The first quarter of 2011 on openDemocracy, a look back

openDemocracy's editor looks back over the first few months of 2011 on openDemocracy
Rosemary Bechler
10 May 2011

May 2011, the month which marks our tenth birthday, has been remarkable for taking stock - not only of openDemocracy, but our world, beginning with Europe, moving to Madrid for Real Democracy Now, assessing that lynchpin for models of democracy and Islam,Turkey, and the Middle East peace process in the light of the Arab spring; an overview of President Obama, his foreign policy and election prospects, plus a health check on international law and order and dipping into our archives to go back to Europe and the meaning of Europe when we heard that Jorge Semprun had died. As the British Prime Minister declared a second Cold War against ‘Muslim extremism’ and Our Kingdom launched two new debates on ‘Happiness’ and ‘Power and the Media’, Tony Curzon Price published two podcast interviews, with Dominic Losurdo and David Pryce Jones, that brought startlingly up to date the still unresolved battle over our liberal inheritance between those archetypal opponents, Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine.

It is as if the themes and trends we have been following this year have culminated in a series of summaries, designed to ask us which path we truly wish to follow and where the precious openings for ‘real’ democracy now reside. Gestating since the New Year, these ‘themes’ are outlined here:

The Middle East

1). The Arab spring, its revolutions and popular uprisings, and their spreading implications, not just in the countries of the Middle East – Bahrain, Syria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran’s resilient rebellion, Turkey’s world status and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also in the nature of the uprisings and our historical understanding of 1989 and subsequent examples of civilian resistance. What is different about this energy sweeping the region, what the same? Nor is this confined to comparisons of past and present. We are also looking at spreading disaffection with rulers worldwide, in those countries regarded both as democratic and not - and common causes, launched this year by Jack DuVall’s guest editor week on: Civil resistance and the new global ferment

2) The war in Libya raises acutely once again all the issues around ‘just war’, humanitarian intervention and the relatively new claims of the responsibility to protect.  With the help of our two columnists, Paul Rogers and Mary Kaldor, we have been following debate around the motives in going to war closely, with such important related examples as the debate around Justice Goldstone’s retraction of his judgments on Israel’s war on Gaza, also examining the limits of the pursuit of a ‘liberal peace’, and recently, humanitarian war and the rejection of refugees.

3) For both of these themes, the sad memorialising of Fred Halliday’s contribution to openDemocracy, recently celebrated in a splendid Saqi volume of his essays for us, has been a constant source of illumination and provocation, whether on Yemen, on international solidarity or, most controversially ,on the LSE’s entanglement with Libyan funding strongly criticised by Halliday. His arguments about the integrity of universities form the core of a lengthy debate involving another key player, David Held, Anthony Barnett, John Keane and numerous commentators.

The ‘war on terror’

4) This remains the context for many of our concerns, both in terms of world conflict, where there is a new emphasis on the ‘peripheralisation’ of terror – in Afghanistan, rising dangers in Pakistan, the Israel-Palestine conflict, Somalia to the Ivory Coast, the Caucuses, Southern Sudan, to the Sudan and Yemen. But one of our most consistent responses has been to look for alternative approaches to security, beginning the year with Mary Kaldor’s guest week on ‘Human security in practice’ – rethinking security in Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia and the Balkans.

5) We have been equally exercised by the domestic impact of the war on terror in the largest sense (here overlapping with Our Kingdom monitoring of infringements on modern liberties in the UK) on human rights and democracy, worsening relations with Muslims, Islamophobia, and the brutalisation of culture, whether we are talking about what it means for power to take tea with torturers; the impact of war on terror blacklists; or the impact on masculinity of army recruitment and army life in our serialisation of Skinback Fusiliers

Governance, power and the world order

7) Partly because it goes to the heart of our experiment in global conversation, one theme to which we constantly return is the role of nations and nationalism in the pursuit of freedom and democracy. The inability of the liberal state to deal with the complexity and diversity of the modern world has been thoroughly investigated both in a guest editor week with Saskia Sassen and Richard Sennett holding the reins on the Failures of the liberal state and responses on the ground, and in a series of returns to some of the great thinkers who have framed our debates – this year to Ernest Gellner as a prophet for our times, as well as Hannah Arendt, and to Paul Hirst, the exponent of Associative Democracy.

8) A related theme is our attempt to track the world’s power relations in flux, and the rising states in a new global order – not just Russia, but Brazil, India and China, and their relationship to the United States. In the case of China, we are interested in signs of democracy, but more exercised in its military might. When it comes to India – we are particularly grateful to a cluster of authors who have begun to share with us a Delhi-inspired and Ford-funded global conversation on freeing democracy from the constraints of the western model. India’s approach to religious diversity in a general crisis for secularism is another interesting reversal and source of inspiration. Our United States coverage is not as fulsome as it should be, but we follow Obama’s fortunes and those of American liberalism in this context with mixed feelings.

9) Again closely related to the politics of fear is the rise of populist politics in the advanced democracies (and the demise of social democracy), and openDemocracy is in its own way equally fascinated by Berlusconi and Bossi, Geert Wilders, the rise of the Tea Party, Vladimir Putin and their impact on their fellow politicians. Never far away from this is the politics of fear, and in particular the rolling back of multicultural settlements in Europe in favour of a stronger plug for the ‘National Us’. We have had some substantial debates on migration over the years, and are embarking on another concentrated look, this time at European ‘Uses of Xenophobia’ and the retreat from the Schengen treaty, steered by guest editor Ash Amin. Cas Mudde’s discussions of the rise of the radical new right (and how there is not much new about it) have some of the highest readers’ figures on our site, and our new columnist, Markha Valenta, has brought this theme very much up to date with her column on religious diversity and  identity politics.

10) Our opening discussion this year on worldwide energy provision and how to avoid conflict could not have been made more topical than by the impact of Japan’s tsunami on its nuclear plants.  We have been circling around a debate on nuclear energy and nuclear power.  We probably need to plunge in.


11) We have touched on energy, health, food and the environment in the developing countries in the recent period, but this has been replaced by a new and not always welcomed discussion in the relevant NGO sector, on the effectiveness of aid, and also the problem of aid being sold out to business interests.

Legal, media & web

12) Our Kingdom has launched a big debate on many aspects of Cameron’s plans for a Big Society in the context of cuts to the public sector and rising unemployment. Their 350-page book, Fight-Back! has developed many of the themes in the UK context that  reflect our core debates. Their gestation of themes inspires front page editors, just as our lengthening box on the Arab revolutions sets them thinking about civil resistance and the way the world actually changes. Political organisation in the context of the database state, joins with our own interest in our medium, the internet and its evolving cyber and social technologies, to produce a central cluster of core concerns spreading from the defence of the public space at one end, to that of privacy at the other.  The Wilkileaks debate, online activism, the internet and the Arab spring, and the policing of dissent have kept us busy at the campaigning end of what we do on openDemocracy.

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