The elixir of open society

28 April 2010
Only in en
Fronesis watches as the Third Way comes full circle; Mittelweg 36 admires the socio-moral backbone of late Dahrendorf; Osteuropa reports on Ukraine’s stigmatized AIDS sufferers; Res Publica Nowa finds clan mentalities ruling Polish journals; Sens Public pins its hopes on a new world creole; Arena says enough of the net mob; Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) gets behind the new digital commons; Studija eschews global for local art; and Vikerkaar bores of a postmodernism devoid of dialectical aggro.

If the British Labour Party is voted into opposition on 6 May, the downfall of the party most closely associated with the Third Way will be indicative of the state of European social democracy as a whole, writes Magnus Ryner in Fronesis.

The Third Way made a virtue out of the necessity to adapt classical social democracy to global market conditions, writes Ryner. Yet because it sought to “conjoin high finance with increasingly commodified forms of welfare provision”, the crisis of the global economy also meant the crisis of social democracy.

While European social democrats looked to New Labour, New Labour was taking inspiration from Clinton’s New Democrats, writes Ryner. In the US, markets provided the route to welfare objectives, while growth was created by “extending private loans to broader segments of the population through the sub-prime market”. When the American system on which it was modelled crashed, European social democracy was in no state to offer an alternative.

Audit culture: Florence Faucher King and Patrick Le Galès reflect on the culture of the audit and inspection in the UK, introduced by New Labour to control subcontracted public services. “The proliferation of audits eroded trust in the professional ethic and sense of public service. Social control of this kind contradicts the idea that everyone acts in good faith and destroys trust in the competence of social actors.”

The full table of contents of Fronesis 32-33 (2010)

In Mittelweg 36, Herfried Münkler reflects on Ralf Dahrendorf‘s later work, in which he questioned the ability of western parliamentary democracies to cope with the key problems and challenges of the twenty-first century. These are political apathy, authoritarianism and a new populism, which Dahrendorf argued could be countered by civil participation:

“In Dahrendorf, civil society is an opportunity for the socio-moral strengthening of society, not consolation for market failure and state deficits,” writes Münkler. “However participation in the double sense of shareholding and involvement always entails conflict […]. Insofar as he understood conflict not as an inevitable side effect of open society, but almost as its elixir, he came close to the ideas of classical republicanism: the use of conflict as the source of civil virtues and the reliance of a liberal order on socio-moral foundations. Dahrendorf did not follow liberalism as it strayed into the McKinsey society of clients and suppliers.”

Tropisms: There has long been a two-way influence between Frankfurt School critical theory and Parisian sociology. Nevertheless, specifically Franco-German misunderstandings exist over the nature of social critique and its political role, writes Danny Trom in a text originally published in French in Esprit.

“The crisis of social critique is both theoretical and practical: a battle that lacks the certainty of being part of an historical movement able to decode the signature of the age, and that no longer believes it is based on a truth whose strength enables the illusions of the epoch to be understood, is less than attractive.”

The full table of contents of Mittelweg 36 2/2010

At the end of November 2009, the Kyiv Post headlined with the news that Ukraine would be receiving five million doses of the swine flu vaccine. Further back in the paper came a report on the publication of a UNAIDS survey finding that the rate of HIV infection was sinking worldwide, with a few exceptions – Ukraine among them. “Why did the essentially imaginary threat of swine flu cause such a stir while the much more real threat of AIDS and tuberculosis barely seem to matter?” asks documentary filmmaker Karsten Hein.

AIDS sufferers in Ukraine, Hein explains, are stigmatized as members of a subclass that in Soviet times was trapped in the system of orphanages, youth prisons and labour camps. However AIDS has long reached all social classes in Ukraine: today around 500 000 people are infected with HIV, over one per cent of the population. The epidemic began in the mid-1990s as drug addiction became widespread and for a decade unclean needles were the main source of infection. Now sexual transmission is on the rise as drug-addicted women, or women together with drug-addicted men, resort to prostitution.

International help is bringing some improvements, writes Hein. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS and Tuberculosis, set up by the G7, currently gives Ukraine 150 million dollars annually to fight the two diseases. Nurses are receiving better pay than colleagues in other hospitals, which acts to reduce stigmatization. “But money is not everything,” says Hein. “What is needed is a change in the social climate. It will not be possible to halt the epidemic if Ukrainian society does not show more sympathy to AIDS sufferers.”

Landscape: Kharkiv-based author Serhij Zhadan accompanies Austrian photographer Christoph Lingg on a journey through eastern Ukraine’s post-industrial landscape of closed mines and derelict factories. “I keep catching myself thinking that I’d find it much more interesting to photograph living objects, […] it’s about different priorities in life, one person’s interested in the living economy, another in the dead one.”

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 2-4/2010

In Res Publica Nowa, historians, sociologists, journalists and publishers discuss the role and political potential of heavyweight journals in Poland today. Before 1989, magazines with a “public mission” were mainly rightwing publications seeking to undermine the communist monopoly on ideas. Journals such as Debata, Fronda or Kwartalnik Konserwatywny helped reformulate the language of public debate, but subsequently ceased to publish. Some – like the Paris-based Kultura – sought to be beyond politics; others (Krytyka Polityczna, for example) demonstrated that shared ideas can create cohesive and long-lasting intellectual communities with independent public identities.

In the 1990s, publications preferred not to be tied to any ideological position. But today this is changing and journals are viewed increasingly as outlets for groups with clearly defined political positions. Magazines that have established and defined their position often end up preaching to the converted. Michal Luczewski points out that texts provoking real public discussion appear in mainstream newspapers, which have taken over the opinion-forming role from the journals. To editors like Wojciech Przybylski, the notion of nurturing a loyal readership with shared views remains attractive, while historian Marcin Baba observes that the content journals produce “serves (only) to emphasize our own identity”.

Borderlands: As Lublin prepares to bid for the title of European Capital of Culture in 2016, Krzysztof Czyzewski argues that the city represents an historical centre for public debate and multicultural self-expression. The Lublin Union that created the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1569 was a bold project to form an international federation that anticipated the European Union, he tells Magdalena Malinska. The provincial borderlands of Europe reveal an unfamiliar world of “dissonances, fragile identities, fluctuating borders, painful memories, illegible traces and broken bridges”. They have created vivid, decentralized forms of culture that are socially inclusive, creatively integrating and could provide Europe with a cultural gateway to its partners further east.

The full table of contents of Res Publica Nowa 4/2009

The current issue of Sens Public examines the relationship between economic institutions, social merit and personal dignity. What is the role of culture, ask the editors, placed as it is on the margins of the global credit flows? For Joëlle Zask, the answer can partly be found in a cultural policy that does not reduce culture to politics, but enables each citizen to find their own means of self-development.

“A cultural policy dedicated to adjusting cultural institutions towards the aim of self-development is a democratic policy in a strong and real sense. Its goal is not to distribute the same cultural products to everybody, or to justify spending on some cultural sector by attracting as large an audience as possible for it. Its goal is to influence cultural life so that the resources of individuation, which everybody needs to give meaning to their life, are distributed as equitably as possible.”

Creoles: French-Caribbean writer Édouard Glissant has argued that creoles offer a model of cultural contact between equals, merging their linguistic and cultural backgrounds to create something new and appropriate to their shared environment. Edelyn Dorismond develops this concept by applying it to globalization. Globalization is built on hierarchy, inequality and homogeneity, and allows no space for creolization. But by the same token, creoles offer the possibility of building something beyond globalization: a society suited to the chaotic world emerging as hierarchies collapse.

“Creolization, or globality, comes after globalization, resisting it. It brings the ‘trace’ [of earlier cultures], it brings that which can defeat the standardization of globalization. […] This resistance to globalization takes the form of the imaginary and the poetic, the starting-point for a new world creole.”

Convergence: The convergence of technology means that the form devices take is no longer dictated by function, writes Hillel Schlegel: functions are too varied and flexible to be reflected in appearance. Instead the device becomes a pure interface, free to act as a social marker without concern for the feature. The end result is a jumble of designs, devoid of any meaning beyond that ascribed by advertising.

Also: By day he’s a business magnate, by night a poet and novelist. Who better to discuss the relationship between capitalism and culture than Tsutsumi Seiji?

The full table of contents of Sens public 11-12 (2009)

“The best about the Internet is also the worst about the Internet”, writes Lisa Bjurwald in a rather dejected themed section of Arena entitled “The downside of the net”. Bjurwald, journalist at posthumous bestseller-author Stieg Larsson’s anti-racist magazine Expo, is highly critical of how the interactive elements of the Web have made established media dependent on a loud minority – a “net mob” – filling the commentary fields with hate speech and outright threats.

“In recent years, my colleagues and I have either engaged in self-censorship or been asked by our superiors if we are really sure about the choice of subject: ‘It will go online, you know.’ If an article is about Israel, free choice, or something else that makes the net mob smell blood, then you’re in for at least one working day of total digital siege. Commentaries and links to blogs have to be watched meticulously, the inbox crashes. We have reached a situation where the net mob, which praises itself as a champion of free speech, is choking the freedom of speech of the old media.”

One should consider applying the comment function only to fashion, technology and other specialized articles, concludes Bjurwald. “Newspapers have no obligation to satisfy readers’ need to assert themselves. Look at it as a derailed experiment from the early days of the Internet and move on.”

The web as boon for bullies? In an article reprinted from Prospect, Belarusian blogger Evgeny Morozov debunks much of the optimistic talk about social media as a means to overthrow authoritarian regimes: “Social media’s greatest assets – anonymity, ‘virality’, interconnectedness – are also its main weaknesses.” Morozov describes how he used to work on western-funded “let’s-promote-democracy-through-blogs” projects in post-Soviet countries until he started to have doubts.

“Our mission to use the Internet to nudge citizens of authoritarian regimes to challenge the status quo had so many unexpected consequences that, at times, it seemed to be hurting the very causes we were trying to promote. […] Social media created a digital panopticon that thwarted the revolution: its networks, transmitting public fear, were infiltrated and hopelessly outgunned by the power of the state.”

Also: An excerpt from Magnus Linton‘s forthcoming book Cocaina, which turns the estimated cost of the war on drugs on its head.

The full table of contents of Arena 2/2010

“The problem for the copyright industry is not first and foremost that things are shared over the Internet, but that the new digital commons are open for sharing on an industrial scale,” write Sebastian Gjerding and Tage Wester in Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo). It is long since the situation was under control: an entire generation has already grown up with music as a free medium. Film has largely succumbed and digitized books will be next.

Most people now see Internet content as a common good, which is at odds with the wishes of political and commercial actors, but in line with the hypothesis about commons offered by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Commonwealth. Knowledge, they argue, is difficult to privatize or turn into state property because it can be reproduced endlessly, and because it loses its productive power when harnessed.

The main problem, write Gjerding and Wester, is that Internet law is characterized by uncertainty and unresolved conflicts. The legal crisis has led to increased political pressure to find solutions. One such is the suggestion for a “flat rate” as a possible compromise between anarchy and total surveillance, but the response of the copyright industry has so far been negative; it wants to regain the control it once had. But it is still underplayed how copyright has become the autocracy of our time, although one fundamentally challenged by the new digital commons, conclude Gjerding and Wester.

Urbanism: “Is it still possible to think of the city as a place of liberation?” wonders Remi Nilsen in his editorial. “Once there was a faith in the liberating urban development – even Le Corbusier believed his ‘machine for living in’ would be liberating. Today, the city has become too important for all that stuff.”

Jean-Pierre Garnier writes that a quiet worldwide change took place in 2007. It was the point at which the proportion of the world’s population living in cities passed the halfway mark. Since then, the restructuring of the city through “creative destruction” has reached a planetary scale. It follows a class-structure: centrally situated workers’ housing is renovated or flattened to make way for luxury properties, and former inhabitants are moved to cheap peripheral accommodation. “The city centre is improved, but not for the same people.”

The full table of contents of Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 4/2010

When Liga Marcinkevicha arranged to interview Ilmars Blumbergs, Blumbergs stated that he did not want to discuss the exhibition that was the pretext for the meeting. The interview ended up being a conversation between two artists about set design, art and ideas, and the creation of a setting for literature and music.

Blumbergs says that in theatre, “about a third of an idea is bound to be lost. It’s an inevitable loss, something you have to reckon with. The idea has to be powerful enough to compensate for this third or half, and that which is left over must still express the idea.” When a production is a failure, however, the set designer will rarely be blamed. “Usually it’s the actors who’ve played poorly, or most commonly it’s the director who’s failed, while the set designer is cushioned from it all, protected from criticism. The success of a production is irrational.”

Blumbergs: An artist should not say: I could make a mistake.
Marcinkevicha: But an artist must make mistakes.
Blumbergs: Yes, but that’s only for him to know.

Going local: “Why should we be concerned about national identity in art?” asks Peteris Bankovskis. Because contemporary art is quite simply of no relevance to “the people of the village, parish or community”. It is generically closer to the flow of global finance or, at its most extreme, to merchandising – the exchange of goods and services where the goods and services themselves have no meaning.

Not everyone has an interest in becoming part of this network of goods and services, says Bankovskis. Thousands produce contemporary art and appear in art magazines, but “hundreds of thousands more never appear in such places, opting to stay where they should be: in their own national identity, eschewing the global for the local – the village of their birth”.

The full table of contents of Studija 2/2010

Postmodernism is suffocating the dialectic of western culture, barring further evolution, fumes Alvar Loog in Vikerkaar. For centuries, tension between centre and periphery has been the driving force of cultural evolution, with mainstream canons offering a target for the periphery to attack, while the periphery in its turn supplies the centre with new ideas.

“Ever since the Renaissance, western culture has kept pushing forward, changing canons like socks, smashing and forgetting the outmoded and antiquated as it marched on. But now it has abandoned that rhythm of evolution […]. Whereas earlier, cultural trends superseded each other according to a dialectical model of development (thesis-antithesis-synthesis), the cultural present annulling the past as it progressed, the liberal and pluralist spirit of postmodernism reigning now excludes nothing and no-one.”

It is the radicals of the beginning and middle of the twentieth century who are to “blame” for this situation, Loog suggests. By taking the aesthetic project of modernism to its logical end, they introduced the end of art history. Focusing on form, postmodern artists produced works whose aesthetic significance derived neither from technical quality, nor psychological profundity, nor beauty. “Characterized by pluralism and nihilism, two apparently mutually exclusive attitudes, postmodernism is a unity of opposites without struggle.”

Also: One of the last interviews with Vaino Vahing (1940-2008), modernist writer, playwright, and psychiatrist; and the Vikergallup, in which 24 Estonian critics weigh up last year’s literary output and list their best books of the year.

The full table of contents of Vikerkaar 3/2010

Published 28 April 2010

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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