Twenty years ago today…

It was twenty years ago today that….  How do you finish that sentence?  There are plenty obvious ways:

…that the wall came down.

…that the Cold War ended.

…that Communism failed.

…that capitalism (or was it democracy?  or are these even interchangeable?) triumphed.

blah blah blah

Okay, it was some of all of that, though with Slavoj Zizek I agree that it wasn’t the last thing on that list.

What I think changed that day, along with the weeks that led up to it and the cushy and technicolor revolutions that followed, was the notion that politics is about what governments do. Of course it is true that governments engage in politics; but it also became true that politics and political power are what peoples can engage in and create. This is “the politics of small things” that Jeffrey Goldfarb talks about in a book of that name.  It’s what happens when a group of people who have no official power get together and make a plan, as Harry Boyte and the civil rights movement he has studied discovered.

Of course, the immediate cause of the fall of the wall was some bumbling bureacrats fumbling a speech, and then people heading to the gate, and a series of coincidences that let first a trickle and then a flood of people breaching and then tearing down the wall. And behind that cause was the weakening of the Soviet Union, perestroika, Gorbachev, and all that.  But a more fundamental cause, one that could capitalize on the others, was the rise of new civic movements in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and the long tradition of Poland’s Solidarity movement, that gave lie to the idea that all power rests with the state. These movements created a kind of lateral or horizontal power, webs of power that Hannah Arendt had noted, the power of solidarity.

Before November 1989, for at least three decades, almost all political activists of all stripes on either side of the “iron curtain” focused on the state in their attempt to bring about political change. The new civic movements of 1989 showed the power of nongovermental action and civil society for creating change. Before 1989 the language of civil society was slowly entering back into the lexicon of political theory, after dusting off lots of old copies of Hegel texts. But after 1989 the language of civil society flooded into every crevice of academic, philanthopic, and development activity.

It was twenty years ago today that THAT change happened.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


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