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From “Islands of Democracy” to “Islands of Totalitarianism”

Notes on my conversation with Daniel Dayan about the disturbing events in France and the United States, and beyond

It’s different now. While, in the past, I focused on how “islands of democracy” form and develop in totalitarian contexts, these days, I am examining how “islands of totalitarianism” are forming and developing in democratic contexts. This, Daniel Dayan, my dear friend and colleague, insightfully observed last week in Paris, after reviewing my plans to establish the Democracy Seminar 2.0. He got it right, though I hadn’t thought of it this way until we talked.

We met in our favorite Parisian workplace, La Caféothèque, and then caught up with each other elsewhere over a lunch and a dinner. We’re working on our ongoing collaborative writing project, now influenced by recent events in France and the United States. We disussed papers he is developing on a theory of events and their media dimensions, and a series of theoretically informed and politically engaged case studies we are examining: he on Gilets Jaunes(the Yellow Vest movement)a terror event and an anti-Semitic event, all in France, while I am considering “Trump events” in the United States, and events revealing the movement from democracy to dictatorship in Central Europe, such as the assassination of Paweł Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdańsk last week, which Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer reported and analyzed here.

We intensely discussed freedom of speech, conspiracies and their theories, human rights, fake news, civility, the anticipated and unanticipated consequences of political action, how events become viral, and my understanding of the social condition.

He tends to align himself with the center right, while I think of myself as being on the left. Yet, even though we have some important political disagreements, we agree more than we disagree on the pressing issues of our times, and our theoretical sensibilities are closely related. Perhaps we are comrades of the radical center, as I have described it in earlier posts.

Daniel and I share a sense that we are in the midst of a fundamentally disordered global situation. I am convinced that this is the consequence of our present media environment, but also that it can only be addressed through the new media that are now available. I promise to spell this out in a future post. He is convinced that the response to the disorder will take one of two routes, either through reconciliation rituals of the sort Victor Turner imagined, or through scapegoating, as understood in the work of René Girard. Daniel noted in our discussion that scapegoating is already a significant component part of Gilets Jaunesin the form of anti-Semitism, and that if it turns to a broader xenophobia a civil explosion might erupt.

At his instigation I am thinking about my change of focus, from islands of democracy to islands of totalitarianism.

When I lived in The Polish People’s Republic, researching a strikingly innovative and politically challenging theater movement, it became clear to me that the idea of a totalitarian society didn’t make sense. In such societies, even in concentration camps, islands of resistance persistently form, both through official institutions and apart from them. I later noted that this is very much a manifestation of what Erving Goffman analyzed as the underlife of total institutions in his classic study Asylums.

I am struck now by democracy’s underlife and concerned that it may become the “overlife” on my native grounds and Daniel’s, and in many other places, threatening to become a global trend.

Of course, I have long known that the combination of democratic ideals with profoundly anti-democratic practices has a long American history, a history recently given full fresh examination by Jill Lapore’s in her history of the United States, These Truths. Yet, the extraordinary seems to be happening, a threatening anti-democratic island today includes, in my judgment, the White House and much of the Republican Party, and their supporters.

Indeed, the supporters scare the hell out of me, as Daniel is alarmed by Gilets Jaunes (I am hoping he will explain more fully in a future post). What had been on the peripheries in post World War II public life in a wide variety of liberal and parliamentary democracies, radically anti-democratic and anti-liberal attitudes and ideologies, has now moved to the center.

At Public Seminar, we have been reporting and analyzing this development in TurkeyHungaryBrazilPoland, and of course, the United States in depth, not only in our liberal democracy in question series, but also in the two books we published last year, #Charlottesville and #Against Trump, and in many other articles from the series on cogency of the notion of illiberal democracy, to posts on populismmedia and neo-liberalism, and my examination of the new authoritarianism.

I don’t think that the United States is on the brink of dictatorship, nor is it about to become an illiberal democracy as it is being developed in Hungary. Yet, clearly democratic forms and practices are being replaced by authoritarian forms and practices, even totalitarian ones. The videos of Trump’s first and most recent cabinet meetings reveal that praise for the great leader rather than careful deliberation is the mode of operation. In Fox News, we have a semi-official state media, and a kind of Ministry of Ideology and Propaganda, that even disciplined the President when he strayed too far from the party line on immigration. Trump issues dictatorial pronouncements, i.e. tweets, and the world must pay attention. Officials are hired and fired. Policy is pronounced and reversed, opponents are demonized. Allies condemned, and Trump’s fellow authoritarians around the world are praised. Crucially, those in the Trumpist movement, i.e. his base, applaud, and Republican political leaders fall in line.

This I find most disturbing. Through informal channels and reports, I hear that Republican representatives and senators will concede, off the record, that they understand how Trump is profoundly transgressing the norms of democratic practice. They recognized and opposed him before he was President on these grounds. They know he represents a danger to the Republic. But, they now calculate that they can’t oppose him, because if they lost the favor of his movement, of the base, their chances for re-election would radically diminish. Such calculation is normal, but irresponsible and thoughtless. Hannah Arendt called it the banality of evil.

I think there is good reason to believe that in the relatively near future, “Trump Island” will face stronger and more effective opposition. Given the election results, the Democratic Party control of the House of Representatives, the increasingly negative consequences of policies not based on fact, from the government shutdown to climate change to international relations, I think we have reasons to be cautiously optimistic. And by the way, progressive that I am, I think the idea of a Green New Deal is extraordinarily promising. But, of course, I cannot be sure, as I was far from sure that the democratic islands that I studied in the past would actually lead to global transformation.

Daniel and I will pick this up when we next meet in March in New York, perhaps at our favorite working place here, Joe Coffee Company, just off Union Square. On this gray wintry Friday, I am very much looking forward to it. In the meanwhile, we will be publishing notes from our conversation here on Public Seminar in the coming months.

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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