Original books often share two common virtues. They reach conclusions which make perfect sense in hindsight, but which somehow no one else managed to reach before. And they ask simple, big, often-asked questions, but answer them in new ways. Both of these apply to James Dawson’s new book Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria. How Ideas Shape Publics.
The book’s key finding – based on innovative ethnographical fieldwork – is that Serbia has a more vibrant and, to some extent, more liberal, public sphere than Bulgaria, despite being rated considerably lower on most governance and democracy indices (the book focuses on Freedom House’s Nations in Transit measures).
On a conventional reading this makes little sense: Bulgaria is a low quality democracy, which made slow, but steady progress towards EU membership in 2007, while Serbia slid into semi-authoritarianism following the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the wars of Yugoslav succession as the regime and (large parts of) the opposition embraced a culture of militant illiberal nationalism. Serbia began EU accession negotiations only this year and officials are carefully avoiding speculation about when it might eventually join the Union as its 29th member.
James Dawson’s book, however, tells it differently. Most conventional measures of democracy, he suggests, are too formal and legalistic, and do little to tap into the day-to-day thinking of citizens. ‘Hard’ comparative scientists are too often driven by an essentially procedurally framing of democracy leading them to overlook a multitude of defects and limitations in democratic practices. As a clever dissection of a well-known survey article in East European Politics and Societies makes clear, too many insights and observations appear simply as passing comments or incidental qualifying remarks, but in the end slip out of the final analysis.
The book addresses this gap by investigating the existence of an everyday public sphere conceived in (modified) Habermasian terms. This is investigated by examining the discourses employed by citizens in two provincial cities, Niš in southern Serbia and, Bulgaria’s second city, Plovdiv using an ethnographic method embracing both focus groups and more embedded forms of participant observation: following in the footsteps of Nina Eliasoph in her study of the culture of political avoidance in US civic voluntarism, Avoiding Politics, Dawson immerses himself in local associational life to reach a cross-section of informants in terms of age, education levels and sociological types:
I participated [he writes] in the activities of almost any available recreational and civic associations [in the two cities] which would accept me as a member. These included a mountaineering club, a careers office, an ‘alternative’ NGO, a sports club (Serbia), a private language school, an environmental NGO, a running club and a dance class (Bulgaria)
The result are slices of ethnographic data, which are both vivid and revealing opening up a world of what Dawson terms (adapting the nationalism literature) ‘everyday democracy’: one serving and two retired Serbian army officers walk up a mountain talking over who lost Kosovo; Bulgarian friends pick over the corrupt municipal politics and the still dirtier (in both senses) politics of local rubbish collection, touching on issues of clientelism and nationalism in the process; a young women denies the existence of gender discrimination, but then recounts how a job offer turned out to a thinly disguised attempt at recruitment for the porn industry and weighs up (but does not reject) her initial proposition.
This public sphere and public sphere pluralism Dawson seeks out is not some Habermasian abstraction but a curiously every day, workaday phenomenon, both less and more than formal, institutional civil society.
Bulgaria’s missing public sphere
At least where it exists. For the book’s headline finding is that while Niš does contain ‘vibrant communities of everyday debate’, ‘… the most remarkable thing about the public sphere in Plovdiv was just how rarely it was encountered’. This is especially the case for the minority of citizens in both countries who are, as Dawson puts it, ‘hard liberals’: the 10-15 per cent of the population who may be expected to develop and articulate a consistent discourse of liberal democratic citizenship, anchor democracy in both value and discursive terms, and perhaps act as focus of cultural change.
Why should be the case? This is perhaps an unfair question. Ethnographers are focused on meaning not causation. However, Dawson permits himself a hunch –and social researcher of all kinds should surely be allowed hunches? – that the more open and liberal political culture of socialist Yugoslavia has in some ways been carried through from the 1980s and fed into a distinct liberal public (or ‘counter public’). In Bulgaria, by contrast, despite more peaceful, institutional and economic patterns of development after 1989, legacies of a more authoritarian and closed form of communism have left a citizenry, whose most liberal ‘counter-public’ is still marked by illiberal nationalism and a view of liberal politics as mostly about forcing through (economic) reform.
The interpretation of Bulgarian liberals (in the broadest) sense of term as hamstrung by conservative and illiberal nationalism – influential perhaps precisely because it has been less militantly and radically asserted than in Serbia – is a controversial one. Many liberal Bulgarians are quick to assert that their country’s biggest problem is rampant corruption not rampant nationalism. In terms of action-this-day issues, this seems hard to argue with, but there seems sufficient evidence – as in the current dispute over Turkish language TV news – that the position of the Turkish minority cannot be taken for granted. Lessons from Hungary and elsewhere in the region suggest that all bets about what ‘cannot’ happen in CEE are now off. However, this perhaps misses the argument which is, in the end, more about the subtle influence of culture and discourse, rather than a scorecard of directly traceable political outcomes.
A similar set of question arises over the sustained mass protests in Bulgaria 2012 -13, which took place after the book’s fieldwork was conducted. If Bulgaria’s public sphere and liberal ‘counter-public’ were so weakly developed, how and why were civil society and social movements able suddenly to mobilise to hold corrupt elites to account? This issue is partly addressed in the preface and postscript (which also deals with the rise of the supposedly reformed nationalists of the Serbian Progressive Party [SNS].
Here, Dawson argues that while events in Bulgaria are positive in terms of long-term civil society development there is still greater reason for optimism in Serbia and pessimism in Bulgaria (especially beyond Sofia). ‘[T]here is’ he writes ‘little evidence that Bulgaria’s anti-government protests aspire to any emancipatory vision approaching the philosophically consistent liberalism of the cosmopolitan anti-nationalist, feminist and LGBT movement still audible from the margins in Belgrade’ and had that the protests, in particular, done little to challenge conservative nationalist assumptions underpinning much political discourse.
In this regard – although Dawson himself does not make this link – the reader cannot but be struck by the book’s discussion of the anti-Roma protests in Bulgaria in 2011 – triggered by an incident near Plovdiv – and his informants’ discussion of them. The account that emerges is not simply an outburst of familiar scapegoating ‘anti-Gypsyism’ but of inchoate and confused anger, which (at least in the minds and accounts of some of his informants) contained social, anti-corruption and anti-elite demands distinct from the obviously racist agenda of many rioters.
It is tempting to ask whether the wave of more civic anti-government mass mobilisation that swept the country in 2012-3 – while largely devoid of anti-Roma ethnic scapegoating – drew on a similarly confused mass of frustrations based on a loosely populist, anti-elite framing of politics which had little need of a strong liberal counter-public.
Accountants versus poets?
Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria is framed as a critique of conventional, democratisation theory and a world of ‘hard’ quantitative political science reflecting – as one panellist at the book’s launch event put it – a division between ‘accountants and poets’.
However, in many ways as book’s dissection of literature makes clear, traditional comparativists were aware of the limitations of surveys and quantitative data and keenly aware of the potential mismatch between liberal institutions and a society lacking extensive liberal values or well embedded liberal ways of thinking. Those pondering the fuzzy and much debated concept of ‘democratic consolidation’ have for years wondered whether spread of the liberal or civic culture is necessary condition of such consolidation.
Correspondingly, the book would lose much of its argumentative force in the absence of the (flawed) comparative indices it critiques (although in the bigger picture such indices do show Bulgaria as a consistent ‘laggard’ which is in many ways closer to SE Europe than the Visegrad states – indeed the latest Nations in Transit report shows improvement in the Western Balkans and backsliding in Bulgaria). Accountants read poetry, poets need the accounts to add up.
Moreover, although written in the language of Habermasian public sphere analysis and discourse theory, some aspects of the book run comfortably in parallel with mainstream, political science thinking about liberal democracy: the existence of publics and counter-publics fits well with classic and radical notions of pluralism; the emphasis on contending philosophical notions of citizenship is echoed in the literature on party based democracy and democratic quality which emphasises the need for completing programmatic alternatives,
The sense that meaningful consolidation of liberal democracy will occur only with the embedding of a widespread liberal culture is, as noted, not controversial for many political science. And this is perhaps unsurprising given that like Cultures of Democracy Serbia and Bulgaria most have a basic (if less clearly stated) normative commitment to liberal models of politics and citizenship.
Looking north, facing west
Despite its unusual and inventive Bulgarian-Serbian comparison, the book appears on first reading a work of South-East European studies. Questions will, however, immediately occur to anyone familiar with the supposedly more successful liberalisers of Central Europe. If indices can be wrong – or, at least, misleading and incomplete – on Bulgaria and Serbia can they be wrong elsewhere? If similar methodology was deployed in provincial cities in liberal front-running countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland, liberal discourses might be found to be similarly anaemic and economistic.
The narrowly economic, reform oriented nature of the Bulgarian liberal discourses identified might thus be more Central European than the book allows. Indeed, I wondered what kind of liberal discourses and public might emerge if similar research was carried out in the streets, sports clubs and voluntary associations of Clacton, Colchester, Wigan or Worcester. Anti-political and illiberal sentiments – and a populist desire for an out-of-the-way ‘stealth democracy’ for emergency use only, akin to a fire escape – run deep in Western Europe and North America too.
Mature liberal democracies may also have a shortage of liberal citizens. The desire of a young liberal educated Bulgarian woman for a government of non-political businesspeople to sweep aside discredited and corrupt politicians is a source of mild shock and disappointment. But when asked in 2012, some 38% percent of UK respondents told YouGov that ‘Britain would be governed better if our politicians got out of the way, and instead our ministers were non-political experts who knew how to run large organisations’.
Despite – or perhaps even because – of its immersive sense of place and locality, it is difficult in some ways not to feel that this a book about democracy more than it is a book about Bulgaria or Serbia.
This post is based on notes made for a panel discussion at the launch of Cultures of Democracy in Serbia and Bulgaria. How Ideas Shape Publics which took place at the UCL-SSEES School of Slavonic and East European Studies on 18 November 2014.
This is very much the case with Paul Mason’s Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions which rode the wave of the Newsnight economics correspondent’s single brilliant blog post, arguing that the Arab Spring was just the most powerful manifestation of new and epoch-making wave of global protest.
The (recently re-issued) book doesn’t in truth add a great deal to the ideas sketched in the blog post: there is some decent reportage from hot spots of protests round the world Athens, New York, London – with Mason’s writing about the slums of Cairo and Manila particularly insightful – but in the end this is just high quality padding.
As in the original blog, the reasons Why It’s Kicking Off are essentially straightforward and threefold: the strains imposed by global economic contraction; the new possibilities for decentralised, horizontal organisation opened up in by the internet and social media; and the role of ‘graduates without a future’ who feel the full brunt of the new insecurity but are also digital natives who ‘tweet in their dreams’.
But there is a slightly deeper underlying argument running through the book. Mason’s original post, as he is happy to relate, sent to have come from a conversation in the pub with activists at the Really Free School (then) at squatted premises in Bloomsbury. He was, as he appears less happy to confirm, a former member of the Trotskyist Workers Power group at some point. He certainly clearly comfortable and knowledgeable with the politics of the far left – both historically and now – in a way that few mainstream journalists are unless they have been on the inside of such movements. (The BBC’s Andrew Marr – once a member of the Workers’ Liberty groupuscule – is another example). Read More…
At an eye-watering £75 Hans Keman and Ferdinand Müller-Rommel’s new Party Government in the New Europe which came out earlier this year with Routledge is unlikely to have made it to under many people’s Christmas trees this year. It does, however, offer a quite thought-provoking, if not causally readable, a state-of-the-art survey of research on the place of parties in European democracy – and one with laudable and long overdue goal of taking in both established West European democracies and the younger democratic systems in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).
As Keman and Müller-Rommel make clear, despite an onslaught of social and geopolitical transformation – post-modernisation, de-industrialistion, Europeanisation, globalisation and so on – patterns of European party government have proved surprisingly resilient. Although public dissatisfaction and electoral volatility have mounted in Western Europe – driving the emergence of new parties that many of us political scientists professionally know and love– old established parties have maintained a central position in government.
While an impressive feat – and mildly reassuring to the middle aged and middle of the road, the editors are almost certainly right to term is growing mismatch between the represented in parliament and the pool of from which of governing parties are drawn as a ‘gap in representational quality’. Eastern Europe’s party systems till recently also been characterised by high (if reducing) volatility, but Keman and Müller-Rommel claim, rather intriguingly, greater fluidity of parties and party systems implies less of a representation deficit. A chapter by Fernando Casal Bértoa and the late Peter Mair party system institutionalisation in CEE confirms that the region’s parties are both less institutionalised than those in earlier waves of democratisation and are bcoming, if anything, less institutionalised, but is rather less sanguine about what the prospect implies for democracy.
Political scientists have often, if somewhat implicitly, followed Schumpeter in seeing party competition as i being about picking teams of elites to govern. However, as Ian Budge and Michael McDonald point out this not only ties the profession to an elitist and technocratic model that many would find rather toxic, neglects the question nature of the democratic majorities which underpin them. More specifically, they are concerned with the question of whether – and how – elected governments’ majorities should overlap with the position of the mythical median voter in the political centre or with the electorate of largest party (which may be elsewhere).
Through a series of simulations, they find that there is often considerable tension between the two according to the format of party system and the speed and scope of policy change under a new government. Slower rates of policy change make it more straightforward to reconcile the two models of ‘democratic congruence’. Such findings Budge and McDonald note are particularly relevant to CEE, where lack of voter-party identification makes simplified party competition models of this kind a good(ish) approximation of reality.
Social policy specialists are not everyone’s idea of sexy, but – as well driving forward many of the best innovations institutional theory – they have long seen party competition as a key factor shaping policy outcomes. Perhaps not altogether surprisingly then this book features as a triple whammy of chapters in this area. Klaus Armingeon kicks off, testing whether the classical proposition that strength of left parties, leads to stronger trade unions and more egalitarian welfare states, applies to Central and East Europe. While CEE the does exactly not invalidate this view – Armingeon finds no instances of social democratic welfare states without strong left parties – many CEE case fit the West European paradigm uncomfortably: there are many instances of strong left parties with weak trade unions and minimal welfare states.
CEE party specialists might at this point nod sagely and wonder whether the region’s self-styled social democratic parties – many successors to ruling communist parties – can be straightforwardly taken at face value as programmatically ‘left’ parties. For as F.G Schmidt notes – and Armingeon himself allows – additional factors such as the national legacies of communist rule clearly needs to be factored in. Schmidt analysis of patterns of party government and social policy in CEE accordingly picks out two distinct groups of states, which intuitively make sense: the Visegrad countries and Slovenia, where – as in Western Europe – the party-political coloration of governments matter for social polciy and Bulgaria, Romania and the Baltic states where it does not.
Paul Penning top things off using Charles Ragin’s QCA to show that the left/right complexion of governing parties matters for welfare policies only in combination with factors such pre-existing benefit levels, integration into global markets or corporatism. Frustratingly, however, data limitations stop him extending the analysis to CEE, where – as in so many areas – QCA might help unpick spaghetti-like patterns of similarities and difference with the West.
Although it narrows ‘party government’ to party influence on policy, overall Party Government in the New Europe is an engaging collection, refreshingly free of padding, which gives a lucid overview of a well established but obviously still evolving research agenda. Despite the good intentions, however, it sadly makes limited progress in integrating the comparative study of Western Europe and CEE. Faced with the usual awkward patterns of difference and similarity, even chapters genuinely pan-Europe in scope fall back on the old standbys of simply juxtaposing the two halves of the New Europe or viewing the East through the prism of the West.
Like the inevitable presents of socks and aftershave, useful, familiar and not altogether unwelcome, but not quite…
Like a good wine or an old cheese, comparative research on democratisation is often described as a ‘mature’ academic literature and, as such, one that can lay claim to have accumulated some real knowledge about one of the central trends in global politics over last two centuries or so. Leonardo Morlino’s new book Changes for Democracy: Actors, Structures, Processes, however, warns that even such cautious satisfaction is not in order.
There has, he suggests, been high-level theorising of institutional change and empirical research with quantitative research preoccupied with operationalization tends to produce simplistic variable-driven theories. Regionally oriented approaches to democratisation –beginning with the ‘transition’ approaches developed by O’Donnell and other Latin Americanists in 1970s – however, get the lowest marks for offering ‘questions but not theoretical results’ heralding a ‘…retreat from theory or a fear of developing a theory… ’ .
Morlino’s wide-ranging book which – sometimes rather awkwardly – mixes literature review, empirical analysis and discusses concepts tries to correct this with an ambitious three-part reflection seeking to identify underlying mechanisms of democratisation. It takes in definitions of democracy (and illiberal democracy); phases of democratisation and democratic ‘anchors’ and the question of deepening democracy once established.
The book is in some ways a rather untidy and frustrating read. Parts of the discussion, seemed laboured and the book shifts frustratingly between recapitulation and revision of conventional approaches such Dahl’s minimal definition of procedural democracy to much more novel insights. In the end in its own terms, however, its does deliver picking out three key shared mechanisms of democratisation: learning as the main motor transition; ‘anchoring’ mechanisms as key to consolidation; and the fact that the good qualities of good democracies tend to converge, rather than being brutally traded-off.
Set against the sheer complexity and diversity of global democratisation, however, such conclusions to me seemed a little sparse. Much more interesting were the arresting and sometimes rather brilliant linkages Morlino make between phases of democratisation which tend to be theorised and studied in isolation. Reflections on ‘anchoring’ democracy, for example, lead to an innovative idea about the nature of political crises in modern democracies as rooted to initial patterns of democratic consolidation. His suggestion that the well-worn ‘transition’ perspective might be used to analyse shifts within democracies from one model of democracy to another is a similarly arresting insight.
All in all while not quite a vintage work, certainly a book with some subtle and interesting flavours worth savouring for a while.
(A longer version of this review is forthcoming in Czech Sociological Review)
I’m always happy to help people working on CEE politics, especially our former research students. And forecasting and analysis for real world organisations concerned with political risk is always an interesting challenge.
But then I rather hesitate. Trouble is, I sense the kind of book this person really wants has not actually been written.
Sure, there are introductory histories and guides, but SSEES graduate with a background in the regions knows all this kind of stuff.
And there are some fine academic books (usually comparative) about the Czech party system, or cleavages, or privatisation or lustration, or national identity or whatever. But these are academic in the bad as well as the good sense: oriented towards theoretical and comparative problems; wordily anchored into numerous literatures; clearly written but dry and colourless.
Immodestly, I think of some bits of my own book, which has, after all, just come in paperback. When not trying to critique Herbert Kitschelt’s concept of regime legacies or fit new models party organisation to Czech parties, it has some (I hope) some quite informative and readable passages.
Probably, the best academic book I’ve read on Czech politics in the sense I think the questioner means was Martin Horak’s study of Prague politics Governing the Postcommunist City. As well as riffing very skillfully with some unconventional ideas path dependency and punctuated equilibria, it manages to give a holistic view of the city’s post-communist politics of 1990s and in your mind’s eye you can sense political processes unfolding across offices , dodgy new developments, half finished motorway projects and crumbling historic buildings.
But even this only goes so far. The basic problem is that there is a gap between academic treatments of Czech politics, which focus on formal rules and institutions, but can’t quite integrate the the corruption and sleaze, and journalistic accounts which is nigh on obsessed with – and well informed – but lacks perspective. The CR for all its faults is not Russia and is actually one of CEE’s better functioning democracies.
Speaking at the Central European Symposium, the Czech journalist Jan Macháček summed up Czech politics rather nicely as the political leaders staying on the top floor of their part’s conference hotel with lobbyists, dodgy sponsors and informal power brokers safely esconced in the suites one floor below. He meant it as reportage , but it works equally well as a metaphor for the limitations of different styles of political analysis.
In the end, I recommended a different book altogether where the Czech Republic barely features in the index.
This small coastal town of Brittany is swathed with mist so early in the morning. There are only a couple places open to have breakfast, but there are a few people out and about including a woman with two small well groomed goats on lead heading for the boulangerie.
Luckily, the fog clear and the sun comes out and it’s time to settle on a sandy beach with some French newspapers and some holiday reading. The press has a different – and actually rather substantive – mix of bad news. Libération and Le Monde make The Guardian seem daft and fluffy: motorway tolls are up going up; Roma aslyum seekers live in Third World conditions on the streets on Marseille; a new populist faction of President Sarkozy’s party want to co-opt some of the illiberal themes of the National Front; France is friendly with unsavoury African dictators; the latests French translation of the Famous Five (Le club des cinq) is awful, fans say.
Having swallowed a load of sea-water attempting to swim and had a coffee, I settle back with Crawley public library’s battered copy of Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln – ‘the book that inspired Barrack Obama’. And it’s easy to see why.
A tall gangly politician from humble background , whose charisma, people skills, intellect , hard work and good judgement propel into a successful career in the law and then into national politics, where he comes from nowhere to blindside the clear front runner and other established politicians, but pull them all together in a coherent adminsitration and saves the country in a time of national emergency.
The book itself is rather uneven. Despite a mass of detail the first half, which relates the background and political career of Lincoln and is three more fancied rivals for the 1860 presidential nomination of the newly formed Republican Party is absorbing . It can be read either as textbook of What It Takes To Win In Politics and a window on US political and social history, which like many Europeans I know practically nothing about.
Abe comes through on top because he is intellectual able and grasps the issues; affable , making politically useful friends as he goes and rarely making enemies; moderate and centrist within this own party without being too obviously unprincipled; a charismatic speaker and good communicator comfortable with modern media; and a good strategist and campaigner, who builds up his position by making a series of good calls over the years, rather than waging brilliant short-term campaign.
A tad too folksy and pragmatic for my taste, but likely I suspect to have been my second choice if I was a mid 19th century US Republican – and being everyone’s second choice is, of course, an excellent strategy for the moment when, as always seems to happen, the front runner’s lead slowly and inexorably crumbles.
All in all useful advice for anyone planning a political career and a useful reminder to me why I am not Prime Minister or President of USA.
Political scientists with a taste for historical political science in the form of a historical party formation and political realignment with an intriguing mox of social and geographical division with a strange mix of democratic free market capitalism and slavery, which European societies seems to have separated out into motherland and colonies.
The second half of the book is a bit less focused. All of a sudden with the White House won, we are pitched into secession and the Civil War, of which Lincoln’s victory (or rather that of any Republican candidate, I assume) is the casus belli. From thereon in we get a rich, but rather knotty narrative covering manoeuring and man management within the Lincoln administration(s), the domestic politics, and diplomacy of the Civic War and the unfolding military picture.
It basically draws to a close with Lincoln’s assassination and a brief epilogue of the main dramatis personnae, most of whom seem to end up personally and politically unfulfilled with their greatest days behind them.
Overall, a readable if uneven holiday reading, but you feel basically rather uncritical in its treatment of Lincoln, whose political virtuosity seems in the end of the less interesting things about him.
Having had a few very interesting conversations about the historical turn in political science with students in my Comparative Methods class and also used the Arab Spring as an example issue for research design, I was interested to pick up a copy of Tom Standage’s book The Victorian Internet. This, in case you hadn’t guessed, was the telgraphy and the electronic telegraph. Students reckoned, like many commentators, that the Arab Spring was partly driven by the socially empancipatory potential of the internet and social networking. Sceptically, I pointed out that revolutions took place in the pre-internet era, although admittedly TV and fax machines did play a role in some of the East European ‘Revolutions of ’89’. (Prof James Carey says something similar in recommending ‘historical pragmatism’ as an antedote to the over-hyping of the political consequences of the net in a paper here.)
Perhaps, I thought, there was actually a (his)story of technology and social and political revolution? After, all historical analogies about political processes – comparisons of the Arab Spring with the Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, Europe’s Springtime of Nations of 1848) – are not in short supply.
Standage’s book offers a readable account of the social impact of the Victorian internet – and makes a reasonable case that this analogy – but, unfortunately, doesn’t really answer this question: it has hapters on the new communications technology and war and peace, as well as a discussion of the changing timescale of news reporting (foreign correspondents reporting in hours or days, not weeks). A similar point s made by Tom Wheeler writing how the North’s use of the telegraph (Mr Lincoln’s ‘t-mails’) won the American Civil War.
Little or nothing on the 19th century ‘internet’ and grassroots social protest and mobilisation, however. Perhaps these technologies were just less emancipatory and usable by non-state actors, hence the lack of research. Or maybe you know different?