U-M philosopher applying theories to revive South Africa, Detroit

September 29, 2003
  • umichnews@umich.edu

ANN ARBOR—University of Michigan philosophy professor emeritus Frithjof Bergmann is using theories he developed at U-M to help the South African government overcome extreme poverty and hyper unemployment, believing the ideas can be replicated throughout the Third World and even domestically.

Bergmann, taking theories he experimented with during a drastic recession that produced a 25 percent unemployment rate in Flint during the early 1980s, champions embracing automation and using technology to make people self-reliant. Bergmann recently returned from South Africa where he has been advising the South African government on his theories with support from the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation. He’s also been asked by the Wayne County Department of Children and Family Services to help develop a model program to demonstrate his New Work theories in Detroit among a diverse group of young adults.

“As a philosophy professor, from the very beginning, I was interested in something that would change the world and not just one little project,” said Bergmann, who despises welfare and pushes freedom and self reliance while also being a liberal who strongly advocates compassionate ways to help the poor. He led some of the original teach-ins against the Vietnam War. “No one could simply put the elements of what I want to do in a box either left or right and as a philosopher, this is something I want to do, neither left nor right.”

His vision, embraced by individual leaders from both sides of the political spectrum as well as management and labor leaders, saw more than 25 years ago that automation and a rapid decline in industrial jobs was inevitable. He called the changes an historic opportunity to end 150 years of “job servitude” by embracing a philosophy he calls “new work.” The core of his philosophy: Using technology to make even the poorest people self-reliant and helping people find out what they really want to do so they can do work they enjoy that gives their life meaning.

“Throughout my travels to the Third World, I have seen there are two things everyone in those countries wants: electricity and the Internet,” Bergmann said. “Self-reliance involves making things yourself, the ‘teach a man to fish’ concept. One example is to provide them with a small mobile factory allowing villagers to make their own cement blocks to build their own houses or using a combination of small generators where people can make their own electricity.”

The late Heinz Prechter, a conservative top fund-raiser for George W. Bush, supported Bergmann and together they had plans for developing a simple yet sporty car that people in the Third World would be able to assemble themselves for less than half the cost of typical American cars. In Ann Arbor, he used his theories to help homeless people assemble simple-to-build homes.