The Post-European Condition

Paper Presented at the Nordic Research Course in Soviet Foreign Policy, Sigtuna 1987

Finn Sivert Nielsen

The following summarizes a research project for which I have received a three-year Doctorate fellowship in Social Anthropology from the Norwegian Research Council (Norges almenvitenskapelige forskningsråd). The text must be regarded as a sketch some of the goals and ideas of my project, and includes few bibliographical references.

1. General Outline

The working title of the project is: "The Post-European Condition: A Comparative Study of the USA and USSR". The project is a comparative analysis of values, mentality and everyday life-strategies among Russians in Leningrad and Americans in San Francisco, and my main corpus of data will be collected through participant observation in these two localities. I have already completed field-work in Leningrad. The results of my work in the Soviet Union have been presented in my thesis for the Magister Artium degree in Social Anthropology: "The Eye of the Whirlwind. Russian Identity and Soviet Nation-Building. Quests for Meaning in a Soviet Metropolis" (Oslo 1987).

Briefly, the thesis argues that important patterns of everyday behavior among Russians may be viewed in part as a result of the physical and social constraints of their life situation (shortages, contradictions between the personal and the public sphere), in part as a result of traditional Russian values. The thesis analyses the relationship between traditional values and the modern context, and attempts a definition of Russian attitudes to freedom, authority, work, interpersonal and interethnic relations, the Soviet state and Western culture. I argue that such everyday attitudes enter into complex patterns of reinforcement and contradiction with the basic underpinnings of state legitimacy in the Soviet Union, and thus pose an important challenge to the ambitions of a leadership wishing to create a unified and loyal "Soviet People".

My Doctorate project represents a continuation of my earlier work in the following respects:

  1. The conclusions of my thesis will be tested in a wider, comparative perspective.
  2. The same methodic approach will be followed (field-work in metropolitan settings) - in part in the US, in part through new visits to the Soviet Union.
  3. The same analytical focus will be used: In both the Soviet and the US context, my research will focus on behavior in personal versus public contexts, and on the values generated and/or challenged by the experienced tension between public and personal spheres.
  4. I shall continue to explore the relationship between everyday value-orientations and "macro-problems" of state legitimacy.

2. Background and Assumptions

The Doctorate project focuses specifically on the role played by European models in American and Russian mentality and political life. In line with the research of e.g. Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas and Perry Anderson, I assume that all such models (whether ideological, intellectual, economic or political) have important traits in common, because of their common origin in what may be termed "Classical Europe". These traits give them a particular power of influence in the non-European societies into which they are incorporated. My comparison of the USA and the Soviet Union therefore presupposes:

A conceptual clarification of the specific nature of "Classical Europe" - which will enable me:

  1. To describe the role played by European models in the development of American and Russian culture.
  2. To contribute to an understanding of the process of global transformation which has taken place in our century.

These points will be detailed below.

a) "Classical Europe"

As a starting-point for understanding the nature of "Classical Europe" I shall here take the seminal work of Jürgen Habermas, "Bürgerliche Offentlichkeit" (1962). Here a society is described which was strongly polarized between a private and a public sphere. In the intimacy of the private sphere personal life and individuality were given free room for expression. In the public sphere the same qualities were negated - for only an unpersonal, dispassionate public realm could give private individuals effective juridical protection and permit economic and cultural self-realization. This social polarization is paradigmatic for Classical European culture. The opposition of individual and universal, concrete instance and abstract law is repeated in art and science, politics and economy.

In Classical Europe, public life was the preserve of a cultured bourgeois elite. This assured a fundamental unanimity of commitment to the premises of public discourse, so insurmountable conflicts never arose. A balance between private and public, individual and collective interests was preserved - neither state nor personal demands were allowed to dominate. The latent conflicts of this polarized society were instead successfully focused into intense cultural and political creativity, development of state power and economy, and European hegemony throughout the world community. When this hegemony came to an end in our century, it was an indication that the balance of private and public spheres had been destroyed.

b) European Models

Both the United States and Russia were heavily influenced or even dominated by the European hegemony at an early stage. This gave both states the opportunity to assimilate European models and make use of them more productively than many of the Developing Countries of our day.

The European models that were assimilated bore the imprint of the society in which they arose: They carried in them the tension between individual and general interests, and at the same time the promise of ultimate release from this tension. For nation-builders they became efficient tools for development of state power - administrative, economic and ideological blue-prints for transformation of cultural heterogeneity into unity. But the US and Russia were too heterogeneous to realize the European ideal of "balance". In these new contexts the promise of harmonization was either utopian or dystopian. In the hands of the state it became a vehicle of power - the forced homogenization of society, rather than the free dialogue of the bourgeoisie. Or it became a charismatic dream: "The Unity of State and People is the Basis [read: the Goal] of all our Victories" - reads a common Soviet slogan. For this reason, the US and the Soviet Union are today societies which "look like Europe" on the surface, but incorporate fundamentally "non-European" social forms on a deeper level. Paradoxically, this has made them far better suited to play lead roles in the global process of transformation which has taken place in our century.

c) Post-European Society

In the course of this transformation Classical European society was annihilated and European world hegemony was taken over by two formerly peripheral states in the European world system - the Soviet Union and the USA. I refer to these societies as post-European, but they are only particularly clear expressions of a global tendency - today Europe itself is post-European. The underlying goal of my project is therefore to gain insight into the "post-European condition" - its world-view and mode of life - through a comparative study of two societies which are archetypical of this condition.

The most basic trait of post-European society is social heterogeneity. It is a mass society, based on public consumption of ideology rather than on ideology-production through the free dialogue of private individuals. It is dominated by immense institutional units (trusts and mass parties) and an alienated populace, rather than by small enterprises and participating citizens. This erodes the unanimous acceptance of the premises of public discourse which was typical of Classical Europe, and destroys the balanced relationship between public and private spheres. My project will attempt to gain an understanding of the consequences of this development. What is the real content of European models - as they exist today in the US and the Soviet Union? What consequences does their re-interpretation have for people's self-image and mentality, for their attitudes towards society and for state legitimacy? These problems were treated extensively in my thesis on the basis of Soviet material, and will be elucidated in a comparative perspective in my Doctorate thesis. I emphasize that my aim is not merely to cast light on US social relations in addition to those of the Soviet Union. I am convinced that a comparative analysis will give deeper insight into the nature of Soviet society, and permit a rethinking of the role of the USSR in the modern world. Thus our understanding of the reforms proposed by Gorbaëv may be enriched by the realization that the liberal "European" yard-stick traditionally used to evaluate Soviet reform projects is today no longer applicable even in the West.

3. Soviet Union and United States - Similarity and Contrast

The project will emphasize two types of contrast between these two societies, which will serve as a starting-point for a description of their underlying similarities:

  1. Differences in initial conditions for assimilation of European models.
  2. Differences in actual transformation of these models.

a) The Nature of Social Heterogeneity

The nature of social heterogeneity in the Soviet Union and the US differs widely: The USA is a society of immigrants - a "melting pot" of different cultures, uprooted and spread out in an "empty" country. Society has a strong orientation towards the periphery, which is reflected in a wide range of cultural expression, e.g. in political traditions (federated states), moral stereotypes (the self-made man), even metropolitan architecture (lack of concentric orientation of city streets). The Wild West is of course the symbol par excellence of this negation of centrality - in Jim Morrison's haunting words: "Out here in the perimeter there are no stars. Out here we is stoned. Immaculate." The periphery is freedom and chaos, for on the rim of chaos each man stands alone, free to realize the American Dream, to leave every collective behind, or to destroy himself. Nothing encloses him, forces him to conform to the tyranny of tradition or protects him from doom. The first thing to fail him are his personal relations, the greatest fear is the violence of individual against individual.

Thus, the private sphere is weakened, and brought out of balance with the public sphere. As a result, powerful public institutions grow forth unhindered - empires of finance, mammoth parties. In spite of vast cultural differences, little effective resistance is ever shown to the introduction of a single national language, a common protestant/anglo-saxon national ideology. This is spite of the fact that the ideology in question is scarcely congealed as an entity and full of contradictions - a loose agglomerate of national holidays, political and religious beliefs, bits and pieces of Abraham Lincoln and the Wild West - it steps into the center of attention and keeps all eyes focused on it, for the simple reason that there is nothing else that can challenge it. The public sphere is strong, because the private sphere is fragmented. This demonstrates the post-European nature of the United States: The imbalance between a strong and dominating public sphere, and a weak and anarchic private sphere.

The Soviet Union is also a "melting pot" - or a "boiling cauldron" as one of my informants put it. But it is not a melting pot of immigrants. It has not expanded into an "empty", but into a peopled country - Central Asia, The Ukraine, The Caucasus. Even in Siberia, local cultures have shown greater resistance to encroachment than the Native Americans. Russian expansion has everywhere encountered strong resistance, from cultures with long traditions - often more venerable than that of the Russians themselves. These cultures have not been annihilated, and pose a major problem for the integrating state to this day. (Cf. the dilemma of simultaneous population growth and labor immobility in the muslim South.) Furthermore, whereas US expansion was carried out by a multitude of peoples, in Russia the agent of expansion to this day is predominantly Russian. Indeed, according to Anderson (1974), a dominant force behind Russian expansion was the flight of serfs from Central Russia into the state-less periphery. The state sought to "overtake" them, seal them in behind "safe borders".

After several centuries this goal was accomplished, but the state has still not assimilated the country's cultural heterogeneity. The state, in other words, has always been self-defensive and weak. This is just a symptom of the fundamental weakness of the public sphere in Russia and the Soviet Union. It is not represented by a multitude of strong, autonomous institutions, but by a distant, monolithical bureaucracy - wasting its insufficient resources on keeping an unwilling populace in check. This, paradoxically, gives the Soviet state its strong centralistic orientation. The state is a substitute for an insufficiently developed public sphere - the system of economic planning is an attempt to "simulate the market" (Kerblay, 1977), the party-system is an attempt to build a synthetic "new class" (Djilas, 1962). The centrality of Soviet society is a mode of insistence - in the face of all odds - on a homogeneity which society itself will not and cannot accept.

In other words, the balance between public and private sphere is tilted in opposite directions in the Soviet Union and in the United States. In the US, crises result in private violence (cf. the resistance to gun laws). In the Soviet Union, crises are expressed in public (state) violence. Where US culture is oriented towards the periphery, Soviet culture looks to the center. Thus - in spite of all the cliches of totalitarianism - it is the private, not the public sphere which dominates Soviet society - the ingrained and solidarious traditional collectives of ethnic groups. This is eminently brought forth in many recent analyses of Soviet society, e.g. the analyses of Mars and Altman of Georgian second economy: The strength of the illegal sector in Georgia is here shown to rest on traditional values and modes of social organization which are retained to our time. In my own thesis a similar argument is put forth with respect to the Russians of the North.

b) The Fate of Europe in Post-European society

Because of these differences, the transformation of European models in US and Soviet culture is carried out in widely differing ways. My project will compare the direction of change in the two cultures, giving particular attention to symbols and ideals on the border-line between individual morality and political ideology: "Individual freedom", "authority", "objectivity", "culture", "work", "discipline", "progress", etc. Such ideas had a central place in Classical European culture because of their relevance for the relationship between the private and the public sphere. In addition to this analysis of symbols and values, I will contrast the political, economic and juridical institutions of Classical European, Soviet and US society - in as far as they impinge directly on the daily life of my informants. This will provide a wider context for the analysis, and demonstrate the relationship between cognitive ideals and institutional praxis.

4. Sketch of the Fate of two European Models: "Freedom" and "Impartial Dialogue"

Rather than describe in detail the methods of analysis which I propose to utilize in my study, I shall round off this statement with an impressionistic description of the transformation undergone by two typical ideals of Classical Europe: "Freedom" and "Impartial Dialogue". I emphasize that the following is not an authoritative analysis, but an essayistic sketch - perhaps even a caricature - of the type of results an analysis of this type may bring forth.

a) "Freedom"

Freedom of the individual was an imperative of Classical European culture, but what was implied was a balanced freedom, a freedom under responsibility. The private individual was free as long as he abided by the universal laws of the public sphere. He was free to participate in cultural and political discourse.

In both the USA and the Soviet Union, the element of responsibility and participation is weakened. Freedom seems more often to mean the right not to participate in public discourse. One might speak of this freedom as anarchic - an expression of the fact that private and public interests are incompatible. In the Soviet Union individual freedom poses a threat to the weakened public sphere, and is therefore suppressed. In the USA a powerful public sphere can simply ignore individual freedom as politically impotent. In both cases, active participation in public discourse will seem irrelevant and useless.

The prime symbol of freedom in both cases is therefore the empty void, the open country - the Wild West or the Unexplored Siberia. Freedom implies having space around oneself, elbow-room. The sentiment is reiterated in countless songs, films and books of the American West: "Give me land, lots of land under starry skies above. Don't fence me in...". The rhythm of the song follows the loping click of horse's hooves under you, the reassuring beat of a pistol against your thigh. "I see the wondrous open land. I see meadows and fields. This is the Russian abundance. This is my motherland", echoes a Russian folk-song - slowly, wistfully and patiently. Both songs long for space. But the singers' attitude towards this space differs fundamentally.

The Russian gazes at the open country, as in the song. His ideal of freedom is contemplative, passive. His open space is populated - he is rooted in its earth and tied to it with age-old ties of harmony and belonging. His freedom encloses and protects him - it has a strikingly "feminine" quality (Russia is always "the mother"). True it can become stifling, but when the Russian breaks his bonds and goes off in search of freedom, it is to find a place of deeper and more personal belonging. His travels into Siberia or into the Cosmos are on behalf of the collective. What he seeks there is the intimacy - with nature, the soil, tradition - that land-lords, bureaucrats or mothers-in-law have taken from him. Even in Russian science fiction - where one would expect nothing but techno-utopias - such "mystical" themes are repeated: The quest for harmony with nature, the battle with the barriers that hinder understanding between people. As one of the brothers Strugackie's heros puts it: "The longing for understanding - that's what I'm sick from - Toska za ponimaniju."

The American in the song demands and conquers his free space. His freedom is active, productive, pragmatic. He goes out on his own, taking the initiative and risk on himself, to "strike it rich", or to plant his garden and build his home. The horse, later on the car, and the pistol. That's all he needs on the road - no collective to back him up, for he has left the collective and burned his last bridge. There is no way back. This is a "masculine" ideal of freedom - just as the American God is masculine: "Jesus wasn't some kind of wishy-washy fairy. He knew how to stand up for his rights", as a popular evangelist recently explained. The American is the individualistic hero, who conquers the open country. Science-fiction stories from the fifties exemplify the attitude with admirable clarity. In one of Heinlein's books, the hero leaves for Jupiter's moons - not to discover the foreign and exotic, nor to understand the meaning of life - but because Earth is over-populated, and he wants a farm and a life of his own.

b) "Impartial Dialogue"

European society found classical expression in the cultural and political discourse which arose and developed in the balanced field of tension between private and public life, individual and collective interests. A fundamental demand to participants in this discourse was that they follow the "rules of fair play" - one should express personal opinions, but through the medium of explicit and impartial argument. As in the case of freedom, this demand is undermined in the Soviet and US contexts.

In my thesis I have discussed the Russian use of "code words" and "passwords" in public communication. The weak public sphere that is typical of this society forces people to reduce their public interaction to a bare minimum, to make themselves understood by means of a limited repertoire of short, standardized phrases and formulas - which are incomprehensible for the uninitiated. The same tendency makes itself felt in public speeches, slogans, even signs and notices - all of which are full of enigmatic omissions and implicit overtones. A rather comical expression of this is the flora of abbreviations in all official contexts - from the familiar CK KPSS to more arcane constructs such as GLAVLENMAŠPROMTREST (Glavnyj Leningradskij Mašinopromyšlennyj Trest). Face-to-face interaction in public has much the same character, as anyone who has used a Leningrad bus will know (Peredajte poalujsta). Such Soviet "pass-words" cannot be understood if one is not "initiated". One must have access to a fund of "secret knowledge" if one is to be able to decipher them.

The United States also presents a rich flora of abbreviations. Signs with "WE WORK 4 YOU", or "PED XING" are typical. However, these codes are deciphered in a completely different way from the Soviet examples. It is unnecessary to know beforehand what their meaning is - in fact, it is impossible, for the repertoire of abbreviations is extremely large, and changes as fast as American slang. The meaning instead becomes apparent as soon as one reads the text aloud, when the letters are converted into action. Only then can 4 become "for", X become "cross".

In both the Soviet and the US context we encounter fragments of a public dialogue which is no longer impartial or explicit, but strongly elliptical - esoteric and ritualistic. But one is initiated into the mysteries in very different ways in the two cultures. In the Soviet Union the all-important factor is to belong to a collective with access to "secret knowledge". Comprehension resides in a community of ideas. In the USA words must be performed in action. They become meaningful here and now, by being spoken, sung, danced, improvised into practical activity - and all communities of interest share this ephemeral, spontaneous nature.

Once again we note the imbalanced relationship between public and private concerns. "To know" in the Soviet Union implies belonging to an intimate group, pulling back from the "cold" public sphere into the safety and "warmth" of privacy. Knowing means sharing a commitment, speaking to each other "soul to soul". "To do" in the United States is to cast oneself out into the great collective - free from all closed communities one immerses oneself in the vast wave of public communication. One lives quickly, elegantly, "on the surface" - with humor and self-irony - as a surfer.

5. Conclusion

The relevance of these discussions for the issues of state legitimacy may not seem immediately clear. We should remember, however, that ideas we take for granted in the West - such as democracy - are in fact founded on the assumption that private and public interests are kept "in balance". The main thrust of my argument is that in "post-European" societies this balance is lost, and that this has consequences for the legitimacy of modern states as well. It may therefore be illusory to attribute democratic goals to Gorbachev, not so much because he does not set himself such goals, but because even if he does, they may be impossible to realize in the society with which he must contend. Instead of measuring the success or failure of reform in the Soviet Union in terms of concepts derived from a social order which even we ourselves no longer are able to realize, we should attempt to define what types of state legitimacy are in fact possible in a "post-European", heterogeneous, mass society as the Soviet Union. A critical factor in such a society is of course the attempt to build up a common ground of values and symbols, with which the majority of the populace may somehow identify positively. We may assume that the lack of such a "common ground" will lead to gross social imbalance and cultural conflict. In the Soviet Union, where the public sphere is permanently "under siege", this in turn may produce increased state restrictions and terrorization of the population. An important goal of Soviet studies should therefore be to draw attention to the necessary conditions for internal integration and social harmony in the Soviet Union - particularly those conditions on which Western foreign policy may have direct or indirect influence.

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Nielsen, Finn Sivert (1987): The Eye of the Whirlwind. Russian Identity and Soviet Nation-building. Quests for Meaning in a Soviet Metropolis. Thesis for the magister artium degreee, February 1987, Institutt for sosialantropologi, Universitetet i Oslo.

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