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Bunkers: the nature of power and democracy

On occasion of the publication of Bunkers by Manuel Montobbio, a book on the totalitarian experience, we propose a conversation about the nature and the limits of power. Español

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Manuel Montobbio Francesc Badia i Dalmases
17 March 2016
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Bunkers on a beach in Albania. Wikimedia. Elian Stefa, Gyler Mydyti - Concrete Mushrooms Project. CC.

Francesc Badia: During your five years as Spanish ambassador to Albania you were able to get to know in some depth a society emerging from a singularly traumatic totalitarian experience and trying to embrace democracy. This must have been a unique experience for you, which has resulted in two books so far, the Poetical Guide to Albania and now Bunkers. Is the latter a reflection on totalitarianism?

Manuel Montobbio: Bunkers is a book about power. About how total power is built and what are its limits. Power is not only the capacity of physical action, of collective action by individuals in a given society, but also the ability to determine how these individuals see the world. How artists create, how literature is written. That is, not just the action on the physical world in which political life unfolds, but also the action on the collective imaginary and the mental universe. Not only this, but also on the projection of other sources of power which leads, for example, to constitutionally decreeing the nonexistence of God: Albania has been the only constitutionally atheist state in history.

Badia: What is the ultimate territory of power? What is the ultimate territory of freedom?

Montobbio: The soul - the soul of individuals, the soul of people. The metaphor I use in the book suggests that power aims not only to build a million bunkers in a country of just over two million people, but a bunker within each person, enclosing their soul. And by locking up their soul, it prevents them from seeing things in a different way. It only allows them to see through the very narrow bunker windows.

In a totalitarian state, the autocrat’s vocation is to be a great writer. He wants to write the script for everything that happens, including what individuals do. In an open society, we all get to write the script for the play we are performing in.

Badia: And what happens when the totalitarian state collapses? Is there continuity between a totalitarian and an open society?

Montobbio: The transition to an open society entails a risk, a void. There is a time, at first, for rejecting the past, forgetting, thinking that everything can be new, that everything is future. But then comes another time when individuals feel nostalgic about the past. It can be often more convenient to have the written script for your everyday play, and no responsibility to decide for yourself, than to make the effort of being creative and responsible.

I think that the lesson learned in Albania is that if total power intends not only to determine the external action of individuals but, above all, to condition their soul, their consciousness, their free will, building democracy is also, in this sense, an inner construction. It is the construction of a paradigm shift and a deconstruction of the bunkers that historical inertias have built for us through the different powers that have shaped our society. I mean political power, of course, but also powers of a different kind.

Badia: This historical, political, ideological experiment happens in circumstances that are increasingly difficult to reproduce, since one of the conditions for it is isolation. That is, the ability not to allow dialogue with the environment. But could a new experiment be imagined, which would replicate the conditions of isolation in a more interdependent and technologically interconnected world?

Montobbio: Many of the things that happened in Albania would be difficult nowadays. Indeed, the country had a colossal physical isolation. In Hoxha’s Albania, it was forbidden for anyone who did not live in the area, to come closer than 15 km. from the border, so as to prevent any temptation to escape. It was very difficult to physically leave the country without the consent of the regime. But isolation is not only physical, it is also ideological and cultural. Of course, this kind of isolation would be much more difficult, if not impossible, to enforce today - in Europe at least.

Badia: There exists however an undercurrent, inherited from these totalitarian regimes, which seeks to impose, from the point of view of the imaginary, some social engineering, a more or less ideal world which is closed, predetermined, not creative. In times of crisis such as these, could a regression to the so-called illiberal democracy consolidate itself?

Montobbio: I think there are two questions here. One question is in which cases are we facing a transition and in which cases a foundation - and a foundation of what. Then, there is the evolution of the political culture. In this sense, I think that although we may speak of Eastern Europe in general terms, the cases there are quite different. Albania is an extreme one, since the foundation of the state was left pending.

Badia: Why is that?

Montobbio: Until November 1912, Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire which, until then, had not experienced most of the revolutions that had taken place in Western Europe, such as the Industrial Revolution or the French Revolution. And since much of the political reforms were still undone, the state that was created faced a number of foundational challenges. In fact, except for a brief democratic spring in 1924, Albania never got to experience democracy. At first, an authoritarian prime minister proclaimed himself king; then, the fascist kingdom of Italy turned Albania into a de facto protectorate; finally, a communist totalitarian regime took hold of the country. Albania had no previous experience of democracy.

Badia: You are pointing to the issue of the democratic seed: if it exists, it can sprout again; but if it does not, you must plant it. The difficult thing, then, is how to make it germinate.

Montobbio: Of course. Historic track records must be always kept in mind. There is no previous democratic experience in the case of Albania, nor is there, to a large extent, in the case of the former Soviet Union. Therefore, something hitherto unknown, something ex novo has to be created, and in doing so, the thought patterns of the previous functional system are often reproduced. That is, there is a new legitimizing discourse - real socialism was yesterday, today is democracy, European integration -, but the approach is conditioned by the previous relationship with power. In Eastern Europe, once communism fell, countries looked for a new kind of regime. The new regime was not necessarily seen as a state that would guarantee the rule of law; but as one that, above all, would qualify as a member state of the European Union. In some cases, membership was more important than being a state.

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Badia: Let us go back to the Albanian example. To the fact that Albania embodies the latest model in a series of imaginary projects, latent somehow in the European political culture, which relate precisely to absolute power as a form of full independence and full sovereignty through autarchic capacity.

The aim was to shape an isolated but happy society and, above all, authentic and true, with an identity of its own. These are the kind of dreams that sometimes surface in nationalism. The extreme case of Albania shows that this is a blind alley, a dead-end.

Montobbio: A cul-de-sac, I agree. This is sometimes a temptation for absolute power.

But these drifts come from isolation, and they are thus hardly possible today. What Karl Popper tells us is that, basically, the way in which societies evolve is quite unlike painting in a blank canvas.

Society is a canvas that has been painted already. Slowly, gently, the painting can be transformed, adding small strokes that society can assume in a natural way. The painting is a collective work, co-authored, constantly evolving in search of greater well-being.

Badia: To go back to the beginning of our conversation and the nature of power, how do you think the nature of power has changed? Or is it that perhaps, somehow, the social and historical transformations, and even the experience of this new interdependence, are still embodying its continuity? Some theorists and essayists like Moisés Naím or Zygmunt Bauman speak of powerlessness, of diffuse and fluid power. How does this relate to your reflection on Albania?

Montobbio: I think the nature of power has changed, at least in part. The global trend is towards the empowerment of individuals. Rising levels of education, information, access to knowledge, lead to a growing awareness and greater possibilities for individual autonomy in relation to the cultural patterns that are imposed by the different collective identities. So, in this sense, I do believe that there is a diffusion of power. It is a diffusion of power, let us say, that relativises, contextualises and turns the power of states into just one more power.

Albania is, of course, an extreme case of totalitarian power, but I would add that it also shows some extreme examples of resistance to that power. Facing the ambition of total power, there were writers, there were people who kept their consciousness, who maintained their ability to think, who resisted political condemnation, and who have come out from that experience reaffirming the free essence of human beings. I said before that Bunkers is a book about power, but it is also about freedom and the soul. This is also the lesson: all power can be resisted, because the fight is in every individual, and there are individuals who, despite everything, keep their hope. I believe that maintaining hope in life, in human beings, under the most terrible circumstances – in totalitarian Albania, but also in the Nazi concentration camps and in many other circumstances-- is in the nature of human beings. The fight against totalitarianism is where this resilience is sorted out.

In the end, the great lesson is to understand that power lies within oneself. Because power is as much what is attempted on us from outside, as what we try to do for ourselves inwards and outwards. At bottom, with experiences such as the Albanian one, the big challenge is to understand that awareness of the power over what we are also lies within ourselves.

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