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Opening Speech by Ágnes Heller

The Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller was meant to give the opening speech at the European Forum Alpbach 2019. Unfortunately, Professor Heller died on  July 19, 2019 at Lake Balaton. Two days before her sudden death she sent the text of her speech to her close friend, the philosopher Josef Mitterer. Professor Mitterer kindly agreed to give Heller’s speech in her memory at the opening ceremony.

Freedom and Security

“Let me start with the model case: the book Exodus from the Bible. The people of Israel escaped Egypt, where they were kept as slaves. They became liberated from slavery without having to fight for liberty – they received liberty as a present.  While wandering in the desert they lost their security of the slaves. Angered by insecurity of life in the desert they yearned for the fleshpots of Egypt, back to the security of slavery. Then they received a constitution as a divine gift in the form of ten commandments. After their liberation from slavery they also received the opportunity to become free. Only free people deserve a fundamental law, the sole guarantee of political equality, as the condition of the constitution of liberties, the care of security included.
And how have they used the opportunity to act as free people? They worshiped the golden calf.

This symbolical model story was repeated many times in history. For the last time in the recent history of a few Eastern-European countries — as in my country, Hungary, where people received freedom as a birthday present and failed to keep it. Among other reasons also because they were used to the security of slavery and worshiped the golden calf.

The Biblical story was constantly repeated in human histories, but it had mostly only an episodic significance, since the types of available political institutions were limited for more than two thousand years: finally, all nations were ruled by a king or by a few aristocratic families.  As Aristotle described the real situation: Some men are born free, others are born slaves. The place where you are born will determine the place you will occupy in the social hierarchy until your death, and so will your sons and so will your daughters.

In modernity this story of episodic, of marginal significance moved into the centre. Because the modern state of the world is essentially different from all previous states of the world. This difference became voiced by philosophers of the enlightenment and became the established law (lex lata) in the first republican constitution in the foundational statement: “All men are equally born free.” But already Jean Jacques Rousseau  added to this sentence: “All men are born free – and they are everywhere in chains”, thus making clear the philosophical differentiation between transcendental and empirical statements. Albeit not just the transcendental statement is based on universalism, so is also the empirical statement. Both speak of “all” and of “everywhere”.

The fundamental idea of the modern world was thus formulated: Slavery exists, yet it contradicts the norm. The norm is “natural”, since all men are by nature born equally free, whereas the empirical reality (namely that they are in chains) is “unnatural”.

Thus modernity is founded on freedom. Yet, if we just continue with Rousseau “and everywhere they are in chains” we have to conclude that although modernity is based on freedom, freedom is a foundation that does not found…

Let me briefly explain. When Aristotle said: “Some men are born free, others are born slaves” – there was no difference between the content of the normative and the empirical statement. In fact, some people were born de facto free and others were de facto born as slaves, — and this was natural. It was perhaps different in the legendary first (golden) age, yet this was lost forever.

Philosophers declare only in modernity that we are all born equally free — and, as a result, are also endowed with equal rights. The American Declaration of Independence from 1776 enumerates them: right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Or the rights listed in the French Declaration of the rights of Man and of the Citizen from 1789. More than 250 years have elapsed since, yet we can still repeat with Rousseau: all humans are born equally free, yet they are (almost) everywhere in chains.

Yet, after Rousseau, after the French revolution, the social structure within and between the different regions, states, societies, slowly but finally changed. Albeit the thesis that the modern world is based on freedom, remains valid, it has turned out – what could have been surmised in principle from the beginning – that freedom is a foundation that does not found – since freedom is incapable to found. For a very simple reason: if humans are free, they are also free to choose unfreedom. If they could not freely choose also unfreedom, they were not really free. This sounds like a philosophical game or joke, but it is not, since it has serious theoretical and practical consequences for the present and the future world.

What is modernity?
How was its story told?
The first story of modernity was centering around the conflict between the old and the new. The venerable old lost its shine and authority while the new shone in the light of beauty and truth. The second story was told from the French Revolution onward up till the 19th century. This was the so called “grand narrative” of universal progress from Oriental culture via Greece and Rome until the European present, (the end result, the goal, the consummation of world history). This “grand narrative” can be told also upside down as the story of decadence or decay. One tells the story backwards from the present, — modernity is the present.

What is then: modernity?
Modernity is based on freedom. But this statement remains empty unless one begins to unpack the structure of the modern social arrangement. What are the fundamental constituents of modernity, necessary for its survival? What are the ”logics” of modernity?
I think that there are three fundamental logics of modernity (there are also non-fundamental ones I have to omit):

First:  the distribution of goods, men, services on the market, that is roughly (very roughly) capitalism.

Second: the constant development of sciences and technology that is accumulation of knowledge – both “know what” and “know how”.

Third (this is the logic presupposed already) the possibility of freely choosing political rule and institutions. The first and the second logic cannot be eliminated – without them modernity would collapse, neither can be the third. Yet, how people use the opportunity to choose their political rule and institutions is the key of all their liberties.

To the extent people constitute free institutions (like in a liberal democracy) the third logic can control the first two. As far as the market is concerned, when distribution by the market increases social inequality, political institutions can re-distribute to avoid fatal consequences.

As far as the development of science and technology is concerned, political decisions can limit technological application in case of possible dangerous consequences. Whenever the political institutions are not freely elected and re-elected, nothing can limit either the market or technology from running amok. Thus, political liberty is the condition of the security of a population.

At first universalism was formulated as an idea (“all men” meant only European or American males), but by now the norm of universalism is universally shared. The Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nation begins with the sentence “All humans were born free”, and this declaration was signed by all nations of the globe, dictatorships included. The whole world became modern not just in the normative sense but also in an empirical sense, since they share the three logics of modernity. The first two (distribution by the market, modern science and technology) develop spontaneously, but not the third one.

The third logic of modernity offers the possibility for people of a state, of an empire, of a city to choose their own political institutions, among them also forms of rule, that interfere when there is a danger that the first or the second logic of modernity are about to run amok. Market relations can run amok to the degree to produce mass poverty, mass starvation and as a consequence also mass revolt, genocide and war. The second logic (the development of science and technology) can run amok by applying technology that poisons our rivers, air, and life in general, or by producing war machines able to destroy people and nature. The security of our generation and the next depends on our political choices, it depends on the third logic. Our security and the security of the next generation depend on our freedom, more precisely on our use of our freedom.

Modernity is based on freedom, yet, I repeat: freedom is a foundation which does not found. In the most parts of the world Rousseau’s paradox is still valid: all humans are born free, yet almost everywhere they are in chains. They are free to subject themselves to dictatorships, tyrannies, totalitarian rules and also to become citizens of liberal democracies. Yet as totalitarian rules can collapse so can liberal democracies. The 20 Century offers several examples. One has always presupposed that the world will not go on as usual, that peace will not last forever, that the dark clouds on the horizon of liberal democratic states will not simply disappear unless the denizens of these states will just realize that security of a society, of the future generation depends on freedom, more precisely on the use of the possibility of freedom, on the narrative of political freedom, but also on taking responsibility for it.

Modern societies are dissatisfied societies: “Captain Forwards” is holding the steering wheel, yet not he determines the direction, but the passengers and the crew. The dissatisfaction is justified since there is no just society, and liberal democracies also bleed of many wounds. One among those wounds is insecurity. There are always people who yearn for the fleshpots of Egypt, who want the captain of the boat to steer it towards the island of Utopia. Yet, no utopias are helpful. One cannot overcome modernity, since there is nothing after and above it. One can arrive only to worse political arrangements within modern society.

No society can make people happy. No society can provide equality in general, only equal citizen’s rights as liberties and — up to a degree, never entirely — equal opportunity to develop their capacities. One will not arrive at a just society because an entirely just society does not exist and will not exist. Yet, there is a political system where contesting justice is possible for everyone.

There is no absolute freedom, neither is there absolute security – for if there were, there would be nothing worth living for. Homo sapiens will not become perfect, good, rational. But, to repeat Immanuel Kant, one can establish institutions within the framework of which even the race of devils will behave decently. Voltaire’s suggestion to cultivate our garden remains valid. Modernity is our garden, and within it the place, the continent, the state, the city where we live. The social life, the political life is dangerous and nowadays even more dangerous than it had been before. Why more dangerous? Precisely because of the empirical universality, because what happens in a remote place is no more a remote place, since there are no remote places. If something happens in one country it influences all other countries. Our responsibility has become planetary. Since the action radius of citizens does not reach very far, the planetary responsibility of citizens starts with the responsibility for the preservation of the liberties of their living space – their city or their village — or doing everything in their powers to expand them. This is how citizens can cultivate their gardens, and by cultivating their own garden they can help others to cultivate theirs.”