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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Why we need to be suspicious of the idea of “political culture”

We like to think that we are “masters of our fate” and it irks us when foreigners, for example, make us realise that our behaviour is often the result of specific cultural factors which can be questioned.
The last post has made me return to a question which has haunted me since I started to work in Europe more than 30 years ago…….”to what extent can we actually change national characteristics” – let alone state institutions ???

NB – this may look a long post (and it has certainly taken a full day to compose) but it actually divides fairly easily into three separate sections – which I felt still needed to be part of a single post


1. An ignored 1990 warning
Ralf Dahrendorf was a famous German sociologist/UK statesman who wrote in 1990 an extended public letter first published under the title “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe” and then expanded as Reflections on the Revolution of our Time. In it he made the comment that it would take one or two years to create new institutions of political democracy in the recently liberated countries of central Europe; maybe five to 10 years to reform the economy and make a market economy; and 15 to 20 years to create the rule of law. But it would take maybe two generations to create a functioning civil society there.
A former adviser to Vaslev Havel, Jiri Pehe, referred 7 years ago to that prediction and suggested that  
“what we see now is that we have completed the first two stages, the transformation of the institutions, of the framework of political democracy on the institutional level, there is a functioning market economy, which of course has certain problems, but when you take a look at the third area, the rule of the law, there is still a long way to go, and civil society is still weak and in many ways not very efficient.”

He then went on to make the useful distinction between “democracy understood as institutions and democracy understood as culture”  
“It’s been much easier to create a democratic regime, a democratic system as a set of institutions and procedures and mechanism, than to create democracy as a kind of culture – that is, an environment in which people are actually democrats”.

2. Where did talk about “political cultures” first start?
The idea of “political culture” is – as the academics have taken to put it – a “contested field”…Not that this has stopped wild assertions being made about national characteristics. Indeed it has spawned one of the most enjoyable of book genres - who, for example, can resist We, Europeans – with its amusing vignettes of our various mutual neighbours? And, although the Xenophobe series does rather take this to extremes, some of this stuff can actually be quite insightful – for example, this good expose of the phrases Brits use – with columns distinguishing what our European partners generally understand by various common phrases from what Brits really mean by them 

And, since we all first noticed globalisation in the 1980s, another new field has been spawned – that of “comparative management” whose foremost writers have been Geert Hofstede, Ronnie Lessem and Frans Trompenaars ….Richard D Lewis’s When Cultures Collide – leading across Cultures  (1996) is perhaps the most readable treatment.
There used indeed to be an area called “path dependency” which argued that our behaviour was much more influenced by historical cultural patterns than we imagined. It focused initially on technical examples such as the layout of the typewriter - but found new life after the fall of communism. Indeed it gave rise to a sub-field of political science called “transitology” (which I try to explain in chapter 2 of my 1999 book In Transit – notes on good governance
Political culture versus rational choice – the example of the Czech-Slovak transition is one of the better examples of the genre and The political culture of unified Germany (written by a German academic) puts the field in the wider context of “political culture”

Culture Matters – how values shape human progress; ed Lawrence Harrison and SP Huntington is not an easy book to find these days. It came out in 2000 but attracted the entirely appropriate comment that a more appropriate title would have been Western Culture Matters  
And that indeed is the problem - that commentary about other cultures is imbued with notions not only of “the other” but with those of superiority and inferiority….

This raises the obvious question of what sort of person might be best placed to do an insightful (if not objective) analysis of a political culture. The answer, I would suggest, comes from using 2 axes – one to denote the “status” one (insider/outsider); the other to denote something like “the generalist/specialist” spectrum.
Robert Kaplan would be an example of a generalist outsider in Romania’s case – Mungiu-Pippidi an example of a specialist insider, although perhaps not the best example in view of her Berlin location and international profile…The historian Lucian Boia might be a better example…..


3. How 2 American political scientists tarred the Italian Image
Edward Banfield’s study in the early 1950s of a small town in southern Italy whose inhabitants displayed loyalty only to the members of their nuclear family and who had absolutely no sense of social responsibility for wider circles. The book (published in 1955) was called “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society” 

Banfield concluded that the town's plight was rooted in the distrust, envy and suspicion displayed by its inhabitants' relations with each other. Fellow citizens would refuse to help one another, except where one's own personal material gain was at stake. Many attempted to hinder their neighbours from attaining success, believing that others' good fortune would inevitably harm their own interests. "Montegrano"'s citizens viewed their village life as little more than a battleground. Consequently, there prevailed social isolation and poverty—and an inability to work together to solve common social problems, or even to pool common resources and talents to build infrastructure or common economic concerns.

"Montegrano"'s inhabitants were not unique nor inherently more impious than other people. But for quite a few reasons: historical and cultural, they did not have what he termed "social capital"—the habits, norms, attitudes and networks that motivate folk to work for the common good.
This stress on the nuclear family over the interest of the citizenry, he called the ethos of ‘amoral familism’. This he argued was probably created by the combination of certain land-tenure conditions, a high mortality rate, and the absence of other community building institutions.

Fast forward sixty years to an article in “City Compass Guide Romania” in which an expat (and, full disclosure) friend of mine wrote….

If you are fortunate enough to drive in Bucharest you will witness what is probably the clearest evidence of mass individualism in global human society. Romanian people, of all shapes, sizes, social and educational backgrounds and income brackets will do things in their cars that display a total disregard for sanity and other drivers.
Manoeuvres such as parking in the middle of the street, u-turning on highways without any warning and weaving between lanes in heavy traffic at 150 kilometres per hour are commonplace and point to an extreme lack of concern for the safety or even the simple existence of others.
The next time you are waiting to get on a plane at Henri Coandă airport, take a little time to observe how queuing in an orderly and effective manner is clearly regarded as an af­front to the sovereignty of the Romanian individual. Enjoy the spectacle of the pushing, shoving and general intimida­tion that follows the arrival of the airport staff to supervise boarding. Even while watching an international rugby test match you will only occasionally see the same intense level of barely controlled aggression.

Outside of their core social networks Romanians closely follow the rule stating that it is every man, woman and child for themselves. ……There is an opinion poll, published in early 2012, show­ing that around 90 percent of the Romanian population regards almost all of their compatriots as utterly untrust­worthy and incompetent. At the same time 90 percent, possibly the same 90 percent, see themselves as being abso­lutely beyond reproach. This is clearly an extreme response no matter how you view it and provides evidence of an ex­traordinary and troubling imbalance within the generality of Romania’s social relationships.
There is a well-known prayer in Romania, which roughly goes: “Dear God, if my goat is so ill that it will die, please make sure that my neighbour’s goat dies too.”

So what does this commonality suggest? The EU’s first Ambassador here was Karen Fogg who gave every consultant who came here in the early 1990s (like me) a summary of what can be seen as the follow-up to Banfield’s book – Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work – civic traditions in Italy (1993) which suggested that the laggardly nature of southern Italian Regions was due entirely to this “amoral familism”.  Putnam made an even greater play of missing “social capital” – indeed spawned an incredible technocratic literature on the concept and ideas on how it could be “engineered” to deal with the new alienation of modern capitalism..

Romanian communism, of course, had almost 50 years to inculcate more cooperative attitudes and behaviour – but the forced nature of “collective farms”; the forced migration of villagers to urban areas to drive industrialisation; and the scale of Securitate spying created a society where, paradoxically, even fewer could trusted anyone.      
From 1990 the market became God; Reagan and Thatcher had glorified greed; the state was “bad"; and television – which had been limited by Ceausescu to 2 hours a day - the great “good”……As the commercial stations and journals spread, the values of instant gratification became dominant (one of the points Dorel Sandor makes)……

To be continued…..

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