Hermann Hesse’s Arrested Development


November 15, 2018

Hermann Hesse’s Arrested Development

The stories Hesse tells appeal to young people, because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow.

“It has to be said, there are no points to be won from liking Hesse nowadays.” This rueful assessment of the novelist Hermann Hesse, quoted in the opening pages of Gunnar Decker’s new biography, “Hesse: The Wanderer and His Shadow” (Harvard), appeared in an obituary in 1962; but it could just as well have been pronounced yesterday, or a hundred years ago. Ever since he published his first novel, in 1904, Hesse has been one of those odd writers who manage to be at the same time canonical—in 1946, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature—and almost perpetually unfashionable among critics. The great German modernists who were his contemporaries mostly disdained him: “A little man,” according to the poet Gottfried Benn; “He displays the foibles of a greater writer than he actually is,” the novelist Robert Musil said. In America today, Hesse is usually regarded by highbrows as a writer for adolescents. Liking him is a good sign at age fifteen, a bad one by age twenty.

For many readers, Hesse’s novels are among the first serious fiction they encounter—a literary gateway drug. This was particularly so during the international Hesse craze of the nineteen-sixties, when the books became passports to the counterculture and Timothy Leary advised, “Before your LSD session, read”‘ Siddhartha’’ and ‘Steppenwolf.’  But, long before then, adolescents were the core of Hesse’s readership, a fact that sometimes irritated him.

His first novel—“Peter Camenzind,” the tale of a moody, nature-loving young man who drops out of bourgeois society—was taken up as an inspiration by the Wandervogel, a back-to-nature youth movement that promoted what Hesse himself derided as “campfire Romanticism.” For Peter to inspire a mass of followers, Hesse complained, was a misunderstanding of the whole point of the character: “He does not want to follow the path trodden by many, but to resolutely plow his own furrow. . . . He is not made for the collective life.”That book was at least written by a young man about the problems of the young.

“Steppenwolf,” on the other hand, tells the story of an aging intellectual’s midlife crisis; you don’t need the clue offered by the initials of Harry Haller, the book’s unhappy hero, to make the identification with the author. It seems strange that such a book would become a bible of the sixties, inspiring the name of the band behind “Born to Be Wild.” Hesse didn’t live quite long enough to see what the sixties made of him, but he had seen similar cults before, and he didn’t trust them. “I often have cause to get a little annoyed at schoolboys reading and enthusing over ‘Steppenwolf,’ ” he wrote, in 1955. “After all, the fact is that I wrote this book shortly before my fiftieth birthday.”

Still, Hesse’s young readers, then and now, were not wrong to feel that he was speaking directly to them. The stories he tells appeal to young people because they keep faith with the powerful emotions of adolescence, which most adults forget or outgrow—the woundedness, the exaltation, the enormous demands on life. The young Emil Sinclair, the narrator of “Demian,” is a good example of Hesse’s totally unironic self-seriousness: “I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books. I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me. My story is not a pleasant one; it is neither sweet nor harmonious, as invented stories are; it has the taste of nonsense and chaos, of madness and dreams—like the lives of all men who stop deceiving themselves.”

Many young men, in particular, see a glamorous reflection of themselves in the typical Hesse hero—a sensitive, brooding man who cannot find a place for himself in ordinary society. This figure might live in India in the age of the Buddha, like Siddhartha, or in Germany in the Jazz Age, like Harry Haller, or in the Middle Ages, like Goldmund in “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Whatever the setting, his path will generally feature the same landmarks. He will be plucked out of his childhood surroundings and sent to an élite school, where he will suffer deeply. He will rebel against conventional ideas of success and refuse to pursue any kind of career, combining downward mobility with spiritual striving. Often, like Peter Camenzind, he will turn to drink, regarding alcoholism as a kind of noble infirmity. “The god of wine loves me and tempts me to drink only when his spirit and mine enter into friendly dialogue,” Peter says.

Because the Hesse hero occupies a precarious position outside human society, he is at the same time extremely arrogant—Siddhartha refers to the normal human beings around him as “the child people”—and full of self-contempt. No wonder he is much given to thoughts of suicide, whether or not he actually commits it. For, as Hesse explains in “Steppenwolf,” “to call suicides only those who actually destroy themselves is false. . . . What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk.”

The idea that one’s inner life is unusually dangerous and risky is one that most adults grow out of—partly because we get calmer with age, partly because we come to recognize the full reality of other people. But Hesse’s heroes are punk Peter Pans—they don’t grow up, and despise people who do, because they see maturation as a surrender to conformity and accommodation. Things that most people learn to put up with strike Harry Haller as the fetters of a living death:

Without really wanting to at all, they pay calls and carry on conversations, sit out their hours at desks and on office chairs; and it is all compulsory, mechanical and against the grain, and it could all be done or left undone just as well by machines; and indeed it is this never-ceasing machinery that prevents their being, like me, the critics of their own lives and recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead.

Most people, in other words, are what Holden Caulfield, another favorite avatar of teen-age readers, called “phonies.” What torments Hesse is the difficulty of being authentic—of staying true to who you really are, despite the enormous pressures of alienation and conformity. “If I search retrospectively”—in his own writing—“for a common thread of meaning, then I can indeed find one,” Hesse wrote near the end of his life. “A defense of (sometimes even a desperate plea on behalf of) the human personality, the individual.”

 

Decker’s biography shows that Hesse’s life was an uneasy compromise between his spiritual absolutism, which pushed him in the direction of irascible isolation, and his human needs, which encumbered him with wives, children, and houses that he never quite wanted or accepted. Married three times, he was unhappy as a husband and as a father, and the characters in his books mostly shun both roles. His last novel, “The Glass Bead Game,” is a futuristic fantasy about an academy of scholars who are all male, and all single.

It is not surprising that Hesse would remain attuned to adolescence, since his teen-age years, in the eighteen-nineties, were the most dramatic and consequential period of his life. It was then that Hesse was first forced to confront the entire weight of the institutions ranged against him—family, church, school, society—and do battle with them in the name of defending his individuality. He won, but not without sustaining deep wounds; in a sense, his fiction is a series of reenactments of this primal struggle.

From a very young age, it was clear that there was a mismatch between Hesse and his family. He was born in 1877, in Calw, a small town in the Black Forest, in southwest Germany, where his father and grandfather worked together in a Christian publishing house. On both sides, he was descended from devout Pietists—members of a German Protestant sect that, like the Methodists in England, rejected the established church in favor of a fervently inward, evangelical striving for virtue. In Decker’s words, Pietism “regarded as the devil’s work everything that did not serve the ultimate purpose of preparing one for the kingdom of God in the hereafter.” When it came to child-rearing, this conviction translated, at least in the Hesse family, into a concerted effort to break the young Hermann’s will, to teach him the docility and submissiveness that God demanded.

Yet in Hermann this religious force met an immovable object. “I was the child of pious parents, whom I loved tenderly and would have done even more so had they not made me aware from a very early age of the Fourth Commandment. Unfortunately commandments have always had a catastrophic effect on me,” Hesse recalled in an autobiographical sketch. Compelled to honor his father and mother, he instinctively refused. In one incident recorded in his mother’s diary, the three-year-old Hesse put an iron nail in his mouth, and, when he was told he could die if he swallowed it, he stubbornly replied, “I don’t care! If I die and go to my grave, I’ll just take a couple of picture-books with me!” Some years later, his father contemplated sending him away “to an institution or to be raised by another family.” For his part, Hesse recalled that, as a child, he would dream of setting the family’s house on fire and of murdering his father.

These tensions boiled over in 1891, when the fourteen-year-old Hesse enrolled in Maulbronn Monastery, an élite state-run boarding school housed in a medieval abbey; its mission was to recruit the region’s brightest boys and turn them into Lutheran ministers. Getting into Maulbronn required passing a gruelling examination, an experience that marked Hesse so deeply that he returned to it in several novels. Indeed, many of his books are not just novels of education—the Bildungsroman that had been a classic genre in European literature since Goethe—but specifically novels of schooling. Each of the dormitories at Maulbronn, for instance, had a grandiose name; Hesse lived in Hellas, a tribute to the school’s conventional idolatry of ancient Greece. Fifteen years later, when he came to fictionalize his school days in the novel “Beneath the Wheel,” the main character goes to just such a school and lives in a dormitory called Hellas. And thirty-seven years after that, in “The Glass Bead Game,” Hesse told the story of Joseph Knecht, who once again lives in a dormitory called Hellas.

“Beneath the Wheel” assigns many of Hesse’s own experiences to Hans Giebenrath, a gifted boy who is emotionally destroyed by the pressure of studying to get into a Maulbronn-like school. He passes the examination, but only by cramming so intensively that his boyish love of life is extinguished. He is soon overcome by apathy and despair, and has to drop out; in the end he drowns in a river, possibly a suicide.

The conclusion of the book channels the self-pity that Hesse remembered so well: “All nausea, shame and suffering had passed from him; the cold bluish autumn night looked down on the dark shape of his drifting body and the dark water played with his hands and hair and bloodless lips.” (The very title of the book is an indictment, and “Beneath the Wheel” belongs with other German works of the period, such as Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening” and Heinrich Mann’s “The Blue Angel,” as an exposé of a soul- and libido-crushing educational system.)

Hesse avoided Hans Giebenrath’s fate, but only barely. In March, 1892, he ran away from Maulbronn and was reported missing. He returned after just a day and, as Decker writes, truancy hardly sounds like an unprecedented crime for a fourteen-year-old. But the reaction from school and family was extreme. It speaks volumes about his parents’ religious sensibility, for instance, that his mother’s response to the news of his disappearance was to hope that he was dead: “I was very relieved when I finally got the feeling . . . that he was in God’s merciful hands,” she wrote in her diary.

Unfortunately, he returned alive, a bigger headache than ever. Hesse had to leave school, and his parents, unable to cope with him, resorted to having him committed to a mental asylum. Facing the prospect of indefinite, possibly lifelong incarceration, he bombarded his parents with heartbreaking letters: “I loathe everything here from the bottom of my heart. It is like it has been designed especially to show a young man how wretched life and all its aspects are.”

After several months, Hesse was released on a trial basis, and he was able to attend a local high school. But the damage to his relationship with his parents was permanent: when his mother died, in 1902, he refused to attend the funeral. And the damage to his career seemed equally irreparable. At Maulbronn, he was on a fast track to a prestigious and secure job as a minister or a teacher. Now college was out of the question, and Hesse became an apprentice to a bookseller. To his parents—often, surely, to himself—it must have looked as if he had failed for good.

But Hesse’s genius was to embrace this failure and make it his inspiration. “In the beginning was the myth” is the first sentence of “Peter Camenzind,” the book that rescued Hesse from poverty and obscurity; and many of his books are retellings of the same myth, one that Hesse devised to interpret his own unhappy existence. Indeed, Hesse’s novels are best understood as successive versions of a spiritual autobiography—a form that, ironically, was a staple of Pietist literature. “The only way I can conceive” of writing, Hesse once said, is “as an act of confession”—a statement that could have been endorsed by his paternal grandfather, a doctor who left behind a memoir in two volumes. Indeed, in rebelling against his Pietist upbringing, Hesse ended up recapitulating its central themes: he never lost the habit of rigorous self-examination or his feelings of unworthiness and his longing for an experience of the divine.

The difference was that he could not imagine finding that experience within Pietism. “If I had grown up in a respectable religious tradition, for example as a Catholic, I would probably have stuck to the faith throughout my life,” he explained wryly.

Instead, he was driven to look for spiritual wisdom in other traditions, always admiring figures who seemed to defy dogma and doctrine. Francis of Assisi was an early inspiration: Hesse wrote a short biography of the saint who preached to the animals and spoke of the sun and the moon as his brother and sister.

He soon found himself looking farther afield—especially to the East, to the religious traditions of India. This, too, was a kind of atavism—his maternal grandfather, a missionary, had spent many years in India, and his mother had partly grown up there. But, while they went to spread a Christian faith they knew was the true one, Hesse went as a seeker. In 1911, he made an impulsive journey to Ceylon and Singapore, which proved disappointing at the time—he could not get used to the climate—but laid the groundwork for his later book “Journey to the East,” which imagines a spiritual secret society that includes the great minds of Europe and Asia.

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The book that connects Hesse with India for most readers, of course, is “Siddhartha.” Published in 1922, in the wake of a world war that had destroyed and discredited European civilization, “Siddhartha” takes refuge in a distant place and time—India in the age of the Buddha, in the fifth century B.C. In this short book, Hesse boils down his archetypal story to its mythic core. Once again, we meet a sensitive, gifted young man—Siddhartha, the son of a Brahman priest—who rejects his family, its religion, and its aspirations, and sets out to discover the truth for himself.

Along the way, he experiences the extremes of deprivation, as an ascetic, wandering monk, and of satiety, as the wealthy lover of the beautiful courtesan Kamala. But he remains unhappy in every condition, until he finds that the only true wisdom is nonattachment, a resigned acceptance of everything that happens. Life cannot be fixed in place; it flows, like the river where Siddhartha receives his revelation:

And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this thousand-voiced song, when he listened neither for the sorrow nor for the laughter, when he did not attach his soul to any one voice and enter into it with his ego but rather heard all of them, heard the whole, the oneness—then the great song of the thousand voices consisted only of a single word: Om, perfection.

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“Siddhartha” appears to be a kind of wisdom writing—a teaching. Yet the central message of the book is the impossibility of learning anything that matters from a guru or teacher. Siddhartha’s revelation sounds very Buddhist, and Hesse borrowed the character’s name from Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism. But, in the book’s most important scene, Siddhartha actually encounters the Buddha—and spurns him. While his more timid and conventional friend, Govinda, becomes a Buddhist monk, Siddhartha knows that any kind of religion—even a true and admirable one—is an obstacle to enlightenment. “No one will ever attain redemption through doctrine!” he exclaims. After all, the Buddha didn’t become the Buddha by following the Buddha; he forged his own unique path. Hesse’s moral is similar to that of a famous Zen koan: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Hesse’s emphasis on self-reliance, with its echoes of Emerson—another writer fascinated by Eastern religions—helped to make him a trusted guide for a generation of readers whose faith in institutions was destroyed by the First World War. Indeed, Hesse’s reputation as a sage rests mainly on the books he wrote after the war—starting with “Demian,” in 1919, and continuing through “Siddhartha” and “Steppenwolf,” in the nineteen-twenties.

Although Hesse was a German subject, he was a resident of Switzerland—he lived there on and off during his early life, and permanently starting in 1912—and he viewed the war fever that infected Germany from an ironic distance. (He nonetheless volunteered for the German Army, but was rejected because of his weak vision, the result of a childhood fireworks accident.) Early in the war, Hesse published an essay in which, while he still expressed hope for a German victory, he insisted on the need to preserve humane values and communication between nations. “This disastrous world war should serve to drum into us more insistently than ever the realization that love is better than hate,” he wrote. Even so mild an avowal earned Hesse the permanent hostility of many Germans. For the rest of his life, he would be attacked by incensed nationalists, both in the press and in regular deliveries of hate mail.

By the same token, in the nineteen-thirties Hesse’s hostility to Hitler was automatic. Nazism, with its blood sacrifice of the individual to the state and the race, represented the opposite of everything he believed in. In March, 1933, seven weeks after Hitler took power, Hesse wrote to a correspondent in Germany, “It is the duty of spiritual types to stand alongside the spirit and not to sing along when the people start belting out the patriotic songs their leaders have ordered them to sing.” Still, while he hosted and helped many émigré writers—including Thomas Mann, a good friend—Hesse never threw himself into anti-Nazi politics. Decker points out that, in the nineteen-thirties, he made a quiet statement of resistance by reviewing and publicizing the work of banned Jewish authors, including Kafka. But, tellingly, his own books were not banned by the Nazis until 1943.

It was Thomas Mann who, at the end of the First World War, published a book called “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man”; but the title would have applied much better to Hesse, for whom being nonpolitical was a first principle. After all, if the world and the self are illusions, it is delusive to believe that they can be redeemed. To those who wanted him to take a more public stand against Hitler, Hesse replied that anti-fascism was as much a betrayal of the self as fascism: “What’s it got to do with me?” he asked. “I can’t change a thing. What I can do, though, is offer a little succor to those who, like me, strive in everything that they think and do to undermine the whole filthy business of striving after power and political supremacy.”

This attitude to politics and history is characteristic of what Hegel called “the beautiful soul”—one who remains unstained by the world because he declines to engage with it. The phrase was invented by Goethe, who used it in his “Confessions of a Beautiful Soul,” a fictional memoir in which a Pietist noblewoman describes her spiritual life. Hesse, by analogy, might be called an ugly soul, one who is so occupied with his own spiritual distempers that the outside world barely makes an impression. This is also a key to Hesse’s appeal to young readers, who seldom see beyond the limits of the self. But the complete integrity of Hesse’s self-absorption is what guarantees the permanence of his work. As long as people struggle with the need to be themselves, and the difficulty of doing so, he will be a living presence—which is even better, perhaps, than being a great writer. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the November 19, 2018, issue, with the headline “The Art of Failure.”

 

Trump’s Diminishing Power and Rising Rage


November 15, 2018

Trump’s Diminishing Power and Rising Rage

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/weaker-trump-more-unstable-and-dangerous-by-jeffrey-d-sachs-2018-11?fbclid=IwAR2B8sVTSzlEse37RdiE609O3ANgQr3S7T3EpnyRyk2vrMbLUKz0RIzcAlo

The coming months may be especially dangerous for America and the world. As US President Donald Trump’s political position weakens and the obstacles facing him grow, his mental instability will pose an ever-greater danger.

 

NEW YORK – The drama of Donald Trump’s presidency has centered around whether an extremist president would be able to carry out an extremist policy agenda against the will of the majority of Americans. So far the answer has been no, and the midterm elections make it far less likely. Yet Trump’s rising frustrations could push him over the edge psychologically, with potentially harrowing consequences for American democracy and the world.

None of Trump’s extremist policy ideas has received public support. The public opposed last year’s Republican-backed corporate tax cut, Trump’s effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), his proposed border wall with Mexico, the decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement, and the imposition of tariff increases on China, Europe, and others. At the same time, contrary to Trump’s relentless promotion of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), the public favors investments in renewable energy and remaining in the Paris climate agreement.

Trump has tried to implement his radical agenda using three approaches. The first has been to rely on the Republican majorities in the two houses of Congress to pass legislation in the face of strong popular opposition. That approach succeeded once, with the 2017 corporate tax cut, because big Republican donors insisted on the measure, but it failed with Trump’s attempt to repeal Obamacare, as three Republican senators balked.

The second approach has been to use executive orders to circumvent Congress. Here the courts have repeatedly intervened, most recently within days of the election, when a federal district court halted work on the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project strongly opposed by environmentalists, on the grounds that the Trump administration had failed to present a “reasoned explanation” for its actions. Trump repeatedly and dangerously oversteps his authority, and the courts keep pushing back.

Trump’s third tactic has been to rally public opinion to his side. Yet, despite his frequent rallies, or perhaps because of them and their incendiary vulgarity, Trump’s disapproval rating has exceeded his approval rating since the earliest days of his administration. His current overall disapproval rating is 54%, versus 40% approval, with strong approval from around 25% of the public. There has been no sustained move in Trump’s direction.

In the midterm elections, which Trump himself described as a referendum on his presidency, the Democratic candidates for both the House and Senate vastly outpolled their Republican opponents. In the House races, Democrats received 53,314,159 votes nationally, compared with 48,439,810 for Republicans. In the Senate races, Democrats outpolled Republicans by 47,537,699 votes to 34,280,990.

Summing up votes by party for the three recent election cycles (2014, 2016, and 2018), Democratic Senate candidates outpolled Republican candidates by roughly 120 million to 100 million.

Nonetheless, the Republicans hold a slight majority in the Senate, where each state is represented by two senators, regardless of the size of its population, because they tend to win their seats in less populous states, whereas Democrats prevail in the major coastal and Midwestern states. Wyoming, for example, elects two Republican senators to represent its nearly 580,000 residents, while California’s more than 39 million residents elect two Democratic senators. Democrats win more votes, but Republicans win more seats.

Without control of the House, however, Trump will no longer be able to enact any unpopular legislation. Only policies with bipartisan support will have a chance of passing both chambers.

On the economic front, Trump’s trade policies will become even less popular in the months ahead as the American economy cools from the “sugar high” of the corporate tax cut, as growing uncertainty about global trade policy hamstrings business investment, and as both the budget deficit and interest rates rise. Trump’s phony national-security justifications for raising tariffs will also be challenged politically and perhaps in the courts.

True, Trump will be able to continue appointing conservative federal judges and most likely win their confirmation in the Republican-majority Senate. And on issues of war and peace, Trump will operate with terrifyingly little oversight by Congress or the public, an affliction of the US political system since World War II. Trump, like his recent predecessors, will most likely keep America mired in wars in the Middle East and Africa, despite the lack of significant public understanding or support.

Nonetheless, there are three further reasons to believe that Trump’s hold on power will weaken significantly in the coming months. First, Special Counsel Robert Mueller may very well document serious malfeasance by Trump, his family members, and/or his close advisers. Mueller kept a low profile in the run-up to the election. We will most likely hear from him soon.

Second, the House Democrats will begin to investigate Trump’s taxes and personal business dealings, including through congressional subpoenas. There are strong reasons to believe that Trump has committed serious tax evasion (as the New York Times recently outlined) and has illegally enriched his family as president (a lawsuit that the courts have allowed to proceed alleges violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution). Trump is likely to ignore or fight the subpoenas, setting the stage for a major political crisis.

Third, and most important, Trump is not merely an extremist politician. He suffers from what author Ian Hughes has recently called “a disordered mind,” filled with hate, paranoia, and narcissism. According to two close observers of Trump, the president’s grip on reality “will likely continue to diminish” in the face of growing political obstacles, investigations into his taxes and business dealings, Mueller’s findings, and an energized political opposition. We may already be seeing that in Trump’s erratic and aggressive behavior since the election.

The coming months may be especially dangerous for America and the world. As Trump’s political position weakens and the obstacles facing him grow, his mental instability will pose an ever-greater danger. He could explode in rage, fire Mueller, and perhaps try to launch a war or claim emergency powers in order to restore his authority. We have not yet seen Trump in full fury, but may do so soon, as his room for maneuver continues to narrow. In that case, much will depend on the performance of America’s constitutional order.

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Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. His books include The End of Poverty, Common Wealth, The Age of Sustainable Development, Building the New American Economy, and most recently, A New Foreign Policy: Beyond American Exceptionalism

 

Malaysians still count on bolder economic reform


November 13, 2018

Malaysians still count on bolder economic reform

Author: Editorial Board, ANU

ww.eastasiaforum.org

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READ ON: http://news.iium.edu.my/2016/04/10/book-review-a-new-malaysia-by-joaquim-huang/

The widely unanticipated ousting of Malaysia’s government in May not only left political analysts scrambling for explanations. It also had economists wondering what was in store for the economy.

The Najib Razak government had presided over relatively strong growth (5.9 per cent in 2017), low unemployment (around 3.5 per cent) and sound macroeconomic fundamentals. The eclectic group that gathered around former prime minister Mahathir and Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) to send the former government on its way had a less than stellar economic resume. Its campaign was mobilised around restoring good governance and unabashedly populist economics.

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Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng –Emulate Tun Tan Siew Sin-Take Care of our money and please don’t sleep on the Job

The promise of a sounder revenue base was abandoned with the scrapping of the goods and services tax (GST). The future of economic reform and sound economic management looked distinctly uncertain. The government’s first move on the economic front saw it outsource consideration of pressing economic and other national issues to a Council of Eminent Persons. The Council consulted widely with key academic, business and government stakeholders in developing an agenda for economic reform and delivered a report to government in August.

Despite the promise of transparent governance, the contents of the Council’s report have remained confidential. Meanwhile Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng focused his early efforts on exposing the former government’s accumulation of debt and corrupt contracting, alongside abolishing the GST and reintroducing petrol subsidies — prudent if poorly sold policies of the Najib government. While there has been silence on economic reform, there’s been a hive of activity from the new government on the governance front.

Mahathir sent a clear message to ministers that elected officials and civil servants are expected to act in the people’s interests. The pursuit of former prime minister Najib and his associates on corruption charges, the separation of powers for key agencies, push back on the empire that had developed around the Prime Minister’s Department and promises to end the most egregious political appointments are among the promising early signs of large-scale governance reform. Economic governance is also set to benefit under the recently updated Eleventh Malaysia Plan priorities. It affirms commitments to improve fiscal frameworks, tackle corruption-affected tender processes, strengthen the competition regulator and enhance frontline service delivery. The 2019 Budget released on 2 November supports these reforms with specific measures and resources. Action and optimism surrounding getting institutions fixed has staved off criticism about the lack of action on economic reform.

The revised Plan and the government’s first Budget were expected to provide clarity about the new government’s medium-term economic reform agenda. Despite the short-term fiscal bind, the hope was that ambitions for economic reform would match those for governance.

As this week’s lead article by Stewart Nixon notes, the commitment to reform in key areas is underwhelming.

‘The Mid-Term Review provides a blueprint loaded with high-level aspirations that would represent an impressive reform agenda if translated into successful policies,’ says Nixon. ‘But aspects of the Review raise questions about the government’s real capacity to navigate medium-term risks. The 2020 balanced budget target has been abandoned and the budget deficit has widened to 3.7 per cent of GDP (with an aim to reduce this to 3 per cent of GDP by 2020), while public investment — most notably in major rail and pipeline projects — is set to contract.’

Malaysia has a low level of taxation revenue and public expenditure, but the government’s role in the economy is still pervasive. As Nixon observes, ‘The highly centralised top-down federation (that cripples local government initiative) and government ownership of more than half the local stock market ensure that the vast majority of economic activity is directly affected by the state.’ There is a worrying disconnect between government rhetoric recognising the need to act in these areas and policies under the Review and Budget that would achieve the opposite.

Perhaps the biggest drag on Malaysia’s economic performance and handicap to its breaking through the middle-income trap is flailing human capital development. Nixon writes, ‘It is therefore a positive that human capital retains high policy priority in Malaysia — commanding its own pillar in the Mid-Term Review and the highest share of budget expenditure.’ But while the government is pursuing worthwhile measures to address immediate skills mismatches, invest in school infrastructure and raise the quality of education, it still lacks a plan to address key shortcomings, including an outdated learning culture, centralised decision-making and politicisation.

As Nixon identifies, ‘The large program of policies favouring Malays and other indigenous groups (Bumiputera) in the Mid-Term Review is another possible economic destabiliser.’ The hope that Mahathir’s more representative government would bring an end to the country’s long-running and ill-targeted affirmative action program is still just a hope. The Review simply reaffirms the government’s commitment to continuing it while the budget extends discrimination into the digital arena. ‘Outdated and divisive policies serve to perpetuate negative perceptions of the majority Malays, deter investment and encourage the brain drain of discriminated-against minorities,’ says Nixon.

The challenge over time will be to build the tax base and put in place a transfer system that targets need and addresses universal problems of inclusiveness. Reforms that reduce pervasive federal government presence across the economy and influence in local governance are a high priority. Without these changes, tackling corruption-riddled systems of political patronage will be a job that’s never properly done.

The continuation and extension of pro-Bumiputera policies represents a disappointing failure to promote a more inclusive approach to ethnic relations. Fixing Malaysia’s floundering education system is also now a top priority.

If ever a government had the mandate and popularity to progress a bold reformist economic agenda in Malaysia it is now. Taking the leap to developed economy status rests on challenging reforms in areas of well-publicised and politicised weakness. Instead, the government’s first major economic policy announcements delivered mixed messages on debt reduction, unproductive handouts, minimalist tax tinkering and increased dependence on SOEs and their dividends.

Post-election uncertainties affecting investor confidence, the looming global trade wars and emerging-economy financial risks all call for more determined fiscal re-prioritisation and bolder structural reform to send a strong signal that the new government has the nous and determination to meet the people’s economic expectations.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

 

 

The Guardian view on the US midterms: Blue Wave wanted


The Guardian view on the US midterms: Blue Wave wanted

Note : The Democrats have taken control of The US House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi said Democrats would work to restore checks and balances and be a buffer against Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s “assault” on Medicare, Medicaid, affordable healthcare, and on Americans with pre-existing conditions.

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These elections are more important than any in recent memory. Only a vote for a Democratic Congress can constrain Donald Trump and his campaigns of hate

The United States midterm elections are always important. But the elections on Tuesday matter in ways that few midterm contests can have matched. Yes, it will take more than one election to mend the damaged and angry political mood that, in the last two weeks alone, has seen a fervent Donald Trump supporter send bombs to several Democrats, and a white supremacist commit the most heinous act of antisemitic violence in the country’s history. The man in the White House is not the only thing that must change. But the journey has to start somewhere. You only have to imagine how much more difficult the journey will otherwise be to grasp the exceptional responsibility that rests on the shoulders of US voters on Tuesday.

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 “Mr. Trump was the product of already existing toxicity, shaken faith and declining prestige “.–The Guardian

Donald Trump is not the sole reason why American politics have become so toxic, why Americans’ faith in their institutions has been so shaken, or the influence of the US for good in the world so diminished. In many ways Mr Trump was the product of already existing toxicity, shaken faith and declining prestige. But he has turbo-charged this decline deliberately, as a matter of conscious policy. He seeks consistently to be the president of some of the United States, not of the country as a whole. Against those who do not support or agree with him he deploys only hate and scorn. He lies and provokes as a matter of strategy. This is a president without precedent, and although in the US democracy is strong, it is not indestructible.

Take the issue of voting rights. It is often assumed that the US constitution embodies a federal right to vote. It does not. Voting is administered by the states. Most states are in Republican hands, and the districts that will send members of Congress to Washington this week have frequently been gerrymandered. In many states, including North Carolina and Wisconsin, Republicans have imposed restrictions on early voting, postal voting and voter identification, all of them designed to prevent black Americans from voting. In Georgia, officials tried to close seven out the nine voting places in a predominantly black area on the pretext that disabled access was inadequate.

The US constitution is celebrated for its checks and balances. Yet partisanship is now so entrenched and unbending that institutions themselves are beginning to creak. The White House is in the hands of a lying and rule-breaking racist executive who, apart from all his policy failings, refuses to release his tax returns, blurs the distinction between official and personal interests, meddles in investigations in which he has no business and who deployed thousands of US troops for a purely partisan reason. Meanwhile, since the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation, the supreme court is now more firmly than ever under partisan rightwing control, opening up the near certainty of an attempt to overturn US abortion rights.

So there is a strong constitutional case, as well as a strong political one, for recapturing the legislative branch from its dishonest and sycophantic right wing Republican leadership. Democratic control of the House of Representatives would constrain Mr Trump by investigating issues that have been shamelessly ignored by the current House leadership. Democratic control of the Senate, a long shot, would clip his wings even more. Democratic failure this week, by contrast, would be – and would be taken to be – an electoral endorsement of Mr Trump.

This is a pivotal election for Americans, for American democracy, and for the rest of the world. Yet it comes at a time of decent US economic growth and high employment, when Republicans are energised, and Democrats are divided about their future course. It is far from guaranteed, in the light of 2016, that Democratic enthusiasm and money will turn into the blue wave that we want. But there is no more important political task anywhere in the world today than to seize this moment.

We Are All Isaiah Berliners Now


November 8, 2018

Argument

We Are All Isaiah Berliners Now

The political theorist and historian Isaiah Berlin on Oct. 23, 1992. (Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images)

The political theorist and historian Isaiah Berlin on Oct. 23, 1992. (Sophie Bassouls/Sygma via Getty Images)

Nationalism is back, but nobody seems to know what it means. A forgotten essay marking its 40th anniversary can help.

By Robert Zaretsky

At his Houston rally on October. 22, U.S. President Donald Trump got one of his loudest cheers when he used the “n-word.” No, not that “n-word,” but another one that respectable public figures are not supposed to use. Teasing his full-throated audience, Trump clucked his tongue: “Really? We’re not supposed to use that word?” After a brief pause, he brayed: “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.”

The crowd, of course, roared while commentators pored over the word’s significance. What, precisely, does it mean to be a nationalist? Does it carry the same meaning for those who bawled their approval at Trump or, for that matter, those who bewailed its ascendancy in Western politics? The answer, pretty clearly, is no—but much less clear is whether either side has a clear grasp of what a nation even is.

The best guide to our current encounter with nationalism happens to be celebrating its 40th birthday. In 1978, the renowned political theorist and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin published “Nationalism: Past Neglect and Present Power,” his final and fullest account of nationalism. Berlin attempted to capture what he called, rightly, “the most powerful, single movement at work in the world today.”

It is, Berlin warned in words all too relevant today, a movement that for those who failed to predict its growth “paid for it with their liberty, indeed, with their lives.”

The funny thing about nationalism, for Berlin, was that he should be discussing it at all in the mid-20th century. When it first appeared on the European stage—and this regional stage, truth be told, was the only one that truly interested Berlin—neither the actors nor audience anticipated a long run. Liberal observers, in particular, dismissed nationalism as a passing phase—a reaction to the despotic reign of thrones and altars across the continent. Once these reactionary vestiges of the dim past were relegated to the wardrobe, nationalism’s role would be made redundant.

Yet, among the many isms formed in the crucible of the French Revolution (1789), nationalism proved to have greatest lasting power.

From communism to totalitarianism, socialism to liberalism, it is the last great ism standing. For Berlin, the sources of this durability reside in our very nature. “The desire to belong to a community or to some kind of unit, which … has been national in the last 400 years,” Berlin once said, “is a basic human need or desire.” This, for Berlin, was less an argument than an acknowledgment—it is, quite simply, how we are built. The need for community is the common grain running through the crooked timber that constitutes humankind.

As for his definition of nationalism, Berlin could prove as hard to pin down as the concept he was hunting. Even sympathetic critics observed that he could contradict himself not just from one article to the next but at times within the same article. Moreover, Berlin did not offer taxonomies as much as he offered tales. His writings on nationalism, with their usual cascades of clauses and subclauses, are discursive and often digressive. (No doubt, Berlin would have agreed with Herodotus’s claim that his own many digressions are his history.) Finally, as a student of nationalism, he was more comfortable in the company of those who thought and wrote about it instead of those who channeled and acted upon it.

Nevertheless, Berlin presents a largely coherent account of nationalism, one that he builds out from four fundamental claims.

First, nationalism claims that all human beings belong to particular groups whose way of life—language, customs, and culture—differ from one another. The critical corollary is that members of this group simply cannot be understood outside the group that has formed and informed them.

Second, it portrays the group as a kind of biological organism, one whose development and ends are primordial. Should the group encounter certain values that are not its own, its own must prevail.

Consequently—and this is the third claim—nationalism declares that the beliefs and principles of this group are to be privileged precisely because they are the group’s. There is no higher or greater standard. Finally and fatefully, it holds that a group has the right to force other groups to yield should they come into conflict with it. “Nothing that obstructs that which I recognize as my—that is, my nation’s—supreme goal, can be allowed to have equal value with it,” Berlin wrote.

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From the first to the fourth trait, Berlin more or less travels the distance between what we might call benign and malign nationalisms. The first, and perhaps only, true philosopher of nationalism Johann Gottfried Herder, for whom Berlin had a soft spot, gave voice to the kinder and gentler form of nationalism. Friend of romantics and enemy of rationalists, and the man who coined the term “nationalism”—Nationalismus—Herder portrayed humanity as a dazzling mosaic of peoples, each infused with its own particular values and views but each enthused by the prospect of peaceful coexistence. For him, the group was defined not by blood or race but instead by a shared language and history.

But caught in the ideological sheers of 1848, Herder’s nationalism had the durability of a fruit fly. In fairly quick order, its malign cousin came to dominate European affairs, ravaged the continent during the first half the 20th century, and, after a 50-year respite, now threatens to undo the European Union and, for good measure, the United States. What happened? For Berlin, the answer is found in the metaphor of the bent twig. By this image, he made the case for what we might now call “cultural backlash”—a particular group’s slow accumulation of real or imagined injuries and insults that, when economic, political, and cultural factors converge, snaps back with sudden and sharp violence.

Admittedly, Berlin was not always consistent in his attitude toward nationalism. At times, he seemed to accept it, not embrace it, while at other times he compared it unfavorably to what he called “national consciousness.” Whereas the latter is, he believed, a fact of human existence, the former is a “pathological condition.”

Reaching for yet another vivid metaphor, he described it as a “state of wounded consciousness,” one that lashes out at either its real or imagined enemies. At other times, though, he seemed to believe that nationalism, at least in the tolerant variation he associated with Herder, was not only inevitable but also valuable.

No less importantly, Berlin argued that while demagogues can and will exploit this wounded consciousness, they do not invent it. These wounds instead result from the savage pace of financial, technological, and social changes in liberal democracies. Ambitious politicians who pose as nationalists or populists do not inflict such wounds but instead inflame them for their own ends. What Berlin called “faux populists” seek to create an “elitist or socially or racially unequal regime, which is totally incompatible with the fundamental, if not fraternity then, at any rate, the passionate egalitarianism, of the real populist movement.”

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Along with Richard Hofstadter, Berlin grasped earlier than many observers the growing resentment of citizens toward the cosmopolitan elites. In a 1967 conference devoted to populism, Berlin noted the hostility of what was only recently christened the “silent majority” toward “the excessive civilization of the East Coast, its centralized capitalism, Wall Street, the cross of gold, frivolous, polite, smooth forms of insincere behavior on the part of Harvard or Yale university professors, or smooth members of the State Department.”

At first glance, Berlin’s position smacks of irony. After all, his own life, personal as well as professional, was conspicuously cosmopolitan. Yet he spurned cosmopolitanism as an “empty” claim. People, Berlin insisted, “can’t develop unless they belong to a culture.” In this sense, Berlin might have concluded that the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence are the tribute that U.S. particularism pays to philosophical universalism.

But this stance did not make Berlin a conservative—or, rather, it made him as odd a conservative as he was a liberal. While deeply skeptical of multiculturalism, he embraced value pluralism, which claims that human values do not all issue from a single source.

Instead, values are nearly as multiple as are peoples and are consequently often “incommensurable”—one of Berlin’s pet words—with one another. Nationalism, he believed, need not be malignant. By the same token, liberalism need not be blind to the human need to be recognized as members of something greater than the individual and the resentment that festers when this recognition is denied.

Ultimately, Berlin believed the cure to nationalism was more nationalism. Not, though, the closed and aggressive forms of political nationalism now simmering in the West but instead the open and defensive nationalism embodied by Herder.

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Jürgen Habermas

This form of liberal or civic or constitutional nationalism, since taken up by thinkers such as Jürgen Habermas, insists on the existential importance of an individual identifying with a group defined by a common language and values. But it also insists on the existential danger of transforming this sense of belonging into the reflex of abominating other groups.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’sHonors College, and author of the forthcoming book Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment.

We Are All Isaiah Berliners Now

A Life of Nietzsche Turns the Spotlight on an Idol Long Misunderstood


November 6, 2018

https://www.nytimes.com

A Life of Nietzsche Turns the Spotlight on an Idol Long Misunderstood

By Parul Sehgal

By Parul Sehgal

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All his life, Friedrich Nietzsche hated being photographed. Execution “by the one-eyed Cyclops,” he called it. In almost every surviving photograph, he looks fugitive and uneasy, “as if his clothes are borrowed,” Sue Prideaux writes in an exemplary new biography, “I Am Dynamite!” “The elbows and knees are not in the right places and the jackets strain at the buttons.”

A man stuffed into the wrong clothes. This is how Nietzsche has come to us through history, for decades notoriously misappropriated by Nazis and nationalists. Under the watch of his sister, Elisabeth, handmaiden to Hitler, this philosopher who deplored German nationalism (“Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, that is the end of German philosophy”) and anti-Semitism (“I will have all anti-Semites shot”) was refashioned into an intellectual architect of the Third Reich. The Nazis distributed copies of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” to troops in the field.

Fifty years of scholarship has done much to rehabilitate Nietzsche’s reputation and to reveal the extent of Elisabeth’s meddling. She assumed care of him in his final years, when fame had found him but he was long gone to madness. With the tacit approval of Heidegger, she strung together uncollected notes into poisonous little tracts, piecing together a Nietzsche to serve as a Nazi mouthpiece.

His ideas of the Übermensch and will to power were stripped of their provocation and clowning and rendered as crudely authoritarian. The “hard maxims” he proposed to the individual — to be courageous, to seek out the enemy and relish war — were made bluntly literal and adopted by nations, bizarrely, given that the only thing Nietzsche loathed more than war between nations (to him a form of madness) was the idea of the nation itself. He relinquished Prussian citizenship early in his career and remained proudly stateless.In this biography, Nietzsche steps out of the mists of obfuscation and rumor, vividly evoked with his beautiful manners and ridiculous mustache, the blue-lensed glasses to protect his delicate eyes. Prideaux relies on the mapmaker’s method of triangulation, using time not place as the fixed point and drawing her subject into focus by examining the events in his life, his personal writing and his published work. “This falls into the biographical fallacy, I know,” she has said in interviews, “but my justification is a passage from ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ where Nietzsche says that every great philosophy is a form of involuntary and unperceived memoir. In other words, all philosophy is, to an extent, autobiography. One illuminates the other.”

What is illuminated here owes as much to Prideaux’s sensibility as her approach. Nietzsche said, “To see something as a whole one must have two eyes, one of love and one of hate.” But to see Nietzsche, it seems helpful to have binocular vision that can accommodate the sublime and the ridiculous. His was a life of prodigious work and self-sacrifice but also profound blundering. Taking a vacation, he could be counted on to lose his spectacles, his luggage and his way. No sooner was he adopted by a mentor (Wagner) than he was dispatched to shop for his custom-made silk underwear — and betrayed later when Wagner suggested, in a letter dictated to one of Nietzsche’s committed enemies, that Nietzsche’s legendarily bad health was caused by compulsive masturbation.

Sue PrideauxCreditDouglas Fry

Freud said that of all men only Nietzsche truly knew himself, and his letters can be wildly funny and full of comic set pieces. Prideaux relishes this side of him. It helps that she is something of a specialist in the lives of histrionic male geniuses of the 19th century. Her previous, prizewinning biographies were of August Strindberg and Edvard Munch (incidentally both of them passionate Nietzscheans; Munch painted “The Scream” after being introduced to Nietzsche’s work by Strindberg).

For all his influence, Nietzsche lived a short and solitary life. There are only so many notes for a biographer to hit: his intense friendships with Wagner and Lou Salome, the intellectual it-girl of her time, muse to Rilke and Freud. What Prideaux contributes is mainly shading and psychological insight — never more than when she takes on his prime antagonist: his body.

Nietzsche’s father died early, from “softening of the brain,” after suffering years of debilitating headaches and periodic muteness. Some kind of neurological disease or disorder most likely afflicted the son as well (Prideaux casts doubt that he suffered from syphilis as is commonly believed). From childhood Nietzsche was subject to excruciating headaches and eye pain. A school doctor predicted total blindness. Cures were humiliating and painful: He was left to lie in darkness for a week at a time, leeches attached to his ears to draw the blood down from his head. Later, on the battlefield of a Prussian war with France, he contracted diphtheria and dysentery. The treatment at the time — silver nitrate, opium and tannic acid enemas — destroyed his intestines. At any moment in his adult life, he suffered from uncontrollable vomiting, hemorrhoids, blinding eye pain and the constant taste of blood in his mouth.

He spent much of his (sane) life wandering between spas in the Alps, desperately seeking cures, toting along 220 pounds of books with him. But Prideaux brilliantly describes how he “turned his affliction into an advantage.” His famous style — those stinging aphorisms — became his way to condense his thoughts during moments of reprieve between attacks of incapacitating headaches and eye pain. “It is my ambition to say in 10 sentences what everyone else says in a whole book — what everyone else does not say in a whole book,” he wrote in “Twilight of the Idols.”

It can feel as if Nietzsche’s actual philosophy gets short shrift in the book. In the acknowledgments, Prideaux thanks the philosopher Nigel Warburton for overseeing these sections — efficient if bloodless summations. They don’t convey the allure of his ideas of the Dionysian, his fury at the human tendency toward submission and self-enslavement, his particular appeal to the shipwrecked. Style is Prideaux’s concern. But, of course, it was style that left Nietzsche so vulnerable to distortion. (It still is: The white nationalist Richard Spencer for one has said he was “red-pilled” — awakened — by Nietzsche.) He did not advance a school or system of thought, but a spirit of inquiry. He called himself the “philosopher of perhaps.” He once ended a book with “Or?—”

Nietzsche was fond of Ovid’s idea that Bene vixit qui bene latuit — he lived well who hid well. Taking his example, we might rejoin: “Perhaps.” As this attentive, scrupulous portrait makes clear, there may be even greater pleasures — to say nothing of justice — in being found.

 

I Am Dynamite!
A Life of Nietzsche
By Sue Prideaux
Illustrated. 452 pages. Tim Duggan Books. $30.

 

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page C6 of the New York edition with the headline: A Misperceived Thinker Steps Out of the Mists. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe