Unprecedented but not unexpected

23 March 2011
Only in en
Esprit inspects the building site that is French democracy; Index tells a cautionary tale about anti-censorship software; Osteuropa recommends that Europe learn from America for a change; Dilema veche finds fear and loathing blocking Romanian society; Springerin hears Immanuel Wallerstein on the world revolution of ’68; Syn og Segn relates the rarely-told story of Norwegian women’s resistance in WWII; Lettera internazionale hopes for more enlightened bosses; Vikerkaar says the folk weren’t as backward as folklorists think; and Du profiles René Burri, Switzerland’s photographer of world history.

Do the Arab revolutions mark the “rebirth of democratic hope?” If so, explains Pierre Hassner to Esprit, it is in a way that challenges the role of Europe. Events occurred “neither with reference to Europe or America, nor in opposition to them. Rather it was diasporas and new media that enabled the sharing of information and slogans in Tunis and Cairo”. These events demolish both the idea of democratization by force, as seen in Iraq, and the belief that Arab societies cannot be democratic. Any European involvement needs to be led by society and not by governments, says Hassner:

Our governments must conduct diplomacy but society must express itself more powerfully. Our role as intellectuals is to continue to protest against authoritarian regimes, and especially to contact and to support those resisting them.

Democracy under construction: With the French presidential elections scheduled for 2012, politicians are mapping out the ideological battleground. Political vision has been all but absent in recent French elections: the 2007 campaign was fought on personalities, and the 2002 campaign dominated by the presence of the far-Right. Socialist politician Lucile Schmid explores how this could change in 2012: “Adopting a long-term perspective provides the means to elaborate a real project and to introduce a less self-interested dimension to relations with the electorate, to turn against clientelism and to renew confidence in a political vision.”

Urban politics: Politics at the city level demand close analysis, write the editors, since “political under-representation corresponds largely to deprived urban areas”. Isabelle Baraud-Serfaty traces how intellectual trends in urbanism shape society and politics. In the 1970s and 1980s, she writes, “urban planning reigned supreme. Development took place vertically, from the top down: a small circle of decision-makers determined the city. Then, in the 1990s, the ‘urban project’ appeared as the dominant form of intervention, stressing dialogue with residents and with private concerns.” The corporate and the grassroots have since been developing in novel ways. But “without a delicate balance between the scale of big business and the ‘Do It Yourself’ spirit of fans of Government 2.0, poor city-dwellers will be the big losers”.

The full table of contents of Esprit 3-4/2011

The new issue of Index, on political activism and the web, reflects a more sober view of Web 2.0’s impact on authoritarian regimes. As editor Jo Glanville notes, “when the Tunisian government fell in January, followed by the popular uprising in Egypt, the response was much more muted than in the aftermath of the Iranian elections 18 months previously: technology was acknowledged to have played a part, in spreading news of the protests for example, but was given no starring role.”

The US government’s own attempts to bring the Internet under control by forcing software manufacturers to include “back doors”, introducing “optional” online identities, or even building a “kill switch” into the Internet, casts doubt on its own publicly announced plans to promote “Internet freedom”, writes Evgeny Morozov. “Given Washington’s excessively nervous reaction to the WikiLeaks saga, any moves by the US government with regard to Internet freedom will now be watched with increased suspicion around the world.”

A cautionary tale: Danny O’Brien describes the rise and fall of Haystack, the encryption programme developed by young San Franciscan computer wizard Austin Heap for use by the Iranian opposition. O’Brien, founder of the UK digital civil liberties organization the Open Rights Group, recalls his attempts to persuade Heap to open up Haystack’s code to fellow programmers, who could check it for security. Heap refused: the US state department had given it the OK, he said, which did nothing to reassure O’Brien.

When a colleague of O’Brien eventually got hold of the Haystack code, he found “it was doing a bunch of things that no anti-censorship software used by at-risk activists should do”. It emerged that Heap wasn’t Haystack’s programmer after all but merely its frontman, and soon after, Haystack closed down its servers. “With not much more than a program that Heap had uploaded to a few Iranians, [we] had unravelled almost every element of how the Haystack test client worked,” writes O’Brien. “Anyone else who obtained those secrets can potentially hurt anyone who used the same Haystack code, or ever used it. Now we, too, were the reluctant keepers of those secrets.”

Also: Salwa Ismail explains why the revolution in Egypt is unprecedented but not unexpected. Egypt had been building up to a showdown with the regime for over a decade. Now the web of regulations and decrees that has encircled Egyptian citizens, undermining their capacity to organize and act collectively, has finally been broken.

The full table of contents of Index on Censorship 1/2011

When eastern European luminaries addressed an open letter to Obama in 2009 asking for heavier US engagement in security in the region, they were criticized in the West for breaking European ranks. Yet they had historical reasons, write the editors of Osteuropa: America has always been the projection surface for eastern European hopes and longings, whether for the economic émigrés of the nineteenth century, for political refugees fleeing totalitarian repression in the twentieth, or for the countercultural youth of the communist bloc. A new issue on America and “the ideals and illusions” of eastern Europe explores whether this is changing as idealization is replaced by more pragmatic calculations.

Excuses: “If there is something fascinating about America, then it is its permanent ability to fulfil the personal, strictly individualized desire for utopia, now, in our present,” writes Petr Fischer, head of culture at Czech national television. Yet American individualism is also what Europeans criticize most: the imitation of the American Way of Life is blamed for all the consumerist ills of post-war European society.

This is, of course, a poor excuse, not only for the fact that we accept American patterns of behaviour voluntarily as they easily satisfy the human need for instant delight; it is, at the same time, an excuse we use to justify our inability to come up with a better, more innovative model. But above all, it is an excuse which obscures the fact that American individualism also has different, more positive aspects, namely the ways it fosters societal relations, which do not link man with the state but, mostly, man to man.”

Decisions: “While Americans admire Europe for its history and culture, we Europeans look up to America for exactly the opposite reasons,” writes Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek. “The USA is the key decision-maker, decisions are easier and faster in USA than in Europe.” Europe has voluntarily renounced its ambitions for global leadership, writes Sedlacek, and “deep inside, is quite happy that somebody else is ready to do the difficult task. Imagine there was no USA, and we Europeans had to do the global policing… now that is a scary concept.”

The full table of contents of Osteuropa 1/2011

“Fear is a common denominator in communist and post-communist societies,” writes Paul Cernat in Dilema veche (issue 361). “Those who fear systematically tend to disobey written rules while at the same time adhering to unwritten, so-called natural norms.” If Romanians feared political repression before 1989, they now fear losing their jobs, defaulting on bank loans, starvation or marginalization. Just like political fear before, economic fear nowadays breeds social atomization, a reluctance to engage in the public space; in time, this morphs into resentment, suspicion and aggressiveness.

In the same issue, Costi Rogozanu describes how economic fear, potentially explosive as a social phenomenon, has sublimated into shame. Instead of reacting angrily to the economic crisis and its consequences on their personal lives, Romanians, prompted by predominant public discourses, felt guilty: for having overspent in the period of economic growth, for burdening the state budget with social expenses, even for not properly understanding the principles of the market economy.

Politics of hate: Andrei Plesu (issue 365) looks at another source of blockage in Romanian public life: hatred. Be it mutual hatred between power and opposition, or between rival camps in the cultural space (established public intellectuals versus their challengers), hatred obstructs dialogue:

Anyone unfortunate enough to be hated finds themselves in a checkmate situation. All they can do is disappear from sight. If the government hates the opposition and its representatives, no proposition or critical analysis coming from the opposition is taken into consideration. […] Likewise, if the opposition hates the government, all governmental proposals are stupid. Hatred leaves no room for dialogue and constructiveness, it is exclusively based on a philosophy of annihilating the opponent.

Also: Mircea Vasilescu explains the inadequacy of the Romanian government’s reaction to the crisis by its failure to integrate public debate into decision making (issue 358). “An IMF loan can’t make up for a lack of ideas and debates in the public space.”

The full table of contents of Dilema veche 355-367 (2010-2011)

Springerin publishes Immanuel Wallerstein‘s lecture at the Vienna L’Internationale Conference in October 2010. Briefed to discuss “avant-gardes from the decline of modernism to the rise of globalization”, Wallerstein proposes a broader logic of global history from the Yalta Conference to the Second Iraq War – one that might be summarized as the replacement of repressive developmentalism by retrogressive ultra-liberalism.

The central point for Wallerstein is 1968 as culmination of a creeping geopolitical decline for both the United States and the USSR. “This was a world revolution”, he says, that affected the pan-European world, the socialist bloc and the Third World. “After 1968, neither the US nor the Soviet Union would ever be able to regain the unquestioning fidelity of their presumed allies or the unquestioning belief in the bright futures each was guaranteeing to everyone.”

What many of those involved in the world revolution of ’68 overlooked, however, was that it “also liberated the world Right from what had been its equally tacit acceptance of the ameliorative principles of this same ‘centrist liberalism’ […] The new post-1968 political scene would be one in which not only radicals but also conservatives came to feel liberated from the constraints of the formerly dominant centrist liberalism.”

While world Left spent the 1970s searching for new organizational forms, says Wallerstein, the world Right was “much more practical. They launched a coherent program to transform the direction of the world-system and to push back against all the advances in social welfare that had been achieved during the 1945-1967/73 period. […] This program was called neoliberalism.”

Also: Piotr Piotrowski discusses how the “international” avant-gardes in eastern Europe were as national as the systems they opposed; Jesa Denegri recalls the exhibition series “New Tendencies” that ran from 1961 to 1973 in Zagreb, Yugoslavia; and Christian Höller talks to concept artists Marko Pogacnik and Peter Weibel about the beginnings of their artistic careers.

The full table of contents of Springerin 1/2011

The Second World War has given us many stories about brave men who risked all for their fatherland, writes Maghild Folkword in Syn og Segn. The flood of male dominated war literature has given the impression that women were all but absent from the resistance against the German occupying forces. Of the few women that have been talked about who took part in the resistance, some ended up in concentration camps in occupied Europe, others managed to flee.

Mary Aune’s story is different. She was not a member of the organized resistance yet was punished for something the Germans saw as a serious crime: defacing a portrait of Hitler. One day, in sheer irritation at the arrogance of the German officers, the nineteen year-old scratched the eyes, moustache and Swastika off the portrait of der Führer hanging in the canteen where she worked. Another young woman informed on her. During the interrogation she was told that if she had been in Germany she would have been executed for her crime: in Norway she went to prison, where she spent the remainder of the war.

While in prison she did her best to help others. “I helped three women escape, and for that I had to suffer”, is her brief summary of her experience. She has waited until now to tell her story, only sharing parts of it with her closest family, because “at first it was important to leave the bad memories behind, but now I feel that others should know what I was put through.”

Language wars: Oddmund Løkensgard Hoel analyses why the second written form of Norwegian, nynorsk (new Norwegian, the language in which Syn og Segn is published), never managed to gain popularity in the cities. Løkensgard Hoel puts it down to an urban angst created in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the promoters of nynorsk themselves, as well as an urban view of the users of the language as less educated and somewhat unrefined.

The full table of contents of Syn og Segn 1/2011

What is work in today’s globalized world?” asks Lorella Cedroni in Lettera internazionale. “A need, a simulacrum, a commodity, or a right?” Appealing to the Italian constitution, she argues that work today is no longer a common good but a hostage of global capitalism, with no protection from democratic laws. “The right to work is the foundation of our democracy, providing personal emancipation and dignity. […] In retrogressive democracy, these rights are systematically disregarded.

Discussion: The Italian computer manufacturer and “enlightened boss” Adriano Olivetti (1901-1960) is up for discussion as notions of corporate responsibility return. Luciano Gallino outlines the successful experiments conducted by Olivetti, such as providing his workers with housing and healthcare. Massimo L. Salvadori, on the other hand, considers Olivetti’s utopian views unfeasible and points out his problematic association with the Catholic Church. Davide Cadeddu remarks that Olivetti’s wish for a world federation of states was the basis for “a political participation that is more necessary than ever,” while Alberto Sinigaglia suggests that democrats and liberals still need to listen to the likes of Olivetti as “points of reference”.

Interview: Talking to Biancamaria Bruno, economist Paolo Leon compares the potential of Olivetti’s ideas in comparison to the post-industrial approach of Fiat manager Sergio Marchionne. The welfare state and automation made Olivetti’s model obsolete, Leon argues, while Marchionne enters a compromise, opting for weak unions and Polish wage levels over the even lower wages of China. Turning to the economic crisis, Leon argues that the public spending cuts throughout Europe prove that the Union needs to take coordinated action through the Central European Bank.

The full table of contents of Lettera internazionale 106 (2010)

Do folklorists really study the stories of the folk? “In the age of large-scale collecting,” writes Jürgen Beyer in Vikerkaar, “folklorists agreed, by and large, on the following principles: true folklore was oral, rural, ethnic and pagan, and there was no need to collect recent and secondary folklore that was written, urban, Christian or of other (not to speak of mixed) ethnicity.” But why did folklorists think of the “folk” in, for example, Estonia as illiterate pagans practising their rites and narrating ancient myths? Would it not be more accurate to see the folk as partly literate and Christian, reading chapbooks and calendars, with their own ideas about what kind of teaching should take place in the schoolhouses they built?

The misguided notion of the “folk” stems from the fact that “institutionalized folklore studies thrive best in countries that experienced difficulties in nation-state building in the nineteenth century”, writes Beyer. As a result, nation-building efforts drove folklorists out into the villages to discover an “ancient identity”. Yet outside the archives, a substantial body of the written materials used by nineteenth-century people still survives – and folklorists should leave the well-trodden path and make an effort to find them.

The full table of contents of Vikerkaar 1-2/2011

Head tilted slightly to one side, a Cuban cigar lodged in the side of his mouth, a sceptical look towards his opposite number beyond the left-hand frame of the picture. It is one of the most famous photographs of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, taken by René Burri. The Swiss journal Du dedicates its seventieth anniversary issue to the cosmopolitan photographer, who since 1958 has contributed countless covers and reportages to the journal.

“Some Swiss are closed and narrow minded, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger once commented, and some are cosmopolitans like René Burri, for whom Switzerland isn’t enough,” writes editor Stefan Kaiser. “His curiosity is attracted by change, be it social or aesthetic, or the encounter with great personalities who never stopped questioning the rigid order of things.”

Among those personalities were Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier and Alberto Giacometti, whose lives and work Burri accompanied for a while. Simultaneously, he documented Cuba after the revolution, the construction of Brasilia, and Suez during and after the Yom Kippur War.

My curiosity drew me out into the world, it made me want to understand the world photographically and to convey the upheavals, the history. I can do nothing more than that as a photographer. Even if when I was young I felt like a conqueror and believed, hoped that I could change the world with my pictures.

The Germans: Du publishes the facsimile of one of Burri’s most important books, Die Deutschen (1962). Burri travelled around post-war West Germany capturing the country between war and Wirtschaftswunder: “No one since the war better understood and portrayed the tormented Germany better in its contradictions than the Swiss photographer René Burri,” writes Hans-Michael Koetzle.

The full table of contents of Du 3-4/2011

Published 23 March 2011

Original in English
First published in

© Eurozine


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