Why is the intellectual so special in post-socialist Eastern Europe?
This wide question beckons a historical overview. Setting asside the normative overtones of the East-West backwardness discussions, it is well documented that literacy rates in CEE countries were substantially raised only after the communist take-over. The massification of education did create opportunities for upward mobility, within the limits of a socialist system. On the other side of the spectrum, the rhetorical intellectual East-West race meant a lowered prestige for vocational education, and created a bubble around the idea of the intellectual. The construction however is more intricate due to underlying evolutions: having weak popular basins, communist parties which were elevated to power by the Red Army (with some exceptions of course) upon destroying the former intelligentsia and political elite needed new personnel from “healthy stock”. Naturally this meant a rather large number of individuals not with intellectual backgrounds, but with high political maneuverability. The emphasis on education during communism is thus a more complex construction based on need as well as propaganda (Lucian Boia has a beautiful example if the engineer as the perfect communist myth of the intellectual – a person who deals both with theory and practice..
Naturally, as time passed the number of high education degrees rose. However, with increased accessability of education came the rhetorical separation between those with university diplomma and those without. On the other hand, the passage of time also brought cracks in the communist promises of increased well-being: as the economy dropped, so did the incomes and possibilities. Notwithstanding, the unreformed education systems continued to mass-produce professionally rigid intellectuals whose mobility possibilies were now virtually inexistent.
Changes in transition
The annus mirabilis of 1989 and the dream of a market economy with its free competition was expected to bring the meritocracy that communism failed to enact. De facto a free market meant risks to match opportunities, and an amorphous yet very large social group dubbed “loosers of transition”. In the rubbles of the former Communist Parties, a reopened political arena needed to be populated. However, the large mass of inherited personnel was complemented only in a small degree by former opposition members with a democratizing agenda, and to a much wider degree by entrepreneurs looking to expand their influence and profit or new waves of opportunists. Obviously I am aware that this Machiavellian depiction I am offering borrows from popular discourse and hence is laced with exaggerated tones, yet for the purpose of better understanding the high success of myths such as the technocrat and the I-P understanding this overly negativistic popular perception is needed.
It is in this context, towards the late 90s when transitions were already starting to show their more complicated facets, that the I-P takes the podium. The re-opening of education and access to Western institutions meant a refound prestige for high education, and a thirst for over-qualification (seen as pre-emptive strike to market uncertainties, in the long-term this would generate a flood of degrees). Rather than an opportunist politician or an entrepreneur, the I-P was believed to “understand politics on a deeper level” and live for politics more than off it. This distorted ivory tower myth was supposed to counter-balance the rational-choice quasi-Machiavellian approach demanded by the market.
From a popular perspective, the I-P was supposed to share the technocrat’s “larger view”, but since his main source of income was politics, it was expected that the I-P would bring a professionalization of politics in favor of the demos. The perceived ethical code of academia was expected to permeate into politics via the I-P. Rather than ad personam attacks, whatever critiques the I-P blurred out were perceived as value judgements. Rather than the every-day petty squabbles of politics, the I-P appeared to be concerned with the “larger” societal problems. The media greatly contributed to the construction of this image as almost all political talk-shows started to revolve around the presence of the I-P.
The shock did not come switfly, but it was profound: depending almost entirely on politics for a career and income, most I-Ps became quickly got entangled in the political schemes necessary for incumbency. Beyond the ivory-tower aura lay the very rational-choice calculations of individuals looking to advance their own careers and well-beings, an image which greatly disillusioned the electorate. Obviously these concluding remarks share the aforementioned tones of exaggeration. It is beyond a shadow of a doubt that there have been I-Ps outside this pattern. However, the central conclusion to be drawn here is about a perceived void: between the electors and their representatives in post-socialism. It is this void that was filled with myths of technocrats, I-Ps, “good-housekeeper/manager” politician, “saviours of the nation” and others. This feeling of “transformation of individuals who are elevated into power-positions” seems a common denominator of post-socialism, explaining in part low levels of political participation and protracted construction of vibrant civil-socities. Certainly, CEE countries greatly differ in the nature of their political myths, yet it does seem that a de-mystification process is needed to advance democratization.
Image source: Project Syndicate