Browsing articles in "Misc."
Dec 16, 2012

Thus spoke the internet

This week Google published its Zeitgeist report: a global and country-case briefing on the most searched terms in its browser during 2012. The website can be seen here: (I recommend to open it in Chrome and use the translation option, as national lists are in the language spoken in each country). Here is a little look around on what Zeitgeist shows. Unless otherwise noted, the lists refer not to the most sought terms in each country, but those terms whose number of searches increased the most in this year. A question I had in mind while going around the report was: might there be any relation between the kind of political regime and what people look up for in the internet? To some extent there seems to be:

China: “The Voice of China” (a TV singing contest show), London 2012 Olympic Games, Gangnam Style, Empresses in Palace (a TV series about a royal harem during the Qing Dynasty), and Diaoyu Islands (an archipelago subject of a territorial dispute with Japan). This list shows nothing new about the internet in general: it is largely kept alive by current events. In addition, it could be asserted that censorship by the government has worked to a large extent, as no politically sensible item appears, just entertainment (except for the Diaoyu Islans, topic whose discussion could be fostered by the government).

Saudi Arabia: student certificates (official documents for high-school students), General Organization for Social Insurance (government run), Arab Idol, Ramadan Series 2012 (the TV shows aired during the holidays), and Mohamed Morsi (the new Egyptian President). It is interesting to notice that internet is greatly used to provide government services such as education and insurances. The appearance of Morsi prompts to ask if Saudi Arabians are interested in the political changes occurring in Egypt.

Egypt: Port Said (the violent clash between the fans of two soccer in Port Said Stadium which left 79 dead people this February), Supreme Committee for Elections, high school test results, Tahrir Square, Nour Party. Perhaps not surprisingly, politics has dominated searches in Google. Although this does not necessarily mean internet is playing a major role in the current political changes in Egypt, politics is a major topic among internet users, at least to be basically informed about ongoing events.

Germany: Euro Cup 2012, Dirk Bach (a German comedian passed away this year), London 2012 Olympic Games, Felix Baumgartner (the man who parachuted from a capsule in the stratosphere), and Samsung Galaxy G3. The contrast with Egypt could not be clearer.

The world: Whitney Houston, Gangnam Style, Hurricane Sandy, iPad 3, Diablo 3 (a videogame).

Nov 2, 2012

Quo Vadis?

More than ten years ago, Barbara Geddes wrote an article titled “What do we know about democratization after twenty years?”, in which she reviewed the main findings and spaces still blank related to our understanding of how democracies can be built. This topic has attracted significant attention, if not most of it, from political scientists since the end of World War II. The “shock of reality” that represented the Carnation Revolution and the development of the third wave have only increased and diversified the ways in which democracy and democratization are studied. It is not infrequent to find classic or new works suggesting prescriptions, thoughtful analyses, or detailed discussions about the relation between democracy and other individual variables, just to mention three categories of many more in this academic subject. All these works do not necessarily mean that we have just kept accumulating knowledge. There is another part of the scholarly work on democracy which is aimed at trying to give more coherence and complementarity to theories or ideas that initially seem to be contradictory, but that cast light on two sides of the same problem.

But the study of democracy as one particular configuration of the public space has always been there, arguably since Plato’s Republic. So the object that has captured our efforts during the recent past is not exactly new. Nonetheless, it could be said that society has experienced in those same thirty years since the Carnation Revolution a tremendous set of changes that have made substantial modifications to the way in which interactions in the public space occur. The popularization of instantaneous communication in every corner of the world, the capacity to document events in a wider variety of formats, or the overwhelming presence of media corporations have had an effect on the forms and substance of politics. All this leads to new questions on a very old issue.

Trying to sort out which are some of those recent trends I made a quick Google survey of syllabi of current political philosophy university courses. Of course, the sample is not statistically representative nor exhaustive; it is merely illustrative of which are some of the new issues in politics that are being commented on in American universities. These are some of the most relevant coincidences I found:

Extremism. This is far from being a new phenomenon. Totalitarianism was founded on it. However, there are two questions about extremism as experienced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. First, its relation to violence. Do violent means help extremist groups to achieve its goals? What leads a person to participate in violent acts related to extremist political positions? Second, its contemporary sources. Do extremist parties in Europe owe something to those that emerged in the decade before WWII? Is current party extremism just a temporary reaction to the present harsh economic times or does it have more substantive features and thus a more solid political base?

Minorities. Famously, Tocqueville warned that the rule of majority in a democracy could not so difficultly lead to the tyranny of majority. Now, the protection from majorities is sought in realms different to the strictly political. When speaking of minorities, the reference is each time less to parties with very few seats in Congress and each time more to sexual preferences, “sub-nationalities”, migrant communities, or gender. Do these minority groups represent new tendencies in the development of societies, or are they just the next step in the expression of societal differentiation considered in modernization theory? Given their minority status, how can those groups be better incorporated into the political system to increase their presence in public affairs debates?

Participation. Thanks to the so-called intelligent telephones and the development of internet-based communication tools, every person in any corner of the world can take part in any kind of public affairs discussion, either by presenting an idea or documenting an event with photos or video. This participation is characterized by its instantaneous time-lapse, which allows little space for analysis of the received information or careful thought of the arguments presented. How does the substance of these discussions compares to the situation thirty years before, when none of those instant communication tools existed yet movements against authoritarian rulers began? Are people that do not have access to these tools marginalized from public space? Has this had any effect on the effectiveness or preference of other kinds of participation, like voting in elections or street demonstrations?

There are some other issues not necessarily included in the syllabi I looked at. For example, the privatization of public space, understood as the co-option of some public agencies by private actors using them to lobby for their interests, usually setting the common good aside. Or, mass communication about the public space which, as seen in the recent presidential debates, guided the evaluation of the candidates on the form of their speech and in the accuracy of facts they mentioned, not on the virtues of proposed policies or programs. Finally, the issue of megapolis. Metropolitan areas like New York City, Mexico City, Tokyo, Seoul, Mumbai, or São Paulo represent a novelty in human history: never before have so many people lived in the same continuous area. What are the challenges this represents in terms of political organization or common problem solving? How do these super-cities compare to the ideal small republics or communes defended by classical political thinkers?

One of my college professors once mentioned that Leninism was the only political innovation of the 20th century. It is not difficult to see what that has led to. By going through some of the questions mentioned above we might have a chance to collaborate with a more encouraging novelty for the next hundred years.


Oct 9, 2012

“¡Hasta la victoria siempre!”

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the execution of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, more widely known as El Che.

El Che’s profile matches that of the romantic failed hero per excellence, in a somewhat similar vein to Egmont as portrayed by Goethe and Beethoven. Ernesto Guevara was born in Argentina and studied medicine. In late December 1951, he began his first journey through Latin America, along with his friend Alberto Granado. The account of these 7 months can be found in the Motorcycle Diaries. Later on he would repeat the trek. During that time he lived in indigenous communities, worked at a leper hospitals, and witnessed first-hand the persistent contrast between the few very rich and the most very poor in Latin America. In 1954 he went to Mexico City, where he met the Castro brothers and, along with other Cuban expatriates, planned the Revolution at the La Habana café. He became one of the rebel leaders, strictly avoiding receiving benefits that his troops could not have as well. He was made Minister of Industry in the new Cuban government, and traveled the world promoting the ideas of the Revolution. He quit his official position, apparently fostered by some disagreements with Fidel Castro about the course the Revolutionary government was taking, and left for Africa to fight for diverse guerrilla groups. Without much success, he joined the Bolivian National Liberation Army. Again he faced military failure, and was finally captured and executed in 1967, at the age of 39.

El Che’s story has many elements to inspire the youth not only from Latin America but from many other countries. He willingly exchanged a caring family, a loving girlfriend, and an apparently nice future as a doctor for a trip to the jungle to better understand the misery of his land, eventually to become one of the most visible faces of the international revolutionary movement. He firmly defended his ideals, and was ready to kill and die for them. Even more, quotations (maybe false or altered through endless repetitive citations) from his diaries, speeches, and conversations reflect his romantic personality, from his utopian mottos “¡Always until victory!” and “Let’s be realistic and ask ourselves for the impossible”, to the very last words to his executioner just before being fusilladed “Shoot, coward, that you are about to kill a man” or “Calm down, sir, you are about to kill a man.”

On the other hand, he was guerrilla, someone who preferred to wield a rifle in the sierra rather than to try to convince. Of course, it can be said that given the oppression lived in Latin America he had no other option, and that he was not the first nor the last to defend his ideas in combat. Hours before dying, a woman from the town where he was imprisoned was allowed to visit him. She said “You have come from very far away to fight in Bolivia”, receiving “I am a revolutionary and have been in many places”. She added “You have come to kill our soldiers”, and El Che retorted “Look, in war you win or you lose”. What is more, there was not a lack of volunteers to carry out the order from the Bolivian President to shoot El Che in captivity because it was too risky to put him on trial as there was a large possibility that rescue missions could be attempted and the Bolivian government could receive an unpleasant amount of international pressure during the process. The pretext these volunteers shared was that El Che had killed their friends in warfare and they wanted some kind of revenge. Violence, regardless of the idealist spirit that gives it momentum, leads to more violence. To put it differently, El Che was not the libertador Latin America had been waiting for since the death of Miguel Hidalgo, Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín. He was, as allegedly a disappointed Beethoven said of Napoleon when he invaded Austria, causing him to erase the dedication of the Eroica symphony, “just a man”.

A frequent question historians ask themselves after studying an event is “What remains?” The same inquisition can be made regarding El Che’s life. Apparently, a very large part of the answer is the hyper-famous photograph taken by Alberto Korda, where El Che appears wearing a starred beret and a messy beard watching a funeral procession pass by (this last element is out of the frame). The image by itself says nothing about the man it portrays or the historical moment in which it was taken. It could very well be another cliché in recent Latin American history, perhaps because both that persona and that time were barely something more than illusions, as shown by the resounding failure of the socialist and communist alternatives (both in their utopian and realistic fashions) and of the armed revolutionary means of action. In any case, el Che’s objectives of fighting against poverty, inequality, or injustice were not accomplished. That was not a banner just of his own. And in the surface it seems no one has seized it yet as decisively as he did.

Sep 17, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Call for Papers: Politics of the Economic Crisis

In the 10th year of the print edition of Democracy&Society, our journal will take a deeper look into the reconfiguration of political forces after the economic downturn, with particular attention to its effects on democracy, sovereignty and the clash between expansionism and austerity. Don’t miss the opportunity to participate!

Democracy & Society, Volume 10, Issue 1

 We are seeking well-written, interesting submissions of 1500-2000 words on the themes below, including summaries and/or excerpts of recently completed research, new publications, and works in progress. Submissions for the issue are due Monday, October 22nd, 2012.

Politics of the Economic Crisis

The turbulence created by the economic crisis of 2008 went far beyond the financial sector. The political upheaval that ensued has reignited ideological debates among scholars, policymakers, and civil society over the proper role of government in the economy. The ideological arguments for austerity on the one hand, and expansionism on the other, have resulted in a clash that precipitated the fall of governments all over Europe and contributed to the dramatic polarization and political stalemate in the United States. The consequences of the economic downturn are still unfolding, but its political effects on policymaking, democratic institutions, and national sovereignty are already a reality. In order to better understand these developments, several questions can be addressed, including:

–                    The boundaries of sovereignty and the future of the Euro Zone – European governments continue to clash over policies of austerity and expansionism. The European Central Bank along with the largest European economies insist on imposing austerity measures on the weakest Euro Zone members, and the loss of decision-making power by national governments is creating new tensions between domestic political demands and international economic realities. What might the European Union look like in the future? Is further integration via fiscal unity a viable option at this point? Or will political dissatisfaction and financial constraints lead to a reconfiguration of the Euro Zone? What are the consequences for democracy in countries such as Greece, Portugal, and Spain, whose governments are under pressure from supranational bodies?

–                    The Hardening of Ideological Divides – U.S. policymakers responded to the financial crisis by injecting hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy. This approach provoked protests and intensified the ideological debate between left and right over government roles and responsibilities. Did the financial crisis fundamentally change the balance of political power? What does the inability of the United States to conduct meaningful financial sector reform say about dominant political forces in the country? And what does the current political gridlock, along with its ideological undercurrents, mean for the future of American democracy?

–                    State regulations and interventions – A good part of the discussion of how to prevent future crises has focused on the correct level of state regulation of the economy. Some argue, however, that the issue is not the quantity but rather the quality/content of the regulations and relationship between state and society. Is the paradigm shifting? What lessons are policymakers drawing about this particular relationship? Is the new “State Capitalism” – with governments at the center of stability and growth promotion – a useful model, and are we likely to see more countries adopting it moving forward?

–                    Reviewing the Washington Consensus – The responses to the crisis have been marked by massive infusions of cash in national markets and an exponential increase in the amount of debt that governments have accrued in an attempt to keep their economies afloat. Once considered nearly extinct, believers in “Keynesian” stimulation via large budget deficits are now mainstream. Is the new flexibility on fiscal discipline, manipulation of interest rates, deregulation, and even nationalization of industries signaling the demise of the Washington Consensus? Or are the expansionary policies of today merely a temporary bitter pill that will be discarded once the threat of recession fades?

–                    The rise of inequality and the future of the middle class – One of the signatures of the current economic downturn, primarily (but not only) in the U.S., is the rise of inequality in rich countries, with particular losses for the middle class. This trend is not new, but the expanding gap between rich and poor has accelerated recently. Some argue that inequality is right at the center of the financial crisis since it prompted policymakers to expand and ease credit for families. How does the weakening of the middle class impact the future of democratic politics? What does the current level of inequality say about the success of developed democracies, and should less-developed democracies re-think their approach to economic growth?

–                    Rebalancing world forces –The difference in the pace of growth for areas previously known as “center” and “periphery” since the beginning of the crisis has profoundly impacted the international balance of power. It has become commonplace to say that the G20 has replaced the G8, and institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank face pressure for reform to reflect the new influence of emerging economies. However, old structures resist this reconfiguration of geopolitical power. How did the economic crisis impact international coordination and decision-making? Is global power really shifting? Who are the winners and losers of this emerging scenario?

Please email submissions to For additional information, please visit or contact Andrea Murta or Josh Linden at

Apr 25, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Europe x the BRICs


Christine Lagarde, french, managing director of the IMF

Not even the threat of an impending Euro-mageddon is enough to tame Europe’s cling to traditional positions of power. The current dispute at the IMF is witness to that. Europeans want the Third World to participate in building collective firewalls (in the form of new funds for bilateral loans) that are obviously meant to keep their own countries afloat; but when reminded of promises to reform the decision making structure at the institution, they tend to change the subject.

 Europe’s collective whining at this year’s IMF and World Bank Spring Meetings, which ended this past weekend in DC, won them US$ 430 billion in extra funds for the firewall. The money is to be made available by the IMF officially for whoever needs it. “It is basically to tell the markets: calm down, we have resources”, an IMF spokesperson told me. Europeans themselves contributed with the largest amount, about US$ 200 billion –which sounds right, if not insufficient. They have the money (well, some of them do) and this is obviously for their own sake. Japan gave US$ 60 billion; the UK, Korea and Saudi Arabia, US$ 15 billion each. BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), meanwhile, are being pressured to give at least as much as Sweden and Switzerland (US$ 10 billion), and billions more than Australia, Norway or Denmark. The US did not give a cent.

Not so fast, they said.  Before opening their wallets, they wanted the big ones to move on with the implementation of the reform of the voting quotas at the IMF, which was agreed to in 2010 but remains just a promise. Not only that, they want to discuss more reforms. The BRICs thus decided to act as if they were a united group (they keep trying…) and declared they will join the firewall efforts, but before announcing the size of their contribution, Europe must commit to the reform of the quotas.

 It is not an unreasonable demand. But, unfortunately, it does not seem to get them very far.

First of all, the message came out clumsy and it only conveyed once again the confusion that is characteristic of the group. First Russia stated that it would contribute with between US$ 10 billion and US$ 20 billion, then the Russian Finance minister took it back and said no minimum amount was on the table just yet. Brazil, as usual, complained to everybody about the unfairness of the international system and from the start refused to talk numbers. India gave an interview saying that there was no conditionality whatsoever to the collaboration; it was not about the reform, it was just that they needed to discuss the matter with their domestic audiences first. And China didn’t say much.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF, was clearly displeased. She made ironic comments during press conferences and rolled her eyes when asked about the BRICs. I was covering the Spring Meetings this past weekend and asked her what did the Brics tell the IMF after all, since they each said a different thing to the public. She just smiled and replied to me: “Of course. It is in their interest to create as much confusion as possible. What they told me is clearly something that they do not want the press to know.” Lagarde is teasing, implying that Brazil, Russia, India and China did talk numbers with the institution, but want to pretend they are the tough guys now. Will it work?

Germany’s response to a question about the quota reform shows the Bric’s blackmailing attempt will be difficult. Berlin will keep its end of the bargain, they said. The agreements of 2010 will hold. But as for going further, like the BRICs want… the best answer the Germans could give was to say they “acknowledge” the desire. And then, they changed the subject.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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