Toward the end of 2012, the Nexus Instituut organized a series of conferences where prominent international speakers discussed the question How To Change the World? Due to the importance of this symposium, we have included a conversation between Rob Riemen and Rose Mary Salum. In addition, we have also been authorized by the Nexus Instituut to reproduce some of the interviews conducted by Fiona Schouten and Eveline van der Ham.
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Rose Mary Salum: What circumstances moved you to organize such an intellectual enterprise?
Rob Riemen: The essence of a civilized society is justice and the cultivation of human dignity. Without these, a society will eventually fall apart, and the worst of human instincts will prevail. But a ‘just society’ and the dignity of man are never a given. Every society, every age, every individual has to strive for it and deal with all those powers and human forces which are not interested in (or are even against) a society where justice for everybody and human dignity prevails. So yes, there is and will always be a need to change our world and it is a moral obligation to be aware of it. I organized this conference as I am interested in knowing which visions we have for a better world and who the change-makers will be.
RMS: The keynote speaker was Alain Badiu. He mentioned in his opening speech that philosophers need to be optimistic in order to at least conceive ways to change the world. On the other hand, Roger Scruton believes that the 20th century was created by idealism and a fixed concept of what the world should look like. This gave us permission to radically change it, and the immediate results were genocides, wars and so on. Did you maintain a balance between these conferences to sort of neutralize the idealism inserted in the idea of how to change the world?
RR: Badiou and Scruton are two philosophers with two opposing worldviews. Badiou is a man from the left, he has been a Maoist. Scruton is a man from the right, a true conservative. We know now about the horror, wars and genocide that were the result of political utopian ideas and their “social engineering”. On the other hand, political conservatives are too often not really interested in changing the world, as they want to defend the existing economic and political interests of the “happy few.” So inequality, poverty, injustice are here to stay. Which leads to the fundamental question of how to change the world. What are our possibilities? What are the instruments? Where to start? After the epoch of totalitarianism, we know that only a liberal democracy gives us the possibility to make the world a better place. Yet what we also know is that “liberal democracy,” with its party politics, mass media, and the reign of “public opinion,” is not enough.
RMS: On the other hand, you cannot change the world as such, Agnes Heller explained. She also warned us about totalitarian governments because, according to her, they can be as trendy as democracy is. What is your opinion regarding her statement?
RR: What is the “world”? The world is what WE are! It’s all human beings together. You and I and our fellow human beings. We create the world, with our ideas, science, technology, politics, religions etc. If there is war, it is because people go to war; if there is poverty, it is because we don’t distribute wealth in a just manner; if there is ignorance, it is because we don’t educate or are not interested in education; if there is no freedom, it is because we have given our freedom away… This is why liberal democracy is always superior to any political ideology that claims to be ‘perfect’: in a liberal democracy, every human being has the political freedom to use this freedom to make this world a better place.
RMS: John Gray spoke, among other things, about how the universal “We” is nonexistent and what really needs to be changed is the belief system. Seeing as how you are such an optimist, what is your opinion of this?
RR: Again, every belief is there because people have faith in it…. And yes, people can have faith in anything or anybody. Monsters like Hitler and Stalin could only do their destructive work because millions of people believed them. And millions of people truly believe in science as a new religion that will redeem them and society of all evils, but capitalism is also a faith…. What all these belief systems have in common is that they demand that the believers give up their own freedom and critical thinking. Worse yet, these belief systems do not demand that we change our lives, instead they promise us a kind of ‘feel-good’ concerning the way we are. If a belief doesn’t make us more free and help us to achieve the dignity of life, it is nothing but a form of idolatry.
RMS: He also reflected on the need to redefine freedom. Can that be possible when nowadays, neuroscience is almost denying it?
RR: There are indeed neuroscientists who are hardcore materialists and who reduce “freedom” to what happens in our brain. They deny freedom –and with it morality, consciousness; in short, the dignity of man. Which, according to my definition, turns this neuroscience into an ideology and idolatry.
RMS: How can we change the world, when the commercial world is demanding one thing from us, and the world of ideas, something completely different? I guess what I’m referring to is the complete trivialization of the world and its materialism. This has kept us from reflecting on ideas and humanism in the 21st century.
RR: We are free to choose! In a free society, there is no rule that we have to comply with the demands of the commercial world. We don’t have to buy or watch their stuff. We can choose to make our lives meaningful. We can. But too many people do not. Why? Because it would mean choosing what is difficult, accepting responsibility for your own life. Quite often, it is a choice for a life in solitude, for the acceptance of the tragic sense, for self-cultivation, and to try to make spiritual values your own. That is the opposite of the easy life, and it is a life that, especially for young people, is very difficult due to the collapse of our education and cultural infrastructure (the bookshops are gone, for example); and with social pressure to be the same as everybody, it is very, very hard to mature as a free person of character. Yet it remains possible, and the reward of being a free man or woman and having the presence of meaning in your life is endlessly more rewarding than the cultivation of commercial nothingness.
RMS: At one point during the symposium, you posed the question to your panel: “What do you see as scandalous in contemporary society?” And I wondered, what is scandalous to you?
RR: There are many scandals, but the greatest scandal in rich Western society is the destruction of education and culture by the ruling class: the organized stupidity. And of course, that is in the interest of the ruling class, as which products would still be bought, which programs still watched on television, which politicians would still be elected if people were just a little bit more wise?
RMS: You once told me: “We have given up the notion that there are universal values. These are all complex things, and they have political consequences.” Was this round of conferences intended to recover those universal values?
RR: With the Nexus Instituut (and a Nexus Academy and Nexus Bookshop to come) I want to create a space where the tradition of European humanism is kept alive and transmitted to anybody who realizes that without universal spiritual values and the great cultural legacy that makes us aware of these values, there cannot be a civilized society in which everybody has the possibility to live his life in truth, to do justice, and to create beauty. And as long as I have the energy and the means to continue this work, I’ll do it as my modest contribution to “changing the world”. As I just mentioned, alongside the continuation of the public activities of the Nexus Instituut and the publication of my essay series in our journal, Nexus, I am working to create a Nexus Academy to educate international students in liberal arts and to have a Nexus Booskhop where “the best that has been thought and written” will be available. And yes, after publishing Nobility of Spirit, I am working on a new book as well.
Rose Mary Salum is the founder and director of Literal, Latin American Voices. She´s the author of Delta de las arenas, cuentos árabes, cuentos judíos (Literal Publishing, 2013) among other titles.