Juhan Kivirähk: Alienation down to politicians' backlog

Juhan Kivirähk.
Juhan Kivirähk. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Many politicians said they are looking for someone capable of building bridges and overcoming alienation between the state and society during the recent presidential election. However, combating alienation is not just the president's task but every party and politician's, Juhan Kivirähk writes.

When I was working at the Eesti Raadio computing center in the 1980s, creative contributors were paid in two parts – salary and honorariums. They referred to the situation as being paid a salary for showing up and an honorarium for work. The latter also stimulated working, which is why official paydays in Eesti Raadio's famous bar were somewhat quieter than days when honorariums were paid out.

Recently, I get the feeling that the attitude of salary being paid for merely showing up is making its way to public service. Any time a new project needs to be launched or a reform carried out, we can hear of performance pay or bonuses. A reward for doing one's job.

However, we can hear nothing of people losing their job or having to bear other kind of financial responsibility for failure to do said job. For example, in the case of the Health Board cold storage malfunctioning or serious calculation errors in the state budget.

Interviews with outgoing Ministry of Defense Deputy Secretary General Meelis Oidsalu also speak of serious problems with professional culture in state agencies.

Suck work attitude by state officials is understandable. Man is lazy by nature, and it makes little sense to dedicate oneself to work in a situation where nobody really demands it. Besides, demonstrating professional activity might result in clashing with rapidly changing political will. It is impossible to err or jeopardize one's career when doing absolutely nothing at all.

In addition to human nature, deepening administrative incapacity owes to the increasingly widespread practice of politicizing agencies. Persons handed positions for services rendered to political parties see it as duly earned sinecure as opposed to a job where one needs to serve the people with heart and soul day in and day out.

Even though politicians never forget to remind us how the state is everyone's business (especially leading up to elections), claims according to which the state has become alienated from its people can be heard increasingly often.

The state is a "public thing" ("res publica") meant to satisfy the common needs and desires of citizens. But just as any other man-made institution created for a specific purpose, it too takes on a life of its own and starts to function independently and even controversially, out of the control of its makers.

"Alienation manifests when the result of a certain activity turns against the actor, becomes an opposing force," Ülo Vooglaid explains in his book "Elanikust kodanikuks" ("From Resident to Citizen"). "Alienation can concern work, management, creations, plays, children, governments, partners etc. Work might become alienated because the person might not be able to make use of its fruits and is disconnected from what might happen next. Work alienates from the worker, governance or government from the people… Alienation could cause people to lose all sense of moderation and become senseless. Antagonism born of alienation can have terrible consequences."

The state becoming alienated from society is clearly a negative phenomenon. However, we need to realize that alienation is an inevitable process. It can be compared to the second law of thermodynamics that says that the entropy of an isolated system can increase, but not decrease. The question is how to contain the process, how to cope with it.

Entropy increasing can only be avoided when one works on the system – creating negentropy or inputting information. Otherwise, so-called heat death follows, which in the case of an alienated society is stagnation.

Therefore, dealing with alienation also requires work and effort to keep the system tidy. However, whose task should it be?

We often heard claims according to which alleviating discord between the state and society, building a bridge between the two should be the task of the president.

But just as Kersti Kaljulaid was unable to fix all the china that got broken when political elephants ransacked the porcelain store, we should not lay the same burden on President-elect Alar Karis. It would be even more naive to hope that opting for direct presidential elections would help us overcome alienation. Waving around such slogans constitutes bunco that politicians are trying to sell people who yearn for more participatory politics.

Overcoming alienation consists of creating trust between citizens and the state, which task should top every politician's playbook. Why else is electing representatives to serve in the Riigikogu and municipal councils the most important mechanism of a democratic society. Voters delegate them their trust based on and using which politicians must put to work the state apparatus.

However, most politicians seem to think that the best way to serve their constituents' interests is defeating and bending to their will those who disagree. This gives rise to a never-ending zero sum game where a tally of victories and losses is kept, while building bridges, or sensible compromise, is avoided. This despite the fact that finding common ground between the needs and desires of members of society is the very reason parliaments exist.

In the early 1990s, Estonian politics had people who had been active in the process of restoring our independence, often by risking personal well-being and security. State agencies were manned by people who felt motivated to help build up the country despite what was a modest income back then.

Over time, we have developed a class of professional politicians and officials, whereas the former tend to identify with the latter as opposed to the rest of society. This creates premise for alienation.

It has been much debated whether a minister needs to be an administrative specialist or a politician. Of course, it is beneficial when a minister knows enough about their field to be able to manage the administrative area instead of having officials run it for them. However, the main thing a minister must know is society – that is what their citizens and voters expect.

Every politician, every MP and every minister first and foremost has to ensure trust between members of society and their state. A minister cannot boil down to a cog in the state apparatus, instead serving as its operator with a mandate from voters. There is still plenty of room for development in this regard in Estonian politics, whereas these problems cannot be solved simply by appointing the next president.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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