The Dome at the Democracy Festival in Prague
Prague | The final discussions of the Remember Tour took place in Prague last week. Panellists recalled their experiences of the Velvet Revolution of ‘89 from the viewpoint of our current political constellation. The peaceful revolution commenced on the 17th of November 1989, eight days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It lasted a little over a month and marked the official end of authoritarian communism in Czechoslovakia, prefiguring the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the much-acclaimed triumph of liberal democratic capitalism. Since then, Czechoslovakia split into two new countries in January 1993, and the relationship between democracy and capitalism no longer marks “the end of history”. Capitalism in many countries around the world has taken a distinctly authoritarian turn. Is history doomed to repeat itself? What about the legacy of the revolution? Darragh Power, our intern from Ireland, shares his impressions.
According to one of the guest speakers, Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová, many of those directly involved in the Velvet Revolution now find themselves mired somewhere between the NGO world and that of party politics. Does she consider herself a case in point? From an active student dissident involved in the revolution and supporter of Václav Havel and the Civic Forum to a political diplomat, spokesperson and official – in Prague, Paris and Strasbourg – and no stranger to radio and television, Monika now lectures at the Charles University in Prague and is married with two children. Despite her many achievements, however, her political struggle evidently continues to this day.
Seeing this, I wonder whether the Velvet Revolution represented the birth of something new – the first steps towards a positive vision of the future – or rather the death of something old – a totalitarian regime which had, to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, practically yawned itself to death. Of course, that synopsis underplays the role of dissidents and mass civil unrest (in 1968) which was violently repressed. Monika states that without blood circulating between civil society and government, the latter ossifies and dies. Sometimes, however, it needs to be reminded of its death. I imagine this must have been her experience living under the former one-party government of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, which prompted her to first become politically active and partake in the Velvet Revolution. So how does the present situation fare by comparison? And what has happened in the last thirty years?
The current President of the Czech Republic, Miloš Zeman, in office since 2013, apparently hasn’t helped much. “He’s nearly destroyed Czech political life,” says Monika. According to another Czech political analyst and writer, Jiří Pehe, “President Zeman has basically privatized the presidency into his own hands, and the fact that he can do that is caused partly by the weakness of Czech political parties.” He is currently being treated in hospital where he was admitted on the 10th of October, deemed physically incapable of performing his duties. His ally, the Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš – nicknamed “Babisconi”, after the former Italian populist PM, and more recently likened to a “Czech Trump” – offers nothing in the way of a genuine alternative.
As for civil society engagement, Monika claims that people thirty years ago had underestimated the extent of corruption and the power of conservative right-wing lackeys in government– and warns us not to repeat the same mistake today. “The Civic Forum lost the election in 1992 and that was basically the end of the Velvet Revolution.” In what appears to be a throwback to the Civic Forum, she believes the civic organization, Million Moments for Democracy, founded in February 2018, has managed to keep democracy in the republic alive for now. She commends their efforts to observe and monitor the government, inform the public about democracy, and promote civic engagement at national and European levels. But their name in this context reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s hymn from You Want It Darker :
A million candles burning
For the help that never came
You want it darker…
We kill the flame
The speaker to her right, Linda Sokačová, Director of Amnesty International Czech Republic, focuses on the polarization of Czech society. She laments the divisive and distracting power of populist ideology. Various communities end up taking the blame for society’s ills – from the Roma to LGBTQ+ to the unemployed to migrants, and so on – while the underlying economic structures of our society survive unscathed. Opportunistic politicians ride on waves of xenophobia and are rewarded for it at the polls. And typically the most vulnerable members of our society are the worst affected by it, with injustices piling up on injustices. “It’s difficult to talk about social justice without viewing all parts of society through the human rights lens.” Linda reminds us that so-called cultural issues are often economic as well, and can affect people’s right to security, their right to work, and so on.
The third speaker, a young economist, Aleš Chmelař, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for European Issues of the Czech Republic, contends that Czech disappointment in the democratic project comes from a certain misguided association between democracy and economic crises that have troubled Czech society since the transition. Or perhaps people were not misguided at all but expected democratic governance to extend into the economic sphere also. Unfortunately, however, economics often marks the limits of liberal democracy because, as Margaret Thatcher used to say, “there is no alternative.”
Nevertheless, according to Aleš, democracy’s bad reputation goes hand-in-hand with economic hardships, such as the recession in 1993 following the split of Czechoslovakia, and the 2008 financial crash… Such cycles of hope followed by disappointment lead to cynicism and disillusionment in the democratic project. One thing that seems sure is that democracy has not lived up to people’s expectations. Do people share those same expectations today as they did thirty years ago? Hardly. For many, the promises of democracy have rung hollow. Economic problems abound, exacerbated by a global pandemic and the initial rumblings of a full-blown climate crisis. Frustrations are high, yet actual solutions are few and far between.
That’s not for a lack of voices, however. As mentioned, many politicians offer forth solutions without substance.
Opportunistic populist figures, for instance, capitalize on the growing discontent. They condense a host of systemic problems into an arbitrary social dichotomy – dividing the population between “the People” and some “Other” which disturbs the former’s imagined harmony. Such a distinction represents ideology at its most elementary. Systemic problems are transubstantiated into particular persons, allowing one to preserve the image of a harmonious society. The historic consequences of such an ideological manoeuvre are well known, being common to both populist and fascist outlooks. The problem they identify is never inherent to our economic system as such. Rather, systemic antagonisms are displaced with a cultural spin.
In the case of Czech Republic, this has translated into easy-answers that place the blame on the Roma community, LGBTQ+ persons and migrants. This narrative, stimulated by its supposed anti-establishment posturing, has caught on amongst a sizeable portion of the population. Czech society, as each of the panellists noted, is very polarized. The aforementioned PM, Andrej Babiš, was nearly elected for president in the last elections, with a mere 108 votes in the difference. How can we account for the rise of this populist perspective? Panellists mention the possible influence of social media and AI, the divisions within Czech society, and so on… but we should be careful not to make the same blame-shifting move populists do and externalize our problems… one of the reasons populist narratives catch on is for a lack of perceived alternatives to motivate and convince people of a better way of doing things.
So before concluding, let’s consider one of the central problems of capital. The capitalist system is driven by the profit motive. That is, we have turned the intuitive logic of money on its head. Intuitively, money serves a means of payment. As the universal commodity, it facilitates exchange between other commodities, so we have: commodity-money-commodity. But under capitalism this logic is inverted (perverted). Commodities become the intermediatory condition of monetary growth, which becomes an end in itself. So we have money begetting money, with commodities serving as a step in between; money-commodity-money. The consequences have been enormous. Never before has such an amount of labour been mobilized. Never before have we consumed so much. On a finite planet, however, we’ve already exceeded the sustainable production capacity of the Earth. Soil quality is degrading. Fish stocks are plummeting. Global temperatures are rising and more extreme weather events are occurring. Will more efficient technologies offer a way out? Or will we require a more radical change in the way we live with one another and our environment?