Can you tell what cities the following scenes are from?

It’s a trick question. They’re both from the same city: Sheffield, where I live. Did you think, either from their look or because they’re appearing in this blog, that they were somewhere in Eastern Europe?

I’ll come back to the pictures later, but I ask because of an essay I recently read by Francois Ruegg, an anthropologist at the University of Fribourg.

Ruegg argues that when we measure how democratic Eastern European countries have become, we’re using our own, Western societies, as the yardstick, even though we hardly measure up ourselves.

I know, it’s not a new idea, but Ruegg doesn’t take the tiresome tack of saying we can’t gauge progress in the East because we haven’t reached perfection in the West.

A former visiting professor in Moscow, Timisoara, and Cluj, Ruegg is no greenhorn in this part of the world. In an entertaining introduction, he recounts the daily life of someone trying to get from point A to point B in a post-communist landscape, or trying to get a bureaucratic procedure accomplished, or just trying to enjoy an afternoon in the park. There’s the elderly ticket-seller in Budapest in 2004 who looked at him as if he were “a Martian” when he asked if his train would have a dining car. The (again, gray-haired) women, later to be replaced by guards, who sat on each floor of a Moscow student hostel, supplying tea and toilet paper. Not to mention the unkempt public spaces and the persistently unpleasant, even intimidating, appearance and layout of many public buildings.

He writes:

My hypothesis was that as long as public spaces, such as parks, buildings, roads, and public (transportation) services do not change in their visible expression, civil society or a functional democracy cannot emerge. It means that states in post-communist nations are failing ones, with all the consequences attached to this notion in terms of mistrust, corruption, and more generally a total disinterest in the public or common good.

The last bit, about mistrust, corruption and a disregard for the common good, should clue you in to where he’s headed:

“The problem I faced, however, was the reference model: democracy, civil society, and a strong and healthy state. Where are these to be found?”

It would hardly be illuminating, for instance, to compare Bulgaria and Romania with some Mediterranean states of the EU, with which they share the features of “patriarchalism, mistrust, clientelism, and resistance to any central authority.” What of the notion of mistrust in the West versus the East? Trust could be considered a bulwark of the free market, inasmuch as businesses need to cultivate it in their customers. But Ruegg wonders what thinking person in the West really trusts the most ubiquitous manifestation of business competition, advertising?

And the mistrust, given the banking and financial collapse, goes much deeper. In addition, he doesn’t specifically mention the scandals in the Catholic Church, but he does decry the “cheap sentimentalism, where oath-taking political leaders and religious consecrated people confess their weakness with self compassion and erase their misdeeds with cash compensations and the approval of public opinion.”

“A growing culture of mistrust is rising in Western societies who have lost their self-trust,” Ruegg writes. And just as we do in vis a vis the East, “We can ask ourselves whether this will affect democracy and good governance.”

You can’t be in this job for long, writing about the limitations of democracy in the East, without asking those same questions of Western countries. I would say there is one important distinction, although it doesn’t always hold and could break down at any moment: I think the mistrust in the East has long been manifested in apathy and cynicism, which flourished before the change of regime in large part because people felt powerless to change things and flourishes now because of the disappointed hopes that the change brought about. In the West, it tends to be nastier and louder. Right now, it’s most visible in the Occupy protests, which I believe are a crucial antidote to apathy.

Getting back to those photos: If Ruegg’s thesis – that the broken down public spaces of the East are a sign of contempt for the common good – is valid, then what are we to make of scenes like these? Probably nothing, I would say. Sheffield was heavily bombed in World War II and had to rebuild throughout as the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. I tend to see these buildings more as post-war architects’ efforts to create something new while providing as much housing or office space as quickly and cheaply as they could. By that reasoning, they are hardly signs of officialdom’s contempt for us. But then neither would be the dreary apartment blocks that scar the post-communist landscape, erected to give much of the population affordable housing near public transport links.

But giving Ruegg the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it’s what we do with our shared spaces that concerns him. For me, then, a more instructive comparison could be the countryside. As Ruegg has probably seen himself, hiking in many of Romania’s beauty spots means sidestepping plastic bottles, candy bar wrappers, and drink cartons by the dozens, not to mention the pitiful stray dogs that people manage to ignore.

In the British countryside, societal pressure to clean up after yourself – “leave nothing but footprints” – is so strong that even if you were going to litter, and virtually no one does, you would make damn sure no one saw you.

Here is the difference between apathy and engagement, on a scale small enough that one person (or maybe two, with a garbage bag and trash stick) can make a difference, which makes it such a good test. To put it another way, it could be the difference between taking responsibility for a space versus ceding control of it to a bloated and faceless public works bureaucracy.

In any event, Ruegg’s attempt to look with fresh eyes at the visible markers of democratic progress is fascinating. It appears in the new collection of essays, Twenty Years After the Collapse of Communism: Expectations, Achievements, and Disillusions of 1989 from Peter Lang publishers.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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