In our search for Utopia, it is of great importance to look at the ideal paradigm from different angles. That includes a political standpoint. During the Asset International Conference on the 29th of September, Asset Magazine sat down with former minister of Social Affairs and Employment and UN-delegate Ad Melkert to discuss his view about Utopia.
Interview by: Tim Haarlemmer & Gino van Montfort
Text: Gino van Montfort
Ad Melkert is best known for his work as a politician of the Labour Party (PvdA). He furthermore served as the parliamentary leader from 1998 to 2002 and has more recently fulfilled positions within the United Nations, as an Associate Administrator and special UN-delegate for the country of Iraq. In the Middle-East, mister Melkert has contributed to the United Nations Development Programme. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is the United Nations’ global development network. It advocates for change and connects countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life. UNDP operates in 166 countries, working with nations on their own solutions to global and national development challenges. Furthermore, mister Melkert has been director of internal affairs at the Dutch development aid organization Novib, and an executive director at the World Bank.
What would the world be like without restrictions, without establishment?
First of all, I would like to state that Utopia is a very interesting and intriguing theme, and I find great pleasure in elaborating on the subject, because without opening yourself up to the idea of Utopia, or a utopian ideal, one cannot change or reform the existing establishment. It is of great importance to realize that the existing order is based on the interpretation of the earth that we live on and how people act at that point in time, but the variety of that, both what the earth has to offer and how people act, is a somewhat infinite process in our understanding. It asks both an open mindset, to figure out how the establishment as a whole is thought of, because history teaches us that whatever people think of, for better or worse, can be realized.
Furthermore, my first association with the concept of Utopia, the main characteristics of this Utopian society is that on the one hand people have a large individual freedom, to decide what their own life holds for them, and on the other hand, that they have the material basis in order to do so in complete freedom. However I realize that when stating these two beliefs, that these two tend to get in each other’s way and form hurdles for one another. Therefore, if one would truly try to realize a utopian society, one automatically gets involved in practical discussions about how to incorporate conflicting views on the behavior of people, because people are individuals, but tend to follow a social and somewhat altruistic behavioral route. The strange thing however is that when people act together in groups, they often try to act through individualistic interests.
That sounds like a paradox within a social individual, or not?
Yes, exactly. I have a positive view on humanity, but apparently there are certain people who cause that positive capabilities are used for contradictory goals. The greater factors for creating these conditions are money, power and possessions. When striving for a utopian ideal society, one should try to seek out the earlier mentioned factors that have a negative influence on the behavior of people, or at least try to tone down the effects of these factors. That can be done by agreements, laws and consent. In the society that we live in today, it is of essential value that the role of money is not underestimated. In today’s society, the role of money could be one of the means to get closer to a utopian society. We cannot live without money anymore, because it plays a rational role in experiencing one’s own freedom.
Can we say that you are a monetarist?
Indeed. As I stated earlier, I think that the role of money is of vital importance. However, it is also important that one creates guidelines in order to assure that every man has the access to a certain basic level of living.
An example, when one has money, one could buy bread in order to survive and fulfill a basic need, and one could spend it on jewels, in order to uphold a certain level of status in society. How would one balance these expenditures?
The important part here is understanding the needs of the individual. One has to buy bread in order to survive. Therefore, one should never spend the whole amount of money on jewels, and subsequent status. One could use a portion of one’s budget to buy jewels, but you always have to ensure that you have enough money left to fulfill your basic needs, bread in this case. That is, where I think that the government plays a vital part in today’s society.
From a political standpoint, what would Utopia look like?
The ideal situation is, in my opinion, a combination of both left and right political views. One has to respect the freedom of the individual, and therefore should let an individual act in their own way to a certain extent. However, the government should apply a sort of safety net, as an insurance that every individual can fulfill its basic needs and provide for those needs by means of a job, work.
You have filed many government bills, including the one to get longtime unemployed people back into the field of work, thereby reducing the unemployment rate in the Netherlands. Is this connected to an ideological view that in a utopian society, there should be no unemployment?
I believe so. Not that there is absolutely no unemployment, because in a practical world, it is impossible to reach a true minimum, but that should be the ideal view. That you try to reduce unemployment to an acceptable minimum. In that way, every individual is working for its own basic needs, and thereby contributing to society.
This law, and the coincidentally coined term that was named after you, the so-called ‘Melkert-jobs’, have been laid off in a decentralized manner. How do you feel about that? Is there need for these kind of jobs, especially in an economically rough time?
I have no problem with the decentralized layoff of those jobs, because it was in an economical time that it could be done. However, it should be noted that by erasing those jobs, you essentially create a void in the job sector that is not filled in easily. When we started with those jobs back in the mid-90’s, the fact was that there were a lot of longtime unemployed people out there, people that have not had jobs in ten to fifteen years. They were mostly low-educated people, who could easily find work as a class assistant, a concierge of some sort or a lunch lady. That were the kind of jobs that we could easily fit these people in. They had the capabilities to carry out such a job, and by doing these jobs, they can provide for their own income. Furthermore, higher educated people would not be wasting their time by fulfilling jobs below their capabilities. There lies the benefit of this measure for society.
Is that not the idea of a so-called ‘welfare state’?
No, not really. The idea of the welfare state is part of a greater whole, something that was initially thought of as a righteous state. In this righteous state, everyone has the opportunity to work. Eventually, the main goal is to realize autonomous freedom for the individual, however, this should be regulated and overlooked by the government.
In a way, you are saying that the government should intervene in certain situations, when the free market principle of economists such as Milton Friedman fails. One could argue that this is a Keynesian economical view. Do you share yourself among his followers?
Keynes has certainly contributed immensely to the idea of economics and the measures that one could take in order to stimulate the economy. However, his view is based on the assumptions in his time, and therefore should not be applied literally. For every time, there are different assumptions about how the economy works and how people act and react. Therefore, I applaud the reasoning of Keynes that the government should stimulate the economy if possible, but I also want to encourage the fact that modifications should be made throughout time, when the perception of what we think is true, changes.
Without a utopian ideal, one cannot change or reform the existing establishment
Money, power and possessions can transform positive capabilities into negative ones
The idea of the welfare state is part of a greater, righteous state
Modifications should be made to enhance economic theories throughout time