Tanti auguri per il 2021

paura, speranza, luce alla fine del tunnel …. Forse ora si svegliamo, prendendo coscienza del fatto che stavamo guidando ad alta velocità e verso un treno proveniente da altra estremità.

Reflections for the New Year

Again and again it is said that we are living in unusual times. Of course, in some way it is unquestionably true – taking unusual as exceptional.

Still, I’m wondering if it is not – for some – about returning to usual life, life and what it is really about, including some Jolt of Pure Joy  – taking unusual as ordinary in its most positive understanding of authentic, genuine: wiping away all the stupidities and useless wants that come along with commerce and business and their harsh fairy tale of growth as ultimate goal; perhaps overcoming arrogance, ignorance, dishonest tolerance.

Of course, it is not about all this for all and in every respect: there are still many who barely get the bare necessities; there are people cramped – in a rich city as Berlin – with 14 persons on 100 square meter; there are entire countries living in severe poverty …, obviously I am not speaking about that kind of consumers and consumption but …

Of course, much is replaced by online shopping, still the old ding-dong, veiled in new dresses, the heavy weight now to be carried by … the couriers, badly paid, working under harsh conditions … I am not celebrating these new victims … and yes, a good cuppa or something like that, sitting down in the bar around the corner is something we all miss as we miss the local theatre, the music club and the cinema – many of them possibly not getting back on their legs. Still, perhaps it is a time, an opportunity to pay more respect to the little walk with a friend, an opportunity to talk about the film we saw in our little or large home, perhaps it is the time where we are becoming aware of some essentials …

And perhaps there is something many of us can actually DO. Sure, don’t ask me how many jackets and trousers I have, how old my mobile phone is, how many useless gadgets I own and …. – but I made personally perhaps a small step from words that may be exceptional to what should be ordinary, authentic action. And I offered as well to enter conversations about the books there, socialising the means of production … and perhaps we have to and can think about new ways, collective ways of reflecting and debating ….

preparing the end of humankind ?

Ratio turns into nonsense, benefit into menace  
Woe unto you, that you are grandchild!  
The right, that is born with us,

Translated from Goethe’s original:

Vernunft wird Unſinn, Wohlthat Plage;  
Weh dir, daß du ein Enkel biſt!  
Vom Rechte, das mit uns geboren iſt  
(Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, 1790: Faust. Ein Fragment; Leipzig: Goeschen: 32)

Well, this could be written today without changing any substantial issue. Online teaching will remain if not dominant so at least as co-player on the agenda. To discuss respective issues, I attended recently a meeting for lecturers and casual lecturers. One of the issues had been the problematic that students are reluctant to switch on the video. Of course, there are many sides that can be discussed in this context. One point that came up, and been about obliging students to leave the video switched on – confirming the decision would not be recorded for the purpose of publication. However, such a proposal was harshly rejected, the reason being concerns with data protection. 

You may kindly ask them, but not oblige them … doing so, would be a serious issue of breaching the right to privacy.

Indeed, ratio turns into nonsense, benefit into menace. , If we continue thinking this way, we have to be afraid that one day attendance in the class is equally problematic in the light of data protection. Going even further anything, that forces us to show up in the public, can be seen as problematic in the light of data protection, in the light of breaching privacy rights: going shopping, taking a means of public transport, going to coffee or pub, and of course even going to the public administration as for any service becomes seriously problematic. And the service workers ???? — sure, seeing this as a matter of privacy rights and data protection; equally true is, however, another interpretation: we have been fighting to be heard, to have a say in public matters, however, the result of a conservative turn is complete individualism, the loss of any rights that could be considered as social rights. Finally, MargaretThatcher succeeded — there will be no such thing as society. Taking Aristoteles, Marx, Durkheim and the many others who said that humans are social beings, seriously, we are thus preparing the end of human existence.

Looking back in order to search for the future

Pausing for a moment is not a bad thing, even if we are forced to. There is a lot of talk about the new normal and indeed, it had been last week that we had been confronted with some news that had been surely worthwhile to think about. It had been world overshoot day, this on a global level. Qatar reached it already on the 11th of February, Indonesia will be the last, reaching it on the 18th of December (https://www.overshootday.org/newsroom/country-overshoot-days/)

Of course, there are massive economic problems as consequence of the pandemic. However, a detailed analysis shows that these are problems of production: the commodity system of capitalism requires to keep costs of production low, thus separating production proper and consumption. This appears a to be a problem of distribution and linked injustice. However distribution is not really the problem. The problem is that commodity production in the understanding of capitalist production depends on separating production of use value and production of exchange value. Only refocusing the entire process on use will allow to produce what is needed by human beings instead of investors.

Artificial Intelligence

It is in the meantime a widely used term, possibly also a widely misunderstood one?

Wikipedia suggests on the disambiguation site the following:

Artificial intelligence is at this stage a widely used term, and of course we even agree by small-signing the dotted line of the big thing:

Occasionally I access websites, using the phone. In a blink of an eye the search history is available on the other machines. Sure, I do not have anything to hide …, and as said: I signed. But what exactly did I sign when? Recently I had been looking for a shop – I needed the address and knew that there are some branches in town, however, I did not know that this is actually a national chain. The web suggested the maps with the branches in Berlin, then the general website, and then … the question if I would allow google to use my position. hum …and at the very bottom

Consoling: the postcode is wrong. Or in more popular terms: Artificial intelligence has something humane: it is at times equally stupid.

皮特·赫尔曼:种族主义:日常致死还是拒绝陌生人的问题 – Racism, a matter of daily killing

(English below)

由中国人权研究会指导,中南大学人权研究中心、阿姆斯特丹自由大学跨文化人权研究中心和国家高端智库武汉大学国际法研究所联合主办的“针对当代形式种族主义:疫情带来的挑战与各国应对”国际视频研讨会7月3日召开,来自中国、美国、荷兰、德国、南非等国家和联合国的近20名人权领域专家学者围绕相关议题展开深入研讨。中南大学人权中心教授,欧洲科学与艺术学院院士皮特·赫尔曼在会上作题为《种族主义:日常致死还是拒绝陌生人的问题》的发言。

  皮特·赫尔曼认为,我们必须寻找提供公共担保的条件,来塑造我们自己的生活。在社会中,这是关于健康和服务,是关于教育,也是关于提供一个环境,使生活便利。在我们有条件的地方,从生活在不同的国家和在不同国家工作的经验,我们有条件真正展现在社会中。你不会发现种族主义,只有这种限制性的和公共的私人问题。

 视频

Under the direction of the Chinese Society for Human Rights Studies, the Centre for Human Rights Studies of Central South University, the Centre for Intercultural Human Rights Studies of the Free University of Amsterdam and the National Human Rights Commission of China. Against Contemporary Forms of Racism: The Challenge of the Epidemic and States’ Responses”, co-hosted by the Institute of International Law, Wuhan University, a high-level think tank “The international video symposium was held on July 3, with participants from China, the United States, the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa and other countries and the United Nations’ Experts and scholars in the field of human rights held in-depth discussions on related topics. Peter Herrmann, Professor of the Human Rights Center of Central South University and member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, made a speech entitled “Racism: everyday life”.

  Peter Herrmann argues that we must look for conditions that provide public guarantees to shape our own lives. In society, it is about health and services, it is about education, and it is about providing an environment that makes life easier.

Video

I am George

It is a while back – already on the 25th of March, George Floyd was brutally murdered. And still it is high on the agenda: the lasting shock, the protests around the world, the impossibility to understand what happened. And it is on my personal agenda, preparing a presentation for the seminar “Best Practices to Combat Contemporary Forms of Racism”. As part of this preparation I came across this statement by the US-president in office, Trump:

‘I could shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters’

It is a statement he made in 2016, supposedly a joke. But listen to the context and you won’t be laughing anymore. And we actually will be able to understand what is impossible to understand.

As many proclaimed in 2015

Je suis Charlie

we have to proclaim five years on

I am George

Grounding

Only time will show the valid origin and possibly not even that: there are different sources for the phrase “I don’t trust any statistics that I did not made up myself.” Statistics and presumed scientific analysis show different results. Sometimes there are simple explanations – for instance there is a difference between figures for regions and entire countries and the reference is not clearly stated; also rounding may appear as huge difference in the overall result. As such, scientific results are used as guiding political decisions, often a contest between different individual measures. An interesting framework for analysis of pandemias had been already proposed by Ed Snowden about 10 years ago in a lecture series where he posed 10 questions. It may be worthwhile to reproduce them in full length here (from https://oyc.yale.edu/history/hist-234/lecture-12):

10 questions on diseases

“I have a sort of suggestion of maybe ten major questions that we ought to be thinking about with regard to diseases.

The first major question, for any of the diseases we’re talking about, was what’s the total mortality and morbidity that’s caused by the epidemic in question? The mortality, the total numbers of deaths. Morbidity, the total number of cases. That’s an important factor that needs to be taken into account in assessing the impact of the epidemic. A second question has to do with a term we introduced long ago, a phrase, which was the case fatality rate. And a related question with that is, is there an effective therapy or means of prevention, or instead does a society experience the disease in feeling itself to be helpless, and physicians feeling the same?

The case fatality rate is — we could call it the kill rate of a disease, the percentage of cases that terminate in death. And we know that, for example, in dealing with plague, one of the features of it — and Asiatic cholera as well — was a very high case fatality rate, of plague, fifty to eighty percent, cholera, something like fifty percent. At the other extreme, when we come to it, we’ll see that influenza has a very high morbidity, but quite a low case fatality rate, and that’s related, I think, to the impact that that disease, influenza, has on society, which isn’t associated with such terror as say plague or cholera. That’s an important variable, the kill rate of the disease.

Another factor, a third question we need to ask, is what’s the nature of the symptoms of the infectious disease in question? Are they particularly painful? Are they degrading, according to the norms of the time? And we’ve seen, for example, in dealing with plague and cholera that a major feature about them was that their symptoms were agonizing and dehumanizing. Clearly, as we turn to syphilis, its symptoms also were extremely important in the way that the disease was experienced. Tuberculosis, on the other hand — and we’ll be looking at that — was seen, at the time, to make its sufferers more intelligent, more romantic, more beautiful in some sense, at least in the first half of the nineteenth century. So, that — what is the nature of the symptoms, is a crucially important question.

Another, fourth question, that I hope you’ll bear in mind throughout the course, and in your review for the exercise this week, is the question, is this disease new, or is it familiar to the population? Familiar diseases tend not to be so terrifying. The population is also likely to have some degree of immunity to the disease, and the disease is likely, or may have, already mutated to become less deadly. Examples are the so-called diseases of childhood, like chickenpox, mumps and measles; normally relatively mild, but in populations to which they’re newly introduced, they can be devastating.

A fifth question has to do with, what’s the profile of the victims of the disease? Is this a disease that’s an affliction of the young and the elderly; that is, experienced as a more normal course of a disease, in accord with society’s expectations and past experience? Or does it instead strike down particularly those who are in the prime of life, thereby no longer seeming natural but as something extraordinary in the experience of the population? And it also means that the disease is likely to maximize its economic and financial impact, to be particularly destabilizing to a community. Cholera, in this regard, for example, was terrifying because of the way in which it seemed to afflict those who were the bulwarks of families and of communities.

A sixth question that’s important: what’s the class profile of the sufferers? What sorts of people in society are stricken with the affliction? Is this a disease of poverty, such as cholera is usually thought of? Or is it an affliction that strikes everyone, without particular reference to class or social and economic status, like influenza or syphilis, indeed?

A seventh important question is what is the mode of transmission of the disease? Is it transmitted person to person? Is it transmitted by contaminated food and water? Are vectors involved? Is it spread through the air by droplets? Is it spread by sexual contact? And clearly, I think we’ll be arguing that the mode of transmission is really crucial, and in sexually transmitted diseases I think that that is fairly self-evident and a very important factor in the social impact of those diseases.

An eighth important question is whether the disease is fulminant in its course, or is it slow acting and a wasting disease? If we look, for example, at cholera, one of the features, and a striking one, is that it was one of the most fulminant of diseases. It would strike down a sufferer, and you could board a train and die before you reached your destination, as the disease ran its course that quickly through the human body. Or, on the other hand, is the disease one that takes years, perhaps even decades, to run its course? And an example of that, of course, would be tuberculosis or HIV-AIDS, in our own time.

A ninth important question we need always to bear in mind is how is the disease understood by the population that it’s infecting? Is it seen as a punishment of God? Is it later on thought to be something that comes from the dangerous classes? Or later on, is it understood to be a microbial infection? And those ways in which the disease is understood have enormous impact on how the population reacts to the disease. A tenth variable is what’s the duration of the epidemic? Influenza, for example, passes through a locality in a matter of weeks, normally. Cholera or plague tend to have epidemics that last for months. And tuberculosis, one might describe as an epidemic in slow motion that afflicts a community for a whole century or more.”

There is another dimension which I want to propose as 11th concern: it is about how people deal with the situation, the “grounding” that serves as foundation for political decions about different measures and approaches to fight the spread of virus. As subheading of this section “Grounding” I propose “What are we really talking about?” And I want to start by telling a little story – one that seems to be completely unconnected to the question of policies against the spreading of the virus. Although not a fairy tale, it begins with once upon a time. So, once upon a time, after the workshop meeting in Brussels, I went with some colleagues to a pub. All of them had been Swedish nationals, two native Swedes, one of them holding Swedish passport but having been raised in Macedonia. We have been talking about some business – the Swedish-Macedonian colleague moving along with the rhythm of the music, played in the background. One of the other colleagues, looking little bit sad, said:

“Look at her – she is relaxed, enjoying herself, expressing frankly her emotions. It’s so different, compared with me: standing still like a rock, wearing a grey suit, a grey shirt and a grey tie and probably all this mirrored in a grey face. I simply cannot jump out of this.”

This story does not end with the phrase “and they lived happily ever after” – although they were very nice people. The different character was showing up in the following months while we worked together. The reason for telling the story is very simple: currently Sweden is often celebrated for a very open and liberal approach when it comes to dealing with the virus. There seems to be no lockout, businesses are continuing works they did earlier, schools and kindergardens remained open … . And still, the spread of the virus, its victims, and the mystic number “R” remained reasonably low. Such policies of containing the spread of the virus is then frequently compared with strict measures of containment: in Ireland people had not been allowed to go further than two km from their home; in Germany the situation had been one of “loose lockdown”, in the Mediterranean countries we find “strict lockdowns” … – relevant are also differences in the speed of reaction: some countries more or less hesitant, waiting some time before they introduced even harsher measures … – now I could tell another story, reflecting on the opening of a telephone call one of the last days, speaking to a Chinese friend who is still working in the UK but quit her job in order to return to China.

“There are many reasons  …..”

Taking the many reasons together, thinking also of what I heard from other Chinese friends and colleagues the many reasons may be summarised by saying

“you know, there’s something about home … – there I do not feel lonely, I am well looked after and things are done when they need to be done.”

Sure, much of the following is anecdotal, based on statements of few individuals out of a population of nearly 1,439,324,000 Chinese people (https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/china-population/) and as such should not be overestimated. Nevertheless, it may well be taken as reflection of the often highlighted “we-society” – some forms of control, but performing two roles at the same time: limitation and protection, the chaxugeju providing a framework and security bed that defines the individual (comparable with the African ubuntu, i.e. the ”I am because we are”), so entirely different if compared with the west where the individual is not defined by relations but a self-contained entity, striving to be different from others, even unique and even independent from others. Still, in using such terms, we should never forget that the meaning may will be different to Western uses of the terms.

Organizational principles are to a society what a grammar is to a language. The principles provide the structural framework for social action; they are intuitive and taken for granted; they are deeply embedded in people’s worldviews, as well as in the society that people re-create every day.“ (Introduction to Fei Xiaotong’s From the Soil-The Foundations by Gary G Hamilton and Wang Zheng; University of California Press, 1992: 19)

So, looking at societies, the relevant economies and legal systems, is always about understanding those parts that are known to everybody, though difficult to be spelled out: the tacit knowledge, usually not appearing in the textbooks (as it seems to be of no relevance) and not talked about amongst those who live their life accordingly (as it is too obvious in its permanent presence).

It is about the Guanxi in China, the Christian bonds in Europe, the family ties in … – but this is exactly the point: while we find families everywhere, their meaning is completely different.

Coming back to politics of controlling the spread of the virus, one of the main issues of the debate is about containment policies. With a very broad brush, being aware of the danger of stereotyping (and re-producing stereotypes), the following can be said:

  • celebrating Sweden as example of a liberal handling is questionable as it starts from two premises that are standing against the common understanding of liberal: • it is a country that is highly bureaucratic, the country of men wearing grey suits, grey shirts and grey ties, not allowing themselves to express emotions – self-containment does not need external control; • it is a country that is highly advanced in respect of social provisions, modern working conditions including home-office (although never leaving people go off-ice) and the like – so it is obviously not really a matter to find new regulations for what is given already by existing regulations and tacit rules
  • Supposedly Lenin once said that the Germans, storming a railway station during a revolution, would first buy a platform ticket: rule bound and in need of rules, like the Alsation, so often used as service-dog by the German police …. And still, one of the rules, in very general terms, is a welfare system that is still “advanced”: elaborated, bureaucratic but altogether based in the idea of a unified (yes, unified though today’s critiques of strict “loose confinement” do not criticise this “quasi anti-liberal unification”) system, expressed in the fact of having a somewhat all-encompassing, comprehensive “book of social law” (Sozialgesetzbuch) [including unemployment insurance but excluding labour law] – comprehensive does not mean accessible for everybody although accessibility had been one of the reasons for the reform by which the different areas of relevant “social legislation” had been brought together. Today we speak of one book of social law, this consists now of 12 volumes, and a further extension is planed for 2024. Rule-obedience is thus closely linked to an expertocratic system – including non-obedience where expert-reasoning is lacking. – This is surely one of the reasons behind the important role of the Robert-Koch-Institute. A high representative of the organisation that is specialised on virus research frequently said that they cannot decide – instead there are political decisions, whereas the RKI can only provide data on the basis of which political decisions are to be taken. The problem, one can say, is in this country to find a balance between the authoritarian (not least it means submissive) character and the enlightened “liberal” bourgeois. As formulated on an earlier occasion in this series of reflections: the country of poets and thinkers (in German: Dichter und Denker) being at the very same time the country of judges and hangman (in German: Richter und Henker).
    Well, there is a sideliner to this, where the two actually meet, creeping into daily life without being noticed: much of the poesy and thinking is a matter of appearance, not of essence – the market, with its essence of making profit, comes along and makes profit even of the emergency and health threat: mouth and nose masks, after they had been sold out, are back, now already as a “new normality”: in fashionable designs they are available – the sellers asking for “the little bit more”, the little bit that individuals can afford for looking good, but society cannot afford to look after those in need: some excluded from suggested beauty by the judgement of the market …
  • Non posso crederci – non siamo qui per divertirci, non siamo qui per il momento, per fare un respiro profondo per ammirare le bellezze e le ricchezze dell’antichità…, e noi stessi, la famiglia e bambini? Restrizioni ….. – incredibile – I cannot believe it – aren’t we here to enjoy ourselves, aren’t we here for the moment, taking a deep breath to admire the beauties and wealth of antiquity …, and ourselves, the family and children? Restrictions …. – unbelievable” – A torrent of words like this, and an emotionally based resistance, followed by cocooning, weirdly combined with an expressionist/exhibitionist and collectivist public performance of “street balcony singing”. There is good reason behind extreme familiarism, regionalism, political extremism and short-termism characterising Italian politics – though “electoral rule changes in the early 1990s turned Italy more towards majority governments”
(Chris Harris, 2016: Why do governments in Italy change so often?; https://www.euronews.com/2016/12/13/why-do-italian-governments-change-so-often)
  • Prejudice? Maybe, though it may also be a reflection of the history of the United States of Northern America: a people that arrived there as a result of failing to claim their – mainly economic – freedom in their country of origin, welded together by religion, a commonly claimed right to occupy the country and expel the Indians and an extreme form of economic liberalism – the occupation of a vast area, the quasi tabula rasa in economic terms, where everything had to be started from the scratch and a kind of cultural new beginning (there had not been anything they could build upon: in some way the own history had been rejected and the then contemporary new culture of the Indians had been genocided),

  •  established the feeling of superiority, later elevated to a claim of world leadership, i.e. the role of a world gendarme.
    What can a virus do to a people like this? How could a god hurt a people that makes even a Muslim president a professing Christian? And yet: the flip side is that everyone must be seen as an enemy of everyone else – the price of freedom, which ruthlessly makes everyone a self-made man. This may explain to some extent the way in which the US faced the virus: ignorance going hand in hand with a combination of fear and self-defence. Concrete: a long time of ignoring the dangers; and a worrying increase in the sale of weapons: “Fear of the consequences of the Corona virus is driving Americans into the arms trade. Hunting rifles are slow sellers, but pistols, sports rifles and semi-automatic assault weapons are in demand. Fear drives Americans into the shops, fear of what the virus will do to a society.” (https://www.tagesschau.de/ausland/corona-schusswaffen-usa-101.html; own translation)

Although arguments based on the notion of “national character” have to be treated with care – this being even more true if based on a small sample, without introducing any control variable as class, gender, religion … . Still, even this may make at least thinking – finally the question of prejudice is a tricky one, as there is some judice, i.e. some judication, some preceding judgement – a perpetuation can hardly be avoided as the process of civilisation is one that is concerned with the perpetuation of socialisation emerging from the conditions it creates in the preceding stages of development – the irresolvable problem of the grandfather paradox that makes it so difficult to reach the other side where the grass is always greener, not least as part of this civilising process is about social distancing. The problems of social science consists of the fact of a lack of communication – on a superficial level we find plenty of chitchat, the exchange of data, the bean-counting of everything and the speculative combination of a variety of data. Terms and concepts are taken for granted while any serious debate is postponed – methodology chapters and papers are frequently chapters that deal in actual fact with methods, analysis is too often looking at “facts”, however forgetting that positivism is characterised by a fundamental lack of understanding and law is obsessed with rules forgetting the problematique that a decision may be absolutely lawful, though it is in the light of fundamental, social and human rights awful.

History does not repeat itself …

… but that does not mean that tragedies are not recurrent.

On different occasions I raised my scepticism in respect of euro- or corona bonds. To be clear from the outset, I agree with the notion some kind of European finance mechanism has to be put into place as matter of solidarity in tackling the current crisis. However, we know from the not too distant history, namely the way in which Europe and in particular Germany interpreted solidarity in connection with the developments in Greece, that mechanisms can be interpreted in very different ways. Obviously this is what we see already now in connection with European money possibly spent in the spirit of solidarity: The German constitutional court in the ruling of the 5th of May urged the ECB to maintain a specific understanding of proportionality. The highest German Court concluded

“by unconditionally pursuing the PSPP’s monetary policy objective – to achieve inflation rates below, but close to, 2% – while ignoring its economic policy effects, the ECB manifestly disregards the principle of proportionality”

Seen in this light, my scepticism is possibly justified in the same way as it had been in the context of the so-called European anti-poverty programmes that had been performed from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. The European institutions did not have a proper competence in the area of combatting poverty – then European ruling, asked for not least by the German government, resulted in a reinterpretation of combating poverty as a matter of solely employment policy, too often interpreted as workfare – I commented briefly on that in an article in the German Nachrichtendienst des Vereins fuer offentliche und private Fuersorrge under the Title Subsidiaritaet und die falsche Zurueckhaltung[1]

– I am afraid, that cum grano salis, the same may happen today with the financial instruments: what is good in the short run may become the first chapter in the new book of expansionist (German) economic and social policy.

It is worth a side-remark, highlighting the irony of history: it could well be that Christine Lagarde is now victim of exactly those measures that she pursued in the context of the Greek crisis. History does not repeat itself, but that does not mean tragedies of the same kind do not appear again.

[1]                (Subsidiarity and the Wrong Reserve or: The Meaning of European Programmes Combating Poverty (Subsidiariät und die falsche Zurückhaltung oder: Über den Sinn europäischer Armutsprogramme); in: Nachrichtendienst des Deutschen Vereins für öffentliche und private Fürsorge, Frankfurt/M., Issue 2/1995: pp. 79-86a