Osteuropa examines politics and art in the new eastern Europe;Soundings contributors ask how Britain can tell a better national story about itself post-Brexit; Revue Projet debates internet activism; Fronesis recalls revolution; and Dziejaslou talks to Svetlana Alexievich.
Osteuropa examines politics and art in the new eastern Europe
‘Artists and writers are the seismographs of society’, write the editors ofOsteuropa in their introduction to an issue on politics and art in the new eastern Europe. ‘Earlier than others, they indicate the waves that precede political upheavals. In many countries in eastern Europe, this early warning system has shown up growing social tensions. Art and literature have politicized visibly.’ Contributions to the issue concentrate on art and literature, with excursions into hip hop, focusing strongly on Russia as the origin of distinctly contemporary combination of countercultural aesthetics and conservative ideology.
Avant-gardes: Lena Jonson warns against conflating artistic transgression with an emancipatory ethos. Rather, as she shows in her genealogy of aesthetic subcultures in Russia since the 1990s, it is all about context: the Moscow activism of the early 1990s was, despite or because of its anarchy, largely in tune with the liberal mood of the period. In contrast, the ‘neo-academicism’ that emerged in parallel positioned itself against what it saw as the chaos of Perestroika. Ironizing and homo-eroticizing the aesthetics of Soviet high-realism, neo-academicism was a cult among the youth of St Petersburg. Later in the decade, it drifted towards the ultra-conservativism of Alexander Dugin and Eduard Limonov, to the distaste of the liberal intelligentsia.
With the rise of ‘constructivist etatist authoritarian conservatism’ (Jonson), the tables began to turn. Actionism became overtly political and paved the way for the middle-class protests of 2012. Simultaneously, an anti-liberal and Kremlin-loyal school of neo-realism emerged in connection with the hyper-nationalist turn in cultural policy, whose exponents were the heirs to the neo-academicians of the previous decade. ‘A conservative former counterculture in art had by the middle of the first decade of the 2010s become part of a conservative mainstream’, writes Jonson. Liberal art, on the other hand, ‘became marginalized, primarily on the state-financed art scene but to a large extent also on the private art scene’.
Also: Mark Lipovetsky criticizes the labelling of the politics of the Kremlin as ‘post-modern’ and shows how the current regime hollows out the critical thrust of post-modernism proper. Marija Engström shows how the legacy of the late-Soviet underground has undergone ideological and stylistic recycling, as contemporary Russian art becomes the commercially attractive imitation of revolution. Klavdia Smolar argues that oppositional art has responded to the failure of the protests of 2012 by avoiding direct confrontation in favour of a participatory and socially transformative concept of art. And Maciej Urbanowski looks at the genesis of Right-wing literature in post-Communist Poland, pointing out correlations between key events in the conservative imagination and central ideological motifs.
Soundings ask how Britain can tell a better national story about itself post-Brexit
Soundings contributors ask how Britain can tell a better national story about itself post-Brexit. The Left, the editors argue, needs not only ‘a better way of thinking about the national “we”’, but a better sense of itself and its own supporters. That means rejecting the ‘sedimented racist nationalist populism’ David Featherstone and Lazaros Karaliotas see in the ‘narrowly nationed narrative of the crisis’, which assumes fixed identities for ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘elite’ and ‘people’, and uses a ‘nostalgic view’ of the (white, male, industrial) working class.
Democracy and Brexit: Mary Kaldor asks what caused the ‘tragic mistake’ of Brexit and how to fix it. Though the referendum ‘unleashed the beast of racism’, and parliament’s indecisiveness has made the UK a global media laughing stock, the stalemate in fact represents ‘potential openings’ as parliamentarians express healthily democratic opinions with ‘a varying mix of conscience and electoral calculation’. Despite anti-immigrant scapegoating, Brexit has at the same time ‘opened up the possibility of what Altiero Spinelli called the “substance of politics”’.
Kaldor explains Britain’s democratic deficit in terms of a ‘gap’ between substantive democracy (political equality) and the proceduralism (citizens’ participation) that is the condition for the former. Globalization, the ‘degradation of [parliamentary] politics’, and the military-industrial complex, have, however, eroded trust in political life, and the referendum result was at least in part an expression of a ‘pervasive sense of disempowerment’. Kaldor’s proposed solution is a progressive, pro-European ‘remain and reform’ position.
Yellow Fever: Brexiteers’ despair is not unlike the ‘palpable’ rage and suffering Gabriel Bristow sees in France’s misunderstood Gilets jaunes movement. Bristow charts the complex history of the movement’s emergence and contradictory ideological formation. Though he cannot identify a ‘neat, linear direction of travel’, the movement has gone from typically centre-Right anti-tax politics to Left-wing demands not only for ‘tax justice’ but ‘justice tout court’ and, eventually, ‘an anti-systemic demand for direct democracy’.
The movement’s opening demands were Emanuel Macron’s deposition and rebellion against the French state’s authoritarian turn, of which they have borne the brunt. The movement has, to be sure, faced immense repression by the security forces, who injured many protestors with riot-control weapons not used in most European countries. The result, Bristow argues, is that the gilets jaunes have turned to a kind of ‘anarcho-populist “citizenism” pursuing direct, de-professionalized democracy inspired by a highly historically selective, folkloric image of the French Revolution. Despite the movement’s ‘cross-cutting nature’, Bristow notes that it ‘seems more intent on precipitating the thorough destitution of this order than on constituting a new one’.
Revue Projet debates internet activism
The summer issue of Revue Projet focuses on the internet’s reinvention of political activism. Environmental campaigners Manuèle Derolez and Léna Lazare discuss the relationship between digital and conventional forms of activism. Lazare highlights the power of social networks to mobilize large numbers of people, while Derolez argues that there is still a place for traditional NGOs, arguing that a ‘synergy between online and offline engagement’ is necessary to effect real political change. The movements that have grown up around digital platforms are able to reach a wider audience and stage more spontaneous marches and strikes, but Derolez and Lazare agree that they must cooperate with more established organizations to ensure the structure and sustainability of environmental campaigning in the long term.
Civic tech: Clément Mabi looks at how governments use online platforms to promote citizen engagement in public decision-making. One example was the French government’s use of a major online survey designed to gauge public opinion on various socio-political issues in response to the gilets jaunesprotests. The government’s hiring of the tech company Cap Collectif to raised questions over data transparency and political impartiality. According to Mabi, the grand débat national revealed ‘tensions between different attitudes within the civic tech community, inviting us to think about the various ways in which digital technologies have the potential to transform democracy’ and reminding us ‘just how important it is not to see these … technologies as “neutral” tools.’
Access: Five million people in France live without internet access, due to homelessness, illiteracy, poverty, disability, location or distrust of new technologies, reports digital inclusion campaigner Guillaume Garczynski. Because many public and private services are exclusively available online, including certain unemployment benefits and vital citizen information, it is crucial that this gap be closed. But the arguments for universal access are not just pragmatic: regular internet use has been found to enhance ‘self-esteem and to preserve social and familial bonds and psychological wellbeing’.
Democracy: Laurent Duarte studies the pivotal role played by digital media in democratic process in Burkina Faso, Algeria, Sudan and other African countries. ‘When dissident voices are denied access to public or private media platforms, social networks … can be used to bypass censorship and address a younger population.’ Duarte cautions, however, against overreliance on social media, stressing that they are only stepping-stones in the complex process of a nation’s democratization.
Fronesis recalls revolution
Modern history is full of revolutions that have been crushed, forgotten or perverted. To paraphrase Hannah Arendt, this discourages us from imagining a future that is radically different from the past and present, write the editors ofFronesis in an issue on revolution.
1917: A century later, the Russian Revolution’s world-historical significance remains hard to grasp. Historical texts selected to convey the global import of 1917 include the Indonesian revolutionary Tan Malaka’s on the compatibility between Communism and Pan-Islamism, the US-Jamaican writer Claude McKay on ‘Soviet Russia and the Negro’, along with a number of Swedish social democratic and communist voices. Together, they show how the utopian energies of the October revolution were imported into radically different contexts.
Take McKay, for example, a fellow traveller throughout the 1920s and early-’30s (before turning to Catholicism), who wrote that ‘the Southern States can well serve the purpose of showing what has happened in Russia. For if the exploited poor whites of the South could ever transform themselves into making common cause with the persecuted and plundered Negroes, overcome the oppressive oligarchy and deprive it of all political privileges the situation would be very similar to that of Soviet Russia today.’
Nowtopia: Revolution is often associated with ‘abstract utopianism’ in the negative sense. Wrongly so, as Håkan Thörn writes. The Situationists and Yippies revitalized an anarchist tradition of direct action to negate the present order and to demonstrate how life beyond could look and feel. ‘Nowtopia encompasses a total concept of revolution with a now-oriented and at the same time action-oriented utopian strategy; the emphasis on the nowness of action overshadows or even abolishes the notion of history as a forward movement — from the past via the present to the future.’
Modernity: Though their approaches are very different, Hannah Arendt and Anselm Jappe take similar positions on the ambiguities of modernity and revolution. Hannah Ohlén Järvinen and Johan Örestig explain how Jappe and Arendt not only analysed the contradictions of ‘modernity’ but also showed that the modern situation undermines the conditions for its own existence, pointing towards revolutionary transformation.
Vanguards: Jodi Dean argues that a redefinition of the revolutionary party is crucial if contemporary movements are to challenge global capitalism: ‘The party anticipates the revolution, materializing the belief that makes revolution possible not just as an outflow or overflow of present possibilities, but as an effect of the negation of some practices, trajectories, and potentials and the forcing of others’ (first in Socialist Register).
Dziejaslou talks to Svetlana Alexievich
The name of literary journal Dziejaslou is the Belarusian word for ‘verb’ — and indeed, since its foundation in 2002, Dziejaslou has established itself as a prime mover in the country’s literary scene. The journey has not been easy, particularly in the early years, when obstacles were placed in the way of distribution. All the more reason, then, for the European cultural sphere to celebrate Dziejaslou’s 100th issue.
And who better to mark the occasion than Svetlana Alexievich, the celebrated chronicler of the Soviet and post-Soviet everyday? In interview with critic Sjarhey Shapan, she expresses her regret that the two great twentieth-century Belarusian novelists, Ales Adamovich and Vasyl Bykau, were never awarded the Nobel as she was in 2015. The prize, says Alexievich, gave her the freedom ‘to try out something different, rather than always ploughing the same furrow’. ‘That’s why I want to do these two books: about love and death. I’ve long been interested in these metaphysical, irrational things that we hardly understand. I want to know what modern human beings think about them. What intimations do they have? What are they afraid of? And what superstitions appear in connection with our present era?’
Listening to Alexievich describe her method of literary montage, one gets a sense of how much effort it requires, and how much time she spends with personal conversations — conversations that sometimes last many years. ‘I try to answer the question: what does it mean to be happy? … What will you remember in the final moment? … “Do you know what I’ll remember before I die?” a taxi driver tells me, while we are talking about precisely this. “I’ll imagine I’m drinking wine from a lady’s shoe.”’
Socialist history: Anatol Sidarevich looks at the history of the socialist movement in Belarus at the beginning of the twentieth century, whose representatives took part in conference of the Socialist International in Paris in 1904. From the start, writes Sidarevich, Belarusian socialists were driven by a distinct set of national motives, which led them to emphasise their own interests over those of their Polish and Russian colleagues.
This article is part of the 15/2019 Eurozine review. Click here to subscribe to our reviews, and you also can subscribe to our newsletter and get the bi-weekly updates about latest publications and news on partner journals.