Watch your Steps as you Head West

Efficiency and Progress

The process of time-space compression, even when we are only obtaining something already possible to obtain, but faster, is recognized as progress. Why? Because in an era of productivity, efficiency and specialization, we need as much time as possible for everything else we never dreamed of having time for. But are advancements that compress time and space making our lives more comfortable? Perhaps it seems so at sporadic moments of the day, but when we look at the developed societies around us, we have to ask ourselves if the rush and hectic pace of urban life is satisfying us more and more, if our societies are allowing us to enjoy the extra time we gain through the acceleration of countless micro-processes, or if this same society is simply stepping up its demands on us, requiring us to fill our seemingly newly gained time with tasks that contribute to civilization’s pull of greater efficiency and productivity, in a vicious circle for which there is no end in sight.

But what leads the champions of progress to believe that we, as biological creatures, don’t have limits, that starting from a certain point we cannot maintain our stress, anxiety, insecurity and energy at tolerable levels? In an ever more competitive economy, with polities that project economic growth as ultimate national goals, contemporary human sacrifices are being demanded for an abstract aim that we are not even sure, all things considered, enriches our personal lives. With each step forward, we just step up our demands on ourselves, constantly unsatisfied, permanently busy. We pretend to be shocked at what human beings have done for the sake of “surpassed” ideologies, but we live in the delusion that we won’t pay the price for this one.

Everything seems to indicate that the great cities of north-Western European civilization, due to their stage of advancement and the lack of ambiguity with which the acceleration of time is accepted, are at the forefront of this process and the driving force, expanding this model to cities in other regions. Justifying this stance would require an academic effort into history and sociology for which there is now neither time nor space – these are our times – but the conclusion should not bewilder any sensible reader. The same goes for the regional generalizations made – while not ultimate truths and being subject to exceptions, they are still representative of some powerful contemporary trends.

South and East meet West

We, in the East and the South of the continent, who live at the edges of European civilization’s latest irresistible and overpowering trends, , have nevertheless been exposed to them by inhabiting large urban centers, which have always played the role of gateways for change and which we now regard as multidirectional – though more often simply unidirectional – gateways of globalization. But the older generations among us, especially those in the east, remain confused, threatened or even angered by the new state of affairs that requires constant personal improvements in terms of productivity and level of specialization, and they find themselves in an era for which they were not geared. With the acceleration of time and change the much-debated generational gap will widen even further, and each generation might come to see the next one as inhabiting a bizarre, incomprehensible world.

The new wannabe cosmopolitan- generation, whose influence and power is growing in this region often share a sense of heightened liberal and economic patriotism with feelings of shame for the customs and social status quo in which they were brought up, making sure the older generations realize their lives were wasted unproductively contributing to a deceiving regime that kept its citizens in a state of illusion. The emerging elite is over-conscious of its identity, suffers from an inferiority complex towards the West and stigmatizes some of its own customs by associating them to dead ideologies. It pushes for the ‘realistic’ Anglo-Saxon cultural paradigms to be adopted and implemented in the East, so that the East comes to reflect their image of the West, and the East’s self-imposed inferiority complex may one day end. This generation rightfully condemns their countries’ reborn conservative nationalist forces and their dream of secluding entire nations from the trends of globalization, but what they propose instead is not a multilateral opening which would give the chance for societies to negotiate change and adapt at an acceptable pace, but a general admission of the unquestionable strength of a set of values to which we have to orient all future actions, as quickly and unconditionally as possible. Yet not only do the wannabe cosmopolitan and the reborn conservative movements share an ideological and non-pragmatic approach to social change, they are also two sides of the same coin. Both share a heightened awareness of ‘identity’ issues and a sense of dissatisfaction with the cultural status quo, seen in part as deriving from ideology-driven social engineering processes. Whatever both of these groups believe their own identities should be, it will always be in contrast with the ironic, contradictory nature of a given country’s heterogeneous culture and its customs.

(Attention! This sign may steal precious moments of your time. We bid you, please leave from here!)

In search of an inner logic

In the meantime southern Europe watches rather passively. Many want to participate and integrate into the process of globalization, but somehow seem to accept, and even appreciate the backwardness and lack of conventional state education in the countryside, where time almost stands still. The cosmopolitan oriented population in South-Western Europe, often ruthlessly critical of the state of affairs in its own countries, at the end of the day still enjoys returning to the past and observe how seemingly illogical and ineffective practices do, after all, fulfill certain functions and have an inner logic in which they can identify and even project their pride, without ever feeling the need to associate them with the dominant political system in which they emerged. The lesson to be learned from the South is its capacity to contemplate itself from an inner logic without paling in comparison to criteria privileged by the north to justify its own feelings of superiority, and without politicizing and economizing every single aspect of an often contradictory social life.

No looking back?

The “Neo-Eastern Europeans” who are reaching positions of influence and power have on the other hand not adapted, but succumbed to these socio-cultural paradigms that often entail an outright rejection of the eastern European historically determined status quo. They are not interested in creating conditions for a true intra-cultural and inter-cultural dialogue in which the pace, circumstances and direction of social change would be pondered and negotiated cautiously. Instead, these emerging business, economic and political elites have already laid out the goals for Eastern European societies, often neglecting the region’s comparative advantages and seemingly boasting an unjustified sense of self-confidence in their countries’ immunity to the peculiar social and psychological problems rapidly developing in north-Western Europe. But we seem to want the whole package at whatever price, and the more we hurry to get there, the less we stop to think what it even is that we want.

Zoltán is a Portuguese-Hungarian journalist, working in Prague as the Central-Eastern Europe correspondent for the Portuguese weekly Expresso and Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency.

Street scene photographed by Zoltán, spoof sign by Kétfarkú kutya valóságteremtő központ



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