Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Memory and culture after 1989 in Central Europe

The years following the collapse of the socialist-Stalinist regimes of eastern Europe were not comfortable for the people of the GDR, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and many other countries. The economic arrangements of a centrally planned economy abruptly collapsed, and new market institutions were slow to emerge and often appeared indifferent to the needs of the citizens. The results of "shock therapy" were prolonged and severe for large segments of these post-socialist countries (Hilmar 6-8). Till Hilmar's Deserved: Economic Memories After the Fall of the Iron Curtain tries to make sense of the period -- and the ways in which it was remembered in following decades. 

Here is how Hilmar defines his project:

I ask: how it is possible that people who underwent disruptive economic change perceive its outcomes in individual terms? A common answer is to say that we live in neoliberal societies that encourage people to put their self-interest first and to disregard others around them. People have become atomized and isolated, the argument goes, and they have unlearned what it means to be part of a community. They have forgotten what we owe each other. Yet something is not quite right about this diagnosis. It assumes that we live our lives today in a space that is somehow devoid of morality. It thereby misses a crucial fact: people are embedded in social relations, and they therefore articulate economic aspirations and experiences of a social dynamic. In this book, I daw on in-depth interviews with dozens of people who lived through disruptive economic change. Based on this research, I show that it is precisely the concern of what people owe each other -- the moral concern -- that drives how many people reason about economic outcomes. They perceive them, I demonstrate, through the lens of moral deservingness, judgments of economic worth that they pass on each other. (3)

The central topic, then, is how individual people remember and make sense of economic changes they have experienced. Hilmar places a locally embodied sense of justice at the center of the work of meaning-making that he explores in interviews with these ordinary people affected by a society-wide earthquake.

Hilmar's method is an especially interesting one. He compares two national cases, Czechoslovakia and the GDR, and he bases his research on focused interviews with 67 residents in the two countries during the transition. The respondents are drawn from two categories of skilled workers, engineers and healthcare workers. His approach "enabled a focus on people's work biography and their sense of change in social relations" (15).

His central theoretical tool is the idea of a moral framework against which people in specific times and places interpret and locate their memories. "The memory of ruptures is guided by concerns about social inclusion. What makes a person feel that he or she is a worthy member of society? In our contemporary world, the answer to this question has a lot to do with economics" (17). Or in other words, Hilmar proposes that people understand their own fates and those of others around them in terms of "deserving-ness" -- deserving their successes and deserving their failures. And Hilmar connects this scheme of judgment of "deserving" to a more basic idea of "social inclusion": the person is "included" when she conforms to existing standards and expectations of "deserving" behavior. "A person's sense of accomplishment and confidence -- in the professional, in the civic, as well as in the private realms -- are all part of a social and normative ensemble in which the grounds for acclaim are social and never just individual" (18). And he connects this view of the social and economic world to the ideas of "moral economy" offered by E.P. Thompson and Karl Polanyi. A period of inequality and suffering for segments of the population is perceived as endurable or unendurable, depending on how it fits into the prevailing definitions of legitimacy embodied in the historically specific moral economy of different segments of society. In the Czech and German cases Hilmar considers, social inclusion is expressed as having a productive role in socialism -- i.e., having a job (39), and the workplace provided the locus for many of the social relationships within which individuals located themselves.

The central empirical work of the project involves roughly seventy interviews of skilled workers in the two countries: engineers and healthcare workers. Biographies shed light on large change; and they also show how individual participants structured and interpreted their r memories of the past in strikingly different terms. This is where Hilmar makes the strongest case for the theoretical ideas outlined above about memory and moral frameworks. He sheds a great deal of light on how individuals in both countries experienced their professional careers before 1989, and how things changed afterwards. And he finds that "job loss", which was both epidemic and devastating in both countries following the collapse of socialism, was a key challenge to individuals' sense of self and their judgments about the legitimacy of the post-socialist economic and political arrangements. Privatization of state-owned companies is regarded in almost all interviews as a negative process, aimed at private capture of social wealth and carried out in ways that disregarded the interests of ordinary workers. And the inequalities that emerged in the post-1989 world were often regarded as profoundly illegitimate, based on privileged access rather than. merit or contribution:

People grew skeptical of the idea that above-average incomes and wealth could in fact be attained through hard work. Instead they began to associate it with nepotism and dishonesty. On these grounds, researchers posit that the principle of egalitarianism returned as the dominant justice belief after the bout of enthusiasm for market society. (94)

This is where the idea of "deservingness" comes in. Did X get the high-paid supervisor job because he or she "earned" it through superior skill and achievement, or through connections? Did Y make a fortune by purchasing a state-owned shoe factory for a low price and selling to a larger corporation at a high price because he or she is a brilliant deal maker, or because of political connections on both ends of the transactions?

The discussion of social relations, informal relations, and trust in post-socialist societies is also very interesting. As Delmar puts the point, "you can't get anything done without the right friends" (118). And social relationships require trust -- trust that others will live up to expectations and promises, that they will honor their obligations to oneself. Without trust, it is impossible to form informal practices of collaboration and cooperation. And crucially: how much trust is possible in a purely market society, if participants are motivated solely by their own economic interests? And what about trust in institutions -- either newly private business firms or government agencies and promises? How can a worker trust her employer not to downsize for the sake of greater profits? How can a citizen trust the state once the criminal actions of Stasi were revealed (138)? What was involved in recreating a basis for trust in institutions after the collapse of socialism?

Through these interviews and interpretations the book provides a very insightful analysis of how judgments of justice and legitimacy exist as systems of interpretation of experience for different groups, and how different those systems sometimes are for co-existing groups of individuals facing very different circumstances. And the concrete work of interview and interpretation across the Czech and German cases well illustrates both the specificity of these "moral frameworks" and some of the ways in which sociologists can investigate them. The book is original, illuminating, and consistently insightful, and it shows a deep acquaintance with the literature on memory and social identity. As such Deserved is a highly valuable contribution to cultural sociology.

(It is interesting to recall Martin Whyte's discussion of generational differences in China about the legitimacy of inequalities in post-Mao China. The Mao generation is not inclined to excuse growing inequalities, whereas the next several generations were willing to accept the legitimacy of inequalities if they derived from merit rather than position and corrupt influence (link). This case aligns nicely with Hilmar's subject matter.) 

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