Civ­il Soci­ety Revis­it­ed: Democ­ra­cy and Grass­roots Authoritarianism

Democ­ra­cy in Ques­tion? – Through a Soft Author­i­tar­i­an Lens

In this com­ment on the last episode of our pod­cast series ‘Democ­ra­cy in Ques­tion?’ Jens Adam reflects on Mary Kaldor’s notions of  ‘Civ­il Soci­ety’ and ‘Hor­i­zon­tal Democ­ra­cy’. Draw­ing on exam­ples from Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, he revis­its Kaldor’s con­cept and exam­ines how civ­il soci­ety becomes a bat­tle­ground for ‘autori­tar­i­an attempts’.

This episode is a tour de force by Mary Kaldor on the long his­to­ry and the chang­ing for­tunes as well as the trans­for­ma­tions in the very mean­ing of ‘civ­il soci­ety’. She makes a pow­er­ful argu­ment why it is an indis­pens­able sphere, where cri­tique and protest against pow­er hold­ers can be mobi­lized and gov­ern­ments held account­able. She strong­ly voic­es a hope that has often been expressed in the poten­tial of inde­pen­dent, ever new self-orga­nized forms of cit­i­zen action around pub­lic issues to offer an effec­tive buffer zone against auto­crat­ic rule.

Many exam­ples could be mar­shalled in sup­port of such an expec­ta­tion. Civic gath­er­ings and engage­ment played a major role in over­com­ing author­i­tar­i­an state-social­ist pow­er in Cen­tral East­ern Europe in the 1980s. Around thir­ty years lat­er, the mobi­liza­tion at the Euro­maid­an in Kyiv not only enforced the depar­ture of the auto­crat­ic pres­i­dent Vik­tor Yanukovych, but also gave rise to inno­v­a­tive forms of civic activism. Cur­rent­ly we are wit­ness­ing the admirable, seem­ing­ly inex­haustible courage of civ­il soci­ety in Belarus to resist the vio­lent regime of yet anoth­er despot, Alek­sander Lukashenko.

Civ­il soci­ety mobi­liza­tion against some auto­crats has suc­ceed­ed, though it has failed to dis­lodge, for exam­ple, Assad’s high­ly repres­sive regime. But can civ­il soci­ety pre­vent attempts at ‘auto­crat­ic break­throughs’ to use Bálint Magyar’s phrase for Hun­gary under Vik­tor Orbán?[1]

How could the role of ‘civ­il soci­ety’ be con­cep­tu­al­ized using the expe­ri­ence of soft author­i­tar­i­an regimes? How effec­tive are civic move­ments, for instance, in pro­tect­ing democ­ra­cy in coun­tries, where gov­ern­ments are slow­ly and insid­i­ous­ly shift­ing the polit­i­cal matrix in the direc­tion of autocracy?

Poland offers an ambiva­lent pic­ture in this regard.

One should not under­es­ti­mate the rel­e­vance of civic move­ments in resist­ing the government’s endeav­our to inter­vene into the judi­cial sys­tem, to sub­ju­gate the media, or to dis­man­tle civic rights. Since the PiS-gov­ern­ment came into pow­er in 2015, civic alliances and street protests have tried to defend the inde­pen­dence of courts, to pro­tect the con­sti­tu­tion against vio­la­tions by those in pow­er or to sup­port free media. Radio Nowy Świat, for instance, a chan­nel cre­at­ed last year by jour­nal­ists and pre­sen­ters who left pub­lic Radio 3 col­lec­tive­ly after strong polit­i­cal inter­fer­ence, runs ful­ly on dona­tions from its ‘civic patrons’. And tens of thou­sands of Poles fol­lowed recent­ly the call of the ‘All-Poland Women’s Strike’ to protest against the de fac­to abo­li­tion of the right to abor­tion through a ver­dict of the politi­cised Con­sti­tu­tion­al Tri­bunal in Octo­ber 2020. These ral­lies rep­re­sent just one par­tic­u­lar­ly vis­i­ble exam­ple of civic oppo­si­tion that was wide­ly report­ed in the inter­na­tion­al media.

In coun­tries like Poland civ­il soci­ety is an ambiva­lent bat­tle­ground, where author­i­tar­i­an rhetoric, poli­cies and projects of remem­brance are often first developed.

How­ev­er, we must also take notice of grass­roots move­ments that explic­it­ly cam­paign for an accel­er­at­ed trans­for­ma­tion towards a more author­i­tar­i­an poli­ty: church-asso­ci­at­ed organ­i­sa­tions have con­tin­ued to demand that fur­ther restric­tions be added to an already restric­tive abor­tion law; so-called ‘pro-life-organ­i­sa­tions’ agi­tate vocif­er­ous­ly against the pres­ence of LGBTQ-peo­ple in pub­lic space; and all over the coun­try local asso­ci­a­tions push for nation­al­is­tic forms of col­lec­tive com­mem­o­ra­tion. All this mobi­liza­tion does not take place at the mar­gins of an oth­er­wise pro­gres­sive civ­il soci­ety. On the con­trary, these move­ments have grad­u­al­ly suc­ceed­ed in gain­ing soci­etal cen­tre stage. And they have entered into many rec­i­p­ro­cal bar­gains with the gov­ern­ment that need to be traced in detail in order to under­stand bet­ter the cur­rent author­i­tar­i­an trend in Poland that goes much beyond gov­ern­ment poli­cies and prac­tices to include civ­il soci­ety organ­i­sa­tions too.

An under­stand­ing of ‘civ­il soci­ety’ as a demo­c­ra­t­ic buffer zone is thus too nar­row to cap­ture the breadth of civic ini­tia­tives and mobi­liza­tion. In coun­tries like Poland civ­il soci­ety is an ambiva­lent bat­tle­ground, where author­i­tar­i­an rhetoric, poli­cies and projects of remem­brance are often first devel­oped. Civ­il soci­ety can thus prove to be a sphere of con­tes­ta­tion, where strong grass­roots author­i­tar­i­an­ism jos­tles with ini­tia­tives defend­ing lib­er­al democ­ra­cy in a long-run­ning strug­gle for hegemony.

Exam­in­ing ‘Hor­i­zon­tal Democracy’

Mary Kaldor brings to our atten­tion anoth­er term that might help inte­grate into our analy­sis these soci­etal strug­gles accom­pa­ny­ing author­i­tar­i­an attempts or break­throughs, name­ly ‘hor­i­zon­tal democ­ra­cy’ as sit­u­at­ed in civ­il soci­ety. She speaks of it as a com­ple­ment to for­malised ‘rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy’ that we usu­al­ly focus on in order to map polit­i­cal con­tes­ta­tion. The con­cept of ‘hor­i­zon­tal democ­ra­cy’ directs our atten­tion to at least two impor­tant polit­i­cal dimen­sions of civic engage­ment and activism:

‘Hor­i­zon­tal democ­ra­cy’ offers a con­cep­tu­al frame­work to explore the alter­na­tive polit­i­cal forms and ideas aris­ing from civ­il soci­ety activism that puts for­ward com­pet­ing visions for a lib­er­al, demo­c­ra­t­ic and cos­mopoli­tan future.

Grass­roots ini­tia­tives – even if the ini­tial issue addressed by these might seem nar­row –  usu­al­ly are part of the devel­op­ment and mobil­i­sa­tion of broad­er visions about soci­ety and the con­di­tions of com­mu­nal life. ‘Pro Life-‘ or anti-LGBTQ-move­ments, for instance, project a future in which the Catholic Church dic­tates the moral agen­da for the whole of soci­ety and het­ero­sex­u­al fam­i­lies based on a gen­der hier­ar­chy con­sti­tute the priv­i­leged, if not the only accept­able, form of domes­tic life. Sim­i­lar­ly, local ini­tia­tives that pro­mote patri­ot­ic pat­terns of com­mem­o­ra­tion con­tribute to the image of the hero­ic and pure Pol­ish nation as a uni­tary and nor­mal­ized polit­i­cal frame of ref­er­ence. But what applies to con­ser­v­a­tive or author­i­tar­i­an grass­roots move­ments is equal­ly true of their oppo­nents. Fem­i­nist, human rights groups, asso­ci­a­tions of crit­i­cal lawyers or cli­mate activists also do not lim­it them­selves to a sin­gle issue alone. They too devel­op and dis­sem­i­nate larg­er, alter­na­tive, utopi­an visions. In this con­text, ‘rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy’ is not the only bat­tle­ground of soft author­i­tar­i­an­ism. Con­se­quent­ly, the term ‘hor­i­zon­tal democ­ra­cy’ under­pins con­cep­tu­al­ly an ana­lyt­i­cal inter­est in these very civic antag­o­nisms. More­over, it offers a con­cep­tu­al frame­work to explore the alter­na­tive polit­i­cal forms and ideas aris­ing from civ­il soci­ety activism that puts for­ward com­pet­ing visions for a lib­er­al, demo­c­ra­t­ic and cos­mopoli­tan future.

I would like to high­light anoth­er aspect that this jux­ta­po­si­tion of ‘rep­re­sen­ta­tive’ and ‘hor­i­zon­tal democ­ra­cy’ could ren­der vis­i­ble. I allud­ed to the emer­gence of new ties between civic actors and the gov­ern­ment as a strong dri­ving force of an author­i­tar­i­an agen­da. This applies, for instance, to the de fac­to abo­li­tion of the right to abor­tion that was suc­cess­ful­ly advo­cat­ed by an alliance of the Catholic church, right wing civic move­ments, elect­ed deputies, gov­ern­ment offi­cials and con­ser­v­a­tive judges. Ongo­ing strug­gles around the pol­i­tics of mem­o­ry – that in some cas­es clear­ly endan­ger the aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom of his­to­ri­ans – are being pushed for­ward by sim­i­lar alliances between the state and right wing, nation­al­ist civ­il soci­ety organ­i­sa­tions. In both cas­es we see ‘feed­back loops’ between the offi­cial polit­i­cal field and civ­il soci­ety accom­pa­ny­ing the ongo­ing ‘auto­crat­ic attempt’, to use Balint’s term.

The jux­ta­po­si­tion of ‘rep­re­sen­ta­tive’ and ‘hor­i­zon­tal democ­ra­cy’ helps us to exam­ine and under­stand bet­ter these emerg­ing feed­back loops and mech­a­nisms of exchange: How exact­ly are author­i­tar­i­an attempts and break­throughs anchored in and dri­ven for­ward by such new alliances? But it could also open new ana­lyt­i­cal per­spec­tives on under­stand­ing the dynam­ic of civic counter-move­ments in imped­ing auto­crat­ic con­sol­i­da­tion: Under which con­di­tions and by what means can alter­na­tive polit­i­cal ideas advo­cat­ed by street protests and civic ini­tia­tives crit­i­cal of state poli­cies and prac­tices enter the offi­cial polit­i­cal field, and be tak­en up, for instance, by par­lia­men­tary oppo­si­tion par­ties? What might inhib­it such transfer?

‘Auto­crat­ic attempts’ are thus not lim­it­ed to gov­ern­men­tal actions or the takeover of par­lia­ments. They are often embed­ded in ‘grass­roots author­i­tar­i­an­ism’ sup­port­ed by alliances between civic asso­ci­a­tions, politi­cians and state offi­cials. This insight is brought home to us by an under­stand­ing of ‘civ­il soci­ety’ as an ambiva­lent bat­tle­ground and by way of an explic­it focus on ‘hor­i­zon­tal democ­ra­cy’ as a field of polit­i­cal con­tes­ta­tion. How­ev­er, these inter­sec­tions are any­thing but a one-way street, whose out­come is guar­an­teed from the out­set. ‘Real utopias’ about a demo­c­ra­t­ic, cos­mopoli­tan future can evolve and gain accep­tance in and through sim­i­lar dynam­ics between civ­il soci­ety actors of var­i­ous kind and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of state authorities.

[1] Bálint Mag­yar dis­tin­guish­es between three phas­es of an auto­crat­ic trans­for­ma­tion in Hun­gary: auto­crat­ic attempt, auto­crat­ic break­through, auto­crat­ic con­sol­i­da­tion. Masha Gessen gen­er­al­izes these as a mod­el in her book Sur­viv­ing Autoc­ra­cy (New York: River­head Books 2020:6).

The pod­cast series “Democ­ra­cy in Ques­tion?” is co-pro­duced by Albert Hirschman Cen­tre on Democ­ra­cy at The Grad­u­ate Insti­tute, Gene­va and the Insti­tute for Human Sci­ences (IWM) Vien­na, in coop­er­a­tion with the Research Group on Soft Author­i­tar­i­an­ism, Uni­ver­si­ty of Bre­men. It is pro­duced by Richard Miron and Anouk Mil­let (Earshot Strate­gies; London).

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Jens Adam

Jens Adam is part of the U Bremen Excellence Chair Research Group "Soft Authoritarianisms", focusing his research on Poland. Previously, he was deputy professor for "Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology" at the Georg-August-University of Göttingen and for "Maritime Anthropology" at the University of Bremen. His work revolves around urban and political anthropology as well as the study of europeanization and cosmopolitanization.