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Our Civilization is Mortal, The Most Important Speech of the 21st Century, (Deep) Optimism and Pessimism, and Much More

Our Civilization is Mortal, The Most Important Speech of the 21st Century, (Deep) Optimism and Pessimism, and Much More

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  2. It’s Time to Tax the Billionaires (NYT)
  3. Mass deportations, detention camps, troops on the street: Trump spells out migrant plan (The Guardian)
  4. Labour pulling off strong wins with 'truly historic' shock in Tory stronghold - as results show Brexit shift (Sky)
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  6. Campus protests over the war in Gaza have gone international (NPR)
  7. Climate change is becoming a systemic risk for the well-being of each of the planet’s inhabitants (El Pais)
  8. Global Elections in the Shadow of Neoliberalism (Project Syndicate)

Hi! How’s everyone? A Big Thanks for joining this little publication, welcome new readers, and thanks again for all the fascinating discussions we’ve been having. Today is going to be Serious Brain Food. We’re going to discuss the most important speech of the 21st century, so far, anyways.

Emmanuel Macron recently gave it, at the Sorbonne, as a kind of reality, sanity, and health check. He pulls no punches. And no finer words have been written or spoken yet on the perilous juncture we find ourselves at, as you’re going to discover—because I’m going to quote from it at length, and then discuss it a little bit.

I strongly recommend you read the whole thing (and I rarely do that.) To call it brilliant and necessary and vital is to understate it. Now, Macron’s focus is a little European here, but just substitute “the world” for “Europe,” and all his points are just as resonant.

This is the first great political moment of the 21st century.

I really mean that, and I’ll come back to why, after we read what Macron has to say.

My message today is simple. At the end of the World War I, Paul Valéry remarked that we now know our civilizations are mortal. We must be clear about the fact that today, our Europe is mortal. It can die. It can die, and it all depends on our choices. These choices have to be made now.

Because the question of peace and war on our continent, and of our ability to ensure our security or not, is being played out right now. The major transformations — the digital transition, artificial intelligence, the environment and decarbonization — are playing out now, and the reallocation of production factors is now playing out. Because the attack on liberal democracies, on our values, — I say this in this place of knowledge — on what is the very bedrock of European civilization, a certain relationship with freedom, justice and knowledge, is being played out now or not.

Yes, we are at a tipping point, and our Europe is mortal. Simply put, it is up to us. And this is based on some very simple observations that illustrate the gravity of what I am saying.

First of all, we lack the capacity to effectively address the risks we face. Despite everything we have done, which I have just mentioned, we face a crucial challenge in terms of both rhythm and model. Yes, we are still too slow and not ambitious enough to face up to the reality of these transformations. Whatever the future brings, we have to face it too. 

The second change is that, economically speaking, our model as it stands today is no longer sustainable, because we legitimately want to have it all, but it no longer works. We obviously want social benefits, and we have the most generous social solidarity model in the world. This is one of our strengths. We want to address the climate emergency with decarbonized energy, as I was saying, but we are the only region that has taken the necessary steps to achieve this. Others are not moving at the same pace.

Then there is the third observation which underlies the significance of the current moment: the culture war, the battle of imaginations, narratives and values, which is becoming increasingly delicate. For a long time, we thought of our model as irrepressible: democracy spreading, human rights progressing, European soft power triumphant. And democracy continues to be attractive to many people around the world. But we must look at things clearly. Our liberal democracy is increasingly criticized, through false arguments, with a kind of reversal of values, because we let it happen, because we are vulnerable. Everywhere in our Europe our values and our culture are under threat because the fundamentals are being challenged, believing that authoritarian approaches would somehow be more effective or attractive, under threat also because our dreams and our narratives are less and less European. Everywhere, the content that our children and teenagers are being exposed to is increasingly American or Asian, belonging to the digital explosion that has taken over our lives and to which I’ll return in a moment.

The second key element is prosperity. If we want to be sovereign at a time of profound transformation, we need to build a new model of growth and production. This is essential, because there can be no power without a solid economic base. Otherwise, power is decreed, but very quickly, it is financed by others. Nor can there be an ecological transition without a solid economic model. And there can be no social model, which is one of Europe’s strengths, if we do not produce the resources we then want to redistribute.

And so, here too, we need to construct a new paradigm for growth and prosperity if we are to meet the five objectives I have just outlined. Because if we do it with the rules in terms of competition policy, trade policy, monetary policy and fiscal policy that we have today, we will not succeed. And it will be done with a simple adjustment: we will lose production.

In some ways, this massive investment must also involve a paradigm shift in our collective rules.The first thing that strikes me as outdated is that we cannot have a monetary policy whose sole objective is inflation, especially in an economic environment where decarbonization is a factor driving up structural prices. We need to have a theoretical and political debate on how to include in the objectives of the European Central Bank at least a growth objective and even a decarbonisation objective, or at least a climate change objective, for our economies. This is absolutely essential.

Once again, Europe does not love itself. When you consider all that it has done and all that we owe it, this seems strange. It would take too long to say that, structurally, Europe has always doubted itself. We are the continent, the civilization, that undoubtedly invented self-doubt and self-questioning, the culture of confession. We are also faced with doubts because our democracy is being challenged, as I said earlier, and because our demographic decline is a source of deep concern. So, our Europe runs the risk of, in a way, getting used to this decline.

A humanist Europe. This is why what I want to propose today, the promise that I would like to pledge, is to try to defend the European humanism that binds us together. If we want to protect our borders, if we want to remain a strong continent that produces and creates, it’s because we’re not like others. We must never forget that. We are not like others. Camus had this magnificent phrase in his Letters to a German Friend: “Our Europe is a shared adventure which we will continue to pursue, despite you, in the wind of intelligence.”

This is Europe. An adventure that we continue to pursue, despite all those who doubt, in the wind of intelligence. What does this mean? It means that to be European is not simply to inhabit a land, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, or from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. It means defending a certain idea of man that places the free, rational and enlightened individual above all else. And it means realizing that from Paris to Warsaw, from Lisbon to Odessa, we have a unique relationship with freedom and justice. We have always chosen to put Man, in the generic sense, above all else. And from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment to the fall of totalitarianism, this is what Europe is all about.

It’s a choice that’s constantly reiterated and that sets us apart from the rest of the world. It is not a naïve choice to entrust our lives to large industrial players on the pretext that they are too strong. This is not coherent with European choice and European humanism, which is a choice that refuses to delegate our lives to state-controlled powers that do not respect the freedom of the rational individual. It is trust in the free individual, who is endowed with reason. It is a trust in knowledge, freedom and culture. It’s a constant tension between traditions, permanency and modernity. It’s an imbalance, being European, and that’s what we have to defend. This fragile humanism that sets us apart from others. And I would like to stress that this is a matter for the present. We must defend it because, as I said, liberal democracy is not a given.

Above all, as I was saying, defending this European humanism means considering that beyond our institutions, beyond this liberal democracy that we hold dear, that we must defend and strengthen, it is the forging of citizens through knowledge, culture and science that is being played out in our Europe. 

To be European is to believe that there is essentially nothing more important than to be a free individual, endowed with reason and knowledge. At a time when skepticism, conspiracy theories and doubts about science and scientific authority are flourishing, we have a responsibility as Europeans to defend and teach it as well as defending free and open science, to share. 

And I’m deliberately telling you that this is a cultural and civilisational battle. Because this is where our democracy really comes into play; this is where our public opinion is forged. A democracy in which the vote is free is formidable. But if that vote is influenced, if opinions are distorted, if decisions are changed by the policies of one party or another, what kind of democracy do we have? So I say to you very strongly: this is not a technical issue, it’s not a public policy issue. The ability to create a democratic, digital public order is for us a matter of survival.

It’s a question of survival, of defending our humanism. And, of course, our European humanism is also a humanism of dignity and justice. We love freedom and knowledge, but we also have a unique sense of justice and equality. This is what distinguishes us from other continents.

At its core, this European humanism, this “certain idea of Europe” that George Steiner spoke of, is made up of very sensitive things: this idea of the freedom of the rule of law, this desire to preserve knowledge and culture, this relationship with equality that I mentioned.But it is in fact this Europe of the cafés, of our capitals, which has so many layers, and it is the constant tension we have between the heritage to be handed down and the modernity that shakes things up. That is why our Europe is always caught in this tension, but it has something to say about it.

And the risk is that all the others get scared and say: “The nationalists, the anti-Europeans, are very strong everywhere in our countries”. It’s normal, there’s fear, there’s anger in these moments of shock that we’re experiencing, precisely because our fellow citizens, all over Europe, feel that we could die or disappear.

The answer lies not in timidity, but in boldness. The answer is not to say, “They’re on the rise everywhere”, but to say, “We have a choice”. This year, the British will choose their future, the Americans will choose their future; on June 9th, the Europeans will do the same.

But the choice is not to do what we’ve always done, it’s not just to adapt. It’s about embracing new paradigms. Following Voltaire, I know it’s difficult to be optimistic — for some people it’s even a question of credibility. But it’s a form of optimism of will.

OK. That was a lot. Let’s talk about it now. I’m usually critical—very much so—of politicians and promises and so forth. This is different. In many, many ways. Like I said, I think it’s the first great political moment of the 21st century. Why?

Because Macron is the first liberal politician to finally take the gloves off. And say what needs to be said. And then embrace paradigm shifts as a solution. 

Let’s take those one by one.

He open by being the first—and only—politician on the side of democracy to finally speak in existential terms. We just discussed that—how we all know things are on the brink, but only the far right says it, and so it…wins. Macron is the first politician on the side of democracy to finally spell out how bad the situation really is. 

He does so by putting things in existential terms. The kind that we speak about here. He reminds us that all human affairs and things are mortal. Even the grandest ones, like social organizations. He minces no words, and says it right out loud: our civilization is mortal. It can die.

That’s an incredibly profound change. The side of democracy’s shied away from putting it like this. Ever. Period. For many reasons. Trying to been as sober and serious. Not wanting to offend the media and pundits. Trying to hold onto power and not admit its own failures. Macron finally took the step of getting existential—and that is the biggest step of all, because it’s where we are. Without this step, democracy’s side has zero chance of connecting with people again, who are giving up on it in droves, because its leaders won’t admit how bad things are. 

Then Macron goes straight into calling for a series of paradigm shifts. I highlighted one there, which I’m going to explain to you, because it’s…colossal. He openly calls for the European Central Bank to stop just targeting inflation, and start targeting…climate change. Perhaps you don’t know—why would you, if you’re not an economist, banker, or head of state—what a big deal that is, but let me assure you, it’s titanic.

Macron is talking about actually reinventing the global economy to fight climate change. Starting with a paradigm change in central banking, on which everything depends. Why are we still “targeting” inflation when it’s carbon which is the real civilization killer? Makes no sense, right? This is an explosive paradigm shift that Macron’s speaking about, which would go on to reshape our entire economies—bigger, in fact, much more so, than Biden investing in green tech and so forth, because now the entire point and objective of the economy changes.

That’s just one of the paradigm shifts he discusses. I won’t go into all of them, and I didn’t highlight them for you, because the point is that Macron is calling for a series of paradigm shifts. Radical transformations, not incremental ones. To our formative and fundamental systems and institutions, whether financial, economic, security, social, and so on. That’s absolutely critical, because again, at this point, we all sort of know that half-baked reforms to existing institutions won’t cut it. But the side of democracy has refused to get radical, right after it finishes denying that we face existential threats as a civilization—and so people flee, again, into the arms of the far right.

Then Macron does the most crucial and remarkable thing of all. He discusses civilization the way it should be discussed. As a humanist project. That’s not just “European,” by the way, civilizationally, it belongs to all of us. He explicitly refers back to the great minds who created the ideas that created modernity—like Camus, and it was the existentialists who set the stage, intellectually, for what was politically to become social democracy. Because, of course, in existential sense, we’re all equal.

Again, this is…seriously remarkable. Democracy’s side hasn’t had leaders brave or intelligent enough to speak this language for decades now. But Macron begins by quoting Paul Valery—a great essayist and poet, if you don’t know, whose ideas helped shape existentialism itself. From there, he discusses how humanism is the point, the raison d’être, the animating principle, and the guiding vision of this project called contemporary civilization.

And then, he adds the coup de grace. He explicitly calls what’s happening today a “civilizational battle,” being fought by anti-humanists against humanists. And he warns us not just of what happens when the forces of anti-humanism and dehumanization win, but how they win, too, by acting in bad faith, subverting our belief in one another, and turning us pessimistic in the deep sense: losing the will to live in the civilized sense.

Remember how we just discussed all that, too, in just those terms, how it feels like civilization’s losing the will to live?

This is…astonishing stuff. And beautiful, too. It’s not just substantively remarkable to see a leader at Macron’s level calling for paradigm shifts to win a civilizational battle and restore humanism to its rightful place—it’s also remarkable because it ties together all the strands of history, from philosophy to culture to economics to progress itself.

Look. I don’t think we’re going to see a speech like this from the Dems soon—do they even want to win? Are stun grenades and pepper-spraying young people really a good way to get…votes? They’re barely there, and that’s sort of what Macron’s talking about, too. Our side is lost. It’s out there in the woods, and it needs to find its way home, before it can even begin the fight. And we as a civilization need to give up on the poison of deep pessimism the far right peddles, which causes us to lose the will to live as civilized people—and instead remember what true optimism is, which is the not just genius of humanism, but the remarkable, stunning miracle of how it worked, producing the miracle that took Europe from ashes to history’s highest living standards in one human lifetime, perhaps the greatest quantum leap there was, and all that came from the direct line between tragedy, war, existentialism, and social democracy, or Valery, Camus, and the creators of the EU. 

I won’t go on. I want you to take a moment to reflect on these beautiful and wise words. Read them a few times over. Really take them in. This is what we need to reorient ourselves in these difficult times. Macron? I understand it well—he’s not well liked in France. But in this moment, he’s becoming the kind of leader the world needs. In his generation, which is mine, he might be the first genuine leader of the 21st century, if he can reorient France, and then Europe, around this new vision. 

But even if he can’t, its elements are what matter, and they’re precisely what we’ve been discussing too. Existence. How our civilization and societies are mortal. The need for paradigm shifts. Humanism, and it’s power and purpose. The will to live, and what it means.

Amazing and beautiful stuff. I couldn’t recommend really thinking about all this, and what it means, more. 

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