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Our Dark Times

Setting the Intellectual and Political Context for the Investigation of Media, The New Authoritarianism and Its Alternatives

This seminar has a long history, predating the Democracy and Diversity Institute, and born as an oppositionist activity in the good old bad days of previously existing socialism. Adam Michnik first imagined it, after he received an honorary doctorate from The New School in a clandestine award ceremony in 1984 in Warsaw. In the late 1980s, it was known as the Democracy Seminar in New York, the Totalitarianism Seminar in Budapest and Warsaw. Elzbieta Matynia describes its history in her introduction to the book Grappling with Democracy (2009).

First there was an unofficial seminar, starting with the collective reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and the exchange of discussion notes about the book in Warsaw, Budapest and New York. Then, after 1989, the seminar expanded all around the old bloc, with annual meetings in June, many of the chapters collected in Grappling came from these. Then the Democracy and Diversity Institute came into being and has flourished ever since. During those years, I have imagined my class as keeping alive the discussions in the original oppositionist project of studying democracy and its enemies. I trust we will do the same this year.

I have regularly opened my teaching in the summer institute with this account. But this year is different. In the past, the accounts have been progressive: we have experienced ever greater openness, from underground to above ground, from occasional joint meetings to a sustained institute; from an institute in which the chasm between east and west was very deep, to one in which our intellectual differences have more to do with the orientations and commitments of the distinctive individual thinkers around the seminar table, and less to do with where they have come from. In the sense of Hannah Arendt, we have emerged out of darkness of cold war, creating an ever more open, free, and indeed, a public seminar (not coincidently the name of the online platform I have founded).

Yet, we meet here and now under very different circumstances. This year we meet the day after Donald Trump of the United States met Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and incidentally President Andrzej Duda. Dark times once again, though the shading of the darkness and the way to seek illumination are different.

For Arendt, and for the purposes of this seminar, darkness is more than a metaphor for “hard” or “difficult.” Her concern was political, not social, as she would put it. The challenge is to be visible, to appear in each others’ presence, to speak to each other developing a capacity to act together, as equals, in our differences, i.e. to act politically. Darkness is condition of not being seen and not being able to see, and, therefore, being unable to act together. Her concern was with overriding effect of ideology, making it so that the horrors of the twentieth century were not perceived by those who were experiencing and even those who were creating them, the ideologies of the left (Soviet Communism), the right (Fascism and Nazism) and the center (technocracy and bureaucracy, the rule of no one, as she poignantly put it).

I think we are now going through a variation on Arendt’s theme. Along with a unified darkness imposed by true believers, ours is a darkness of fragmentation, a darkness caused by myopic publics, facilitated by the new media environment. The structural transformation of the public sphere has proceeded and the media pose new problems and possibilities. In the next three meetings of the seminar, we will explore this.

But before proceeding, a few more preliminary thoughts on the political context of our work.

The new authoritarianism has a close family resemblance to traditional authoritarianism. The media are controlled by the powers. Journalists are silenced, arrested and even killed. Public broadcasting becomes state broadcasting, informed by the ideology of the ruling party, print media are censored, directly and indirectly, and the new media are openly turned on and off, and restricted, serving the interests of the ruling party. There is a state ideological apparatus that supports the authoritarian leader and the authorities, violent repression is one option, but not required.

Yet, there is also a new and innovative authoritarianism. Populist rhetoric appeals to a significant segment of the global population. It promises security, and calls for action against the enemy, the dark forces: the heathens, the terrorists, and any one else who undermines the nation. It promises easy solutions to complex socio-economic problems. In the new authoritarianism those outside the populist commonsense are ignored, constrained, and repressed. They, we, may continue in our accustomed fashion, but with diminishing effect. In some places we may be jailed and even killed; in other places, there is a kind of authoritarian repressive tolerance. The enlightened relationship between critical discussion and authority, first described by Kant, and developed by Habermas in his seminal work on the public sphere, is deliberately broken, sustained by an alternative media system. The crowds that meet Donald Trump in Warsaw and Iowa, are immune to the critical investigations, reports and analysis of Gazeta Wyborcza, The New York Times and The Washington Post. And these are vilified by the authoritarian leader. The enemy of the people, as Donald Trump bluntly has put it.

It’s astonishing that we begin our seminar in this context. The seminar began in 1985, as a long distance exploration of democracy and its enemies by critical thinkers on the two sides of the iron curtain. There was a clear understanding that for all its problems actually existing democracy, compared to actually existing socialism, was the ground upon which a more just political order could be developed. Civil society, the rule of law, a relatively autonomous and consequential sphere of publics, if not a singular public sphere, were the great political accomplishments and aspirations, to be constituted on the east side of the wall, and be consolidated and extended on the west side, and indeed in the words of an American president (whom I did not admire, as it happens, but my friends and colleagues in the east did) the goal was to “tear down that wall,” even though none of us imagined that the wall would fall.

Once it did, we worked on critical investigations of various sorts, which can be gleaned from the titles of the topics covered in the Democracy and Diversity Institute over the years: civil society, constitution making, nationalism, democratic and critical theory, and much else.

And now and here we are, experiencing a second great surprise, though its no party. I knew democracy was fragile, more an ongoing process than an object, more a verb than a noun. But the rise of the new authoritarianism, I admit, has surprised me even more than the fall of the Soviet empire. Our task, in our readings, discussions and writing, is to work to understand the surprise and to consider ways to overcome it.

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Jeffrey Goldfarb

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