"Culture and creativity should take centre stage in discussions on how to build more fulfilling and peaceful societies, President Michael D Higgins has said.
On a visit yesterday to the Paris headquarters of Unesco, the UN’s culture and education agency, Mr Higgins was greeted with cheers and a standing ovation after he gave an impassioned critique of the dominance of neo-liberal economics. Assumptions about unregulated market freedom had “exposed our world to poverty and insecurity”, he said.
Unesco is suffering from a severe financial crisis caused largely by the decision of its biggest contributor, the US, to cancel its support in protest at the body’s decision to grant the Palestinians full membership.
Against the background of debate about the organisation’s future, Mr Higgins warned that supporting culture was as important during a recession as in times of economic growth.
“Unesco cannot afford to fall into the pseudo-romantic trap of believing that devoting less resources to the broad cultural space is in any sense beneficial or constructive,” he said. “Starving artists in attics may make for entertaining operatic librettos, but such a myth is as destructive of social value as it is of the individual artist’s life.”
Mr Higgins called for better dialogue between western intellectuals and moderate Islam, which he saw as “one of the most urgent intellectual issues” of our time. “It is past time that they supported each other, confronted the politics of fear and exclusion … and worked together to achieve the sustainable, peaceful planet we need.”
Unesco’s director general, Irina Bokova, described Mr Higgins as “an intellectual and a great political leader”, and said his speech made her proud to belong to the agency.”
The Irish Times gave a summary of his speech to the Sorbonne in its editorial yesterday, finishing with the telling line “How close Mr Higgins’s radical analysis is to our own Government’s is, however, another matter.” (The Irish Presidency being independent from, and virtually powerless in the traditional political sense relative to, the executive and parliament). The speech itself, ‘Defining Europe in the Year of the European Citizen’, is here; it’s wide-ranging to say the least, but focuses on familiar themes of scholarship and intellectual opposition to neoliberalism, seen through a lens of French and European history:
“Scholarship is at its best when it is emancipatory, when it enables, assists, and confers freedom. We need that scholarship now as we together must work for, and envision a future for the European Union. Such new and emancipatory scholarship is already emerging at global level even if it is not on the ascendant in Europe.
Just as Diderot, Kant, Herder and others saw the flaw and consequence of empire at the heart of the European Enlightenment, many scholars around the world have seen the flaw and the consequences of a single hegemonic model of international economics, having been accepted, built on the mythical model of unregulated markets.
Such a model, be it in its Von Hayek or Friedman versions that argued for a limited state or, in its ordoliberalist version, demanded the use of the State to institute state arrangements for a de-peopled market economy, was presented as the only acceptable alternative to the social and economic democratically-based models of social economy that emerged after World War Two and that were offered, bet it with success or failure in an accountable way by the elected representatives of the people.
Jurgen Habermas puts it succinctly when, seeking to address the challenge as to what we might do in the European Union if we are to save and develop in a truly humane way, a Europe he describes as ‘our fragile project’ he writes:
“My hope is that the neoliberal agenda will no longer be accepted at face value but will be open to challenge.
The whole program of subordinating the life world to the imperatives of the market must be subjected to scrutiny …. The agenda which recklessly prioritises shareholder interests and is indifferent to increasing social inequality, to the emergence of an underclass, to child poverty, of a low wage sector, and so on has been discredited. With its mania for privatization, this agenda hollows out the core function of the state. It sells the remnants of a deliberative public sphere to profit maximising financial investors, and it subordinates culture and education to the interests and moods of sponsors who are dependent on market cycles.”
I believe that what Jurgen Habermas is responding to is more than just, as he would see it, a fragile project. It is a social crisis. It is the emergence and the acting out of what the great German social theorist of the nineteenth century Max Weber saw as that ‘bleak winter’ that would replace ‘the promise of Spring’ when a perversion of rationality became irrationality, as consciousness was numbed, when what was oppressive was unquestionable, and came to be suggested as inevitable, was received as natural.
The crisis to which the earlier work of Habermas pointed was a ‘legitimation crisis’. The signs of this rationality that has become irrationality are there today in our European Union as spectacle replaces discourse, as the length of communiqués shorten, as managing the media replaces open discussion, or amendment of shared or differing policy positions, as alternative political options that might have generated such a discourse as would be inviting to the citizens of Europe to participate, share, be creative, be responsive to global issues, be they issues of poverty, freedom, democracy or environmental intergenerational responsibility, are rejected, are relegated to the past, ignored or dismissed.”
I can’t say how proud I am to have this guy as my president. Even though I don’t know how ‘emancipatory scholarship’ is going to translate into a job (or even a career!) for me anytime soon.