Movements that remain movements alone cannot save the universe: Prof. Furio Cerutti

Interview by: Nasrin Pourhamrang, Kourosh Ziabari

He talks composedly and serenely. Having been a student at the Heidelberg University and the Frankfurt University for several years, he speaks English with an acute German accent and thereís no trace of the special Italian sounds in his speech. He prefers to look at the text of each of our questions for a few minutes first, and then we pose the question verbally and finally get his response. He apparently tries to evade the questions which have a merely philosophical substance and favors taking the discussion to some contemporary issues and current affairs. He considers Iran a very suitable place for observing the diversity of cultures, languages and the miscellany of races and ethnic groups. He is evidently fascinated with his first experience in Iran as an academic, and of course as a tourist. He frequently asks questions about the different aspects of the living of Iranian people, especially the women, and seems to have been surprised at finding Iran a different place than what he had seen on the mainstream media.

Prof. Furio Cerutti is an Italian political philosopher. He was born in Genoa and is 77 years old. You cannot find the signs of oldness and weariness in his hands and face. He is a Professor of Political Philosophy Emeritus at the Department of Letters and Philosophy, University of Florence. He has been a visiting Professor at the Harvard University, Humboldt-Universitšt zu Berlin, the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the University of Manchester. Among his main areas of study are Marxism and the Western critical theory. He has published dozens of books and scholarly papers and his current research work is focused on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and global warming and the impacts of these phenomena on the international relations. On this subject, he wrote a book in 2007 entitled ďGlobal Challenges for Leviathan: A Political Philosophy of Nuclear Weapons and Global Warming.Ē Prof. Cerutti is honored to have been supervised by the renowned contemporary philosopher Jurgen Habermas at the Frankfurt University. However, he considers himself and his fellow scholars the students of Max Weber.

In the following interview which was conducted in early January at the lobby of Hotel Espinas in Tehran, Prof. Cerutti talked about his attitude towards the opinions of postmodern philosophers and his opposition to them, reflective modernity and modern identities. He puts a special emphasis on his being an Italian and European, and categorically denies that the European citizens have a willingness to join the terrorist group ISIS, ruling out that they are the ethnic Europeans who are being recruited by this militant group. He says that these Europeans are the offspring of Arab immigrants to Europe who join the ďIslamic StateĒ because of their poor economic conditions and their incapability to adapt to the Western culture. However, at the same time as highlighting his Western identity, Furio Cerutti says that the idea of the superiority of culture over economy is immensely ďEurocentricĒ, because as he says, itís economy that can save millions of lives from starvation and death. We had a two-hour-long conversation with Prof. Cerutti who was accompanied by his wife, Renatta in their first trip to Iran.


Q: Those who believe in the arrival of the postmodern era, also think that the era of philosophy and philosophical thought has come to an end. If you concur with me on this definition of philosophy, that it is a quest for truth in the existing world order, I have to note that we have not yet come to the end of order in life. There is order wherever there is daily life. It makes no difference whether it is a democratic order or a tyrannical order, a permanent order or a temporary one. What matters is to understand the human beingís relationship with the structures that impose order on the life of the man. Why doesnít philosophy prioritize the understanding of these communicative processes in the 21st century?


A: You raised, in my view, two questions: the one is the question of post-modernity. I have nothing in common with the current that is known normally under the name ď(French) postmodernismĒ, which merely mirrors modernity however with a negative marker. But, on the other hand, I am convinced that the world is leaving the modern era and going - we donít exactly know where to - in any case to an era that is no longer what we knew as modernity. In the political field, this means that politics can no longer be only what it used to be, that is the regulation of conflicts based on power and force; a regulation that simply redistributes divisible goods and resources among individual actors, that is men, women, countries, etc. I think that at least two threats that we have ourselves created make it necessary to go over to a new type of politics for which modernity had no preparation. The two threats include nuclear weapons (their existence, not just proliferation) and global warming, that are going to endanger the human civilization on this planet in different ways but both in a considerable amount. To address these threats which I call global challenges or lethal challenges, and to which Iíve dedicated my main philosophical work (Global Challenges for Leviathan: A Political Philosophy of Nuclear Weapons and Global Warming, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield 2007) I think they require a new approach in politics that makes the protection of global commons like the earth and the atmosphere the first goods that politics has to provide. This does not mean a world government, which is not only impossible but also perhaps dangerous, but it means that we need a type of co-existence and more cooperation among human groups and states that leaves behind the exclusive primacy of nation-states as well as the conflicts for the assertion of one nation's values as different from other peopleís values. I think that we are since 1945, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, confronted with the question of a new political model, but we remain very far from attaining an international cooperation capable of really addressing this threat. In my sense, this remains the task of post-modern politics, of the politics that comes after modernity, in which the territorial state was  (Hobbes' Leviathan) was the ultimate provider of security and authority. By the way, to distinguish my view on post-modernity from the French postmodernists' , I do write it hyphenated.


As to the question of truth and order in politics, I think that politics should do without truth, in the sense that if one party or country believes it owns the truth or a better truth than the other parties or countries, the way to radical conflict and war is open. But I would also argue that this does not necessarily mean to open the gate to value relativism.

 As to order, Iím convinced that no politics can do without some order. Basically, political order means a politics that can reduce violence, protect life and foster confidence among partners.  All the worldwide available particular models of order should be assessed with regard to their ability to make those goals available.


Q: What I want to point out is that some scholars maintain that the era of philosophical thought has come to an end. How can the existence of order contribute to the continuation of philosophical thought?


A: I do also think that philosophy cannot pretend to have the same role as in the past. It is no longer the time for the proclamation of truth, or the proclamation of the undebatable and absolute methods of putting order among things. On the other hand, without philosophical thought it seems to me impossible to have a holistic view of world affairs, on the destiny of the men and women. Social and political sciences can only illuminate corners, or letís say slices of reality; but in order to keep an open eye on the real state of affairs among human beings, you need a different, less-fragmented approach that only philosophy can provide. I would for instance, never agree to say that empirical and analytical political science can fully replace political philosophy. I must say that the relationship between the future of philosophy and the problem of order is not clear to me. Perhaps you can explain it to me more.


Q: By order, I mean order that exists in the daily life. This is a fact per se. The statement by the post-modernists that order has come to an end is deniable. But the fact that life is going on means that truth and order exists, too.

 A: Yes, I share the view that the notion of order has not come to an end. I think this was one of the great mistakes of the postmodern thinkers. These are to me largely apolitical views of life and world in the sense that they generalize the experience of certain intellectuals like Richard Rorty or Deleuze and Guattari and donít look into the effective way of life of ordinary people. For the vast majority of the ordinary people, life wouldnít be possible with some degree of order, some search for the truth, which is different from the ownership of an absolute truth. Post-modernists hated and destroyed the notion of totality. In my youth, Iíve written a book in which I tried to save it in a way much different from theology or classical philosophy. Totality remains however a notion that should be handled with much care.

 Q: If we accept what scholars such as Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck, Scott Lash and others have called a reflective modernity and take it for granted that the man in the late modernity has embarked on reflecting over all his existential dimensions and social life, and if we confirm that the result of these contemplations and reflections is the emergence of environmental, peace and human rights movements, can we claim that the meta-narratives have been suspended temporarily and have not come to their end yet? The reason Iím saying this is that these newly-emerged movements have universal concept and identities. Whatís your take on that?

 A: This is again a very philosophical question. I am interested in grasping what is going to happen in post-modern times and reject the idea of overstretching modernity  into a reflective stage. I do however speak of reflective politics, because I mean that, differently from early modernity, we now, thanks to both physical and social sciences, know enough about the possible consequences of our actions for the future generations. As politicians, we cannot any longer do as if our actions and omissions would have effects just for the present. Whether or not we find an agreement to abolish nuclear weapons, or to stop the increase of global warming, we know about the consequences of our actions and omissions, we are now responsible for the misery or the happiness of generations of the far future, not just our children or childrenís children. This is one of the main differences between modern politics and the politics that comes after modernity. I donít think that this will bring back the old meta-narratives of modernity in the unitary sense of  a linear history: a conception of progress in history will no longer be possible. But I also think that if we want to have some understanding of the world and our destiny, we need a notion of history. Worldviews that pretend to make it without any notion of history such as pure analytical thinking or  postmodernism have little grasp on the real state of affairs among human beings.


Q: Do the new cultural identities and entities, including the feminist movements, environmental movements, peace movements and religious minorities have the capability to transform the strategic political arrangements and influence the political developments?


A: A very short answer: yes, but only the day in which they can express a political and institutional strategy capable of transforming or correcting the direction Ė but not before they translate their wishes, their dreams, their emotions into a political strategy that can build up institutions. Movements that remain movements  - or movements without politics - cannot save the universe,

 Q: How will democracy be affected if the social discrepancies and gaps turn from economic discrepancies into cultural ones? Many theoreticians such as Samuel Huntington lay emphasis on the direct relationship between the growth of democracy and welfare. If economic development is marginalized as a fundamental principle, then will a sustainable democracy have the change to come about?

 A: I donít believe in democracy as a self-sustaining principle. Democracy is a wonderful thing, but only if certain premises are satisfied. One of them is a certain degree of economic well-being and a not too high degree of inequality. This is not the only important premise of democracy; the respect for individual liberties and the rule of law (including fair elections) are as important, and they must be looked at when we want to introduce democracy into a country that had no experience of it. Otherwise, ďdemocracyĒ can even become a dangerous thing because without these premises, it can give birth to a so-called plebiscitarian democracy, that is democracies without human rights, human liberties and basic well-being. Democracy is not just the majority principle.

 Q: Are the new cultural identities, including those that I mentioned earlier Ė environmental, peace, anti-nuclear and women movements Ė a reproduction of traditional religious or moral foundations in new forms?

A: Let me respond beginning with a biographical experience. My supervisor at the University of Heidelberg more than 50 years ago, Karl Loewith, had a very refined theory of secularization, in which he meant that many aspects of modernity are just the secularization of former religious beliefs and life-forms. Along with my later teacher at the University of Frankfurt, Juergen Habermas, I found this theory fascinating but wrong. Itís true that in the recent movements, you can also find an echo of previous religious or cultural beliefs, such as the old German attitude towards nature in the green movement. But on the whole, I donít think that we can simply see the world as the repetition of the same old life forms.

 Q: Actually Iím emphasizing on the universality of these movements, because the religions are similarly universal and all-encompassing.

 A: Yes, in the Western tradition philosophy was universal much earlier than religion. Platoís or Aristotleís idea of the highest good was much more universal than, letís say Zeus or Jupiter, or for that matter, Ahura Mazda. So at least, in our part of the world, religion did not have a primacy in universality. Judaism, Christianity and Islam were indeed universal beliefs, but - with the exception of Judaism - they came later .

Q: So, are we going to enter a new era of meta-narratives?

 A: Itís a very difficult question. Universality cannot be any longer based on the universality of reason, as in European Enlightenment. On the other hand, some basic universal values can be proved to exist in a way or another in many existing religious and philosophical ways of thinking, primarily the value of human dignity. Postmodernists believed that we can do without universalism and we would be better off without universal values. In a few years, they were proved wrong because without universality we would kill each other much more than we actually do. Besides, without universalism, we wouldnít be able to face our responsibility towards future generations. In this sense, for example, the knowledge of the possible catastrophes deriving from man-made climate change has changed the philosophical landscape, although my fellow philosophers have rarely taken note of this change.

 Q: In the late or second modernity era, we are witness to the disintegration of large-scale narratives and cultural plurality. From one hand, some bases of the first modernity era, including instrumental rationality still continue to exist. It seems that a synthesis of traditional and modern foundations has taken shape. Do you agree with this Hegelian viewpoint?

 A: Iím afraid Iím not able to agree with this viewpoint. Early European rationality, Hobbes' rationality, was an instrumental rationality but not in an exclusive way - Kant's idea of reason was not. Full rationality and instrumental rationality could co-exist for a couple of centuries, but at the end they could not but split. This is the process that Max Weber has so wonderfully described. The problem of the last century was and still is the attempt of instrumental rationality, or you can also say strategic or systemic rationality to attain a full predominance as if there was no other rationality than instrumental, calculative, strategic rationality. This is what Juergen Habermas, in his main work Theory of Communicative Action called some 30 years ago the attempt of strategic or systemic rationality to colonialize the entire life-world, that is even the areas of education, culture, communication. This is what in a more colloquial sense is known as the total commodification of everything. That means that we are far from coming to a Hegelian balance between instrumental or systemic rationality and what John Rawls calls reasonableness.  I believe that to preserve the right of non-strategic, non-instrumental rationality to survive is a very important struggle.

 Q: Many philosophers and scholars follow the scientific paradigms theory of Thomas Kuhn and donít believe in the linear progress of science. However, it seems that in the area of technology, at least, we follow accumulative and linear knowledge. If you agree, then we can maintain that the absence of scientific structures in the Asian and Middle East nations has contributed to the rise of fundamentalism in these countries. As Freud believes, the structures of a civilized world lead to the growth of human sensitivities, but it seems that the process of socialization in these countries is not complete enough to contain the rise of the insurgent feelings of their youths. Whatís your viewpoint on that?

 A: How can I answer a question regarding countries that I donít really have knowledge of?  I have no precise or professional knowledge of the Middle East, and I cannot reply in full academic style to this question. But I can tell you something that always puzzled me. Iíve noted that fanatic leaders, or at least their followers, and even terrorists with a Middle East background, are capable to handle very well the information technology. This is a small cue that leads me to believe that the spreading of scientific, technical rationality is not a defense against fanaticism.

Q: Freud believes that civilization creates bonds and puts peopleís instincts in an orderly, structured arrangement, persuading them to yield to the rules and laws of the modern society. However, we the people, living in the era of reflective modernity, are facing a diversity and plurality of choices for our lifestyle. Especially in the West, Giddens maintains that individuals live in a post-traditional era and so can make a variety of choices about their lifestyle. Arenít these trained sentiments leading to violence? Doesnít unrestricted plurality result in self-destruction?

 A: I donít know, as matter of fact, whether a large variety of choices can in general  lead people to violence. Relying on the Western experience I am inclined to say, no. Let me say on the other hand that unrestricted or rather unregulated plurality leads to dangers and can come closer to the self-destruction of a group. That is why I am convinced that the post-modern uncritical glorification of difference, diversity, fragmentation and the like  is big error. On the cultural front diversity is a wonderful thing, and Iran with its history is a good place to watch the importance and beauty of diversity. But if you want to give a chance to diversity to further flourishing, you have to build a political order that makes co-existence based on rules possible, regulates conflicts, and teaches people how to behave to one another with civility. I mostly donít find much sense in mottos, but I may remind you of the leading motto of the European Union that is ďunity in diversityĒ, in the sense that there can be no real diversity without an overarching political unity.

 Q: Why are the citizens of the European nations joining the terrorist group ISIS in such large numbers? Is this a kind of adventurism or a quest for identity?

 A: First of all, let me remind you that the European citizens that join ISIS are mostly immigrants of the second generation or Europeans whose parents came from Islamic countries. The number of ethnic Europeans joining ISIS is very small. They are people who converted to Islam in their countries of origin. This phenomenon is witness to grave economic problems, but even more to the difficulties of integrating into a new culture. I have no professional knowledge of the origin and development of ISIS, but I have my personal opinion regarding the political causes of it; they  are first of all Mr. Al-Malikiís policies in Iraq, the way how his government in the wake of the blunders made by the Bush administration - treated the Sunni citizens of Iraq. Only too late he was pushed out of government. The other political origin is the irresponsible way in which primarily Russia and China supported Assad in Syria. Even after Mr. Bashar al-Assad started massacring his protesting citizens, a large-based international intervention of political, not military nature, supported by the UN in the Syrian conflict would have possibly settled the conflict before room was created for ISIS. But before looking into the political dimension, I would consider an anthropological mechanism. In all human groups, you have a potential for hatred, aggression, torture, rape and sadism. If you raise the flag of an absolute truth that not only permits but even encourages your followers to do all these things, because you are acting on behalf of that absolute political (remember the European fascisms) or religious truth, itís an easy game to gather all the people in which that potential is latent and to make it an actual effect.

 Q: As compared to the European nations, less people are joining the ranks of ISIS from the United States. What is the reason for that, in your view? Is this due to the difference of the position and stature of religion in these societies?

 A: It would be a misrepresentation to think of a large flow of European citizens wishing to join ISIS. The movement regards the well-defined groups I spoke about in the previous answer, by far not the majority of young European Muslims. Adventurism is certainly one possible reason. But I think the quest for personal identity is more important. As far as I know, sociological studies show that, oddly enough, the discontent regarding oneís own identity is bigger in the second generation of immigrants than the first one. You must also look at the unfortunate way in which European nations and the European Union as well handled the problem of migration.

 As to the US, I am not a sociologist, but the role of religion in the European or American society does seem to me to be a relevant factor. In a word, to be an immigrant in America, a country of immigrants, is less of a stigma than in Europe. At the very last one should not forget that Europe is simply more closed geographically and historically to the Middle East than the United States, which were not present at Poitiers or the Crusades or Lepanto. 

Q: In the book World Risk Society, Ulrich Beck and a number of other sociologists have argued that the threat of the appearance of a discrepancy between the logic of the good, made of human and cultural developments, and the logic of evil, made of the industrial, nuclear, WMD and poverty threats is growing every day. Isnít it time for the economy to be given its suitable position in the course of global development, that is a marginalized position?

 A: Iím afraid I have no answer to this question. I even doubt there are enough sociological studies regarding the background of the question, and Beck's big dramatic szenarios such as the risk society are no substitute for analysis. .

 Q: But those who work on the new theories of development, believe that the time has come for economy to be put aside and culture be replaced as the pivot.

 A: This theory has something for itself, but no more than something. I come from a European country in which, as a side-effect of the financial and economic crisis, unemployment and in particular youth unemployment is a major problem. I have experiences of this through my students of the latter years and I can tell you that unemployment has an important cultural consequence, but the first thing is the economic and social impact of not having a salary and not having a social group in which you work and socialize. We urgently need to redress our Italian and European economy.

Going back to Ulrich Beckís theory of world-risk society, I found it  interesting and stimulating in its initial formulation some 30 years ago, but less convincing in the universalization of it. Iím enough a critic of modernity in order to find an all-encompassing theory of the world not very convincing. And I think that lamentably even Ulrich Beck, whose recent and unexpected death shocked me, failed to prevent its theory from becoming something of what Leibnitz, following Raymundus Lullus,  called a 'universal key'. The world is simply too complex to make us possible to believe that one key, such as 'risk-society', explains everything. Although I am enough a full-grown Westerner, I had some personal experience with Latin America and China where I was a visiting professor a few years ago. Itís not primarily culture. You may like it or not, it is only the economy that can salvage hundreds of millions of people from poverty. So, if you marginalize the economy, theyíll remain stuck in poverty. These theories prioritizing culture above economy are very eurocentric, in the sense that they universalize something that can make sense only for us, the Europeans. And even in  countries like Italy, Portugal, Spain and France, economy is still the priority. This is not to deny the relevance of culture, including religion, for the economic behaviour of the people - we are all Max Weber's pupils.

 If you however mean that the present dominance of economic rationality, a consequence of the bad management of globalization, should be corrected in order to give back to politics its leading role, I would perfectly agree, provided you mean politics as a type of action guided by cultural values such as freedom, solidarity and responsibility.