Interview with Christian Michel12 September, 2008 — kuskowski
How are You feeling?
I’m feeling very pleased with these two days and I thought it went extremely well and the local organisation was superb and Nicolai (Barczentewicz) and You and all the people who worked for the organisation did a great job, so… Everybody I’ve talked to think it was one of the most successful conferences we’ve had, so it’s very good, I’m very pleased.
Thank You. This is Your first time in Poland?
No, no, I’ve been to Poland many times. In the early days after the… the post-Soviet era – ’92-’93, and again more recently, not to Warsaw but to Krakow – so I can see, certainly in Warsaw, how the city has changed between 1992-1993 and today. It’s very spectacular. At the time it was grey, it was drab, it was really… it had the feeling of a very boring place. Today, and today’s not sunny and so on, but it’s certainly a vibrant place full of colour, full of young people in the street, advertising, you know, shops, things like that. No, it’s great, absolutely great. And the old buildings have been redone and the appear in all their glory, it’s wonderful.
So You’ve been to Warsaw and Krakow?
Yes. These are the only two places I’ve been to. I’ve been to Katowice and I think maybe one or two other cities; but I’ve never been to the North. I would like to go to the Lake Mazur; I’ve never been there and I’m told the nature is absolutely beautiful; and Gdańsk, which, again, I’m told is a beautiful city, full of history and so on.
Okay. So apart from this feeling that Warsaw has become more vibrant and so on, how are You enjoying Poland, its people, its culture? How do You see it?
Well, I see it as a young and; one of the great cultures of Europe. It’s a language I do not speak, so I have problems identifying with the culture. For instance I was desperately trying to find, either in English or in French, a translation of Reymont’s book which Wajda turned into a film: The Land of the Great Promise – I don’t know how it is in Polish, so I couldn’t find a translation; the only Reymont book I could find in translation was The Peasants, which is probably not his best book, but I’m reading it right now. It’s just an example of how difficult it has been for Polish writers and playwrights and so on to get their work known internationally. Musicians are doing very well. Górecki is a celebrity in the rest of the world, as is Lutosławski and so on. But you don’t have the same thing with literature. And it is a problem of the languages that are losing more and more of their international status – I’m talking of the Frenchmen.
I’ve got a few questions about Your life. I’ve heard You’ve made quite a fortune. Is that true?
Well, I wouldn’t – You know, how big a fortune is before it can be called quite a lot. No, no. I never went to university and I was a dunce at school, so I started working very young, but I was lucky enough at one point to join a financial company in Paris, an American one, as a telex operator and this got me interested in things financial and so on, so I worked my way up the ladder and then one of our clients asked me to work for them in Switzerland and I acquired their business when there was a sort of merger or buyout. So I acquired a very small business we had, which they spun off and it grew nicely – partly luck, partly hard work, partly the work of others who joined the organisation. I sold it, not entirely, in 2000, and the bit that I kept started losing a lot of money; so the money I’d made in the sale of a major business I lost in keeping the bit that the other people didn’t want. So it’s from rags to riches and back to rags in one generation.
What kind of advice would You give to people who’d want to follow in Your footsteps, at least the rags to riches part?
Well, the rags to riches part is the most difficult one to achieve. But I really think there is no recipe. If there was one, everybody would be rich. What is more important rather than wanting to be rich is wanting to do the sort of thing you enjoy. And if what you enjoy can be of service to a lot of people, then a lot of people will buy your product. But if what you do is trying to service a lot of people, but you are very bored at doing it, you’re not going to be successful, because there would be something of your lack of passion and so on that will transpire and your staff will not be motivated, your clients will not be motivated, so at the end of the day, however rich you want to be, you will not succeed. But if you passionately believe in a mission, in a product or something like this, hopefully, not sure, but hopefully, that passion will communicate to other people and they will say: yes, we want to deal with you, you know, we like what you are doing. And, you will be so attentive to what your clients want to do and so on, that you will anticipate their wishes or You’ll be the first one to see that the market is changing and you will accompany the market.
And what about the libertarian mission, the libertarian passion? When did You hear the call of freedom? How did You find out about these ideas?
Virtually when I was born, and I think – as far as I can, sort of, recall – I was always a kind of libertarian. My father was a shopkeeper. He had no formal education, and my mother didn’t have any formal education either. But they were both very well read and they had a big library at home and they encouraged us to read; but I was always hearing my father complaining about taxes, control, bureaucracy, which, you know, shopkeepers complain about. So I was never too enthusiastic about the State. It was always presented to me as being something that was rather a nuisance than a solution. So I think I simply ingested this and then I was not interested in politics; I had friends who were. I managed to escape the brainwashing of Marxist professors and so on precisely because I didn’t go to university. But I was a kind of a classical liberal without any political fashion and so on.
It’s in 1981 when the Communist-Socialist coalition managed to win the election in France that suddenly it came as a sort of warning shot; I said, well something is happening here that I should take notice. I asked friends, who recommended Hayek, “The Road to Serfdom,” things like this and knowing nothing about the subject I wrote a book about it. You know, when you don’t know about a subject the best thing is either to teach it or to write a book about it, because it forces you to learn – so that’s what I did. In order to write this book, which was published by the Paris Economic Institute, in order to write this book I had to read a lot of literature. Suddenly I realised that minarchists crystallised all the unformulated ideas, aspirations that I had in mind.
A bit later on, I realised that my book was not the solution, because it still believed in the State and so on. As I said at the conference, at the time I was a utopian. I believed that you could constrain the State, but since I’ve become a realist –I’m an anarchist. So if there is a little bit of a State, it will grow. So the only realist position is the anarchist one.
And what about Libertarian International? Were You one of the founders?
No. Not at all. Libertarian International was founded a long time ago. I announced at the opening of the conference this morning that Vince Miller, the president of ISIL, died last night. Libertarian International started as a kind of spin-off of ISIL back in, can’t remember exactly, ’92 or something like this. And I got involved in ISIL, I think the first time in ’87-’88. I went to the ISIL conference in Paris in ’89, which was the first conference I attended, but then Europeans at ISIL left under the Chairmanship of Hubert Jongen. 2 years ago, when Hubert Jongen decided he wanted to retire, he asked me to take over and this is what I’ve done.
What is it exactly that the organisation does?
It’s main activity is to organise these conferences twice a year. Once in London in the Fall and once somewhere in Europe, in Spring or Summer. Its membership – it doesn’t really have a membership, it is a movement. The reason we don’t have a formal membership is because we’re so international – with people, friends in Iceland, in Norway, in Turkey, in East Europe and of course France, England and so on. So far, it was been very difficult to collect membership dues, to keep people informed of what we were doing and so on. Recently, now everybody being on the internet it’s easy to spread information, it’s still very difficult to collect membership dues. So what’s the point of having a list of people if their commitment is simply in giving you their e-mail address? Even with PayPal it’s very difficult to make international transfers. So we prefer to be viewed simply as a movement of people who believe in certain ideals and we get together at these events and maybe one day we’ll be able to be more structured. But you know, libertarians don’t believe in, sort of very-
They believe in structure, only voluntary one.
Yes, exactly that’s right, so maybe we’ll have a voluntary structure, with a bit of a budget that would help organising more events.
Sure. Are you active outside of Europe? Have you organised events on other continents?
Not really, because it was not in the remit of Libertarian International, because actually, it should be called Libertarian European, but it doesn’t sound to good – Libertarian European – so we called it Libertarian International. But we didn’t want to compete with ISIL, and because ISIL is worldwide, we left it to ISIL to recruit in South America, in Africa, in Asia; we limit ourselves to Europe.
You’ve had the opportunity to travel to different countries and so on. What is You impression of how different cultures are related to liberty? What kind of mindset is the most conducive for the growth of libertarian ideas?
It’s a very good question. I think that, ultimately, every human being is interested in right – and especially in these very basic rights: do not kill, do not steal, to not assault and keep your promises. If you go to Patagonia or if you go to Mongolia, you are unlikely to find somebody who’d say “I don’t mind being killed, I don’t mind being raped, I don’t mind being robbed.” These are the fundamental prohibitions that libertarians see as being the fundamental human rights. Do not kill and so on. These prohibitions are human.
Then cultures come on top of this and cultures will have different attitudes towards the family, different attitudes toward business, different attitudes toward culture, in the sense of the arts and thing like that. And that is fine. That is fine, provided that there is no coercion, provided there is no violation of these very fundamental rights.
I think it is important that we do not develop worldwide either a kind of MacDonald American culture, which will be rejected by a lot of people, or a kind of Chinese culture – which may one day flourish, simply because of sheer numbers of people over there. I think it is important that we all remain living with a heritage that we received, but so far part of this heritage was in direct violation of our rights and this is what libertarians reject.
And from the countries You visited, which would You say has the most vibrant libertarian movement or has the most potential for the growth of such a movement? Apart from America.
Yeah, apart from America. But even in America- I think it is a bit of an illusion that Americans are more libertarian than people elsewhere. It’s simply that libertarians in America have more access to the media and therefore can express their view publicly. In my country for instance, in France – where there is a very important and very powerful intellectual movement, libertarian movement – these libertarians never get access to the media, their books are never reviewed, they never give interviews in newspapers and so on. So, they are invisible. We know each other through this wonderful mean which is the internet, because we have forums and things like that. But we are libertarians talking to libertarians.
I think where the movement is probably gaining most is in the UK, because there is a long tradition of rights there, and the attitude of the BBC and other media toward libertarians is very different from the attitude in France. In the media they love inviting a libertarian, who will stare at the camera and who will say “we think that all drugs should be legalised.” And then the BBC switchboard is jammed with calls, the producer thinks it’s a wonderful show – you know, they love it! Whereas in France, again to call an example I know, journalists view their function as educating the public. And educating the public in the right sort of ideas and these ideas range from the left of the centre to the centre of the left, so that is the spectrum that they cover.
So there isn’t much we can do in France. In Eastern Europe, I think, in Poland, in Slovakia, where I was last week, certainly in the Czech Republic, in the Baltic states, there is an important libertarian movement, it is growing and it attracts a lot of intellectuals – and it gets more press coverage than we have in Belgium, France, Spain and so on.
Why is it, that in France, which produced thinkers like, ranging from Proudhon to Molinari, Turgot, Bastiat and people like that- How has France slipped towards this statist mindset that it seems unable to free itself from?
I think there are two reasons. One is that France is a country where traditionally intellectuals have more influence than in other countries. And intellectuals, for sociological reasons, were more in favour of the State, more in favour of socialism, more contaminated by Marxism. After all, most intellectuals live off the State – I mean, they are professors, they get subsidies because they are artists, because they work for the State-owned radios and television. So the intellectual movement that produced the ideology was more statist and generally to the left and generally Marxist, until recently.
The second reason is that the state has always had a huge prestige in France, which dates back to Louis XIV and maybe earlier. So the best brains in France don’t go into business; they work for the State. And the prestige, elite education institutions, and, you know, Polytechnique and so on, churn out civil servants.
So the conjunction of these two factors meant that being in business was not really something that was valued – it was vulgar, it was crass, it was sometimes considered to be Jewish and there was always a bit of anti-Semitism floating there. It is now changing. It is now changing and more and more young people, the ones I talked to, do not aspire to become civil servants. And therefore the statist ideology is probably on the way out. But it has dominated the scene for the last 80 years, and more.
Generally, what do You predict for libertarianism in the future? What do You think – whether it will grow, where will it grow if so and so on?
I think it will grow. I cannot say where it will grow, but I think it will grow and – a point I made in my talk earlier is very much inspired by Marxism – I think Marx was right on this count – I think that the political structures are dictated by the factors of production and the factors of production are dictated by technology. And the technology today is no longer one that will foster the State. Actually it is turning against the State. It is transborder, and it’s now becoming more and more difficult for a nation state to regulate its economy – because business moves – it’s more and more difficult to make claims about reducing unemployment, about giving more benefits to people and so on.
So more and more the ideology that has been dominant since, say, the late Enlightenment, or the French Revolution, until probably the 1980s – that ideology is on the way out. And I think that libertarianism is going to be the ideology that people will turn to simply because every day I look around and I don’t see any other competing ideology. People from the left – I mean, socialists and so on – no longer want to identify themselves as- they don’t know what they are for. You know, they say “we are anti-globalisation, we are anti-capitalist” and so on. They don’t tell us what they are for. They have no program except maintaining the status quo, which can’t be maintained. So libertarians have the ideology, but can give account of the world that is emerging in front of us – I mean, they have created the narrative that explains the world and I think more and more people will start buying this narrative.
What form it will take – again, in my talk I said, probably the stations on the road are going to be transnational organisations, maybe created by states, but very rapidly becoming independent from states and having a life of their own. And then maybe entering into competition with other organisations that would not be created by states but would offer the same sort of services. And it would be easier for people to accept these services after they have seen that institutions like the ones I mentioned, Interpol, the European Central Bank and so on, are doing this sort of job that the public expects.
Great. Last question. What should the individual person do to further the idea of freedom in their life.
I think that what we need is simply to be there. Ideally, I mean You know, we can preach and convert, like the Apostles did, or evangelicals do today. But in reality, I don’t think you convince people. You do not tell them “This is the way to think.” They discover it by themselves. But in order to discover it, our books, our publications, our websites, our blogs must be there. Then people will stumble upon them and they say “this is what I was looking for. This is what I sort of had in my mind, I could not put it into words. But now I realise this is what I was thinking.” So I think the more we publish, the more we become visible in bookshops, on the internet and so on, the more chance we have to attract people, who will accept 98-95-96% of what we say. And it’s good that they won’t accept 100% of what we say.
Okay, great. Thank You.
Interview by: Jędrzej Kuskowski