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  • Rethinking Civil SocietyPostcommunism and the Problem of Trust
  • Richard Rose (bio)

Trust is a necessary condition for both civil society and democracy. The people, after all, do not rule directly, but must place their faith in representative institutions that bear responsibility for aggregating the interests and preferences of millions of individuals. Some representatives, such as elected members of parliament or congress, are officials of the state. Others, such as trade unions, business associations, churches, and universities, belong to civil society and are relatively independent of the state. Political parties are uniquely important to the functioning of democracy, furnishing two-way channels of communication between the mass of individuals and the institutions of government.

Distrust is a pervasive legacy of communist rule. Since the communist party insisted that it alone knew best how society ought to be ruled, there was no point in individuals' expressing their views through elections or through institutions organized independently of the party-state. Communist logic underwrote the totalitarian organization of society, in which all institutions were expected to participate in the collective task of building socialism. While communist societies boasted many institutions—trade unions, writers' guilds, and the like—that paralleled those found in Western societies, these bodies were merely puppets of the party-state. Individuals were compelled to join communist organizations and to make a public show of loyalty to the party and its aims. The result of this pervasive intrusion into every corner of society [End Page 18] was massive popular distrust of institutions that repressed rather than expressed people's real views.

Substantial majorities of citizens in postcommunist regimes want democracy, but find that their societies lack a key ingredient: trustworthy institutions capable of mediating between individuals and the state. Distrust of party politics is endemic among people for whom "the party" meant exploitative apparatchiki and the pseudoscientific propositions of Marxism-Leninism. The systematic suppression of independent institutions over a period of nearly half a century has made it difficult for new organizations to take root. This presents an obstacle not only to the privatization of economic enterprises, but also to the popular acceptance of representative institutions, including political parties.

This is not to say that democracy necessarily requires a high level of trust in government. One need only recall the numerous instances of scandal and corruption in the world's best-established democracies to believe that suspicion of the state and its officials can be warranted. Public opinion polls in the United States and Western Europe recurringly find a significant degree of distrust in institutions of government. Yet because these societies are so well supplied with institutions competing for people's trust, the vast majority of citizens can find some institutions in which to place their confidence, just as they may distrust others. Relatively few individuals in the West are wholly alienated in the sense of believing themselves represented by no organization whatsoever.1

The persistence of distrust in postcommunist societies has done nothing to prevent people from enjoying their newfound freedom from the state, but it has stunted the growth of democracy. The new regimes of Eastern Europe are democratic in the sense that free, competitive, and regular elections are now held, but voting fails to produce representative government, for the winners do not represent established institutions. In general, the citizens of postcommunist Eastern Europe do not trust the parties that they vote for. The legacy of distrust is so great that, if forced to choose, a majority of East Europeans would prefer weak and ineffective government to strong government.

A Legacy of Distrust

Democracy is the process by which citizens select their governors from among competing elites. These elites, in turn, generally derive their standing from prominence in large, formal organizations that are part of civil society. Individuals may win votes purely through personal appeal, but the institutional means for holding such persons accountable are weak. Democracy, therefore, requires regular competition between organized groups, each of which seeks to convince individuals that it represents their interests and deserves their trust.

Individuals may be the starting point in the construction of a civil [End Page 19] society, but they are not the only element. Individuals do not live in isolation...