07/27/2015 04:26 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2016

The Future of Social Movements


Throughout East-Central Europe during the Communist period, social movements were on the margins, repressed by the governments, declared illegal. The exception was Yugoslavia in the 1980s where the women's movement, the peace movement, and other groups not only operated in the open but had some impact on public policy. This was particularly the case in Slovenia. In 1990, for instance, I was astonished to learn that 40 groups were working on the transformation of a military barracks in the middle of the capital Ljubljana into an alternative political and entertainment space.

But when I visited Ljubljana in the summer of that year, sociologist and social movement activist Tomaz Mastnak told me that I'd already missed the heyday of the social movements. Already by that time, political parties were occupying the public space, and Mastnak was lamenting the degeneration of the political discourse.

When I met with him again in Ljubljana in the summer of 2013, I asked him about the eclipse of the social movements at that time.

"We saw the marginalization of the movements," he told me as we sat at one of Ljubljana's many outdoor cafes in the downtown. "I believed at the time that they had 'fulfilled their historical mission.' They didn't have much potential to continue to play an important role in politics because the political space had changed dramatically. All their activities were amateur, voluntary, and strictly independent, at least among the people I was working with. The groups I was involved with were not on the pay list of any services here or abroad. It was volunteer activity. The role of the moral element was big. People thought that they needed to do them because it was the right thing to do, not for career reasons."

The historical mission was, of course, the transition of Slovenian society to some form of democratic rule. Social movements didn't disappear from Slovenia. Some groups became professionalized, like the Peace Institute. Other voluntary organizations continued, particularly among the younger generation. But they no longer had the prominence or influence they enjoyed during that brief period in the 1980s.

Over the last 23 years, however, new social movements have emerged around the world to address economic equality (Occupy, the indignados), authoritarian rule (Arab Spring), and a range of civil rights issues (LGBT organizing). These social movements don't have a common political agenda but they do share a skepticism toward political elites.

"Across the globe, from Chile to the United States, from Spain to Turkey, people are angry and fed up with the current political class," Mastnak observed. "The global political class has lost its legitimacy. I don't remember even in the worst years of the Communist period anything comparable in terms of the disdain, the hostility, or the disgust with politics. It's very hard to expect that any new vision could come out of this political class. Even if it did come, it's hard to imagine that the population, which has become so disillusioned with politics, would accept it."

These reactions have not (yet) crystalized in a demand for new political structures. "There are mental shifts in the population about what they want and what they value, which are not necessarily articulated in organizational forms," he continued. "In Egypt what we see now is a popular uprising against democracy, because democracy has become a system that is unaccountable to the electorate. The purest form of this unaccountable politics is the drone democracy of Obama. This involves secret decisions far beyond the reach of public oversight and that have life-and-death consequences for many people. We are unprepared to think about political and economic responses when democracy, the hegemonic model for the last 200 years, seems to be in deep difficulty."

Mastnak has published an incisive book on how the history of anti-Turkish sentiment has shaped Europe's understanding of itself. He has also served as the director of the UN's Office of the Alliance of Civilizations. He now teaches at UC-Irvine. I asked him whether he would ever consider entering politics.

"Given my expertise, I think that what I could do, which was more important than sitting in an office in government or parliament, has been try to guard the political language," he replied. "The political language was treated very badly these past 23 years. My parallel is with the grammarians in late antiquity after the Christian emperors took over and dissolved all the schools. They saw themselves as the guardians of the language. They succeeded. Much of what we think and speak is due to their efforts. They saw something very far away but essential."

The Interview

At the time I interviewed you in 1990, you were working on social movements. We talked about new social movements here in Slovenia and the relationship between these movements and the new political parties. When I was in Ljubljana in summer 1990, 40 groups alone were working on the conversion of the military barracks at Metelkova. It was such a small country and a small city, and yet there were so many civic groups. Some people here dismissed this by saying that the civil society scene had been much more vibrant before. Others agreed that it was quite remarkable. Did you see the marginalization of these new social movements and the emergence of new and different movements in the early 1990s?

We saw the marginalization of the movements. I believed at the time that they had "fulfilled their historical mission." They didn't have much potential to continue to play an important role in politics because the political space had changed dramatically. All their activities were amateur, voluntary, and strictly independent, at least among the people I was working with. The groups I was involved with were not on the pay list of any services here or abroad. It was volunteer activity. The role of the moral element was big. People thought that they needed to do them because it was the right thing to do, not for career reasons.

With the fall of the old regime, the political landscape changed. The marginalization of the movements was the result of the change not the cause of it. The policies from then on were going to be professional. People would soon become interested in politics in order to make a living. The people involved in the movements were for the most part incapable of doing this kind of political work, sitting in parliament and making compromises. And all kinds of people came to the forefront who had been completely silent during the period of democratic upheaval. Many of these people in Slovenia had their own vendettas to pursue or who felt that they had been victimized under the previous regime (the majority had not been). Anti-Communists came to the fore. Ironically in Slovenia, anti-Communism emerged after the fall of Communism. The social movements were not pro-Communist, but no one really cared about anti-Communism in that sense. It was irrelevant. We were alternative. We wanted to create new forms of political action. But new people came to politics who were bitter and hostile. Emigrants returned, quite a lot of them, and some of them had been collaborators with fascism. It became ugly.

There was this Ivan Kramberger, a politician. He was a humanitarian. He made some money and entered politics. He ran for president. He was a completely apolitical man, with no program. He had an ape on his arm. He was killed. They shot him.

Who shot him?

No one knows. He began to attract too much public attention and support. This was in the early 1990s. There were different stories depending on whether you were talking to followers of one party or another. It was a very bad sign. No one took the assassination very seriously either. It was just pushed aside. But it was a sign of the new realities. Life became very dangerous. Under totalitarianism, basically we were safe. I had to face a trial twice. But it was a trial. I was not kidnapped.

It was not the 1950s.

And it was not the 1990s either! The mafia came in, and all the negative sides of the transition began to appear. This was the direction in which things began to move.
I supported the formation of the parties because I thought it was a necessary step. But I was not involved in them. I pulled out of politics. I decided that I wouldn't do that any more. I decided not to continue with the same kind of activity I was involved in before or to change and become a politician. The social movements were out. Some nostalgia about the "good old days" remained, but that wasn't very helpful.

You said 23 years ago that social movements also had a profound cultural impact throughout the region, but particularly in Slovenia. On feminism and gay/lesbian issues, people's attitudes changed here in a way they didn't change in Romania, for instance. What happened to that kind of energy?

Some of that - feminism and the gay movement -- was irreversible. There still are homophobic scandals. You have that anywhere. But the movements had a lasting effect. Another big issue of the 1980s was anti-militarism, which had a big impact on public attitudes toward the army and organized violence. That changed with Slovenia becoming a new state and the argument that it needed an army. In the first parliament, there was still quite a strong position that Slovenia should be demilitarized. That didn't succeed. It was overridden by the new responsibilities of the state.

Another important change was in the attitudes toward immigrants and refugees from the war in former Yugoslavia, especially Bosnia. In the first years the welcome was incredible. People were taken in. But the change came with the consistent activity of very small parties. They changed the public attitude. On the one hand, the state administered a genocide with the Erased. The authorities were not brave enough to shed blood to tie the country together. But there was this constitutive crime that was very cohesive for the new elite. And they succeeded in building public support for the military. On the other hand, with the war dragging on and the xenophobic activities of small parties in parliament, which was tolerated by the liberal government, the public attitudes changed. There was a cultural impact, but to believe that the changes were so profound was a misjudgment.

One of the things we talked about in Slovenia, though not so much in other parts of Yugoslavia, was the totalitarian potential in civil society. And that came very much to the fore with the fall of Communism.

I talked with Marko Hren, who was quite optimistic about the potential of anti-militarist organizing in that first parliament. He believes that the only reason the movement didn't succeed was because it lacked information that the executive had about the planned intervention into Slovenia of the JNA and the federal government. The government used that as a rationale for rejecting the demilitarization of Slovenia.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.