A Swedish Professor in ?Chicago East of Elbe?. Interview with Sven Eliaeson

The topic of the next issue of PLOTKI is going to be ?Efficiency?. Do you think that we are living today in societies that can be characterized as efficient?

 I am not sure, because you have a definition of efficiency, meaning that you should have some output of an input, or rather effects of an output, but what I think of, when imagining efficiency is time rationality and here it becomes problematic, because sometimes you have to stop the clock in order to be efficient, which is against all rules from both Max Weber and Benjamin Franklin to young aspiring entrepreneurial ideal types.
 I think Bauman has said somewhere in a lecture that, in America, people are so restless that they do not have time to peel their bananas. They buy it ready-made. And, of course, America and Sweden are rather efficient compared with Poland and we do not have a lot of time to peel our bananas, but sometimes we should really stop the clock. Especially if you are working intellectually, if you are tired and stressed, there won?t be a good result, there won?t be any efficiency.

 Sven Eliaeson on:

 –  The post-communist Poland and communist bureaucratic practices
 –  Western intellectuals in ?Chicago East of Elbe?
 –  Rousseau – a Stalinist of Enlightment
 –  About Prof. Sven Eliaeson

Sven Eliaeson on post-communist Poland and communist bureaucratic practices

 The post-communist societies are often described as lagging behind the West twenty to forty years if not more. How do you see Poland in this respect?

I feel – and it is an observation made by many of my countrymen and me independently – that being in Poland is like being back in the late 1950s in very many senses. And it is not only drawbacks; I mean, in some respects it increases the quality of life, too.

 Do you feel, in any way, that you have gone back in time?

Yes, definitely. Just one anecdotal experience: I went to a tailor and then I should pick up my piece at three o?clock the next afternoon. When I came back, it was not ready, they told me to pick it up at five o?clock instead, come back in two hours. This was an extremely lovely old couple. They were between 70 and 75. They looked as if they newly had fallen in love with each other. You could not but like them very much. But evidently, they had no sense whatsoever that they were stealing an hour of my life having to walk back and then back again. That dimension was not on their mind. While, of course, as a stressed Westerner, you always think in terms of time management.

 So, would you describe it as backwardness also from the normative point of view? As a society which is 50 years behind?

I do not think I would be inclined to think of it in normative terms. I think there is a development, as described by Max Weber for instance, since 500 years, which is irreversible as it seems. But I would not valuate this. It may be even that mankind was more happy before Enlightenment ? no anxiety of choice, one source of authority regarding norms, etc. I think, it is a bit ignorant to try to judge other cultures and their value systems. This is a sensitive question where I would like to speak with a very low voice.

 How long have you lived in Poland?

One and a half years.

 Have you had any experience with Polish administration?

 I still have nightmares about the ulica Andersa 30, at the immigration office. I had no bad experiences once I was inside the doors of the office. Everybody was very polite. But the way the querying system was arranged? Let?s put it like this: I hope it?s something I won?t have to experience too often but I?m afraid I have to experience it every second year. I could add here by the way that the Polish bureaucracy is one of the seamy sides of this nice country. It?s a combination of the French one and the communist one, the two worst cases in world history.

 There is a great interest to work for the European Union?s bureaucratic machine among some of the inhabitants from the Central and Eastern European countries, which are scheduled to enter the EU next year. There are alleged cases of corruption involved in the selection process of the future EU bureaucrats. Can you imagine bureaucrats coming from these countries to Brussels?

Yes. Why not? The Finns entered, the Swedes entered. The Greeks are already there. You have all kinds of various cultures. One way or another it works. I think East of Elbe peoples have no lack of experiences in bureaucracy because both the administration and economic sector were run totally bureaucratically. So, they really will feel like the fish in the water or at least they should.

 Do you then see the communist experience as in some way good for the administration?

Oh, that would be too exaggerated because as Max Weber already pointed out in his speech on ?Socialism? to Austrian officers already in 1919 – or was it 1918? It?s a bit scary when both the means of production and the means of administration are monopolized in the same hand. But as Steve Turner said at the Mokrzycki Symposium you could regard the communist rule as an early form of expert rule, couldn?t you? It?s a full scale experiment in an expert rule but with a weak civil society. That?s of course a problem, in terms of lack of civility or citizen creed.

Sven Eliaeson on Western intellectuals in ?Chicago East of Elbe?

You once described Warsaw as the ?Chicago East of Elbe?. Why?

 The reason I call Warsaw the Chicago East of Elbe is that it?s just a big raw and a very vibrant city close to the water and a rather windy place. Also there is a natural connection between Poland and Chicago because there is today one million of Poles living in Chicago. It?s the biggest ethnicity there to my knowledge. Or maybe perhaps not. Nowadays there are more coloured people. Chicago is the biggest city of many nationalities. It used to be the second city of Sweden. And I?m sure you know about Znaniecki and the Polish peasants and how they fared on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. I have a certain strange ambiguity for Chicago. I?ve been there several times and I have very many relatives there although that goes back a hundred years, now third cousins or that sort of relationship. But the city is very impressive in a way, but totally without charm, a very naked city. That goes for both Warsaw and Chicago.

 Do you like living in Warsaw?

I don?t complain. I mean, evidently it?s not a picturesque city. It cannot be compared to the great city of Prague, once the capital of Europe. And according to many, even to people who live in Munich, Prague is the most beautiful city in Europe. And in Poland, many people I know say, Sven, you should go to Krakow, Torun or Gdansk. They are all nicer towns of course. But I have nothing to complain about. I live an Americanised way of life. I move between office ? home – swimming pool – shopping mall. And then I try to avoid all nuisances that you could feel, like when busses are splashing water on you or on the pavement etc., etc.

 Concerning again this term East of Elbe, does it come from Max Weber?

Oh yes, sure. As early as in the 1890s Weber carried out voluminous research on agricultural labour. That was his so-called East of Elbe studies. Maybe there are differences between East of Elbe and East of Oder-Neisse and East of Bug. But that is what the Germans would call Feinheiten, that is minor details.

 You are part of a flux of Western intellectuals that appeared after 1989 here in Central Europe. What do you think about the phenomenon of Western intellectuals and advisors that have come here and presented themselves as smart enough to tell us how to run our economies and societies?

Don?t trust them. You find a damn lot of ?rebels in search of a cause? and isn?t that what Professor Mokrzycki was writing about in his latest works? One good reason not to trust them is that they are a mixed bag. They say different things, don?t they? Of course, you have a universalisation in the scientific community, a certain ?communism?. We could even say a growing cumulativity, various national discourses growing together. I wouldn?t make too much out of this division, but I wouldn?t trust incoming intellectuals because of course they want to create a market for themselves. And they are not easily held accountable for the effects of their advice.

 What do you think in particular about Western scientific accounts of our transformations and what?s going on in the East?

It?s pretty much the same question. All this transitological effort tends to be teleological in character, and therefore less reliable because you don?t have to be that smart to realize that whatever will happen in a stabilizing country East of Elbe, it will be affected by historical experiences and those are special to quite some extent. Therefore the nomothetic approach when you see five stages etc. must be taken with a ?pinch of salt? as the expression is. Even the great scholar Stein Rokkan in his four main stages of development is very explicit in his case that this is a sort of classification of history that builds upon Western European experiences that cannot be generalized.

You cannot exclude also reverse shifts in history to some extent. You never quite know what is happening around the corner. The only thing you can know is that there seems to be a irreversible process of modernization and rationalization as the dominant trends for five hundred years in most places and even now in the Islamic world. Well the most modern society today would be Singapore. And the most vibrant town in the world today according to many is Shanghai.

Sven Eliaeson on Rousseau as a Stalinist of Enlightment

 If I?m correct you said that Rousseau was a Stalinist of Enlightment?

 It is true that I said that Rousseau is the Stalinist of Enlightenment and that’s one quite reasonable interpretation. I can stand for that, if understood cognitively and not normatively. Rousseau puts on the agenda a perennial problem of mass democracy, which one also meets in Tocqueville and many other instances: "More freedom or more democracy??
 I feel he represents a romantic reaction against Enlightenment rationality and I have difficulties to take him seriously, due to all contradictions in his thoughts. Maybe one might say though that I allow myself to be highly sceptical, and maybe even add that it is perhaps indicative that he was the favourite guru of Robespierre, whose clean hearted moralist value rational behaviour turned out to become rather hurting and inhuman to many of his contemporaries.
 But that does not add up to "despise". I am inspired by Axel Hagerstrom who stated that "there is no science in morals, only about morals", so any value judgement would be pretty alien to me. In addition Rousseau is of course in any case very important, due to the enormous influence he had on ot the French and American revolutions.
 What’s the punchline? Well, "despise" should be exchanged to something else, perhaps "very sceptical towards" or "don’t like" or "don’t ‘jump on’".

 During my studies, I was taught about Rousseau that he was a democrat and a big thinker of the Enlightment.

 Yes, all elements in Enlightenment (including the romantic reaction against Enlightenment as part of Enlightenment) are to be found in Rousseau, in an amorphous mixture. And of course he was a "democrat", illustrating the possible seamy sides of mass democracy, in contrast to a constitutional order with secure individual rights, like the one Locke pleads for, and later J. S. Mill – and Popper. Roberspierre and Stalin are also sort of "democrats", as a contrast to feudalism or theocratic systems. In democratic theory it is often discussed in term of the populist problem, if 51% can dictate for the 49% what to do. Volont? g?n?rale is a problematic concept, which Rousseau and the Soviet Union share. Maybe the simple distinction between "monism" and pluralism catches the core of the problem.
 Of course, again, Rousseau, despite all his inconsistencies, is a very important and influential thinker. A lot of things he says simply reflects a lack of consistency in his logic – but he does plead for manmade constitutions, so in that sense he – after all – contributes with straws to the same stack, as also Locke and Hobbes – and Napoleon (in effect).

About Prof. Sven Eliaeson

Sven Eliaeson, born in July 1948 in Saxhyttan, a rural village of about 200 inhabitants, in Grythyttan parish, Western central Sweden. He is the son of peasant parents, his father being a carpenter who returned from emigration to the US, and his mother a housewife. He worked in Uppsala, Karlstad and Gainesville, FL and is currently a professor in sociology at the Central European University/Centre for Social Studies in Warsaw.

 Eliaeson’s studies focus mainly on the study of classics of social and political theory, and on the migration of ideas. He has been very interested in Max Weber for several decades. He is sceptical about Jean-Jacques Rousseau whom he regards as the Stalinist of Enlightenment. When he returns to his native village in Sweden he turns into an occasional lumberjack and a small scale peasant. He comments on it: However, after having seen a modern computerized "harvester" doing in two hours the same work I did in two weeks I am not much inclined to start my chain saw again.


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