Editor ’s note: This post has been adapted from an essay that appeared in the book “Der Wert Der Freiheit — The Value of Freedom” that accompanied the International Exhibition at the Belvedere Museum in Vienna under the same title (German, English). Verlag fur Moderne Kunst, Vienna, 2018

“Democracies are not going to defend themselves. It is we the citizens who have to defend them. I believe it is not too late.” — Adam Michnik, New School Centennial Lecture, October 2019

How can we resist the retreat from our beleaguered democracies and hold onto the embattled freedom we still have?

I am talking about a kind of freedom that Hannah Arendt would call revolutionary, one that implies freedom of dissent, opens doors to new beginnings, and affords opportunities that people had only dreamt of. But then it is up to us to enact it. Such freedom — manifested by the presence of speaking actors and not merely by the absence of oppression, so that we are able to create, sculpt, and master ourselves — becomes embodied as active freedom. A key attribute of active freedom is its openness to speech acts, as they help to build the sense of a polity in which people and their different voices matter in both making and maintaining it.

Freedom as such is not easily tangible. It is like the crisp air that allows us to breath, but only when it becomes alive and embodied can it appear in public. For freedom to become truly performative, not only speech but also a public space is needed. Arendt calls it a “space of appearance,” which I shall refer to as the public square, a site where freedom is more solid and visible. Indeed, the relationships between active freedom and the public square are reciprocal, since without freedom, the public sphere shrinks and eventually vanishes. And “without a politically guaranteed public realm,” freedom does not have a space in which to appear. The conditions for freedom’s performativity are only present when the long unused, action-oriented word comes out from hiding into the private realm, squeezing itself out through the cracks into the open. And at that very moment when it is first heard, it instigates the emergence of an undeniably public realm.

During the so-called Solidarity period in Poland, a laboratory of active freedom operational for sixteen months between 1980 and 1981, a robust connection emerged between active freedom and the performative dimension of democracy. The workers’ strike in the Gdansk shipyards brought to a standstill the industrial enterprises in the country and forced the government to travel to Gdansk for talks. As a result of dramatic negotiations, a peculiar trade union independent of the Communist authorities was established. It was called Solidarity, and it became a massive social movement that mastered the skills of self-governance within a one-party state.

At the core of performative democracy is the constitution of a free public space, initially embryonic, and its gradual cultivation and expansion. This is where one can listen to others speak and enter into deliberation. Such space was furnished for gatherings within the newly established Solidarity Trade Union, in the production halls of factories, and in universities, churches, and state enterprises. In the early months of Solidarity, those were the first public squares in which people could come together and talk. It was there that an anonymous, impersonal, and “institutional” way of speaking was replaced by concrete, individual, distinctive voices. Empowered by the sense of being free to organize themselves, people explored and developed the principles and practices of democratic governance, and then enacted them.

For purposes of this discussion, solidarity means sharing in active freedom. The upshot of a dialogue in the square, the word “solidarity” conveys the sense that individuals are “close to their fellow citizens,” relying on each other, and sharing responsibility for the hardships of others. When read together, the perspectives on solidarity offered by Father Józef Tischner, a Catholic priest and phenomenologist from Poland, and Hannah Arendt, a “stateless” secular Jew living in America, seem to be talking to each other. For Arendt, solidarity is the capacity to think from the point of view of the other. Likewise, for Tischner, solidarity is “to carry another’s burden,” always arising from dialogue.“As long as I look at myself solely with my own eyes, I know only a part of the truth,” Tischner writes. “As long as you look at yourself with your eyes, you also know only a part of the truth. The complete truth is the fruit of our common experiences — yours about me and mine about you.”

While the idea of solidarity appears to be closer to that of brotherhood than to the idea of liberty or equality, Arendt would insist that it is not a mark of sentiment or pity, but a rational, deliberate decision that guides our actions. Solidarity introduces a critical corrective to the cold liberal concept of freedom. An embodied, active freedom, nurtured by the principle of dialogue and solidarity, provides a warmer imaginary. With its capacity to build real bonds with others, active freedom lessens the fear and loneliness of the individual, and opens more plausible prospects for those who do not have it.

The active freedom of the public square is an agonistic space, a crucible for tensions and disagreements, where dogmas are confronted, prejudices challenged, and consensus is not a given. Nonetheless, such speech acts are the opposite of violence, which “is to act without argument and without reckoning with consequences,” as Arendt writes. The practices of performative democracy offer a sharp alternative to tanks and bullets, while at the same time creating conditions for recovering the lost dignity of free people, their subjectivity as social actors, and their identity as citizens.

In Poland, after sixteen months of freedom, the Communist regime imposed a state of emergency in late 1981, suppressing Solidarity, closing its public squares, and forcing people underground. However, with their backs straightened, the craft of dialogue and the art of compromise that they had developed proved to be of lasting value. This became clear in April 1989, when the first major encounter between the criminalized Solidarity union and the government took place at the “Roundtable Talks.” In a context that lacked any democratic institutions, this was a remarkable event in which the promise of freedom was inherent in the action. The speech-based performative capacities employed at the Roundtable by the Solidarity side moved the negotiations towards nonviolent political change. The talks were a political installation and performance. With their spirit of improvisation, generating brilliant moments and imaginative solutions, their title could have been “negotiating revolution” or perhaps, “unlocking freedom.” The outcome of this political masterpiece reactivated the public square and enabled a swift move towards a radical break with the political system. A new beginning was launched, and an unorthodox path to revolutionary change through negotiation was founded. What an instance of active freedom!

However, performative democracy, especially in its most fervent moments, does not last forever, and perhaps it does not have to. It emerges as the enabler of a new democracy to be born, or to be reanimated, when society has become too complacent, as often happens in aging democracies. Once liberal democracy is instituted with the rule of law at its center, other dimensions of democracy step in to play leading roles. But along with the enlivening qualities of performative democracy, and the everyday functioning of what Michnik calls “gray democracy,” there also occur periods of drought. The public square remains, along with the institutions of parliamentary democracy: political parties, regular elections, free media, and non-governmental organizations advocating for their causes. What begins to disappear is the Bachtinian upsurge of human ingenuity in forming new relationships between individuals and inventing new social forms. What advances in the period of democratic drought is complacency, intellectual poverty, and abuse.

The public square is not just an incubator and maintainer of democracy, but is the only site where active freedom can be lived. The experience it provides is not easily accessible, except through the arts or literature. It gives us an opportunity to process otherwise intangible principles, bolstering our agency, and guiding our obligations and responsibilities towards others. It is here that plurality is demonstrated, diversity expressed, and hospitality considered. Above all, it is a site of agon, where our assumptions are challenged and tested. Along with its speech-based performative potential, it is a priceless epistemic terrain for generating new ways of knowing the world, and subsequently shaping or reshaping society’s practices. Importantly, it is in this environment that the critical principle of solidarity can be formed.

Yet, something disturbing is happening today to that precious square of freedom. Ideas that have animated it since the battle-cry of the French Revolution, namely égalité and fraternité, appear to have vanished. Is the orphaned liberté on its way out as well?Even if we ourselves did not participate directly in silencing those other two principles, it is hard to claim that we did much to stop the silencing. Did we pay attention to the warning signs around us? Why is it that societies once united in their commitment to active freedom are now so fiercely divided? Why are the diversity of people, opinions, cultures, and beliefs — once embraced in the public square — now increasingly shunned? Where have generosity and hospitality toward others gone? Why is it so easy to plant suspicion and to spread fear and conspiratorial beliefs?

One wonders about the backlash caused by the globalization that has bred mistrust in democratic institutions and destabilized national identities, while failing to underwrite a sense of a larger, shared, transnational citizenship. The political divisiveness we see around us looks like a grotesque rendering of the Schmittian concept of the political as necessarily based on a sharp distinction between friend and enemy. Are we perhaps facing another escape from freedom, which carries the recognizable features of unfreedom — as in fascism, populism, or communism — even though we do not have a name for it yet?

What is uncanny, though not unusual, is that the challenge to active freedom comes from the very political environment that is enabled by the existing democratic arrangements and freedoms. In some pseudo-democracies like Putin’s Russia, the public square has been already deactivated and turned into a Potemkin Village, a monological state square. It has silenced the voices and brought active freedom to a standstill. In the context of still-functioning democracies, this is not easily achievable, yet even here the character of the public square might be gradually changing. Shouting replaces dialogue. The hailing of a strong leader replaces a discussion in which truth can be examined, integrity acknowledged, and strivings for equality activated.

For Arendt, with her insights into the circumstances conditioning unfreedom, the shutting down of the living space of freedom means unambiguously the beginning of tyranny. Today, her observations sound unnervingly close to home. The preparations have succeeded,” she wrote, “when people have lost contact with their fellow men, as well as the reality around them; for along with these contacts men lose the capacity of both experience and thought.” Though neither in United Europe nor in the United States has the public square been fully shut down, we do live in a period of protracted drought. In Poland as in South Africa, the roundtable is officially detested as a betrayal by the right end of the political spectrum. The public square is ignored and neglected. Its ultimate eradication, or a restriction of its capacity for dialogue, means that the infrastructure of hope, essential for active freedom, has been dismantled. So, what did we do with our freedom?

We committed a crime of negligence. It seems that for many, a life outside of dialogue, a life in certainty and monologue, might be reassuring and even convenient. For others, the only true reality is that of postmodern chaos, which means it is futile to frame anything as coherent and knowable. In both cases, any effort to build bridges appears to be a non-starter. The problem we have is that we neglected the two sustaining principles of active freedom: dialogue and solidarity. Whether a deliberate crime or mere recklessness, this has caused not only a growing gap in communication and in equality but also a general feeling that we as citizens have let ourselves down.

The importance of dialogue is strategic. Paraphrasing Arendt, it is through dialogue that we can get closer to our fellow citizens, and it is through dialogue, while learning to think from the point of view of others present, that we develop the habit of reciprocity. Tischner, writing during the period of Solidarity, offers a useful meditation on dialogue: “The first condition of dialogue is the ability to sympathize with the other’s point of view. It is not only about compassion, but about something more, a recognition that the other, from his point of view, is always to some extent right. No one voluntarily shuts oneself up under ground, evidently one must have a reason for it. It is necessary to try to understand this reason. In the first word of a dialogue, there is hidden a confession: ‘you must be to some extent right.’ This goes along with the second no less important confession: ‘surely I am not entirely right.’ Both sides surpass themselves in these confessions, striving to the unity of one and the same point of view on things and matters.”

In the end, it is in the public square that the interplay between intersubjectivity and sociality can take place. It is in this fertile context that we can grow through dialogue with others, and that our knowing — the condition for acting — is generated. Never absolute or predetermined, this knowing is locally produced, and open to adjustments and amendments. It drives away our ignorance, and even Arendt, with her inclination to emphasize thinking over knowing, would understand the cognitive value of the kind of popular, preliminary understanding developed in the square, and often expressed in the language of the poetic, the imaginative, and the unpredictable.

Any silencing of dialogue caused by a regimented shrinking of the public realm interferes with and limits our comprehension of the world: we believe we know, but we do not. Without the public square, our actions might be based on what I call misknowing. Knowing has the potential of being skeptical, and therefore dialogical (as in Socrates’s “I know that I know nothing”), whereas misknowing is always monological (I know that I know). The condition of misknowing is characterized by a failure to question one’s knowing, by knowing uncritically and thus erroneously. Indeed, misknowing starts with an absence of any questioning of one’s own self-knowledge, and one’s own certainty. There is a direct link between misknowing and the shrinking, or repressing, of active freedom.

Social isolation, a byproduct of the closing of the public square, breeds ignorance and despair. When the public square is forced into a state square — where even limited interactions are controlled and staged, and where only one voice is heard, coming anonymously through loudspeakers — ignorance is rewarded by a comfortable certainty, the sources of getting to know disappear, and knowing becomes misknowing. In a situation of coercion, misknowing might be worn as a disguise, but to shake off that disguise is not an easy undertaking.

In 1977, a group of Czech citizens decided to sign a protest letter, known as Charter 77, representing themselves as “a free, informal and open association of people of different convictions, different faiths, and different professions, who are linked by the desire, individually or jointly, to insist on a respect for civil and human rights.” Jan Patočka, the spiritus movens behind the letter, characterized the dissidents as the “solidarity of the shaken,” the solidarity of those whose daily assumptions and certainties had been shattered. They represented what Václav Havel, a key signatory, called “the power of the powerless,” a decision to live as though they were free, which officially reduced them to the status of pariah.

At the moment, it seems that although solidarity is deeply invested in the prospects for active freedom, we have failed to retain it. I wonder whether in the scary darkening of our times we could rekindle a “solidarity of the shaken” among us, in which we could be illuminated by the beaming promise of active freedom afforded by a robust public square, and warmed by the solidarity of dialogues. We all need to be there again.

Elzbieta Matynia is Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies, and founding director of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies