Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Political reality, values and problems of cohesion in Europe 1993 - 2002

Political reality can be found, for instance, in the General Strike which took place in Belgium just as the Fourth Seminar was about to start. People arriving at Brussels airport could not find any bus to take them downtown. It was even feared that major routes leading to the centre would be blocked by a traffic congestion's caused by marching strikers. Fortunately, this was not the case and our taxi managed to get through quite easily. That was Wednesday in late November 1993. Newspapers had already announced that starting Thursday evening, the general strike would grip the entire country and paralyse everything until twenty-four hours later. That evening exactly at ten o'clock the electronic bulletin boards on the platforms of train station in Bruges went blank. All announcements of incoming or outgoing trains vanished. A young girl, on her way to Brussels that evening, found herself suddenly stranded in Bruges. She decided to hitchhike back home even at such a late hour. It was foggy and bitter cold. This was the first General Strike to grip Belgium since pre Second World War times. Commentaries in local newspapers suggested that the very fact that it took place indicates that people are extremely worried about their future. Their social and economic prospects had become quite dim. 

For someone not familiar with Belgium, it is a federal state with three language groups: Flemish, French and a small minority of German speaking people (circa 60.000). The country with its extensive highway and railway system, along with numerous heavy and light industrial sites near Brussels is known by extension to cities like Antwerp, Bruges, Leuven or Liege. It conveys the impression of being one of the wealthy EU members in the North and yet one in which there are smouldering many unresolved problems. For instance, the visible social plight of masses of people reveal discrepancies in the prevailing social and political structures. Yet Belgium underlines some aspects of 'cultural diversity' of Europe. There are significant minority groups while at another level international institutions and especially the European ones in Brussels reinforce that flavor of diversity. Consequently the cultural and intellectual community has in that sense an important role to play. 1

Belgium is known for its Socialistic tradition due to a deep working class background. Its social cohesion has been, however, overshadowed by conflicts between the French and Flemish speaking population. Some people compare that dispute to the one Quebec has with the rest of Canada. However, if a General Strike takes place, then, not primarily because of cultural or linguistic disputes, but due to economic hardships. There are many economic uncertainties to be faced. A huge deficit in the state's household budget restricts governmental actions; it is forced like elsewhere in Europe to make heavy cuts and thus aggravates even more the generally felt recession: aside from high unemployment, high prices and low income lead automatically to a loss of living standard. The plight is directly visible in the streets and public spaces. 

In such a situation it is easy to forget that economic plight is not necessarily the entire truth. While many people are worried about their future due to low pay and dim economic prospects, there has to be added another fact. Future generations do not really like the options they have ahead of them when seeking a way to combine making a living with creating a family and finding a fulfilled life. A pre-established system makes it difficult to imagine that it could be changed from below. There exist very few chances to live in freedom and remain authentic.

Life in European cities is not easy. As sources of new ideas and innovation, something Europe is badly in need of, cities need to come to terms not only with their economies. If they are to be competitive at world market levels, cultural considerations have to be taken up when formulating policy options.

Unfortunately the crisis goes quite deep. In the past it would have prompted people to make diligent investments in the future, i.e. better education for their children. Today, good education does not automatically lead to a well paid job. Also the combination of education and work organisations underline one basic neglect, namely to ensure that economic activities continue to relate to the kind of life people wish to experience and can sustain. This neglect has increased the lack of 'cultural' understanding of economic problems and has alienated many officials from economic realities people have to face. Instead of overcoming this gap, worries and short tempered reactions have let collapsed many bridges of understanding.

There is as much fear as lack of communication. The latter hinders a constructive dialogue between the different generations and leaves 'models of survival' (the replacement of ideals) to television heroes made to fit consumer society. The reactions to these social and emotional plights have been single minded. Everything seems to be oscillating between nostalgic reminders of the past and faceless adaptations to the future while a call for ever harsher measures seems to dominate in politics and in society. Real problems are ignored or rather they pile up like mountains of garbage no one knows anymore how to handle. The overcapacity to produce and to waste is devastating European societies at a daily visible rate. The alarming thing is that no one seems to be in a position to realise that the ongoing pollution of cities and destruction of nature cannot continue. When these issues are taken up by conferences, then in air conditioned rooms completely remote from the outside world, that is reality. 2

Changes in mentality and hence outlook happen at equally a subtle and alarming rate; there is too much political opportunism in play. Once critical intellectuals succumb easily to 'comfort' as an illusion of good life, many of them do not even realise that they uphold thereby social hierarchies at the cost of true democratic aspirations. Only few still speak out such as Noam Chomsky or the Hungarian writer Conrad. The latter remarks how many ascend to power nowadays with but a thin veiled lip service to democracy, when in fact they adhere strongly to anti-democratic principles and ideas. 3 This is, however, not only a matter of what role intellectuals ought to play 4, nor what 'silence' has to be faced 5, but what is happening in terms of 'violence' to especially children growing up in a society lamed by imitation, boredom and the aesthetics of 'kitsch'. It becomes immediately evident when youngsters return by train from school; most of them pretend to be chain smokers. It is a premature imitation of being considered mature by acting like grown-up adults. Little do they realise that they are risking to exhaust all their possibilities to gain strength in order to face an uncertain future positively and in a creative manner. As one young Flemish woman from Flanders said, not only does she feel that the politicians care little about what reality people have to face, but that she too threw away all her chances of making it into university. Only lately did she wake up, realising that she has missed her opportunities. As a result she has become a hostess for a business organising congresses. She admitted that this is work at the edge of open prostitution.

In short, culture as orientation to find work safeguarding dignity is what many feel to be amiss. There is rarely nowadays a 'radical' movement to be honest with yourself and others, while politicians and others claim the increase in crime and violence comes as a result of loss of values.

1 At the Fifth Seminar, a lot of information and self-critical reflection was given by Prof. Joris Duytschaever in Workshop 8 dealing with the question of 'Literature, Identity and Discourse', while Bart Verschaffel, philosopher and co-ordinator of the literature section at Antwerp '93, contributed to a critical self-evaluation of Flemish culture in terms of an overall European context. See here information about Antwerp '93 in the context of Workshop 10: 'Cultural Evaluation and Cultural Exchange'.
2 The writer Stanislaw Lem has spoken about this in his 'the Futurologist Congress'.
3 Gyoergy Konrad, "Stroemung und Krampf" in Provinzialismus Entwurzelung, ed. by Bart Verschaffel, Antwerp 93 >Diskurs und Literatur<, Koeln, Dinter 1993, pp. 76 - 85.
4 This is said in reference to the already mentioned paper by Vangelis Kassos in Workshop 10.
5 In the Second Plenary Session of the Fifth Seminar, Eugène van Itterbeek speaks about the 'Silence of Intellectuals' in an overt manner since he links silence to a lack of projects, whereas the French poet Jean Baptiste Marray sees this as a still unresolved consequence of Stalinism and Fascism which impede intellectual movements and make 'cultural manifestations' if not futile, then almost irrelevant in the modern media landscape controlled by Berlusconi-like forces. The latter is a much voiced concern for participants of the Fifth Seminar, in particular of Workshop 6: 'Roots of Western Civilisation'.

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