25 Years At IWM

International Solidarity: A Meeting of Top Minds

Urban Sociologist Saskia Sassen of Columbia University spoke at IWM 25th Anniversary | Photo: Johannes Novohradsky

From left to right: Shlomo Avineri, Ira Katznelson, John Gray discuss political challenges | Photo: J. Novohradsky

It was an impressive gathering even by the standards of a city that is used to hosting global congresses of all sorts. The participant list of the 25 Anniversary Conference of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna included academics and politicians, lawmakers and social scientists from East and West, from the First and the Third World. Heinz Fischer spoke and Joschka Fischer discussed, veterans of the battles to tear down the Iron Curtain showed up and young researchers cross-examined them.

It was the biggest thing happening by far on the weekend of Nov. 9 through 11 in Vienna.

Not bad for something that started as a pipedream in a small apartment in Vienna’s ninth district in the early 80s: The provisional idea, concocted by the young Polish philosopher Krzysztof Michalski and some Austrian friends, was to start building bridges between (dissident) intellectuals in the Eastern bloc countries and their interested counterparts in the West.

Only a few were interested at the time. On the other hand, as experts on Austria know, provisional things here have a tendency to become permanent. Michalski, for one thing, stayed, became a resident if Vienna, founded the Institute (known as the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, or IWM) and expanded it into a hothouse of East-West debates.

Also, time and history were on the side of the IWM. It soon exceeded its original scope. The new Europe, the new CEE in particular, and with it many new conflicts became ever more important topics for discussion and action. The conference in November was an occasion to stop, look back – and possibly look forward to what to do next. From the start it was obvious that the Institute intended its celebration to focus not so much on its Central European roots but on its global (“human”) focus.

Thus the opening panel took on Solidarity and Markets whose inherent opposition, as moderator Yale historian Ute Freverts pointed out, cuts to today’s core tensions. This got things off to a lively start, as Polish free-market economist Lescek Balcerowicz took a broad swipe at the conference theme: Real cooperation is voluntary, he suggested.

“It is a misuse of the word to say that a society based on coercion – i.e. taxation – reflects solidarity,” said Balcerowicz dismissively, setting off a stir around the room. “If you want a communitarian life, you should go back to the tribes, or to a Kibbutz!”

Urban Sociologist Saskia Sassen of Columbia University spoke at IWM 25th Anniversary | Photo: Johannes Novohradsky

However, to say what exists in Western Europe is capitalistic is a misnomer, countered Kurt Biedenkopf, former president of the German Free State of Sachsen and Director of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin; it is a social market economy, if we include the jobholders as well as the shareholders.

“But today, Ludwig Erhard would be very unhappy,” he said, referring to the post war architect of the German Wirtschaftswunder. “The contract where wealth creation takes place has come apart. Before, if the economy over-valued shareholders, or disregarded jobholders, or overtaxed the economy, it would fail. This no longer works. The economy has been set free from the nation state.”

These doubts were shared by EU Commissioner Danuta Huebner, and Michael Sandel, professor of government from Harvard, who described a failure of the universalist ideal that early technologies of globalisation seemed to predict.

“With globalisation, the particular – both cultural and religious – is reasserting itself,” he said. “When the nation state can no longer provide identity, we get enlarged civic identities.” He urged “a revitalized civic life, nourished in the more particular society we inhabit – pluralist, rather than universalist.”

In the session on Saturday morning, Foreign Affairs editor-in-chief James Hoge from the U.S. chaired a discussion about solidarity and international institutions that brought high-powered European politicians and an Asian political science professor and former UN ambassador together.

The intention of the panel was not surprising – we need those institutions! – but Hoge also took the occasion to call attention to what he considers an extremely important fight within the American foreign policy establishment: between those who favor diplomatic measures for as long as possible and those who argue for more military solutions, especially in the case of Iran. (The development in the weeks following Hoge’s remarks, crystallized in the Rice vs. Cheney camps, further highlighted this analysis.)

A less predictable debate took place in the afternoon. “Conditions of Intercultural Understanding” was a title that could have opened the doors to many vague speculations about the merits and/or pitfalls of multiculturalism. But the panel stayed a concrete course. “Understanding”, as the political scientist Anton Pelinka chairing the discussion pointed out, “in this context means to be able to think across poltical and religious frontiers – like the Northern Irish women did who practiced solidarity across the protestant/catholic border.”

Religion was in fact the underyling main issue – the afternoon could have been headlined, “How does the West deal with Islam? And how does Islam deal with the West and with itself?” This was due to a large extent to the contributions of Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic studies at Oxford and president of the European Muslim Network in Brussels, who fervently argued for a more critical self-reflection in the West, maintaining that “an insistence on the superiority of occidental values is just another obstacle in the path of intercultural understanding.” Several stories of personal episodes, such as encounters with European and American bureaucracy, underlined his points.

From left to right: Shlomo Avineri, Ira Katznelson, John Gray discuss political challenges | Photo: J. Novohradsky

Next to him, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor pleaded for an approach that would almost scientifically “look for the mechanisms which lead to midunderstandings and violence.” It is not – or rather: it should not be the leaders and officials that define what religiosity is about, but the neighborhoods. A more intensive contact among spiritually oriented people was Taylor’s concluding wish.

As if to remind the audience that there is life outside the Islam/West conflict, the Indian-born historian Dipesh Chakrabarty (University of Chicago) approached the panel topic in the context of “the two scientific worlds,” i.e. the natural sciences and the humanities. It turns out, he argued, that many of the intercultural, postcolonial discussions will have to be rephrased in the framework of natural sciences. Case in point: the climate debate that is currently overshadowing the perspectives of developing giants like China and India: “We will have to reconsider what is considered legitimate technological advancement,” avoiding both blind belief in progress and prohibitive measures by the more advanced countries.

Saskia Sassen brought yet another perspective to interculturalism, on a road less traveled. As an urban sociologist currently at Columbia University, New York, and the London School of Economics, she focused on sites and areas that make “dialogical intersections” happen, such as global finance, the migrants in Europe – and cities, after all her main theme.

Cities all over the world, Sassen said, have problems in common. They also have the capacity, unlike countries, to demilitarize conflicts and find pragmatic solutions rather than threatening with war. They have to, relying on civil servants rather than on armies, and this has consequences. “I am involved in a project that helps mayors of big cities talk to each other on problems such as migration, climate, mass transit and individual traffic.”

What cities was she talking about, The Vienna Review asked her after the panel, and what solutions become apparent?

“Amsterdam, London, Stuttgart, Barcelona, Turin, Washington DC and about eight or nine others are on board”, Sassen said. “We are a group of five experts and consultants, we meet with the mayors once a year. The idea is to create an infrastrucure for global governance.”

But why should cities lead in such an initiative? “Because they are more flexible,” she said. “Look, New York City is not part of it – but Mayor Bloomberg flies over to London and to Paris to see what these metropolises are doing! This is a huge deal, because being mayor of New York is already a full-time job.”

And for a major American politician and administrator to go see how the French do it, this is quite a remarkable recognition that intercultural understanding must have its merits.

“Exactly,” she agreed. “And by the same token, focusing on city politics brings people together, even though at the local level they may not be aware of the interconnectedness with cities at the other end of the globe.”

City politics are local, but the attempts to find practical solution are international – or at least can be made international; that is what Sassen’s project is trying to achieve. Vienna, by the way, is not part of the group, why, she does not know. And could it join now? Not very likely, since the project is already on the way and the number of cities should not exceed fifteen.

Asked what the effects of the mayoral initiative on the city population might be, she maintained that “a re-scaling of politics at an urban level is happening. If, to take a very concrete example, the environmental challenges become more serious, then everybody has got to participate.

“Cities make legible the fact that all of us, poor or rich, have to do something.”

The final session addressed “International Solidarity as a Political Challenge,” bringing together professors Schlomo Avineri of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Timothy Garton Ash of Oxford, John Gray of the London School of Economics (see Interview, p. 2) and Alexander Smolar Research Director of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris.

Citing the success of international opinion in putting pressure on the Soviet Union to allow Russian Jews to emigrate, Avineri raised the question of how to create a political constituency for the weak.  “It’s a question of leadership,” he said. John Gray was sceptical of the very idea of international solidarity. The most we can do, he suggested, is “to be protected from the worst evils, from genocide, and torture.”

Garton Ash too had doubts about solidarity as a goal. “Is this really the best way to organize our thinking?” he wondered. “We have been on a quest for a ‘liberal international order’ since 1945, and more since 1989.” Yet even with the problem of terrorism and failed states, and the impact of the Bush administration, he suggested, “still it’s the right direction.”

“But we tend to forget that the ‘order’ is as important as the ‘liberal.’ It took us centuries to develop a system of nations, in charge of territory, with recognized sovereignty. We mustn’t be too eager to let this go.”

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