This essay was originally published on February 15 2019.
Imagine: a world wide network of democrats comparing their experiences, debating about the nature of the new authoritarian threat and the character of the new authoritarian leaders. They would examine how the new authoritarianism is changing their lives. They would critically consider and analyze the conditions for and the obstacles to a democratic life. They would explore, propose, and debate ways of overcoming the obstacles. They would create a global committee of correspondence, sharing their notes with each other, and with a interested global public. They would talk to each other in their own languages, and through translation, overcome linguistic barriers, so that they could learn from each other. They would create globally informed democratic responses to the problems of their specific place and time, and to the more global anti-democratic threats.
Such a grand imagination informs the making of Democracy Seminar 2.0, the revival of an initially clandestine New School seminar of the 1980s and early 1990s that provided a place for Eastern European dissidents to reimagine their world. As was the case in the earlier seminar, we are now following a strategy that harnesses the power of what I have called “the politics of small things.” We understand that if we meet each other, as equals, in our differences, but with shared commitments, speaking and acting in each others’ presence and developing ties of trust and understanding, we can develop the capacity to act together. And if we show our work to a larger public, we may be able to make a difference in the United States, Poland and Hungary (the locations of the original Democracy Seminar), as well as in Israel/Palestine, Turkey, Brazil, Russia, Romania, Nigeria, South Africa (the places we now are hoping to reach), and beyond.
Adam Michnik, Jeffrey C. Isaac, Elzbieta Matynia, and I are planning the revival of the original seminar Michnik first proposed in 1985. I announced our intentions in Democracy Seminar, Then and Now: An invitation, in May 2018. We have since been working to turn this plan into a reality, thinking both about our focus on a set of common problems and possibilities, and the means to facilitate our work together. I invite you to take part as possible contributors, readers, and institutional and financial supporters. I am glad to report that we have made progress since then, though there is still much to be done.
Today’s challenges are quite different from those of the 1980s. The issues are global, not divided by the geo-politics of the Cold War. There is a spectrum of existing democracies, and today’s task is broad and shared: sustaining and deepening existing democracy and democratic oppositions, rather than specifically focusing on how to transition from an authoritarian communism to democracy. In the original Democracy Seminar, New School colleagues based in the United States appreciated the struggle against the repression of the Soviet Bloc, but were also critical of the limitations of existing democracies in the so-called “free world.” Today, in a post-Cold War world, with different problems of connection and interconnection, Democracy Seminar 2.0 will focus on a related, but different, set of discussions that will create an intellectual context for activists and thinkers who support democracy against global threats of authoritarianism and its sources in economic injustice and resentment. As Adam Michnik, the former Polish dissident and co-founder of the original Democracy Seminar, writes in “From Velvet Revolution to Velvet Dictatorship,” the paradox is that in the past our project was to imagine and enact a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy, while now the project is to face the fact that things appear to be moving in the opposite direction.
The definitive feature of the seminar was, and will be, intellectual and political openness. As in the past, we are a group of scholars, intellectuals, and activists with a diversity of perspectives and experiences of the democratic left, right and center coming together to address the pressing issues of our times. These include academic freedom, freedom of the press, and freedom of political expression; economic inequality; the problems of migration and xenophobia, racism and sexism; economic and media globalization; and the distinctive types of authoritarianism.
This is a steep challenge, but just as the issues have changed, so have our modes and technologies of connection. The 1980s had no Internet, and correspondence was by “snail mail.” In order to avoid repression, in fact, correspondence most often took the form of personal carriers smuggling notes through dangerous border crossings. Today’s communicative order, and in particular the power of Public Seminar’s various media capacities, will facilitate world wide interaction on a far larger scale and at a much more rapid pace.
Democracy Seminar 2.0 can, like its precursor, play a vital role in thinking through and responding to pressing questions raised by the current political moment. Are there legitimate democratic alternatives to western liberal democracy? If so, what are they, and how are they legitimized? Are some alternative “democratic models” actually tyrannies in democratic clothing? If so, how does this operate? How do we evaluate such notions as illiberal democracy, managed democracy and guided democracy, or for that matter, social and socialist democracy, and popular, people’s and participatory democracy?
The seminar will be instituted one step at a time. The first step will involve participants reporting on their experiences of the recent past and the present moment to evaluate the condition of democracy in a select group of countries. This will be followed by the development of an active exchange of reports and analyses assessing the dangers facing democratic practice worldwide, as well assessing ways these dangers can be, and are being, addressed.
The original Democracy Seminar was an organizationally and technologically simple affair. We held local meetings and circulated summaries of our deliberations and, later, held annual meetings in Central Europe. (Contributions to these meetings were published in Prague in a 1995 collection, Grappling with Democracy.) Now, we plan to take advantage of the power of digital media to facilitate a renewed discussion.
Planned activities include:
- Publishing “correspondent” reports and analyses as individual posts on Public Seminar.
- Convening a series of seminars in each participating country.
- Hosting bi-monthly online conferences among the conveners of the local seminars on Public Seminar.
- Organizing annual conferences around central themes, to be held at The New School, and in participating countries.
- Deploying the full power of Public Seminar’s multimedia outlets, including Public Seminar books, pamphlets and podcasts.
- Instituting a scholar exchange among participants.
- Offering online courses that extend the work of the seminars, including jointly taught courses, coming out of two or more of the seminars.
Democracy Seminar 2.0 will draw on the knowledge and longstanding intellectual mission of the New School for Social Research, beginning with its founding in 1919, its University in Exile of 1933, and with its Democracy Seminar of the 1980s and 1990s. As in The New School’s past, Democracy Seminar 2.0 will serve a general scholarly and public purpose, and also seek to inform public policy and political strategies. The complex politics of our times will be closely and comparatively examined, as will alternative perspectives on these complexities. Participants will work to inform sober, but also hopeful, initiatives in the broader public sphere. Our hope is that Democracy Seminar 2.0 will create a dynamic network of discussion around the challenges of democracy. We will facilitate and curate this discussion in innovative ways on Public Seminar’s global platform. I will provide updates as the project develops.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.