Panel II: The End of Politics

Claus Offe, Marcia Pally, Zygmunt Bauman, Martin C. Putna, László F. Földényi and Ivaylo Ditchev sought answers to questions such as: have we reached the end of classical politics and what can we do to hang on to our freedom?

Chaired by Martin Milan Šimečka, Panel 2 sought to answer the question of whether we have entered the twilight of politics and what we can do to hang on to our freedom.

German political scientist professor Claus Offe opened the second panel with a grim list of reasons for concern about the state of democracy in post-communist countries: political parties are more polarized than in West European politics and instead of regarding them as opponents, ruling parties consider opposition parties their enemies. The distinction between Right and Left is disappearing from political discourse; constitutional functions are weak and there is a high degree of voter volatility. Political corruption is common and often blown up by the media; people involved with the secret service of the previous regimes have entered politics, and nepotism and lack of transparency are widespread. Throughout the world the ability of the state to get things done is manifestly collapsing – often it cannot manage even garbage removal, let alone win wars or pass health reforms. In spite of these weaknesses, democracy is worthwhile, its three key functions being: 1) democracy has the power to change the conditions in which people live – if the state lacks this capacity it has failed its democratic mission; 2) democracy ensures the rule of law – if the state cannot enforce rights it is not democratic; 3) democracy creates alternatives for the course of developments in society – if the alternatives are reduced to one, democracy is reduced to zero. There are two ways of revitalizing democracy and increasing the capacity of states for reform: a stronger deliberative democracy (which can be described as preference laundering) and focusing on sustainability instead of continuing the process of self-subversion (i.e. our obsession with travel mobility). We have to revise our notion of progress because, to quote the German humorist Karl Valentin, the future is no longer what it used to be.

Ivaylo Ditchev, a cultural anthropologist from Bulgaria, continued the grim assessment by highlighting three recent phenomena. The first is a shrinking of the readiness for solidarity and sharing, perhaps because the “other” is seen as very different. As a result, society atomizes into individuals and a collective fate ceases to exist. The second is the utopia of frictionless capitalism, which assumes that the solutions are somewhere out there, accessible by a click of a mouse. This option is available only to the young, creating a generational gap, while the old stay behind and make politics. The third phenomenon is the immediacy of the new media, which has undermined the role of the intelligentsia as Kulturträger, leading to a delegitimization of the role of politics. Party apparatuses are no longer necessary, as the population can be influenced directly, via TV or the Internet. Maybe entertainment culture replaces other rituals that used to generate identification and the media serve to supply the sense of identity that is lacking? The political and policy horizon is becoming ever shorter: people think in terms of electoral terms but everything is getting faster and change can happen very rapidly. We need to learn how to cope with rapid change.

American political and cultural scholar Marcia Pally disagreed with the claim that we have reached the end of politics, except perhaps in the sense of classical politics. She warned against basing our expectations on the idea that power and politics are in harmony: this is the result of an anomalous situation that arose in Europe in the post-war period, characterized by a rebuilding boom and lack of competition from the Third World. However, the conditions have now changed and those who control resources are back in the driving seat. This does not mean that power has shifted from politics to economics – in fact, apart from this anomalous period, it had never been any other way. Once the balance is upset, people under duress are not able to analyze and synthesize information: they panic and seek simplified answers, resorting to too readily identifiable scapegoats and courses of action. There has been a tragic loss of the ability to think critically, leading to two types of escapism – a flight to the future (i.e. blaming technology or the globalized economy for every problem) and a flight to the past (i.e. a return to fundamentalism, exemplified by the rise of the Tea Party movement in the US). We have an eternal tendency to think that our time is unique: the notion that politics is more corrupt than ever is na?ve. It is not a productive way to think about the way we live now, and neither is it productive to blame the media. Demagoguery is the other side of the coin of democracy but the answer cannot be to reduce information, to know less. Democracy is a mechanism which, if it works, allows slightly more laws we prefer to be passed than not. But it does not necessarily yield equality.

Rather than the twilight of politics, Czech literature scholar Martin C. Putna sees the twilight of visionaries in politics. He highlighted the end of three types of vision. The first to end was Václav Havel’s vision of an apolitical politics, with the former Czech President’s political authority in his own country now reduced to zero. The vision of a European Union has also ended – the ethos is dead and all that is left is technocracy. Finally, we have seen the end of Obama’s Yes We Can vision. All these visions have clashed with technocratic reality. Visions have been losing the support of ordinary people and populisms are on the rise. The publish-or-perish philosophy has resulted in a proliferation of authors whom nobody can possibly read, perhaps with the exception of Zygmunt Bauman, who represents the last generation of critics who still enjoy authority. Otherwise quantity has destroyed quality. In terms of the future, Martin C. Putna sees two glimmers of hope. One comes from this world: it is a parallel polity, books by people who remember what Europe used to be and what the inscriptions on the statues on the Charles Bridge in Prague mean. The other hope is eschatological. It is not a political but personal stance, a belief that there will be a last and absolute judgement.

Hungarian essayist László F. Földényi painted an even bleaker vision of the current state of affairs, accusing the liberal intelligentsia of responding to the rise of populism with a shocking passivity. Openly anti-Semitic parties have been gaining strength all over Europe. Partly as a result of economic problems nationalism becomes ever more vigorous. We liberal intellectuals are have to accept responsibility for this because in the late 20th century we let liberalism turn into neo-liberalism, leading to financial deregulation. One-time notions of solidarity, trust and justice have been replaced by distrust and profit. A growing demoralization and increasingly cynical attitude among young people on the one hand and passivity of liberals on the other have allowed consumerism to become one of the main ideologies of the past decade: making money and getting rich is seen as the main purpose in life. Trust has been replaced by belief. Putting belief in an institution that does not respond to our demands is bad, and such belief should be replaced by trust. People do not remove politicians who lie because of a kind of religious ardour, which is reinforced by the media. Speaking of Hungary, László F. Földényi has good reason to fear the ghosts that have invaded it in the last two years. He sees no hope for Hungary: there is a tradition of nearly 200 years of authoritarianism that Hungarians don’t like it but are somehow satisfied with. In the 1970s and 1980s Europe was full of great narratives, mostly against something – against the system, against totalitarianism. Now everything has to serve the economy, but people are still in great need of narratives. The Left has lost its vision of the future, the language of social democracy no longer appeals, and the extreme Right is the only force with a strong narrative.

Professor Zygmunt Bauman continued the pessimistic assessment by adding another thing that has been lost recently – a withering and wilting of trust. Social pharmacists, i.e. politicians and commentators, agree that trust is the missing ingredient needed to cure the ills of political life in the contemporary world. Trust is an elemental, natural response to reliability and the ability to deliver. By these standards contemporary politics fail, which is not necessarily the fault of politicians but a reflection of the state of politics that responds not just to voters but also to forces outside politics, such as the market. The future behaviour of political forces has become unpredictable, as it is no longer tied to political parties but rather to individual politicians. Unless a politician is caught stealing money or having illicit sexual relations it is fine for them to tear up their election manifestos. Politicians now speak only in headlines on TV. Obama’s slogan Yes We Can was very nice and encouraging but not particularly rich in content. Another example is the slogan Trust Me, which helped Tony Blair win a landslide election in Britain in 1997. The political will is fixated more on the charm and glamour of personalities than on political programmes. Politics has come to resemble the Big Brother reality show from which people get evicted if they have low entertainment value. Another feature of current politics is the spread of lying. Politicians hide behind experts but experts can be produced for any occasion, to confirm or deny anything. Politicians who don’t lie have become as unimaginable as a circus without clowns and our society has become hospitable to newspeak. Democracy is recognizable by the fact that it is endemically critical of its own democraticness. The current crisis may be deeper than the previous ones: democracy is losing its attractiveness in the world. We have been selling democracy cheap, by suppressing our own discourse about the values of democracy. And we have yet to start seriously thinking about creating new institutions for this planet, which have to be very different, not just blown-up versions of the institutions of territorially sovereign states. I cannot predict the future: all the various major upheavals of the 20th century have one thing in common: they were completely unexpected. Sovietology was the best funded science, with a great deal of money thrown at scholars, conferences, and so forth. Yet it spectacularly failed to predict that communism would simply implode. The future of humankind is unpredictable by its very nature but I am happy about that.

Photo Peter Župník