The Politics of Small Things + the Internet (still) = Alternatives


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January 20, 2022

The Politics of Small Things + the Internet (still) = Alternatives

Reflections on the Democracy Seminar Launch

  • afghanistan
  • Arendt
  • Collaboration
  • Democracy
  • substack

We “zoomed” our launch event for the Democracy Seminar in December. We discussed the relationships between collaboration and democracy. The discussion featured Obaidullah Baheer from Afghanistan, Daniel Peres from Brazil, Karolina Wigura from Poland, Shireen Hassim from South Africa, and Jeffrey C. Isaac from the U.S.A., and a few dozen others joined us from around the world: watching, listening, and questioning the featured discussants. It was a wide ranging, intimate, global affair. 

I have been working with this group over the last two years on a variety of different projects and many of us have come to know each other quite well. We live under very different circumstances, to say the least, but we, nonetheless, share a common conviction that democracy is threatened in the part of the world we know best, and more broadly. We know that there are great differences of experience and perspective among us, but also that we share common concerns and convictions.

Both our commonalities and the differences charged our discussion.

It was an illuminating open-ended event, a discussion among friends, most of whom have never actually met in person. This is an instance of the alternative global politics in the age of the pandemic, which clearly has impact on the way we live now and will live in the future. It’s “the politics of small things” in the age of intense digital interaction. 

“The Politics of Small Things + the Internet = Alternatives” is a key chapter of my book, The Politics of Small Things. My argument then has been confirmed in recent years. I perceived, in 2003, that the power that is constituted when people meet as equals and talk with each other and develop a capacity to act in concert could be amplified by interactions facilitated through the Internet. I learned to appreciate this power from the writings of Hannah Arendt, and I saw it imagined and constituted in Central Europe in the writings and actions of Vaclav Havel (in his classic essay “The Power of the Powerless) and Adam Michnik (in his classic essay “The New Evolutionism”). The campaign for the American Presidency of Howard Dean in 2004, linked to the anti-Iraq War movement, was my case study demonstrating how the power is mediated by the internet. The power was fully marshalled by Barack Obama in his campaign of 2008. This mediated power has only increased since and become ever more evident. What was then an innovative observation has now become a commonsense.

Yet, in one important way, I was mistaken. I thought that this power had inherent democratic potential, that the internet since it is based on discursive interactions was inherently progressive, while television and especially radio, with its one-to-many form, leaned toward the authoritarian. Right wing talk radio, I thought, would be countered by a progressive internet. It is now clear that this was a blunder. Online, authoritarian relationships are just as common as democratic ones. Conspiracy theories, along with deliberate democratic deliberations, cults of personality, along with progressive social movements, and the systematic attacks on factual truth in public life, along with the struggle to democratically relate truth and politics, all flourish through online interactions. The full range of political developments is found worldwide on the web, and both opening space for interaction and increasing opportunities for surveillance have developed: the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter, along with QAnon and “the Great Replacement,” with leaders such as Donald Trump, Jarosław Kaczyński, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, and Recep Erdoğan. This is our field of political struggle. And it is this struggle which we considered at the launch, the setting of our discussion of democracy and collaboration.

I encourage you to watch the video of our discussion on collaboration and democracy. We carefully observed together how the acts of collaboration, in the multiple meanings of the term, both support and challenge democracy, and how this is a dynamic process. 

As we began, Jeff Isaac noted that sometimes collaboration among opponents can not only generate effective concerted political action, but also friendship, citing his developing relationship with William Kristol. 

This observation provoked Shireen Hassim. Defending liberal democracy, she noted, is not or at least should not be in her judgment, the exclusive basis for our collaboration. Global authoritarianism is our common concern, threats to freedom of speech and assembly, academic freedom, popular political participation, and the like, but these cannot simply be addressed by supporting actually existing liberal democracies. There are serious, fundamental problems that liberal democracy has left festering, concerning property relations and rights, linked to inequality and climate change. On these issues, people with whom we would collaborate for liberal democracy as an immediate pressing problem, we likely need to oppose to address long term causes and consequences of the present crisis. Collaboration with former opponents may lead to friendships, turning opponents into friends, but such collaboration has limits determined by how recognized common problems are analyzed. Hassim, then, emphasized the importance of solidarity with focus on the disruption of the existing social order as an alternative to collaboration, drawing upon her experience in South Africa. 

Shireen and I have been talking about these issues for twenty years. We don’t always agree on details, but I agree with her that liberal and democratic ideals, as well as the ideals of social justice and equity, require going beyond formal democratic institutions, and must include disruption of the normal functioning of those institutions, through direct action and social movements.

As Shireen emphasized the need for a progressive solidarity as a specification of a type of collaboration, Karolina Wigura focused upon the need for compromise. Compromise among enemies was the prelude for the transformation of 1989 in Poland and among its neighbors, Karolina noted, allowing for the peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy. The Communists and their most forceful opponents sat down around a roundtable and negotiated the transformation. Enemies became collaborators, making possible the peaceful transition. Karolina further observed that the present Polish authorities condemn that collaboration in forceful terms, and these terms constitute their authoritarian turn. And ironically now, among their opponents there are those who again call for a clean sweep and others who propose compromise, though it is far from clear what compromise would look like. Karolina referred to the debate over abortion as a case in point in Poland. This underscores, I believe, how central the uncertain relationship between democracy and collaboration is again a central issue.

For Obaidullah Baheer and his Afghan colleagues, this is a matter of life and death. While collaboration with the Taliban for many in the diaspora is treason, Baheer persists in working with them. He can’t view them as an absolute evil. Considering the result of the war, the level of Afghan suffering and the possibilities of ameliorating the suffering, he sees no alternative to collaboration. He has chosen not to go into exile, remaining to explore possibilities of creating alternatives to theocratic rule, social repression and mass starvation. Further, he notes that the distance between the views of the Taliban and much of the population, is significantly narrower than the distance between it and the Taliban’s liberal opponents. With Taliban victory something has been lost, but it is not at all clear what that has been. Liberal and democracy are alienating terms. Obaidullah draws a distinction between the Taliban, which he doesn’t hate, and their specific acts, including the killings of friends and relatives. He doesn’t want to view the Taliban as an enemy, because what then are the options? He is striving to make room for non-Taliban spaces, including aid work and social welfare activity. He reports on this and has hope that such work could lead the general population to more liberal and democratic positions. He bases this hope on his own journey, growing up as he did in a powerful radical conservative religious family.

Obaidullah’s testimony and reflections led to a broad comparative discussion on the ethical imperatives of collaboration in the shadows of authoritarianism In Brazil, Poland, South Africa and the United States, as well as Afghanistan, and about this Jeff Isaac objected. Although the discussion of these issues, centered around the Afghan experience, is important, it isn’t about  democracy in his judgment. Rather, it concerns political ethics, as distinct from democracy.  Ethics of collaboration is important and how we use the term enemy is as well, but this is distinct from our concern about the threat of authoritarianism to liberal democracy.

I disagreed with Jeff, drawing upon Shireen’s position. The threat of authoritarianism is not only one that is specifically directed at liberal democratic institutions, important as those attacks are. There is an attack on the cultural and social texture of democracy, on democracy as Tocqueville first studied it. 

Daniel Peres, reflecting on his experiences in Brazil, clarified the argument I was trying to make. First, he noted that while Bolsonaro is likely finished, Bolsonarismu is not—an anti-democratic way of doing politics. Lula will win the election, but the challenge will be in forming an effective government. Discussion about democracy is too abstract. Social rights in the constitution don’t affect people’s lives. There is a need for a new social compact, broadly accepted by the population, left, right and center, with those out of power accepting the legitimacy of those in power, with a shared loyalty to the democratic order among opponents. And those who are seeking change must come together around a viable alternative. 

In our discussion, it was very clear that we share not only common commitments, but also a democratic sensibility. We listened to Baheer, intrigued by his stance: choosing to stay in country and resist non-violently, collaborating where he can and humble about his relationship with the general Afghan population, seeking to create a space for alternatives to Taliban rule in a very hostile environment, tentatively supporting, but monitoring, the effects of disruptive action, delicately searching for viable paths for alternatives to repressive rule. For those of us who know well the transformations of 1989, it reminded us of the idea of a “self-limiting revolution,” as Wigura underscored. 

The discussion closed with responses to a question posed by Siobhan Kattago from Estonia, concerning the connection between hope and despair. She noted how the ascendance of hopeful ideals of the United Nations, democracy and self-determination and worldwide universal human rights stemmed from the despair during and following WWII and the modern barbarism of those times, and wondered how we would apply this to our present circumstance.

Jeff Isaac framed our response to her question, leading to our closing thoughts on our collaboration. He offered a different perspective than he had earlier. He agreed that we share experiences and pointed to the grounds for sober realistic hope:

“Everywhere human dignity is being put to the test… and everywhere, the challenge that confronts us is to keep at bay those forces that are impressing upon human dignity and continue to impress upon human dignity. Wherever we are, we are just trying to stay afloat. The metaphor Hannah Arendt uses of an oasis in the desert, islands in an ocean, I think, is an appropriate way of defending even voting rights in the United States. It’s an incredibly fragile, limited, and vulnerable institution. Defending it is a challenge. It is not going to make the world fantastic, but it’s going to keep at bay something worse. That’s where my hopefulness comes.” 

My friends added intriguing notes on this. Shireen emphasized that the hope cannot only be based on forms of governance, but also on social movements that address the immensity of the climate crisis. Karolina observed that despair can lead not only to hope, but also to more despair, reflecting on the writings of Arendt and Leo Strauss. Obaidullah seconded this insight, ironically observing that hope can be used as a cover for despair: “when we were losing the war, I noticed I was using the word hope more frequently … hope is the sugar coating of more despair.”  But Daniel persisted, proposing his observation that in Brazil there is the need to democratize hope, to turn the search for alternatives into a broad social-political project.

This led me then and there, and leads me here and now, back to “the politics of small things.” Despair can enervate or energize. It can lead to action or inaction. When I look at the global stage and the immensity of global problems, I must admit, I am overwhelmed and find, as I put it in my book, that it “hurts to think” and even imagine acting. I know I am not alone in this. But when I think small, when I look at my circle of friends who share their concerns and insights, I am hopeful. 

Such was the case, when I was despairing after the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath with the development of the anti-war movement and its connection to the Dean campaign, and such is also the case, when I observed the circle of those active in the Democracy Seminar with their connections to the lived experiences of their compatriots and to each other. This was illustrated by our discussion on collaboration and democracy. This is facilitated by the internet. We did not come to a formula concerning the challenges of collaboration, to be sure. But we did illuminate the dimensions of the problem and struggles to explore these together. This is my oasis in the desert, which I shared with my friends, colleagues, and opponents, and readers and visitors of the Democracy Seminar in our official launch last month and will be sharing in the future. 

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology Emeritus at The New School for Social Research.


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