The democratization of democracy

6 November 2013
Only in en
Wespennest reads the signs and symbols of gender anew; Transit sees democracy becoming more of a question than an answer; Krytyka Polityczna notes that the EU is strongest where it’s least democratic; Res Publica Nowa asks who owns my body?; Blätter suggests a way out of Fortress Europe; Il Mulino assesses the threat of the European North-South divide; Akadeemia searches for a solution to the crisis of legitimacy in higher education; Springerin examines the art of indebtedness; and in Samtiden, Karl Ove Knausgård celebrates the writer’s unknown partner: the editor.


“Mind the gap. Construction site gender”, the title of a new issue of Wespennest (Austria), implies speaking of “neither crisis nor of backlash”. Rather, writes guest-editor Christine Lötscher, it signifies “the wish to shed an alternative light on our lives as gendered beings”. For, she continues, “one is not born a woman – or a man either”.

Pussy Riot: Taking the “Pussy Riot case” as an example, sociologist Elena Gapowa shows why the use of symbols and performative actions, such as those applied by the Russian punk protest group, are (mis-)understood in different ways in eastern and western Europe:

“The ‘normative’ feminist symbols and slogans that Pussy Riot used, and which functioned so smoothly in the West, weren’t interpreted in post-Soviet countries as ‘liberating’. Moreover, insomuch as they struggled against ‘repression’ itself, Pussy Riot found itself in a rather strange situation. They appealed to something that in our part of the world had not been theorized as a category of social repression: sexuality, housework, language. These are references to western ideas and concepts, because it was precisely there, in the West, that they where formulated and therefore, we considered them to a certain extent ‘bourgeois’.”

Yulia Tymoshenko: Last week, EU representatives arrived in Ukraine to negotiate the release of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. A solution is not yet in sight. And yet the signing of the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine at the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius on 28 November hinges on resolving the “Tymoshenko issue”.

In “Yulia Tymoshenko’s two bodies” Tatiana Zhurzhenko juxtaposes “‘Tymoshenko-1’ – the populist prime minister and political celebrity whose physical appearance was compatible with both the traditional values and the market-driven desires of Ukrainians – and ‘Tymoshenko-2’ – the imprisoned leader of the political opposition whose immobilized and tortured body became a stage set for the drama of repressed Ukrainian democracy, performed first and foremost for western eyes”.

Of the whole society for the whole society: Alice Béja takes the furore sparked by Anne Marie Slaughter’s article “Why women still can’t have it all”, published in The Atlantic last year, as the point of departure for a call for structural change in current employment practices: “It is time to develop a new model”, she writes and suggests, for example, new forms of distance work and flexible vacation as steps toward a gender-just society. “These structural reforms may appear anomalous in times of crisis […] but feminist struggles have always been struggles of the whole society for the whole society”.

The full table of contents of Wespennest 165 (2013)


Transit (Austria) focuses on “democracy’s current malaise” and attempts “to formulate diagnoses and suggestions of therapy”. The editors return to the events directly preceding the journal’s first issue, published in 1990, and observe that, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, “what at first seemed like an answer, became a question. The transition to democracy became the transformation of democracy, which affected both ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ societies alike”.

The prison of the market: Claus Offe suggests four paths of action open to citizens now that democratic capitalism has been rendered obsolete in the face of “global financial market-driven post-democracy”. Because, “obviously, it would be risky to expect that citizens’ retreat from politics into a mental state of alienated silence could be a steady state, although the media market does its utmost to make it so.”

“Do-it-yourself” politics, ranging from consumer boycotts to the Indignados is one option, writes Offe, the short-lived eruptions of sometimes violent and usually aimless mass protests in the metropolises another. A further swelling of the ranks of the popular right is certainly possible.

However, there is also an intense and urgent search on in the social sciences, as well as in the political parties, for new and additional institutions and procedures of political participation. So the “democratization of democracy” remains possible. But not, concludes Offe, if “political life remains locked within the ‘prison of the market'”.

Populism: Jan-Werner Müller contends that “the inflationary use of the word populism signifies a loss of the power of political judgement, that is, above all, of the power to make distinctions”. This being the point of departure for pursuing an “urgent, unsolved problem of democratic theory”, and one that goes to the heart of the nature of the relationship between the people and the government – namely, a political theory of populism.

Also: Ivan Krastev on transparency; Nadia Urbinati on democracy in an Internet age; Nilüfer Göle on public space democracy; Stephan Auer on the end of the European Dream; and Claus Leggewie and Patrizia Nanz on the future council (all available in Eurozine).

The full table of contents of Transit 44 (2013)


Democracy is showing signs of significant dysfunction on both sides of the Atlantic, two recent issues of Krytyka Polityczna (Poland) suggest. American public debate is inhibited by anxiety over TV ratings as much as by the power of corporate management, while the privileged seek only to mollify potential social resistance. “Twenty years ago, we believed central Europe could import democracy from the US […] Today we are asking if there is any democracy in America at all,” Michal Sutowski observes (issue 33). The inability or reluctance of grassroots groups to put organized pressure on the powerful threatens the fibre of US democracy. For central Europeans, this carries further ramifications, writes Sutowski, because “when a paradigm collapses, the imitators suffer most”.

Escape: In the same issue, Jakub Majmurek comments on an apparent reluctance to address the darker side of the origins of the US (the annexation of land, slavery and genocide). Where once motifs of escape or betrayal in the name of personal freedom typified American culture, these have now been superseded by narratives of established “ranchers” with an urge to assert their presence on territory to the extent that no exit or potential for unrestricted movement remains. “The question is whether we [as Europeans] can ever find space to escape from this colonized, domesticated America”, Majmurek concludes.

A secular Vatican: The latest issue of Krytyka Polityczna (34) addresses the problem of democracy in Europe. Cezary Michalski visits Brussels to sample the political institutions of the European Union. He notes that the EU is strongest where it is least democratic, likening it to a cracked “crystal palace” underpinned by hypocrisy and silence. It is reminiscent of a secular Vatican, with its own internal laws and defensive strategies against the media. Commission officials have no individual voice and, consequently, “the extravagant language of Union propaganda” or “strident populists” dominate European discourse. Meanwhile, the economic crisis and the “re-nationalization” of European politics precludes a more modern political order, founded on new identities.

The full table of contents of Krytyka Polityczna 33 and 34 (2013)


In a free market, the human body is a potential commodity – but who controls it: the citizen or the state? The blurring of traditional divisions between medical science and ethics have led to every decision taken on issues of public health and social welfare assuming a degree of moral or political compromise, Zbigniew Szawarski observes in an interview with Res Publica Nowa (Poland).

Medicine and modernity: In a world that aspires to overcome uncertainty, medicalization has swept away important ethical issues, Andrzej Leder, of the Polish Academy of Sciences, tells Marcin Moskalewicz. Antisocial or criminal behaviour is not denounced, but “treated”. “The use of medical classifications as moral alibis can be seen as an abuse of the system”.

Among other troubling developments, those in genetics could lead to increased social inequality, striking at “the ethical and civilizational foundations of the world we live in”, Leder points out. The rich, with access to expensive genetic technologies, would develop an unprecedented social advantage: “There can be no equality in the face of genetic privilege.”

Facing the pain: Weronika Kalwak and Marcin Koculak show how today, levels of physical distress are determined by social identity, status and history, as well as personal will: “We are dependent on ourselves [… but] control over pain, the body and life itself can be an unwanted empowerment, rather like the influence offered to citizens in an immature democracy, where people are not interested in participating in government.”

Civic freedom first: In a section on European politics and ideas, editor Wojciech Przybylski calls for a concise and accessible constitution for Europe that would clarify the role of governments at national and European levels and put civic freedom first. British diplomat Robert Cooper, one of the intellectual architects of EU foreign policy, considers the threat that the EU faces today as deadly as the one that confronted the Habsburg Monarchy a hundred years ago. And Ivan Krastev suggests that EU leaders should reflect on the collapse of the Soviet Union as a precedent or warning (the “unthinkable” can suddenly become the “inexorable”).

The full table of contents of Res Publica Nowa 22 (2013)


Following the latest in a series of shipwrecks of boats carrying refugees off the coast of Lampedusa, Gesa Heinbach slams the cynicism with which, “in the sense of a targeted logic of deterrence, associated news stories and pictures are incorporated into the European migration regime.”

In Blätter (Germany), she considers a coordinated rescue system a far worthier recipient of the funds currently invested in the military-backed securing of borders in the Mediterranean, already one of the most heavily guarded coastal areas in the world. Only this, suggests Heinbach, combined with a liberal visa procedure and the sharing of responsibility for asylum seekers and refugees among EU member states, will put an end to the deaths before the coasts of Europe.

Gender justice: Political scientist Christine Bauhardt squarely confronts exponents of green economy and post-growth models with the question of gender justice. Though it is clear that “both the exploitation of nature and of the care work allocated to women constitute the basis for growth in capitalist economies”, remarks Bauhardt, the alternative models share the same flaws:

“They neither identify gender hierarchy as an essential aspect of the economic structure that supports the capitalist mode of production, nor do they entertain gender justice as a conceivable goal of the transformation of the growth economy.”

Also: Falk Hartig on the significance for the planet of the battle over resources around the North Pole; a dossier on the outlook for the new German government; and, at the beginning of Hassan Rohani’s term in office as president of Iran, Katajun Amirpur senses a golden chance for the country’s relations with the international community.

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 11/2013


In Il Mulino (Italy), Gianfranco Vesti covers the new challenges that the “big recession” poses for the unfinished project of European integration and the inequalities between North and South. The asymmetrical burden of the costs of the crisis among EU member states hardens the position of a rich, advanced and strong North when faced with the developmental needs of the South:

“The ensemble is wracked by political-cultural ruptures, which also remind us of the national case: a lot of northern European citizens are convinced that they represent the worker ants of Europe, in the same way as Italy’s North accuses the South of living on their backs. Meanwhile, up north, the conviction of a moral superiority à la “we made the sacrifices, now it’s your turn” is insulting to the South, where unemployment reigns. As a consequence, euroscepticism is starting to spread […] The Teutonic refusal to consider reasonable proposals concerning the modification of political economics with an emphasis on integration makes room for irrational and dangerous proposals aiming at the disassembling of Europe.”

The impossible life of Christian Boltanski: In interview with Elena Pirazzoli, Christian Boltanski speaks about his obsession with trying to conserve human stories and sentiments by “collecting the heartbeats of millions of persons and conserving them on a Japanese island”. However, he ultimately admits that one cannot let people survive forever: “My whole life and all my work is a failure, because they represent my struggle against forgetfulness; I tried to escape from oblivion, but it’s not possible.”

The full table of contents of Il Mulino 5/2013


Ene Grauberg discusses the crisis of legitimacy in higher education from “the viewpoint of a philosopher rather than an expert. While an expert knows, a philosopher doubts and asks questions”.

Her article in Akadeemia is principally concerned with the journal’s home country Estonia but raises crucial general issues. From the midst of the cross currents of globalization and domestic reforms signaling the end of the elite university and the onset of higher education for the masses, Grauberg asks “who knows and who will tell the truth?”

“Today’s universities”, she continues, “in becoming more and more utilitarian and focusing increasingly on applied sciences, are about to lose their traditional function as the perceiver and holder of truth as well as their role in bringing up and shaping the national elite.”

Cultural memory: Marek Tamm handles the way in which, around the turn of the twenty-first century, studies on cultural memory took the humanities by storm, with Jan and Aleida Assmann foremost among the cultural historians and theorists driving this development.

Tamm is mindful of the all too often overlooked continuity between the Assmann’s works and those of the semiotician Juri Lotman. In lieu of a conclusion, Tamm recalls the social and political context of Lotman’s foundational texts on the topic: “Under the sway of Soviet totalitarianism, the in-depth study of culture and memory was no mere academic pursuit but inevitably meant taking an ethical and political stance. Lotman’s texts constituted an important mechanism of resistance in Soviet society, helping to ensure the creative independence of thinking and remembering despite all the political and ideological harassing.”

Tamm’s article is prefaced by the republication of Lotman’s two seminal texts on cultural memory from the mid-1980s.

Will to power: In Karmo Talt’s imagined dialogue between Nietzsche and Lotman, Nietzsche reprimands Lotman: the semiotician’s emphasis on the conventionality of signs and language is in fact nothing but the fulfilment of linguists’ will to power.

The full table of contents of Akadeemia 10/2013


Debt and indebtedness lie at the centre of the new issue of contemporary art magazine Springerin (Austria), which asks: how does contemporary art respond to the ongoing financial and debt crisis? A pertinent question, especially as the production, distribution and reception of art is often rooted in the principle of indebtedness. It comes as no surprise that the name of David Graeber is repeatedly mentioned throughout the issue.

Protest in Turkey: However, emancipation remains in view. Sociologist and curator Ali Akay recapitulates one recent revolt of the “commons”, namely the protests of Turkish civil society against state and business authoritarianism that began in Gezi Park. According to Akay, this event assumed “an attitude against the symbolic violence of consumerist society and the shopping malls upon which this society is founded. It was transversal, classless, non-hierarchical; it was both disorganized and rallying. Transversal struggle opposed not only to violence but also to a hierarchical social structure and to ‘us’ – that is, those who parcelled out society and who tried to contain and integrate it. […] The slogan ‘Taksim is everywhere, resistance is everywhere’ caused not only those living in Turkey but the whole world to realize how Turkish media functioned. In the case of Gezi Park, dissemination practices and transversal struggle emerged as two poles that interacted with one another. As a ‘transversal struggle’, Gezi Park broke the established patterns of political life.”

Thus, Akay concludes, “the whole of Turkey learned that a crisis did not have to be exclusively economic”.

Digital workers unite! Culture and media commentator Trebor Scholz sheds light on digital labour as a daily reality for millions of people all over the world: “Today, when business leaders discuss what they call the ‘sharing economy’, they are actually referring to digital labour that is frequently coerced and exploited.”

The full table of contents of Springerin 4/2013


Karl Ove Knausgård’s monumental My Struggle (in Norwegian Min kamp) is by far the most discussed literary project in Scandinavia in recent decades. Profoundly autobiographical, the six novels published under this title between 2009 and 2011 have prompted critics to re-think the distinction between life and letters. The controversy caused by the exposure of the author’s family and friends has been played out in the media alongside overwhelmingly positive reviews. International critics now seem to follow suit; recently, the New York Times compared My Struggle to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

On all accounts, Knausgård’s series was a tour de force. The sixth volume of the autobiography ends with a relieved declaration: “I am happy because I am no longer an author.” And indeed, many have doubted that it would be possible for Knausgård to continue to write after My Struggle.

However, even though he has yet to publish a new book of “fiction”, Knausgård is currently very active as an essayist. Earlier this year, Samtiden (Norway) published a long, intriguing and painfully honest essay on literature and evil (1/2013) and in the new issue, Knausgård celebrates one of the workers in the literary vineyard: the editor.

“What would the books have looked like without the editors?” asks Knausgård. “In my case, the answer is easy: there would have been no books. I would not have become a writer either. This doesn’t mean that my editor writes my books, but that his thoughts, his input and insight, are necessary conditions for them to be written.”
Knausgård doesn’t mention the name of his editor in the article. Perhaps because he thinks that the two entities editor and famous are “incompatible”. However, his name is Geir Gulliksen, and he is the real focus of Knausgård’s essay.

“The essential thing is a kind of feeling, something vague and indefinable that is probably best summed up in the word trust. I have absolute trust in him. Absolutely everything I write, even the smallest newspaper article, has to be read by him before it’s published. […] It’s not a function, it can’t be replaced; it’s not about the role of the editor, it’s about him, him as a person. And that is what defines the role of the editor to me.”

The full table of contents of Samtiden 3/2013

Published 6 November 2013

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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