Reflecting on the Lecture Series on Popular Sovereignty

The night of the UK election, my phone lit up with a series of texts: 

“They’ve figured out how to make supporting fascism woke

They’ve figured out how to make opposing fascism unwoke 

They’ve cracked the code” 

I read the texts while half asleep and responded: 

“Are you listening to Red Scare?”

But my friend Jacob wasn’t listening to my favorite cultural commentary podcast. Rather, he was responding to the results of the UK election, a campaign that featured particularly virulent claims by the Conservative Party that the Labor Party (and its progressive candidate for Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn) was antisemitic

“I can’t explain. It’s just so disorienting, makes me feel like I’m losing my grip. It’s such a slippery, slimy argument,” he wrote. 

The anti-Semitism claims have popped up again and again in media coverage leading up to and following the Conservative Party’s victory on December 12. Tariq Ali, an editor of New Left Review, spoke to Democracy Now about the claims shortly before the election, calling them bad faith attempts by the Conservative Party to resist Labor’s “ambitious election manifesto promising to transform Britain and resuscitate its public sector”:  

“[If Corbyn wins] It will show that it is possible to reverse all the damage inflicted by the neoliberal system, its economic policies, its wars, etc… So, that is one reason the right is so upset and the establishment has been trying to destabilize him, and this absurd, absurd accusation of him being anti-Semitic has been thrown into the ring… But, you know, people are fighting back, including large numbers of Jewish activists from Jewish Voices for Labour.” 

Ironically, the Red Scare podcast addresses the kind of malaise brought on by the entrenched nature of neoliberalism, the growing inequalities of which have inspired left-wing campaigns like Jeremy Corbin’s, tongue-in-cheek cultural commentators like the Youtuber Contrapoints, as well as right-wing commentators like Tomi Lauren. Red Scare’s Anna Khachiyan and Dasha Nekrasova, whose deadpan hot takes cover a variety of subjects, save their harshest critiques for liberal politicians and celebrities who embrace emancipatory rhetoric but refuse to criticize the underlying structures of capitalism that facilitate inequality. The incongruity of the rhetoric of mainstream liberalism and its failures address the material concerns of working people leads to bitingly funny, totally depressing takedowns of celebrities and the cultural and academic spheres, that are implicated in the bizarre emptiness of the political landscape. “Anna and Dasha make cutting jokes about our neo-liberalized, Uberized, depressing reality in a way that makes me feel seen, like ‘Oh, I’m not crazy, it really is that bad’,” my friend Elena said when I asked her about the podcast. 

Jacob, Elena and I have all been trying to make our experience of Western democracy fit the current moment, a kaleidoscopic exercise that causes even the most theoretically grounded among us to wonder: Am I crazy? “Fake news” has characterized the wave of right-wing electoral victories in India, the United States, Hungary, Poland, and Brazil. Politicians on the left and right have criticized an increasingly corporate media landscape for failing to represent the concerns of the average citizen. The cacophony of 24-hour news and its simultaneous dissection from critics of the media can be disorientingly numbing, or totally overwhelming. Or both. On the day after the UK elections, I struggled to think of anything to add when a conversation about the election results came up. I mentally flipped through different takes on the Conservative victory that I had read in the last 24 hours, a collage of analysis, and, finding nothing original to say, I finally managed, “I’m just worried about the environment,” a statement which was met by polite nods. I returned to my pflaumenkuchen, thinking about something else. Skeptical of mainstream hand wringing over populism in general and of liberal American anxieties that the “white working class” voted in droves for Donald Trump (which is factually inaccurate), my confusion over another right-wing victory was not rooted in shock at another rejection of the neoliberal status quo. Instead, I found myself without a political context to understand this moment in democracy.

In the midst of 21st-century anxieties about democracy and its constitutive principle, popular sovereignty, Bard College Berlin launched the Lecture Series on Popular Sovereignty in collaboration with Humboldt University’s Law and Society Institute. The lecture series brought together academics, political analysts, and civil society activists to talk about the dilemmas of democratic government. Politics professor and the project’s Bard Berlin coordinator, Dr. Ewa Atanassow, connects democracy to popular sovereignty this way: “The idea that ultimate authority is vested in the people is a constitutive principle of modern democratic politics. In its broadest meaning, this principle postulates that political arrangements, in order to hold, must be validated by the people over whom they rule.” Over the course of five different events, the lecturers, including David Dyzenhaus and Ivan Krastev, examined the challenges confronting the concept and practice of popular sovereignty today. I served as the project’s Student Assistant, and so I had the opportunity to talk to the project’s Bard Berlin coordinator, Professor Dr. Ewa Atanassow, about her goals for the series. 

“Dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, the concept of popular sovereignty carries the aura of the religious wars and anti-monarchical revolutions that relocated the seat of sovereignty from the divinely elected kings and religious and aristocratic elites to the people understood as the community of citizens,” Ewa said via email. “And so just a few years ago, a course or lecture series on this topic may well have seemed rather quaint or antiquarian. Yet in the wake of Brexit, Trump’s election, and what looks like a global populist wave, which left many—young people especially—puzzled and despondent, engaging with the idea of popular sovereignty has once again become an urgent task.”

The lecture series, and Ewa’s Fall 2019 course titled Dilemmas of Popular Sovereignty, were both parts of an initiative on popular sovereignty launched by the American Social Science Research Council in 2017. “One of its core objectives,” Ewa explained, “is to reflect on how to foster not only academically excellent but also civically meaningful work in the social sciences.” At her urging, I returned to Adam Davis’ November 21st lecture titled “Voices of the People: From Dreams of Self Rule to Practices of Mutual Understanding”, which addresses the intersection of academia and civic engagement. 

Though awarded a PhD in Philosophy in what he calls a “former life”, Adam Davis has served as the Executive Director of Oregon Humanities since 2013. Oregon Humanities “offers hundreds of public conversations and programs across the state, trains and supports dozens of discussion leaders, and awards tens of thousands of dollars in grants to organizations that, like us, believe in the power of people in rooms listening, learning, and struggling together.” Davis’ work looks beyond institutional and legal systems to the interpersonal relationships that form the base of what it is to be civically engaged. But what does civic engagement have to do with popular sovereignty? During his talk, students and faculty broke into discussion groups to discuss political and social divisions on BCB’s campus and in their home communities, demonstrating Davis’ conviction that listening across differences is a key component of “ruling ourselves.” It makes sense to me that Ewa recommended that I look at this talk again. Davis addresses what it means to “rule ourselves” and pays special attention to the difficulties and contradictions inherent in constituting a “we” at all, a process that comes to the forefront during conversations around British identity and Brexit in the UK or Hindu Nationalism and Narendra Modi’s BJP party in India. If you would like to re-watch Adam Davis’ lecture, a video is available here. 

In the Fall 2019 semester, questions of popular sovereignty were also explored in Ewa’s Dilemmas of Popular Sovereignty course, which revealed, in her words, “how imperfectly we understand the fundamental terms that make up our modern political vocabulary: democracy, equality, federalism, sovereignty, constitution, peoplehood, legitimacy, to name a few.” She also spoke to the simultaneous exasperation and confusion I felt post-Conservative victory in the United Kingdom: 

“Another issue that took me by surprise is how limited knowledge of civics is across the student population, regardless of particular background. Almost without exception, students arrive at university with little previous knowledge, let alone experience, of their country’s political history and constitutional tradition. Hand in hand with this limited knowledge is widespread skepticism about political participation and the humble practices that make democracy work. As studies show, and the participants in this course confirmed, young people today, more than preceding generations, feel detached from actual politics and are rarely in a position to appreciate what it takes. This has profound ramifications for our aspirations at this college to foster civic engagement. If such an engagement is to be possible, let alone fruitful and effective, understanding the political, intellectual, and social history behind democratic institutions and practices—what legitimates such practices, how they work, and how they are supposed to be working—seems essential.” 

Next semester, Ewa will teach a course on Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as well as continuing to work on a book project on “neglected dimensions of Tocqueville’s thought, including his understanding of popular sovereignty.” Ewa argues that Tocqueville’s work can be viewed as a lens to view democracy in a globalized world. The next lecture in the Lecture Series on Popular Sovereignty, “Popular Sovereignty as Dormant Sovereignty”, presented by Dieter Grimm, will take place on Tuesday, January 21 at Humboldt University. 

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