Blocking and sitting on the horizon of democracy

When the protesters peacefully blocked the neo-Nazi, anti-democratic rallies in the Czech Republic earlier this year, they did not cross, but respectfully approached the horizon of democracy.

Photo: Jaroslav A. Polák


On May 1, 2015, more than 250 neo-Nazis 1 marched through the Czech Republic’s second largest city, Brno, to “terrify and demonstrate their power,” as one witness said. 2 More than 2,000 peaceful protesters blocked them, and some were forcibly arrested by police. Two months later, on July 1st, 700 people demonstrated against immigration with wooden gallows in the center of Prague, threatening death to “traitors of the nation.” Police did act – but again, against protesters who tried to block the demonstration. 3

Both demonstrations ended in a paradox – far-right protesters were protected by police because their gatherings were formally legal, and those who opposed them, were arrested, because, as one Brno protest organizer admitted: “We wanted to block the march non-violently, although we were aware we might commit an offense.” 4

The cleavage of liberal democracy

In an episode of The Simpsons, titled “Barting Over” (Season 14, Episode 11), Bart decided to run away from home. He found a place to stay in a dirty, derelict apartment on the outskirts of town. Gun shots and police sirens echoed on the streets, and Bart, seized by fear, calms himself, by saying, “everything is OK Bart – just remember, murder is illegal here.” This joke points to the gap that is growing between the formalized legal system and its actual fulfillment. When we talk about May’s neo- Nazi blockade in Brno as “a denial of democracy” or “a disputation of constitutional law,” we are ignoring a deeper understanding of democratic practice.

Those witnessing the march were conflicted about the actions taken by those blocking it. The blockade itself was neither exclusive nor violent. Those blocking did repeat a divisive platitude, “those who do not block with us, must be fascists,” but this was nothing but a “bogey” used to rally those confronting the march. 5 The opponents of the blockade drew caricatures of “straw men,” to represent pro-blockade opinions, but this corresponded more to their own arguments and served as a false embodiment and target. This is precisely why opposing them is so difficult – they do not harm, but they stubbornly and confidently cling to their beliefs and cannot be swayed by counter-arguments.

We see democracy as a never finished process. We argue that those blocking the march were not crossing the “horizon of democracy,” a metaphor borrowed from geometry and applied to the direction democracy takes through social practices. To cross the horizon of democracy means to go astray from democratic ideals, but to approach the horizon means to deepen democratic mechanisms though civic initiatives, and those blocking were doing just that. Their passive resistance pointed to some groups’ efforts, e.g. neo-Nazis, to realize their full potential within a formal democratic framework in such a way that denies a wide range of democratic virtues. The case does not illustrate a fetish for direct action, but a self-confident motion within the space that is democracy’s very own condition.

Let us call this space the cleavage of liberal democracy. We distinguish liberal democracy from democracy as such, which we define by formalist doctrine, as the neutral ground where political games take place.

In our opinion, by entering this cleavage, the horizon of liberalism is crossed, but not the horizon of democracy. Even still this does not equate to a refusal of liberalism. The body of men blocking the rally may only be sitting on a ground, but their deed comes to rescue democracy’s crumbling value system: it actually saves the system from the system itself.

This act of civil disobedience – as in the case of the march’s blockade – will probably be classified as a minor offense. But to recognize this offense as a denial of democracy is completely erroneous. Committing minor offenses against the law should not deter people‘s ability to express their civic stance. Passive resistance is an instrument of radical democracy – an instrument that liberal democracy permits and can definitely withstand, without collapsing under its weight.

One might say that cultivating civic society towards nonviolent radical democratic acts could even save democracy from the “pulsing blind spot” of nationalism. If the march of a group, whose mere presence causes fear in the city’s religious or ethnic majority, is permitted, those cleavages – the spaces of resistance – also ought to be protected. Although those joining the blockade had numerous individual reasons for doing so, the primary and collective motive was solidarity.

For the last 25 years the culture of civil protest, one that considers the spontaneous and fallible human being to be central to all political activity, is precisely what has been missing in the Czech Republic. This culture would welcome bodies being used as blockades. It would reject democracy understood as a gentle discussion and it would distribute actor roles equally among society as a whole; it would champion authentic behaviour.

 Ethics against law

The higher moral imperative (the assumption that a blockade can be morally right even if it is against the law), repeatedly mentioned by the initiative’s speaker, was criticized on social media (see footnote 5) as an insufficient reason for crossing legal boundaries. In other words according to the criticism, legitimacy is reducible to legality. However this argument negates the ideological reality of politics, and reduces political practice to a mere technique of power.

Let us pose some hypothetical questions: Would those critics tell Rosa Parks (1913-2005) – an American civil rights activist, who deliberately challenged segregation laws in 1955 by sitting on a bus in a section reserved for whites, the same thing? Would they say the same to the protestors who infringed upon the laws of the authoritative regime in Czechoslovakia in November 1989?

Of course not – they would regard the pre-existing legal systems as problematic and the rebellious deeds as rightful. The behaviors would be seen by those critics as justified because they resulted in significantly better contemporary societies, but this argument is an escape from the realm of law into the realm of moral judgements. However, it shows that even the critics allow moral principles to be elevated above the letter of the law in some cases.

What do these considerations imply then? That we are all standing on shifting sands, and it is our responsibility to admit it. The statement that, “an act that is illegal is wrong,” is far from neutral – it is a value-laden judgement, and as such, is always grounded in some normative political agenda.

It is undoubtedly comfortable to reduce the moral aspects of political reality to a legal framework. But in reality, every individual stands before the same problem that the people blocking the neo-Nazi march intuitively solved: they identified their values and concerns and exercised their will to protect them. They decided not to hide behind legality’s illusionary wall, instead stepping out into the uncertain territory of civil disobedience, and in so doing committed an authentically democratic act. They were literally sitting on an empty place of democracy.

Democracy is not yet made: democracy is being done and so it fully depends on the people to carry it on every day. It is fortunate that there is no big book or clear set of instructions already written that we must follow. At the cleavage points, the questions of the people’s conscience are becoming the questions that shape society.

Democracy is not a chess game

Let us now state a few corollaries: A regime that punishes everyone who breaks the law in acts of civil disobedience, denies the people’s competence and their right to be the sovereign authority regarding how their community should look; and this should not be endorsed. In such a regime the right to decide the people’s concerns is fully delegated to the soulless state apparatus. Furthermore this type of regime grows out of a fallacy that the mere existence of the rule of law guarantees that it cannot be legitimately overrun. Yet violability is essential ingredient of every norm – if it is not possible to step beyond or outside it, it would mean that it is redundant.

Formalists tend to view democracy as a game of chess – still they don’t understand that this game does not take place on a solid table – the chessboard is constantly being shaken and infinitely shifting like quicksand. Formalists’ attitude is part of a wider trend, that can be called a culture of expertise, which grants decision making authority about democratic practices to a group of experts (whether they are specialists, scientists or politicians).

Because democracy is a representative form of governance, it inherently includes a dimension of transmittance, but we must keep in mind that this is not its only dimension or an exclusive one. It is one characteristic of democracy, but active expression of resistance is another, and should be considered equally relevant.

One of the great signs of the cadaveric passivity that has become the norm under liberal hegemony is that a considerable segment of society cares more about the formal civic rights of openly xenophobic neo-Nazis than about identifying a non-violent manner of civic resistance to combat their bigoted ideas and rhetoric. Finding that new manner means setting out towards more unexplored terrain and experimenting. To call the blockade primitive and civil disobedience arrogant is to completely misunderstand the reality of social practices in the public sphere.

Vividness of the public space

To absolutize only the representative role of democracy consequently means that one of its greatest virtues, a vividness of the public sphere, would be minimized. The blockade was vivid because its purpose was not to destroy, but to manifest, in a few spontaneous moments, civic cohesion.

This all occurred in the space of the aforementioned “democratic cleavage” – the same blind spot exploited by the neo-Nazis, themselves. But with one crucial difference: the neo-Nazi’s motifs entailed disintegration, while the motifs of those blocking the march represent more democratic ethos – the enhancement of solidarity and interpersonal engagement.

Argentine philosopher, Ernesto Laclau, one of the master voices of modern politics, theorized that radical democracy does not overcome liberal democracy, but simply extends it. 6  For us, and for Laclau himself, such an extension encourages an expansion of practical freedom and is fully feasible within our current democracy’s boundaries.

Our activities within liberal democracy’s boundaries can lead to a deepening of the mechanisms we appreciate most about democracy itself, and an elimination of those that prevent it from flourishing. Thus the health of a democracy, as we have shown, is completely dependent on civic activity.

However civic activity is a dynamic process, so we find democracy resting on a shifting foundation. Democracy is incomplete, unfinished, and forever self-absent in its constitutive fissures. The existence of these fissures is precisely how democracy differs from the totalitarian regimes – Nazism and Stalinism – that modern society has experienced. And it is right here in these fissures of democracy where we, the citizens and the bodies of democracy, shall always freely operate.

Notes:

  1. They were mostly the adherents of the nationalist movement, The Worker’s Youth (Dělnická mládež), and the political party, The Workers Party of Social Justice (Dělnická strana sociální spravedlnosti).
  2. Václav Ferebauer, Pavla Kubištová, Veronika Horáková, “Policie v Brně zasáhla proti odpůrcům DSSS, desítky jich zadržela / Police took action against the opponents of the DSSS party in Brno, tens of them were aprehended,” IDNES.cz, May 1, 2015, accessed July 30, 2015, http://brno.idnes.cz/pochod-delnicke-mladeze-v-brne-dkl-/brno-zpravy.aspx?c=A150501_144102_domaci_pku
  3. “Národ a šibenice. V Praze se demonstrovalo proti imigraci / Nation and gallows. People demonstrated against immigration in Prague,” Aktuálně.cz, July 1, 2015, accessed July 30, 2015, http://zpravy.aktualne.cz/domaci/v-praze-se-uskutecnila-dalsi-demostrace-proti-imigraci/r~f2dba670201811e5989d0025900fea04/
  4. Václav Ferebauer, Pavla Kubištová, Veronika Horáková, “Policie v Brně zasáhla proti odpůrcům DSSS, desítky jich zadržela / Police took action against the opponents of the DSSS party in Brno, tens of them were aprehended,” IDNES.cz, May 1, 2015, accessed July 30, 2015, http://brno.idnes.cz/pochod-delnicke-mladeze-v-brne-dkl-/brno-zpravy.aspx?c=A150501_144102_domaci_pku
  5. “Matěj Málek, Facebook Profile,” May 2, 2015, accessed July 30, 2015, https://www.facebook.com/stilltesting87/posts/797509900340712?pnref=story

    “Jakub Janda, Facebook Profile,” May 2, 2015, accessed July 30, 2015, https://www.facebook.com/TheJakubJanda/posts/10206659524836621

     “Marek Picha, Facebook Profile,” April 30, 2015, accessed July 30, 2015, https://www.facebook.com/mpicha/posts/10206502334228088?pnref=story

  6. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (ed.). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Verso, 2013, accessed July 30, 2015, http://www.versobooks.com/books/1557-hegemony-and-socialist-strategy
Lukáš Likavčan

Lukáš Likavčan

got his MA degree from philosophy at Department of Philosophy at Faculty of Arts at Masaryk University. He is now a PHD candidate in the Department of Environmental Studies at Faculty of Social Studies at Masaryk University.

Petr Bittner

Petr Bittner

got his MA degree from philosophy at Department of Philosophy at Faculty of Arts at Masaryk University. He is now a PHD candidate in the Department of Philosophy there. He is also the editor of the online journal, Deník Referendum.