Symbolic Politics as a Tool in Social Protest

  • Rasa Čepaitienė
Keywords: politics, social movements, political protest, major public holidays, commemorations


The article analyses the concept of symbolic politics and its potential for explaining the mechanisms and means of struggle used by social protest movements. A detailed discussion of the protest events that took place in Lithuania between 2021 and 2023 reveals how the symbolic capital of major national holidays and commemorations was exploited by the opposing political forces.
Between 2021 and 2023, social discontent was rising in Lithuania and so was the number of mass protests in the country. The latter differed significantly from the previous ones not only in the geography and social composition of the participants (mostly not the residents of Vilnius but those of the province, representatives of the so-called lower social classes), but also in the problems and political demands they identified. The rhetoric used was more typical of the ‘culture wars’, with demands for systemic changes and calls for the resignation of some high-ranking officials or even institutions, such as the government of the Republic of Lithuania. The frequency of these protest events and the number of protesters have also been noticeably rising.
The main reasons for the growing dissatisfaction of some citizens were the domestic and foreign policies implemented by the ruling coalition formed by the TS-LKD (Tėvynės sąjunga-Lietuvos krikščionys demokratai, Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats), the Lithuanian Liberal Movement (Lietuvos liberalų sąjūdis, LLS), the Freedom Party (Laisvės partija, LS) and the government it appointed at the end of 2020, as well as the legislative initiatives reflecting the so-called gender discourse. These protests were suppressed with the help of a negative image of the protesters in the mainstream media and (not always adequate to the situation) by demonstrating the measures taken by the force structures structures to control the civil unrest. However, early in 2022, protesters spontaneously discovered and exploited, sufficiently effectively, unconventional or openly counter-conventional symbolic political tools: they used major national holidays and commemorations and public events organised on those occasions, which became an arena for demonstrating openly their negative attitudes towards the political elite.
With this in mind, the aim of this article is to take a closer look at the official commemorations of 13 January, 16 February, and 11 March, the three most important national dates in 2022, and the forms of civic dissatisfaction that were expressed during them. The category of symbolic politics was used as a theoretical basis for the study and is presented in greater detail in the article. In addition to sources such as public speeches of politicians, broadcasts of these events, TV reports or discussions about them in official and social media, etc., anthropological participatory research was chosen as a significant method of analysis.
Taking into account the specifics of the development of post-Soviet countries, the topic of the exploitation of cultural memory, especially related to the era of the national movement Sąjūdis (the time of the restoration of the state) in the accumulation of symbolic capital and in the solution of topical socio-political problems was of particular importance for the analysis of the interaction of symbolic politics and social protest. The mass protests of 2021–2023 illustrate how the Sąjūdis epoch and the political values and programming of Lithuania’s development put forward during that era are still being used to challenge, reject, and create a vision contrary to the currently established political discourse and its order, including the commemorative ritual. The ongoing struggle for the right to control the symbolic legacy of the Sąjūdis and the lack of ‘feedback’ in political communication are fuelling hostility and radicalisation on both sides of the conflict. The struggle for the appropriation of the memory and moral capital of the Sąjūdis (and of the first Republic of Lithuania, from which the Sąjūdis evolved legally and symbolically) has become extremely significant for each of them, because the appropriation of this resource also plays the role of the legitimation of a particular political group. Denying the political opponent the right to this symbolic resource simultaneously denies any legitimacy they may have and at the same time eliminates them symbolically from the field of political competition.