Tom Insam


There’s a kind of “civil society” which is mostly about the soft power of public opinion on the actions of government, and then there’s something else that I guess one might call “social capital,” which is why people don’t just go cut the throat of the neighbor and run off with his microwave. It’s been my experience that they’re not the same thing, and the one can actually get in the way of the other.

The Balkans has always been pretty low on “civil society,” because most political decisions are made in smoke-filled rooms by angry drunk guys. But in terms of “social capital” they’re quite keen on looking after one another. The populace is very polite and considerate, by American standards. Hold-ups, muggings, drive-bys, gang rapes, maniacal outbursts by guys with automatic weapons, they’re all practically unheard-of.

The feeling on the streets of Belgrade is vastly calmer and cozier than, say, Los Angeles. By the standards of Belgrade, you’d think that LA was a para-militarized civil war zone, even though LA has got “civil society” like nobody’s business.

The Italians are second-to-none with the “social capital,” which is a major reason why their government is so dysfunctional. Italy really isn’t a “nation” with a “government,” it’s a bunch of extremely civilized city-states where a nationalist lifestyle was imposed during the 1860s. If the local predators in France and Austria hadn’t invented national government, I don’t think the Italians would have ever gotten around to it.

Bruce Sterling, State of the World 2013, on the WELL