BY SUZANNE KHARDALIAN
In analyzing a key organizational challenge for political parties in general and particularly social democracy in Armenia it is a well established fact by now that social democratic parties, including the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, are for the most part unable to engage the citizens.
During the last 20 years, the ARF has been perceived as a campaign vehicle and administrator of certain stigmatized ideas rather than a core institution standing unyielding and firm with the support of an extended ideological community. I have written about this before, as to why membership in Armenian political parties is in catastrophic decline (incidentally, it is a global phenomenon).
A few months ago I read about a group of young Armenians joining the ranks of the ARF.
The article, true to its more than centenary tradition, was written in the familiar vernacular, so if one were to change the date of the article it would sound exactly the same whether it was written in the 60’s, 90’s or today—2013. It would read something like this: “The future generation, the proud bearers of our national identity, the guardians of a national dream/vision…” Despite the lengthy sentences highlighting devotion and fidelity and some words of wisdom, the article conveys nothing but anonymity, shrouded in a certain mystery. I happen to know that indoctrination and membership in the party takes place through special ceremonies. Yet for some reason the new members become and stay anonymous, much to the dismay of the many newcomers.
I cannot but empathize with the disappointment that the youth might feel about the long-awaited moment of becoming a member of a desired party, yet it is all so very solemn and equally unceremonious in many ways. Pride—a feeling of belonging and the right to extend your new acquired identity to the public—remains very anonymous.
While I think celebrating ARF membership is very appropriate, and a legitimate expectation after years of loyal anticipation, the local organizational bodies should be especially mindful since such a romantic desire to become a member of an organized social democracy is certainly very rare among young people today. We all know that the majority of the youth are not keen on party membership in general and, seems to me, not very interested in social democracy.
For young people, interest in politics is already seen to be nerdy, but wanting to become a member of a party sounds worse. And of a party that is seen to be on the way to being passé? Remember, for today’s youth, the 1980s are considered to be a “several hundred” years ago.
Today, becoming a member of a party is deemed the oddest thing a teen could do, as weird as wearing school uniforms.
That is perhaps one of the biggest changes that the party—the ARF and its organizational institutions—must respond to. Party membership or belonging to a formal or an informal social network that are ideologically committed to a party, such as the ARS, Homenetmen, the student associations (in ways similar to other popular parties) used to convey a natural sense of belonging and identity—a way of engaging in and understanding the community.
Even with all the individualized and mixed and opposing interpretations of its ideology (a topic that needs public discussion by itself), for generations being a member of the ARF with its ideology was a natural manifestation of who you were and what you thought about the world.
But times have changed. Far fewer people today believe that membership in a political organization or even a much less formal commitment to its sister organizations, is a necessary expression of who they are.
There are a several reasons for this reality, and even the ones that I do know would fill pages that I don’t have here. In any case, the gambit is that less and less people will stick to their party even when they find its momentary policies displeasing. What I have in mind is of course the elections (presidential, parliamentary or municipal) in Armenia with its bizarre ways and consequences. But the interpretation has always been the same in the aftermath of the elections in Armenia. We all complained about the existence of adequate citizens. There is of course something attractive about the notion of “lack of enlightened citizens” and holding them accountable for their performance.
But there is also something to be said for our political parties—and I am more concerned about the ARF, and its social democracy—which are supposed to serve as the nexus of both physical and imagined communities that command loyalty even when one is in disagreement or even mad at the ARF.
This does not imply a non-critical loyalty to one’s party, but what I suggest is an enhanced commitment to it, that allows for using one’s voice and seeks to institute changes from within the party before considering the transfer one’s loyalty to another party.
Yet those who belong to this category are largely people for whom their relationship with the party is an identity-related feature—those who are on some level emotionally involved with their party—those who are increasingly disappearing from politics. This is very unfortunate yet a reality that cannot be pushed aside.
Today’s ARF with its social democracy is clearly failing at the basic function of conquering its voters’ hearts in addition to their minds, of making them feel at home, emotionally as well as intellectually. There has been some useful and absolutely necessary debates within progressive circles and beyond about the right policies. We have spoken at lenght about the role of the party, its language, modernizing its image and strengthening its organizational structures and its campaign strategies. Several of these issues, however, only touch upon the issue I discuss here. Yes, it is true that language and policies impact one’s sense of identity, but neither of these address the major issue directly or as a distinct problem of its own.
A successful political organization such as the ARF should offer more to the citizens. They should try to construct communities where (especially young) people feel at home and where they find is an important expression of who they are.
Identities today are more complex and multi-layered than they were 30 years ago. As you might expect, binding individuals as closely to any one single layer, as was once routinely possible, is not only traditional but almost impossible at the political fringes. Through our reductionist worldview and the primitive insider/outsider dichotomy we have often created very cohesive communities, though for the most part small ones.
Clearly, the aforementioned means and strategies, if continued to be adopted today, would end in catastrophe. The goal must be one, even if the emotional involvement achieved would become weaker.
However, there must be some debate about how we should weave ARF and its social democracy with our increasingly complex patterns of identity—the new Armenian identity.
It should be about how to better intertwine ARF’s ideology, its social democracy with other, more popular, layers of identity to which it retains an affinity with modern issues, such as civic organizations focused on human rights, environmental issues and social justice, to name a few.
Unfortunately I am far better at raising the issue than at offering possible solutions, but I do believe that the answer must start with building or reinforcing community spaces, both physical and virtual. I also know that such activities require enormous investment, money and time, both of which the ARF, and its shrinking staff are increasingly are in need of. So it is no surprise that this aspect of the ARF and its social democratic organizational and ideological decline receives little attention.
The challenge is enormous and even if we direct more resources to tackle the problem the returns may be very slim. One thing is certain: there is no way to recapture the golden age when the ARF was an organic part of every Armenian community life around the world. But a political organization that accepts its gradual degeneration to become a mere campaign machine is beyond doubt doomed in the long run.
Suzanne Khardalian is a documentary filmmaker based in Stockholm, Sweden. Her films include “Back to Ararat,” “I Hate Dogs,” and “Grandma’s Tattoos.” She contributes regularly to Asbarez.