The Promises and Limits of Anti-Politics Solidarity’s Democracy and its Successors

David Ost


David Ost

The Promises and Limits of Anti-Politics: Solidarity’s Democracy and Its Successors

The first Solidarity period of 1980-81 galvanized world attention with its participatory model of democracy, which I and others have called “anti-politics.” Citizens became active in all rungs of life, started to govern themselves while the authorities looked on. To what extent did anti-politics constitute a workable model? Can there be a sphere of politics with extensive participation, free of coercion, yet able to make binding and enforceable decisions? This essay seeks to understand both the limitations and enduring promise of anti-politics. It argues that Solidarity’s participatory model ultimately failed because of an inability to engage the political, due both to state policy and to organizational aspects (a decentralized structure generating militant leaders) which made compromise difficult. Anti-politics can transform dictatorships through civic engagement, though cannot maintain high levels of active participation without a political solution. Subsequent developments in democratic theory and practice, however, have tried to build on Solidarity’s cultivation of widespread rational participation by seeking ways to maintain activism while accepting limits of the political. Deliberative democracy and participatory budgeting can thus be seen direct descendants of anti-politics, building on Solidarity’s legacy while keeping in mind Andre Gorz’s admonition that the key to a durable, radical, participatory democracy consists in expanding the realm of the “autonomous,” while recognizing that an oppressive sphere of the “heteronomous” will always to some extent remain necessary.

Keywords: Solidarity, model of democracy, anti-politics, democratic theory, democratic practice.

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