Each December since its inception in 1988, the European Parliament has awarded the prestigious "Sakharov Prize" to people and organisations playing a crucial role in defence of human rights and freedom of speech around the world. The Prize is named after the Russian scientist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov and has honoured men, women and organisations – Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Hu Jia, and the Belarusian Association of Journalists, for example – who have dedicated themselves to the defence of human rights and freedom of thought.
Each year the announcement of the recipient provides the opportunity for a public discussion, organized by the European Parliament’s office in London in conjunction with University College London. This year, one year on from the death of Václav Havel, and in the light of a contemporary reinvention of dissident practice in the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement, Charter 08 in China, and the neo-dissidence of Pussy Riot and others in Russia, we have formulated topics for discussion that pick up on themes from Havel: dissent as the ‘art of the impossible’ and as a point of intersection between politics and aesthetics.
Since 2011 onwards, the European Parliament Office in the UK, in cooperation with the UCL European Institute and other key stakeholders, hold an annual public debate to explore current developments on Human Rights in Europe.
2012 Sakharov Debate: Dissent Today and the Art of the Impossible
Tim Beasley-Murray, European Thought & Culture, UCL
Peter Zusi, Czech & Slovak Studies, UCL
What is the difference between dissent and political opposition? In normal political life it is possible to object to the way things are done and to propose alternative answers to the questions of politics. In this case, one is in opposition. Such opposition, however, is not dissent. Dissent is the far more radical refusal to accept that the questions that politics raises are the only ones that can be asked. Bismarck, ever the political realist, is said to have called politics the art of the possible. In a playful yet serious twist on this, Havel defined dissent as the art of the impossible.
What is dissent today? In some parts of the world, dissent follows similar patterns to dissent in pre-1990s Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union: dissent struggles for basic human rights and freedoms that authoritarian regimes deny. Here, speaking freely can result in a violent response from authority. This ‘classical’ form of dissent makes the apparently impossible demand for what in Western democracies appears normal: a politics of which opposition is a structural part.
But in places where these rights and freedoms have already been won, and where political opposition is an unquestioned part of political life, can dissent exist? In Europe, the problem is not the right to speak freely but rather that the gesture of listening often masks the indifference of those in power. Given this feature of Europe’s purported ‘democratic deficit’, can we regard the violence of anti-austerity protests in Spain and Greece or even the 2011 London riots as forms of dissent? Where does dissent stand in relation to the notion of civil disobedience?
Western democracies might also learn from the most radical conclusion of ‘classical’ dissent: full freedom of thought means freedom to think the apparently unthinkable. Slavoj Žižek has claimed it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism—can challenging the conviction that liberal democracy and the free market are the only means to regulate political and social affairs be understood meaningfully as ‘dissent’?
This notion of dissent as radical imagination makes it clear why artists – from Shelley, via Havel, to Ai Wei Wei – are often in the vanguard of political dissent. Artistic activity has many facets: it can be a transgressive telling of the truth, a talking back to power; it can hold out a promesse de bonheur. It can be an image-factory for weapons in a political battle that, today, in the age of digital reproducibility, is fought above all with images. It can be a mode in which everyday life is lived just a little bit differently. Above all, art itself can become the art of the impossible.
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