Thursday, September 24, 2009

In the Race Again - Notes on exceptionalism VII.

The Hungarian prime minister, Gordon Bajnai visited the United States, more accurately participated at the UN general assembly and used this opportunity for a longer visit, with a lecture given at Columbia University, a talk with Hungarians from New York and not the least fro a meeting with "business circles". He not only expressed his pride over his government's efforts and achievements (making its homework, it was the phrase he used) but stressed his conviction that Hungary will soon become again the front-runner of ECE in the never ending competition of its states.
Those few who followed this blog are already familiar with my opinion on this assumption and won't be astonished if I would again emphasize how dangerous this perception was, how disastrous effects it had on the societies of the transition countries. But - even though I should admit it wouldn't be entirely fair to criticize Bajnai's attempt outside the context of the need of attract foreign investment to Hungary in an environment where almost everybody forecasts a significant reduction of the capital in the world - it is hard to evade further comment of the whole concept of competition. Originally competition is inherent element of a market economy, but not the competition of entities like states, only individual ones, companies and individuals offering their labour or ideas. Competition is easy to perceive at this level and easy to connect to ideas like fairness, freedom etc. But to extend this idea to states is not so simple as the frequent use of this phrase in connection with ECE countries would suggest.
The starting point is already dubious: is competition between countries - in the sense as it is applied to markets - really exist? One can easily imagine the individual level of such competition, companies, farmers, workers acting in the framwork of a single market, consisting more than one countries, something like the European Union. But what is the place and role of the states in this structure? Can they compete similarly? Especially as this competition is never imagined as a substitute for the competition of economic actors, rather a complementary of it. States are usually seen as societies, more than a sum of the economic actors belonging to them. But as societies they are supposed to act in order to achieve a kind of equilibrium between different aims and interests, conceived as common good. While states are perceived as competing each other - in the sense Bajnai referred to this concept - only one element - however important it could be - brought to the fore: the economy. And even within the economy only a part of the actors are in fact in a competitive situation with their peers from other countries. It is easy, too easy without critically reflecting to the concept of competition between states, to elevate or transform partial interests of some economic actors into common good. Competing with other states on he field of economy can result in the neglectment of other sectors of the state's responsibility, the society, as those are not in a direct competition and therefore this concept can not integrate their needs. But as the interests of economic competitors is envisaged as the ultimate interest of the society - it can distort the original concept of common good.
Maybe economic growth in itself is raising and extending public good, welfare etc. But it is not a certainty, especially when the market, where competition is taking place, is broader than a single state and a single society. (And the Pareto-effectivness and equilibrium is hard to apply to such a blurred entity as a market economy that is not a society etc.) Not to speak of the experience of the last two decades, when rapid growth was not Pareto-effective as regional differences were growing not only in relative terms, but in absolute terms as well. A series of regions in ECE are now poorer than they were in 1989 (and they situation didn't improve during periods of steady growth), even if a small number of regions are much wealthier. The latter are usually regions in competition and the former are simply excluded from the market mechanisms. But it suggest that once again entering the race is nothing else than sacrifice these parts of a country for the sake of te prosperous ones. As it is quite consistent with lowering redistribution rates.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Groupism in practice

I must apologize in advance for being again narrow-minded and concentrating on issues seemingly of secondary importance, only very superficially connected to the crisis. But the abandonment of the US missile shield project in ECE caused some reactions that are great illustrations of a concept introduced into the nationalism studies recently and not the least can shed light to the thinking of ECE elites or at least a part of them.
The issue is quite simple, the Obama administration announced the abandonment of the plan of a missile shield with a radar station in the Czech Republic and ten missiles in Poland with the aim to intercept IBMs launched from Iran. The plan caused much tension between Russia and the US (and its allies in ECE) because it was perceived as aimed against Russia and - ironically - while the Bush administration never forgot to stress that it is not capable to counterbalance a strategic strike force as large as the Russians have, the Polish and Czech politicians saw in the realization of the project not only a chance to raise their importance in the US system of alliances, but an effective way to deter Russia from aggressive steps against these countries. Not that it would have been really popular, at least in the Czech Republic the plan was widely unpopular.
Anyway, the announcement caused uproar, at least among the elite. Some weeks ago a group of experts, diplomats and politicians, describing themselves as "atlantists" (i.e. personalities with a deep attachment to the idea of a firm alliance between their countries and the US) published a letter supposedly addressed to the Obama administration and warning the consequences of such a possibility, the perceived spread of a feeling among the population that the US surrenders the region to Russia.
Up to this point it is a pretty simple story, one would be justified to ask: what the whole series of events has to do with such unheard concepts as "groupism"? I will spare my readers (however few they are) from a detailed discussion of this concept, invented by Rogers Brubaker. The core of this idea is an observation and critical remark: many categories employed and applied by social scientists implies the very existence of the subjects of their analysis instead of asking for this fact. Social scientists tend to take the existence of such entities as nations, states, societies - all of them as entities acting their uniformly and unanimously on their own behalf - analysing such phenomenons as nations as if they could act as single actors, as their respective elites claim or describe. The idea was a productive one fro the social sciences, but as the reaction to the event mentioned above shows it is far from being universally accepted or applied.
The largest and supposedly best quality newspaper in Hungary (Népszabadság) published a small collection of different articles in order to place the decision of the Obama administration in a broader context. It published an interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski, a small report on a survey carried out by the German Marshall Foundation (Transatlantic Trends 2009) and some auxiliary information on the reactions in Poland and in the Czech Republic.
The whole story is covered as if such entity as Poland, Hungary or any country in ECe would exist and act as a single person. The results of the Transatlantic Trend survey are reported as a sign that contrary to the Western part of the continent Obama's accession to the presidency would have caused disappointment and disillusionment. The paper cites someone responsible for the research stating that the new administration is less popular because of its less confrontational approach to Russia. Surprisingly the survey results show that the Bush administration was less popular even in Poland where anti-Russian sentiment is really a mobilization force. And the other results signal not less, but more enthusiasm towards Obama, although not as strong as in Western Europe.
But this is not groupism, this is simple professional incapacity. Groupism as a basic concept of those whose thoughts are conveyed by the articles is revealed by such phrases like Poland or the Czech Republic is disappointed because of the abandonment of the plan, Eastern and Western Europe is worried by the dependence from Russian natural gas and oil etc. Even though these issues are usually confined to a very narrow group of the respective societies and the missile shield was - especially in the Czech republic - an unpopular issue, only supported by the elites, as long as those elites express their views as if they would represent the public opinion it is accepted s such. And the disappointment of some people in the elite is interpreted as widespread disappointment, sometimes contradicting the evidence. But as long as elites are seen as identical to their respective societies, groupism will prevail. And we will hear that Romania, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia etc. did something or felt somehow, however crazy such an assumption is.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

With "recovery" exceptionalism and self-flagellation returns

As one can hear more and more positive forecasts and predictions - and the summer recess ended as well - the media is filled again with "analysis". Economists and analysts, politicians and gurus are once again on the scene and pre-crisis narratives are once again sold, without discount. Although this time at least their opposite is on the imaginary shelves...

The self-flagellation, so popular among Hungary's "intellectuals" is back directly or indirectly as well. If a politician of the respective country's makes a statement on the inevitable fast recovery and even faster future growth of Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria etc. it is immediately bought by the media and distributed, without any comment, contextualization etc. As if the last half a year would have never happened. Nobody seems to be interested in the respective countries beyond a set of basic data, nobody seems to have learned the lessons of debacles. Moreover, a modest, but very visible flow of articles on Slovakia as the country offering the model to follow appeared again, quite in pre-crisis fashion. The past is bright and the future will also be, as they implemented the right economic model. Doubts are not dismissed, they are rather omitted from the picture. One quarter of growth - even though it means quite serious decline on a year-on-year basis and was driven by state spending certainly not sustainable on the long run - was enough for this conclusion. As if nobody would be willing to consider the limitations of dependency on only one industrial sector, the possible impact of the competition for investment on the level of wages, especially with high unemployment depriving the state from predicted incomes, not to speak of the possibility of a second wave of economic decline.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

As summer recedes, public figures resume their work a new waye of stupidity strikes?

Not only I have returned from a long vacation accompanied by a hopefully exceptional silence, but the public figures of Europe and with them the media is filled with a new wave of opinions regarding the crisis, its consequences and effects in the individual countries. As if nothing have happened, and the mood of the economic world wouldn't be impressed by the new leading theme of "recovery" the first appearances were nothing else than sheer stupidity. Moreover, the cacophony and the surprise developments can undermine the very hope for a fast and strong recovery, especially in ECE.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Birth of a dangerous populist

One of the favorite way to conceptualize the present tensions between Slovakia and Hungary is to emphasize the populist politics and the according personality of Robert Fico, the Slovak prime minister. (Ironically, Mr. Fico almost never forget to portray the present Hungarian opposition and quite probable governing party after next spring, and its leader Viktor Orbán as dangerous populist and nationalist.) This line of reasoning has as its starting point the economic problems caused by the crisis and its consequences and as a consequence sees in the nationalist political measures and manoeuvers an attempt to preserve electoral support by way of diverting the public's attention.