Eternal return

On protests, intellectuals and a lack of democracy

The protests of 2012 and 2013 in Slovenia seem to have drawn a blank. People did realize the urgent need for a different kind of politics and more honest leadership of the country, writes Boris Vezjak. But they did not offer ideas for concrete improvements.

The unsuccessful outcome of the mass protests in Slovenia has aroused a growing sense of unease. Practically nothing has come of the many changes vowed by the citizens who took to the streets, apart from in Maribor, the first city to experience what later became a nationwide uprising, where the corrupt mayor of the city was replaced. A year later we resignedly conclude that we failed to introduce a new paradigm of political action, end the old clientelistic networks and alliances on both the Right and Left, or stem corruption to any significant extent. It appears that we have failed completely, lost faith in the power of protest and that, in the early elections scheduled for 13 July 2014, the significance of the citizens’ uprising will likely be entirely erased.

Maribor, September 2012. Photo: Source:Flickr

Why are we so powerless? Were our demands excessive and unrealistic, overly populist and unsuited to the times? In some elements yes, but not in their essence. I will offer a simple explanation, one that I firmly believe: citizens’ political thinking and their comprehension of reality has not changed enough to achieve a breakthrough. The protests were not a reflection of a mass and radical shift in our minds – although people did realize the urgent need for a different kind of politics and more honest leadership of the country, they did not offer ideas for concrete improvements. A patient can know very well that he is ill but treatment cannot proceed if the diagnosis is undetermined and he cannot imagine his future when healthy.

If a segment of the protesters offered up the anachronistic iconography of socialism and red stars, by means of which they had already rejected a realistic attempt at an alternative in advance, if some of the mainstream media actively encouraged mental “revolt”, they nevertheless did nothing to expand anybody’s horizons. Theoretical notes are not enough, they are perhaps just a good start. For this reason, it now seems that in the midst of a new crisis we are even seeing, once again, the Nietzschean “eternal recurrence” as far as the political elite is concerned… with perhaps just a few cosmetic improvements, and the rise of opportunists looking for their chance to be elected.

That we do not know how to conceive of the political sphere in the full, original sense of the word, let alone to create conditions for the possibility of change, is largely also the responsibility of intellectuals. With regard to whom, we have chronic problems in Slovenia: not only do most intellectuals flee from politics even more than one would expect, not only are they widely stigmatized, but their reputation and importance in the eyes of the media and public are barely noticeable. The vast majority of intellectuals have assumed the function of a “beautiful soul” that follows events from the safe haven of their couch without a thought for their obligations. They allude evasively to how they would do things better. They are blind to their own participation in processes, or as the philosopher Hegel put it, they do not want to recognize in themselves that evil which resides in the very gaze that perceives evil all around itself.

We may add to this a public discourse that is completely de-intellectualized, partisan, sensational and hysterical, with which the domestic media has succeeded in completely degrading the concept of the critical intellectual, not least through pseudo-intellectual portrayals of lobbyists and party consultants, former politicians and ministers, and politically partisan theologians and journalists. Let me cite just a small Maribor example: if in the main local daily newspaper the phrase “Maribor intellectual” has not occurred in more than ten years, then this means either that they do not exist or that, in the de-intellectualized environment, they are not allowed to exist.

This is not to say that there are no exceptions to the rule. Journalists have returned to the phrase in public discourse in the last few years, but only in the specific and largely unexpected context of protest. A Google search returns the unlikely result that the phrase “Maribor intellectuals” is cited only in three related cases. Let me list them: in the context of the petition calling on the mayor to resign, in the context of the Maribor protests and the initiative “Together for Maribor!” and, most recently, with regard to the questioning of “Maribor extremist intellectuals”, who supposedly organized and encouraged the protests.1 They were thus implicated in the political change that took place in the city, as the actual articulators and authors of demands for change. Yet, regardless of the level of their engagement, they go practically unnoticed as a social group in terms of being mentioned in the press, although it is true that this is not necessarily the only criterion for assessing their public profile.

Of course, we need to be strict in distinguishing between what individuals actually do and, if it even comes to that, the public representation of what they do. Many of my colleagues fail to see what exactly it is that inspires their involvement, because their work simply goes unnoticed. You can’t be a critic of society if your observations never make it into the public arena, something that depends primarily on media uptake. On the other hand, intellectuals themselves deserve consideration: their responsibility has both positive and negative connotations.

The philosopher Edmund Burke once said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Do not watch how passivity and indolence create dangerous conditions for resignation, do not observe how doing nothing is just as bad or worse than doing something that could potentially pave the road to hell. Social developments are after all always woven out of particular socio-historical ideas and ideologies. Intellectuals should be committed to measuring and also creating their effects in society and in the formation of society’s conceptual foundation.

The responses to intellectuals are even more interesting than the roles of intellectuals in the Slovenian uprisings. In addition to the usual scorn for their intellectual work, work still as difficult to discern as it always was, the chanting in the streets introduced the criticism that intellectuals had somehow usurped a social role in terms of influencing the development of the protests. Rather than a stronger intellectual underpinning, some considered that there should be less of such a thing. Since the uprisings were regarded as an event initiated by angry masses, a hostile attitude began to build up in some individuals towards intellectuals, although many intellectuals also stood on the streets just like everyone else.

It is interesting that it was the intellectually stronger segment of protesters that could generate this sort of reflection, which suggests some sort of clash of ideas, in accordance with which there is assumed to be an idealized figure of the “pure protester”, liberated from all mental capabilities and reduced to the pure desire for social change, an idealization in itself. The attempt at exclusion even implied an understanding that the uprising was not something in which intellectuals should be allowed a decision-making role, especially not where the uprising’s choice of mayor was concerned.

Put more simply: in the eyes of some, intellectuals were a disturbing element in the development of direct democracy. They were already guilty since, for example, they succeeded in offering a mayoral candidate when others unfortunately could not. It is possible that their judgment was good, but this is another question entirely. Their sin was that they succeeded.

The rejection of intellectuals in Maribor has a long history, and the episodes described above are likely just a result of this anti-intellectualism: the situation is not improved even by the fact that the current mayor hails from their ranks. The disabling of intellectual life helps preserve the existing relations and their dysfunctional nature – I find it hard to believe that social renewal can be achieved without thinking, analyzing, planning and offering ideas and visions.

The exclusion of civil society and its actors is precisely the gesture that constantly pushes political life, which is already in itself demonized, into a rigid complacency and emptiness, in which an understanding of the dynamics of social interests and their heterogeneity is lost. For this very reason the conceptually empty street chant of “He’s done for!”, repetitive and tiring, delivered an effective and successful message, but the powerlessness of articulation beyond this demand was already inscribed in the raised fists and shouting.

And for this very reason, as with every disappointing outcome, we should pay attention to the fact that the Slovenian protest rebirth not only measured levels of anger and dissatisfaction among the masses, it also opened up the question of the status of intellectuals and their treatment in this country and, prior even to that, their role and significance in society.

A group of Maribor intellectuals participated in the protests and formed the initiative "Together for Maribor!" After the protests became violent and the arrest of protesters, and after their detention and trials, a parliamentary commission decided on the basis of a false, anonymous accusation, to question some of these intellectuals, all in the context of investigating extremism in the country.

Published 8 July 2014
Original in Slovenian
Translated by Dialogi
First published by Dialogi 3-4/2014

Contributed by Dialogi © Boris Vezjak / Dialogi / Eurozine


Related Articles

Cover for: Engineering trust: Why tech needs privacy by design

Nowhere is aversion towards transparency deeper than in the tech industry. The result of this corporate culture has been a massive breakdown of public trust. What management cannot fix, engineering must, argues leading privacy campaigner Simon Davies.

Cover for: Paradoxes of participation: Democracy and the internet in Russia

The nascent internet played a key role in defeating the military coup in Russia in 1991, writes Andrei Soldatov. However, the democratic promise of the web was never fulfilled. In the 2000s, it became a means of escape for a disaffected middle class closed out of the political process. The failed protest wave of 2011–2012 bore the mark of this ‘lost decade’. Meanwhile, in the era of political trolling, online participation has come to mean something very different.