Prague, Czech Republic. 25 Years after the End of History
On November 17th, 1989, a group of students from the Socialist Union of Youth opposed to the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia organized a rally in Prague’s Albertov district, allegedly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Nazi massacre of students in Prague (which we remember globally as International Students’ Day). The protest soon turned into an anti-government rally, as the students walked from Albertov to the city center. The unprecedented police brutality resulted in a general strike 10 days later and the crumbling of the communist regime in just six weeks (symbolically ending with the election of the dissident Václav Havel for president on December 29th). 25 years later, a lot of Czechs decided to commemorate this outstanding event with a series of protests, marches and events. Most of them, however, resembled more the dull communist parades remembering the “Victorious February” of 1948, in their perpetuation of status quo and unimaginative and superficial pseudo-political concerns.
Certainly, there is one great difference between the two that cannot be stressed enough. Namely, during communist public holidays, the state-mandated ideological consensus was imposed and all deviation from it was punishable – there were no counter-protests calling for a change of the socio-economic system or a change within the system itself, but there were plenty of people who felt the need for one or the other. The liberal democratic public holidays are a mirror image of the communist ones – there are counter-protests and, while they are not illegal, they are kept aside as corporate-dominated media proves a lot more successful than the state-owned media of the communists at maintaining the ideological consensus.
As such, the biggest and most publicized protest this November 17th was not directed against the system, but rather argued for a change within the system – that is, demanding President Miloš Zeman to step down. This protest, however, was short-sighted in its demands and superficial in terms of the actual desire to change anything. The reasons for Zeman’s unpopularity are multiple. First, there is his alleged abandonment of the fight for human rights in foreign policy, which many see as betrayal of what Havel has fought for. Second, many were outraged by his recent attempts to relativize the violence of November 17th 1989, and third, the use of profanities in a live interview on Czech Radio. The third one is probably most banal, but also the most interesting in my opinion, as one of the most atheistic countries in Europe goes berserk over certain words being “indecent”, as if God is going to freeze Brno or make Vltava flood because someone used the word “pussy” in public. The Czech Republic is not America though, so the “indecency” was “explained” by “liberal” analysts who used pseudo-psychology to rationalize Zeman’s choice of words and explain why he is wrong. This is a phenomenon so entertaining that I despair that the Czech Republic does not have someone like Michel Foucault to deal with it properly. Zeman is often involved in similar scandals, and he is, in general, quite a bad president. The only thing that makes him better than his equally bad predecessor Václav Klaus is that he does not share his UKIP-style euroscepticism and is not such an ardent crusader against environmentalists. The problem, therefore, is not protesting Zeman. The problem is the false alternative that’s being offered.
Czech Republic, thanks to 41 year of Stalinist blunders, is one of the few countries in the world apart from the United States where any progressive and left-wing policy can be easily destroyed and dismissed by being labeled “communist”. Therefore, the youth in this country (if political at all) is mostly liberal. As such, the only alternative offered to Zeman’s carefully calculated pro-Russian policy is Karel Schwarzenberg of TOP 09, a sophisticated nobleman and a symbol of liberal ideology and brilliant PR campaigns.
Schwarzenberg enjoys a lot of popularity among the youth and urban populations, in spite of his party’s very neoliberal economic policies. The “progressive” issues that the urban middle class youth is bothered by in the Czech Republic (and November 17th anti-Zeman protest was no exception) revolve around identity politics and human rights. Therefore, what the Czechs demanded on Národní třída had nothing to do with emancipation. The Czechs merely want a president who will continue the support for NATO and its leader, the United States – a country well-known for curbing the freedom of speech of its presidential candidates, sentencing political dissidents to long-term prison terms, treating domestic protesters as terrorists, invading foreign countries under the excuse of “protecting the people” and which is ruled by a caste of oligarchs. That means that yesterday’s protest was largely in support of a government that does exactly the same things that Zeman-supported government of Russia does.
The organization Socialist Solidarity was right in wittily naming the events on Národní třída “pro-regime celebrations”. While people are demanding cosmetic changes within the system, they are ignoring the important systemic issues that neoliberal capitalism is unable to deal with. Why weren’t Národní třída protests focusing on issues like increasing economic inequality, corporate-sponsored slave labor, or just the outright absurdity of a new Cold War between the US and Russia? On a more local level, why isn’t anyone concerned with tycoons owning the media, rampant consumerism, or littering the beautiful historical city of Prague with omnipresent marketing kitsch? As I already mentioned, the self-evident liberal ideological consensus in mass-media is important, but it is not the whole story. While the Czech state is far from a perfect society, it is still one of the most successful examples of transition to free market capitalism. The anti-Zeman protesters are not complaining about the aforementioned issues simply because they do not concern them. The Czech Republic has managed to push itself almost to the top of the global food chain, so a significant portion of its population (myself included) is actually profiting from the exploitation caused by global capitalism.
In the end, Zeman will not go. There are two reasons for this. First is because the protesters of November 17th cannot be bothered to push their demand for his resignation for longer than a few days (after all, there’s better things to do – a new shopping mall was opened just weeks ago on Spálená street). Second, because Zeman, rather than being a neoliberal market fundamentalist like Schwarzenberg, at least has a proclaimed belief in a “social democracy”, and no matter how bogus that belief may be, it appeals to vast portions of the people in this country who did not exactly benefit from capitalism and who still (quite rightfully) believe that, in spite of what Margaret Thatcher said, there is such a thing as society, and the state should serve its citizens rather than letting the free market magically fix anything.
So, why protest then? A legitimate concern over impeaching a poor president is being made banal by the narrow-minded solutions that are being offered. The “rebellion” on Národní třída this November remains at the infantile level of a football rivalry. It merely serves to maintain one’s narcissist pseudo-invidualist belief (which is perfectly in sync with the demands of consumer society) that we are “doing something” when everyone present has already fundamentally accepted the premise that everything’s been done and that society is well-off. A belief that, in the end, comes primarily from the fact that those protesting (and not society as a whole) are well-off. I can hardly think of anything more hypocritical than a group of upper middle class white people in an affluent Central European capital claiming that the ultimate oppression in society today is that they have to be nominally ruled by a puppet like Miloš Zeman. To call them even a pale copy of those protesting 25 years ago would be an insult to all those who sacrificed their lives and freedom fighting against Stalinist totalitarianism in the 20th century.