21st May 2022


Breastfeeding for democracy

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Young mothers in Norway are automatically assigned to a "breastfeeding support group" with other mothers of different ages. The state organises this, but the groups are run by mothers themselves. They call this support system "Ammehjelpen".

Groups like these are a cross-section of society and last a lifetime. The women, who are from different social classes and do not know each other beforehand, help each other not just to breastfeed, but also to find work and organise activities for their children until they leave home. Some become friends for life, and go on holidays together.

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  • If citizens in a democracy do not organise themselves and learn to help each other, Tocqueville wrote, society cannot really function

Children are very much part of such informal networks, too. There are countless such networks in Norway – this is just one example.

To outsiders, they are invisible and inaccessible. A Norwegian woman who returned from abroad after many years with small children and asked to join the group of a friend, was refused.

According to The Economist's Democracy Index, Norway is the best democracy in the world.

Norwegians have more faith in democracy than anyone else. This has something to do with Ammehjelpen.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, published in 1835, that citizens in aristocratic societies (like France at the time) hardly need to organise themselves - a framework exists already, hierarchies and roles are clear, everyone has his or her place. Not much can be done about it.

But in a democracy (like America), where citizens are freed from those constraints, everyone stands alone. If citizens in a democracy do not organise themselves and learn to help each other, Tocqueville wrote, society cannot really function. Since government cannot take care of everything, "associations must, in democracies, take the place of the powerful lords of old, who have been eliminated because of equality of opportunity."

Tocqueville was fascinated by the associations he saw in America when he visited the country in 1831-32: not-for-profit, non-governmental organisations and all kinds of social networks, aiming to serve the public good and improve the quality of human lives.

He wrote that "in the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded."

Now look at the yellow vests in France - not the extremists and criminals who have hijacked the movement, but the thousands of ordinary citizens who gathered at road junctions all over the country for months.

Many said they found "a new family" there. They talked and laughed, they ate together, lit fires to warm their hands, took turns babysitting each other's children and buying groceries for shared meals. Some even celebrated Christmas at 'their' junction. Others fell in love there, and got married.

In this sense, the yellow vest movement, which started as a political protest movement, provided many participants with new social tissue. In a way, it functioned as a kind of Tocquevillian "association", improving the quality of their lives.

In the past, when people went to church, sports clubs or the boys scouts, this kind of social cohesion was commonplace.

Many people miss it now. They are more lonely. As Tocqueville observed: in a democracy, man is weak because basically, he is on his own.

After 1989, Canadian professor Henry Mintzberg wrote in his book Rebalancing Society, Western European societies became unbalanced.

Previously, the market, the government and the informal sector – the associations to which Tocqueville attached such importance - were more or less in balance, forming a three-legged stool.

The state kept the market well in check in European welfare states, out of fear that otherwise communism would gain a foothold here too.

Society as a three-legged stool

But in 1989, the brakes went off. Capitalism had 'won', fear of communism subsided. In many countries, the market is now as powerful as the state was in the former Eastern Bloc.

Therefore, in many countries citizens are now obsessed with the balance (or re-balance) between market and state. But the informal sector, or the "plural sector" as Mintzberg calls it (everything that belongs neither to the market nor to the state) is ignored.

There is endless talk of "public-private partnerships" and the right balance between them – but meanwhile, Mintzberg observes, "the stool is losing its third leg".

Former US president Jimmy Carter once called the US "an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery". It no longer resembles the healthy democracy full of clubs, associations and citizens' initiatives that once fascinated and inspired Tocqueville.

European societies are not so far gone as the US. But in Europe, too, the social and societal glue that used to bind people together is dissolving.

As a result, social and political trust are declining. As a recent report by the University of Basel showed, one of the reasons why anti-vax movements in Germany and Switzerland radicalise so fast and so easily is precisely the fact that many citizens have drifted away from mainstream society – there is little that binds them together with other citizens, not even trust in scientists and doctors.

The main thing they invoke is their absolute freedom from any interference or obligation. The majority of Europeans argue that the liberty of an anti-vax person stops where he or she starts to harm the common good. But for militant anti-vaxxers there is no longer any common good. Many don't think Covid 19 exists, either.

In the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris quotes a study by the socio-economic institute Censis in Rome, titled "The Irrational Society", showing that those who refuse to be vaccinated often suffer from loneliness, a lack of direction and a loss of status, among other things.

As Ferraris writes, "the problem is a lack of both social tissue and the obligations that come with this tissue and give life meaning."

We can, and must, repair this social tissue.

Public administration, the first leg of the stool, must become respectable again.

The private sector, the second leg, must be reined in and forced to act responsibly.

But without the third leg, a strong 'plural' sector, the stool remains unstable. We must make this sector much more robust. Dinner groups, voluntary fire brigades, citizens' councils, environmental NGOs, neighbourhood committees coaching refugees, and yes, why not, breastfeeding support groups – if Americans could do it, why not Europeans?

All these clubs, associations and social networks help to give meaning not just to life, but to the entire democratic system.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This column is an edited version of an earlier piece in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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