The Revolution of Dignity and its Drivers

In the late autumn of 1988, Ryszard Kapuściński, the leading Polish war correspondent, poet and author of acclaimed anatomies of power such as The Emperor (1978) and The Shah of Shahs (1982), could be seen walking around Oxford in a state of angst and agitation. He had been invited to England by the then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who wanted to know if her country was threatened by a potentially revolutionary situation. The United Kingdom was bubbling with dissatisfaction after she had privatized state-owned companies, slashed the power of trade unions and unveiled the controversial poll tax – and Kapuściński was there to tell her if she should be worried. As a political journalist, he had a legendary reputation of being an oracle on revolutions. He had barely unpacked his suitcase on landing in Zanzibar when an insurrection broke out. He arrived in Honduras on the day when other foreign correspondents left and bombs started falling on Tegucigalpa. During the first day of his visit to Tanganyika, a coup broke out.
But as soon as he set foot on British soil, Kapuściński realized he was in the wrong country. ‘Nothing was going to happen’, he said dejectedly during one of our walks in the grassy ‘thinking places’ around the University of Oxford’s Wolfson College. In an endless conversation on where Europe and the world were heading, he predicted that there would be three powerful cultural forces that would energize 21st-century responses to multiple economic and political crises: religious fundamentalism, nationalism and racism. All three would be irrational and divide the world into ‘infidels and fidels’. Whether totalitarian or tribal, they would marshal the ideal of conformity and groupthink carried to the point where the interests of the individual would barely exist. But at the same time, Kapuściński insisted, there would be one revolution that would spasmodically defy the dehumanizing terror of the new tyrannical orders: the revolution of dignity [1]. This revolution would be less motivated by economic predicament and more by oppressed people’s growing access to information and the possibility to compare their daily humiliations with better and more dignified lives elsewhere. As soon as people reduced to the status of serfs realize that being human means being a free, autonomous agent, Kapuściński argued, a revolution of dignity is bound to erupt. As a participant–observer of the anti-authoritarian movement started by Polish Solidarity (Solidarność) in 1980 – and suppressed by the communist regime in December 1981 – Kapuściński was adamant that the Polish revolution of dignity was not defunct. It was an ongoing, often subterranean process, and in November 1988 he insisted it was ripe to be relaunched, but this time on a larger scale. Its main goal would not be merely gaining better living conditions within, and extracting more political concessions from, the Soviet empire. Rather, it would be an attempt to redefine what it means to be human.

Human striving for dignity – a predominantly cultural and ethical project often misunderstood by political analysts – has been inseparably tied to the human ability for for reason, empathy and desire for respect. The empathy shone through the words of the Athenian statesman Solon, who said that justice would not be achieved until those who are not hurt feel just as indignant as those who are. It electrified groups who gathered to listen to Christ of Nazareth, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. And it puzzled President Lincoln, who allegedly said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ‘So you’re the little woman who started this big war!’

The quest for the acknowledgement of human worth has been relentless under all latitudes. In the 21st century it was bound to increase in force, if only because the information age opened up the world and would keep provoking – and seducing – the wretched on earth with alluring images of people who enjoy security, freedom and recognition.

In contrast to armchair theorizers of social change, Kapuściński was a witness and chronicler of a multitude of social upheavals. Refreshingly free from the constraints of political correctness, and from progressive platitudes on the importance of a magical ‘third’ or ‘fourth’ revolutionary way or strategy, he was largely sceptical about creating an eudaimonic, good society on earth. In his view, the real aim of the looming European upheaval at the end of the 1980s was neither an improved socialism or a switch to capitalism. Rather, it was to continue and complete a rehumanizing project – a virtual ‘second European Renaissance’ – that had begun in Poland in the 1970s [2]. If the strategies and visions of the small group of savants and activists that gave birth to Solidarity were found inspiring by the outside world, Kapuściński argued – if they were intelligent and persuasive enough to withstand economic trepidations and avert the rise of nationalist xenophobia and religious bigotry – Eastern Europe would provide a model of a modern revolution of dignity for the rest of the world.

At the time, it seemed like a utopian project. Even a few months later, in April 1989, when the Poles became the first Soviet satellite to start their zigzagging transition to democracy, the revolution of dignity seemed fragile in the extreme. True, in 1989, the imperial Soviet Union was wobbly and headed by the enlightened ‘tzar’, Mikhail Gorbachev. But it still possessed myriad warheads. The prospect of oriental despotism striking back seemed tangible even among Gorbachev’s enthusiasts. And the anti-Semitic slogans that suddenly mushroomed in the fledgling Polish democracy, together with the triumphant clergy, free to bellow virulent anti-communism from the pulpits, were chilly reminders of the stubborn presence of ‘barbarians’ among us – the forces of reaction ready to tear to pieces all the noble clichés about solidarity, tolerance and democracy.

But Solidarity did radiate the revolution of dignity to other members of the Soviet bloc. In the autumn of 1989, the term ‘velvet revolution’ was coined to describe the peacefully negotiated regime change in Czechoslovakia. Twenty years later, in the summer of 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran staged a show-trial of political leaders and thinkers accused of fomenting an enheleb-e makhmali – that is, a velvet revolution. And in 2011 in Cairo, the protesters at Tahrir Square demanded that their rulers give them back their work and their dignity (Danahar 2015: 3). The non-violent movement that articulates the ‘power of the powerless’, and brings the authoritarian regime to the negotiating table, has become as durable an aspect of 21st-century modernity as its counterpart, the Popperian ‘retribalization of the world’ (Popper 1945).

There has been a wealth of studies on the resilience and sustainability of modern social movements, networks and upheavals (for example, Huntington 1993; Sharp 2012; Della Porta 2014), though the human search for dignity as their propelling force has been somewhat occluded. But it was Godność, Wolność and Solidarność (Dignity, Freedom and Solidarity) that were the rallying cries of the anti-communist Solidarity movement in 1980–1, in the 1989 revolution in Eastern Europe and in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. Similarly, the leaders of the Hong Kong pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution in the same year defined reclaiming human dignity as one of their chief objectives [3]. The protesters in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria invoked the mantras of dignity, liberty, freedom and bread during the Arab Spring (see Castells 2012: 67–8; Danahar 2015: 7, 9). The people who shouted these words, or posted them on the internet, refused to be treated like perishable goods or merchandise in the hands of dictators, corrupt politicians and bankers.

Initially edifying and intoxicating through the sheer power of their moral effervescence, most of these upheavals have all suffered from the same, disheartening anticlimax. In the Middle East, and in countries like China, the cries for freedom and dignity came from what turned out to be a Pandora’s box that, according to some despondent observers, should have remained sealed. The dignity-starved Egyptians – who ended Hosni Mubarak’s despotic reign through civil resistance and non-violent mass demonstration – have been resubjected to the brutalities of a new military dictatorship. Libya, where scattered protests against Muammar al-Qaddafi in February 2011 led to an armed rebellion and the NATO-aided elimination of the dictator, lapsed into chaos and tribal strife. Syria, where Bashar al-Assad brutally cracked down on non-violent demonstrations, has plunged into a long and vicious war full of unspeakable bestiality and countless casualties. Even Poland – the cradle of Solidarity – managed to slide into a ‘state of indignity’. In 2015 the Poles elected an illiberal, nationalist-socialist government that assaulted democratic freedoms, starting with violations of the rule of law and culminating in ideological purges in schools and state media.

The resurgence of diverse forms of extremism has encouraged scepticism about the prospects for a civic revolution in the 21st century. One may ask: ‘What is the point of resistance to dictatorial regimes if the price is so high?’; ‘Why not wait until influential political players (say, a new Gorbachev) or a concert of great powers change the geopolitical map?’; ‘Why not conform?’; ‘Survive?’; ‘Make the best of the worst of existing worlds? This is the mimesis model as outlined by Zbigniew Herbert in his poem, ‘The Monster of Mr Cogito’:
… reasonable people say
we can live together
with the monster

we only have to avoid
sudden movement
sudden speech

if there is a threat
assume the form of a rock or a leaf

listen to wise Nature
(Herbert 1985: 40–1)

Though there are understandable advantages to this survivalist modus, its advocacy raises questions. One could argue that the understanding of the true meaning of the non-violent resistance to tyranny requires a historical lens: if pragmatic survivalism was ‘the only game in town’ and stories and rites of dignity stopped being replicated, humanity would have never managed to generate modern, enabling welfare states. As I have argued elsewhere, the most successful examples of fair societies are as much products of mixed economies and well-functioning institutions (Witoszek and Midttun 2018) as moral outcomes of humanist visions of a better society.

There is evidence to the effect that, with all its hazards, non-violent and dignity-driven opposition to tyranny has been more successful in changing regimes than either acquiescence or violent insurrections. According to a study that has assembled a historical data set of over 300 campaigns spanning the 20th century – from Mahatma Gandhi’s Indian independence movement against British colonialism (c.1919) to the protests that removed Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, from power in 2006 [4] – no act of social, economic or political oppression has prevented non-violent campaigns from emerging or succeeding. ‘From strikes and protests to sit-ins and boycotts, non-violent civil resistance remains the best strategy for social and political change in the face of oppression’, the authors argue. ‘Movements that opt for violence often unleash terrible destruction and bloodshed, in both the short and the long term, usually without realizing the goals they set out to achieve’ (Chenowch and Stephan 2014).

The quoted study, and many other similar analyses, deal mainly with the ‘pragmatics of civil resistance’, identifying the best tools and strategies for its long-term effectiveness. In 2011 The New York Times went as far as to attribute the non-violent revolution of the Arab Spring to the strategies identified by the American scholar Gene Sharp (2012), of whom, according to some acerbic commentators, most Arab rebellious youth had allegedly hardly heard (Stolberg 2011; Nadre 2013: 179). But Sharp’s synoptic overview of some 198 different tactics employed by non-violent resistance movements made headlines and drew attention to the role of persuasion, non-cooperation and non-violent intervention – all of which have worked in various contexts with varying degrees of success.

While there is no doubt that strategy-and-policy orientated studies contribute to a better understanding of the effectiveness of social resistance to authoritarianism, they tend to depict a generalized and ‘rationalized’ mode of opposition, one that does not invoke the variety of particular cultural ecologies, each one being unique. Such ecology is defined by the community’s shared beliefs, values, religious allegiances, schooling, family stories, philosophy and the arts. The fact that the ten million-strong Polish Solidarity movement succeeded in ‘keeping the revolution warm’ (even when forced underground by martial law in December 1981) was only partially thanks to effective resistance strategies, such as flexible tactics, mass participation, regime defections to the opposition, outside support for a resistance movement and a core group that operated as a shadow government ready to step into a leadership role as soon as communism crumbled [5]. While these strategic and operational concerns mattered, there were other, culturally specific forces at work that had both preceded and contributed to the success of the revolutions of dignity in 1980–1 and the democratic transformation in East–Central Europe in 1989.

There are countless cultural and political differences between the East European Autumn of the Nations of 1989 and the later dignity upheavals such as the Arab Spring. The participants in the latter involved religious fundamentalists (of the kind identified by Kapuściński) opposed to the notion of human dignity. Although such opponents may not have dominated in the early stages of the insurgence, they were present in the revolutionary crowds. Further, the Arab revolution was largely leaderless, while the East European movement flaunted charismatic and visionary spokespersons. The protests in Egypt and Tunisia were defined less by concrete ideological visions and more by their mobilizing tools; they were called ‘Twitter’ and ‘Facebook revolutions’. By contrast, the democratic opposition in East–Central Europe – rife with visions of a ‘return to Europe’ – was forged through rites of friendship and solidarity and accompanied by the construction of independent educational and communication channels. I contend that while these differences matter, the future and sustainability of the revolutions of dignity everywhere ultimately depends on the existence of small, altruistic groups – the catalysts of change.

I argue that the true revolution of dignity happens as it were behind social movements and organized networks. Though the democratic paradigm shift ultimately needs a critical mass of protesters and a strategy of action, it is first contemplated and designed in the work of individuals and small prosocial groups which I call the ‘humanist outliers’. Their vision is often sung by single voices: intellectual savants, religious leaders, writers and courageous ordinary people who do not necessarily organize but testify to the presence of conscience, compassion and humour in the midst of indignities. Their ranks are endless: the German anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer; the Soviet scientist Andrei Sacharov; the Chinese human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng; the writer–activist Liu Xiaobo; the Egyptian stand-up comic Bassem Youssef and his colleagues who challenged the authoritarian regime by ‘laughing through the Arab Spring’; the monitoring group called ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’; and the Congolese surgeon Denis Mukwege and his team, who have been helping victims of sexual violence in war.

More often than not, these individuals, and the groups gathered around them, enjoy a dual reputation of heroes and pests. On the one hand, they are the source of an energizing, almost dizzying, delight that springs from watching protagonists make the impossible possible. But they are also perceived as moral blackmailers, provoking a guilty conscience in the mass of the ‘gratefully oppressed’. By building islands of individual empathy, autonomy and quirkiness within or outside oppressive structures, they are a constant reminder of how things could or should be. Modern authoritarian regimes define them as ‘traitors’ and ‘members of an anti-state conspiracy’, ‘enemies of the people’, ‘social parasites’. But in spite of – or maybe because of – their outsiderhood, these social outlaws are the true catalysts of change. They think and talk about the human capacity for unshackled and virtuous existence and name it even in ‘infrahuman’ situations where there are no longer words for it.

The humanist outliers are people who do not fit because they first help their neighbour and then study their soul. Or they are people who have a mythogenic talent for forging stories that give power to the powerless. Aware of the ongoing philosophical and religious controversy around the concept of humanism (Düwell et al 2014), I define it, broadly, as a worldview that emphasizes the indelible value of humans, cherishes altruism and cooperation, and demands respect for ‘the other’: a mindset which we find not just in the Western Renaissance and Enlightenment but in the cultural archives of many world traditions. According to the latest evolutionary biology, altruism – as much as its selfish twin – has always been latent in human nature and, as such, has functioned as a permanent constitutive factor in the cultural evolution of the human species (Wilson 2016; Griffin 2016). And although humanism exists in many (religious and secular) versions – each of them modified by a particular cultural context – both its biological moorings and ongoing, global cross-pollination turn it into a transcultural project.

The anti-authoritarian role of the humanist outliers differs from society to society because the forms and degrees of authoritarian oppression vary. But their status and their strategies of resistance show a number of common characteristics. They do not necessarily define themselves as ‘revolutionary’ or ‘political’; their work is more often the effect of moral instinct rather than the outcome of political calculation. Their importance is not measured by the number of followers, electors or congregations; rather, their actions constitute what Jan Skórzyński in a different context called ‘the fifth column of social consciousness’ (Skórzyński 2012: 20). Whatever their self-perceptions, they feed and sustain the community’s vision of itself as a ‘virtuous community’ in a world of often harrowing existential constraints. The ways they manage to keep their humanity undamaged despite the inhumanity around them remains a riddle that has fascinated psychologists, evolutionary scientists and generations of writers from Cervantes to Albert Camus and Zbigniew Herbert.

The distinctive feature of the humanist outliers is their role as cultural innovators. As moral and practical visionaries, they cross the chasm between the old and the new, promoting a novel stance, habit or mindset and ‘massaging it’ into the social fabric. To mention but one example, two Polish writers and members of the anti-communist Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR), Jacek Kuroń and Adam Michnik, recast the workers’ protest against low wages and increased food prices into a story that spoke not just about economic injustice, but also about the communist state’s treatment of the workers as an offence against their dignity. The insertion of dignity into what would otherwise be an economic demand was as simple as it was groundbreaking: it transformed an introverted, class-related project into a humanist one. It is this enlarged, dignity-driven vision that was embraced by an early majority led by Lech Wałęsa during the Polish Solidarity revolution in 1980. Similarly, by focusing on the shared ‘humanist commons’ of the agnostic or atheist left and Christian ethics, Kuroń and Michnik showed how traditional adversaries could imagine themselves as potential partners in a dialogue about the future of Poland.

There is a body of sociological literature on the role of small groups as propellers of social change (for example, Olson 1971; Putnam 2000). In his classic Logic of Collective Action (1971), Mancur Olson argues that small-scale groups are more easily organized than large ones, better at tackling the free-rider problem and do not overshadow individual members; on the contrary, they recognize each other’s individual identity. Admittedly, this is not always the case. Small social groups have the ability to act effectively, but they can also be pockets of intolerance and prejudice, imposing stifling surveillance and control of individual members. But, as my examples will show, if united by friendship, talent and the ideal of improving the welfare of others, they can be exuberantly creative. When the time is ripe and conditions less oppressive, their audacity becomes the disempowered community’s audacity. Their ability to cooperate is projected on the community’s ability to work together. This is how prosociality begins to blossom in a community where ‘man is a wolf to man’; it starts from groups that radiate their unselfish code of behaviour towards others. The humanist outliers unite what has been divided, make bridges and forge alliances. And, as they gradually expand their communication channels, they boost social confidence and a sense of empowerment in a divided and atomized mass of human meteorites.

Yuri Lotman’s historical semiotics has drawn attention to small groups as transformative actors in what he has called a cultural ‘semiosphere’, which both stores up a community’s memory and contains programmes prefiguring its future (Lotman 1990: 123–43). According to Lotman, more often than not, world-changing narratives and ideas are the work of outsiders challenging the dominant cultural centre and operating at the borderline between what is approved and what is perceived as ‘foreign’ or ‘deviant’. Such groups of liminars are both us and them: real or imaginary ‘Jews’, ‘Masons’, or ‘parasites’ who are part of us and yet do not belong and do not fit. My contention is that humanity’s cultural and moral advance owes much to these groups’ patient, groundbreaking work at the cultural margins. As social and ethnic suspects – the anomalous, the bizarre, the heretical – they are equipped with creative distance to their habitat, and hence are more likely to reimagine and defy the cultural centre.

The next inspiration comes from evolutionary science – a discipline that has for a long time been insulated from humanist-existential pursuits by a putative apartheid between the ‘two cultures’ (cf. C.P. Snow). But the ‘third wave’ of evolutionary thought – with its focus on the role of prosociality and cooperation in historical paradigm shifts (Wilson 2015; Corning 2001; Hodgeson and Knudsen 2010) – cannot be ignored by the cultural historian. There is now a body of evidence showing how the cooperative, altruistic and freedom-seeking drives inherent in human nature counteract the power of ‘selfish genes’ and become an indispensable condition of human emancipation and the construction of fair societies. As David Sloan Wilson and Dag Hessen argue, ‘The conflict between lower-level selfishness and higher-level welfare pervades the biological world. Cancer cells selfishly spread at the expense of other cells within the body, without contributing to the common good, ultimately resulting in the death of the whole organism.’ However, once in a great while, a group of unselfish individuals manages to suppress egoism within their ranks. ‘Then something extraordinary happens. The group becomes a higher-level organism of highly cooperative cells’ (Wilson and Hessen 2014). If humanity has evolved, it has done so by suppressing self-serving behaviours that are mostly destructive for their communities, and forging successful groups able to outcompete more selfish groups. Teamwork is ‘the signature adaptation of our species’ (Wilson and Hessen 2014) [6].

Paradoxically, both the rise and the fall of authoritarianism are the net effect of teamwork. Dictatorships emulate beehives and anthills, where humans are coerced to cooperate, their individuality and creativity being erased by a tyrannous ‘queen bee’. In the case of humans, a transformative challenge to oppressive regimes – and the evolutionary change towards more sustainable societies – starts from an act of willed cooperation, where opposing parties learn to transcend their prejudice and to respect one another as future partners. The power of anti-authoritarian cooperators poses a threat to every dictator.

The view that evolution provides the root premise for the theory of emancipation challenges both mainstream relativist anthropology and the institutionalist explanations of the origins and conditions of a fair society. Following Amartya Sen, Christian Welzel illuminates the seeming expansion of freedom and democracy by claiming that evolution – which favours ‘utility-realizing capacities’ – has ‘programmed’ humans to seek emancipation. Supporting his claims with upbeat empirical research generated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the World Value Survey and Freedom House Reports, Welzel argues that ‘[t]he growth of emancipative values contributes not merely to expansion of freedoms onto formerly excluded groups; it elevates a society’s productivity and an overall sense of well-being’ (Welzel 393). The evolutionary theory of emancipation is thus universal: in every culture one finds ideas about worlds where humans enjoy freedoms from existential constraints. More, institutions that guarantee universal respect and freedoms are the outcome, not the cause, of this process – in contradiction to the prominent ‘institutions-first’ view marshalled by Acemoglu and Robinson (2012).

Admittedly, the 21st-century landscape of ‘freedom rising’ seems to be more complex than Welzel’s uplifting indexes and statistics would suggest. True, on the one hand, ‘Tyranny, although it continues to exist, is no longer safe; in fact, it is receding at an accelerating pace’ (Welzel 24–5) [7]. But one could also argue that freedom is waning in the second decade of the 21st century, at least according to figures published by Freedom House [8].

For those who set out to study the problématique of freedom rising and waning, Poland makes an excellent testing ground. It has a long tradition of efficacious and prosocial groups that have both created a parallel society within existing oppressive structures and replicated the project of rebuilding the national community by non-violent means. In the 18th and 19th centuries, after the country had been partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria, the humanist outliers kept the idea of reform of the republic (de republica emendanda) afloat through peaceful and pragmatic means – often against the propensity of the majority for national martyrology and self-destructive insurrections. The dynamic, pro-social individuals and groups were central to cradling the humanist flame when Poland became a theatre of brown (fascism) and red (communism) totalitarianism in the 20th century. They were, then, crucial in fostering a parallel society – complete with its own education, health system and legal institutions – under the Nazi occupation. After World War II, drawing on their earlier oppositional and humanist traditions, they unmasked the evil of Bolshevism and built a microcosm of democracy within the walls of an authoritarian state. As Maciej Bartkowski has argued, the conspiratorial experience of organizing and running secret education became ingrained in the collective memory of the national resistance against the German occupation of 1939–45 and during communist rule, when widespread illegal education, including the re-establishment of the so-called Flying University, ensured the critcal reading of national history and tradition [9].

But Poland is an interesting case of prosociality because it has had a populous, subversive intelligentsia – an educated social group which has traditionally embodied civic responsibility and a strong moral mission: to protect and pass the humanist ethos on to the next generation. The pithiest definition of this group’s mission has been proposed by Adam Michnik: ‘Intelligentsia’s role is that of the Capitoline geese: to warn the Romans about the arrival of the barbarians. The intelligentsia’s duty is to quack.’

The intelligentsia’s quacking has signalled the role of culture – literature, philosophical reflection, the arts, religion and education – in forging both the anti-authoritarian opposition and sustaining the conception of Poland as an imagined European community. It is thanks to the humanist outliers that Poland, under Soviet occupation, became a place where all world literature – from Aeschylus to Becket and Ionesco – was read as one great anthology of allusions to the People’s Republic (Bikont and Szczęsna 2006). The broad humanist vision – although predominantly focused on the struggle for freedom – was inseparable from fostering a European identity in a country that was forcefully Sovietized after World War II. The ingenious banner, entitled Solidarity, was – like a charging flotilla – intelligible to the outside world, and stood not just for a rebellious national community but for unity with the rest of Europe.

Does it, then, make sense to embark on a quest for the sources of the revolution of dignity in the words, values and routines of humanist micro-communities? I believe it does, if only for two reasons.

The first reason is evolutionary: as examples of prosperous liberal democracies show, the ‘well-being society’ is only possible in countries where humanist values have been part of a dynamic and dominant worlview (Witoszek and Midttun 2018). The second reason is existential: the humanist outliers are indispensable antibodies in the battle against the 21st-century doppelgänger of the revolution of dignity: a stream of international, dark upheavals unleashed by the populist leaders who promise their societies to regain their dignity by ‘rising from their knees’ or ‘making them great again’. These leaders are especially adept at making each disempowered and homeless community cling to its tribal, nationalist and religious myths; the latter are its shelter, world axis and a source of consolation. This means, in effect, that both the authoritarian and anti-authoritarian myths, like all myths, do not just unite people but divide them as well, creating walls between them. In this context, preserving the language of argumentation and reason and defending the humanist legacy is more important than ever. Studying the ways in which it has been – and can be – maintained makes sense, if only because cultural evolution is about a gradual opening of human hearts and minds. For, to paraphrase Frank Zappa, the human mind is like a parachute; it is outright dangerous when it does not open.

Nina Witoszek

Nina Witoszek is a research professor at the Centre for Development and the Environment (SUM) at Oslo University, and director of the Arne Naess Programme on Global Justice and the Environment. Prior to her work at SUM, she taught comparative cultural history at the National University of Ireland in Galway (1995–7) and the European University in Florence (1997–9). She held fellowships at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Uppsala (1993), Robinson College, University of Cambridge (1995) and Mansfield College, University of Oxford (2001), and a visiting professorship at Stanford University (2010). Her latest publications include Sustainable Modernity: The Nordic Model and Beyond (Routledge 2018) and The Origins of Anti-Authoritarianism (Routledge 2019). In 2005 she was ranked by the Norwegian daily Dagbladet as one of the ten most influential intellectuals in Norway. She is a recipient of the prestigious Freedom of Expression Award for introducing Eastern European perspectives to the public debate in Scandinavia.

This essay is a shortened version of the introductory chapter in Nina Witoszek, The Origins of Anti-Authoritarianism (London: Routledge 2019), printed here with the permission of the publisher.

[1] Personal communication, Oxford, spring 1989.
[2] See Nina Witoszek, ‘The Second Renaissance in 20th-Century Europe’, in The Origns of Anti-Authoritarianism, Routledge, 2019.
[3] Chinese students protested against their government’s decision to select the Hong Kong party executives through an election committee composed of pro-Beijing elites. Joshua Wong, the leader of the democratic protesters, insisted that ‘by vetoing this electoral reform proposal, we are able to keep our dignity’. Accessed 17 May 2017.
[4] There is also evidence to the effect that while non-violent campaigns succeeded in achieving their goals almost half the time, some of them failed because they were unable to produce mass support, or because they used the wrong tactics. In Syria, for example, non-violent activists tended to rely solely on demonstrations and occupations – the riskiest methods of civil resistance according to the authors – while strikes, boycotts, and other forms of mass non-cooperation were weak, localized, and lacked support.
See E. Chenowech and M. Stephan, ‘Drop your weapons’, Foreign Affairs, JulyAugust 2014 Accessed 15 July 2016.
[5] Most importantly, in Poland, the transition to democracy in 1989 started from a national dialogue and a comprehensive reconciliation of all adversary parties. When the country recovered its independence in 1990, it did so with a new set of electoral rules and practices, many of them shepherded by Solidarity through a series of negotiations, which allowed for a much more unified turn towards democracy. But even here, democratization has been a bumpy journey and a zigzagging project rather than a linear progression.
[6] Accessed 18 January 2018.
[7] However improbable it sounds in the age of jihadism, tribal wars and global warming, as late as December 2015 the Atlantic Monthly ran a headline: ‘2015: the best year in history for the average human being.’ There is seemingly evidence to the effect that war and terrorism worldwide, although claiming more victims than before, are less menacing than stomach cancer, which, as the Atlantic Monthly has put it, ‘takes more people than manslaughter, war and terrorism combined. Other horsemen of the apocalypse, famine and pestilence, also decreased. Wiping out extreme poverty, reducing the death of children under 5, and making schooling accessible are other positive indicators.’ See Atlantic Monthly, 18 December.
[9] Accessed 18 January 2018.

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