Lego Politics 2: The Most Noble Order of the (mostly) Sacred Freedom of Speech

By Ask Foldspang Neve

Small countries are, as a rule, constantly nervous about how they are perceived abroad. Little wonder that is: if you depend on alliances for your prosperity and maybe even your potential prosperity, impressions matter. Their mythical golden ages are typically also farther away than that of the immediate has-beens, and so looking abroad does not threaten national solidarity and pride quite as easily.

Mostly small societies are just happy if they get any attention at all. American presidents are masters of using this fact to their advantage: you can get the support of almost every minor power simply by mentioning that they ‘punch above their weight’. Even when they realize that their patron superpower is not being exclusive in such praise, minor powers are so addicted to attention that they will soak it up when given. Former great powers such as the UK must still be talked into believing that such a thing as a ‘special relationship’ exists, faithfully adhering to it, even if the Brits and people on the payroll of the American Department of State know that it is special.

Denmark is obviously no exception from the rule of attention-starved client polities. There is seemingly no end to the joy Danes can get from hearing about how Danes are the happiest people in the world: in fact, it seems like a potentially self-fulfilling prophecy.

Exhibit A: A necessary defense of the Freedom of Speech. Should be defended at all costs.

Exhibit A: A necessary defense of the freedom of speech and the secular democracy. Should be defended at all costs.

When you are so obsessed with the feelings of others for your own fulfilment, it is no wonder, then, that you feel hurt and become defensive when their praise turns into scorn or reprimands. And whereas the praise often has to do with arguably less immediately consequential considerations such as the percentage of the electricity supply  wind energy or  bike lanes, the international fallout that was the result of a newly introduced and much discussed Danish policy of seizing certain assets of asylum-seekers as a means of deterring newcomers.

The Guardian on Lars Løkke Rasmussen

Exhibit B: An unnecessary, ahistorical and hurtful cartoon creating strife and animosity. Should be withdrawn and apologized for.

This only hurt so much more because Denmark, like Sweden and many continental European countries have been profoundly unable to develop a model of citizenship that is not based on either xenophilia or xenophobia; i.e., that tolerance of the strange customs of others does not imply having to love it. Continentals, it seems, are puzzled at the meaning of Lockean tolerance, and so feel safer banning what they cannot love. Switzerland’s 2009 ban on minarets and Denmark’s recent Meatball War – the latest round of which resulted in the local council of Randers, a medium-sized city, deciding that pork must be served in its schools and kindergartens – are both prominent examples.

So when outside attention is given to this dysfunctionality, it hurts. So much, in fact, that the liberal principles espoused by a whole host of brave knights defending freedom of speech during the 2005-2006 Cartoon Controversy can be forgotten. Back then, the nativist right was busy defending Jyllands-Posten editor Flemming Rose’s editorial that stated that in a “secular democracy with freedom of speech, one must put up with mockery, insults, and ridicule.” When the Guardian meta-mocked that same political movement, the DPP were suddenly less keen on the mockery. Hence the following medley of the founder of the Danish People’s Party alternately demanding absolute freedom of speech and that the Guardian withdraw its cartoon.

Houston, we’ve had a gender-class-culture problem


Ask Foldspang Neve, on facebook

Jessica, I largely agree with Rowling, but I don’t agree with her if she wants the discussion to be only about gender. Right now liberals and conservatives would like the discussion to be about two different things – which, of course, is often the case in any political struggle. As for the relevance of culture vs. gender, I’m personally currently of a boring ‘both are probably relevant’ opinion, but let me just quickly elaborate.

So, the above quote is one, very important part of the question; it has always been applicable, presumably through human history. This is what conservatives are keen to downplay – they would like the case to be seen mostly or purely as an issue of the ‘incompatibility’ between different cultures or the ‘inherent violence’ of Islamic culture, and many proclaim not to be able to see why a comparison with violence committed by non-Muslim men could possibly be relevant.

The other aspect is the conservative argument – which liberals in turn tend to downplay – that culture does seem to play some part. Again, different versions of the argument exist, but that’s not the important point here. Now, I don’t want to make too much inference from the Cologne case for now, as the only thing we know is that a large number of women were hurt, but little about their assailants.

Statistically, however, immigrants (and their descendants, but that’s an even more complicated question) from different countries fare very differently on average depending on where they are from; this is true across host nations, and not only in the West. That’s where the conservatives are right; even if you control for common social and economic (and demographic) indicators, this difference (often) persists. Now, people who fare badly get more press, but empirically it is easy to observe ethnicity having an impact either way.

Where it gets more complicated is that culture interacts with gender: In Europe, men do much worse than women in many immigrant communities, and this is a much more pronounced difference than among the natives. Moreover, it also interacts with class, as does gender, and both at the same time. What we end up with is an exciting, but hard-to-handle three-way interaction.

Pakistani female doctors

The female MD: countries should woo her; some do. Source:

So in other words, an outcome of the US being very selective with their non-Hispanic immigration has been that many recent immigrants do extremely well. As Pew outlined in their 2012 report The Rise of the Asian Americans, Indian-Americans, for example, earn more than 50 per cent more than the median personal income; the difference between household incomes is more than 75 per cent higher.

Pakistani-Americans, by comparison, do not stand out, but are still doing better than the population at large. While their personal incomes are only slightly higher than the median, the share of Pakistani Americans who have a college degree is twice as high as for the general population (27.9 % vs. 55.7 %).  While there is a gender difference, it is not huge (and at least for Indian-Americans, it still favors men).

Clearly, the by now almost mainstream European reactionary argument of Islam being a dysfunctional religion has no grounding in data in its simple form. Now Pakistani Brits (and Pakistani Danes) don’t do nearly as well; they are mostly working class, and the men clearly do worse than the women. Thus, we see that gender having a cross-cutting effect on who gets higher education to begin with, but also is important in affecting the negative effects of not being middle-class; and that ethnicity or culture again affects the interaction between the two so much that working-class immigrants seem to be the worst off – in Europe at least – while highly educated immigrant men seem to be among the best off.

Coming back to the original topic of sexual violence, as for the data I know the best – i.e., the very detailed registry data from Denmark – this also seems to be the case there (although I have to say that crime is not my usual topic). There is a clear overrepresentation of non-Westerners (as they are unhelpfully categorized) among those found guilty of sex crimes. Now, some not insubstantial part of this effect is explained by class alone: simply that lower class people commit more of those crimes, and more of the non-Western migrants are lower-class. Yet a substantial effect remains, although, I suspect, not among white-collar immigrants. I.e., it is working-class immigrants who fare particularly badly; and when it comes to violent crime and sex crimes, men (of all races and classes) vastly outnumber women as perpetrators. Thus, the full intersection.

This, I think, is worth looking seriously at by policy-makers. The most obvious differences between migration to the US and to Europe are often said to be what characterizes the host countries: that in the US, people expect and accept diversity, and they much less so in Europe, especially outside of France and the UK (the liberal explanation); and that the much less generous welfare state incentivizes people to work, and thus doesn’t ‘trap’ them in receiving benefits (the conservative explanation). However, migrant characteristics are vastly different also: The US and Canada tend to pick people who are very foreseeably going to be productive members of society. Europe has received many more working-class migrants, who are neither received as well or as good at adapting – and for the men, this results in very different crime rates.

Canada has taken what seems like a not very egalitarian consequence of this: they are now not taking any single men. That’s quite a drastic policy change, but much of the electorate is onboard with it, also since there is still so much goodwill towards the not-freaking-Harper government for being, well, not led by Harper. While I don’t have the statistics on it, I would be very surprised if they didn’t in their ‘health and security’ screening also find out whether people seemed like potentially successful new citizens. The interviews that many countries, but very notably those on the North American continent carry out among UN refugees and internally displaced persons are largely about desirability. It is also exactly what the US does, and did even when it was people from its supposed ally who was doing the fleeing, as after the Vietnam War – which is likely to explain at least part of the difference in reception between the educated first and less well-educated second waves of refugees from Viet Nam to the United States.

Going back to Europe where authorities can be less selective about who is arriving than their North American counterparts, the interaction between culture, class and gender does seem, from an empirical perspective at least, to bring to the forefront legitimate policy questions of targeted immigration policies – something that the political left in Europe has puzzlingly refused mostly on egalitarian principles and less on liberal cultural principles (with Britain being a possible exception). That is, many European social democrats were rather willing to discriminate between different applicants on the basis of culture than on class. While this may seem intuitive given a materialist background, it hardly is a defense of the electorate of these same parties: when asked in polls, the British public for example is highly skeptical of immigration in general, but highly positive of the immigration of doctors and nurses: whereas three quarters of the British public favor reducing immigration in general, roughly the same share supported admitting more immigrants – if they were doctors or nurses. Similarly trending results were found in a highly-cited 2010 experiment published in the American Political Science Review using US data.

In other words, it seems that a large segment of the population mostly has material interests in mind when it considers immigration. A smaller section – maybe 20 % – may be genuinely anti-immigration, no matter its benefits, but that is way too small a group to wield political power outside of a class alliance. Most likely, the larger group is a mix of middle-class and working class citizens, while the ‘true’ reactionaries are the current UKIP voters, whose core voters are overwhelmingly petit-bourgeois. This can be understandable, though: from a working-class perspective, increased competition for the kinds of jobs and social benefits your own group depends on is unlikely to be welcome, especially when those jobs and benefits are already being squeezed. This indicates that mostly, immigration-skeptics are not primarily motivated by cultural disdain or xenophobia, but by more tangible self-interest – like everybody else.

Now a current problem of the immigration policies of (North-Western) European countries is that it has been successful in attracting mostly the opposite group of people, i.e. low-skilled males. As Texas A&M professor Valerie Hudson pointed out two days ago in Politico Europe, there is a striking sex imbalance in the current group of migrants and refugees coming to Europe. In Sweden, 71 per cent of all applicants for asylum in 2015 were male. According to Hudson, “18,615 males aged 16 and 17 entered Sweden over the course of the past year, compared with 2,555 females of the same age.” That is actually enough of an imbalance to seriously skew the sex ratio in the population at large for the young cohorts. Again, quoting Hudson: “when those figures are added to the existing counts of 16- and 17-year-old boys and girls in Sweden—103,299 and 96,524, respectively, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Database—you end up with a total of 121,914 males in Sweden aged 16 or 17 and 99,079 females of the same age.” While I argued just a few days ago that the overall number of immigrants – just about one million in the ‘record-breaking’ year of 2015 – is not a problem by itself for a continent of 500 million people, the class and gender of those migrants may pose a problem and Europe would do well to devise a strategy that either favors families and women like Canada does (without excluding single males partout, as there are obvious ethical problems with doing so), or strongly favors high-skilled migration (again, like both Canada and the US) or both. This stands in contrast with current liberal approaches in Europe. Simultaneously, there is no empirical evidence, however, of there being a benefit of limiting immigration from Muslim countries like many right-wing politicians claim; it is matter of whom you attract from those societies.








Iconoclasm is a progressive indispensability

By Ask Foldspang Neve

The terrorist attacks on the Paris-based satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, will force European progressives of many kinds to reconsider their stance on the relationship between iconoclasm and hate speech, properly separating the two.

To be effective, satire must question that which the powerful wants to be left unquestioned, or highlight that which the powerful wants to stay shrouded in obscurity. Asking ‘who benefits?’ is often the most powerful question of all: asking it persistently of any religious system of beliefs is certainly challenging its clergy, the secular rulers allied to it, and those within the family (often the pater familias) whose unequal prosperity is legitimized by the specific set of ideals supported by the religion. Thus, satire, in general, is important because it challenges power. To use a by now slightly altmodisch term, it has emancipatory potential.

Then, why the focus on Muslims in Europe? Certainly, Europe’s Muslim minorities are not in power. There is nearly no social sphere in Europe, least of all the political, in which Muslims are well represented in the top. Conservative Muslims, whose ideals certainly invite criticism from progressives, are the least represented of all: they have no electorate in the West. As many progressive and leftist commentators have done before, including notabilities such as Noam Chomsky, it could seem obvious to denounce all Western satire of Islam as simple reactionary politics.

But the Charlie Hebdo attack, and before it, the Iranian hunt for Salman Rushdie, the 2004 murder of Theo van Gogh, the attacks on Danish embassies and businesses during the 2006 Cartoon Crisis and the later assassination attempts at one of the cartoonists, change that. While Muslims hold no power over anyone in Europe apart from other Muslims, sovereign societies still cannot accept that religious zealots (or East-Asian crypto-fascist monarchies, for that matter) can decide on what can be printed and what cannot. It is the paradoxical truth that such satire has created a market for itself, with the generous helping hand of the belief of some Muslims that religion can legitimize murder.


Siné clergy

Not uncontroversial, but necessary: Siné and the Abrahamic religions

These many incidents mean that there is a need for the continuous lampooning of Muslim religious dogma, just as there has been for every other world religion. The major difference, of course, is that Westerners should be clear that this time, they are not doing it to emancipate themselves: the sudden conservative impulse to stand up for the rights of brown women while fighting for ‘traditional values’ with regards to everyone else has never been credible to anyone, least of all the minorities it purportedly seeks to address.

There can be little doubt that much social progress is needed both in Muslim-majority countries and within many Muslim communities in the West, but at the same time, there is almost as little doubt that this struggle needs to be taken from within (with outside support, if and of the kind asked for). It is an obvious affront to human equality to believe female sexuality is somehow ‘dangerous’ and needs to be reined in, while male sexuality is not (oddly enough, no patriarchal society decided that men could not go unaccompanied outdoors, or could not engage in business, or hold political office).

So, this time, keeping the focus on the self-serving absurdities that make up the many strands of conservative Islam is a defense of the fragile order that makes up the open societies that are still so young even in the West. Answering violence with more irreverence, but without violence, state-sanctioned or otherwise, will reinforce the open societies that many reactionaries, both Christian and Muslims, seek to dismantle.


Exposing the CIA

Is this also just following a right-wing agenda?


If progressives shy away from this task, they leave it to conservatives and reactionaries to answer. We already know what that answer will look like: every reactionary leader gains politically from incidents like what just took place in Paris. UKIP are already proposing getting rid of the “fifth column living [in Western countries]”. A nominally moderate, Danish Lutheran minister already called for “the democratic liberties” of “Muslim extremists” to be curtailed because they “are waging war”. Another columnist in the same conservative daily has long based his pro-torture argument on the writings of the Nazi court lawyer Carl Schmitt, the idea being the same, namely that ‘humans’ have no rights per se, and so the political friend/enemy distinction takes precedence. American conservatives, of course, have long supported torture, a pledge many have just renewed (with the notable and honorable exception of senator John McCain).

It is therefore regrettable that it has become so fashionable among everyone from centrist progressives and to semi-leftists to denounce the ‘new atheists’ as servants of the right because they ridicule Muslim practices as well as Christian ones. The basic argument of the criticism is understandable: many minorities, including many Muslims, are under constant attack in the West. Moreover, as argued above, there are no Muslim kings, emirs or Mullahs in power in the West, nor will there be. So why add to the pressure?

The answer was given above. By rejecting criticism of Islam, or pretending that certain beliefs and practices are more acceptable because they are held by members of religious or ethnic minorities, room is simply given to right-wing Christians and nationalists who are more than happy to fill the vacuum. Moreover, nothing is gained: the criticism is often correct, and when it is not, it only becomes more important to make it so, not by asking those who criticize to stay silent, but by publishing one’s own, less crude, and more salient treatise. Finally, the typical progressive defense of the ‘foreigner’ smacks strongly of the same kind of orientalism that it publicly denounces, only now intended as a defense instead of an attack: this kind of progressive sees Rousseauean noble savages where a John Wayne character sees Indians he wants dead. Or worse, still, he sees someone in need of upper-middle-class intercession on their behalf.

Iconoclasm has always been important for progressives. Until the 1970s, it could still be legally problematic to challenge Christianity in Western Europe. Famously, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned in both Ireland and Norway, bastions of Catholicism and Lutheranism, respectively. And it certainly has only become more precarious to criticize the ever more entangled church-state relationship in Russia, where Dimitry Enteo, the leader of a group ultraconservative Orthodox activists called “God’s Will” has already called the Hebdo cartoonists “worthy of capital punishment” as he staged a rally in front of the French Embassy in Moscow on the day of the shooting. Like the Evangelical Westboro Baptist Church, Enteo obviously has a taste for sensation, and he uses the same Abrahamic metaphors of tragedy being God’s punishment for straying from the path. On his VKontakte page, he adds to his reactionary bona fides by asserting his belief in the Jewish deicide and likening the Hebdo attack to the second destruction of Jerusalem. To many of these Orthodox zealots, it was religiously meaningful that the attack to place on January 7, the date of Christmas in Orthodoxy (which still follows the Julian calendar).


Russian picket in front of the French embassy

Fundamentalists of the world, unite! (“Responsibility for the tragedy lies with the government of France. They do not protect the feelings of believers.”). Source:


Many European states also still uphold anti-blasphemy laws, as well as state churches. Both are an affront to a supposedly demystified society. Moreover, whereas the state churches are often supported more vigorously by the right than the left, the opposite is true of blasphemy laws. This is because progressives have felt that blasphemy laws often make good addenda to hate-speech paragraphs and limitations on racist slur. This is a reversal from a few decades ago, when some conservative Christians would still see blasphemy paragraphs used to protect their specific version of the sacred. Such a turnaround should make progressives suspicious: why are we suddenly protecting an erstwhile conservative pet policy?

This digs deeper into a discussion internal to political liberalism between different visions of society. In one, the center of gravity is on toleration between groups, such as envisioned in Lockean terms. In the other, the center is on individual freedom, including from the community oneself is born into, including separating the political community from religion and metaphysical doxa. In the crudest of terms, Britain has become representative of one idea, and France of the other. The United States has tried to combine them, and still struggles to reconcile them. Most of the rest of Europe never fully subscribed to either, and so is struggling both with tolerance in practice and with individual protection from majority (or plurality) power.

Since European liberals have long been as inept at (or disinterested in) discussing political ideals that were not ultimately about the need for Thatcherite market-driven reform as American lefties have been at discussing how one might bring about incremental change towards working social-democracy, the discussion about liberal political ideals in Europe has for a few decades mostly been about following American struggles from afar. Unfortunately for both Americans and Europeans, much of the progressive struggle in the United States has been so devoid of reflection on its own historical embeddedness that it risks creating as many problems as it solves.

It might even entrench current inequalities: much of the current ‘progress’ is being made by essentializing ethnic and religious differences rather than showing them to be the results of ideological or material differences. Paradoxically, this has even been the effect in the gender debate, home to some of the most anti-essentialist activists and thinkers: Many contemporary feminists still insist that sexuality is something especially dangerous, or vulnerable, or otherwise qualitatively different, that sets it apart from the rest of human social life. Again, on this, they agree with conservatives, albeit also they are divided in Jean-Jacques and Dukes.

After Hebdo, European progressives should forcefully reenter the public sphere on the issue. While it is nice, as many Western leaders have done to counter right-wing extremism, to distinguish between religious zealots and ordinary Muslims, it is not enough. One should go further, and actively seek to remove the influence of mysticism of all its branches on our societies, from the absurd American public affirmations of faith to Muslim codes of honor to alternative medicine and astrology to the cult of the nation that still hold common cooperation back, while further supporting and protecting the rights of minorities to do as they please – as long as the rules of peaceful political engagement and the rights of the individual are upheld.

Just after Life of Brian was released, two prominent English mystics and patriarchs made the mistake of debating John Cleese and Michael Palin on the BBC show Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Watch it below and rejoice. And let me summarize by quoting Cleese: “[the film is about] closed systems of thought, whether they are political or theological or religious or whatever: systems by which, whatever evidence is given to a person, he merely adapts it, fits it into his ideology.”



Lego politics, part 1: Introducing Geertsen’s Constant

The biggest party in Denmark is called Venstre, which, translated literally, means Left; it is the dominant party of the right. Its full name is actually Left – The Liberal Party of Denmark; it is advocating that Denmark is too liberal when it comes to immigration, crime and gender politics.

After a few years where Danes have spent a lot of time talking about increasing inequality, stagnating wages and unemployment, Left are eager to get Danes talking about immigration again, since this is how Left usually win elections.

Left won three elections in a row in the 2000s by increasing public spending, lowering taxes and making immigration more difficult, but then lost the first election after the Financial Crisis. Left needs immigration to come back on the agenda.

However, since the ruling Social-Democratic party has lurched so far to the right on social issues that immigration policy has stayed almost constant after they came to power, family reunification and other standard immigration policies will hardly do if you want to win the next election. And Left really want to win the next election.

Enter the asylum seekers.

While not immigrants in the conventional sense, asylum seekers in Denmark still do tend to come from Muslim-majority countries. From 2011-2013, Denmark has faced a surge of asylum seekers with Syrian nationality (and also of stateless people, of which most are Palestinians). In total, Denmark received 7,557 applications for asylum in 2013, up from 6,184 the year before and 3,806 the year before that.

That is why Left decided to send its spokesperson on immigration, Martin Geertsen, on a frontal charge against the government’s asylum policies. By 2020, claims Mr. Geertsen, Denmark will receive no less than 83,355 applications for asylum – almost as many as eleven-times-bigger Britain received at its peak in 1983.

But some would say that this is still a surprising number. So where did Left get it from? Simple. They applied Geertsen’s Constant.

Making the observation that the development in applications for asylum received from 2011 to 2013 amounted to an annual increase of 40.9 %, Geertsen and his party were able to reliably predict the number of asylum-seekers in 2020. It did not involve complicated and contestable discussions about the development of conflicts around the globe. Instead their solution was intriguingly simple: they expected the annual increase in asylum-seekers to be constant unless more Danes start to vote Left.

(Unfortunately, one would imagine that this also means an annual increase of 40.9 % in the number of bloody conflicts forcing people to flee their home countries, which does not bode well for the world. Then again, Left and the rest of the right does make a point out of neglecting the push factors of migration.)

As a few Danish journalists noted, this would lead to rather unmanageable numbers of asylum seekers in the future. They predicted that by 2050, 8.5 billion asylum seekers would arrive in Denmark in that year alone.

Going even further, we can see that within the lifespan of generation Y, the annual number of applicants will rise beyond the number of human beings ever to have lived. One can only start guessing at how Danes will make universal social services work for an estimated 110 billion people.

Geertsen forecast of the annual number of asylum-seekers coming to Denmark through the year 2150, compared to other, very large numbers (logarithmic scale)

Will it never end?

Will it never end?

By the turn of the century, Denmark will receive 68,573,637,424,690,800 asylum-seekers. If we accept the average mass of a human being to be c. 62 kg (Walpole et al. 2012), the total mass of asylum seekers arriving in 2100 will be an astounding 4.25157*10^18 kg, or a million times the mass of Mount Everest. Further applying the Geertsen Constant however, we find that by February 2141, the mass of asylum seekers arriving in Denmark that year will be greater than the mass of planet Earth, which could affect the planet’s gravitational pull. How many large-scale wars will be going by then? The answer is 46,389,622,711,637,100,000. That is what a failed Middle East policy looks like. Thanks a lot, Obama.

Pope Francis and the End of Clerical Celibacy

Pope Francis, already deemed a great herald of progressive change in the Catholic Church (more so as his more traditional arguments get little or no attention in the general press), a few weeks ago hinted at changes to the rules of clerical celibacy in what turned out to be an explosive interview in Espresso.

As the pope acknowledged, clerical celibacy was not widespread even in the Latin Church for the first 900 years of its existence – and maybe even after that. Today, however, that specific sacerdotal vow has come to be a major identity marker for Catholics. This might have a lot to do with the fact that neither mainstream Orthodox nor mainstream Protestant churches practice it; the very distinction makes it all the more important.

This makes sense from a sociological point of view, as group identity is strongly dependent on real or fictional differences to the outside world that can serve as boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

In both Orthodox and Protestant theology, moreover, it also makes intuitive sense that being different is a sign of virtue: for the Orthodox, it is a sign of not having veered off the path; for the Protestant, is a sign of having scraped away man-made tradition and found the path again through scripture.

For the Catholic Church, however, Francis’s reference to the traditions of the Eastern Church as a legitimate concern makes sense. Being ‘catholic’ in the literal sense invariably involves seeing your organization as a big tent in which all divisions, no matter how many millennia they span, are ultimately temporary. Thus, while both Eastern and Northern Christians can be content with being part of the few who are saved, the Catholic shepherd must always try to gather his flock, even if that means changing the way he does so.

Historically, the introduction of clerical celibacy was part of a wider shift of family practices that the Catholic Church successfully imposed upon itself and the elites of Europe; it is one of the biggest intentional programs of social engineering not carried out at the tip of a sword in European history. The Church successfully disbanded with a number of Germano-Roman family practices, including the wider clan system (since marrying even remote family members was outlawed), the Roman adoption practice, the Judaic levirate (otherwise commanded by God in the story of Onan) – and the inheritance of clerical office.

Obviously, the change was not fast-paced: for most dynastic leaders, giving up their right to pass on any kind of inheritance to their progeny was deeply illogical and contrary to the very reason of power. The change did occur, however, not least as orders of monks gained in importance within the Church, and the canon regular – clergy who have taken monastic vows –became a more prominent figure.

The celibate faction also had a strong, anti-Semitic argument on its side: inheritance of office seems Jewish, since Jewish tradition has it that the Kohanim and other priestly clans are granted specific priestly rights and duties – and Jesus, the highest priest, was not of the Kohanim. As anti-Semitic sentiments were often running high in Latin Europe (and much more so than in the Arab world), being seen as pro-Jewish was a major legitimacy problem.


Pope Francis,  photo from

The issue of issue: a question for the father.

Theologically, the major argument for clerical celibacy is, as many other doctrines that seem contrary to parts of scripture, a Pauline one. As celibacy has been practiced in many religious traditions both before and after the birth of Christianity, the discussion about the value, positive or negative of worldly signs of piety, was already raging in the first centuries CE.

Famously, 1 Timothy 4 reads (in the English Standard Version): “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.”

Timothy thus, like Pauline readings, can be enacted as a an argument for the New Covenant as replacing the old one, and that the Mosaic rules governing human behavior – such as which foods to eat or to abstain from – have been cancelled, since such foods (and, presumably, other objects regulated in especially Leviticus, such as clothes) are ‘made holy by the word of God and prayer’.

However, it obviously also contradicts the notion of holiness through abstinence, a fact that has been pointed out by both Orthodox Christians (who never adopted celibacy in the first place) and various Protestants (who revolted against it, and made marriage a litmus test for priests and bishops to prove their anti-papist stance).

The Bible, however, is obviously an anthology whose editors were not too concerned with the coherence of its message. The Pauline argument for celibacy is scripturally based on 1 Corinthians 7, especially verses 7-8: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.” Out of its context, it indeed does seem that Paul advocates celibacy as a purer way of life (purity being a main concern of the ascetic faction that Timothy argues against).

Even Corinthians, however, deals with the seemliness of marriage and says nothing explicitly about clerical abstinence. That such leeway is granted to the unmarried and widows does appear, in context, to be more of a matter of respite given to those unfortunate enough to become spinsters or to have husbands who passed early: to make sure that they were not treated as outcasts as was often the case, especially in the lower orders of society.

The Catholic stance admits as much: “we grant that the motive here appealed to is in some measure utilitarian”, states the Catholic Encyclopedia on 1 Corinthians 7.

However, the cult of virginity is strong within the Church, and today, 1100 years after inheritance of office was a major concern for the Church, this explanation has become the strongest official one, together with the paternal allegory that also serves the reasoning behind barring women from clerical office: the priest as the father of his parishioners, whom he guides and looks after. If he had biological children of his own, he would have to look after them first, and his parishioners second, with which they would not be served properly.

What was novel about Francis’s statement, then, was that he acknowledged a historical reality that Catholic scholars are fully aware of: the institution of celibacy is purely a man-made one, also in a theological sense (i.e., not just for the outside observer, but also for the inside practitioner). The Catholic Church traditionally has had few problems with admitting as much, as it has given much weight to what is also itself saw as derived practices.

Lately, however, conservative Catholics, just as conservative Protestants – traditional opponents – have reacted with similar conviction in galvanizing their stances on a number conservative issues as they have found themselves pushed further and further back by a liberal world order. That is why issues of sexuality became the main focal point for both groups: anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-contraception.

Francis’s statements were thus explosive because they reminded Catholics who might otherwise have forgotten about Catholicism not being defined by the distinction to other Christian traditions; that the Catholic Church could indeed endure, as Catholic, without clerical celibacy.

How plausible is this change, then? In the short term, not very. Francis is unlikely to survive long enough to see such a change carried through. His immense popularity in an age of rising inequality and social liberalization, however, might make it difficult for his detractors in the Church to elect another Retzinger as his successor. The unwillingness and inability of the conservative Popes in handling pedophilia in the Church – the immediate reason for Francis to even discuss celibacy – have also made the progressive cause easier.

Still, Francis is more likely to let a hundred flowers bloom and let non-celibate practice slowly seep into the mainline Church, apart from its already existing enclaves within Anglican converts and many Eastern Catholics. The main strength of the Roman organization has always been its ability to contain various practices and only enforce a very small core of beliefs upon all. Francis just signaled that celibacy might be leaving that core, signaling to those for whom it matters that they could find amnesty, and with time even acceptance, if they were to take up official family lives.

Ask Foldspang Neve is currently pursuing his PhD in sociology at the University of Oxford. Ask Foldspang Neve


Islamists, neo-liberals or authoritarians: Who are the elusive AKP?

By Darja Irdam

Even before Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appeared on the cover of the Time magazine in 2011, the Western audience had been hearing about him for a while. What attracted most attention was his successful economic policies, his quest to reduce smoking and testosterone-fuelled fight with Shimon Peres over the Israeli-Palestinian question. He also was more successful than any of his predecessors in moving Turkey towards EU membership, even though that does not say much; this was not least by rebutting European fears of Turkish membership equaling hordes of impoverished Anatolian peasants suddenly being inside the Schengen border. But until the end of May, the West cared very little about Mr. Erdoğan’s behavior at home. The last month of popular protests and Mr. Erdoğan’s handling of them changed that. But what do we know about the prime minister and his mysterious party – the AKP?

Erdogan and Peres. Copyright:  AP photo/Keystone/Alessandro Della Bella

Erdogan and Peres – uneasy allies.

The AKP was formed by Mr. Erdoğan in 2001, after he was released from prison where he served a sentence for “anti-constitutional activities” carried out as a member of the  radical Islamist Refah, or Welfare, Party, itself a successor to several banned Islamic parties. As in other persecuted political movements, jail time gave Mr. Erdoğan some of the political credibility he needed with the most conservative political actors before leading them towards the more moderated policies necessary to align with centrist voters. The centre-right party he created immediately enjoyed remarkable succes. Already by 2002, the AKP won a majority of the vote, and formed its first government. Since then, the AKP has won every national election.

One of the keys to the AKP’s success is that from the very beginning it managed to pool influential people from a number of parties with different political orientations. Since politics in Turkey is incredibly focused on individuals even by the standards of contemporary professional politics, this was instrumental in addressing all of the different segments of the electorate that have since voted for the AKP. This segmentation again leads to a surprisingly mixed set of policies in different spheres:

In foreign policy, the AKP follows a pro-Western and a pro-EU course. At the same time they have been successful in maintaining a strong pro-Middle East agenda. The AKP tries to claim a very special role among its Muslim neighbors. Playing of conservative Muslim family values, the AKP tries to position Turkey not as a father of the Middle East, but rather as a favorite elder son: the guardian of tradition who bows down to religious leaders, but also secures the family interests in the world. The aim is to use Turkey’s good relationship with the West, to be the only guarantor of Muslim interests and diplomatic advocacy in the EU and the US.

Thus, the AKP pays great attention to regional cooperation and especially supports the poorer Middle Eastern and central Asian countries. To consolidate its success, the AKP has been trying to ensure the dissemination of its basic philosophy abroad. Thus, the AKP has been active in promoting Islamic religious knowledge and an “Islamic way of thinking” both regionally and globally, mostly targeting countries with major Turkish migrant populations. This has been important especially in securing the support of the most obvious segment of the AKP electorate, rural working-class voters, who like their counterparts in the West are generally conservatively minded. Being a major emigrant nation, targeting a foreign audience also makes sense: family networks are strong, and if émigrés come to see the AKP as a defender of their interests abroad, chances are that their families will reward the party at the polls.

The economic policy of the AKP is especially impressive when compared to the non-existent economic policies of the main opposition parties, the Kemalist CHP and the nationalist MHP. As opposed to the those two, the AKP has a modern and pragmatic approach to economic policy.

Whereas the opposition parties make grandiose, but empty claims like “We want to make Turkey competitive on the global market” (as the MHP likes to say), the AKP gets into the nitty-gritty of infrastructure, trade, research and investment. When, at times, it seems like the opposition have very little interest in how to actually improve the economy, the AKP provides tangible and often detailed solutions. The AKP seems to be the only comprehensive pro-business party among the heavy-weights of Turkish politics. This explains the second most important part of the AKP’s electorate – urban and rural entrepreneurs and leading Anatolian businesses.

A veiled elite - the first families of Turkey

The veiled first families of Turkey exemplifying decorum.

This alliance of business and conservative voters also generates paradoxes. For example, the AKP often talks about promoting female entrepreneurship, while at the same time, the official party website groups women-related issues with its policies for the disabled. Some years ago, the AKP was promoting fertility among the population of 70 million, by advising every family in the AKP electorate to have at least three children. As if this was not enough, last year the AKP officially declared that three kids is no longer sufficient, and instead every family should have five. Needless to say, same-sex families are completely out of the question in the family policies of the party. This is a clear indicator of how the party perceives the role of women in a country where there is almost no public financial support for children, only very restrictive maternal leave policies and women are still legally discriminated against in divorce legislation.

While no surprise to the Turkish reader, it might come as a novelty to the international audience that the AKP has been leading an ambiguous discourse on the role of religion in public affairs. On the one hand, they deny any claims of “Islamism” and AKP officials try hard to maintain their ‘mildly religious’, democratic image. On the other hand, the same officials often exalt the virtues of religion for AKP policy-making. Mr. Erdoğan himself argues that a compromise between Islam and secularism is unthinkable: according to the Prime Minister, those two forces create opposing magnetic fields and hence, cannot coexist. In a tribute to the most conservative voters, Mr. Erdoğan also publicly announced that authority does not rest with the people of Turkey; instead, state power “without doubt or exceptions belongs to God”. When it comes to humanism and his approach to his own electorate, Mr. Erdoğan describes his ideology in another powerful (if slightly cryptic) statement: “he loves the creations for them being created by the Creator”. If there has been any doubt in the West, the half of Turkish population who does not vote for the AKP is not in doubt that the AKP is determined to bring religion back, with a vengeance.

In other words, there seems to be no way around the fact that Islamic social conservatism is the very raison d’être of the AKP. Where the party is really different from its banned ancestors is in its professionalism and political pragmatism. Practically all of the ruling members of the AKP are married to veiled women and their daughters also wear the veil. In the Turkish context, this serves as a clear indicator of religious traditionalism, a symbol that is easily decipherable by any Turk. The ideological influence of the religious philosopher Fetullah Gülen on the AKP elite works the same way. Mr. Gülen, an exile in the US, is often perceived as a progressive Muslim thinker in the West, but like Mr. Erdoğan, seen very differently by Turks. The philosophical teachings of Mr. Gülen emphasize the danger of committing any of the cardinal sins, which include leaving prayers uncompleted, consuming alcohol, claiming the equality of men and women, gambling and women not covering their hair with a veil. ‘The other half’ of Turkish women, at least, are not in doubt: should Messrs. Gülen and Erdoğan continue their political winning streak, Turkey will soon no longer be a free country for them.

That seems to be a likely outcome, however, taking into account the party’s ambitiousness and professionalism, its ability to address surprisingly conflicting segments of the electorate, its international promotion of religious paradigms through education and its strong reliance on rather conservative schools of Islamic thought. The AKP was an instant success, a real people’s party led by a charismatic leader and a supporter of the public moral. The question that remains is whether the AKP is democratic enough to continue thriving in the 21st century, especially now that Turkish protesters see their anger met with sympathy in the international community? The next few years will show.

Darja Irdam is Darja Irdamcurrently pursuing her PhD degree in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her current research covers the areas of economic sociology and public health, with particular emphasis on post-Communist transitions, privatization, mortality, gender and class. She has also  worked and studied for several years in Istanbul and Izmir.


Lessons to learn from #OccupyGezi

By Darja Irdam

The protests that have been taking place in Turkey for a week have received extensive international attention, and even some support from representatives of different ends of the Turkish political spectrum. Moreover, no matter how hard he tries to ignore them, the protests now got the attention of Turkish Prime Minister and AKP party leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

It seems that a minor protest rooted in environmental concerns have by now reached deep into the political wounds of the country. Could this be a turning point for the hitherto invulnerable AKP? At least, it has seemed like this battle had been coming for a long time; and the question, of course, is whether anything will really change.

However, no matter how things end up, one of the most important lessons learned is that of #OccupyGezi’s media victory. As it turns out, a hash-tag operation really can get a lot of attention even when the mainstream media outlets find it in their best interest to pretend that nothing happened. As in many other such protests, however, it is quite clear that most of the attention gained from such operations is from like-minded individuals in other countries. To what extent the protests are going to engage anyone else than secular intellectuals is another matter.

"Protests In Turkey Turn Violent" - unknown source.

While the attention that #OccupyGezi receives in the social media is enormous, previous experiments with democracy in cyber space remind us that it is debatable whether this will lead to tangible results on the ground. Nevertheless, such cyber spaces seem to create a demand for information on their own, stimulating a production of news coverage in different kinds of media all over the world. Whatever medium the protesters manage to occupy, it does seem to encourage Western observers to rethink their position on the AKP.

For years, Turkey’s ruling party has been perceived as a “mildly Islamicist party” (as the Economist-coined moniker goes). The PM, whose long-term agenda has been to establish Turkey in a firm position as a guarantor of both peace and tradition in the Middle East while claiming a place in Europe, has been surprisingly successful in creating a rather positive image of the AKP in the West.

However, soaking peaceful activists in tear gas can hardly be referred to as democratic in the liberal tradition (although, to be fair, it is really not unknown in any Western country either). For many Turks however, and members of the secular middle class in particular, the PM really crossed the line when he declared that his parliamentary majority allowed him to do whatever he wanted, no matter the amount of protests it created. While technically true, it is a dangerous course to run in country with a long and ongoing history of repressive majorities facing stiff resistance from a host of minorities.

Although it is, of course, important that the international community finally sees the darker side of Erdoğan’s government, it is even more crucial that Turkey’s own citizens are finally beginning to stare into the abyss. But what is going to change? The sad answer is probably: not much.

Man in teargas attack, unknown source

Erdoğan has already declared that he is sure of the support of his voters and his ability to mobilize even more of it, which even in sheer numbers will outweigh the boiling and furious minorities. He can say this, because the AKP received 49.8 % of the Turkish vote in the 2011 national elections, translating into 327 of 550 seats in parliament. This is one reason that the situation in Turkey is little like that in various Arab countries: Erdoğan’s popular government is rather akin to those run by the Muslim Brotherhoods than that of the governments the brothers toppled.

So this is exactly where the main problem lies: whereas a window of opportunity is now wide open, the opposition does not have much to offer to the furious people. To see why, simply ask which party in Turkey is the most professional? Which party manages to keep the political and personal scandals of their members under strict control? Which party has a clear political agenda and a clear action plan to implement that agenda? Correct, it is the AKP.

An insufficient, indecisive, unprofessional and vague opposition, which is even deeply fragmented among itself in terms of ethnicity, religion and class, simply will not be able to offer people anything more attractive than what the AKP has for them. Of course Erdoğan has finally been shown that not everything the AKP does will be supported by his growing electorate or given a blind-eye or will only be protested quietly by his current detractors.

But did he not already know that? Turkey has long ago crossed the point where simply demonstrating your discontent to the government is helpful. The government has the support of the absolute majority. The time has come to act and to act differently, cleanly and sharply. The opposition parties must get together. As they are catering to very different parts of the electorate, this need not result in electoral cannibalism. By now, only a united opposition will be able to break through the AKP’s parliamentary majority. This, the opposition can learn from the AKP.

One of the more popular twitter logos employed by protestors - source unknown.

Another lesson that we can learn from #OccupyGezi is that finally, the sense of dissatisfaction has grown enough to push people who would stay away from the dirt and blood of politics back into the streets. For a long time, most people, and especially educated professionals, preferred to withdraw as the feeling of helplessness grew in the face of the unstoppable power of the AKP. Now they are in action again, which gives hope that the new Turkish opposition, uniting different political, religious and cultural views, can find common grounds to act for a more inclusive and liberal Turkey.

The best place to start would be to keep strong and united by not turning a beautiful political struggle into petty acts of vandalism and anarchy as it happened in London and in so many other places recently. Though playing clean is difficult when you are being targeted by teargas, water cannons and plastic bullets, only an angry, but non-violent game will deny the government and its supporters the chance to label the protestors as hooligans.

The thin line between exposing the truth about the AKP and turning the protests into empty aggression must not be crossed now. Instead of leading the people forward in their revolt against the totalitarianism of the Islamic rule, it will only give the AKP the opportunity it needs to introduce an even more reactionary policy.

Darja Irdam

Darja Irdam is currently pursuing her PhD degree in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Her current research covers the areas of economic sociology and public health, with particular emphasis on post-Communist transitions, privatization, mortality, gender and class. She has also holds an MA in sociology from Koç University in Istanbul, where she worked and studied for several years.

The math behind the Holy Spirit

By Ask Foldspang Neve

[note: this essay was published just a few hours before the election was over at a few minutes past 6 GMT; as it turns out, Conclaves really are unpredictable].

Papal elections are not like any other ballot out there. Indeed, looked at with modern eyes, it is difficult to tell whether it is best compared with the election of a president or a vote held in Congress. It is steeped in a deeper mystery than even the American Electoral College, although the Catholic college has no Floridian Cardinals who show up two weeks after the ascension of a new Pontiff and pretend that producing their own little puff of white smoke matters. Compared to the US Senate of the 113th Congress, the electorate is also even more male (100% compared to the Senate’s 80%) and aged (median age is 72, compared to the Senate’s 62) though the College of Cardinals is the more ethnically diverse (65% white, compared to the Senate’s 93%) of the two. In theory, what makes the election of the Pope truly unique, though, is the fact that it is not meant to be an election at all. Rather than ‘deciding’ on the new Pope, the two-thirds majority needed to appoint Benedict’s successor is really thought to be only a means of communication of the Holy Spirit that has descended on the crowd. In practice, however, there is another feature of the papal elections that make them special: due to the math behind the Dove’s descent, it is almost impossible to make any accurate estimates of who will end up with its divine favor.

Moreover, we will quite possibly have to wait a while to find out. At any rate, much longer than almost any other election, and that with an electorate that is just about one-millionth the size of the electorate that reappointed Barack Obama for the US presidency a few months earlier. But just how long could it take for 115 well-educated, elderly men to find a leader among them? Well, it can take weeks, and the reason for that lies in the special election system that depends on a two-thirds supermajority. Welcome to an institution that makes even a filibustered election in the US Senate look like a painless decision-making process.

Popes come and popes go, but the Holy See is forever. After Benedict XVI abdicated on the last day of February, the College of Cardinals has gathered in the Sistine Chapel, where they will remain from yesterday until they have chosen the new head of the single largest religious community in the world. Since the election is resolved by a two thirds majority, it has often taken many days, sometimes even months, to find a winner. In return, the voters have them found the absolute ruler of the Church, who is in principle capable of speaking infallibly on matters of Catholic dogma. As such decisions might affect all 1.2 billion Catholics, it is obviously an appointment of some importance (some prominent Catholics, though, beg to differ with the last statement).

Titian - The Descent of the Holy Ghost (c. 1545), Venice.

Titian – The Descent of the Holy Ghost (c. 1545), Venice.

It has not always been a given that the pope should be at the center of the church. Just as Europeans today discuss which political matters ought to be decided in Brussels and which ones are properly resolved in the capitals of the member states, the clerical-political elite of medieval Europe assiduously discussed how authority should be divided between episcopacies, the monasteries, the abbacies, the synods and the Pope. Conduct the simple experiment of exchanging the list of Catholic authorities with names such as Parliament, Supreme Court, the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, and you will see the resemblance. And like the discussions in contemporary Europe, clerics and other authorities were not only disagreeing about who had political competence; they also disagreed about the Kompetenz-Kompetenz to solve those issues. The situation of today is, in other words, only just as complicated as it has always been.

The wisdom of these somewhat arcane procedures is more difficult to apprehend unless one knows a little about the causes for their introduction. Over the course of history, the church faced a series of challenges designing a fitting electoral procedure. Different methods were introduced, often with little or no prior knowledge of the consequences of selecting one technique instead of another. Today, the social sciences have developed a number of tools to analyze votes and electoral behavior, and employing these, we can explain why Benedict’s successor has to be found so laboriously. We might even learn from history about the different troubles facing the elected institutions of both Europe and the US today[1].

One of the primary trade-offs when implementing an electoral system is between stability and speed of decision-making. In a qualified majority system like the Catholic, stability has been emphasized over speed. However, this needs qualification: stability here means the lack of a credible alternative after the election, a very real concern in many polities. It does not mean predictability, of which there is very little in the papal elections. The reason for this is the very difficulty of obtaining a two-thirds majority. As voters progressively realize that their preferred candidate, though maybe strong, will be unelectable, they begin speculating about more unusual alternatives whose election will not be an outright defeat in the same way as the election of another major player might. Moreover, as the electorate is (most often) identical with the pool of candidates, it is possible to strategically put divisive candidates in play. Even given that they might not win in the first couple of rounds after they have entered the ballot, their presence might make other voters change their allegiance, as more electors realize that their de facto set of options has expanded. However, contrary to plurality voting, divisive candidates have a psychological effect rather than a purely mathematical one: since a candidate needs a two-thirds majority no matter the number of Ralph Naders in play, the effect is more to show the futility of supporting the original candidate.

This has quite often led to the election of popes who never looked like winners beforehand. John Paul II was such a dark horse. The last pope to abdicate before Benedict, Celestine V, is another good example. He was elected after an 822 days-long election. Before he was elected pope, he was a local hermit, with little official interest in church politics. As pope, he promptly reintroduced the harsher rules for papal elections of Gregory X and then stepped down. In total, Celestine wore the pallium for only five months and eight days, that is, less than a fifth of the period that it had taken to elect him. This means that despite what bookmakers say, we know very little about who will become the next bishop of Rome. This is not even due to the famed secrecy of the Conclave and its members, the Cardinals. As the unpredictability arises from the institution itself, even the Cardinals don’t know for sure.

The majority rule employed in the college until 1179 for determining papal successions gave rise to its own, internal problems that in turn left the institution open to outside interference. A special problem arises when there are more than two candidates (and more than two voters) in an election using simple majority rule. Often known as the Condorcet paradox of voting, named after the French enlightenment philosopher and mathematician Jean Marie de Condorcet who first pointed to its existence, the problem consists in the voting system being able to produce non-conclusive results; that is, not producing a unique winner. If we have an electorate of three voters, {1, 2, 3}, and a set of three candidates, {A, B, C}, the following ranking of preferences can appear:


Voter 1

Voter 2

Voter 3

1st priority




2nd priority




3rd priority




From the above table can be seen that with the given preferences, no candidate would stand a pairwise comparison with any other candidate in terms of satisfying voters’ preferences. Thus, if A is chosen as the winner, both voters 2 and 3 will prefer C to A as the winner. If C is then chosen, both voters 1 and 2 will prefer B to C. It goes the same way for B. In more formal terms, it can be said that simple majority rule is like to produce the following electoral cycle:

A > B > C > A > (…), where > denotes an electoral majority.

Normally it is assumed that the individual voter has transitive preferences, that is, if a voter prefers A to B and B to C, she also prefers A to C. The general problem, then, is that even when individual voters (or coherent coalitions of voters) have transitive preferences, it might not be possible to achieve social transitivity. The problem exists when voters act sincerely (as contrasted to tactically) and extends to most of the policy space, that is, for most combinations of voters and preferences, unless voters have essentially equal preferences. Furthermore, only very slight changes from the set of stable preference orderings reintroduce intransitivity to most layers of the field (that is, even to ordering among the top preferences of most voters). In other words, a simple majority system is extremely unlikely to create a system of complete transitivity.

The problems incurred by this paradox are multiple. It points to the fact that most electoral results formed by a majority will, paradoxically, be less satisfactory to a majority than some other option. This can lead to different problematic situations. The first is impossibility in reaching conclusions. If different choices cannot be ranked socially using the election method in question, the electorate cannot easily come to a conclusion. Even if they do, there is a great likelihood that the route to that decision is created through agenda- setter manipulation. The second is the risk that a party in the election will not respect the result altogether, which will lead to competing results or the breakdown of the electoral institution.

This is possible in a surprisingly simple mechanism. When individual preferences are aligned as depicted above, (i.e. prone to producing cycles under majority rule) an individual who can control the pairing of votes can lead the electorate to any position in the policy space of his choosing. In the figure below, the preference set {A, B, C} from before has been continued, with three voters each preferring their marked positions; S is the starting consensus. Now, in a finite number of steps {S, Z…Z’’’}, the agenda-setter is able to move the consensus over the marked positions. The farther away from S, the wider each voter’s indifference circle will become and the bigger steps the agenda setter can take. In the figure below, A and B prefer Z to S. However, then B and C will prefer Z’ to Z. That position, however, is less preferred to C and A than Z’’; finally, A and B prefer Z’’’, the agenda-setters preferred position, to Z’’:

Agenda Manipulation

Agenda manipulation under simple majority rule.

But in the 1100s, the times they were a-changin’. The church was coagulating into a self-owning entity. Hence, its interest in not being shaken by schisms and bloodshed became organizational, and as such became more likely to trump dynastic impulses to disregard church safety. Although contestants for power internally, the newly established College of Cardinals and the Pope had a concurrent interest in keeping the organization a unified whole. Even though the Cardinals were still mostly drawn from the high aristocracy, they increasingly prioritized office interests above dynastic goals upon their ascension, sometimes to the expressed displeasure of their kin. Just as the members of the European Commission are given powerful incentives not to act as representatives of their native countries, the preferences of the cardinals also increasingly came to be shaped by the structure of the church. This in turn strengthened the position of the church, which again made it more attractive to obtain official positions within it and keep these offices as independent as possible.

Until 1163 it was still the prerogative of Roman ecclesiastics to elect the Pope; hereafter arose the custom of including individual external members as well. Not surprisingly, the first external member was a German-speaker. His name was Conrad of Wittelsbach, the archbishop of Mainz. To some southerners, this must have been the equivalence of taking dictates from the ECB today. As the Italian cardinals in the current election still number almost a fourth of the College, it is quite obvious that some members still feel that the election of the Roman bishop should be kept an internal affair.

To ensure that everybody recognized their authoritativeness, Alexander III decided to proclaim his new election rules at the Third Lateran Council in 1179, speculated by the scholars Josep Colomer and Ian McLean to be inspired by the Venetian voting system in place at the time. No matter whether you regarded the highest authority on the rules of the church to be its general assemblies or its presidency, you would have been accommodated. It was made clear that cardinals of all three sacramental orders were entitled to cast their vote and at the same time the two-thirds rule was established. It was intended to make it less likely that the elected pope would face opponents who themselves held credible claims to the honor. However, the price paid for this was immense difficulty of reaching a conclusion. To counteract this, the Conclave (literally, ’with key’, that is, under lock) was developed by the Roman authorities. Gregory X even decided that the Cardinals had to live in increasing discomfort as the days went by with no result, so that in the end, they would be served only bread and water. This ought to make them to tune in to His frequency. More important than the temporary loss of comforts was probably the simultaneous loss of profitable tithes, which members of the conclave were not entitled to while in session. While not especially effective, instituting such a rule for today’s political classes would probably prove popular among their jaded electorates.

Ask Foldspang Neve

Ask Foldspang Neve is currently pursuing his MA in political science at the University of Aarhus,  Denmark. He is writing on religion and politics from sociological and political science perspectives.


1] The technical properties of the papal voting systems were first analyzed in a 1998 article by Josep M. Colomer and Ian McLean in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, which this essay draws on.