The Politics of Miracles

Philosophers debate the Austrian corruption mess

News | Laurence Doering | October 2011

"If philosophers are being consulted, the crisis must be deep indeed," Konrad Paul Liessmann, professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna, quipped in the packed glass-roofed courtyard of the Haus der Musik. It didn’t need explaining that the crisis in question was that of Austrian politics, engulfed in burgeoning corruption scandals [see "Something Rotten in the State of Austria" in Oct. 2011 TVR]; indeed, Der Standard, an Austrian daily, found it sufficient to entitle its panel discussion that Sept. 19 – the first in a series of "Monday Talks" ("Montagsgespräche") – "The State of Austrian Politics: Philosophers take position". Everybody knew.

Liessmann was joined on the panel by three younger moral philosophers: Marie-Luisa Frick from the University of Innsbruck, Anne Siegetsleitner from Salzburg, and Georg Schildhammer who works in Vienna, while Der Standard columnist Gerfried Sperl hosted – with an iron fist, as he tried to keep speakers on topic and audience comments brief.

A bewildered question from the floor best framed the debate: "How did our society come to this? Why has social solidarity been undone?"

The scholars pointed both to cultural and structural reasons. "For twenty years," Liessmann said, "we have been told to enrich ourselves and do it our way, including by Der Standard." This managerial ethos meant, for instance, that life-long civil servants were seen as inefficient and unambitious. "So we brought in hip young managers on five-year contracts to run the state, with the help of consultancies," Liessmann continued, "with the result that they ripped the state off, because they knew that their contracts were limited." The one redeeming thing about this revelation is that "perhaps finally the ideology that private vice leads to public virtue has come to its end."

Among the structural causes for political corruption, the speakers pointed chiefly to the lack of separation of powers in Austrian politics, which is notoriously bi-partisan. As such, the frequent grand coalitions between the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democrats (SPÖ) result in a tacit agreement not to discredit each other: "The fact that a parliamentary committee could investigate the Eurofighter deals [a €2 billion purchase of defence airplanes in 2003 for which then-Defence Minister Herbert Scheibner (then Freedom Party, FPÖ) allegedly received kickbacks, ed.] for years without any results indeed suggests that nobody wants to step on anybody’s toes," Liessmann highlighted.

Frick added that parties’ youth wings were trained in "parallel worlds", cultivating a "mafia mentality" of insiders against outsiders. As such, an insulated class of career politicians "live off politics, rather than for politics," as the sociologist Max Weber famously put it in 1919.

Pressed by the moderator for practical remedies, Liessmann asserted that politicians’ ethics could not be changed: "The exercise and abuse of power are almost identical," as it is the very temptation of power that makes individuals willing and able to rule. The task, therefore, is to create a framework that limits the potential for abuse. Here, a lot must be done: Regulations of party financing and lobbying are laughably underdeveloped in Austria, lagging behind other countries. Frick, meanwhile, pointed to the Swiss model of civic politics, in which citizens take office alongside their usual jobs, as an antidote to insulated parties.

Ultimately, however, these structural changes can only come about if citizens re-claim politics as an autonomous, creative sphere. The financial and corruption crises have given the lie to the idea that "if the economy is doing well, we’ll all do well," Liessmann pointed out. Instead, rethinking the idea of the good life must again be the focus of politics.

"Apathy is the greatest danger," said Frick, "but if people become aware of their ability to act, then miracles – in the strict sense of realising the unexpected – become possible."

In a climate in which panel discussions about white-collar crime can dispense with a title because the topic is all too familiar, miracles of political creativity are in urgent demand.


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