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The school of civil society

Wolf Lotter about the pragmatic centre ground between extreme dare-devil, foolhardy ventures and faint-heartedness

5. November 2019
Magazine > Voices > The school of civil society

What does the future hold for prosperity and for justice. And what do these concepts actually mean in the 21st century?

No longer do we dare. It is said that today we lack bold designs on how we want to live. Yes, there is some truth in that – though the question first arises: what exactly? Boldness sounds audacious, the bold leading the charge, brimful of passion. The old heroes of yesteryear were like that, though it rarely turned out well for them. Ever since the days of Troy, as we learn from Homer, they have been left lying on the battlefield. And not much was changed as a result. Visions perhaps? Utopias? Those are the heroes of theory and they come to grief very practically, foundering precisely because of those for whom the visions were supposedly designed. If these blinkered ones fail to see that, then they must be forced to – up to today that is the bad practice of a better world that only exists on paper. What kind of boldness is it that lies somewhere between the daring – the weird and irrational – and the faint-hearted, its dreary opposite?

What boldness needs cool courage, pragmatic rationality that leads to a better future for all, excludes no-one and does justice to all. How bold must one be for that to become reality? What constitutes true boldness today can be recognized by the reactions to the following statement: The world is getting better all the time.

Could anything be better calculated to totally disconcert educated, affluent citizens in the west than this deadpan, matter-of-fact remark: “the world is getting better all the time”? In times of routine bad news, at best this sounds as if the bad were being softened and downplayed. But such a statement seems more and more as it were a downright lie, blasphemy committed against the subjective, felt state of the world. The mother of all fake news. What outrages us most of all is reality. Boldness is when you repeat it: the world is getting better all the time. Live with it. Stop moaning. And get on with it.

What outrages us most of all is reality. Boldness is when you repeat it: the world is getting better all the time. Live with it. Stop moaning. And get on with it.

The boldest conceivable design for the 21st century is to take that attitude seriously and to get going. It takes a lot of courage to do it because it is hard work, perhaps even far harder that the work done in the past two or three centuries which wrested a large part of people in Europe out of material destitution and the hopelessness of their destiny. It is difficult because we have to change ourselves having reached a high level, no longer from bitter need. The spur to do it can only come from ourselves. Boldness cannot be delegated to others, to heroes, leaders and men of action. We must be bold enough to confront ourselves. It is not a job for cowards. And on no account to be underestimated.

The western elites are ensnared in deep self-doubts, which do not seem to be of the kind of doubt which René Descartes meant were the “beginning of wisdom”. The doubts in the wealthy west seem to lead nowhere.

It seems almost unanimously agreed that the young dynamic up-and-coming states of Asia can claim for themselves all the optimism of the 21st century. In contrast, Europe is casting doubt on everything. It is good to question and scrutinize but it is not enough to leave things there. Doubt should lead to the analysis of the state of affairs, to recognition, to action. Those who ask themselves what we have to strengthen in the 21st century in order for things to be better for all, will not be able to evade delving into the cause of western cultural pessimism. What are its roots?

Tipping Point Talk #4 - Audacity

In 2019, Erste Bank and Sparkassen, as well as ERSTE Foundation celebrate 200 years of the savings bank idea, which, in times of industrialisation and urbanisation, was not only civic-minded and economically viable but also innovative and audacious. Are there still lessons to be learned from the savings bank concept in 2019?

The journalist and author Wolf Lotter contributes four essays to the topics of the 2019 event series Tipping Point Talks: identity, normativity, possibility and audacity. In this text he reflects on audacity.

“The world is improving in practically every area that capable of being measured (…), fewer people are dying through disease, military conflicts and hunger, more people have better education, the world is becoming more democratic, we are all living longer and better,” write the Oxford University economists Max C. Roser and Mohamed Nagdy on the excellent database ourworldindata.org. Describing the world in figures makes things plain. It shows the state of play. The trend has been highly obvious for decades: things are progressing, for most people.

That is not only true of the up-and-coming countries of Asia – and despite all the setbacks – of Africa, too, but also holds true for Europe and America. What attention is the west paying in view of these major successes? Is it not the case that we require far more “factfulness”, as the Swedish doctor and author Hans Rosling put it in the title of his bestselling book. Its subheading gets to the heart of the pessimism problem: “How we learn to see the world as it really is”. Plenty of westerners enquire into meaning – the meaning of life, meaning at work, in culture. How about something completely different for a change: a sense of reality?

It is not morality or ideology that helps the world, not political symbolism but the recognition of reality. Today that takes a lot of courage. Boldness in spades. Whining is easy. Doing is risky. But we cannot desist from taking action because good is not good enough and there is much that cries out for our attention. That is precisely why it is so important to rejoice at successes. In order to concentrate on what the tasks are that are pending. The ability to differentiate is one of the key foundations for the sense of reality. The heroes of the 21st century, the bold drivers of change, have a name: realists. Whatever is is cool.

The heroes of the 21st century, the bold drivers of change, have a name: realists. Whatever is is cool.

But why then are we so grumpy instead? One reason might be that the West is losing its claim to cultural and political hegemony. But is that really important for those “ordinary people out there” the somewhat aloof term politicians use to describe their citizens?

Meanwhile Max C. Roser and Mohamed Nagdy have also discovered that there is a paradox: whereas most people have a pessimistic assessment of the future of their communities, they see their personal situation with much greater confidence. As Roser said years ago in the magazine brand eins, that may be because “people have a bad collective memory”. And there is little in the present to remind them of this deficit. What is left of the past are the beautiful and exclusive things, works of art and palaces that have transcended time – whereas “the city slums have disappeared”, as Roser puts it: But history consists of everything that has happened up till now – and the present is its result, or as the American filmmaker Ken Burns made clear, “history is right now. History is is, not was.” If anything describes the meaning of collective memory, then that is it. Those who do not know their own history do not know themselves. And then fall easy victims to the manipulators and populists of all camps. They need the bad news and put their faith in a bad memory – where it falls through the cracks that western Europeans today have nearly 50 times the wealth possessed by their ancestors in the year 1800 – and a life expectancy that is a good three times as long.

The reason why we lack the courage and boldness to shape the future lies in an evolutionary barrier. We pay more attention to shrill signals warning of an existential threat than to real experiences. The old adage of the tabloid press that “there is no news like bad news” because it gets a better hearing and then sells more newspapers holds true nearly everywhere in the attentive society. If you do not want to be overlooked, you must make a noise, polarise, exaggerate. Everything is either-or. Anxiety and uncertainty. Ultimately it is no longer possible to distinguish reality from the countless fakes – you can no longer see the wood for the trees. But a sense of reality, the knowledge of complex relationships, can only develop in peace and quiet. Is all lost?

On the contrary. Because the collective pessimism displayed on the outside, as we heard above, reveals a discrepancy to people’s assessment of their own individual situation. There are systems crises, no doubt about that, a loss of confidence in the old institutions, the old world. People are pessimistic where the old big picture is concerned, about society, about states and organisations. Their future is open for debate. As is only natural, in public speeches and discourse this is confused with the personal perspective. It is because in the old world the individual was always only a part of the collective, of the greater whole. One person subordinates himself to the common good. But that is no longer enough.

Western culture, and that of Europe in particular, is still always duty-bound to the mass society of industrialism. Paradoxically, the prosperity created by industry and the consumer society leads more and more to individualisation. But “the system” is unable to deal adequately with that. In the 21st century and its knowledge society it is all about difference, no longer about integrating. The civil society has no head office. The “proper channels”, the order of the greater whole, do not entirely disappear but they are losing importance – at times very substantially indeed. For example, what has become of “the fatherland”? Where is lifelong loyalty to a company? The decline in the importance of mainstream parties and mass movements has been blatantly obvious for years. The crisis of “the old” is often misinterpreted as a generation conflict. But it is no longer about the old justice between equals, at least no longer in all spheres of life. It is about individual justice. And making difference possible. That is what the Enlightenment set out to accomplish. That was its assignment, no less. That is a great project.

The loss of confidence felt by many in the old leadership is linked to the way it does not permit free spaces for the individual. More and more people in organisations are in search of “purpose” and are asking the question what they “really, really want”, as the New Work Pioneer Frithjof Bergmann put it in his basic formula describing all personal development. The search for meaning is the search for oneself, for the new reality. We have travelled further than we think. Many are optimistic concerning themselves and pessimistic when it concerns the old collectives, evidence that the sense of reality is in fact working quite well.

The pursuit of personal free spaces is definitely not merely the preserve of the educated elites who make their presence felt in the process. Being self-willed is lived and demanded everywhere, in all layers and classes of the civil society taking shape. It is the common denominator of materially developed societies, that magical “qualitative growth” which cannot be captured in norms, political regulations and to-do lists. The classic political culture and the leadership can deal with the mass but not with the individual. That is not what they have been created for, that is not what they have learned. Here the idea can still be encountered that all that is needed is a new recipe, for power, for dominating and managing the masses, the whole.

But people do not want parents; they want enablers, that is to say a leadership that promotes different life models as well as possible and lets them be. Civil society means allowing variety and diversity to redevelop again and again. That is in no way incoherent and chaotic but the foundation of true democracy. Perhaps it is also just the bad collective memory of the elites that befogs their view of it. They were able to manage the material ascent as part of the collective. What is now called for is to have confidence in individuals to live their lives. The “Yes, we can” with which Barack Obama prefaced his presidency still holds true. There is no doing away with it. It stands firm against setbacks. We can do it.

Civil society means allowing variety and diversity to redevelop again and again. That is in no way incoherent and chaotic but the foundation of true democracy.

The German word for boldness “Kühnheit” derives from “können” (can) and “kennen” (know), meaning knowing how things go. It is the pragmatic centre ground between extreme dare-devil, foolhardy ventures and faint-heartedness as the other extreme. Boldness is cool. It is based on reason. Boldness is a service. It enables others to live their lives in accordance with their talents and abilities, self-determined. The boldness we need permits the participators in the civil society to make use of their free spaces. Subsidiarity is the foundation of such an open society. We help each other to help ourselves. That does not mean being left alone. But being mature and grown-up.

Können, Kennen – Kühnheit is one of the foundations of the knowledge society. We sense much more about this world than we know. But now things are changing. Static organisations are being displaced by networks, the nature of which means that the individual does not participate in them on a lasting sustained basis but only as and when required. A single possibility is being superseded by many possibilities, varieties. A leadership that is bold enough to recognize that and to judge it right will also not be aligned with permanence. But it will be needed to establish a school of self-reliance and self-empowerment, the two words needed for the grand expression ‘civil society’ to be able to build itself on. A school of the civil society is needed in which the virtues of freedom are understood – without new types of dependence taking the place of the old.

In the early nineteen-seventies the American futurologist Alvin Toffler, a far-sighted and prescient visionary of the knowledge society predicted that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” Wanting to develop oneself.

More boldness is not possible.

Original in German.
Translated into English by Nicolas Hartstone.

This text is published under the Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. The name of the author/rights holder should be mentioned as followed. Author: Wolf Lotter / erstestiftung.org. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: A protester holds a picture of migrant rescue ship Sea Watch captain Carola Rackete during a demonstration in Barcelona. Photo: © Pau Barrena / AFP / picturedesk.com