Czech It Out: Politics and Post-Communist Silly Dancing, part 1

Prague Castle seen above the Charles Bridge

Prague Castle seen above the Charles Bridge

The Bemolution briefly gave up snuffling for rotten vegetables in the Somersetian wilds and got on a plane to the Czech Republic. Obscurely, we were joined by a cabin-ful of Labour Party activists, and spent the resulting trip ignoring the architectural loveliness and brooding politically while dribbling goulash down ourself.

There’s something quite deflating about present day Prague. In one sense, the gothic-spired Bohemian rhapsody is very much intact – the Charles Bridge still sturdily but gracefully spans the Vltava, Prague Castle still bathes the city in stately restraint from its hill-top roost, and thousands upon thousands still waste precious minutes of their mortal existences waiting for the Astrological Clock in the Old Town Square to do something remotely interesting.

If you believe the standard jolly ‘End of History’ interpretation, benighted Central-Eastern Europe has been gloriously born-again since Communism fell. In many ways, it’s hard to disagree – the former Eastern Bloc is now studded with vibrant, prosperous culture-capitals drawing edgy city-breakers and stag-doers to soak up the ambience, see the sights, and/or drink Pilsner til they burst. That said, providing pleasurable holiday destinations to foreign tourists is very different from guaranteeing the happiness and wellbeing of the people that live there.

Prague was the first stop on the Bemolution’s strange political tour of the Czech Republic. Like everywhere else we went in the country, if you blew away the sunny rhetoric and talked to the ordinary Czech on the street, it became clear that its post-Communist experience has been mixed. Positives there were aplenty – vastly increased freedom of speech, for one, not to mention democracy (or at least the dysfunctional representative government that passes for democracy in this day and age, but we won’t quibble).

On the other hand, subjected to Western-brand faceless consumer-capitalism, Praguers and Czechs more generally are learning the joys of unemployment, yawning inequality, job insecurity, soulless consumerism, unaccountable corporate dominance, and waking up to find eight MacDonaldses have sprouted in your historic city centre.

One of far too many MacDonaldses in Prague

One of far too many MacDonaldses in Prague

They’re also having to come to terms with a fair amount of disappointment – long-awaited liberal democracy hasn’t eliminated the country’s widespread political corruption, or proved as participatory and responsive to the wishes of the people as some had hoped.

Throwing even-handedness out of the window for a minute, the Bemolution found the political landscape of the flashy neoliberalised Czech Republic downright depressing. Communism was socially, politically and morally catastrophic. But if you believe that a world without it is still wrenchingly unjust, full of needless suffering, dominated by the arbitrarily well-off, wasteful, callously insular and rocketing towards environmental disaster, and that some kind of new and different left-wing alternative is the only feasible way out, this isn’t the place to go if you want to come away filled with hope for the future.

‘Watery’

In Prague, we tagged along with the trip’s Labour contingent to the headquarters of the Česká strana sociálně demokratická – the Czech Social Democrat Party. Although it’s spent years languishing in opposition, the CSSD is one of the Republic’s two major political parties, and the largest in terms of membership.

You wouldn’t get that impression by visiting Lidovy dum, its historic base in central Prague. It was originally adopted as party HQ back in 1907 and was in active service until 1948 when it was confiscated by the Communists. In 2000, the CSSD finally returned after a decade of costly legal wrangling. Externally it looks nice enough. But inside, beyond the sleek and funky reception area, it was bizarrely empty – of furniture, and, more crucially, of human beings.

The ruffled student-looking fella manning the front desk – slackened tie, turquoise shirt, rogueish stubble – also turned out to be our tour guide, tea-maker, presentation-giver and, until about ten minutes from the end when he was joined by a more senior colleague, sole representative of Czech Social Democracy. Perhaps the rest of the party was out to lunch. But on a weekday afternoon, in Prague, in the headquarters of the biggest political party in the Czech Republic, it was very odd to find the English outnumbering the Czechs by at least five to one.

We were sat down in a sparse Ikea-haven of a conference room and given a brisk powerpoint history of the Party – founded in 1878 as part of the Austrian Social Democrats, major player in the eventual dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire and emergence of an independent Czechoslovakia, briefly flourished during the 1920s and 1930s, abolished by the occupying Nazis, restored, abolished by the Communists, restored again, this time to become one of the main political parties of the Czech Republic, the end.

The CSSD seems to have emerged from a rattling few decades slightly unsure of what it is. In the Q and A session that followed, our guide was asked what the CSSD stood for, and seemed completely stumped for an embarrassing length of time. His English was flawless, so he didn’t have that excuse. Neither could you point to his youth or juniority – later we were joined by the CSSD Shadow Minister for Human Rights, and she didn’t give much more of a satisfactory answer either. Eventually, together, with some effort, they were able to reel off a list of vacuous Blairite buzzwords like inclusion, diversity and fairness, which at least ticked the box for actually responding.

To be brutally honest, although we tried to give them the benefit of the doubt on the day, the Bemolution already knew that the CSSD wasn’t much to write home about. It’s followed the dismal trajectory of so many other social democratic parties since the fall of Communism. Shedding its ‘left’ identity, along with its commitment to any meaningful definition of equality, the party has largely accepted the scandalously unequitable, dehumanising economic model the West has gone crazy for over the last thirty years. It might have a relatively large membership, but, like Labour back in Blighty, largely ignores it. Instead, a lofty managerial elite calls the shots, selling itself on the basis that in power they’d be a bit nicer than their opponents in the rampantly neoliberal ODS. 

‘Ego’

Milos Zeman

Milos Zeman

 Back in the board-room, things nose-dived cringe-worthily when someone innocently asked about the CSSD’s prospects in the upcoming Czech Presidential election. Awkwardly, the party is being trounced in the polls by the charismatic front-runner, Milos Zeman, who also happens to be ex-Prime Minister and former CSSD leader.

Czech Social Democracy has a real towering ego problem. Every few years, a senior party figure seems to have a secssionist strop over fairly petty personal grievances and leave to form their own grouplet. Rather than having any substantial ideological difference, these new parties are personality-driven, bob around for a couple of years achieving nothing but eroding CSSD support then sink without a trace. Zeman, crucially, has done away with his party label and is standing as an independent, sensibly cottoning on to the country’s palpable anti-political feeling. He’ll probably win.

Eventually, the discussion meandered off into less fractious areas. The Shadow Minister talked passionately about trying to combat rampant racism against Roma gypsies. Both she and her sidekick seem to relish the chance to vent about what they saw as deep-set political apathy amongst ordinary Czechs. And, above all, they angrily railed against what they saw as right-wing bias in the papers, on TV, and within society more generally.

To an extent, the Bemolution had sympathy with points two and three. A kind of right-wing anti-politics thrives in the Republic – people disdain a distant, professionalised governing caste, something arguably magnified by memories of the venal Party elite so dominant in the Communist era. It’s very rare – even rarer than it is in Blighty – to find someone enthusiastic about one of the political parties.

And yet, despite their apathy, the underlying views that appear when you talk to a worrying number of Czechs are eye-wateringly right-wing. It’s an alien political culture in which to be radical, progressive, and forward-looking has come to mean freer-than-free market capitalism, privatisations, and working longer and harder with less workplace protection – in other words, a neoliberal wet-dream. And in that culture, despite the pervasive disgust with all things political, when it comes down to it a majority of people seem to reluctantly plump for the hard-right ODS over the wishy-washy CSSD.

A fairly dismal situation, then. But the whinging Social Democrats hardly help matters by slavishly adhering to the right-wing consensus. If people want hardcore neoliberalism then they’re more often than not going to go for the full-fat version over the wimpish semi-skimmed one. Yes, for now Czechs seem to love high-octane consumer capitalism. But politics is a circular process – if no-one is seen to offer some kind of alternative to the status quo, then no-one is going to be won over by one. The risible idea that Yankee-style cut-throat capitalist liberal democracy is the only show in town gets further enforced, and people don’t even bother trying to imagine something beyond it.

Click here for part two. Previous Czech-related posts: Why the hell were you in the Czech Republicplus a shoddy history of region.