Friday May 1, 2009
Bowdoin College – Maine Lounge
Laura Henry – Government
Kristen Ghodsee – Gender and Women’s Studies
Generously supported by the Joseph McKeen Center for the Common Good
How does a society define the “common good”? This is a question that resonates powerfully for citizens of post-communist states who have experienced social, economic and political upheaval during the past two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the final demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Indeed, for most of the twentieth century, rival definitions of the “common good” shaped geopolitical realities for the majority of the world’s population, as the Cold War pitted those who prioritized social and economic rights over those who championed political rights. For many citizens who were raised in socialist states, the revolutions of 1989 and 1991 overturned one vision of the common good – one in which the state dominated the economic and political spheres, making choices on behalf of citizens, and provided basic social services to all, in exchange for political quiescence – and replaced it with another, couched in the rhetoric of democracy, freedom, and human rights, but lacking the solidarity and social safety net of the past.
Communist-era public sculpture in Sofia, Bulgaria. Photo by: Kristen Ghodsee
As recent, divisive or manipulated elections in Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and Georgia illustrate, political consensus on how best to structure the relationship between the state, market, and society remains elusive. Political elites promote widely divergent ideologies, ranging from nationalism to a return to communism, social democracy, or neoliberalism, to a public that is often disengaged from and disillusioned with politics. In spite of these divisions, however, questions related to the common good are renegotiated and redefined on a daily basis, as the charitable and private sectors grow, as religious communities expand, as the state revises policies governing issues ranging form education to health care to the environment, and as citizens make choices about how to vote, how to spend their money, and how to live together. It is the lack of consensus on the common good and the dialogue about new ways of organizing society that makes the post-communist region so fascinating for exploring the meaning of the common good.
This conference, “Redefining the Common Good after Communism,” will broaden Bowdoin’s campus-wide conversation about the common good by extending the question to a region that historically was seen as “the enemy.” For the better part of four decades, Communist ideology was held up as antithetical to the values of Western-style democracy, and shaped our political consciousness in deep and enduring ways. Citizens of the United States and other Western countries partly defined what was good about their own societies by contrasting it with that of the USSR and its satellite states. The simplistic division of the world into “good” and “evil” facilitated a general ignorance about how communist societies actually worked and encouraged complacency about the practices of Western democracies and market economies. Yet now, as post-communist citizens question and alter political and economic practices that long have been settled in the West, their struggle illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of our own status quo.