Postsocialist Societies Research Paper

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‘Postsocialist societies’ is the general term for the former socialist countries which are in the course of full or partial restructuring of social life. The problem of their definition (in many cases as ‘postcommunist societies’), which ignores substantial differences in their past, is examined, along with certain common and significant problems that have acquired a specific form in the ‘process of transition.’



1. Definition

The term ‘postsocialist societies’ itself raises a serious problem: societies which were considered (call themselves or identified as) socialist, and which have renounced the ‘socialist course of development’ since the 1989 90 changes in government, have practically no content of their own. These societies are classified in one and the same group, defined in one and the same way from the perspective of their past—their existence as ‘socialist societies’—which they have renounced. On the other hand, this definition from the perspective of their past suggests that they are presumed to be societies in the course of selfidentification—seen as transition from totalitarianism to democracy, from centrally planned to market economy—which have embarked on the arduous course towards building civil society.

This raises a serious question of the possible criteria by which a concrete national society would shed its ‘postsocialist’ label, that is, would have ultimately defined itself and be defined from the perspective of the present rather than of the past. At what stage does the present existence of the respective society provide sufficient grounds for regarding it as a society with sustained development based on values asserted in it (and shared by its citizens)?

Changes in the form of government are a necessary but not a sufficient prerequisite for radical restructuring of social life, for significant and sustainable changes in the concepts of the world, of human relations, and individual actions. That is precisely why the term is ‘postsocialist societies’ rather than ‘postsocialist states’—the form of state government may or may not be socialist, whereas the declared renunciation of the ‘socialist course of development’ in itself does not free a society of the values, ideas, and expectations accumulated over the years, nor of the established relations and groups, and the very attitudes to and mechanisms of their establishment. At the same time, the course of self-identification of the ‘postsocialist societies’ is indefinite—their point of departure is known, but one cannot know for sure what they will ultimately become.

Of course, this is a generalization only, since the majority of ‘postsocialist societies,’ those in Europe, are expected to embrace precisely democratic values, a market economy, and civil society as the pillars of self-identification— most of them have not merely declared this but are making real progress in this respect. They are apparently aware that they will no longer be labeled as ‘postsocialist societies’ once they complete the process (already under way with the majority) of accession to the European Union (EU). In other words, for those national societies the criteria of recognition of a completed process of self-identification are the same as the criteria of fully-fledged EU membership, which in itself means that they have already chosen a course of development, that their development is predetermined—all they have to do is attain the ultimate objective. This does not apply to the non-European ‘postsocialist societies’ such as China, or to many of the ex-Soviet republics (some of which are European in purely geographical terms); nor does it apply to the special case of ‘rump’ Yugoslavia.

2. Differences From The Past

The term ‘postsocialist’ creates a false impression of uniformity of the societies in question (even though this definition is indefinite itself) and, respectively, of uniformity in the process of departure from their previous development as socialist. This idea is largely based on the previous term ‘socialist societies’ which, along with everything else, has the ideological function of hiding or belittling the internal distinctions of the respective ‘socialist societies,’ as well as of rendering as entirely insignificant, from the perspective of their existence as ‘socialist,’ the differences in their previous development and the concrete process of their ‘transformation’ to socialism. They are ‘socialist societies,’ and all details of the history of their transformation to socialism and of the national specificity of their existence are insignificant. Yet it is precisely those formerly ‘insignificant’ differences (declared and considered insignificant, but to a large extent also virtually insignificant from the perspective of ‘the general line’ of development, of the rallying of the respective societies into the ‘socialist camp’), which also largely determine the form of renunciation of the ‘socialist course of development,’ that have become significant accelerators or impediments—generally speaking, significant determiners of the national specificity of the existence of the concrete societies as ‘postsocialist,’ as well as of the pace and consistency of the transition period, of the ways of reaching national consensus on the parameters of the change, and of the actual concept and definition of ‘national consensus.’

Forgetting the history of the formation of a particular nation-state and the way in which it ‘embarked on the road to socialist development,’ and/or failing to take into consideration the influence of national specificity on the existence of the respective society as socialist, usually results in overemphasizing the impact of international institutions (economic and financial, as well as political) whose actions are guided by economic and geopolitical interests, as well as of the role of the personality of the respective political leaders (in the concrete ‘postsocialist society’). Thus the changes and their pace in ‘postsocialist societies’ (especially in Europe) prove directly and crucially dependent on ‘foreign’ interests or the individual abilities of politicians. Consequently, individual group responsible action proves impossible or, rather, pointless. Even if it were possible, its ineffectiveness is readily justified by counteracting ‘external forces’ or inactive ‘internal factors.’

Social scientists, among others, are accountable for the formation of explanatory models centered on the two above-mentioned variables. In an effort to explain the transition period and its problems, they deviate from their scientific position under pressure from their partisan allegiance; concentrate on the present, ‘forgetting’ history; resort to biased selection of historical facts to legitimate their interpretation of events; build a macro explanatory model of transition in general, ignoring national differences; or cite separate facts or data from opinion polls without the historical-theoretical framework requisite for their interpretation.

The production and public presence of such ‘explanatory models’ of the problems of the transition period, actually generate further tensions in the postsocialist society. First, they are explanatory and deliberately created for the purpose of introducing ultimate clarity among ordinary citizens about current developments; second, they are even more convincing on the strength of their authors’ scientific prestige; third, they are qualitatively heterogeneous—rather than just different—interpretations, and at the same time each one of them claims to be the only truthful interpretation. This lopsided way of ‘understanding’ developments, history, the origin of problems in social life, of events and political actions, proves to be yet another factor (along with political allegiance and social position) that antagonizes individuals and groups.

3. Present Similarities Or Key Problems Of Transition

Two ranges of problems may be identified: problems associated with identity and problems associated with social interaction. Although they are not confined to postsocialist societies only, these problems have acquired special significance and a specific form. They may also be generalized as ‘political,’ ‘economic,’ or ‘social’ from a macrosociological perspective on social reality, on the processes occurring within the latter, and their specific intertwining. The microsociological perspective proposed here is based on the understanding that the restructuring of a society which has renounced the socialist principles and norms (or, generally speaking, any society in the course of self-identification as something that is qualitatively different) proceeds from the presumption of the major significance of the changes in the ways of thinking and action and is seriously impeded by the continuing effect of previous models of thinking of the world and the others, patterns of behavior, and mutual relations of individuals and groups.

3.1 Problems Of Identity

These problems concern apparently quite heterogeneous phenomena which, however, are experienced by the individual or group in a similar way as problems of self-identification: from ‘nationalism,’ which has become indicative of postsocialist societies, to ‘unemployment’ and ‘poverty,’ which are rarely treated as problems of identity (defined foremost as social and economic problems).

The preoccupation with national ethnic identity, which has apparently divided (albeit in quite different ways) the postsocialist societies, stems from two specific features of the ideology upheld in socialist society: national ethnic specificities within the boundaries of a separate state and between the states from the ‘socialist camp’ are insignificant—the significant self-identification is ‘socialist citizens’ (which does not mean that ethnocultural differences have been forgotten within the separate states, or that they never were an undisclosed reason for actual social inequality); the significant difference is directly associated with significant self-identification—the localization of everything ‘strange,’ ‘there,’ beyond the ‘iron curtain.’

The disintegration of ‘the camp’ and the fall of ‘the wall’ dividing the two worlds, inevitably rejecting the validity of significant self-identification and difference, generates the need of ‘national’ self-identification. Whereas the question ‘Who are we?’ focuses the attention inwards, on the ‘national community’ and back in history, on the national community’s existence and formation before its ‘depersonalization,’ the attempt at defining ‘us’ (who are united within a state) has exposed differences and has led to intolerance and discrimination against different ethnic and/or religious minorities. This process, common to all postsocialist societies, has acquired qualitative specificity (largely determined according to the constitution of the respective ‘socialist societies’): from violent disintegration of multinational states (the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia), to the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia, to the more or less conflict-ridden confrontations between ‘national majority’ and ‘ethnic national minorities’ in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and elsewhere. Yet the common problem of emphasizing internal differences (by origin, language, religion) has remained beyond the qualitative specificity: internal differences which are thought to be significantly distinctive of people to the point of their existence within more or less closed groups, and perception of respective individuals as significantly predetermined by their ‘belonging’ to those groups. Regardless of the self-perception of the respective individuals, ‘the others’ ascribe identity to them and treat them (engage in or avoid relations with them) from the perspective of this identity.

The problematic process of identification with European (Western) values unfolds against the background of these ‘internal’ problems of self-identification and ascription of identity. This process is problematic mainly because of the complex and contradictory combinations of three commonplace ideas: ‘We are European,’ ‘We have had a tragic destiny (not without the involvement of the West), now the West should help us become like them,’ ‘Once we are admitted to the European Union, we shall become Europeans.’ Although the images and expectations underlying the apparently unambiguous images of ‘Europe,’ ‘the West,’ ‘we are European,’ ‘we shall become Europeans’ are quite different, their focus is arguably on ‘become like them,’ whereas the principal dimension of the process of ‘becoming’ is the expected well-being.

This is not accidental. And it is directly associated with another aspect of the identity crisis in postsocialist society—unemployment and poverty. These two related but different problems are doubtless indicative of the scope of the economic crisis, but their personal aspect concerns the deepest layers of individual identity, largely because the status of being unemployed is unfamiliar, virtually absent in the experience of the ‘socialist individual,’ whereas poverty is a process which individuals who have found themselves in a postsocialist society do not associate with democracy and a market economy.

3.2 Problems Of Social Interaction

The change (or, rather, the orientation towards change) in the principles of organization of social life triggers tensions at all levels of social interaction. At the level of the individual, these tensions take the form of a large-scale crisis in human relations. At the level of institutionalized interactions, they are manifested in ‘corruption’ of significant proportions.

The ‘crisis in human relations’ could be reworded too—as a moral and a political crisis, as well as a problem of interethnic relations. For the everyday person, however (insofar as we can talk about an everyday person in a world where ‘what is taken for granted’—if anything at all—is always questioned), this problem appears as tensions in relations, as a failure to understand the ‘other’ (or vice versa), avoidance of certain others, isolation of and from strangers, and so forth. That problem covers the whole range from the closest social environment—family, relatives, friends—to neighbors and colleagues, to functional relationships with anonymous others.

The problem generally defined as a ‘crisis in human relations’ actually results from the intertwining and superimposing of diverse manifestations and echoes of political, economic and cultural values and other changes on the macrosocial level. The realized opportunity of being different in our political preferences and allegiance, in our economic status, of choosing between different cultural models, of adhering to different values, has inevitably destroyed established models of family, friendly, neighborly, business, and interethnic relations. Yet ‘new’ models may appear only as a result of a long and complex process of construction, mutual adjustment, and assertion—they are not something that can be borrowed (imported, grafted), or something that becomes valid simply because it is (or appears to be) ‘better.’

Similar to nationalism, corruption has become emblematic of postsocialist societies. And just like nationalism, corruption is not an unfamiliar phenomenon in Western societies. Moreover, corruption is an affliction of democratic society insofar as the latter has sufficiently large opportunities for responsible decision making, instead of the strictly prescribed rules for any action which are typical of any totalitarian society and relieve its members of responsibility. Yet the opportunity for responsible decision making is also an opportunity for irresponsible action. In the postsocialist society, the complex and contradictory intertwining of still effective old schemes of control and decision-making, and the deficiency of new norms (both on the institutional level of laws, regulations, ordinances, etc., as well as on the level of individual and group consciousness—role models, values, notions, etc.) turn corruption into an epidemic. The affliction acquires huge proportions due to, inter alia, the internally contradictory perception of corruption: on the one hand, it is seen as an inevitable relation in a situation of transition, of reformulating and reregulating of institutions, social positions, rules, and so forth, which are invisibly present in the social sphere and are manifested in status, security, possessions, and money of those who have effected the replacement; on the other, corruption is embodied in the bribe-taker, insofar as bribe-takers are those who have rare resources, by rule of power, which many other persons would like to use. However, the bribegiver is simply one of many: bribe-givers do not control the ‘rules’ of replacement, the way of negotiations, the size of the bribe to the bribe-taker, they are simply ‘this person’ who has happened to be in this position and, in this sense, anyone may end up in this position. Thus the bribe-taker is regarded as an irresponsible power-holder and the bribe-giver as ‘any one of us’ forced by the circumstances, and therefore not responsible for their involvement in relations of corruption.


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