Can Europe Make It?

Towards a century of transition: surfing between democratisation and de-democratisation

In a ceaseless participatory process, each polity assembles, adjusts, fabricates and constructs itself as society.

Christophe Solioz
26 Oct 2020 - 4:48pm
Bojan Stojčić, Viva la Transición! (2015)
© Bojan Stojčić. All rights reserved.

Sequencing the ages, Eric Hobsbawm distinguishes the age of revolution (1789-1848), the age of capital (1848-1875), the age of empire (1875-1914) and the age of extremes (1914-1991). Considering Europe and moving the cursor only slightly, the twentieth century might rather be viewed as the age of crisis (1914-1989).

In the mid-1930s, with Europe on the brink, Stefan Zweig delivered an uncompromising analysis of the permanent instead of momentary crisis that Europe had faced since 1914. Echoing Zweig in the early 1980s, Edgar Morin – also taking 1914 as his starting point – considered the twentieth century as the century of crisis and the century in crisis. Broadening his analysis, Morin further turned the spotlight on the intertwined and paradoxical processes with which we are confronted: “we find ourselves in a world that appears to us both in evolution, in revolution, in progression, in regression, in crisis, in danger.” [1]

This is a tempting viewpoint on three counts. Firstly, it provides us with an initial framework from which to view Bojan Stojčić’s Viva la Transición!. Secondly, it matches – and frames – an approach to democracy which sees it surfing between waves of democratization and de-democratization. Thirdly, it brings us back to what I would argue is the tipping point between two eras: November 9, 1989.

November 9, 1989

The pivotal event of the fall of the Berlin Wall mobilizes two fates and two narratives – one looking backward, the other forward; and both contributing to a demystification of outdated approaches. First, a more differentiated and accurate understanding of socialist countries’ pathways has been conceivable since 1989 – notably with the substantial help of political anthropology. Considering both endogenous and exogenous dimensions, a larger process of decolonization, notably a significant degree of constitutionalism and limited pluralism at the élite level, was what preceded the explicit surrender of Communist Party monopoly over the state. Further, acknowledging the long durée, it becomes more and more evident that both pre-socialist and socialist legacies contributed to a forging of identities and local order in Central and Eastern Europe.

Second, contrary to how it is generally regarded, November 9 was not “the hour of democracy” – just as 1991 was not “the hour of Europe” – but the symbol of its collective failure. As a matter of fact, the “1989 revolution” had two sides clearly distinguished by Adam Michnik: “The Eastern and Central European anti-communist revolution had two guises: velvet and bloody.” [2] As a reminder: not all post-socialist regimes are engaged significantly in transition from authoritarian rule and not all of these are headed for democracy with, for some countries, de-democratization being an immediate option.

Interestingly, Václav Havel – on the second anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, in November 1991 – coined the idea of the “uncanny era of Post-Communism” paving the way to “a new phase in which different unexpected and dramatic moments take place.” As Freud reminds us in his seminal text on the “The ‘Uncanny’” (literally “unhomely”): “the uncanny is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” In political terms, this implies the surfacing of demons of various pasts in various forms ranging from ‘benign’ to ‘malign’: the Return of the Nation; the resurgence of nationalism, xenophobia, antisemitism, ethnic intolerance; the stigmatizing of Roma; etc.

This uncanny era confronts us with a new blow. Referring to the three blows to human narcissism, Freud distinguishes the first, due to Copernicus (1473-1543), a cosmological one; the second, due to Darwin (1809-1882), a biological one; and the third, caused by psychoanalysis, a psychological one. I would add to these a fourth, a political one, caused by the fragmentation and dilution processes at work across the polity, politics and policy fields. Incredulity, incomprehension and denial – because of being foreign to the ego, to reason and to the polis – configure the two blows framing the twentieth century that ought to be viewed differently.

The uncanny era

Based on a differentiated integration approach, Attila Ágh introduced a sequencing of post-Wall Europe identifying three phases of systemic change outlining the uncanny era: a first decade (the 1990s), characterized by the relative de‑democratization model and consolidation paradigm; a second decade (the 2000s), marked by partial deconsolidation; and the third decade (the 2010s), typified by the absolute de‑democratization model with deconsolidation. [ 3] Focusing on the parallel economic, political and social developments that ended up in a triple crisis (a transition crisis in the 1990s; a post-accession crisis in the 2000s; and a global crisis in the 2010s), this approach underlines the trend towards de-democratization and de-politicization – i.e. notably the supremacy of the “culturalist ideology” shaped by identity discourse and the economy – that characterizes also the “West,” as Olivier Mongin highlights. [4]

Both Ágh and Mongin similarly evoke and hope for an era of re-democratization that would overcome the uncanny era. Nevertheless, away from such a normative, teleological and linear model based on simplistic polarizations, history might take a detour passing through a polymorphous and polysemic era and, I would advance, an age of transition – visualized in Bojan Stojčić’s festive and forward-looking Viva la Transición!

And it starts now. The fundamental indeterminacy at the heart of the modern political, thus modern, democracy, highlighted by Claude Lefort and Pierre Rosanvallon, causes various pathologies that are thus not external to democracy but part of its history; and which also, beyond disenchantment, frames democracy as an open-ended process, “under construction,” constantly interrogating itself. As Georges Balandier also pinpoints, society is now asserting itself under the aspect of a collective and never-completed creation; it is constantly in the process of being made, of being constructed and of giving itself meaning.

What can be identified as an oscillating phenomenon – this back and forth between the European and national level, between democracy and non-democracy, etc. – belongs to a “time of accelerated transition, if not sudden and totally unpredictable, during which everything shows itself under the aspect of movement, decomposition and random recomposition, disappearance and the continuous irruption of the unprecedented.” [5]

“What is obsolete is the idea that we can reform without actually changing everything.”

In their ongoing discussion on “revolution,” Michnik and Havel – the historian and the philosopher poet – insist that, since the “velvet revolution” is an incomplete one, a “completed revolution is in essence a betrayed revolution” and that the “call to finish the revolution is in essence antidemocratic.” [6] Hence the – albeit vintage – idea of the unfinished revolution as permanent revolution.

Reform or revolution? Meanwhile, the opposition between reform and revolution has become obsolete. Any real reform is revolutionary from the outset. For example, a real reform which would modify the relation of belonging to Europe of any individual who resides there would be revolutionary: it would make us pass from the status of Citizenship to that of Residence, it would completely modify the relationship we have with territorial space. As Frédéric Neyrat points out: “What is obsolete is the idea that we can reform without actually changing everything.” [7] A revolution is that democracy, as work in progress, highlights transition being the permanent condition of democracy.

A multiplex approach

Further, against the background of the Anthropocene era, we face five heterogeneous forms of tension summarized by Yves Citton: “the ecological unsustainable, the psychic unbearable, the ethical unacceptable, the political indefensible, the media untenable – actually converg[ing] towards the same ‘unsustainable,’ which calls for a multiplicity of socio-policies.” [8] Indeed, ever since Aristotle, politics is, like “being,” something that “is said in many ways” (Metaphysics, Z 1028a10) – characterized today by flexibility, the permeability of boundaries, agency-oriented perspectives and a profusion of spaces and identities. At stake is a multiplex approach, thus a new understanding of the developing political sphere: polymorphous rather than unidimensional; more “flux” and less “form;” and increased autonomy rather than control.

Against this background, there are a couple of points to bring home. First, transition – marked by instability, movement, alterations and ruptures – has become the rule of any society, not exclusively of that of “transitional societies.” Co-transformation is thus at stake.

Second, away from the sequencing theorized in democratization studies (e.g. accommodation, liberalization, transition, consolidation), transition tentatively indicates a new era, beyond the post-Wall period, characterized by a drive, a movement that empowers a society creatively to self-constitute. In a ceaseless participatory process, each polity assembles, adjusts, fabricates and constructs itself as society.

In a ceaseless participatory process, each polity assembles, adjusts, fabricates and constructs itself as society.

Third, we have to recognize this age as one of “over-exposure” – understood both in the sense of the vain images that blind us with their saturated brilliance and in the sense of bodies without protection against the risk of hostile radiation.

Instead of disenchantment and collapse, “democratic indetermination” and “politics of dwelling” are the factors which shape a truly effective and open democracy. This renders transition, therefore, an uncharted journey in the land of democracy.

This piece refers to the analysis presented in Christophe Solioz, Viva la Transición (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2020).


[1] Edgar Morin, Pour sortir du XXe siècle (Paris: Fernand Nathan, 1981), p. 342.

[2] Adam Michnik, The Trouble with History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 30

[3] See Attila Ágh, Declining Democracy in East Central Europe (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2019).

[4] Olivier Mongin, L’après 1989 (Paris: Hachette, 1998), p. 8

[5] Georges Balandier, Le détour (Paris, Fayard, 1985), p. 8.

[6] An Uncanny Era. Conversation between Václav Havel and Adam Michnik (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), pp. 82-83.

[7] Frédéric Neyrat, “Formuler notre surexposition,” Multitudes, 25 (2006) 2, p. 108

[8] Yves Citton, Renverser l’insoutenable (Paris: Seuil, 2012), p. 13.


Bojan Stojčić, Viva la Transición! (2015)
© Bojan Stojčić

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