PSR INTERVIEWS #14: Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum (PART 2)

“Democratic innovations always struggle with their neoliberal and capitalist context. Capitalism has produced a particular kind of democracy. We refer to it as liberal or representative democracy. Calling it capitalist democracy would actually be more fitting. What we call democracy today is a hybrid between the democratic logic of the self-rule of the people and the capitalist logic of competition and hierarchy” – says Dr Hans Asenbaum. This interview is the second and final part of our conversation with this researcher and a PSR author, who covers new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics. You can learn more about democratic innovations in his PSR article: Rethinking Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum, 2021 (sagepub.com).

Political Studies Review: You discuss a participatory approach, in which the major axis of the critique comes from the dehumanising properties of institutions. What are the most effective ways to apply participatory innovations to public institutions? Have any experiments been done in this area?

Dr Hans Asenbaum: The dehumanising effect of institutions stems from their functions to govern us. They structure interactions and decision-making procedures, leaving little leeway for creativity, playfulness, or serendipity. What is surprising, however, is that participatory democracy happens within such institutions despite their rigidity. The participatory spirit creeps in and claims space when teachers decide their curriculum in a participatory and inclusive manner together with students or when a community reparation board invites victims and perpetrators into a dialogue.

Of course, state institutions are not always open to this participatory spirit, and its realisation to a large extent depends on the goodwill of individuals in power positions. This is why social movements are crucial in challenging these institutions. The Black Lives Matter movement is a case in point. Their actions constitute democratic innovation by interrupting the racist structures that govern societies around the world. This interruption is not only realised through a negative moment of protest but also through a positive moment of building a peer-help network.

Political Studies Review: In terms of the agonistic approach, you write that it’…has long remained vague about institutional manifestations of its ideal and has mostly referred to the contentious politics of social movement.’ The transformative perspective is also linked with social movements in your article. Have you been able to spot any of the features of these approaches in any of the significant social movements in recent years, such as Occupy Wall Street, Indignados, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, or any others?

Dr Hans Asenbaum: Movements such as Extinction Rebellion (XR), Black Lives Matter (BLM) and their predecessors have played a crucial role in inspiring theories of agonistic and transformative democracy. Hence, these theories are not only useful for analysing these movements but the movements also serve as the theories’ empirical sources. Now, this is the wonderful thing about democratic theories – and normative political theories more generally –; they each shed new and different light on the same phenomenon. This means we do not have to choose whether XR or BLM are either agonistic or transformative movements; they both harbour aspects of agonistic and transformative democracy.

State institutions are not always open to this participatory spirit, and its realisation to a large extent depends on the goodwill of individuals in power positions. This is why social movements are crucial in challenging these institutions.

The profound revolution XR calls for in the face of the dramatic climate crisis and the shattering of racist ideology and practice BLM advocates resonate with the transformative democratic perspective. Far beyond reform, it needs profound cultural and economic change to tackle the climate crisis and racism. Despite this revolutionary outlook, from an agonistic angle, we can see how both movements do not understand their opponents as enemies to be destroyed but as adversaries who are receptive to dialogue. Their views need to be challenged, and their practices disrupted. Such agonistic approaches are reflected in street protest and social media contestation of the respective movements.  

Black Lives Matter protest, London, June 2020, phot. E. Kania

Which of the developed solutions can be utilised in modern, democratic institutions most effectively?

The focus on social movements in the agonistic and transformative accounts doesn’t mean that the type of democratic innovations I’m suggesting cannot be realised within state institutions. Indeed, state actors are enablers of democratic bottom-up participation. This is what the participatory perspective highlights in particular. Participatory budgeting is a great example of how democratic innovations can be realised from a participatory democratic (rather than a deliberative) angel. The history of participatory budgeting also illustrates that whether democratic innovations emerge bottom-up or top-down is not necessarily a mutually exclusive question but that there actually can be a fruitful interface between the state and social movements.

The agonistic perspective further adds insights into how the state can facilitate democratic innovations beyond the deliberative paradigm. Mary Paxton suggests a Contestation Day, which is modelled after Ackerman and Fishkin’s Deliberation Day. Before general elections, citizens would meet for small group debates in the agonistic manner Paxton suggests. The new understanding of democratic innovations, I suggest, allows us to think even further. What if the state would provide social movements and civic initiatives the funds to set up their own democratic innovations? Democratic innovations, then, could be state-sponsored but social movement-run. I have made this suggestion together with Frederic Hanusch. We argue that instead of focusing on reasoned deliberation through the verbal expression of arguments, new democratic spaces could focus on non-verbal deliberation through artistic expression and play. This could be realised in democratic playgrounds and democratic ateliers as new democratic innovations that allow participants to prototype solutions to political problems.

What major challenges for applying democratic innovations would you highlight?

Democratic innovations always struggle with their neoliberal and capitalist context. Capitalism has produced a particular kind of democracy. We refer to it as liberal or representative democracy. Calling it capitalist democracy would actually be more fitting. What we call democracy today is a hybrid between the democratic logic of the self-rule of the people and the capitalist logic of competition and hierarchy. Capitalist democracy translates self-rule to the representation of the people by the elite. The power the people hold in this process is reduced to choosing among elite actors in staged party competition. Election campaigns follow market principles of product promotion and profit maximisation. The Schumpeterian ideal has become reality. This has been convincingly argued by Ellen Meiksins Wood.

Capitalism has produced a particular kind of democracy. We refer to it as liberal or representative democracy. Calling it capitalist democracy would actually be more fitting.

Democratic innovations, as I understand them, break with this capitalist logic and in doing so recapture democracy’s egalitarian spirit. Instead of delegating decision-making power to the elite, people deliberate and decide for themselves. Instead of competing with one another, they aim at mutual understanding – here the deliberative perspective is helpful. Democratic innovations interrupt capitalist hierarchy by demonstrating that self-rule is possible. Of course, there are convincing arguments that democratic innovations themselves are co-opted by neoliberal logic. They may only pretend to realise democracy while actually functioning as a governing tool of the powerful. We have to be aware and mindful of this problem. This is why bottom-up co-creation of democratic innovations is so important.

What are the key contributions your paper brings to the field?

The kaleidoscope of democratic theory my paper introduces reaffirms the value of theory triangulation. Triangulation is highly valued in empirical research, but it is hardly used in the field of theory and, in particular, in normative theory. Normative theories are commonly seen as mutually exclusive because each theory proposes its own ontology and its own complete worldview. By employing the kaleidoscope of democratic theory, we don’t compromise the internal integrity of each perspective. But we are still able to draw on a diversity of theories. I think this approach is particularly fitting for democratic theory because the value of pluralism is at the very heart of democracy.

The kaleidoscope approach also prioritises deep normative commitments. Discussions in democratic theory lately have moved away from normativity. Instead of focusing on normative models such as deliberative, participatory, agonistic or transformative democracy, democratic theorists suggest pragmatist approaches that are more problem-oriented. While I acknowledge the value of this argument, I worry about losing democratic theory’s firm normative grounding. Instead, I encourage exploring new ways of diversifying and creatively engaging with normative models.

In which direction normative democratic theory will develop is an intriguing question. How will deliberative democracy develop, and what may come after deliberative democracy? We are all part of this debate, and I’m looking forward to participating in it.

ABOUT

Hans Asenbaum is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. His work focuses on new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics.

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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PSR INTERVIEWS #14: Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum (PART 1)

The wealth and diversity of democratic theory are incredible. What is fascinating about the participatory, agnostic, and transformative perspectives is that each of them offers an entire world we can dive into, immerse ourselves in, and relish in the democratic vision it generates” – says Dr Hans Asenbaum. This interview is the first part of our conversation with this researcher and a PSR author, who covers new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics. You can learn more about democratic innovations in his PSR article: Rethinking Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum, 2021 (sagepub.com).

Political Studies Review: You suggest that we need to rethink democratic innovations. Why is such a “re-innovation of democratic innovations” needed, and how do we best go about this?

Dr Hans Asenbaum: Democratic innovations are commonly understood as participatory institutions created by governments. Examples are the now very popular citizens’ assemblies which flourish across the UK and Ireland and participatory budgets which emerged in Brazil. The way the scholarly community conceptualises these instantiations of lived democracy is limiting. This established understanding draws our attention to top-down initiated governmental institutions that are meticulously designed. Design pre-structures what participants in these settings can do and what they can express. Problems range from time constraints to a too narrow focus on rational arguments and go on to include co-option by the organisers. In other words, democratic innovations often produce the decision their organisers intended them to produce, which, of course, defeats their democratic purpose.

What can we do to challenge or at least mitigate these problems? One reason why we perceive and conceptualise democratic innovations in such a narrow manner is because of the incredible success of theories of deliberative democracy, which have dominated the field in the last few decades. This success is due to the persuasiveness and the merits of deliberative democratic theory. Indeed, the scholarly and practitioner community that aims to study and realise public engagement has benefitted immensely from the vibrant field of deliberative democracy research. Deliberative democracy in theory and practice has taught us about the values of inclusion, listening, empathy, humility, learning and respect. These are values I personally cherish.

Indeed, the scholarly and practitioner community that aims to study and realise public engagement has benefitted immensely from the vibrant field of deliberative democracy research.

The problem, then, is not with the deliberative ideal – it is with the exclusivity of one ideal only, whatever it may be. There are evident problems with dogmatism that prevent learning and development. So what I’m suggesting is not to replace the deliberative ideal with another, which would entail the same exclusivity. Rather, I suggest complimenting the deliberative ideal with compatible yet diverse other ideals. Rather than understanding democratic innovations exclusively as deliberative spaces, I propose looking through the kaleidoscope of democratic theory and making use of the wide variety of existing democratic theories. In this way, we can rethink democratic innovations from agonistic, participatory, and transformative angles. This lets us see democratic innovation in a new light. It helps us both to identify aspects of existing democratic processes we haven’t been able to see before, and it also helps us to identify instantiations of democracy that we previously hadn’t identified as democratic innovations.

What, then, is the result of applying the kaleidoscope of democratic theory? What does a novel understanding of democratic innovations look like?

So far, we know what democratic innovations look like from a deliberative angle. Following their Habermasian roots, deliberative democratic innovations have been particularly concerned with creating the “ideal speech situation” – they are staged as egalitarian islands amidst a world dominated by hierarchies and exclusions. This has led to an extreme focus, if not an obsession, with design. The idea here is that we can structure participants’ interactions – not the contents they express but the way they express these contents. This has had beneficial effects, particularly for marginalised groups in society participating in democratic innovations. Nevertheless, the undemocratic aspects of this approach are evident. Design means limiting and pre-determining participants’ behaviour.

If we supplement the deliberative with agonistic, participatory, and transformative lenses,  democratic innovations take on a new meaning. Rather than top-down initiated design, democratic innovation may emerge organically from grassroots mobilising and everyday interaction. Agonistic, participatory, and transformative democratic theory teaches us that democracy may occur anywhere – not just in official democratic processes such as election campaigns, referendums, or citizens’ assemblies, but wherever people meet and exchange ideas and opinions about how society should be governed. Rather than formal, state-run institutions, in the reading I propose, democratic innovation may include informal institutions such as social movement spaces, everyday conversations, societal conventions, and even language and thinking patterns.

Could you give us a concrete example?

Take language as an informal institutional arrangement as an example. Here, let’s zoom in on the debate about personal pronouns. Many advocate explicitly identifying oneself with pronouns including she/her, he/him, or they/them. The mere act of such a declaration constitutes a democratic innovation. Previously it was assumed that we could visually deduce each other’s gender. Making a conscious gender declaration breaks with these established patterns. It democratises gendering as now the control over gender identification lies with the individual democratic subject. The option of self-identifying as they/them allows for a rejection of the established gender binary and identifying otherwise. Democratic innovation, then, can happen in every type of institutional setting that governs us – be it formal or informal.

This does not mean that formal institutions such as deliberative mini-publics are excluded from this understanding of democratic innovation. But the novel understanding presents them in a new light. It draws attention to the inherently interruptive nature of democratic innovations. Where formerly decisions were made by the political elite, mini-publics and other formal democratic innovations interrupt this mode of governance and demonstrate that democracy can be practised otherwise.

What are the major differences between participatory, agnostic and transformative perspectives?

The wealth and diversity of democratic theory are incredible. What is fascinating about the participatory, agnostic, and transformative perspectives is that each of them offers an entire world we can dive into, immerse ourselves in, and relish in the democratic vision it generates. The participatory perspective draws attention to bottom-up participation in unlikely places like workplaces, schools, public administration, and even prisons. Albert Dzur’s Democracy Inside is truly insightful. He sheds light on democratic innovations such as Inside-Out courses, in which free college students and inmates meet weekly to learn about criminal justice or community conferences in which perpetrators, victims, and witnesses meet and reflect on incidents of perceived wrongdoing from different angles. Participatory democratic innovations appear not as top-down designed political institutions but as organically emerging democratic spaces that are organised by civil society actors or public servants.

The agonistic view adds new insight to this approach. Agonistic democracy does not focus on formal political institutions but on language as an informal institutional arrangement that affords and governs how we express ourselves and what we think. In addition to the focus on language, agonistic democracy is concerned with emotion, passion, and affect. At its core, agonistic democracy is about venting suppressed conflict but at the same time preventing conflict from becoming destructive. Hence, creating a safe space is important. Mary Paxton’s Agonistic Democracy opens our eyes to a range of democratic innovations that are mostly outside the realm of the deliberative view. She suggests various seating arrangements, speech tokens, personal testimony instead of expert facts, and controversial topics for debate. More than anything, agonistic democracy does not prescribe one ideal setting but opens our view to the many forms democratic innovations can take on.

I suggest maintaining the internal integrity of each of these perspectives, including the deliberative one, and allowing ourselves to switch between them. It’s like cycling through various different landscapes, immersing ourselves, and learning something new in each of them.

While the agonistic and participatory perspectives suggest reform of a flawed democratic system, the transformative perspective proposes a profound systemic change that breaks with capitalist logic. Such deep transformation has been advocated in the work of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. But what transformative democracy means for democratic innovations has hardly been explored. Alexandros Kioupkioulis’ The Common and Counter-Hegemonic Politics does a magnificent job at breaking things down by focusing on one concept: the commons. Common-pool resources such as land, water, and knowledge are not simply property that is collectively owned. They constitute a democratic practice – a radical democratic innovation. Wikipedia, the Ancient Greek polis, and occupied public squares all illustrate that transparent and open collective decision-making is possible.

We can see how diverse these three perspectives are. My suggestion is not to combine and hybridise them in some sort. Rather, I suggest maintaining the internal integrity of each of these perspectives, including the deliberative one, and allowing ourselves to switch between them. It’s like cycling through various different landscapes, immersing ourselves, and learning something new in each of them.

ABOUT

Hans Asenbaum is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. His work focuses on new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics.

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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Podcast #19: Activist Parties and Hybrid Party Behaviours: A Typological Reassessment of Partisan Mobilisation – Dr Alejandro M. Peña

There is a certain inconsistency between theoretical expectations about the behaviour of political parties under democracy, and recent developments concerning the rise of protest politics, the appeal of populist parties and the overall crisis of liberal democratic institutions” – says dr Alejandro M. Peña.

The author points to current resources reducing the organisational trade-offs previously assumed to restrict the combination of electoral appeal with partisan militancy. The podcast is based on dr Peña’s PSR article: Activist Parties and Hybrid Party Behaviours: A Typological Reassessment of Partisan Mobilisation.

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Article: Peña A. M. (2021), Activist Parties and Hybrid Party Behaviours: A Typological Reassessment of Partisan Mobilisation, Political Studies Review 4/2021

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Podcast #18: Rethinking Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory- Hans Asenbaum

Democratic innovations such as citizens’ assemblies are commonly conceptualized from a deliberative democratic perspective. Here, citizens come together to deliberate political issues and jointly develop solutions. While this perspective is important, the wide range of democratic theories has much more to offer” – says dr Hans Asenbahm.

He argues that looking through just one perspective, as social scientists usually do, limits what they can see. The podcast is based on dr Asenbaum’s PSR article: Rethinking Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum, 2021 (sagepub.com)

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Article: Asenbaum H. (2021), Rethinking Democratic Innovations: A Look through the Kaleidoscope of Democratic Theory – Hans Asenbaum, 2021 (sagepub.com), Political Studies Review 2022

Hans Asenbaum is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra. His work focuses on new forms of democratic engagement and radical democratic politics.

PSR Interviews #7: Critical Dogmatism: Academic Freedom Confronts Moral and Epistemological Certainty – an interview with Colin Wight

Academics should defend their colleagues against attacks on their academic freedom, even if they strongly disagree with the views expressed. And academic freedom should be protected by privileges similar to parliamentary immunity. Prof. Colin Wight explains his approach to academic freedom – a complex category, full of nuances and controversial issues, but fundamental for democracy. A fuller analysis of these issues can be found in Prof. Wight’s PSR article: Critical Dogmatism: Academic Freedom Confronts Moral and Epistemological Certainty

PSR: How would you define academic freedom?

My definition is quite traditional. Put simply, I define academic freedom as the “freedom of academics (including students) to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from the law, institutional regulations, or public pressure.” Defined this way, it is a particular kind of freedom (and responsibility) that academics possess in virtue of being academics. Hence, it is a form of freedom that not every member of society can call upon. This is why, as we will discuss later, I insist on distinguishing between free speech and academic freedom. In societies committed to free speech (and some aren’t), every member of that society has free speech protections. Only academics (and students) have protections pertaining to academic freedom. It only applies to the university sector. So it should be something that is highly valued and protected by all academics. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case today.

You claim that it is “one of the necessary components of a democratic society”. Why so, and what is the role of universities according to the principle of academic freedom?

Thomas Jefferson argued that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. Citizens need to be educated enough to assess the political arguments they are being asked to vote for. Universities play a role in educating the electorate, but they also play many other roles. One of their primary functions concerning academic freedom is to produce, preserve and protect knowledge in society, which can then inform public debate on complex issues. However, I want to stress the ‘inform’ here, as scientific knowledge cannot determine policy. It can provide a framework for considering the consequences of different policy options, but politics and values matter just as much in public debate.

But in complex and information-saturated societies, knowledge is vital for democracy. Citizens today are bombarded with information and misinformation, and they need trust in institutions to set out the facts in a non-partisan way. Science, produced in Universities is meant to provide that knowledge. Unfortunately, trust in almost all social institutions seems to be in decline, the university included. I fear that the politicisation of knowledge in the Covid-19 crisis is only accelerating that trend.

How one can misunderstand this concept? How would you differentiate between academic freedom, free speech and hate speech?

Let me admit first that I have a problem with the concept of hate speech. I don’t deny that it exists, but I believe that it’s such a subjective concept that it’s almost impossible to define in a way that can inform policy without also introducing harms in other areas. That said, if societies want to declare certain kinds of speech to be hate speech, then the appropriate way to determine that is through public debate. As a democrat, if the majority decide to ban certain kinds of speech as ‘hate speech, I’ll respect that decision, even though I might disagree with it. My view is even more radical in relation to societies I am not a member of. Hence, although I abhor blasphemy laws, I recognise the right of Islamic Societies, for example, to have laws against blasphemy.

But in complex and information-saturated societies, knowledge is vital for democracy. Citizens today are bombarded with information and misinformation, and they need trust in institutions to set out the facts in a non-partisan way. Science, produced in Universities is meant to provide that knowledge.

But laws against hate speech can end up being limits on free speech. There are always some limits on free speech, the question is, what those limits should be? This indicates something important about how I distinguish between free speech and academic freedom. Free speech is really a question of a society deciding what speech it should restrict to protect that society from harm caused by certain kinds of speech. Societies have the right to make that determination. They have a right to determine what limits they deem necessary to place on free speech to protect society.

On the other hand, the purpose of academic freedom is not to protect society, but to protect the truth. Truth has no national or social boundaries. Thus the only limits I would put on academic freedom, are the incitement to violence. Violence is no friend of truth either. If I was the supreme leader of my society, I’d apply that same standard to free speech as well. Still, since I’m not, I have to accept society’s right to set free speech limits. So we have a situation where I recognise the rights of societies to limit free speech, but I reject any limits (apart from inciting violence) on academic freedom. Societies have national boundaries, truth does not. And since academic freedom is about the production and protection of truth, it has no national boundaries. So state laws relating to free speech and hate speech should have no impact on academic freedom. This is why I argue that academic freedom is a higher-order value than free speech.

Can academic freedom be exercised, avoiding the risk of spreading (or even legitimising) racial, ethnic, sexist, or homophobic biases within academia? Are there any limits to academic freedom?

No, probably not. In contentious areas involving these and other subjects, it’s going to be impossible to escape the fact that we will find some arguments deeply distasteful. But the way to deal with opinions you disagree with in an academic setting is to engage with them and demonstrate where they go wrong. History teaches us that societies have often believed in things that have turned out to be wrong (slavery, the treatment of women, or theories of racial superiority, for example). We have no grounds to believe that some of our current beliefs won’t also turn out to also be wrong. I find moral and epistemological certainty to be dangerous positions. They assume that we have reached absolute truth about some moral or epistemological position. This kind of thinking leads to totalitarianism, and since we accept some societal limits on free speech, we need a place to test all ideas; that’s the academy.  The only limitations I would place on academic freedom are clear incitement to violence.

What is the view(s) of truth linked to this concept? Are there any disagreements? Is it connected to the idea of post-truth? 

Given that I believe that the role of academic freedom is to protect the pursuance of truth, we must understand what I mean by that term. I operate with two interconnected versions of truth. Technically, these can be understood as an ontological version, which is a truth that exists independent of whether it is known or not, and an epistemological account of truth which is known truth; or a better way to phrase that might be as accepted truth. Ontological truth is totally objective. It exists as it does irrespective of if it is known or not. Epistemological truth, on the other hand, is always approximate, and always subject to revision. To give an example of the former (ontological truth). Something happened to Flight MH370, the Malaysia Airlines aircraft that disappeared on 8 March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Beijing.

We do not know what happened, but something clearly did. This is a truth that exists but which is unknown. We do, however, have many theories about what happened. Still, we do not know which one most accurately captures what happened. We may never know. But still, something happened, and we hope that one day with better theories and more evidence we might come to know what happened. This is why I distinguish between the two kinds of truth. The way we assess the relationship between actual truth and accepted truth in science is based on evidence and debate.

A quote from  Vaclav Havel captures this dynamic well: “Keep the company of those that seek the truth – run from those that have found it”.

Given the difficulties we have knowing when our human-constructed version of the truth has captured, and to what extent, the truth of the phenomenon we are studying, then I embrace what is known as a Nietzschean perspectivism method of approaching the truth. That is to say that the more perspectives, views and opinions we bring to bear on a subject, the more likely our objectivity will be enhanced. And this is why academic freedom is so important. A group of scientists might think they have reached epistemological certainty on an issue. But we literally have no way of stepping outside of our current stock of knowledge to compare it with the truth of the world.

Our truth is a constructed truth. But the non constructed truth remains. And one lone dissenting voice in the academic community might just reveal something to us that improves our understanding, our version of the truth. So we need to protect the space where these lone dissenting voices might emerge, however much they might contradict the dominant accepted understanding. That is why I believe that epistemological (and moral) certainty are dangerous. It assumes we know with absolute certainty that our current account of some phenomenon’s truth absolutely matches the ontological truth of the phenomenon. Now, how does this relate to post-truth? It seems to me that a large part of the modern academy has actually given up on the idea of ontological (objective) truth. What happens in this instance is that all we are left with is our epistemological version of the truth, which, since it is no longer trying to grasp a truth independent of us, simply becomes true by virtue of those with the most power to make it stick. Thus truth becomes a function of power and has no existence in and of itself. A quote from  Vaclav Havel captures this dynamic well: “Keep the company of those that seek the truth – run from those that have found it”.

What are the significant dangers to academic freedom today?

There are many significant threats to academic freedom today. Some come from outside the university and some from within. Although, in many respects, external threats can have an internal aspect to them, and the internal threats can become externalised. Externally, perhaps the most significant threats are increased government interference in Universities and a lack of adequate funding. Government interference can be both explicit and implicit. For example, in Poland, the Government threatened to withdraw government funding from Universities due to a dispute over abortion policy. This was a direct attack on academic freedom. But also in Hungary, the closing down of universities believed to be critical of government policy, the closing down of certain courses and subjects, and government takeover of control of some universities are all attacks on academic freedom. But even in democracies such as Australia, Government attempts to control what research is funded are attacks on academic freedom. Often this works in less insidious ways that we have seen in Poland and Hungary. A good example here is how governments will set strategic research priorities. Only research that meets these priorities will receive funding. Here in Australia, government fuding for research is tied to a national interest test.. This means that academic staff will often change their research projects to chase the funding, which, of course, is linked to their promotion prospects. Other threats come from managerial practices such as university league tables that ensure that universities steer their staff to undertake teaching and research activities that will boost the league tables’ rankings. In this sense, academics’ autonomy to research and teach in their own way is continually being undermined.

In many respects, the structural context driving this is the lack of adequate funding from governments for Universities. But some of the biggest threats to academic freedom today come from within the universities themselves, and from academic themselves. There has been an increasing trend for academics to attempt to shut down views they disagree with. Open letters denouncing research that is disagreed with or deemed to be harmful are now becoming, if not the norm, common occurrences. Speaker is getting de-platformed, and some issues are said to be beyond debate. That some academics are engaging in this kind of behaviour rather than defending academic freedom is perhaps the biggest threat to academic freedom today. After all, if academics won’t defend academic freedom, then who will?

What are the significant dangers to academic freedom today?

In many respects, the structural context driving this is the lack of adequate funding from governments for Universities. But some of the biggest threats to academic freedom today come from within the universities themselves, and from academic themselves. There has been an increasing trend for academics to attempt to shut down views they disagree with. Open letters denouncing research that is disagreed with or deemed to be harmful are now becoming, if not the norm, common occurrences. Speaker are getting de-platformed, and some issues are said to be beyond debate. That some academics are engaging in this kind of behaviour rather than defending academic freedom is perhaps the biggest threat to academic freedom today. After all, if academics won’t defend academic freedom, then who will?

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

I would like readers of my article to takeaway the following main points: First, that academic freedom is a higher-order value than free speech. As such, any restriction on academic freedom must reach a much higher bar than free speech restrictions. Hence I would like to see academic freedom globally protected from state restrictions on free speech. So hate speech laws should not apply to academics in the conduct of their research and teaching.  In the article, I suggest that academics enjoy something equivalent to parliamentary privilege related to their research. Public comment is different. But academic freedom should be almost absolute apart from the incitement to violence. Second, I think academics must defend their colleagues against attacks on their academic freedom from other academics. And in particular, they should do so even when they might vehemently disagree with the views being expressed.  Academic freedom requires all academics to dispute controversial ideas by engaging with them, responding to them, martial the evidence, showing where they are wrong, and not merely acting in ways to shut debate down. Finally, academics need to recover their belief in ontological truth. The Idea that there is a truth we are attempting to discover, even if we ultimately fail. For we cannot know that we have failed unless we try. And we can not begin a journey in search of truth if we do not believe such a place exists.  We do not have a map that will guide us to truth, but we have to think the journey is worth embarking on

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Article: C. Wight (2020), Critical Dogmatism: Academic Freedom Confronts Moral and Epistemological Certainty, Political Studies Review

ABOUT

Colin Wight is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sydney, Australia. His research interests are the philosophy of social science and political violence. He served as the Editor-in-Chief of the European Journal of International Relations from 2008 to 2013. Publications include Agents, Structures and International Relations: Politics as Ontology (Cambridge University Press, 2006), Rethinking Terrorism: Terrorism, Violence and the State (Palgrave, 2015), Scientific Realism in International Relations, edited with Jonathan Joseph (Routledge, 2010) and Realism, Philosophy and Social Science, co-authored with Kathryn Dean, Jonathan Joseph, and John Roberts. He is currently completing a book on Fragmentation and Pluralism in International Relations Theory.

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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“Some people would perhaps say that there is, or at least was right after the end of the Cold War, a worldwide demand afterlife in democracy. Nonetheless, democracy as such is a too abstract concept for most people. Therefore, those who do not have honest intentions with it, are often for a long time successful with hiding their true thoughts and restraining its fulfilment” – claims Dr Jaroslav Bílek. In this interview, he discusses competitive authoritarian regimes, electoral manipulation and the aspect of a linkage to the West, in the light of Levitsky’s and Way‘s theory. A fuller analysis of these issues can be found in Dr Bíleks Null Hypothesis PSR article: Linkage to the West and Electoral Manipulation.

PSR: Why competitive autocracies are a post-Cold War phenomenon?

Jaroslav Bílek: First and foremost, the end of the Cold War brought a worldwide demand for an electoral competition that at least seemingly appears to be fair and just. Thus, elections cannot be cancelled, not even by politicians who would rather govern without them. Cancelling elections would cost them too much legitimacy at both their home and foreign audience. This is a historically unique situation as never in the history of mankind there has been such a demand for holding elections.

Some people would perhaps say that there is, or at least was right after the end of the Cold War, a worldwide demand afterlife in democracy. Nonetheless, democracy as such is a too abstract concept for most people. Therefore, those who do not have honest intentions with it, are often for a long time successful with hiding their true thoughts and restraining its fulfilment. Then again, elections are something far more tangible and in the hands of power-holders, they present a solid source of legitimacy. Notwithstanding, these are not elections we know from real democracies, since their goal is not for the voters to elect their representatives, but for the power-holders to retain their power.

You refer to the work of Levitsky and Way (Levitsky, Way, 2010). They claimed that competitive authoritarian regimes that had a high linkage to the West, democratized. What are the roots of this argument?

Levitsky and Way argue that the West contributes to democratization in four different ways. It helps to even the uneven playfield between government and opposition, increase the probability of potential rupture within autocratic parties, improve the image of democratic opposition at a domestic audience, and what is central for my research, it protects opposition from regime repression. Linkage to the West raises the international cost of repression as it increases the probability that Western governments will take action in response to reported abuse. Based on this hypothesis, power-holders in hybrid regimes with high linkage to the West are supposed to resort to violence toward opposition or to significant tampering with election results less often. Such well-visible forms of electoral manipulations are expected to discredit them on the international level and also raise the risk of international sanctions or even of international intervention. However, my research disproved this hypothesis.

How would one measure the influence of linkage to the West on hybrid regimes, and what research tools/methods have you used?

I worked with data prepared by Levitsky and Way. In their book on competitive authoritarianism, they defined linkage to the West as the density of ties (economic, political, diplomatic, social, and organizational) and cross-border flows (of capital, good and services, people, and information) among particular countries and the United States, the EU (and pre-2004 EU members), and Western-dominated multilateral institutions (Levitsky and Way, 2010: 43).

We may still expect that there is some sort of connection between linkage to the West and decision-making processes in competitive authoritarianism.

Another option would be to set up my own dataset or to use the KOF Globalisation Index (as other studies did), but my intention was, in the largest possible extent, to work with the data asembled by the authors of the theory. Speaking of data, I would like to mention here the Varieties of Democracy database from which I took the data on the individual forms of electoral manipulation. This database has proven to be crucial for my research as I also wanted to test Levitsky and Way’s theoretical assumptions on new data. My research was then a standard quantitative study (data analysis with use of multilevel regression model).

So, can we assume, that a hypothesis that the decision-making processes of the leaders of hybrid regimes are affected by the state’s level of linkage to the West cannot be confirmed?

My research has shown that leaders in competitive authoritarian regimes do not take the linkage to the West into account when opting for a concrete manipulative strategy. The goal of my research was not to assess the effect of linkage to the West on the decision-making processes of leaders in hybrid regimes in general. We may still expect that there is some sort of connection between linkage to the West and decision-making processes in competitive authoritarianism. It should be noted though, that both Levitsky and Way’s original book and my research only work with one type of hybrid regime and only in a single era.

What factors make international reputation a low priority for political leaders in competitive autocracies?

That is a good question to which I would like to dedicate my next research. Contemporary comparative political science offers a variety of possible explanations. The following three appear to be the most likely ones. First, it becomes obvious that powerful western countries sometimes suffer from selective blindness and can prioritize their geopolitical interests over the protection of democracy. The second option is that linkage to the West is related to the economic nature of the given regime. A country with a more centralized economy that is not linked to the West does not have to really care about its international reputation with the West. That brings us to the last factor, which is China’s growing power and also the growing influence of other countries that do not really strive for spreading democracy in the international system. If those countries are your dominant commercial partner, they invest in you and are able to diplomatically support you when breaking human rights, you do not really have to rack your brain over your reputation with the West.

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

My research shows that intensive linkage to the West does not provide the opposition in competitive authoritarianism with effective protection from electoral repression and manipulation. In other words, it concludes that our views of political praxis after the end of the Cold War were overly optimistic in this sense. Furthermore, my research brings other possible explanations of why many democracies with high linkage to the ‘West’ in the last decade collapsed. Although the results of my research may appear to be pessimistic, I see them rather as an opportunity for the international community to take help to the opposition in competitive authoritarianism more seriously and thus help to twist the current global wave of autocratization.

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Article: J. Bílek (2021), Linkage to the West and Electoral Manipulation, Political Studies Review 2021

ABOUT

Jaroslav Bílek is a research fellow at the Department of Politics, University of Hradec Králové. His research interests cover electoral manipulation, authoritarian politics, democratization and civil-military relations

Questions and production

Dr Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

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