Solving the democratic problem: intellectuals and reconciling epistemic and liberal democracy

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…but where? Bristol, October 2014

 

[This review of “Democratic problem-solving” (Cruickshank and Sassower eds., 2017) was first published in Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, 26 May 2017].

It is a testament to the lasting influence of Karl Popper and Richard Rorty that their work continues to provide inspiration for debates concerning the role and purpose of knowledge, democracy, and intellectuals in society. Alternatively, it is a testament to the recurrence of the problem that continues to lurk under the glossy analytical surface or occasional normative consensus of these debates: the impossibility to reconcile the concepts of liberal and epistemic democracy. Essays collected under the title Democratic Problem-Solving (Cruickshank and Sassower 2017) offer grounds for both assumptions, so this is what my review will focus on.

Boundaries of Rational Discussion

Democratic Problem-Solving is a thorough and comprehensive (if at times seemingly meandering) meditation on the implications of Popper’s and Rorty’s ideas for the social nature of knowledge and truth in contemporary Angloamerican context. This context is characterised by combined forces of neoliberalism and populism, growing social inequalities, and what has for a while now been dubbed, perhaps euphemistically, the crisis of democracy. Cruickshank’s (in other contexts almost certainly heretical) opening that questions the tenability of distinctions between Popper and Rorty, then, serves to remind us that both were devoted to the purpose of defining the criteria for and setting the boundaries of rational discussion, seen as the road to problem-solving. Jürgen Habermas, whose name also resonates throughout this volume, elevated communicative rationality to the foundational principle of Western democracies, as the unifying/normalizing ground from which to ensure the participation of the greatest number of members in the public sphere.

Intellectuals were, in this view, positioned as guardians—epistemic police, of sorts—of this discursive space. Popper’s take on epistemic ‘policing’ (see DPS, 42) was to use the standards of scientific inquiry as exemplars for maintaining a high level, and, more importantly, neutrality of public debates. Rorty saw it as the minimal instrument that ensured civility without questioning, or at least without implicitly dismissing, others’ cultural premises, or even ontological assumptions. The assumption they and authors in this volume have in common is that rational dialogue is, indeed, both possible and necessary: possible because standards of rationality were shared across humanity, and necessary because it was the best way to ensure consensus around the basic functioning principles of democracy. This also ensured the pairing of knowledge and politics: by rendering visible the normative (or political) commitments of knowledge claims, sociology of knowledge (as Reed shows) contributed to affirming the link between the epistemic and the political. As Agassi’s syllogism succinctly demonstrates, this link quickly morphed from signifying correlation (knowledge and power are related) to causation (the more knowledge, the more power), suggesting that epistemic democracy was if not a precursor, then certainly a correlate of liberal democracy.

This is why Democratic Problem-Solving cannot avoid running up against the issue of public intellectuals (qua epistemic police), and, obviously, their relationship to ‘Other minds’ (communities being policed). In the current political context, however, to the well-exercised questions Sassower raises such as—

should public intellectuals retain their Socratic gadfly motto and remain on the sidelines, or must they become more organically engaged (Gramsci 2011) in the political affairs of their local communities? Can some academics translate their intellectual capital into a socio-political one? Must they be outrageous or only witty when they do so? Do they see themselves as leaders or rather as critics of the leaders they find around them (149)?

—we might need to add the following: “And what if none of this matters?”

After all, differences in vocabularies of debate matter only if access to it depends on their convergence to a minimal common denominator. The problem for the guardians of public sphere today is not whom to include in these debates and how, but rather what to do when those ‘others’ refuse, metaphorically speaking, to share the same table. Populist right-wing politicians have at their disposal the wealth of ‘alternative’ outlets (Breitbart, Fox News, and increasingly, it seems, even the BBC), not to mention ‘fake news’ or the ubiquitous social media. The public sphere, in this sense, resembles less a (however cacophonous) town hall meeting than a series of disparate village tribunals. Of course, as Fraser (1990) noted, fragmentation of the public sphere has been inherent since its inception within the Western bourgeois liberal order.

The problem, however, is less what happens when other modes of arguing emerge and demand to be recognized, and more what happens when they aspire for redistribution of political power that threatens to overturn the very principles that gave rise to them in the first place. We are used to these terms denoting progressive politics, but there is little that prevents them from being appropriated for more problematic ideologies: after all, a substantial portion of the current conservative critique of the ‘culture of political correctness’, especially on campuses in the US, rests on the argument that ‘alternative’ political ideologies have been ‘repressed’, sometimes justifying this through appeals to the freedom of speech.

Dialogic Knowledge

In assuming a relatively benevolent reception of scientific knowledge, then, appeals such as Chis and Cruickshank’s to engage with different publics—whether as academics, intellectuals, workers, or activists—remain faithful to Popper’s normative ideal concerning the relationship between reasoning and decision-making: ‘the people’ would see the truth, if only we were allowed to explain it a bit better. Obviously, in arguing for dialogical, co-produced modes of knowledge, we are disavowing the assumption of a privileged position from which to do so; but, all too often, we let in through the back door the implicit assumption of the normative force of our arguments. It rarely, if ever, occurs to us that those we wish to persuade may have nothing to say to us, may be immune or impervious to our logic, or, worse, that we might not want to argue with them.

For if social studies of science taught us anything, it is that scientific knowledge is, among other things, a culture. An epistemic democracy of the Rortian type would mean that it’s a culture like any other, and thus not automatically entitled to a privileged status among other epistemic cultures, particularly not if its political correlates are weakened—or missing (cf. Hart 2016). Populist politics certainly has no use for critical slow dialogue, but it is increasingly questionable whether it has use for dialogue at all (at the time of writing of this piece, in the period leading up to the 2017 UK General Election, the Prime Minister is refusing to debate the Leader of the Opposition). Sassower’s suggestion that neoliberalism exhibits a penchant for justification may hold a promise, but, as Cruickshank and Chis (among others) show on the example of UK higher education, ‘evidence’ can be adjusted to suit a number of policies, and political actors are all too happy to do that.

Does this mean that we should, as Steve Fuller suggested in another SERRC article see in ‘post-truth’ the STS symmetry principle? I am skeptical. After all, judgments of validity are the privilege of those who can still exert a degree of control over access to the debate. In this context, I believe that questions of epistemic democracy, such as who has the right to make authoritative knowledge claims, in what context, and how, need to, at least temporarily, come second in relation to questions of liberal democracy. This is not to be teary-eyed about liberal democracy: if anything, my political positions lie closer to Cruickshank and Chis’ anarchism. But it is the only system that can—hopefully—be preserved without a massive cost in human lives, and perhaps repurposed so as to make them more bearable.

In this sense, I wish the essays in the volume confronted head-on questions such as whether we should defend epistemic democracy (and what versions of it) if its principles are mutually exclusive with liberal democracy, or, conversely, would we uphold liberal democracy if it threatened to suppress epistemic democracy. For the question of standards of public discourse is going to keep coming up, but it may decreasingly have the character of an academic debate, and increasingly concern the possibility to have one at all. This may turn out to be, so to speak, a problem that precedes all other problems. Essays in this volume have opened up important venues for thinking about it, and I look forward to seeing them discussed in the future.

References

Cruickshank, Justin and Raphael Sassower. Democratic Problem Solving: Dialogues in Social Epistemology. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text 25/26 (1990): 56-80.

Fuller, Steve. “Embrace the Inner Fox: Post-Truth as the STS Symmetry Principle Universalized.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, December 25, 2016. http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3nx

Hart, Randle J. “Is a Rortian Sociology Desirable? Will It Help Us Use Words Like ‘Cruelty’?” Humanity and Society, 40, no. 3 (2016): 229-241.

Higher education and politics in the Balkans

In this entry of the thematic week on crisis, Jana Bacevic from the Department of Public Policy, Central European University (Budapest)  examines higher education in the context of  ethnic and religious divisions in recent Balkan history. 

In situations of crisis – whether it’s economic, environmental, or humanitarian – higher education is hardly the first to come to mind. Aid and development packages tend to focus on primary education, essential for teaching reading, writing and calculus, as well as successful socialization in peer groups, and, in some cases, on secondary – usually vocational – education, supposed to enable people to work both during and in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. However, slowly but steadily, higher education is beginning to occupy a more prominent place in contexts of crisis. Why is this the case?

Critics would say higher education is a luxury, and that focus on higher education is hardly anything but empty rhetoric aimed at rallying support for the agendas of politicians or trade unions. However, there are many reasons why higher education should not be ignored, even in times of crisis. Issues and policies related to higher education hardly ever stay confined to the university campus, or even to the boundaries of nation-states, whether new or old.

Access to higher education is directly linked to the access to work, income, and, to some extent, social and political participation. In this sense, who and how can access higher education (and under which conditions) are questions that have explicit political consequences for human and minority rights, social stratification and (in)equality,  and the overall quality of life. Higher education institutions do not only reflect the dominant ethos of a society; they also create and reproduce it. Politicians and policymakers know this, and this is why higher education can become such a politically charged issue.

The recent history of higher education in the successor states of former Yugoslavia provides many examples of the interplay between higher education and political dynamics. Early during the conflict, two universities in Bosnia and Herzegovina were divided between ethnic groups. The Serbian staff and students of the University of Sarajevo founded the separate University of East Sarajevo in 1992. The University of Mostar was split between the Croatian part (University of Mostar, or “Sveučilište u Mostaru”) and the Muslim part (University of Mostar “Džemal Bijedić”). In Kosovo, the University of Prishtina was at the very center of political contestation between the two biggest ethnic groups, Albanians and Serbs. Following series of Kosovo Albanian demonstrations at the end of the 1980s, the Serbian authorities forbade the university to accept any more Albanian students. The result was a complete split of the academic sphere into two domains – the “official”, Serbian one, and the “parallel”, Albanian, which existed outside of the institutional frameworks.

After the NATO intervention in 1999, the Serbian students and staff fled to the northern part of the province, predominantly controlled by the central Serbian government, re-establishing the university as the “University of Prishtina temporarily located in Kosovska Mitrovica”. Meanwhile, Albanian students and staff returned to the premises of the university in Prishtina, developing a new system under close supervision of the international administration. Just like in Bosnia, the configuration of higher education today reflects the deep ethnic and social cleavages that are the legacy of the conflict.

Higher education can become a subject of political contestation even in the absence of a large-scale armed conflict. For instance, one of the issues that precipitated the conflict between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian police in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 2001 was the demand of ethnic Albanian parties for a separate university in their own language. Following the de facto consociational arrangement provided by the terms of the Ohrid Framework Agreement peace treaty, the previously private Tetovo University was given public status in 2004. However, the same town was already home to the Southeast European University, founded in 2001 by the international community (primarily the OSCE) in order to work on the post-conflict development and foster integration of the ethnic Albanian and ethnic Macedonian youth. Currently, two universities coexist, teaching similar programmes and even sharing staff, although differing in the approach to the use of languages, as well as in the composition of student body.

A similar story can be told about Novi Pazar, the administrative center of Sandžak, a multiethnic region of Serbia with high proportion of Bosniak Muslims. The private International University of Novi Pazar was founded by a local Muslim religious leader in 2002, with support from the government in Belgrade who, at the time, thought it would be a good solution for the integration of Bosniak Muslims within the framework of the state. Two years later, however, after the change of government and political climate, the state founded a new university, named the State University of Novi Pazar, withdrawing support from the International University. The two universities continue to exist side by side, teaching similar programmes and, in theory, competing for the same population of students. Their internal rivalries reflect and reproduce the political, social and, not least of all, ethnic cleavages in Sandžak.

Universities in the Western Balkans are just some of the examples in which the links between higher education and social divisions can be seen most clearly. However, they are neither isolated nor unique: conflicts can persist and occur across and outside of ethnic and religious lines, sometimes teeming below the surface even in societies that, from the outside, appear peaceful and stable. This is why higher education should not only be reactive, responding to cleavages and conflicts once they become visible, but rather proactive, revealing and working to abolish the multiple and often hidden structures of power that reproduce inequalities. On the one hand, this can be done through policies that seek to ensure equal access to and representation in higher education institutions. On the other, it can also mean engagement in research and activism aimed at raising awareness of the mechanisms through which inequalities and injustice are perpetuated. This latter mission, however, requires that higher education institutions turn a critical eye towards their own policies and practices, and examine the ways in which they are – perhaps unwittingly – reproducing the societal divisions that, in times of crisis, can easily evolve into open conflicts. Frequently, this is the hardest task of all.

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Jana Bacevic holds a PhD (2008) in Social Anthropology from the University of Belgrade. Previously she taught at the University of Belgrade and Singidunum University and worked as higher education expert on a number of projects aimed at developing education in the post-conflict societies of the Western Balkans. Her research interests are in the intersection between sociology, anthropology, politics and philosophy of knowledge, and her book, “From class to identity: politics of education reforms in former Yugoslavia” is being published by CEU Press in 2013.