The Seamy Side of the Politics of Small Things


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December 22, 2020

The Seamy Side of the Politics of Small Things

Turkey Poland, China, the United States and beyond

  • Censorship
  • Democracy
  • Hungary
  • Turkey

In 2006, I published The Politics of Small Things. When I submitted the first draft to the University of Chicago Press, all of the chapters pointed to “the power of the powerless in dark times” (my subtitle). All my examples were progressive and secular, leading an anonymous referee to wonder: what about the politics of small things and the religious right?

I recognized that the reviewer had a point and decided to answer the question by adding a chapter: “2004: The Church, the Right and the Politics of Small Things.” In it, I showed how micro-politics, politics in the details of social interaction, in churches with links to the Republican Party, generated political power. I hesitated labeling this as “the politics of small things,” because my understanding of politics is normative, leaning on Hannah Arendt as my guide. Politics is about people meeting each other as equals in their differences, speaking and acting together. Because of the centrality of the hierarchical relationships between the ministers and their congregations for the political activity of the religious right, I hesitated to consider this developing power as an example of “the politics of small things.”

My inquiry was motivated by a search for light when I was feeling particularly hopeless after the attacks of 9/11, with darkness in every direction, including the major political forces – the terrorists, the anti-terrorists and the anti-anti terrorists – and in my own personal life, the loss of my friend Michael Asher and the close escape of another friend, Steve Assael, in the World Trade Center collapse. In face to face and virtual interactions, I saw possible alternatives. My formula: the politics of small things + the internet = alternatives.

Our situation is now quite different. While we still should appreciate and fully promote the power of the powerless, we must also understand the bewildering new powers of the powerful, how in the details of interaction a new form of authoritarianism (neo-fascism?) is being constituted. As I see it now, we must understand the seamy side of the politics of small things, which I first observed in the religious right, and which is now pervasive.

This is exactly what colleagues in the Democracy Seminar have been doing. While in The Politics of Small Things, I argued that democracy can be found in the details, contributors are revealing that authoritarianism is exhibited and constituted in the details.

Turkish exiled political scientist, Aysen Candas, considers this field of contest. She notes how women activists and MPs from Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Macedonia, and elsewhere experienced a similar pattern: the cooptation of their methods of resistance by the authorities, who created new organizations in a parallel civil society, which presented themselves as grassroots associations, while following the commands of the authorities. Such moves, “astroturfing” in the American vernacular, are concerted efforts to undermine the power of the powerless.

Candas has no special hopes invested in universities. They are like other institutions. Their integrity and strength depend on what the people who work in them do. If they cooperate with the new authoritarians, then universities are a base of repression.

She holds out hope for “the broadest coalition” of those who oppose the authoritarian trends and build broad alliances, and sees great meaning in the victory of the Biden-Harris ticket in the United States:

“(T)he Biden-Harris victory in the US is not a coincidence; it happened thanks to the massive efforts of American political activists who built a broad alliance. We have to follow in their footsteps and continue building solidarity with other resistance movements across the globe if we hope to prevail.”

Poland is a country in transition, from a flawed, but consolidated, democracy, to an emerging dictatorship. A key aspect of this transition is the repeated undermining of the rule of law. Although this has led to tensions with the European Union, both Poland and Hungary have continued on their authoritarian paths to the frustration of many critical observers, including Timothy Garten Ash, a prominent chronicler of the emergence of democracy in Central Europe, and George Soros.

Ewa Łętowska, the recipient of the 2017 Courage in Public Scholarship Award, presented by the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS), explores the seamy side of the politics of small things in Poland, involving “the selective application of rule of law principles,” through small gestures. The ruling authorities pass, but don’t publish, a law to avoid paying mandated special benefits to constituents, in this case, doctors, because they did not vote correctly. A judge ruling against the expectations of state authorities is suspended, his salary is reduced and he faces prosecution. Another judge applies EU standards for treatment of the disabled in a way the authorities find inconvenient, and she faces disciplinary proceedings. “The constitution – in some spheres – functions capriciously. Sometimes it is applied, sometimes not.” The inconsistent application of the law, always to serve the interests of the ruling party, constitutes the new authoritarianism. On the other hand, opposing this enactment, is an important democratic gesture.

Teng Biao is an exiled Chinese human rights lawyer and activist, who has suffered severely for his principled commitments to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. He is being politically harassed even in the United States. His contribution to the Democracy Seminar focuses on the powerful interaction between the repressive measures of the party-state apparatus and the even more powerful repression accomplished through self-censorship. He then highlights the implications of turning off the self-censor, citing Vaclav Havel’s notion of “living in truth.”

This sentence summarizes his position: “Censorship is oppressive, and to self-censor is to give up on resistance. On the other hand, the refusal of self-censorship is the beginning of resistance.”

He reports that when he embarked on his path of resistance, it was enabled by new media and technology, but now he warns of what he calls “high tech totalitarianism.” He used the new media to meet others who shared the democratic principles to which he is committed, to speak and listen to them, and to develop a capacity to act together in pursuit of those principles. Now:

“The CCP utilizes its lead in Artificial Intelligence to tighten its total control of Chinese society. The Great Firewall, social media, big data, e-commerce, and modern telecommunications make it easier for the CCP to keep people under total surveillance. The internet has been used by the CCP as an effective tool for censorship, propaganda, and brainwashing. Facial recognition, voiceprint recognition, gait recognition, DNA collection, and biometric tags have all systematized the CCP’s growing control. What’s happening in Xinjiang, Tibet, and all over China goes far beyond the imagination of George Orwell’s 1984.”

Biao underscores that this applies not only in repressive regimes such as China, but also in regimes of aspiring repressiveness, such as Donald Trump’s America. Fear, despair, alienation and confusion, lead to cynicism to the point that as he puts it “the survivors become the perpetrators.” As the author of The Cynical Society, I was particularly interested in how he analyzed what he calls “the post-tank syndrome.”

Back in 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, both the power of small interactions and the power of small gestures in both small and large settings gave me hope. Candas, Łętowska and Biao demonstrate the threats to democracy, like the flourishing of democracy itself, are in the details. From the internal censor, to the selective application of the rule of law, to the creation of apparently independent civil associations that actually serve those in power.

Perhaps not surprisingly, as I contemplate explorations that are primarily based on the situations of Turkey, Poland and China, I hear American echoes, as we are going through the most rocky peaceful transition of power in our history. The concerted antics of our would-be “great leader” are appalling. But as I described in my last post, the evil delay of Congressional Republicans to clearly and forthrightly recognize the legitimacy of President-elect Biden is even more appalling. Their delay presents immediate difficulties, but I fear it will have more lasting consequences for the continued viability of democracy in America in the future.

I wrote The Politics of Small Things at an earlier time when I was desperately seeking grounds for hope. Now, when the death of democracy looms large in the United States, China, Poland, Turkey, and many other places, I still find hopefulness in some small things. But in others I see great danger. And so I now think it is important to pay attention to the seamy side of the politics of small things.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research. He is also the Founder and Publisher of Public Seminar.

This post was initially published in the Democracy Seminar’s newsletter of December 17, 2020.


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