwar scenarios is the question whether such new foundations are possible. Look only at Libya, where this week bandits briefly took control of the Tripoli airport, and we see the difficulty of founding new polities on the ruins of failed dictatorships. The repeated failure to build civil society in many countries only heightens the question: is postwar political foundation in the Middle East possible?
For want of a better example one can always turn to Lebanon: A surprising textbook case of both success and failure in reconstruction, while at the same time the political foundations remain unchanged and the political terms of negotiations have remained more or less unchanged throughout almost an entire century of regional and civil wars. The reconstruction of Beirut has been plagued by fierce criticism as much as by a relatively positive reception in light of the relative order wrought among the hostile parties involved.
While the reconstruction of Beirut is almost a fait accompli and there’s little room for anything but an academic debate, this refers only to the re-making of the historical downtown area around the iconic Martyrs’ Square area in compliance with 1991 National Master Plan by Dar al-Handasah and IAURIF for Solidere.
Here it is crucial to place Solidere’s plans for Beirut in the context of the colonial visions of French planners spanning from 1932 through 1991 and from then to present day.
The Danger Plan (1932) was prepared under the French mandate by a French consulting firm and was the first systematic attempt to lay out an urban plan for the Lebanese capital; followed then by the Ecochard Master Plan (1943, right after independence) that was never mindful of Lebanon’s multi-confessional landscape and failed to account for the possible growth of the city which remained largely unregulated. The General Master Plan (1952) followed and is still considered the only planning strategy established on a legal basis.
Also based upon a French model, the master plan dealt mostly with broadening transportation networks and could hardly envision the expansion of the prosperous years 1958-1967 of the Shihab era during which Beirut experienced agitated expansion. The Plan Directoire Beyrouth et Ses Banlieux (1964) was also orchestrated by Ecochard and tried to limit the city’s expansion – predicting the risk of non-regulation and environmental hazard – but it was never applied. Two later master plans were introduced in 1977 and 1992 but the 1991 directive prevailed.
In this context two particular sites of memory are important in any attempt to re-shape the public spaces of the city in a postwar context; the first being the historical downtown (Martyrs’ Square) that divides the city between East and West and the second no less iconic Beirut Pine Forest (known in Arabic as Horch al-Sanawbar) that divides the city between North and South. The importance of these sites resides in that spite of the failed policy attempts to regulate and integrate them into systematic plans; they were both contested by the population of Beirut as public spaces in the broadest sense: Arenas of inter-confessional interaction.
Previously, I discussed the background of Martyrs’ Square in “Beirut: Reinventing or Destroying the Public Space?” in the context of Hannah Arendt’s ideas on the meaning of the public realm and the world as articulated in The Human Condition, and grounded the problem in the ambiguous legacy of the civil war in Lebanese political historiography and memory. Hereby I shall offer a brief discussion on Beirut Pine Forest and turn the discussion from the persistence of a public world to the question of enacting public spaces.
The Pine Forest originally comprised about 1.25 million square meters (now reduced to 330.000) in the 17th century and its viability as a public space precedes that of Martyrs’ Square (public garden was launched in 1879) as it is known that since the 1840’s the Ottoman rulers kept watch over the forest as a public entity and the Lebanese claimed administrative authority over it, turning it into municipal property around 1878.
The most relevant information on the forest – both historical and in terms of social practices – can be found in Fadi S. Shayya’s paper “Enacting Public Space: History and Social Practices of Beirut Horch al-Sanawbar” (2006). He tells us about the relevance of the forest throughout modern history, mainly derived from the celebration of “Horch el-Eid” during “Eid al-Adha” when large numbers of people gathered in Horch to celebrate the occasion of Muslim pilgrims coming home from Mecca after fasting during Ramadan and after 1840, festivities and activities of recreation, sports and folklore of Beiruti Muslims moved to the park.
During the world wars and long Lebanese civil war the forest was off-limits to the public and it was bombed and burnt out by Israeli jet fighters during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. After the end of the civil war around 1995 and in the context of postwar reconstruction the forest was “re-designed” (again in a joint French-Lebanese urban planning venture) and opened to the public, but since then the Municipality of Beirut – rightful owner of the park – has kept the forest off limits to the public and accessible only with special permission.
Different political and bureaucratic issues have arisen around the issue of opening or not opening the forest to the public: At the time of Shayya’s paper (2006) most of the park remained closed and only accessible on certain dates and under certain rules. In 2005 Lebanese daily The Daily Star reported that the forest was withering away after the re-design in absence of a proper team to look after it together with lack of enough security to operate it and five years later, in an extensive report published by NOW Lebanon, it was said that through the forest represents 72% of Beirut’s green space, two thirds of it remain still closed to the public.
It should be noted here that according to official statistics, Beirut has fifty times less greenery than it is recommended by international environmental bodies and recently the American University in Beirut released a scientific study detailing the high levels of pollution in the city. As a part of the reconstruction plans orchestrated in the historical downtown, Solidere is scheduled to open a “Garden of Forgiveness” in the area, but this project comprises a mere 25.000 square meters and is meant to function more as a museum than as a public space that can be contested through interaction by the different communities of the city.
The approach to the reconstruction of Beirut – exemplified both by the historical downtown and the forest – is a critical example of the perverse relationship of Lebanon’s political establishment to both violence and power. In her book Architects Without Frontiers: War, Reconstruction and Responsibility, Esther Charlesworth mentions three major themes that can be learnt from the reconstruction of Beirut as policy failures: Lack of public consultation, apolitical architecture and the preference of process over product.
Aseel Sawalha on the other hand (author of “Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City”) argues forcefully that violence has been a major issue and guiding policy of postwar reconstruction. In his “Healing the Wounds of the War: Placing the War-displaced in Postwar Beirut” (published in the volume “Wounded Cities: Destruction and Reconstruction in a Globalized World”) he discusses at length the “postwar state of emergency” in which the rush of reconstruction created internal displacement out of those who had been already displaced by the war into urban Beirut.
War-displaced residents were offered very modest compensations to move out of their homes in order to make space for the sprawling skyscrapers and luxury apartments on demand, what included also the legendary Valley of the Jews, in which there is a newly renovated synagogue but no Jews. Sawalha says: “Reconstruction means cleaning and organizing disordered spaces, repressing illegality, imposing aesthetic standards on what has become unsightly. As we will see, a lively public discourse on the war-displaced reinforces this enthusiasm for the modern, and the power relations underlying it, in many ways.”
From that time on begins a discourse split between “muhajarin” (displaced victims) and “muhtalin” (opportunistic occupiers) claiming both compensation and usually ruling in favor of the latter. He speaks about the case of an interviewed displaced victim: “Now that there is a legitimate state, we do not have to seek sectarian connections and alliances, he told me. Soon, though, Ali encountered obstacles, leading him to suspect that he had not asked the right people for help. The war time militias and associated mafias, rather than being eclipsed by the state, now operated within it, he concluded.”
Sawalha concludes his paper saying: “According to this article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Lebanese state and its institutions (the Ministry of the Displaced, the Central Fund for the Displaced), as well as the private developers and the public-private company Solidere, all violated the rights of Beirut’s war-displaced to a decent home, privacy and reputation. In effect they created more displacement, as their projects for reconstruction generated a series of postwar emergencies”.
While this is true for the private citizen, the displacement from the public space – exemplified by both Centre Ville and the Pine Forest – does not exactly help the Lebanese communities of Beirut to engage in a power-sharing argument or discussion that might alleviate the burden of violence. What role does architecture play or can play above the level of policy-making and the question is also begot of whether there is something that architects – in both cases – could have done better to prevent exclusion of the Lebanese from participating in the public space?
The question is purely theoretical. Charlesworth however brings up Foucault to say: “In his seminal essay, ‘Space, knowledge and power’, Michel Foucault engages in this broader debate on the social role of architects: Architecture in itself cannot solve social problems: I think that it can and does provide positive effects when the liberating intentions of the architect coincide with the real practice of people in the exercise of their freedom.”
Charlesworth lays out an interesting hierarchy of categories of roles that architects play in postwar reconstruction as such: Pathologists, Heroes, Historicists, Colonialists, Social Reformers and Educators. Her argument is that different architects, policies and companies exercised all of these roles at different times and in different ways. The facts of reconstruction remain albeit unchallenged; including the fact that the reconstruction of Beirut did bring hope to many people, even if it was a false and transitory hope.
The public space however – and here is where Hannah Arendt continues to be ultimately relevant – cannot be eliminated or weakened without inflicting a deadly blow on human plurality and as such it continues to be constantly contested in Lebanon. In February 2012 it was reported by Green Prophet that Lebanese activists democratically demand access to all of the Pine Forest because it is their inalienable right to public property – not to mention that people from many socially disadvantaged neighborhoods would have access to a public space of interaction with others – and in their demands, they realize the obvious: “Without a politically guaranteed public realm, freedom lacks the worldly space to make its appearance”.
-Arie Amaya- Akkermans
It is a fallacy to think that political thinking can exist separately from economic thinking. Hannah Arendt, no economist, saw clearly that the origins of totalitarianism were, in large part, traceable to the importing of economic thinking (unlimited growth) into the political realm, where politics is concerned with geographical, social, and moral limits. The economic victory over politics at that time went under the name of imperialism. Today, under the rubric of globalization, economic thinking continues to subsume political thinking to economic calculations.
The economic crisis of the last four years has brought with it a particular challenge to politics. The crisis is so large and so devastating and it so completely threatens to undermine our ways of life that there is a feeling of political futility. What possibly can be done to address this crisis? From out of this futility arises a kind of head-in-the-sand approach that denies the crisis instead of addressing it. One end point of such an approach is the kind of technocratic governance by bureaucrats now holding sway in Greece and Italy, as well as in a selection of American cities and counties. If we are to avoid giving up our political self-determination and if we want to engage the crisis rather than submit to it, we must first understand it, something that few politicians have been willing to do.
To confront the depth of our ongoing crisis, it is helpful to look at a new report out from the New America Foundation, authored by Daniel Alpert, Robert Hockett, and Nouriel Roubini. This report was sent to me by a long-time supporter of the Arendt Center. It is well worth reading in full. A few basic facts to set the stage:
•Four years into the Great Recession, more than 25 million working-age Americans remain unemployed or underemployed;
•The employment-to-population ratio lingers at a near-historic low of 58.3 percent;
•Consumption expenditure remains weighed down by massive private sector debt overhang left by the bursting of the housing and credit bubble a bit over three years ago (even if debt levels are coming down, as Floyd Norris argued today in the NY Times.)
The basic argument that Alpert, Hockett, and Roubini make is that economists and politicians have misunderstood the nature of the financial crisis. As a result, our responses have been ineffective. As they write: "The principal problem in the United States has not been government inaction. It has been inadequate action, proceeding on inadequate understanding of what ails us. "
So what is really the problem? Alpert, Hockett, and Roubini argue that the crisis is a conjunction of an extreme a credit crisis along with two other long-term trends that exacerbate that crisis. While most commentary and political response has focused on the credit crisis, the importance and impact of the two long-term trends have been largely overlooked. The two trends are:
First, the steady entry into the world economy of successive waves of new export- oriented economies, beginning with Japan and the Asian tigers in the 1980s and peaking with China in the early 2000s, with more than two billion newly employable workers.
Second, the "long term development that renders the current debt-deflation, already worse than a mere cyclical downturn, worse even than other debt-deflations is this: The same integration of new rising economies with ever more competitive workforces into the world economy also further shifted the balance of power between labor and capital in the developed world. That has resulted not only in stagnant wages in the United States, but also in levels of income and wealth inequality not seen since the immediate pre-Great-Depression 1920s."
The upshot of these two trends is that wage labor in developed countries is under continuing downward pressure. Whether the limpid economic recovery continues or not, the wage levels of the pre-crisis period will not return and those workers who earn wages for their performance will continue to experience lower real wages and thus a deteriorating standard of living.
What many still have not wanted to see is that the crisis itself was a response to these trends. For the last 20 years, the decreasing wages of workers in developed countries was hidden and compensated for by increasing debt, both private and public. As the report sees,
Easy access to consumer credit and credit-fueled rises in home values – themselves facilitated by recycled savings from emerging economies’ savings – worked to mask this widening inequality and support heightening personal consumption.
There is a chart in the report that itself shows the problem with crystal clarity. In Figure 2, we see that until 1982, the wages of workers and the income of non-wage earners (thus the higher-paid supervisory workers) was largely equal. Beginning in 1982, however, the earnings of non-wage earners began to rise significantly faster than the income of wage workers. This is at least one original source of the increasing inequality of the American populous and it is exacerbated by an increasingly less-progressive tax code and also by the increasingly profitability of capital investments in the global economy. As the report concludes,
Because many workers were no longer sharing the fruits of the economy’s impressive productivity gains, capital was able to claim a much larger share of the returns, further widening wealth and income inequality which by 2008 had reached levels not seen since the fateful year of 1928.
For anyone concerned with politics in the 21st century, understanding our current economic predicament is essential. That is why reading such a lucid report as this one from the New America Foundation is so important. It is, this weekend, your weekend read.