Reflections: Political Thoughts on Sustainable Development (A Commentary on Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs’s Coursera course: “The Age of Sustainable Development”)
Having had the opportunity to start to undertake Professor Sachs´s quite informative and extremely educational course on Sustainable Development (SD) –now going into its 6th week— I would like to briefly express some of my concerns and questions regarding SD. Of course, as I read the Discussion Forums, many point to issues regarding the many factors involved in the implementation of the policies which SD allows us to better see and hopefully, to implement, specially in those cases of “poverty trap” in which the conditions are more troubling and recurring. No one wishes to live in inhuman hardship all his/her life; extreme poverty must be eradicated via a concerted effort, and by all ethical means available. In this regard, many of the now famous “TED talks” allow us to try to imagine the hardships and thus feel the importance of connecting lovingly for serious practical improvement: for example, TED talks by: 1) Bono, 2) Jacqueline Novogratz (specially the one regarding prostitution), and my two favorite, 3) Jessica Jackley, founder of KIVA here , and 4) Bunker Roy founder of the Barefoot Movement here . Also, non-academic books such as The International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris, which tells the story of microfinancing success KIVA whose motto is tellingly “loans that change lives”, humble us and transform us in ways we could not even foresee. In brief, many are concerned, and rightly so, with practical issues. Many forum posts in this course come to mind in this regard. Let us just recall a simple one:
“Hello all peers, My name is Abdikadir Daud from Ethiopian Somali region, I’m forwarding my thanks to the course facilitator because I got extended knowledge from this course and I will transfer this skill to my communities .
Abdikadir” ( here )
Abdikadir from Ethiopia, like many of us from around the world, wants to make a difference.
However, my questions proceed from a very different area. They pertain to philosophical questions, that is to say, they deal with the core concepts, formulations and assumptions which must be put forward in the case of any given approach to the complex political and economic reality in which we live. P. Sachs himself does not tire of saying that SD is not merely a PRACTICAL path to CHANGE the world, but also –and more importantly— a THEORETICAL path to UNDERSTAND the world (Lecture 1, Week 1; and beginning of 1st Google Hangout, here ). He even goes so far as to say that it is a NORMATIVE framework which means it involves certain moral presuppositions. These convey the limits, for instance, for all business practices; not everything that is legal should be done. (see, for instance, 2nd Google Hangout: Question No. 4, “On the role of regulation of business.”) Consequently, my main concern regarding the EXCELLENT lectures we have been fortunate to partake in, is to signal –however embryonically– to some of the more puzzling philosophical underpinnings underlying the Sustainable Development Movement. This means that, according to such a critique, it becomes extremely important to undergo a rational critique of the core concepts which guide the interpretative self-understanding of SD. I believe that training in the humanities (specially, political philosophy) alone provides the impulse to see the real importance of such a critique, a political/philosophical critique. I also believe that, given this theoretical inclination, few of our fellow Coursera virtual classmates will proceed to consider the rest of this –much longer than normal– post!
Obviously –though I have lived half of my life in Colombia (which exemplifies many of the problems P. Sachs speaks of, and MORE!) and the other half in Canada (which exemplifies many of the benefits of which P. Sachs speaks of, and MORE!)— we must immediately confess that we do not possess the intellectual capacity nor the global comprehension that somebody like P. Sachs allows us to perceive in each of his engaging video-lectures for the Coursera course. We are but learners, poor in understanding. Be this as it may, nonetheless we will venture to point to what I consider to be some extremely troubling silences and/or omissions which may make us –should make us– question SD forcefully.
Now, although I have already tweeted to #susdev some general short questions, for instance: 1) “ #susdev Suppose we ALL were middle-income citizens of the world. Is that enough? Would our spirit not lose sight of what is MOST important?”, or 2) “ #susdev Isn´t there a rhetorical identification between “extreme poverty” and “poverty” which does not allow for a real critique of SD goals?”, still –as mentioned above– our concern in this post is somewhat more detailed or profound.
We could say that SD, in general —and Clinical Economics, in particular— could be giving us a “differential diagnosis” that may SEEM to point to the root cause of things, variable as they may be, but which may end up REALLY missing the CORE causes of the general “disease” with which some thinkers believe we are currently afflicted as moderns and post-moderns. And by missing some of the CORE causes, it might not be providing the best “medicine(s)” available/desirable. In the philosophical arena, the most radical critics in this regard would be those who follow Heidegger´s powerful critique of technology. Though extremely important, we shall not go into that camp here in detail.
Rather, using P. Sachs own clinical analogy, we can say that it is common nowadays to see traditional Western medicine incapable of treating complex diseases which do not have to deal with physical trauma or life-death situations. Chronic illness, such as different forms of arthritis/fibromyalgia, are a case in point. Of course, P. Sachs´s views seem to us to be much more akin to alternative medicine, in this respect. For one of the basic tenets of alternative medicine is that each patient is UNIQUE. So, each country, according to “Differential Clinical Economics” is likewise, quite UNIQUE. P. Sachs does not tire of saying that a holistic approach to the healing of poverty cannot be founded on a single linear conception of cause. Failing to understand this uniqueness may in fact worsen the situation beyond recovery. In medicine, one need only bring to mind the controversy over the drug Celebrex which not only did not actually cure your arthritis (it simply alleviated the pain), but actually –with certainty– damaged your heart! The history of many other drugs follows this pattern, unfortunately. In political life, the current political turmoil of countries such as our feverish neighbor Venezuela, may be thought to be something akin. As you will see, given the spirit of this post, one truly wonders what P. Sachs´s thoughts are on the current crisis in Venezuela, precisely because its regime claims to hold power for the poor. However that may be, P. Sachs —who also helped Bolivia during its feverish times— summarizes this view well:
“The modern doctor is expected to diagnose the specific causes of a specific patient’s illness and to offer a specific prescription that is accurately honed to that patient’s conditions and needs. The modern economist should do the same in diagnosing the persistence of poverty.” (our emphasis; Chapter 4: “Why Some Countries Developed While Others Stayed Poor, I. The Idea of Clinical Economics”)
Thus, one imagines that if P. Sachs himself were to fall ill, he would most likely search for an alternative medicine center rather than a traditional monolithic hospital built on unquestioned homogeneous forms of understanding, (or better yet, both if possible, for not all traditional doctors are self-enclosed and not all alternative doctors are truly open). The drama of the latest candidate for the Oscar Awards which deals with HIV/Aids –the compelling movie, Dallas Buyers Club—exemplifies all these tensions perfectly. For we, who have been sick, know well that the sick are among the poorest, mind you.
But, as you will see below, our critique could be said to involve a much more intense and alternative diagnosis than the one which P. Sachs offers. It would be an alternative to the alternative; but much more troubling. It would be an alternative that would show –if someday made fully explicit– that the alternative provided by SD is, in the end, really, really, not so much of an alternative except in the imagination, albeit with some crucial exceptions, among them, that of the eradication of extreme poverty itself. The idealistic overtones of SD would be seen thus to be constantly destabilized by the realistic peculiarities of localities, by a kind of non-Machiavellian political realism (i.e., much closer to Thucydides´s) and by certain “intractables” of human nature. Or to be less severe and less cranky (!) —for we know, as its students, that SD has partially succeeded IN REALITY through exciting models such as those of the Millennium Villages– one could say that the goals of SD, for instance, the Eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG´S), must be corrected with recourse to another tradition which not only sets the hierarchy of these goals aright, but also may add some which may have been altogether forgotten in SD differential diagnosis, however complete it claims to be. ( here )
Wherein could one find such urgent foundational correctives? Such is the political and ethical practical philosophy of Aristotle to which we shall briefly return, and which has seen a resurgence in its importance which is, curiously, simultaneous with the critique of UN-sustainable development itself. If indeed, according to us, SD leans towards the side of idealism in the scales, in contrast Aristotle bids us balance a certain idealism with a certain kind of realism (not in the Machiavellian sense of the term). For such a philosophy, one would venture to say, the 8 Millennium goals are, to use medical terminology, 1) chronically misguided for they actually do away with the core goal, the architectonic art as Aristotle puts it, of the political itself! None of the 8 MDG´s speaks of the political as either independent or foundational. (Of course, P. Sachs in the 2nd Google Hangout does indeed point to a 10th Millennium Goal, “good governance”, which points to the initial troubling disappearance of which we are speaking! here ) Moreover, 2) these 8 MDG´s do in fact silence certain political virtues and goals without which, Aristotle believes, one cannot truly understand the world. One such example would be patriotism and the practical virtues necessary for the existence of a strong republic/polis/regime whose main purpose is primarily the well-being of ITS citizens, and only secondarily that of the whole human race. (see specially Charles Taylor´s reply “Why Democracy Needs Patriotism”, in Martha Nussbaum´s For Love of Country; see also, Pangle Thomas L. and Ahrensdorf, Peter J, Justice Among Nations: On the Moral Basis of Power and Peace.)
As regards specific political virtues one could take as example the political virtue of courage in warfare as a defense of one´s nation/polis, in contrast to the UN Millennium goal of “Universal Peace” à la Kant. (United Nations Millennium Declaration, Section II. Peace, security and disarmament). For, as good students of recent history, one surely must never, ever, forget the terrifying ineptitude and incompetence of the UN in countries such as Rwanda during the horrifying massacres of 1994. The victims, our Canadian General Roméo Antonius Dallaire, and the Belgian Blue Helmets horrendously assassinated, will always remind us of the dangers of empty universal UN rhetorical hype in the light of the real slaughter of a defenseless citizenry. The intended cure was no cure, but actually the worst of deaths. Paralyzed by idealism, the worst of realism moved unstoppable via rivers of fraternal blood. (See “Chapter 8: Rwanda“ in Bob Harris´s book to see how Rwanda has supposedly “coped” with this atrocious history. This reading will cause the reader even more profound puzzles.)
Of course, we could be VERY wrong. But even then, SD would have to meet the challenge of much more radical positions than our own, such as that defended by Heidegger (and Nietzsche) and their followers. For them, 1) not only is there no way that technology can take us out of the mess we are in for it IS the precondition for the presence of the mess itself (See Heidegger´s “The Age of the World Picture”; “The Question Concerning Technology”; a position for which the understanding of permaculture as a sustainable form of agriculture might be an answer, in contrast the notion of any Green Revolution such as the one India or Mexico underwent); moreover, 2) the goals of universal democracy and human rights as the NORMATIVE vehicle for the implementation of the PRACTICAL goals of SD can in the end —according to these critical traditions— be quite demeaning. Thus, on the one hand we find the unquestioned and almost unquestionable democratic goals defended in the United Nations Millennium Declaration:
“We will spare no effort to promote democracy and strengthen the rule of law, as well as respect for all internationally recognized human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right to development..” ( Section V. Human rights, democracy and good governance, 24; see also 2nd Google Hangout on the final Question regarding “Justice and democracy”.)
and on the other, Nietzsche´s very well-known idea behind the less than admirable democratically inspired “last man”. Or, seen from a less extreme position, just in case some of our readers are horrified by Nietzsche, such is de Tocqueville´s extremely troubling and very well-known idea of “the tyranny of the majority” in modern democracies. In other words, these profound thinkers lead US to ask as they did: what if in leveling ourselves economically and politically, we were simultaneously leveling ourselves spiritually? Would be willing to sacrifice the, not always guaranteed attainment of the highest human goals (the moral, the intellectual virtues, and eudaimonia as in the virtue-oriented ancient philosophy of Aristotle), for the assured acquisition of the lowest ones (security, property and commercial prosperity as in the modern rights-oriented philosophies of Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu)? To repeat what we tweeted: “ #susdev Suppose we ALL were middle-income citizens of the world. Is that enough? Would our spirit not lose sight of what is MOST important?” For us, following Aristotelian thought, the answer is unequivocally yes, we do indeed lose sight of the best in us, or at least, some of us. In this respect, the eradication of extreme poverty, can only be a reality through the simultaneous ennobling of our souls. (see Thomas Pangle´s, The Ennobling of Democracy: The Challenge of the Postmodern Age). An exemplar in this regard might be seen to be Socrates himself, model for all classical political/philosophical thought. (see: Xenophon, Memorabilia, I,6: also tweeted to #susdev )
But, ours might still be confused with another kind of critique. Some people in the discussion forums point to something like this when we hear P. Sachs´s excitement regarding Keynes (see, for example, his words on Keynes´s, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.”, in CHAPTER 5: ENDING EXTREME POVERTY, I. The Reasons to Believe that Extreme Poverty Can Be Ended. p. 3), or Adam Smith’s ecstatic words on the coming of the transformational age of capital. These critics take P. Sachs simply to be a cheerleader of progress. One example is the post entitled: “This course is dishonest.” ( here ) However, they are mistaken. Obviously we understand that P. Sachs is merely allowing us to try to escape our current critical situation in order to experience what was once the dawn of an age like never before. Or at least we hope these are P. Sachs intentions, for the concept of progress in itself has suffered a radical critique from many camps, specially during the 20th century. And our doubts a re-confirmed when we hear P. Sachs speak of the Colonization of Africa in a tone which could not be farthest from any sense of the ecstatic. (though, even here, we might disagree considerably about the diagnosis itself; for instance, given P. Sachs´s OWN maps, it would seem that those countries colonized by Great Britain were rather fortunate in many respects with regards to the railroad infrastructure kept in place after independence, Chapter 4, Figure 4.17. Africa’s Railroads (today) & India’s Railroads (1947); also see his comments in the hangout on the dilemmas of ports in the midst of climate change, minute 14:00) P. Sachs is no cheerleader of progress for, as he teaches us, progress has become unsustainable.
So, this initial possible critique is not what we are aiming at when we try to understand some of the possible limits of SD. But then, once again, if not these, what could merit our being so concerned? For, wouldn’t we all agree that a more just world, a more just economically-speaking world, would be better? How could anyone not perceive the value of SD given our crisis in the different areas of our existence, specially those of climate change?
Now, let us go back to the analogy of Differential Diagnosis in economics and in medicine. We ought to recall the words of the Hippocratic oath: “First, DO NO HARM”. Consequently, we need ask what would seem to most of our classmates utterly incomprehensible, not to say ridiculous: what if SD were capable of doing more damage than good in the long run? Could SD even fathom this possibility? But if it couldn’t, then how exactly could it be transparently self-critical to itself? For instance, don´t we find something altogether odd in the rhetorical identification between “extreme poverty” and “poverty” into which P. Sachs sometimes falls, we believe, inadvertently? Wouldn´t such identification, given that one would truly have to be inhuman not to fight “extreme poverty”, lead us to believe that the way one confronts “actual poverty” is identical? Does this not lead to a dangerous, politically speaking, “idealization” of the poor? Would demagogues not truly use this idealistic position to their benefit thus destabilizing the conditions for true stability in certain countries? Closer to home, might not this be a way of understanding what for us are dangerous political movements such as Chavismo and his legacy (Maduro)? Or put yet another way, what if the hierarchical ordering of SD´s analysis were somehow faulty in a dangerous kind of way? What if, under another tradition, placing the economic, the social, the geographical, the political (and others), at the SAME level, were a symptom of a general disease which begins precisely with a radical transformation of the political that goes hand in hand with 1) the arrival both of technology AND 2) the appearance of rights (specially property-rights)? Isn´t this the course we moderns have undertaken after the downfall of Aristotelianism at the hands of, precisely, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu? Wouldn’t then SD be caught in the very same web, unable to free itself from the origins/sources of its own presuppositions? And more worrying still, wouldn´t it be as blind, as Oedipus turned out to be, about itself? Wouldn´t we then need to search for the sources of these interconnections and more fundamentally investigate whether such a package had come into existence by silencing other models –the Aristotelian, in particular– which had remained generally unquestioned for centuries as a superior way of truly understanding the whole? For one does not need to be a philosopher to know that Aristotle —known for centuries as THE Philosopher— is famous for saying, though this is not the end of the story, that the human is “by nature political”, that humans are the POLITICAL animals; and not merely the sum of being ECONOMIC and SOCIAL and GEOGRAPHICAL and BODILY and, oh yes by the way, political animals. And, all the more telling for some of us, in contrast to Aristotle´s lifelong dedication to philosophy as the summit of all understanding, we find not even the faintest mention of this kind of life, the philosophical life, within the framework of SD itself! Little wonder that in SD we may come to be moved much more towards the practical side of things, towards their implementation, and much less so towards the theoretical questioning of the core. Now, we believe strongly, that that is a “poverty trap” if there ever was one! For sometimes the traps of the mind may be much more dangerous than those of the body.
But wait, let us stop. Wouldn´t everything we have said be seen as quite odd if SD actually believes itself to be the single most REALISTIC approach to the understanding of the complexities of our modern economic predicaments? True. And, aren´t the Millennium Villages in Africa a sign of REAL, not merely imaginary, success? True. However, let us look at a specific political case in order to gain some clarity. Which one? That of a typical question which one hears repeated in different scenarios, —and which appeared dramatically in the first hangout— namely, “how can SD convince political governments/regimes of the importance of taking it seriously?.” At 19:30 in Google Hangout “Número Uno”, P. Sachs proceeded to “answer” this question by emphasizing how political leaders are truly not leaders in any real sense of the word as they do not focus on the important, but are swayed in different directions because of powerful interests. In OUR less polite words, and do forgive us, we could sum up the idea by saying: “these politicians seem quite dumb, to tell you the truth! Here they are destroying the planet and they just don´t get it! (specially these annoying neocons!)” Thus, P. Sachs concludes, among other things, that it is up to civil society and NGO´s to actually lead the change. Why so? Because the dilemmas of our world explode the boundaries of the nation-state and their blind/deaf/irresponsible leaders. Chernobyl did not just happen in Chernobyl. Pollution does not need a passport to cross the border, though I have seen printed maps where apparently there exists a magical barrier which does not allow pollution (or nuclear fallout!) to pass from one country to another! We are led to conclude: If only these leaders took the Coursera course on SD! Everything would be different then!
And herein lies our fundamental critique aimed at providing SD with tools both for UNDERSTANDING its own position, as well as for overcoming the PRACTICAL dilemmas which it faces. A true understanding of the political sphere, following specially the classical understanding of political thought and action, could never accept such a characterization of the political arena. Such a characterization can only be external to it, or it can only be the result of a modern perception of what the political is all about. More of this below, although I have written about this elsewhere, regarding the political life of Abraham Lincoln. ( here )
Now, which specific current practical example could one point to in order to make things a little bit clearer? For we must confess, the framework from within which these questions arise is so utterly ALIEN to our minds, that trying to put forward the ideas themselves is not a simple task! I mean: “the philosophical life, the summit of existence”. “Sure!” Now, P. Sachs chooses the example of Chernobyl in the First Hangout. This, in and of itself, is striking for in the Hangout debate, in a totally un-Aristotelian fashion –-that is to say, not taking seriously the all-encompassing power of a given political regime and its “flesh and bone” leaders— he does not immediately add that this specific case is the result of the dangers of a particular kind of NOXIOUS political regime, namely, Communism. In brief, the noxious nature of the Berlin Wall has fallen, gladly, for good. Of course, a “kind of Chernobyl” did happen later in Japan, but the lack of general desire for cover up in Western democracies –though they did try!– just won´t allow for the silences of communist regimes. Put bluntly, I´d rather a nuclear plant in Canada than one in Russia (even today). Moreover, our Western democracies, fortunately, will not allow Mao´s or Stalins “solutions” (!) to the problem of poverty. Anyone who does not know of the fatal consequences of these tyrants upon millions of their citizens –even when compared to economic tragedies as those of The Great Depression— will gladly also accept that the political is not truly the foundational art. Demagogic tyrants do love a confused citizenry. (Even in his latest article on Russia, reprinted in Colombia´s El Tiempo newspaper, P. Sachs makes us wonder about his general regard for Putin´s regime, and for us living in Latin America, his desire to have a weapons market at his disposal in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and who knows where else! here )
However, we´d rather choose another example, one from our own Western Democracies, namely, the issue of carbon taxes, that is, in general, carbon taxation of business by government. And we are not alone, similar questions were addressed in the 2nd Google Hangout, specially “Question 1” regarding regulation of business and the role of politics, and “Question 4” on the ethics/legality of practices that destroy the environment for future generations. Now, I will proceed to be somewhat unfair and point to two examples of how such a Carbon Tax, though obviously defensible for SD defenders, has ACTUALLY brought down two political programs who desired to IMPLEMENT said change by winning political power in specific countries with specific citizens: 1) the political program of the Liberal Party in Canada (led by Stéphane Dion and later Harvard Professor Ignatieff only to suffer the WORST defeat in its history (!) at the hands of the less carbon-tax friendly minority government of Prime Minister Harper), and 2) the debacle of the Labor Party Prime Minister of Australia by the new Prime Minister Tony Abbott who in great measure won precisely because he promised to scrap said carbon tax. It was of such importance that he introduced a repeal bill at the first meeting of the new parliament. ( here ) Not to mention, of course, that the greatest polluters, the USA and China do not even have a carbon tax in place. Furthermore, what is worse yet, and even more troubling still, the presence of a shift in perception over the very REALITY of climate change —with which we OBVIOUSLY do not agree as we are SD students!— but which is described poignantly in the Frontline PBS documentary entitled “Climate of Doubt”: ( here ) . (Not to mention a third example that is the stunning failure by the Green Party in Colombia to secure the Presidency in 2008 with quite renowned Ex-Bogotá Mayor Antanas Mockus, so renowned in fact that he had the political backing of none other than Jürgen Habermas himself!)
Now, for the benefit of SD, for the real empowering of SD beyond the goal of eradicating extreme poverty, we need ask; could it be simply that all these leaders are somehow, forgive us for our not being so polite as P. Sachs, really so “dumb”? Or is it that they are simply blinded by power and the desire for material success? Bluntly, is House of Cards —the Netflix series— all there is to political life? Is it all about eros gone array and the physical delights of the race involved in grasping for power (and then some more) over our kin? Are all leaders really “Underwoods in disguise”, only just speaking other languages and using other robes? But if so, why does not the citizenry elect much better leaders who do in fact favor SD over these blind, even cynical, political programs? In contrast, does SD not have much to gain from an understanding, explicitly outlined by Aristotle and his predecessors (Plato) on the role of rhetoric in politics? For, in the political arena, must not SD become CONVINCING to most citizens, if it claims to be all for democracy both in its representative and, more so, its directly participatory forms? I mean, what´s up with these Australians and these Canadians, don’t they get it? Don´t all the statistics (for instance, PISA results) show they are way high in educational results in comparison to the poorest of the poor? What exactly are they learning, wouldn´t Bunker Roy –founder of the barefoot movement/university– ask? Why cant they just get off their gas-guzzling, environment-damaging cars? Why can´t their teenagers get over the excitement of getting a driver´s license? Why can´t they actually use another piece of ID less troubling than the driver´s license itself? Why can´t they just go at it like the good Scandinavians have? Or, closer to home, isn’t even the youngest of Kogi children —those world-famous white-clothed natives who live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta where I live— much smarter in many regards? For haven´t they taught many a Westerner about their love of the planet; its rocks, its trees, its mountains, its rivers and its beaches? Or, why not follow some of Bogota´s, now, unfortunately, much reduced and less effective programs for car reduction (pico y placa) and the recovery of the dignity of the bicycle —world famous mayor Peñalosa´s wonderful ciclovía— public programs which are now ironically hampered by a leftist political discourse supposedly for the poor!)?
Or, perhaps, it is SD which, given its presuppositions, cannot in fact gain the political approval of the specific governments and specific citizens of specific countries and regimes precisely because it does not involve itself, as we claim, with an understanding of the political understood on its own, i.e., understanding it as ACTUALLY setting up the hierarchy of goods within a specific nation/polis? Put yet another way, isn´t this why the majority of the documents we read for the course have the backing of TRANSNATIONAL institutions such as the United Nations, and much less so, the backing of real concrete political regimes governing real and concrete citizens? (Though of course, P. Sachs´s The End of Poverty is filled with concrete historical examples of Bolivia, Poland, China, India …)
But to be fair, P. Sachs´s DOES in fact speak of the political, renaming it in an odd kind of way as “good governance”; as if there were not many prior traditions which simply called it “the political”! As he puts it:
“Governance is so important because the role of government in economic development is absolutely crucial. The government is vital for building the infrastructure – the roads, rail, power transmission, port services, connectivity, water, sewerage, and the rest – that is necessary for any economy to develop. Government is essential for human capital development: the health, education, and nutrition of the population, especially of the children.” (Coursebook, “The Role of Politics”, Chapter 4, page 21; by the way only an economist would understand what “human capital” actually means!)
Finally, delighted we shout, “we have found P. Sachs´s ‘politically-correct’ Aristotelian origins!” Nonetheless, our spontaneous joy soon fades; for, if you read closely, the very wording clearly shows how “good governance” (or “bad governance”, one presumes) is critical BECAUSE of its economic connections (“for building”, “for human capital”…). Now, to be fair, any economist knows that it was Aristotle who first attempted a serious reflection on economics in his Politics (not to mention Xenophon’s amazing Economics which in fact deals with farming!). And most know, likewise, that Aristotle himself lived in the most commercially rich city of Greek Antiquity, namely Athens, with its intensely commercial port, the Piraeus. Even today few cities can boast an Acropolis! So indeed Aristotle had in inkling for the commercial life. But P. Sachs´s view on governance is so utterly slanted towards the economic side of things, that it seems to go not only contrary to SD´s own principles of non-reduction, but more importantly, contrary to Aristotle´s analysis that argues, though this is not the whole story, that the political IS the SOLE architectonic art par excellence in the practical sphere. For Aristotle, not all concepts are, or could ever be, on the same level. For Aristotle, it is citizens as part of a specific regime, under a very different understanding of the role of theory, who generate the change they need; not —as P. Sachs would have us believe— a “civil society” which stands apart and mostly against the “bureaucratic state”, or NGOs whose very name implies that government –its elected representatives and the citizens who did in fact elect them on the streets– is somewhat fundamentally misguided, quick to be corrupt and ineffective. P. Sachs wishes “good governance”; Aristotle teaches the best regime. Consequently, for SD the following appears to be the case. Want to make real change? Become like Bono, a very rich musician with (hopefully!) an altruistic vision beyond your music (or a Shakira, who recently mocked disparagingly a local politician who referred to her videos!); not a political representative of your community fighting to understand the incomparable importance of political virtues. Want to make real change? Provide distant loans through UN aid programs, through KIVA, or other profoundly transformative NGO´s; not so much through the tough work of travelling yourself in developing countries to get the real picture from THEIR perspective (or even trying to get double citizenship from a developing country). Want to make real change? Prepare yourself to be an actuator of solutions; not a mere theoretician of puzzles. And the faster, the better.
To conclude this altogether abnormal and almost unsustainable “post”, I will proceed to point to a conversation I had in the Coursera forums, a conversation in Spanish in a Spanish-speaking thread. Having written a very brief, even clumsy, summary of the previous ideas, a classmate Julio Novillo Novillo was kind enough to respond. ( here ) In general, and summarizing shamelessly, he proceeded to argue in favor of universal human rights, NGO activity, an active civil society, and transparency as the necessary preconditions for the kind of “good governance” which would allow the goals of SD to take shape in any country. Having thought about it more than twice, I decided to reply, knowing of the perils of engaging in a theoretical discussion under the pressures of practical achievements. This is my reply in Spanish. I have decided to keep it in Spanish, though I am an official translator in both a very developed country and a not so developed country, precisely because we need a real concern for the real political dynamics found in developing countries seen from within their boundaries. Close to home, one is tired of hearing the “Scandinavian” summaries about what Colombia is all about, for instance: “Paramilitaries govern poor Colombia (!)” This, more than anything else, involves —for those who are lucky to inhabit the “high-income” countries— learning the languages of those countries so that the conversation becomes altogether sustainable. This is what I wrote Julio:
“He leído con interés tus palabras, pero debo indicar que el paradigma dentro del cuál ellas se mueven es precisamente el que intenta cuestionar mi primera intervención. Es decir, aunque considero que la modernidad ha ido precisamente en el camino que tú indicas, 1) por un lado, forjando una visión de lo político basada en los derechos humanos, y 2) por otra parte, interesada en la aplicación de ciertas políticas universalmente válidas para todos (e.g., erradicación de la pobreza) siguiendo ciertos lineamientos teóricos compartidos, sin embargo las tradiciones políticas y filosóficas a las que yo hacía alusión (e.g. Aristóteles), irónicamente desarrollan toda una postura política que ha trascendido los siglos sin siquiera hacer mención de dichos elementos. No sólo no hacen mención de los derechos humanos, sino que ven la relación entre la teoría y la práctica de una manera radicalmente diferente, por no decir opuesta. El libro La Utopía de Santo Tomás Moro es la última expresión de esta gran diferencia. Allí Santo Tomás revela los límites de toda relación entre la práctica y la teoría de manera impactante.
En este sentido pensadores como Aristóteles permiten cuestionar nuestro paradigma moderno, al cual estamos acostumbrados ya; tan acostumbrados que pensaríamos que no ha habido, ni habría campo para opciones radicalmente diferentes y hasta superiores a las de los derechos humanos. Por ejemplo, es un hecho indiscutible que uno de los logros de la modernidad es la afirmación de los derechos humanos tal y como aparece inscrito en muchas de nuestras constituciones. Sin embargo para abrir el camino de los derechos humanos pensadores como Montesquieu, Hobbes y Locke tuvieron que enfrentar un paradigma político, el aristotélico en particular. Y sin duda alguna triunfaron, pero dicho triunfo ha sido cuestionado en el último siglo de manera marcada pues su consolidación generó pérdidas que hasta ahora comenzamos a entender. Un ejemplo de este debate, que para nosotros ya es ajeno, es el debate que hubo enter Federalistas y Anti-federalistas en los Estados Unidos antes de la ratificación de la Constitutición posterior a la independencia. Desafortunadamente las razones de este enfrentamiento y las posibles pérdidas incurridas en dicho enfrentamiento cada vez se alejan más de nuestras perspectivas de tal manera que lo que tomamos hoy como dado permanece incuestionado y carente de origen. Sin duda en el caso de los derechos humanos resulta de altísima importancia el hecho de que surgen con una concepción política del contrato social que para los griegos era inconcebible como fundamento político de sociedad alguna. Para ni siquiera mencionar el rol del concepto de felicidad correspondientes.
Pero además, y relacionando esto al segundo punto mencionado, el rol de la teoría para esos pensadores antiguos y medievales era radicalmente opuesta a la nuestra hoy en día. Antes que intentar actualizar un proyecto social dado en la práctica, siguiendo ciertos lineamientos políticos generados en gran medida por intelectuales, para ellos el rol de la teoría era sobretodo mostrar los límites inherentes al ámbito político, por no decir al ámbito humano. En este sentido todos conocemos el mito de la caverna de Platón. Pero más allá de este famoso ejemplo, el hecho es que ellos, antes que creer que el objeto de la teoría era su instauración en el mundo real, consideraban que la teoría en su máxima expresión tenía que mostrar los dilemas inherentes a todo proyecto que cree que la teoría y la práctica coexisten o pueden existir sin problema alguno. He desarrollado más estas ideas aquí, here , por si acaso es de tu interés.
Claro, el modelo de Desarrollo Sostenible defendido por el Profesor Sachs sin duda alguna él mismo arranca de un cuestionamiento crítico de muchos de los aspectos más débiles propuestos por Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu y Adam Smith. Sin embargo es de mi interés particular argumentar que el modelo de Desarrollo Sostenible aún se encuentra atado a unas perspectivas modernas que desconoce y que podrían mostrar peligros inherentes a su actualización. Pensadores han hablado de la “joyless joy” de nuestro tiempos; y mientras el modelo de Desarrollo Sostenible no cuestione radicalmente sus presuposiciones nos puede estar indicando un camino que parece incuestionablemente positivo pero cuya base puede no estar del todo fuertemente anclada. A eso me refería en mi anterior intervención al decir que los objetivos modernos de seguridad y de prosperidad como fin pueden terminar por derrumbar fines más nobles y altos como son los de la real dignidad ética y teórica. En pocas palabras, si el fin de eliminar la pobreza nos deja en últimas pobres de espíritu como raza o como nación, pues dicho fin ha de ser cuestionado drásticamente.
2) The religious question: Finalmente debo indicar que mi posición involucraba un cuestionar el por qué el modelo de Desarrollo Sostenible del profesor Sachs parece poder dejar de lado un tema central no sólo para el ámbito humano, sino sobretodo para el ámbito de los países en vía de desarrollo. Independientemente de que tú o yo seamos creyentes o no, la pregunta es muy importante. Pero sobretodo lo extraordinariamente paradójico es que la pregunta precisamente parece bastante irrelevante porque el modelo moderno de Hobbes, Locke y Montesquieu triunfó y logró que esa pregunta pasara a un segundo plano. No fue un trabajo fácil com lo revela Montesquieu en su El Espíritu de las Leyes. En cambio, bajo los modelos de comprensión anteriores –sobretodo aristotélicos— el hacer esta pregunta a un lado es precisamente arrancar por un camino que en últimas nunca podrá entender el ámbito de lo político y sus límites. Por ello en mi intervención anterior indicaba que no dejaba de sorprenderme el que el Profesor Sachs pudiera dejar de lado dicho ámbito de manera tan incuestionada.
Para terminar citaré a al-Farabi, –filósofo medieval conocido como el ¨segundo maestro¨(el primero obviamente siendo Aristóteles)—quien escribe en uno de los capítulos de su libro sobre Platón y Aristóteles titulado “La consecución de la felicidad” (contrastar con el derecho a “la búsqueda de la felicidad” de la Constitución de los Estados Unidos.)
“There are two primary methods of realizing them: instruction and the formation of character. To instruct is to introduce the theoretical virtues in nations and cities. The formation of character is the method of introducing the moral virtues and the practical arts in nations.” (al-Farabi, The Attainment of Happiness, III)
Es obvio que lo que entiende al-Farabi por Virtudes Teóricas nada tiene que ver con la manera que concebimos nosotros la teoría (piénsese en el rol de ¨nous¨), y es obvio que la formación del carácter –que era el fin FUNDAMENTAL de la filosofía clásica a través de la educación liberal (La Ética Nicomáquea de Aristóteles)— ha sido debilitado precisamente por la defensa de los derechos humanos que al darse como dados no nos invitan a comprender sus límites y sus peligros. Un ejemplo claro de estos dilemas es el cómo todos los gobiernos mundiales que han defendido “carbon taxes”, o no han conseguido el poder (Partido Liberal de Canadá), o han salido del poder como en Australia.
Para concluir, si en verdad la importantísima opción del Desarrollo Sostenible ha de ser integral, debe comprender que para su surgimiento se derrocaron modos de pensar que una vez reinaron y que tal vez tengan mucho que enseñarnos acerca de los límites inherentes a toda propuesta política y teórica.” ( here )
Hopefully as the course progresses, and we come to learn more from a way of understanding of which we know only little, we will be shown how UNSUSTAINABLE most of our previous remarks have been! But even then, we would like to cling to P. Sachs´s own words found elsewhere. Once he wrote about himself:
“My work was theoretical and statistical, rather than immediately practical. At the time, I thought that I knew just about everything that needed to be known about the subject. As a young faculty member, I lectured widely to high acclaim, published broadly, and was on a rapid academic climb to tenure, which I received in 1983 when I was twenty-eight.
And then my life changed.” (our emphasis; The End of Poverty, Chapter Five Bolivia’s High-Altitude Hyperinflation)
Hopefully our life will change as well, and for the better, given this Socratic impulse, “I only know that I know nothing”. Hopefully, most of us —if surely not all of us— will have developed sustainably by, first and foremost, becoming better thinkers.