AGORA CEE 2018 MEETING IN CIESZYN (5TH EDITION)
Right-wing populism, soft dictatorship, an illiberal democracy, antiliberal counterrevolution: there are terms and labels aplenty for describing the specter haunting Europe, not only its central and eastern parts. And so there is no shortage of assessments, each pointing to its alleged origin: a reaction to the crisis of neoliberal capitalism, a revolt of the humiliated peripheries, demographic fear, frailty of democratic tradition in the region, incomplete (bourgeois or proletarian) revolution… We are aware that bickering over notions is no substitute for politics, while at the same time we believe that in order to change the world one has to be able to describe it accurately in the first place.
Many received ideas, most notably ‘civil society’ has clearly been depleted as descriptive tools, and still more so as democratic action; on the other hand, the traditional class description of the conflict seems insufficient for grasping the dynamics of our societies.
Drawing on the Polish experience, we suggest the notion of ‘new authoritarianism’ as the name for the political mechanism deployed by the ruling formation. ‘New,’ because it invokes the mandate of a majority democracy; “authoritarianism,” because it offers its supporters a sense of participating in an act of collective social domination, which manifests itself in an arbitrary definition of the community of solidarity, exclusion of ever new categories of Others, but also in a voluntaristically defined collective political agency, unfettered by the constitution.
At the same time, in response to the practice of the rulers, but also to earlier global trends, new forms of activism and civic identities emerge. They go beyond the idea of liberal civil society or traditional social movements, they refuse to be associated with political establishments and traditional media elites, they seek to generate a new quality of action, which are not limited to emergency campaigns or protest actions. Thus far they have proved successful in halting some of the authorities’ projects and delaying others, and in ushering into the mainstream of public debate concepts that had formerly been relegated to the radical margin, such as women’s reproductive rights. Offering resistance and transforming discourse do not go the whole way in the spectrum of civic politics.
Will the new political society accumulate the energy indispensable for a political change? Will it go on to exerting a lasting influence on local governments? Will it develop new party reserves? Or perhaps it will find new channels of affecting the state? What are the operating levels – from the local community all the way up to the European Union – on which cooperation and synergy of political movements are possible? Finally: how to translate the activism into the awareness and political practice of the depoliticised social classes or those who have so far been restrained in their appreciation of the moment?
The Agora 2018 meeting was an attempt at combining the perspective of activism, journalism and academic research, and the experience of the region’s countries, each afflicted in its own way by the crisis and the wave of authoritarian politics. We hope that mutual inspirations and confrontation of our experiences will allow us to develop new political narratives, but also to rethink the tools of political action.