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?
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.
 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).