The Future of Social Confrontations – the Scenarios
Aug 3, 2023
Social confrontations signify the struggle about how we want to shape our futures. Rooted in different narratives represented by different social groups they are often competing for the sovereignty of interpretation of what a particular future may look like and how we are to achieve it. Social confrontations are not a singular phenomenon; instead, we live in a world of multiple social confrontations, and they co-exist, overlap, and compete. The divides social confrontations create can go across all spheres of life: education, care, health, nutrition, energy, mobility, communication, race, gender, political power, migration, etc. This blog post explores how these developments are likely to impact the futures of democracy in Europe. To this end, we present four scenarios that chart diverging pathways on how social confrontations could evolve in the next 15 years under various drivers and trends and what role they could play for the democratic development in the EU. The four scenarios discuss various development paths - they are intended to explore diver-gent possibilities and do not always depict a preferable future.
Our scenarios are part of the deep dive "Social Confrontations" under the "European R&I foresight and public engagement for Horizon Europe" project.
In “A Resilient and Consensual European Confederation“ social confrontations take bifurcations in many directions and social spheres and become an important element of political and institutional reform. Civil society participates in many social groups to claim more influence in policy making, seeking new forms of structured dialogue with different stakeholder groups, new forms of reconciliation, and critical reflection, and thus contributes to social transformation. Among those reformed EU institutions are the European Parliament and the European Citizens’ Assembly. The latter consists of a wide and inclusive popular parliament selected through sortition. Both, parliament and assembly, concentrate most of the decision-making power. Hence, by 2040, the transformation of the EU into a confederation close to the model of post-national constellation is almost complete and reflects the Europeans’ renewed trust in democracy to enhance the prosperity and well-being of the citizens. As virtually all types of claims raised by the Europeans reach consent-oriented policymaking and decision-making levels thanks to the renewed and reinforced petitioning, participatory, deliberative, and direct democracy mechanisms, their inclination to protest against the institutional systems and the political collective leadership is by far less prominent as in the past. Internet platforms play an important part for the exchange of opinion and for developing innovative solutions to societal problems. A crucial factor for the mediating role of such tools is that they are regulated in terms of size and controlled in terms of content. Regulations stem also from participatory discussions and consent making approaches.
“European Democracy defends itself against totalitarian tendencies“ is a scenario where right-wing extremists openly and covert try to take over democratic forces in the EU and to dissolve major democratic institutions of the EU. Several Member States have left the EU or were expelled due to diverging views on liberal rights of citizens and compliance with the Human Rights Charta. In the illiberal states, social media are controlled by the government, propagating conformity and exclusion of non-conformist attitudes and behaviour. This raises a lot of concerns of minority groups who take to the streets to protest for their interests. Even the still liberal European democracies are shaken by social confrontations as well – stemming from all sorts of diverging interests. Some social protest groups use violent methods to point to the fact that climate change is the most severe threat for humans and their environment. Some groups protest peacefully. Other groups sabotage the infrastructure that is crucial for individual transport. The ideologies and means of the very extreme or even radical right- and left-wing groups cannot be reconciled it seems. However, some countries have made very positive experiences in finding solution, mediating opposite social groups on single issues. New forms of participation and experiments further developed the setup of citizen councils, for example, to solve privacy of data, taxation of millionaires, integration of migrants, unconditional basic income, location of new power plants etc. Through complex but transparent procedures that involved a large scale of citizens representative of the individual country or region with guidance of professional facilitators acceptable solutions could be found that subsequently were implemented by policymakers and eliminated at least some issues of social confrontations. Despite this progress, it is hard to build bridges in order to overcome the genuine cleavages and eradicate the roots of social confrontations.
The context of the “European Fortress” scenario is that after a long period of poly-crises, the EU is turned in towards itself and has decided to adopt a defensive position. The EU is defending its bordersagainst all sorts of external attempts of infiltration, undermining of its sovereignty directly as well as indirectly, including subversive attacks from foreign troll armies. The defensive position is also taking measures against migration from outside Europe. The nationalist narrative of right-wing parties has been replaced by a European supra-national narrative. The engineering of a "national" European identity is facilitated by the continuing threats from outside. This new “national” social populism has become a hallmark of far-right parties. On the one hand, the predominantly right-wing to centrist governments are implementing a strict almost-zero-migration regime at the EU’s external borders supported by high-tech surveillance, without shying away from armed violence. In the last 20 years, there has been an increase in social fragmentation that has greatly challenged society as a whole. However, no group has been able to gain real dominance. Overall, the EU remained a diverse society with local togetherness and, in some cases, tolerated coexistence with cautious self-governing structures for very heterogeneous social groupings. To ensure public peace, many community centres, and other public spaces where individuals meet and engage in dialogue have been established to improve living together. Relatively high transfer payments as well as an indexed basic income and a relatively relaxed housing market contribute to an elastic society that looks for balance and aims to absorb social confrontations at the local level.
The soul of Europe is a frozen melting pot that wants to become highly self-sufficient economically, politically, and militarily and to emancipate and separate itself from the rest of the world. Significant investments are made in military armament, technology development, and education and training programmes to promote European cultural sensitivity and European identity.
In the last scenario,“Cultural hegemony through global capitalism” almost all social confrontation has ended. A few multinational tech companies have taken over the control of all communication around the globe and have designed autonomous algorithm that are optimising the digital technologies in order to infiltrate people toward more consumption and less social protest. Instead of the gruesome reality where climate change increases along with deprivation and destruction, individualized bubbles of social media keep up the illusion of a rosy world where all material and ideological longing can be satisfied by consumption and the accumulation of more wealth. Products are tailored, each person experiences what the platforms make them believe they need. Social movements and protest groups have been replaced by fun and pop culture of consumption whereas legal status for minorities has not improved. Community building for political purposes is quasi non-existent. The tech companies cooperate with the governments as both are looking for driving economic growth for their own benefits. Accordingly, the political-industrial complex releases misinformation to manipulate the people to align to the official policies. EU laws do not have the power to contain them, or policy makers do not have an interest to take actions. Opposing voices do not have any chance to be heard or spread, except through hacks. The illusionary peacefulness in the EU Member States is occasionally distorted by foreign (mis)information. Hacked social media channels spread the information of the division of worlds, waging distrust between different social groups that have found their niches of social identity within the various sections of the tech platforms. It is hard to tell for the average media user and consumer what information is true or not. There is worrisome information about climate change incidents in various parts of the world, about power abuse, the media elite and new technologies that can either solve all problems or cause new ones. Some countries in the global south that perceive themselves as underprivileged, now have the possibility to develop nuclear weapons and blackmail the global north. Some of these countries demand more participation in the capitalist production pattern via transfer payments, while others want Western companies and institutions out of their countries and use the scarce resources on their own.
Mathias Behn Bjørnhof