Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
25 February 2021

Democracy from below: What real utopias can we build on?

The episode with Professor Mary Kaldor concludes the first series of our podcast Democracy in Question

Citizens have a crucial role to play in political life and can have tremendous power, as they come together in associations and social movements. To close the first season of our podcast Democracy in Question?, Professor Mary Kaldor lends us her experience as both an academic and an activist in the peace and human rights movements to discuss what role civil society plays in keeping democracy alive and healthy, and what real utopias we can build on. 

Professor Kaldor describes how she came to be interested in the concept of civil society. She explains it has been interpreted differently over time as a result of societal changes: its original meaning, which originates in ancient Greece, refers to “a political community based on laws”. That understanding changed in the XIXth century when civil society came to be understood as separate from the state. In the XXth century, Antonio Gramsci used the term to look at questions of ideology and culture.

Drawing on her experience in the 1980s peace movement in Eastern Europe, she notes that the international human rights legislation provided a legal platform for civil society, leading to the emergence of a transnational public sphere. She expands on her well-known argument about qualitatively different ‘new wars’ in the post-Cold War era, which she says were a response to democratization and neoliberalism, and contributed to the manufacturing identity politics. However, she continues, even in war-torn societies one can find “islands of civicness” – protests movements, cities, or individuals – that refuse to engage with violence, corruption, and sectarianism.

Identity politics could be solved by addressing global crises such as the pandemic and climate change, Professor Kaldor suggests. She feels that the COVID-19 pandemic “has drawn attention to everyday life, which has nothing to do with identity, and to the problems of neoliberalism.” In this sense, she enables to conclude this series on a note of optimism based on the multifaceted processes at play in our societies today.

Download the podcast's transcript HERE.

Subscribe to the podcast series from all your preferred platforms and review it!

WATCH our recent webinar on ‘Democracy from Below’ with Mary Kaldor, Niccolò Milanese and Shalini Randeria.


Shalini Randeria is the Director of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, Rector of the Institute of Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna and Excellence Chair, University of Bremen (Research Group: Soft Authoritarianism).

Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance at the London School of Economics. She is a founding member of European Nuclear Disarmament (END), a founder and Co-Chair of the Helsinki Citizen's Assembly and a member of the International Independent Commission to investigate the Kosovo Crisis, established by the Swedish Prime Minister.


This podcast series is co-produced by the Graduate Institute’s Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) Vienna, in cooperation with the Excellence Chair, University of Bremen (Research Group: Soft Authoritarianism).

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