Chapter 5: The Club of Rome and the Limits to Growth

15. Musil and “The Man Without Qualities”
We come now to the cultural aspect of these reflections. Even economics has its roots in the culture of the society. A certain philosophy has been at the basis of every work in economics, from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill, to our day. The evolution of Economics, whether in theory or in practice, is inseparable from cultural evolution. It is not by chance therefore that the members of the Club of Rome have always leaned strongly towards cultural questions. Nor is it by chance that Federico Mayor, previously Director General of UNESCO for many years, has been a very active member of the Club of Rome.
I have always thought strong signs of change are to be found in literature and my refer­ence point has been Robert Musil, an early 20th century Austrian writer, whose ashes were scattered on the Salève, the last stretch of the Jura chain that marks the city of Geneva. Maybe I was struck by the fact that the writer had passed the last four or five years of his life a few hundred metres from the very office where I worked for twenty eight years and where I had also written the greater part of this book.
Musil represents the culture of “Mitteleurope”, of central Europe, to which Trieste Ital­ians like me are particularly sensitive. He is best known for having written a book entitled The Man Without Qualities. This translation of the title constitutes a betrayal. The German term is “Eigenschaften”, for which the term “qualities” is an incongruency. It would be better to use the word “Properties” in the chemical meaning of the term. It describes the state of a man who, in a world dominated by the scientific and deterministic view of things, refuses, as a person to be limited to one specialty, to be tied exclusively to one label.
The drama is even more powerful when one knows that Musil had a scientific education, and that in his time education in the humanities and in the sciences were completely separate. From this derives a man “without qualities”, who feels far from this world after the First World War – when even political theories become “scientific” and which are on their way towards one of the greatest disasters in History.
The book begins in a paradoxical manner, as it is only right that it should. Ulrich, the protagonist of the long novel is tasked with setting up a “Secretariat of the soul and of certainty”.

16. The Balance Sheet of the Secretariat of the Soul and of Certainty

August 1913. It was important to some German patriots to celebrate the anniversary of William II. To underline the fact that Austria had not succumbed to the charm of Prussia and Germany, they wished to prepare great celebrations for Franz Josef who, in 1918 would have celebrated 70 years of his reign: an impossible event given that when Musil wrote his book it was already known that the emperor and his empire no longer existed.

So why then evoke today the balance sheets of a seretariat and its activities which, as Musil’s novel takes shape, end up disappearing in the reader’s hands like sand that runs through the fingers and is scattered? Because paradoxically, this secretariat that in the end was no more than a plan, today, almost ninety years later can boast a positive balance sheet. On what is my thesis of a positive balance sheet based?

The recognition of this seventieth anniversary of the reign of Franz Josef was meant to have taken place precisely on the basis of the idea that it was possible to overcome the cultural barriers which at the time (and in part still today) divided what Musil called the two half truths. On one side, a world founded on scientific ambition to arrive at some certainties through physics and mathematics; it is the world of science, understood as the realisation of the 19th century utopia that aimed at assuring society of a future made up of certain, definitive and absolute knowledge. On the other side, Ulrich is condemned to impotence because human reality and its becoming are made up of more or less irrational deductions that are not ascribable to Cartesian type definitive certainties, and which challenge the mechanistic and determinist forecast towards the inevitable.

Is Musil, therefore, as some have very superficially suggested, the expression of a form of European decadence that leaves no more than a half part of truth to determinist science? Absolutely not. Musil opens up the path to a new culture where science is no longer only determinist, but presupposes a dialogue with indeterminism rooted in the soul, in human nature. And on this path he represents the beginning of the possibility of rebirth.

17. Two “half-truths”

It must not be forgotten that Musil alluded to “two half-truths” because he knew them both very well. He had written a thesis on Mach, he was an engineer and had a mathemati­cian’s ambitions. At the same time Ulrich himself, in the novel, remembers every so often that mathematics is the field in which he tries to make concrete his aspirations towards precision. From his previous book Young Torless it can be seen that Musil is very attracted by the irrational and impulsive aspects of human existence. Nevertheless he does not allow himself to be taken in by stereotypes or by the Viennese atmosphere of the age. The judge­ment expressed by Musil on Vienna often derives from the idea that it was a decadent provincial world, incapable of planning its own survival in contemporary reality. The place where a more solid European culture was to be found at the beginning of the century was Berlin. Like Karl Kraus, Musil is often harsh in his criticism of the Vienna of the time. The Man Without Qualities begins with an account of what was strange in the kingdom of “KAKANIA” (Kakanie = Kaiser und Konig, Emperor and King). A world which no longer believes enough in itself to fight and to propose the synthesis “of the soul and precision”. Ulrich will remain alone and abandoned. The whole of Europe will fall into ruin in its wild attempt to transform a half-truth into a total and all-absorbing truth.
As the novel progresses one realises that what Musil is trying to free is the New Man, the Man who will arise in the crisis situation in which Europe finds itself: Europe as an extrapolation of the Viennese world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of 1913, on which few hopes could any longer rest. There was not enough breath yet to give rise to a new culture, a new model, capable of dealing with uncertainty rather than being subjugated to it. Another proof of Musil’s positive and optimistic will comes from a fierce criticism of Oswald Spengler and his thesis on the crisis of Western Civilisation. For Musil this crisis was not inevitable, it was not registered among the inescapable “scientific” facts. We must learn that we are not an absolute truth, that man is not complete, that man is a project and that a civilisation cannot give itself or create for itself a future if it separates, in a schizophrenic way, the aspiration to precision of the scientific type from human cultural ambition in the broad sense. This would create an irreparable split into which it would escape and collapse.
Why then should this secretariat have been a success? If we look at what the human sci­ences, particularly economics, have tried to do in our days, we don’t get the impression that it was a success. Still today my fellow economists aspire to be taken as seriously on the sci­entific plane as a physicist or a biologist. They were almost convinced of it several years ago when a Nobel Prize began to be awarded for economics. The ambition of this discipline has been, until very recently, to seek to supply the social economic analysis with a presentation as sure and accurate as the accuracy of the natural sciences was believed to be. The great innovation of the beginning of the 20th century, immediately after Musil’s time, is the overturning of positions held in the area of natural sciences, and in particular, physics. Indeterminism and uncertainty have occupied increasingly greater space in the fortress of philosophy of science, whether we are speaking about Karl Popper – another “old Austrian” – or of Ilya Prigogine. What are they concerned about in fact if not about approving the fact that the secretariat suggested by Musil for joining the two half-truths can find a point of union? Here is the new world, culturally, socially and psychologically capable of dealing with uncertainty, that gives meaning to every project while preventing it from becoming totalitarian. It is, therefore, about a battle for greater freedom and greater awareness and responsibility in freedom. This all began when Einstein overcame the world of Newtonian reality, though reluctantly and even though he spent the last years of his life attempting to prove that physics could once again be built on some certainties fixed and definitive in time and space. “God doesn’t play dice” he said.

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