Portuguese American Journal

Mendo Henriques: 40 years after April 25th the revolution still goes on – Interview

By Carolina Matos, Editor (*)

Mendo Henriques is an associate professor at the Catholic University of Lisbon, Portugal. His many areas of interest include Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Consciousness, Applied Philosophy, Ethics, History, Citizenship, Literature, Governance, Religion and Education.

He has written extensively on Fernando Pessoa, Bernard Lonergan, and Eric Voegelin and is the author and co-author of many books, research, monographs and articles published in Portugal, Brazil, Spain and France.

A former advisor of the National Defense Institute, and director of GEPOLIS (Gabinete de Estudos Ético-Político-Religiosos; UCP), Mendo Henriques is an opinion leader and political blogger devoted to issues of citizenship awareness, civic activism and volunteerism.

The founder and director of the Instituto da Democracia Portuguesa, a Portuguese think tank, he publishes in a variety of Internet sites dedicated to civics, namely Instituto da Democracia Portuguesa, Clubes da Cidadania, and  Colóquios Lonergan.

In 2013, he co-authored with Nazaré Barros Olá, Consciência!a “think-for-yourself” book devoted to the philosophy of conscience and critical thinking. The book, published in Portugal and Brazil, is now being adapted into English, by Henrique Rodrigues, for publication in the United States.

Mendo Henriques holds a Bachelor Degree and Master’s Degree in Philosophy from the University of Lisbon and a doctorate from by the Catholic University of Lisbon. He has done pre-doctorate studies at the Hoover Institution, CA/USA, and at Geschwister-Scholl Institut, Munich, FRG.

In this interview for the Portuguese American Journal, Mendo Henriques reflects on contemporary Portugal, 40 years after the Carnation Revolution of 1974, on his thinking and his vision for the future.

Portugal is celebrating 40 years of freedom and democracy.  Looking back, was the 25th of April revolution worth it?

All indicators before and after April 25thpoint to this: the Portuguese state was perceived as being rich but we were poor and forced to migrate; the state was sovereign but we had no freedoms; we held a colonial empire but were not able to conquer the minds and hearts of those we colonized. Against this backdrop the revolution was well worth as it freed us to make new choices. What we have chosen, however, has been tested by capitalism. Capitalism is capable of creating the best life conditions when the wealth created better serves the collective welfare; or the worst when the created riches are abused by a minority, as explained by Thomas Piketty and illustrated by the Gini Coefficient about inequality. What we do in Portugal today is contingent to European and global answers. Yet, we should not accept bad policies forced on us due to the ignorance or greed of those in government.

The revolution had three objectives: decolonize, democratize and develop.  From your perspective, were the ideals of the revolution achieved?

The ideals of the revolution were achieved. Yet, the world has changed greatly in the last 40 years and new challenges have emerged. Decolonization: despite the long civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, after 1974, these African nations have remained linked to Portugal by affection and economic interests.  What we now call “Lusofonia” has been the appropriate answer to current challenges.  Democratization: a “formal” democracy has been established and guaranteed.  However, to achieve a “real” democracy we are in need of new political parties in order to counteract the oligarchic impositions that impoverished us.  Development: the country was finally provided with progress tools. However, we need to support those who use these resources but have been penalized by austerity policies.  I think that the civil society will produce new rulers with the ability to face our current problems.  The revolution still goes on.

In 1974, Portugal was amongst the poorest countries in Western Europe in the grip of a deep crisis. Since then much has changed for the better.  Yet, in 2014 Portugal remains one of the poorest countries of the Eurozone going through a deeper social and economic crisis.  How would you explain the paradox?

Yes, we are facing a paradox inexplicable through social sciences.  The explanation must be found in the contexts of history and cultural anthropology.  As Jorge Dias has explained, in Os Elementos Fundamentais  da Cultura Portuguesa, the Portuguese character is “a mix of a dreamer and a man of action,” or rather, “a dynamic dreamer who has a certain practical, realistic sense.”  He once said, “When I stroll in Lisbon, I can see the sailors of the past; I don’t see the captains.”  Without dreaming, the individual won’t thrive; without leadership, the country won’t survive.  In 1974, the state was relatively rich, but the Portuguese were poor.  Economic growth was one of the highest in Western Europe, with a GDP per capita of about 70 % against the European average. Following the establishment of democracy, by 2000 the GDP went up to 75-76 % against the European average.  However, with the enactment of pro-cyclical economic policies, such as over construction, foreign loans and now the austerity measures, between 2001 and 2014 we have regressed to 70 %.  Leadership in Portugal – or in Spain and France – has been of an unqualified parochialism.  Here, leaders have been inept in sustaining the Portuguese dream.  They act as administration staff, rather than being the statesmen of a country remarkably rich in values.

You have had a major role in the creation of the Instituto da Democracia Portuguesa (IDP), an alternative politics formation whose goal is to challenge the current political system in Portugal.  What is the ideological precept behind the emergence of this movement?

Born in August 2007, the IDP acts as a ‘think-tank’ whose goal is to challenge the neo-liberal trend started in the 80s. Its main mission is to promote the common good and to encourage independent thinking.  But change takes time.  For now, the IDP offers public policy proposals and is active in supporting a political movement called Nós, Cidadãos! We reject a model of development that disregards the needs of the middle class and feeds on the complicity between the over spending state, captured by “neo-liberals” and always in debt to multinational banks, and the “neo-socialist” corporations selling consumer goods and supported by the state and the also by multinational banks.  The middle class pays for most public amenities such as education, health and housing, and is left without self-sustaining means.

One of your proposals has been to bring back the monarchy. Wouldn’t it be an anachronism?

Democracy allows for the expression of public interest through political parties and elected governments. As it is the case throughout Europe, there are difficulties in balancing the uniqueness of each European country and overall European cohesion.  Ronald Reagan once told D. Duarte de Bragança when receiving him at the White House “Why don’t you run for President?”  I believe that a monarchy, or a “republic with a king,” would be our way to tell Europe, “Get organized as a confederation and we will contribute with our national identity.” We must balance our historical heritage with our vision of the future. Anyway, D. Duarte de Bragança has already won a place in history by preparing himself and the Royal Family for such a transition.

Dissatisfaction is growing in Portugal where salaries are amongst the lowest in the Eurozone.  The unemployment rate is currently at 15.3%, but over 35% among the young professionals.  They are leaving the country by the thousands looking for work abroad. What is your advice for them?

I suggest that they remain connected to their roots.  Those leaving Portugal (a country 2000 years ago once called Lusitania), will carry with them the language, traditions and tastes, together with its Mediterranean, Roman and Judeo-Christian legacy.  Will this heritage all of a sudden become useless?  Shouldn’t we rather stay connected and work together to keep it alive?  This is a fundamental question for anyone who stays or leaves Portugal today.  Being nihilistic would be to accept that our heritage is exhausted and that all revolves around individual survival.  I am among those who like to think that by trying hard, and through digital networking, we can stay linked to the past and reinvent the future.  I strongly believe in the benefits of diaspora – one can leave Portugal but still remain within it and, by being within, one can also be outside of it.

What would your advice be for those who would rather stay in Portugal?

More than addressing those who “just stay,” I would rather speak to those who stay connected. We must rediscover ourselves as free citizens able to control our future.  Take productivity, for instance.  If a Portuguese worker in Portugal is able to produce 66 % of the European labor average and when in Luxembourg he produces 186 % of the European average – the difference lies not with him, but with governments and corporations.  A renewed social pact was the idea expressed in September 15, 2012, during a demonstration of 1 million people in cities across the country.  Rui Moreira, the current Mayor of Porto, referred to this movement as an ultimatum to the government.  The problem facing the Portuguese people today is the lack of differences between the two right and left political forces – the socialists and the conservatives.  Both run a “neo–liberal” state that favors big “neo-socialist “corporations who are disposing of our national, non-transferable assets while dependent on the government and multinational banking to survive.

OLAThroughout your career you’ve explored and written about a wide range of topics, from political philosophy and ethics, to history and religion.  Most recently you and Nazaré Barros co-authored Olá, Consciência!, a book devoted to the philosophy of conscience as an individual and social value.  Why this book now?

The book appeared as an alert for the need to make a paradigm shift from a society centered on “me” to a society focused on “we.”  The shift begins with the awareness that “conscience” is not to be understood as the “I” of psychology or as an “epiphenomenon” resulting from neurological processes but rather as a relationship between the “me” and the “other.”  As Viktor Frankl once said, “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked, a formula echoed by President Kennedy’s dictum.  We should start listening not to our projects but to the plans that life has for us through the encounter of the other. This clash of paradigms may be disconcerting.  I believe the book first brings some discomfort to the reader, at least for those who are used to accept opinions and lifestyles without the “consciousness” of what they are doing or thinking. I should say that Olá Consciência, like Socrates and the gadfly disturbing everyone’s sleep aims to challenge many clichés and urban myths by forcing the reader to leave comfort zones where more often than not prejudices define everything.

The field of philosophy has had a reputation for being especially hostile toward women.  You just co-authored a book with a female philosopher. Will you comment on your experience?

Philosophy was born as a form of dialogue through questions we ask and answers we get.  We may dialogue with ourselves or with the other.  In this case, the dialogue was between two people.  To be more precise, the original idea of the book was only developed when Nazaré started dialoguing with me.  This is how the process began and how, Olá, Consciência! justified its title which is, of course, a greeting symbolizing this encounter.  The first 10 chapters are about discovering the intellectual and emotional tools that make the basis of our models of thought and the searching for “truth.”  Chapters 11-21 expands the debate to human action in history, politics, religion, economics and art, seeking to reflect on what is valuable and “good.”  Writing it was most pleasurable because, as many readers have pointed out, between the two of us we succeeded in achieving a perfect synthesis – like playing a piano with four hands.

What is the role of the philosopher and of philosophy in today’s  world?

Philosophy will always try to be the synthesis of ideas that sustain what we do and what we think.  These ideas are at work in art, science, law, politics, ethics and everything else that is alive.  In the past, philosophers presented this synthesis as a whole to be taken or rejected as a whole.  The concept has since changed.  From a more conservative view, we are living within what was left of our eroded traditions which, as Alasdair McIntyre wrote, were turned into the “wasteland” that T.S. Elliot described.  Here Plato and Aristotle, and even Descartes and Hegel, are seen as exotic references for mass culture.  This moving away from our intellectual roots has been blamed for the so called “crisis of values.”  Yet, without this “crossing of the desert,” our ideas won’t have achieved authenticity.  Therefore, I believe that we are not facing a “lack of values” but rather facing an overabundance of values in the absence of ethics.  Traditional ethics are no longer sufficient to confront the unknown future which, as Hans Jonas has warned us, is full of risks.  The role of philosophy today is to rebuild the bridges between our intellectual roots and can only be achieved through the acknowledgement of the other.

What do you think are the biggest philosophical issues of our time?

In the 20th century, philosophy and in particular the knowledge of the self, became no longer a concern for just a few scholars but, as Bernard Lonergan observed, has become a social issue. Therefore, we must start by saying “no” to self-centered thought.  The question is: How do we connect to other?  Philosophers such as Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Viktor Frankl, Emmanuel Levinas, Hans Jonas, Giusepe Zanghi, Charles Taylor and Gabriel Marcel, have demonstrated that dialogue is paramount to human existence.  I think that ultimately our concerns can be summarized in just one sentence: “We want to be heard.”  The world no longer wants to be explained – it wants to be heard.  The people no longer want to be just represented – they want to share.  At the very core of reality, a voice is claiming: “We want to be acknowledged.”

If you could choose one thing to change about the world, what would it be?

In many ways, the 20th century was the century of the “self” generating big dictator’s egos such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong who imposed their will on others by barbarian and violent means.  It also generated individual selfishness common to both the producer and the consumer.  I believe the 21st century will be the century of “we” where no collective act will ever replace the singular act of meeting the “other” and where we will rather acknowledge the meaning that results from our encounter with the singularity of “other.”  By ignoring the other, we will open the way for acts of corruption and violence and for personal and social immorality.  Dialogic thinkers are now responding to the barbarism of the 20th century by demonstrating how selfish reason has failed us.  We will need to learn that to be ethical is to be able to face, not just the major social and historical deeds, but also the lesser everyday happenings which can embody inhuman and violent acts against the other, and that, because they are within historical and social frameworks, they can be considered “normal.”  To be violent is to disregard the other and philosophy must reject it.

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(*) Carolina Matos, is the founder and editor of  the Portuguese American Journal online. She was the Editor–in-Chief for The Portuguese American Journal, in print, from 1985 to 1995. From 1995 to 2010, she was a consultant for Lisbon based Luso-American Development Foundation (FLAD). She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts and a Master’s Degree in English and Education from Brown University and holds a Doctorate in Education from Lesley University. She has also been an adjunct professor at Lesley University where she has taught undergraduate and graduate courses. In 2004, Carolina Matos was honored with the Comenda da Ordem do Infante D. Henrique, presented by Jorge Sampaio, President of Portugal.