Brexit advocates call for the democratic liberation of Europe. But democracy is only real when truly indeterminate, argues Kalypso Nicolaïdis (University of Oxford). Can Brexit energise young people, who comprise the first truly global generation, to act and reinvigorate democracy?
In his journey escaping Thebes, blind and defeated, Oedipus’ tragic figure is guided by his daughter, Antigone, to seek life’s true meaning anew. He now knows all. His suffering from his self-inflicted blindness and lonely wandering will be his punishment. Yet not only will he be redeemed in death but he is already redeemed in Antigone’s eyes; Antigone, whose sense of right and wrong will echo for us throughout the ages when later, after her father’s death, she comes back to the world and insists on a proper burial for her brother in spite of raison d’état. In these stories about reckoning and redemption we need to listen to the clear-eyed, those whose future is at stake. Youth as redeemer.
Could Brexit-as-Reckoning ride on a youthquake? Today’s pampered, angry, anxious generation, in Britain and elsewhere energised by Brexit’s tremors? Will they forget and forgive? Will they fight? The future must be their choice. Some say that Brexit is ‘an old people’s home’. Why should this be an insult!
Some of us oldies remember a time when we were young too, fifty years ago, demonstrating across borders and political cages our desire for radical emancipation from our inherited order, from Tito’s Yugoslavia to De Gaulle’s France, from Dubček’s Czechoslovakia to Franco’s Spain. Our call to let subversion range free and subject all dogma to hesitation, contradiction, reinterpretation.
All of you twenty-first-century Antigones and Oresteses, what do you say? You are the first truly global generation, aren’t you? You are already reinventing everything. If it is up to you, it will not be a shared past that brings the diverse peoples of Europe together but your vision of our future.
Brexit advocates call for the democratic liberation of a whole continent. Of course. But how? Democratic choices are only democratic if made knowingly. And in Europe, we live under a strange new era of democratic interdependence: your democratic whims affect me directly. So it is imperative to know each other, each other’s funny habits and each other’s quirky politics. Everything can help and you will do it better, faster, funnier – creative transnational political debating between schools, fun fact-checking across national media, and – why not? – organising a mega Agora Europe, a mega assemblage of citizens’ assemblies embedded in a pop festival Woodstock of European politics, once a year, on Mediterranean beaches. Forget Brussels’ call for, hum, standardised democratic participation… This will not be about harmony, but engaged and respectful disagreement across borders. Physical and virtual transnational agonistics.
Digital natives, you are already ahead of the game. If Brexit is part of a broader yearning for taking back control of our day-to-day lives, can you honour the message even if you were not the messengers? Will you reinvest the democracy of everyday life and make sure that technological innovation is matched by social reinvention? Can you figure out ways to better harness the amazing wisdom of the crowds while weeding out group-think? Will you reshape the rules that govern our togetherness to embrace a pollinated block-chained smart-networked transnational metropolis? Will you master chaotic pluralism and its network effects, distributed intelligence, heterogeneity, non-linearity and high interconnectivity? This stuff will make your interwoven communities more unpredictable but also more creative than the original architects of pluralist worlds ever imagined. In the process, can you cut through the bureaucratic fog and make the EU radically more open through your myriad ways to check and infiltrate power?
Thankfully, you do not believe in a new institutional magic bullet but in the power of mindsets and the technologies of sharing, sharing secrets and sharing power. In your democratic landscape, rules and institutions are a means of bridging ethos and praxis, not ends in themselves set in calcified stone.
Can you narrow the gap between power and politics, create diverse polycentric institutions to bring out the best in humans and their capacity to innovate, learn, adapt, trust? Can you reinvent a creative, tech-savvy bureaucracy to control those who take all the important decisions, international financial markets, corporate oligarchies and the like?
You know that democracy ultimately is measured by its emancipatory effect. This means pushing back against our very asymmetrical relationship to rules designed by experts. And this, in turn, does not just mean constraining the strong but empowering the weak to interpret, appropriate and remake existing rules.
You are rightly terribly impatient with the attitude of EU institutions in response to the myriad European citizen initiatives which have percolated through in the last few years. Here are thousands of people who have volunteered their time and enthusiasm for all sorts of causes, some more appealing than others. Why not say: whoa! How lucky we are, we bureaucrats, to be the addressees of committed young people who know how to harness the power of the internet! How can we learn from them? Why castigate direct democracy and referenda, why deny their transformative potential, when we should create the conditions for them to work?
Democracy is only real when truly indeterminate.
Teenagers, the EU could do worse than harness your democratic effervescence. To be sure, effervescence needs to be channelled effectively, as when champagne connoisseurs adopted the saucer-glass in 1848 – their desire for heightened sensation was no accident in an age of revolutions. In the alternative world of pluralist effervescence where struggles, arguments, compromise and agreement to disagree reign supreme, in conversation with others around the globe, you will explore a kaleidoscope of options, a hundred shades of meaning, and tame the dark side of modernity. You will rediscover the ethos of dissidence, the great gift from Central-Eastern Europe, and the ethos of empathy, friendship and hospitality, humanity’s saving grace. Like the ‘imaginal cells’ dormant in the body of the European caterpillar, you will awaken our societies again.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. “The future of European democracy” series is part of an on-going collaboration between the Visions of Europe project at the London School of Economics and the Europe’s Futures programme at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna. Image by Charles Edward Miller, Some rights reserved.