It has been an eventful summer. As my dear friend and colleague Robin Wagner-Pacifici would put it, a restless eventful summer:
“The world seems out of whack, and everyday routines are, at the least, disrupted. People … experience a vertiginous sensation that a new reality or era may be in the making, but it is one that does not yet have a clear shape and trajectory, or determined consequences.”
Such were the circumstances in which Robin and our colleagues, Shireen Hassim and Elzbieta Matynia taught in Wroclaw in The New School’s Democracy and Diversity Institute this summer.
Is the “new reality or era” the end of liberal democracy, or are we experiencing the last surge of authoritarian reaction before the providential democratic movement advances (as Tocqueville would put it)? Or, again leaning on Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who most profoundly understood the potentials and perils of the democratic age, is it an era of democratic dialectics, with the promise of democracy continuously challenged, and sometimes overturned by its underside, and with democracy challenging authoritarianism, a continuing series of events with confrontations between democracy and authoritarianism? I suppose it is some version of the latter. After 1989, I thought democracy had the upper hand: now I have my doubts.
The discussions in my class did not provide a clear answer to these questions, but, rather, considered how to think about the terrain of the authoritarian challenges to democracy. Together, we focused on mediated public life and the particular political, economic and cultural challenges of the present day: the end of the purported “end of history,” the challenges of so called “neo-liberalism,” and “the clash of civilizations.”
I believe that the outcome of the current struggles for and against democracy is not a matter of physics, the functioning of social structures and processes. Instead, it is a question of politics, ideally worked out in a contentious public domain. The alternative is war.
There is not a providential force of democracy. Furthermore, it has become evident that the beautiful image of Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” an ideal frequently invoked by Barack Obama, is far from certain. Racism can be overcome, but it can also rise again, as the American South once did and as is happening again in Donald Trump’s America. History has not ended. As we discussed in class, the course of history will be politically determined and uncertain. The outcome of our eventful times should be decided in public, and the public is mediated. The changing structure of the mediated public is having consequences, manifested in the persona and performances of the new authoritarians and the bifurcation of the sphere of publics.
We discussed cultural specifics related to this: the purported clash of civilizations; the commonalities and differences between 20th century totalitarianism,; Arendt’s modern barbarism with its basis in scientistic ideology and terror; and 21st century postmodern barbarism, with its basis in religionism and terror.
The barbarism is very real, and it is used to justify the new authoritarianism. Just as Fascism and Nazism claimed to be the most radical opponent of Communism, and Communism claimed to be the most radical opponent of Fascism and Nazism, as Francois Furet analyzed, the new authoritarians and the new barbarians mirror each other, and come to be similar to each other: the radical terrorists and anti-terrorists. I have noted that already in Public Seminar in the case of Israel-Palestine.
Around this issue, there was some controversy in our seminar. In one of the readings, “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Wood maintains that what I was calling in our class postmodern barbarism, has its basis in the religion of Islam. “The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths,” Wood writes. “It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”
I assigned the piece because it illustrated the way religion now is being used to empower barbarism, as science was used to empower the barbarism of the 20th century. We had a passionate discussion about this provocative article. Some students were very critical: they believed it vilified a world religion by suggesting that Islam causes terrorism. I think we agreed that no matter how we judged Wood’s essay that the two sides of our discussion illustrated one of the primary problems of our times. For me this means appreciating the importance of the gray zone, something which Islamic State wants to eliminate, as Murtaza Hussain has reported and I, following the insights of my teacher in this regard, Adam Michnik, think is necessary to a democratic politics.
While I presented my skepticism about the term “neo-liberalism,” we explored how market fundamentalism opens the way for the new authoritarians, and is often their project. There are democratic ways for addressing complicated global economic developments, but in the hands of Donald Trump and his peers the problems are oversimplified, becoming a vehicle for simple nationalist and populist rhetoric. These new authoritarians are often both the agents and benefactors of global capitalism and the demagogic opponents of globalization. “America First” is a cover for Trump enterprises.
We observed this together in Wroclaw, noting that around the world that there are similarities among the new authoritarian leaders. We also agreed that they do have differences: the extreme brutality of Duterte, Erdoğan’s combination of Islamism and nationalism and Kaczynski’s blend of fundamentalist Catholicism and Nationalism, Orban’s illiberalism, Putin’s superpower nostalgia, and Trump’s narcissism. They share xenophobia, populism and anti-intellectualism. They together have been understood as neo-fascists, populism, and illiberal democrats. Each term suggests a diagnosis, but aside from the specifics of that diagnosis, and the specifics of the challenges presented by their new regimes, they all function within a bifurcated sphere of publics, with problematic relationships between truth and politics, the focus of the discussions in my seminar.
Summer is over. Our meetings in Wroclaw have ended, and I am putting them to a definitive end with this post, considering what to do next and how to pursue our project. With some time to think about our discussions, I am returning to my book Civility and Subversion: The Intellectual in Democratic Societies. While writing the posts on our deliberations here at Public Seminar, I realized that I need to revisit my project to start thinking about how I should proceed. In my next post, I will offer some preliminary notes updating that book’s argument, based on observations developed in the years following the great events of 1989, to our present circumstance, that address the role of the democratic intellectual in bifurcated sphere of publics. I am thinking that there may be a book project in this. It would be an ambitious project, trying to make sense of current events, in Wagner – Pacifici’s sense, as they are happening.
More soon, I promise.