Civil Protests, E-Democracy, New Mobilizations in Bulgaria

Protest is the politics of the powerless (Van den Donk et al 2004: 12. The present study starts from the same question – what do citizens do when their ties with elites as their ‘representatives’ have thinned or broken and do they succeed when experimenting with empowerment and revitalizing democracy. The core of the analysis is if and how protests, contestotary culture and new mobilizations both online and offline impact the quality of democracy.

The context in which this study on the protests in Bulgaria was planned, thought through and discussed is that of permanent protest of 2013. 2013 was the year of protests, the culmination of protests, the watershed marking the transition from party to contestatory democracy.

Is it possible to write about protests at a time of protests? No, a young scholar answered frankly during an academic debate on the protests.[1] We need some distance – temporal, existential, theoretical. This article will take the risk of reflecting upon a dynamic, unpredictable subject. Writing in a protest situation has several theoretical implications. The most obvious one is that of affective rationality. Manuel Castells writes in Networks of Outrage and Hope (2012: XIV-XV) that ‘it is in the crossroads between emotion and cognition, work and experience, personal history and hope for the future that this book was born. For you.’ In this article, too, emotion will not replace analysis but neither will it abandon it; it will not use slogans instead of arguments but neither will it excise affectivity, which lies at the very heart of contestatory democracy.

The most significant implication is deontological. The opposition between value-free and value-laden cognition categorically puts this study in the latter category. In it cognition and engagement interfere and intensify each other. This author will argue that a new form of democracy is being born and established in Bulgarian society.

The third implication is communicative. This article is eager to meet its readers, to enter the dialogical field of controversies and (counter)arguments, to be debated, contested and animated, for its purpose is not to formulate categorical answers but to outline horizons for interpretations.

1.      The Second Democratic Revolution

The hypothesis of this analysis is that we are witnessing a second democratic revolution. The first one was the velvet revolution of the 1990s, the second the digital and contestatory revolution of the 2010s. Prepared on Facebook, it broke out in the public squares. Forming messages, networks, actors and capacity in the virtual agora, it poured them out on Eagles’ Bridge and Parliament Square in Sofia.

Whereas the postcommunist revolution was a revolution of the elites, the contestatory revolution is of the citizens. The former brought about the transition to parliamentary democracy, while the latter is stubbornly looking for, experimenting, erring and insisting on finding a new form of democracy. It is this hypothesis that will be tested in this study.

1.1.   The Difficult Conceptualization

‘Why are civil protests rare in contemporary Bulgaria?’ Ivka Tsakova (2012: 130) asked (herself) in 2012. This question is telling in three respects:

–          The disconnect, or even the divergence, between theory and practice. We had already witnessed a number of environmental mobilizations (shale gas, ACTA, GMOs), a teachers’ strike, protests of miners, farmers, railway workers, but theory defined them less as a fact and a beginning than as an absence and impossibility:[2] ‘one-off and sporadic acts of resistance against the injustices of the transition’ (Tsakova 2012: 131). Instead of focusing on the birth of a new contestatory culture, experts were reflecting upon why such a culture could not be born in Bulgaria. The protest wave of 2013 caught both politicians and political analysts by surprise.

–          The underrated globalization. At a time characterized by powerful mobilizations from Iceland to Egypt, from New York to Istanbul, from Madrid to Sofia, assuming that Bulgaria could remain permanently apart from the contestatory wave meant underrating the new global and digital generation.

–          Not ante, but post. Bulgarian political theory was (and still is) following political practice instead of anticipating it. Manuel Castells had already developed his concept of the network society when the Occupy and Indignados movements burst on the scene. In an emotional account, he tells how he received an email from a young indignada he had never met before, who was inviting him to come and see them, to join, observe and analyze them. The world-famous scholar says he was overcome by a powerful emotion, and his heart accelerated. He immediately took the plane to Barcelona. He himself did not camp with the young people in Plaza Catalunya because of his ‘old bones’, but he became an engaged and analytic witness of the protests, after which he promptly ‘translated’ his seminal work, The Rise of the Network Society (1996/2010a), into the language of the protest movement in Networks of Outrage and Hope (2012). Many of the spokespersons of the student protests are now university teachers, the avalanche of texts, evaluations and analyses was only to be expected, but the analyses were post not ante factum. We do not have a Bulgarian Castells whose solid theories of citizen participation could serve as a basis for high theorization.

Although we do not have a Bulgarian Castells, we have a number of Bulgarian studies that have paved the way for the conceptualization of the protests. I will point out four clusters.[3] They have been selected according to two criteria: looking for a connection between digital and contestatory, which is a central thread in this study; reflecting the entire spectrum of interpretations with polar-opposite ideological orientations. Those two criteria allow us to classify the four clusters into two groups.

New Media, New Mobilizations (Ditchev and Spassov 2011; in Bulgarian). This collection of papers edited by Ivaylo Ditchev and Orlin Spassov clearly formulates the first thematic pole. The authors look at how digital technologies are changing the forms of civic and political participation. Participation itself is examined both in conventional forms of election campaigns and above all in the experimented new digital forms of participation and engagement.

The collective work E-Citizens (Krasteva 2013d; 2013e; in Bulgarian and in French) belongs to the same thematic pole. In it Anna Krasteva and the other contributors seek the formula of the alloy that has produced the e-citizen: from the communist individual who had to be mobilized without being a citizen, to the postcommunist citizen who equally devoted him/herself to participation and to the freedom not to participate, to the e-citizen who is experimenting with new forms of mobilization. The authors affirm the polyphonic and active concept of citizenship as identities, participation, belonging, and engagement. They examine the innovations in citizenship both online and offline, and the incessant transitions and overlaps between them. There are two ideas with which this book seeks to captivate its readers: first, the internet has a political project; second, this project is called e-citizenship – vital, active, engaged citizenship (Krasteva 2013b, 2013d).

The second pair structures the research field from the point of view of interpretations in a polar-opposite way. Karl Marx at one end and Max Weber at the other: that is how I would figuratively describe the research field, while bearing in mind that the authors in collective books do not necessarily offer the same interpretations. Civil Protests (Pachkova 2012; in Bulgarian) offers numerous examples of social and economic explanations both for participation and for non-participation. The collection #Protests, edited by Daniel Smilov and Lea Vaisova (2013; in Bulgarian) seeks the connections of politics to morality, and evaluates the protests as the quintessence of participation and the catalyst of change.

Ivaylo Ditchev and Daniel Smilov are the exponents of another pair of polar-opposite interpretations. Ivaylo Ditchev deploys, in the Bulgarian context, the main critique against new online and offline mobilizations, conceptualizing them as ‘de-institutionalization’ of politics and as ‘subpolitics’:

 

The substitution of democratic majorities by small, loud groups… The masses have been substituted by representative individuals who depict the interests of the others in an aesthetic or ritual way. The public sphere is increasingly dominated by illegitimate minorities of pretenders who act without being authorized according to the old democratic procedures. … Subpolitics is a privatized politics in that the causes, strategies, messages, and mobilizations are the work of ever smaller and unrepresentative circles of self-appointed citizens. (Ditchev 2011: 19)

 

Daniel Smilov is among the leading Bulgarian political scientists who are both actively protesting and actively theorizing the protests. His expresses the view guided by the idea that the protests are a way of refounding the political with regard to representation, political parties, horizontal organization, and social networks:

 

We are not looking for a new Boyko Borisov or a new king [i.e. for a new charismatic leader/saviour] to symbolize those protests. We are looking for an alternative way of organizing the political. One can say that political organization should be much more horizontal and network-like instead of being structured around a distinct political leader. The role of parties will be a coordinating one, playing the role of a filter that filters out obviously unproductive and misleading proposals. Democracy … cannot function without political representation. There should be responsibility and it cannot but be associated with party figures. These party networks based on an ideological platform will have, at the least, the responsibility to nominate candidates. Those lists should be announced earlier and they should pass through the filter of social networks. (Smilov and Vaisova 2013)

 

Two lines of conceptualization – civil disobedience and new social movements – are not distinctly present in the Bulgarian studies, but they are very productive in understanding the Bulgarian protests; that is why I will introduce them as they are found in western theories.

1.2.   Civil Disobedience: A Minor Event with Major Political Effects

It all started on a small country bus in the deep American South[4] on 1 December 1955. Several passengers boarded the bus and the driver told the women to surrender their seats to them. The story does not need to note that the passengers were white men while those who had to surrender their seats were African American women. Three women got up; one did not. No, this is not an excerpt from the book and the film Help, a masterpiece that became possible after everything that happened in the wake of this minor episode which went on to make history. The woman’s refusal to surrender her seat led to a spiral of arrests, firebombed houses, a boycott of the bus company by the African American community, a retaliatory racist ultra-mobilization of the Ku Klux Klan, the spread of the protests to many other towns (Hayes and Ollitrault 2012) – a true historical action story that changed the United States and resonated across the world, leading to the abolition of racial segregation. Just as in Hollywood movies, so too in real history there is a need for outstanding figures who can inspire and lead the masses. One of the people who took the side of the African American woman was a then completely unknown pastor with a Ph.D. in theology from Boston University who would ascend, in a matter of years, from the pulpit of his parish church to the pedestal of one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century: Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘I have a dream’, one of the greatest ever slogans in world political history, his ‘nonviolent revolution’ and the civil rights movement would lead to the adoption of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

The reason why I am starting with this case is, firstly, because it marks the beginning of the history of the concept of civil disobedience[5] which is key to my analysis, and secondly more importantly, because it reveals several characteristics of civil disobedience that have remained valid to the present day:

–          The triggering event may be very trivial, prosaic, mundane, but it can unleash enormous civic energy and produce a significant political effect.

–          Civil disobedience causes a sharp reaction and strong counter-mobilization – the members of the racist organization in Alabama increased from 8 000 to 75 000 in a single year (Hayes and Ollitrault 2012).

–          The key actors of the protest are heterogeneous, some remaining anonymous in history and others going down in and shaping history: Gandhi, Martin Luther King… The great names also belong to two categories: some were already famous when they joined civil disobedience campaigns; others became famous by joining civil disobedience campaigns.

The turbulent history of civil disobedience encompasses a boundless spectrum of causes and initiatives: from anti-militarism and refusal to serve in France’s war against Algeria (1960), to the feminism of Simone de Beauvoir’s Manifesto of the 343 ‘sluts’ in favour of abortion rights (1971), to new causes such as defence of foreigners and the French filmmakers’ Appeal for Civil Disobedience (1997) and their refusal to declare their foreign guests, to José Bové’s ‘voluntary reapers’ tearing up private GMO fields in the name of biodiversity and environmental protection, to Anonymous, Occupy, and Indignados (Hayes and Ollitrault 2012).

I am mentioning those examples for two reasons. Firstly, because despite the great variety of causes, actors and effects, they illustrate John Rawls’s definition (1971: 364) of civil disobedience as ‘a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.’[6] Secondly, and more importantly, because they allow us to better evaluate the more asymmetrical political geography of the Bulgarian protests which are concentrated around several clusters, leaving extensive ‘blank’ areas.

1.3.   The New Social Movements: From Social and Economic to Value-Related Demands

The new social movements are better understood through the prism of the question why than of the question how; they have more to do with the meaning of collective action than with the political conditions for mobilization and its forms. They are less oriented toward specific demands (wages, education, incomes, pensions, health), being more often inspired by values, causes, justice, morality:

 

New actors, whose identity is flexible, fragmented, and shifting do not seek control, power, or economic gain. Instead, the struggle is oriented toward control over the process of meaning, autonomy, creativity of relationships, and ways of defining and interpreting reality… (Carty 2011: 14-15)

 

Whereas traditional social movements put forward social and economic demands, the new ones have much more to do with life politics; they are concerned about GMOs, conduct ‘Earth Hours’, defend gender and sexual equalities and freedoms, demand conditions for ‘green’ living. Whilst the traditional ones are more often mobilizations of large social and economic groups, the new ones are represented above all by the educated middle class.

Manuel Castells defines the new social movements through two characteristics. The first one is the connection of the demands of today with the projects for tomorrow. The second is the transformation of the actors themselves: ‘the fundamental project of transforming people into subjects of their own lives by affirming their autonomy vis-à-vis the institutions of society’ (Castells 2012: 230). The key values of this project are autonomy and individuation. Individuation is not to be confused with individualism because, unlike the latter, ‘the project of the individual may be geared towards collective action and shared ideals’ (ibid.: 231).

There are two main paradoxes in the Bulgarian (non-)uses of the new social movements.

The first one is the absence of the concept and its theorizations. Whilst western publications analyze the heuristic potential of the different concepts about the new social movements – resource mobilization theory, the model of the political process and of the structure of political opportunities, the cultural turn and the focus on new identities (Carty 2011), in Bulgaria such theoretical debate is absent. It is absent also because of the absence of its main stake: the very concept of new social movements.

The protesters are satiated’ (Velislava Dareva[7]) and ‘The protesters read’ (Georgi Gospodinov[8]): this intellectual controversy introduces the second paradox, namely that the critics of the new social movements measure them with the yardstick of the old ones. The present protests define themselves as demands for values, morality, transparency, dignity, beauty,[9] and other abstract ideas. The main criticisms against them are that they are not what they indeed are not – protests for student grants, education, jobs…

New phenomena but not new paradigms: it is in this paradoxical situation in which politics is way ahead of political theory that this analysis will unfold.

1.4.   E-Citizenship: The Political project of the Internet Revolution

The connection between technology and politics has always been direct but in the digital world it has become intimate and intensive (Krasteva 2013b): ‘Rarely has any technology engaged politics as much as the internet’ (Cardon 2012: 34). Even at its dawn, the digital revolution defined itself as a political revolution that called for a new, networked, flexible form of governance centred upon individuals and innovations, as opposed to governments, corporations, and bureaucracies. There is no revolution without a manifesto, and the digital revolution wrote its Wired Manifesto in 1996 even before it began changing the world:

 

The digital revolution that is sweeping the world is actually a communications revolution which is transforming society. … New technology requires new politics … The Net makes the world our sphere of influence. … Through technology we can acquire the knowledge, and the freedom, to act. Government cannot stop this. … The future belongs to those who build it. Let’s start building it now.[10]

 

Every technology has its own political project (Wolton 2002). The invention of the printing press ultimately brought about the Reformation. Luther’s words would not have had such a radical revolutionary effect if they had not been reproduced, proliferated and reinforced by the thousands of bibles made accessible to believers by the printing press. Radio and television had an even more universalizing and globalizing effect, and another political referent: mass democracy. Technology acquires social substance and meaning only when it is employed for political transformation. The opposite would be a technological anti-utopia.

 

The technological revolution of the printing press acquired meaning only with regard to the profound movement of the Reformation. Radio and television acquired meaning only with regard to the huge change of mass society and democracy. (Wolton 2002: 34)

 

Which is the political project of the internet? Dominique Wolton raised this question, but at the beginning of the previous decade[11] he did not find enough elements to answer it. It is this answer that I have been looking for in my recent studies (Krasteva 2012, 2013a, 2013b, 2013d), and I formulate it in the present one as contestatory e-citizenship. I will summarize it along four axes: the ‘augmented’ citizen, the digital indignados, ‘speaking up’, the networked individual.

The ‘augmented’ citizen (Krasteva 2013a) is the digital individual who is enhanced and empowered by the new technologies, and who is enabled by networks and by his or her unprecedented connectivity to enter into the space of the big players in order to challenge or even to delegitimate them. Saskia Sassen expounds this ambitious argument: With the help of these technologies the powerless have a real opportunity to delegitimate the formalized systems of knowledge. It is very difficult for actors until recently perceived as local and immobile to overcome those formalized systems, especially those constituted by universities and finance. Still, networked interactivity can allow them to come out of this lifelong exile and surmount the hierarchical-institutional barriers (Sassen 2013: 65).

There are also powerful counter-arguments about the e-citizen as the new utopia: ‘In the boundless sea of the internet internauts do not cease to look for their utopian island where the reality of capitalism with no alternative is inverted and where sharing, cooperation and selflessness reign triumphant’ (Rone 2011: 156). I will not go into them here because the purpose of this study is not to analyze the democratic potentialand deficits of the internet, but to identify the conditions and resources that have made possible the second postcommunist digital revolution in the form of contestatory e-citizenship.

‘If the indignados did not exist, the internet would have created them’ (Krasteva 2013a: 99). The digital indignados are an inevitable product and subject of the internet. Their predecessors were the hackers with their taste for freedom and contestation as well as with their digital virtuosity, with the self-confidence that cyberspace is ‘their’ space. The cyberculture of the 2010s was inspired by and builds on the counterculture of the 1960s.

 

Rebelling against consumerism, conformism, and materialism, the hippies of the 1960s extolled the utopia of freedom and autonomy, rejected pyramids in favour of networks, and happily sacrificed authority on the altar of new social bonds and solidarity. The internet, social networks, blogs and other digital gadgets have now been added to this mix of contestation, values and utopias, ultimately producing the alchemy of contemporary cyberculture. (Krasteva 2013a: 103)

 

The digital indignados are also the public-square indignados. Contestatory culture is formed and forged in the virtual sphere, on forums and social networks before their outrage and energy floods the public squares. The virtual is before, during, and after the public-square. Ante has two temporalities: a longer temporality when the contestatory e-citizen is being constructed, and the turbulent, almost lightning temporality of the launch of protests. The public square exponentially intensifies virtual communications and assigns them additional functions: to organize and mobilize, to persuade and inspire, to discuss and optimize. When the indignados withdraw from the public squares they do not withdraw their outrage and criticism from the public sphere; they expound it in the digital public sphere. The post-protest is a test for the significance of the messages and the vitality of the actors. The social space of the transformation of social energy is the virtual agora.

I didn’t say look; I said listen’ (Krasteva 2013a: 106). Today’s protests like being looked at, too – the new generation of digital natives also looks at the world through images, just as the new technologies also crave images. But this slogan from 1968 is valid today, too, because it describes the protests as ‘speaking up’:

 

New actors are introducing new issues in the new public sphere. The internet is this endless Hyde Park where anyone can defend their pet cause. Speaking up does not mean that you will be heard: the virtual public sphere is just as hierarchically structured as that of the classic media – a very small number of blogs/websites/profiles account for the vast number of likes and visits (Cardon 2012).

 

Dominique Cardon’s argument is irrefutable because it is based on an empirical mapping of the virtual public sphere. However, it does not invalidate the argument of ‘speaking up’ because of several reasons, of which I will point out two here. The profile of the public speaker has changed: public speakers are no longer constructed by the media, that is, they are not constructed from the outside; they are self-constructed. The internet offers a new reading of Baron Münchausen, for it truly succeeds in pulling a number of bloggers out of the swamp of anonymity and taking or propelling them to the realm of public visibility and recognition. Even if the recognition effect is not achieved, we still have the citizenship effect: the construction of the internaut as an e-citizen through discourse on public issues. The second change involves the creation of a digital equivalent of microforums described by Habermas as the germ of civil society: small groups of critically-minded people who get together to discuss texts and issues of common interest. The protests have served as a powerful catalyst for this function, having changed the mode of discourse on social networks: more and more people are sharing political ideas and causes instead of music and travel destinations.

 

Networks constitute the new social morphology of our societies, and the diffusion of networking logic substantially modifies the operation and outcomes in processes of production, experience, power, and culture. … Networks are open structures, able to expand without limits, integrating new nodes … A network-based social structure is a highly dynamic, open system, susceptible to innovating… (Castells 2010a: 500, 501)

 

Manuel Castells’s classic examples are from the sphere of capital, financial markets, and governing bodies such as the European Commission, but it is precisely his concept of the network society that describes with great insight the environment in which e-citizens are formed, developed, and empowered. The new examples are precisely the new social movements, which

 

are networked in multiple forms. … [They include] social networks online and offline, as well as pre-existing social networks, and networks formed during the actions of the movement. Networks are within the movement, with other movements around the world, with the Internet blogosphere, with the media and with society at large. (Castells 2012: 221; emphasis in the original)

 

Two dimensions of the networked existence of e-citizens are immediately relevant to this analysis: their ever-growing connectivity, their inclusion into various networks of debate and action; the non-hierarchical understanding of authority and influence – the internet flattens pyramids, and hierarchies lose symbolic capital. The new social movements

 

are usually leaderless movements. Not because of the lack of would-be leaders, but because of the deep spontaneous distrust of most participants in the movement towards any form of power delegation. (Castells 2012: 224; emphasis in the original)

 

Networked e-citizens are radical egalitarians.

2.      The Bulgarian Protests: Between Local Forms and Global Logics

From the teachers’ salaries to the prime-minister Oresharski’s resignation, from the environmental mobilizations to save various natural sites from overdevelopment to the rejection of controversial media mogul Delyan Peevski as chief of the national security agency, from the abnormally high electricity bills to shale gas exploration and extraction, from Occupy Sofia University to ACTA – the protests seem so diverse that it is hard to classify them by type. Armed with the analytic toolkit of contestatory citizenship and digital democracy, I will take the risk of proposing a classification. I will classify the protests along four axes:

–          type of demands: political or trade-unionist;

–          type of motivation: interests or values;

–          type of actors: organizers vs participants;

–          type of organizational technique: trade-union/political-party/associative structures or social networks.

I will briefly introduce three groups of protests which do not exhaust but represent the diversity of the protests in Bulgaria along all four axes: the teachers’ strike; the environmental mobilizations; the anti-monopoly and antigovernment protests of 2013.

2.1.   The Teachers’ Strike (2007): A Watershed between Classic and New Mobilizations

Forty days of an active teachers’ protest in the middle of the school year is a challenge that strongly marks the history of postcommunist mobilizations in Bulgaria. I will summarize it according to the four-axis scale.

The value of education and the lack of recognition of the teaching profession were key accents, but the main demands were along the axis of interests. The demands were trade-unionist: a pay rise, more funds for education.[12] The political was present more in anecdotal form: the offensive comment that ‘it’s time to break up the working-bee’, uttered by the then finance minister and incumbent prime minister Plamen Oresharski and accidentally caught on camera, has gone down in protest folklore. It has left a lasting trace in protest memory because it eloquently illustrates the divergence of the discourses of the elites and the protesters, which the subsequent protests would increase even further. At this early stage the elites were so arrogant that they did not even hear – they did not want to hear – the protesters’ demands. At the peak of the protests in 2013 the elites could not help hearing the demands – both literally and politically – but they continued not to understand them.

A very interesting moment is the asymmetry between the trigger of the conflict and the scale of the protest: ‘In the immediate run-up to the teachers’ protest there were no massive cuts in teachers’ jobs and salaries, changes in the curriculum, or any other drastically wrong step that could have been taken by the then education minister Daniel Valchev,’ Nikova (2011: 101) points out. If there were some grounds,[13] but not an immediate cause, and considering that the protest was unprecedented in duration, scale of participation, and effect, then there must have been other reasons that can help us to understand and explain it. Those reasons may have even been invisible to the actors themselves. Paradoxically, they had nothing to do with the demands, either. That is because they had nothing to do specifically with the teaching profession as such, but they wove the fabric of a new – contestatory – political culture that made the protests possible, intensified their force, and empowered their actors.

The strike began ‘from the top-down’ as a classic trade-union action: it was declared, directed, and finalized by the two trade unions of teachers in Bulgaria (the Union of Bulgarian Teachers and the Independent Teachers’ Trade Union). The trade-union leaders were the main figures in and faces of the protests, they were those who sat down (or refused to sit down) at the negotiating table with the government. The teachers also produced some very interesting figures, but they stuck to their role as participants and did not challenge the leadership of the trade-union leaders.

The trade-union organization highlighted an important aspect of the teachers’ protest that would gradually be eliminated by the next protests: the guild as a collective contestatory actor. Miners, taxi drivers, doctors, teachers – the guilds were the classic centre of the protests. The environmental mobilizations would disregards the guilds, shifting the focus on to generations: the green faces were young and the young had green faces. The 2013 protests would continue this elimination of professional guilds with a new focus: the educated middle class. The decrease in the relative weight of guilds led to an unavoidable weakening of the role of trade unions as classic organizers. The trade unions themselves found it difficult to accept their new role but seemed to have resigned themselves to it: when the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions in Bulgaria (KNSB) joined the protests[14] it did so not on a guild-based but on a ‘universal’ principle, using the contestatory symbols of the protesters instead of its own trade-union genre and narrative.

The internet took its first timid steps: although it was present, it did not succeed in dethroning or rivaling the trade union structures. The discourse was ambitious: the largest teachers’ portal (www.teachers.bg) called itself the ‘network of innovator-teachers’ but remained declarative, with piecemeal results:

 

The teachers failed to turn their passive position from forums and blogs into an active one, but they did not yield to the news blackout imposed by the trade unions or to the manipulations underway in part of the traditional media. (Nikova 2011: 107)

 

The teachers’ strike also highlighted a phenomenon that would eventually gain momentum: ‘the counter-protest’. A ‘counter-strike’ was mounted above all on the internet, which became a space for criticisms and accusations regarding the unrealistic nature of the teachers’ demands and the adverse effects of the strike on the school year. Counter-protests would become a key attribute of protests in Bulgaria. Over time, their inevitability would be confirmed but the actors would change substantially. In the teachers’ counter-strike parents played a key role, that is, the actors were ‘grass-root’. Soon, the situation would change radically.

The teachers’ strike was a mixed genre: its trade-union character and demands were classic, but its forty-day, impressively long (for that time) duration, the sharp controversies on internet forums, the emergence of outstanding figures among the teachers independent of the trade union leaders, all carried elements of a nascent contestatory e-citizenship.

2.2.   The Greening of the Protests

Not interests but values, not trade unions and parties but activists, not organizational structures but the internet: this is the calling card of environmental mobilizations both globally and in Bulgaria. ‘The greening of the self’ (Castells 2010b) marks the most distinctive transformation of contestatory citizenship:

 

If we are to appraise social movements by their historical productivity, namely, by their impact on cultural values and society’s institutions, the environmental movement has earned a distinctive place in the landscape of human adventure. At this turn of the millennium, 80 percent of Americans, and over two-thirds of Europeans, consider themselves environmentalists; parties and candidates can hardly be elected to office without ‘greening’ their platform… (Castells 2010b: 168)

 

While the greening of the Bulgarian Self was slower than that of the western one, the greening of the protesters’ Self was in full synchrony with the latter: environmentalists were among the first protesters, and a significant majority of the protesters were environmentalists. Small is beautiful summarized the environmentalists’ worldview: the smaller the occasion, the bigger the stake. The beach at Irakli (2006) unleashed a ‘snowballing environmental activism’ (Lyutskanova 2011), and it was followed by Pirin, Mount Vitosha… Among the variegated panorama of green mobilizations, I will point out seven characteristics for the purposes of this analysis.

As a rule, environmental mobilizations are the most future-oriented, but they also have the strongest historical memory. The green narrative always expounds the argument regarding the coming generations, but it also draws symbolic power from the mobilization of the previous ones. The Bulgarian environmental mobilizations are the only new postcommunist social movements with distinct communist precedents. The city of Ruse brilliantly demonstrates the mobilizing capacity and unifying power of the environmental stake which united mothers and intellectuals, the provinces and downtown Sofia in a communist context hostile to any form of civic self-initiative. It was Ruse that first came up with an opposition that each subsequent protest would only strengthen: irresponsible government – ill environment, active citizens – responsible politics and a dignified life.

I’d never even dreamed that despite our ideological differences, my father and I would be together at a protest demonstration’ (Otova 2013: 148): this enthusiastic Facebook status indicates that when it comes to sacralizing and fighting for the environment, age doesn’t matter. It is not sociologically generalizable, though – environmental protests are ‘the patent’ of postcommunist youth. Environmental mobilizations as a protest of young people are less a sociological than a political phenomenon. They are the activism of a generation that does not identify itself in terms of the communism/anticommunism opposition. It is not ideology that structures their life-world and that stimulates their activity; it is their love of birds, forests, mountains…. Environmental mobilizations are reminiscent of the Bulgarian National Revival: the folklore of the struggle for national liberation maps out a symbolic geography where the valleys are populated by the subjugated while the forests, mountains and peaks are the realm of the rebels, the lofty in the landscape being also the lofty in the national spirit. The same sacralization of mountains inspires today’s environmentally-minded young people: their struggle for preserving the purity of the environment is a struggle against the pollution of politics.

Symbolic geography is the forte of environmental mobilizations. The ascription of symbolic meaning to the environment is one of its manifestations, the other being the symbolic topography of protests in the city. City space is mapped according to the rhythm of the mobilizations. Sofia’s Eagles Bridge was constructed by the green activists as the symbolic topos of the protest. This symbolic topography is so powerful that no counter- or party-organized protests have so far succeeded in changing or eliminating the contestatory symbolic meaning of the most important protest topos.[15]

‘When I left, Bulgaria was a boring place where nothing happened. I came back for a short time and what I saw was Eagles’ Bridge, sit-ins, protests… I came back for a short time but I stayed longer… it’s such an interesting and intense time…’[16] That is how a mobile Bulgarian summed up both the sudden outbreak of environmental protests and the formation of new environmental activists. Landing at Sofia Airport, he went straight to Eagles’ Bridge, actively joined the protests, became one of the informal environmental leaders, and took part in meetings with top government officials: ‘Our sense of strength was unbelievable, they [government representatives] knew all our demands, they were ready to accept them immediately if we stopped protesting…’

Those short quotes from an interview with a ‘green’ citizen illustrate the paradox between the ease with which the figure of the environmental activist was constructed and the gravity of the political implications:

‘Sorry for the inconvenience, but we’re trying to save what little remains of Bulgaria.’[17] The strength of the environmental protests was not in their size but in their conviction that they were expressing the public interest: ‘The land belongs to the Bulgarians, not to the government.’[18] Environmental mobilizations were not many in number, but they alarmed the authorities. The authorities did not give up as easily as described in the interview quoted above, but the changed balance of forces was to be seen in their counteraction. Instead of negotiating or not negotiating with the protesters, the authorities responded by staging counter-protests. The chairperson of the National Assembly danced with the counter-protesters in order to illustrate the central government’s support for local business interests endangered by the environmental demands. We saw a significant change as compared with the teachers’ strike. In the teachers’ strike those affected were parents, and the counter-energy came from the grassroots. The environmental protests marked a new stage where the counter-protests would increasingly come from the top, from the authorities – both in the literal sense of having senior politicians participate in counter-protests, and with the more discreet support for the counter-protesters from the authorities and their ‘rings’ of firms.

The mobile citizen who came home for a short time and who rapidly became one of the active actors of the protests is an eloquent illustration of a movement without categorical leaders. Here we find the next paradox: strong green political energy at the bottom, weak green parties at the top. The asymmetry is bilateral: the green elites were not adequate to the green movements, but neither did the green mobilizations demonstrate a particular need for leaders and elites.

The environmental mobilizations made history in many respects. The inversion of online/offline relations is one of the most interesting for this analysis.

 

Hours after a decision was made the information was spread instantly… In just a few hours, information was shared among a huge number of people, calling for an immediate protest. Without agreeing in advance on the character of the action, environmentalists blocked the traffic along Sofia’s central boulevards and intersections, and this was followed by several other flash mobs… (Lyutskanova 2011: 92)

 

I have deliberately edited out the details that concretize the protest, in order to make the description sound universal. If in the case of the teachers’ strike the virtual voices were parallel and lent it a polyphonic sound, in that of the environmental protests they began to play first fiddle. And the internet went green: ‘It seems that the internet will prove to be the new space for civil resistance, something like a new battleground with new guerillas’ (Kanev and Krastanova 2009: 14; cited in Lyutskanova 2011: 91).

The green internet was thought of in two ways:

–          as the ideal organizer. The environmental protests annihilated organizational structures as a form of organization and proved the paradox that the cheaper the organization, the more effective it is.[19]

–          as the preferred place for protests. Virtual mobilizations vastly exceeded real-life ones: while tens of thousands (more than 70 000) supported the online petitions and Facebook groups against GMOs, dozens or hundreds (from 50 to 200-400) turned out in the streets (Hristov 2011: 187).

Although the green internet quickly began playing first fiddle, it has still not become the conductor of the protests. It is still perceived primarily as the organizer of or substitute for protests. It is thought of either as supplementary to the street protests but in instrumental-technical terms, or as their convenient alternative – click democracy. We are witnessing online/offline interaction, but not yet online-offline synergy. The properly political role of the internet is not yet thematized as a constituent of the foundation of contestatory citizenship – network culture.

Although this analysis concentrates on environmental mobilizations, their main characteristics have a wider validity and largely apply also to the protests against ACTA (Dinev 2012), GMOs (Hristov 2011), and shale gas.

2.3.   The Year 2013: Maturity of Protests, Online and Offline

The thesis that the protests in Bulgaria reached maturity in 2013 is untenable from the point of view of effectiveness, that is, the match between goals and results. In my theoretical scheme it is expounded in another perspective, that of the emergence and affirmation of contestatory e-citizenship. I will argue in favour of this thesis by looking at the diversification of the protests, contestatory symbolic politics, the digital as a model of the street, the self-reflexivity of the new mobilizations, and the formation of the networked protester.

The vast protest energy within a record-short political time is an unquestionable political achievement of 2013. The acceleration of the contestatory cycle is the first, most obvious dimension of the maturity of the protests. After many years without any significant protests, 2013 witnessed a number of significant protests in a single year. The second is the multiplication of protests. The day when I started writing this article, 20 November 2013, there were five protests: the ‘Early-Rising Students’[20] stood in front of Parliament with paper shields. KNSB[21] leaders and activists marched in downtown Sofia with demands that were similar enough to suggest empathy with the protests, but that were also different enough to avoid complete identification with them. Journalist-turned-politician Nikolai Barekov summoned his ‘band of followers’ to the successive protest march against the President of the Republic. The taxi drivers reminded themselves/us of their protest spirit but remained on the fringe of public attention, unlike some of their previous, highly publicized protest actions. Although the day was full of protests, the evening again brought together the steadfast anti-government protesters rallying under the slogan ‘NOresharski!’. The third dimension of contestatory maturity is the diversification of the protests: both in terms of the protesters/counter-protesters opposition, and of the differentiation by type of protests: by demands, results, duration, social composition. I would point out three waves and three types of protests:

–          the anti-monopoly protests of winter/spring 2013;

–          the anti-oligarchy protests of summer 2013;

–          the anti-government student protests of autumn 2013.

A detailed comparative analysis requires a separate study. Here I will summarize the differences that are relevant to my theoretical scheme.

The political geography of the winter protests was decentralized. Sofia did not win first place, but neither did it vie for it. I have called those protests ‘Varna Spring’ because the protesters in Varna outnumbered those in Sofia, as well as because their outrage was well-targeted – against the mayor and a business group. Not against business in general, but against criminal groups suffocating business; not against the elite in general, but against a mayor who had brought the city to its knees before behind-the-scenes interests; not against government in general, but against that which was devouring Varna’s Sea Garden and stifling the vitality and enterprising spirit of Bulgaria’s seaside capital (Krasteva 2013c).

The question of the social composition of the protests became a hot issue of political debate. The two images constituted by the latter were not merely different; they were polar opposites: ‘the poor and ugly’ versus ‘the smart and beautiful’. Paradoxically, this opposition was mobilized both by the critics and by the supporters of the post-winter protests who assigned a similar, excessively affective meaning to it. The present analysis relativizes this polar opposition through the thesis about contestatory citizenship: when they freely take to the streets, all indivuduals – the vulnerable, the middle class, the well-educated and the less-educated – assert themselves as contestatory citizens.

The paradoxical character of the results comes from the drastic discrepancy between demands and effect. Just days after the winter protests, the government of Boyko Borisov resigned although the protesters had not demanded – nor even thought of demanding – its resignation. After six months of protests against the Oresharski government, protesters were still demanding its resignation but the government, Parliament, and even the opposition were now saying that the incumbents were likely to remain in power for some time to come. The political effect of the winter and the post-winter protests was opposite, but they were similar in that, paradoxically, both led to the opposite of the desired results.

The 2013 protests have some common characteristics, too: a long contestatory temporality and an asymmetry between immediate cause and mobilization. The summer protests marked their half-year anniversary, lasting through three seasons and being most likely to continue in 2014. The winter protests also lasted from one season to another. In terms of duration, the protest year 2013 is unprecedented in Bulgarian democratic history.

We remember from history how a trivial occasion – an African American woman’s refusal to surrender her seat to a white man – led to the abolition of racial segregation and a profound transformation of American society. The Bulgarian protests also started from a concrete occasion – the exorbitant electricity bills and the appointment of Delyan Peevski, a controversial media mogul, as chief of the State Agency for National Security (DANS) – but the protest wave outlived the occasion (Peevski did not remain in office for more than a day), rightly interpreting it not as an exception but as an inevitable consequence of the whole political system which became the target of its outrage.

2.4.   A Typology or the Asymmetric Political Geography of the Protests

The typology of the Bulgarian protests is not a favourite subject of Bulgarian analysts. In this theoretical vacuum, the classification proposed by Ivaylo Dinev (2011) who distinguishes between two types of protests, negative and positive, is interesting. According to Dinev (2011: 186), in negative protests there is

 

an interesting combination of temporary noise, uproar, screaming, super-communication, super-intensity of participation… In positive protests the movement grows in waves until it swells enough to produce its final and strongest public reaction.

 

Dinev illustrates negative protests with ‘No to ACTA’ and positive protests with ‘We Want to Study’.[22]

Rejection, criticism, negation are a distinctive characteristic of all protests. A curious illustration of this is that even the ‘positive’ (counter-)protests in support of the Oresharski government also sought a negative target, finding it in the person of President Rosen Plevneliev.

Proposing a detailed typology of the protests is beyond the scope of this analysis. It has two goals: to demonstrate the asymmetry of the Bulgarian protests, and to map them onto the two-axis scale of the type of demands and the type of organization.

The asymmetry of the Bulgarian protests is manifested in two polar-opposite tendencies:

–          formation of clusters of intense protests, such as the environmental and the anti-oligarchy ones;

–          formation of niches of acute social problems that cause weak – rare, few in number, relatively unpopular – mobilizations, such as anti-racism, anti-xenophobia, anti-extremism marches and initiatives.

I will map the protests along two axes:

–          interests – values;

–          political demands – trade-union demands.

Most of the protests fall in the upper right-hand quadrant of the chart below, where political demands are motivated to a large extent by values: environmental mobilizations, ACTA, shale gas, GMOs. With their slogans calling for morality in politics the NOresharski protests fall in the same quadrant, but they are more about – and hence closer to – political demands than about values.

The lower right-hand quadrant, where political demands are defined on the basis of interests, contains the anti-monopoly protests against exorbitant electricity bills at the beginning of 2013.

The teachers’ strike, as well as the strikes, protests, mobilizations of miners, farmers, taxi drivers, and others, are in the lower left-hand quadrant defined by interests and trade-union demands.

The upper left-hand quadrant, combining values and trade-union demands, seems to be vacant on the Bulgarian contestatory map. This deficit is local not global: in November 2013, when I was writing about the typology of protests in Bulgaria, there was a demonstration in France against racism, organized by several anti-discrimination and human-rights associations supported by trade unions.

 

 

2.5.   Contestatory Symbolic Politics

There is a sphere in which the protests in Bulgaria have won, unquestionably and categorically: that of symbolic politics. The most visible – and most paradoxical – expression of this is the imitation of protests by the major political players: the trade unions and the political parties.

On 20 November 2013 the trade unions organized a protest march in downtown Sofia. It was paradoxical in every respect: a trade-union protest without trade-union demands, trade-union activists ‘disguised’ as protesters. The sight of solid trade-union leaders clad in cardboard verged on parody. The only message conveyed by this action was about the power of the original: it showed that it was the protest – that of the protesters not the imitators – which determined the format, the stage design, and the setting of the demonstrations.

The same message about the distinct hierarchy between original and replica was conveyed by the protest march organized by the two ruling parties in Bulgaria on 16 November. The theft of symbols is not impossible, it may even be very spectacular – the Soviet soldiers,[23] spray-painted as popular American cartoon characters, went viral on the internet. But the appropriation of symbols is a subtle alchemy that cannot be attained by forceful means.

Sofia’s Eagles’ Bridge became both the topos and the symbol of the protests. It carries the memory of the euphoria over freedom of the nascent Bulgarian civil society which poured out in the streets in 1989, and it has been sounding green for years now. This memory of the protesters was vitalized and intensified by the Assemblies , the performances and happenings, the multitudes of the summer 2013 protests.

It is this symbol that the 16 November 2013 protest march of the BSP (the Bulgarian Socialist Party) and the DPS (the Movement for Rights and Freedoms) tried to misappropriate. The organizational and financial power of the two ruling parties managed to mobilize participants, but had the opposite of the desired effects:

–          It illustrated that Eagles’ Bridge vibrates to the rhythm of civil society only when citizens fill it freely and spontaneously, and not on command.

–          It reaffirmed the public square as the place of the political and the source of political prestige. The strength of political parties lies in other forms of mobilization – in local organizations, in their capacity to develop a wide periphery far from the centre, in their ability to represent and defend interests. The parties that decided to match themselves against the protesters on Eagles’ Bridge consolidated the symbolic capital of the public square as the most powerful and incontestable producer of prestige and as the privileged setting of the political.

–          It showed the symbolic power of the protests as a most legitimate form of mobilization. As a rule, parties demonstrate large-scale mobilizations of their supporters on the eve of elections. The exception to this rule expose parties as relativizing their own legitimacy and seeking strength in the legitimacy of protest mobilizations. Protests are becoming a powerful source of political legitimacy that is weakening and marginalizing the classic sources,[24] such as electoral weight, parliamentary representation, and so on.

For each protest, a counter-protest. The systematic character of the counter-protests is impressive. Even small actions have caused counter-mobilizations: ‘on the day of the students’ protest march under the motto ‘We Want to Study’, on 28 October 2010, Sofia University’s Student Council issued a declaration against the protest of its fellow-students’ (Dinev 2012: 193). The protest year 2013 seems to have ‘professionalized’ counter-protests, introducing the counter-protest genre as a mandatory and invariable attribute of protests. This professionalization is counter-productive, merely reaffirming the fundamental difference between original and replica, but it also blurs the political memory about more authentic counter-protests. The counter-protests merit a separate study; here I will note only their possible ambivalence – one and the same collective actor may be on both sides of the contestation in different protests. The portal Bg-Mamma, for example, led the protests against GMOs (Aneva 2011) but it was against the teachers’ strike (Nikova 2011).

2.6.   The Digital as a Model of the Square

At the rally of the GERB party (the former ruling party, now in opposition) in Plovdiv on 16 November 2013,[25] former deputy prime minister and interior minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov wore a badge reading #Resign. There is no evidence about how many digital protesters felt flattered by this sign of recognition for their cause, but it illustrates the radical inversion of online and offline protests. While in the previous, already very active, online protests such as the environmental ones the internet was still an organizational assistant, in the anti-oligarchy protests it became the protest guru – the role model that inspires. The street adopted the signs of the e-street: #DANSwithme. The slogans were written in digital slang: #Occupy

This digital slang is trans-linguistic: Bulgarian, English, and digital symbols are mixed without rules, with playful imagination and free creativity. This slang feels equally distant both from prosaic everyday language and from codified official language. It is an expression and carrier of the rebellious spirit of the internet pioneers, of the desire not to be tamed and subjugated but to innovate, to experiment, to (re)create at all levels, beginning – and ending – with language. The language of the protests, forged in the digital workshops, is eloquent proof that the internet has turned from an assistant into a conductor that determines the rhythm, the sound, the accents; a conductor that leads – and inspires – the orchestra. ‘Both before and now, the internet means freedom’:[26] by its great normative power, the postcommunist internet is akin to the Arab Spring.

The most significant dimension of this change is the formation of the figure of the digital protester, analyzed in the section on ‘New Mobilizations, New Actors’ below.

3.      The Protest: Ways of Use

3.1.   The Protest as Politicization

I want to go to the concert,’ a teenager declares enthusiastically when the speaker announces that the noon protest will be followed by an afternoon concert.

‘Only if you do your homework, his mother says sternly.

Why didnt you leave me at home and let me do it, then?’ The teenager asks in protest.

‘I have to make a citizen out of you, don’t I!’ The protester retorts, summing up her idea of what moral education is about.

This dialogue at a November protest in Sofia (2013) truly cheered up the protesters standing nearby. Funny as it may sound, it actually illustrates the serious phenomenon of the politicization of Bulgarian society. Even the political socialization of children was undertaken by the protesters themselves. The family has always been a key institution of political socialization, but in the accelerated temporality of protests the role of the other intermediaries – such as the school and the media – is obviously decreasing. The relationship between the public square and the home is becoming direct, intense, politicized.

Three big waves of politicization characterize postcommunist democratization in Bulgaria: 1989/1990 – against the disasters of communism; 1997 – against the catastrophe brought about by the Socialist government of Zhan Videnov; 2013 – against the oligarchy. Outrage was the catalyst of politicization in all three. Politicization developed both in width and in depth. The range of citizens who actively engaged in politics became much wider. The demands in all three waves were not aimed at one public policy or another but at the very core of politics – both against particular elite and for another type of politics. ‘The problem isn’t in people; it’s in the system’ and ‘We’ve had enough of hierarchy. We want direct democracy’: those slogans from the June 2013 protests summarize the high ambitions both for rejecting the existing model and for inventing a new one.

3.2.   The Protest as Radicalization

The protesters were short of words to express their feelings, coining new words and resorting to military terms: shields, coup d’état, pogrom… Militarized discursive over-production is an unavoidable attribute of contestatory rhetoric.

The liberal-centrist consensus was destroyed, and the oppositions, antagonisms, and controversies relapsed into their extreme, early-democratic forms. This antagonistic picture is not descriptive; it is normative. The demand, the insistence that everyone must define themselves sounded like an imperative. Everyone was expected not merely to define themselves but to determine which side they were on, figuratively speaking, in black and white: ‘Nuances sabotage enthusiasm.’[27] Carl Schmitt’s concept of politics in terms of friend and foe was the only concept of politics that reigned supreme in the protest field.

Crystallization of polarization is only to be expected and it is unavoidable in contestatory mobilizations. That is why it is of less interest to my analysis. What is more interesting is the ideological radicalization. The protests did not produce strong theorizations on the protests, but they produced ‘protest translations’ of political philosophies. Kalin Yanakiev’s concept of ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’ came to be seen as a manifesto of the 2013 protests:

 

This is a protest of the Bulgarian quality against the Bulgarian quantity. It is high time that the Bulgarian quality be heard. But those people are moved by nothing other than epidermal pressure…[28]

 

This is a clear, striking, protest translation of political conservatism, of the elitist understanding of society where the ‘quality’ – the elite in its dual functional and normative role – is called upon to lead the people, that is, ‘the quantity’.

‘We mustn’t use the term “state” even when we are criticizing, rejecting, negating it, for the authentic Right does not recognize the state’[29] – here we hear very clearly the voice of liberalism in its radical, libertarian version.

The Left also joined the battle for interpretations. Unlike the rightist visions that were catalyzed and crystallized by the protests, the Left was in a paradoxical situation: although protests across the world are mostly leftist, the Bulgarian Left took the side of the critics of the protests. Sociologist Andrei Raichev came up with one of the most emblematic, entirely classically formulated leftist propositions regarding ‘the blame of capitalism which suffocates the working people and creates poor people.’[30]

Radicalization, manifested in the clearer, extreme formulation of key postulates of political ideologies, is one of the positive results of contestatory politics: these protest ‘translations’ helped the protesters to make their ideological choices more easily and to become ‘well-informed citizens’ more quickly.

3.3.   The Protest as Aestheticization

Art materialized in the public square in the form of a recreation of the famous painting of the French Revolution by Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People. Until a year ago the students did not know what a die-in was, but now there were forming the word ‘resign’ with their bodies. Art is an invariable attribute of the global stage design of protests: a pianist raised the spirits in Taksim Square in Istanbul; a piano adorned Maidan Square in Kiev; a white piano created a special atmosphere in the warm summer evenings when young people began or finished socializing for the day in Parliament Square in Sofia. The protest inspired and restored the true meaning of politically committed art:

 

Until recently political graffiti in Sofia were limited to several iconic statements, such as ‘If elections changed anything, they would have them banned.’ But now we can boast at least one politically active graffiti writer, Bloke. Days after the protests in front of the National Assembly in January 2009 … there appeared a graffiti of a person with a bazooka aimed at Parliament.[31]

 

The protest came to be seen as an aesthetic of the urban. ‘The protest is a celebration of civic ingenuity and sense of humour, being in the public square is a very happy experience. This is a wonderful performance, it is the urban culture of artistry,’ notes Kalin Yanakiev.[32]

The protest became a lifestyle (Ivaylo Ditchev) and a city sight: foreign guests were first taken to the public square, and then to the Boyana church – like my daughter’s Chinese friend who was fascinated by her first lesson in civic engagement; like the British professor who had never protested together with his own students but who accompanied, with a vibrant curiosity, his Bulgarian friend who had joined the protest almost straight from the airport.

The interpretations of the aestheticization of the protest are along three axes: ethics/aesthetics, effectiveness of the protests, contestatory culture. The first one is critical and ethical, underlining

 

the substitution of the aesthetical for the ethical. To achieve an effect, small groups … do not begin by expressing interests or reproducing moral values; the main thing is to invent an interesting form that will attract attention. The effort of activists shifts from organizing the masses on to … the carnival, the image, the metaphor. (Ditchev 2011: 20)

 

The second interpretation is also critical and more instrumental; it assumes that the theatrics distance the protest from its political goal: #Resign. This view examines the carnivalesque element as a ‘wrapping’, but in an explanatory mode that is opposite to Christo’s. Whereas Christo’s wrappings conceal in order to reveal,[33] the carnivalesque wrapping conceals in order to conceal the true essence of the protest. Hence the critical pathos.

The third interpretation does not view the aestheticization of the protest in the context of normativity or in that of form and wrapping. It examines the aestheticization of the protest with regard to the constitution of contestatory subjectivity. This interpretation is positive; it perceives creativity, experimentation, lack of inhibition, as an expression and a tool for the formation of social actors defined in the perspective of authenticity, innovativeness, contestation (Krasteva 2013b). We know from Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello that after 1968, political critique developed in two directions: a social one, aimed at transforming power relations; and an ‘artistic’ one, seeking to transform individuals in terms of authenticity and creativity. The virtual is one topos of ‘artistic’ critique (Cardon 2012; Krasteva 2013b); the public square is the other. Both interfere in the consolidation of contestatory citizenship.

The carnivalesque element also plays another very important function: it is a constructive counterpoint to outrage.

3.4.   The Protest as Voice, and Exit as Voice

If you dont like it here, emigrate’: this cult statement of the Rector of prestigious university in Sofia addressed at the protesting students introduced the classic opposition of exit versus voice (Hirschman 1970) into the core of the (counter)protest debate. The protest joyously set out to apply it in two ways: classic and innovative. It classically chose and proudly declared its choice of the protest as voice: ‘I’m staying here’, ‘I’m honoured to be here’.[34] The 2013 protests brought about a radical inversion of the classic opposition. For years on end, many Bulgarians countered the corruption-mafia-oligarchy triad with their own triad: migration, migration, migration; exit categorically prevailed over voice. For the first time, the summer of 2013 saw a preference for voice instead of exit – at the political level, as a narrative, as one of the slogans. ‘Let’s leave this country’ was transformed into ‘Let’s win back our country’. The Bulgarian protesters made the transition described by Colin Hay (2007: 154) in his remarkable book with a title that is so very relevant to this analysis, Why We Hate Politics: from “the “politics we deserve”’ to ‘the “levels of political participation they deserve”’.

The second transformation, which was not initiated but reaffirmed by the 2013 protests, is that of exit into voice, a phenomenon I have termed ‘digital diaspora’:

 

Traditionally, ‘diaspora’ is conceived in terms of language and culture, and its ties to the homeland are woven by two central institutions, the family and the state. Social networks and protests are the demiurge of a new, digital diaspora whose ties are built by a trans-boundary, active and engaged citizenshiip. Solidarity is no longer with the state, it is with the citizens against the irresponsible and corrupt state. (Krasteva 2013b: 10)

 

#DANSwithme was immediately supplemented with #DANSwithmeGLOBAL. My respondent, the mobile citizen/environmental activist, is now active both in the global protest and in the creation of an alternative online public sphere. The protests in many cities abroad – parallel and concurrent with the protests in Bulgaria – are building an active, dynamic, engaged Bulgarian diaspora on a scale that no other cause has succeeded in mobilizing to date.

3.5.   The Protest as Self-Reflexivity

I am a protester’: this is how an eminent scholar introduced himself at an academic forum. ‘The Occupation has changed my life,’ a student speaker declared emotionally at the 10 November 2013 rally marking the anniversary of the beginning of the democratic transition in Bulgaria.

Contestatory identity is highly self-reflexive. The new mobilizations ‘constantly question themselves not only as movements, but also as individuals, about who they are, what they want, what they want to achieve, which kind of democracy and society they wish for’ (Castells 2012: 225-226). These questions are both reflexive and constitutive: they form the identity they ‘question’ and problematize.

Self-naming is the first, founding operation. The maturity of the 2013 protests crystallized in the term ‘protester’. Reifying the contestatory identity is the explicit goal of this discursive strategy. Although there had been protests for a long time, it was not until the summer/autumn of 2013 that participation in them crystallized into a strong political identity which sought publicity and recognition in that term. The creation of a contestatory slang is another dimension of the same discursive strategy.

Discourse plays a key role in protest rhetoric. According to Dimitar Vatsov, the democratic deficit in Bulgaria evidenced by the breakup of the connection between words and deeds. The protests sought to restore, find, recreate the connection between words and deeds.[35] In the contestatory rhetoric, discourse is understood in terms of its most active, perfomative role: it is meant not to represent but to create reality.

The newly widespread practice of political letter writing has the same purpose: Open Letter by university teachers to BSP leader Sergei Stanishev expressing disagreement with his interview on a popular TV talk show (11 November 2013), Open Letter from Vladimir Levchev to Prime Minister Oresharski demanding the latter’s resignation (15 July 2013), Open Letter from Edvin Sugarev to the President of the Republic, titled ‘Let’s Look Back in Anger’ (3 September 2013), Open Letter from university teachers to the President of the Republic expressing concern about the rule of law and the development of Bulgaria as a European state (22 November 2013), Letter from an unknown student to Angel Wagenstein (16 November 2013). These are just several examples of the unprecedented development of the open-letter genre as an effective strategy for self-naming and naming, for identifying ‘friends’ and ‘foes’,[36] for discursive protests parallel and concurrent with those in the public square. The open letter arranges the speech of the public square, lending it coherence, logic and arguments while keeping its affectivity and political engagement.

Self-reflexivity, networking, identity are the elements that crystallized also in another dimension of contestatory citizenship, the sense of community:

 

Attaining synergy, unity, a team spirit… To me, though, there is something more than the dry scientific term for this ‘chemistry’… We are becoming what they call brothers in arms. That is why I call these relationships brotherhood… And what unites us is not just our like-mindedness, knowledge and respect for one another, but also our memories about these moments that will never come back but are that bound to remain as some of the most special situations we will find ourselves in during our lives.

 

That is how one of the protesters active both online and offline describes the community bound together by a common cause, mobilization, and above all, by the high affectivity, the clear awareness about the exceptional and unique nature of the protest experience. He has titled his text ‘On brotherhoods and “The Brotherhood”’.[37]

3.6.   The Protest as a Civic Takeover of Political Temporality

The protest occurs in two kinds of temporalities, that of Occupy and of Protest. Manuel Castells (2012: 223) calls the time of occupation ‘timeless time’:

, a transhistorical form of time, by combining two different types of experience. On the one hand, in the occupied settlements, they live day by day, … organizing their living as if this could be the alternative society of their dreams, free of the chronological constraints of their previous, disciplined daily lives. On the other hand, in their debates and in their projects they refer to an unlimited horizon of possibilities…

 

The timeless time of the occupation is a synthesis of the now and the future, of the immediate present and the long-term horizon, of place and project. Unlike the occupation, the [temporality of the protest march proceeds in a different way: it is breathless, quickened, accelerated.

Despite the differently defined temporalities, in both cases time is taken-over by citizens. The rhythm of political time is not determined by the authorities or the market, but by contestation and citizens. The protest takes-over temporality in two ways – with regard to the present, by categorically interfering in the political agenda; with regard to the future, by imperatively proclaiming the liberation of time from the authorities: ‘We want our future – today, here and now![38]

This civic takeover of time by the protest is one of its most invisible and most significant achievements.

4.      New Mobilizations, New Actors

At the beginning of democracy it was the elites that were interesting; today it is the citizens that are interesting.

David Riesman identifiesfour types of citizens: indifferents, indignants, enthusiasts, and what he calls inside-dopesters – that is, well-informed citizens. Indifferents stay away from politics because they think it is external to their world – they do not understand and do not want to understand politics because they think politicians do not understand them and do not care about their small world. Indignants sharply criticize, complain, rally, protest, because they see the shortcomings of politics, refuse to resign themselves to them, and insist on and demand changes – fast and visible changes. Enthusiasts try to see the positive things (when you seek something you are bound to find it); they are active, they participate, contribute, and reckon there is progress. Paradoxically, David Riesman unites the two opposite figures, indignants and enthusiasts, into one – that of the politically engaged citizen. For although in an opposite way, both have high expectations and requirements vis-à-vis politics. ‘Inside-dopesters’ or well-informed citizens, unlike indifferents, understand politics, they are interested in, follow, look for and know different points of view. Unlike politically engaged citizens, they do not participate – not because they do not feel prepared, but precisely because they feel well-prepared, they are wary about the ability of politics to truly express their interests. (Riesman 2001).

One of the loftiest goals of the postcommunist transition in Bulgaria was to transform subjects into citizens. We find substantial similarities with David Riesman’s concept, as well as just as substantial differences.

The most significant similarity is the diversification of the figures of the citizen. From a lack of civic experience and civic culture, in the course of two decades the citizen emerged as an actor with multiple figures. A separate study would propose a more complex typology, but here I am applying David Riesman’s because it is authoritative and widely applicable, as well as because it is heuristic with a view to identifying the figure of the indignant citizen.

The most substantial difference from David Riesman’s model is in the time of emergence and development of the figures of the citizen. The velvet revolution created in the streets the figure of the enthusiastic citizen – the enthusiasts flooded the public squares, erected tents in which to defend the fragile freedom and create urban topoi of their alternative way of thinking. But then the citizens quickly retreated both from the public squares and from the ballot-boxes, and the enthusiasts were displaced for a long time by the indifferents. Citizens left politics to the elites, but were disgusted by the politics offered to them by the latter. Their disaffection and disgust produced, for a long time, disengaged, apolitical postcommunist individuals. The internet and social networks catalyzed and massified the new type of citizen which Riesman calls ‘inside-dopester’: inside-dopesters easily and quickly find information, check it, and if they are inclined towards plurality, they share both likes and dislikes. They are active – they sign petitions, write on forums, inform Facebook friends and inform themselves from the latter, use multiple nicknames and multiply their positions and participation. The virtual agora is highly attractive as it provides the opportunity to conquer a new world offering so many new friends, like-minded people, ideas, causes. The new digital identity and the new digital citizenship mutually interfere and keep their carriers glued to the screens for a long time. Click democracy obliterates street democracy. Hence, all organizers unanimously bemoaned the asymmetry between likes and participation, between online support for and real-life participation in events. For a long time.

That was before the street summoned thousands. Before the angry displaced the inside-dopesters. Before the inside-dopesters became angry. One of the most curious sociological facts was the active participation of computer experts in the summer 2013 protests in Bulgaria. They were in the front lines of the protests, as well as among those drinking coffee and working on their computers in the public square in front of Parliament in Sofia as a gesture of protest. Computers descended to the public square. One of the slogans during the protests summarized, tongue-in-cheek, this remarkable inversion: ‘Those who are online the Net[39], are red.

The well-infomed turned the public square into a virtual agora, while indignants restored the primacy of the street and introduced click-democrats into the whirlwind of the protest.

Indignants did not displace enthusiasts; the protest simply diversified the figures of the latter. Here I will note three of them: the activist, the solidarist, the dreamer.

The best way of foreseeing the future is to create it’, ‘Don’t complain. Organize yourself. And act!’ Many of the slogans expressed the mindset of the activist, the imperative of participation, the responsibility of action, the power of the project, the ability to build a world and a future.

Dont be Dispassionate. Be Compassionate.’ This slogan from #Occupy NBU introduces us to the figure of the solidarist. The protests coincided with the crisis with the Syrian refugees as well as with the rising wave of extreme nationalism in Bulgaria. Those who expressed solidarity were significantly fewer than those who were angry, but the anti-racist protest march on 17 November 2013 as well as the huge donor and volunteer energy attests to the existence of this figure in Bulgaria.

Occupiers = dreamers’: this poster in front of Sofia University proudly declared the right to dream and to utopia, the credo of the dreamer. The digital contestatory generation is the first generation of the transition that can dream. On its own or together with its global fellows. During Occupy Wall Street someone suggested that all who wanted to dream raise their hands (Occupy 2011). Nowadays young people have no leader, organization, programme, or structured demands. They have dreams. Even if they do not achieve anything else, this is enough to make them go down in history – as the generation that gave back society the social imagination and the freedom to dream.

 

The hybrid of cyberspace and urban space constitutes a third space which Manuel Castells (2012: 222) calls ‘the space of autonomy’. Protests become social movements when they leave the virtual world and flood the public square, when ‘the space of flows’ merges with ‘the space of places’, when virtual networks are extended to the occupied buildings and blocked streets.

This phenomenon is global; Bulgaria is just part of the jigsaw puzzle of this contestatory citizenship experimented in the e-street and materialized in the real-life street. In the specific postcommunist context, however, it acquires a specific existence which I have defined as the ‘second democratic revolution’.

The first democratic revolution was the postcommunist one, while the second has two faces: a digital and a contestatory one. The first was a revolution of the elites, the second of citizens. Of citizens online and offline. For a long time, online and offline were separated, young people were active online and passive offline, the virtual itself was more playful and amusing than active, civic, political. Today the online and the offline are ever more synchronized and, at that, in a dual sense: with regard both to activity and to aesthetics. The online is becoming increasingly engaged, not just playful. The public-square offline is becoming both political and playful; this is illustrated by the aestheticization of contestation.

The second democratic revolution of digitalization and contestation has changed the status of the social actor. In the first democratic revolution of the elites, citizens were assigned the role of applauding and attending the democratization process; they were second-class actors. In the second it is the citizens who experiment, innovate, refound democracy. This fundamental role has transformed their status, asserting them as first-class actors. The elites themselves become legitimate if and when they become capable of hearing the citizens.

The elites are good at producing leaders. They are not good at producing democracy that satisfies the citizens. The citizens are not good at producing leaders. The other way of interpreting this is to regard every citizen as a leader. By protesting online and offline, the citizens have taken democracy into their own hands in order to experiment new forms of participation, engagement, responsibility.

The two democratic revolutions prefer different concepts of citizenship. One concept sees citizenship as belonging, the other as activity. The first one defines it from the top-down, the other from the bottom-up. In the first the state is key, it sets the framework which individuals fit into or evade, opting for another identity belonging or another citizenship. In the case of citizenship as engagement and participation the framework is set not by the state but by the activity of citizens.

The internet has catalyzed the second democratic revolution not least through the culture of sharing which has grown into a network politics. From music to petitions to appeals for flash mobs to causes, sharing has grown into activity and activity into engagement. Networks with a variable geometry that constantly changes according to the goals and the actors but keeps its autonomy and definition from the bottom-up – this is the other powerful resource of digital contestatory citizenship.

The protests are the most vivid and controversial manifestation of the new contestatory citizenship. Some protests succeed in achieving their goals quickly and with a relatively small number of mobilized participants (such as some environmental protests, ACTA, and so on); other protests – lasting for a long time and with a larger number of participants – fail to achieve their initial demands. The effectiveness of the protests is variable. In this analysis I am interested not in this variability but in a constant – the influence of online and offline protests on the formation of a new type of active citizens empowered by their new voice, public role, engagement, control over the elites. This transformation is fundamental with regard to the formation of online and offline contestatory citizenship which is the actor of the second democratic revolution.

References

 

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[1] Held on 14 November 2013 at New Bulgarian University, Sofia.

[2] Tsakova (2012) analyzes three major groups of reasons for the passive attitudes, disengagement and apathy of citizens.

[3] A review of the whole Bulgarian literature on protests, new mobilizations and e-democracy is beyond the scope of this study.

[4] In Montgomery, Alabama.

[5] Which already had, of course, great predecessors like Gandhi and a number of interesting forms such as the Quaker schools for slaves in an era when slaves were prohibited from reading and writing.

[6] The Arab Spring evades this definition as its aim is not to improve the system but to radically change it.

[7] Left-wing Bulgarian journalist.

[8] Centre-right wing renown Bulgarian novelist.

[9] ‘The protesters are beautiful’ (Georgi Gospodinov).

[11] In 2002.

[12] 4.7% of GDP instead of the 4.2% proposed by the government (Nikova 2011: 103).

[13] Shutdown of schools in small settlements, downsizing of teachers… (Nikova 2011: 101).

[14] The KNSB staged a protest march on 20 November 2013, analyzed below.

[15] The different routes tried out by the autumn 2013 protests were eager to avoid repetition and sought surprise, but they were not as effective with regard to symbolic politics and symbolic geography.

[16] This quote is from interviews with digital indignants conducted under a study on e-citizenship directed by this author and carried out with the support of the Bulgarian Ministry of Education and Science’s Ideas Fund.

[17] Slogan from the environmental protests at Eagles’ Bridge in 2012.

[18] Slogan from the protests against shale gas in 2012.

[19] ‘Printing brochures about the protest against GMOs cost the organizers BGN 600 without managing to bring visibly more participants, while rallying support on the internet does not require any resources other than spare time’ (Hristov 2011: 187).

[20] The label of the students who occupied Sofia University in the fall of 2013.

[21] The biggest trade union.

[22] The student protests of October – December 2010.

[23] From the Monument to the Soviet Army in Sofia in June 2011.

[24] The public square is becoming a global, not purely Bulgarian, source of legitimacy. The most telling and paradoxical example is that Pope Francis was named by Time magazine’s Person of the Year ‘for pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets.’

[25] On the same day as the BSP and DPS matched themselves against the protesters in Sofia, the GERB party did the same in Plovdiv.

[26]I predi, i sega, Internet e svoboda’: slogan from the 2012 protests against ACTA. (This is a literal translation; the original is in rhymes – Translator’s note.).

[27] Interview of Nikolai Mihailov, Pressa daily, 20 November 2013.

[28] Kalin Yanakiev. Tova e protest na balgarskoto kachestvo sreshtu balgarskoto kolichestvo (This is a protest of the Bulgarian quality against the Bulgarian quantity). Offnews, 10 September 2013. http://offnews.bg/index.php/239980/kalin-yanakiev-tova-e-protest-na-balgarskoto-kachestvo-sreshtu-balgarskoto-kolichestvo

[29] Comment by a right-wing intellectual at an academic forum discussing the protests.

[30] In media interviews.

[31] Borislav Kandov. Introduction to a set of 15 postcards titled Bloke.Sofia. Graffiti.

[32] Kalin Yanakiev. Tova e protest na balgarskoto kachestvo sreshtu balgarskoto kolichestvo (This is a protest of the Bulgarian quality against the Bulgarian quantity). Offnews, 10 September 2013. http://offnews.bg/index.php/239980/kalin-yanakiev-tova-e-protest-na-balgarskoto-kachestvo-sreshtu-balgarskoto-kolichestvo

[33] Christo wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin or Pont Neuf in Paris in order to demonstrate both their true essence and the power of art.

[34] Slogans from the summer and autumn 2013 protests.

[35] Paper delivered by Dimitar Vatsov at a New Bulgarian University seminar on the protests, autumn 2013.

[36] A number of lists have played the same role of self-naming and naming of ‘friends’ and ‘foes’.

[38] Slogan from the 2013 protests.

[39] Being on the Net during the street demonstration means you are not demonstrating.

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