Born in Nürnberg, Lisa Herzog studied philosophy, economics, political science and modern history in Munich and Oxford. Interested in the interface between political philosophy and economics, she teaches at the Centre for Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and is particularly interested in the ways that the world of work is changing.

In Austria, the heavily regulated Danube stands as an image of the modern world’s relation to its environment and as a reminder of how mechanisation has successively eroded the position of the human worker in society. On the map, oxbow lakes abound, indicating how, over the centuries, the Danube was free to meander this way and that, whilst place-names repeatedly attest to the lost ways of life. At Rossatz, just upstream from Dürnstein, the river is wide and was shallow enough to allow the boat people to move the horses from one side of the river to the other where their horses were better able to pull the conveys upstream. The operation was however far from simple and took a whole day to complete. From the merging together of the words, Ross for “horse” (or Rösser for “horses”) and umsetzen,  “to change over” the name “Rossatz” emerged as the name for the place where this was done. Further aspects of the shippers‘ trade can be seen at the Shipping Museum in Spitz which lies on the other side of the river only a little way up from Rossatz. Alternatively a guided tour through Stein with Christine Emberger dressed in the role of the Nineteenth Century shipper, Jacob, is an excellent way of experiencing the lost world of river transport on the Danube.

© Rainer Skrovny
© Rainer Skrovny

Prior to the introduction of steam shipping on the Danube, Schiffersleute or “boatmen”, worked in teams that involved up to eighty people and as many horses, all working to laboriously haul conveys of barges up river.

From the 1850’ies onwards however, the demands for steamships and faster travel lead to nearly all Austrian reaches of the once meandering river being straightened, with rapids and cataracts being dredged out and outcrops of rock being blasted away with dynamite. Opposite Vienna, the river was straightened so as to prevent the expanding city from being flooded and the hundred-odd islands that once existed were amalgamated to form a new eastern bank. Over the course of just a few decades, ecosystems were destroyed and thousands of people were deprived of a livelihood. To keep the newly regulated reaches navigable, ships would drag specially constructed ploughs along the bed of the river.

The prong of a fluvial plough found by Alexander Curtis on the banks of the Danube after a flood

With the introduction of the internal combustion engine, the amount of people required to operate a ship was further reduced and freight ships are now manned by two or three people conveying an amount of cargo that is comparable and often exceeds, the tonnage carried by a traditional horse-drawn convey of three barges and eighty people. Along the Austrian reaches of the Danube, only the Wachau was able to retain its age-old appearance. Yet in the 1970’ies, even this short stretch was threatened by plans for a hydroelectric power station and it took a local initiative to prevent what is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site from being flooded.

A view of the Danube just above the dam at Greifenstein, a short way down river from Krems

Hidden among the displays at the Shipping Museum in Spitz, an unpretentious model gets to the heart of the matter. This shows how further downstream, in an area on the Serbian-Romanian border known as The Iron Gates, the Romans carved a path into the rock which was then extended outwards with beams of wood. This was so as to made a road, known as Trajan’s Road, along which teams of slaves would haul ships upstream.

Trajan’s Road in the 1930’ies. Following the building of a hydroelectric plant the road now lies under 30 metres of water

As Philipp Blom observes in his book, What’s at Stake, that the reason why the Ancient World never made more technological discoveries than it did, was because there was no need for labour-saving technologies. All work was done by slaves and as slaves were in abundant supply, there was no impetus to invent labour-saving devices. Yet Hero of Alexandria’s book of machines and the highly complex perpetual calendar known as the Antikythera Mechanism show that technical devices were conceived of and could be produced when needed. With the abolition of slavery, the passing of the feudal system and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, labour became costly, prompting the continual invention of labour-saving devices. Extrapolating away from the slaves who pulled Roman galleys up the Danube, to our own situation and beyond, for many, the introduction of an unconditional basic income, is the only way of addressing the problems that will arise as, in all walks of life, machines and devices successively replace human workers. Although it is easy to see the concept of a universal basic income as a simple way of solving a major problem, many proponents see it as part of a package of overall change, with the ultimate aim being to change the way capitalism works. Seeing the introduction of a universal basic income as a one-stop problem solver is however akin to thinking that Austria’s energy needs are best met by building as many dams across the Danube as possible. Not only is the world more complex than such simplistic solutions allow, people do not necessarily want what is offered. A referendum held in Switzerland in 2016 on whether a universal basic income should be introduced resulted in a vote of 76.9% against. More recently a petition for a referendum in Austria failed to acquire the required number of signatures. For the political philosopher, Lisa Herzog, “people do not want a mandate for doing nothing, they want better working conditions”. There is she says more to work than the acquiring of money with which to buy the things one needs. Work enables people to actively take a part in the running and shaping of society. Following the decline in the importance of religion, work remains as that which holds society together and bonds people who would otherwise have no contact with each other. Although proponents of a universal basic income argue that such an income would allow more people to work in areas that at present are underdeveloped, it is unavoidable that such people would have a different status to those in “real” work. The introduction of an unconditional basic income thus brings with it the danger of side-lining large segments of people.

For Lisa Herzog an universal basic income should never be anything more than a part of a much wider package of change and innovation. In her book, Freedom is not only for the Rich: A Plea for a New Form of Liberalism, she begins by examining the notion of freedom and the conception of Homo oeconomicus, the contemporary free-market model of what supposedly, a human is. In popular thinking, Homo oeconomicus is a free agent who in everything he does, acts solely so as to further in his own interests and fulfil his own ends. As Herzog observes this view has its origins in the work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke and it is important for the views of these two thinkers to be seen and evaluated within their historical context. The context lying behind Hobbes and Locke’s emphasis on people who make their own decisions and follow their own goals, was that in the seventeenth century, if people did not actively lay claim to this ability they would find the church telling them what to do and what they should think. Asserting that each human being has their own agenda of aspirations and preferences was thus an important and necessary step in the defining of human freedom and it is on this that the right of each person to pursue happiness in their own way is based. In the case of Hobbes, it is “by right of nature” that each man has the liberty to act and use his body for “doing anything, which in his own judgement and reason he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto”. This right of nature however is mitigated by two “laws of nature”, the first of which is to strive for peace and the second of which is:

“that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth, as for peace, and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as, as he would allow other men against himself.”

In this way the urge to do what one wants is mitigated by a yearning for peace combined with the knowledge that peace and security can only be attained through the companionship of others and that this will involve entering into agreements and the making of compromises. In Locke, the setting up of a commonwealth of people is prompted by the need for “property” to be better protected. Hobbes’ Leviathian reads like a legal document and in many senses is one. Similarly Locke’s treatise of political philosophy reads like and is intended as a manifest for free trade. In Locke, “property” however means not only a person’s material goods but also their life and liberty so that as in Hobbes, the “wealth” held in common is a general wellbeing that does not refer solely to money. In both Hobbes and Locke although individuals are seen as making their own decisions without being externally influenced this does not mean that such decisions are devoid of moral considerations. For Hobbes in addition to the first and second laws of nature, there is a third which says, “that men perform their convenants made” and “in this law of Nature consisteth the fountain and origin of “Justice”.” Justice thus comes into being the instant a convenant or contract is made and in agreeing to enter into a contract a moral imperative is invoked against which all future doings are weighted. The Homo oeconomicus model thus not only ignores the historical context in which individuals were originally postulated as being free to pursue their own interests it strips them of the moral capacities that both Hobbes and Locke endowed them with. Clearly underlining this dualism, the frontispiece of Hobbes‘ Leviathian shows the empowerment of a sovereign through the coming together of a multitude of individuals to form a commonwealth.

Below, the two aspects of a sovereign’s power are shown, represented in terms of military and ecclesiastical/judicial images and symbols. With respect to an individual, these correspond to or outward capacity for action and our inner ability to form opinions, judgements and beliefs. Via the sword and crozier that symbolises his power, the sovereign is entrusted, for the good of the commonwealth, with authority to address matters in both realms.

Apart from being historically corrupt, as Herzog observes, the Homo oeconomicus model is in addition empirically flawed. On the one hand it denies the human capacity of altruism whilst on the other, it assumes that human beings, in ruthlessly pursuing their own ends, do so in a way that is entirely rational. With respect to altruism, in situations where there are enough resources to go round, neurobiology has shown that humans do behave altruistically and that it is only when fears arise that resources might become scarce that the selfish behaviour becomes apparent. With respect to the rationality of our decision making-processes, offered the choice of receiving 100 Euro instantly or 110 Euro a month later, a survey has found that people will tend to opt for the instant pay-out option despite the obvious fact that waiting longer for a larger sum would be a more rational course of action. This shows our “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” mentality, which becomes understandable when one considers that a significant part of our evolutionary past was spent as hominoids wandering the African Savannah, living on fruits, nuts and roots and scavenging from the remains of kills by big cats. Not citing neurobiology or the anthropology of human origins, Herzog nevertheless argues that the model proposed by Hobbes and Locke should be updated to include both our capacity for altruism and our weaknesses. For Herzog any social /political model of what a human being is should bear in mind that at times we do need protecting from ourselves. She further adds that any model should also take into account the fact that many things on offer in the modern world are packages of considerable complexity which although they are necessary, cannot be understood by a consumer to the same degree as an expert so that here again, consumers are in need of protection. From such updated considerations, as in Hobbes and Locke, there arises the notion of people coming together, agreeing that there should be a common administrative body which ensures that on the one hand people have the freedom and safety to do what they want and that on the other, wherever possible, the activities of one individual do not infringe upon the rights of another. Here the key phrase is “wherever possible” and Herzog argues that such balances must not only be found but must also be vigilantly maintained and updated. While the freedom of individuals and markets are important, at some point regulation must step in. As recent North American history shows, growth in the most unregulated market in the world has not lead to increased prosperity for all or indeed for the many but rather has been restricted to the very few. For the rest, prosperity has either stagnated or decreased. In this way, proceeding step by step with reference to examples and historical precedents, Herzog makes a well-grounded case for a new form of liberalism. This goes back to the original meaning of the word and embraces a worldview in which although the freedom of the individual is of the utmost importance, taxation and regulation are accepted as being necessary for the preservation of values and social balances. For Herzog, freedom should be available in all its forms for as many citizens as possible and not just a few. Illustrating this is the fact that societies where the difference between rich and poor are moderate have lower crime rates than societies where the differences are large. As such things as contentment and happiness are difficult to measure in surveys, a low rate of crime is taken as an indicator that they are present. This in turn implies that in societies with low crime rates, individuals see themselves as being able to realise their potential and are not unduly frustrated. In arguing for a new form of liberalism, Herzog re-examines the words “earning” and “to earn” and suggests that a return should be made to the meanings of these words whereby an individual, through deeds, actions and work can earn, such non-monetary things as praise, respect and acknowledgement. These qualities she argues should be re-introduced into the workplace and where in any form of work they are absent, the use and validity of the activity under consideration should be questioned. Here no scruples should be made about the introduction of bans or high tax-bracket taxation. In Britain, this is the thinking that lies behind the profits from The National Lottery being used to fund cultural and social projects. It is in a sense “dirty money” and for Herzog the activities of the financial sector are in dire need of being examined in this light. Similarly she argues that such terms as “ethos” and “professional honour”, despite sounding old-fashioned, are desperately in need of being re-introduced and of being seen as referring to things that are real and important. In this way Herzog sketches out the beginnings of ways by which liberalism in the original sense of the word may be updated and redefined.

In her work Herzog repeatedly argues that there is more to work than the mere creation of value through some form of activity. Rather the activity has a value for the society in which it is conducted and in this way the individual performing the work is related to society and acquires a sense of worth and a sense of belonging to and of being a part of something. Continuing Herzog’s line of thought and drawing from the observations of the neurobiologist, Joachim Bauer, a sense of belonging is an important part of human identity and in the brain, the region where feelings of loneliness and exclusion are registered is the same region where physical pain is also registered. Feelings of exclusion and loneliness thus hit home to the very core of our being. This again derives from the fact that we are social beings and that on the African Savannah, becoming separated from a group would have meant death for an individual. Nature thus devised a method of ensuring that an individual alone would get the message that a state of extreme danger had arisen. As Bauer observes in his book The Pain Threshold: The Origins of Global and Personal Violence (only available in German), the need of people to belong and not to feel excluded is of the greatest importance and is something that society cannot afford to overlook.

In the last two chapters of her book, Herzog addresses what in the Reloading Humanism mission statement is seen as being THE QUESTION. This is the question: “Is it possible for us to live happy and fulfilled lives without placing an undue burden on our environment and without exploiting other human beings or jeopardising the quality of life of those who come after us?” For Herzog there is no alternative in sight to capitalism and indeed it is difficult to see how, in a complex, global world human beings are to do business with each other except through transactions that involve money and a market place that is in some sense “open” or “free”. Nevertheless like the workplace, Herzog argues that capitalism can be changed and indeed the changing of capitalism that she proposes is to be implemented at all levels of human interaction including individuals taking a stance in the workplace and insisting on the re-introduction of long term responsible practices in which both parties involved in a transaction, do genuinely benefit. The motivation for this is the recognition that money is not everything and that the point of work is to create value in a way that is beneficial for society and the world as a whole and which is justifiable with respect to the environment. For Herzog the hope is that when a whole generation of workers begins to insist from potential employers that the work they are to do follows this ethic, then there is the potential for major change. On a private level the point of work is, if nothing else, to pay one’s way in life and have time left over for the things that really matter such as family and friends. Driven by the need for time, Herzog sees the potential for a variety of models to emerge according to which those in work will seek to ensure that they have the time they want for the leading of a non-work life. Examples of this that one can see today are the increasing amount of work being done on a part time basis, as flexitime, or at home. As individuals become more insistent that future employers offer such packages, so changes in the workplace will be introduced that in turn offer precedents for the introduction of further changes of an increasingly ethical nature concerning what and how things are done. Herzog thus sees the search for sense and meaning in our lives as the motor for the changes that our planet so urgently needs. All this hangs however, as Herzog admits, on our finding the time to be ourselves. Only when we have time to be ourselves can we think about who we are and where in life we might want to go and what we might want to become. Only when we have time for ourselves can we ascertain our aims and goals and so become the worthy descendants of the citizens, who in Hobbes and Locke, come together and agree that a community, with a government, should be formed for the good of all.

In her book, Saving Work: A Political Appeal Herzog continues the themes begun in Freedom isn’t only for the Rich. Beginning with a debunking of the heroic status accorded to „the digital entrepreneur“ she shows how in debates concerning digitalisation two extremes are often taken as unquestioned departure points. One is the view of „digital optimism“ according to which digitalisation will solve all problems. The other is its opposite, digital pessimism, which assumes that the effects of digitalisation can only be negative. Between these extremes there is Herzog argues, a vast spectrum of possibilities that can be defined, negotiated and fought for. Here however governments must step in and play an active role in the fostering and development of a society in which work is made more human. The mechanical view of work inherited from the factories of the nineteenth and early twentieth century must be abandoned as this is the kind of work that can be done by robots. That which is left over is Herzog argues, work that is by definition creative and social and this is something that only human beings can do. Herzog therefore sees digitalisation as a unique chance to return to the fundamental questions of how work, life and society should be. Although it is conceivable that in an old people’s home, residents could be cared for by robots the question is, is this what we want? At the end of the day, someone has to make a stand and say that whilst it is acceptable for standardised products and tasks to be dealt with by machines and programs, the social realm must be seen as having a different status and worthy of an added value. With regard to the management of companies, Herzog sees the stock market model of companies owned by share-holders as outdated and argues for models in which companies are owned by employees and managers are elected democratically by their employees. This however is not to be introduced in a sudden and all at once manner but rather through the encouragement of such initiatives so that through trial and error a step by step way forward may be discerned.

For Alexander Curtis, in debunking the Homo oeconomicus myth, Herzog gets to the hidden root of the world’s current problems. As observed, Hobbes’ Leviathan reads like a legal document and Locke’s Treatise is effectively a manifesto for free trade. Both accounts are written as if everything follows logically from a single source. This however is not actually the case and at the beginning of the Leviathan Hobbes maintains that the origins of thought are the senses, these being representations caused by external objects working on our sense organs. There is therefore, a material realm of corporeal things, known indirectly through the senses and which includes the workings of our own bodies to which we are not privy and an immaterial world of thought, sense and imagination which we experience directly. The two different realms result in two different forms of principle or law. The first is The Right of Nature by which the body strives for self-preservation and through reproduction, for self-perpetuation. Then there are the Natural Laws from out of which the drawing up of the social contract arises. These latter are apprehended and deduced by the thinking subject with its consciousness. Hobbes asserts that how representations are caused and what precisely they are, is “not very necessary to the business now at hand” and following the introduction of the Natural Laws no further mention is made of the fact that there are two realms. Although this is on the one hand true, constantly bearing in mind that there are two realms is important. Where the realm of things is governed by the laws of physical science, the inner realm of our thoughts, hopes and fears is ruled by contracts and notions of justice. If this is not constantly emphasised the impression can arise that contracts and covenants simply refer to corporal things and the corporal human bodies that own things. This in turn invites the impression that the self is a phenomenon akin to a passive viewer who, standing aside, simply watches what the body does. The self thus becomes the proverbial “ghost in the machine”, a meaningless bogy which certain schools of philosophy have seen as their duty to de-mask and denounce as a superfluous phantasma. The ghost laid, values become irrelevant and all that is left is a physical, moral-less contraption or animal that in a mindless, purely behavioural manner, gets ideas of what it wants and un-curtailed by morals, lets nothing stand in its way. This is nothing other than Homo oeconomicus, the perverse abstraction of what a human being is and who, as Herzog observes, has neither family nor friends, no passionately embraced aspirations and no sentiments. Accordingly, in his Order at the Heart of Chaos – Life and Consciousness in an Exploding Universe, Alexander Curtis begins the task of developing an explanation of how a dimension of self can come into being that is in accordance with a materialist explanation of the world whilst nevertheless according the self a definite and real place in the world. Drawing from the philosophy of mathematics, chaos theory and the immense complexity of the microbiology of life, the explanation arrived at shatters, on a metaphysical level, the simplistic mind-set on which the Homo oeconomicus myth is based. It then goes on to provide the conceptual foundations for a sympathetic, evolutionary and neurobiologically informed conception of what a human being is and can be. Welcome to Reloading Humanism.