Divided demands

Author: Milla Mineva

Representation is “out” – younger generations are all about limited issues, small groups creating small change before dissolving and moving to the next. But how can it produce real effect – and what can established civil society learn asks Milla Mineva.



Small groups, divided societies
Referring to contemporary societies as fragmented is commonplace in social sciences circles. The term describes the disintegration of a society into a myriad of small groups, which each tend to be heading in their own direction. Identifying all the reasons for this disintegration would be impossible in just a few words. Nevertheless, we can identify some of the more influential factors.
Overvaluing homogeneity was the cultural norm in the nation state model. There was then a shift towards overvaluing difference as the nation state was opened up and undermined. Last but not least, the hegemony of neo-liberal discourse put competition and the market at the centre of society.  All of these shifts have played a role in the fragmentation of society.
This fragmentation is in evidence daily in the ever-increasing number of choices available. These choices help to construct a more defined individuality in members of a society.
On the other hand, we tend to explain social inequalities as a consequence of choice rather than of social circumstances. The idea of lifestyle now dominates where once class and strata were the key considerations.
It is important to remember that when a discourse of aesthetic inequalities dominates, this does not necessarily imply that efforts are being made to change this domination and create a different society.
Small groups are formed around these individual choices, leading to what Mark Penn refers to as microtrends. The Internet is not at the heart of the formation of these small groups. However, social networking sites in particular may play an important binding role in their creation and organization. It is no accident that the Internet’s relationship with activism is not limited to activism within the net, which became apparent in developments such as the copyleft movement. Activism which uses the Internet as an important tool is also very popular and effective today.
The secret of these small groups lies not only in the fact that they are formed around individual choices, but also in their ability to change aspects of everyday life. They are therefore able to build up a profile which can be drawn on again for future civic action.
The withdrawal from the political
Paradoxically, the everyday efficiency of these small groups tends to lead to their withdrawal from the political sphere. Currently, at least in Bulgaria, there are examples of small groups coordinating successful campaigns to effect urban policy. If a united group of citizens is able to turn around decisions, then many people will start to question whether voting is actually worth the effort.
That is precisely why we see many active environmental groups, for instance, refusing to take part in the political decision-making process. A rather interesting example from Bulgaria is the BG-Mamma online forum. This community of mothers organizes charity events and attempts to protect the social rights of mothers. They have stubbornly refused to define their actions in political terms, even when they are having an impact on the social policy of the central authorities. They define their activities as civic ones. They see themselves playing a supportive role to mothers, and do not attempt to view these interests in the context of society as a whole.
The only form of political participation which has appeared to be adequate lately is direct democracy, or perhaps a more appropriate term would be adhocracy. I would nevertheless claim that direct democracy in this context does not mean a strengthening of the political sphere. On the contrary, it may even mean a radical rejection of the political sphere.    
The demand for a daily referendum was the only demand shared by all the different groups that protested in Bulgaria in January. It was hoped that a daily referendum would rescue the decision making process from corrupt and ineffective politicians and put it back in the hands of the general public.
Power would then be expert-driven. In this sense, direct democracy turns out to be a form of withdrawal from the political sphere. Individual groups would vote on issues directly related to their area of interest and expertise. Environmentalists would vote on environmental policies and so on. Other groups would not be active in the daily referendum on environmental issues. This is based on the assumption that putting power in the hands of those who are the most well-informed would lead to choices being made that are the best option for everyone. If some voters are not happy, the votes could be cast again on the following day. It is obvious that there is a problem with representative democracy in Bulgaria. I have my doubts, however, that direct democracy is the solution.
There is another important consequence of the efficiency of small groups. They are so internally homogeneous, that they are often unable to negotiate with other groups.
The protests in Bulgaria in January were initiated by a number of different groups –students, environmentalists, mothers and farmers among others. Although many groups supported the protests, their differences eventually led to disunity and prevented them from reaching their goals.
As the protests unfolded, protestors discovered that they had different demands and even different ideas on how to protest. On the second day of the protests, the environmentalists began a silent protest. As this tactic was not adopted by all the other protesters, the environmentalists looked like a colorful, quiet and depressed group in the frontline of the protesting crowd.
While the environmentalists kept silent, the students desperately tried to make the whole square resound with the national anthem. The nationalist leaders and their supporters, who were also genuinely protesting unlike the provocateurs present on day one, were shouting slogans such as “Resignation!”, thus giving shape to the whole protest.
As the actions on the square were broken up a similar break-up was evident in the protestors’ demands. Some wanted video surveillance and a police presence in the Studentski Grad part of Sofia, where most of the city’s students live. Others wanted a ban on Internet tapping and bugging. Another group wanted to take back control of the state. All of them eventually demanded support for the Bulgarian bee-keeping industry.
After a failed attempt at agreeing upon clear and collective demands, the protesters only succeeded in demanding an amendment to the law on referendums, and the protests naturally came to an end without any major achievements.
In actual fact, the main problem is that none of these groups could convert their private demands into civic or political ones. No group was able to look beyond the horizon of their own, small and homogenous group. The demand for the government to resign raised on the second day of the protests could not be taken seriously, because no one was offering an alternative.
The main problem of small groups is that they are not expansive. Secondly, because of their homogeneity, they are not willing to talk to other groups and negotiate a common position. They are so convinced that their demands are right and just that they do not see any sense in re-negotiating them. They are only looking for experts to put them in an effective and legally binding format.
The re-invention of the political
There are a number of key problems that active civil society is facing today. The disintegration of society does produce small and active groups, but it also leads to the loss of a common, relatively neutral space, in which these small groups could negotiate their interests. An even more critical problem for the effective operation of civil society is that these new small groups are formed around specific private interests. They are so effective at protecting theses interests that they have no desire to make an effort, and hence we don’t see them making an effort, to participate in any debate on the common good.
Their idea of utopia is the fulfillment of all private interests at the same time, and all that is needed to create this utopia is an expert. The work of small groups counters that of other similar organizations, so meeting everyone’s expectations simultaneously is not possible.
The sphere in which the common good could be discussed no longer exists. It disappeared along with the disappearance of a common, relatively neutral, public space. There is no longer a forum for critique of the state and its practical withdrawal, for critique of the political sphere, and power in general.
Added to this is a broader, global crisis affecting ideas relating to the public good, and the rise of the neo-liberal discourse from Thatcher’s time up until the end of the Bush era.
Times may be changing however. We are already seeing evidence of the economic crisis making the hegemony of neo-liberalism seem less legitimite. I also interpret the election of President Obama as an indication of a return to the political sphere. In Eastern Europe such a process will be a lot more difficult because of the historical context in which it needs to take place, namely in post-transition societies. The agenda for the transition process has already been successfully implemented. Market economies and democracy are already in place.
The market economy, however, has been profoundly delegitimized, and not because of the crisis, which has not yet been felt so strongly in this part of the world. Sociological surveys indicate a steady trend, economies are growing and so is social discontent. The problem is that the market proved not to be the instrument of justice it had been seen as at the beginning of the transition. Democracy is there but people have a growing feeling that they do not participate in the decision-making process.
If we leave all the external factors aside, we see that it was the politics of consensus which actually killed the political sphere. People changed their governments all the time, but they never succeeded in changing the course of their political actions. Seen in this perspective, refusing to vote in elections became a completely rational choice. People will naturally begin to question the logic of legitimizing parties as their representatives if those parties do not offer alternatives in which they recognize their own interests.
In my view, along with the refusal to vote, an even more disturbing trend came about. People began to resign themselves to the political sphere, to see it as something over which they have no influence.
When people cease to be able to envisage an alternative future, they cease taking political action. The dismissal of the politics of consensus in which ideological differences are blurred is the first essential step in the come-back of the political sphere and in encouraging participation in it. Coming up with new, alternative political projects is what can bring citizens back to the political sphere, what can bring them back as participants, not as passive observers. The renewal of civil society may be dependent on a reinvention of the political sphere.

Milla Mineva has an MA in Cultural Studies, and she is doing PhD in Sociology at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridsky, where she now is assistant professor in the Sociology of Culture. Her research includes projects on Socialist consumer culture, National identity, Cultural patterns of European enlargement. In 2008 she was involved in the project Microtrends, realized by Open Society Institute, Sofia, Center for Liberal Strategies and “Capital” newspaper. The aim of Microtrends is to analyze the social processes from micro-perspective identifying small, counterintuitive, but active groups with potential to cause social changes. The results of the project have been published recently in the book “Guide 2020”.  

This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.


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