openDemocracy, an editorial digest

David Hayes
25 October 2007

The last four months at openDemocracy have been a period of transition that is yet unfinished. At the end of the first quarter came two great departures: the evacuation of the Clerkenwell office which had been our home for five years and five months, and the leaving of Isabel Hilton as editor-in-chief after two years and four months with openDemocracy to concentrate on one of the projects conceived and nurtured under its capacious wing, chinadialogue.

David Hayes is deputy editor of openDemocracy

Also in this series:"Iraq: the best of openDemocracy, 2002-04" (30 June 2004)

"openDemocracy's five years: the editorial story" (12 May 2006)

"The media and openDemocracy: the garage tapes" (12 May 2006)

"openDemocracy, an editorial report" (22 June 2007) - covering the period 17 April - 19 June 2007

Isabel marked her own move with an affectionate farewell article that generated widespread comment and feedback. It also became one of the 262 articles openDemocracy published between 20 June (the day after the last editorial report) and 23 October.

This figure is only part of our total body of work: there is also the material published in the maturing federal domains - Our Kingdom (OK), terrorism.openDemocracy.net (toD, formerly Madrid11) and the gender-equality project 50:50; developing partnerships with other organisations and projects; and initiatives such as the quarterly print journal on a special theme (now in its third edition, whose subject is Europe).

The domains offer regular, in most cases daily, informative and topical intervention and conversation. The toD daily security briefings written by Kanishk Tharoor offer an invaluable digest and comment on news of conflicts and security issues around the world; the OK blog features sharp topical comment from Jon Bright and Anthony Barnett, and constant input from a range of invited posters. Both sites also increasingly publish full-length articles commissioned and edited by the relevant project editors (for example, Philip Jakeman on talking to the Taliban in toD, and Sunder Katwala on the future of left and right in OK).

This accumulating work is giving shape and identity to the domains as integral parts of openDemocracy's diverse editorial offering.

Commissioned articles

The northern-hemisphere summer and autumn was punctuated by events both routine and exceptional - summits, elections, conferences, resignations, anniversaries, as well as deaths and "extreme weather" eruptions - that provided the occasion of much of our editorial output.

• Global politics

The longest goodbye in British political history was consummated on 27 June 2007. openDemocracy marked Tony Blair's last ride with a series of "farewell letters" from a range of singular voices: Ruth Lister, Nasrin Alavi, Meghnad Desai, Brian Brivati, Mariano Aguirre, Abdul-Rehman Malik, Camilla Toulmin, Patrice de Beer, Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie and Godfrey Hodgson.

The challenge facing Gordon Brown and the political character of the new prime minister were themes explored by Anthony Barnett (the missing intelligentsia), David Held & David Mepham (in relation to foreign policy), and Saskia Sassen (who connected Brown's constitutional-reform programme to the impact of globalisation on the state). Anthony Barnett followed up with an imaginative "thought experiment" - the election-announcing speech Gordon Brown "should" have made.

The European Union's fiftieth-anniversary summit in Berlin came at a time of uncertainty and internal division over the future of the European project. We registered this moment with a series of articles from John Palmer, Michael Bruter, George Schőpflin, and Kalypso Nicolaidis & Philippe Herzog, each charting a way forward.

The close of this four-month period coincided with the subsequent summit, in Lisbon, at which the epic six-year meander towards the EU's "reform treaty" was consummated. Olaf Cramme previewed it with a timely argument for the importance of politics (and not just policy) in the EU, a point echoed in John Palmer's post-summit look-ahead to the next stage of the union's development. Kalypso Nicolaidis & Simone Bunse recommended clarity in the role of the EU "presidency", while Katinka Barysch & Hugo Brady of the Centre for European Reform offered both a clear guide to the treaty's main elements and a critique of those reluctant fully to commit to it.

The national politics of European states can rarely be separated from the EU dimension. This is certainly true of contemporary Poland, whose comic-opera rule by the Kaczynski twins was dissected with immense subtlety by Krzysztof Bobinski and with savage glee by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski. On the eve of the election which consigned one half of the pair (prime minister Jaroslaw) to comprehensive defeat, Ivan Krastev delivered a pathbreaking article arguing that the nature of the post-communist transition had incubated populist reaction, and the implications of this for Europe as a whole.

In neighbouring Ukraine, the scholar Andrew Wilson examined the complex post-orange political arena and the "virtual politics" of post-Soviet pseudo-democracy; Yury Drakakhrust offered an original formula to help understand the conditions for the success of "colour revolutions" (and why Belarus in particular has not produced one); and Taras Kuzio traced the configuration of politics after an election in which the pro-orange forces had again won a majority even when divided by outlook and personality.

Russia provided a constant reference-point in this period. Ivan Krastev returned to the theme of "sovereign democracy" with another forensic essay; Armine Ishkanian traced the impact of the officially-promoted youth group Nashi on the political scene; Zygmunt Dzieciolowski observed Vladimir Putin's efforts to extend his political career after his current presidential term ends; and Mary Dejevsky presented a characteristically contrary view of Putin's achievement in the Russian context.Russia's pursuit of power in its "near abroad" was tracked by Donald Rayfield in a piece on the latest Russia-Georgia tensions, while Vicken Cheterian took an unillusioned look at Georgia's own military build-up and its implications for the region's "frozen conflicts".

In a southeast Europe where European aspirations and nationalist sentiments intermingle, Eric Gordy looked below the surface of Serbian arguments over Kosovo to the political considerations beneath. Bernd Fischer and Ginanne Brownell viewed the region through the prism of (respectively) the historic "strongman" figure and the efforts of trauma survivors (in this case Srebrenica) to manage their memories.

A troubled, despondent, drifting western Europe had its share of convulsions in the period. Patrice de Beer provided fresh, informative and sardonic insight into the new French president, his ambitions for France and his vision of the world; filleted the vanquished left; and saw the nostalgification of the countryside in the new film Le fils de l'épicier as evidence of a new French temptation.

KA Dilday's columns included sharp observation of the "Copenhagen syndrome" of imaginary exclusion, and framing of Europe post-immigrant "defenders of the nation" as a current to watch.

Geoff Andrews profiled the coming man of Italian politics, Walter Veltroni, but saw the insurgent bloggery of Beppe Grillo and the radical reportage of political misdeeds as more threatening to a sclerotic system than his new centre-left party. Eóin Murray measured the changing political realities revealed by the election in the Republic of Ireland; Fred Halliday's columns from Cyprus, Euzkadi (Basque country) and the Netherlands were for our global analyst and columnist comparatively rare forays into European identity-conflicts; and Birgitta Steene made sense of the latest ("dog-roundabout") cartoon controversy by charting its local, Swedish aspect.

A historic election in Turkey produced sharply different assessments from Gunes Murat Tezcur and George Schöpflin, while the historian of the Armenian genocide Taner Akcam wrote of his fear at the attacks on him by Turkish newspapers and nationalist opponents.

The vital politics of two vital Latin American political experiments were subjected to the full treatment - Celia Szusterman's case-study of "king and queen penguin", the Kirchner couple in Argentina; and Ivan Briscoe's enthralling journey through Hugo Chávez's "Bolivarian revolution". Phil Gunson, in Caracas, returned to the fray by warning that Chávez was taking Venezuela's democracy to the brink; Rodrigo de Almeida addressed the social roots of violent crime in Brazil, and Sergio Aguayo Quezada registered a fundamental shift in Latin America - away from the United States, closer to China and even Iran, but most important of all a "reconquest" of the region by its own people.

The arrest of Augusto Pinochet's family on financial charges was an opportunity for Justin Vogler also to take the measure of Michelle Bachelet's troubles; Alberto Fujimori's extradition from Chile to Peru and an enraged battle over Bolivia's constitution were the subjects of two fine pieces by Andean expert John Crabtree; to the north, Sergio Ramírez, Nicaragua's foreign minister in another lifetime, invited the reader under the skin of Daniel Ortega's reclaimed kingdom; and Ivan Briscoe's visit to a ravaged, hollowed, layered Guatemala during its election interregnum produced another extraordinary, compelling portrait.

Li Datong's fortnightly columns maintained a consistent standard in illuminating modern Chinese media and politics; they include a buoyant description of a meeting with Angela Merkel, a sharp survey of the Olympic factor in China's world profile, and two careful pieces on the seventeenth congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Kerry Brown wrote too on this major event, as well as revealing another face of booming China in Shanghai's Formula One event.

In Japan, the mordant Noriko Hama and the cool Andrew Stevens saw in the upper-house elections the signal that Shinzo Abe's young government was already drifting onto the rocks; Christoph Neidhart added a fresh dimension by drawing a comparison between the long reign of the Liberal Democratic Party and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In a United States both deeply troubled by the calamity in Iraq and consumed by an ever earlier electoral cycle that sacrifices political argument to political positioning, Sidney Blumenthal provided a devastating fortnightly mapping of the slow disintegration of the George W Bush administration and its governing ideology. Tareq Y Ismael analysed the congressional testimony on Iraq of ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus; Bob Burnett pithily itemised the gap between promise and outcome in Iraq; Carla Ferstman highlighted the corrosion of law by indulgence of torture; Cynthia Weber listened to voices of American patriotism in a different key; and Mariano Aguirre drew from the Blackwater experience a lesson about the growing infringement of private-security firms on the state's monopoly of force.

Michael Lind identified and criticised a US foreign-policy flirtation between liberal internationalists and realists; James A Morone & Lawrence R Jacobs diagnosed the connection between the US's health system and social inequality; and Godfrey Hodgson expressed real worry over the corrosion of American democracy itself.

• Conflicts

The fallout of the United States "surge" in Iraq and the rising arc of Taliban attacks in Afghanistan have continued to pose intransigent problems for coalition forces. In his weekly columns - now well past the 300 mark as the world enters the seventh year of "war on terror" - Paul Rogers continued with pitiless detail and humane oversight to track the course of conflict in its two main theatres. Several of Paul Rogers's columns in this period have also focused on the escalating atmosphere of confrontation between the US and Iran, and the technological innovations that are enhancing the US's war-planning capacity.

Nasrin Alavi, author of We Are Iran, made sense of the twists of Iranian regime politics - and the contribution of US policy to hardline reinforcement - in two fine articles.

The condition of the al-Qaida movement, the relationship between Islamist radicalism and the turn to violence, and the nature and origins of terrorism were examined in a series of distinctive articles by Johnny Ryan (focusing on the cyber-jihad), Gunnar Heinsohn (on the demographics of militancy), Sajid Huq (on the car-bomb as a tactic), Tahir Abbas (on Ed Husain's book The Islamist), Tom Gallagher (on Scotland's nationalist government and the reaction to the failed Glasgow terror-plot), and Charles Townshend (on why terrorism is both an unavoidable concept yet hard to define).

The sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and after was marked by Audrey Kurth Cronin (of Oxford's "changing character of war" programme) on how the al-Qaida war might end; Mohammed-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou on cellular dispersal as the "real al-Qaida"; the scholars Pablo Policzer & Ram Manikkalingam on the need to shift focus in the struggle to counter al-Qaida from centre to periphery; and Andres Ortega on the sense in which the Islamist group's activities were only one example of a new global phenomenon with ideological, religious and technological aspects, namely "the power of the few".

Anita Sharma & Brian Katulis called on greater awareness and action over the mass displacement of Iraqis within and from their homeland; while Volker Perthes of the German Institute for International Politics and Security Studies presented a rich, detailed and plausible choice of four scenarios of Iraq in 2012 - "Belgium", "Somalia", "South Korea", and "thirty years' war" - each of which was intimately linked to a US presidential victor in 2008.

Aung Zaw, editor of the Irrawaddy, traced the background of Burma's surging if - for the moment - abortive revolt; Joakim Kreutz provided a sophisticated political analysis of the combination of elements needed for a transition beyond dictatorship; and Robert Semeniuk's compassionate photo-essay on the treatment of Burmese malaria victims on the Thailand-Burma border offered its own insight into a political tragedy.

In Africa, Achille Mbembe brought thinking about South Africa onto a new level with his dissection of whiteness after apartheid. Godwin Nnanna asked whether the African Union was more image than substance; the renowned analyst Gérard Prunier suggested reframing the devastating regional conflicts around Sudan as the "Darfur-Chad civil wars"; Gustaf Silfverstolpe called on Angola's government to commit to its election timetable; and Anna Husarska of the International Rescue Committee sent a moving, revealing photo-essay depicting women's water-supply problems in Somalia.

India and Pakistan's great anniversary was also the sixtieth year since the terrible violence of partition. Ravinder Kaur and Sumantra Bose invoked personal history and testimony as well as sophisticated argument to argue against partition as a solution to divided societies. Frank Vibert's travel in search of Buddhist India gave an unusual perspective on a neglected dimension; while John Elkington looked forward to India's "third liberation" - from poverty - and asked what will be necessary to achieve it.

On the Pakistani side, Maruf Khwaja and Irfan Husain analysed the fallout of the Red Mosque siege in Islamabad and the implications of the return of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto; elsewhere in south Asia, Meenakshi Gangulyfound similarities between China's policy toward Tibetans and Bhutans towards the Nepalis in its midst.

The dangers of a further cycle of war in the middle east were assessed in relation to Lebanon in strikingly different ways by Robert G Rabil, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb and Vicken Cheterian. Tarek Osman diagnosed a stuck Egypt with sympathy and regret, and in another article recalled the rich contribution of Christians to national life. The ex-Princeton (and now Soas) scholar James Macdougall provided more insight on Islam and politics in Algeria than a dozen routine commentaries; Caroline Moorehead, in a welcome return, unravelled the tensions surrounding Israel's reluctant welcome to refugees from Sudan; and Marcus Noland & Howard Pack gave a cautiously hopeful assessment of the prospects for Arab economies.

Fred Halliday's especially rich analyses of Lebanon and Palestine were supplemented by a detailed portrayal of Yemen - a different kind of return, to the region of his first analyses of the Arab world; fellow-columnist KA Dilday's travels through Morocco provided the grounds for strong assessments of the country's electoral flaws and restricted horizons; Ghassan Khatib reaffirmed the clear ingredients of a Palestinian solution; and Bissane El-Cheikh delivered a quirky and warm narrative of an encounter with an Israeli taxi-driver in London.

• Ideas and debates

Tariq Modood's response to his critics in our most recent debate on multiculturalism appeared at the very start of this editorial-report cycle. It was followed by a number of articles that sought to make sense of the fractures and threats of a world in movement and mixture - in particular, what can be learned of the impulses behind the terror attacks in London and Glasgow.

Debora Mackenzie and Michel Thieren reflected on the involvement of trained medical personnel in these operations and asked why professional, educated people should be so motivated. Yves Gingras identified the indulgence of scientists in mysticism and religion as an intellectual deformation, while Nayan Chanda saw missionaries and religions as agents of a globalisation that he saw as rooted in many centuries of human history.

The anniversary of Pope Benedict XV1's Regensburg address was the moment for a characteristically perceptive assessment of his papacy by Michael Walsh, while the letter of 138 Muslim representatives to leaders of the world's Christian faiths provoked a mind-opening critique by Faisal Devji of the theological elisions, forgettings and platitudes of "liberal Muslims".

The financial turmoil on the global markets provoked lively argument from Ann Pettifor, Roger Scruton, Tony Curzon Price, and Christopher Harvie. Robert Wade looked at "the world's World Bank problem" and dissected neo-liberal crisis amid sub-prime meltdown. Kerry Brown wrote an excellent, clarifying piece on the connection between China's financial expansion overseas and its closed domestic institutional politics.

A conference on limited liability as the source of flaws in the world's dominant business model was the occasion of a penetrating study of "responsibility" in the neo-liberal age by Grahame Thompson. The theme of the power and danger of numbers (which Michel Thieren and Jean Seaton have considered in the past) was continued by Andrew Dilnot & Michael Blastland in their survey of the importance of statistics in political discussion.

Andrea Cornwell introduced a new series on pathways of women's empowerment; Srilatha Batliwala wrote the first article, focusing on Indian women's experience, and Mulki Al-Sharmani contributed the second, on the impact of the reform of family courts in Egypt. Joanna Bourke argued that the crisis of rape needed both legal and imaginative redress, Patricia Daniel charted the malign effects of binary thinking, and Tim Symonds lamented the failure of men and philanthropy to aid women's campaigns.

The gradual penetration of climate change into the world's consciousness and political agendas at every level was reflected in Oliver Tickell and Alex MacGillivray's fine pieces on the Live Earth extravaganza. Jim Gabour continued to send from New Orleans personal, melancholy yet life-affirming, reflections on a ravaged post-Katrina city. James Painter reported from Indonesia on the contradictions of biofuels as a means to fossil-fuel reduction; Chronis Polychroniou's reading of the Greek forest inferno blamed a complacent political culture and elite for a national, environmental disaster.

Beyond disaster-relief and carnivals, how can the climate-change challenge be met at the political level? Andrew Dobson drew on a summer's extremes to argue for the return of "eco-state" thinking; Mike Hulme of the Tyndall Centre responded to Al Gore's Nobel award with a trenchant piece arguing for the need to connect climate change to wider human values and purposes - it's in here as well as out there.

Ben Kiernan, one of the world's foremost scholars of Cambodia, applied a lifetime's learning to a global history of genocide. The "denial" of genocide and of other evidence-based realities was the theme of Keith Kahn-Harris's essay on the psychological appeal of this mental attitude.

Patrick Wright, pioneer of "heritage studies" and metal-detector of Englishness, put his linguistic journey into the history of the "iron curtain" in the service of a rethinking of the 20th century's theatrical politics.

Several writers found larger truths in individual trajectories. The Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo paid tribute to the American political philosopher Richard Rorty; Irfan Husain reported the reaction in Pakistan to "Sir" Salman Rushdie; Birgitta Steene and Roger Scruton illuminated the Swedish and the spiritual dimensions of Ingmar Bergman's work; Susan Watkins and Müge Galin marked Doris Lessing's Nobel literature award by focusing on the range and "predictive" quality of her work, and its Sufi dimension; and Malcolm Chapman highlighted the intellectual importance of his mentor Edwin Ardener, on what would would have been the great anthropologist's 80th birthday.

The death of the businesswoman and environmental campaigner Anita Roddick was marked by David Boyle's warm tribute, while John Elkington of Sustanability responded to a great loss with a summation of the "outsider rules" that her life embodied. Alejandro Litovsky of Accountability wrote about a conference that put the connection between global energy deprivation and poverty on the agenda. Another approach to aid and development, that of the Clinton Global Initiative at its annual New York meeting, was the subject of Lam Thuy Vo's light-touch report.

A significant and continuing debate that reflects the heart of openDemocracy's current editorial concerns focuses on deliberative democracy. The dedicated dLiberation blog edited by J Clive Matthews has built substantive academic discussion around the "Tomorrow's Europe" experiment coordinated by James S Fishkin and colleagues. Alongside this, a commissioned debate has broadened out to encompass an argument for the merits of the deliberative approach (James S Fishkin); a research-based advocacy of referenda over deliberation in Europe (Matthias Benz); a reflection on the lessons of British experience (John Jackson); a comparative critique of three approaches to democracies' crisis-management (using the global financial turmoil and Northern Rock as a case-study), by Frank Vibert; and a stunningly imagined multiple conversation between Plato, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, and Slashdot's Cmdr Taco on the possibilities of dialogue in the age of the internet, composed and orchestrated by Tony Curzon Price.

Indeed, the commitment to establish links with communities of knowledge; to understand what these are and where they are heading; to explore the sources of reliable knowledge and of authority in the age of the glorious, limitless, chaotic, transformative, moronic, intelligent inferno that is the internet - all this is a particular feature of Tony Curzon Price's work in this period, one whose influence is spreading more widely across our editorial thinking as openDemocracy develops.

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