The New Freedom: Living with Hope, Skepticism and Irony
Before leaving this skepticism regarding economic prosperity, I would like to dig a bit deeper. A sense of economic wellbeing is based not just on the daily realities of living without needs and wishes being met, but also on a comparative sense of wellbeing. In many instances, the sense of economic privation is aggravated by the dreams that were brought to life by liberation. For many young people in Eastern Europe, who had been inundated with American movies and music videos beamed in from the West, the liberation of their country enabled them to dream of prosperity and consumption in their own country. I am reminded of a similar condition that was operating in South Africa during this same period of time. There were very primitive living conditions in many of the townships (where many Black South Africans lived)—yet each home (hut) had a TV where episodes of Dynasty (displaying massive American wealth) were being replayed many times.
Prosperity had clearly not yet come to pass in either Eastern Europe or South Africa. Some individuals in Estonia and Hungary were now becoming wealthy (or are at least more publicly displaying their wealth) which further aggravated the economic skepticism. Communication with the West’s media and travelers from countries in the West were becoming more common, thereby compounding the problem of contrasting economic conditions. In essence, liberation led to a worsening of economic conditions in Eastern Europe and enabled citizens of these countries to become more keenly aware of their own privation in comparison to the living standards in the United States and Western Europe. While there were major discrepancies during the Communist era, in terms of both income and the perks one might receive, conspicuous consumption among the elite and wealthy was conspicuously absent. There was no Soviet version of Dynasty showing on the state-run TV stations,
Although by 1993, Hungary and Estonia have not yet inherited the West’s economic prosperity, they have begun to inherit some of the problems of the West that seem to accompany freedom. First, they were now experiencing more social dislocation and unrest, often manifested in increased crime and violence, than was true in the past. The men and women Berne Weiss and I interviewed spoke of the painful process of losing friends because of differing opinion about politics, economics, or religion. Whereas they used to have a common enemy—the Soviet leadership and bureaucracy—now there was nothing that kept them together. As can be observed throughout the world, a common enemy unites people. When the enemy is lost, then the previously suppressed disagreements emerge: our past friends might even now become our enemies. With freedom from external threat comes an internal threat. The re-emergence of threat from the East (Russia) might lead again to re-establishment of old alliances and even friendships. Or are the differences now too deeply set for a return to the olden days?