I read 1984 for the first time in the 90’s, which was 20 years ago, and details were a bit fuzzy. Recently I read it again. It would be difficult to find more brilliant images of a totalitarian state and society than the ones created by Orwell in the middle of last century. The analogies between Orwell’s book and the attempts for creating a post-totalitarian political model behind the façade of democracy in Bulgaria are more than obvious. The Party in 1984 has three major slogans:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS POWER
In the last years Bulgaria was subjected to a government model in which an oligarchic political and business elite was playing the part of the Party from Orwell’s Oceania. Using the mechanisms of political corruption and economic repression, this elite has tried to make its control over the Bulgarian society and its resources absolute. The road to this end has passed through the breakup and attempted subjugation of all independent institutions, including the courts, the prosecution, the strategic ministries, the media, independent regulatory bodies and civic organizations.
War is Peace
The constant wars that Oceania is waging have a dual purpose. One is distracting the population from its actual problems, and the other is expending all the economy produces on rearming so that the living standard of the population is kept at the bare minimum. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Bulgaria is, luckily, a member of Nato, so it cannot wage wars on its own. If it wasn’t in the organization, who knows. However, actual wars were successfully replaced by political wars, media scandals and ethnic pressure. All this was part of the arsenal for distracting people’s attention and avoiding the answer to the question of why the governments do nothing to improve the quality of life of Bulgarian citizens.
The lack of policies, reforms and ideas for the future was replaced by low-level, everyday bickering and personal conflicts. At no point was the argument focused on what is being suggested as a course of action and what would be the consequences; any discussion immediately switched to defaming the speaker and digging up their personal weaknesses.
Freedom is Slavery
Freedom begins with the right to say that 2+2 = 4, Orwell writes. Bulgarians felt with their skin that this right is about to be taken away form them again.
There is no doubt that fundamentally, the protests calling for the resignation of the current government are values-based and the energy spilling on the streets comes from survival instinct. People are absolutely clear that if the main principles of democracy, namely the separation of powers and freedom of speech, are trampled on, everything else is pointless. Without the superiority of the law there can be no protection of the right to ownership and sanctity of personal rights and freedoms.
Ignorance is Power
The cult of ignorance stands on two parallel processes. The first is the constantly growing incompetence of state administration.
Any idea for modernization was labeled as criminal or corporate interest. Impassiveness and inertness was institutionalized as the best policy by the last three governments. Not one of the serious problems in the country – overcoming the economic crisis, education, healthcare, social services, unemployment, competitiveness, etc. – was ever touched upon. Government success became equal to maintaining a parallel reality of the many successes of the authorities in the media.
The second process was the subjugation of the media. The need to keep the lie alive led to an insatiable desire to control the media, whether through their acquisition or their placing in economic dependency. Significant efforts and funds went into that process. The impression was created that public opinion is under complete control. The rare islands of freedom were systematically defamed and abused. The feeling that their position is totally unchallengeable must have been one of the major factors that led to the complete dissociation from reality and the forcing of Delian Peevski’s nomination for head of the State Agency for National Security (or DANS, to give it its transliterated Bulgarian abbreviation).
Before becoming a reality show, Big Brother was the symbol of the Party and its weapon for control over the citizens in Orwell’s totalitarian state. It’s in every home and every mind, it controls every though and every action. Nobody has seen him and nobody is sure he exists.
Our Party, the Bulgarian oligarchy, made a bad mistake when, by voting Peevski in the DANS, it personalized Big Brother and gave a face to its attempt at total control over the population, political opposition and business. DANS is the strongest power structure in the country, with unlimited authority and resources for potential repression.
With Delian Peevski at the helm, DANS would indeed have the potential, together with dependent media, influence over the legislature and the prosecution, to establish total control over citizen freedom.
Unlike Big Brother, Delian Peevski is not anonymous. Both in Bulgaria and now abroad people have seen him and know very well who he is. Turning the spotlight behind the scenes and the ugly picture this uncovered led to immediate public explosion.
Mr. Delian Peevski is, like any Bulgarian citizen, innocent until a court finds him guilty of a crime. His person, however, is a symbol of the merging between powers; he represents at least a six-sided conflict of interests and is simultaneously politician, magistrate, publisher, industrialist and a financier, state agent for national security and a pseudo public figure. Mr Peevski’s person and biography covers 100% of what happens when the Oligarchy takes a state. It was with good reason that European Commissioner for Justice Viviane Reding referred to this person as a threat to the security of the European Union as a whole.
It looked like everything was “under control”, or what is WEB 2.0
According to the definition of consulting company McKinsey, WEB 2.0 is the blanket term for a number of new-generation digital technologies – blogging, social networks, tagging, filtering, micropayments, meta databases, instruments for analysis and forecast – which have been driving the business world forward in the last few years.
Technology completely transforms the way people communicate, get information, entertain themselves, shop and form views. Users can create content, direct and forecast market behavior. WEB 2.0 revolutionized the added-value chain by allowing companies to communicate directly with their customers and constantly improve their product, according to the latter’s needs. Many of the old business models are dying out. Others are changing in order to survive. The world today is flatter and more networked, rather than pyramid-shaped as it was in the past.
The same is true of the political and public relations spheres.
What the oligarchic elite failed to calculate correctly was the oozing of WEB 2.0 technologies into Bulgarian politics and public life. Social networks, forums and blogs to a large extent replaced the traditional media in the public debate and stultified their leading role. Mobile internet made communications immediate and allowed people to interact and organize themselves in a matter of minutes.
The Oligarchy’s strategy was to buy and physically control the media, sociological agencies, analytical and non-governmental organizations in order to prevent any public critique of its power. To a degree this scenario played out successfully and after hundreds of millions was spent, it gave birth to a degrading imitation of investigative journalism and pseudo-debate.
Meanwhile, however, political talk became digitalized. The role of traditional media became secondary. People are much more influenced by what their friends, whose opinion they value and respect, recommend to them, than by what Delian Peevski’s media try to suggest.
This kind of relationship is direct, absolutely free and cannot be bought. With WEB 2.0 democracy is much more direct and civic control much more efficient.
For example, if there are 100 photo reporters and cameramen in Peevski’s family media group, there are 5 million internet users, many of them with camera phones. They can become photo reporters and cameramen, journalists and commentators. Social networks are very sensitive to falseness and very often attempts for manipulation have a reverse effect. The wave of free readers immediately washes away the paid provocateurs, the so-called trolls, in forums. Only people who have never used Facebook could claim that the Sofia protests were organized by a central hub and paid for.
Bulgaria 2.0 vs Bulgaria 1984
At the core of the current political crisis is the exhaustion from imitating representation of interests. The good news is that there is a strong civil society in Bulgaria and, thanks to WEB 2.0, a working mechanism for civic control, which would only become stronger with technological development.
Why is it different this time? WEB 2.0 eliminates to a large extent the need for middlemen in the political debate and makes possible the participation of voters in government in a much more direct manner.
In future the political parties will have to conform to the new digital reality; contacts with voters will be much more direct. Trust will be given and taken away much faster. As it is with goods and services, the future of democracy will change as a result of technological development.
Currently, the middle class is protesting against corrupted elites in six different countries. In all of these places the protests started online and ended up on the streets. The events on Nezavisimost Square and the internet revolution are not a unique Bulgarian phenomenon but they represent the beginning of a very strong future trend.
The application of technology in the political process is already happening in the USA and other countries, but it will probably take a generation to incorporate them in the legislation, while the current political elites come to realize and accept that their power has been seriously reduced and handed back to the people.
A new attempt at twisting
The main responsibility for the breakup of institutions lies with the parties that have been in power, since they were the ones that supplied public resources to a limited circle of the oligarchic elite. Their leaders are part of this elite. Today’s opposition is also responsible however: those small rightwing parties that, out of fear or dependency, failed to oppose what was happening.
Unlike the protests from the start of the 90’s and those from January 1997, there is no clear political representative of the urge to have a normal, modern state.
The energy that fills Bulgaria’s squares at the moment is so pure and strong that it has undoubtedly tempted the Oligarchy to try and twist people’s will once again. There is a very real risk that the community will be limited to a choice between a leftwing and a rightwing representative of the same Oligarchy.
“He who controls the past, controls the present. He who controls the present controls the past”, says Orwell in 1984. This is the cornerstone of the totalitarian state and its propaganda. Historical facts in media and books are substituted so that they serve to the maximum degree the interests of whoever is in power at the moment.
The methods of the former State Security are used to this day. If the Oligarchy is focused on anything, it is the constant repetition through the media that “there is no choice”, “everyone is equally corrupted” and “whoever you vote for, you vote for us”. So, “let us rule you in peace”.
There is no doubt that the public funds stored in the Corporate Commercial Bank and the compromising power of Delian Peevski’s media will try to saddle and tame this protest, like the ones before it. They will try to defame any public figure independent of them and disguise themselves in any project for a New Right or a New Left to represent the people.
The new parties
The only chance to make things differently now is to use the advantages ot WEB 2.0 and networked democracy: the widest possible participation, direct control, transparency, clear values and real-time accountability for any action taken. With this new technology people would be able to protect themselves and take part in the political process.
The new voter-representative relationship will require new types of political organizations and leaders, carriers of the new values in politics. Also, they should know how to direct the energy and ideas from the social networks to the real playing field of policy. This is the only way Bulgaria 2.0 could defeat Bulgaria 1984. The development will be analogous to what happened in online business: new parties will be born, which will belong to the people, and will serve their interests. Old parties will either change or die out.
Lastly, we must not forget that all this – the values, the political representation, the arguments about the direction and the methods – are just the means. The end is to have people live a quality life, to be free and happy.
Freedom starts with the right to say out loud that 2+2 = 4.
PS Two interesting links to TED lectures on using technology in management.