September 26, 2016 - Roundtable

Democracy and Its Discontents: Illiberalism and the Feebleness of Its Adversaries

Roundtable with Andreas Wirsching (Institut für Zeitgeschichte/Munich University; visiting scholar at CCEAE)


  • Karin Bauer (Languages, Literatures, Cultures, McGill University)
  • Caroline Bem (Media Studies, chercheure postdoctorale, IRTG Diversity/CCEAE) 
  • Peter Niesen (Sciences politique, Université d’Hambourg; chercheur invité au CCEAE).

When: October 3 2016, 1:30-3:30pm

Where: Michel Fortmann room, 3744 Jean Brilliant, 5th floor

In North America, and elsewhere bigoted, tribalist movements are on the march. In Europe too, many voters have embraced right-wing populist parties recently. Some countries such as Poland or Hungary have elected authoritarian governments that question the idea of tolerance, challenge the rule of law and scorn the liberal consensus within the European Union. A post-fascist sensitivity that accompanied postwar Europeans’ elusive search for liberal democracy is fading. The democratic ecstasy that prevailed in the heady days after the fall of communism, is giving way to a politics of cultural despair. To many, recent developments recall the late 1920s and the 1930s in Europe when many countries dismantled representative government and liberal institutions and, instead, opted for dictatorship and a style of politics at once utopian and paranoid.

This round table aims to foster a debate not just about how to account for the rise of right-wing Populism in contemporary Europe, but encourages ruminations about how best to defend the idea of liberal democracy as a contingent and fragile form of government. Its title alludes to Sigmund Freud’s essay “Civilization and Its Discontent” first published in 1930, at the height of interwar Europeans frustration with liberal democracy. Freud worried about a longing for an “oceanic feeling” of wholeness, a metaphor for the illiberal populism of his time. Whereas Freud saw civilization as an antidote to such feelings, he rejected a triumphalist conception of civilization as a triumph over barbarism. Instead he interpreted civilization as a necessary evil to check aggression and hatred. A successful and prudent response to the rise of populism should perhaps draw on the sobering insight that liberal democracy is not a promise of secular redemption. Instead, liberal democracy as “organized uncertainty” is best understood as a necessary evil. It is evil and inevitably provokes discontent because it forces us to share our public lives as citizens with people we despise. Yet, to anyone who believes in civil rights and civic equality liberal democracy is necessary because it enables us to build the institutions that allow us to live with difference and even enmity.



EUROPA, Gateway to the EU
© 2010 - European Union Center of Excellence
Université de Montréal - McGill University