Reflections on civil society in 2009

Author: Istvan Rev

Istvan Rev suggests that we have to reexamine some of our assumptions about engagement and to ensure more open societies in the future, make the effort to bridge growing gaps by opening our eyes for the ways of the young.


In case the Communist systems had collapsed forty years ago, in 1968, it would have been extremely difficult to reach an agreement at the roundtables. The potential participants at that time would have come with incommensurable views, radical, experimental, utopian ideas about self-governance, common (as opposed to private and state) property, support to the second economy, reconfigured peasant communities, influenced by the idea that in order to be a realist one should demand nothing less than the unimaginable. That was the time of the new left, anthropological romanticism, national liberation, radical critical thinking, when young people, especially, but not exclusively students, played a central role in the formation of national and international public discourse. Fortunately, twenty years later, at the time when Communism in fact collapsed, the ideological landscape looked completely different: those who looked around, saw an ideological wasteland, there was nothing on the horizon, except the fantasy about possibility of the imminent “end of history”, well-tried, uninspiring practices, the institutions of seemingly well-functioning market systems and parliamentary democracies, power exercised by the elected, seemingly enlightened political elites, instead of Vaclav Havel’s naïve post-tpolitical, post-parliamentary, post-consumerist utopia of the “power to the people” in his “Power of the Powerless”. By 1989, the democratic oppositions had already given up their longing for autochtonous, human-faced solutions, and settled on the attainable. The lack of real radical alternatives left no choice but to import, take over practices, institutions, ideas from the West, and this ideologically uninteresting moment made it possible to reach quick agreements at the roundtables; there were no real inspiring discussions, although the moment was unprecedented in the sense that something truly new, previously unheard of could have been built on the ruins of the collapsed structure. Fortunately that did not happen, and the former Communist world did not become once more the experimental ground of large-scale untried and extremely dangerous social experiments. The countries joined the “Partnership for Peace”, NATO, WTO, the World bank, IMF, the European Union, became almost normalized in a somewhat perverted way: mixing routines, practices, reflexes of the one-party-state with ideas and structures of market economy, liberal parliamentary democracy and anachronistic, conservative ambitions of the imagined past.

Left leaning ideas and utopias became compromised during the decades of state-socialism, so for young people who were born or socialized after the Collapse, the almost only remaining option nowadays, in search of radical utopias, are mostly radical right-wing ideas and movements, inherited from an imagined, unreal past improperly understood. The break around 1989/1991 immediately turned the recent past into an alien world; it did not seem to be the prehistory of the present but a different country, the elements of which could be resurrected at will. It became almost impossible to find a reasonable, intelligent way back to the past; history was lost once more, after it had been lost several times during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; most dramatically after the World Wars. There was no time, no opportunity to face history either on the national, regional, European or global level, to make use anything one – in principle – could have learned in a serious responsible way from the past. This situation makes rational discourse about important social issues extremely difficult.
Young people, born around and after the Collapse live in a different world than their older contemporaries: according to studies conducted both in the East and West, young people are nowadays influenced much more by their peers than by their parents or teachers; they live in their own world saturated by information of their own choice, conversing mostly with members of their age-group, influenced by limited and highly selective websites, seduced by focused and targeted advertisement campaigns. Members of older generations do not even know much about the world of the younger people, since they do not see the magazines, publications, entertainment younger people consume in the solitude in front of their computer screen. The magazines at the newspaper kiosks that are visible for passersby do not tell much about the consumption habits, interests of these younger generations, since they consume news and information increasingly on-line.
Schools, traditional institutions and meeting places become more and more outdated, obsolete; teachers are lost, force the young people to go off-line, and what they can offer seem more and more useless, uninteresting. These developments lead to the breakdown of meaningful communication between members of different generations. These trends do not necessarily lead to social anomie; people find real and virtual communities among their peers, mostly but not exclusively on-line; new types of networks are formed; new ways of communication and collaboration are being born; new methods of learning are discovered and introduced. A few decades ago the early adopters of new technologies were customarily people between 30-50 years of age, nowadays the earliest adopters are mostly young people between 12-25. Under these new conditions the traditional meaning of the “political” and the “social” become undermined and useless, and in order to become contemporaries of ourselves, we should accept the fact that the familiar terms, settings and structures should be critically and creatively reexamined.
After 1989, we live in a world where the borderlines between macro-and micro-interventions became fuzzy. Technology that is emerging since the end of Communism makes it possible for local actors to intervene in macro issues. Today it is possible to organize without an organization; to form a movement without joining a movement; to act politically without belonging to a political organization. This is a novel situation for all those actors who would like to support, influence, and gently direct the civic sphere. One of the characteristics of the new situation is the fact that movements do not organize in familiar and visible ways, there is no or less hierarchy; cooperation is decentralized, there are tacit, mostly unstated rules. What motivates people in taking part in collaborative actions are elusive social clues, people are widely distributed both physically and socially, and meet regularly in the virtual place. The news they consume are both extremely global, but at the same time local as well: young people live mostly in their own immediate circles, but consume global news almost real time. Information, in this new media landscape is usually decontextualized, unstructured, uninterpreted, and aggravate to a growing general experience of life without fixed context. The new movements emerge by themselves, rather than being organized from top down by traditional organizers. People should feel that they are able to self-identify with the aims and ideas of the projects they take part in. What would just seem to be a way or infrastructure of communication, are in fact tools of “emergence”, self-organizing means, ways of collaboration, cooperation, voluntarism, activism. Young people are sensitive to political and social issues, but the repertoire of these issues differ from traditional concerns (access to information, access to knowledge in general, self-determination, autonomy, individual liberties, human rights in a wide sense, the right and opportunity to move – physically and virtually – right to relevance, etc.) Since they are able to organize themselves instantly without prior preparation or without any formal organization, there is an important element of unpredictability and unforeseen character of their actions in concert.
For philanthropic organizations, international NGOs, instead of supporting of well-definable movements in traditional ways, it seems wiser to support issues, explorations of problems, individuals with unique ideas, who can act as “hubs”, helping to create real and virtual space for decent new ideas, help changing the character of traditional ways of education and instruction, to help change the relationship between teachers and students, support rational and relevant public discussions in novel ways about important social, cultural issues, to recognize that the borderline between the social and the cultural is changing in a dramatic way. It is important to help to gain access to public information, to make information about crucial public issues available, in order to make state and local officials accountable in decentralized, non-political ways. It is crucially important to help launching relevant, important, even very small-size projects. Although it may sound paradoxical, the attitude, motivation, and beliefs of people, especially young people, are formed by as a consequence of their choices and actions, and not vica versa, despite the received wisdom of traditional pedagogy and economic theory. “It is our actions” – stated Aristotle – “that determine our dispositions”. We do and chose certain things, not because we have certain ingrained predisposition, but because of our repeated actions that teach us how to choose, what to think, what attitudes we should embrace.
What seems to be the sphere of technology is in fact not just technology but the eminent sphere of the social. Technical devices are as much part of political, social, and moral life as social practices, laws and regulations. Technology enables people to contribute to the production or shaping of public goods in new ways. Our world is shaped not only by ideologies, beliefs, narratives but by the ways technology is used for the common good. It is possible to shape the ways how technologies (in the widest sense of the term), cooperation, collaboration are used in positive ways that contribute both to the well-being of the individual and the community at large.

Isván Rév studied at Eötvös Loránd and York Universities. He has worked on the economic history of the post-World War II period, and his narrower field of research is historical anthropology. He has been actively involved in ecological issues and published numerous articles criticizing the environmental damage caused by centralized economic planning. Mr Rev has been a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, a fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a research fellow at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. He was a founding member of the “Danube Circle”, a past winner of the Right for Livelihood award (the alternative Nobel Prize) of the Swedish Parliament and in 1995 he was the recipient of the New Europe Prize. Mr Rev was one of the founding editors of The Budapest Review of Books, he is a professor in the CEU History and Political Science departments, the director of the Open Society Archives and the chair of the Open Society Institute (OSI)-Information Sub-Board, member of the OSI Board of Directors. His most recent work is the Retroactive Justice - Prehistory of Post-Communism (Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, 2005).



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