Westerse cultuur uit balans : naar een nieuw evenwicht in de 21e eeuw

J.A.C. van Burg

Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


Some years ago the Dutch government announced in the Queen's Speech that the Netherlands are "doing well "and, furthermore, rosy prospects for the future were predicted. This statement immediately raises questions for the critically aware citizen about the criteria on which this announcement is based. Equally, it raises questions about the outcome of this evaluation, were it viewed from a European or global perspective.

It is undeniably true that for most Dutch citizens the material prosperity has increased considerably. This is a positive development, which has consequences for many aspects of society: Dutch citizens reap the benefits in many ways. There are however other aspects of life that are important in reaching a judgement on whether things are 'going well' for the Netherlands, Europe or the world. I will mention four of these aspects:

Developments as seen in relation to ecological balance and environmentThe relation between wealth and povertyThe position of human labourThe state of public order and safety

If we include the above aspects in the assessment, the picture becomes less favourable. Ecological balances are still being disturbed and the environment is deteriorating. The use of finite resources of fossil fuel is still growing, while the consequences of this for the quality of the environment are becoming increasingly clear. Global warming is now accepted by the vast majority as a certainty and the effects are becoming evident. At the same time we see a diminishing biodiversity and disturbance of the hydrological cycle. A basic need such as clean and safe drinking water has become a very difficult commodity to obtain in many parts of the world.

Differences in material prosperity that have slowly arisen over the centuries have not diminished, but even increased lately. One of the consequences of this for the richer nations of the world is that there is a steady flow of migrants from poor to rich countries, all hoping for a better life.

Apart from some conjunctural upswings, unemployment in the western world is extensive and permanent. The social consequences of this, especially in (very) large urban conurbations, are immense. At the same time a clear tendency towards the degradation of human labour is present.

Finally it must be concluded that public safety has decreased. This is true for both objectively measurable and subjectively perceived safety. An important factor in this is the major increase in aggression and violence.

In widening our perspective and not just focusing on material well-being, the picture becomes less favourable than many want us to believe. Set against positive developments such as economic growth and technical knowledge, are other, negative developments. In order to steer these developments in another direction, as far as this is possible, it is necessary to adjust policy in a great many areas. This is achievable, only, if we are aware of negative developments, and if we want to change. However, if the will to change is present and policies change, it often becomes evident after some time that the (political) choices bear too few fruits. The result is not infrequently that certain problems increase rather than diminish. Looking back over the recent past, it even seems as if in many challenges there is an inability to come up with an adequate and timely response.

Several explanations can be given for this. If responsible politicians and other policymakers suffer ideological tunnel vision, or if they are not fully aware of the full extent and nature of the different problems, then they will be unable to fully solve them. Another important explanation is that issues are often seen in isolation, i.e. without recognition of the relationships with other developments. Modern society is very complex, and so are the problems it poses. It is therefore understandable that policy makers, amongst others, have a tendency to concern themselves with relatively easy to grasp part-problems and are increasingly less able to have an overview of the whole picture. This is however no excuse for not trying. Economy, technology, education, environment, criminality and safety are, after all, largely interconnected. Any policy that takes insufficient account of this is bound to lead to disappointment and frustration.

In this book I discuss such problems in relation to culture. 'Culture' has to be taken in the widest sense of the word. It embraces everything that people have gained and accomplished in their society and given environment, all products of hand and mind, material and immaterial, structures and institutions. It concerns widely held value judgements, beliefs and direction. The concept of culture and its meaning are discussed further in chapter II.

The central question I want to pose is whether, over the centuries, there have been sweeping changes in Western culture, which have led to the above developments and problems. It is important to investigate these changes and their consequences, in order to learn lessons for the future. The last three centuries have indeed seen such changes. Where for centuries there used to be a tendency for a certain balance between existing components, both material and immaterial, things have changed dramatically during the last two centuries. Factors influencing these changes are varied and follow on from developments that started after the end of the European Middle Ages. These developments resulted in a gradually broadening rift between Western and other world cultures. A rift that was inextricably linked to splits within Western culture itself. In this culture, one component became increasingly important and began to be more independent. Economic growth became, especially after the industrial revolution, the central component of culture and profit maximalisation became the watchword. Man and his labour were increasingly viewed from this perspective and this narrowing of vision became generally accepted.

Within the economy a profound theoretical and ideological struggle existed for a long time, which was decided (for the time being) in the nineteen seventies in favour of the adherents to the neoclassical "free market" thinking. The political consequences have been enormous, firstly in the United States, but then also in the rest of the world. A radicalisation of the economy took place distinguishing itself through a hardening of competition that became worldwide (globalisation). In recent times the limitations to the international flow of capital, which existed since 1944's Breton Woods international treaty, disappeared. Especially after the fall of communism in Russia and Europe a strong power shift took place, from the state (government) to multinationals.

This development would not have been possible without the impressive growth of another culture component, science and technology. Not only people from Western cultures were curious about the hidden forces of Creation. Other people, such as Asians, were curious too, and Westerners were often not the first to make a discovery. Other cultures did not have, however, what the atom physicist von Weizacker called, the "childish" need to make everything that can be made. Within Western culture a close relationship grew between science and technology, extending also to economy and economic thinking, giving rise to the birth of a powerful scientific, technological and economic doctrine. This, in turn, brought Western society the first modern health technology, aviation, the atom bomb, television, computer, biotechnology, biological warfare etc. The core question: what to do with these technologies, is in many cases answered by asking how great the profitability will be of eventual industrial production.

This way, the culture components science/technology and economy have grown out of proportion, have made themselves absolute and are dominating other components. This process still continues today, although opposition is growing. The dominant powers have, according to the sociologist/theologian/politician Banning, become "threatening powers".

The severance of the tendency to an equilibrium between culture components has had profound effects for Western culture as a whole. In order to maintain the highest possible level of productivity of goods and services, a high level of consumption is needed. This can only be achieved through artificially increasing human need to a level that greatly surpasses the primary necessities of life. Advertising brings us the, almost religious, instruction: "Thou shalt desire!" Advertising and public relations now play an important role in the dissemination of opinions and the needs associated with them, that people accept as the truth. The inflated wish for 'more' has of course had its impact on other fields, such as the development of criminality. The imbalance between culture components has implications also for the relationship between individual and community. Many researchers, from different disciplines reach the same conclusion: there is an emergence of an extreme type of individualism that supersedes the sense of community. Following on from this appears a greater susceptibility to emotions that are not supported by reason, but yet are experienced uniformly by a great many people.

Some norms and values have remained unchanged through the centuries, while others have eroded and disappeared. New norms and values have arisen, however, and still continue to do so. A new value is for instance the attention for the universal rights and duties of citizens. Examples of this are found in the manner in which war criminals are pursued nowadays and in the tendency to judge fellow citizens by their 'usefulness'. The first example leads to a greater respect for our fellow human beings, the latter to a decline in respect and an increased legitimisation of discrimination and violence. The vastly increased use of advertising and public relations has influenced the meaning of the concept 'truth'.

The emphasis on the usefulness of people has its consequences for our view and determination of human labour. Under the influence of our economic thinking 'labour' has narrowed down to 'paid labour'. Human labour mainly counts as a production factor, which can be supported by machines - in their broadest sense- but can also increasingly be replaced by machines. Human labour is therefore increasingly a derivative of the quest for economic growth, the safeguarding of financial interests and the exploitation of technological findings.

The negative developments outlined above have such a degree of importance, next to the positive developments in Western culture, especially if they are left to continue unchecked, that they will undermine the quality of human existence. Hence a plea that is especially aimed at the interest of generations to come, for a broadly supported policy that intentionally guides us to new directions within Western culture - before it is too late. Thoenes even spoke of "a desperate need for cultural renewal". Such a reforming culture policy, which is aimed at all components of culture in their mutual interactions, has to be directed at a maximisation of balance within our culture. This will be a lengthy process, which calls for an awakening of consciousness, and therefore has to be based on conviction and will. It is encouraging that a strengthening countermovement of many individuals and non-government organisations, active in many fields, is emerging, providing a structure to be built on. Essential, however, is the question: where do we want to go? To this question I would like to contribute in the second part of this book.

It is inescapable that government, in every form, plays a central role in this process of change, a role that can only be fulfilled if government can rely upon support from a broad cross-section of society.

Central to a cultural policy is the emphasis on, and application of values. Values form after all - and it is essential to acknowledge this - the backbone of any culture. Which values do we then choose? In my plea I start from values that are in part at odds with presently predominating values, such as respect for nature, control of self, moderation and frugality, durability, mindfulness of the exceptionally great risks of modern times, trustworthiness and integrity; a stable balance between individual and community, solidarity and tranquillity. All these values are based on the old concept of human dignity. These values however, if they are to be durable, will also have to be based on a firm religious or secular foundation.

Religion, with its views, values and norms, has a profound influence on culture. Conversely, culture influences religion. The dominant position of science and technology gave rise to an unlimited belief in its potentiality. Many Christian thinkers therefore tend to retreat in their own theology, whilst various scientists have made appeals for a profound dialogue with the different religions.

The primacy of the economy and economic thinking creates something, which Huizinga calls: "a habitus that is the opposite of Christianity." Indeed, the leading principle of economics "Thou shalt desire" turns the biblical vision of discouraging desire, on its head.

I share van der Leeuw's opinion that a profound renewal of a culture is possible only if it includes all segments of this culture. As cultural components are interwoven, it is imperative to bear their mutual cohesion in mind. I will mention several policy areas of great importance.

Policies on technology should not be based on an autonomous position of technology. According to van Melsen, a development that is aimed at harnessing nature should itself not be allowed to evade regulation. Technology should be ruled democratically and should be guided towards the service of humankind and world. Technology creates many possibilities, but we shall have to answer the question, if all possibilities must be applied, do we wanteverything technology can deliver? Technology will have to be viewed in relation to the quality of our environment, genetic modification and the influence of advertising or applied Information and Communication Technology on the thoughts and actions of people. We also need to answer the question: who bears the responsibility for important and risk-bearing decisions, such as those concerning genetics, nanotechnology and robotics? The danger of abuse or accidents in these fields is real. So is it possible to govern technology? The answer to this is "yes", especially because the most important developments arise at the interface between technology and economy, in which technology is made to be subservient to the quest for profit.

Scientific research is difficult to guide, the dominant views in a culture are part-determining factors for research. The strong influence of technology and economy in the Western culture is obvious in choices and priorities concerning funding for scientific research and universities. Under a balanced scientific policy the arts, languages and social sciences are on a par with mainstream science, with the necessary consequence of an equality of financial support. This would also mean that, despite the existing far-reaching specialisation, it is important to try and aim research at the discovery of cohesion. It is therefore imperative that different disciplines will learn each other's language and start to communicate.

Even more important is to end the grip of economy on the 'science industry'. A responsible science policy demands a democratic cultural policy that in turn benefits from a science policy as described above.

Economic policy will have to be aimed at a control of economic activities, in order to protect and further the main interests of human being and society. Similarly, economic activities will have to fit within ecological prior conditions. The creation of demand for products and goods, aided by refined advertising techniques, should be prevented. Besides ecological considerations human dignity is at stake here too. There is a place only for objective, i.e. verifiable, product information. The economy needs to be aimed also at the evening out of differences in prosperity, the degradation of human labour and the eradication of unemployment.

Education , i.e. all the activities aimed at preparing for, and being equipped for, life in society, is a cornerstone of every culture. An important question is what we may expect from people that are equipped for life in Europe in the 21st century. We should at least expect emancipation, the ability to deal with an abundance of largely fragmented information, the ability to gain insight in complex problems and to deal with information from the mass media in a critical way. Education should especially be aimed at whole-ness. The pursuit of holism and balance in culture can be effective only if it is mirrored in the pursuit of holism and balance in man. Education will therefore have to be aimed in equal measures at general knowledge, spiritual, economic, technical and social aspects.

The primary living unit , i.e. the family can play an important role in the restoration of cultural balance. In this unit a form of cohabitation should exist that is aimed at durability, mutual support and care and emotional security. The family continually interacts with society. Family policy is an important part of cultural policy, because bringing up children is one of the most important functions of the family. Family policy therefore is two-pronged: the strengthening of the family from within and the underpinning of the place for this unit in society.

The mass media too mirror the cultural imbalance, especially in this century in which new developments and problems will present themselves at a fast pace. In a democratic society a reliable source of information is invaluable. This poses a great responsibility for those people who control the mass media and who disseminate information. They must therefore meet high standards of professionalism and ethical awareness. Most citizens see reality through the spectacles of the journalist, commentator, photographer or cameraman. They are usually not able to see to what degree journalists, consciously or subconsciously, distort reality. Besides this there is a real danger that the contents of media offerings are influenced by the commercial powers that finance the media. Powers such as the state, the economy and technology need counter forces in the interest of cultural balance. This is certainly true for the media. This principle is one of the most important conditions for the preservation of democracy.

A balanced cultural policy places high demands on government . Government has to be inspiring, visionary, strong and convincing. It cannot limit itself to fighting symptoms and postponing necessary measures until, during or after the crisis, they become feasible (government by crisis). Such conduct is possible only within the framework of a comprehensive cultural policy, in which different policy areas support each other. It is essential to restore the democratic form of government: the right of citizens to co-determine and influence policy in its fullest extent, without relinquishing power to 'industry' or 'the market'.

Against ongoing trends in globalisation over the past decades, it is not realistic to restrict cultural policy to the national state.

Now that Europe and the European Union are becoming increasingly significant, it has led to my dissertation resulting in an appeal for a European culture policy that has consideration for the economy and technology, but considers in equal measures other policy areas such as education and scientific research. Such policies would enable Europe to become visible to its citizens and this would prevent the European unification from creating a "Europe without the Europeans", as mentioned by Von der Gablentz.

In the preceding contemplations and arguments the possibility emerges that the advocated changes will also influence the relationship with other cultures, as they did in the past. It is to be hoped that this will be a positive influence. This prospect strengthens the case for the removal of imbalances in Western culture.

Original languageDutch
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • van der Ploeg, Jandouwe, Promotor
  • Verstraeten, J., Promotor, External person
Award date21 Sept 2001
Place of PublicationBudel
Print ISBNs9789055732258
Publication statusPublished - 2001


  • culture
  • philosophy
  • ethics
  • cultural policy
  • government policy
  • europe
  • civilization
  • moral
  • western world

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