The usual hand-wringing – including the hand-wringing of this blog – about the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump on a ticket with disturbing echoes of the 1920s and 1930s only goes so far. I’ve been thinking in recent days and weeks that we need, or at least I need, to go further into this, to see it as not just a political crisis, a crisis of democracy, but as a philosophical crisis, a crisis of reason.
Let me sketch out roughly what I mean. Both the EU as currently constituted and interpreted and the Democrat programme in the US as exemplified by Hillary Clinton are essentially technocratic, managerial projects with diminished ethical or transformative substance. True, and this is important to me even if not to some critics of this blog, both enshrine certain principles, and enforce certain norms, with regard to lack of discrimination, minority rights, worker protection, environmental protection, adherence to international law and international treaties, and so on. Actually those seem very important indeed, and were good reasons, even while holding your nose, to vote Remain or to vote for Hillary Clinton. The “social Europe” espoused by Jacques Delors has been in decline for two decades now – partly as a result of the widening of the EU – and was always opposed by probably the majority of British politicians; all the same European structural and social funds still play quite an important role in helping poorer regions and improving skills (will they be matched by UK government funding post-Brexit? Will pigs fly?)
But they are not enough. This is clearly not just my view but the view of millions of voters who rejected these projects, which they probably saw as distant and irrelevant to their lives, of benefit to the few (the “liberal elite”, on which more in another post), not the many. And they certainly had a point, as this excellent blog by Michael Jacobs and Mariana Mazzucato explains better than I could http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/the-brexit-trump-syndrome/. A shorthand way of saying it is that both the EU and the US Democrats were conscripted by neo-liberalism, a “market knows best, government is the problem” approach which ended up allowing nearly the vast majority of the proceeds of growth to go to a tiny sliver of the very rich.
While getting to know a little bit about the workings of the EU in the area of environmental protection, I lamented the fact that the EU was not better able to orient and conscript the imagination of European citizens towards its truly remarkable achievements in this field. I am thinking in particular about satellite Earth Observation, the ability to monitor the most minute changes in the state of the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land surface using satellites, as exemplified by the Copernicus programme of Earth Observation jointly run by the EU and the European Space Agency (ESA). I wrote a book about the history and cultural and ethical implications of Earth Observation while working as a part-time Senior Fellow at the European Space Policy Institute in Vienna. Here is the link to the book, just published by Springer – http://www.springer.com/us/book/9783319406022.
Why is this fantastic project, now operational, not better known to European citizens? I suppose there are a number of reasons, some institutional, but, as I argued in the book, one of the most important may be that those in charge of the project see it as essentially technocratic rather than ethical and transformative. Certainly satellite Earth Observation can help us manage our lives better – for example in precision agriculture, or flood planning. But its uses go far beyond that. Satellite Earth Observation is extremely important in the area of monitoring climate change, the biggest ethical challenge facing humanity now and in the future. 26 out of 50 climate variables are only observable from space. For some reason, though, maybe because climate change is seen as a contentious political issue, those in charge seem disinclined to blow the trumpet for this.
All this is part of something bigger. Reason has been narrowed down to technocratic, scientific-instrumental reason. This leaves reason, rationality, bloodless and without passion. Everything is a means to end, with the end lost somewhere along the line. It leaves out what Pascal called “the reasons of the heart, which reason knows nothing of.” It leaves out what Habermas calls aesthetic-emotional reason – the whole realm of art. Art is seen as an essentially meaningless varnish to ugly reality. It also leaves a gap, into which more malign forces can move and which they can occupy. These are the forces of nihilism, ultimately, of “we’ve had enough of experts”, of anything goes, of hatred and prejudice and fear, of let might prevail.Here’s just one current example of where that is leading. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/nov/22/nasa-earth-donald-trump-eliminate-climate-change-research?CMP=twt_a-environment_b-gdneco
P.S. I put “western” in inverted commas in deference to the recent BBC Reith Lectures by Kwame Anthony Appiah, in which he argued that there is “no such thing as western civilisation”. I agree with him that the transmission of Greek texts through Arab scholars in 11th and 12th century Córdoba and other places makes a nonsense of a notion of western civilisation that excludes the Arab world. But I do tend to think, for better or worse, that there is a distinctively “western” tradition of what constitutes reason and rationality.
P.P.S. It may be this analysis is not new – some of it was made in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment