A two-day conference, organized by
Freie Universität Berlin
Center for European and Mediterranean Studies, NYU
NYU Berlin & Freie Universität, 22-23 November 2013
The so-called “transition studies” were born after the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Southern Europe in the mid 1970s, and those of Latin America around a decade later. An extremely popular research subfield for a while, these studies attempted to codify and systematize the study of transitions to democracy, to analyze their qualitative features and propose models in relation to the criteria for determining what constituted democratization successes and failures. To quote transition studies pioneer Philippe C. Schmitter, “pretence of this new, and, perhaps, pseudo-science, [wa]s that it c[ould] explain and, hopefully, guide the way from one regime to another or, more specifically […] from some form of autocracy to some form of democracy”. The collapse of the regimes of the Eastern Bloc in 1989 gave a push to this research agenda by offering “transitologists” an even wider range of case studies.
Although Greece and, above all, Spain were both considered being “model” transitions, the simultaneous current economic crisis in both countries, created a need to reassess post-authoritarian phenomena. The same applies to the countries of Eastern Europe but also Latin America. As the recent experience of Argentina demonstrated in times of great economic upheaval, post-authoritarian structures are questioned and revised in dramatic ways. In moments of deep social, political and economic crisis, the recent past often becomes a central issue of contention. Additionally, the uprisings that shook Arab countries in 2011 – and were codenamed as “Arab Spring” – revived some of the central questions of what constitutes a smooth passage to democratic rule after decades of authoritarianism, and whether the main actors that act as their engines are the masses or the elites.
These veritable paradigmatic turbulences prompted the Greek academic journal Historein, in collaboration with the Freie Universitaet Berlin, NYU’s Center for European and Mediterranean Studies and NYU Berlin to organize this two-day conference on the subject matter of Transitions Revisited in November 2013 in Berlin. The conference is intended to be a follow-up to a three-day conference in Athens organized by Historein, the Freie Universitaet Berlin, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, in December 2012, entitled “Metapolitefsi: From the Transition to Democracy to the Economic Crisis?”. The follow up is going to link some of the conclusions of the Athens conference with a wider set of international case studies, thus expanding its chronotopical span.
Some of the main questions that arose in Athens that need to be further elaborated were the following: which are the temporal boundaries of transitions, namely, how can we define when transitions start and, especially, when they end? Can we talk of “longue durée” processes –like in the case of Greece – or “courte” ones? Should we use purely political criteria in terms of the periodizations in question, as was the case so far? Or should we instead focus on neglected issues such as, emerging youth cultures, social movements and new social actors in order to reorganize our analytical lexicon regarding transitions? What about the ambiguities and bifurcations of such processes?
Which issues regarding the democratic transitions do we choose to remember, and which ones do we choose to forget on a meta-historical level and in terms of memory? How would we reconstruct the events if we were to apply a bottom-up rather than a top-down approach when we try to historicize events? How are these violent histories and the collective memory thereof being framed and re-framed in times of crisis? Does the current economic crisis in Europe play the role of a definitive end to the perennial post-transitional stages? The Argentinean case, whereby a recent government sponsored a spectacular public history project called “memory under construction”, and the Spanish one, whereby the memory of the past is to a large extent still concealed in order not to “stir up passions”, are but two of the fascinating examples of a diverse handling of transition and democratization memory.
The main objective of the conference is not exclusively the empirical documentation of transitions in such disparate contexts, but the opening up of a broader discussion on the issue on the nature of transitions. Moreover, rather than evaluating democratization processes synchronically once they are already underway –as orthodox transition studies have done so far- we may be better off engaging in a re-appraisal of these phenomena by working with a greater time span and the benefit of hindsight. Maybe some of the past conclusions of this field are already obsolete and the time may be ripe to revisit them and introduce new terms, away from the normative drives of much of the early transitology. Additionally, could the political lessons of the so-called “show-case models” of transition of Southern Europe, in particular Spain, or the 1989 Eastern European ones, be applied to the Arab countries at present? Or do democratization processes involve an element of “unrepeatability” that makes it simply impossible to extrapolate learning based on historical experience?