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Sociologist Willem Schinkel: ‘democracy is basically authoritarian’

Sociologist Willem Schinkel: ‘democracy is basically authoritarian’

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Second conversation, 20 December 2012

Click here for the first conversation with Willem Schinkel

Wunderbaum is building The New Forest: a new, alternative society. The ambition is crystal-clear: despite the current crisis climate, TNF is focusing on new social opportunities. But where are those opportunities? All in all, the current society is functioning perfectly well, isn’t it? Isn’t our current democracy ultimately the most human system possible?

Willem Schinkel: “Yes, possibly some form of democracy is the most human form of community. However, the question is whether this democratic organisation of the human collective has already been realized here and now.”

“In fact, I am not so much concerned about the problems arising with the procedures of that democracy. The real major problem is that generally speaking nowadays we think: ‘democracy, that’s what we more or less have, we don’t really have to think about that anymore’. And that’s exactly where the problem begins. In that case, we actually say: freedom has become reality. But that freedom is permanently subjected to pressure.”

“If democracy is the most humane way of human society, this means that it will never be completely done. Of course there are all sorts of problems concerning our democracy at this moment – we could talk about that too. But the first problem is that democracy is considered to be ‘realized already’. Whereas democracy should in fact maintain an attitude of ‘being connected with the future’, of a ‘not-yet-character’. If democracy does not have that attitude, it quickly becomes a form of anti-democracy.”

What is democracy?
Willem Schinkel: “Very often people think: ‘democracy: that is voting. But that is way too limited. Voting is only a very small part of democracy. There are many more radical ways of thinking about democracy. Historically, there have been democracies that were not familiar with our way of voting. Voting is a method of organizing things, but it does create its own problems. It’s a procedure that reduces all content and all quality of our vote to a quantity.”

“Therefore, we should not try to view democracy as a concrete concept such as ‘voting’. In fact, make it more abstract: democracy is a medium for a nation to experiment with itself. The nation is invisible; it can only become visible in a democracy. So it has to experiment, keep changing clothes, and turn around to stand before the mirror of politics again. That should happen time and time again.”

“Moreover, you should not want to reduce a value such as ‘freedom’ to ‘individual freedom of choice’. Freedom, for instance, is first of all also ‘freedom to be able to experiment’, or ‘freedom in relation to the state’. Usually, this last item is omitted from our existing views on freedom. Primarily we think: ‘there is a state, which is not questionable, and within that state we shift with monies and procedures.’

What is the aim of democracy?
Willem Schinkel: “Democracy has an aim that cannot be realized. And as soon as you think that it actually can be realized, then it’s no longer a democracy. The aim of democracy is: never ever to pretend that freedom has been realized. To never congratulate yourself and claim ‘we’ve got it, this is the most human form of society’. That aim should be put off.”

“In the modernity something has happened with what is called ‘the final day’ in Christian thinking. According to the Christian philosophy, the end of history could not occur in history itself. In the modernity, this end has been changed into a ‘target-end’; an end within the history. It has become something that could be ‘achieved’, something ‘to which a path’ could be plotted. Thus goals became ‘feasible’. The violent projects of modernity also stemmed from these thoughts: capitalism, communism, et cetera.”

“Philosopher Jacques Derrida used the term ‘avenir’: the French word for future, but when you separate it, it also means ‘to come’. You are living in circumstances in which freedom is yet ‘to come’. Every way of stating: ‘this is freedom’, is of course limiting. There, the real freedom of life is not given any room.”

“An example. Nowadays, freedom means that you are allowed to be ‘queer’, that you can adopt a sexually indefinite identity. That would have been unthinkable fifty years ago. If we had recorded fifty years ago what freedom means exactly, then there would have been no notion of the fact that life is an ever-changing process, a reflexive, experimenting process, which harks back to itself time and again.”

“So freedom is not something that you can lay down, just like that, but something that has to be designed and invented over and over again. And the beauty of democracy is that this is possible. That it is a medium to experiment. Whereas, the actual existing democracy is not always that medium. It cannot be found when observing the institutions that we currently call democratic. Or when observing the procedures. But democracy is much broader than that.”

Where is democracy present?
“Democracy is what happens here, in this very room. It’s everywhere, on the streets, at the table, in schools and everywhere you can think of. In fact, democracy is very broad. Again, the actual problem is that democracy is often narrowed down. Just like the fact that ‘politics’ are reduced to ‘Den Haag’, to institutions. Then it appears that it has become a number of procedures, which can be ticked off.”

“But it is also much broader. It is also what you actors are doing. And that is indeed what our institutional democracy – that’s something we have to grant it – does make possible. That this broader form of democracy, which is much more bottom up, that constant form of reflecting, re-inventing and experimenting, is indeed possible. So there is a definite link, as this is much less likely in an authoritarian regime.”

Paradox of freedom
Willem Schinkel: “The problem with our way of thinking about freedom, is that it’s asymmetrical. Our freedom is limited to the area within our national borders. A nation state means, first of all, domestic solidarity and an internal guarantee of freedom. By definition this means that other people’s freedom is limited. If only, because other people are just not allowed to set foot on this piece of earth. A mad idea, because where in the universe has it been written down that this piece of earth belongs to us?”

“Freedom should be universal. Therefore, freedom within national borders by definition is a paradox: this is making the universal particularistic. Den Haag itself just cannot point out these issues, as Den Haag is in fact the institutionalization of that particularism. So it is necessary to point out the limitations of our conceptions of freedom, below and alongside that institutionalization. And to point out the importance of more universal, more inclusive ideas about freedom.”

“Actually, this limitation of freedom does not only occur between states. That limitation also exists within states. Lower educated people, who have fewer opportunities on the labour market, are much less likely to use their vote. So they have less influence on what’s happening in politics. They make less use of the existing democratic procedures. Take for instance a country such as the United States: the major part of the population does not make any economical progress, whereas 1% has made an economical progress of 400% in the past decades. Therefore, the economist Paul Krugman states that we should no longer call the U.S. a democracy.”

“There are all sorts of people who claim: a world without states is possible: a bottom up, networking world. Personally, I think that there will always be some form of state. ‘State’ is a broader word for ‘final body’, ‘ultimate authority’. That will always exist. So the world will always be torn apart. The only thing we can do is try to turn around that image of our state and our economy, try to entice it, try to give it another meaning.”

Wunderbaum is experiencing a feeling of paralysis. How can we personally make a stand against such concepts, when it turns out that we also maintain these concepts unconsciously? Are these powers beyond our comprehension?

Willem Schinkel: “Yes, we don’t amount to that much either. But… you do as you choose to do. And you could choose to completely ignore those issues. Just take a ‘happy go lucky’ attitude to life. But I think that this would not really be a happy life. So yes, life is a tragedy. It’s torn apart. Whereas, that also makes it productive. There are always things to do. And this ‘to come’ character is also the only thing that provides us with energy for the future. If we didn’t have that, then what?”

Heterotopia, and the art of temptation
In our first conversation Willem Schinkel referred to The New Forest as a heterotopia: an existing place in society that holds a mirror up to society. Wunderbaum wonders: is that mirror enough to offer that alternative? Or is the alternative more than just that mirror?

Willem Schinkel: “Philosopher Michel Foucault says that heterotopias show something that cannot become visible in everyday life. Stated more concretely: there are always perspectives that are suppressed in the regular society, but that could be given a chance in a heterotopia. A heterotopia can show values that we do not notice directly in our everyday life. Subsequently, it is also an important issue to tempt people to consider these non-daily situations and directions as desirable.”

Wunderbaum presents another problem to Willem Schinkel. In the last few years there has been no obvious lack of alternative strategies. Thinking ‘Green’, the Belgian civilian initiative G1000, Occupy… Whereas it seems that the decisive alternative still has to be found!

Willem Schinkel: “Occupy was valuable as a democratic experiment, but it had its own specific problems. That movement had such heterogeneity in content: it particularly made it clear that there was a longing for alternatives. It was more like a performance – almost theatrical – of a form of alternative, without providing an actual content. Occupy was the aestheticism of resistance, instead of the resistance itself.”

“Let’s be honest, I myself don’t get much further than the already existing alternatives either. That’s because it’s very awkward. One of the reasons why I am interested in Wunderbaum’s plans is that an aesthetic imagination might be necessary. Of course it can be useful to talk with people like me, and all the other people you’re talking with, but do not favour one acquired idea above the others. Use your own field to actually create something new, based on a combination of all these ideas.”

Introduce more perspectives
The demand for an alternative is one thing, but giving shape to an alternative is an entirely different matter. Vague alternatives miss the mark, whereas too concrete alternatives are open to suspicion by definition. Wunderbaum presumes that the struggle between these two extremes might be the most interesting part.

Willem Schinkel: “Beware of the cynicism of ‘there is no alternative’. On the other hand, do not develop the alternative you’re presenting too much either, don’t make it too disciplinary and segregated. Of course, you can explore both perspectives. Conversely, you might present someone who will provide a concrete step-by-step plan during the performance. Then you could comment on this plan: ‘unfortunately, that’s impossible.’”

“You could try to provide a very concrete alternative, but that would be limited and complicated by definition. However, you could also present complexity by introducing something like that concretely, and subsequently shower it with reflections.”

Order the book written by Willem Schinkel; De Nieuwe Democratie (in Dutch)