Nikolai Genov
Full Professor of Sociology and Head of Department of Global and Regional Development.

Social development under precerious conditions: The chalenge of individualization


Even at first glance, the post-socialist realities in Eastern Europe recognizes the fact that fast and far reaching individualization typically comes about at the expense of the common good. The most impressive example is the looting of state property, which has been accumulated after the Second World War. Undoubtedly, the state did not effectively manage the productive assets of the increasingly differentiated industrialized societies. This is why the introduction of market mechanisms and de-nationalization becomes unavoidable. The real problem is the manner in which state property has been transferred into private hands. Often, it came about after a rather modest or without any compensation to the societal community since the state institutions were substantially weakened and were not able to control the process. The mechanisms of transfer are various and quite effective as a rule. They start with the legalized low rate selling of state property to managerial teams and reach the abundant cases of its criminal plundering. Indeed, the high tide of crime is the most dramatic pathology of individualization, which has manifested itself in the course of the transformation.

The major factor determining the peculiarities of individualization all over Eastern Europe after 1989 was the institutional instability marking the transformation process. Thus, the most fundamental problem of present day 'transitional' societies is the high intensity of objective risks and the institutional incapability to manage them effectively. The resulting erosion of trust in public institutions is an important influencing factor. Public opinion reacts adequately to the paralysis of institutions, which has been widely experienced during the first half of the nineties.

The typical individual reaction takes the forms of what can be defined as anomic behavior having numerous causes and reasons. Some of them, like the worldwide economic recession at the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, are as objective as natural events. Others, however, are due to avoidable human errors or to ill-intended cases of advice and decisions. The sudden liberalization of domestic prices and of international trade in Poland, Bulgaria and Russia were typically guided by the hope that the "big bang" would immediately rearrange economic relations. Thus, it was expected to unleash individual initiative and responsibility. Little thought was given to the practically non-existent market-oriented banking system and stock exchange, insurance and pension schemes, and provisions for unemployment. On the other hand, the restructuring of industry in terms of technological and market priorities and environmental considerations were permanently postponed.

In the field of agriculture, the destructive impacts of the unrestricted importation of subsidized products from the European Union and the low-productivity of Eastern European agriculture have not become the subject of careful deliberations in advance. The administrative dissolution of agricultural co-operatives and state farms has evolved into illegal private expropriation and devastation of assets. The expectations for a fast re-vitalization of private agriculture - besides the specific Polish case, where it was well developed during the previous decades - was unrealistic from the very beginning. There were unavoidable legal problems concerning land ownership. The available technology and agricultural infrastructure were intended to serve large-scale production - not tiny plots. The lack of credits and the influence of a number of other organizational and cultural factors made the agricultural reforms complicated and painful all over the region. So, both industry and agriculture became sources of unemployment.

The political reforms were usually carried out in the context of intensive confrontation, lacking consensus on strategic domestic and international issues. With few exceptions, Hungary being the most salient, there were striking discontinuities in the policies of the rapidly changing governments in the region. Dysfunctional relations between state institutions became an everyday normality. Demoralized by voluntaristic re-organizations, lacking control and low incomes, state officials at all levels lost incentives for administrative performance. Corruption became the unavoidable outcome. The economic polarization grew fast in conditions of institutional instability and declination of the gross domestic product. Because of the rapid impoverishment of large groups and the weakening of state institutions, crime became omnipresent and a genuine threat to everybody.

The institutional instability and the value-normative uncertainty have and will have a  long-term impact on the economic situation of large strata in Eastern Europe. The unfavorable institutional arrangement will continue to determine the ability  of millions to adequately react to the new openings o f individualization.  This should not mean that there have been no positive developments already in the region as various proportions of respondents insist upon in public opinion polls. A   number of new openings are also typically mentioned, especially in Central Europe. Among them, the availability of goods and the freedom of speech, organization or travel usually takes the lead. However, public mind is also well aware of the threats of unemployment, impoverishment and crime. It is common knowledge, that for  the recently impoverished groups, the changes result in restricting the space for individual development and realization as compared to the situation during the eighties. In terms of international travels, the previous  domestic political restrictions gave way to financial and international administrative restrictions, which are no less effective  . The Schengen arrangements symbolise the change of the type of limitations on free movement of people as a barrier  facing individualization in most countries in the region. Some of these controversial developments are well-reflected in surveys from Poland (Shops full of goods, 1999):

Figure 1.
Important changes for the better in Poland during the last decade (in %)

Important changes for the worse in Poland during the last decade (in %)

Some of the openings and closures facing individuals in Eastern Europe concern international relations. For instance, this  applies to the international labour migration and  t o the various regimes for issuing visas.  Domestic developments and issues determine others.   To start with the last type of openings and closures facing individualization, one has to remember the debates from the early nineties. At that time, a promise was to be heard everywhere:  The countries from the region were  expected to move from a situation, in which everybody was equally poor, to a situation, in which everybody would be well-to-do, although not to the  equal extent. At the end of the decade  , the vast majority of the population had a lower standard of living than before.   This might be clearly seen from the share of expenditures on food in all cases. The very high proportion of the expenditures on food is a clear indication of the level of impoverishment, which had swept the region during the nineties -some exceptions notwithstanding (Human Development Report for CEE, 1999: 21):

Table 1.

Expenditure on food as per cent of total consumption
Expenditure in the Eastern European countries  
Country 1990 1993 1997
Belarus 27 42 51
Bulgaria   38   43 54  
Estonia   n.a. n.a. 39  
Macedonia, FYR of   n.a. 46 45*  
Hungary   n.a. 34 33 *
Latvia n.a. n.a. 48
Lithuania n.a. 62 52
Moldova n.a.   n.a.   68
Poland 48 38 33*  
Romania n.a. n.a.   58*  
Russian Federation 29   40 39*  
Slovakia 28   29 32  
Slovenia   25 23 23*
Ukraine   n.a. n.a. 57
Yugoslavia 36 54 47*

The social effects of this trend have been accurately recorded by public opinion polls. Studies reveal a scale of assessments of the financial condition of households which are characteristic of countries with mass poverty, serious economic problems and with significant income differentials. Moreover, a view of the recent economic constraints facing individuals and households, the typical assessment of life in the nineties and in the late eighties is not in favor of the present day situation. The critical view is especially strong in villages and smaller towns.

The problem has a clear practical relevance in the context of fast economical differentiation. It is more and more relevant to ask about the extent, in which the process leads the nations from the region to stray from the egalitarian pattern of the famous ‘Swedish’ model towards Latin American patterns of a sharp polarization of incomes and wealth. The general question becomes immediately relevant to everyday life if put in the context of unemployment as a major issue confronting individualization in Eastern Europe. As a result of the depressive economic development, the proportion of the employed population substantially declined all over the region. A large group of unemployed persons appeared and will remain in the foreseeable future there. The data on some successor states of the former Soviet Union are confusing since they do not cover the high percentage of hidden unemployment (Economic Survey of Europe, 1999: 69):

Table 2.
Registered unemployment in Eastern Europe, end of 1998

Country %
Albania 17.6
Belarus  2.3
Bulgaria 12.2
Croatia 18.6
Czech Republic 7.5
Estonia 5.1
Hungary 9.1
Latvia 9.2
Lithuania 6.9
Country  %
Macedonia 41.9*
Moldova  1.9
Poland 10.4
Romania  10.3
Russian Federation  13.3
Slovakia  15.6
Slovenia  14.6
Ukraine   4.3
Yugoslavia  27.2

* September, 1997

Another important aspect of the same problem is the fast increase and stabilization of long-term unemployment in Eastern Europe. It has reached levels, which are above or close to the level of long-term unemployment in countries from Western Europe where it is high and stagnant (World Development Indicators, 1998: 26):

Figure 2.
Long-ram unemployed as % of the total unemployed, 1992-1996

Although recent developments are not necessarily encouraging, the level of unemployment between 3 and 5 percent in the first half of the nineties gives reason to speak about the Czech miracle in employment policy. Given the rapid increase of unemployment in other Eastern European societies after 1989, the question arises: How did it become possible to avoid the unemployment shock exactly in the Czech Republic? The answer cannot be but complex. One may start with the fact that Prague is geographically located further west than Vienna. This location is favorable in terms of time and space differentials in the division of labor and trade with the countries from the European Union when it became a priority for all Eastern European states. The technological and organizational traditions of the well-educated and trained Czech labor force also contributed to the success of the active employment policies carried out in the country (Illner, 1998: 153). Geostrategic considerations of foreign investors certainly contributed to the success as well. The coming years will show if the perception of unemployment, as a low intensity risk to Czech society, can be sustained since some crucial steps in restructuring of the country’s economy are still under way. Nevertheless, so far the public perception of unemployment in the Czech Republic, on the one side, and in Poland or Bulgaria, on the other side, is substantially different.  

The issue takes new dimensions when considered in the context of a cross-national comparison on samples of long-term unemployed in Pernik (Bulgaria, near Sofia), Lodz (Poland, near Warsaw) and Tver (Russia, near Moscow)1. When asked about the responsibility for their unemployment in December 1998 - January 1999, the representatives of the three nations gave rather different answers, which imply diverging views about the relations between individual and society (Genov, 1999: 12f.): 

Table 3.
Is unemployment mainly a failure of the unemployed person, or of society?

(Long-term unemployed in Bulgaria, Poland and Russia, in %)

    Pernik  Lodz  Tver
Mainly a failure of the person 1 2.9 4.9 2.3
  2 4.9 5.9 3.0
  3 23.9 40.7 19.7
  4  26.8 20.7 20.3
Mainly a failure of society 5 41.5 27.2 54.0

The data shows a substantial dispersion of the individualization and socialization of the responsibility for unemployment. The unemployed in Lodz lay the blame on the shared failure of individual and society. The unemployed in Tver lay the blame on society first and foremost. The unemployed in Pernik are not that categorical concerning the guilt of society as their Russian counterparts but closer to their position than to the more moderate views of the Polish unemployed.

These basic attitudes offer a good starting point for understanding the personal activities for coping with the precarious situation of unemployment in Pernik, Lodz and Tver. The already stabilized Polish economy can supply resources needed for active measures against unemployment. Among these measures, vocational training and re-training are the most popular and most effective. It is obvious from the answers that there is already a functioning system of training courses for the unemployed in Poland:

Table 4.
Activities of long-term unemployment during the last 12 months

(”Yes” answers, in %)

  Pernik  Lodz  Tver
Attended training courses 4.2 34.1 5.7
Established a private firm  0.7 5.2 8.0
Searched for a jobs abroad 5.6 2.6 8.0

One plausible explanation for the unfavorable situation concerning training and retraining of unemployed persons in Pernik and in Tver is that the local labor offices have no financial resources to organize the courses. The problem is more complex since there are no realistic prospects for alternative employment in both municipalities at the present moment. So, to train for what type of job? Considering the intensive desires and high expectations of long-term unemployment, there are serious reasons to expect tension. More specifically, the desire to search for a job abroad will bring about tensions with neighboring countries even in the event that only a fragment of the unemployed would undertake practical steps to make their desires come true. The legal channels for achieving transboundary labor mobility are quite limited at present. Thus, one may expect pressure from the legal system caused by efforts to establish and maintain illegal channels for transboundary labor migration.

Against this background of wishes and desires, which cannot be materialized because of legal, organizational and financial constraints, the accumulation of protest potential is unavoidable:

Table 5.
Would you participate in protests and demonstrations? (in %)

  Pernik  Lodz  Tver
No 37.3 43.9 55.3
Probably no 8.5 23.3 19.7
Probably yes 18.0 10.8 11.7
Yes 31.7 14.8 7.3
Not sure  4.6 7.2 6.0

The apathy of people unemployed in Russia is a striking outcome of the comparison. Given their precarious material situation, the only explanation might be the feeling of hopelessness. Both apathy and hopelessness are potentially destructive in personal as well as in social terms. The situation in Poland, in terms of unemployment is different. They might already rely on functioning social institutions, which are able to support them. The shock of the unemployment and the concomitant impoverishment is obviously the strongest in Pernik. It happened to be a prosperous region relying on metallurgy, machine building and coal mining. This structure of the local economy predetermines prospects for deep depression. Given the financially week state institutions and the lack of alternative employment opportunities, one may expect lasting social tensions in the region due to long-term unemployment.

Thushigh and long-term unemployment influences national economy and politics negatively to the extent that it becomes a destructive factor of path dependency. Moreover, high and stable unemployment negatively influence the quality of decisions in all walks of social life as well. That is why the effective handling of unemployment is the major field for overcoming negative path dependency and for implementing high quality decisions in societies in transformation. In fact, the quality of dealing with unemployment in Eastern Europe has become the key social issue for large strata and will remain so with all economic, political and cultural consequences for individuals and the countries, for the region and for Europe.

The major problem concerns the rather limited space for personal decisions under the conditions of economic recession. Undoubtedly, there is an increase of activity under the pressure of difficult circumstances. The patterns of personal strategies for economic initiative are already well established. The reliance on wage labor predominates in its various forms - be it as a first or second job. The opening of opportunities for private enterpreneurship has found its followers as well. It is difficult to judge the real activity of the millions of newly established private firms since statistical data suggests that most of them do not perform any economic activity. Property transactions make out a rather limited area of instrumental activity. In the course of the transformation, a shift of instrumental preferences for solving personal problems is most probably going to occur in this direction. The intensity of process depends on a number of domestic and international opportunities and constraints, for instance on the development of a real market of housing together with the expected intensive mobility of the labor force.

Against the background of the grave problems facing Eastern Europeans in day-to-day life, the lowering of aspirations in their personal strategies is of extreme importance for the diagnosis of the current situation. On the one hand, concerning the personal strategies there is the simple desire for survival. On the other hand, there is the desire to achieve substantial results in terms of money, power and prestige. In the context of crisis mass, ambitions are minimized. Almost every other citizen over the age of eighteen in Bulgaria relies on a survival strategy. This applies less to the big towns where the population has a significantly higher level of education in comparison with the average level of education for the rest of the country. Age structure also influences life strategies. They show negative trends in rural areas because of the predominantly aging population there. An important factor determining the differences is also the availability of more opportunities for personal initiative and realization in the large cities and especially in the capital. These differences notwithstanding, the overall picture reveals substantial constraints on aspirations as a reflection of the limited real opportunities for choice and self-realization. This is obvious if one takes into account the long-term destructive consequences of personal disorientation - especially in terms of time planning. The cumulative data pertaining to the orientation of adult Hungarians shows a sharp increase in anomic tendencies after 1989 in terms of the increase of unpredictability and futurelessness (Koloshi, Toth and Vukovich, 1999: 485):

Table 6.
Degree of agreement with the statement “One lives from hand to mouth;

There is no point in making plans for the future.” (in %)

  1978 1990 1994
Fully agree 14 48 46
Partly agree 17 35 34
Disagree  69  17 20
TOTAL  100  100  100

The reduction of personal time perspectives is not an isolated Hungarian phenomenon. The time horizon of personal planning shrunk substantially all over Eastern Europe. Moreover, the minimized time perspective stabilized itself with the wide majority of the Eastern European population. Bulgaria is one of the telling examples. In the critical years 1996 and 1997, half of the voting population of the country declared a “day-by-day” time horizon of personal orientations and decisions which is typical for a situation dominated by the mere struggle for survival:

Figure 3.
Time perspective of personal planning (National surveys in Bulgaria, percent) 2

The narrow horizon of personal planning is in sharp contradiction to the requirements for conscious government of personal development and realization. No doubt, emancipation from the restrictive official party-state ideology imposed on the individuals is an evolutionary achievement. However, the current high level of personal disorientation and insecurity indicates that Eastern European societal transformations include an intensive cutting of community bonds. The question arises: Can a sustainable social order be established on the basis of the current individualization in the Eastern European region? The answer is not clear yet. More precisely, there is no clear vision as to the mechanisms, which should represent and strengthen the common good together with the support leaning towards individualization. The necessity of a communitarian reintegration of the national societies is acute. Bearing in mind the experience from the previous decades, it is also vitally important to achieve this reintegration without returning to authoritarian political and cultural patterns of over-integration.

The conclusion, which can be drawn from the analysis of individualization in Eastern Europe, is rather controversial. Instead of the desired rapid expansion in the opportunities for choice before every individual, for the majority of Eastern Europeans these opportunities have declined. Instead of the strongly desired increase in material standards, economic insecurity and deprivations dominate everyday life. Instead of contentment with the effectiveness of the democratic political institutions, large groups of the population are suffering from their destabilization and the resultant expansion in crime. Instead of conditions for a new, higher quality of sustained personal development, in many cases the problems of recent years have lead to personal and group degradation and to destruction of the human capital of nations. This development provides abundant evidence supporting the point that "rights, which impose demands on community members, are effectively upheld only as long as the basic needs of those community members are attended to" (Etzioni, 1996: 8).

As seen from another angle, the vast majority of Eastern Europeans have proved to be unprepared to cope with the challenge of ‘transition’. No wonder, since the transition is from a society with restricted but clearly formulated opportunities for choice, to a society, in which orientation, choice and personal realization require great personal efforts in conditions of unclear normative regulations. This is a typical situation in which the moral and the institutional frameworks of communal life are undermined. Using the current terminology, not the Western European and North American, but the Eastern European societies are risk societies per se. This is a bad promise for their participation in the global competition. It is widely acknowledged that national developments, which throw a substantial part of the population below the standards typical for industrialized societies, have to cope with detrimental effects on the national competitive power on international scale.

Advanced Western European and North American societies are able to manage the challenge of progressing individualization of social life because they have developed organizational integration in all major action spheres and between them. Moreover, in spite of the liberal rhetoric, substantial efforts have been invested into reviving and strengthening of various community-type formations, meaning groups and movements with affect-laden relationship between the members, common culture and responsiveness to the needs of the members (Etzioni, 1996: 5). It has been recognized that community, as defined by Ferdinand Tönnies, does not necessarily belong to the traditional past alone. Communal bonds are an indispensable means of social integration even in the most advanced societies, which have well elaborated mechanisms of organizational differentiation and integration. Therefore, the major outcome of the century-long debates between communitarians and libertarians on the issue might be summarized as follows: Stable individualization requires personal autonomy and creativity in the context of well-integrated organizations. Stable social integration needs the informality, effectual relations and the human touch of community-type formations.

Given this experience, one may generalize that the anomic developments in the course of accelerated individualization in Eastern Europe have two major determinants. Some of them are due to the instability of formal organizations, since organizational structures change profoundly and simultaneously in economy, politics and culture in the region. Anomie is also caused by the intensive uncertainties about the belonging of individuals to community-type formations (voluntary associations, networks of friendly relationships, effectual bonds to workplaces and settlements, etc.) in the current fast re-definition of affiliations. In addition, and contrary to the typical Eastern European assumption of one social order towards which the individuals orient their preferences, decisions and actions, the current situation in flux is clearly different. In the conditions of transformation there are many competing organizations and communities towards which each individual could orient his/her preferences, decisions and actions. Eastern Europeans are learning fast that the integration and functioning of organizations and communities might be mutually reinforcing or mutually detrimental, that the tensions and conflicts between organizations and communities are unavoidable and might intensify.  

Whatever the causes and reasons of the rise of individualization in Eastern Europe at the expense of functional integration and community bonds, it is obvious, that the management of this risk factor will take a rather long period of time. At the surface, what is to be handled first appears as problem of value-normative integration of communities. In reality, it is mainly the problem of the organizational disintegration since there is no time for organic value-normative integrationpreceding the organizational integration. Under the given historical conditions, only the reestablishment of organizational integration of Eastern European societies can bring long-lasting repair to the community bonds in the region as well. In the meantime, many intriguing developments in the field of individualization are still ahead. The most interesting is probably connected with the possibility to mobilize individuals, communities, organizations and national societies for preservation and development of the common good. Indeed, the prospect of integration via mobilization for risk management seems to be most promising for keeping individualization, communities and organization aside from anomie and pathologies.  

NOTES[Back to top]

The comparative study was carried out on 300 long-term unemployed in each of the three towns of Pernik (near Sofia), Lodz (near Warsaw) and Tver (near Moscow) in December, 1998 - January, 1999 by applying a standardized interview. The study was part of the UNESCO-MOST comparative project Personal and Institutional Strategies for Coping with Transformation Risks in Central and Eastern Europe, which is coordinated by the present author.

The survey data on Bulgarian society stem from national surveys on Transformation Risks carried out annually by a team headed by the present author at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The survey in November 1999 was conducted as face-to-face home interviews with 1180 individual cases.

REFERENCES[Back to top]

ECONOMIC SURVEY OF EUROPE (1999) New York and Geneva:United Nations, No. 2.

ETZIONI, Amitai (1996) 'The Responsive Community: A Communitarian Perspective'. American Sociological Review, Vol. 61, N 1, February, pp. 1-11.

GENOV, Nikolai. Ed. (1999) Unemployment. Risks and Reactions. Paris and Sofia: UNESCO-MOST and Friedrich Ebert Foundation.


ILLNER, Michal (1998) ‘The Changing Quality of Life in a Post-Communist Country: The Case of Czech Republic’. Social Indicators Research, Vol. 43, N 1-2, February 1998, pp. 141-170.  

KOLOSI, Tamas, Istvan Gyorgy TOTH and Gyorgy VUKOVICH, Eds. (1999) Social Report 1998. Budapest: TARKI.

SHOPS FULL OF GOODS and the Feeling of Freedom: The Balance of Changes That Have Taken Place in the Last Decade  (1999) Warsaw: CBOS

WORLD DEVELOPMENT INDICATORS (1998) Washington: The World Bank.