Culture and Politics

The relationship between culture, or national culture and politics, has been one of the most enduring aspects of historical and socio-psychological interpretations of the political life of national societies, and especially the behaviour and actions of nation states, since about the middle of the 19th century. The nation states were established in the 19th century on the basis of the unity of language, culture and history as a special kind of reciprocity, cooperation or directly the identity of political and economic elites of individual nations, a situation which is falling apart today with progressing globalisation.
Recently, especially in the context of the postmodern debate on the collapse of historical “grand narratives” of progress and emancipation, resulting in a strong individualization and relativization of public values, the concept of culture and the relationship between culture and politics has taken on a new and special status. measures to replace the older ones, with ideas of progress and emancipation based on and generally accepted human values ​​and beliefs.

Culture has become an element from which possible new perspectives and opinions (traditions, national interests, historical experiences, value hierarchies, collective memory, etc.) are re-emerging, which are not universally or even absolutely valid, but which nevertheless have a supra-individual nature and seem to be objectively grounded. Although a certain culture may have a relativizing nature of otherness towards other cultures (and history in general), inwardly, in the lives of individuals, individual national societies and their states, national culture seems to be non-relativistic because it unites and reminds. It offers a relatively solid basis for actions, decision-making and communication. It becomes a natural sphere of identification and gives people a stronger basis for their perception and assessment of new phenomena in the ever-changing modern reality, for orientation in the world and for own decisions and actions of individuals and groups. In our time, when social, technical and economic changes in people’s lives are taking place faster than the possibilities of society and the state to effectively institutionalize these changes, i.e. to bind people‘s actions by informal and especially formalized rules, culture seems to be a means of enabling people to live in these changes.

Culture is actually everything in the public space and in our private lives, something which naturally controls and drives our behavior and experience, decision-making and actions, what hierarchizes our individual and group values, creates valid institutions, stabilizes shared traditions, co-creates our historical awareness, which strengthens the forms of reciprocity and ways of political negotiation, which cultivates conflict resolution, and so on. This is reflected not only in the education and outlook of the actors, but also in their ability to distinguish, act with foresight and in thesupra-individual interest . Although the bearers of culture are individual people, culture lives and works only in inter-personal relationships.

The problem is that the values ​​that guide us and get involved can have different levels of generality and commitment in other people’s eyes, meaning that others may find them unequally valid, less important, or even threatening their way of life. e.g. the values ​​of a believer’s life values ​​and hierarchy naturally differ from a liberal pragmatist’s hierarchy of values ​​(see, for example, the discussion on registered partnerships), and the only possible way to address such value-related tensions in the modern society is through discussion, negotiation, and tolerance.
Whenever we strive for something, whenever we want to achieve something or make a decision about something, it is always culturally conditioned in a way, more or less consciously connected with the values ​​that we profess and believe in. These may seemingly only personal, but they always relate to the values ​​of the others on whom our actions are focused and to whom our actions relate. From this point of view, culture and its values ​​are always a special, concrete social relationship and a manner of reciprocity.

The actions and efforts of each of us, even if we abstain from making decisions and actions, also apply to others who can accept our goals, but also filter or reject them, for example, as selfish, non-democratic, non-ecological, populist, impossible, etc.. And so our actions become, in a positive or negative sense, part of the whole of culture and at the same time dependent on it. Something similar is true for the means we want to use to achieve our goals.

From this point of view, the sphere of politics, or rather what is called “political culture”, seems to be a very important area of ​​existence and realization of cultural values. By its rules and customs, it accepts and supports certain actions, while it problematizes or forbids other actions. It co-creates and cultivates the public space in which societal needs and interests are formed, and seeks solutions that meet not only the majority of citizen’s expectations, but also certain civilizational principles that balance citizens’ interests and needs, and resolves possible value conflicts; i.e. these are democratic, negotiated, generally acceptable, non-violent, non-discriminatory, etc. Complementary to political culture, which is systemic in nature and historical in origin, there is a civic culture which, as the modern political science shows, tells us what people really know about their political system, what they think about it, and to what extent they identify with them, which are naturally the opinions that can be in a conflict with each other.

Today’s often discussed populism threatens the current political culture of individual national societies (and thus the traditions of their statehood) not only with its content, superficial opinions and simplistic proposals for solving public problems, but also the programmatic rejection of existing norms, customs and rules on how to deal with these problems, which means disrupting the often fragile and perhaps not entirely complete political culture as an effective framework for political operation.

It is not just about what a particular representative of a country can or cannot dare to do with regard to so-called “decent behaviour”, but above all about what the citizens of a national society “allow” politicians to do, and in what people are willing to follow them. The culture of a nation, its civility and tradition, with its layered and multidimensional activity in the public space, represent a special “informal” institution that goes beyond and above the formalized rules and laws of political operation that some parties and politicians would like to subdue, or at least occasionally cleverly abuse. . The ability of the public to face such efforts is not only a manifestation of democratic mindset of individuals, but is embedded in the political culture as an important component of national culture and national self-confidence. Just like them, it develops and changes very slowly. It is based on the historical experience of the nation, the awareness of its cultural and political upheaval and the knowledge of the endeavours of its important figures. In this sense, culture co-creates every situation and the rules of public debate on this situation, thus weakening its black-and-white perception. But above all: it offers and stabilizes the longer-term perspectives of the political and social development of each nation. This is what I see as culture’s important, cyclically recurring and renewing power.

Miloš Havelka


The political, economic and social changes of our society over the last 30 years have hit some groups of our fellow citizens as a loss of orientation, even a loss of national identity, and a “terrible” crisis. The tried and tested possibilities of improving one another are no longer possible, including stealing things from shared property, the old prejudices suppressed by prohibitions can now be manifested openly, and a comfortable life of an individual, clearly separating private and public life, has disappeared. Keep your mouth shut and keep up on the outside, so long live your beloved conformity, and swear at home. But most importantly – never have the responsibility of a citizen. The “top ones” are responsible for everything. And suddenly there is the election, you have to make a decision and take responsibility for something new. What? Help, people, we have lost the “consensus” – these words spread around.
The change that many are dreaming of today requires a fundamental change in the cultural stereotype, this transparent and, above all, simplistic view of the world around each of us.
As Ernst Gellner wrote that social consensus, which is a precondition for the existence and reproduction of any society, is a function of its culture and not the result of knowing the truth. Social order requires a common culture – a common system of ideas, interpretations and values. Thus, every culture is a systematic prejudice (…) pre-selected, pre-invented and then (directly) a ritual and sanctification of preserved ideas that reliably sustain a specific organizational structure (society, nation?). What to do to make these words of the sociologist read by those who think that it is enough to push corruption downstairs, maintain economic growth, have more nurses in hospitals and then everything will be fine again?
I have bad news for us – it won’t. But we got another chance and you will be amazed – it is the fat virus that looks like a ball for exercises to treat carpal syndrome. The result of its efforts to control our bodies and minds may be a change in the priorities of at least part of society. It will be more interested in what kind of society we are, on what foundations our state is built, what are the main myths and national narratives that control our emotions. And how they relate to the narratives of our neighbours.
The Via Cultura; ICP team publishes opinions, controversies and reflections on all this in the Cultural Oxygen. We even thought a few weeks ago that this may be the beginning of a new way of thinking about the place of culture in Slovakia. Today we are wiser again. Perhaps we will remain wiser, too.

Magda Vášáryová

Cultural Oxygen 1/2020

Cultural Oxygen 1/2020 of the Institute for Cultural Policies.