The liberal democratic models, prevalent in the West for over 70 years and more recently adopted in Central Europe, have permitted considerable economic growth and security.
They have brought millions out of poverty, reinforced modern ideals of justice and freedom while providing a platform which championed pluralism and diversity (at least in spirit), and through these attributes, globalisation accelerated at a rapid, nearly breakneck, speed.
In the V4, the conversion to democracy occurred simultaneously with the technological revolution of the late 20th century; thus, many of the benefits derived from this transition were championed by civil society organisations which fought against communist authorities and embraced both the freedoms of liberal democracy as well as their technology.
However, many of the problems clearly visible today – increased polarisation, concentrated wealth, a surge in extremism, the numerous under-addressed issues related to equality and tolerance – have also stemmed from this prolonged period of security because we have allowed for the subjugation of certain liberties in order to maintain our comfort.
The oversimplified anathema of consumerism and convenience, practised to a variety of degrees, has relegated so much of our free time to the pursuit of personal betterment and experience. The ease of travel, foreign film festivals, the mushrooming yoga classes, etc., have all made living in this century one of the most personally rewarding experiences one could hope for.
In itself, these pursuits should be applauded. Yet, while there has been a focus on developing the individual, considerably less attention has been given to initiatives that work for the general benefit of society. This coupled with more and more time spent in the digital world leads to a disconnect with our community.
A Eurostat poll, highlighted in the most recent issue of Res Publica, asking why the younger generations (16- to 34-year-olds) are not participating in active citizenship overwhelmingly cited “no interest” in the activities, the average giving this response for all V4 countries was 54.1%.
When there is a disengaged population, it is very difficult to even understand the problems that society needs to contend with let alone find solutions befitting the majority.
More worrying is the fact that the remaining, often overtly-vocal participants can give an amplification of radical ideas and skew the perception of public opinion.
Consider the fake news posts/advertisements on social media which erroneously have tied everything from fictional crime rates for the “real” reasons behind voter suppression in the US, or the use of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant slogans in Hungary which perpetuate harmful myths with very real consequences. These stories float around the internet and are shared by willing and unwilling contributors as well as bots making them appear more legitimate just by the sheer number of people that they reach.
When these ideas are not challenged by the immediate and wider public, it can not only lead to beliefs in normative tendencies but also allow destructive concepts to hide, swell and infest those in proximity, whether that be in the physical or digital worlds.
Constantly waiting or perpetually disengaging with society is as deathly as capitulation, and losing a generation through detachment is not an option. Realising one’s role in a community requires a sense of responsibility sadly not often fostered in the digital realm.
This is why it is so important for civil society to overcome the hurdles of inaction which plague many of us on a day-to-day basis.
The hesitancy for action can be attributed to many causes, but all too often it is the very scale of the issue which – while recognised as crucially significant – creates a block for those wishing to work for the betterment of society. Case in point, a series of new surveys by The Atlantic showed 70% of Americans are worried about climate change but only 44% support a mild carbon tax or related levy.
Waiting for the event
In the past few years, the election of far-right and populist leaders in Central Europe and across the globe has been a catalyst, triggering a revival in civil society.
There have been the Black Protests and KOD in Poland, Slovakian protests over the murder of Jan Kuciak as well as numerous Hungarian initiatives which have had to overcome substantial governmental intimidation – all of these organisations deserve to be praised and supported with our voices and wallets.
A successful, albeit tragic, example from Gdansk highlights the power of online initiatives when they are able to harness the energy and attention of the masses.
The assignation of Paweł Adamowicz earlier this year shocked Polish society. It could have ended with the many sincere displays of mourning and affection for the fallen leader; however, a spontaneous online crowdfunding campaign began for the European Solidarity Centre, which Adamowicz had founded. Within days, they had raised 6.5 million pln (~1.5 million euro), guaranteeing the continuation of the project independent of the influence from the critical Polish government.
There are many lesser-known initiatives which could have a profound impact and begin the process of moving the social ball in direction favoured by pluralist and tolerant communities. Yet, their very survival is dependent on the mercurial whims of partisan governments, so the new saviours need to come from the general public.
Again, there has been a remarkable amount of success achieved by Central European societies, but the journey is not complete, new challenges and opportunities are developing in unforeseen pockets on a near daily basis.
We must feel empowered to act without fear of authorities, restrictive institutional barriers or a generalised ennui which cripples our ability to seek out and enact real, meaningful change: the time for hesitancy has passed.