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The Culture Conundrum
by Bouke S. Nagel
2014-03-10 10:02:02
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One thing I do know: Never, on this Earth, was the relation of man to man long carried on by Cash-payment alone. If, at any time, a philosophy of Laissez-faire, Competition and Supply-and-demand, start up as the exponent of human relations, expect that it will soon end.

Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present, 1843

After the revolutions of 1848, many disillusioned thinkers and political visionaries lost their hope in a democratic future for Europe. They left for the United States. In the subsequent decades millions of skilled workers followed. While Europe bled dry, America prospered. I sometimes wonder how this affected the development of European societies leading up to the point in 1914 when modern states with advanced weaponry were still run by a medieval political caste dreaming of building empires.

In this article I would therefore like to explore the relation between culture, globalisation and migration. The Left and the Right are divided on this issue and it is one of the most heated debated topics of our time. Furthermore, being a migrant myself I was faced with this issue last month when a referendum was organized in Switzerland. In order to begin I would like to start with a brief analysis of the success of a country that is ranked number one on the index of the World Economic Forum.

On becoming wealthy

Switzerland is the sister republic of the United States. Like America, Switzerland also is an artificial construct, consisting of smaller populations that enjoy the benefits of forming a voluntary nation. In the German language this is called a Willensnation (we want to be together), while the EU is referred to as a Schicksalsnation (ordained by doom). Like the US, Switzerland also welcomes migrants and today 25% of its inhabitants are foreigners.

Without them the country would fall apart. Hospitals in Switzerland are staffed by German doctors and nurses. Sports injuries are treated by Dutch physiotherapists. Dishes are served in restaurants by people from Portugal. Skilled engineers from Spain or Poland are helping Swiss industries to keep their competitive edge in the world. And the list goes on. If managed properly, migration or the influx of human capital can make a nation very wealthy.

Because every time a German doctor decides to work in Switzerland, the government in Berlin loses an investment that was made to train a medical specialist. Germany also loses about 1.000.000 Euros per medical doctor on taxes during lifetime. The same principle applies to engineers, but in their case German companies also lose because creative talents now work for Swiss competitors. As long as the Swiss keep their country the best place to live and work in, “human capital” just keeps flowing in.

Both the Left and the Right in Switzerland therefore agree that migration is beneficial for the country. Over the past years the Swiss media announced happily that as a result of migration, Central-Europe will not be as much affected by the negative effects of an aging population compared to other European regions. And while the EU is struck by a severe financial- and economic crisis, the economy of Switzerland is flourishing and the outlook for its future is downright positive.

Too many new people                                         

But how would an American react when he finds out that everyone speaks the Queen´s English during a visit to New York? It may sound strange but according to many Swiss something similar is happening in Zürich. The kind of German which is spoken in Central-Europe is slowly being replaced by a version used by migrants from the North in several parts of the Alps. It is a source of great annoyance and it makes people feel that their country isn´t home anymore.  

Because if hospitals and universities are staffed by Germans, wouldn´t that make them German? It is bad enough to be addressed by a boss who refuses to speak your language. But it is even worse when you are confronted with a different kind of work ethic. And what will happen to the most democratic country in the world when it takes in so many people from the North? According to the Far-Right in Switzerland, there is only option left to save the country: kick-out all the Germans.

Something similar is happening in other parts of Europe. Cities like Amsterdam, Berlin, London and Paris are regarded as foreign places these days and not as capitals of their respective countries anymore. New people, other languages, strange foods and different clothes are creating a sense of alienation in societies facing tremendous change. It is difficult enough to deal with the uncertainties of the future, but it is even harder when it is difficult to interact with people living next door.  

But who wants to live in the world of the past!? The Americans for example used to have a so-called white-Anglo-Saxon-protestant culture in America. And these WASPS, as they were called, occupied key positions in major institutions, which was neither fair nor just. It changed for the better during the sixties when equal rights for coloured people and women were introduced. Which leads us to the question what the Right is rambling about these days and … what is the Left doing wrong?

The Apple Tree

In order to answer these questions we have to examine the meaning of culture. This word lies at the heart of a fierce debate practically everywhere. And it is cause for a great schism very similar to what happens in the country of Lilliput, described in the book Gulliver´s Travels. In this fictional country so small that Gulliver could travel through it by taking three steps, people were near a state of civil war because they could not agree on which side of a boiled egg can be best used to open.

It is a ridiculous issue for sure, but unfortunately for us, most societies on our planet are discussing it right now under the guise of culture. The problem with culture is that the word has two meanings at the same time. I am referring to the word Kultur in German (and do not make assumptions about the meaning of this word in other languages). And in order to make my point I would like to invite you to make use of a metaphor: imagine an apple tree and assume it represents society.  

Culture has two meanings in this regard. Culture is represented by the fruits of the tree and at the same time it also consists of the soil in which the tree is rooted. The Left and the Right believe these two meanings are mutually exclusive. So the problem is that the Left thinks that culture is a product solely, while the Right focusses on cultural soil but loses sight of the tree. The Swiss wouldn´t be the Swiss however when they did not turn this issue into a referendum.

In doing so they presented themselves with an impossible choice. One side of the political spectrum told voters that we need to take care of our apples in a global economy. The other side insisted that we need take care of our soil. As a result the outcome of this referendum was split almost exactly in two because half the voters in this small country expressed that they wanted to enjoy the fruits of their labour, while the other half expressed their concern and care for a place that you can call home.





The Fruits of our Labour

Like in the picture above, the Left appears to be rational. It determines the state of society by literally measuring the quality of its products (or apples). From this point of view a person becomes “richer” whenever he is engaged in cultural exchange. One can think of enjoying new kinds of food, travelling the world or having time to read great novels. It is all about accumulation and the Left therefore thinks that it is the task of government to create an optimal exchange mechanism (a.k.a. the market).

Without markets society as we know it cannot function, at least not at this level. So markets have become kind of sacred in the 21st century. This especially holds true for the European Union. And because of the value we place on the market, we created specialists to take care of it. I am referring to the fields of economy and law. Economic specialists however appear to act as priests by interpreting the “signs” of the market which are used to make predictions about our future.

It takes years of training to develop a specialist like that. And even then economists need to be ordained by government agencies, universities and financial institutions to gain the kind of prestige needed to be allowed to present a prediction to the public. In that sense economy is our modern day equivalent of theology. This creates a tension between technocracy and democracy in Europe because markets cannot be shaped, restricted, controlled or interpreted by laymen.

There is however disagreement within the Left about the role markets should play in our societies. Over the past decades the consensus was that government ought to leave markets unchecked (1). And there are even some who suggest that individuals or groups, deemed unworthy by the market to take part in the economic process, should simply fade into oblivion. For the Left the biggest question is what we as a society should do with people who do not generate economic revenue.

Cultural values

If the Left is correct and an ideal person is someone who acquires taste for cultural products such as fine wines, travelling or the works of poets, philosophers and painters, then why do these cultured types always appear in Hollywood movies as the villain? A real life example is the SS-lieutenant in the 1940s beautifully playing Liszt on a stolen piano, while his platoon clears a Jewish ghetto of its inhabitants. All the sophistication in the world cannot guarantee you becoming a decent person.

We therefore have to make a distinction between being cultured and being civilized, between having and being as the philosopher Erich Fromm would say (2). What I am, is not only determined by my background (in other words: soil) but also by a place in which I can develop myself as a human being. A culture therefore can be considered “rich” too when it provides us with values. Man however is not made out of stone which means that we need to differentiate again between being and becoming.

Being someone is relatively easy, becoming yourself is hard. The process of individuation, as the philosopher Carl Gustav Jung calls it, takes a lifetime. It requires hope, faith and love given the fact that life is not without surprises and its outcome is open. We also need others to assist us in our growth in order to develop a sense of inner worth. A civilized person therefore acknowledges and respects human dignity in all forms and manifestations within ourselves and others (3). 

From this point of view culture is something that you grow into. It means that an individual has to make a choice where to stay put and form lasting connections with other people. In that regard man will turn out as a product of that choice. Cultural products (apples) can be exchanged, but culture as soil is part of who you are, despite the fact that values change over time and often contradict each other. So culture in this sense is not a static concept and every person has to deal with that in life.

The Role of the European Union

Despite its common market, Europe is characterized by several regions with clearly distinctive cultures. As a result of the Second World War, the Swiss and the British for example can be found on the other side of the line in comparison to countries like Austria, Belgium, Germany and Holland. The Cold War added another cultural border between East and West. Switzerland also lies exactly on the border between North and South, which is reflected in the absence of a strong central state.

In that regard the Swiss are Southerners because they display a strong aversion for career politicians who are assumed to be corrupt. Their culture also isn´t defined by historical guilt as is the case with Holland and Germany, which makes them similar to the British. These are just some examples. Europe´s cultural diversity furthermore coincides with the existence of several interconnected public platforms better known as countries (by the Chinese referred to as special economic zones).

It took centuries for communities to form the bonds of trust which are needed to create them. And for these platforms to function well it takes at least twenty years to socialize people in order to teach them how to be used properly. Furthermore, citizens in a democracy are regarded as owners of public platforms and thus expected to share responsibility in maintaining them. Europe however now sacrifices it public services on the altar of the free market thus undermining these platforms.

This is done out of two reasons. One, it is believed in Europe that public platforms are to be replaced by a bigger platform in order to increase political stability and competitiveness in this part of the world. Two, it is also believed that making regular sacrifices to the market will grant us a better pricing and distribution of goods. By taking this course of action, Brussels not only disowns Europe from its own inhabitants, but also risks triggering a backlash which it is supposed to prevent.

Les extrêmes se touchent

Migrants are caught in the middle of all of this. On the one hand they represent human capital which countries like Switzerland, The United States and Singapore actively seek and use to maintain their standard of living in the upper echelons of our planet. Migrants on the other hand also need time to figure out how to interact with public platforms in their respective host countries. When migrants (or any people for that matter) do not make a success out of their stay, it is regarded as a problem.

The Americans deal with this by putting human beings in jail by the millions. In privatized security centres prisoners are then reprocessed as cheap workers for other companies. This drives the cost of labour down. Europe meanwhile decided over the past decades to utilize its welfare systems to create “special zones” in major cities, in which people are branded as outcasts, effectively trapping them over there for generations to come in exclusion near the poverty-line.

And given the fact that the world will not be the same anymore in the 21st century, Europe is faced with a problem. How is it going to finance all these tiny public platforms with dwindling populations in a democracy, while China operates a mega-platform at peak efficiency run by officials who do not have to bother with voters? Consequently, how is Europe going to keep up its standard of living? When we follow this line of thought to its logical conclusions it leads us to a frightening place.  

A few years ago during a Tea-Party meeting in America a member of the audience screamed that all uninsured people should die. In Europe an economist like Thilo Sarazzin can explain you exactly which groups in society perform well and which ones are considered to be burdensome. Otherwise put: how much is an individual allowed to cost? And what do we do as a society with people who do not generate economic revenue? One has to listen very carefully to what is being said these days.

Flow charts

Last year the Dutch Prime Minister told citizens in Holland to rejoice, because (the Bureau of Statistics showed that) the number of children was up, which meant it was justified for people to start spending again. A Dutch comedian took notice, referred to it in one of his shows and asked the audience: who talks like that? The answer: almost all government officials, businessmen and other administrators, who gather every year at events like the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Globalization entails the creation of world-wide value chains (4), which means that every product consists of elements stemming from various continents and regions. It is now technically feasible to produce such an element, put a tab on it and then watch on the computer screen how it flows from country to country until it arrives at your doorstep. Stability is needed in order for these value chains to work properly, thus ensuring you and me a life of plenty, devoid of all the miseries of the past.

What is also needed is a work force modelled according to the specifications of multinationals in each specific part of the value chain. If a country cannot provide such workers it risks losing its place in these global streams. That is why it is in the economic interest of governments to put a tab on individuals as well in order to monitor how they flow through life. Children in the West are therefore subjected to tests at schools from a very young age to assess their potential for economic revenue.

The problem with this approach is that it transforms people from subjects into objects that can be integrated into governmental flow charts. And in doing so we lose sight of human dignity because we now teach people from a very young age that their worth as a human being is only as much as their capacity to generate economic output (5). This is not humane and perhaps one of the reasons why the rate of psychological afflictions such as depression will see a sharp rise in the 21st century (6).


Moses is found as an orphan on the shores of the river Nile by a member of the wealthiest family in ancient Egypt. At that time the country is richer than ever due to cheap labour costs and taxes generated by the influx of hundreds of thousands migrant workers. Moses has a happy childhood. As a student he enrols at a business school in Thebes (ranked 3rd by the Financial Times). After his MBA-graduation party his sports car breaks down near one of the bad neighbourhoods of Alexandria.

He asks a young women passing by for help and she invites him to come over to her parents´ home. Over there he enjoys a cup of coffee, while one of her nephews is so kind to fix his car. The girl turns out to be a nice person and Moses realizes that migrants are not as bad as his elder brother describes them to be. He longs to stay but he has to get back to his apartment because tomorrow is his first day at work as project manager representing a top consultancy firm in the construction industry.

In the months afterwards he travels from client to client supervising construction yards. He knows how to boost production and improves efficiency, which pleases his bosses. And when the economy starts to slow down he manages to downsize client companies very quickly. He is respected by his peers but feels something is lacking. His family tries to reassure him by reminding him of the fact that everything is going great in his life so perhaps it is time for him to start looking for a wife.

Moses takes the company jet to Alexandria and asks that nice girl from the bad neighbourhood to marry him. It upsets his family. It also puts his brother in a difficult spot. He is Prime Minister and leader of the People´s Party of Egypt who promised voters to “deal” with migrants. Moses´ choice to marry that girl is hurting his brothers´ chances for re-election. The story continues with all migrants leaving the country and Egypt ends up bankrupt and poor after which it is taken over by the Romans.

Moses is a natural leader and succeeds in helping his friends and family to secure their place in a new country. But he refuses to go there himself because he is aware of his background as an Egyptian. If he were to supervise the formation of a provisional government or kick-start an economy, he could very well recreate the circumstances that would turn his people back into slaves again (7). He doesn´t want to end up like his brother in Alexandria and decides to spend the rest of his days in solitude.

Human capital

I visited Davos during the World Economic Forum several times and enjoyed each and any of these trips until this year. I was walking down the street and listened to three women behind me who had clearly been to some kind of seminar about leadership. One of them said: “If you are truly passionate about your goals, you transform into a leader and then the universe presents you with gifts!” These silly geese quacked as if they had just come to realize one of Buddha´s four noble truths. It struck me.

In the centre of Davos I found a number of showrooms belonging to major international firms. Some of them resembled shady night clubs. In one of these booths I saw two young women sitting on a sofa. The remarkable thing was that their outfits exactly matched the colour of their surroundings like they were somehow part of the furniture. I quickly realized what that meant, because if you enter such a room and make a million dollar deal, you receive one of these pretty girls as a gift.

Afterwards I went to a debate about ethics & capitalism but given what I experienced prior, I lacked the enthusiasm to engage in this discussion. So what happens over there every year? The people who meet at the World Economic Forum are like foremen of gigantic construction yards employing hundreds of thousands of workers in global value chains. It is almost impossible to grasp the scale and size of these constructs which are supposed to deliver the pyramids of the 21st century.

The problem is that economic theory lacks an ethical dimension for this. Especially when millions of people are redirected from one place to another on intra-governmental flow charts in Europe, Asia and America. Those who supervise all of this represent a kind of thinking in which cultural values are deemed irrational and standing in the way of the development of human capital. Davos therefore is the kind of place where Moses and his elder brother went to as students to find an internship.

Bouke S. Nagel


Sources, references and a remark:

1: Chrystian Caryl, Strange Rebels, 1979 and the birth of the 21st Century, Basic Books, New York, 2013.

2: Erich Fromm, Haben oder Sein, Die Seelischen Grundlagen einer neuen Gesellschaft, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 37th edition, 2010.  

3: Peter Bieri, Eine Art zu Leben, Über die Vielfalt menschlicher Würde, Carl Hanser Verlag, München, 2013.

4: Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat, The Globalized World in the Twenty-First Century, Penguin Books, London, seventh edition, 2006.

5: Julia Friedrichs, Gestatten Elite: Auf den Spuren der Mächtigen von Morgen, Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, München, 5th edition, 2009.

6: James Martin, The Meaning of the 21st Century, A vital Blueprint for ensuring our Future, Eden Projects Books, 2007, p. 395.

7: Several leaders made the mistake of entering the Promised Land in the 20th century with the result that whole societies were ruined and people had to endure less freedom than ever before.




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Emanuel Paparella2014-03-10 12:04:28
This is an intriguing intelligently written and thought-provoking article. I am intrigued by the title and wonder if culture in the EU rather than being conceived as a conundrum between the views on the right and those on the left of the political spectrum, could not be conceived as the indispensable glue that provides an identity to a people and keeps them together? What is a people without a cultural identity: slaves in Egypt producing the Pyramids, to use the same metaphor here used? Can a polity consisting of many nations and cultures be kept alive with soccer games and end common currency and common banks and Mercedes Benz?

Actually, come to think of it, the bigger point of the story of Moses and his brothers in Egypt is an ethical one: the brothers had sold their brother in slavery (the slavery of the markets?) and that was an evil for which the brothers were responsible but while they meant it for evil and greed and jealousy, God’s Providence meant it for good... That, I dare say, is the meaning of that story.

It may be that the dichotomy, or the conundrum if you will, does not reside in the right and left political interpretation (fruit or soil) but as a duality between utilitarian capitalistic ethics a la Stuart Mill (the markets and profits: you are what you own), and deontological ethics a la Kant (values based on what you are as a human being with a human nature. Once the conundrum is understood that way, then a crucial question arises: has the EU put the cart before the horse? Which is to say, now that we have made Europe for the markets, do we still need to make the Europeans? Or more succinctly put: What exactly does it mean to be a European? But threre is much more to say on this subject. Stay tuned.

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