Author: Interview led by Daniel Erlacher, including an introduction text by Tamara Ehs
Photo credit: Valérie Maltseva
Tamara Ehs in April 2021: When I drew attention to the danger for democracy posed by state of emergency legislation in the wake of an inadequate response to the climate crisis at the 2020 Elevate Festival, I would not have thought it possible that just a few days later democracies around the world are being subjected to the stress test of such an emergency. Not only have long known authoritarian regimes used the crisis as cover to rule by decree, arrest critics and heighten censorship, even “non-authoritarians won praise for limiting democratic freedoms in ways that would have drawn condemnation in ordinary times”, as the Journal of Democracy correctly observed.
When I was still wondering what is suddenly possible, I had to think of Walter Benjamin who in his thesis On the Concept of History (1940) radically broke with progress optimism, for it “only wants the progress of the mastery of nature to be true, not the regress of society” and therefore creates blind spots. In fact, the belief in progress only allows us to perceive the dangers of the authoritarian at a late stage or even locates them in a racist way only in other countries, but not with(in) us.
Under this impression, I analysed the first phase of the Covid-19 crisis in spring 2020 in my essay Krisendemokratie sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher, Bruno Latour is one of the most translated and commented intellectuals in the world, I pointed out the strengths and weaknesses of Austrian democracy in order to learn from the Covid-19 crisis for dealing with the climate crisis: we have to prepare democracy for exceptional situations by already correcting the status quo, because the next crisis is bound to come. Be it another pandemic, a terrorist attack or, most likely, a climate emergency due to insufficiently tackled global heating. However, none of these scenarios need mean that we send democracy into quarantine.
In a state of emotional emergency it is often difficult to make rational decisions. If, in addition, parties and politicians who are not averse to authoritarian temptation dominate events, there is a danger to democracy that goes beyond the occasion. A strong constitutional state may be able to compensate for some gross distortions in retrospect, but trust in the political system, in the ability of democracy itself to solve problems, and even social trust are usually already permanently damaged by then. It is therefore all the more important to establish and strengthen a crisis-proof democracy beforehand by safeguarding its social foundations. To use the crisis vocabulary: democracy is too big to fail.
The Covid-19 crisis illustrates what holds also true for the climate crisis: we are not all equally affected by the catastrophe but according to our social position. The social imbalance, in turn, has a direct impact on the resilience of democracy against autocratic tendencies. The Covid-19 crisis and its impact on democracy, especially on fundamental rights and freedoms, seems like a blueprint for the state of emergency when we fail to meet climate targets – and the shutdown is imposed due to droughts, food or water shortage and heat days next time. The ecological question will also decide the democratic one. It is not only the climate that has tipping points. Democracies, too, can only accept a certain degree of damage.
Political scientist Tamara Ehs in an Elevate-Interview about the Festival theme Human Nature, in March 2020.
Daniel Erlacher: Elevate’s festival theme 2020 is “Human Nature”. What’s your second thought about it?
Tamara Ehs: I should formally quote Herbert Marcuse for his rallying cry, ‘Nature, too, awaits the revolution.’
And your first?
Nature, too, awaits the revolution.
Quo Vadis Humanity? In 2009 Elevate’s main theme was the climate crisis. Ten years have passed. What’s your take on the next ten?
Speed up your efforts! We are still used to the old philosophical maxim “natura non facit saltum” (latin for “nature does not make jumps”, principle of natural philosophy, developed by Charles Darwin, Gottfried Leibniz or Aristote). But it does. Climate crisis makes leaps and we must not underestimate its speed. My work focusses on democracy, inequality and the crisis of social cohesion. For the near future, I see further precarisation, the rise of right-wing populism and authoritarianism, and state of emergency legislation in the wake of an inadequate response to the climate crisis. We urgently have to correct the system errors, because “the alternative to a changed society is darkness” (Eric Hobsbawm).
On the relationship of humans and technology — are there more reasons to be pessimistic or optimistic? Can you name some?
Technological upheavals could hold an enormous potential for liberation if they were democratically controlled and not driven solely by capitalist rationalisation interests. They could free people from physically exhausting or alienated work. Instead, people are often overtaken by technological innovations as catastrophes, accompanied by increasing insecurity or job losses, fear of social decline and a loss of solidarity. Like 19th century Luddites and machine breakers workers are driven to oppose new technology as it is not invented to make labour easier but obsolete. Therefore, we must reorganise production and realise economic and workplace democracy.
And our relationship with nature? Of course we are “part of it”, but where are we going?
Are there any two domains of reality – nature vs society? Bruno Latour states that, “nature and society have no more existence than East and West.” The terms are utterly arbitrary poles on a mental map. Therefore, everything we “do to nature” we do to ourselves. My scholarly work focusses on democracy and social inequality. It relates to the climate change of the political which threatens our co-existence just as much as global warming: the conflict line authoritarian vs. democratic. The question of democracy will also be decided by the ecological one: who will determine how much we consume and produce in the future, how we work, how we may spend our leisure time?
Since it is feared that – due to the advancing populist polarisation – democracy will topple earlier than the ecological balance, the necessary solution to the climate crisis fails to materialise. This overlooks the fact, however, that the many crises reinforce each other and that instead of rigidity and austerity based on fear, what is needed is the courage for more democracy.
“Psycho-spiritual crisis”, “a psychotic society”… How bad is the status quo of humanity?
We are told to panic because our house is on fire. Therefore, psychologists already speak of a “pre-trauma”. That’s not the usual post-traumatic stress-disorder but rather the fear of a future terrifying event caused by the climate apocalypse. But this rather agonises than activates most of us. Indeed, what we are missing are utopian discourses to counteract the dystopian imaginaries. Therefore, we need to combat the mental constraints of a system based on austerity we already grew up with.
A message to the Elevate Festival community? What can we do?
Capitalism will not die a natural death. Be assistant.
Elevate features many amazing artists in the music & arts programme. Can we meet you on the dancefloor too?
I recommend that you listen in a dark room, very quietly, to Adriana Celentana!