The thing that struck me most about the crisis in Ireland was the degree to which the Irish government at the time continually denied there were problems. We were told the country had sufficient cash reserves but all the while they were secretly negotiating with IMF about a rescue package. This angered the people and understandably so: first there was irresponsible risk taking with no explanation to the public and then no apology about being less than truthful.
Irish citizens are disengaged, uninterested, disillusioned and what matters most in trying to re-engage them, what they really want is more openness, honesty and integrity. They need to believe that as a collective people can affect change; that they can take the reins of power and that politicians are not there just out of self-interest.
European institutions are only beginning to wake up to what is happening in Bulgaria and Romania etc. Many members of the European Parliament put these issues on the agenda but the usual response has been: this is a matter for the Council of Europe, not for the European Union. No member state wishes to criticize another member state for breaches of principles of democracy or for violations of human rights. It is not comfortable and polite. Much of the EU is based on politeness and nobody wants to grasp this nettle. We need to start building the momentum but we must not underestimate the challenge because in Europe we don’t like being impolite.
The US has a long and rich history of democratic tradition. Originally it was meant only for a small subset of people in the country – people who were white and owned land could vote and participate in democratic society. Most social movements focused on growing the subset of people who can be political: it evolved from the abolition movement, which got rid of slavery, through the women suffrage movement, which gave women the right to vote, to the civil rights movement that gave African-American people the right to vote. But in the last few years there has been a growing disillusionment with democracy among young people in my country, parallel to what we see among young people in Europe. We see a growing distrust in politics and politicians in the US, part of which led to the Occupy Wall Street protest, after many years of ineffectual protest – e.g. the anti-war movement, which failed to prevent the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is growing scepticism that regular people, especially young people, can have a say or influence things. They are becoming more disillusioned also for technological reasons: they feel a huge increase in their agency, a power to affect the world around them but not a corresponding growth in political agency.
One last trend that amplifies this disillusionment is the rising global inequality under the global finance capitalism especially over the last 5-10 years. The financial crisis laid bare the government’s policy of propping up banks and encouraging risky behaviour that pushes people into the streets and to this day there has been no punishment or justice for those who hurt people, especially the poor. We have the responsibility to recognize that these are not other people’s problems but ours, and that we are going to have to fix them.
Occupy Wall Street didn’t demand anything of the government. Instead we demanded of each other that we ourselves confront the inequality and dysfunction. People don’t have to wait for politicians to fix the problems, the politicians are just as clueless as we are and they are being bought off and have no interest in fixing problems as long as somebody slips them some money. But if we focus on corruption it distracts us from the main issue, money has always been apart of politics, there’s nothing new about it. Now we live in a situation that we have a government that’s been hijacked by corporate interests, globally, and it doesn’t represent the interests of the 99%.
When in the second half of 1980s the centrifugal forces that held the fragile republic of Yugoslavia together began to dissipate, nationalism was the only game in town and all countries reached for it to mobilise the public and they have successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of the excited citizenry that wanted to enter Europe. The slogan that occupied public mind in Slovenia, the former Yugoslavia and indeed the entire Eastern Europe was return to Europe. Its flipside was retreat from Balkans, the savage place with weapons rather than tools.
In the process of transition to democracy and capitalism that consumed best part of 20 years, the distinct winners were political elites that managed to translate political problems into ethnic terms and successfully drive a wedge between ethnic communities that made up the now defunct country. It became quite clear that the narrative that was sold to us as the return to Europe, to normalcy, was a story that only helped to make us look the wrong way. Only now it is possible to realize that the narrative that was supposed to give some semblance of coherence and unity to European people is not sufficient. In the absence of a unifying narrative the population tends to reach for solidarity based on ethnicity. This is something we should try and keep at bay.
The flipside of austerity are the rising movements that can be characterized as proto-fascist. If there is one consensus on the part of the demonstrating populations in my country and elsewhere it is the consensus that if the EU and its enforced austerity measures assume the role the IMF played in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, if it becomes a hard whip on the back of the disenfranchised populations, Europe will continue in the division into diligent ants in the North and a lazy non-active part in the South of Europe relegated to the role of playing cricket.
With the benefit of hindsight, 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, I would go as far as to say that the EU is a victim of own success because the incremental change was performed in a technocratic manner and it is only now that we see that the financial markets lost patience with the protracted decision-making process and people have lost trust in globalisation. During the Cold War there was an effort to be polite, to not ruffle any feathers but now it seems that the gloves are off and I can detect, at least in my country, a pursuit of direct democracy, they open up the space to active citizenship – 3 steps: reflection, action and follow-up. Steps 1 and 2 have happened but 3 not yet. These three steps are crucial: in the night of sameness all the cows are black.
Bulgaria has developed from bad to ugly. At the moment we have a government elected 4 months ago, which enjoys support of 20% of the population. 70% of the people wanted an election, but almost nobody went out to vote. They wanted the government to go but didn’t want the next one to come. In the past 25 years no government in Bulgaria has been re-elected. People use elections as the public execution of party in power, always for a good reason.
In American movies even the bad guy is ambivalent, for example, he is bad but good-looking, but not in Bulgaria. In Bulgaria soon after the election they appointed a young oligarch, whose mother own most of the media, as head of counter-intelligence; his only experience was to have been investigated. 50-60 thousand people in Sofia went into the streets. The government was shocked and forced the man to resign. How can a government hope to survive in a situation like this? Because they know very well they won’t be trusted so their message is not “trust us” but “don’t trust the other parties, don’t trust anybody”. And people are prepared to believe any type of negative message.
The students occupying the university are afraid to be seen as political, they are afraid of having leaders but if you don’t have leaders it’s difficult to have negotiations: you can tweet a revolution but you can’t tweet a political process.
Something very important is happening in Europe – Bulgaria is the poorest country in the EU – one thing that was perceived as the major factor that legitimised change was that people can travel freely, that they can come and go as they please. But now even this is questioned. People in villages, pensioners are stuck at home while younger people leave. Every 4th Bulgarian over school age is out of the country, and people don’t like it. Open borders also mean that foreigners whom we don’t like will come. Democracy is delegitimized but people don’t have an alternative.
The problems we are seeing today may not be a judgment on democracy as such but on the democratic process. The current populism is different from the typical right-wing populism of 10 years ago, it is simply the result of disillusionment with established political parties that have no agenda or too a complicated agenda. What we see is that the discourse of globalisation puts aside the political dimension of how to organise society. We still live in the time of crisis and if a substantial part of the population feels threatened they are open to listen only to basic talk. This is a unique and threatening situation but it need not last forever.
Photo: Peter Župník