How The Light Gets In

Written by Ellen Halliday on . Posted in Current profiles, Profiles

Philippe Van Parijs is one of the most original political philosophers of our time. He founded the Hoover Chair of Economic and Social Ethics at the University of Louvain and directed it from 1991-2016. He is also a special guest professor at the University of Leuven and an associate member of Nuffield College, Oxford. In 1986 he founded the Basic Income Earth Network and remains chair of its International Board to this day. He is currently a fellow in the Global Governance Programme at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies.

The Max Weber Lecture Van Parijs delivered at the EUI, entitled ‘Just Europe’, is available here.

Political philosopher, public intellectual, author and activist: Philippe Van Parijs has an impressive reputation. Yet this ‘philosopher in the world’ is anything but intimidating. Which makes sense, for a man whose life’s work has been the pursuit of equality. ‘I’ve always found it important to do work that was politically relevant given my value judgements, but at the same time intellectually stimulating,’ he says.

Philippe Van Parijs

Philippe Van Parijs

Those value judgements are not difficult to discern. In May 2012 Van Parijs penned an opinion piece in Dutch and French which called for Brussels to reclaim the city’s squares from traffic. The article, went viral and became the catalyst for the Picnic The Streets movement. On 10th June 2012, hundreds of people gathered on the roadside in Place de la Bourse with their barbeques, blankets and babies. At 12 noon they stepped en masse into the road, and began a public picnic.

The events continued throughout that summer, but Van Parijs remembers one particular occasion which stood out. ‘There was a lady who had her 80th birthday, and she came to support the event with all of her brothers and sisters,’ he recalls. ‘Then there were three young guys playing Indian music, and they gave her a special little concert. I am still moved talking about it because you could see the challenges of the great diversity along many dimensions – people who would not meet otherwise. We created a space and it performed the role that these squares should have, which is to enable people to stand still or sit down and enjoy quality time together. So they found themselves in this funny situation – the birthday of an old lady, still fiery about the importance of the cause, alongside these young guys.’

The same principle – of a diverse group collaborating to make a better space in which to live – extends to his political theory. On the future of Europe Van Parijs says it is crucial to ‘increase the capacity of all components of the European population to talk and listen to each other in a cheap and effective way.’ As is also argued in his 2011 text, Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World, ‘that means democratization of a lingua-franca, which would be English.’ ‘You can’t have a demos without the capacity to communicate, not only amongst the powerful and the wealthy but also throughout society,’ he argues. ‘A Greek and a German trade-union leader need to be able to communicate directly, and not with an interpreter between them, in a sufficiently fluent way so they can laugh and joke together.’

That’s also something the man himself likes to do. Post-Brexit Europe must re-appropriate English as the key to their own success since after-all, he says smilingly, English is ‘just a mixture of French and German, pronounced in a sloppy way’.

Jokes aside, Van Parijs is not complacent about the challenges to equality today. As he argued in his Max Weber Lecture this month, ‘if we don’t want to remain stuck forever with neo-liberalism, or to leave the field at the mercy of populist utopias, we need bold utopias, not least for us Europeans.’

Yet actually creating a better world depends, he says, on the collaboration between  three kinds of people. First, you need the ‘Smart Utopians’. They are ‘visionaries but not dreamers’, who can imagine a radically different world whilst being realistic about its imperfections. Second you need what he calls, with characteristic playfulness, the ‘Botty-kickers’ or ‘Indignados’. These are the activists who are outraged by the absurdity or injustice of the world around them, struggling on and on to enact change. Last but not least are the Tinkerers. Guided by the visionaries and pushed onwards by the Indignados, Tinkerers fiddle with the systems we have, to shape the world we need.

Perhaps it’s the timing, but this last group could be best understood through the words of the recently-late but ever-great song-smith Leonard Cohen: ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’ When the world around looks grim, the Tinkerers find the cracks in the system where you can see the light, and move forward with conviction.

When the political optimism of many has suffered blow after blow, Van Parijs’ faith in the collaborative potential of human beings is fortifying. No matter how vast the political challenges we face are maybe, as the saying goes, life is a picnic after-all.

Watch Philippe Van Parijs’ TEDx Talk on the Picnic The Streets.

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