Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Vaclav Havel and the art of the impossible


The death of Vaclav Havel (above) this week has robbed Europe of one of its most impressive and visionary political thinkers - if not always its most effective actual ruler. His passing brings to mind one of his most famous speeches - his New Year Address as President of the new Czech democracy in 1990.

What was it that he said? He evoked the memory of Jan Masaryk, the country's Foreign Minister in the 1940s and often looked on as the father of his nation. You can read the full text here, but the key passage runs:
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Masaryk based his politics on morality. Let us try, in a new time and in a new way, to restore this concept of politics. Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of the community rather than of a need to cheat or rape the community. Let us teach ourselves and others that politics can be not simply the art of the possible, especially if this means the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals and pragmatic maneuvering, but that it can also be the art of the impossible, that is, the art of improving ourselves and the world.It's a tremendous ambition, and one that calls us to imagine what our politics might be like - not the art of the possible, but of the seemingly impossible. As his obituaries note, Havel was preparing the way for the future of Europe while western diplomats, supposedly 'realistic' but actually with their heads in the sand, were projecting a future in which the Soviet dictatorship in Europe went on and on.

What would we look for today in this 'art of the impossible'? I suppose I'd try the following:

A truly democratic world financial and payments system. Too much of the world's monetary infrastructure is governed by an alphabet soup of the unelected. The IMF. The G10. The G20. The EU. The WTO. And so on. And on. One of the reasons for the present reaction against our leaders - our un-politics, as it were - is down to this fact. Can we make our global economic system more transparent, more responsible, more accountable?

A permanent and a concrete politics. Our elective politics is similarly mired in mistrust. This is in part due to excessive focus grouping, convergence and 'triangulation' - the art of getting so close to your opponent that you can steal as many of 'their' voters as possible. But this has long come to seem stale, second-hand and outdated. Very few politicians are now able to 'cut through' to citizens and speak in anything close to any authentic language. Can our leaders start to talk to people in a way that they understand without testing their ideas to destruction beforehand?

A distributional economics of the future. Too much of our present economic thinking is 'present-orientated'. It doesn't think about the future. It doesn't accept that the future can't (in the jargon) be discounted as much as we've often posited. Without thinking about the effects of our actions a long way ahead - in terms of housing need, for instance, which is desperate in the UK right now - we are going to get stuck with the problems I've listed under our first and second categories here.

Impossible? Maybe. But wasn't the destruction of the Czech tyranny and the Berlin Wall impossible too?

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