Hessel: The worst is indifference

Michał Sutowski: In your book, Time for Outrage!, you write about two visions of history, which dominated the life of your generation: the optimistic, Hegelian, and the catastrophic, Walter Benjamin’s sort. Are they of any importance today? Francis Fukuyama took back his thesis about the end of history, yet political elites seem as if they have not noticed this. Their reaction to the crisis shows that they still want to go the way determined in 1989.

Stéphane Hessel*: I think that we are still not fully aware of how close the next great crisis is. We too easily consider the financial collapse of 2008 defeated, only because banks were saved with public money. But in my opinion, we are standing on the edge of a huge crisis, regarding at least two areas: enormous inequalities in wealth and incomes on the global scale and the globe itself, which we have treated scandalously for the last two centuries. We realised quite late that we couldn’t behave like this any longer. Moreover we have grown terrorism by ourselves.

We have grown?

Yes, in some sense, because it represents the hatred of small groups to all that is big, overwhelming and rich. All of these create a task for a few generations. We – the elders (after all I am 93 years old), and you have to regain the values existing at the basis of our civilisation. It may be said that both Benjamin and Hegel were right in their specific ways. Benjamin, when he pointed out the problems with the idea of development and the fact that any look at history or ahead must arouse dismay. But Hegel could be right as well, believing in the future rule of freedom in the world. The only thing is that it depends on us, not some objective necessity!

Yet don’t you have the impression that the West’s political and intellectual leaders still behave as if we were led by the historical necessity? This way of thinking, that there is no alternative, and practice are in good shape. ‘Each third way is a straight way to the third world’, Adam Michnik used to say.

The West’s political leaders are stuck in the embraces of Friedman and von Hayek. The elites’ reserve against any advanced systemic interventions into the market and expanded controls is still strong, as well as the faith in markets’ self-regulating function. Fortunately the most important contemporary thinkers such as Edgar Morin, Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen or even Peter Sloterdijk say louder and louder that we cannot follow this way. If we let our leaders submit totally to financial markets, sooner or later, we will find ourselves at the verge of catastrophe. That’s why it is so crucial that the young generations were able to be outraged and could say ‘no!’. Such a change of direction won’t be easy, thus we should look for support and inspiration in something that we all have in our hearts – the sense of human dignity.

But this dignity has to find some concrete historical expression.

Yes. The history of Poland gives excellent examples. I am connected with Poland myself, in many ways. For example, my father was born in Szczecin, although it was 130 years ago (laugh). Once I was also rewarded for my activities for Weimar Triangle. But the most important Polish experience was the meeting in Geneva with Bronislaw Geremek, Lech Walesa and other heroes of Solidarnosc during a session of the International Labour Organisation. I think that Solidarnosc was something that represented the traditions of social resistance at its best – peaceful, but brave at the same time and ready for sacrifices, including the risk of being imprisoned. I believe that we all need such a Polish dynamic with the spirit of 80-81’ Solidarnosc.

In Poland the two main parties refer to Solidarnosc’ heritage. The problem is that when for one it was a Catholic-national uprising against communism, then for the other it was a result of working class dreams for capitalism.

Well, it seems obvious, as still the communist system was an enemy then. It is also quite natural that standing against it many people turned towards liberalism. But it would be a shame if neoliberalism, with its unlimited capital powers, appeared to be the only alternative to communism. That’s why I value movements like ATTAC, which fights for financial transaction tax. The point is to make the capitalist system more human. This should be a goal of the democratic left. I mean the left that gave up the communism totalitarian ideas. However anti-communism is not enough – reading the early works of Jacek Kuron or Adam Michnik I had a feeling that it was all about something more. They meant not only to liberate people from total oppression, to give them opportunities for aiming individual happiness and looking after their own interests, but also to build a more united world.

In your book, you frequently stress that the key element of anti-Nazi resistance, which you were strongly related with, was social justice. It was not only the matter of France’s liberation from the German occupation, but also the project of great social reforms – in social-democratic spirit as we would say today. In Poland you can hardly tell that many dissidents used to declare themselves in favour of a more just social order than it was before the war, but of course not a communist one.

That is why I believe that Poland has an important part to play. I remember well my fellows in distress from Dora and Buchenwald concentration camps – they were exceptionally brave and determined to fight against fascism and Nazism. And the reason I am telling this is that the neo-liberal economy becomes today a great breeding-ground for new forms of fascism. We can observe it in France, for example Marine Le Pen, but also in Germany. In this situation it is worth looking back and recalling the anti-Nazi declaration of the French National Council of Resistance, which determined a few basic rules and noble goals for a new liberated democratic country such as: social security for all, independent trade unions, a protection against unlimited capital powers, but also a guarantee of free press.

It is hard to reject your arguments, when you call for outrage with the prevalent situation. However the trouble is that anger and emotions are the most effectively managed by the right. This is Marine Le Pen who can assemble outraged people, not for instance trade unions.

The Communist Party in France has been playing the role of people’s tribunes for many years, postulating almost complete reconstruction of the system and changes in everything around, and the role of an anti-elite party. Yet the Communists lost in significance and the populists took over their role, promising to turn everything upside down and drive the present elites away. Talking about anger and outrage, I always point out that at the same time they have to be followed by the attachment to basic values. This is the break of those values that gives us the right for anger and outrage – just like the French government’s actions against the Romany society.

The right also claims to protect values.

That’s true. Sometimes you should listen closely to what Marine Le Pen voices, because she also talks about values – nationalism and xenophobia. For some people these make value, particularly nationalism, which we have not been fortunate enough to overcome. I do realise that at first you can regard my book just as a call for the articulation of social anger. However I often repeat that this little book should be an introduction to the ‘great’ readings. I usually mention then: ‘La Voie. Pour l’avenir de l’humanité’ by Edgare Morin, ‘Du musst dein Leben ändern’ by Peter Sloterdijk and ‘Whose Crisis? Whose Future? by Susan George.

Is it within the power of books, even those most perspicacious, to change the reality?

Books do not have powers per se, neither thinkers, but may have effects on public awareness and elites – statesmen and prominent civil servants. Together we have to make both elites and public opinion stop burying their heads in the sand, claiming that we had a rough time, but we overcame the crisis. They cannot say that banks work and business goes on, so we don’t need regulations and some carbon tax…

But it has been hammered into people’s heads for decades that the era of collective problem solving is over. Zygmunt Bauman writes repeatedly about this ideology that make individuals set themselves alone against problems having structural origins and solve them on the level of their own biographies. You write that the worse is indifference: I can’t help it, so I do my job, but such an attitude is dominant today.

It always was dominant. It is always a minority of society that participates in resistance, serious changes and foresight – or at least has the will to do something new. However history also teaches us that engaged minorities are capable of changing the direction in which the rest of the society goes. Sometimes they can persuade the majority that its indifference leads to nowhere or some catastrophe, and make masses engaged. You might ask why I refer to the tradition of resistance from WWII, and not to the French Revolution. That’s probably because the situation of my generation was in a way similar to the current situation. We faced something terrible, quite monstrous, and then most of us said that we could not help and nothing depended on us. Just a minority was ready to resist and finally fascism was defeated.

After the war social conflicts and contradictions were successfully converted into the positive project. Potential anger was framed in the institution of social compromise, which is beneficial for a considerable majority. In other words: social peace was ensured by the welfare state. Today we are heading in a completely different direction, although we are more affluent than before.

Well, it would be worth at least considering how we could redistribute the wealth to fulfil the UN’s millennium development goals, such as fighting poverty, starvation and infectious disease, executing human rights, in particular for children and women, and also the ecological balance and social-economic development. The main message was clear: the wealth is there, but wrongly distributed. The problems are well recognised, but they do not meet a political response that would be strong enough. There is a way then – la voie, recalling the title of Morin’s book once again.

A utopia of some kind?

More a vision. The best example of a visionary was for me the president of the US, Franklin D. Roosevelt. He came to power at the moment of serious crisis and overcame problems with the aid of the great political project, New Deal, which led the USA to prosperity. When Nazism loomed on the horizon, he fought not only for a victory over the Third Reich, but also for the elimination of its origins. The Atlantic Charter, he signed with Winston Churchill aboard HMS Prince of Wales, includes among others a declaration that once Hitler’s tyranny was over, people of all countries ‘would work for a world free of want and fear’. In fact Roosevelt initiated the creation of the United Nations, which was the most important response to the problems then.

Can a vision like that be taken again?

Yes. Moreover I think that generally it wouldn’t have to be much different form the original one – yet with one reservation. At that time we didn’t know much about the condition of our planet. We strongly believed that its resources were practically inexhaustible.

We cannot simply repeat Keynes’s recipes from over a half-century ago.

Exactly. If I were you I would focus on how to become gardeners ‘cultivating’ our planet instead of just exploiting it. This can be even more important than a question of perfectly democratic government. But of course both things are connected.

You mentioned Roosevelt – it brings an anecdote to my mind. I am not sure if it is real, nevertheless very nice. Just after taking the office he saw a delegation of trade unions that demanded public job programmes and greater economic intervention. The president supposedly said: ‘That’s a wonderful idea. I like it. But now you have to go on the streets and make me do it’. For me it means that civil society should treat the state as a partner and its political tool. But today we set society against the state, which seems to be an opponent.

I couldn’t agree more. I think that we should consider the public sphere as a triangle of economic powers, political institutions and citizens. And if citizens don’t use the state to gain their own goals and get control over financial powers, than those will dominate the state and society. We may feel secure, but we will be stripped of our freedom.

Most observers have no doubts that united Europe is in crisis. In your opinion, what is the chance of overcoming it? What are the available political solutions?

I think it needs to be remembered how ambitious we were in the past – at least in two moments of our history. For the first time it was when we created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Everything seemed possible: rights, freedom, sovereignty… And the second moment was the unification of Europe. Whatever we may say about the current troubles, it must be admitted that we deal with enormous progress. 27 countries coexist, better or worse, but in peace. The same nations used to slaughter each other endlessly. If we also add the fall of totalitarian communism and maybe the end of apartheid, than my generation has something to be proud of. It’s plain that we are facing, well you are, many political tasks. The priority for today is to strengthen the UN so that we could jointly and effectively solve any problems of global politics. If Gaddafi is a criminal, we should be able to oust him from power. If Israel does harm the Palestinians, than we should be capable of stopping it. The other burning matter is the climate – generally to make sure that our planet will be suitable for living in the future.

I have no doubts that your generation may be proud of many achievements. I am just afraid that the generation of Nicolas Sarcozy and Angela Merkel won’t be able to say the same. Some of their present actions, including those related with the European crisis, threaten to break up the EU. 

I agree. The pride of achievements is not enough. That which we have been building for decades can collapse very quickly. There emerged some nationalistic tendencies – protectionism on one hand and on the other hand closing communities or dislike against foreigners, particularly strong in France. In a sense, this is a natural reaction for integration processes in Europe and the way they were implemented. For many years societies have regarded a united Europe as a matter that is worth fighting for and aiming at. It is not the case anymore.

Where do you see the reason for this change?

I think that the EU’s key institutions, and the European Commission at the forefront, require a fundamental critique. The same applies to the process of integration. It was inevitable and there was no question of leaving the East European countries out of the Union. Nevertheless we were not, in my belief, generous and far-sighted enough. For example, if we had prepared a plan of ecological development in Europe, it would have created a huge job market and given a technological impulse, not only within the area of renewable energies, but for instance in the transport industry as well. But I’m afraid that we missed that moment. We relied on the advice of financial markets: trade in the first place! What about great projects? No, they are too complicated, too difficult and we can’t afford them. But this is absurd to claim that European countries are poor!

They have never been so rich before.

Exactly. Yet how do they use the wealth? We have no vision and no momentum. Bronislaw Geremek  used to say: more Europe! Not to suppress governments, but to give them a boost of energy.
*Stéphane Hessel (1917) – a diplomat, a graduate of École Normale Superieure, a member of the French resistance, a prisoner of Dora and Buchenwald concentration camps. A co-author (with Eleanor Roosevelt among others) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The author of a lately published book, The Time For Outrage (Indignez-vous!).

Translated by Magdalena Chojnowska


Michał Sutowski
Political scientist, columnist, editor. Coordinator of the Institute for Advanced Studies. Translator from English and German. Editor of the political writings of Jacek Kuroń and Stanisław Brzozowski. In 2012, he studied at the Yale University as part of the Political Critique scholarship.