The Last Family: Family and Community in Eastern and Central Europe
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Written: January 9, 2000
"One man cannot be a warrior on a
The Japanese call them “parasite singles”, the Americans “boomerang kids”. Sociologists refer to the “accordion family”: it expands and then contracts and then expands again as children return to what should have been an “empty nest.”
Why do youngsters opt to live with their parents rather than strike it out on their own?
The jobs markets are anemic: youth unemployment hovers above 20% throughout the industrial world, 50% in some countries of the EU; Higher education is extended well into one’s late twenties; and, according to scholars such as Twenge in the USA, contemporary youth is more egotistical and narcissistic than ever. Parents are forced to continue to bankroll their children and take care of their needs well into their offspring’s thirties. Infantilism rocks and rules.
But extended families are still the norm in some places.
Platon Karatayev, the typical "Russian soul" in Tolstoy's "War and Peace", extols, for pages at a time, the virtues of communality and disparages the individual - this otherwise useless part of the greater whole. In many languages in these parts of Europe, the words "private" or "privacy" pertain merely to matters economic. The word "intimacy" is used instead to designate the state of being free of prying, intrusive eyes and acts of meddling.
Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the rise of "individualism" did not give birth to its corollary: "privacy". After decades (and, in most cases, centuries) of cramped, multi-generational shared accommodation, it is no wonder.
To the alienated and schizoid ears of Westerners, the survival of family and community in the Balkans sounds like an attractive proposition. A dual purpose safety net, both emotional and economic, the family in countries like Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, and even Greece provides its members with unemployment benefits, accommodation, food and psychological advice to boot.
Divorced daughters, saddled with little (and not so little) ones; the prodigal sons incapable of finding a job befitting their qualifications; the sick; and the unhappy - all are absorbed by the compassionate bosom of the family. The family, the neighbourhood, the community, the village, the tribe - are all units of subversion as well as useful safety valves, releasing and regulating the pressures of contemporary life in the modern, materialistic, crime-ridden state.
The ancient blood feud laws of the kanoon were handed over through familial lineages in northern Albania, in defiance even of the paranoiac Enver Hoxha regime. Criminals hide among their kin in Serbia, thus effectively evading the long arm of the law. In Macedonia, jobs are granted, contracts signed, and tenders won on an open and strictly nepotistic basis and no one finds it odd or wrong. There is something atavistically heart-warming in all this.
Historically, the rural units of socialization and social organization were the family and the village. As villagers migrated to the cities, they imported these structural and functional patterns, en masse. The shortage of urban lodgings and the communist invention of the communal apartment (its tiny rooms allocated one per family with kitchen and bathroom common to all) only served to perpetuate these ancient modes of multi-generational huddling. At best, the few available residences were occupied by three generations: parents, married off-spring and their children. In many cases, the living space was also shared by sickly or no-good relatives and even by unrelated families.
These living arrangements - more adapted to rustic open spaces than to high-rises - led to severe social and psychological dysfunctions. To this very day, Balkan males are spoiled by the subservience and servitude of their in-house parents and incessantly and compulsively catered to by their submissive wives. Occupying someone else's home, they are not well acquainted with adult responsibilities.
Stunted personal growth and stagnant psychological immaturity are the hallmarks of entire generations, stifled by the ominous proximity of suffocating, invasive, ubiquitous, and codependent-clinging parental “love”, which often borders on emotional blackmail.
Unable to lead a healthy sex life behind paper-thin walls; unable to have as many children as they wish and to raise them as they see fit; unable to develop emotionally under the anxiously watchful eye of their parents – these greenhouse generations are doomed to a zombie-like existence in the twilight nether lands of their parents' caverns. Many eagerly await the demise of their caring captors and the promised land of an inherited apartment, free of their parents' presence.
The daily pressures and exigencies of co-existence are enormous. The prying, the gossip, the criticism, the chastising, the small agitating mannerisms, the smells, the incompatible personal habits and preferences, the pusillanimous bookkeeping, the conspiracies, the fighting, the back-stabbing, the small and big injustices - all serve to erode the individual and to reduce him or her to the most primitive mode of survival. This is further exacerbated by the need to share expenses, to allocate labour and tasks, to plan ahead for contingencies, to see off threats, to hide information, to pretend and to fend off emotionally injurious behaviour. It is a sweltering tropic of affective cancer.
Newly found materialism brought to these territories a malignant form of consumerism coupled with a sub-culture of drugs and crime. The eventuating disintegration of all polities in the ensuing moral vacuum of transition was complete. Federations, states and their governments, municipalities, and down to the most primitive of political cells - the family - they all crumbled in a storm of discontent and blood. The mutant frontier-"independence" or pioneer-"individualism" imported from Western B movies led to a functional and mental upheaval. But it was not matched with a similar transformation of both infrastructure and institutions.
Nowadays, people want privacy and intimacy more than ever, but they still inhabit the same shoddily constructed, congested accommodation and they still earn poorly or are unemployed. This tension between aspiration and perspiration is potentially revolutionary. It will tear the social fabric of Eastern Europe apart, rendering it venomous and dysfunctional. This mismatch between dream and reality is nothing new: it brought socialism and its more vicious variants down. Now it is threatening capitalism, too. It may yet bring socialism roaring back.
East European robber-baron “capitalism” engendered unprecedented, gaping income inequality. Throughout the communist-socialist period, the pathologically envious citizens of Central and Eastern Europe basked in their common misery. The equal distribution of poverty and hardship guaranteed their peace of mind. A Jewish proverb says: "the trouble of the many is half a consolation". It is this breakdown of the symmetry of wretchedness that really shook the social order in the period of transition. The privacy and intimacy and freedom gained by the few are bound to incite the deprived many into acts of desperation. After all, what can be more individualistic, more private, more mind requiting, more tranquillizing than being part of a riotous mob intent of implementing a platform of hate and devastation against the newly-rich fat cat oligarchs and their proxy politicians?
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