Thirty Years After: Invasion of Mob Sensibility

We are confronted with the kind of public instinct that the ancient Greeks feared. It made them wary of democracy.

Thirty years is a long time. It is an entire third of a century. Thirty years is also quite a short time. If you think about it, the founding of America only amounts to three 80-year lives. So how is the Czech Republic, and indeed Central Europe, doing after three decades of freedom? It depends on whom you ask. We are experiencing an unprecedented period of prosperity and geopolitical stability. Lives are getting longer and healthier. The environment has improved dramatically. We are not at the forefront of scientific-technological breakthroughs but are their front-row beneficiaries. Nevertheless, there is a distinct feeling among chattering classes that some- thing has gone badly wrong.

The very institutions that guarantee our security, prosperity and freedom are under attack. The President of the United States is no fan of NATO. European integration has gone into reverse. The free press is under siege. We are experiencing the largest democratic uprising against liberal democracy ever. It is a post-modern kind of uprising. Although pessimists have seen it coming, there is no actual shooting in the streets. Instead, its agents use social and alternative media to spread disinformation, organize and with a great deal of help from their Eastern friends in the Kremlin, charge the ballot box. They are energized, and their wrath is aimed at the cosmopolitan elites.

This is the kind of mob instinct that the ancient Greeks feared and which made them wary of democracy. Plato’s bet was on the philosopher-king and a class of stellar minds and bodies fit to govern. The Roman Republic gave limited voice to tribunes but devoted itself to what would later become known as divided powers and checks and balances. Tocqueville and Mill were greatly concerned with the tyranny of the majority. The former favored the American experiment of a mixture of democratic and republican institutions as a good compromise for modern government.

Modern egalitarian society has empowered ordinary people, their tastes and predilections. It has given them self-awareness, self-confidence and access to the public space. They have realized that they are the majority.

We no longer live in direct democracy and the levels of political representation make people uneasy. They call for referenda to push through silly, unexamined ideas faster. Parliaments are a nuisance. The judiciary is unelected and therefore “undemocratic”. The senate costs too much money and should be abolished. Public service media are elitist and should be controlled. In a way, the spirit of direct democracy is back by way of electronic social networks that in turn feed populist politics.

Why? The answer is complex. It is apparent that many people feel with some justification that the elites despise them. This has always been true, however, so what has changed? Modern egalitarian society has empowered ordinary people, their tastes and predilections. It has given them self-awareness, self-confidence and access to the public space. They are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and have realized that they are the majority.

No longer will the elites upbraid them for misconduct—Look how many people are like us! Andrej Babiš, Jaroslaw Kaczyński and Matteo Salvini were bound to happen. Václav Klaus and Viktor Orbán were bound to be turncoats. The technology and mass consumption has made ordinary taste screamingly visible to everyone. The elites noticed. They began to despise the regular Joe’s reality shows, pop music and TV entertainment a bit too loudly and a bit too conspicuously for their own safety. Envy, jealousy and resentment are a mighty motivation.

A corollary to the invasion of the public square by the mob sensibility is its ability to talk politics in that very public space. In the past, discussion of public issues took place in regulated public forums, which guaranteed at least some level of quality of content. Rabble talk was confined to pubs. It currently directly affects politics at the highest levels. The purest expression of mob language is Donald Trump’s tortured syntax, limited vocabulary and lack of any real content, as far a policy or, God forbid, even a governing philosophy is concerned. Another important element of the current political equation is that most of the people who determine election results and many politicians do not understand the key assumptions behind representative democracy. They misunderstand that our republican form of representative democracy is not built to make speedy decisions. It is bound to be clumsy in crises.

While our technological age makes everything “real-time”, our institutions are not supposed to function in “real-time”. Reflection is valuable. It is more important to prevent the abuse of power than to give the powerful too much of it to supposedly run the government as they run their commercial firms. Most people do not think of this; they see the twenty-eight governments and EU Commission as powerless to quickly solve the immigration crisis or sovereign debt. Democracy has no quick and simple answers and the proper sensibility is reflection and patience. Populism on the other hand charges ahead. Let’s turn the EU into a loose group of nation-states, or, even better, let’s outright abolish it. We should govern ourselves with no meddling from Brussels!

That is why those who argue that mainstream politicians should listen more to ordinary people and their concerns—lest they are taken over by populists—are wrong. Decent politics cannot grow too close to illiberal populism without losing decency. And let’s be brutally honest: the concerns of ordinary people are more often than not fuelled by prejudice, xenophobia, racism and debased taste. Therefore what I am suggesting is not a naïve road to self-defeat, but on the contrary, it is the only way to preserve and rehabilitate genuine politics.

Mainstream politics should find novel and persuasive ways to explain to people why populists are wrong, why we need checks and balances, and why European integration and not state sovereignty is the right answer. It should also look back and analyze its errors. In Central Europe, the misjudgments are more relevant than in the West, as they relate to the post-communist past.

Perhaps more than in other Central European countries the revanchism of the past few years in the Czech Republic has taken on the face of neo-normalization. Normalization was the Czechoslovak communist policy of the 1970s and 1980s involving a return to totalitarian “normalcy” after the “aberration” of the Prague Spring of 1968 with its half-measures and semi-reforms. Nearly the entire twenty-one years of normalization were characterized by partly cynical, partly opportunistic and partly intimidated resignation on the part of the majority. It was a time of widespread snitching and ratting on neighbors to the communist political police (today’s Prime Minister Babiš was one of those many secret police snitches). To avoid trouble, everyone parroted ideological nonsense in return for a regular supply of subpar meals, clothing and weekend trips to modest country cabins.

The new regime of the early 1990s did almost nothing to signal a clear, decisive moral break from normalization. It felt it did not have to do so. People were suddenly drunk on the new freedoms that they acquired on the cheap: most did not have to do anything to get it and consequently did not value it. At that time in the first years after the Velvet Revolution, people were hungry for the formerly banned exile literature and music. It seemed as if the communist regime-sanctioned celebrities were done for, their era expired and their careers essentially dead.

While our technological age makes everything “real-time”, our institutions are not supposed to function in “real-time”.

But within ten years, all of them, even the schlockiest ones, perhaps primarily the schlockiest, staged a comeback. They were a telling backdrop to the fact that almost no communists went to prison for obvious crimes. There was no political retribution, the communist party itself was never disbanded and former high ranking party members and secret police agents went into business. Some of them became fabulously wealthy. Among today’s oligarchs who control much of the Czech media and a chunk of Czech foreign policy, several ex-communists and secret police agents can be found, and perhaps even agents of the Soviet KGB.

Babiš himself is a fitting avatar of the revanche. He has been a successful constant in Czech politics since 2011 when he founded his party, which he runs as a family business with no interference from the outside. When in early October, Karel Gott, pop-singer and the most visible symbol of the officially sanctioned culture during normalization, died, Babiš in an attempt to swim in the stream of the singer’s popularity, attempted to stage a state funeral with all the pomp and circumstance.

Over the past decade, dozens of real heroes of anti-Nazi and anti-communist resistance, important scientists or real personalities of culture died, and none of them was awarded a state funeral. This honor was now being bestowed on an acolyte of weird conspiracy theories who in 1977 led the charge against Charter 77 and never publicly apologized. Most Czechs could not care less. The ethos of normalization has returned with a postmodern twist. You can now shout against it in public provided you are ready to sustain the swamp of invectives directed at you on social and alternative media by the mob.

The new regime of the early 1990s did almost nothing to signal a clear, decisive moral break from normalization. It felt it did not have to do so. People were suddenly drunk on new freedoms.

Populism would have happened anyway even without Babiš and the cadre of former communists and secret police rats (cf. Salvini, LePen and others). But the stench of neo-normalization was not necessary. It is an entirely self-inflicted wound that is not evident in Poland and Hungary despite their odious governments. It is a special Czech way to an illiberal tomorrow.

Tomáš Klvaňa

is Visiting Professor at New York University Prague and Senior International Management Consultant. His most recent book is Perhaps Even a Dictator Will Show Up (Možná přijde i diktátor, Bourdon Prague 2017).

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The Powerless Are Tired: 1989–2019

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