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Saturday 22 June 2019

Elif Shafak: How to Remain Sane in the Age of Populism, Pessimism and Political Uncertainty, organised by The Henry Jackson Society at the UK Houses of Parliament, 9* out of 10

At a recent event at the UK Houses of Parliament organised by the Henry Jackson Society and hosted by Lord Hylton, the novelist, academic and public intellectual provided acute analysis of the problems liberal democracy is facing as well as hope on how they can be addressed through dialogue and cooperation among all those who value democracy and the rule of law. Elif Shafak is a much-needed voice of reason and sanity. She is also an excellent speaker and listener.

Elif Shafak is a novelist, public intellectual and academic at home in Istanbul and London, with deep knowledge and a clear grasp of cultural, social and economic developments around the world. She grew up in Spain as the child of Turkish parents and moved to Istanbul as a child. Ms. Shafak has variously referred to herself as a cosmopolitan and as a Nomad. She certainly does not accept Theresa May’s statement in her speech to the Conservative Conference that citizens of everywhere are citizens of nowhere and says so; Moreover, Ms Shafak is clearly rooted in very specific local cultures of outward-looking cities Istanbul and London. 

At a recent event held at the UK House of Parliament, organized by the Henry Jackson Society and hosted by Lord Hylton, she spoke to an interested audience on maintaining once sanity in the age of populism.

In her talk, Ms. Shafak focussed on the threat posed to liberal democratic societies by ever more successful attempts to undermine the democratic institutions. In the past, western democracies were embedded in a legal framework that restricted what majorities can do and safeguarded a minimal set of rights of minorities, outsiders, eccentrics, and artists. This embedding is now being increasingly undermined by legal (though not always legitimate ways) of chipping away at these restrictions by means of majority decision. Often, what starts out as majoritarianism (the majority can decide more and more against the minority) then leads to authoritarianism. The institutional rules are changed by the majority such that it becomes ever more difficult to overturn it by democratic means. Hungary under Prime Minister Orban and in Turkey under President Erdogan have advanced along this path. Longstanding western democracies are not immune to such developments either: populist and authoritarian tendencies are clearly visible in the US under Trump and the rise of the populist right in Austria (where they were in government with their ministers having responsibility, for defence, the home affairs including security services), the Netherlands, Germany and so on. In Ms Shafak’s view, it is particularly regrettable that some mainstream parties have adopted as their policies certain demands made by populists thereby making extremist positions part of mainstream agendas. Ms. Shafak believes that this only strengthens populist extremes on the left and right.

Ms Shafak is concerned about the ever-sharper divisions that drive liberal democratic societies apart into ever more tribalist factions. In her answers to audience questions, she raised several concerns as well as pointing to possible ways of halting the dangerous rather fast drift towards authoritarianism and tribalism. Ms Shafak warns against the excessive optimism of the 1989 “end of history” rhetoric, but also against an excessive pessimism which leads to inaction and feelings of powerlessness and depression. She pleads for an attitude of critical or skeptical optimism which admits a belief in human agency and the possibilities of action by civil society. 

One important line of action is to further dialogue between different groups in society which have become ever more tribal partly through the effects of social media echo chambers. That includes the pro- and anti- Brexit camps in the UK, but also metropolitans who live in big cities vs. people who live in the countryside in many other regions of the world. The social media which were initially seen as exclusively a force for good, enabling civil society action against powerful oppressors now have revealed another side as facilities for whipping up strong negative emotions often with fake or manipulated material and shaping the local and international political discourse in potentially divisive and destructive ways. 

In her analysis of populism, Ms. Shafak follows ideas that are developed in Yasha Mounk’s book The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It and How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. She is also careful not to see populism as a movement that is exclusive to the right as Yannis Varoufakis and other figures of the left sometimes like to claim.

Ms Shafak who also teaches at various universities is concerned about the tendency to “safe spaces” and “no platforming”. These should only be employed in cases of clear incitement to hate or violence. Otherwise unpalatable views must be allowed to be heard, especially in academic institutions even when they make many or some in the audience feel uncomfortable. For Shafak, Hilary Clinton calling potential Trump voters “a basket of deplorables” was a nadir of the Hilary Clinton presidential campaign and a signal error of judgment by the candidate.

Answering a question about the importance of identity, Ms. Shafak emphasised the importance of the multiplicity of identities. She also voiced concern about the rise of identity politics on the left, something she sees as a negative and potentially damaging development. The emphasis of the qualities and characteristics all human beings have in common is a better starting point than the potentially conflict-inducing view of humanity as divided into different tribes based on dominating identities some of which benefit from intersectionality while others do not.

Shafak sees interdisciplinarity not only among different academic fields but also across culture, academia and every-day social and economic life as an important remedy against the rift in our liberal democracies.

Ms Shafak speaks eloquently straightforwardly and with conviction for liberal democracy and the rule of law. She describes herself a someone on the left of the political spectrum. While she is open to economic liberalism she is strongly opposed to neoliberalism, i.e. the advance of the market mechanism into all areas of our lives. She believes that that the big social media companies dominating the internet (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) should be broken up as they have too much power and have not shown the commensurate level of responsibility; far from it.

There are issues Ms. Shafak touched on in her answers to questions from the audience on which I would have liked to hear more explanation. What kind of economic model does she favour as an alternative to the neoliberal capitalist one? Does she consider Germany’s social market economy neoliberal? Does she consider the current economic policies advanced by the European Union neoliberal? Ms Shafak also sees inequality as a major issue that must be addressed and mentioned that this also includes inequality of opportunity. The issue of inequality is often mentioned but I find reduction of inequality a concept that needs to be much better defined before it can be part of a practical political programme. For instance, I would like to hear more about the types of inequality that are considered harmful and those that are considered desirable because they are the basis of diversity in ideas and cultures.

Furthermore, even if harmful inequalities (presumably a great amount in inequality of income, wealth and access to resources which lend certain individuals and groups much more power and privilege than others) the methods with which such inequalities can be reduced remain unclear. It is often easier to reduce the excess by coercive means through presumably incorruptible people (Robespierre in the French Revolution for example) than increasing the income, wealth or access to privileges by the disadvantaged. 

I have yet to see concepts of tackling inequality that satisfy the left while preserving liberal democracy and a free society; forcible redistribution by the state does not seem an appropriately fair and legitimate mechanism. Clearly, there are differences about this in countries which are defined as liberal democracies, see for example The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Even in societies with lower levels of inequality of income or wealth, there are still very rich and privileged people; there also is a broad consensus that the advantages to all the state services financed by higher taxes are worth it. Yet in those countries which are considered exemplary (the Nordic countries of Europe, Switzerland, Japan) that consensus is not necessarily permanent as some recent developments in Nordic Countries show. Moreover, the German SPD’s campaign under Martin Schulz which was built around the central idea of increased “social justice” did not find any lasting enthusiasm among voters.

Elif Shafak, as well as being a gifted novelist and capable academic, is among the internationally leading public intellectuals fighting for the liberal democratic order and the rule of law. She is an excellent speaker and an active and careful listener. One can only be grateful that she is a rare voice pleading for the dialogue and against the divisions and tribalist tendencies which are wracking our societies. The hope is that from the ranks of her readers and students more such figures will arise and find creative, promising and humane ways to address the enormous challenges our increasingly interconnected international community faces.

Elif Shafak's latest book is:
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

Elif Shafak

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