The Cultural Politics of Globalization and Community in East Central Europe
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It is difficult if not increasingly impossible to conduct research on community without attending to the meanings and representations associated with the exercise of power and influence in shaping internal hierarchies and external conditions. Globalization, however, is often addressed without considering such cultural politics. Failure to consider the significance not only of national belonging, class identity, religious commitment, or gender relations but also of technical assistance, military alliances, and investment strategies can mislead those who seek to understand and affect the course of social change. That, at least, was the premise of our National Science Foundation-sponsored workshop in Budapest, where 25 social scientists from East Central Europe, Canada, England, and the U.S. met to discuss the cultural politics of globalization and community in East Central Europe (for the program and paper abstracts, visit <http://www.umich.edu/~iinet/crees/research/NSF_ECE_Cultural_Politics.html>).
East Central Europe is certainly not a unique case to study the relationship between globalization and the cultural politics of community, but it offers specific avenues for its research. Shifting borders and their declining significance within the European Union can generate new identifications, such as east and west Germans uniting around a north/south polarity, or create new lines of cleavage, such as ethnic Hungarians divided by passports issued from states within or outside the EU. The declining significance of the nation-state has also reinforced the importance of regions as units of identification, such that Silesians, a borderland group distinctive from Poles and Czechs, have undergone a cultural renaissance.
Communities in East Central Europe face growing risks in the face of globalization, which leads to the invocation of a variety of identities—most notably regional and national ones, but also transnational ones in search of geo-political and military alliances that can guarantee security. They also have new opportunities, most notably in terms of employment prospects abroad. These in turn create new avenues for cultural politics in and out of the region, preying on Western European anxieties over a labor-market invaded by cheap Eastern European labor—think of France's recent scare from the "Polish plumber" and the clever Polish response to this (New York Times, 26 June, 2005)—or those of East Central European governments, fearing brain-drain. Granted, this is not unique to the region, but the dynamics at work are especially interesting since East Central Europeans have "joined Europe." But what is this Europe?
We might look within any European country and consider the multicultural contests to recognize what makes people European, but we should also look across the new European Union and its borderlands to learn what "being European" means on a continental scale, in terms of the definition of sexuality, religiosity, fiscal responsibility, public welfare, and the war against terrorism. It is clear that the meanings of Europe are increasingly contested. Might the European Union's newest members model the very solidarity that preserves hope for the political association, as their late June proposed compromise on the Union budget promised? Being European may mean accepting Brussels' regulations, but the substance of that identification is itself in the process of transformation.
The cultural associations of globalization and community are thus not fluff on top of real investment decisions and tough military choices. To the extent that publics do exert influence over the course of global transformations—as the French and Dutch recently reminded us in exercising their prerogative to reject the constitution of the European Union—the meaning of change becomes central to the definition of what is possible, and what is likely.
It is tempting to return to older models explicating the relationship between culture and change, finding hope to reside in greater awareness of the real conditions facing those at risk alongside the mobilization of capacities to change it. But just as western claims to universalism creak before brutal contrasts between promise and deliverables, so too do the visions of alternatives reek of naïveté before cosmopolitans who claim to know better. Cultural politics can produce cynicism under such conditions, but it can also yield an ever-greater fixation on single points that by themselves assure goodness, but in combination can unravel.
Our workshop addressed most of what we describe above, and we can only telegraph here some of what was offered there. Consider this an invitation to move beyond the old cultural politics of solidarity and round tables, of socialism's promises and tragedies, and to discover anew the innovation and vision of East Central Europe past, present and future.
Michael D. Kennedy is professor of sociology and director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies and Center for European Studies/European Union Center at U-M. Geneviève Zubrzycki is assistant professor of sociology at U-M.