The use and abuse of democratic self-defence

Tuesday 18 October, 7.00pm until 8.30pm, Room 137, Lower Ground Floor, Institute for Art Theory and Media Studies, ELTE Muzeum krt. 6-8. Budapest, Hungary Satellite Events 2011

The debate will be in English

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What happens when extremists exploit democratic freedoms to undermine democracy itself? The term ‘militant democracy’ refers to apparently anti-democratic measures taken by constitutional democracies in order to protect the liberal state from anti-democratic forces. Max Horkheimer, writing in 1941, provided the intellectual impetus for this concept in the context of the fight against Nazism: ‘strong central government able and willing to take effective action against fascism is not incompatible with democracy’. And, today, the German constitution, the Basic Law, through the concept of streitbare Demokratie (fortified democracy), grants the government extensive powers to defend liberal democracy from those who would destroy it: even a majority of its own citizens, who might prefer a totalitarian state.

In the UK, since the London bombings in 2005, the government has spent millions on its ‘Prevent’ strategy to curb the growth of Islamic radicalism. Recently overhauled, it now aims to train health workers to spot extremists and to monitor internet usage, snooping on those searching for ‘hate sites’ and extremist material, especially in schools and universities. The head of the security unit at a leading conservative thinktank has said, echoing prime minister David Cameron’s call for ‘muscular liberalism’, that ‘commitment to our values should be compulsory… we cannot tolerate intolerance’. In Hungary, escalating threats to the Roma population, both verbal and physical, have led some to call for curbs on what are often termed excessive or irresponsible uses of the freedom of expression. The issue of what can be tolerated is further confused when those same liberals criticise the Fidesz government’s introduction of controversial new media laws on the grounds that they attack the freedom of the press and free speech, thereby damaging democracy.

What are the legal, political and philosophical grounds for restricting free speech, banning parties and assocations, excluding members of certain organisations from state offices etc, in the name of democracy? In an age in which cultural conflicts seem to matter more and more, and fears of extremist threats are widespread, is the classical liberal argument for free speech and freedom of assembly just hopelessly naïve and old-fashioned? Or is tolerating the vulgar, the offensive, the shocking, not, in part, the price of liberty? How can we avoid the abuse of the idea of democratic self-defence by governments who want to weaken or eliminate their opponents? Just how much tolerance can we afford today?

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