At a conference near Bratislava in February, I was speaking with the director of a respected academic exchange program, based in Prague. She said with some fury in her voice that the Czech Republic and Slovakia must reform their educational systems to resemble those of â€œnormalâ€ countries. I asked her what a normal country was, and she replied, somewhat surprised that such a question had to be asked, â€œI mean the countries of the West.â€ Ironic, I thought, that there are only about a dozen â€œnormalâ€ countries in the world, while well over a hundred must be considered aberrations from the norm. I was reminded of the proverbial mental patient who is convinced that everyone else in the world is insane.
Even most of these normal countries, however, do not make the cut by other accounts. On numerous occasions I have heard capitalism praised as the only â€œnaturalâ€ economic system, while the United States finds its place as the only truly natural (or at least the most natural) nation. Not only is the vast majority of the worldâ€™s population submerged in unnaturalness, but human society seems only to have begun to be natural about 300 years ago (give or take a century or two, depending on where we place the origin of capitalism). Are we to understand that hunter-gatherers who cooperate and share their catch are somehow less natural than, for example, the oil company executives who force them off their land with property deeds, with steamrollers, and with guns? While we may lament the ignorance of anthropological history prevalent in Central Europeâ€™s new intellectual elite, we are faced with something more insidious than mere ignorance: the refusal to acknowledge the existence of entire worlds that differ from a pre-formed ideal.
If we look closely at the discourse of the Post-Communist right, we see that it spends its time not so much arguing against economic systems of which it disapproves, but claiming that such systems in reality do not exist. In the words of the great Margaret Thatcher, â€œThere is no alternative.â€ Because if there were, everyone would take it.
If it were not the only choice, no one would choose to end free medical care and education, to cut train and bus services, to raise taxes on the poor while lowering taxes on the rich. But governments remain firm. â€œIt is a difficult decision to make,â€ they say on every occasion, â€œand we wish it did not have to be us who make it, but we must have the strength to do what must be done.â€ This new ontology has become one of the principal weapons in the rightâ€™s assault on Central European welfare states. Liberal capitalism must be presented to the public as the only real economic system, while all others, if they may have been attempted now and again, here or there, are only illusions. While this kind of rhetoric has found its place all over world since the 1980â€™s, nowhere has it been so necessary and so effective as in those countries where, in the so recent past, a very different economic system was in place. It has been absolutely essential to convince the people of these countries that there is no going back, with the implication that there is only one way forward.
When Slovak health minister Rudolf Zajac was asked what happened to the money that had been taken from workersâ€™ paychecks over the years to pay for public health, he replied that the money had been wasted by the Communists to subsidize milk prices. He did not explain how for decades the Communists had managed to provide both cheap milk and free health care, but the intent of his statement, taken in context, was clear: the benefits given to workers by the old regime were somehow not real; they were supported by unsustainable economic fictions, and we had better just forget about them. Pavol Rusko, leader of the party ANO, said something to similar effect in a debate before Slovak parliamentary elections last fall. Asked whether students should pay for public education, he responded, â€œNothing in this country is free,â€ explaining that it would be an illusion to provide such an expensive service to people gratis.
Vaclav Havel, with his usual somber moralism, added a touch of pathos to the same argument in his book The Art of the Impossible. In defending the perpetrators of the â€œVelvet Revolutionâ€ from the criticism that they had not told the people they had intended to dismantle socialism, he said that he had not specifically intended to do away with socialism and in principle was not opposed to it. But he realized once the Revolution began to take its course that the free market was the only real principle by which an authentic human society could be organized. He, like so many others, have begun to speak as if Karl Marx simply made capitalism up, devising an empty label for what was, in fact, simple reality.
Central Europeâ€™s unique form of capitalism bears the mark of this philosophy, most notably in the policy of â€œrestitution,â€ whereby anyone with a title deed to property confiscated by post-war regimes has the right to take the property back. This goes against the purest principles of the free market, which would have required simple privatization of property, given to the highest bidders without prejudice. In fact, in many cases restitution actually slowed the process of privatization. But it sent the people two important messages: 1) Do not expect to keep anything the Communists gave to you, because it really isnâ€™t yours. 2) Live as if the years between World War II and 1989 had never really happened. In effect, the new regimes would erase this remnant of the old, just as they knocked down monuments to Lenin and changed road signs. (It is interesting, though, that corporations, as opposed to politicians, often left old symbolism absurdly intact, probably calculating that it was still popular with the people and made bad economic sense to get rid of it. Thus Pravda (â€œTruthâ€), the historic Communist Party organ, became a right-wing newspaper, while Jednota (â€œUnityâ€) Coop became a private chain of food markets.)
The ideology of existence and nonexistence extends not only to questions of economic policy, but to people themselves. Large numbers of educated Central European city dwellers live as if they did not know that even larger numbers of poor workers, farmers, and unemployed think in ways entirely different from them. A foreigner who moves in educated circles can spend weeks or even months in these countries before realizing that, in fact, not everyone in the country is an ardent pro-Western capitalist, that portraits of Lenin are still visible in some village pubs, or that if you ask someone on the street whether things were better â€œthen or now,â€ he is likely to tell you: â€œunder socialism.â€ In spite of all evidence, many intelligent and educated people go on believing that, practically speaking, no one ever really supported socialism. When faced with the fact that millions of voters choose parties that criticize the West, many intellectuals are forced to shrug off this fact as if it did not count. One of the most sickening experiences of my life was that of watching foreigners congratulate Slovaks on the â€œgood resultsâ€ of last elections, which brought a servile Western-looking right-wing goverment to powerâ€”as if it were not a matter of political choice but of passing a standardized test. By electing the â€œrightâ€ candidates, the country had matured and could be accepted into the brotherhood of normal countries in the West.
The task of resistance in Central Europe will not be simply a task of traditional politics, of arguing that among the various choices, such and such a choice is better than the others. The people already know that other systems would be more desirable, if they were possible at all. But the dominant discourse, shaped by a minority of privileged intellectuals, politicians, and media moguls, does not allow such choices to be seriously discussed. The question, a question for intellectuals of the left, will not simply be a question of making alternatives appear desirable, but of making them exist.
Joseph Grim Feinberg is currently studying ethnology in PreÅ¡ov, Slovakia.