WELFARE STATE AND VIOLENCE:
COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVES ON WESTERN AND EASTERN EUROPE SINCE THE 1950s
Chair of East European History, University of Konstanz
23-25 January 2020
This conference explores the role of state violence in European ‘peaceful times’ from the mid-1950s to the turn of the century, seeking to take issue with the optimistic accounts according to which violence was gradually disappearing during this period.
Our overall goal is to develop a comparative perspective on the transformation of state power across the Iron Curtain through the lens of violence. We will challenge the fact that three decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain a great deal of history writing continues to use the bipolar Cold War perspective (East and West, Democracy and Dictatorship etc.). Our contention is that the differences in the ways that state domination was justified should not hinder comparison, as even dictatorships require a legal framework and some degree of legitimacy.
The conference seeks to trace and bring to the surface modes of domination that have often remained outside the success story of the peaceful second half of the 20th century, but in fact continue to have a crucial impact on contemporary Europe. We will attempt to weave the scattered research on past European violence into a more coherent picture that has the potential to substantially affect the debates on the memory of the 20th century.
We start from the mid-1950s because it was then that states could finally reclaim their monopoly over physical violence as the post-war chaos was largely overcome. It is the decisive turning point for the legitimising role of violence, when both capitalist and socialist states began to increasingly define themselves against the negative yardstick of the violent past that encompassed fascism, war, genocide and Stalinism. It was also in the mid-1950s that the welfare state in the West took off, while in the East the de-Stalinisation brought a turn from coercion to more concern with welfare and consumption.
We understand state violence both as conduct and the control of violence by the state. Our concept of violence places physical force at the centre, yet takes into account narratives that lend physical acts social meaning. This approach helps us historicise established divisions such as between political and non-political, collective and individual, legitimate and illegitimate violence and so forth.
Our leading hypothesis is that state violence, beginning with the mid-1950s, did not vanish but changed its character and visibility. Direct repressive forms of domination gradually gave way to softer means, which were based on expert knowledge and the cooperation of citizens. The conference explores the transformation of violence within a larger process of ‘governmentalisation’, i.e. the expert-controlled effort to sculpt the behaviour of groups and individuals, as well as ‘biopolitics’, i.e. the administrative imperative to optimise health, welfare and life. We ask to what extent the ‘biologisation of politics’, in which life itself was receiving more sanctity, actually perpetuated the use of violence as the production of a ‘healthy majority’ was achieved by repression against ‘abnormal’ groups. Rather than assuming that violence disappeared, we are interested in its recasting and redistribution.
It is a particular aim of the conference to investigate how this complex process towards the coexistence of both forms of power (corporeal and indirect) developed in two ideologically different regimes – liberal capitalism and state socialism – searching for patterns of correspondence between both systems. In doing so, we work towards a critical revision of western normative notions like (allegedly non-violent) ‘public sphere’ or ‘civil society’.
- Papers may deal with both overall conceptual issues and empirical case studies from across the humanities and social sciences.
- Of interest is the period from the 1950s to the early post-socialist transformation in the 1990s. The geographic focus of the conference is Europe as a whole, both capitalist (Western democracies, Southern authoritarian regimes, Nordic welfare states) and socialist (including Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) countries. Comparative papers crossing the East-West divide are particularly welcomed.
- ideologies and semantics of non-violence (order, tranquillity, peaceful work etc.)
- repressive legalism, consolidation of state power through law
- exclusion of and violence towards marginal groups
- transformation of police practices (e.g. riot police)
- violence in the military
- practices and legitimising effects of prison violence
- border zones and border regimes
- control of domestic and sexual violence
- medical violence (e.g. sterilisation, castration)
The conference will start on Thursday 23 January in the evening and end on Saturday 25 January at noon.
There is no conference fee. We cover:
- Travel costs within Europe
- Accommodation for two nights (23-25 January)
- Meals during the conference
To apply, please send an abstract of 400-500 words and a short CV to Prof. Pavel Kolář (firstname.lastname@example.org).