Please pardon my delayed reaction… Life, my dissertation, and a mildly aggressive Pit-Bull Terrier named Charlie often get in the way of things I’d rather be doing.
I want to thank Derek Sayer for responding to the open letter that I posted on my blog and emailed to him personally. I wrote in reaction to an op. ed. that he published in the New York Times, in which he lauded the political progress achieved in the Czech Lands since 1989. He did so with reference to the recent fall of the Nečas government. As Professor Sayer reiterated in his response to my letter, he celebrates
the fact that the fall of a government does not [anymore] entail a revolution in the whole political system: that politics no longer swallows up civil society [emphasis in original]. Above all, I celebrate the fact that today’s Czech public is entertained by the sexual shenanigans of Mr Nečas and Ms Nagyová, not the grotesque political show trials of Milada Horáková and Rudolf Slánský.
He also noted the important fact that “that the police had sufficient independence from that government to be able to investigate and expose that corruption.” In other words, Professor Sayer celebrates the passing of the twentieth century and totalitarian rule in Central Europe.
On these points, I cannot but concede – and on another as well. I criticized Professor Sayer for making light of the similarities between the political cultures of contemporary Czech Republic and Berlusconi’s Italy. Yet, as the Professor quipped, “I [too] prefer Berlusconi’s Italy, repugnant as it might be, to Mussolini’s.” Was it not Silvio Berlusconi, after all, who brought us the laughable, if impressive, embarrassment of former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek?
I would like to suggest, however, that where Professor Sayer and I part ways is in our temporal orientation. Rather than comparing the present with the past, I must insist that contemporary moments speak first and foremost to themselves and then, perhaps, gesture towards the future. Indeed, the past is all too often invoked in the service of contemporary oppression. (See the 6th of Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History.) This applies precisely to this case. Just because new states replaced reprehensible, totalitarian-style regimes, does not make them automatically worthy of our praises. And so long as the past remains a symbol of evil and the present a model of redemption, they will always render contemporary dissent muted, equivocal, and ineffective. Fortunately, at least in scholarly circles, the Czech obsession with “uncovering the crimes of communism” is yielding to more nuanced readings of the past, which speak volumes to the present moment as well – if only through implication. (Ex., see Michal Pullmann’s recent work, Konec experimentu: Přestavba a pád komunismu v Československu.) With this in mind, I consider it to have been a rhetorical misstep when, in my original letter, I gave into nostalgia. It was nostalgia for a moment that I know only from books – for a time of illusory potential between one regime and the next.
Turning to the case at hand, I think that a great danger lies in seeing the fall of the Nečas government, in all of its erotic absurdity, as an isolated incident. Taken as such, it should rightfully impress anyone familiar with Czech history – for precisely the reasons that Professor Sayer indicated. Yet to see it only or even primarily in that way is to err gravely. Indeed, the illusion of the instance blinds us to the structural corruption, violence, and oppression of the twenty-first century. We live in a time where power no longer adheres to individual politicians, parties, or even ideologies – but rather to transnational corporations, super-national organizations, and global banking and information networks. These systems pose dangers far less visible than those borne of the robust ideologies of the twentieth-century and their embodiment in powerful states that attempted to achieve totalitarian control over territories and populations through police power and other means. It therefore strikes me as oddly – and ironically – nostalgic to expect Nečas’ fall to carry the same sort of weight and significance as, for example, those of Novotný and Dubček in 1968 and 1969. Nečas simply does not matter in the same way as the latter did. That does not mean, however, that political-economic oppression and corruption has vanished.
And if Professor Sayer anticipated this reaction from me with his comment that “politics no longer swallows up civil society,” I would answer, with reference to Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, that room for dissent – and in this case, juridical checks on the abuse of power – is built into the contemporary political economy and serves its preservation, rather than demise or true correction. In my opinion, the “banal” (per Professor Sayer’s original piece) fall of the Nečas government functioned – perhaps unintentionally – as little more than a pressure valve, which assuaged popular anger with the contemporary state of affairs in the Czech Republic. Nothing has changed there since the Prime Minister’s political demise and much is awry. This holds, I believe, even if I join Professor Sayer in preferring such a pressure valve to the show trials of the 1950s.
Along those lines, even if we can use Prague to think productively about the European twentieth century – as per Professor Sayer’s new book – we cannot speak of it in isolation. As Professor Sayer pointed out, the Czech Republic has become – for better and worse – something of a “banal” member of the European Union. Perhaps he is correct as well that I am nostalgic for the hope that I had once placed in the Czechs – vicariously, perhaps, as I was only twelve in 1989. It is foolish to think that they, alone, could transcend global systems of power, no matter how poetic their politicians once were. How much, then, has really changed in the Czech Lands since 1989?
Padraic Kenney wrote about the role of the carnivalesque in the toppling of Central Europe’s communist regimes in a book he entitled A Carnival of Revolutions. I might suggest that the present crisis represents, first and foremost, the carnival of stability. Nečas’ fall may well serve to perpetuate an inherently corrupt system by providing an erotic and captivating spectacle of progress and justice – rather than structural change. Remarkable as even this is, just twenty-four years after the fall of communism, I still cannot consider it a cause for celebration. The Czech Republic remains a bastion of political and corporate corruption and I do not believe that conditions will improve soon. The fall of communism has also reintroduced to the region mass (regional) poverty and a violent political-racism.
It is easy in the face of all this to grow nostalgic for a time when grand ideologies offered paths to salvation, when leaders promised a bright future for which it was worth both fighting and dying, and when clarity (officially) reigned. I celebrate the passing of those dark days alongside Derek Sayer. But I fear that we have only gone from nightmare to nightmare. And therefore I long for the comfort of ideology and hope – and I believe that it has an important place in contemporary society, when tempered with a historian’s perspective and persistent self-criticism.
- Special thanks to Elana Thurston-Milgrom, Kevin Wooten, and Zachary Levine for their help editing this post. The views expressed herein and any errors are strictly my own.
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To that end, in my next post, I will explore some thoughts on nostalgia and its centrality to cultivating a moral aesthetic for the twenty-first century, one that might be considered something akin to an existentialist religion of history.
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I would also like to call attention, once again, to Professor Sayer’s new book, Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History. He enticed me with his description of Prague as “an object-lesson in humour noir” and “as a repository of the dreamworlds of an era” – as an erotic locus within which to explore the twentieth century, its “sense-making grand theories and totalizing ideologies,” and the violence done in their names. This description this fits Prague in a very real and, indeed, entertaining way. I look forward to reading it.