Category Archives: democratic reform overseas

Lea Ypi, Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History

Lea Ypi is a political theorist who has written a prize-winning memoir entitled Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History (Norton, 2021). You don’t have to be interested in political theory, philosophy–or any academic discipline–to enjoy and benefit from this book. It is an engrossing story about coming of age during an extraordinary time and in an unusual household composed of vivid characters. For the most part, the vantage point is that of a child or adolescent. The plot is compelling, and I don’t want to give that away. I was genuinely surprised by some of the twists.

It is, however, no secret that Ypi is now an influential leftwing public intellectual who was born in the extremely communist state of Albania and experienced the collapse of that regime when she was a young teenager. One might ask whether she is highly critical of capitalism today because of her formative experiences during a disastrous “transition” to a market economy. Likewise, one might ask whether other people have been anti-communist because they experienced Stalin, or Albania’s Enver Hoxha.

I think Ypi’s answer would be: Yes. Our “biographies” (a fraught word under the Albanian communist system) do shape what we think. Jailing or shooting potential critics was evil, but the Party was not foolish to distrust people whose formative experiences would lean them to anti-Communism. Our circumstances shape us.

The next question might be whether knowing that someone holds a view because of personal experiences invalidates that view. For example, should we discount Ypi’s current politics because she was influenced by extreme circumstances at a formative moment?

Here, her answer would be: No. Our fate is to live at specific times in history. The best we can do is to critically assess the world that we find and work with others to improve it. This is “politics,” in the best sense of that word. It is also “freedom.” To be free is to bring your individual experiences into a consequential public debate with other people who are different from you. That is dangerous or even impossible under a dictatorship, but it is also difficult in contexts like the contemporary European Union, where there is “no politics left, only policy” (p. 227).

If Ypi holds a general political/economic theory, it’s not in her memoir. In fact, she says that she was planning to write a “philosophical book about the overlapping ideas of freedom in the liberal and Socialist traditions” (which sounds like an attempted synthesis), but “when I started writing, ideas turned into people–the people who made me who I am.” She adds: “They loved and fought each other; they had different conceptions of themselves, and of their obligations. They were, as Marx writes, the product of social relations for which they were not responsible, but they still tried to rise above them” (p. 263).

This passage is about as abstract as this book gets. Otherwise, it is about specific people, including the narrator. But the whole memoir conveys the idea that freedom is “trying to rise above” current injustices while treating other human beings as responsible individuals with perspectives of their own.

The epigraph is a quotation from Rosa Luxemburg: “Human beings do not make history of their own free will. But they make history nevertheless.” Ypi vividly and empathetically depicts people who are not free–and who cannot see the truth objectively or independently–but who still strive to make the world better. That is her definition of freedom.

See also: Arendt, freedom, Trump; Hannah Arendt and thinking from the perspective of an agent; don’t confuse bias and judgment; some notes on identity from a civic perspective academic freedom for individuals and for groups; and a case for liberalism.

Henry Milner, Participant/Observer: An Unconventional Life in Politics and Academia

On Labor Day, I very much enjoyed reading the memoir of my friend Henry Milner, entitled Participant/Observer.

Born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1946 to Polish-Jewish survivors, Henry grew up as a Baby Boomer in Montreal. As he navigated the turbulent waters of his time and place as both a political scientist and an activist, he became an Anglophone Quebecois nationalist, an expert proponent of Scandinavian social democracy, a liberal on social issues, and sometimes a critic of the Quebecois public sector unions to which he belonged. He has played significant roles that have put him in the “rooms where it happened,” notably as one of the most senior Anglophones in the leadership of the Parti Quebecois (PQ) during its heyday and as one of the key diplomats for that party in international social democratic circles.

I know and admire people–possibly readers of this blog post–who have deep commitments on all sides of these issues. Some would be more prone to take the unions’ side or less enthusiastic about the Swedish welfare state or more critical of Quebecois nationalism or less favorable to Anglophone involvement in that movement. I’m not qualified to defend Henry’s positions, but I think that any reader should appreciate his memoir as the story of a thoughtful and public-spirited person who has tried to exercise good judgment on difficult questions and has contributed effort as well as opinions. For instance, he sometimes made the English translations of politically sensitive PQ documents.

Milner raises general questions that are worth consideration. For example:

1/ Must organized labor clash with social democratic parties when labor represents a small minority of the workforce and is strongest in the public sector? (This is the situation in the USA now, as well as in Canada.) Milner argues that Scandinavian unions can advocate growth and modernization–shifting workers to new and different jobs–because they represent most of the population. In contrast, unions that represent small segments of the public become protective of the status quo and compete with disadvantaged people.

2/ Do participants in politics know things that political scientists cannot know? Is the reverse also true? In general, how should we think about the relationship between science and experience?

(I count five professions that claim expertise about politics: reporters, civil servants, lobbyists, political scientists, and politicians themselves. Do they all have valid insights? Can the methods of political science capture all the others’ perspectives if scholars study participants’ beliefs well?)

3/ How can democracies provide robust voluntary adult education for democracy without allowing it to degenerate into propaganda? I encountered Milner years ago as an expert on Scandinavian adult civic education and have only grown more supportive of that cause over time. We can’t rely on civic education for children and college students alone, since most citizens have long ago outgrown those phases. At times, Americans have adopted Scandinavian exports like Folks Schools and Study Circles. Americans contributed (with others, including Germans) to building a robust system of adult education in post-War West Germany (Levine 2023). Nevertheless, today we lack an impressive policy for adult civic education in the USA, and it’s hard to see how we could create one in the face of intense partisan polarization.

Overall, Milner’s trajectory has been from a socialist who was always deeply democratic to a democrat who seeks social equity, and from there to a proponent of civic education and electoral reform as bulwarks of democracy.

Source: P. Levine, “The Democratic Mission of Higher Education: A Review Essay.” Political Science Quarterly (2023). See also an overview of civic education in the USA and Germany; what does it mean that 130 million adult Americans lack literacy?; the Nordic model; etc.

decentralization and civic capacity in Ukraine

Ukrainian friends have been telling me for a decade about the value of decentralization in their country. Some have even argued that it helped prepare Ukraine for an effective and motivated military defense.

A new paper by Arends, Brik, Herrmann and Roesel (2023) offers relevant quantitative evidence. The authors explain that, in “2014, the Parliament of Ukraine amended the budget code to entitle villages and cities which amalgamated voluntarily into larger local governments, so-called ‘territorial hromadas’ …. Hromadas therewith become independent from local branches of the national administration. The newly created local governments also qualified for a 60 percent share of the personal income tax collected within their jurisdiction.”

In 2015, the hromadas gained power over schools, libraries, hospitals and health centers, local roads, and fire and emergency services. In 2018, they were also given “ownership of formerly state-owned land within their jurisdiction.”

The process was popular and widespread. By 2020, “more than 10,000 Ukrainian villages, settlements and cities were amalgamated into 1470 new hromadas now enjoying considerable autonomy over local affairs.”

Arends et al show that areas with and without hromadas started with similar levels of trust in local and national government, but the ones that created hromadas saw substantial increases in trust for local (but not national) government. This empirical evidence is strongly suggestive that the reform caused trust to rise.

Here are a few reflections based on theory and studies from other countries.

First, I don’t read the paper as a general argument for decentralization, per se. Independent Ukraine had inherited a highly centralized system from the Soviet Union, and it was wise to moderate that by strengthening the local layer. The study does not imply that more power should necessarily be devolved to localities if they are already strong.

More important, I suspect, was the way the reform was designed. Contiguous communities were permitted to assemble themselves voluntarily into hromadas. This was a bottom-up process, requiring substantial agreement at the local level. One advantage was avoiding corruption: politicians and bureaucrats could not extract benefits by deciding which new local units to create or by conferring autonomy on favored local leaders. Another advantage was civic experience. Quite a few local stakeholders had to come together to negotiate and present each plan for a new hromada. They would later be able to use their network-ties, deliberative experience, and confidence for other purposes.

Second, trust in government is not intrinsically desirable. People should distrust bad governments. Some have argued that “trust” is not quite the right word for an attitude toward the state, which should rather inspire “confidence” if it functions well.

But we have survey data on trust, and the authors make good use of it to support a valuable empirical case. Still, the really interesting question is whether governance improved as a result of the reform. For example, did corruption fall? Trustful opinions may indicate improvement, because citizens are well placed to assess government, but I think the accuracy of their opinions deserves further attention.

At the same time, trust in government is often found to be a component of the construct labeled “social capital.” And social capital is a resource that communities can use to address problems–including corruption. But although trust in government is empirically a component of social capital (meaning that it correlates with the other components), it doesn’t suffice. It would be interesting to know whether Ukrainians in hromadas also developed other aspects of social capital, such as habits of participating in discussions and meetings and helping each other voluntarily.

Reference: Helge Arends, Tymofii Brik, Benedikt Herrmann, Felix Roesel,
Decentralization and trust in government: Quasi-experimental evidence from Ukraine,
Journal of Comparative Economics, 2023. See also: two approaches to social capital: Bourdieu vs. the American literature; social movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own); civilian resistance in Ukraine, revisited.

the Iran crisis and literature on nonviolent uprisings

I wish I could follow the uprisings in Iran more closely and insightfully, but my background knowledge is limited and news coverage in English is scanty. I must admit that the regime’s victory over mass nonviolent protests in 2011-2012 made me pessimistic, especially since that turned out to be the first in a series of victories by repressive regimes. The global success rate for nonviolent social movements has fallen from near 70% in the 1990s to under 30% in the past decade, probably because authoritarian governments have improved their tactics.

That said, pessimism can be self-fulfilling. Turning trend-lines into predictions squelches agency and hope. Successful revolutionaries are not determinists. Walter Benjamin wrote in 1940, “The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action.” One never knows when masses of people will find inspiration in selected moments from the past and disrupt the patterns of recent history.

The literature on social movements and popular uprisings may offer some insights. That literature suggests that we should focus on certain recent developments in Iran.

The protests appear widespread, highly decentralized, and attractive to a diverse range of Iranians, including students, merchants, oil workers, and ethnic minority groups. In the literature, both the size and the pluralism of protests are related to their odds of success. (The “s” and “p” in my SPUD framework stand for those two factors.)

The movement appears capable of coordinating across a large country even though Iran has shut down the Internet and the protesters do not follow a few charismatic (and hence vulnerable) national leaders.

There are preliminary reports of some soldiers and police joining protests. Although “security force defection” has not occurred yet at substantial scale in Iran, it is a recognized phenomenon in popular uprisings. Chenoweth and Stephan (2011) found that nonviolent movements have been 46 times more likely to succeed when some members of the security forces defect. Anisin (2020) identifies “the size of the oppositional campaign (100,000+ participants)” as a common precondition of security force defection. One recent example was in neighboring Armenia in 2018.

There are also some preliminary reports of possible fissures within the regime, with (for instance) a “Hardline Chief Justice Call[ing] For ‘Dialogue With People’.” The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is said to be “gravely ill,” and his office may represent a power vacuum.

I believe that whether to use violence is a matter of judgment that depends on the circumstances, yet movements generally benefit by imposing restraints on their own behavior. Unrestrained tactics tend to escalate in ways that can damage or split a movement. Refraining from physical violence against human targets–or refusing to use live ammunition–can be bright lines that prevent such escalation. So far, the Iranian protesters seem to be using nonviolence as a self-imposed restraint.

By the way, a movement can be nonviolent despite scattered exceptions. Indeed, a mass movement that is predominantly nonviolent can benefit from the pressure imposed by parallel military movements. In the current case in Iran, several armed insurgencies are underway that may prove synergistic with the civilian protests.

Women play a disproportionate role in the Iranian protest movement. Women have certain strategic assets for social movements. For one thing, their activism can present “an apolitical appearance” that allows them to “engage in more political forms of resistance” without seeming to threaten the state’s monopoly on violence, as my colleague Anjuli Fahlberg notes in her study of Rio (Fahlberg 2018).

So far, we are seeing a familiar cycle: violent state repression instigates broader and more intense popular protest, which create dilemmas for the security forces and may initiate a downward spiral for the regime. That was the pattern in Paris in 1789 and also in Tehran in 1979, when every time the Shah’s regime killed protesters, the vast funeral processions turned into new expressions of popular will. Of course, it was also the pattern in Syria in 2011, with an ultimately tragic outcome.

Overall, I would be looking–and hoping–for scale and diversity, security force defections, self-imposed limitations, and acts of repression that stimulate even broader resistance. Success is far from inevitable but remains possible.

Citations: W. Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), trans. by Harry Zohn, xv; Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011; Alexei Anisin (2020) Unravelling the complex nature of security force defection, Global Change, Peace & Security, 32:2, 135-155; Fahlberg, A. N. (2018). Rethinking Favela Governance: Nonviolent Politics in Rio de Janeiro’s Gang Territories. Politics & Society46(4), 95–110. See also: people power in Iran (2009); why autocrats are winning (right now); Why Civil Resistance Works; the case for (and against) nonviolence; pay attention to movements, not just activists and events; etc.

civic education in Russia

The Russian Education Ministry recently unveiled new curricular units for grades 1-11 under the label of “Talking About What is Important: Our Country is Russia.” I learned about the curriculum from this article in Meduza, but the magic of Google Translate allowed me to read the whole thing in English. It’s fascinating as a window into Russian pedagogy and state values, as well as a dim reflection of practices that some Americans would advocate–or even use already–for our children.

Perhaps the creepiest part comes in the Materials for Grades 5-7. Students compete in teams to answer quiz questions, such as “What is the tallest building in Europe?” (answer: Lakhta Center, St. Petersburg) and “What order do the colors appear in the Russian flag?”

At this point, the lesson plan says:

Teacher: While the results of the game are being summed up, I want to note that regardless of points scored, you are all great, because you know a lot about geography, history and culture of our country. …

We see manifestations of genuine patriotism even today, above all during the special military operation. Its launch on February 24 of this year was announced by the President of Russia V.V. Putin. In his speech, the President noted: “Circumstances require us to take decisive and immediate actions. The People’s Republic of Donbas turned to Russia with a request for help.” Among the goals of a special military operation are to protect the population of Donbas, subjected to bullying and harassment by the Kyiv regime, to disarm Ukraine, and to prevent the deployment of NATO military bases. The Russian armed forces, together with the forces of the DPR and LPR, are actively working to achieve these goals. Huge military and other assistance of the collective West to the Ukrainian authorities is prolonging the fighting and increases the number of victims of the operation.

Over the past months, we have learned the names of our heroes, Russian patriots. Here are some more facts. Captain Alexander Romanov during the battle discovered a group of Ukrainian nationalists and decided to push them into the minefield. As a result of the operation, the nationalists surrendered, Captain Romanov personally neutralized 26 men. Thanks to the successful operation, Russian troops occupied the salient without losses.

(The list of heroic feats continues.)

Another snippet, this one from grades 3-5, provides a portrait of a Russian classroom as the Ministry imagines it:

Teacher: Today let’s think together again about what it means to love your Motherland, and how to learn it. For this it is important to answer the question “What do we call the Motherland?”. It is both simple and very complex issue. Of course, the Motherland for us is our country Russia. And what else? I would like to hear your answers.

Sample answers of children: “The motherland is also the people who live in our country, and our family, and the place where we were born, and the culture”.

Teacher: Let’s listen to the lyrics of the song “Where the Motherland Begins” by Veniamin Basner to the words of Mikhail Matusovsky. …

I had the opportunity to work with Ukrainian teachers in Kyiv in 2017, so I knew their national curriculum at the time. It had patriotic elements, but also democratic, classically liberal, and cosmopolitan aspects, and it seemed to align with guidance from the Council of Europe. I did not see anything about democracy or individual rights in the new Russian materials, even as lip-service.

We must teach students about politics, government, history, and social issues–to equip them to participate on an equal footing. However, civic education is always dangerous, because the government is able to compel children to learn about itself. I realize that conservative critics believe that American public schools teach youth to support expansive state policies and bureaucracies that they oppose. For me, a greater risk is a curriculum that idolizes the nation and its existing system and policies–much like the Kremlin’s. These disagreements are inevitable and even healthy. The best we can do is to have an ongoing, critical, diverse, deliberative, and influential public debate about what students should learn, so that this crucial question is not settled by politicians alone.