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Condorcets misstag review

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Issue number: 2018:2


Condorcets misstag - Hoten mot staten och demokratin

(Condorcet's Error: Threats to the State and Democracy)

by Per Molander
reviewed by Fiona Graham

Nicolas de Condorcet, mathematician, philosopher and a member of the first government formed during the French Revolution, championed the Enlightenment ideals of intellectual and religious liberty, rationality, and increased economic freedom. He advocated civil rights for women, equality before the law for all citizens, and the abolition of slavery. In the attempt to create a new and freer society, he argued that all should have access to a basic level of education. If these conditions were met, Condorcet argued, enlightenment would ultimately prevail.

Per Molander – physicist, mathematician, sociologist and historian – clearly has what one might call an elective kinship with Condorcet. He argues, however, that Condorcet made just one serious error, and that was to take too optimistic a view of human nature. In the industrialised democracies, at least, we now have universal basic education and all the freedoms that were so radical at the ​ time of the French Revolution. Science has prospered to such an extent that technological wonders condition every aspect of our everyday reality. And yet obscurantism, superstition and irrationality continue to pervade society. People show a remarkable level of resistance to empirical facts. Widespread access to information does not equate to a well-informed populace, and populism of a particularly ugly kind has re-emerged across Europe and beyond.

To what does Molander attribute the current political malaise? Having analysed the various facets of liberty championed by Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet – intellectual, religious, political, moral and economic freedoms – he argues that excessive economic freedom without responsibility can, and does, hamper the others. Adam Smith – author of The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well as of the better-known An Enquiry into the Nature and the Causes of the Wealth of Nations – would almost certainly object to the way his name is taken in vain by neo-liberals who talk ad nauseam of the hidden hand of the market (a phrase little used by Smith himself, as Molander points out).

For some decades, the state has come under attack by the disciples of right-wing thinkers such as Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, Molander reminds us. The ‘Washington Consensus’ has been imposed on indebted developing countries under the guise of ‘structural readjustment’. So far, so familiar – at least, to those of us who reached maturity under the Thatcher-Reagan axis – but for anyone who has looked to the Nordic social-democratic welfare state as a beacon of light, it is disappointing to read just how much Sweden has backtracked on the egalitarian ideals that once underpinned the Folkhemmet, or ‘Home of the People’.

Molander’s meticulously documented and rigorously argued essay is both a powerful defence of the intellectual gains of the Enlightenment, set against our current age of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, and a plea for a strong redistributive state. Although Molander offers no radically new solutions, he pinpoints what has gone wrong over the last three decades. His critique of modern Social Democratic governments, in Sweden and elsewhere, shows that they have increasingly betrayed their very raison d’être by pandering to the doctrine of the market. This has undermined the welfare state even in relatively egalitarian countries like Sweden. As argued by Göran Rosenberg, in Plikten, profiten och konsten att vara människa (Duty, Profit and the Art of Being Human), it has also undermined humanist values, such as our duty of care towards our fellow human beings.

Was Condorcet mistaken in his belief that universal schooling and civic rights for all would ultimately produce a truly enlightened society? Arguably, we are still only part of the way towards achieving those ideals, given the de facto inequality of access to good education and full citizenship rights. Molander’s book is a spirited and engaging call to arms against the forces that would continue to deny these fundamental rights to many.

Per Molander. Photograph: Sofia Runarsdotter

Condorcets misstag - Hoten mot staten och demokratin

Weyler förlag,  2017. 379 pages.