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Welfare and Social Issues

There Is No General Moral to Building a Movement

We tend to think that those who do not launch politically sensible movements do not deserve to take part in the public discourse. That’s one of the characteristics of the inequality of political life.


GEJ: Which topics have the capacity to mobilise people these days?

Agnes Gagyi: To answer this we need to ask three things: Who are the ones concerned? What mobilises them? And what topics can work as a mobilising force at the symbolic level of mobilisation? Let’s just think of the Eastern European middle class movements: a structural feature of their mobilisations is the fact that when members of the educated middle class find themselves among the “losers” of post-socialist transformation they have more hope to achieve something through political mobilisation. This situation gives them a better start to mobilisation.

The specific topics and forms of organisation depend on the given constellations: Is something going to focus the accumulated offences and injuries to a single point? Are there political groups that step up and manage to keep the injuries on the agenda? How does all this align with the already existing power relations, ruling political-economic blocs, with the symbolic fields they had constructed, and with the historically constructed political vocabularies?

It is characteristic of today’s new movements that they keep the topics of inequality, oligarchy, nepotism on the agenda. This mirrors a real structural polarisation, yet, you cannot say that “this or that topic has a mobilising force”. It makes a difference who talks about the issues; with what means, when, in relation to whom and to what audience the issues are thematised.

If we look at a specific Hungarian topic: why did a lot more people demonstrate, for instance, against the proposed internet tax than against the land seizure in the Hungarian city Kishantos?

Offences transform into mobilising topics through a series of transmissions—and most of them do not transform into such at all. In this concrete case: neither the internet tax nor the Kishantos case cover the basis of the more general, long-term dissatisfaction of the Hungarian society, which may be caused by the steadily declining quality of life (ever since the end of the 70s) and the unfulfilled hopes attached to the regime change. The “transmissions”—the circle of those directly concerned by an issue, the readiness of the concerned to mobilise, the political lines of force surrounding the issue, etc.—are the reason that one issue drew a lot of people to the streets, and another drew less.

No empirical examination was conducted for this comparison, so I would only name a few aspects: The internet is one of the last strongholds of the middle class’ cultural consumptions. It symbolises the experience of personal freedom. Therefore, the internet tax means a direct intrusion into the daily routine of people who normally do not belong among the most deprived, and who may be willing to mobilise themselves. Whereas, the Kishantos case concerns less people directly. The campaign made reference to the general depletion of the countryside, for which the system of large estates dominated by political networks is to be blamed—yet, this process had run its course much earlier for the great majority of the people concerned. As a consequence, these people may have identified less with the Kishantos case and the campaign around it—as it really dealt with one specific issue: saving Kishantos. Generally speaking, it is worth taking into consideration that the movements are no direct reflections of a social problem. This indirectness is greatly affected by the question: who possesses the right resources and the right amount of resources to build a political movement which can potentially become significant at the level of formal politics.

Also, there are countless other ways to express personal or massive dissatisfaction, from slipping into alcoholism to joining sects to committing suicide. Part of the inequality of political life is that we think that those who do not launch politically sensible movements do not deserve to take part in the public discourse. At the same time, it is the existing unequal distribution of social resources that defines who is in the position to launch movements at the first place.

What are the methods to rally a large number of people for a cause?

It is impossible to a give a general answer to this question. The techniques of building a movement have a huge bibliography, but no general moral, because the relevance of different organisational repertoires always depends on the context. Through the mobilisation events, though, new and old public figures are able to secure part-advantages or suffer disadvantages. The proportion of these two is what matters, of course, to every public figure. The question of “rallying” is, from their point of view, a strategic question which depends on the context.


The “transmissions”—the circle of those directly concerned by an issue, the readiness of the concerned to mobilise, the political lines of force surrounding the issue, etc.—are the reason that one issue drew a lot of people to the streets, and another drew less.


Is it possible to link the movements that we see today in Europe, even though they are spatially sporadic and are sometimes very different in their topics (eg anti-austerity, anti-fracking, Kishantos etc.)?

It is possible, obviously, and there have been many attempts to do exactly that. To better understand the situation, it is worth keeping in mind that in most cases the causes of the various movements come to surface in different points of similar structural procedures. The keywords are similar, and the political coalitions arch over the varying economic and political contexts. A lot of organisational work is needed to link the different movements, and they often only succeed temporarily. It is difficult to identify a general idea which grasps every injury as an element of the same problem.

The anti-austerity demonstrations in Europe are partly international. In Eastern Europe they are hardly international. The Eastern European societies which experienced the crises of the 90s and the 2000s, don’t feel compassion when it comes to the crises in the countries of the West. “What the Western countries now perceive as an intolerable downfall, is not that much different from the unemployment rate or the minimum wage we have experienced for many years” they say.

But there is even more that adds to the problems of connecting the struggles of the East and the West. On the one hand, Western movements tend to support environmental protection, on the other hand, the treatment of these causes might run into the trouble that the environmental problems of Eastern Europe frequently serve the interests of Western companies, or they are part of a geopolitical game where the country in question has to prove its commitment to the right side, by accepting an environmentally damaging technology.

In other words, further interconnections and differences lie behind the statements that a political cause, like environmental protection or the fight against austerity is one and the same everywhere.

In this issue of the journal, we deal with the demonstrations against mining in Roşia Montană. Why do these demonstrations deserve our attention?

Looking at the themes of the environmental protection movements after the regime changes in Eastern Europe, the case of the Roşia Montană gold mine stands out because of the longer time span of the fights that surrounded it. This has given a special environment in terms of the political connections of the specific case, and in terms of the creation of a local activist sphere as well.

From a different perspective the issue is not peculiar at all: there is an investor who, relying on the available corrupt practices strives to make an investment which damages the environment. This is met by the opposition of an alliance of locals and local environmentalists. I would not call it very peculiar, either, that this specific case of environmental protection became the topic of a larger political movement – in Romania and Bulgaria, you had similar demonstrations against forest exploitations, Chevron’s shale drilling plans, or a construction project in a protected area on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast (the so called “Dyuni-gate”).

According to the German sociologist, Wolfgang Kraushaar, author of “From Cairo to New York, from Madrid to Santiago and from Lisbon to Tel-Aviv”, we see that the demonstrations which had started in 2011 must be regarded as a revolt of the educated, insofar as “the educated” stand at the core of these movements. Do you agree with this statement?

The participation of the middle class and of those holding a degree is strong, this is a fact. An extra effect is that these participants have at their disposal a set of social connections, political and cultural assets which enable them to shape the events of the movement in the wider public sphere according to their own priorities. Therefore, although not all of the participants in the “Occupy”, in the Iberian movements or in the Arabic or Eastern European movements are “educated”, the educated are the most visible ones.

However, if we would like to understand the dynamics of the new wave of movements which are commonly called the “2011 movements” (although they have been wider both in time and in space) the point is not whether the participants hold degrees but how today’s global course of events transforms people’s life conditions in various positions of the global economy, and what it means within this transformation that some people begin to launch such movements.


Part of the inequality of political life is that we think that those who do not launch politically sensible movements do not deserve to take part in the public discourse.


If we look at it this way, the first thing that strikes the eye is that although their slogans and mobilisation repertoires are often similar, the various movements are embedded in different local political and mobilisation projects. Since 2011, an array of empirical studies have been written on why the Brazilian, Arabic, Southern European and North American movements of the time could not be considered one and the same phenomenon. The key to the similarities and to the differences is the same: we are talking about different points of the global economy. In other words: the same crisis sets in motion different movements at different points of the structure of the global economy. A good example is that of the North American and Western European movements. Their tale of the decline from “democratic capitalism” to neo-liberalism to brutal austerity, can only be understood in the context of the Western welfare state after the Second World War. The same story could hardly apply to any of the Latin American, Arabic or Eastern European countries. To stay at our own, Eastern European example: in this region, a stable welfare democracy, similar to the ones in the Western world, has never emerged after the Second World War. Following 1989 the process of democratisation went hand in hand with the austerity measures, which are conceived as new phenomena by the Western movements. When the Eastern European movements demand welfare and democracy, repeating the slogans of the Western movements, it is about a never achieved promise of modernisation—this is then being translated to the problems of the regime change or the problems of the current political constellations.


The earlier forms of the anti-nuclear and green movements had been founded on post-material, value-based politics. One of the starting points of this politics was that—contrary to the situation today—their own base did not suffer from bread-and-butter worries.


What does such a strong participation of the middle class mean?

If we look at the position of the middle class participants, we can detect a systemic effect. The crisis of the global economy and the financialization that comes with it erases the earlier positions in production, where the so-called middle classes had been embedded, and it also polarises social assets more strongly than before. The loss of positions and the polarisation is perceived and it brings along some sort of a moral crisis, that is, a breakup of earlier moral systems based on earlier positions. The coalitions between the middle classes and the former hegemonic groups loosen up and various mobilisations are called to life to recover those positions. Part of the reorientation process is that elites are perceived as traitors, and the middle class seeks alliances with various other groups, even with more disadvantaged ones. This process can be detected in the leftist populist turn of the new Western and Eastern European movements.

At the same time, from the point of view of the organisation, dynamics and functions of the movements it makes a huge difference what kind of middle class positions at which point of the global economy we talk about. From this perspective, I would only mention one historic feature of the Eastern European middle classes: here, the attraction to the Western middle class’ life quality has always bumped into a wall, as the local economies could not offer sufficient middle class positions. Therefore, following a historically repeating pattern, the local middle classes are prone to translate their ambitions for material mobility into a political project, through which they hope to reshape the conditions which hinder their own ambitions.

This phenomenon, which carries various labels in the literature, such as the “politics of backwardness”, “teleological elites”, etc. is given a further twist by the fact that these political projects never react to local conditions only; they also mediate between the local society and various external allies, typically global and regional hegemonic partners. This is how local intellectual political projects, which are not necessarily motivated by local social conditions, may keep coming to existence. Such projects may be inferior in the local power-relations, but their external connections bring about political assets which come from real global resources.

Why can’t the parties get on well with new movements?

In general, it is not true that movements do not have strong relations with parties. Parties typically make use of the existence of movements in their own campaigns, they devote their own resources to recycle the energies of the movements for their own uses. Many careers that start in movements continue in party politics, and so on. In relation to the parties of the European left, an argument is often emphasised: that the support which social democratic parties gave to neo-liberal policies alienated the voters who were struck by the economic restrictions. The new leftist demands cannot find their way for political expression within the old “left” which slid to the centre, so they either distance themselves from party politics, or they channel in to left-wing parties born in the new mobilisations (Syriza, Podemos). In the latter case it is the tight connection between the parties and the movement which is the most spectacular, but the relation is burdened with conflicts, here, too. If we would like to picture the relation between parties and movements according to the—in my view false—narrative that a good movement always becomes a party or that, if everything goes smoothly, the parties and the movements “get on well” with each other, then not even Syriza fulfils these criteria. The systemic conflicts, which, in today’s European crisis, on the one hand regulate the parties’ scope for action and, on the other, stir up movements, are present in their case as well.

If we talk about the voters struck by austerity measures: why is it no alternative for them to turn to the green parties, which, too have their roots in movements, and are more critical of globalisation than other mainstream parties? Or, viewed from a different angle: why were the green parties not able to profit from the fact that the voters became alienated from the “third way” social democrats?

If we talk about the Western European Green parties, I would answer, in a slightly generalised way: it was because their gestures were not strong enough as they reacted to the new social tensions brought about by austerity measures. So, in the political field, where the new populist right and left managed to present itself as a viable alternative, the Greens got stuck in the category of “the parties of the system”.


The key to the similarities and to the differences is the same: we are talking about different points of the global economy.


Also, the Western green parties are rooted in the spirit of 1968 and not in the criticism of globalisation. Their slow and inflexible reaction to the massive uproar against neo-liberalism is partly due to this fact. The earlier forms of the anti-nuclear and green movements had been founded on post-material, value-based politics. One of the starting points of this politics was that—contrary to the situation today—their own base did not suffer from bread-and-butter worries.

For the Hungarian “Politics Can Be Different” (Lehet Más a Politika – LMP) party, one of the main points of departure was the globalisation-critical movement of the 2000s (the other point of departure is the green movement’s more conservative, rural line). LMP have struggled between the right–left (national conservative–liberal) poles of Hungarian politics from the start. The “third way”, which meant eco-politics and has been proclaimed at the level of slogans, proved to be weaker than the polarisation which was present within the party’s own ranks, which emerged after a while and ultimately led to a split in 2012.

The LMP and its parliamentary groups had a hard time catching the attention of those voters who had been disappointed in the socialists. We could say that they did worse off in attracting these voters than their possibilities would have enabled them to do so, and we could count the technical difficulties which caused this. Still, the basic problem does not lie there, I think. Rather in the fact that the Eastern European, and more specifically, the Hungarian political conditions—for many reasons—do not allow for a clear-cut populist turn to the left, the likes that may have linked the Syriza and the Podemos to the outcry against austerity. The left in Hungary means the liberal successor of the once existing communist regime, who, since the 90s, have carried out a policy of economic restrictions, supported by a discourse of Western superiority. Anti-austerity populism has become the tool of the political right, without the democratic aspect of populism.

As a last comment, I would add that the globalisation-critical tradition within the LMP stands relatively far away from the populism which made the Western leftist parties successful. Criticising globalisation has been the issue of a narrow elite of activists. In its ideology and in its practice, the LMP struggled heavily with the contradiction that they could not apply the framework of the Western globalisation-critiques to the post-communist context. Instead, they blamed the post-communist context because it did not react properly to the Western slogans.

This contradiction is not only characteristic of the Eastern European criticisms of globalisation, but in general to the global relations of Eastern European political history, and to its relations with neighbouring powers. The systemic relations which lifted up Syriza or Podemos, on the basis of movements which directly reacted to specific social injuries, were different. Although, I must add again: this kind of tighter alignment between the issue of a movement and the issue represented by a party does not imply a success in the representation of this issue. Syriza’s present situation is a perfect example for this.