Jan Blommaert 


Anachronistic thinking

A crisis such as the one that rocks the EU at present is in essence a process of ultra-rapid social change, in which the disruptive effects of the crisis are being turned into alternative, non-mainstream patterns of social behavior and social structuring. And part of what we see as the crisis, is the application of anachronistic frames of thought to such new social structures. Responses to forms of social behavior inspired by the need to escape the crisis, so become part of that crisis – they add a layer of ideological crisis to the economic, social and political crisis we can witness. Aspects of behavior are included in definitions of what goes wrong in our societies, they are seen as problematic; while for those who developed them, they are effective solutions to critical problems in life.

Two tendencies can be singled out as examples of anachronistic thinking. One: the increasing pressure to continue seeking solutions within the mainstream – people need to adjust and adapt to standard trajectories sketched, a while ago, as the ideal trajectory for European societies out of the crisis and towards prosperity. Two: the increasing use of state violence as the main tool to control non-mainstream behaviors.

The second aspect does not demand much explanation here. The “unrest” (in itself an anachronism) spotted by authorities in the EU is answered by the deployment of riot police forces and by the rise of a huge network of electronic and technological surveillance online and offline. This line of response is old, and it goes back to the perpetual tension between “the street and the seat”: the necessity in institutional democracies to seek solutions to any social issue through traditional parliamentary policy-developing work, continuously challenged by organized or grassroots mobilization outside of the institutional channels. Taking to the street is as old as democracy itself; violent responses to it by the authorities as well. The more unrest we currently witness – millions of Europeans demonstrate on an almost daily basis in the EU – the more spectacular the responses of the institutionalized democracies become. They now face a “danger” not hitherto experienced: invisible “mobs” active on the Internet and capable of causing major harm to the online branches of institutionalized democracies. Wikileaks is the most outspoken example of this form of activism in recent years, but in a more general sense, the growth and development of effective and large online networks of activists, and the widespread usage of electronic media in public debate all across the EU, are causes for concern for the security branches of EU governments.

The first aspect is more interesting, so let us spend some more attention to it.

The pressure of the mainstream

The EU has defined itself in a series of Treaties as potentially the most prosperous society on earth. These definitions are drawn within a broadly capitalist frame – prosperity will be generated by private property and free-market processes – and critically include an emphasis on knowledge. Europe, says the Lisbon Treaty, is on its way to become the core of a global knowledge economy driven by a large workforce prepared for this knowledge economy by exceptionally high levels of education. The older Bologna strategy, tailored to shape a unified market of higher education, is a key building block for this strategy, and the EU wishes to see terrific increases in higher education enrollment in the near future.

Young Europeans, thus, are offered a kind of “standard trajectory” based on progression through levels of institutionalized, formal education, the finality of which is insertion into a private-industry workforce producing innovative knowledge products. This trajectory, one can say, is that of the “winners”; while other, deviant trajectories are those of “losers”. Or, in an even more oppressive sense, the standard trajectory is that of “normality” within the EU social imagination, while others are “abnormal”. This trajectory is enforceable: the availability of “white collar jobs” is said to be increasingly clustered within this knowledge economy, while jobs outside of it are projected to be precarious and lowly salaried. Jobs, furthermore, no longer organically lead to “careers”. The labor market doctrine of “Flexicurity” projects a future of labor frequently interrupted, in response to conjunctural shifts, by periods of being laid off, being re-trained and re-inserted in segments of the labor market then in expansion. “Careers” become fully subject to flexible responses to the law of supply and demand.

Connected to this focus on knowledge economy labor markets and careers, the EU assumes a status-quo in terms of social structure. A large and highly educated middle class will dominate the institutional democracies of the EU. They will be affluent and display the patterns of consumption that have turned the EU into the most dynamic consumer economy on earth. The working-class is supposed to shrink and diminish in terms of political influence, since traditional industrial production will gradually give way to the smart economy envisaged by the EU.

This, then, is the mainstream which is offered to young Europeans. The road to “normalcy” as a young European is: to pursue the highest possible levels of education, to deploy the skills thus accumulated into high-profit private knowledge industries, to flexibly respond to economic shifts, and to continue consuming in the ways deemed appropriate for an affluent middle-class. All of this is politically surrounded by the institutions of classical democracy: elected representative parliaments and nation-state governments responding (flexibly, again) to a higher scale-level of governance, the EU; which in turn flexibly responds to the tactics of a global private business scale.

The problem

This, however, does not work. Or at least, this mainstream ideal appears to be extraordinarily vulnerable to convulsions in the global business cycles, resulting in a situation, such as the one now experienced, in which extraordinary high numbers of young people become and remain unemployed, incapable of turning their exceptional skills into progress on the standard mainstream trajectory, entering (perhaps for an indefinite period) the “precariat”. And “switching off”, so to speak.

Since 2008, the EU has seen an explosion of new social, cultural and political movements, tied together by accusations of the system not living up to its promises and by a rejection of systemic features of the standard trajectory just sketched. I emphasize the term “systemic”: protest is not, or surely not only, about surface features of the system – the distinction, let us say, between a conservative or a left-wing government in the capital. The rejection is fundamental and targets the key features of the social, economic and political mission statement designed by the EU through its most recent Treaties. The system of parliamentary representative democracy, in control of the public sphere and civil society, is challenged by the construction of local or transnational forms of deliberative and self-governing communities (challenging, one can observe, the scalar order of the system, in which decisions are distributed over the different layers of institutionalized politics), and by invading the public sphere by means of several new forms of message-making and communication.

The latter includes a broad range of internet-based “citizen journalism” news media (known earlier on, as “micromedia”), network-organizing social media activities often leading to “offline” effects (such as flashmobs) and characterized by the unpredictable “virality” of certain messages, exchanges of hacking skills targeted at “democratizing” the knowledge of the state(s) and emancipating those who might be victims of such knowledge. Wilileaks and Anonymous, thus, have been responsible for some of the most high-profile forms of activism in recent years: the leaking of millions of classified documents shedding light on the “dark forces” of market capitalism and established politics; and the successful blockading and sabotaging of crucial electronic tools of governance. All of this is achieved “off the streets”, is therefore hard to imagine as a form of social activism, and leads to increased encroachments by governments into the free world of the internet.

And there is more. In several parts of the EU, young people increasingly appear to refuse to embark on the standard trajectory of knowledge-economy middle class careers. They leave schools and refuse higher degree training, and rather opt for lives in alternative economic, social and political environments. They start small shops, grow and produce alternative products – organic food, hemp, home-made clothes and appliances – and choose to live in alternative social units deviating fundamentally from the traditional family-based units. Squatter communities all over the EU now form a huge population, and people organize sharing-based and crowd-sourced economic forms of survival, withdrawing from consumer capitalism. Crowdfunding is a popular strategy for financing new forms of entrepreneurship, avoiding the standard templates of commercial banking. This is no longer “marginal”.

Most of these alternative forms of social organization are seen by the authorities as “problems”, as forms of “rebellion” and “dissent” – and thus illegitimate, perhaps inspired by anti-systemic political ideologies such as anarchism, and potentially endangering the stability of the current status-quo. They are therefore targeted as potentially dangerous by security forces, and the rise of such new communities is a general cause of concern for powerful observers such as the IMF, who see this development as a form of social instability.


Such interpretations of what is different as potentially threatening have a very old pedigree in Europe, of course. (E.P Thomson noted decades ago that stability, like revolution, has its own system of terror.) As soon as alternative forms of life leave the fringes of statistics and demography, and become massively visible, “rebellion” may be replaced as a label by “revolution”, and a crackdown is to be expected.

These interpretations, however, can also be seen as persistent anachronisms that fail to capture the positive and problem-solving potential of such phenomena and developments. In other words: what is currently seen as a “problem” might only be a problem for those who try to impose a specific hegemony; for those who reject that hegemony, it may effectively be a solution.

Squatters solve a critical problem for themselves: homelessness or the exploitative aspects of a housing market driven by speculative capitalist forces, increasingly unaffordable in times of recession. Organic small-scale farmers solve their problem of unemployment and lack of income; citizen journalists solve a problem of disinformation and manipulation by the large commercial or state-owned mass media; crowdfunding solves a problem of lack of solvency or creditworthiness as a customer in commercial banking, and so forth.

Interestingly, almost all of these alternative forms of social, economic and political organization emphasize a democratic idealism, again solving a problem of lack of legitimacy, voice and impact in the established institutional systems of democracy. While such developments, therefore, have an anti-systemic dimension – of rejection and withdrawal from the mainstream – they also have a constructive and positive dimension reflecting a genuine concern about the quality of life in the social, economic and political mainstream. If this mainstream has just unemployment, mystification or exploitation to offer, a better life can be built outside of it.

And further

These non-mainstream alternative contain possibly highly relevant ideas, methods and reflections, and do not necessarily represent a failure of “integration” in an institutionally scripted mainstream, but a constructive critique of the assumption of “integration” itself. If young and potentially highly “useful” people switch off and abandon the trajectory towards mainstream integration, they do not choose the void as an alternative: they design and develop another trajectory which reflects their present concerns, needs and ideals. Thus, the political distinction is not between the mainstream and chaos – it is between different mainstreams, all of them seen and argued for as fulfilling, worth pursuing, and legitimate.

An investigation of such different mainstreams, the trajectories of access they require, the resources they reflect, gather and deploy, and the meaning they have for the people involved, may provide possible solutions for several key systemic problems presently experienced socially, economically and politically, and it is good to realize that these key systemic problems are real and are often the trigger for young people to switch off and “reset” their lives. In other words, the very fact of switching off, of people abandoning the (single institutionalized) “mainstream”, is an indication not just of the possibility of anti-hegemonic alternatives but proof of their existence and practicability. It is not as if alternatives have to be invented: millions of people already live in them. And rather than perceiving such people as “losers” who consciously opted for a life in the margins, we can see such margins as “centers” in their own right, as alternative “mainstreams” in which people spend considerable efforts and deploy considerable amounts of competence and skills so as to make them worth living, and equivalent – if not superior – to what the institutionalized standard trajectory has to offer them in the way of a life and a future.

A crisis such as the one that has marked the past decade will not be solved by means of anachronisms. Solving it sustainably – the opposite of patching up what is there – requires explorations of all and any counter-hegemonic ideas that point towards systemic alternatives. This work, Ibelieve, is to the benefit of all, even if it might aggravate and unnerve some.



Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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