Review: “Democracy and Dissent”

Written by Mary Orsak

On April 6, over 50 students and alumni protested University President Peter Salovey during his speech honoring 50 years of Asian American Student Alliance. This protest followed the withdrawal of 13 professors from the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program after the university failed to provide adequate support to the major. Six days later, Students Unite Now, an undergraduate group which aims to eliminate the student income contribution to financial aid packages, organized a protest outside of Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall. The following week, 24 students involved with SUN were arrested for blocking traffic during their protest. On April 19, students halted traffic on major thoroughfares in New Haven to show their solidarity with residents Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon after an officer-involved shooting.

Democracy and Dissent, a book edited by Senior Lecturer William Klein, provides the perfect framework to comprehend this wave of protests. The book primarily offers transcripts of three panels, which took place at New York University’s campus in Florence on April 17, 2012, as part of the series “La Pietra Dialogues” in addition to a well-crafted introduction that provides a necessary contextualization of the following conversations on protest culture and direct democracy. The dialogues focus on the protests of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the Arab Spring, and the Indignados Movement in Spain, but the political theory discussed offers insights into the causes and strategies of protests, regardless of the specifics.

In the introduction, Klein poses an important question: what makes any wave of protests unique or monumental? How do we — or even can we — recognize the impact a protest will have in the moment? Why should these professors meet to discuss protests in 2012 as opposed to 1994, 1999, or even 2003? Throughout the three conversations, the panelists attempt to answer this question and offer theses such as the international scale of these protests, the internet’s role in sharing content across the world, and a global reckoning on participatory democracy. Whether anyone truly pins down the answer to this question remains debatable.

Klein also offers a comprehensive yet brief overview of theories of democracy and protest, ranging from Livy to Machiavelli to the Federalists to Hannah Arendt. Klein suggests that our modern — perhaps, romanticized — version of democracy conflicts with that of the original theoreticians. For example, Abraham Lincoln’s oft-repeated phrase of a government of the people, by the people, for the people would have shocked the constitutional framers. James Madison in Federalist 10 stressed the fear of the landed rich that democracy would allow the mob to redistribute wealth and condemned the “injustice and violence” of the crowds. Modern society has posed challenges to this representative democracy which attempted to keep the citizenry at bay. Technology has lowered the barriers for participating in dialogues with elected representatives, creating what Alexander Treschel later referred to as “paparazzi democracy.” At the same time, capitalism has placed a tremendous strain on democracy as large corporations can wield extensive power through lobbying and political contributions. All of these concerns, ultimately, provide the background for the entire conference.

The first panel, entitled Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy, included Klein, who at the time served as the Chair of Law, Ethics and Religion in Global Liberal Studies at NYU; Alessandro Pizzorno, an Emeritus Professor of Social Theory at the European University Institute; and Nadia Urbinati, the Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University. The panel provides an interesting conversation on the efficacy of representative democracy and raises the questions of who is competent to lead, how much of a role do citizens actually want in their government, and why the Roman model of democracy has emerged victorious over that of the Greeks.

Although Pizzorno and Urbinati offer thought-provoking statements on democracy, the panel structure and the following Q&A feel incoherent at times. This problem plagues the remaining two panel discussions and ultimately leaves the reader feeling lost about the central ideas of each of the speakers. If you dare to charge through this sea-sickness of changing perspectives, however, you will find fascinating perspectives on civil participation and disobedience. It just requires extra effort and patience.

The second panel “New Forms of Democracy: Old Wine in New Bottles?” (a perfect title for an panel set in Tuscany), moderated by Cladius Wagemann who has taught multiple courses at NYU Florence, discussed in more depth the protests of 2012. Donatella della Porta, a professor of sociology at the European University Institute, offered a well-articulated formulation of the amorphous structure of protest movements, like Occupy. Alexander Treschel, a professor of political science at EUI, discussed his theory of paparazzi democracy, in which citizens have a “voyeuristic ability to control politicians.” Daniel Ritter, a research fellow at EUI, outlined the causes of the Arab Spring “non-violent revolutions” and argued that the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt succeed on account of their non-violence. Finally Rocco Polin, a Ph.D. candidate at the Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane, described his time in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Polin provides the best analysis of the whole panel when he discussed how the camping in Tahrir Square offered the protestors a trial-run on how they want their government operate.

The third and final panel covered mass media and social media in relation to protests. Augusto Valierani, an assistant professor at Universita di Bologna; Cristian Vaccari, a lecturer at Royal Holloway University of London and University of Bologna; and Camilo Cristancho, a Ph.D. student from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, all stressed the capability of technology to export the ideas of any protest to the rest of the world.

The book offers a multitude of perspectives on these topics of democracy and dissent, but the format of the panel only allows a reader to catch a glimpse of each argument. Moreover, the panelists frequently drop references to other texts or ideas without providing any background or context, which can further disorient the reader. Klein luckily provides extensive endnotes, which clarify much of the confusion, but again, the conversation-format makes the reading experience far more challenging.

Despite all these drawbacks, the book accomplishes an extraordinary feat: to relay the ideas of Europe’s brightest minds on the pressing challenges facing democracy today. As the Yale campus grapples with our own wave of protests, the book provides crucial insight into what causes a group of individuals to band together to demand change, how those groups operate, and how social media has completely altered their ability to reach their audience.  

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