Firebrand – the modern activist

Thomas P. Boje / februar 1, 2018

Firebrand – the modern activist

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Civil engagement has many different expressions. Traditionally, it has been that the citizens enter an association and through this affiliation are active in various forms of voluntary work. You are a coach of a sports club, you are a member of the board of a cultural association, you are supportive of the elderly or sick through the Ældre Sagen or the Red Cross, etc. This form of civilian engagement is still widespread, but other forms have come – yes, there has always been parallels.

However, during the last decade, a significant change has been made in civil engagement. More and more are active in spontaneous and self-organized activities. According to voluntary surveys in 2004, the proportion of member volunteers was 79 percent of the total number of volunteers. In 2012 the figure fell to 70 percent, and according to recent figures, the share is now 57 percent. Still more volunteers indicate that they are active in informal contexts and unrelated to any organization. Volunteering seems to be more individual commitment. There is today a strong tendency for civilian engagement to occur outside or parallel to the organized association and partly in opposition to the established system. It is here that firebrands come in and has gained an important position in the local activities as well as in the national political scene.

There are many local collaborations on food supplies, festivals, diners, reception of refugees, organic production, village refurbishment, urban renewal, etc. Throughout the country we experience projects started by single people or residents. The probably most significant example of firebrand’s innovative power is ‘Venligboerne’ and their efforts for refugees and asylum seekers. Throughout the country, support groups for refugees emerged at the end of 2015. Groups, despite political opposition, have created tolerable conditions for many refugees and have helped to reduce political tightening. Locally, a project like ‘Mols in Development’ has managed to create dynamics in a peripheral area with access to new citizens, a creative cultural environment and a strong local community. At Samsø, firebrands have long stood for the development of the island. First about energy supply and today organic production of food. Similar projects are found locally across the country.

In the metropolitan areas, there are also firebrands without organizational anchoring, which has been driving the development of projects for vulnerable social groups, refugees, etc. In Aarhus, ‘Sager Der Samler’ have been driving an alternative activation of vulnerable urban space renovation, etc. In Copenhagen, ‘Medborgerne’ and ‘Trampolinhuset’ have greatly contributed to the social and cultural challenges in Nørrebro and the North-West quarter being put on the political agenda through the commissioning of a number of street plans projects. In all the above examples, it is the firebrands who took the initiative and stood for the activities. Firebrands are often the first to see opportunities and release positive forces in civil society, including activation of volunteers and the creation of meaningful communities.

The active citizen

The core of civil society is the active involvement of citizens, critical dialogue and free conversation in public spaces. However, it is important here to make clear what the starting point and terms of participation are. I distinguish between ordinary, active and activist citizenship.

Ordinary citizenship characterizes citizens who live a private life without engaging socially and politically in public life. This most common form of citizenship activity is practiced in very discrete forms through the daily routines, through the living life. Care is taken for the family and its neighbors as well as participant in everyday life as it takes place in the community.

Active citizenship, unlike the ordinary, is a more involved form of citizenship. These are people who participate in different types of public sector activities – are active in political work, such as volunteers and social networks in the community. Civil activities take place within the structure of the system and rules of play. It sets clear limits in these activities. Participating in various forms of protest movements obviously has a bearing, as it marks opposition to the system and concrete political actions, but rarely challenges the basic structures of power and the system.

Should the development of the society and the actions of the system fundamentally change, more effective forms of action are needed. It may be the establishment of alternative institutions, civil disobedience and refusal of cooperation with the established powers. This is what I mean as activist citizenship, where individual involvement is combined with social and political actions that antagonize existing social structures and create alternative collective frameworks for social change. Through active and critical participation, the citizen helps to ensure greater economic equity through redistribution of resources, involvement and respect for all social groups in the local community and a more equal representation for all in the decision-making bodies.

Participating democracy – influence and inclusion

Over the past decade, we have experienced that citizens demand clear involvement and an increased influence on the organization of their everyday lives. This has contributed to the fact that changed organizational forms have been introduced in both civilian activities and the political opposition to the crisis management of the established political system, poor efficiency in solving social problems and lack of anchoring among the citizens. Characteristic is that the citizens through social networks and mutual dialogue seek to influence the priority of political goals, be involved in the political decision-making process and directly contribute to the implementation of the decisions made.

However, activist citizens do not only demand changes to the ‘official’ political system and its decision-making procedures, but equally to the existing social movements. Demand for participatory and releasing involvement should, according to the activists, be equally aligned with the way in which social movements and civil society should function. Within these organizations, dialogue and activities must also be organized based on equal and participatory democratic processes.

Democracy is based on everyone’s participation. If we want to develop democracy with real content, it is necessary to start from the bottom – to get the individual citizen, local community and civil society involved. Only through such an approach can we create governance, which at local as well as national level represents the population in all its different shades. In the struggle for democracy, self-organization, participation in decision making and the obligation to engage in the present and future community are key elements of an emancipatory democratic organization. Such participatory democracy is not automatically realized but will be developed in constant struggle and through conflicts and must constantly be monitored. Being a citizen in a participatory and equal democracy gives new meaning to having civilian obligations. It commits the individual as well as the collective to actively participate and contribute to the development of public goods into the ‘common best’. Through participation and dialogue, citizens are ensured inclusion in democratic processes, which in turn are prerequisites for well-functioning and socially justified democratic decision-making processes. It is in this context that the innovative and democratically including firebrand has a crucial position.

For a more in-depth discussion see:

’Civilsamfund, Medborgerskab og Deltagelse’ Thomas P. Boje, Hans Reitzel’s Publishing, 2017

Thomas P. Boje, Professor, Roskilde University