Varicoloured stacks of indignation

15 September 2010
Only in en
Critique and Humanism watches the democracy of opinion in action; Esprit finds uses for the pessimism of Ivan Illich; Merkur administers a potent dose of liberalism; Blätter urges the Left to reclaim progress; Samtiden is cautiously optimistic about the European project; Reset finds Muslim social networking taking off; Ny Tid asks whether Wikileaks can trigger political change; and Lettera Internazionale journeys to a strange country.

The marketization of the media and its liberation from government control combines with digital technology to create what Ivaylo Ditchev calls “democracy of opinion”. In Critique and Humanism, the Bulgarian cultural anthropologist writes that: “The techno-ideological imperative of immediate and permanent feedback has shrunk time and space and put the quick response to public passion at the centre of political contention. All the major players need to excel in these disciplines.”

The opinion poll has become the defining form in this new political order, making use of each new communication technology as it appears. “Political elites cannot lift a finger without being monitored in real time by some kind of poll, translated into rating tables and varicoloured stacks of indignation or slices of approval, analysed and meta-analysed,” writes Ditchev. “The main issue is not whether opinion is right or wrong, but rather that it is seen as a legitimate form of feedback that justifies policy decisions.”

Education: Editor Vania Serafimova draws on John Dewey’s writings on education to assess the effectiveness of schooling in Bulgaria today. If education is to be democratic, thought Dewey, it must educate individuals in critical forms of intelligence that allow them to question institutional norms. This aspect of Dewey’s thought is crucial, claims Serafimova: people need to be educated to see democracy not as a formal procedure they passively elect, but as a developmental system whose institutional framework they have an active part in shaping.

Interviews with students and parents aim to trace the socialization of individuals. Teachers do not understand the social reality of their students, claim interviewees; they use old-fashioned teaching methods where more interactive methods would be desirable. For Dewey, such critique would prove schools are performing their task, writes Serafimova: as long as the educational institution is being questioned, it is facing the challenge of democracy.

The full table of contents of Critique & Humanism 33 (2010)

Throughout the 1970s, the polyglot philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich produced a stream of commentary from the village in rural Mexico in which he lived. Esprit was one of the principal conduits for Illich’s thought into the French-speaking world, publishing some of his earliest work in 1967 and continuing to do so until his death in 2002 and beyond. In its current issue, Esprit discusses the pertinence of Illich’s ideas today, looking at ways in which they have been extended by his followers.

In his best-known works, published in the 1970s, Illich claimed that beyond a certain threshold, industrial production undermines human freedom and becomes “counterproductive”: in industrialized society, it becomes difficult or impossible to act as a human being without technological assistance. Denis Clerc argues that developments of the past three decades have challenged some of Illich’s pessimism: medical technology has raised the quality of life; markets have proved able to take account of environmental concerns. However, Illich’s core idea of counterproductivity has become prominent in contemporary economic thought, writes Clerc: even mainstream economists now dispute a direct link between economic growth and human wellbeing.

The second Illich: From 1980, Illich’s work moved in new directions. One preoccupation for this “second Illich” was physical awareness of the body, which he argued had declined since the Middle Ages. He also compared written with oral cultures and considered the ways in which service industries use the concept of the “professional” to exert control. Barbara Duden, one of the global circle of friends who were central to Illich’s later life, explains that this varied writing was the output of a mind revolving around a fundamental concern with the diminished role of the human individual in technological society. He understood, she writes, “that progress disfigures and paralyses in its technological mania: the word becomes communication, free movement becomes transport, home becomes a garage, and death a decision to interrupt medical consumption”.

Also: Patrick Mignon examines the network of institutions – financial, media and social – that enable the French passion for football.

The full table of contents of Esprit 8-9/2010

This year’s themed issue of Merkur, entitled “The limits of state action. On freedom and paternalism”, opens with commentaries on classic texts on freedom from Locke, Hume and Kant to Popper, Röpke and Hayek. The editors note that while the anti-socialist fervour of some of these thinkers strikes us today as odd, and in some cases comical, they remain eloquent confronted with a state that “no longer appears as an overbearing despot but as a caring pleaser of the people”. A “social brainwashing” is at work, they continue: “A rich society like ours, one which ever more rapidly supports an increasing number of its members, is, at the moment its generosity is proven, accused of producing more and more poverty.”

Contributors take up the challenge with some trenchant critiques of the welfare state and its corrosive effect on liberty. Wolfgang Kersting, for example: “Those that see in the Sozialstaat a cave in which morality can hibernate during the cold winter of capitalism are seriously mistaken,” he writes. “Its system of incentives pander to the ego no less than the market.” Or Norbert Bolz: “The inmates of our closed facility must be thought of as satisfied human beings. They are here of their own will, there is no need for locks and chains; they are interned by the fear of freedom and the longing for security. […] Those few that resist are not forced, they are demoralized; they are not physically tyrannized, but rather ground down psychologically.”

Real-existing liberalism: Supposed “lack of liberality” belongs to the German self-image today, counters Jörg Lau. Yet “self-realization as the highest good has already established itself, all the way into the heart of conservative milieus […] The costs of freedom, on the other hand, are visible everywhere, for example in ruined marriages and in the struggles single parents must endure”. The Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP), the embattled junior partner in the German coalition government, appears oblivious to that fact that for many, the market is no longer a source of freedom. “All that the FDP has to offer losers is the barren words that freedom comes before equality. The message: tough luck. We don’t need you. We’ll get our 15 per cent without you.”

The full table of contents of Merkur 9/2010

The Left used to define itself as a “progressive force” and the conservatives were perceived as looking backwards. But this difference is no longer obvious – one can even claim that progress has changed sides, writes Austrian author and journalist Robert Misik in Blätter. Conservatives and neoliberals now represent the wind of change and advocate “reform”, while the Left is on the defensive, protecting the remains of the welfare state against attacks from market fundamentalists.

This defensive position is a trap, argues Misik. “The Left must reclaim progress.” It has a lot to offer in the form of both social and economic competence, he writes. “A dynamic society is not a zero-sum game. Egalitarian societies are not only more friendly but also more productive. The formula ‘prosperity for all’ is therefore not only the guiding principle for a more just distribution of wealth, but also leads to the production of more wealth.”

A just and fair society, characterized by equality, also functions better economically, writes Misik. “The economic competence of the progressive Left consists in the fact that it realizes this. In the last decades, it has failed to make this crucial point clear. Much will depend on this being changed.”

Criticizing the criticism of Islam: In current debates on integration, Islam is often described as incompatible with an enlightened, open-minded, democratic and constitutional society. Patrick Bahners, editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, criticizes the self-declared critics of Islam and points to the “religious character of the radical critique of religion”.

Just peace: As far as policies for promoting peace is concerned, the last decade was a lost one. Dieter Senghaas proposes a new debate on peacekeeping in the twenty-first century. His thesis: to overcome the idea of “just wars”, concepts of “just peace” must be strengthened and promoted.

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 9/2010

Norway, which is not an EU member country, has been sceptical of the Union from the beginning, for financial as well as ideological reasons. With this scepticism as his starting point, Simen Ekern takes a long, hard look at the EU and expresses cautious optimism.

“At times, it is easy to get the impression that it’s just the threat of a few hundred women in burqas that unite European countries. But at the same time there is a real will to discuss shared issues – it’s all about checking the facts. […] This existing public discourse is an ongoing project that can’t be brushed aside as a mere exercise by the elite in whiling away time.”

Ekern – Brussels correspondent for Dagbladet – emphasizes the joint issues: “It is not so that a European conversation has to take place in one language, or in a single common medium. What is decisive for Europe as a project is that one concerns oneself with the same projects, that overlapping topics are referred to in the various national media, that we are on the constant lookout for parallels and differences in order to find solutions to mutual problems.”

That said, there is a distinct fatigue with the EU topic, not just in Norway; Ekern warns that “the horrors of the Second World War are not enough to ensure a wish for integration. That Germany no longer feels that its collective guilt obliges it to pull the entire weight is only one sign. Europe needs a new project to believe in. And it can’t be about saving the leftovers of a common currency.”

Ageism: “We’re afraid of the elderly,” writes Heidi Marie Kriznik. With the money and resources required to care for increasing numbers of elderly people running low, public institutions and the media are eager to point out what a burden older people represent. Even Facebook fears the elderly: “When you get a friends request from your grandma, that’s when I think Facebook will lose a lot of its coolness,” says Huw Griffiths, Global Director of Research and Analytics at the media agency Universal McCann, to the financial journal Dagens Næringsliv. But, concludes Kriznik, “it’s a sign of quality in a society that the elderly are healthy and live longer. […] Shouldn’t this be a reason to rejoice?”

The full table of contents of Samtiden 3/2010

In Reset, US digital media and public policy expert Joshua S. Fouts talks to Elisa Pierandrei about the role of the Internet in the Muslim world. Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter can no longer compete with more popular ones among the younger generation of Muslims keen to embrace the cultural and religious diversity of the modern world. These “virtual worlds […] recreate a vibrant intellectual atmosphere” that is important for Islam with its rich traditions of debate.

The strike of journalists working for, one of the best-known sites of the kind, is a result of a certain tension between them and the new owners, according to Fouts. is becoming more than a mere media vehicle: novelties such as a “virtual Hajj” now make it similar to interactive networks such as Second Life and Muxlim Pal.

Financial crisis: “It is dangerous to assume that Italy is better than other countries at fighting [the latest] difficulties, that it possesses more resilience,” writes lawyer Tiziano Treu. “So far, our resilience has manifested itself in an ability to float rather than in positive reactions to economic and social difficulties”. The crisis has created problems that can be solved only by creating new economic categories: a post-crisis economy must be fine-tuned to address social requirements. “It is not just about changing the welfare state ,” writes Treu. “There is a need to embark on the route towards community welfare”.

Politics: Despite his luck in the past, Berlusconi is not going to escape lightly from “the second round of the world financial crisis”, predicts Claudia Mancina. The crucial difference is the collapse of the former “cast-iron alliance” with Italy’s rightwing Lega Nord. However the Italian opposition has so far failed to take advantage of the growing discontent in society and the errors made by the government. “It is still too early to give Silvio Berlusconi up for dead”, Mancina concludes.

The full table fo contents of Reset 120 (2010)

In late August, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange was accused of rape and a warrant was issued for his arrest in Sweden, but it was quickly withdrawn. However, Swedish prosecutors recently reopened the investigation. The case sparked a flurry of conspiracy theories. In a contribution to the debate pages of Helsinki-based weekly Ny Tid, Mikael Böök sees “the attacks on the Wikileaks website and especially the recent assault on its spokesman Julian Assange” as evidence that we are living in “a global police state”. He is convinced that the charges are part of a smear campaign orchestrated by “the enemies of Internet” in general and of Wikileaks in particular.

According to Böök, the Internet has become a parallel power outside the global political system, challenging traditional actors such as “states and empires”. The Wikileaks case shows that time has come to strike back against “the enemies of freedom” that would do anything to preserve their power. A first step would be to “separate the Internet from the State just as the State is separated from the Church”.

The leak as political method: On a double page in the editorial section of the magazine, Mikael Brunila portrays Wikileaks. He concludes: “Uncovered conspiracies and massive security leaks can’t in and of themselves trigger political change. Whether such material can translate into actual change depends both on how the surplus of information is treated – in this respect Wikileaks gets a lot of praise – and on the structures that can channel the discontent that follow such disclosures. Concerned discussions within an enlightened public sphere will not be enough.”

More about Ny Tid

In the current issue of Lettera Internazionale, dedicated to travelling in its various forms, novelist Alberto Manguel recalls a trip from Paris to London, back in the days before Eurostar and the border-free EU. Instead, there was a caramel-coloured express train from Gare du Nord to Calais, followed by a Channel ferry and the white cliffs of Dover. Unfortunately, that was as far as Manguel got. The sight of him dressed in the best of Sixties fashion aroused the suspicions of a British immigration officer and he was sent back to France, “the land of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, although perhaps not in this order”. This incident provoked the first spell of “moderate anarchy” in the young Argentinian.

Geometries of power: Franco Farinelli contrasts our blind faith in the reliability of maps with the significance they had for our ancestors. Once upon a time, “earthly Paradise was still a place marked on a map […], and this presence assured you not only that any was journey possible, but also that your whole existence could be reduced to a journey”. Farinelli proposes that, “without perspective, the modern European state would not exist or would have a completely different form; it is the linear syntax of perspective that guarantees that territory is transformed into space”. Any method of travel, he claims, can be related to Borges’ famous imperial map showing both terrestrial landmarks and those of the mind.

Wanderlust: “Everyone is aware of the connection between the words ‘travel’ and ‘travail’,” writes Pico Iyer. “I, for one, know that I travel mostly in search of difficulties – those I want to experience myself and those awaiting people I need to see”. Iyer muses about “returning and finding yourself in love”, a process linked to wanderlust: our desire to seek questions rather than answers. “If every genuine love story can be seen as a journey to a strange country,” he concludes, “then every journey to a strange country can be a love story where you keep asking yourself who you are and who you are in love with”.

The full table of contents of Lettera internazionale 104 (2010)

Published 15 September 2010

Original in English
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