Charisma and Miseria: Creating Social Capital in Periods of Societal Transformation

(Last modified November 2010)

This research project was carried out from October 2007 to July 2010 and was part of a joint project on "Social Capital in the Transformation Processes of European Societies" funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research. The Hamburg Institute for Social Research, the University of Kassel, Humboldt UniversityBerlin, the Brandenburg-Berlin Institute for Social Science Studies (BISS), the Thuenen Institute in Bollewick, and Maxim Gorki Theater Berlin were partners in the project consortium.

Basic Assumptions, Research Problems, and Methods

The "Charisma and Miseria" project applied qualitative research methods in field studies to investigate the charismatic actors who, in situations of change and uncertainty, assume prominent positions as ‘saviors’ or ‘bearers of hope’.

Social upheaval is reflected in spatial and social structural changes that require a comprehensive reorganization of individual lifestyles and institutional frameworks. Charisma is a category of sociological research associated with crisis. Max Weber assumed that people facing uncertain societal changes or crisis situations would resort more frequently to extraordinary and charismatic solutions. It was helpful in the project to make use of Popitz’s idea that charismatic actors are “norm setters”. With respect to these actors, the question of which strategies they used to achieve norm setting in transitional situations and which strategies were taken up by potential followers, warrants further attention. At the beginning of the project, there was only a vague idea of what charisma is and what it might have to do with survival—a good postulate for exploratory, qualitative research. The guidelines of grounded theory allowed us to work with the fuzziness of the term charisma, in other words, the restless circulation (Bude) of the term between its theoretical concept and its empirical possibilities in a survival society was used productively in a search strategy created during field research.

Research focused on several key questions. Who are the actors who lead the search for new prospects? Who becomes a charismatic leader when social certainty and security are lost in a society that is breaking up or stagnating? Which charismatic strategies generate dignity in a survival society?

A qualitative survey was carried out on the basis of "focused ethnography" (Knoblauch). The investigation was conducted mainly at two research sites to maximize opportunities for contrasting and comparing data (Glaser and Strauss). Many visits for research purposes took place over a long period of time. Altogether 53 qualitative interviews were conducted and both structured non-participant observations and unstructured participant observations were documented.

One research site was Wittenberge, formerly a major industrial city in the German State of Brandenburg, which was severely affected by restructuring after the fall of East Germany in 1989 and had to struggle with high unemployment, population drain, and an aging population. The other site for research was Victoria, situated at the foot of the South Carpathians, and a former model socialist city and center of Romania’s chemical industry. Although there are major differences between their urban, industrial, and societal histories, both places exhibit similarities important to the project’s approach. Both cities were rapidly affected by the "double disruption" (Land) of system transformation and post-industrial economic upheaval. Both had been governed by the narrative of a glorious industrial era. The loss of traditional jobs and especially the loss of economic significance caused by deindustrialization has etched collective trauma into the daily lives of residents in both cities, and they share similar experience with degradation. Residents resort to various strategies to deal with loss. While Wittenberge’s residents attempt to continue the daily life once determined by industrial structures or to attach new meaning to their lives, de-industrialized Victoria is attempting to make its mark as a new center of the Romanian Orthodox Church.

Findings from Wittenberge
Exaggeration and the Charismatic Construction of "Intact" Spaces

In the eastern German town, actors have emerged who generate charisma through hyperbole. Social climbers staging their upward struggle as exaggeratedly full of loss become charismatic figures of projection, as do those who have become economically successful through excessive profit-seeking that skims money from state subsidies, and job border-crossers who indulge in extravagant hobbies.

1. The political charismatic is characterized by an extreme logic of bonding. He promises to realize the longed-for and all-encompassing sense of "we" in the city. Together with the mobilized “we”, he imagines a future that has revamped hyperbolic constructions of greatness but not abandoned them completely. He represents a new bourgeoisie that includes precarious border-crossers but excludes the "superfluous". Although state subsidies are siphoned off at the expense of the superfluous, the money is used to make superfluousness invisible.

2. By the same logic, the entrepreneurial charismatic embodies an exaggerated promise of growth. He proclaims that the city and region will provide economic and symbolic support, and in this way no limits are set for him in survival society. He can appropriate public places, public funds, and symbolic spaces without holding out the promise of a "new era" like the political charismatic can. However, providing compensational resources for the city then justifies the deepening of anti-government ressentiments in support of charismatic intervention. The excessive escalation of local patriotism and opposition to democracy in the survival society’s economic arena becomes the driving force of charismatic mobilization.

3.  The charismatic administrator of the city’s industrial heritage exploits his mastery of East German symbols to open a future for the city. By marketing the city as a film set, he makes a virtue of necessity, a strategy which he, as manager of a former industrial plant, can use to prepare for the demands of a post-industrial economy.

4.  The strategy followed by the only woman portrayed in this part of the study, a charismatic leader of ecological causes, is also oriented towards post-industrialism. Unlike the other charismatic leaders, she stands for the ecological and sustainable development of the city and region. She sees herself on the side of downshifters but offers both autochthonous residents and those who have migrated from urban centers the perspective of modern nature conservation, which should unite all interests. This part of the study reveals that the charismatic expectations placed on men and women are different. The gender-specific coding of charisma means that male actors are seen as embodying values attributed to charismatic leaders much more frequently than women—nevertheless, women in our sample represent rebellious charisma and ‘genuine’ newness much more than men.

In conclusion, charisma is not a genderless construction but rather is personified in research almost without exception by men: therefore many practices attributed to males (such as risk-taking, bold pioneering, or being a lone warrior) are used in relation to charisma.

Besides using hyperbole, all actors share the appropriation of symbolic spaces as an effect of their charisma. In appropriating (symbolic) urban space relevant to remembrance, the charismatic leader constructs "we" groups imagining social inclusiveness in the city as a social space. The politically charismatic leader uses the argument of the historical appropriation of space and highlights evolved diversity, promising to ultimately consolidate them. The entrepreneurial charismatic leader applies the logic of the emotional appropriation of space by referring to the homeland to mobilize people and by appropriating post-industrial urban space using economic capital. The manager of the industrial heritage uses the symbolic occupation of memory space, and the ecological pioneer appropriates an area for nature conservation.

Charismatic leaders appropriate an imaginary ‘intact’ space which they can use as a forward-looking point of reference. The idea of the integrity of an ‘intact’ space serves charismatic leaders as symbolic capital, which they use to create charismatic sociality. Ultimately, this creation of sociality draws on prevailing expectations in survival society that charismatic leaders put to their own use. Their we-group constructions correspond to people’s charismatic needs for "healing" as the creation of intactness. However, the social aspect turns out to be an ambivalent sociality. If the creation of sociality, a crucial resource in the survival society, is based on personal, emotional dependencies and the exclusiveness of we-groups, it becomes an ambivalent tactic of exaggerated double standards leading to exclusion.   

Findings from Victoria
Myths as the Symbolic Capital of Charismatic Leaders

Research in the small Romanian city shows that drawing on certain local everyday myths represents important symbolic capital for creating charismatic power. The reference to prevalent collective values or traditional expectations and patterns of thought inherent in the myths allows charismatic figures to (re-)occupy or delimit discursively specific social spaces within a community. These charismatic actors become bearers of hope for part of the local community. Precisely because myths represent flexible and versatile symbolic constructs in the context of survival, a situation accompanied by numerous collective processes of re-interpretation, they enjoy great popularity. In the symbolical struggle for social survival, the (‘enchanted’) objects recorded in myths—whether they are social discourses, values, everyday practices, important places, or buildings—serve as an ideal basis for new messages and for the emergence of new discursive boundaries, social mobilization, and new normative ideas.

For charismatic actors of power, with their tendency to send out highly emotionalized messages and their exaggerated claims to power (in others words, their dominant behavior), processes of mythologizing and re-mythologizing are important survival practices. Charismatic figures themselves become an expression of and projection surface for specific collective desires and for communities’ struggles for recognition in the local arena.

1. Political charismatics demonstrate how acquiring a reputation as a preserver of an industrial dream (prosperity, work, and stability) can serve as a long-term practice for political survival. By drawing on the myth of former industrial greatness and demonstrating purported personal sacrifices that one has taken on in holding a political office, and by creating a community of fate, the political charismatic especially mobilizes those local residents (that is, the long-term unemployed who are difficult to integrate and retired people) who are disappointed about the results of societal change and who themselves resist it. This logic of cohesion based on mythological notions about the city’s industrial past is perceptible not only in Victoria. Socially, this political strategy is marked by a tendency to revert to a culture of ressentiment and to social stagnation. In practice, it delayed the transition to democratic governmental structures and the formation of a civil society by a number of years. The status of a “lonesome fighter” served as an alibi for establishing intransparent political systems that fostered nepotism and clientelism. In the political sphere, this pattern of action now seems to be obsolete; it has been replaced by a more technocratic, mediatory leadership style, as has been shown for Wittenberge.

2. The entrepreneurial charismatic demonstrates that reversing the industrial dream of prosperity can serve as a basis for an individual’s own charismatic preservation of power. As a proponent of an exaggerated anti-socialist discourse, the charismatic pushes himself into the limelight as a new pioneer of the post-communist era, part of the vanguard of consumer society, and an innovator who introduces bourgeois values (in this case, luxury) on a local level. The figure of the locally dominant businessman, who bases his prestige on American economic myths (from dishwasher to millionaire), on his attachment to his hometown, and the exaggerated manifestation of his willingness to take risks is also found in Wittenberge. This actor’s space for action has a monopolistic structure, and its dominance extends far beyond the economic sphere. The city is at times completely at the mercy of this actor and his power.

3. Another powerful social or charismatic actor in Victoria is the priest, a religious charismatic. He transformed an important trend in Romania’s post-communist society—the revival of a religious way of life—into his charismatic strategy for power. He campaigned in favor of the construction of the first Orthodox church in Victoria and initiated an ecumenical music festival that has become quite popular. With these activities, he has made himself into an ambassador of this city, which was formerly a model socialist locale, and attracted the attention of the media. The majority of the population—people he has been able to mobilize and bond emotionally to himself—feel that by constructing the church he has restored dignity to their city, which was formerly stigmatized as “godless”. He portrays the impoverished city externally as a pioneer in reviving and preserving orthodox traditions. In a manner similar to other charismatics who wield power, he also exhibits a tendency to favor large-scale plans and gestures that goes hand-in-hand with a dominant and undemocratic style of using power. He also uses exaggeration, realizes his plans with courageous and creative dilettantism, and renders the mythical and non-ordinary suitable for everyday life by making it popular, media-compatible, and tangible for his followers.

Findings from Both Study Sites

By reconstructing historical interpretations, we were able to demonstrate that survival societies are shaped by the collective experience of degradation; as a result, specific practices of everyday life are accentuated and in great demand. In both locales studied in this project, charisma was shown to be a form of overemphasizing the foundations of the social. This leads to the converse argument, namely, that the emotionally accentuated foundation of social life is in increasing demand as a mode of responding to the survival situation. Our work reveals that the gesture of exaggeration is the key charismatic practice of survival in Wittenberge and Victoria. Part of this practice is the economic, cultural, and political dominance manifested in symbolic and monopolistic practices of acquiring space.

All of the charismatics portrayed were shown to be ambivalent actors. On the one hand, they appropriate specific symbolic spaces and draw the boundaries that mark the identity of social we-groups; on the other hand, they divide local society into smaller groups.

Of special interest with respect to the comparisons of maximum contrasts is our finding that in both locales a charismatic figure was observed in the economic sphere who assumed the function otherwise served by the politics of large-scale gestures. In Wittenberge and Victoria, economic actors are celebrated as saviors and make use of similar means and symbolic practices. The economic charismatic (in a survival context) propagates the drive to expand as a form of assuming moral responsibility, in order to promote regional development. His or her exaggerated love of home is a means of generating a charismatic assertion. The morally-founded justification of expansion is emphasized, because it can help obfuscate the anti-democratic and monopolistic methods used to exert power. The charismatic in the field of economic activity profits from people’s weak trust politics. He weaves a web of informal networks and can thus act as an omnipresent local agent. Nonetheless, he is dependent on the political charismatic’s creation of a we-group. At both field research sites, the charismatics support one another; they form charismatic figurations. In contrast to the assumptions expressed in theoretical discourse, modern survival societies do not seek a single charismatic leader; instead they are oriented around a charismatic field.

Using charisma reinforces the logic of bonds generated by symbolic capital. Social networks that emerge through charisma are founded on informality and personal dependence; they tend to promote pre-industrial patronage relationships rather than help to consolidate democratic structures. As a result, in survival societies post-industrial phenomena appear pre-industrial in an exaggerated way. Although there is a greater emphasis on the social, even in the spheres of economics and politics, this focus is on an ambivalent sociality of responsible care for others, on the one hand, and neo-feudal dependence, on the other. This ambivalence is manifested in the charismatic’s own actions, as he takes advantage of public subsidies for his own project and at the same time rejects governmental interventions into entrepreneurial sovereignty or even belittles governmental structures.

Our study portrayed two actors in the political sphere, who represent divergent political generations and styles of leadership. A constant encountered in all of the charismatic paths to advancement is an unencumbered willingness to take dilettantish action and to face unforeseen situations. Because of their flexibility and penchant for taking risks, charismatics become projection surfaces for (important) local expectations about how one can make a virtue out of necessity. They prove their worth as pioneers of the avant-garde of precariousness; this trait is the key to their appeal for others. They embody the desires of those who dream of transforming the survival situation into its opposite by successfully harnessing precariousness. At the same time, this charisma raises the value of the degraded city because those who manage precariousness re-interpret a situation marked by poverty and shrinkage, reframing it as a situation of challenges and creative solutions.

The charismatics’ proof of their worth in survival society is closely linked to the mobilization of ressentiments. Ressentiments are constructed discursively in communities of fate at the expense of the state. One of their key characteristics is their disassociation from the imagined state culture of the majority or of the nation. Charismatic hope in survival societies is linked to a revival of anti-state ressentiments. Charismatics question or attack the way state institutions function or criticize their wastefulness. Surprisingly, the structure of the ressentiments that charismatics profit from are characterized by a situation in which individuals are dependent on public institutions and funds, either directly as public employees, as recipients of transfer payments, or entrepreneurs who profit from public spending. Charismatics’ reputation is based on their perception as people who redistribute public money to benefit their city; they frequently label their activities as aid for their hometown. They exaggerate a norm that becomes established in survival societies. Acquiring government aid is a goal that is to be reached at all costs. In doing so, overstepping boundaries and exaggeration are elements of the charismatic strategy in survival societies, whether in exaggerating the logic of social bonds, exaggerating the means of acquiring funding, or exaggerating one’s ties to a hometown. The use of hyperbole and exaggeration of certain practices is something all charismatic actors have in common.

Social life based on charisma is thus more than "trust, norms, and networks" (Putnam) or powerful effects within relationships (Bourdieu). It constitutes an ambivalent resource that is used on one hand to generate collective dignity, and on the other, to produce exclusive we-groups.

Our work has shown that the usefulness of the term social capital is limited when we consider charismatic actors. Such actors create paternalistic patronage politics based on informal networks. At the same time, by appropriating symbolic spaces and myths, they generate the collective dignity that is essential for the survival of any society. The social is strengthened in survival societies. It cannot be considered only with respect to trust or only with respect to relationships but must instead be grasped in terms of its comprehensive ambivalent effect, which has been examined here with the help of the concept of charisma.

Weitere Informationen

[Translate to Englisch:] Zweites Forum Theater und Wissenschaft in Wittenberge, 1. und 2. Oktober

Projektverbund "Social Capital" im Umbruch europäischer Gesellschaften – Communities, Familien, Generationen
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