The Invisible Symposium
The Invisible Symposium
Moderator: Because we have come together to have a discussion about democracy, I would like to begin by recalling that the first symposia were held in ancient Greece. The purpose of the Greek symposium was to provide a forum for Athenian men of a certain standing to socialize, compete, and be entertained—while exchanging views or debating on subjects ranging from from philosophy to love to poetry. But to be honest, symposia were also occasions to indulge. They were drinking parties, and the first symposiasts, as the participants were called, reclined on couches, bedecked in garlands, drinking wine and reveling into the night. In fact, in classical Greece, a symposium would be overseen by a “symposiarch”, one of whose duties was to decide how strong the wine would be, according to whether serious discussion or merely sensual indulgence was going to take place.
Today, there is no symposiarch, and will forego all pillows, garlands, and libations. Hopefully that won’t make what happens here any less interesting than if we had those comforts.
I understand that we have guests from many parts of the world here tonight. So I would like to begin by asking our symposiasts if the traditional division of the world into North, South, East, and West has anything to do with democracy. Does democracy have a geography? Are there different kinds of democracies in different parts of the world? Is there a Western and Eastern model of democracy for example? Or are there certain qualities that all democracies have in common, regardless of local conditions?
Cornel West: Every democracy is a hybrid of universal and particular elements. Like great art, democracy contains universal aspects – such as the dignity of individuality, respect for public interest, and cultivated critical sensibility – and particular aspects like different cultural and religious histories and heritages.
Ingrid Betancourt: I think there are as many democracies as there are democratic nations in the world, but they all share two common basic elements: the supremacy of election to appoint government and the separation of powers.
Carsen Jensen: I also think that democracy is defined by two essential elements, but for me those are: equality before the law and defending individual rights against the State. Otherwise there is no democracy. The cultural issue of East or West doesn’t even come into it.
Larissa Behrendt: I agree. Terms like “Western” and “Eastern” are overly simplistic and fail to appreciate the shades and nuances in between and beyond these distinctions.
Ai Weiwei: There are historical and philosophical perspectives towards the concept of individuals, collectivism, and related issues that may be considered as Eastern or Western, but democracy is universal. It is a set of standards for dealing with governments, power, public involvement, and the things you mentioned –individual freedoms and rights. Core elements and values need to be recognized and agreed upon in order to establish a democracy. In practice, it is natural to have varied textures and details according to local cultures and habits, and each nation’s rhythm of progress along their own political paths and struggles will be different, but the essential universal values have to be honored.
Boualem Sansal: In the long term, all democracies will be the same; standardization is the natural outcome. But Ai Weiwei is right to point out that different countries will take different paths to get there. Today there are in fact several kinds of democracy: one “Western” (with two different models, the Anglo-Saxon and the European) and one “Eastern,” grafted onto a system of restrictive traditional and religious values and structures (Japan, South Korea, India, Israel, Lebanon). Here democracy is taken for granted; there it is a compromise.
Moderator: What I am hearing is that as an Ideal, democracy is universal and has to follow certain principles, such as free elections and civil rights, but the implementation of these universal principles can find very different expressions from one context to another. Is that it?
Leonidas Martin: It’s true there are local differences; for example, in Mediterranean countries like Spain or Italy, the Catholic Church has great political power, something hard to find elsewhere. But these differences are basically anecdotal. On a larger scale, democracy is and acts as One–single and indivisible. Without any cracks. An international community identical to itself. Any change in tendency is applicable to any of its parts. The technocracy, for example— that model of government in which bankers and other “experts” get permission to do anything they deem appropriate—has been implanted recently in Greece and Italy, but it’s a model designed to be applied in any country when the situation calls for it.
Naomi Klein: But there are huge variations in how democracy is practiced and what citizens expect of their democracies even within individual countries, let alone among regions of the world. California, with its system of ballot initiatives that have legislated everything from gay marriage to clean energy, is a world away from the system in most other states, which have far less space for this kind of direct participation. There is also a huge spectrum of imposter democracies, from those rigged elections where the dear leader always wins 99 per cent to, on the other end, democracies where the vote is free but the election promises bear no resemblance to what politicians actually do once they are in office. For democracy to be real, there must be a relationship between what policies a majority votes for and what they get after the vote. This is a simple concept yet it eludes virtually every state in the post-globalization era.
Margaret Atwood: What about the United States—in which corporations have been deemed to be human beings? Is the U.S. really a democracy at the present time? Democracy is supposed to mean “government by the people,” not by kings or aristocracies or corporations.
Chantal Mouffe: Indeed, democracy means ‘rule by the people’ but this rule can take many different forms when inscribed in different cultures and traditions. For instance the Western model has been profoundly influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition and by its articulation with liberalism. This is why there is no reason to present is as the only legitimate model and to pretend that it should be implemented all over the globe.
Shirin Neshat: I don’t think a pure model of Democracy exists anywhere, in the East or West. Unfortunately, corruption is the essence of any government; even the best kinds of people are corrupted by power. Being Iranian, I see problems in the way that our government mixes religion and state, in their idea of democracy and justice as informed by a version of Islamic religion which is, in fact, misinterpreted. But even in America, which is an extreme opposite, there are fundamental problems. Margaret Atwood asked if the U.S. is really a democracy? It’s certainly not the democratic society it tries to be. It’s a question of measures and degrees. Iran is zero, but all governments remain corrupt to a certain degree.
Ariella Azoulay: Instead of dwelling on differences, let me evoke the most ominous common characteristic of all democracies –the existence of a differential body politic of the governed–made up of citizens and all the rest. This is usually not acknowledged as part of the schematic structure of democracy, but no democracy overcomes it. Modern democratic regimes are usually conceptualized as discrete units–nation-states. Their borders and the mutual international treaties in which they are interwoven, sanctifying freedom of movement of capital and goods at the expense of the freedom of movement of inhabitants –are considered external to the form of government. The main issue to tackle regarding democracies as they are practiced in sovereign nation-states today is the existence of governed people who are non-citizens. How do they participate?
LB: The concepts of participation, human rights, individual autonomy and a safety net for the most marginalized to ensure that they are not excluded…these are the principal starting points. The balancing of these ideals is the continuing project of participatory democracy. The moment the concept of democracy is seen as fixed is when democratic project is at risk.
Moderator: I’d still like to hear a few more responses to the first question I asked: do different cultures produce different democracies? Peter?
Peter Nadas: I agree with those who said it is meaningless to talk about Eastern and Western democracies. One might as well talk about full and limited democracies. Democracy has a license but it cannot be bought and sold. Either there are free elections or there aren’t. The separation of power either works or it doesn’t. Either there is quality before the law or there isn’t. Either there is freedom of speech or there isn’t. Either there is freedom of the press or there isn’t. Citizens of the State coexist either in the spirit of cooperation or at each other’s expense. While democracy may have some local colors, it does not have different gradings or measures. Either there is democracy or there isn’t.
Garry Kasparov: Everything is adapted locally to a degree, but there is a reason we define certain things as universal rights, or “inalienable” rights. You can debate the advantages of the parliamentary system versus the presidential one, or be baffled by the electoral college. But if it is a real democracy it provides fair representation to its citizens.
Shirin Ebadi: Democracy is a singular concept—it is not related to the East or the West, and there are numerous elements that describe and define it. Winning an election does not mean democracy. Many dictators rose to power through elections. The ballot box alone is not a parameter for democracy, and governments do not gain legitimacy from merely holding elections. The party that gains power through free elections must observe and comply with the framework of democracy in order to establish a democratic government, and that framework is the principle of human rights. Governments derive their legitimacy from the ballot box and from their observance of human rights combined.
Moderator: Now that we’ve heard from almost everyone, I’d like to ask a more fundamental question: what are the advantages and disadvantages of democracy, and does democracy still make sense as a form of government in the 21st century?
PN: If the genius of democracy has managed to make it through a few thousand years, it will certainly survive the next century. While democracies have their enemies and adversaries, they are always devoured from within. They are complicated, costly, and slow, at the mercy of self-serving interests, corrupt practices and protectionism, and all this is played out in full view of the public. It is the only political system that finds pleasure in undermining its own credibility and that is what makes it credible. Despite its adversaries and enemies, democracy must stick to the rule of law. But it has no neat solutions: it catches pickpockets and lets high-profile thieves with billions off the hook, even as it pays a bundle for crafty lawyers that use the law to kill the spirit of the law and to supplant the common good with personal interest. Society pays for such lapses with rising frustration. The advantages and drawbacks of democracy can only be defined in relation to other forms of governance–the rule of the aristocracy, monarchy and theocracy.
SN: I navigate between two forms of governance: that of democratic America and that of Iran, where there is no democracy. I think that a lot of us take for granted the importance of democracy. I remember being terrified when I was detained in the airport in Iran because I was aware that I had no way of defending myself. There were no questions of justice, no systematic regulations to come to my aid. Later, when I traveled back, I just became desperately grateful for the idea of Democracy.
AWW: A democracy is the least evil among all existing political systems. Under a democratic system, a society’s creativity and justice are manifested in its freedom of expression and judicial independence. Its policies are determined by the public’s participation and political consciousness. The decision-making process minimizes the possible impact of power, riches, and elitism. Power will always betray, and it can never fully represent the people, but at its best, democracy is a form of humanity that allows individuals to live and act collectively, and to understand their personal responsibilities towards a society.
BS: Democracy has many good qualities, as well as all the shortcomings of its good qualities. In pushing the green button of its advantages, one also pushes the red button of its disadvantages. It is the most sophisticated system of government, the most difficult to manage, the most costly. In prolonged crisis situations, it can turn treacherous; it can benefit extremists. Democracy’s future is uncertain. There are many things working against it: the decline of the West, globalization, the population explosion and the spread of poverty, the costs of immediacy, depletion of natural resources, and ever-growing dangers (pollution, climate change, terrorism, organized crime, illegal immigration, pandemics).
AA: Instead of answering what the advantages and disadvantages of democracy are, thus reaffirming and taking for granted the eternal existence of sovereign nation-states where democracy is practiced, we should open the question of the nature and limits of civil partnerships in a global world where the existing border system maintaining democratic regimes is responsible for producing and preserving a steadily growing population of hundreds of millions of refugees and other disenfranchized people. In other words, the common discussion of political regimes tends to focus on the form of government while totally ignoring the form of the body politic and who is being governed.
CM: We could discuss endlessly about the advantages and disadvantages of democracy but the fact is, in the world in which we currently live, there does not exist any alternative form of government with sufficient legitimacy to supplant the democratic one. Where there is disagreement, it is about what should be understood as ‘democracy’ and how it should be institutionalized. Despite efforts by the West to present its model as the only ‘true’ and legitimate understanding of democracy, it is clear that Western liberal democracy is far from achieving any kind of global acceptance as ‘the end of history’.
BS: In fact, to many people, Democracy equals the West equals supremacy of the wealthy. To others, democracy is an illusion, a heresy; the Islamic world rejects it.
GK: The ills of democracy are easy to see and to expose, while its virtues are subtle, long in scope, and open to eternal debate. This makes it all the more important to come to its defense at every opportunity.
Moderator: If the Islamic world rejects democracy, and the political and economic elites of the West also reject it, is that the beginning of some strange, unforeseen alliance? What does this tell us? That democracy is in the throes of a universal crisis?
BS: Perhaps, but it’s not the first time. As Peter Nadas commented, democracy has shown a formidable ability to adapt. It has withstood a great many crises already, such as recessions, wars, and secessions, to name just a few. When crisis persists, democracy is at greatest risk. That’s when it can break down and give rise to monsters like Nazism, Fascism, McCarthyism, Vichyism, Francoism, and so on. Putting democracy on hold in order to get through a time of crisis only puts democracy itself in crisis.
LM: Hegel showed us that when we pursue something, it sometimes turns into its opposite. I believe something like that has happened to democracy. If we take a look at the most recent wars, it’s clear that almost all of them have been carried out in the name of democracy. But in these situations democracy emerges as a kind of contemporary imperialism, a war-like organization in alliance against all those non-democratic countries that, coincidentally, are also the poorest. In the West we want democracy, for us it’s synonymous with freedom, but we’re willing to abolish it as we search for it. It is this kind of logic that we must leave behind.
CJ: But to the elites, it’s democracy itself that has been left behind, because it is quarrelsome, inefficient, and obstructive. The secret of democracy lies in its courage to obstruct. We all have to be that man in Tienanmen Square who blocked the tanks by refusing to move. The great temptation of the political class in the West is to identify not with that man, but with the tanks. The thinking being that the Chinese way is the efficient way. Well, it is efficient. The massacre in Tienanmen Square was the overture to the biggest economic boom in recorded history. Workers have no rights and are ruthlessly exploited. Does that make the Chinese way the right way – even in a world that has growth as its all-dominant imperative?
CW: We must always have the courage to raise our voices and put our bodies on the line in the face of our tragicomic predicament. But democracies must also face the truth about their political existence. It is not just the tanks in Tienanmen Square that call for resistance. “Big business” and “big banks” can be considered tanks or monarchs too.
JK: Julia Kristeva.
Beyond the most stringent democratic, economic, financial, or political theories, my dream is that we can still look back to something like Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, and find in human comedy new languages and radical gestures to help us get beyond the crisis that virtual finance and technology have imposed upon us. Alighieri gave us a language capable of “transcending” the human: “transhumanar”, he called it. If there is renaissance to come, I believe that’s where we’ll have to look to find it.
CM: How do we envisage a multipolar world, with a plurality of democratic models and a variety of economic systems, a world order that would be a pluriverse, not a universe?
LB: When Apollo 8 emerged from the dark side of the moon in 1968 and beamed back an image of our planet as we had never seen it before, that was a transcendent moment for the human race, forever changing the way we see ourselves. Suspended in darkness, our smallness against the vast emptiness of the universe– never had we had a clearer image of our vulnerability, or the reality of our global community. Suddenly seeing ourselves without national, religious, cultural, and political borders—all of us belonging to a single, fragile world—brought home the inescapable truth that the fate of each of us is dependent upon all. And this is the essential rationale for participatory democracy. It symbolizes the need to coexist in the world. The challenge for the democratic project is to achieve this by respecting the equality of all people and protecting fundamental human rights– especially of dignity, respect and freedom.
But there was an irony in that image of our planet as one of unity, tranquility and peacefulness. It came at a time of hardening ideological and political divisions across the world. It was during the Cold War, and at the end of a decade marked by deep social upheaval in many democracies, where feminism and the civil rights movements had begun to fundamentally transform the distribution of power. Around the globe, the decolonization movement continued its process of self-determination for previously colonized people. As previously disenfranchised peoples gained access, influence and participation in their governments and institutions, a democratic project was launched that continues to this day; equality is still the aspiration but remains illusive in substantive form.
As long as we believe in the principle that all people are equal, entitled to dignity and a sense of self-determination, the aspiration for democracy will continue to be not only relevant but critical. And so long as the democratic project aspires to those principles, it will be an on-going project.
GK: Isn’t that what it comes down to? That democracy is the only form of government that can fulfill the desire every human has for respect and dignity. It allows each citizen to say, “I matter. I have a voice.” Every other system eventually comes down to threats and bribery that attempt to suppress this basic desire for individual respect.
MA: There is no entity called Democracy. It is just a term for a certain non-aristocratic form of government.
PN: Non-aristocratic? I have the impression that mass societies have been taken over by the apparatus of a moneyed aristocracy, and the aristocracy has no liking for equality. When there is a demand for hordes of silent slaves, migration gets under way. The aristocracy promotes racism to defend its rule. European civilization should have learned from its own tradition of religious conversion, genocide and human trafficking, but it missed the opportunity and I would be surprised if it made the effort anytime soon.
LM: Democracy is ambiguous. That so-called space of equality in which everyone aspires to have same political capacity, is in truth an oligarchic system of representation. These days, voting means replacing one brand of government by another within a very narrow range. We’re free to choose, but only if we choose what’s on the menu. It’s only when democracy is criticized that its limits are expanded. When I say democracy is ambiguous, I mean in order for it to be real, it needs to be challenged.
BS: There’s no doubt that democracy must be constantly challenged. And not only challenged, but revised, adapted, reinforced. Change will happen largely through the constant influx of new players with specific demands (young people, homosexuals, the handicapped, immigrants, religious followers). Democracy must continually be democratized.
Moderator: What about non-democracies? Can such systems be democratized too, and is there a way to do that without violating the principles of democracy? What I’m asking is, how does democracy get introduced where it doesn’t already exist? Does the history of intervention by democracies in countries and regions where it didn’t exist previously mean that it can be introduced successfully from the outside, or do these attempts only serve to diminish what democracy is? Sherin Ebadi, I think you’ve had some experience on both sides of this question. Would you mind responding first?
SE: Democracy is not a commodity or merchandise that can simply be exported to one or another country. It is not an accident that can happen overnight. Democracy is a historical process that must travel the course of its evolution. Foreign powers cannot export democracy, but they can, through cultural organizations, inform and educate a society and foster the growth of a culture of democracy. Then it’s up to the people themselves to decide on the ways and means of achieving democracy.
PN: Democratic intervention follows a familiar pattern, from the Crusades to all so-called civilizing explorations. Catch the distant barbarians in some doltish act, offer them a better deal, and quietly cart off their raw materials and jewels. In the history of democratic intervention, I find only two exceptions to this rule: the defeat and reorganization of Nazi Germany, and the war in Kosovo. Otherwise, all civilizing expeditions were nothing but disguised attempts at market capture.
LB: I believe there are examples of effective regime changes that have come from within. Forced regime change is unsuccessful and leads to the intractable civil situations, just as democratic institutions hastily built from the ruins of invasion are fragile.
But revolutions that have led to democracies have come from within. Even some of the hardest regimes have given way to the power of the people, people who have brought down walls previously considered indestructible. In many places, there is now flux where there once was only intractability. From the slow crumbling of the “Iron Curtain” to the “Arab Spring” of the past years, we have witnessed how dramatically and tenaciously people can alter the nature and style of governance.
AA: But all democratic regimes since the 18th century have involved the exertion of violence and the exclusion of certain parts of the population from participating in the new political system. In this sense, all democracies were instated from without. The Constitution of the American regime, where blacks and women were constituted as non-citizens, is one example. The Israeli regime, which in 1948 expelled most of the local population from Palestine in order to constitute a democracy for the Jewish inhabitants, is another. The fact that we do not tend to see these regimes as democracies introduced from outside can only be explained by the fact that we tend to identify the ruling group with the “inside”.
NK: Even if we accept the flawed premise that countries are invaded to bring them democracy (which is only ever a cover story), it never works. By its nature, democracy must be a product of democracy, of a democratic upwelling from the majority, from below. Only then will the movements that demanded it have the necessary courage to protect it from those who would, inevitably, attempt to hijack it for their own purposes.
CJ: And when a country invades another country in the name of democracy, you have good reason to question the democratic nature of that State. The American people didn´t invade Iraq. It was the oil-industry using its military wing, otherwise known as the US Army. In Afghanistan there isn´t any oil. That´s why we manage to maintain the illusion that we kill Afghans for altruistic reasons.
Moderator: Excuse me, but if the US Army has become an extension of the oil industry, or if for that matter the military of any country is controlled by corporate interests, don’t we have to ask if democracy can even survive—let alone be established—in a world where economic forces cannot be adequately regulated by national governments? What can governments do in face of such powers, originating from both within and outside their borders?
CW: In a world of national governments dominated by transnational corporations and global oligarchies – interconnected and interdependent—I’m afraid the future of democracies looks pretty grim.
IB: There is no doubt that globalization has introduced new realities to our world, to which democracy will have to adapt. But there are ways to respond, for example by strengthening international institutions in order to face economic powers that are bigger than nations.
LB: I agree. Those forces that are richer, more powerful and more pervasive than countries go beyond borders. Multinational conglomerates, news media organizations and social media can be forces of positive change as well as its enemy. The degree to which they present a threat can be measured by the extent to which they impede participatory democracy. Not all transnational phenomena are a threat to the democratic project, but these phenomena certainly highlight the need to build international mechanisms through institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and through regional groupings such as APEC. For the democratic project, the world economy is both a challenge and an opportunity. A single nation alone can no longer protect its citizens from economic hardship, no matter how robust its institutions. On the other hand, as the recent global financial crisis has shown, when nations act in unison with other nations, this can be a powerful force of dialogue and international institution building–a backdrop for democracy to grow across regions and nations.
BS: But there’s no guarantee of that. Regional institutions can and often do impose limits on freedom, and aggravate segregation, self-interest, and tensions. The European Union takes only the interests of Europeans to heart, isolating them inside an artificial framework, the Arab League has a racist view of political relations, the Organization of the Islamic Conference divides the world into Muslims and non-Muslims, etc. Thus configured, these unions encourage a self-centered and sectarian outlook, an attitude of “us against them,” instead of building cooperation and solidarity. We must strive to build international institutions capable of bringing democracy to everyone, and of putting a human face on globalization. Some measure of federalism is needed. The U.N. is inadequate.
NK: Trade agreements and conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund can radically restrict the democratic space for national governments, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Governments can join together to regulate the banks, as they should have done after the 2008 crash; they can collaborate to close tax havens, imposing sanctions on any country that gets in the way. And they can band together to change the rules of the trade agreements, or opt out entirely.
LM: Wherever there is democracy, States find themselves subordinate to economic powers; they’re the agents, they carry out whatever those powers establish as real. The democratic States have become institutions dedicated to depoliticizing the societies they govern. For them, modernization means advancing alongside the capitalist movement. To oppose this logic means fighting against privatization, and that would imply questioning the unquestionable in a contemporary democratic society. Today, no democratic government appears willing to take on this job, despite the fact that the existing model excludes and kills more and more people.
PN: National governments could bring individual and community interests together if they wanted to, but they don’t. And there is a special reason for this. Over the past 20 years, as anomalies piled high by a market economy ran amok, democracy’s basic control mechanisms were undermined, making our cities highly vulnerable. The breakdown of any part of their infrastructure could bring down the national and the world economy. Mega cities can be financed only by the constant feeding of already staggering debts, while creditors wish to collect by the due date. And collect they do, bolstered by two unyielding conditions. The body politic stops to regulate business, and business is left to regulate itself. Also, money markets must be allowed to operate independently, that is, outside the law. Freely elected governments meet these conditions, even though no one can deny the blame shared by the market economy and democratic governance following the collapse of the money markets. Governments fail to restore democratic control over the capitalist economy or entice money markets back to the rule of law.
Under the pretense of sustainable growth, money markets generate piles of cash without any collateral in the real economy. One third of the cash circulating around the globe is fictional–the result of computer simulation, a figment of the imagination. Today’s mega cities avert a collapse thanks to this uncollateralized fiction. Of course, for this simulacrum creditors want real money, not fiction. National governments are forced to convert these virtual funds into hard cash, that is to say, take what is missing from the most vulnerable part of their population and the most helpless of the Third World. All the while they are fully aware of the inevitable consequences that their well-coordinated domestic and foreign policy maneuvers have on democracy itself.
AA: I believe the question we were asked to address was whether democracy can continue to exist in view of powers acting upon it from within and without. I just wanted to add to Peter’s doubts a doubt of my own: the question assumes democracy is a desirable but threatened form of government. For anyone following the ways in which protest movements are oppressed by democratic regimes, it is obvious that citizens “threaten” democratic regimes precisely because they have had enough of them and are seeking other forms of being-together that upend the demarcations of inside and outside, and of the world as an object of possession purchased in the name of capital and nation. The global protest movements today wish to think of other forms of sharing and partnership in the world.
BS: But we can’t give up on indigenous democratic processes when they emerge. Don’t you think it is still necessary to support people in oppressed countries who have not yet had enough of democracy to fight for their own experience of it?
Moderator: I’m afraid that I can’t allow that question to be answered, for Time is my dictator here, and we have to keep moving on. Listening to your responses to my last question, about political interests being subsesrvient to business interests, I can’t help but wonder if that means more and more people will be abstaining from voting and opting out of the political process altogether. What do you think Chantal?
CM: Well this is already happening, and this is clearly one of the reasons for the sense we have that we are now living in post-democracies. Voting rates are steadily declining in Western societies. The State is seen as impotent before the transnational corporations and the parties appear totally unable to offer any real alternative to the dictates of the market forces.
LB: Most voters already know that ‘big business’ runs their countries, and this no doubt is a factor in declining participation rates.
CJ: And if voters believe that big business runs their country, who can blame them? They are right. When big business rules it doesn´t mean that it controls everything. It simply means that chaos rules. The power of big business is the power to sabotage every attempt to restrict that chaos. It doesn’t have a new world to offer us. It can only destroy the old.
Does that mean that more and more people will abstain from voting? In the United States it will. In Europe it will give rise to increasingly powerful populist movements. So far these have been mostly on the right, but one day they will also be on the left. We will either end up witnessing the burning down of the ethnic ghettoes or the defenestration of the rich from the steel and glass skyscrapers of high finance – unless the political center wakes up and realizes that it must stop obeying the dangerous imperatives of big business.
NK: But young voters are beginning to understand that if they want real democracy, they will have to seize it back from corporate elites. This was the spirit of Occupy Wall Street, as well as new political movements that target fossil fuel companies for their role in the climate crisis and their perversion of the political process. Today’s activists aren’t giving up on democracy but they are increasingly taking the fight directly to those who are corrupting it.
AA: Giving up the rightful vote is not an expression of losing interest in politics but of contesting the validity of a parliamentary political system that has proven – too slowly, unfortunately – to be a cynical exploitation of citizens for the sake of preserving a regime system of which they are not the cause.
LM: When your understanding of democracy is that it’s no more than another way of doing business, you feel cut out. That produces a great malaise. The form this malaise adopts is varied: xenophobia, nationalism, religious fundamentalism. A low electoral turnout as well: “Why should I vote if I’m a nobody here?” But if there’s one thing recent social movements have shown us (Occupy, Indignados, etc.), it’s that it is one thing to be excluded from democracy—as it works in contemporary societies—and another to be excluded from politics altogether. Today democracy can be found in public streets and plazas, more than in institutions.
SN: I actually was in one of those big demonstrations in Egypt, and one thing that I learned from Arab Spring is that the people’s power is quite amazing. I became for the first time a strong believer that change could only come if everyone, absolutely everyone, who believes in what they believe in, gets out. Nothing is more frightening to the authorities than sheer numbers of people. They cannot kill enough, they cannot arrest enough, they cannot censor enough, there’s just nothing they can do. Then it becomes very contagious, that sense of hope is felt, that sense that it doesn’t matter if I’m rich or poor or I’m educated or not or I’m young or old. If I’m just physically present in that community I have power and that’s a very incredible awareness for people to have.
PN: The interests of the electorate and ‘big business’ are one and the same. No surgeon’s scalpel could peel away one from the other. At best, voters pretend to have no truck with ‘big business’. However, it is useful to remember that when you ride the subway, turn on the lights, brush your teeth, switch on your computer, dispose of your selected garbage, watch the news, discuss the future of democracy with friends in a café, eat vegetables, fish or meat and pay with a bank card – you serve ‘big business’ and enjoy its blessings, i.e., you participate in the all but imperceptible circulation of vested interests that you then criticize at will. Governments simply represent people who expect relentless economic growth resulting in ever-increasing wealth and happiness. The people are made up of the electorate. Live better every day of every year without giving a fuck that all the resources needed for growth must be taken by someone from someone else.
BS: For citizens to vote under these conditions is to legitimize the system that is betraying and exploiting them. To abstain is to reject it. It is a kind of civil disobedience, a prelude to revolution, it shows that the people are engaged, that they are working for their own betterment in their own fashion, whether it be Spain’s Indignados, Occupy Wall Street, or the Global Justice movement.
Moderator: But what happens later, after the revolutions? We had the Velvet Revolution and the Eastern European Spring in 1989-91–and now the Arab Spring–but what these experiences teach us is that there is no smooth highway from the overthrow of dictators to democracy and that economic and political stability does not come easily. With xenophobia, racism and intolerance on the rise in the so-called developed, democratic world, what is democracy’s responsibility to the most disadvantaged of its residents? Are they not a borderline and a test for any attempt to reimagine democracy in the 21st century?
LB: The test of how well institutions work in a democracy is indeed how they work for the poor, the culturally distinct, the historically marginalized; it is not enough that they work well for the middle class who are already well off. The role of the marginalized is critical in participatory democracy and in the democratic project. They are the miner’s canary; the litmus test. Whereas those who are comfortable within society can see that nothing is wrong beyond their own experience, those on the margin hold a mirror up to the institutions that might not otherwise be questioned. They are the test for the levels of tolerance, the level of civility and the level of inclusiveness.
LM: Capitalist democracies surround themselves with an increasingly restrictive border. A handful of elites have access to power and the majority are totally barred, while the social group that doesn’t fit into the democratic system at all is getting larger and larger. We don’t know what to do with this surplus. Right now we relegate them to the margins of the system, where life becomes a matter of survival. But their numbers haven’t stopped increasing, and the fence separating us from them is increasingly smaller. They’re the living image of an ailing society, the ones who remind us daily that capitalism and democracy shouldn’t, can’t, go hand in hand. And that it’s urgent to separate the two.
CM: Political parties have the duty to educate the citizenry and to foster solidarity with the less favoured. This should include solidarity with the immigrants who have been brought to contribute to the economic development. But this requires that they put forward policies aiming at reducing the gap between the wealthy and the poor and unfortunately this is far from being the case today.
BS: It’s not just the less favoured, but the general populace, that is increasingly shut out of the democratic game. We have to fight harder than ever to win even the most modest “favor” from democracy. Immigrants and the poor don’t even exist, they are neither represented nor defended. On the contrary, they are blamed for all evils, they are expelled, they are pushed into ghettos devastated by unemployment, delinquency, crime and religious extremism
CJ: The immigrant in particular is the scapegoat of democracies. The more we verbally abuse him or her the more democratic we prove ourselves to be since limitless freedom of expression is supposedly the true symbol of a democracy. Recent or unassimilated immigrants are of special importance to the indigenous poor since they give them someone to look down upon. They are also of special importance to demagogues since they give them someone to target.
Of course the opposite should be the case in an ideal democracy, but an ideal democracy is nowhere to be found. It is in the very nature of democracy that it cannot exist in a pure state. It would then turn into a utopia and utopias are always totalitarian.
Freedom of speech is seen as an essential component of a democracy. This gives us the right to verbally abuse one another. The weak are always the easiest to abuse. “We cannot allow only the abuse of the powerful and forbid the abuse of the weak.” I speak here as a Danish citizen. For ten years in Denmark we heard nothing but the verbal abuse of immigrants, and the only response from the intelligentsia was to insist on the rights of the abusers in the name of freedom of speech.
NK: Right now immigrants and the poor serve mostly as props and foils in democracies, used to try to lure middle class voters to one party or another (and to divert public rage from being directed to the top of the economic ladder, where it belongs). In the U.S., meanwhile, elaborate schemes are contrived to prevent the truly excluded from voting. This is not a true democracy, in the same way that democracy that excluded blacks and women was not a democracy. However, if our democracies were more robust, and mechanisms were in place to truly enfranchise all potential voters, these constituencies could change the face of politics entirely.
AA: But democracy’s responsibility to its citizens is not to produce impoverished people and disadvantaged citizens, making it impossible for citizens to be governed equally with others. Consequently we should speak about the role of citizens – to resist a political regime that is responsible for the existence of non-citizens.
BS: But should the citizen be allowed to decide whether he wants to participate in civic matters, or should he be made to get involved? My opinion is that participation should be obligatory in order to prevent democracy from stagnating and from remaining the prerogative of the privileged.
Moderator: I’m trying to imagine what it would mean for citizens to be made to get involved, particularly if the citizen’s idea of participation in the political process means resisting the protocols of the government that mandates involvement? And what is the role of free speech in this mess? Can we call a State democratic if it has a state religion, and if that religion, according to the State, cannot be criticized? How much media freedom is necessary for democracy to survive?
PN: Let me put it this way. A democrat’s opinion is not the only one that matters, so he must weigh carefully when and why he insults the other.
Moderator: Should I be wondering if you have something more to say?
PN: You are spared for the moment.
LM: Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, weighed in on free speech in the 1st century AD. “It is not deeds that make men tremble, but rather the words about the deeds.” Two thousand years later, democracy still finds itself permanently exposed to a war of definitions, and the battlefield where this war is waged is the media. Whoever makes the best case for the meaning of something will be declared the victor; that’s why the problems of democracy are related to problems of representation.
CW: Let me continue the Greek theme by mentioning the word parrhesia. It implies not only freedom of speech, but the obligation to speak the truth, no matter how unpopular. Plain, frank, fearless, unintimidated speech–that is parrhesia. It is a benchmark of any democracy.
Moderator: If I’m not mistaken, the most profound critic of democracy – Plato himself –spoke of parrhesia in the Republic; and didn’t his mentor Socrates not only exemplify parrhesia, but pay the ultimate price for practicing it? Didn’t parrhesia lead to Socrates death?
GK: You see! Democracy is not a dusty old Greek theory, it is a practice.
The ancient Greeks knew that free expression was vital to their democracy, and that the entire system is destroyed when expression is curtailed. Today, the media is the amplified voice of the people. When media freedom is infringed, it means the freedom of expression is infringed. When the government tries to expand or preserve its authority by taking an active role in deciding what is and is not acceptable speech, this inevitably leads to more abuses.
IB: Media is the oxygen of Democracy.
LB: But a dysfunctional media is a poisonous enemy of a fair and free democracy.
MA: Media at its worst is yellow journalism, phone hacking, libel, and stupid hoaxes involving the Royal Family and resulting in the suicide of nurses.
CM: The problem of the media is currently a very important one because almost everywhere it is controlled by big corporations with enormous economic power. To speak of the freedom of the press in those conditions is a total hypocrisy because the conditions do not exist for a real pluralism of opinions. To accept that a single group could control several newspapers and TV channels, as is the case in many countries, is totally unacceptable in a democratic society. It is therefore urgent that new legislation is established to impede such a concentration of power in the domain of the media. This in my view is one of the crucial areas where a real struggle for democratization should be launched. Some steps that are being taken in South American countries like Argentina offer an important example of the measures which need to be taken in that direction.
BS: The media system is pretty rotten the world over. And freedom of expression is losing ground everywhere. In democratic countries, it is the tyranny of the “politically correct”, of “group-think”, of conformity, that has taken over. Public debate shuts down, taboos multiply. Islam becomes untouchable, and the slightest critique unleashes worldwide fury, sparked by the self-proclaimed guardians of Islam (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan). The fear of being accused of Islamophobia, of racism, of anti-Semitism, of homophobia, leads to paralysis. The “cautionary principle” turns into “fear of expression”. Democracy has let itself be colonized by the ideas of tyranny and regression; it must be freed and cleansed of such thoughts.
LM: The idea that any person can have his or her say and by that means produce a true political effect within an institution, represents in this day and age an intolerable “excess of democracy.” That’s why we must demand a democracy that is beyond institutions, a direct democracy without intermediaries.
SN: Western artists like to see how far they can push free speech, for example by insulting religion, and they usually get away with it. But in Iran you can’t even imagine expressing yourself without self-censoring. You start by assuming the absence of freedom of expression, and as a consequence, you learn to be very poetic, symbolic, and metaphoric in terms of how you express yourself. My language and my aesthetic is automatically coded so that the government cannot detect any sharp knives beneath the surface. Operating without freedom of expression has actually made artists more inventive.
On the other hand, the role played by the American media is almost opposite. They keep the public ignorant and misinformed. In America it’s all about marketing, money and brainwashing people. That the media is so vividly shallow is one of the most unfortunate parts of American culture; in Europe the media is much more intelligent. The importance of the media in shaping American identity—and Americans’ dependence on it is frightening. Sorry to say, but a lot of stupid people are becoming even more stupid because of it. In contrast, everyone who is Iranian knows that the media is completely controlled and one-sided and that it’s all a lie. You could have a revolution on the streets and they’d be giving cooking lessons on TV, because they want to deny what’s happening, or perhaps they would just have a lot of religious programs to brainwash young people. But the majority of people who are even slightly educated don’t even watch it.
CJ: Sometimes I think we need freedom not of but from the mass media, alternative channels of communication that are neither in thrall to political powers nor to advertisers. Public service channels could play an important role here, but they, too, increasingly function as commercial channels. Sometimes we just need to talk to each other.
Moderator: The way we are now. Can we continue for a while longer? Shirin brought up the issue of religion in relation to television. What about the issue of free-speech as it relates to religion in the 21st century? You must have some thoughts about that Carsen.
CJ: Democracy would never have come into existence if it hadn´t been for the criticism of religion. The frontal attack on the Church and its “God-given” authority during the Enlightenment signalled the birth of democracy. Today, every authority must still subject itself to criticism and if it cannot stand up to the test of rational argument there is no reason to accept it. If religion cannot be criticized the State is not democratic. Whether religious communities of poor, marginalized immigrants must continuously be mocked, scorned and ridiculed for their faith is another matter. Mocking them is not against democratic principles, but defending them against the abuse isn´t either.
JK: We can ask ourselves “What democracy, if ‘God is dead’”? “God is dead” means that something occurred in Europe — and nowhere else — which “cut the cords of tradition” (to paraphrase de Tocqueville and Hannah Arendt). It was a singular event that was able to take place because the way had been paved by Greco- Judeo- Christian tradition: a tradition which, owing to and in spite of its dogmatisms and murderous wars, had begun a lengthy process of reflection and problem-solving, which was inherited by secularization, and then radicalized. But “God is dead” also means that some people use faith in order to turn religion into a tool, if not a political weapon, for that is how the fundamentalism and extremism of today have come about — but Hannah Arendt had already established that those who use God for their own political ends are just as nihilistic, if not even more so, as those who declare themselves nihilists…
Religious conflict is the question of the 21st century. And we cannot answer it without continually restructuring that other arena that has split itself off from the religious continent, i.e., the arena of secularization, or humanism. It clearly germinated in Europe after the Renaissance and in the 18th Century, with Erasmus, Diderot, Voltaire. Rousseau, Goethe and many other rebels, right up to Freud and his successors, who inspire my thinking.
I understand humanism in the sense of Nietzsche wanting to develop a “transvaluation of values” by placing “a great question mark at the gravest point.” It is a huge, exorbitant and long-term task. It means, in fact, taking a serious look at the crisis gripping the world today, which is not simply an economic, political or social one. It is an existential crisis confronting us with the most pressing questions of all: What is a man? What is a woman?
The crisis of democracy appears to be a crisis of civilization, and it profoundly affects the very structure of the talking being that is us: the close affinity of Homo Sapiens with his apparent double, Homo Religiosus.
Moderator: Are you saying that humanism and faith in Man is just the other side of the coin that represents God? So do you believe than one needs faith in Democracy to live in a democracy?
NK: I was recently invited by Pope Benedict XVI to an interdenominational peace conference in Assisi, in October 2011. As a humanist leading a delegation of nonbelievers for the first time in the long history of religions, I devised ten tenets of humanism of which I will read just the last one here:
“Man does not make history; we are history. For the first time, Homo Sapiens is capable of destroying the earth and himself in the name of his beliefs, his religions or ideologies. For the first time, too, men and women are now capable of reevaluating in total transparency the fundamentally religious nature of the human being.
The diversity of beliefs at the Assisi Peace Conference proves that the hypothesis of destruction is not the only possible option. No one knows what kind of humans will come after us — we who are engaged in this unprecedented anthropological and cosmic transvaluation. Neither providential dogma nor intellectual game, the reestablishment of humanism is a gamble.
N: What can be grasped by the mind should not be approached with faith. While a democrat may be a believer or an atheist, belief in democracy risks its very survival. The concept of democracy has no relevance for theology. Inversely, faith has no place in democratic politics. Hysterical believers search for the roots of their faith in democratic politics when democracy finds itself on the ropes again thanks to its inherent weaknesses, when theocracy beckons as an alternative. When it rains it pours, however. Righteous democrats tout democracy as omnipotent and all-redeeming and raise it to the highest pedestal, making it all the more vulnerable. This is when political pundits spout their ideas on how the citizens became disillusioned and turned their back on democracy. Where on earth could they have turned? They are simply busy turning their coats. If democracy won’t do it, let’s bring in a tyrant. While we’re busy trafficking arms, turning a profit, amd raping the land, the seas and the oceans, let’s invite a real dictator, a Sun King, the sleazy moneyed aristocracy, somebody that, with some arm-twisting, will solve all the financial, social and ecological anomalies we created ourselves. Let him bring about radical change in business, marine biology and meteorology leaving everything as it is, and boost our annual profits to boot.
SN: Look at the people who are ruling our countries today. Look at Iran, Syria, Israel, Italy, China, Russia; it is horrifying to see who is controlling our destinies. Some of the cruelest, the most violent, the most evil people on this planet are making decisions for generations of innocent people. There is no hope of talking them into democracy, into justice. There’s not enough discussion of how we got to this point – is it that power encourages this kind of demonic behavior in people? Or are they born like that? How do we encourage and cultivate this cruel, violent, unjust kind of leadership? Do these people perhaps believe that what they are doing is positive? What should we do about it?
Moderator: There are other forces just as powerful as the people you speak of that have enormous consequences on our political destinies, but they are not always as easy to name. For example, an overwhelming amount of information is now managed through the skillsets of marketing. Increasingly, people’s values and views are formed not by ideological or religious leaders, but by marketing programs and apparatus. Is there a dimension of politics that is now indistinguishable from entertainment or interest group propaganda? And can the availability of new technologies counter-act the cultural homogenization process? Do the internet and social media offer any substantially new forms of political resistance or democratic participation?
AWW: The development of new technologies and the Internet is like the arrival of angels to fight against evil. Though China is still an authoritarian society, micro-blogging sites such as Sina Weibo are allowing basic exchanges of information and discussions. Popular access to such social media is slowly opening narrow gaps and spaces to push the idea of democracy, even when strict censorship remains in place. There is still no space in the Chinese society for the real practice of democracy or media freedom; no one has ever seen an election ballot, and no one has ever been asked for his or her political opinion. However, internet technology is offering a glimmer of hope in accelerating towards an early form of democracy. Maybe the real fight has just begun.
SN: The Arab Spring and the Green Movement were Facebook revolutions. Had it not been for the latest developments in networking and passing information instantaneously, not so many people would have been mobilized and informed. The creation of this virtual Facebook community is an undeniably positive thing. I was suddenly having conversations with ten thousand people in Iran who previously felt that I was inaccessible, and from whom I too felt cut-off, because I don’t travel to Iran. Suddenly it didn’t matter where you lived, how old you were, if you were rich or poor, even what your religion was; the point was that we all wanted change and democracy. An urgency was also created by the way that what happened was captured and immediately transmitted by cell phones. In Egypt great organisations were uploading film of events on a daily basis and even projecting it in smaller cities for people without internet.
CJ: When it comes to the internet, the medium is not necessarily the message. The fact that the net is available to everybody does not automatically make it democratic. The net is just a tool and as tool it can be used by everybody, the fundamentalists as well as the libertarians, the puritans as well as the pornographers. We told ourselves that the Arab spring was a twitter revolution, but now we know that the mosque was stronger than the net. The Arab world is experimenting with new forms of democracy. They most definitely will be imperfect – as democracy always is – and we might not like them.
AA: Democracy has not recently become a form of national entertainment or interest group propaganda – it always was like that! But to answer your other question, many experiments in participatory frameworks are taking place at the moment; most of them are carried out on a small, local scale. The greater challenge lies in the fact that new technologies enable people to speak “civilese” with others, share experience, information, images, possibilities, demands, and extricate political discourse from the hands of a few politicians on the one hand, and a few of intellectuals or academic scholars on the other. Speaking “civilese” means being constantly and permanently exposed to voices, demands and ideas of people who do not see the world through its accepted representations and by their mere existence in the same shared space compel one to stop imagining the world without them and to invent new universal and particular forms that facilitate and protect each other.
NK: I think we are actually becoming more immune to marketing messages, precisely because we are so over-saturated. Americans re-elected Barrack Obama despite being faced with a barrage of billionaire-funded attack ads. At the same time, the tools of media-making have become so democratized that home-made viral campaigns can have just as much impact as corporate-produced professional marketing. And the slick NGOs that treat politics like advertising are being shunted aside by genuinely grassroots movements like the Arab Spring, los Indignados of Spain, the Occupy Wall Street protests, and the indigenous uprising Idle No More. These movements use the tools of social media to their full potential, and produce beautiful imagery to communicate their messages. But they are anything but empty marketing shells. The internet and social media have certainly created a multitude of new spaces for participation in democratic debate, as well as new forms of organizing. But when it comes to making democratic decisions together, the promise of digital democracy has proved a disappointment. If anything, we are moving in the other direction: a new generation of political actors, who are part of new movements from Cairo to Quebec, are craving a far more physical, tangible form of democracy than they get at the ballot boxes, let alone on their computer screens. We are seeing a resurgence of popular assemblies, of participatory democracy, as well as movements for workplace democracy. Face-to-face deliberation and debate are the wave of the future, not more clicktivism.
BS: Maybe you have put your finger on the biggest problem–the difficulty of reconciling democracy and globalization, which are in fact two opposing and antagonistic paradigms. Democracy puts into play human relations, which evolve slowly and randomly; whereas globalization connects information networks, markets, and corporations, in which man is a variable quantity. This disconnect gives rise to a new player, an intermediary between humans and the marketplace, whose democratic role is not that clear: that is, the expert to whom the media, governments, political parties and citizens are constantly turning in order to make sense of the world. It is this disconnect that will be responsible for creating the world government of tomorrow, an invisible oligarchy of experts and technocrats.
GK: Really? I would think with the new technology available, we should be moving more toward direct individual participation, reducing the importance of the political middleman. Proxies may be necessary evils for efficiency’s sake, but giving full control to people who so often fail to represent the interests of their constituents is no longer necessary in the internet age. Instantaneous representation is already here but it’s limited to Facebook likes and online petitions, which squanders its potential power.
CM: The internet may make possible new ways and forms of democratic participation but it is a dangerous illusion to believe that it could create the conditions of a new type of direct participatory democracy that could replace the representative model. Instead of helping people to become aware of other views and of engaging in productive exchange with people with different conceptions, the internet is often used by people as a way to reinforce their current beliefs. Unlike the traditional media through which people were necessarily exposed to a diversity of points of view, the internet allows people to avoid this kind of confrontation. This is not conducive to the development of a democratic public sphere which requires a debate between a diversity of alternatives. To be sure, the possibilities of the internet are multiple and one can visualize uses that would enhance democratic participation. But to design such uses it is necessary to first envisage politics in a way that recognizes the existence of conflict and the necessity of providing channels for the expression of dissensus. To take such a position implies relinquishing the idea that the aim of direct democracy is the creation of an inclusive consensus and acknowledging that representative institutions constitute an important dimension of a democratic regime. Such institutions play an important role in the institutionalization of divergent positions; if they are no longer able to adequately fulfill this role, it is because of the widespread belief that there is no alternative to the current model of globalization.
CW: The commodification, commercialization, and marketization of the world – our governments, cultures, even relationships – means everything and everybody is up for sale.
CM: Including elections. They are now just a show where politicians have been reduced to entertainers whose capacities for appearing attractive in the media are much more important than the ideas they articulate. Moreover the crucial role played by money has made them dependent on lobbies that try to impose the priorities of interest groups against the search for the public interest. The public sphere has become privatized and it has ceased to provide an arena where the citizens are able to take part in a vibrant debate about the policies that should be implemented by the government. The increasing rejection of the whole political class by the citizens of advanced democratic societies reflects the public’s lack of confidence in the capacities of elected politicians to act in an independent way.
LB: On the other hand these same developments have made people more interested in finding alternative ways to communicate and engage with ideas. However I need to put a qualification on this use of social media; we have to insure that the anonymity that festers hate, misogyny and a poisonous lack of civility does minimal damage to the potential benefits that new media offers to participatory democracy.
CJ: Even though I don´t approve of internet- activists hiding behind the mask of anonymity, I do increasingly understand it. They are not always on the right side of the law but they are always on the right side of democracy and these two things (being on the wrong side of the law and on the right side of democracy) are not always incompatible– especially in times of turbulence and crisis such as these. We don´t want to live in a society given over to anarchy but sometimes we need that anarchic impulse to change the world for the better.
Moderator: That’s a perfect segue to my last question: I would like to ask what role, if any, protest plays in bringing about change, and what place civil disobedience has in functioning democracies? With police presence intensifying and the cybertracking of the populace in 21st century democracies expanding, how can people productively and conscientiously object to the ever increasing intrusions and controls being imposed upon them?
GK: The challenge is not so much about invasion of privacy by democratic governments. That will routinely increase as technology makes it easier because it is the nature of every institution to collect as much information as it can, for better and for worse. The more important thing is “who watches the watchers?” If people know what is being collected, and by whom, and for what reason, an informed populace can have informed responses and challenge the administration. The danger is when public and private agencies are allowed to keep everyone in the dark, because then the information is almost inevitably used for darker purposes than originally intended.
AWW: On the other hand, with social media platforms such as Twitter, individuals and groups have more possibilities than ever to organize themselves and exercise their rights. Broad participation and involvement will strengthen the power of individuals and provide unprecedented opportunities to voice opinions against the system.
PN: In the past few months I’ve been constantly thinking that I should exercise my right to civil disobedience. A few weeks ago I went as far as my bookshelf to look up what Thoreau had to say on the subject, before deciding that I would fail if I followed his advice today; the state apparatus would roll over me without effort. Yet I cannot give myself better advice than the classic forms of resistance used by the free citizens of antiquity who held discussions in the evening, formed grass-root organizations, and organized people’s assemblies and mass rallies.
Moderator: In Classical Greece, Athenians of the ‘right class’ were free to say almost anything.
NK: Unlike now, when the use of painful crowd control tactics like tasers, pepper spray and water cannons are being used to terrorize a promising new generation of activists who represent our best hope of building better democracies in the future. Infiltration and violent police repression of peaceful social movements is one of the most serious threats we face to the promise of democracy.
MA: Don’t you think another threat to democracy is climate change? It doesn’t take long after the lights go out before the food hoarding and the mob rule start.
CJ: Can anyone explain why there are no mass movements of young people protesting against the reckless irresponsibility of older generations that have not only contributed to global warming but continued to ignore it despite the mounting evidence that it is the biggest problem ever faced by humankind? It is the future of the young – our children, and their children, that is at stake. So why does nobody yell “STOP,” in a voice so loud it cannot be ignored? Where are the clenched fists? Where is the indignation, the rage, against this threat to civilisation? Why is no one attacking the command centers of this ongoing destruction?
SN: Protest only works at a certain stage in the development of events – it’s not always a relevant step of opposition. People think that the Arab Spring and the Green movement have finished because of the lack of protest, but opposition doesn’t happen only in the form of physical demonstrations; a lot can be done off the streets. In Egypt, people are saying, “enough of going to Tahrir Square, let’s develop organisations that have really strong, long-term infrastructure, that are not just reactive.”
CM: In my view, the possibility of expressing dissensus through legitimate institutions is the central condition for a good functioning of democracy, otherwise protests will take violent forms.
GK: In Russia, which is far from a functioning democracy, mass protest is the only nonviolent recourse. I sympathize with the concept of protest by violating unjust laws; this is method of opposition I have championed in Russia since 2005.
SN: In Iran, protest doesn’t work today because the government has sabotaged the movement by really going after protestors. They arrested, they tortured, they raped, they killed, they committed every atrocity to stop people from even thinking about demonstrating. And now when we ask people if there is anything going on underground, they say, “of course there is; it’s all very hidden, but the genie is out of the bottle.”
AA: The great challenge that protest faces today is how to survive long enough for its various expressions and formations to be institutionalized as the language of the shared world out of which a new regime might be conceptualized.
LB: The ideal of democracy is like the ideal of love. We all have our idealized views of it and it inevitably falls short.
Moderator: Wow. That seems an appropriate statement with which to temporarily end this forever open-ended discussion about the phantom of democracy which is, as Julia Kristeva pointed out, a gamble that involves many possibilities and yet unrecognized potentialities, confronted as we are with some really frightening people who are now ruling our destinies, as Shirin Neshat reminded us; and confronted too by other forces which could even be more threatening to our destinies, like climate change. Is it possible that the more real democracy is, the more inclined people will be to act as wise planetary stewards? Does the human genome still have some reserves left to make that spiritual leap, to move another inch away from bestiality? Or has the human adventure already been depleted of all of its intellectual and spiritual potential? Is the solution, as Chantal Mouffe proposes, to leave behind our obsession with the universal and embrace the multipolar world of pluriverse, which means embracing the forever unknown and yet-to-be discovered secret of who we are and where are we going? Or is it too late for that? Is democracy on the way to becoming its opposite, as Leonidas Martin warned us, referring to Hegel? Or is democracay an eternally deferred possibility, as Derrida would have us believe—something always and inherently to come?
At this point in the conversation, it seems pretty clear that democracy as an answer is certainly troubled; but democracy as a question is compelling. Let’s take a break.