8. - 10. September 2017
Haus der Berliner Festspiele
for Democracy and Freedom
Initiated and curated by Ulrich Schreiber (ilb) and Priya Basil (Authors for Peace)
From September 8–10, 2017, alongside the international literature festival, a convention organised by the Peter-Weiss-Stiftung für Kunst und Politik e.V. (PWS) will bring together prominent international thinkers from various disciplines to reflect upon the challenges and opportunities faced by freedom and democracy today, and to engage in an open dialogue with the public.
This congress is taking place in a spirit of resistance and is inspired, among others, by the 1935 International Congress of Writers in Defence of Culture, which was directed against the rise of fascism. The goal of the congress is to analyze recent political upheavals, revitalise the discourse on democracy, and exchange ideas and strategies for the future. Underscoring this endeavour is the conviction that liberal democracy is worth fighting for.
Tickets for the congress are available here. Please select event type "Konferenz" to see the congress tickets.
by Priya Basil
Imagine a building you can never see in its entirety – no matter how far back you go, no matter how high. Yet, you sense its shape – though only roughly since it’s always under construction. In fact, you forge it – even when you do nothing. This building doesn’t just grow, it can shrink. You may not notice any change, but eventually you feel it, the way you do the difference between light and dark as one slowly shifts into the other. The building has many inhabitants. Most will never meet and may have little in common, yet they nevertheless coexist in this uniquely fixed and flexible space. If you reside in such a building, it doesn’t just hold you – you embody it.
Just over half the world’s 7.5 billion people currently live in some version of the construct called democracy. This does not include those variations that exist in name only, like Russia, which calls itself a “sovereign democracy”. It does however include the likes of Hungary, where Victor Orban proudly proclaimed the virtues of “illiberal democracy” – as if democracy were mere stucco to prettify any autocratic edifice.
Regardless of the qualifications tacked to it, right now democracy itself risks becoming a mere facade. Even liberal democracy – until now the most convincing model – looks increasingly precarious. Indeed, the house of liberal democracy suddenly seems to be shaking at its very foundations. Small wonder then that all over the globe, in all kinds of systems and to differing degrees, so many of us feel anxious, cornered and with no real room for manoeuvre.
The instinct is to retreat even further into our respective nooks, then either shout and curse from there, or hunker down and sit out a situation we appear to have little power to change. Yet, could it be that the democracy-house has partly fallen into disrepair because we have, for too long, kept too much to our own private little niches? Might we say that for many, especially in Western democracies, such retreat, such taking for granted, has been the very essence of freedom? Have we, unconsciously, come to conceive of a democrat as someone who can have rights without assuming responsibilities? What does it take to be a democrat? Can you be one part-time? Or must you live the role – daily, deliberately, actively? How much work does freedom require? If it really takes so much effort, is it still freedom?
We need more places to test out such questions. Hannah Arendt wrote: “…no activity can become excellent if the world does not provide a proper space for its exercise.” So far, there isn’t much room - besides the voting booth – for us to practice democracy, to become accomplished democrats, connoisseurs in civil liberty. But sometimes spaces open up unexpectedly, temporarily. They beckon us out of our personal chambers and rearrange us in new constellations that can leave permanent marks. The 2017 International Congress for Freedom and Democracy is, hopefully, one such. It has been convened to survey our societies, politics and economics, and to re-conceive the very architecture of democracy. It is an invitation to the drawing board, the construction site, the interior design of the building called democracy, which has yet to be bettered and which is ours for the making.