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Czechoslovakia / A Critical Reader

Text for the catalogue of exhibition Czechoslovakia / A Critical Reader, Gandy Gallery, Bratislava, 2017

I was born in Czechoslovakia, in a state whose foundation was connected to the construction of an identity of one – Czechoslovak – nation and to the idea of an amicable cohabitation of various nationalities and ethnic groups in the new democratic republic.

I was born in the state which after the World War II wanted to create a classless society based on social equality and justice. In the state which had historical opportunity for such a change, but it has never been fulfilled.

I was born in the state which defined itself as modern and later as socialist in which variously formulated emancipation ethos had become not only a part of official doctrines and formulations but also a common agenda of everyday life.

I perceive Czechoslovakia as a strange utopian project, not in the sense of an idealized state according to Moore´s island, but as a projection of ideas and declarations by which it represented itself. The ideal was a better place for a cohabitation in the area of Central Europe. At the time of its founding in 1918 the new democratic state was constructing a new Czechoslovak identity made of Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Ruthenians, Jews and members of other nations or ethnic groups. They were supposed to feel better in it than in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This is not a nostalgic return to an already non-existent state, a place which still lies in the memory and the stories of people. It is more of a critical excursion into the history of the state which wanted to be or should have been something else than it was. It is possible today to identify with its ideals, but its failure has to be the object of criticism. It is a way to learn from mistakes and to find out why there is nothing left from initial ideals, why, on the contrary, they were abused.

Instead of idealizing the past, it is better to remember and analyze it. In the new republic the hegemony of the biggest nation of Czechs, despite the declared Czechoslovakism, led to a disappointment and resentment among the Slovaks, as well as to nationalist tendencies. Compared to them the Germans did not generally feel as Czechoslovaks, German did not become another official language, even though they were the second biggest ethnic group in the country. Jews experienced a full force of antisemitism during the Second Republic after the submission of Sudetenland to the German empire and Romani people have always been in this “multinational” state rather tolerated. After the horrifying World War II all of this has been materialized into the new arrangement of the Third Republic in which one fifth of the population was already missing. Most Jews and Romani people died in concentration camps and with a sort of revanchist logic in the restored Czechoslovakia we did not count with Germans anymore. They were displaced from their homes across the borders, into the bombed Germany. The republic was restored without a substantial part of its population.

In the 1990s at the time of separation of the state system into the separate Czech and Slovak republics there was not much left from the multinational cohabitation. The two new, nationally homogeneous states are rather a place of the closure, purpose-built nationalism and xenophobia.Classless society combined with the construction of socialist Czechoslovakia was another failure on the way to a more righteous arrangement. This historical development has to be seen in the broader context of the world of the second half of the 20th century. It is not only about the failing of the attitudes and behavior of our ancestors and especially the elites, but also about broader geopolitical context, especially imperial hegemony of the alienated blocs emerging from the Cold War. The construction of socialism was not bloodless, on the contrary, it was full of symbolic and explicit violence against its inhabitants. The Czechoslovak Socialist Republic could be paradoxically described as an oppressive establishment of bureaucratic state capitalism. On the other hand, some elements of emancipation ethos contained in the ideals of the socialist system permeated through the whole society and at least formally (without long-term struggles as in the capitalist countries) liberated certain social groups from earlier disrespect and abuse. This ethos remained as a heritage which is still carried by the descendants of the former regime. I would not like to idealize processes of emancipation within the socialist system but there were many elements in it on which we can build. Czechoslovak socialism, however, did not exploit them and on its way to a classless society totally failed.

In the old-new liberal capitalist states which since the 1990s are no longer a state system, we are facing the same problems again as in earlier history. The history tends to repeat itself. In his famous thesis from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx states that the history repeats once as a tragedy, then as a farce. But the question is whether the history could repeat as series of farces derived from other farces. In that case it is necessary to untie from historical fatality and to find some other trajectories than the mutual similarities of failure. We are facing the same and recurring problems stemming from the half-heartedness of past revolutions and compromise solutions of social and economic issues. This uncoordinated reconstruction period of capitalism is trying to mask ruthless principles and contradictions in the name of democracy. Inequality is becoming a standard again and is perceived as a “normal” and natural condition. Social justice is seen as an obstacle to prosperity and the profit which corrodes any human cohesion and solidarity, is the measure of all values.

Czechoslovakia does no longer exists, it could have, but it has never become something significant. Nowadays, it is just a part of the history, it remains as a projection of various resentments, as well as a reservoir of failures destined to further study. Czechoslovakia has to be critically re-thought again, to avoid a repetition of mistakes and in the current version of the world and its arrangement to sketch a more efficient trajectory of the future development of a fair coexistence of people.

The exhibition Czechoslovakia / A Critical Reader presents artists who critically examine the world in which they were born. Belonging to different generations, these artists represent the different periods of Czechoslovakia. Political strategies and practice are imprinted in each of them in a way how they were changing in the time and how they influenced their lives. Therefore, their projections differ, for each of them it is a different kind of disappointment and disatisfaction. But for each of them it is also a ground for thinking about mistakes of the past. This exhibition is meant as a research on a social coexistence through artworks. Exhibition as a place for critical reflection.

Rozprava / Discourse

Economic reform scenario, Czechoslovakia, 1990

Text for RABRAB JOURNAL ISSUE#04.2, Helsinki, 2017

1.

Unstable times make for clearer political thinking. I once read this in a book about Machiavelli. I’m not sure it applies to me and millions of former Czechoslovaks who found themselves facing uncertain conditions after 1989. Uncertainty and instability form a good starting point, though on this occasion they did not advance a robust political imagination. But would this even have been possible under the conditions the former Czechoslovakia found itself in? A state formed almost one hundred years before, with some of the largest trade unions in Europe, a state in which after the second world war a majority of the population voluntarily opted for communism, and a state where in 1968 almost everyone spoke in favour of some kind of democratic version of socialism – this state ended up becoming a caricature of itself. The population was so exhausted by the period of normalisation, during the 1970s and 80s, that on the very threshold of 1989 they were to be found in a state of stupefaction brought on by the farce of the late phase of the authoritarian bureaucratic system that led to a radical rejection of anything that had anything to do with socialism and social justice in any form whatsoever. The citizenry and its representatives agreed on a market economy without hitches that was to result in freedom and a consumerist paradise. Most people were unable to imagine all that it would entail.

2.

Almost twenty years after the fall of the socialistic bloc I returned to these events in this work. I intended it as a mental map of historical decision-making. It offers extracts from parliamentary debate and public discussions, mainly in the print media. The diagram was first printed in the Atlas of Transformation, a book devoted to the complex transformation process and concepts on a global scale.

The diagram depicted the entire decision-making process as it could be traced in the media and archive of the former Federal Assembly of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, and involved the interaction of MPs (newly elected in the general elections of 1990), the media and members of the public. It reveals the traces left by discussions in the collective memory. A process supposedly conducted like a debate inexorably resulted in approval of that version of the scenario that would least contradict the common vision and desire for the western spectacle of consumer capitalism.

The economic reform plans drawn up by the Czech and Slovak Federative Government in 1990 formed the main document discussed by the Federal Assembly. After tumultuous talks sometimes verging on the ridiculous, the meeting was brought to a close at the end of summer with the approval of the draft plan written by the then minister of finance Václav Klaus. For a country that in 1989 still belonged to the communist bloc, with its planned economies, this meant a change of economy by means of shock therapy towards a free market, a rough version of late capitalism. The deal was symbolically closed with a visit by Margaret Thatcher, the main source of inspiration of the Czechoslovak minister of finance.

Since then, thirty years after the successful establishment of capitalism, the successor states to Czechoslovakia have returned via a historical detour to the nineteenth century, to a time when none of the social achievements of the twentieth century yet existed. This was what was decided at that meeting. Almost nobody grasped the full implications of this plan, but everyone underestimated the subversive power of capital. Without the ideological enmity and resistance of the now collapsed communist systems, it was impossible to oppose the vision of consumer affluence and the illusion of functional systems of liberal establishments.

3.

It is also worth examining the form that negotiations took, the language that was used at that time, the metaphors in which the plan was veiled. The key word was ‘scenario’. This technical term included in itself the self-confidence of planning, in which everything can be negotiated and determined in advance, including exposures, plots and denouements, including happy ends. The  transfer of the term and dispositif of film production became a universally shared asset that could be adapted to the planning of human lives and the paths to be pursued by entire states. It is undoubtedly symptomatic of this that the production context of film became such an asset. For most Czechoslovaks at the time the film industry and its main product, the feature film, was a showcase of western consumerism. Greedily guzzled goods that had not been available in the communist version of state capitalism became projection that could be copied. Now the opportunity arose to create a film of your own life.

The idea of writing a scenario by someone who was able to describe these dreams (Klaus), cast themselves in the role of actors (us), hand over direction to someone experienced that will steer things into the safe harbour of liberal democracy contained in the rich nest filled with capital (the rightwing government). Then it suffices to select a suitable model or mascot (the Iron Lady) and fearlessly plunge into life. Another important condition is the joint will of all involved, the rejection of any deeper discussion from various interest groups infected by ideas of unsuccessful third ways and socialism with a human face and philosophical concepts of the regime that had just collapsed. The rhetoric inspired by this film was (and still is) everywhere, public discussion was saturated by the facile statements of ministers, MPs and politicians. This same rhetoric then consolidated its position in public discussion via newspaper headlines and television debates. The vision of a spectacular paradise was transformed. We are actors in a disaster movie, we expect to die. Meaning is no longer to be found beyond the horizon: there is no meaning. The only satisfaction is to be found in knowing that we had our fifteen minutes, we were movie stars for a moment, even if we are only kidding ourselves.

2008 (2017)

The Experience of Bucket Riders

Text for catalogue of Experimental Film Festival ARKIPEL “Penal Colony”, Jakarta 2017

Experience teaches us that life is not simple and that without mutual assistance it cannot be dignified. I am writing these words in the city where Franz Kafka wrote most of his short stories and novels one hundred years ago. For the whole of the ‘short’ twentieth century and at the start of the new millennium his writing has acted as a reflective surface in which the unforeseen experiences of emerging societies of control is clearly reflected. Many of his ideas and his style of writing have become an image of the precarious life we are living. Kafka was writing on the periphery of an ageing European power, at one remove from the large cultural and political centres. Nevertheless, he managed to sketch the contours of a life that bears intelligible witness even on a contemporary global scale. I often find myself thinking of his short story The Bucket Rider, which begins with the mysterious sentence: Coal all spent. Though short, the text is dense and multilayered. Here I would like to draw attention simply to one feature, by no means the dominant feature. The story concerns a freezing person with no money asking for some coal (probably the author: the story is written in the first person) from a coal merchant. The merchant and his wife do not raise a finger. The wife, standing in for her husband, deploys a strange yet effective strategy. As if to turn a blind eye to the cruel reality around her and the wretchedness of her own life, she decides simply not to see the bucket rider, though he stands directly in front of her. She thus elects to prioritise a commercial logic and her own interests over compassion for the beggar. The frozen hero had his own strategy prepared that in the end proved ineffective. He did not walk to the coal merchant’s, but saddled up his coal scuttle and arrived as though on horseback. His decision to spectacularise his humiliation might seem exaggerated and theatrical. But how else is a person to preserve their dignity when confronted by a life that is structured by commercial logic, by the market? His gesture was not inappropriate. On the contrary! What we have here is the pride of the individual and a parody of the precarious situation in one. We learn nothing more of the rider, but from the story we can deduce how the world of his life is organised. It is not based on social cohesion, nor are there any hints of state or other institutionalised solidarity. There is not even any trace of religious morality. The rider will most likely freeze to death, though this is not in the story. The last sentence reads: And with that I ascend into the regions of the ice mountains and lose myself to never return.
The depiction of cruel reality in the midst of a human community is tragic. Unfortunately it is also the experience of most people on the planet. I do not believe that the text is simply social criticism. Yes, it perfectly uncovers the mechanisms of oppression within only a handful of lines. Hut it also points to something else. The decision to travel by coal bucket is a key gesture that offers one way of reacting to an exasperating reality. I would like to generalise somewhat. The hero of the story, despite the desperation of his situation, does not mount any active resistance, attack, or other form of transformation of his circumstances. He does something different: he saddles up a bucket! I interpret this seemingly meaningless gesture as the reaction of the artist. It is the result of the artist’s thinking and actions. I don’t know to what extent it is also Kafka’s projection. But whatever the case the story is the reflection of a situation using art. The parodic portrayal of the trip demonstrates both a protest against humiliation and a critique of the circumstances. The apparent childishness of the gesture monumentalises the banality of the entire event to the level of a spectacularly absurd act. Kafka is here describing the process and possibility of the artistic gesture. He shows how the power of art is manifest in its affective expression, but how the powerlessness of art is manifest in its inability to transform existing life conditions. The ambivalence contained in the trip on the coal bucket is disarming. We are witness to a decision arrived at and based on circumstances beyond control. The trip by bucket is thus a way of confronting reality, a way of describing reality in a simple gesture, and a way of revealing its contradictions to others. The gesture yields up hidden connections. The situation does not change, but it discloses the trajectory for potential change. The starting point is despair, though it is an inventive response to the conditions. The invention of a new, as yet unmanifest reality of a possible future change.
This text introduces a film programme comprising films from six artists born in central Europe and what is these days post-communist Europe. In the locations of former local empires, on the periphery of the contemporary world. All the artists have experience with different types of disciplinary structures, both socialist and capitalist. All in some way reflect and criticise social reality and inequality. All are artists. All are bucket riders.
The individual films, in other words the moving images of the programme, are different in terms of both their form and context. They depict the social reality of the central European space over the last few decades. They show struggles for social justice, equality and democracy, but they also point to the uncertainty of artistic practice. The dignity of the bucket rider is manifest in each film in an appropriate form and by means of a radical gesture.

An Ambiguous Utopia

Socio-fiction

Text for Film, Third World and Forgotten Internationalism tranzit.cz presentation, Kyiv, 2018

In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin attemps to give a simple explanation of science fiction writing. She claims it is no futurological sub-genre or sophisticated prediction-making, but rather a thought experiment. She writes: “The purpose of a thought experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed, Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the ‘future’, on the quantum level, cannot be predicted – but to describe reality, the present world.” That is the motivation for the writing: an analysis of the present with the use of one’s imagination.

How to face the historical facts that determine our present, and which can be interpreted in various ways? When we speak of the heritage of 1968, someone born in Czechoslovakia will think of betrayal and the onset of a monstrous normalisation process. Someone born in what was then the first world will be reminded of the last revolutionary attempts, for a long time the final efforts to formulate an alternative to the capitalist regime, towards a more democratic system of self-governance. Taking nuances into account, we can view 1968 as an attempt to improve the socialist regime, to humanise and democratise it without necessarily returning to private property and market economics.

Within our family, 68 is seen as another historical betrayal of our nation. The first took place in 1938 in Munich, where the Western Allies handed part of Czechoslovakia over to Hitler, the second in 1968, when the Soviet Union and its socialist allies directly occupied Czechoslovakia. The narrative of “about us without us” was reproduced within our family, that is the conception of a small nation with its defeatist and weakness complexes. For my family, the blood and tanks in the streets completely erased the ethos of the preceding twenty years of a socialist state and its possible perspective, being replaced with an ostentatious anti-communism and shovinism, blaming the Russians for everything not going well. This view is still dominant in the Czech Republic today.

The second Czechoslovak narrative is more left-wing. The tanks stopped a unique experiment, a great chance for the socialist block, discredited by Stalinism. In a state where the market and private property had been successfully decimated, the Prague Spring was finally the right time when the people could take things back into their own hands and build a new socialism, socialism with a human face, finally a just regime.

In his “Study for an Analysis”, the Marxist philosopher and poet Egon Bondy, co-founder of the Ideological Leftist Association, attempted to give a more complex explanation of the Prague Spring and the invasion that followed. For Bondy, as a young Marxist, it did not take long after the 1948 revolution to rid himself of the illusion that the new socialist regime could have anything to do with the realisation of the ideals connected to the emancipation project, the possibility of man’s universal and versatile development, the elimination of exploitation or the establishment of a self-governing society.

His position on the changes that took place at the end of the sixties are also different. In Bondy’s view, the USSR and other socialist states had simply replaced a number of capitalist exploiters with a single one: the state. The state, that is the political elite that governs it, becomes the universal employer and universal exploiter of the entire society, using various hidden mechanisms to appropriate social value. Bondy saw most of the socialist block states as having opted for state capitalism. For him, the only state that still offered a revolutionary alternative was China, given Mao’s emphasis on self-governance during the Cultural Revolution.

His interpretation of the Soviet invasion is simple: the insubordination of the Prague service elite was punished by the Soviet Union’s ruling elite by military action. If the service elite does not follow orders, the ruling elite will simply replace it, which is what happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968. With this position, all emancipatory or revolutionary ethos is lost. Bondy thought the only way the Prague Spring could establish a socialist democracy and a social self-governance is if the initiative were taken over by the masses, creating change from below, through the people. That was not the case: the initiative came from the liberal-minded intelligentsia, which – if the renewal process were successful – would simply lead to new class divisions. With Petr Uhl – in the Ideological Leftist Association – they criticised the communists’ activities from the left, trying to create a revolutionary alternative of the development of society. They argued for a conception of socialism built on widely conceived democracy and societal self-governance, but avoiding a liberal conception or a restoration of capitalism.

Bondy saw similar tendencies in neighbouring liberal-democratic countries. Assessing capitalist economies at the end of the ‘60s, he writes that their tendency to monopolise and centralise gradually cancels out the relationships between the subjects originally competing, thus creating monopolies and gradually bringing the free market to the edges of state capitalism. This movement, says Bondy, creates an adequate political structure, which significantly restricts democratic political freedom and covers the elite’s monopoly as well as it can.

The second alternative is that the economic elite – whose influence on the state is indirect – begins controlling the economy directly, as in the case of Trump, Berlusconi or Babiš today. Cases in which oligarchs become state leaders are all the more common. Liberal-democratic institutions are preserved, the people can vote, but their real influence on crucial affairs is minimal.

The analysis of social systems that Bondy carried out is quite popular to Ursula Le Guin’s view: she was concerned with describing and analysing the contradictions of self-governing regimes and regimes built on competition and control, taking these ideas further and creating specific laboratory conditions for them within the sci-fi genre.

In her novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, she describes two planets, essentially two social order thought experiments: The first planet, Urras, has a developed market and an abundance of consumer goods, technological innovations and comfort, but all this comes at the cost of permanent oppression, exploitation and the creation of military conflict.

The population of the second planet, Anarres, created an anarcho-communist society in which everything is formed by the collective; a disciplined society where everything is subordinate to the higher ideals of egalitarianism and justice. This, in turn, comes at the cost of hunger, discomfort, the impossibility of individual development and a certain exhausted apathy.

The book curiously compresses two life experiences. Experience of life in real socialism and real capitalism. It does a good job of describing how difficult it is to communicate these experiences and their problems. Conflicts of actions which are incomprehensible or difficult to translate for someone from the other regime, yet completely clear for the reader.

To use a metaphor from the book, today, we all live on Urras. Anarres was completely absorbed by expanding capital and the experience of the Anerrasians was discredited. I, an ex-Anerrasian who has not yet entirely negated the Anerrasian in me like my parents did – I keep the Anerrasian ideals in my cultural products, such as my writing or films.

Both Le Guin and Bondy had no doubts that socialism is another historical era which must succeed capitalism. The restoration of capitalism we have seen in Eastern Europe over the last thirty years does not seem to suggest that anything of the sort is on its way. But despite the grim prospects, I’d like to believe, because the only alternative to something I call – very vaguely – socialism is the death of the planet.

We will now proceed to a short video-essay titled Socio-fiction from 2005. It’s my an early attempt to deal with the history of real socialism and the ensuing restoration of capitalism in Central Europe. It deals with the contradictions of the post-communist world and a description of revolution as an imperative of the eternal return. Perhaps it comes out anachronistic, and perhaps it describes reality insufficiently, just like today, both Bondy’s Trotskyist Maoism and Le Guin’s anarchist beliefs seem a little dated. We live in an era, in which political ideals seem more like thought experiments than a real political force, but that too can soon change. We cannot predict this, but we know it will happen.