Post-democratic, sterilized voting

11 September 2013
Only in en
Letras Libres predicts the future of the book; Arena explains how Obama’s weak political persona makes him a hawk; Mittelweg 36 diffuses a megabyte bomb; Lettera internazionale wants to mobilize the people and (re-)make the world; Esprit asks what future for political parties?; in Blätter, the debate between Habermas and Streeck over democracy and capitalism continues; Schweizer Monat calls upon European political culture to snap out of its inferiority complex; Soundings probes the roots of the Egyptian coup; Varlik soaks up the aftermath of the Gezi Park demonstrations; Nova Istra revisits the borderlands of Istria; Revolver Revue covers the remarkable reversal in the fortunes of socialist realism; and Ny Tid wants cultural journals’ role in the public sphere to be acknowledged.


Letras Libres (Spain) dedicates an issue to reading and books. More than forty regular contributors to the journal are asked which they consider “the fundamental books of our times and why”. The editors intend this deliberately open-ended question to prompt further questions such as: “What is ‘our times’? The times of our lives? The time since WWII? Or since the fall of the Berlin Wall? And what is a ‘book of our times’? A book published in this period? Or translated? Or read? The answers are consequently disparate and contradictory. We think that’s the way it should be.”

A browse through the issue provides a fascinating reading list and one that provides pause for thought as to issues of gender, generation and the proclivities of various professions: Camille Paglia (Sexual Personae) and Susan Sontag (Against Interpretation) feature beside Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man) and Ernst Jünger (Autor und Autorschaft); and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and Art Spiegelman (Maus) alongside Mao Zedong (Little Red Book) and Erwin Schrödinger (What is Life?).

The book’s futures: In a multifaceted essay, Manuel Arias Maldonado considers the future of the (printed) book, concluding:

“It is less about how much we love the cultural form that the book takes, and more about whether its functions are inherent in its form; or if they could be analogously performed by other media, by other forms of transmission of knowledge and experience. […] Michael Suárez, director of the University of Virginia Rare Book School and editor in chief of the academic classical editions of Oxford University Press, laments that the diffuse reading habits encouraged by the web will lead to the incapacity to make sense of overabundant information; yet without this same web I would never have come across his opinion. This again introduces the indeterminable question as to whether we mourn the passing of the well known or the valuable.”

The full table of contents of Letras Libres 8/2013


Last week, when a US strike against Syria seemed only hours away, President Obama visited Sweden. During the visit, many Swedes came across as genuinely surprised by the hawkish foreign policy of the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. They shouldn’t be. At least not according to Trita Parsi and Frida Stranne, who, in a well-timed article in Arena (Sweden), hold that it is more than structural and political obstacles that have stopped Obama from delivering on his promises to change US foreign policy. It’s his political DNA.

In order to implement the progressive ideas that won Obama the election, he would have to take the initiative and challenge traditional structures. But that is not his political persona, write Parsi and Stranne. “Obama doesn’t take any risks if he is not forced to do so. Or to put it differently, Obama’s leadership strategy is not to pro-actively raise sensitive issues and lead opinion towards a goal that has been defined by him (as George W Bush did only all too aggressively) but to wait until public demands have grown so loud that it is no longer as politically dangerous to act.”

Why have the EU member states stopped criticizing the US for “the problematic methods used in fighting terrorism and its meek response to Israeli settlement policy”? Is it because of Obama’s personal charm and pleasant speeches, so different from Bush’s? Be that as it may, conclude Parsi and Stranne, “European states have chosen to follow a follower. In reality this means that Europe has issued a carte blanche to those who want to continue the illegal counterproductive War on Terror.”

What is an intellectual? In a brief survey asking for a definition of what an intellectual is and does, writer and literary critic Anneli Jordal notes that Sweden is not a great place for such a species: “When in southern Europe the foundations for Western thinking and the university were laid, the Swedes were peasants or people of the woods, asserting themselves through brutal conquests and by building boats. The Viking Spirit is still alive. Technological innovation and sports achievements are well rewarded. But daring ideas about the essence of existence? Name one single Swedish philosopher of international significance.”

The full table of contents of Arena 4/2013


In 1963 the sociologist of science Derek de Solla Price calculated that, since the mid-seventeenth century, available knowledge had doubled every fifteen years. In Summa Technologiae (1964), the science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem drew on Price’s findings in likening the explosion of information that future technologies would likely trigger to a “megabyte bomb”. Prompted by this thread, Valentin Groebner reflects on the fallout in the current issue of Mittelweg 36 (Germany).

Groebner contends that media theorists have replaced theologists as the prophets of the twenty-first century. But, whereas doom-mongers once predicted that established rules and structures would dissolve with digitalization, is the promised land of the digital and creative self-organization not now near at hand? Groebner is, at best, sceptical:

“The Internet is wonderful […] for first drafts and the proliferation of exchanges between critical positions. […] Authoritative, fixed results are in short supply. And probably permanently so, as far as can be judged after twenty years of the World Wide Web. Furthermore, the speed and high frequency of exchange […] makes the Internet a medium for rapid forgetfulness.”

A Penelopean labour: In weaving a counter narrative to that of the Internet as the ultimate networking tool, Urs Stäheli confronts the trials of “‘delinking’, ‘defriending’, of ‘disconnection’, of ‘defollowing’, of deleting and blocking”:

“One could almost speak of a Penelopean principle: Penelope wants to escape the social pressure to remarry that builds up as she waits for the return of her husband Odysseus. To which end she suggests marrying one of her suitors as soon as the shroud she is weaving is finished. To prolong the task, she unpicks by night the stitches she sews by day. In the mythological figure of Penelope, connectivity and disconnectivity cross over in a way that makes the tactical and micropolitical uses of ‘defabrication’ meaningful.”

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 4/2013


“Fare mondo”, the title of the current issue of Lettera internazionale (Italy), translates as a call to roll up one’s sleeves, mobilize and start “making the world”.

In his article, which shares the issue’s title, Michaël Fœssel focuses on the word “world” per se. Drawing upon the thought of Hannah Arendt, he defines the world as the space “between” human beings in the moment of founding political relationships. Fœssel is concerned about our present, which is marked by the “loss of world” as a result of “historical evolutions that have impoverished the political bindings between individuals in the name of their presumed autonomy. […] The imperative of ‘making world’ coincides with the imperative of reconstituting a ‘community’ as an antidote to the effects of social atomization”.

In search of the social: Where can one find the “social” element in the “container concept of social media”, or rather in this “fuzzy collection of websites”? In first instance, the question leads Geert Lovink to Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the disappearance of the social as a historical entity, and its implosion in the media.

It is beyond all question that the face of the “social” was transformed with the rise of social media, representing no longer “a reference to society”, a class or a movement. “Nowadays”, continues Lovink, “the social manifests itself as a network”, entailing a new relationship towards the Other:

“The Other as opportunity, channel, or obstacle? You choose. Never has it been so easy to ‘auto-quantify’ one’s personal surroundings. We follow our blog statistics and our Twitter mentions, check out friends of friends on Facebook, or go on eBay to purchase a few hundred ‘friends’ who will then ‘like’ our latest uploaded pictures and start a buzz about our latest outfit.”

Lovink is still looking for the suitable scientific approach to analyse the “renaissance of the social”, but:

“As of yet there is no critical school in sight that could help us properly read the social aura of the citizen as user. The term ‘social’ has effectively been neutralized in its cynical reduction to data porn. Reborn as a cool concept in the media debate, the social manifests itself neither as dissent nor as subcultural.”

The full table of contents of Lettera internazionale 116 (2013)


In an introductory article to a double issue of Esprit (France) focussing on the career of political parties, Erwan Lecœur tackles the principal factors threatening the major political parties: the growth of personality politics, the dominance of economic over political forces, and the rise of the think tank as a source of manifold, instant policies. But, as for the challengers to the main political parties, that is, the ecological or centrist fronts or coalitions:

“They appear to be abandoning the usual party structures, preferring a stance more in keeping with the spirit of the times: radical and media-savvy, focusing on electoral success but in danger of losing any link to the social movements that could provide support and assist in the formulation of demands.”

Change: For all the challenges that social democracy itself faces, Christophe Sente remains optimistic about the chances of its survival. Decentralization, worker participation, euro-realism and the creation of a progressive alliance will all be key to its reinvention in the midst of a constantly changing capitalist system.

In the agora: Jean-Claude Monod links democracy to the public square, the agora. “Democracy” initially meant direct consultation with all citizens and, historically, mere representation was considered an inferior form of politics. In a globalized world, the separation of the people from political decision making becomes acute:

“In present-day Europe it can seem that the power of the will of the people is increasingly being eroded because of the way that nations’ debts tie them to markets, banks and credit rating agencies, all of which not only dictate their economic policies (austerity, for example) but even their choice as to who is to govern.”

Monod contends that re-occupying the agora today would mean creating a transitory, self-governing “micro-society” that engages in a free-ranging discussion about the direction society should take.

Also: Nadia Urbinati revisits the “unique history of democracy”, her point of departure being the impact that the Internet has had on democratic processes in Iceland and Italy.

The full table of contents of Esprit 8-9/2013


In Blätter (Germany) Wolfgang Streeck responds to Jürgen Habermas‘ critique of “nation-state nostalgia” in Streeck’s book, Buying Time: The Postponed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (due out soon in English). Quoting Streeck, Habermas’ key criticism (Blätter 5/2013) is this:

“Given that he repeatedly stresses the ‘lead that globally integrated financial markets have opened up in organizational terms on societies organized around nation-states’, one would have thought that his own analysis would force him to conclude that it is precisely the power of the democratic rule of law to regulate the markets, a power that once resided in the nation-state, that now has to be regenerated on a supranational level. In spite of which, he sounds the retreat, back behind the Maginot line of the sovereignty of the nation-state.”

But Streeck deems Habermas’ proposals for rewriting the Treaty of Lisbon hopelessly impractical. Even were a new treaty realizeable, the resulting brand of “European democracy” would likely be:

“nothing other than a further post-democratic layer of paralysis imposed from above upon existing national post-democracies: Mr Draghi and his finance technocrats would continue to govern, together with the lifelong friends in financial services whom they generously ‘provided’ with public monies, a camarilla that could and would find grounds, including legal ones, for refusing to tolerate the interference of popular, democratic politics in their internal affairs.”

Furthermore, the “post-democratic, sterilized voting” it enables would “not be worth the paper on which the voting form is printed”. Amid bitter divisions over the fate of the common currency, Streeck insists that only the democratic institutions of the nation-state can buy time as the neoliberal offensive continues apace.

Also: Andreas Fisahn casts a sceptical eye over Merkel’s handling of the eurocrisis ahead of the German elections and Bernd Rheinberg invests his hopes for digital citizens caught up in the Internet in the post-Snowden generation.

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 9/2013


In Schweizer Monat, Wolfram Weimer is clear about the roots of the inferiority complex infecting the political culture, initially of central, and now the whole of Europe:

“Should a society gradually begin to lose its self-esteem and no longer be able to distinguish between what’s important and what’s not, it tends toward security reflexes. Being uncertain as to who is grown up enough to deal with freedom, it lays down childish rules.”

In lieu of a “sovereign culture of freedom”, a form of “virtuous terror” reigns over public affairs:

“A German president is hounded out of office for failing to fulfil the guidelines to the letter when booking a single night’s hotel stay. A company is sued for inviting a business chum to a football match. Public morality has a new fetish: pernicketiness. Whether in everyday affairs or on the political world stage: the virtuous vigilantes are always present.”

As the European debt crisis creates a continent of mistrust, we Europeans are therefore likelier, according to Weimer, “to consider ourselves defaulters on our past than investors in our future”.

Google money: Stefan Kooths opens a new series on the monetary system. After 42 years of the post Bretton Woods system, Kooths considers alternative options to cash. He favours the remonetization of gold over Bitcoin – in principle, due to the higher level of trust that such a move would entail.

Either way, with the independence of central banks having been called into question globally, Kooths discerns strong motives on both the user and the provider side for founding a new monetary system:

“Whosoever manages to create an infrastructure for the flow of payments that extends right into our trouser pockets, and combine this with a stable medium of exchange will have a strong hand. […] It could well be that, within the foreseeable future, we will once again pay in gold and no longer deposit our money ‘in the bank’ (it’s not there in any case), but, instead with Google, Amazon, Facebook or Microsoft.”

The full table of contents of Schweizer Monat 9/2013


Paolo Gerbaudo investigates how “the removal of the Islamist president Mohammed Morsi by the Egyptian army a few days after the massive protests of 30 June has cast into serious doubt the destiny of the 2011 revolution and its promise of democratic change”. Gerbaudo’s focus on the role of urban youth subcultures in 2011 leads him to reject the “neo-anarchist discourse” that latches on to “claims of ‘horizontalism’ and the use of terms such as ‘leaderlessness’ to describe the nature of contemporary revolutionary politics”.

The “nihilist attitude” that this discourse fosters lends itself to the view of “formal organizations and the state as invariably evil and ‘inauthentic’, and thus leaves no room for imagining the new forms of organization and institution that are urgently needed to fulfil people’s hopes for systemic social change.”

Indeed, as Gerbaudo establishes with a sideward glance at Nicos Poulantzas’ State, Power, Socialism (1978), the cruel irony is this: “The rising authoritarianism of the state can actually be aided by the kind of anti-statist attitude we have seen so frequently in contemporary libertarian politics of both the Right and the Left: when people refuse to engage with the state, the space they thereby vacate offers an opportunity for the state’s worst autocratic tendencies.” Wherein lie the roots of the recent coup in Egypt.

30 hour week: Anna Coote and Jacob Mohun Himmelweit contend that the introduction of a 30 hour week is essential for relieving the “pressures of paid work and caring” that afflict women today – in place of the “enforced joblessness and domesticity” of previous decades.

Realizing this goal, together with a crack down on low wages and a thorough re-evaluation of “the way we use, value and distribute paid and unpaid time”, may help address a range of issues: “overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other and simply to enjoy life.”

Also: Soundings‘ manifesto “After neoliberalism” continues with contributions from Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin.

The full table of contents of Soundings 54 (2013)


Varlik editor Osman Deniztekin discerns an extraordinary irony in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s performance before his supporters at the height of the Gezi Park demonstrations. The Turkish prime minister’s retort to widespread calls for the resignation of those responsible for the brutal police intervention in the demonstrations – “since when have the feet become the head?” – belied, argues Deniztekin, the true extent of his disconnection from what democracy actually is. For what is democracy, if not a system in which the feet can become the head?

Deniztekin’s insights do not, however, provide any kind of cue for an optimistic outlook on the current state of democracy in Turkey: far from it. This intervention provides a sobering conclusion to our recent series on Protest in Turkey.

The full table of contents of Varlik 8/2013


One of the last remaining obstacles to Croatia’s EU accession was the country’s border dispute with Slovenia. When both parties agreed to let international arbitration decide the disagreement over the Gulf of Piran, the route to accession was secured. And yet the question of the border in Istria remains open, suggests Darko Dukovski in Nova Istra (Croatia).

“Only with the destruction of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s”, he writes, “did misunderstandings over the border region in Istria arise between the then sovereign countries, the Republic of Slovenia and the Republic of Croatia”. Under the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, fascist Italy and socialist Yugoslavia, continues Dukovski, the Slovenes and Croats in Istria had common interests that meant they cooperated closely for most of the twentieth century.

He goes further still. Even taking into consideration that the seeds of conflict were sown after the capitulation of Italy in 1943, Dukovski argues that “the closest, the strongest and the richest political and social relations between Croats and Slovenes were historically created in Istria.”

Lost monuments: Public monuments are often erected “to construe the identity of a city”. Their violent removal “aims at […] erasing any such real or intended identity”, writes Bruno Dobric.

After World War I, three public monuments from the period of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy were removed from Pula under the sway of Italian nationalists. The statues, of Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, Empress Elisabeth and Admiral Tegetthoff respectively, remain a present absence.

Dobric demands the monuments be returned – either as originals or replicas. This could help in treating the cultural amnesia relating to the period in which Pula became the home port of the Austro-Hungarian navy, leaving a permanent impression on its urban outlines and the city’s identity.

Also: Tackling the question of how to select and present contemporary Croatian writings from Vojvodina in Serbia prompts Vladan Cutura to pose a further, slightly wider question: What is minority literature in the western Balkans?

The full table of contents of Nova Istra 1-2/2013


Under the influence of Stalinist cultural policy, 1950s Czech art history and criticism promoted nineteenth century realists and practitioners of socialist realism, while ignoring the pre-war and interwar avant-garde or rejecting it as “formalist” or “neo-baroque”. After the “thaw”, Cubism, Surrealism and other ignored art movements were gradually restored to their rightful place in Czech art history.

Nowadays, it is 1950s art scholarship that is being swept under the carpet, according to art historian Pavla Pecinková in Revolver Revue (Czech Republic). As risible as art historical writing of that time may appear nowadays, it should not be dismissed because “its impact on the academic image of Czech modernism was devastating. In striving to meet political demands of the 1950s some of our finest scholars offered a deliberately distorted reflection of Czech art in the first half of the twentieth century. […] While art history may be merely a series of artificial and ad hoc models of an objectively indefinable reality, if our discipline is to have any meaning it must at the very least construe these models in an honest and responsible way.”

The Czech Beats: Launching a new series featuring unjustly forgotten authors from the Czech underground scene, Martin Machovec introduces Petr Lampl (1930-1978), previously known only for his neo-Dadaist rhymes. Machovec has recently discovered among the author’s papers several poems echoing Ginsberg’s Howl: “From now on, no one researching the impact of modernist American poetry on the Czech ‘Beats’ of the 1960s can ignore Petr Lampl!”

Also: The journal reprints Viktor Karlík’s tribute to the charismatic dissident rock musician and poet Filip Topol (son of acclaimed playwright Josef Topol and younger brother of fiction writer and Revolver Revue co-founder Jáchym Topol), who died in June 2013, aged 48.

The full table of contents of Revolver Revue 92 (2013)


In Ny Tid (Helsinki), editor Fredrik Sonck notes that despite the proclamations of the death of print, Finno-Swedish cultural journals are doing quite well. Not only are they still alive, but they’re kicking too (indeed, some have been doing so for more than one hundred years). How can that be?

One of the reasons, suggests Sonck, is that most of these journals are so small that they have become more or less immune to the crisis: when 95 per cent of the budget consists of dedication and hard unpaid work, that’s not all bad. However, that some of these publications can obtain nourishment even in meager soil and survive in what can be described as a desert media landscape can’t hide the fact that the cultural and political significance of this type of journal is still gravely underestimated.

Sonck suggests that these journals should be regarded as a kind of public service media and coins the term public magazine. Like public service radio and television, cultural journals play an important role in the democratic system. However, there are differences too: “You could say that the public broadcasting service often acts as messenger, controller and moderator in the public sphere, while the cultural journal takes on the role of agitator and philosopher. While (the Finnish national broadcaster) Yle should cover topics both high and low, the journals can at times be perceived as elitist. But they can hardly be blamed for this ambition to further a more in-depth discourse in the public sphere. On the contrary, this discourse is a public good and should be acknowledged as such.”

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Published 11 September 2013

Original in English
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