Returning to Ibsen: The Contemporary Writer as "Enemy of the People"

In the aftermath of the recent Brussels attacks I was talking to my friend, the well-known Catalan poet Lluis Urpinell i Jovani, and he suggested that in the contemporary world the writer is an enemy of the people just like Henrick Ibsen's protagonist Doctor Stockmann. I have to agree with this comparison.

The contemporary post-postmodern world mixes a complicated clash of ideas with the full dominance of neoliberal ideology. What we witnessed over the past 25 years was the triumph of Western liberal discourse in the battle for "cultural hegemony." Now new challenges arise and new tendencies limit the freedom of expression. The job of the writer and visionary has become more and more complicated in our times. In many cases government and authorities are at fault, but in others private organizations, corporations, churches, and even whole communities are involved in the persecution of the writer. The freethinking and iconoclast writer is looking for a safe haven and finding it not very easy. This is because the collective spirit of investors reinforces today’s version of censorship all around the "first world," whatever that racist phrase means. Today, one runs the danger, not only of being politically incorrect, but also of acting against the will and interest of the contemporary community of "investors."

When Henrik Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People in 1882 he introduced a new dimension of criticism to the nineteenth century drama. In Ibsen’s play, the main protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, challenges the entire community of investors as well as the authorities. At this time, Stalin was just 3 years old while Lenin was just 12. Ibsen wrote in a different society and time from the Bolshevik state of the twentieth century, but the play foregrounds a struggle against an authoritarian collective. In addition, Ibsen revealed the full resonance of environmental issues together with other social issues that were almost unheard of at the time. He wrote all this in the context of one of the most progressive societies of the world in 1882, Norway and Sweden. At that crucial juncture in history he understood that authoritarianism does not always come from just political leadership but also from private citizens and corporations: so-called special interest groups.

In the play, Dr. Stockmann tells the truth about the environmental problem his village is facing. He is opposed not just by his brother, who is the mayor of the town, but almost by the entire community of his that names him “an enemy of the people.” The community justifies it on the grounds that Dr. Stockman's truth is very bad for the investment policy of the entire village and town. They insist the whole area would suffer economically if the dangers and extent of contamination were to be revealed. So Dr. Stockmann is forced to leave his own village and country. In a way, the doctor is Henrik Ibsen himself, who has left his country in 1864 for 27 years and went to Sorrento, Italy. He wrote many famous works in exile and returned to his country a very famous but controversial playwright.

In Georgia we have the similar experience of Vajha Pshavela, a great poet and writer of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In his writings, he went against his own community and its moral codes. "Guest and Host" and “Aluda Ketelauri” are two examples of the genius of Vajha Pshavela's work. He endured a self-imposed exile in the mountains near the town of Pshavi, Georgia, which he would infrequently visit. On the one hand, Pshavela exposed the wrongs of communitarian and authoritarian thinking. At the same time, he admired the individual heroism of protagonists just like Dr. Stockmann, Jokola and Aluda Ketelauri, who refuse to succumb to the collective model of action. More importantly, he struggles against inaction in the face of a collective fear exercised by an entire society. This collective authoritarianism also acts at the level of private citizens or even non-citizens as in nineteenth century Georgia, where few were granted citizenship in the massive Russian Empire.

Many other writers have written about different but related challenges. But today, we are seeing a new type of censorship, a new oppression of freedom of expression, and this is coming not just from the government or authorities. Many contemporary theorists and practitioners are talking about the outsourcing of oppression to private organizations: Churches, NGOs, Corporations and other non-governmental entities. Today's legal system is well suited to protect powerful special interest groups, which are mostly private, but at the same time represent groups of people just like Dr. Stockmann's villagers or Aluda Ketelauri's community members. This threat is far greater than just governments because it is very difficult to detect when the privatized evil will surface in the form of a dogmatic Church, liberal NGO or private corporation.

Writers or reporters are told to withhold the truth. The truth is very inconvenient, as Al Gore noted in his film, because the "investor community," a very small minority but an expanded one today, does not like anything that will threaten its total domination of the world economy.

What are the interests of these special interest groups? They are involved in the most profitable business operations today. The main problems facing the world are socio-economic ones. Establishing economic and social justice through democratic processes is something that seems mostly unacceptable for these powerful groups. In some cases they might have conflicts with each other, but most of the times they defend their world order and their discourse. Changing their discourse and cultural narrative is the most complicated challenge of our time seeing as the practice of "manufacturing consent" is so widespread.

How do today's writers challenge this meta-narrative where only 1% live at the expense of 99% of the people while those who question this truth are being killed, silenced or arrested? This is the challenge of post-industrial times where power has been de-centralized and out-sourced to a community of investors. This “community” is, in fact, not so small. We are talking about millions of ordinary investors who are concerned about their social security already invested in private funds. Any questionable use of these funds are tacitly acknowledged and overlooked. The community of investors is silent, because just like in Ibsen's play it is against its own interest to speak the truth. But can a writer stay silent and say nothing against this criminal treatment of humanity in the name of the collective investor community? We are told to numb ourselves and stay silent in exchange for more or less comfortable lives at the university campus or metropolitan art centers. Otherwise we would starve and die. In these enclaves, what is most interesting is the seeming lack of any secret service agencies or other trappings of a police state. No, it is in the interest of the investor community for the writers to talk about secondary problems. Being a Doctor Stockmann today is much more difficult than it was during Ibsen's lifetime and that is why he was so prophetic.

In today's world, mainstream has become mean-stream—we need to find an alternative. For that the writer is obliged to become an “enemy of the people” with little chance of surviving. It is not impossible since every order breaks down sooner or later. Maybe the hegemony of Doctor Stockmann's town hall is as strong as it was any time in the history of humanity but we can see that it has started to crumble. Young people do not want to buy into cliché dreams. They imagine a different world in the West. While some become very bitter and kill themselves, "love[ing] death more than life," this is also a sign of a great existential problem.

Maybe it is possible to engage in a constructive, direct dialogue with the “community of investors” to figure out ways to proceed in the future because it is obvious that the status quo is untenable. Perhaps a nonviolent economy is a crucial step to overcome this horrible terror that we all face around the world. This alongside new kinds of free thinking aimed towards the greater empowerment of the ordinary people need to be done in more creative and engaging ways.

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