The banality of democracy

What makes our democracies banal isn’t the conscious use of evil methods to silence freedom of speech, it’s how the system practises evil in a bureaucratic, matter-of-fact way

During the April 25 parliamentary addresses celebrating the 50 years of the Carnation Revolution, considered to be the last European leftist revolution, Portuguese president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa gave a speech on the virtues of democracy.

The cardinal one, according to the president, is imperfection. “One should have the intelligence and humility to prefer democracy, albeit incomplete, over a dictatorship. These democracies are the fairest, the most just.” Even though these words were directed at the far-right party Chega’s MPs, by now the third political force in the country – whose members are known racists, bigots, and authoritarians – the irony of the speech isn’t lost on us. While de Sousa claimed that our democracies are the most just in their imperfection, we can also see that they’re perfectly fine with silencing, beating, forcefully arresting protesters, and violating the freedom of speech of students all over the Western world protesting in solidarity against the Israeli genocide in Gaza.

More than anything, this speech shows how fearful the status quo is of actual justice, especially one that goes against their interests. Neoliberals are not afraid of publicly denouncing the far right when the radical centre needs a bit of dusting, and yet, behind the scenes, they scratch each other’s backs. Borrowing the concept of “banality of evil” from Hannah Arendt’s seminal Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, we can extrapolate it to our democracies, in the sense that they have become increasingly banal in the way they see their “imperfections” as fair and just and the far-right as bigoted, all while they are not able to face their own shortcomings.

In other words, what makes our democracies banal isn’t the conscious use of evil methods to silence freedom of speech, it’s how the system practises evil in a bureaucratic, matter-of-fact way, just like Adolf Eichmann would practise evil against Jews as someone who was just docilely following orders. Right now, the protesters are faced with the same mechanism – the administrative execution of orders without regard for morality, which enables today’s suppression of freedom of speech and police brutality.

This mechanism is an engine to the backlash of police violence directed against the students protesting the Israeli invasion of Palestine. Over the past two months, the students were hard at work setting up occupations all over the world against the invasion of Gaza, calling on their universities to cut ties with Israeli institutions – whose complicity has led to over 600,000 children being displaced due to the hunger and devastation Israel has brought to the strip. From the USA to South Korea, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and the Netherlands, there have been massive cries for peace in the region, calling for a ceasefire – all going against the refusal of various institutions to boycott and divest from Israel.

Yet, the majority of Western governments sided with Israel’s disproportionate retaliation to the October 7 attacks – taking a stance counter to public opinion, which has consistently backed the ceasefire in the majority of the polls released since the start of the war. The recent escalation against demonstrators is an unambiguous response to the fact that students are simply taking a position closer to the public, and the disproportionate police violence clearly shows us that these democracies are shying away from the process of improving on “imperfection” and have, instead, chosen to press on with the harm and injury of silencing dissenting voices. These festering wounds are now open for all the world to see, as they have laid bare the deep-seated banality of evil that has facilitated the decision to act in line with the prevailing order of the day.

Those wounds are most visible in the universities’ response to the peaceful nature of the student protests, where they have chosen to deploy police – in a bid to cover up and violently suppress the outcries of solidarity towards Palestinians. One of the most violent among these interventions is currently being carried out in The Netherlands, where swarms of anti-riot police armed with shields, batons and pepper spray have violently dealt with the students protesting at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the University of Utrecht (UU).

The university boards have been justifying the pacification as an act of trying to keep order, but so far the suppression has been nothing more than an aggressive form of censorship. During the past month, which has seen more protests than usual due to the commemoration of Nakba, there have been multiple instances where police stood by as provocateurs invaded the students’ occupation camp and began throwing fireworks into their midst whilst attacking them with wooden sticks.

One student, Ilya, witnessed this firsthand during the UvA student protest: “Around five people entered the encampment before the barricades were properly set, rushed to the other side of it, and started kicking people. One was wearing a motorcycle helmet and pulled out an Israeli flag. They continued to start fights at the exit of the encampment where police were idly standing by without protecting us from the attackers.” All in all, the police seem to be more active when it comes to the use of force, as the first two UU occupations saw the use of pepper spray and violence against the protesters, both verbal – as one of them heard “go back to your own country” as a farewell from one of the officers – and physical, as the same person was left with a broken elbow at the next occupation. Far from being an intervention to protect the civil order, police involvement seems to be part of the boards’ strategy to delay the negotiations. as well as frustrate the students and weaken their position, contributing to the stifling of the democratic process.

Even more insidious is the Dutch police’s attempts to quell the protest and sow fear among the students by infiltrating the latter’s numbers, going so far as kidnapping protesters. After the Nakba demonstration, the organisers noticed that a protester had been snatched by the police – it later turned out that they were held at the Nieuw West Zuid Police Station, but by now they had been moved to Leeuwarden, a town 140 kilometres away from Amsterdam, in a first move of its kind. Furthermore, according to another witness, in Groningen, “an instigator tried to provoke a fight by stealing a banner and police on-site were very slow to act, with no intention of stopping the provocateur, while finding any reason to start evicting students.” Carlos, a member of the activist wing of the university’s student council, noted that “many students and university staff have physical and mental trauma because of all this violence enacted by the Police, whether they’re Jewish or not”.

The institutional backlash against the peaceful protesters goes even deeper and has been well demonstrated by the UvA’s executive board’s indifference towards violence. According to a source with contacts within the UvA negotiating team, when one of the teachers broke down crying, concerned that a student might die because of the board’s rash decision to involve the police, the board cynically responded, “We’ve prepared for worse”. This decision signals that they were never too keen on discussing student demands, unlike universities in Ireland and Spain, for instance.

However, as Ilinca, a member of the International Socialists, and one of the students protesting at the University of Groningen, said, “The heart of the universities is not the board or the executives, but the students and the staff.” And we’ve seen the staff at UvA condemn the university board’s decision via an official statement, “Today, once again, we’ve witnessed our University Board, together with the mayor, ordering unprecedented levels of violence on its students, staff and the broader public in the centre of Amsterdam (…) The board has displayed utter bad faith in entering into negotiations with students and staff. They had already made the decision to violently evict them while negotiations were ongoing.”

“We know that the role of the police is not to protect us, the people, but to protect the capitalist state and the status quo. You can see the contrast between how the police treated the far right when they tried to burn the Quran, when they called LGBTQ people paedophiles, or during the farmer protests, versus how they treated demonstrations for Palestine, Extinction Rebellion at climate activities or anti-fascist resistance,” said Ilinca.

Additionally, many in the media have contributed to silencing the protests, having labelled the students as antisemites – even though many of the protesters are Jewish. It has been a common tactic by Western authorities to confuse anti-Zionists with antisemites, making it seem that pro-Palestinians are against all Jews. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Carlos also pointed out, “I think it’s clear that we are not antisemitic, we’re a solidarity movement and many participants are of Jewish background. However, the powers that be are trying to slander the movement and incite violence so that the Police are justified in their use of force.”

The Dutch far-right has been very active in this effort, as the current parliament has successfully passed a motion declaring the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” a call for the destruction of Israel. The motion passed due to the votes of the right-wing coalition, whose MPs are currently attempting to form a government and are actively working to further restrict protests. In the past few days, we have seen these two processes work together to further influence the government at large – following the release of the coalition agreement, reports have emerged that activists in Hengelo have been forbidden from discussing Palestine with passers-by and an activist in Roermond received a police phone call about hanging a Palestinian flag in a window five months after it was put up.

Such influence is likely to deepen, as universities have duly obliged in their role to act as automaton guardians of the status quo, where executive boards of the UvA and the UU mirror the business-as-usual dogma of the neoliberal order that collaborates with and profits from Israel. Echoing in and beyond the university halls, Arendt’s thesis on the banality of evil continues to be proven by the work of the state of Israel and the Western Zionists, which actively try to convince the public that any support for those they perceive as enemies is an attack on all Jews and the West, insisting that dissenting voices can only be labelled as anti-Semitic – in an attempt to stem the broad popular support for the Palestinian cause and justify the use of violence. However, despite the suppression, these are not voices that can be stifled, and, hopefully, they will be heard louder and louder until democracy prevails against the bureaucratic complicity of our institutions.


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