What is free intellectual life and how can it be financed?

By Christoph Strawe, March 2015

As essential as it is for the collective public financing of education to remain: the claim derived from this that the state should also regulate the content of education or other intellectual questions is levelling down and counterproductive. Because an outside determination of the socio-cultural system (“intellectual life”) has developed which stops the latter’s nourishing, regenerating and innovating functions in the social organism.

Photo: © glöckchen photocase

The loss of function in the intellectual life was hidden for a long time through the breathtaking speed of technological change. But it is precisely the lack of social influence on this change and the risks and danger arising from it which make this loss all the more obvious today. It is ultimately always revealed as a deficit of meaningful structuring impulses. In the world of work in particular such a loss of meaning is demotivating many and making them ill.

If the levelling effect of state tutelage leads to levelling down and bureaucracy, then the economy leads to the dominance of the mainstream and – the more the cultural sphere is commercialised – even to the erosion of the hard-won collective financing of education and health. Politicisation and commercialisation inevitably corrupt science, education, art and religious life. Ultimately we are facing a dual tutelage: while state regulation has by no means been overcome, indeed, has not even been perceived as a problem in many instances, private profit interests are already reaching for the education system and culture in general.

This trend is being driven by powerful supranational organisations such as the World Trade Organisation which with the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) opened the door to the commercialisation of the intellectual and cultural life. Growing economic pressure has led to education increasingly being seen as a location factor which has a particularly serious effect on the school system. Educational perspectives of general person-centred teaching and personal development threaten to be relegated to the sidelines, linked with growing pressure to bring everything forward – from ever younger school enrolment to the reduction in the period of schooling and higher education studies.

Liberating the intellectual life

A transformation which lends an increasingly debilitated intellectual life the dynamism which it once had in human society can only be achieved if culture is put on the basis of self-determination.

Cultural life is not just about freedom of religion, science, world view or art in a narrower sense. Questions about the content and methods of education, agriculture, medicine and social therapy are also questions of epistemology, questions as to how we perceive the world, in which only the judgement of the individual can be the final authority. Neither does the reference to alleged “objective science” give the state and the majority the right to intervene in the sphere of conscience and cognition of the individual.

Indeed, in the field of intellectual life there is no necessity for general agreement and binding content which applies to everyone. Just as today we smile about the principle that in the past the local ruler determined the religious affiliation of his subjects, so we should also be rigorously committed to the kind of pluralism in other fields of intellectual life which is inherent to modern societies. Diversity is better than sterile uniformity. Because the vital forces of culture arise from the creative diversity of individuals. The demand for a free school system and the self-management of culture is therefore the necessary addition to the call for social justice worldwide.

The education voucher as a possible solution

It is a truism that culture cannot be had for nothing. Understanding that “cultural workers” should be released from direct involvement in the material production of economic values in the social organism is more difficult. Indirectly their work is, of course, a crucial part of productivity, directly they are pure consumers of economic values. Because “prices” and income are created in the cultural sphere, the performance undertaken there becomes comparable with economic values. Yet the flow of money into the cultural sphere remains by nature a “gift”.

The financing of culture to date still takes place in accordance with the pattern of the principalities whose rulers as patrons supported art and culture, taking the resources for such funding out of the pockets of their subjects. True, subjects have become citizens and the rule of the prince has been replaced by the rule of the political majority. But since cultural impulses and needs are by their nature always individual, the rule of the majority in this field also remains one of tutelage. Precisely because of its dependence on “gifting”, the cultural life is not a market in the meaning of economic theory.

The commercialisation of the cultural sphere can therefore only have a destructive effect and is in no way an alternative to state tutelage. The solution to this dilemma can only lie in the funding of culture being determined by the needs and the intent of the individual “recipients of culture”. They – not bureaucracy or anonymous market mechanisms – must be able to direct the flow of money. What can or cannot become social reality must today no longer be decided abstractly. The concrete decision must be taken by the addressee: thus by tendency the needs and intentions of the individual become the instrument to guide social processes. This also means that the most effective means of supporting culture is to stimulate and support cultural necessities themselves.

Another thing to be taken into account in the form of financing is the legal dimension: access to education and health services is a human right. This right resides in pupils who do not yet dispose over their own income, patients who are ill and in need of assistance. That requires the corresponding forms of finance. For example, the community is under an obligation to fund education. This obligation can be met in various ways, of which the most amicable to freedom is to give parents an education income for that specific purpose which they can pass on to the school of their choice. The so-called education voucher is only the technical further development of such an education income.

The objection is always raised against a free intellectual life that this goal overestimates the extent to which people are capable of carrying such responsibility. The response to that is that the path as set out does not assume perfection but the capacity of human beings to develop. The capacity to carry responsibility does not arise in a vacuum but where the social structure provides the opportunity to take responsibility. The resistance against such a liberation is also connected with the fear of such responsibility. Many people still see the free spirit as a dangerous person.

The real difficulty of drawing on the impulses for our actions out of our own insight and becoming masters of our own life keeps making the fear of freedom reappear. Such fear always sets in above all when freedom is no longer just seen negatively as freedom from something but positively as taking responsibility for something. Such attitudes feed the powers who want to prevent a free intellectual life by all means possible. That is why the nationalisms, fundamentalisms, racisms and other collectivisms of the last century, so inimical to freedom, were able to develop such terrible power. That is why economic neoliberalism’s  demagoguery about freedom of recent decades was able to spread everywhere and prevent an understanding of real freedom.

The idea of a free intellectual and cultural life is the organic consequence of a modern world view which can only be a philosophy of freedom – for a social life which has to find its form in freedom. Every person biographically has to find their own way to freedom; at the same time the social organism has to be permeable enough that freedom can be lived in it.

About the author: Dr. Christoph Strawe, lecturer at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart, national lecturing and seminar work. Director of the Institut für soziale Gegenwartsfragen Stuttgart, editor of the journal Sozialimpulse.  

Revised extract from “Freiheit: Gestaltungsprinzip des geistig-kulturellen Lebens, II. Teil: Freiheit und Selbstverwaltung”, Zeitschrift Sozialimpulse, issue 4, December 2003, www.sozialimpulse.de