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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

versão On-line ISSN 2224-7912
versão impressa ISSN 0041-4751


HORREN, Marieke. The university as a battlefield. On democracy, protest and violence. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2017, vol.57, n.1, pp.95-113. ISSN 2224-7912.

This article investigates the current student protests in South Africa in light of the meaning of democracy, the law and citizenship. It also addresses the fundamental question about the existence - if at all - of an independent norm or yardstick for judging the legitimacy of institutions, the law, protest and violence. I draw on the work of Hannah Arendt, Claude Lefort and Bonnie Honig. These thinkers share a historically informed and phenomenological or "diagnostic" approach to democratic phenomena, which leads them to embrace an agonistic conception of democracy and the place of institutions, including the law and the constitution. While recognizing the groundlessness of democratic action and the law, their reflections nevertheless have important normative ramifications for collective democratic action and political freedom. First, I discuss the meaning, value and limits of institutions, using Arendt's notion of "world". With the help of Honig's work, I subsequently demonstrate that the paradoxical relation between politics and law, freedom and structure are inherent to democracies. The black Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 60's in the Southern states of the US illuminates the political meaning the law may have. Finally, I investigate the legitimacy ofviolent protest in democracies, by exploring the conceptual distinction between power and violence and by comparing the civil rights movement to violent factions in the 1960's student protest movement in the US and Europe. I conclude that institutions like the university are valuable because they stabilize human coexistence somewhat, yet they are in permanent need of supplementation by citizens' democratic collective action (including protest). Struggle, contestation and conflict are inherently part of what democracy is. That is, democracy means unrest, and the struggle of opinions may be unpleasant at times. Struggles do however concern shared democratic objects or "public things" (res publicae) which, as a consequence, mediate between people (citizens, students, state officials, university administrators) who fundamentally disagree. I also argue that res publicae should be taken more literal than it usually is. Shared artifacts do not only constitute topics of debate, but also serve as stages or arenas for democratic struggles. Decisions to close down campuses should therefore only be taken with great caution. As inherent to democracy, conflict can on principle never be resolved or closed, neither through the law or the constitution, nor by violent means. An attempt to achieve the first is the state s legalist reflex to strictly stick to rights that are guaranteed by the constitution. In contrast, the claim to the not (yet) existing right to free higher education fits in with the promise of democratic citizenship. Second, violence sets the limit of legitimate protest and action against it, not just for pragmatic reasons, or because a moral principle prohibiting violence is imposed on democratic action. Instead, violence is anti-democratic because it pursues the closure of conflict. The fact that violence easily gets out of hand is not merely incidental, but inherent to the illusion that democratic action is a kind of "making". Violence, whether it is deployed by the state, universities or protesting students, is never an indication of power, but rather of its opposite.

Palavras-chave : University; Higher education; Institutions; Democracy; The law; Public space; Public sphere; Public things [res publica]; Citizenship; Protest; Contestation; Social movements; Agonism; World; Paradox of politics; Power; Violence; Hannah Arendt; Claude Lefort; Bonnie Honig.

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