Reasons why Orwell might not have gone down in history

June 20th, 2017 No Comments

Photographs of Eric Blair (George Orwell) from his Metropolitan Police file | Wikipedia

Writer George Orwell, the author of literary classics such as 1984 and Animal Farm, lived in Barcelona between 1936 and 1937, during which time he became a POUM militant fighting on the side of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Eric Arthur Blair (Orwell’s real name) paid his own particular tribute to Barcelona and to the period in history that he lived through with his book Homage to Catalonia. What has the city done for the author in return? Apart from giving his name to a square, until five years ago nobody had ever given a thought to remembering George Orwell. Then the CCCB, upon the proposal of a group of experts on the writer, created Orwell Day, a tribute in the form of a debate and a historical-literary route. Pau Rubio, one of the promoters of this initiative, tells us about it in this article. 

In George Orwell’s case, the distance that separates history from oblivion is a millimetre. Just one millimetre: the same millimetre by which the bullet that went clean through his neck on the Aragon front missed converting him into an anonymous dead man. Initially, even he himself reached the conclusion that the projectile had killed him, which would have been the most logical outcome.

If parallel dimensions exist, it is almost certain that in the great majority of them, that shot was the endpoint for Eric Arthur Blair. They made him disappear down the drain of some secret prison. He was found by the police who went to look for him at the Hotel Continental. The agents inspecting the train in which he fled for the border did opt to ask him for his papers. His name as a “staunch Trotskyist” did arrive at the border control list in time. In such a way that in any other parallel present, nobody has ever heard of a certain George Orwell.

There are so many ways in which this English writer might not have gone down in history, that there is only one way of explaining the fact that it happened: it was meant to be. His is such an improbable biography that one could imagine that of all the worlds possible, we live in the only one in which it occurred in this way. In any other world, Orwell didn’t survive the war. Or he didn’t get involved with the POUM militia. Or he simply did not obtain leave from work right on the dates that allowed him to become a witness to the events of May in Barcelona. In consequence, he never came to pay Homage to Catalonia. And, of course, nowhere does anyone pay any homage to him.

Fortunately – and despite the fact that in so many other circumstances we desire the opposite – our world is not any other world. It is this one. And here, George Orwell continues attracting new readers, despite the years that have elapsed since his death. His eye-witness account of the Spanish Civil War has turned out to be fundamental in ensuring that among the defeated, the victors could not impose their view. His extraordinary clear-sightedness in the reading of his own times continues providing keys to understanding our own. His work continues to grace bookshelves and bedside tables. It continues to filter into conversations. Against all odds, Orwell, that lanky chap who came to Barcelona to defend freedom and tell the story to the world, remains among us.

What Orwell felt for Catalonia was a love not totally requited. He proclaimed it to the four winds from the cover and the spine of one of his capital works. He maintained it faithfully until his death and with it, he contributed towards building the universal brand that is Barcelona today. Still today, a large number of visitors visit the city following in his footsteps. And in exchange, what has Barcelona given to him?

George Orwell square, Barcelona

George Orwell square, Barcelona | Wikipedia

British journalist Nigel Richardson could not get over his surprise when, in the year 2013, he arrived in Barcelona to prepare a report to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the publication of Homage to Catalonia. The only place to remember the author was a square which surveillance cameras have made truly Orwellian, but which nobody refers to by its official name, using another that is rather more lysergic. Moreover, nobody in the city seemed to be aware of the occasion. There were no events programmed, nor did any glimmer of hope exist that any institution had the slightest intention of vindicating Orwell.

Following the meeting with Richardson, two of us who took part in his report felt something akin to shame. How was it possible that Catalonia, and Barcelona in particular, had side-lined to such a great extent a figure which they should have appropriated? It made no sense that in a city of such cultural splendour there would not even be a simple tribute paid to the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. It was necessary for somebody to do something about it. But who?

Eventually, given the lack of official recognitions, we decided to organise an officious one. Perhaps we were not the most suitable candidates, but at that moment in time we were the only ones. The circle of experts to whom we explained the idea embraced it enthusiastically and offered to collaborate. The CCCB opened its doors to the initiative and in that same year of 2013, there was a first Orwell Day. Its initial formula has been maintained each year since then: free routes around the sites of Homage to Catalonia on the Ramblas, and a conference and an entire day devoted to the writer on the social media networks.

With the exception of the first year, which was more of the nature of a pilot test, the response from the public has been excellent. The literary routes, despite having increased in number, have filled all their places year after year. And the central event at the CCCB, which has not depended on speakers known by the general public, has seen a massive affluence of people at all the editions, proof of the fact that the city was hungry for Orwell.

In this way, and despite the voluntary or negligent forgetfulness on the part of the institutions, Catalonia and Barcelona have finally repaid the homage to Orwell. Let’s hope that Orwell Day #DíaOrwell keeps alive for many years the memory of this improbable author who knew how to find his own truth among that of others. Not only is he still relevant and greatly needed, but also, this is perhaps the only dimension in which he exists.

Pau Rubio (@pauinthecloud) is one of the promoters of Orwell Day #DíaOrwell.

Pedro Olalla: “Political mindsets have much more to do with the life experiences of each generation than with age”

May 25th, 2017 1 Comment
Pedro Olalla

Pedro Olalla. © CCCB, 2017. Author: Miquel Taverna.

Writer Pedro Olalla has profound knowledge of Greece. In recent years, he has been a reporter on the life of Greek citizens, who are impacted by the economic crisis and the drastic financial decisions of the European Union. For that reason, and for his background as a Hellenist, which makes him well acquainted with the culture and politics of ancient Greece, Olalla is one of the most informed interlocutors to discuss the meaning of Europe and of democracy. Pedro Olalla visited the CCCB to give a talk titled “The Old Future of Democracy“, and journalist Anna Punsoda interviewed him. In this talk, they comment on the future of an aged continent, on the credibility of European bureaucrats, and on the ability and the responsibility to make decisions that we all have in a democracy.

Anna Punsoda: You believe that direct citizen participation is key to improve the quality of a democracy. In a parliamentary democracy like ours, do I not have the right to delegate my voice on the representatives and forget about public affairs?

Pedro Olalla: [Laughs] Not only do you have the right, but it is virtually the only thing you can do. However, if we give up our involvement in public affairs, we are giving up democracy altogether. You are right that our democracies are representative, but to a dubious extent. Who are our alleged representatives really representing? Democracy, deontologically understood, is based on a high degree of identification between the governors and the governed. And this premise is not met: the distancing between them and us keeps increasing.

Anna Punsoda: Identification? Doesn’t Plato distinguish between three kinds of men, among which the governors would be those in whom the influence of reason is predominant?

Pedro Olalla: In his Republic, Plato was describing an ideal model, not portraying what Athenian democracy was like. Democracy, as a system, is based on engagement, because it aims to bring political power as close as possible to the citizens. If the citizen does not want to exercise that power, if the citizenry as a whole gives up its sovereignty, there will always be someone willing to take over, and possibly they will not be pursuing the general interest. Given that we will not be able to have the full administration of common affairs, if we want to improve our democratic health, we must demand a greater degree of control over what our representatives do. We must demand that our democracies establish mechanisms so that citizens can, through the citizens themselves (and not through professional politicians with party affiliations), fulfil their role of controlling their representatives, following them and removing them from office if they are not working for the general interest.

Anna Punsoda: Isn’t defending your own party the best way to defend democracy?

Pedro Olalla: I don’t think so. For the most part, parties defend sectorial interests, which, to a large extent, condition their existence. In its origins, democracy did not have parties, but our current democracies did not genetically evolve from the original model, the Athenian (which is the one we know the best, thanks to the historical records of Aristotle, Demosthenes, Isocrates and so on). Our democracies stemmed from Roman republicanism, which already in its early days was a representative system, a res publica, a management system to regulate common affairs based on the cursus honorum (course of offices), in which patricians had a considerable privilege. The responsibilities that in Athenian democracy belonged to the Assembly, in Rome fell under the Senate, the consuls and the magistrates —the system was more similar to the current one.

The liberal tradition, which starts with Locke and influences the republic models created after the French and the American revolutions, was a good foundation. That modern republicanism has a promising start, because liberalism back then was a struggle against absolutism, a struggle that sought to give sovereignty back to the people, to respect individual freedoms in the face of the abuses of absolutist power —inherited by bloodline— that monarchic empires represented. But, during a second stage, these new republics shifted towards a defence of the emerging bourgeoisie’s class interests. That is why they came to be known as “bourgeois republics”. From its initial humanist and political spirit, liberalism took a turn towards a sense of economic protectionism, defending the interests of one social class. Political parties were born in that context, during that republicanism, because they are the adequate expression to defend class interests. Our current democracies have inherited this “neorepublican” model. That is why we think parties are the only way to have popular representation. We find them to be natural components of democracy, but they are not, they are a part of its history and, if we are a bit rigorous about it, of its recent history.

Parties have shown that they have certain internal hierarchies, certain promotion mechanisms, which are funded by lobbying groups and serve opaque interests. They block the political scene, avoiding the entrance of smaller groups and adopting a set of attitudes that are obstacles to a true democracy. In order to revitalize democracy, we must demand alternative paths of participation in the decision-making processes.

Pedro Olalla

Pedro Olalla. © CCCB, 2017. Autor: Miquel Taverna.

Anna Punsoda: To what extent is it possible for modern nation states to organise themselves like the Athens of Demosthenes?

Pedro Olalla: Well, it’s not about copying —which is obviously not possible, because Athens had a population of 200,000 people at that point in time. But we must be aware that, back then, it was possible to develop formulas and models that managed to provide the citizens with a political weight that they have not had ever since in history. And they reached that scenario with the means at their disposal, without references from the past, from scratch. How is it, then, that we are not able to regulate formulas to achieve a greater degree of involvement? If we can vote for Eurovision’s winning song in real time, how can we not have a referendum, no matter how large the electorate is? Demography should not hinder the development of formulas that allow for greater citizen participation. That does not mean that a nation state of today has to act with the same tools and parameters that were used in Athenian democracy. However, it is a mistake to think that back then democracy simply came to be in a natural way and that today something similar cannot happen because it would be unnatural. To think that way is to deprive us of a more decent democracy. There are no natural obstacles that make it impossible for us to organise public life differently.

Anna Punsoda: You also speak in negative terms about the professionalisation of politics. When I look for a job, however, they analyse every single detail of my work experience. Why would public affairs require less professionalism than business affairs?

Pedro Olalla: You see, a sort of fallacy has become widespread according to which technical experience equates to political will. Through this fallacy, the population is denied the right to exercise their political will under the argument that they lack the technical experience. Well, do our political representatives have technical experience in all the fields over which they must make decisions? Do they not have their teams of consultants? Can they have an informed opinion on solar energy, geostrategic matters and school programmes? Obviously not, that is why they have their teams and consultants, but their actions are always moved by a political will (which, at times, is not even their own). In the Protagoras, Plato defined political will as a gift distributed across the whole of society. Therefore, we can either defend that it belongs to the whole of society, or we can accept that we lack political will and renounce our self-governance ambitions. If we believe that society as a whole can generate a degree of political will, we have to enable it to do so. It’s not right that, because on an individual level we lack the technical knowledge to make decisions across all the fields at stake, we have to delegate our political will on representatives who do not have that knowledge either and who, all too often, do not take the general interest into consideration in their decision-making. Most of the decisions that must be taken to govern a society are, in essence, ethical decisions —not merely technical—, and the citizenry as a whole is equipped to make them.

Anna Punsoda: Let’s move on to the European project. How is it possible to update it with a generation that has forgotten about the war and the need to find peace through union?

Pedro Olalla: War memory is one of the factors we should consider to assess the success of the European project’s consolidation, but it is not the most relevant one. The current European Union is an attempt to create de iure institutions to consolidate the political and financial power that, de facto, already belongs to certain instances. In reality, the Union’s bureaucrats are not fighting against the possibility of a future war, but rather to consolidate their oligarchic interests, which are opposed to the political and monetary sovereignty of the member states. They are also fighting to move the decision-making centres from national parliaments to supranational instances that are far from democratic. The European Parliament is nothing but the fig leave of the entire project, because the true decisions are not made by democratic institutions —the Commission itself is not a democratic institution, and it is very much subject to the pressure of lobbies. The political and economic group that was created cannot fulfil the old aspirations of Adenauer or Jean Monnet, because it follows other directions.

The Union has lost credibility, even though it is trying to maintain it by all means. When the perverse effects of the financial crises and the financial dependencies hit, we began to rethink the convenience of such a structure. We began to see how certain lobbies and political sectors —the neoliberal hard core— had progressively appropriated the project to grant themselves a de iure power that they had always been exercising de facto. This goes against our fundamental rights. The memoranda that these institutions forced Greece to sign over the last few years go against the Union’s original right, against International Law, against Human Rights (decent work, housing, health…), and against major social achievements (social security, collective agreements, eight-hour workdays, etc.). They are incompatible with the rule according to a higher law and with democracy.

Anna Punsoda: Is it a theft, rather than a collapse of the system?

Pedro Olalla: It has been an intentional act. The idea that things degenerate spontaneously and impersonally is false, but it has been the method devised to dilute concrete responsibilities into a collective responsibility. When certain laws are signed, when certain institutions are created, and when a treaty with Canada or the United States is signed, there are specific people to be held accountable; we cannot simply say, “That is how history goes”. The truth is that the western capitalist system has been triggering the two phenomena that humanity must avoid if it wants to survive: the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few, and the accumulation of political power in the hands of a small minority. There are specific people, with names and surnames, who can be held accountable for that process.

Anna Punsoda: Another issue you talk about is how the system promotes a negative view of the old age.

Pedro Olalla: That’s correct. The terms in which the system of world domination expresses itself are still those of productivity. And the old age is seen as a marginal, subsidiary collective, a parasite of the State that is increasingly becoming a problem because it exists and grows. If we take this stance, we assume a position of weakness towards the system, because we will end up feeling guilty for living too long or for retiring. Politics should be something that stems from society to achieve happiness, and not an external system imposed to society and demanding that everyone adapt to serve it. If society changes —it grows older—, politics and the way we tackle problems will have to change as well. Guilt makes it impossible for us to evolve towards a political system that allows the elderly to live decently and as a part of society.

Anna Punsoda: It is often said that we grow more conservatives with time and that, as a consequence, certain parties have given up the possibility of politically addressing the old age.

Pedro Olalla: The notion that we become more conservatives and fearful with time has been induced by the system and must be reconsidered. Political mind-sets have much more to do with the life experiences of each generation than with age. The grandmothers at the Plaza de Mayo embody a progressive political view. And, conversely, neo-Nazi parties are filled with young people. We must leave aside age-related stereotypes to have a fairer view of each age group. And we must also put an end to the feelings of guilt and resignation. Elderly people must stop seeing themselves as a collective that hopes for the State’s mercy.

Anna Punsoda: A guilt that we inherited from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.

Pedro Olalla: I am just saying that it is an induced feeling. Tremendous, “Goebbelian” efforts have been made to transfer a sense of political accountability to the people. In Greece, for instance, the State has systematically fostered a sense of guilt —”We all made a mess”— with the aim of diluting the individual responsibility of decision-makers into an allegedly collective responsibility. Given that everyone has something to hide, it is really easy to induce that conscience, which keeps people from analysing concrete responsibilities. The discourse that claims that “We lived beyond our means”, “We drained public services” and so on, seeks to conceal many accountabilities, and creates a submissive population that is willing to accept whatever punishment. How can it be that, having put us through a rescue plan with a debt that was 120% the size of our GDP, and escalated to 185% in six years despite so many material and personal sacrifices, we still keep our heads down and say that we must resist, because “There is no other way”? They have succeeded in thoroughly neutralising the population’s spirit of protest, the right to demand true accountability to those who hold it. If they are representatives, they must answer to society. It is unacceptable that some became representatives in order to benefit from the privileges and then, as soon as things went wrong, they diluted their responsibility.

Ageing Democracies? Political Participation and Cultural Values among the Elderly in Europe

May 8th, 2017 No Comments

From Brexit to the rise of Viktor Orbán, Marine LePen and Geert Wilders, Europe’s political crisis is often viewed through the lens of an intergenerational conflict. According to this view, the rise of authoritarian political projects, the deterioration of democratic values and hostility to European integration are a consequence of the continent’s ageing population. This idea is sustained by a series of myths and deeply held prejudices that depict the elderly as an easily manipulated, fearful and selfish group. But this view is not supported by the facts. Political analysts have repeatedly shown that there is no relationship between ageing and reactionary politics, and that our views are entirely the result of our political experience and education. To share this knowledge and confront these stereotypes about the elderly, the Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona and the Open Society Initiative for Europe have teamed up to produce the Ageing Democracies project, in which five fellows produce works that challenge our assumptions about the politics of ageing.

We are at a critical moment in history. Liberal democratic values are now threatened by the rise of authoritarian politicians like Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Marine LePen or Geert Wilders. Xenophobic political parties like Alternative for Germany, the Freedom Party of Austria or the Law and Justice Party in Poland treat principles of human rights and social solidarity with scepticism or even outright hostility. Meanwhile, Brexit and similar referenda have shown that the integrity of the European Union can no longer be taken for granted.

These dramatic changes are taking place alongside what is likely the most profound, long-term change in Europe’s social composition since the expansion of access to education: accelerated population ageing. Powered by the continued growth of average life expectancy, population ageing is one of the most tangible results of social progress. However, it is often treated by pundits, analysts and other commentators as a problem and a source of intergenerational conflict.

The idea that the degeneration of liberal democratic values is somehow related to Europe’s older population has absolutely no grounding in the facts. It is the result of uncontested assumptions about ageing and the elderly. Yet time and time again, the idea and the myths that sustain it are repeated and reproduced in public discussions. To confront these prejudices and provide a more thorough reflection on the politics of ageing, the Centre for Contemporary Culture and the Open Society Initiative for Europe have teamed up to produce the Ageing Democracies project.

The Ageing Democracies project brings together five fellows from various backgrounds, disciplines, and European contexts. Its multidisciplinary research team includes a political scientist, a philosopher, a photographer, a filmmaker and a playwright. For the last year, they have analyzed the politics of ageing from a variety of angles, always with a firm basis in the empirical facts, and produced works that tackle common misconceptions about the elderly, their political and cultural views and their role in society. Today, May 8th, we mark the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe by presenting the project’s conclusions and their implications for a more just and democratic future.

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Population ageing is a blessing, not a curse

All EU countries are experiencing accelerated population ageing. According to the European Commission’s demographic projections, the European Union’s population is expected to peak at 526 million people in 2050. By then, nearly 30 percent of the total population will be over 65. By 2060, the proportion of people aged 80 or over will be roughly the same as that of people under fifteen.

Much has been made of the far-reaching economic and policy consequences of population ageing. Public discussions usually highlight the pressure exerted on the welfare state by a larger elderly population through increased public spending on health care and pensions. Indeed, media accounts of population ageing often pose the phenomenon as a threat to the very existence of the welfare state for future generations, effectively pitting Europe’s elderly population against the youth.

As a result, the generational dimension of politics has taken on a new sense of urgency. Because population ageing is a very long-term trend, the question of whether and how the views, needs and political behaviour of older people differ from those of other age groups will likely influence democratic processes and deliberation over the next several decades.

The rise of authoritarianism and xenophobia cannot be blamed on the elderly

Immediately after the Brexit vote, many voiced their frustration at the result by suggesting that old people should not be allowed to vote. Over the next several days, the idea of limiting the voting rights of elderly people made its way from the social networks into the mainstream media, including Time, GQ, Huffington Post, VICE, Forbes and El País. Commentators have also blamed the resilience of relatively unpopular governments or the rise of right-wing populism on the growing number of elderly voters.

Blaming the elderly for reactionary, authoritarian or otherwise undesirable political outcomes seems almost like a reflex, and the ageism it implies often goes uncontested. Age-based prejudices are propped up by the widespread, deeply held assumption that people naturally grow more reactionary with age. But is this assumption actually true?

Empirically, the idea doesn’t seem to hold up. For instance, the suggestion that support for far-right parties in France and the Netherlands is higher among the elderly is actually false. According to an I&O poll from December 2016, support for Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom was highest among young voters and declined dramatically with age. Less than 5% of voters over 65 supported his xenophobic campaign. Likewise, Marine LePen’s National Front was the top electoral choice among French voters under the age of 50, but among the elderly it was the third choice.

Brighton Pride. Ivan Bandura, 2014.

Older people being less inclined to support authoritarian or xenophobic politicians may go against assumptions, but it is not too difficult to understand why this is the case. Europe’s elderly today still remember World War II and the rise of fascism, and European integration was largely premised on the idea of preventing the horrors of that era. Alarmingly, a recent study by Harvard researcher Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa of the University of Melbourne showed that while more the majority of older Europeans believed that military takeover was never legitimate in a democracy, only 36% of millennial felt the same way. While only 5% of Europeans over 65 believed that having a democratic political system is a “bad” or “very bad” way to run a country, 13% of millennial felt this way. Finally, older Europeans were more likely than European youth to believe that civil rights are absolutely essential to a democracy.

The elderly are as diverse as any other age group

The fact of the matter is that the political and cultural perspectives of the elderly are more complex than we tend to assume. This is the overarching conclusion of the Ageing Democracies project’s first outcome, a new report by Dr. Achim Goerres, a leading political scientist specialising in the political participation of the elderly.

The report dispels the myth that the elderly form a single, reactionary constituency, pointing out that the differences between their political preferences and those of younger people in Europe are almost entirely due to the way different political generations grow up, not their age. To the extent that we can generalise, the data suggest that older Europeans are actually less conservative than their younger counterparts when it comes to the economy. The only exceptions to this are in Switzerland and the UK, where they are only slightly more conservative.

In terms of their cultural views, while it is true that the elderly are more conservative in all European countries but the Netherlands, these differences are smaller than generally assumed. More importantly, they are almost entirely attributable to the political generation people belong to. This is something very different than a person’s age. People who grew up during the same historical context share similar experiences that shape them in late adolescence and early adulthood. These experiences are very much determined by national circumstances and political history. For instance, being born in 1955 in West Germany shapes an individual rather differently than being born the same year in Catalonia or in the Czech Republic.

Yayoflautas. Teresa Forn, 2012.

In the end, the report shows that people past the retirement age are divided by the very same social inequalities experienced by younger groups. Specifically, elderly Europeans are divided by differences in attitudes and resources related to gender, health, education and income, among other factors. As occurs with all other age groups, these differences structure not only the social position of older people, but also what they do and want politically.

Let us consider the example of household income. While 73% of elderly people believe that the government must decrease income differences between the rich and the poor, when we divide older people by income groups, we exactly the same pattern we see among younger people. Those with higher income support this notion less often than those with lower income. Among older people whose household income is in the lowest 30% of their country’s income distribution, the proportion that supports redistribution is 79 %. Among the highest 30%, the proportion falls to 62%.

Socio-economic inequality does not just affect the political views of older people. It can also affect the way that they participate in politics. Health inequalities, which are strongly determined by social inequalities, are quite dramatic among the elderly, so much so that the pension age can typically be divided into a “young old” age and an “old old” age, when health problems severely hamper daily activities. Worse health among the elderly is associated with less political participation of any kind or even no participation at all.

The report concludes that politicians are catering to an imaginary constituency of like-minded elderly voters. Anxieties over the supposedly impending age conflicts brought on by a “grey wave” of “greedy geezers”, he finds, are largely the result of media exaggerations with little basis in the current scientific knowledge.

The politics of ageing is the politics of the future

The fact that there have never been as many elderly people in the world as there are today begs a troubling question: have we ever valued the elderly so little? Although the elderly population is growing and the younger population is not, our cultural imaginaries are nonetheless guided by a youth imperative. From the advertising world to the film industry and beyond, our visual culture equates beauty with eternal youth. In pop culture, older people are often depicted as hopelessly outdated, helpless or irritable. Meanwhile, scientific journalism frequently treats ageing itself as a disease to be cured, rather than as a natural part of the lifecycle. Instead of appreciating the tempos of the elderly and privileging their retrospective gaze, society asks that they age “actively” to keep up with the times.

How we age is an inherently political question. We do not age equally, and how long we live is shaped by the social and economic conditions we experience. Life expectancies and quality of life vary both between countries and within them, especially as a result of income and educational inequalities. Thus, the politics of ageing is a topic that goes beyond the electoral behaviour or policy preferences of a given age group. The implications of growing older depend very much on how societies are organised, what priorities they define and what questions they ask themselves.

Ageing Democracies reflects on the politics of ageing with individual works that approach the topic from a variety of angles, extending the discussion beyond the most prevalent tropes and stereotypes. Rather than viewing population ageing as a problem, the project contends that it is the result of undeniable social progress and a democratic challenge that poses a new set of key political questions about how society should be organized for generations to come.

To explore these themes, philosopher Pedro Olalla revisits the oldest classical text on old age, Cicero’s De Senectute. In a forthcoming book titled De Senectute Politica, Olalla positions demographic ageing as an undeniable fact that demands awareness to ensure that society can assimilate, manage and be enriched by its most profound implications. Ageing, he argues, must therefore be understood as an ethical, inherently political endeavour that requires us to question a society that treats the elderly as a drain on public coffers. He proposes instead a new reading of the increasingly popular notion of “active ageing” that dovetails with the democratic ideal of citizen participation and a deep engagement with political life.

But population ageing is not the only major demographic change affecting the politics of ageing. Today’s elderly Europeans are part of a society that has been quite dramatically changed by new patterns of international migration. This is dealt with in a subtle new film by Swedish photographer Maja Daniels titled My Grandma Calls Me Thomas. It focuses on the seemingly unlikely friendship between Taimaz and Barbro. Barbro had never met a refugee before Taimaz came to visit. Taimaz came to Sweden as an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan. His bond with Barbro is his first relationship with a Swedish person. Their story takes place in Älvdalen, an ageing, depopulating village in rural Sweden with an unrecognized minority language that is facing extinction, putting a human face on the complex implications of Europe’s changing demographics.

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The political question of how different communities respond to the current challenges of our ageing society is at the center of Nobody’s Home, a documentary essay by Catalan producer and film theorist Ingrid Guardiola. Adopting an observational, experimental approach, Guardiola examines life in two vastly different elderly communities in two very different places in Spain. The first is Ciñera, a former mining village in León whose economy has been dramatically affected by globalization. The second is a retirement home in the El Palomar neighborhood of Barcelona. In Ciñera, a strong union culture tries to resist the twin threats of deindustrialization and depopulation. In El Palomar, economic growth has given way to a larger urban population, a larger number of elderly people living in retirement homes and a larger number of workers taking care of them. The film highlights the centrality of work in each of these settings and how the lives that make up these communities differ in how they deal with an ageing population.

Finally, Peca Stefan is one of Romania’s most celebrated young playwrights. His new work is an immersive hybrid between a theatre play, a novel and an exhibition. Titled The New Old Home, it is an exercise in empathy that invites audiences to inhabit the shoes of Mrs. D and her millennial granddaughter Gina as they depart on a fantastical journey through space and time. The two women reconnect after several years of separation, only to be faced with a situation that propels them on a quest through parallel worlds. Mrs. D’s fate depends on how she responds to the conflicts posed by the different possible versions of her life as an elderly woman in present-day Romania, Germany, Spain and a distant future version of Europe. As she’s helping her grandmother along the way, Gina must face her own misconceptions and fears regarding ageing, and a series of recurring questions arises. How is an elderly person valued in contemporary democracies? What would the best possible world for Gina and Mrs. D look like?

These are the vital questions posed by the Ageing Democracies project, and they are all the more urgent in light of recent political developments. The Eurozone crisis, the crisis of the welfare state, Brexit and the rise of authoritarianism confront us with future scenarios that we did not expect just a decade ago. These challenges are exacerbating the tensions underlying a much slower but no less profound change in society. And as Europe’s population grows older, the politics of ageing will only grow in importance. Its consequences will not be limited to today’s retirees. The young are tomorrow’s elderly. Whether or not they inherit a democratic culture is being decided today.

28% of people over 60 combine voting with other forms of political action. 

Marta Segarra: “We want to possess the other and end up dispossessing ourselves”

March 2nd, 2017 No Comments

To what extent is desire—which, at first sight, seems to be a phenomenon of the impulses connecting humans with animality—culturally conditioned? How do clichés about femininity affect a woman’s attitude to life and the decisions she makes? How much room have women had to discover their desire in a cultural and sexual history written by men? We speak with Marta Segarra, Professor of French Literature and Gender Studies at the University of Barcelona and director of the Women and Literature Centre.

Marta Segarra a la conferència Desig i subversió © CCCB, Miquel Taverna, 2017

Marta Segarra in the lecture Desire and Subversion © CCCB, Miquel Taverna, 2017

Desire in accordance with cultural patterns, and not only those which shape education and reading but everything we absorb on a daily basis, more or less unconsciously.

Anna Punsoda: Love is cultural and desire is natural.

Marta Segarra: Yes, love is a cultural construct. Of course it’s not understood the same way now as it was five hundred years ago, or in Barcelona as it is in Dakar. But desire isn’t natural either. We tend to think that it’s instinctive, impulse-driven, or natural, as you say. But we also desire in accordance with cultural patterns, and not only those which shape education and reading but everything we absorb on a daily basis, more or less unconsciously.

For me, the most obvious cultural pattern is that which pushes us towards heterosexuality. We think it’s natural for men to desire women, and for women to desire men when, in fact, things aren’t always like that. Obviously. Culture pushes us into a kind of heterosexuality which some theorists have called “obligatory heterosexuality”. Affections, but also sexuality, are marked by cultural patterns which nowadays are mainly conveyed by audiovisual stories, in films, television, advertising and the new social networks.

AP: Speaking of patterns, in your essay Políticas del deseo (Politics of Desire) you contrast two archetypical women, the biblical Mary and Eve. What do these archetypes represent and who do they serve?

MS: To begin with, they are a clear example of how, in the West, our thought has always been constructed in a binary fashion. Good and Evil. Body and Soul. Pure Love and Sexual Love. Hence, two models have been promoted in the gender of “woman”: the good woman—mother and, moreover, virgin or, in other words, bearer of life without ever having felt sexual desire—and Eve, who would be the first femme fatale in history, the woman who entices the man into materialism, who leads him to damnation through the power of her attraction. Eve is temptation and death because expulsion from paradise symbolises the introduction of mortality into the history of humankind. This pattern, which takes conceptual shape in the nineteenth century, is very old. And it has a very clear message: desire brings disaster. This is the legend of Carmen, the woman who doesn’t fall in love but is so attractive to a whole range of men that she ends up spreading death and pain.

AP: And this idea of the seductive, manipulative woman who is well aware of the effect of her charms, doesn’t it contradict the cliché that presents us with woman as a childish creature dominated by telluric forces?

MS: It certainly does. This latter idea is a commonplace which paradoxically gained ground in the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment. We are told that, because of her body, her anatomy, woman is closer to what is natural and this is because femininity is bound to maternity. According to this idea, man is exempt from this and he can therefore sublimate the link with nature through reason and rise above material contingency. 

“The female artist has often been presented as the archetypical bad mother because she devotes herself to art—or her job, or whatever—going beyond the bounds of the role that nature has allegedly assigned her.”

AP: So woman has always been represented the eternal element, the basis of things and man the complement, namely progress.

MS: Yes, and precisely in this sense we have the classical conceptual opposition between procreation and creation. Maria Àngels Anglada deals with this in a poem called “Una resposta” (An Answer). These two activities have been seen as mutually exclusive for many centuries. A lot of women have internalised it and are convinced that their role in the world is first and foremost one of transmission, continuity and family care. The female artist has often been presented as the archetypical bad mother because she devotes herself to art—or her job, or whatever—going beyond the bounds of the role that nature has allegedly assigned her.

Marta Segarra i Merri Torras a la conferència Desig i subversió © CCCB, Miquel Taverna, 2017

Marta Segarra and Merri Torras in the lecture Desire and Subversion © CCCB, Miquel Taverna, 2017

AP: And aren’t there clichés, like the one that presents the woman as “she who receives (man, children, etc.)” based on biology?

MS: Well, that depends what you want to emphasise. The woman can also be “she who expels”. In fact, Marguerite Duras has a whole theory about giving birth (the first expulsion) as primordial movement. Think about how the social structure would be affected if, instead of having imposed the story of the “body that receives”, it had instituted the one of the “body that expels”.

AP: What space has woman had to discover her desire?

MS: For centuries the dominant discourse has claimed that man desires and woman is the object of desire. Freudian psychoanalysis reinforced this idea. The only role that women could have was passive. In Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century some women—still only a few—demonstrated, through the way they lived, the possibilities of breaking bounds, of living their desire according to their own parameters. But we begin to discover ourselves with the feminist movements of the 1970s. “Our body is ours” is a demand that has to be understood in this sense, as a possibility of shunning stereotypes of femininity with the aim of discovering our own desire.

AP: Unlike love, which has been seen as a means of transcendence, desire tends to be presented as a state of anxiety and yearning to possess.

MS: Yes, but it’s not so simple. Sometimes desire becomes the desire to possess but, then again, since it pushes us into a state of crisis as subjects, it shakes us up profoundly and it is our “undoing”. We want to possess the other and end up dispossessing ourselves. In this regard, the effects of desire are interesting because they lead to a crisis in the autonomy and self-sufficiency of the subject whose limits become problematic.

AP: There is ethical desire.

MS: That’s one way of putting it. For example, in Undoing Gender Judith Butler presents sexuality as one of the ways or one of the human domains in which it is easier to “undo oneself”, to break through the limits that isolate us as individuals. We open up to the other, to our difference from the other, which is to say difference in the broad sense.

AP: And the sexualisation of everything, the constant presence of stimuli, how does that affect desire?

MSHypersexualisation is a way of channelling desire within very specific constraints. Yes, we emerged from centuries of repression as European society was very puritan in centuries of the past. But present-day “sexualisation” doesn’t necessarily means that the possibilities of desire are opened up. The 1970s feminist discourse on liberation has been reabsorbed by power and the logic of capitalism in order to boost consumption. Liberation per se is not subversive. Desire per se is not subversive. In fact, it’s possible, too, as we are seeing in many cases, that “liberation” and desire are not causing any crisis in the structures of power but, rather, are reinforcing them.

Marta Segarra collaborates in several debates and CCCB programmes about the role of women in society. You can consult all the contents related to the author on the CCCB website.

Todorov, a CCCB Stalwart

February 15th, 2017 No Comments

John Berger, Zygmunt Bauman, Tzvetan Todorov. These renowned authors who have made extraordinary contributions to culture and critical thought have left us this winter of 2017. With them, we are losing a generation that is central to European history, a group of thinkers who still had direct or indirect memory of the continent’s horrors. They were all united in their denunciation of totalitarian thought, their tenaciousness in trying to understand human complexity, and their resolute defence of democracy and diversity. Last week we received the sad news of the death, at the age of seventy-seven, of the Bulgarian historian and essayist, Tzvetan Todorov. A gentle, friendly man with an unhurried way of speaking, Todorov was a thinker in every sense of the word, one who shunned disciplinary confines and encouraged reflection without dogmatism. Todorov was one of the guest speakers at the Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) from its early days and, during the years of forging this relationship, his influence was considerable. He gave four lectures at the CCCB, all of them highly topical today, and available in the BREUS collection.

Tzvetan Todorov al Debat de Barcelona Virtuts CCCB (c) Miquel Taverna, 2012

Tzvetan Todorov en el Debat de Barcelona Virtuts CCCB (c) Miquel Taverna, 2012

In his first lecture in 2004, he spoke of Europe’s frontiers, a subject of all-important relevance today which we tackle in this year’s Barcelona Debate. Even then, Todorov was calling on the European Union not to restrict itself to being an economic and administrative entity, and asking it to take on its “complement of soul” so that it could also become a cultural Europe. Aware that the continent does not have a single cultural essence and that diversity is its identity, Todorov upheld a European project based on shared political principles and a critical spirit as a mechanism of continuous self-questioning.

At the Kosmopolis Festival in 2008, he spoke about terrorism, decrying the progressive legalisation of torture as a political instrument. At the height of the debate raging around the effects of America’s invasion of Iraq, Todorov recalled that torture has existed since antiquity but now, for the first time, it is no longer presented as a lamentable but excusable infraction. It is becoming the norm. His judgement left no room for doubt: “A state that legalises torture is no longer a democracy”.

In 2009, he joined the writers Juan Goytisolo and Monika Zgustova in a discussion on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In a text published in the BREUS Collection, Murs caiguts, murs erigits (Walls Brought Down, Walls Built), Todorov had the following to say: “The fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to proclaim the end of other walls built in other places. Twenty years on, we must acknowledge that this hope has not borne the fruit of success. Far from vanishing from the face of the earth, the walls have multiplied. How can this be explained?” A thinker of otherness, Todorov denounced the use of “fear of the barbarians” to justify the proliferation of borders and recalled, “[…] the stranger is not only like us but, at the mercy of the uncertainties of fate, yesterday we ourselves were, or tomorrow we will be the strangers: we are all potential strangers.”

Tzvetan Todorov’s last lecture at the CCCB, given at a time when the economic crisis was having devastating effects among the population, dwelled on the virtue of moderation. A fervent defender of pluralism, Todorov warned of the fragile foundations of democratic societies and the risks of abuse of power. On this occasion, he roundly praised moderation as a political and social principle, while criticising the oversimplifications of monolithic thinking. He said, “Individual freedom is a basic demand of democracy, but absolute freedom is not a desirable aim”, and also pointed out that, “Guaranteeing the material wellbeing of the population is a desirable result but if others are excluded when this goal is pursued, we will end up living in a world worshipping at the altar of a money cult. The prosperity of a country is a means, not an end.” In an interview he gave to the CCCB he warned, “We need to remind ourselves about the importance of fundamental values like moderation because, if we forget them, we will become victims of mechanisms that only favour the most powerful.”

The last document Todorov left us is, without a doubt, one of the most moving of all and that which best shows his warm affability. In March 2011, when we opened the Teatre CCCB, we asked several people associated with the CCCB for their views about it. Todorov agreed to speak about the CCCB in an interview which was recorded in his home in Paris in the winter of 2011. We shall never forget the experience or his words.

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