The society of amoral familism

An account of southern Italy in the ‘50s sums up Kosovo society today spot on: maximize material profit, look after only your interests, and act as if everyone else does the same.

Kosovar democracy is in a crisis due to the citizens’ general disinterest in public issues. This society has reduced political activism to the right to vote once every four years, and then retreat and expect local and central government to solve all problems.  Asking only for their vote, political parties also contributed to this withdrawal of citizens, with the logic that the government takes care of the rest. And this logic of reducing democracy and citizenry to elections every four years has brought about one of the most corrupt governments in Europe and a difficult social condition for the citizens.

The half a million Romanians who protested against a government decision to pardon corruption cases proved once again that civic pressure is one of the most efficient tools to ensure good governance in a democratic system. At the same time, these protests, in a place close to Kosovo, inevitably led to comparisons to Kosovar society, which has fallen into apathy since the end of the war in 1999.

While during the 1990s Kosovars organized themselves in various ways to resist the political and economic oppression of the Milosevic regime, since 1999, they haven’t managed to show the same political activism to oppose governmental injustice. Although these two regimes are hardly comparable, nevertheless the governments since 1999 have denied their citizens a complete freedom, a freedom which is offered by economic development, quality education and good health services.

How can this lack of civic activism, even in cases when bad governance affects welfare, be explained? The best explanation is given by Edward C. Banfield in his book “Moral Bases of Backward Society,” written almost 70 years ago.

In 1954, Professor Banfield, a scholar of political science who later taught at Harvard and served as a political advisor to three American presidents – Nixon, Ford and Reagan – spent nine months with his family in a village in southern Italy. In the village, Banfield noticed a different behavior to that of Americans. Although Italy after the Second World War was a democratic country just like the US, Italians, unlike Americans, were not at all interested in the public sphere. According to Banfield, the only thing that interested Italians was the wellbeing of their nuclear family.

Banfield wrote that Italians acted as if everyone followed this rule: maximize material profit, look after only your personal and close family interests, and assume that everyone else does the same thing. He called this sort of behavior “amoral familism.”

In the society of amoral familism, no one works for the common interest of the group or the community, except when this includes personal or familial benefits. In other words, quick material profit is the main motive to be active in public issues. Public issues are left to public officials, because only they are paid to deal with them. It is considered unreasonable for a common citizen to be active in public work.

Nobody supervises the work of public officials, except for other public officials who are paid to do the job. In the society of amoral familism, there is no quicker way to lose friends than be elected for public office. Everyone expects favors from public officials, and these favors are never sufficient to please everyone. Getting organized and being associated with an organization happens only in cases that such activity is paid, otherwise no one is active on a voluntary basis.

Public officials are active in their jobs just enough to maintain their positions, or, in rare cases, just enough to be promoted. The law does not play a role in regulating the lives of members of society. As a result, agreements and transactions are usually done outside of legal procedures, according to customs. Public officials are bribed whenever the opportunity arises. But even if officials are not corrupted, society will believe that they already were corrupt the moment they accepted a public post. In this society, if one declares that they do public work because of their desire to contribute to society, one is considered a fraud.

In the society of amoral familism, there is no correlation between abstract political principles (ideology) and practical behavior in everyday life. There are no leaders, no followers. No one takes the initiative to lead a group for the common good, but one does so only if there is a personal benefit. And even if there were such a leader, the society wouldn’t follow him because they would not trust his motives.

An amoral familist utilizes the right to vote to reap benefits for himself and his close family. One does not vote because of what the party promised, but because of personal benefits that have already been enjoyed from the party and which are expected to continue in the future. Such a person supports initiatives for the common good of the community only if he believes that he would benefit as much as anyone else. If there’s a sliver of doubt that a change in the community might help his neighbor more than him, he will fight against such an initiative.

The society of amoral familists believes that every government serves its own interests and is corrupt. Before elections are even over, accusations that the new government is corrupt and getting richer every day will ensue. As a result, the vote of the amoral familist is always a punitive vote. The amoral familist says “yes” to whichever party that asks for his vote. Voters are ready to sell their vote, but since voting is secret, parties do not believe that the vote that they bought will go to them.

In the society of amoral familists, an adult individual never acts as an independent being from his family. An adult is simply a person who awaits the day to become a parent and expand the family. The society of amoral familism does not believe in progress through collective action. In such a society, progress is seen as an individual act or a coin toss.

These observations on southern Italy of the ‘50s are spot on when one observes the behavior of Kosovars in the past 17 years of their 21st century self-governance.

Although political parties might consider civic apathy as a good opportunity to act unsupervised, in the long term, civic apathy that results from amoral familism damages political parties and the work of public officials themselves, because this apathy will manifest itself increasingly as distrust in any kind of work done by the government.

According to Banfield, the society of amoral familists cannot change fast. However, one of the necessary measures to unroot amoral familist is civic education in schools. At the same time, state institutions can do a lot to change this situation by asking citizens to cooperate and agree on specific community projects (such as a community-managed kindergarten), which then can be supported by the municipality or the government. This way, citizens would be convinced that organization does have tangible results. The society of amoral familists is an isolated society, thus he proposes as a solution the creation of opportunities for increased population movement.

It seems very unlikely that such a government as we’ve witnessed in the past 17 years will take initiatives upon itself that aim to encourage independent civil organization. With this in mind, a greater activism from civil society organizations and media is needed. Through educational programs, these organizations can attempt to revive civic activism, which begins with neighborhood problems and ends with the fight against corruption.


22 February 2017 - 13:16

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