Picking up where we last left our trail (parts one and two), the aim of this brief article is to go beyond the facade of another intriguing post-socialist mythical construction – the “good-housekeeper/manager” politician (henceforth GHP for the sake of space). In rapidly transforming economies, with privatization on top of the agenda, company managers (particularly those of large firms inherited from the communist era; but also as we will see self-made entrepreneurs) quickly became rising stars on political arena (see Meeus for the original quote, although referring strictly to Romania it requires no stretch of the imagination to see this process in most CEE countries). In the quicksand that was perceived to be the market economy, successful managers or young entrepeneurs became dear personas for societies struggling with rampant unemployment and shortages. There is however a big difference to be made here: the GHP does not overlap with a powerful businessman who having achieved wealth decides to enter politics, but rather includes middle-level entrepreneurs or managers of falling state-owned firms who are seen not as “amoral capitalists” but as paternalistic patrons. Rather than a fully fledged rhetorical construction, as the intellectual-politician or the technocrat, the GHP is a bottom-to-top quasi-normative label.
Where does the idea come from?
Acknowledging that there are murky and porous boundaries to the concept of GHP, it feels safe to assume that there is, on the other hand, a very specific function of the GHP: smoothening the transition from the overly patternalistic “boss” of the communist era, to the “amoral capitalist” (i.e. perceived as interested solely in personal profit and eager to exploit his employees). For societies with highly mobilized, but very professionally rigid, work-forces, the threat of unemployment at the hands of privatization was extremely pressing. The predictability of communism became replaced with the risks of the free market, and resentment quickly became personified as new owners imposed drastic cut-backs. Although the social tensions were diluted through intricate manipulations of welfare policies (Vanhuysse:2006), the paternalistic element of state-mandated universal employment was gone, hence fear and resentment towards capitalist entrepreneurs took a rather strong grip on transitioning CEE societies. Obviously, I am not arguing that these types of feelings were omni-present of extremely powerful! Rather I attempt to show the creation of a gap in social normative expectations of the new political class, hence the slight exaggeration of the tone.
Hence, rather than a greedy capitalist eager to exploit or sacrifice his workforce for the sake of profit, the GHP-label is conferred to: managers of dying state-managed companies who somehow escape the spectre of bankruptcy (hence keeping meager employment opportunities for probably the most professionally rigid sector of the workforce); or middle-level self-made entrepreneurs who seem content with steady-growth (to be contrasted with the lust for profit of the “amoral capitalist”) and rely on a perceived stability created by relying on a stable and loyal work-force. From a bottom-top perspective, employment stability seems linked almost exclusively with an apparent bond between the employer and the employee, hence the normative overtone – “good manager”.
What does the GHP actually bring to the table?
Rather than a rich “amoral capitalist” looking to expand his influence and power, the GHP is perceived to be looking for a political career in order to “set the economy straight”. Having had some success, the GHP apparently strikes an importance balance between understanding the intricacies of the competitive free-market and “caring” for those on whose work he built said profit. The us-vs.-them post-socialist symptomatic gap with regards to the political class doesn’t seem to apply to the GHP in the eyes of the electorate. There is a normative-paternalistic expectation built-in – namely, that the GHP is not seeking power for the sake of power, but rather wants to expand a model of success that is built without “sacrificing” the electorate (much like a parental figure would never forsake the son/daugther).
There seems to be a re-configuration of political representation channels: rather than the disconnected regular representative, the GHP is expected to have a deeper bond/connection with day-to-day problems of his constituency, whom he should “manage as his homestead/firm”. While the “broader view” of the technocrat or intellectual-politician might have its appeal, the GHP brings to the table a more personalized form of attachment. Rather than an amorphous academic recommendation, the GHP is perceived to have scratched his/her knees to achieve micro-versions of “the greater good”.
All things considered, the GHP seems to be less of a complex rhetorical construction, and more of an attribute one is vested with. This seems to, at least in part, explain its more fluid nature (being much more frequent than the myth of the technocrat or the intellectual-politician) and why it can be retracted if the person in case is “absorbed into the murky waster of politics thus abandoning his principles”. Much of post-socialist politics seems to revolve around gaps and rhetorical construction that fill them. Certainly degrees and nuances vary throughout CEE countries, though a common communist legacy seems to be a feeling of disconnectivity from politics. If one sticks to the Hirschmanian tunnel and traffic-jam metaphor for transitions, then it is obvious that the GHP is seen as a solution to smoothen the socio-economic convulsions of transition economies.
Picture Source: Allbussiness