Dr Mirt Komel: »A constitutional state does not have to be loved, it must be understood«
As a researcher and lecturer in philosophy at the University of Ljubljana and associate of the Peace Institute in Ljubljana, Dr Mirt Komel is well placed to assess Slovenia a quarter of a century after independence. He is a former member of the editorial board of the Journal for the Critique of Science, Imagination, and New Anthropology and a co-founder of the Aufhebung International Hegel Association. Author of two travelogues, one novel and three scientific monographs, he regularly publishes in renowned national and international scientific (Problemi, Filozofski vestnik etc.) and literary magazines (Apokalipsa, Sarajevske sveske). What is more, he occasionally stirs up the Slovenian public with articles in Slovenian mass media such as the Delo and Mladina.
»If you’re involved in philosophy, one of the effects is that you’re constantly distracted from the real world. And you need things that bring you back to earth. It’s very strenuous for the body to live exclusively in the world of ideas. To think means to think by applying concepts, which is unimaginably difficult,« he explains.
What are your thoughts on the 25th anniversary of Slovenia’s independence?
Slovenia? A young republic in the company of other European states with a long history. The concept of a modern state governed by the rule of law is significantly older than mere 250 years, which means that Slovenia with its 25th anniversary is in this regard still in its infancy. Of course, we have our history, also our experience as a state, our own institutions, culture and people who lead and govern it. Drawing a parallel with the Indian philosophy of reincarnation, one might say that the Socialist Republic of Slovenia was reincarnated into another form – the democratic Republic of Slovenia.
What does it look like today?
Philosophers are supposed to know and see things as they actually are, but to grasp the actual reality represents the utmost challenge. I understand a state to be a political community and the result of the actions of all its citizens. In that sense, all citizens are equally responsible for the current situation. We have no right to criticise and complain about state institutions, if we do not assume our own responsibility for them. The state is not something that evolves beyond our will, quite the opposite. So when we feel powerless before the massive infrastructure of the state, there is no excuse for our inaction. I am convinced that we are too passive as citizens. The first duty of citizens should be to read the Constitution of the Republic of Slovenia at least. To be a full citizen means to personally assume responsibility for the law. In short and very simply put: to know what is right.
And do we know that?
The problem with the law is that it behaves like the Roman emperor who hung the acts so high up that people were unable to read them. Legal language is so complex that ordinary citizens have difficulty understanding it. A constitutional state does not have to be loved, it must be understood. Civic education should be based on this: to learn to read and understand the law and then know how to intervene in the governance of the state so that ultimately we do not feel powerless victims. Were we familiar with the law, we would become aware of our great power as citizens. For instance, the “Today is a new day” initiative has set itself the task of making the state more accessible to citizens. They created the Parlameter, a tool which monitors the functioning of the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia, and at the same time in the case of a referendum they translate legal language into everyday language. In short, there prevails the desire to keep the state their own and they refuse to permit the state to become the hostage of any government or social group.
What is the difference between state and society?
The question about the relationship between state and society is an extreme sore, neuralgic point of any attempt to analyse and examine politics. The two should not be equated. We too often consider ourselves to be members of society and not frequently enough as citizens. Society per se is that which stands against the state. As citizens we have a set of rights and duties, and for the most part we behave as a market-oriented society which is trying to grow and develop by shaking off the domination of the state. The problem for citizens is that we let politicians deal with politics instead of getting involved ourselves, and we consider ourselves social beings that are not affected by the state or politics. This is the very same mistake as leaving thinking exclusively to us, philosophers as professional thinkers, saying “they are here to think so we don’t have to.” People who consider themselves as social beings and not as citizens can easily view the state as a collection of unnecessary duties, even as some type of a repressive machine which encroaches upon our rights. I find this a completely erroneous understanding of the state. The very thing that underpins our rights and freedoms we perceive as a yoke. When it comes to elections or referenda, these are seen as a matter of convenience in the sense that people say “I don’t feel like going to vote in the elections” ... What nonsense! There are so few opportunities available to us within the institutions of state that we should seize them with both hands, and yet we say that we just don’t feel like it. Not to even mention being politically active generally, beyond the framework of state institutions.
How did you perceive the uprising movement?
Politics is not a question of the heroic mien of a Hamlet or Antigone. You cannot do anything by yourself. You need people with whom you can act in tandem. Citizens became aware of their political power with the uprising movement two years ago, but they didn’t know how to truly capitalise on it and make it work. The most important political event of my generation was without question the uprising movement a few years ago; it can be equated to the civil society movement of the 1980s. The state was reset to zero. Power moved from state institutions onto the streets, where it was tossed about for a while waiting to be picked up and seized by someone. The people behaved as if they didn’t know what exactly to do with it; as if afraid of their own power, power which they were willing to return immediately into the hands of a predictably safe government. We weren’t prepared to take risks and make radical changes. The uprising movement was, or at least it could have been, the revolution of our time, but instead ended in a reformation of the state.
How would you compare Slovenia to Europe and the world?
I perceive Europe as the sum of the combined tradition of Greek and Roman antiquity, Christianity, Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In international relations, our size puts us in a subordinate position, but from the political standpoint, I see this as an advantage. Rather than being a modern constitutional state we are more akin to the polis of ancient Greece, the very cradle of politics. We could practice politics in a manner unlike any other EU country because they are all competing on an equal playing field in terms of size. We could lead the way in terms of quality, becoming some kind of political avant-garde in relation to others. Our very size might allow us to afford ourselves what large countries simply cannot.
In what field could we stand out?
For example, in philosophy, where we already excel. The Ljubljana Lacanian School with Slavoj Žižek at the microphone and Mladen Dolar on the guitar has amply demonstrated that quantity means nothing and that everything depends on quality. In the official world of academia and science, it is those individuals and institutions which publish the most articles and are awarded the most points, projects and similar quantitative qualifiers that lead the way. And with such qualifiers, they turn science into a production line and as a result kill off any thought process or thinking. However, in so far as thinking is concerned Ljubljana is the very place one needs to be in order to practice actual philosophy thanks to the aforementioned Lacanian School.
If you were the Prime Minister...
...I would be sceptical of Plato’s idea that rulers should be philosophers. Plato tried to elevate rulers into philosophers, and he was imprisoned on two occasions. Marcus Aurelius considered himself to be a Stoic philosopher, a free man whether in power on the throne or in chains, but one who just happened to find himself Emperor on the throne. I could go on. But I would always assert the same thing: philosophers are not suitable people to rule.
What’s it like to be a Slovenian citizen today?
Only when one leaves the country, does one actually feel what it’s like to be a Slovenian citizen. In Europe, I’m considered a Slovenian. Outside Europe, I’m seen as a European, in the Middle East as a Westerner and were I to go to the Moon, I’d probably be deemed an Earthling. One great thing about Slovenia is that we are forced to learn foreign languages due to our limited size, and languages expand our horizons and understanding of the world.
What does the future hold for Slovenia and Europe?
One possible scenario points in the direction of enhanced integration of Europe, where the EU wishes to become the United States of Europe following the example of the USA. The second scenario leans towards a process of fragmentation into smaller units. A balkanisation of Europe in a way, where nation states dissolve into smaller units. In any case, the idea of nation statehood is doomed and destined to fail. But if a state governed by the rule of law is able to overcome the defunct idea of a nation, that is another matter altogether.
As a professor of philosophy at the Faculty of Social Sciences, how do you see the younger generation?
This is a restless generation completely overcome and driven by action. It doesn’t know how to stop and think things through. It is a generation born with new technology in its cradle, technology which actually hinders the educational process, rather than enables access to knowledge, namely to books, lectures and the like. They are convinced that too much work and discipline is required of them and they fail to understand the difference between information and knowledge. They can get information via the Internet, but they can only obtain knowledge through studying, which means reading and listening to their teachers. Watching a lecturer via YouTube is not the same as the actual experience of the lecture, and herein lies the problem of an entire generation which does not realise that it even has a problem. They could build on everything that we don’t understand about them, and develop something new, different. Every generation brings something new, unique. But in order for them to develop that, they must first walk the path of previous generations. The only way to take a step forward is to take a step back. You have to know what has been done before: it’s a question of the relationship towards tradition. They are too worried about the future. They are afraid even if they’re not in danger, because they don’t understand that they can resolve their situation solely as a generation since the matter at hand is a collective-political and not a personal-psychological issue. They take most pleasure in the narcissistic self-affirmations of the type predominantly offered by Facebook, because they don’t realise that the prerequisite of happiness is the readiness to forget about oneself. If you seek happiness, you have to create and provide it for others.
What are your personal plans for the future?
To think, work, read, write and simply to be.
Source: Sinfo - January/February 2016 (6.5 MB)