The rules of the freedom game

The time is out of joint because its context/cohesion has gone missing. The time has now come to talk about the rules for a new story.

The year 1851 saw the publication of Arthur Schopenhauer’s collection of philosophical essays “Parerga and Paralipomena”. The magic of this work lies in the timeless topics and images that German master of philosophy has compiled in it. One of the best known parables in the book is entitled “The Porcupines”. In it Schopenhauer describes the behaviour of a “company of porcupines” that huddles closely together on a winter’s day in order to avoid freezing to death. When crowded closely together and with hardly any free space, the group is afforded security and safety. But this closeness is treacherous because the porcupines prick each other with their quills and so they disperse again until they feel cold once more and consequently they crowd back closer together again. And as the philosopher writes, they are tossed back and forth between these two disagreeable states until they have discovered a reasonable distance from each other, one they can best tolerate (…) In the same way, society has a need, arising from its own inner emptiness and monotony, which drives people towards each other; but their many repugnant characteristics and intolerable faults leads them to be mutually repelled.” The behaviour of the porcupines is the search for the “moderate distance”, as Schopenhauer terms the uncertain state of hovering between back and forth, and once this distance has been achieved the code of “politeness and fine manners” governs.

Those seeking to transpose Schopenhauer’s parable into the present time and into our language recognise in politeness and fine manners more than merely a question of etiquette. These constitute a code for the right distance between the individual and society, between I and We, between Us and the Others, between one’s Ownness and the Alien. And yet once again a cold wind is now blowing around these words; they have become discomforting. That is no accident. There is something unspoken that is always there. This also always concerns the rules and norms that go to make up the “moderate distance”.

Tipping Point Talk #2 – Normativity

In 2019, Erste Bank and Sparkassen, as well as ERSTE Foundation celebrate 200 years of the savings bank idea, which, in times of industrialisation and urbanisation, was not only civic-minded and economically viable but also innovative and audacious. Are there still lessons to be learned from the savings bank concept in 2019?

The journalist and author Wolf Lotter contributes four essays to the topics of the 2019 event series Tipping Point Talks: identity, normativity, possibility and audacity. In this text he reflects on normativity.

Normative behaviour is the result of a mixture of social and personal statement of position. This result ensures that for us it gets neither “too cold” nor “too prickly”, neither too uncertain nor too close and confined. It is about the question of all communities, never brought to a conclusion, constantly needing to be renegotiated, all about the rules of the freedom game.

How many can one have? And how many do we need in order not to find our lives intolerable? One of the disconcerting discoveries of our time is that the assumption of the western liberal affluent societies after the end of the great dictatorships of 20th century that there need be no renegotiation about freedom has revealed itself to be an illusion.

The belief that the “moderate distance” is actually adequately positioned and has practically become the normative Global Positioning System, now proves to be a fatal error, a gross misunderstanding. It was assumed that growing prosperity, the expansion of material choices and freedoms also promised unlimited growth in personal free spaces. The one seemed to entail the other, practically to guarantee it.

Not merely the right to physical integrity, elementary human and civil rights, no, also the development of the personality, its self-determination, and the self-realisation of the individual, all these seemed to have been provided with a ticket of guaranteed entry. Everything was taken care of. Everything seemed to happen of its own accord and wherever the complete securing of freedom had not yet come about, it was only a matter of time after all – a timely delivery was expected promptly.Even critics of “the system” had to admit to themselves that the western liberal market economies had made the greatest progress in history in relation to basic liberties and freedom to develop. The “moderate distance” to each other of Schopenhauer’s porcupines had finally settled down and seemed to have become a fixed quantity. For ever and a day.

It is about the question of all communities, never brought to a conclusion, constantly needing to be renegotiated, all about the rules of the freedom game.

Without doubt, this eternity is a thing of the past. The open society seems to have taken a hammering. The initial reactions to Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orban were amazement and bafflement, followed by anger and despair. All these are reliable indicators that the liberal democracies and their elites had no longer expected to have to grapple with the rules of the game of freedom. The whole normative complex, everything that human beings lay down as binding rules and agreements in order to get along with each other had just become more of an historic or academic issue. One read Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” or Karl Popper’s “The Open Society”. A touch of scepticism was aroused when economist Friedrich August von Hayek raised his demand for the “dogmatic” and “doctrinaire defence of freedom”. The countless warnings of the older generation who had had their own personal, life-threatening experiences dealing with right-wing and left-wing enemies of freedom were all things of the past and abstract. One was well aware that the League of Nations had failed but the United Nations seemed to be an adequately strong bureaucracy. Everything else would come about of its own accord, without the need to take any action.

Fundamentally defined, normativity is everything that is not a law of nature. It is the totality of everything that mankind creates for itself as reality. Laws, rules, cultures, norms and much more that we abide by. Here it is on the one hand clear that the arrangements contained in them are mobile, that they develop, that the “moderate distance” is no static quantity. Yet the question is: how mobile? The age of the enlightenment can also be assessed as the attempt to redefine the rules of the game for mobility, to make them clearer and more binding. It was no longer only about one’s own group interest, but about the attempt at a sustained consensus-building, precisely that “moderation” which can only be developed “piecemeal” as Karl Popper put it. The attempt to produce as much individual justice as possible, as much democracy and diversity and as little confinement and lack of freedom as possible is a laborious business, one that takes time. It requires a personal effort, commitment in civil society. So added to Immanuel Kant’s “courage to make use of one’s own reason”, his famous answer to the question “what is enlightenment?” comes the difficult obligation to actively defend the freedoms thus won. All that is hard work.

Fundamentally defined, normativity is everything that is not a law of nature. It is the totality of everything that mankind creates for itself as reality.

In contrast, populists and tyrants do not enter into negotiations about reality; they “create facts”. The expression “the normative force of the factual” gives an inkling of the violence lurking behind it. This phrase was coined by Georg Jellinek, an Austrian-German expert in constitutional law, who lived and worked in the second half of the 19th century. With the term “normative force of the factual”, Jellinek sought to point to a real existing contradiction of natural law and to the principles of enlightenment and reason. The power of reality which influences normativity is thus the result of the respective social and cultural views of it. It is not the static rules and norms laid down by states and supranational communities that secure the respective right distance but that what is – and that what is is that what is declared to be reality. That recalls one of the founding fathers of populism in the 19th and early 20th century, the mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger. His dictum, delivered in broad Viennese dialect, “I am the one who decides who is a Jew and who isn’t” can be seen as practically establishing modern populism. Whoever wishes to amend or abolish the rules of the game of freedom does not negotiate with reality – that also means that they do not explain or defend their actions or make a case for them. In the process the new “moderate distance” can be as close or cold as may be. Their maxims are: wait and see. You’ll notice it all right. And of course, as is not only demonstrated by Donald Trump’s climate policy, also scientific facts are twisted. Reality is what “we” declare it to be. The “man of action” thumbs his nose at rules, courtesy and good manners, decency and other people. He and his followers dodge the unloved process of protracted and laborious negotiation.

Populists and tyrants do not enter into negotiations about reality; they “create facts”.

The supporters of such politics are generally labelled the losers of modernisation, those who have been left behind in the current transformation from the industrial to the knowledge society, people who fail to come to terms with the complexity of the world. For these people the offer to hand the “moderate distance” back completely into the hands of a “strong man” with a “strong state” is a highly attractive proposition. But let us not forget those who consider themselves sited on the other side, all the highly naive ones who have dispensed with their civil obligations because they thought all that would take care of itself anyway. Even among the well educated elites there are many who have indeed been left behind, who are distressed by too much complexity, who are only too ready to hand over to others their opportunities to make decisions and choices in a complex society. The causes here are barely different from the clients who stand behind the Trumps and the Putins: such as too little knowledge about the elementary connections between economics, material and personal freedom; or a readiness, merely a verbal and predominantly virtual readiness to defend freedom “without restraint” and effectively. In fact, there is little chance of doing so by clicking on petitions but only when you see yourself as a stakeholder, a member of civil society, someone who campaigns for his own concerns and does not delegate them to the official channels which then regulate the respective correct distance. In creating a liberal conception of normativity, that is does justice to an open society, what is at stake is the question formulated by the German economist Birger Priddat, who stated that a civil society “consists of the reverse transfer of the difficult decisions as to how one wants to live and is to live back to the only ones who can decide these questions: back to the citizens themselves”.

In that way at least it would be possible to counteract the presumptuousness of the “normative force of the factual” of all those forces, whether from the right or left, who are working on the erosion of freedom and the enlightenment: namely by taking matters in hand oneself, thus emerging from the passive role and becoming an active formative part of society, progress and the world. “The habit of settling down in the role of victim paralyses the impulse for self-correction,” writes Timothy Snyder in his magnificent book “On Tyranny”. And he gives the porcupines the best possible advice: to switch from passivity to activity, to personal responsibility. Moralising debates on virtue lead to nothing. It is not about reactions but about actions – not about moral outrage but active expert action – about concrete “designs for the future”.

The gateway providing the way in for populists lies in the weakness of liberal elites in not taking their own insights and historical lessons sufficiently seriously – and compiling them into a story that all can understand. This absence of history has its price, namely the loss of future viability. Odo Marquard’s statement “the future needs the past” must be understood in this light because “people are their histories” stipulated the philosopher. And stories/histories are connections. They are becoming ever more important in a world in which unexplored complexity seems to us to be cold and inaccessible. These connections – to which the rules also belong – open up the alien to us and make it familiar. In the process history does not repeat itself but presents itself once more. What was believed to have been overcome resurfaces from the depths when we move on, leaving behind us problems unsolved and injustices still undone. Whoever wishes to know what the basic rules are that freedom needs, especially in the difficult conditions it meets in the 21st century must be ready to think in terms of history, of connections. Civil society is not what we leave undone or impotently permit, but what we do for the best of all worlds – one that is good enough for all.

The school of civil society

The Enabling


“Witnessing war to learn for peace.”

“Proletarians of all countries, who washes your socks?”

“Time to rethink growth”

“It’s elites who turn against democracy, not the people.”

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