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'Conflicted Individualists'

In countries which have gone through transition from communism to capitalism people are now facing inner conflict. The new capitalist economy creates individualists with conflicting values torn between family and work, close relationships and self-development, money and morality. Christopher S. Swader, Senior Research Fellow of the HSE Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (LCSR) and Assistant Professor of the Faculty of Sociology, writes about these tensions in his book The Capitalist Personality: Face-to-Face Sociality and Economic Change in the Post-Communist World

A Focus on Moscow

Most observers blame the egoism and asocial behavior found in new free-market societies on their communist pasts. Economic and political transitions may indeed cause people to lose their moral values, and things that only recently would have been judged as immoral can easily pass as the norm. Researchers use the term anomie to describe this phenomenon. Christopher Swader who studies anomie, among other things, stays away from stereotypical approaches and examines the phenomenon of value change in a new light – not so much in terms of the communist past as the capitalist present.

The idea for his book published by Routledge arose a long time ago, says Swader. During his studies back in the 1990s, he read that Russians valued friendship and personal relationships more than Americans, and became interested in the idea. "Then I noticed two more things. First, crime rates in post-socialist societies rose very quickly in the 1990's. Secondly, there were claims that Russian society was becoming more self-focused," Swader explains.

His research for the book took many years. The evidence came from two sources: the World Values ​​Survey (WVS) and interviews in three countries – Russia, China, and East Germany. Three teams of researchers in Moscow, Shanghai, and Leipzig conducted the interviews.

But Swader also had his own experience and observations from living in these societies. He has spent a total of about 4.5 years in Russia, about a year in Germany, and about nine months in China. "Personal observations were important in allowing me to understand these societies, compare them to each other and to other countries," says Swader.

He explains why his research in Russia focused on Moscow. Just 15 years ago this city had one foot in the communist past, Swader writes in his book, but today, its streets are lined with Russia's fanciest restaurants and clubs. It attracts migrant workers from Central Asia, and is home to the majority of the country's wealthiest people. According to the author, in Moscow – a city that represents the sharpened tip of the spear of contemporary Russian economic and cultural development – the current trends in value change are particularly evident.

Even though the book is based on academic research, the author's easy and engaging style makes it fun to read. Its chapter titles sound intriguing: Becoming Homo Economicus; 'The Wall in the Head': Mechanisms of De-Socialization; Individualism, Ambition, and Work; 'Get Rich First!': Materialism and Consumerism; Family Relationships and Friendship; Morality, Religion, and Politics.

Swader's conclusions are not reassuring, however: people in modern capitalist societies are forced to remain in a state of internal tension created by a market economy causing people to focus less on family and friends and more on their own career, consumption, and social status. The author does not deny the good things that individualism brings to modern societies, but even its positive aspects such as self-development and self-expression contribute to tensions experienced by the individual.

Balance Family and Work and Make Useful Contacts

Personal success in a market economy is elusive unless one adopts a new value set, which according to Swader includes ambition, a focus on self-development and self-expression, a focus on career, hard work, the ability to fine-tune one's image, to turn time into money, and to successfully use others for one's own goals. These new values tend to make people more successful in business, but they also challenge and come into conflict with traditional values, such as ​​family and close friendships.

"There is some evidence that people came to focus less on family," Swader notes. They delay starting families and postpone having children. But even more importantly, people who already have families tend to focus more time and effort on their career and work than on their family. These conclusions are supported by interviews in Moscow, Shanghai, and Leipzig with successful businessmen and their fathers conducted to compare value orientations between the older and younger generations. The interviews reveal that younger businessmen focus primarily on their work and self-expression through work, while their fathers regarded work as a means to support their family.

As to friendships, research suggests that individualists tend to value them higher than family relationships. However, Swader notes, friendships in a market economy often take the form of useful connections. Swader also examines this issue in his research on the problem of loneliness in big cities.

Morals Need to Be Flexible

Swader writes about the growing self-centredness in modern capitalist society, but his book's key message is not O tempora! O mores!, despite the book's epigraph from Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals:
"... But enough! enough! I can’t take any more. Bad air! Bad air! This workshop where ideals are manufactured – it seems to me it stinks of so many lies..."

A new market economy creates conflict not only between family, intimacy, and work, but also between money and morality. Morality and a desire for wealth are eternal issues for humankind. Swader describes the way they are addressed by capitalist society today. A focus on success causes people to change their strict moral ideas into less strict ones. 'Moral flexibility' is the term the author uses to describe people's psychological and social adjustment to a market economy. "In order to be successful, many people have to give up the moral values they previously held. They care less about honesty when exploiting and using others for their own gain," says Swader.

Self-development: the New Religion of Capitalism

Swader does not think that new values are evil, nor are traditional values only good.

Individualism in capitalist societies is linked to the values ​​of self-expression and self-development. But the more society encourages and promotes these values, the greater the conflict of values for individuals. With today's accelerated pace of life and growing human needs, including the need for self-expression, even if a person becomes Homo Economicus rather than Homo Sapiens, they still have only two hands and only 24 hours in a day.

"It becomes very hard to combine self-development and self-expression with family responsibilities. And since the workplace rewards these self-development values and not the family and close relationships, cultural change is moving in the direction of self-expressive values," says Swader.

Women's Issues in the 21st Century

All the business people whose interviews Swader used for his book were men. He notes that women are less susceptible to value transformation and less likely to abandon traditional values. However, the respondents from the WVS whose data was used for the book were both men and women in equal proportions. The fact that men are more likely to adopt new values does not mean that women do not feel the same pressures. In fact, women are under greater pressure than men in the era of the new capitalism.

While women in a modern economy are encouraged to pursue careers, to succeed in business, and to seek self-expression, strong social ties and close relationships have always played a greater role for women than men, and the Russian cultural tradition putting the burden of household duties on women adds to this value conflict.

Faced with a value conflict, men tend to follow the path of least resistance, Swader notes. "Men can more easily get rid of the pressure by caring less about relationships. It is more difficult for women to stop caring about relationships," he says. Almost all surveys show that women are more family centered, less competitive, more compassionate. "It makes them more conflicted and also less adapted to self-centered capitalist work," says Swader.

The Slippery Eastern Path and the Risks of Civilization

Swader's research confirms that value change in post-communist societies follows the same path as in the West, and the capitalist culture creates tensions between old and new values both in the U.S. and in Russia. Yet, there is a difference, and it is not in favour of post-communist societies.

The trend of post-materialism observed in many Western countries makes people less focused on consumption and more, e.g. on human rights protection or the environment, and also more inclined towards self-expression. Research suggests that Russia, however, is moving in the opposite direction to the progressive global trend.

"The trend of post-materialism in some Western societies puts a limit on certain extreme forms of individualism. And post-socialist individualism can be more radical because it lacks the post-materialist dimension," notes Swader. Besides, he adds, some post-communist societies interpret capitalism more radically as egocentric, immoral, and decadent.

He warns that his book does not suggest any remedies, but only presents research findings. Swader invites us to become aware of the value tensions many people face today. "I would argue that we need a balance between 'traditional' and new values," he says.

But can we hope to strike this balance – or are we inevitably moving towards global changes provoked by these value tensions? “Human beings will always be social and will care about one another,” says Swader. "However, that form of caring may carry greater and greater costs if we continue to develop and individualize economically. My hope is that individualism will be controlled by a growing cultural understanding and appreciation for face-to-face communication and relationships as fundamentally important aspects of what make us human," he says. The other extreme, Swader believes, could bring great costs for civilization, which could construct itself in ways that are no longer fully compatible with our social nature and social cultures.


Author: Marina Selina, February 14, 2014