Springtime in Amsterdam: Setting the scene (Fred van Horzen) Seminar with Peter Sloterdijk (2019)

Springtime in Amsterdam; Peter Sloterdijk and others on voluntary taxation in a globalized world

Amsterdam Thursday 21 March 2019



The year 1905 was an important year. In Saint Petersburg, tsarist troops opened fire on a large group of demonstrators, consisting of the workers of St Petersburg and their family members. They had marched towards the Winter Palace in order to offer a petition to the Tsar, asking for measures to enhance justice. One of the measures asked for by the demonstrators was progressive taxation of incomes and abolition of all indirect taxation. The petition had been drafted by a Russian Orthodox priest, father Gapon.[1]

Also in 1905 the first translation in Dutch of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra was published, a translation by the Dutch Royal Navy Doctor Luciën von Römer, whose doctoral thesis on the multiple forms of human sexology was refused by the University of Amsterdam. In his preface to Zarathustra, Von Römer quotes Ludwig van Beethoven who had said ‘Music is a higher Revelation than all Wisdom and Philosophy’.[2]

In today’s seminar the focus will not be on music, although the title of the seminar does contain a reference to music. ‘Springtime in Amsterdam’ is not just the title of this seminar, it is also the title of a song written in 1989 by the late Wally Tax, during his lifetime referred to as the Dutch Mick Jagger. Wally Tax was the lead singer of the Outsiders, a Dutch rockband from the 1960’s. Wally Tax died penniless in 2005. His friends financed his funeral out of voluntary contributions.

So here we have the ingredients of today’s seminar: Tax and voluntary contributions on the first day of spring at the University of Amsterdam.

The following events led up to the decision to organize today’s seminar.

About a year ago a report titled Tax Justice and Poverty was published.[3] Its author was Jörg Alt of the Jesuitenmission in Nuremburg. I found the report fascinating for a number of reasons. The report is higly critical of modern capitalism and neoliberalism, with its supposed protestant roots. One of the side-effects of capitalism is the ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor, the increase in tax avoidance and tax evasion by wealthy individuals and big corporations and the current trend among nations for a race to the bottom as regards tax rates. According to the report Catholic Social Teaching or CST could be an essential tool in reversing this trend and to achieve global tax justice. Until I read this report, I had never heard of CST, which is not surprising, given the fact that I am not a catholic. My wife is catholic, but she was also unfamiliar with CST. According to the report, CST is one of the church’s best kept secrets. CST originated in the mid 19th century in response to social injustice caused by early capitalism. The report states that CST was also instrumental in the development of the western European social welfare state after the 2nd World War. Given the fact that the Catholic Church is one of the oldest and biggest Global Players, the report states that the Catholic Church and CST could be key in achieving tax justice, as part of a wider goal: “to increase the wellbeing and dignity of all human beings, to assist all in developing their capabilities and enabling their active participation in the human endeavour to build our Common Home for ourselves and the generations to come.”

After I read the report my mind started drifting through history and I arrived at Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who, in the mid 19th century had also been higly critical of free trade and capitalism. According to Friedrich Engels, the benefits of free trade as promoted by Adam Smith was nothing more than Protestant hypocrisy.[4] But is Protestantism really to blame?, I asked myself. This question was dealt with by the German sociologist Max Weber in his book Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism published in 1905.[5] Weber pointed to the Calvinist utilitarian work ethics that indeed formed the basis of modern western capitalism. However, according to Weber by the end of the 19th century, capitalism had already lost its religious roots and had been transformed into a steel building without spirit, inhabited by people governed solely by reason or desire, people without spirits and without hearts.

According to Weber, the original work ethics of Calvinists was based on Proverbs 22 verse 29: ‘Seest thou a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings’. This made me think of a statement by Gershom Scholem, who was a professor of Jewish mysticism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Scholem had written that the palace of the king is the highest level the human soul can reach according to Kabbalah, the doctrine of Jewish mysticism, which originated in 13th century Spain.[6] According to Kabbala the human soul consists of three levels: the first level is called nefesh, a reference to the living soul mentioned in Genesis 1 verse 24, the second level is called ruach and is associated with reason, and the highest level is called Neshamah. The Neshamah desires to gaze upon the loveliness of the King and to contemplate in the King’s Palace, as described in Psalm 27 verse 4.[7] In the King’s Palace, the human soul also finds treasuries of righteousness, justice, charity and peace. According to the Zohar, the book of Jewish mysticism, the person who is able to reach the Palace of the King will experience glory upon reaching the palace and will spread glory in the world upon his return from his transcendental journey. Happy is the person who succeeds through his deeds to receive and to spread glory, the Zohar states.[8]

According to most scholars, the division of the human soul in three parts in the teachings of Jewish mysticism is not original, but is copied from the works of the Greek philosopher Plato.[9] The highest level, the Neshamah is compared to the concept of thymos described by Plato in his work ‘Republic’. Thymos is considered to be the third part of the human soul. According to the American philosopher Frances Fukuyama, the Platonian thymos is the psychological seat of all the noble virtues like selflessness, idealism, morality, self sacrifice, courage and honorability.[10] Fukuyama considers the German philosophers Hegel and Nietzsche to be thymotic philosophers. According to Fukuyama, Nietzsche’s well-known doctrine of the “will to power” can be understood as the effort to reassert the primacy of thymos against desire and reason, and to undo the damage that modern liberalism had done to man’s pride and self-assertiveness.’  Fukuyama qualifies Nietzsche’s work as a thunderous condemnation of a modernity that had so fully accepted the morality of the slave that it was not even aware such a choice for slave morality had been made.’

According to me, the name of Peter Sloterdijk should be added to the names of Hegel and Nietzsche, especially in view of his book Rage and Time from 2006 and his essay The Grasping Hand and the Giving Side in which he proposes a ‘thymotic thought experiment’: to replace the current system of coerced taxation with a system based on voluntary payments (gradually and over time).

These thoughts I wrote down in an article published in May, last year, with the title ‘Take me to Church’ after a popular song by Hozier.[11] I ended the article by asking the question if stimulating the thymotic part of the human soul either via CST or via Sloterdijk’s thought experiment would be able to transform the current race to the bottom in the field of taxation into a glorious race or flight to the top. As the Russian writer and poet Marina Tsvetájeva once wrote: ‘The soul is duty. The duty of the soul – is flight: die Seele fliegt!’[12] Nietzsche taught in The Gay Science that in order to fly one must liberate oneself from many things that make heavy precisely us Europeans today.[13]

My friend Paul de Haan suggested to organize a seminar in which the views of Peter Sloterdijk on voluntary taxation should be discussed in a broad setting. This crazy idea has miraculously turned into reality, thanks to our host the Amsterdam Centre for Tax Law, represented today by our chair Prof Peter Wattel, and our sponsors Meijburg & Co, Allen & Overy, United Foundation, BDO, the Dutch IFA branch and sponsors who wish to remain anonymous but who will undoubtedly disclose their voluntary contributions in their tax return.

Today you will hear the views on the thymotic idea of voluntary taxation by people who are on the inside of the tax world: Hans Gribnau, Anna Gunn and Sigrid Hemels, but also by people from outside the tax world: the Outsiders, without their former lead singer Wally Tax: Jörg Alt, René ten Bos, Adriaan van Dis, Jonathan Soeharno, Johanna Mugler and last but not least, our key note speaker: from Germany, I present to you Peter Sloterdijk, who will now have the floor.

Thank you for your attention and enjoy your flight to thymotic heights.


Photo: Sloterdijk (left) and Van Horzen (right)

[1] Voline, ‘The Unknown Revolution’, Black Rose Books, Montreal, 1975, p 76.

[2]Aldus sprak Zarathustra’, translation authorized by the ‘Nietzsche-Archiv’ S.L. van Looy, Amsterdam, 1905.

[3]Tax Justice & Poverty’, Author Jörg Alt SJ, Published 19 March 2018, http://www.taxjustice-and-poverty.org/.

[4] Friedrich Engels, ‘Umrisse zu einer Kritik der Nationalökonomie’, Deutsch-Französischen Jahrbüchern, Paris, 1844, http://www.mlwerke.de/me/me01/me01_499.htm.

[5] Max Weber, ‘Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus’, herausgegeben und eingeleitet von Dirk Kaesler, Verlag C.H. Beck, 2013.

[6] Gershom Scholem, ‘The Messianic Idea in Judaism’, Schocken Books, New York, 1995, p. 89.

[7]The Zohar’, translation Daniel Matt, Volume Two, 1:83a and 83b, Stanford University Press, 2004; Volume Three, 1:206a, Stanford University Press, 2006, p. 262.

[8]The Zohar’, Volume Five, 2:155b, Stanford University Press, 2009, p. 407.

[9] Isaiah Tishby, ‘The Wisdom of the Zohar’, Volume II, The Littmann Library of Jewish Civilisation, Washington 1994, p. 723, footnote 4.

[10] Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’, Penguin Books, reissued 2012

[11] NTFR 2018/1022.

[12] Marina Tsvetajeva, ‘Earthly Signs, Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922’, edited and translated by Jamey Gambrell, New York Review Books, 2018, p. 149.

[13] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘The Joyful Wisdom’, translated by Thomas Common, T.N. Foulis, Edinburgh & London, 1910, part V, nr. 380, p. 348.

About Anna Gunn

Fiscaliste met de specialisaties EU-belastingrecht en fiscale exotica. Geruime praktijkervaring met fiscale staatssteun.

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