What brings about spontaneous civil mobilizations and when is their protest energy exhausted? The beginning and the ending of a protest might be framed by the slogans it raises, as seen in the subtitle of this paper. What follows next is a conceptualization of reactive mobilizations, interpreted as variations of single-issue civil mobilizations. Their emergence can be provoked by spontaneous reactions of fury, irreconcilability, and demands for morality in politics. Such an emotional reaction finds its expression in the slogan “We can’t take it anymore!”. Presumably, it is precisely this strong emotional reaction that keeps up the civil energy of a protest and determines its activity and gradual dying away. A more rational interpretation of the motivation and the forces behind the protest is also possible – according to it the protest is not simply an emotional reaction but a civil exercise of control over power. The question that follows from such an interpretation is not when the civil energy would recede (or become banalized) but what the outcome of the numerous civil actions of resistance is. Respectively, how often and how persistently should we exercise control over power?
In the present paper I interpret the 2012-2013 protest movements in Bulgaria as a form of participative democracy. Therefore, participative democracy is seen as a supplement and as a corrective to representative democracy. It empowers ordinary citizens and enables them to express their disagreement, to take part in political decision-making. According to theoreticians such as Charles Tilly, participative democracy is an integral part and a driving force of what he calls democratization: “movement toward broader, more equal, more protected, and more binding consultation” between the state and the citizens (Tilly, 2007: 14). This is the conceptualization of democratization I use here, as it differs radically from the definition of democratization developed in the tradition of the Cold War studies. The latter warily conceive of democratization as a sort of quasi-colonial movement or export of Western political models (or, as some home-grown analysts and activists would say, “European values”) in Eastern Europe. This type of interpretation is often applied to analyze the processes of 1989-1990 and 1997 in Bulgaria, the colour revolutions in the former Soviet Union countries, as well as the protests in Northern Africa in 2011 and after.
The observations that follow draw on anthropological interviews with participants in various protest movements. The interviews were carried out during protest actions (in situ), but also in latent periods when the interviewees could expand on their ideas and take a more distanced look at the situation. Another source of information that I refer to includes ethnographical observations and visual anthropology of the protests, in particular slogans and banners used during the protests. I am offering here only one possible reading of the collected data – an interpretation of the protesters’ actions through the category “reactive mobilizations”.
The term “reactive mobilizations” comes to describe the protesters’ own understanding of street demonstrations. Protests for them are an instrument for civil control over power. This form of street activities uses negative logic or the logic of objection: people object to something, they show their disapproval. Their objective is to prevent a political motion or to express strong disagreement with an already approved motion or measure. Protesters think of reactive mobilizations as outbursts, as rapid and energetic reactions contesting a government act, a bill, or an appointment of a state official. Protesters conceive of their actions as a spontaneous outbreak of indignation, provoked by policies, considered to be unacceptable by the ordinary citizens. As a rule, all participants in reactive mobilizations deny any connection with already existing institutional structures such as NGOs, trade unions, or, above all, political parties.
These mobilizations, in Shirky’s words, are organized without an organization, they use the mechanisms of online social networks for “ridiculously easy group-forming” (Shirky, 2008: 54). As protesters themselves point out, the genuine reaction of outrage or indignation is powerful enough to make ordinary citizens gather out in the streets to express their discontent. What gives energy to these spontaneous protests is the moral reaction of indignation, despair, disempowerment, as well as the irreconcilable disagreement with power.
Unlike social movements, reactive mobilizations are unstable – they appear and disappear as a result of a particular event. Hardly can we observe any continuity between separate actions. This also determines their lack of organizational structure or ideology, typical of social movements. While social movements build lasting relationships between participants, who in latent or inactive periods still keep the cause alive, reactive mobilizations cannot develop such structures, they do not aspire to stability, they do not outline long-term plans or objectives. Whereas social movements represent “a distinctive form of contentious politics” (Tilly, 2004: 3), in which a certain group of people place their collective demands before the public authorities, using their own campaign, repertoire, and a set of publicly visible features (according to Tilly, these include worthiness, unity, the number, and the commitment of the participants to the cause), reactive mobilizations show neither stable campaigns, nor a specific repertoire, let alone unity, a constant number of participants, or commitment to the cause.
A more flexible definition of social movements describes them as a specific social process, building up mechanisms for participation in collective actions, in which participants form strong informal relationships – even if lacking organizational structures – and share a particular collective identity (della Porta, Diani, 2006: 20). Reactive mobilizations, however, do not demonstrate even such flexible collective identity of resistance. Since they emerge spontaneously as an outbreak of discontent and do not strive for stability and formation of identity or ideology (a system of shared ideas for change), it is extremely difficult to place them within a common framework.
Still, reactive mobilizations can be characterized by at least two essential elements. First, there must be a compelling cause or reason – a certain event that provokes strong reactions of disapproval. Apart from that, reactive mobilizations need – and that is the second element – a fast and efficient channel for information distribution. As long as there is an already established network of message recipients, online social networks can provide such a channel (i.e. technology in itself is not enough: there must be a contact list, a group of interested persons who would react to the message).
Since these reactions are usually spontaneous and momentary, the logical question is to what extent they can be persistent. How can emotions of fury, indignation, and calls for morality last for a longer period of protest activities? Is it possible for a reactive mobilization to last longer than seven months? I refer here to the latest and most controversial protest of this kind – the anti-government protests which started in June 2013 and are still continuing (as of February 2014). Surely, this example of reactive mobilization sets a specific example due to its long period of activity. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that the anti-government protests started precisely as a reactive mobilization – as a spontaneous demonstration of disagreement with a particular government decision.
The history of reactive mobilizations in Bulgaria runs farther back in time. They started at least as early as 2009 with the protest of university students, mothers, farmers and other social groups (as well as ordinary citizens) who gathered together on 14th January in front of the Houses of Parliament. The protest was also remembered as the first one to be organized via Facebook (Gueorguieva 2009; Radeva 2010; Yurukov 2011). This emblematic protest marked the beginning of a trend – it was followed by a wave of spontaneous mobilizations provoked by various reasons. Numerous other causes emerged in the following years and spontaneous mobilizations gained speed. On 29th April 2009 another demonstration took place in front of the Parliament as a reaction against a bill limiting the right to street demonstrations; on 14th January 2010, again in front of the Parliament, there was a protest against a bill legalizing the surveillance of internet and mobile communications; on 10th April – against the postponed coming into effect of the total ban on smoking; on the same day there was another protest – against cruelty to animals. In 2010-2011 there was a series of protests against the rise of fuel prices, against the new parking regulations for Central Sofia (7th September 2011), whereas on 11th February 2012 there was a manifestation against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.
I am only recalling here the minor-scale actions and those that fit the definition of the so-called single-issue protests or mobilizations. These are singular, unrelated acts of disagreement. Unlike eco-activists’ demonstrations, in this type of protests there is no continuity between individual events. They do not form a chain of purposeful actions which are building up and growing stronger with every action that follows. Single-issue mobilizations are rather isolated cases of various manifestations of discontent.
The mass protests of 2012 and 2013 can also be interpreted as single-issue reactions of disagreement with a particular political decision, bill or motion. On 14th June 2012 outraged citizens gathered at the Eagles’ Bridge and blocked the traffic for 40 minutes, thus demonstrating against the Forest Act. A year later on the same date public discontent was provoked by the appointment of media tycoon Delyan Peevski as chair of the State Agency for National Security. In the so-called “winter protests”, or February protests of 2013, we could again observe a similar single issue that triggered the protests – the high electricity bills. What distinguishes these three cases of negative reaction to a particular problem from the above-mentioned single-issue mobilizations? The main difference is the duration of the protest activities. While in 2010-2011 we saw single actions that died away even faster than they started, in 2012-2013 the events took place for a week (June 2012), or as Sunday processions for nearly two months (February-March 2013), or as daily protests in the course of more than seven months (#ДАНСwithme from June 2013 to February 2014).
We can hardly find a common denominator for all these events. They differ in their forms of collective actions, demands, and social profile of the participants (a factor which, even if not documented or established in quantitative terms, aroused much controversy among analysts). As for the number of the participants, the various demonstrations differ immensely too – some of them had dozens, others – tens of thousands of participants. In some cases the motivation was too particularistic (those personally concerned with the new parking regulations for Central Sofia, for example), others raised corporate demands, whereas still others claimed to relate to universal human values (such as nature protection). At first sight, there seem to be no connections or repetitions.
Yet, one common feature of all single-issue mobilizations is their denial of any connection to political parties. What activists and participants in all these protests share is that they do not want to be associated with any party structures. Regardless of their cause, all of them – eco-activists, supporters of free file sharing on the internet, protesters against monopolies – since 2006 up to the present day have asserted that they are by no means to be connected to party structures and party-sponsored organizations.
This differentiation from party politics can be traced in the protests’ calls, declarations and programmes, as well as in the interviews conducted with participants in situ. This characteristic of the protests is not a new one and can be seen as far back as 2009 or even 2007 (see more in Gueorguieva, 2012a, b). The differentiation from the actions of oppositional parties was the main focus of the interviews conducted in 2010.
The dissociation from political parties should not be interpreted as civil apathy or as a result of the professionalization of politics. Some analysts claim that the 1990s in Eastern Europe saw a tendency toward political passivity and disinterestedness, which can be accounted for by the people’s dissatisfaction with the functioning of public institutions and the slow process of improving the quality of life after the democratic changes (Ulram & Plasser, 2003). For other analysts the passivity of the citizens exhibits the wide-spread opinion that politics is “a dirty game” that ordinary people do not want to get involved in and therefore leave to the professional politicians (Raychev & Todorov, 2006). We can hardly argue against the observation that people are dissatisfied with the functioning of the institutions, the quality of life or the political dirty games; still, instead of leading to apathy, these factors can actually catalyze the birth of the active citizen (Dalton, 2009). Active citizens look for forms of participation and means of achieving their political goals, which go beyond what traditional party structures offer.
According to some activists party politics is simply not the means that could lead to the accomplishment of their goals. Explaining why they prefer performances and artistic actions as a way of expressing their demands and seeking support, eco-activists state:
“We could not see a political solution to this problem, as politicians themselves and the administrative officers in charge are related to this business. They are part of the problem!” (interview with G. D., activist, January 2007)
Therefore, with the very establishment of the civil movement for nature protection in Bulgaria in 2006-7 its founders decided to search for ways to apply pressure, excluding any involvement with political parties. In interviews and slogans from that time they insisted that they were acting as a group of friends, or as ordinary citizens, not on behalf of any organization. They denounced having anything to do with politics, parties, or “the political system as we know it”.
It is not uncommon that respondents relate politics to “lobbying”, “political protections” for someone’s business, private or corporate interests. This is explicitly seen in tourism and in the construction industry, which are held responsible for the overdevelopment of the Bulgarian Black Seaside and for the deforestation in the nature parks, situated close to mountain resorts.
Another motive that conditions civil movements’ attitude to parties is their unwillingness to be instrumentalized in the political games of some oppositional parties. Respondents often share that whenever members of political parties show up at protests carrying their parties’ flags and symbols, they are met with strong disapproval. For protesters this is a replacement of the protest demands, an attempt to “tame” the authentic civil discontent and harness it by an oppositional party in its pursuit of power.
“Personally I am very much interested in that [who organizes the protest], because in most cases it is the oppositional parties which are out of power. Just like most of my friends, I don’t want to be used as a puppet in their covert political games. As far as this protest is concerned, I don’t know who organized it, but for all other protests I try to inform myself in advance. I’ll say it again, I don’t want to be used as a puppet in the scheming of political parties.” (interview with B., 31st January, 2010)
In 2011 and 2012 the same slogans appeared: “This is not a political protest, it is civil discontent!”, “You do not represent us!” (to the political parties taking part in the ruling coalition), “We don’t want a substitution but a real change!”(in 2013 after Boyko Borisov’s resignation).
Another motive that unites all participants in reactive mobilizations is the strongly expressed negative reaction. As these protests do not have a collective identity or a collective interest, which would voice the protesters’ demands, the only thing that unites the participants is their definite and energetic objection to certain policies and government decisions.
The objection can be interpreted as an emotional reaction – of fury, indignation, moral resistance. What feeds the energy of the protest, what gives it its drive and persistence is exactly this emotion. It might be expressed in various ways: “As soon as I heard that they were planning to cut down trees (white firs in Pirin), I set off right away!“, “We cannot allow this!”, “We should show them that they can’t do whatever they want!”, “And yet, there are people who care!” (excerpts from interviews with participants in 2009-2012), “We care that you don’t care!” (a banner from the occupation of Sofia University, October 2013), “I cannot tolerate their arrogance!” (interview with D. M., 54 years old, 7th July 2013), “We had to do something” (interview with I. T., 27 years old, November 2013). Alexander Kiossev’s statement “We can’t take it anymore!”, which gained popularity, expresses the same emotional reaction.
From a more reflexive perspective, participation in reactive mobilizations is explained as an instrument for civil control over government decisions. Most respondents share that participation in protests gives them the feeling that they can influence the development of the democratic process; they feel empowered when they are in the street. Many quoted one and the same aphorism:
“There is a saying that I find very accurate – the price of democracy is vigilance. That’s why I am here – democracy means citizens being on the alert and going out in the streets whenever they disagree with the authorities.” (interview with G., an activist of “Friends of the Earth”, 14th January, 2010)
How often should we go out in the streets then? Rather popular among green activists is yet another statement – they are like a fire brigade, always ready for action. The moment a vigilant citizen alarms about an act of abusing power, an illegal permit, an illegal construction site, deforestation, or a bill that is being drafted, everybody is ready to go out in the streets.
Regardless of their cause, all reactive mobilizations follow the same mechanism. A vigilant citizen informs about abuse, rings the alarm, and organises a protest, which exerts pressure on the authorities. If the protest is successful, the illegal permit or act is withdrawn. Till the next case of power abuse. This is what happened in the Irakli case – in spite of the final resolution of the Supreme Administrative Court from September 2012, in December it became clear that there were investment projects underway; the same happened with the battles to protect Pirin and Strandzha nature reserves, subject to arbitrary decisions in 2012 and 2013; still the same occurred with Peevski’s nomination – at first it was withdrawn but as soon as the protests receded in September and October, the Constitutional Court reappointed him as an MP in the 42nd National Assembly.
Generally, reactive mobilizations follow negative logic – they object to or deny something. Nevertheless, they contain at least two positive elements: they empower citizens and exercise civil control over elected political representatives. What’s more, the logic of immediate disagreement is essential here, as it provides the necessary correction to the process of political decision-making. This negative logic may transform reactive mobilizations into a driving force of contemporary democracies, which are afflicted with a crisis of representativeness. Seen from this perspective, reactive mobilizations become something that Rosanvallon calls counter-democracy (Rosanvallon, 2012).
Counter-democracy should be understood as the positive work of distrust which aims “to make sure that elected officials keep their promises and to find ways of maintaining pressure on the government to serve the common good” (Rosanvallon, 2008: 8). The principle of positive distrust can be found in post-totalitarian societies, but it is also inherent of post-revolutionary France where the principle of civil vigilance is a complementary form of the sovereign exercise of the people’s power. “Perpetually vigilant, the people were to oversee the work of the government. This diligent oversight was celebrated as the main remedy for dysfunctional institutions and in particular as the cure for what might be called ‘representative entropy’ (by which I mean the degradation of the relation between voters and their representatives)” (Rosanvallon, 2008: 13). Undoubtedly, the analogy between contemporary Bulgaria and post-totalitarian societies, let alone post-revolutionary France, is rather simplified. Nevertheless, the two problems outlined in the above-mentioned quote – the institutional malfunctioning and the disrupted relation to political representativeness – are typical of Bulgaria too. The latter can also be termed “representative entropy”, representative democracy crisis, or even, as Laclau puts it, populism. For him populism is precisely the confrontation between the “people” as an empty signifier and the “state” as a set of institutions which do not belong to or serve the people (Laclau, 2005). The state does not belong to the citizens, therefore they try to reclaim it. That is the meaning that links the series of spontaneous outbreaks of discontent in a meaningful sequence of events. “We are the state!” was the slogan, raised by the protesters at the Eagles’ Bridge in June 2012.
In Rosanvallon’s words this type of “negative sovereignty” of civil society is most common and most efficient through deterring actions – citizens rediscover their power when they succeed in forcing the government not to proceed with its plans and intentions. Citizens thus exercise their right to sanction – “the ability to prevent”. Technically speaking, this right is also the easiest to exercise. “Blocking government action yielded tangible, visible results. Success in blocking passage of an undesired bill was plain for everyone to see (…). The power of the people is a veto power” (Rosanvallon, 2008: 14-15). This, respectively, leads to satisfaction with the achieved results. Not surprisingly, this is the form of protest citizens choose most often as deterring actions seem to yield the highest rate of return.
What happens, however, when the deterring energy of the citizens remains unsatisfied? Or when only a few months after reaching a satisfactory decision, the authorities appeal it? Is there a way to react other than resorting again to a reactive mobilization?
Many activists are of the opinion that even when reactive mobilizations are successful – when they have a deterring effect, they are not a sufficiently effective form of action. Protesters share that they cannot be constantly in the streets, and that other forms of resistance are being sought. Counter-democracy needs to find more sustainable forms of institutionalized deterring structures. One way of exerting pressure on power is through the so-called “fourth estate”, investigative journalism. Other options include having a proactive parliamentary opposition, an efficient legal system, as well as permanent consultative bodies, mediating between civil society and the authorities.
At the public debate “The Day After the Resignation”, organized in the Aula Magna of Sofia University on 19th December 2013, the participants in the protests (represented by the Early-Rising Students, the Bulgarian Protest Network, and university professors supporting the students’ protest) shared a variety of visions and suggestions. Some repeated party programmes, others – platforms and proposals from the previous protest waves, still others outlined plans in the rather long term. Alternative solutions are still being sought by various players, luckily not only party-affiliated.
Reactive mobilizations would be deemed successful once they can offer sustainable solutions to the problems voiced by the protests. These problems are: actual civil participation in political decision-making; flaws in the system of political representativeness; malfunctioning state institutions that do not serve the citizens’ interests and have lost their trust. These problems were pinned down long before the “rising” of the students and their professors in the fall of 2003. Still, they found their outlet in the traditional media after being finally articulated by the so-called “TV intellectuals” (to borrow Bourdieu’s ironic expression).
Reactive mobilizations are still in search for solutions to the problems outlined. And while neither power, nor the majority of the political players seems to acknowledge these problems and look for solutions, the reactive mobilizations have moved to a different stage. Rather than seeing them as a form of counter-democracy (Rosanvallon), we’d better conceive of them as contributing to the process of democratization (Tilly).
In other words, unlike the earlier protest wave (2009-2011) which was mainly related to private interests or group causes, the protest movements of 2012 and 2013 managed to overcome this particularity and voice the more general demand for a change in the relationship between the state and the citizens. How could the earlier social movements have gained trust in larger debates, going beyond particularistic and corporate interests, given that they protected private and group interests? How could they have fought for a change in the political status quo, given that they were tied up to private, group, or corporate interests, and to the networks of trust established in these areas?
“In short, social movements promote democratization when – either as explicit programs or as by-products of their action – they broaden the range of participants in public politics, equalize the weight of participants in public politics, erect barriers to the direct translation of categorical inequalities into public politics, and/or integrate previously segmented trust networks into public politics.” (Tilly, 2004: 143)
Even if an unforeseen side effect, the three protest waves in 2013 managed to overcome this stage and place the demand for a change in the relationship between the citizens and the state. To what extent, however, did they manage to contribute to the process of democratization, seen as a wider participation in public politics?
The February protests did not lead to democratization as the authorities refused to include larger groups of participants in the consultations. The series of round tables, organized both by the authorities and by some alternative players, left the better part of the protesters unrecognized and excluded.
Currently, the consultations between the state and the citizens are neither more inclusive, nor more intense, nor more binding (see Tilly, 2007: 14, quoted above), if such consultations are wanted by those in power at all. What’s more, the inequalities in public politics are growing even bigger as priority in the consultations is given to the old party and intellectual elites, which are integrated in networks that have lost any public trust. The new figures are surreptitiously turned into allies or invited to take part in the traditional structures which have lost credibility. It seems at first sight that as far as the democratization process is concerned, the protest movements of the autumn of 2013 are a step behind the previous two waves. Still, let us not jump to conclusions yet. For neither democracy, nor counter-democracy can be brought to an end. We remain therefore in a state of hope and expectation.
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 The civil movement for nature protection, whose origin can be traced as far back as the spring and the summer of 2006 when the group “Save Irakli” was established, does not fit the definition of a single-issue mobilization. Although the movement gained popularity with this particular case, it actually organized a series of actions that pursued the same idea, the same motive, the same cause, and even ideology. Despite that eco-activists do not aim to found a stable organization, unlike reactive mobilizations, they stay in contact even in latent periods. We can even talk about collective identity (more on the spontaneous civil “green” movement as a common-good movement, see Gueorguieva, 2013). In short, the so-called green mobilizations can be interpreted as a social movement, as defined by della Porta and Diani (quoted above). Although they share some forms of protest action, green mobilizations differ from single-issue mobilizations and from their variation – reactive mobilizations. Green mobilizations demonstrate continuity; they establish relationships between the participants and persistently pursue one and the same cause.
 As for the insistence of the protesters not to be related to any party, I should point out here that the paper was for the most part written before the second student occupation of Sofia University’s main building. Then the occupants urged “all non-status quo parties” to support them. This act of the protesters opened up a new line of research, which would have to trace back political affinity or affiliation of the university occupants in 2013 with any party structures. Indeed, it was in the summer of 2013 when protesters started showing any affiliation to political parties and structures (in the author’s observations). I.e., this is a relatively new phenomenon (since 2013) that was not visible in the previous period (2009-2012). The present paper does not discuss the issue of the political connections of the protesters.
 A paraphrase of Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. The same paraphrased version of this quote was referred to in several interviews.
About the author
Valenitna Gueorguieva is an assistant professor at the Department of History and Theory of Culture, Sofia University. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Laval University (Quebec, Canada) and has completed research at the Centre for the Study of Social Movements, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and Central European University in Budapest. Her research interests include youth cultures, social movements, social use of technologies, media cultures.