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Society, Politics & Law

Moving out the red: The experience of leaving Communism behind

Updated Wednesday 19th March 2014

Chris Swader talks about the experiences of moving from a communist to a capitalist society - and why learning to tell untruths was just one of the new skills needed to survive.

Laurie Taylor: The Federation Skyscrapers in Moscow Creative commons image Icon Paul K under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license As Moscow starts to look like a capitalist heartland, can the people keep up? I suppose the fallibility of eternal plans is rather well demonstrated or best demonstrated in recent times by the demolition of those Communist regimes which were once seen as the necessary prelude to the end of history, the internal plan, as envisaged by Karl Marx.

But although a number of studies have attempted to chronicle the transition from Communism to post-Communism in such countries as Russia, China and East Germany, it's been difficult to find accounts of the manner in which the people caught up in such events, psychically manage the transition. And that deficiency has been admirably remedied in a new book called The Capitalist Personality: Face to Face Sociality and Economic Change in the Post-Communist World. And its author, Christopher Swader, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, now joins me on the line from that city.

Chris, I mean there's been quite a bit of research into the ways in which Communist societies have been transformed into Capitalist economies but in a way your study, as far as I know, is pretty unique and just perhaps you'd tell me in what ways it's unique, spell them out for me?

Chris Swader:
Sure, I think it's unique in that most of the studies that have been done in post-socialist transformation have focused exactly as you mentioned first of all in economic change and secondly on political change in terms of how these structures can be adapted. But there have been very few studies that have actually looked at what is the fate of interpersonal relationships, such as families and friendships and particular people's valuations of these within post-social societies. So what I did I decided to look in the places that theoretically would be most affected. So I looked at the most affected gender which was men, because there's research which shows that men are much likely to be materialistic, less compassionate, more competitive. I looked in the cities that should be most developed – Shanghai, Leipzig and Moscow – because they're the most economically advanced in those societies. And then I also looked in the occupations in the social statuses where I thought we would see the values that should represent Capitalism, in the sense I looked at the new – the new rich businessmen. And then I wanted to contrast them with their own fathers and in so sort of reveal what are the – what is the value set which is prevalent within these people in order to successfully adapt to Capitalism.

Laurie Taylor:
So I mean one of the ways you're getting at this is to look at inter-generational difference between fathers and sons, I mean fathers who, as it were, lived and worked under Communist regimes and sons who are now living under post-Communism?

Chris Swader:
Yes exactly and the ideas that those sons who have adapted must possess the values that might be the most relevant for Capitalism and then contrast them exactly with their fathers.

Laurie Taylor:
Now let's talk about the sort of personalities which appear – I mean you're talking about the types of personalities which best fit particular kinds of societies. I mean what sort of – I mean what sort of personality types are you talking about as being fitted, if you like, to post-Communist societies?

Chris Swader:
Well what I did I compared the three most different societies, I chose Russia, China and Eastern Germany with the idea that they're so different in every way I wanted to find what is the commonality. And so I found one common post-Communist personality which I call then the Capitalist personality which is prevalent in all three of these and the characteristics that it has is heightened individual ambition, individualism, the value of independence, materialism – both in the sense of – not only in the sense of providing for oneself but also in terms of trying to accumulate wealth. And the point is these things also have negative repercussions for how people are dealing with their families and with their friendships.

Laurie Taylor:
Yes because I mean sociality appears in the title of your book, I mean you're talking about these new post-Communist people who fit into a post-Communist regime having less to do with their families, visiting their families less frequently, thinking about them less frequently.

Chris Swader:
Yes exactly and there's – but there's a tension involved in that as well, it's not that they objectively don't care about families anymore, what you find is that the people who are working more and more and striving to build careers tend to be very then conflicted in relevance to family, so family becomes sort of also pushed on the side as the way that they resolve those conflicts as well. And so what you find is that you – the people who are most family oriented are the most conflicted but the people who are the most work oriented and materialistic are the least conflicted and it suggests in a pattern the resolution of this distance and the direction, so that families become more latent – the evaluation of family more latent.

Laurie Taylor:
Yeah I mean because one of the things that you point out – I mean that word is very important isn't it because what you're talking about is in post-Communist societies all of a sudden work is extending, the hours are extending, people are working weekends, people are working longer hours and so on, compared to the way in which they did previously.

Chris Swader:
Right, they're working – they're working more hours and they also see work very differently in relation to family. In the interviews with the fathers it's always – there's always a focus on work for the family, work and family in harmony with one another but for the sons it becomes work then family. So even though they have families and they have children they end up postponing the enjoyment of family and active participation in family until they're retirement phase.

Laurie Taylor:
Let's have a couple of readings taken from your interviews. The first is from a Moscow interview, your respondent here is talking about how values change when Communism disintegrated:

Everything around collapsed, the whole old system . . . it was very hard to talk about this. In the newspapers it was widely discussed that the majority of young people believed that there is no point in studying if you have a street-stall near by the Kursk train station for selling Coca-Cola and beer. This would mean that you have achieved everything! Or for example in case you had a 10-year old BMW, leather jacket, and golden chain, this meant that you have reached the top. Everything was measured with material values.

And here's a reading now, this is from one of your Leipzig – one of your East German interviews, your respondent's talking about the conflicts in his current life:

You feel kind of like in a running wheel. You constantly move but never really reach the finish line because then you are doing neither one nor the other right. Then you are not really at home, and if you are, you are somewhere else in your thoughts, and the other way around.

Now these people, Chris, I mean they're talking about conflicts in their life, I mean you want to use the phrase cognitive dissonance, I mean spell that out a bit more for me – what do you mean by cognitive dissonance?

Chris Swader:
Sure, the ideas that when there are two ideas that are conflict with one another within an individual's mind. For example, between family and work – the idea that you can't possibly – if you're working outside of the home then naturally time spent at work is not spent with the family. So this is one – one place where this dissonance arises, it's because of limited time. But the other one is less focused upon or sort of less realised and that's that there are different modes of valuation within our relationships compared to when we work. For example when we work we tend to value things instrumentally as a means to an end whereas with our families and with our close friendships we value them intrinsically and to a degree emotionally. And people recognise also a conflict between these modes of valuation and intrinsic evaluation versus an instrumental rational one and it's hard to switch back and forth between them.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean you talk about your interviews – the ways in which they jettison some sort of personal morality, if you like, in order to get on under the new post-Communist conditions but I suppose – I mean isn't this a little bit sort of one sided, I mean if you talk about personal morality what does personal morality mean under an actual Communist regime, in many cases personal morality was suspended if you needed to betray a relative who wasn't conforming to Communist ideals?

Chris Swader:
No absolutely and that's why – that's why it's interesting that nonetheless, even keeping in mind these regimes and how they've – how they infiltrated people's daily lives in the ways that people had to sort of work sometimes violating morality and to get around the system, even nonetheless people perceived that there was a notable demoralisation in comparison to that. And there were two examples at least that came up in the interviews. First of all businessmen, particularly sales people, noted that they had to give up on the ideal of honesty in order to make a sale because you can't be openly honest with a person about your product, for example, maybe the competitor's product is actually better. And the other example that was given was in terms of exploitation of employees – they realised that they had employees – to pay employees less than they were worth and make them work longer hours and be hard on them in order to increase productivity. And this also gave them a sort of – a feeling of moral tension.

Laurie Taylor:
And there we must stop. Thank you very much Chris Swader for talking to me about your new book, thank you.

 

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