21st Karlsruhe Dialogues - Speakers

Rising Anger at ‘The System’: Why the European Union Is in Crisis


Prof. Alan Johnson


Prof. Alan Johnson is the founder and editor of the quarterly online journal Fathom: For a Deeper Understanding of Israel and the Region and senior research fellow at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM). He was a professor of democratic theory and practice at Edge Hill University in England before joining BICOM in 2011. He founded and edited Democratiya, a free online journal of international politics from 2005 until its incorporation into Dissent magazine in 2009. He was a co-author with Norman Geras et al. of the 2006 “Euston Manifesto”, a modern statement of social democratic antitotalitarianism, and in 2007 he edited Global Politics After 9/11: The Democratiya Interviews. Johnson worked with the UK Home Office from 2008–2010, tracing the journeys taken by young British Muslims into and out of extremism and developing communication strategies to counter radicalisation. In recent years he has published several essays and chapters critical of the political theory of Slavoj Žižek and the ‘New Communism’. His columns and essays have appeared in many places including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The New York Times, Prospect, The New Statesman, and World Affairs. He has appeared as an expert on Israel and contemporary anti-Semitism on BBC Newsnight, Al Jazeera, Islam Channel, and Sky News.



1. In your opinion, which “enemies” pose the greatest threat to pluralistic societies?

Most obviously the authoritarians of the far-right, in which category I would include the Islamists. But watch out for the so-called New Communists such as Slavoj Žižek who – as yet only in writing – advance a contempt for liberal democracy as an anti-human fraud, and an obstacle to “revolution”, “truth”, “heroism”, and “virtue”; a loathing for the miserable mediocrity and the “stupid pleasures” of the unheroic modern “bourgeois” individual, a figure deemed so obscene that any enormity must be risked – as an ethical obligation, no less – to transcend it; a commitment to pure will, ruthless dictatorship, “divine terror”, and disciplined organisation as the necessary tools to abolish liberal democracy, and a yearning for excess, violence, and self-sacrificial death as salvific. But the greatest threat is a system: globalised neoliberal capitalism is destructive of the social contract between governments and peoples on which the liberal democratic or social democratic political centre rest. As Wolfgang Streeck puts it, this system increasingly lacks the capacity to “build a framework, a social framework, around the hot core of profit-making”.


2. Public trust in elites and the media has been declining in recent years. What do you think can be done in order to restore this trust?

I’m not so sure public trust in the media is declining. Public trust in elites is, dramatically, but not always without reason. De-subordination has its reasons. Public trust has to be earned by acting so as to put capitalism, democracy, and social stability back into a more or less harmonious relationship with each other; reversing some powerful neoliberal trends to exploding economic inequality, slowing and frozen social mobility, and the erosion of welfare systems by an economics of the common good; tackling the crisis of political representation by listening to concerns about mass immigration and austerity, not dismissing these concerns as bigotry or glibly telling people that ‘you can’t say: stop the world from turning, I want to get off’. Also, a massive decentralisation of power: stop trying to give people who do not want ‘more Europe’, more Europe.


3. In pluralistic societies, how can awareness of the advantages of freedom – and the appreciation thereof – be raised, in particular when it comes to those who lack experiences with unfreedom?

By reattaching freedom to security. Modernity eroded our belief in transcendental authorities and the alternatives we came up with – social communities with meaning, where notions of collective welfare and common good took root and, sometimes, even flourished; and institutions that were able to mediate between individuals and modernity – are now being eroded by neoliberalism. “There is no such thing as society”, as Margaret Thatcher put it. This notion of freedom and the ‘neoliberal individualism’ associated with it erodes the basis of freedom, which cannot endure if every longer-lasting identity and every deeper attachment is destabilised; life is fragmented and individualised, often very lonely and bewildering, often lacking the sustaining experiences of stable families and communities, the comfort of home, the meaning provided by local associations, by notions of the ‘common good’ and by that enriching sense of being part of something that is beyond the smallness of self.