Can Europe Make It?

Ivan Krastev: Balkan smuggler of ideas

In In Mistrust we Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don't Trust Our Leaders? Ivan Krastev concentrates on why we live under conditions of “democracy without the possibility of choice, meaningless sovereignty, and globalization without legitimacy?” How does he do? Here is the polemical foreword to the Polish edition. 

Slawomir Sierakowski
6 February 2014
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Ivan Krastev speaks at a TED conference. Flickr/TED conference. Some rights reserved.

In the book In Mistrust we Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don't Trust Our Leaders? (TED Books) Ivan Krastev treats the major intercontinental routes: USA-Russia and USA-China, as well as China-Russia, although he himself hails from Europe. He is most esteemed for his intellectual mediation between the world’s most important countries. In the United States and Europe, he explains Russian policy, and in Russia… In Russia there is no one to whom he can explain American and EU intentions, because they are already clear to Russian politicians. This is why in Russia Krastev usually converses with intellectuals and social activists. He also closely follows the development of China and Turkey, which are becoming increasingly important to both European and global affairs.

Krastev skilfully employs the experiences he gained in a post-communist country and from its collapse in order to analyze Russia and the east as a whole. They are also useful for analyzing the west. Krastev often uses the collapse of political unions such as the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia in order to identify challenges facing the European Union (one of his essays bears the subtitle Seven Lessons From the Soviet Collapse). Thanks to his knowledge of Bulgarian history and Bulgaria’s Turkish minority, Krastev not only knows the Balkan region, a part of the world we should not forget, but also has a better understanding of Muslim countries. In analyzing the state of democracy and democratic transformations, he makes use of what he saw in 1989 and 1990, when Communism fell and all of Eastern Europe began the difficult road towards freedom and integration with the west.

Today he lives in Vienna, where he is a permanent fellow at the IWM Institute of Human Sciences founded by Krzysztof Michalski. Few parts of the map remain untouched by his interest.

How and with what?

The reader will quickly realize that Krastev is a seeker of contradictions. Indeed, every one of his conclusions is based on reversing some truism and checking whether it is now truer, and what that means. You believe that the government is not sufficiently transparent? You are mistaken—transparency hurts democracy. Everyone believes that Russia is an authoritarian country? Then we will demonstrate that it is not all that authoritarian after all, and that its elections are falsified precisely in order to conceal that fact and to convince the entire world, including Russians, that Putin is a strong leader. True authoritarianism can be found in China. But no, not at all—listen to the surprising story of how China is less authoritarian than Russia. A critic might argue that Krastev so likes to surprise the reader with showy sabotage of common beliefs that reality becomes of secondary importance. Truisms tempt intellectuals and provoke them to attack, but they rarely turn out to be false.

Krastev is known for the fact that he knows “everyone.” His profession requires contact with people in positions of power, not only from the sphere of politics, but also from economics, the sciences, and NGOs. That which dusty archives are to the historian (and the dustier, the more promising), living people are to political scientists. Krastev is known not only for his good writing and his interesting presentations, but also for his sharpened skills of observation. He attempts to locate symptomatic phenomena, those that can serve as an excellent introduction to more systematic studies. Even as a skeptic of the powers of intuition, he admits that the hypotheses he will later test as strenuously as he wants have to come from somewhere. Krastev’s famous sense of humour penetrates his writings.

Indeed, symptomatic observation and good jokes have something in common. This is what cognitive psychologists call the “Aha! reaction.” We suddenly perceive something that we had not realized before. This experience accompanies reading the best literature, for instance. A good joke often arises from a surprising association, which, moreover, often comes from noticing the erroneous substitution of one meaning of the same word for another.

If we reflect on the most important concepts in Political Science vocabulary (democracy, liberalism, authoritarianism, transparency, etc.), it becomes apparent that they are used with so many different meanings that it is easy to prove contradictory theses simultaneously, including a colloquial one and a new one, ours.  This is a source of renewable energy in the humanities, but it is considered dangerous by some, or even contaminated (and hence the repeated attempts to distill the language of the humanities so that in the patiently anticipated future it will become a substitute for formal logic notation).

Some, traditionally associated with the Anglo-Saxon linguistic sphere, have therefore bet on precise definitions and logical reasoning, at the expense of originality and style. The use of quantitative methods and modelling helps confirm, and even inductively recognize, interesting dependencies, on the basis of which we can say something new and important about the world. Often, however, they merely give the appearance of scientificity, serving to prove what is commonly known. Even the master himself, Rawls, can be criticized in this vein—his 600-page Theory of Justice merely tells us what is already known to every inhabitant of this vale of tears: we must be careful because we do not know what might befall us. Models constructed using increasingly complicated mathematical methods tend to describe reality only when reality happens to fit the model. Hence the multitude of operative paradigms, even though one should logically follow from the other, and no one is surprised when every year the Nobel Prize goes to economists advocating contradictory theories.

Other scholars, true to the so-called “continental” tradition, are not overly concerned with the rules of logic, and often do not feel obligated to start with a definition. They therefore allow themselves inspiring thoughts, interesting observations, and unconventional form, but uttered with fewer claims to scientificity. The great schism between the two traditions can be traced back to positivism, the last ecumenical council, after which both sides excommunicated each other.

Krastev is ecumenical. He follows the work of the Anglo-Saxons and uses results of quantitative studies, but he writes in a more essayistic style. He enjoys the trust of both currents and publishes in the journals of both denominations. In the introduction to a lecture dedicated to Seymour Martin Lipset he writes, “In his scholarly life he succeeded in researching and publishing on every subject that interested him. He crossed disciplinary boundaries with the ease of a Balkan smuggler. He was consistent without being dogmatic and political without being partisan; he was therefore able to influence both his university colleagues and the wider public.” These are also the artfully smuggled ambitions of a Balkan intellectual. 

What and why?

Krastev concentrates his interests around that which should most disturb us today: why do we live under conditions of “democracy without the possibility of choice, meaningless sovereignty, and globalization without legitimacy?” Why is it that authoritarian countries are so successful? Does democracy really remain the most economically effective political system? What will happen to democracy if it turns out that authoritarianism is more effective? Does this division continue to exist, or are hybrid forms arising?

The leading theme of the book is the crisis of democracy. The problem is universally recognized, and Krastev skeptically analyzes the most popular convictions on the subject, provoking us to react to our own opinions. He rightly perceives the problem as lying in the relations between the authorities and citizens. At the same time, he dispels all hope for movements seeking to explore behind the scenes of governance, arguing that an inverted panopticon remains a panopticon. “The totalitarian utopia of people spying for the government is progressively replaced by a utopia of people spying on the government,” which leads to the conclusion that trust can be destroyed from both sides.

The only question that remains is whether this is the most important problem facing trust in democracy today. Krastev’s observation that something must be seriously off somewhere is surely correct, given that more and more illegal wiretaps and secret actions by special services are being uncovered, private information is being collected, the Internet is being controlled, etc. But is the government—citizens axis really the most problematic? One can have doubts. There is always distrust between the authorities and citizens, therefore one of the defining characteristics of modern democracy is tripartite power and the independence of courts and institutions of control. Krastev himself is writing precisely in order to confirm that democracy has always been about managing distrust, and in that sense nothing has changed.

And yet, at the heart of the current crisis of democracy there is a crisis of trust, but it is on the horizontal axis rather than on the vertical one. Trust among citizens is disappearing. This crisis is significantly more important as it concerns the social base on which the political system rests. Society is disintegrating, and that is why democracy is broken. What is really new and dangerous here is the extreme individualization that deprives us of trust in other people, stripping citizens of the ability to organize and empower themselves.

Today this is a synoptic perception and is expressed using different vocabularies. Conservatives would say that it is a lack of community thinking; liberals would say it is a dearth of social capital, like Putnam's 'bowling alone' hypothesis, and leftists would say, that it is a problem of social engagement. Peter Sloterdijk explains how it created the very new 'cynical reason' which teaches people to adopt individually to the imperfect situation instead of getting together to change it. They do not trust one another to do it. This is why they are left powerless in the face of the global market. This is also why they are able to organize a social protest like Occupy Wall Street, but are not able to organize a social movement like Solidarity. To have a strategy, leadership, structure, agenda and longstanding institutions you need more trust among people.

Krastev does not analyze this phenomenon, but he symptomatically draws closer to and further away from it when he observes the destructive effects of the transfer of communication from the sphere of the real to the Internet, or of the transformation of citizens into clients, on social cohesion (elsewhere he asks, “Is it reasonable to believe that a voter with a ballot in one hand and a smart phone in the other can resurrect our democracy?”). Perhaps it is just a result of the division of labour between political scientists and sociologists that the former study political systems, while the latter examine social ties.

If that is so, we can ask Krastev if democracy is really synonymous with the party system. Political scientists warn us against excessive pessimism by telling us that democracy has always been in crisis. True, but the party system has never been in such a crisis as it is experiencing today.

This is after all the source of social protests and that which Krastev has termed “democracy without the possibility of choice.” The convergence of individual countries’ economic policies, forced by the global market, has blurred the differences between countries, consequently demoralizing politicians, who are condemned to opportunism and a loss of respect among the citizenry. Initially they promise voters whatever comes to mind, but in the end they must all do more or less the same thing in the sphere of economic policy (otherwise the negative opinions of the financial markets and rating agencies would increase the national deficit by raising the interest rate on bonds, that is, debt servicing costs—to put it succinctly: cutting the budget and forcing further cuts). This means that political disagreements in other areas become much more critical, hence the growing importance of “culture wars” in politics as a medium for articulating class conflicts.

Religion, like the nation, has turned out to be far from obsolete and has returned to the centre of the political debate. This is true even in liberal western democracies, if only because societies that are differentiated in ethnic and religious terms have begun to dismantle their social welfare systems. We return to the issue of trust. It is much harder to trust a stranger than someone familiar. The welfare state began to end when western society ceased to be hermetic and immigrants appeared en masse. Heterogeneity has proven to be an insurmountable barrier for social solidarity.

I have one more thing to add to my handful of comments concerning Krastev’s writings on truth. Exalting civic courage, he boils it down to the following principle: “It is the person who dares to tell the truth who brings about change, not truth in and of itself.” And he’s right. What’s more, we must add that there is a “buffer rule” at play here. The first to bet on a novelty lose out because they are too radical and society is not yet accustomed to their new ideas.

These early adopters do not become heroes, or are only recognized as such much later, often not even within their own lifetimes. We have probably never heard of many of them, or they are remembered only by a few, as lunatics. This is natural. Whether we like it or not, no rational person immediately trusts the new. The new is, moreover, incomprehensible. It means nothing. We only like those songs which we already know. In a sense, we do not even hear the others. We do not distinguish them from background noise.

By definition, there are no new truths—the new cannot be true. The new must first grow old, that is, it must acquire meaning. Meaning arises only through the societal process of its own establishment. It debuts as gibberish. Democracy, progressivism, feminism, etc.—all these ideas began as nonsense. An idea must be socialized, written into someone’s biography, become embodied and brought to life. It must become someone’s stake. For innovators the stakes are high: exposure to shame or indifference. Politics is the art of legitimation. Next, the idea must therefore become politicized, that is, become acknowledged as serious, if it is ever to win out. Its second wave of promoters will get applause, and the third might get power. Provided that they prevail.

If I were to object to anything that Krastev writes, my criticism would rest on shifting the perspective from the sender to the recipient. It is the citizenry that we have to work on so that they first notice, and then acknowledge, and then finally support “truth.” In addition to reaching out to people with specific beliefs, we can and should work with the general public so that they are more open to the new. The most spectacular example of how truth works in public life is the debate evoked by Jan Tomasz Gross’s Neighbors, the loudest such discussion in the history of free Poland. There was essentially nothing new in this book, beginning with knowledge of the murder of Jews by Poles in 1941 in the occupied country by Nazis, and ending with the title (it was taken from a documentary film on the same subject by Agnieszka Arnold). Historians had written about this incident decades earlier, but that was not enough for Jedwabne to become true for Poles. It was both the process of reaching the public and changes in social consciousness that made it possible for a critical mass to recognize this knowledge as true.

Therefore we should answer Krastev with the following: “It is the person who dares to hear the truth who brings about change, not truth in and of itself or its daring broadcaster”, right?

Thanks go to Marysia Blackwood for translating this piece into English.

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