The second transition
How Slovenia’s drivers reveal a deeper truth about their society
As a sociologist, I have always been fascinated by the ways that relations between the macro and micro social perspective are manifested in everyday social reality – the way in which some social system, culture or collective mentality is reflected in the smallest human gestures and statements, and vice versa. Those connections are indeed numerous, but it is also difficult to determine them with complete certainty. In perhaps the most notorious analogy of this type in recent years, Slavoj Žižek associated the shape of a toilet bowl and the method of flushing down excrement with the roots of certain national cultures – French with revolutionary politics, Anglo-Saxon with pragmatism and liberalism, German with metaphysics and conservatism. As this example already well shows, it is difficult in such a far-reaching association to determine the border between a cursory, humorous observation on the one hand, and a serious conclusion on the other. It is a behaviour on the edge of being uncorroborated, even though these sorts of parallels prove so attractive to the ear.
Because, like many precarious workers with variable work hours, I spend a lot of my time on the road, such an analogy offered itself to me – people’s behaviour behind the wheel. While driving a car, we are subjected to a very specific situation – enclosed behind a windscreen, we are mostly alone with ourselves and our character, and as a result our character can to a considerable degree flourish in all its authenticity, since those people more or less just flashing by are strangers, with whom there is no need to establish even a relationship. During periods when the frequency of police controls, with their regular checkpoints and radar measurements, decreases, the behaviour of drivers in traffic changes. When an individual knows that no one is watching over him, the decision about whether to continue to submit to the traffic rules is placed completely in his hands. I am sure it is not a contested conclusion that there are visible differences in how people in different countries react in such a situation. In Scandinavia, Great Britain or France, there is a greater probability that the drivers will loyally respect the traffic rules, even when they know they have been offered the opportunity to gain illegal advantages over others, than there is in Italy, Greece or Turkey. The response across different cultures and mentalities is simply different and it is not an exaggeration to assert that traffic, just as other manners of human behaviour in everyday life, is an indicator of how an entire society functions.
A part of Slovene culture is made up of the considerable portion of people who, without hesitation, exploit the absence of control to obtain illegal personnel benefits: a substantial percentage of the population have seemingly come to accept that this is not an anomaly that should be decisively opposed. Driving over the speed limit, dangerous overtaking, intolerance behind the wheel and arrogant parking on undesignated spaces are practices that are not necessary to seek out with a magnifying glass during a journey on Slovenian roads. To many people in our environment, those several metres of advantage or those handful fewer steps on an already short walk to the store represent such an important acquisition that reckless self-advancement is worth it, even at the cost of endangering others. And if someone practices such behaviour on the road, it is also very likely that this same person transfers the same logic of operation to one’s professional life. In our spaces, this behaviour is still connected to machismo, skilful performance and success; in general, respecting rules is reserved for weaklings, who are destined for a life of average material acquisition.
In parallel, but on another level, again and again we reach the same conclusion: that we are not living in a perfect society. Statistically, our wealth perhaps really is increasing and from a global perspective we have a relatively high standard of living, rounded off by exceptionally well-maintained natural resources and a high level of personal security. All the same, the last quarter of a century has been marked by traumatic blows to the national economy. Bank scandals, tycoonery, corruption and cheating of all types have generated a public debt that prevents investment in progress, neither the logic of which nor the sake of which have we accepted as our own. Alongside this, poverty is on the rise for certain social classes. In the largest measure, the general interpretation of this picture in public is as follows: the culprits for this situation are to be found among the political and economic elite, in the most privileged social class, which during the economic transition had the institutions and the state enterprises in its hands, and acted only for itself and exploited its position of power to fill its own pockets. Many among those belonging to the elite will probably never be brought to justice.
Is this picture truly correct? Can it be that the behavioural patterns of a certain group of people, a cross-section of the total spectrum of the population, as revealed in everyday interactions, such as driving, are conveying to us some more comprehensive interpretation of those events? The blame for the imperfect society is perhaps divided among a wider majority of the population than we are prepared to admit. The quick climb up the social ladder is not just a thing of the elite, rather it remains the mentality of the entire society. In the historical sense, from where did we even get such a subconscious world view? I would dare to assert that this arises from the way of perceiving the authority that we inherited from the previous system. Through this prism, authority had a different function and image – it seemed like a big Other, steadfastly big and powerful when it came to actualising its enormous power over the individual, yet immensely feeble in practice, since it is clear that such an authority in the time before digital technology was not able to execute control over a greater portion of the population, let alone all of it. And because that control is always imperfect and loose, there is nothing wrong with taking something on the sly in small increments from this enormous political and economic mechanism, since the inner voice is telling us that if we shift a small piece of this for ourselves, in the big picture nothing changes for the worse and everything will operate just as it did before.
But that collective inner voice is of course somehow still wrong. Starting with the global economic crisis, we began to experience first-hand just how fragile the system is when the state operates in the open market economy, into which we moved with independence, and how, like a piece in a puzzle, each collapse of an enterprise triggers a negative effect not only for the entire society but also its individuals. In such a sensitive system, every rule skipped has painful, real consequences. In Slovenian society we still have not taken the mental leap towards recognising that rules – whether concerning traffic regulations, etiquette or financial discipline – are not here for the sake of some external demand, instead they are something that must be internalised for society to function better. It is still a foreign concept to a considerable portion of the population that each one of us forms part of a system in which a part of one’s personal freedom must openly and consciously be sacrificed for the common good. I am not completely up to date regarding how young people, who are just becoming fully-fledged members of society, today perceive their contribution to society, but I am convinced that corruption and abuse in politics and economy gives them anything but a good role model for their actions. But if the central themes of public discourse in the last 25 years have been the completed political and the still on-going economic transition, then it is urgently necessary to also speak about the transition to a new way of thinking about the individual’s role in society. Without it, it will be practically impossible to step onto the path of those countries which we typically take as role models. We now face the task of yet another transition, which will reveal itself as essentially more subtle, more elusive and in particular more prolonged than that materialistic one with which we have been dealing until now.