Cultural defeatism in Central Europe

There is a regrettable tendency in the Visegrad countries to sweep aside calls for change with the objection that progressive policies and models are somehow culturally alien to and unviable in the region. This article aims to refute this trend and expose it as cultural defeatism.

Foto: Creative Commonos/ Matthew Gonzales


Many in the Eastern member states of the EU have recently come to face the fact that, in spite of jingoistic rhetoric from politicians and eurocrats, the region is not converging with the West, but instead sliding back into a pattern of weak democracy, corruption and increased outward migration. Very often, cultural explanations are provided for these problems. Proposals for a shift to a superior socioeconomic alternative, such as the Nordic model or the Far Eastern Development state, are also pushed aside based on the assertion that they are somehow culturally incompatible with CEE societies.

Underdevelopment versus cultural fatalism

Shallow cultural stereotypes have replaced economic analysis. It is usually the middle classes that engage in ethnic self-deprecation, the psychological basis of which is to distance themselves from the rest of a society which they have come to believe is culturally hopeless. ‘We Greeks/Hungarians/Zulus are so corrupt/lazy/Asian!’ Which is of course to be understood as: ‘The rest of them are that way, but as for me, I am different. I deserve better.’ This is the representative pose of the ‘enlightened’ Westerniser/moderniser, a figure highly prevalent in resource-poor societies as diverse as Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe. The former colonial masters – the rich white men, the Westerners – are so much better. Our domestic poor are culturally behind, and will always be, not because they are constrained by their objective circumstances and have not been given the chance for a good education, but because they are… well, they are like that. This phenomenon replaces the culture of underdevelopment with cultural fatalism.

Within the fields of economics and sociology, there has been a comeback of the long-neglected importance of culture on economic policy. Books are published and conferences held on this topic, and Nobel Prizes have even been awarded to exponents of this issue. One of the relevant outcomes of this line of research is that, as far as the cultural basis for socioeconomic policy is concerned, there is no such thing as a homogeneous national culture. (An everyday culture, that is, as opposed to a high culture.) The argument is often made that economic models cannot be transferred from one culture to the other because cultures have long-term, resilient features that prevent the adaptation of a model. The theory of cultural path dependency has held strong, even though it is easy to see why this pessimistic view is mistaken. Sociologists have for decades now carried out World Value Surveys, asking the same set of questions related to values and attitudes in dozens of countries across the globe. Several conclusions have been drawn, but most importantly it has been revealed that treating entire nations as if they were homogeneous value communities is more damaging than helpful[1]. As modernisation, globalisation, postmodernisation, neoliberalisation, Americanisation and numerous other processes reach societies, groups in society develop different responses in terms of their value orientations, interests and habitus. Thus nations are comprised of a large number of competing value communities at any point in time. After all, democratic elections are precisely about debating the potential policy solutions that arise from these different axiomatic groups. Even the legislation of the majority view is not the end of the story. The interests of minority communities must also be protected. The basic social assumptions of these cultural groups are determined by their age, social position, class, religion, ethnicity, human geographical heritage, family history, exposure to globalisation and a large number of other factors. It has proved possible to use statistical modelling to analyse the strength of these groups in different societies.

Ethnicisation of class conflicts and issues of democracy

Not all groups, however, have the same access to interest representation in politics and media. To bring an example from outside of the region, a narrative such as ‘cheating Greeks’ is a harmful ethnicisation of a problem that is essentially of a democratic deficit type in nature. As Antonio Gramsci famously pointed out[2], the upper strata of society tend to represent their own vested interests as the interest of the entire national community, in the process forming a hegemonic discourse. In the age of mass media this is far easier done than before, as has been demonstrated by Noam Chomsky[3]. Democratic politics can be very untransparent. The Greek political elite managed to hide from voters for almost a decade the fact that they had signed misguided debt swap deals with Goldman Sachs that eventually led to a massive budgetary loss and triggered the crisis. Greek voters participated in several elections without knowledge of these wrongdoings, and once they did learn, they punished the complicit parties. To blame all Greeks for manipulating economic data is on the one hand harmful ethnicisation, and on the other hand prevents us from having a debate on the functioning of our democracies.

This leads to still a further complication. However many cultural clusters there might be in a given society, far too often governments do not respond to the wishes of any of them, but to the particular interests of the few. Naturally, during election campaigns, political parties pledge to act in the interest of voting blocs, although there is less pressure to do so if they are able to demonise their opponents rather than expounding on pragmatic policies. An oligopolistic and often bipolar party system is very conducive to this phenomenon. Both sides share an interest in mutual demonisation, as it liberates them from the burden of making specific policy pledges that they can later be held accountable for in office. This escape from policy-oriented politics through mutual demonisation allows them to be influenced by special interests that deter government policy away from the common good, or even the interests of the specific value communities that they are meant to represent. This phenomenon is called state capture, and was most clearly visible in the case of Russia, where a group of a few dozen oligarchs famously managed to hijack the privatisation process of the largest country on earth[4]. It is also visible in the United States, where the actual social distribution of wealth is not only light years away from the social consensus of what it should look like, but also light years worse than the most pessimistic consensus about what it actually looks like. Quite simply, these societies are not getting the governments and policies they deserve or vote for.

Unsuccessful nations get negative cultural tags

Successful nations are associated with successful cultural traits, and unsuccessful ones with unsuccessful traits. The Korean Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang reminds us that nowadays the Japanese are associated with values such as diligence, thrift, dynamism, adaptability, openness and creativity. This is because Japanese firms have achieved global success in recent decades, and the country has achieved first-world status. According to Chang, however, after World War Two, visitors to Japan talked disparagingly about its inhabitants[5] in much the same terms that are used to describe the unfortunate Greeks today: lazy, corrupt, closed, stubborn and so on. The poor Japanese were by no means likely candidates for Asian Tiger status. Quite simply, when a society is successful, it is much more tempting to ascribe this to its values. The same is true of failure. It is amazing how resilient the idea of cultural determinism is, even amongst liberals who otherwise insist on deconstructing the idea of ‘inferior cultures’ when the conversation is outside the economic domain. They contest (rightly) the notion of ‘Gypsy crime’, yet they see no problem in referring to ‘Swedish reliability’…

Even more amazing is the fact that if the adherents of cultural determinism really pursued their logic and consulted the most well-known of cultural maps, that of Inglehart and Welzel[6], they would be surprised. When cultural determinism meets empirical results, huge question marks arise. Visegrad countries are found to be all over the map, and quite far from each other, yet they are closer than any other country to economies that are usually deemed to be successful, such as Germany, China, South Korea and Taiwan.

If outside models really cannot be implemented in a cultural environment that does not have a similar tradition, the Soviet Bloc would not have had 1989, and later it would not have entered the EU. Or shall we say that a multiparty system, human rights, constitutionality and the acquis communautaire can indeed be introduced into an alien context, but a fair educational system, tripartite interest representation and a minimum wage – the key elements of the northwestern European social model – cannot? These arguments constitute cultural defeatism: ‘We are bad, and therefore we do not deserve to become better. Change is voluntary.’

Culture is a war of memes

It helps to keep in mind that poorer people might have different views than the educated middle classes and be trapped in clientelistic networks because they are part of the constrained Lebenswelt of a poor, uneducated segment of a less-developed country. Cultural norms are clearly an evolutive ecosystem of memes, shaped by the educational system, media, think tanks, social science research and public debates. If one believes that one’s compatriots are somehow ‘behind’ in thinking, the challenge is to engage them and invest in their human capital. With underfinanced and inefficient educational systems, fragile think tanks, frail media and social science output and fractured public debates, the Visegrad region cannot say with confidence that it has given this a try.

Finally, the most interesting fact as far as cultural preferences are concerned: the Hungarian social research institute Tárki carried out a representative study in 1996 about the redistributive preferences of Hungarian voters. What did they find? Respondents overwhelmingly wanted to preserve welfare institutions…


[1] See above all Haller, Max (2002) ‘Theory and Method in the Comparative Study of Values: Critique and Alternative to Inglehart’, European Sociological Review, 18(2), pp. 139-158.; Inglehart, Ronald (1997) Modernization and Postmodernization. Cultural, Economic and Political Change in 43 Societies, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.; Majima, Shinolu and Savage, Mike (2007) ‘Have There Been Culture Shifts in Britain?: A Critical Encounter with Ronald Inglehart’, Cultural Sociology, 1(3), pp. 293-315.; Norris, Pippa and Inglehart, Ronald (2004) Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide, Cambridge, UK-New York, Cambridge University Press

[2] Gramsci, Antonio (author), and Joseph A. (ed.) Buttigieg. Prison Notebooks. New York City: Columbia University Press, 1992.

[3] Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002.

[4] See David Hoffman’s The Oligarchs for the Yeltsin era, and Yuri Felshtinsky’s The Putin Corporation for the Putin period in the case of Russia.

[5] See Chapter 11. In Chang, Ha-Joon. 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. London: Allen Lane (Penguin), 2010.

[6] Inglehart, Ronald and Christian Weltzel. Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.63. Map  also available online at www.worldvaluesurvey.org .

Zoltán Pogátsa

Zoltán Pogátsa

is an international political economist. His home institution is the Faculty of Economics at the University of Western Hungary.