Young mothers in Norway are automatically assigned to a “breastfeeding support group” with other mothers of different ages. The state organizes this, but the groups are led by the mothers themselves. They call this support system “Ammehjelpen”.
Groups like these are a cross section of society and last a lifetime. The women, from different social classes and not knowing each other before, help each other not only to breastfeed, but also to find work and organize activities for their children until they leave home. Some become lifelong friends and go on vacation together.
Children are also an integral part of these informal networks. There are countless such networks in Norway – this is just one example.
For outsiders, they are invisible and inaccessible. A Norwegian woman who returned from abroad after many years with young children and asked to join a friend’s group, was turned down.
According to The Economist’s Democracy IndexNorway is the best democracy in the world.
Norwegians trust democracy more than anyone else. It has something to do with Ammehjelpen.
Alexis de Tocqueville writes in Democracy in America, published in 1835, that citizens of aristocratic societies (like France at the time) hardly needed to organize themselves – a framework already existed, hierarchies and roles were clear, everyone had their place. We can’t do much about it.
But in a democracy (like America), where citizens are freed from these constraints, everyone is alone. If the citizens of a democracy do not organize themselves and do not learn to help each other, wrote Tocqueville, society cannot really function. Since the 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 1831-1832: non-profit, non-governmental organizations and all kinds of social networks, aimed at serving the public good and improving the quality of human life. .
He writes that “in the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea that they wish to promote in society, they seek each other and unite 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 word is heard. »
Now look at the yellow vests in France – not the extremists and criminals who hijacked the movement, but the thousands of ordinary citizens who have gathered at road junctions across the country for months.
Many said they found “a new family” there. They talked and laughed, ate together, lit fires to warm their hands, took turns babysitting each other’s children, and grocery shopping for shared meals. Some even celebrated Christmas at “their” crossroads. Others fell in love and got married there.
In this sense, the yellow vest movement, which began as a political protest movement, provided many participants with a new social fabric. It functioned in a way as a sort of Tocquevillian “association”, improving the quality of their lives.
In the past, when people went to church, sports clubs or scouts, this kind of social cohesion was commonplace.
A lot of people miss it now. They are no longer alone. As Tocqueville remarked: in a democracy, man is weak because deep down, he is all alone.
After 1989, Canadian professor Henry Mintzberg wrote in his book Rebalance societyWestern European societies have become unbalanced.
Previously, the market, the state and the informal sector – the associations to which Tocqueville attached so much importance – were more or less in balance, forming a three-legged stool.
The state controlled the market well in the European welfare states, lest otherwise communism gain a foothold here too.
Society as a three-legged stool
But in 1989, the brakes gave out. Capitalism had “won”, the fear of communism subsided. In many countries, the market is now as powerful as the state was in the former Eastern bloc.
Consequently, in many countries, citizens are now obsessed with balancing (or rebalancing) between the market and the 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.
We keep talking about “public-private partnerships” and the right balance between them – but in the meantime, observes Mintzberg, “the stool loses its third leg”.
Former US President Jimmy Carter once called the United States “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribes”. It no longer resembles the healthy democracy full of clubs, associations and civic initiatives that fascinated and inspired Tocqueville.
European societies are not as distant as the United States. But in Europe too, the social and societal glue that bound people together is dissolving.
As a result, social and political trust is declining. Like a recent report by the University of Basel have shown, one of the reasons why the anti-vax movements in Germany and Switzerland are radicalizing so quickly and so easily is precisely the fact that many citizens have distanced themselves from mainstream society – a short time ago things that bind them to other citizens, not even trust in them. scientists and doctors.
The main thing they invoke is their absolute freedom from any interference or obligation. The majority of Europeans argue that an anti-vax person’s freedom ends where they begin to harm the common good. But for anti-vaxx activists there is no more common good. Many also don’t believe that Covid 19 exists.
In the Neue Zürcher ZeitungItalian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris quotes a study of the socio-economic institute Censis in Rometitled “The Irrational Society”, showing that those who refuse to get vaccinated often suffer from loneliness, lack of direction and loss of status, among other things.
As Ferraris writes, “The problem is a lack of both the social fabric and the obligations that accompany that fabric and give meaning to life.”
We can and must repair this social fabric.
Public administration, the first leg of the stool, must become respectable again.
The private sector, the second stage, must be restrained and forced to act responsibly.
But without the third leg, a strong “plural” sector, the stool remains unstable. We need to make this sector much more robust. Dinner groups, volunteer firefighters, citizens’ councils, environmental NGOs, neighborhood committees mentoring 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 only to life, but to the entire democratic system.