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An interview with Philippe van Parijs (Beyond the Ivory Tower Series)

This is the latest interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series (you can read previous interviews here). For this edition, Diana Popescu spoke to Philippe Van Parijs, Hoover Chair of economic and social ethics at the University of Louvain. Van Parijs is the author of several books, including Real Freedom for All and Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World. He is a founder of the Basic Income Earth Network, and chair of its advisory board. In May 2012, an article he published, ‘Picnic the Streets’, triggered a movement of civil disobedience which led to the decision to make Brussels’ central lanes car-free

Diana Popescu (DP): Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview for Justice Everywhere. It’s an honour to be able to ask you not just about UBI, but about how you view the relationship between philosophy and life outside the ivory tower. The first question is, how has your own work in philosophy been directed by your public and political outlook? And vice versa, how has your public and political outlook been influenced by your philosophical thinking?

Philipppe Van Parijs (PVP): Let me just give two examples, which correspond in fact to the two themes to which I devoted most of my philosophical time. One is indeed basic income. There it can be said that my philosophical work, or the decision to spend so much time on it, was affected by my public engagement with it. The idea of a basic income came to me in the early 1980s, when I was looking, along with other people, for a way of addressing the problem of unemployment – there was massive unemployment at the beginning of the 1980s in Europe – without adopting what was then the consensus on the right and on the left: “Let’s grow and grow and grow, so that we can create jobs and thereby absorb unemployment.” So how can you address unemployment without this ‘crazy’ road towards more and more growth? This was 10 years after the alarm call of the Club of Rome, so it seemed essential to find something. Then the idea came to me that if we gave everyone an unconditional basic income, this would enable the people who work too much to work less, to interrupt their working time, and the jobs thereby vacated could be occupied by the people who wanted to work far more. But after a while – some months, some years – it became obvious that one of the most significant and difficult objections to basic income was of a philosophical nature. I first thought that Rawls’s A Theory of Justice offered a ready-made answer to that. But I realised, when talking to him, that this was not the case. And that’s what led, many years later, to the publication of my book Real Freedom for All. I wrote what was essentially the final version of it here in Florence, during a sabbatical year, in 1990-1991. But it was only in 1995 that it was published.

Fundamentally, the same thing happened for my work on linguistic justice. It is in the late 1990s that I started finding this problem not only important politically, but also philosophically interesting and far more universal than I initially thought. And it’s during another sabbatical year, which I spent at Oxford and Yale in 1997-1998 that I started working on that topic – initially by writing the very first draft of a book on the future of Belgium which was not finished until three years ago – but also by starting to read far more widely on linguistic issues. In particular, I thought there was a need for something like a lingua franca to enable communication, but that at the same time we needed to protect all local languages through some sort of territoriality principle. That led to my book on linguistic justice, published in 2011. These two themes, to which I devoted a lot of time, illustrate what you indicated. It was the political engagement, or at least the political concerns, that led to the philosophical work – somewhat unexpectedly, because I hadn’t realised initially how important the philosophical or  ethical dimension of these issues were.

DP: On the same relation between theory and practice, what do you think: is the pen mightier than the sword – or mightier than the street protest? Or do you think it’s sometimes more important for philosophers as public intellectuals to focus more on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘why’ and strive to get their ideas implemented?

PVP: It depends on the issue and the particular context. In the case of basic income, I initially had illusions about how quickly it could be implemented. At the time I had been active in the creation and development of the Belgian Green Party Ecolo. I was the first secretary of the local section in the university town of Louvain-la-Neuve. With some friends, we managed to put basic income in the first socio-economic programme of the movement in 1985. I thought it would go quickly, but realised soon that even to maintain that proposal in the programme of a small, fledgling party, uncertain of its own future, was very difficult and time-consuming. In order to serve that idea, there turned out to be a far more efficient to use my time differently: firstly working on the philosophical foundation of the idea in a systematic way, by analysing and understanding the many objections made to the idea, and trying to refute them on the one hand; and secondly by creating a network for spreading awareness of the idea and the arguments for it, but also understanding the objections to it. So in 1986, I convened a conference in Louvain-la-Neuve, at which BIEN was created – the Basic Income European Network, that was turned in 2004 into the worldwide Basic Income Earth Network. BIEN’s  2021 Congress was organized online from Glasgow, Scotland. Its 2022 congress will be in Brisbane, Australia. Before Glasgow it was in India, and after Brisbane it will be in Korea. BIEN has really developed roots all over the world.

So in that case, we need not only the pen but also the networking – mainly, but not exclusively academics, researchers, who have been the core constituents in this network. This seemed to be, as regards the way I could contribute, more important than taking to the streets. But this is not the case for all issues. For a very different issue very close to my heart, the pedestrianisation of the central lanes in Brussels, my engagement was completely different. Ten years ago, I wrote an opinion piece in Dutch and in French, inviting people to a civil-disobedient picnic. That was the beginning of a movement called ‘Picnic the Streets’. In June 2012, we blocked the traffic with a massive picnic, and repeated this until it eventually led to the irreversible pedestrianisation of what used to be a four-lane motorway. In that case, I didn’t do much philosophical work. There was some philosophy in the opinion piece I wrote, but taking to the streets straight away had a chance of being effective. Of course, it wasn’t guaranteed. We were lucky in many respects, but we succeeded. The case of basic income is quite different. I realised a far more massive effort, intellectual and political, was needed than what was needed to pedestrianize a boulevard in the centre of a city.

DP: How important do you think conceptual clarity is, and how important is public engagement in your work defending UBI in particular? And have there been any tensions between your outlook as a philosopher and your experience publicly promoting UBI? Did you ever experience a conflict between these two roles?

PVP: I certainly believe that there can be serious tensions, more generally, between intellectual integrity and engagement, and more specifically between conceptual clarity and activism. As regards basic income, conceptual clarity is important especially now that the idea has become popular worldwide and thereby gives rise to a lot of conceptual confusion. People are saying ‘Wow, fantastic. Basic Income has been introduced in Brazil’ But no, Brazil has a social assistance system. There is something called reddito de cittadinanza (citizenship income) here in Italy that was pushed by The Five Star Movement (Cinque Stelle), and it is now in place, but it is a means-tested household-level minimum income scheme, not an unconditional basic income. Similarly, in history, people say Thomas More offered the first proposal of basic income. But no, what he was proposing was not an unconditional basic income. So it’s very important to clarify what is being meant when we use the expression “basic income”.

This expression spread, not only in English, to refer to what is now generally called by that name, because of a choice that was made in 1986, for the Louvain-la-Neuve conference. Until then, the expression most used in America to refer to that idea was ‘demogrant’. In the United Kingdom it was ‘social dividend’. It is in fact under Dutch influence —  the term ‘basisinkomen’ had been in the public debate in the Netherlands for quite a few years — that I chose the expression ‘basic income’ to refer to this idea,  defined, as it still is now by BIEN in the same way as I defined it at the time: as an income paid to all, on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement – hence with the three unconditionalities as part of the definition.

But it’s not only a matter of conceptual clarity. What matters is, more generally, intellectual integrity. Just as there are self-serving conceptual confusions made, there are often self-serving misuses of the evidence that is available. For example, the alleged success of a very amateurish pilot experiment in Namibia has no relevance whatsoever for the introduction of basic income in the context of countries like the United Kingdom, or Belgium, or Italy, where you already have some sort of social assistance, which you didn’t have at all in that village in Namibia. Even when you look at experiments that are far more relevant for us, like the Finnish experiment conducted from the beginning of 2017 until the end of 2018, we really can’t infer anything about the economic sustainability of a basic income introduced at that level – 560 euros – because the only people in the experiment (which was well done methodologically) were long-term unemployed. Obviously, in order to assess the economic sustainability of a basic income, one needs to also take into account what the effect would be on the labour supply of the people who are currently at work.

It is a constant struggle, and for me an important struggle, to reconcile our wish to defend an idea and to help in its implementation on the one hand, and our duty to remain intellectually honest on the other. For example, I remember having a discussion with Benoit Hamon, who was the candidate for French president for the Socialist Party five years ago, and who had included the universal basic income as a central proposal in his programme. In his campaign, and also later in the book he published a couple of years after the election (Ce qu’il faut de courage. Plaidoyer pour le revenu universel), he uses really wrong arguments. He said and wrote for example ‘As a result of people having a basic income, poor people will start buying goods that are greener, eating healthier food, etc.’ Frankly, this is wishful thinking. The consumption of poor people will no doubt be improved on the whole. But if there is hope that their consumption will be greener, it will be through acting on the differential prices of these goods. It is the relative prices of green and less green goods, not basic income as such, that will have an impact on the greenness of the consumption of the poor. In the whole history of BIEN – between the foundation and 2004 I was in the executive committee and since then I chair its Advisory Board – I’ve been insisting that we should give a voice to opponents at our congresses; that in our newsletters we shouldn’t hide what might be inconvenient truths for us, or facts that might weaken support because some of the consequences of introducing a basic income may be undesirable. In the short term, this may sometimes weaken the advocacy of the idea, but I believe that the idea will only be implemented and above all, will only be stable if we don’t hide the truth and accept, from the beginning, not everything pleads in favour of the idea we defend.

DP: As a promoter of utopian thinking, can you tell us why is utopian thinking important? And what can utopian thinking teach us about the role of philosophers as public intellectuals?

PVP: Yes, I do believe that utopian thinking is important. And the reason I do is that I believe that hope is of immense importance. You can even say that hope is of economic importance, because there is no more powerful force of production than hope. Hope in a better future is, of course, not restricted to its economic dimension. But hope will only be sustainable and will only be robust enough, if it is made concrete. For me, utopias – and some of them can be very modest utopias – are proposals that are not immediately feasible politically. What justifies the label ‘utopian’ is that there’s only a minority of the population in favour of it, or that nearly all the political parties are against it, or that no one has ever thought of it, so that for any or all of these reasons, it may not be politically feasible in the immediate future. But they must be realistic utopias in the sense that they can sustain critical scrutiny in terms of their sustainability and desirability. Critical, realistic utopian thinking in this sense is very important.

It is equally important to protect ourselves against overoptimism about these utopias. We must realise that it is often difficult to implement them. As a recipe for mental health I recommend that we should systematically combine long term optimism with short term pessimism. If you are a short term pessimist about the various utopias you want to promote, your life will offer you quite a few good surprises. But if you are a short term optimist, your life will be full of disappointments. Hence, if you want to keep fighting for the idea in the long run, it is better to have from time to time a good surprise rather than to experience endless disappointments. Another thing that is important in the pursuit of these utopias is not to be constantly discouraged by the distance between what you regard as desirable and the current situation. We must compare what we have, not just to what should be, but also to what could be or to what could have been. Many may complain about current democratic institutions, for example, but they are so much better than what exists elsewhere, or what we had here in the past. You can keep being depressed by comparing the way they work to some ideal, but it is important at the same time to see that they are not that bad compared to what could easily have been, if history had taken a different turn. This echoes two of the functions that John Rawls allocates to political philosophy. In his last writings, Rawls emphasized the importance of constructing realistic utopias. But at the same time, political philosophy has a function of reconciliation: current realities will unavoidably be at some distance to at least some of our ideals.

DP: There’s also a somewhat darker side, as one can engage in perhaps too much utopian thinking. So how can philosophers attempting to make a public impact get it wrong? And is there anything you now think you were wrong about, that you now think you shouldn’t have been trying to convince people of?

PVP: Well, I certainly think that some of the formulations I used to defend some of the ideas I am still advocating were unfortunate. To take the example of basic income, the very first text I published about that was part of a competition of scenarios about the future of work in 1984. On behalf of a group of people that was preparing a special issue of a Belgian magazine about the idea of basic income, I wrote up a scenario that started essentially as follows: “Scrap the current welfare state, labour regulations, the minimum wage, unemployment benefits, etc., and just introduce an unconditional basic income sufficient to live on even if you live on your own. And then look at what happens to work.”  This was followed by utopian speculation about the various effects a basic income would have. The good thing is that we won the prize, and the money from this prize enabled us to organise the 1986 conference that led to the creation of BIEN. But the scenario was later interpreted – and is interpreted even now, so many years later – as a real proposal of a rather neo-liberal sort. Instead, it was just a sort of speculative scenario inviting people to imagine what the consequences would be. As regards concrete policies, I’ve never defended a proposal that would scrap social insurance, or all aspects of social assistance and so on. But it does not seem to matter how often I say that. I realised that again recently, in a debate I had in Cologne with German philosopher Richard David Precht about his book Freiheit für alle (Freedom for all). The chapter in which he discusses and defends basic income opens with a long quotation from that scenario, interpreted as a real proposal. But it’s not only something I wrote nearly 40 years ago. Above all, it was written in a particular style. So I have reason to regret that formulation.

Perhaps I should also regret the title of the article that presented the first formulation of my philosophical defence of basic income: ‘Why surfers should be fed’. It uses the wrong metaphor for what basic income is meant to achieve. A basic income is really not about surfers who spend their days on a beach in Malibu, where it is presupposed that they live in lavish mansions. No, basic income is meant to make a difference not to the lives of those people – if they live in those mansions they will have less and not more income if there is a basic income – but to the overstretched people who have to combine looking after their families and working more than full time. So again, it may be considered regrettable that I used a formulation that ended up weakening the case for basic income in the public debate. Both examples are about regrettable formulations. I would certainly not give basic income itself as an example of something I defended and no longer defend.

But there are other cases where I may need to give up more than a formulation. For example, I defend the idea of having Belgium organised into more firmly territorial entities, one of them being the bilingual region of Brussels. The region of Brussels would then be in charge of its own educational system, in the form of bilingual schools – French, Dutch. So I used to defend this proposal as an important component of how I see the future of Belgium, on the basis of philosophical considerations, for example about the importance I give to patriotism, including regional patriotism, to decentralisation, to solidarity combined with responsibility, etc. However, now having scrutinised more fully what it would mean, and in particular the difficulties in making sure we would have enough teachers of the right sort to make these bilingual schools work, I think that this would be the sort of utopian idea that may lead to an educational disaster that we simply shouldn’t allow ourselves to trigger. So this would be an example of an issue on which I changed my mind, and I’m sure that if I searched a bit more, there would be other, perhaps minor, proposals I no longer believe in, but made at some point partly grounded in my philosophical convictions, in combination with factual assumptions. And because I changed my views about these factual assumptions, I may no longer defend some proposals I used to defend. The example I just gave is one.

DP: This is all so interesting, especially about calling the article ‘Why surfers should be fed’, because I thought that was a strength. Because if we would want to feed even the surfers, then all the more we would want to feed other social categories.

PVP: Yes Diana, but you are a philosopher. I think it’s a good title for philosophers, but it’s a bad title for public opinion. For example Tony Atkinson, the British economist, a member of BIEN and an advocate of a variant of basic income he calls participation income, was interviewed at length in the Belgian press and he said ‘Well, I agree on many points with my friend Philippe Van Parijs but there is one point on which I don’t agree, which is that surfers should be fed at society’s expense’. For surfers are assumed not to “participate” in the sense given to that expression by Tony Atkinson. This shows how this metaphor reaches public opinion and does not help the advocacy for an unconditional basic income.

DP: Now on the topic of education, can philosophers act as public intellectuals through their teaching? Is that an avenue that that one can take as a philosopher?

PVP: This is an important question of professorial deontology, which I have had to ask on several occasions, for myself but also in the case of some colleagues when some problematic cases arose. My view is that teaching shouldn’t be used to proselytise. In particular, it shouldn’t be used to defend support for specific political parties, or indeed for specific proposals. Above all we must absolutely forbid any marking or assessment of the students that might be influenced by the conformity of their views to our own views. It is sometimes not that easy to resist, but it’s extremely important. At the same time, I think we shouldn’t hide our own positions on controversial issues, because if we are at the same time public intellectuals of some sort, our students know about it anyway. So they shouldn’t be hidden, but also they shouldn’t be given such prominence that teaching comes close to proselytizing.

But what you can promote resolutely in class, as I certainly did, are two things which are also in a way political convictions and related to my political engagement. One is openness to objections. When you argue your case, you must first listen to the objections that are being made to the convictions you happen to have. In the design of many of the courses I taught, I asked the students, usually in teams, to defend views that may not be theirs by mobilising philosophical arguments in order to defend those views. Secondly, what I also felt was perfectly legitimate to advocate through the teaching and the design of the teaching, is realistic utopianism. Students should not just be taught how to analyse the past and to look at the present, but also to imagine the future in the way I described before. My last year as a full-time professor at Louvain-la-Neuve coincided with the anniversary of 500 years since the publication in Louvain of Thomas More’s Utopia. I proposed – and the rector agreed – to organise a year-long ‘Année Louvain des utopies pour le temps présent’ (Louvain Year of utopias for our times). There were over 100 different activities of very different sorts by students, by colleagues, even by the administrative staff, within this general framework. The message was that it is also the job of the university to produce such realistic utopias, from the engineering faculty to the law faculty or the medicine faculty – but they must be realistic and sustain critical scrutiny as regards both their sustainability and their desirability.

DP: Finally, do you think the current context is an auspicious one for philosophical ideas to have a public impact? And what advice would you give to philosophers are trying to make a mark?

PVP:  The first thing is for philosophers not to remain in the philosophical ivory tower – that is, talk to your colleagues in other disciplines. It’s important that ideas in social and political philosophy should have concrete implications. But you can’t work them out in a naive way, as a ‘pure’ philosopher, standing away from other disciplines. No, you must communicate and interact with colleagues, read what they write about what would be the implications of what you are thinking. So the first thing is interdisciplinarity.

The second is intelligibility. If you want to have an impact, you must speak a language that people can understand. So no impressive jargon that will make you look like a real scholar. No, use words and sentence that people can understand, with lots of examples. And this takes time. It’s hard work. Writing an opinion piece that can have an impact is a difficult job. The piece has to be short, and making it short takes time. Spending time on this is something that should be duly rewarded by our universities. You shouldn’t only be assessed in terms of how well you teach, or how great your publications are, or how well received they are by your peer group. Some place must be given to this sort of contribution to society in the form of an active, competent participation in public debate. So the second advice I would give is intelligibility.

The third one is responsibility. Don’t keep talking about subjects about which you know very little and have reflected very little. It would not only damage your own credit, but you would be free riding on the credit you received thanks to your affiliation. You would deteriorate the credibility of your own institution, or of academia as a whole. So it’s important, if you intervene, to do so in a responsible way, to spend time thinking about the issue, and to get some feedback from colleagues in other disciplines in order not to be naïve. There are many subjects about which you have no prior competence and to which you have no time to devote. Then shut up about them. Sometimes people tell me ‘we haven’t heard you very much about the pandemic’. That’s true, I reply, and I agree that there are difficult and interesting philosophical questions about the right trade-off between a concern for individual liberties and a concern for public health. But in order to have a well-argued view about that trade-off, you need to know far more than I do about the public health consequences of a particular restriction of people’s freedoms.’ So it’s better not to say anything than to say things that it wouldn’t be responsible for you to say.

The fourth and last thing is perhaps simply opportunism. For example, you may be working on some important issue by doing some philosophical thinking, by studying the relevant philosophical literature, and by interacting with other disciplines. But it may happen that this issue is not at all on the agenda, and then no one will hear what you have to say. But the issue may come up later, as a result of a controversy somewhere, and then you must be ready to intervene – competently, intelligibly, responsibly. This opportunity may arise at a time that is not the best time for you, because you may be drowning under teaching, or exam duties, or a couple of articles to finish, or whatever. And therefore there may be difficult individual decisions about how much time you devote to this role of public intellectual, however modest, in an area in which you have something to say, at the expense of the time available for your other jobs as an academic, and indeed the other aspects of your life. Opportunism is part of what is needed to have an impact. Some colleagues have thought hard about just wars, about jus ad bellum and jus in bello. This is the time for them to play their role, and clarify some issues while trying to be fair and resist some inconvenient truths. Faced with a conflict in which you have already decided to side with one of the belligerents, it’s easy to be less receptive to whatever news may be bad for your side, and better for the other side. Opportunism must be understood as seizing opportunities in order to be heard by our audiences, not in order to tell them whatever they wish to hear.

So this would be my advice. My main message is that it is both important and possible to combine our various roles. As teachers, we must try to do a good job in the various dimensions of teaching, including setting up intelligent exams. As researchers, we are part of an international community of people who have to write and publish by conforming to some standards – and sometimes by challenging these standards. But we also have a role in society as public intellectuals. This third role need not be equally important  for everyone. Academics have different dispositions, and the societal contexts can call for their services to a different extent. Moreover, this role does not need to be played at the same level throughout people’s career. At the beginning, it is better to invest in solid grounding in one’s own discipline, thereby gaining credit and credibility. This can be used later on in order to be heard more easily by one’s peers and by society at large.



Aveek Bhattacharya is a PhD student in Social Policy at the London School of Economics. He has an MPhil in Political Theory from the University of Oxford. His research interests include cosmopolitanism, migration and political economy. He blogs at https://socialproblemsarelikemaths.wordpress.com/



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1 Comment

  1. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Great interview Diana! I particularly liked the question ‘Is there anything you now think you were wrong about, that you now think you shouldn’t have been trying to convince people of?’ and the interesting answer.

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