Democracy Dies in Darkness

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February 28, 2018

Democracy Dies in Darkness

A keynote address from the Dramaturgies of Resistance conference

By Elzbieta Matynia

  • Communism
  • Democracy
  • History
  • Performative Democracy
  • Poland
  • Politics
  • Public Sphere
  • United States

This is a shortened version of the keynote address delivered at the conference Dramaturgies of Resistance — International Artistic Positions on Freedom and Repression, Greifswald, January 26, 2018

Democracy Dies in Darkness

It was a year ago, in late February 2017, when the Washington Post appeared in the newsstands displaying a disturbingly unfamiliar motto: “Democracy Dies in Darkness. Though it had been discussed by the editorial board for more than a year before our last presidential election, the phrase became the motto of the Post only one month after Donald Trump moved into the White House, and it was greeted with some controversy. Unlike the familiar motto introduced by the New York Times 115 years ago (“All the News That’s Fit to Print”), this one was initially considered too negative. But was it, actually? The Post’s executive editor, Martin Baron, might have been showing some foresight when he stated that “certain institutions have a very important role in making sure that there is light.” Now he was obviously talking about the press, whereas I shall be talking about theater, broadly defined. And I would like to put a more positive ring to it, and to think not of dying but of having a chance to be reborn, renewed, or re-created.

Performative Democracy

I am someone who subscribes to a dramaturgical concept of society. A society that is not predetermined by historical necessity, but has a range of actors, a polyphony of voices, the inevitable tensions and conflicts that arise therefrom, and above all, a capacity to conduct a dialogue in public through which a consensus can be reached concerning the social order (even if it is an agonistic consensus).

I have been fascinated by a dimension of political life that occurred in the latter part of the twentieth century in both non-democratic and democratic contexts. I think of this dimension — something I experienced myself — as closely related to the politics of hope, and I call it performative. Just to be clear: performative democracy is neither a theoretical model, a political ideal, nor a tested system of governance, but — as I have argued — a locally conditioned process of either the enacting or the enhancing of a democracy by its citizens. ENACTING. Indeed, theater was a crucial concept and practice guiding my reflections, as the core of the 1989 revolution was a prior germination of a public space within public theater, and then its gradual cultivation and expansion.

Among those who helped me in thinking about this were two philosophers of dialogue and emancipation who had experienced the darkest of times — Hannah Arendt, a refugee from Nazi Germany, and Mikhail Bakhtin, exiled, in Stalin’s Russia, first to Kazakhstan and then to an obscure town in the Mordovia Oblast. But the foundations for hope and a democracy-oriented performative strategy for the societies of Central Europe had already been laid out in the seventies in three key essays written by authors from the region: Hope and Hopelessness, by the late Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish philosopher living in exile; The New Evolutionism, by Adam Michnik, a young unemployed historian from Warsaw; and The Power of the Powerless, by Vaclav Havel, [i] a playwright from Prague whose plays were banned in Czechoslovakia, his own homeland. Exposing the contradictions of an authoritarian regime at the level of language — with its broken contracts and promises, overt and hidden discourses — the dissident authors showed that those contradictions could be exploited without recourse to violence in their contest with the regime. Kolakowski, Michnik and Havel asked people not to expect miracles, help from outside, or some automatic self-correction of the authoritarian system. Instead they made a case for small, incremental changes.

The emergence of Polish Solidarity in 1980, that peculiar nationwide union of trade unions whose legal existence was negotiated between the Gdansk shipyard workers and the Communist government in Poland, was in many ways a masterpiece of performative democracy. This was when people discovered both a taste for democracy, and their own performative capacities. This was when an anonymous, dreary, and institutional way of speaking — official language — was replaced by concrete, individual, distinctive, lively voices. Using a self-discovered, autonomously speaking “I,” the citizen-actors of the Solidarity movement forced the state to engage in dialogue with them. Such voices, or speech acts, are a key element of performative democracy. And bear in mind that true dialogue does not incite hate speech or violence.

When Lech Walesa, the mustachioed electrician who had led the strike proclaimed, “We will have our independent, self-governing trade unions; Solidarity, our own paper published here during the strike, will become our union paper, and we will be able to write without censorship whatever we want; we have the right to strike…,” his speech, distributed throughout the country, became one of the most emblematic moments of performative democracy in the twentieth century. [ii]

Perhaps the most spectacular instance of democratic performativity was the climactic drama of the Roundtable Talks that took place in the spring of 1989 in Warsaw. The Roundtable Talks — today despised by what is again an official propaganda — launched the democratic transformation of Poland’s one-party state. The talks between the Communist regime and Solidarity, the democratic opposition led by Walesa, began in February and concluded in April 1989, at a time when the Communist system in the region had still seemed to be — even if not robust any more — certainly irreversible. Though a lot less visually spectacular and telegenic than the joyous crowds hammering at the Berlin Wall half a year later, it was the very talks themselves that actually constituted the end of autocracy in the region. The 1993 talks in Kempton Park near Johannesburg, which brought an end to apartheid in South Africa, though lengthy and dramatic, did not produce stunning images either, certainly nothing comparable to those that came later: one-person/one-vote bird’s-eye-view images of the winding lines of people waiting to vote for the first time in their lives. The real work of hammering out such agreements is simply not mass-media-friendly.

Though inherently dramatic, performative democracy — formed in the process of speaking and listening to others — is a joyous and affirmative dimension of the political. It releases a robust civic creativity, and helps bowed backs to straighten up. It is truly transformative for those engaged, as it launches a process of learning, forming opinions, reasoning, and speaking. And this brings about change. It is clearly an alternative to tanks and bullets, and it creates conditions for recovering the lost dignity of people.

However, like a carnival, the dimension of democracy that I call performative is a temporary phenomenon. It comprises the early stage of a democratic project, or provides strategies — as I argued then — for keeping old democracies vibrant during times of democratic “Lent,” to use my phrasing, or “drought,” for those who did not have a Catholic upbringing.

We just wanted to live — as Adam Michnik once said — in a normal country. And we got our wish! Indeed, Poles got their freedom, and — with the energy and ingenuity derived from having had the experience of democratic performativity — they actually built a successful, and what appeared to be a robust, liberal democracy.

But today something has gone awry.

Democracy Makes a U-Turn

When at the beginning of Hamlet, Horatio, Hamlet’s close friend, arrives from Wittenberg to comfort the prince, Hamlet says to him in confidence: “The time is out of joint.” [iii] What he meant was that strange things were happening. There is a fairly recent book that carries a similar message, a book of conversations between two friends, Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik. I’ve called them post-revolutionary conversations, and the book, published in 2015, is entitled An Uncanny Era. I often wonder — if Havel were still with us — how these two friends, dissident intellectuals who became engaged in the most profound way in the making of democracy in the region, would make sense of today’s indeed uncanny retreat from democracy, and all the current talk of a post-democratic era.

How is it that democracy has made such a U-turn, and that we are now trembling as we watch its massive reversal? And when we look around, we see that de-democratization, under various guises, is taking place virtually everywhere. The time IS out of joint, indeed.

So how did this happen? What went wrong?

As I have suggested, performative democracy does not last forever. And perhaps it does not have to. It emerges in the first place as the enabler of a democracy to be born, or to be re-animated, when it has become too complacent and taken for granted. Once it opens up a public sphere, and begins to inhabit it, with citizen-actors negotiating fundamental change in the system through which power is exercised, it is in fact revolutionary, as it opens a path to systemic transition. Performative democracy is still there, but other dimensions of democracy begin to play a key role. This is when the institutions of a solid parliamentary democracy are built; when democratic constitutions are drafted, and procedures — with the rule of law at their center — established; when political parties, representing an array of positions, concerns, and voices, begin to compete in regularly scheduled elections; when autonomous media emerge, specialized non-governmental organizations are registered and start keeping an eye on the government and on parliament and advocate for their chosen social causes; and, when self–governing local authorities decide about matters concerning their respective communities.

It is now 29 years since the Roundtable Talks. When one looks at Poland today, one sees the results: the country looks modern and affluent; the economy is booming, and the Warsaw stock market, located (in another little irony) on a prime real estate site — the former headquarters of the Central Committee of the United Workers Party — is doing exceedingly well. The borders in Europe are no more; and one doesn’t have to feel like a poor cousin when visiting Berlin or Paris.

Yet something went wrong. Why is a society that was so united in dethroning the long rule of communism, now so fiercely divided? Why is diversity of people, opinion, cultures, and beliefs shunned? Where has generosity toward the other gone? Why is the already recognized vital standard of mutual toleration and forbearance vis-à-vis political opponents vanishing? Why is it so difficult to shed this belief in a conspiracy against the nation? Why are the liberal media, and former dissidents who once languished in prison for acting on behalf of pro-democratic ideas, treated with such vitriol, and why is violence entering the “square of politics”? In other words: what is undermining or trumping our ordinary democracy?

The situation is particularly alarming as today’s sharp political divisiveness begins to look like a folkish rendering of the Schmittian concept of the political as necessarily based on a sharp distinction between friend and enemy. The precious political middle ground is indeed dramatically shrinking in both new and old democracies, whether in Poland or in the United States.

In Poland the so-called “reformists,” “liberals,” and all those who seek consensus through dialogue are detested and discarded as a disgusting residue after communism. In the United States a large minority who feel that the traditional American dream has been stolen from them, are now delighted every time their chosen leader pokes a finger in the eye of the establishment, whose preferred candidate once carelessly dismissed them all as “deplorable.”

What’s perhaps most uncanny, is that the new political environment everywhere is actually deriving its energies precisely from a democratic context that enables mobilization through still existing freedoms. To be sure, these movements emerge in the name of the people. It is the will of the people, acting against a betrayal by the power elite: against those who — “with their constant compromises” — do not represent “us;” against their moral relativism, their promotion of secularism; against corruption and governing practices that nobody can follow; against the sense that we the people are being marginalized and abandoned in our own country. So WE are HERE, and we speak with ONE voice to defend the threatened cohesiveness of our national community, our culture, our right to a way of life based on OUR values.

Though the word democracy does not even appear in this, democracy — and what seemed to be an integral populism — both arise from the same ground, and the progressive phrase we the people is a clear mark of these shared origins. However, at the core of today’s integral populism, as in the case of integral nationalism, is an ethnonationalism that — with its ideal of a native homogeneity and oneness — targets precisely its most obvious obstacle, the very pluralism that is a key feature of liberal democracy.

The late Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who was forced to leave his country following the March 1968 events, recently discussed the choice faced by our contemporaries, who, as he argued, live in a world overwhelmed by fear. In the balance sheet of what it is that people most want today, freedom or security, the wish for freedoms (whether negative or positive freedoms) gives way to the desire for security. In today’s liquid times — argued Bauman — drenched in a liquid fear, something difficult to pinpoint, people do not know what to do, and so often choose security. The Syrian refugees whom most people, whether in Poland or in the U.S., see daily but only on TV, are a perfect incarnation of all our fears — the fear of losing absolutely everything. It is in such a context that people turn to populist leaders who assert: “Give me the power and I will take responsibility for your future.” [iv]

Have you heard of authoritarian democracy? It only sounds like an oxymoron. Just look at Russia. I think I don’t have to go any further to argue that the future of democracy is uncertain.

The Killing of Dialogue. The Killing of Solidarity.

There are a few issues — detective-work sorts of issues — that I am left with. If we agree that we ourselves, by just being here, are private agents working on behalf of the public good (which is, after all, how civil society is defined), we should have a lot of questions. “What has happened to democracy?” is the first one.

Is democracy, this political ideal of the modern age, long the aspirational goal of people everywhere and a reality that people still treasure, being “legitimately” hijacked before our very eyes? Are its citizen-actors — who at the same time are members of the public — concerned about freedom and the accountability of power, now being replaced by some homogenous kind of we-the-people amalgam? Is public space, the Arendtian space of appearance that makes the theater of public life possible, shrinking? We know that in a democracy it is not just about private spaces any more — it is a public setting where people can come together and interact through speech. In Poland such space was furnished in the seventies by the Young Theater, and later during the early Solidarity gatherings in factories, universities, and churches. To occupy such a space was to open the first crack in the authoritarian regime’s embrace. This was where conversations and dialogue began to take place in public without fear, and where people could meet and get to know each other.

But is shrinking the public square (or public theater), and turning it through a wave of populism into a Potemkin village of democracy, necessarily a crime? After all, this has been spearheaded and accomplished by what appears to be the will of the people. Why is that a crime? And, if so, who is guilty?

Well, even if closing the public square and turning it into an official, monological state square is not a crime, and even if the social silencing that comes with it does not sound like a criminal activity, the more specific charge, the killing of dialogueis. What do I mean by that?

The real objective of social silencinga frequent phenomenon of authoritarian regimes, is to deactivate and dismantle the public square, the Agora, a site where people can freely experience each other and meet those who may not be like us. Do you perhaps remember Havel’s play, Audience? A brief play — not much happens in it, just an awkward conversation between two people who are currently doing what they do not want to do. Ferdinand Vanek is a playwright and dissident whose works are banned and who, in order to avoid being classified as a social parasite, has found himself a job as a manual worker rolling barrels in a brewery near his summer house in the mountains.

Vanek does it, but he doesn’t have anything to do with the world of those who work there. He doesn’t know much about them and he feels awkward in their midst. But he is called to see his supervisor, who, in order to get a promotion, has to write periodic reports on his employee, the playwright. This means he has to inform on him and since writing is not his forte he wonders whether Vanek can help him with the task. In the Czechoslovakia of the seventies, as in the entire Soviet Bloc, under a system that espoused equality of the classless society, the walls dividing people were perhaps even bigger than in the West. These two would never have talked. They would never have even met, but they are here with no choice but to talk. And something happens.

My favorite South African writer, Nadine Gordimer, opened one of her essays on apartheid with the sentence, “Men are not born brothers; they have to discover each other.”[v] And it is in the encounter with others that we become aware of the limited make-up of our own knowing, and therefore of our own ignorance, superstition, or prejudice. Even if not a primary site for generating knowing, the public square is a site of dialogue, where the rigidity of ideological claims can be challenged, and competitive discourses can be presented, confronted, and examined.

And what about that question of guilt?

The answer is that WE are guilty. We are implicated in that crime, though perhaps it was just a crime of neglect. We neglected both speaking and listening to each other. And we did not do much when the middle ground was attacked or eradicated. Bipolarity and nothing in between. This is what allowed the silencing to take place. We did not listen. In the United States, we, the liberal intelligentsia, we from the East and West coasts, did not want to see, and did not want to listen to those in between, in what we know only as “flyover country.” [vi] This is the country as seen from a plane — the Rust Belt, the Bible Belt, the ignored America. (Some of you may know a play called Flyover Country, about life in the American Midwest.)

Similarly in Poland we did not listen, and we did not talk with each other. The successive centrist governments did not think they had to explain much to those whom they governed. But that’s not only about the arrogance of the government; it’s also about one half of our society. Since we neither talked nor listened, we lost touch and we failed to remember the principle of solidarity with those who had landed in a hard place. I’m not talking here about empathy, but about social solidarity, a sense of team spirit, and a shared responsibility for the hardships of others. After all, this is what once brought us together and gave us strength.

Polish historian and former political prisoner Karol Modzelewski [vii] pointed out correctly that all that’s left of the trinity maxim of the French Revolution today is libertéwhile the other two, égalité and fraternité, are gone. Even if we ourselves did not directly silence those two principles, we did nothing to stop the silencing. While trying to be understanding of the fact that a successful transition to democracy requires building a successful market economy — and that in its initial stage everyone has to tighten their belts — once we had already achieved an impressive measure of economic success, the idea of perhaps sharing some of it with society at large was hardly visible. An understanding of the miserable status of some, and an inkling that perhaps some of the extra fruits could be redistributed through reasonable welfare policies — not charity — addressing the poorest families and elderly citizens, was not there. Again a crime of neglect, which led not only to a growing gap in communication, but also a growing gap in economic inequality between the haves and the have-nots.

In this situation, the choice between a sometimes lonely freedom and the chance for some security begins to look less difficult, and an inclination toward security, heightened by a comforting sense of belonging to a community of folks like oneself, is perhaps more justifiable. In the United States the gap has become even more dramatic after the passing of recent tax laws that further subsidize an increasingly non-representative American plutocracy.

When sites and sources for getting to know and understand the other disappear, the knowing become mis-knowing. A mis-knower believes that he knows, and certainty is a trademark of his knowing. Let me stress this again: the shutting of the public square creates a situation in which the theater of public life is not possible anymore. It is the destruction of society’s political capacities through silencing. It is the engineering of a mute society. A very high price paid by neglect.

To finish my reflections on this double crime we’ve committedthe killing of dialogue and the killing of solidarity let me bring in Arendt again. Because if there was ever a handbook for the professionals of silencing — or as Arendt calls them more directly, “functionaries of violence” [viii] — it would instruct us to focus first on dismantling the public square by erecting boundaries. And this act creates the conditions for a modern tyranny to take over. At this point it is usually too late. When even limited interactions are controlled, staged, and directed, communication is inhibited, and where only one voice is heard, coming anonymously through loudspeakers, ignorance is rewarded through the bestowal of a comfortable kind of certainty.

Dispersing the Darkness

So how do we stop the descent into authoritarianism, and into darkness? How to bridge the canyons of mistrust? How to bring some light back? How to proceed? And how does theater fit into all this?

We have to go back to the beginning. We have to rediscover the possibility of public happiness as granted by that dimension of democracy I call performative. And at the beginning of democracy there is always a word, a publicly spoken word in the Agora, the space of appearance. That brings us back to theater. Performative democracy is born above all from speech acts and the conversations of concrete people, who discover what they have in common. That discovery is further communicated when they turn their encounter into a performance accessible to all; and, also, when they turn their words, charged with practical consequences, into social facts.

But how to start a conversation with women and men who feel they are regarded as some unsightly old furniture, neither suitable nor indispensable for a free-market economy, for a democracy run by experts, or even for civil society at large. Perhaps the best-known confirmation of that sense was a humorous text message sent before the 2007 parliamentary elections in Poland, quickly embraced by the youngest generation of voters afraid that the right-wing parties might be re-elected. The text message read: “The elections are coming. Save your country. Hide your grandma’s ID .” Obviously without their identity card, grandmothers could not vote, and the ruling party would lose the seats, and their government would be driven out of office. The message, though funny and reflecting the popular opinion that older people tend to vote for conservative parties like headed in 2007 by the Kaczynski brothers, was clearly problematic, and not just in a legal sense.

Though the right-wing parties lost in that election, the new liberal government did nothing to lift the elderly, the poor, or the parochial, out of oblivion. Though it was clear that the idea of the EU is often difficult to comprehend, there was no conversation about it; there was little effort to create a narrative that people could embrace. DEMOCRACY, like the very idea of EUROPE, is an abstract concept that cannot easily compete with the idea of the NATION, the narrative of national suffering, and what I call the long-lasting phenomenon of salvational culturalism[ix] But the 1940 Katyn massacre, with its 22,000 Polish officers executed by the Soviet secret police, is not an abstract concept, but a story kept alive for generations, even if only through whispers. This is a well-known narrative so when in 2010 that airplane on its way to a Katyn commemoration crashes near Smolensk, it naturally brings people together. Everything becomes clear again. The world makes sense again: it is another conspiracy against the Polish nation. And with this the mourners recover their lost dogma, and their sense of belonging. What soon came to be known as the “Smolensk” community became a community destined to guard the truth. It is destined to guard the dignity of those who perished, and in the process to protect its members’ own hitherto threatened sense of identity, and their place in today’s Poland on the other side of the canyon of mutual mistrust.

If indeed people engage with tales and narratives more strongly than with any analyses or arguments they are presented with, we may like to explore conversation as an infrastructure for telling and exchanging stories. Conversation, like attendance at a theater performance, is almost always voluntary, not necessary. First, we have to agree to talk, to listen to each other’s stories, and through this to get to know each other. I believe that the process of overcoming mistrust, and mending the torn fabric of society, may begin by connecting through our shared knowledge of the locality we know and understand best, and through our most ordinary daily experiences. And above all, as Arendt emphasizes, we simply have to try to think from the point of view of the other. This is why the public square is so crucial for us: the reality experienced there and together with others, makes it possible to examine the perilous — in my opinion — problem of mis-knowing.

Do you remember the oldest surviving play in the history of theater? The one we got from the ancient Greeks, ThePersians, by Aeschylus? It is interesting for many reasons, but above all because it is the only Greek play we know that was not based on Homeric myth, but on an actual event that had taken place only eight years earlier, the war with Persia. It’s a contemporary political, anti-war play.

So here we are, it is 474 B.C.E., and we in Athens are sitting on the still-wooden benches of the Dionysus theater on the slope of the Acropolis. (Well, since women are not allowed to be a part of the audience for some time yet, I am not actually there!) There are most probably over 10,000 men here, many of whom most probably took part in the Battle of Salamis, that decisive victory over the Persians. We are watching the play from the point of view of the Persians and of a powerful empire that will never recover. We watch the lament of majestic Queen Atossa (the female part played by a male actor), who recently lost her husband, and who now sees how the youthful folly of her son Xerxes, who led an enormous army to Greece, brought about the disaster.

This play was clearly a radical move — on the part of the playwright — that required of Greeks that they be able to put themselves in the shoes of the enemy. It required imagination and empathy, not an easy thing to ask for given Athens was invaded twice and left in ruins, and many Greek warriors killed.

Theater was for the Greeks another Agora, less involved in the nitty-gritty matters of governing their polis. It was another public square, where major questions were posed, and where thinking in terms of the public good was cultivated. I realize that this sounds a bit abstract, yet I would like to argue that the solution has little to do with trying to apply here some abstract model of democracy. Rather I want to suggest that the performative dimension of democracy is a local project that is trying to free itself from dogmatism and vertical power pressures. It is here that people learn how to be citizens. It is affirmative and even carnivalesque. It disperses darkness, and lets light in. Greek tragedies, and tragedies in general, frequently help to generate imaginaries that illuminate times out of joint. I wonder about the reasons for the absence of modern tragedies today, but I think that this is a topic for a different talk, perhaps with Agnes Heller as a discussant.

Let me finish with a brief vignette that I find both instructive and hopeful.

We are in the town of Cieszyn in Southern Poland, on the Polish-Czech border, where — beginning late October, every day at 5:00 pm — a young woman named Gabrysia Lazarek, a hairdresser, stands alone on the market square with a hand-written poster.

Stop hostility and hate.

Indifference is acquiescence.

If you are not indifferent, stand with me for five minutes.

I hope that by now more people have stopped by, and that they have talked. Or recounted their stories without anger or resentment. This, I think, is where hope lies.

I would like us to join Gabrysia.


[i] Leszek Kolakowski’s, Hope and Hopelessness was written in 1971 (Survey, 17, no.3 (summer) 1971), Adam Michnik’s The New Evolutionism, was written in 1976 (in English, Letters From Prison, University of California Press, 1985), and Vaclav Havel’sThe Power of the Powerless, in 1978 (in English, Living in Truth, Faber& Faber, London 1987)

[ii] The film, Workers 80, was shot during the strike by a group of Polish documentary filmmakers, and in early fall was screened in movie theaters

[iii] Hamlet , Act 1, scene 5: (Hamlet to Horatio)

[iv] Zygmunt Bauman “Behind the world’s ‘crisis of humanity’ in Al Jazeera, 23 Jul 2016

[v] Nadine Gordimer, Apartheid ( 1959), Telling Times, Bloomsbury, London, 2011, p. 62

[vi] Sarah Kendzior, The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America,


[viii] Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, p.137

[ix] Elzbieta Matynia, EnGendering Democracy: Women Artists and Deliberative Art in a Transitional Society , in Performative Democracy ( Chpt. 7)


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