Peak democracy?

27 July 2016
Only in en
Razpotja considers the spectres of dictatorship haunting Europe; Mittelweg 36 examines past and present commitments to democracy; Blätter asks if the post-Brexit era spells the beginning of the end for Europe; Multitudes anticipates a universal basic income for all; Krytyka sees a historical opportunity for Ukrainian politics; RozRazil investigates the plurality of meanings embodied in the nation; Letras Libres reflects on the rise of speciesism; Kulturos barai senses that under conditions of austerity, extremism becomes a norm; and Vikerkaar confronts the shock of the Anthropocene.


Razpotja (Slovenia) marks 80 years since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War with the publication of an essay by historian Julián Casanova. During the early hours of 18 July 1936, Franco declared a state of war and his opposition to the Second Spanish Republic. Casanova writes that there is “no simple answer as to why the climate of euphoria and hope in 1931, when the Second Republic was founded, transformed into the cruel, all-destructive war of 1936-1939”. Nonetheless, he proceeds to sum up the brutal shift from democracy to dictatorship thus:

“Against such a widespread level of political and social mobilization set in motion by the Republican regime, the coup d’état could not end, as had occurred so many times in Spain’s history, in a mere return to the old order, based on traditional values. To overthrow the Republic, what was needed was a new, violent, antidemocratic and antisocialist order, such as had previously been established elsewhere in Europe, to end the crisis and repair all the fissures that had been opened, or widened, by the Republican regime.”

Poland’s (il)liberal consensus: It’s high time we reject worn-out explanations that declare the 2015 electoral victory of the Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland to be rooted in the undemocratic legacy of the communist regime, argues Pawel Marczewski. The source of scepticism concerning the European Union, and the very idea of liberal democracy — both concepts that PiS has shown a disregard for that verges on contempt — is to be found elsewhere. And not least, in the illusion of a liberal consensus all too often assumed to have been established in East-Central Europe, and in exaggerated claims of an ensuing “democratic consolidation”.

Putin’s strategy: Once considered a force of stability after the Yeltsin years, Vladimir Putin now depends on exporting instability and escalating international tensions in order to retain his grip on power at home. In the face of which, Garry Kasparov warns against complacency, not least with a general election due in Georgia in October — at the same time as insisting that it is merely a question of time before Putin’s apparent show of strength gives way to dramatic change in Russia itself.

More articles from Razpotja; razpotja.si


Jens Hacke‘s contribution to Mittelweg 36 (Germany) opens a series of articles on the past, present and future of democracy. Taking Willy Brandt’s famous statement of 1969 about the wish “to dare more democracy” as his point of departure, Hacke refuses to give up on the emancipatory potential of processes of democratization. The challenge is to make such processes lively and relevant to today’s context, where national parliamentary politics is scarcely equipped to deal with the complexities of global governance. The refugee crisis poses the most pressing challenge in this respect, but only adds urgency to the need to familiarize ourselves with democratic ways of life.

Poland’s incomplete transition: Today, democratic consolidation in Poland may well have been proven an illusion, concedes Vera Trappmann. This, despite the country already ranking as a democracy where the rule of law was sound in 2004 — scoring 9.2 out of 10 on the Bertelsmann Transformation Index. It seems that such indexes failed to pick up on a weak civil society reliant on informal, spontaneous and local interventions on the part of individuals reluctant to enter into the process of institutionalization that, as the experience of totalitarianism has shown, only makes such movements vulnerable to attack.

That said, the emphasis that the European Union placed on civil society as a key indicator of the democratization process, making it key to the criteria for the EU’s 2004 eastward enlargement, was more of a hindrance than a help — coming as it did emphatically from above, as opposed to from below. The result was political exhaustion on the one hand, and the continuation of another worrying trend on the other: the turn out for a general election has scarcely exceeded 50 per cent since the founding of the Third Polish Republic in 1991. As to whether a recent upsurge in street protests, most recently against the PiS’s assault on the country’s constitution, can provide the energy required for a transformation of the current political culture remains to be seen.

Spain’s transición: It was once described as “perhaps the most successful transition from dictatorship to democracy that the world has ever witnessed”. Hyperbole aside, Birgit Aschmann takes issue with viewing Spain’s transition as an isolated event, to the neglect of key transnational factors.

More articles from Mittelweg 36; mittelweg36.de


The August issue of Blätter (Germany) provides a range of viewpoints on the post-Brexit era, with editor Steffen Vogel holding out hope for a transnational democracy centred on the model of the European Parliament, where the issues are hammered out not by the Germans and the French but European socialists and European conservatives. The views of economists Michael R. Krätke and Martin Höpner range from pessimistic to stubbornly optimistic. Krätke discerns in the UK a country in shock at the Brexit decision, full of hatred and without a plan. Höpner argues for a social Europe, but without the euro.

Meanwhile, historian and publicist Karl D. Bredthauer examines what he calls “the stranglehold of ever closer union”. Bredthauer, previously a long-time Blätter editor, argues that “attempts to forcefully integrate” complex interests, potentials, traditions and political orientations “through solidarity directives or economic pressure are more likely to effect a break-up than unity”. Here, one need only look at the handling in Berlin and Brussels of the refugee and Greek debt crises.

More bioeconomic democracy: Christiane Grefe contributes an article based on her new book on bioeconomics, entitled Global Gardening (2016). Grefe appeals for a more open public debate on the structural transformation required if both climate and resources are to be meaningfully protected; in short, she urges more bioeconomic democracy. Otherwise, as the publicist Mathias Greffrath pointed out recently, we’ll not only have to deal with peak oil, peak soil and peak water but peak democracy too.

Leave it in the ground! In Blätter‘s July issue, journalist Susanne Schwarz analyses the impact of the German campaign (“Ende Gelände“) to end the country’s use of coal, one of several groups worldwide using civil disobedience to address shortfalls in climate diplomacy after the 2015 Paris climate conference — “Break Free from Fossil Fuels” in the United States, and “Reclaim the Power” in the United Kingdom among them.

Post-Francoist democracy: Julia Macher argues that today, Spain is as far from coming to terms with the events of the Spanish Civil War as with the ensuing dictatorship that only ended with Franco’s death in 1975. Macher outlines the resulting political divides and how they sustain the turbulence around post-Francoist democracy.

More articles from Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik; blaetter.de


Multitudes (France) explores the latest thinking on universal basic income. In one of a series of articles on the topic, Yann Moulier Boutang considers a Europe “made sick by austerity” and the rise of the extreme Right; meanwhile, up to two million refugees are shamefully locked out of fortress Europe. In view of which, the unconditional basic income may well be an idea whose time has come. If so, Boutang argues that it would have to be applied individually and universally to all, be combinable with paid work without replacing in-work benefits, and set at the highest level possible according to a region’s prosperity. In fact, he argues, this “is the only alternative strategy to the erosion of the welfare state, ongoing since 1975”; and the only way to break the cycle of crippling poverty that a quarter of France’s population are still experiencing after 35 years of globalization.

An unconditional basic income would serve “not as a form of redistribution, but of remuneration for […] all sorts of activities” for which provisions were never made previously — from domestic and voluntary work to unpaid contributions to care and education. The way to fund this: a flat tax of five per cent levied on all financial and monetary transactions made by banks. Citizens, far from being disincentivized to work, would top up their income by working on public projects. A new vision to replace the traditional model of capitalist wage labour may still be in the making, Boutang acknowledges; “but the direction we must take has become clearer”.

Visuality, virtuality, trauma: Anne Zeitz examines how systems of automation and simulation in drone technology “reshape subjectivity by transforming the lived-in timeframe”. Zeitz draws on critics such as Pasi Väliaho, who describe how the “neo-liberal brain” has conceived the drone in its role as hunter and killer. “In this interpretation of the timeframe of technological warfare and of the subjectivity which emerges from it”, writes Zeitz, “the notion of trauma and its technological, neuronal and psychic treatment is a prime example of a subject that can be easily manipulated and adapted”. Finally, Zeitz discerns in Omer Fast’s film 5000 Feet is the Best (2011) a fitting denunciation of the effects of remote-controlled warfare and the “socio-political trauma” to which it gives rise.

More articles from Multitudes; multitudes.net


In Krytyka (Ukraine), Oleksandr Vynohradov reflects on the dysfunctional electoral logics of Ukraine’s political parties. These amorphous blocs built around a single person have tended to dissipate after elections, a pattern that Vynohradov deems to be a result of the Soviet era in which ultimately the elite ruled through one almighty party. To break this pattern, he hopes to see the emergence of an American-style two-party system based upon rivalry between the current People’s Front and the Petro Poroshenko Bloc “Solidarity” parties. According to the author “our strength lies not in unity, but in dualism.” However, the timeframe for this historical opportunity is limited — Ukraine has three years to develop a two-party system before the next parliamentary elections in autumn 2019.

Dynamics of Ukrainian identity: Yaroslav Hrytsak considers the discourse of Ukrainian identity in the context of a young Ukrainian nation with a long history. From the nineteenth century onwards, the Ukrainian-speaking intelligentsia saw peasants as the ultimate carriers of national identity. After the failure to establish a state in the early twentieth century, an alternative identity began to form based more on a civic understanding of the nation, in which one did not necessarily need to be either a peasant or Ukrainian-speaking. This continued to crystallize in the post-war Soviet era. The clash of the two concepts has contributed to underlying tensions and divisions in the country since independence.

More recently, and especially in the wake of Euromaidan, a “third” identity has emerged: one less bound by the country’s existing cleavages and more open to a modernizing impulse. Hrytsak concludes that “the formation of a new Ukrainian identity is a very dynamic process, and with the passage of time this dynamism does not subside but rather increases”.

(For more on post-revolutionary Ukrainian society, see this year’s Eurozine focal point Ukraine in European dialogue).

Also: Hanna Veselovska explores how contemporary theatre in Ukraine contributes to reconciliation by engaging the audience and tackling taboo subjects not otherwise addressed by public figures.

More articles from Krytyka; krytyka.com/ua


Essays, interviews and roundtable discussions explore what the nation means to the Czechs, and for their relations with their neighbours, in the latest issue of RozRazil (Czech Republic). A selection of nineteenth-century National Revival poems extolling the Czech and Slovak nations are contrasted with ironic modern poetic takes on patriotism, highlighting how unstable the term “nation” can be — an issue explored further by Canadian literature professor Don Sparling. But having lived in Czechoslovakia (and then the Czech Republic) since 1969, Sparling also celebrates dual nationality for allowing people to compare the strengths and weaknesses of two nations while striving to improve both. “In other words, it allows them to become true patriots, not just patriotic fans waving the national flag at every opportunity.”

Polish-Czech relations: A lively debate between four former Polish dissidents and cultural activists chaired by RozRazil‘s editor-in-chief and publisher Petr Minarik in late 2015 covers the ups and downs of Czech-Polish relations over the past hundred years, from the scars left by their 1938 territorial conflict and the Polish army’s participation in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, through clandestine meetings between dissidents of both countries in the 1980s, to the Poles’ admiration for Václav Havel. Lately, the two nations seem to have lost interest in each other, even if the Poles still love Czech literature, cinema and beer.

The singer Krzysztof Jakubczak, a member of the 1980s Orange Initiative movement, voices “great concern that as a result of a unified Europe we may have lost interest in our neighbours”, while former dissident Miroslaw Jasinski laments the fact that Charles University does not currently offer Polish studies, something unheard of since the nineteenth century. “If things go on like this, there will be fewer and fewer people left in the [Czech] capital who understand the language and culture of its neighbour, which is bad news for Polish-Czech relations.”

More about from RozRazil; vetrnemlyny.cz/rozrazil


A dossier in Letras Libres (Spain) opens up the question of how humans treat animals and explores animal rights as a field of ethics. “Treating animals better”, the editors suggest, “makes us more human”. Political scientist Rafael Vázquez García highlights growing awareness of the issues at play in Spain, as seen in the rise of an “animalist” political party, or new animal-welfare-inspired interpretations of Goya’s bullfighting scenes.

The modern debate began, writes Vázquez García, with the advent of “speciesism” as developed by writers such as Richard Ryder and Peter Singer in the 1970s. Such writers challenged the assumption that only humans form part of a “moral community”, so that other animals and plants only exist, as Aristotle put it, “for the benefit of man”. “It can be said, then”, continues Vázquez García, “that speciesist attitudes are little different from those that justify racism, sexism, homophobia, class or disability discrimination within the human species.”

However, differences have arisen between “welfarists”, who focus on improving treatment of animals without challenging their essential status; and more radical “abolitionists” who perceive wild animals as “sovereign communities with rights to protection against colonization, invasion and domination”. In this view, as Gary L. Francione has argued, rather than urging animal welfare reforms, “it would be more consistent to […] gradually eradicate the status of non-humans as property, and recognize that they have inherent value” as “full members of a mixed community of humans and non-humans.”

Populism and populisms: In a review of Populismo (2015) by José Luis Villacañas, Manuel Arias Maldonado considers how populism has been reduced in public debate to “offering simple solutions to complex problems”. For Villacañas however, populism — embodied in Spain above all in left-wing movements like Podemos — “is an inevitable product of our current historical situation, characterized by the neoliberal corrosion of everything that was solid, and the consequent propagation of insecurity as a dominant state of mind”.

More articles from Letras Libres; letraslibres.com


As part of a continuing series in Kulturos barai (Lithuania) on the global crisis of higher education, Almantas Samalavicius speaks to Thomas Docherty about the effects of austerity on universities in the UK and throughout the western world. Docherty, a professor of literature, explains how under austerity, “we are expected to reduce everything to the most basic fundamentals of existence. Life in general becomes a question of survival. This, too, has an ideological corollary: if life is about mere survival, then extremism becomes a norm. […] When life is stripped back to its most basic demand for survival, then self-seeking at the cost of the lives of others becomes permissible, in this ideology”.

The decision that elites took during the course of the 1980s to shrink the state led to the atomization of a social realm in which individuals would only pay for what they explicitly use. With less income from general taxation, the state begun to withdraw from the public sphere and the point of government became “not to direct economies but simply to manage capitalism”, Docherty continues.

Thus “everything — especially any activity or institution in the public sphere — had first of all to be reconstituted as if it were a commercial business activity (built on ideas of profit-seeking), and second to justify its existence precisely in commercial terms. It had to turn a profit”. Universities, once places of learning, have become more like commercial shops peddling information and anything running counter to strict university branding measures seen as potentially bringing the university into disrepute, that is, as a disciplinary or firing offence.

The “value-for-money” mantra has little if anything to do with values but is rather “the cover for the more scandalous situation where the public sphere is transformed into a series of privatized spaces in which individuals are atomized, their sole purpose being now the circulation of money for no other purpose than the circulation of money”.

More articles from Kulturos barai; kulturosbarai.lt


Vikerkaar (Estonia) carries a series of articles on the Anthropocene. As Paul Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer point out in their landmark essay of 2010, published in this issue in Estonian, the Anthropocene suggests that we have entered a new time where humankind exacts a long-term, geological force on the Earth. The implications are hard to overstate: climate change, nuclear waste, the degradation of ecosystems, water use, pollution are all complex problems with consequences that respect neither national boundaries nor the demands of the election cycle.

Politics of the Anthropocene: At the same time, the Anthropocene challenges us not to lose sight of politics in the face of unprecedented global change. French historian Christophe Bonneuil, and co-author with Jean-Baptiste Fressoz of The Shock of the Anthropocene (2016), argues that the language of the Anthropocene has effaced the roots of global climatic changes in the capitalist development of western countries. Bonneuil’s article, first published in French, also considers the capacity of concepts such Buen Vivir (“good living”) and Pachamama (“Mother Nature”), which originated in South American indigenous contexts, to support a counterpoint approach to the issues at stake.

Chernobyl’s mark on the Anthropocene: Historian Kate Brown looks back at the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, asking why Soviet, Ukrainian and international authorities have consistently played down the effects of this Anthropocenic disaster. The presumed distinction between environments and bodies, between background levels of radiation measured by anxious Soviet authorities and isotopes deposited in the bodies of fish and livestock, have blinded analysts to how the region’s inhabitants confirm one of the insights of the Anthropocene, namely that “there is no threshold between an outside ‘environment’ and human bodies”:

“Villagers living off the radioactive landscape present a vivid manifestation of the metamorphosing Anthropocene-era human, one that has slowly been changing places with the accident, becoming pico curie by pico curie a part of nuclear reactor no. 4, the reactor that no longer is.”

Also: Kadri Tüür looks at how scholars of the environmental humanities have analysed the impact of the Anthropocene on literature, history and politics.

More articles from Vikerkaar; vikerkaar.ee

Published 27 July 2016

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine

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