On Dai­ly Encoun­ters and Pub­lic Infra­struc­tures: What Keeps Democ­ra­cies Alive?

Democ­ra­cy in Ques­tion? – Through a Soft Author­i­tar­i­an Lens

In this com­ment, Jens Adam reflects on episode S2E5 of the pod­cast series “Democ­ra­cy in Ques­tion?” fea­tur­ing Till van Rah­den. Once in pow­er, soft author­i­tar­i­an politi­cians strive to dom­i­nate pub­lic insti­tu­tions and don’t shy away from dis­man­tling demo­c­ra­t­ic pro­ce­dures. But as exam­ples from Poland show, every­day encoun­ters and inter­ac­tions in pub­lic spaces might pro­vide signs of hope and a poten­tial for demo­c­ra­t­ic counter movements.

Par­lia­ments and inde­pen­dent courts are indis­pens­able, but not enough to keep democ­ra­cies alive. In this episode Till van Rah­den brings home to us that some­thing more is need­ed: “demo­c­ra­t­ic virtues” prac­ticed and cul­ti­vat­ed by cit­i­zens in their every­day encoun­ters and inter­ac­tions. From this point of view fam­i­lies, schools and oth­er pub­lic insti­tu­tions are of major rel­e­vance for the flour­ish­ing of a democ­ra­cy. They can pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties to nur­ture and enact demo­c­ra­t­ic ways of life on a reg­u­lar basis. And parks, play­grounds or swim­ming pools are more than just sites of leisure. Here cit­i­zens can acquire the capac­i­ty to nav­i­gate diver­si­ty, con­flicts and dis­sent. To keep a democ­ra­cy alive, we don’t have to agree on each con­tro­ver­sial ques­tion, Till von Rah­den argues. But we need sites of encounter and forms of inter­ac­tion that allow us each day to expe­ri­ence and to get along with dif­fer­ence. That’s why pools, parks or schools are so essen­tial: they are com­po­nents of the “demo­c­ra­t­ic com­mons” that enable a “nev­er end­ing con­tro­ver­sy over the idea of the pub­lic good”.

Can we analyse counter move­ments and under­cur­rents per­sist­ing on democ­ra­cy as a “form of life” once we focus explic­it­ly on every­day inter­ac­tion and pub­lic spaces?

Cur­rent­ly we observe shifts towards more author­i­tar­i­an modes of rule in many nom­i­nal democ­ra­cies. How could van Rahden’s reflec­tions about “democ­ra­cy as a frag­ile form of life” con­tribute to a bet­ter under­stand­ing of such trans­for­ma­tions? A crit­i­cal exam­i­na­tion of the grad­ual dis­man­tling of inde­pen­dent courts or elec­toral pro­ce­dures by soft author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments or their attacks on media plu­ral­ism is rather well estab­lished. This episode sug­gests that an exten­sion of our inquiry towards dai­ly encoun­ters and pub­lic infra­struc­tures could make sense. By doing so we could ask: Do we find evi­dence here of a reverse process that ques­tions or replaces once appre­ci­at­ed “demo­c­ra­t­ic virtues”? How can we best study the poten­tial dis­ap­pear­ance of the capac­i­ty to nav­i­gate diver­si­ty and con­tro­ver­sial issues? Or could we instead analyse counter move­ments and under­cur­rents per­sist­ing on democ­ra­cy as a “form of life” once we focus explic­it­ly on every­day inter­ac­tion and pub­lic spaces?

Poland is a fas­ci­nat­ing case to reflect on these ques­tions. It stands out as a soci­ety that estab­lished its democ­ra­cy in a long strug­gle against author­i­tar­i­an state social­ism. As part of a broad protest move­ment Poles cre­at­ed strike com­mit­tees and under­ground media, self-organ­ised cir­cles of crit­i­cal intel­lec­tu­als and the first inde­pen­dent trade union of the for­mer East­ern bloc. They used church con­gre­ga­tions as secure meet­ing spaces for mobi­liza­tion. And they estab­lished the “round table”, which has mean­while become an icon­ic set­ting, to peace­ful­ly nego­ti­ate a fun­da­men­tal sys­tem trans­for­ma­tion. In oth­er words, mul­ti­ple and cre­ative forms of every­day inter­ac­tion and encoun­ters were gen­er­at­ed in a wide-rang­ing soci­etal strug­gle for polit­i­cal change – forms, in which demo­c­ra­t­ic virtues were forged, cul­ti­vat­ed and practiced.

Schools and uni­ver­si­ties played a major role in estab­lish­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic virtues in post-war West­ern Ger­many. A com­pa­ra­ble sto­ry could be told about Poland’s edu­ca­tion­al sec­tor after 1989.

Against this back­ground, it might come as a sur­prise that some of the most promi­nent politi­cians and jour­nal­ists that push for­ward a soft author­i­tar­i­an agen­da today have their polit­i­cal roots in this very protest move­ment. Indeed, the gov­ern­ing par­ty – just as its lib­er­al oppo­nents – appeals strong­ly to nar­ra­tives of the hero­ic anti-com­mu­nist strug­gle as a source of legit­i­ma­cy for its stances and poli­cies. At least two con­clu­sions can be drawn from this: First­ly, the par­tic­i­pa­tion in a demo­c­ra­t­ic strug­gle and in the cre­ation of forms to prac­tice and cul­ti­vate democ­ra­cy under an auto­crat­ic regime seem not to immu­nise in each case against the temp­ta­tions of author­i­tar­i­an­ism. And sec­ond­ly, the entan­gle­ments between author­i­tar­i­an and demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal prac­tices in Poland are man­i­fold and obvi­ous­ly old­er than the more recent developments.

We may also ask about the con­se­quences of soft author­i­tar­i­an­ism for schools, muse­ums and oth­er pub­lic insti­tu­tions. Poland offers instruc­tive mate­r­i­al to dis­cuss this ques­tion too. As Till van Rah­den reminds us schools and uni­ver­si­ties played a major role in estab­lish­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic virtues in post-war West­ern Ger­many. A com­pa­ra­ble sto­ry could be told about Poland’s edu­ca­tion­al sec­tor after 1989. Remark­ably, since the PiS-led gov­ern­ment has come to pow­er (2015) it has focussed its atten­tion con­sis­tent­ly on cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions. The pub­lic TV sta­tion was trans­formed imme­di­ate­ly into a par­ti­san pro­pa­gan­da chan­nel. The direc­tors of some of the most impor­tant cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions were replaced, the per­ma­nent exhi­bi­tions of out­stand­ing muse­ums mod­i­fied accord­ing to the new ide­o­log­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion. The gov­ern­ment also cre­at­ed a cou­ple of new cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions and fes­ti­vals close­ly aligned with its own his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives and so-called patri­ot­ic val­ues. Pro­found changes in school cur­ric­u­la, text­books and read­ing lists that the edu­ca­tion­al min­is­ter announced more recent­ly point in the same direc­tion. Accord­ing to these changes pupils should be taught an exclu­sive­ly pos­i­tive vision of Pol­ish his­to­ry. The teach­ing of het­ero­nor­ma­tive fam­i­ly val­ues, for exam­ple, is pre­sent­ed as one rem­e­dy against Poland’s demo­graph­ic cri­sis. It remains to be seen to which extent these reforms will affect dai­ly inter­ac­tions in these insti­tu­tions or the ways in which demo­c­ra­t­ic virtues are prac­ticed and cul­ti­vat­ed in these spaces. But if we fol­low Till van Rahden’s appre­ci­a­tion of the capac­i­ty to nav­i­gate diver­si­ty, ambiva­lence and deeply divi­sive issues one is forced to note that the cur­rent changes seem to point in the oppo­site direction.

A focus on play­grounds, pub­lic pools or parks might lead us to a more hope­ful pic­ture. Munic­i­pal­i­ties play an impor­tant role in this regard. Since PiS came to pow­er local admin­is­tra­tions have proven to be a per­sis­tent coun­ter­vail­ing force against state-cen­tred, soft author­i­tar­i­an poli­cies. Above, cities are in charge of plan­ning and main­tain­ing a big part of Poland’s pub­lic infra­struc­ture. Keep­ing space open to all and design­ing it in a way that it enables encoun­ters in diver­si­ty could be a strat­e­gy to pro­tect and cul­ti­vate democ­ra­cy as an every­day form of life.

The river­side of the Vis­tu­la in War­saw rep­re­sents an illus­tra­tive exam­ple for this. Over the last years the banks have been trans­formed into a var­ie­gat­ed urban land­scape, com­posed of park sec­tions, view­ing plat­forms, cul­tur­al insti­tu­tions, bars and restau­rants. Beach vol­ley­ball fields, out­door gym equip­ment and skate­board cours­es invite sportsper­sons to exer­cise in pub­lic. Sit­ting spaces along the West­ern bank attract a var­ied crowd, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the sum­mer. Bike lanes and walk­ways are pop­u­lar among fam­i­lies for their week­end excur­sions. In brief, Varso­vians encounter a diverse urban com­mu­ni­ty on these sites. And here they do have to nav­i­gate dif­fer­ence and ambiva­lences, deal with minor con­flicts and per­haps even more fun­da­men­tal con­tro­ver­sial issues. Such spaces might not pro­tect the free­dom of courts, the fair­ness of elec­tion pro­ce­dures or the inde­pen­dence of the media. But they can con­tribute to nour­ish­ing democ­ra­cy as an every­day prac­tice and cul­ti­vate it as a form of life.


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.