Bananas ceased to be a symbol

In the Czech society, a new generation that is no longer enthused by the ethos of the November changes or the existence of freedom and democracy has come to claim the word.

Photo: WikimediaCommons/Gampe


Anticommunism is passé!
Art should be engaged!
Democracy may not be the best arrangement! Let’s not fear ideologies!

A few years ago, such statements could not be found in Internet discussions, but today, they have become a common part of editorials in culture periodicals. And these are written by people who are not fools. Something has changed.

I am member of the gründer multi-generation, today’s 35 to 50-year olds whose worldview was defined by the fall of Communism. We grew up believing in human freedom and in democracy as its enabler. We took part in a major historical coup, and thus, for us, the world was never a given – it was an opportunity. However, a quarter of a century has already passed since that defining historical moment, and within this timeframe a new generation has arrived.

Its members were born after 1989 or shortly before, and did not experience Communism, the Velvet Revolution or the euphoria of the 1990s. To them, the values that we naturally share are just one of the many possibilities, and now, it seems, not even the most attractive one. To them, the story lived by our generation is incomprehensible.

The birth of a story

If we flip through the photographs from 1989, we see that the banners above the gleaming faces bore predominantly positive messages: collective pathos or demands for basic human rights. The Communist regime that was being revolted against, was not being condemned aggressively in any way. Slogans such as “Jakeš into a trashbin” 1, “Let’s celebrate Štěpán without Štěpán” 2or “Not all Vasils are the same” 3 expressed with a playfulness, humor and a moral prevalence of the winners mere contempt for individual representatives of the State Party.

Remarkable. As if the purpose of the revolution was not so much a fundamental disagreement with Communism as a system (Gorbachev’s Soviet Russia had been, after all, the inspiration for democratic change), but rather with the ethics and aesthetics of accompanying phenomena: the manners of the Communist government, the stupidity and arrogance of its leaders, censorship and economic backwardness. Not much was needed and Alexander Dubček had almost assumed the position of the new head of state. The fresh ex-Communist Marian Čalfa even led the government for two and a half years after the revolution. Emigrant Karel Kryl and regime protégée and award winning singer Karel Gott sang the national anthem in an embrace on the balcony of the Prague’s Melantrich House, and the dissident Havel, once imprisoned by the Communists whose parliament now unanimously elected him president, ceremonially pledged his allegiance to the Socialist Republic.

In this atmosphere of collective pathos, intoxication from an easy victory and a future that was unveiling like a velvet carpet, nothing was easier than forgiveness. Indeed, the ‘truth and love’ had just triumphed. However, this central motto of the revolution also has its latter part, speaking of ‘lies and hatred’; and if the revolutionary euphoria accented the first half, the semantic center of gravity gradually shifted towards the second one, defining evil. It is here that the ethical opposition shaping the story of the past quarter of a century was born. Opposition, in which the present was set against the past as “good” versus “evil”. The post-November democratic regime naturally built its ethos on this contradiction, and used various means to keep it alive: passing the lustration laws, granting access to secret police files, founding “institutes of national remembrance”, issuing regular appeals to ban the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (Komunistická strana Čech a Moravy, KSČM), making declarations prohibiting cooperation with Communists on the Left and mobilizing the Right before elections. For the new democratic parties, such ethical delineation represented a competitive advantage, which afforded them a share in the “good” merely by not being associated with the Communist past. The Communist Party, which had neither dissolved nor renamed itself, was equivocally identified as the “evil” to be readily blamed for all contemporary problems.

However, this watertight association of the past with the Communist ideology and the elevation of the duality of “present vs. past” to the question of “good vs. evil” has lead us to symbolically hand over the rule of the entire second half of the 20th century to today’s Communist Party. And with this, we have not just left it with the blame for the crimes committed, but also with the credit for the sentimental memories of several generations as well as the undeniable positives, even if these often emerged in opposition to the government. Thus, at the moment when the ethical tension between the past and present has weakened with the passing of time, the Communist Party has gained part of the “good” from the past while simultaneously – having been politically ostracized for the past 25 years – it has been exempt from the blame for parts of today’s “evil”. It may then appear as a viable alternative for further development, as evidenced by the young generation’s rejection of anticommunism.

The weakening of ethical opposition was also reflected in the failure of two major parties in the latest parliamentary elections. The past had already become so remote that the Civic Democratic Party (Občanská demokratická strana, ODS) lost its moral absolute resulting from proclaimed anticommunism. It suddenly found itself confronted not by the long gone communist history, but its own recent past. Nepotism within the government as well as within the party functioning, which had been up to then disguised by the moral absolute, were exposed in a number of cases, and ODS began to sink.

A similar process also affected the Social Democrats (Česká strana sociální demokracie, ČSSD) who constituted an alternative to the strong ODS in a system dominated by two major political parties. The slump of ODS implied an end to this right-left mésalliance, degrading ČSSD to a position of only one of the many parties. The factual victory of ANO in the super election years, 2013-2014, confirmed the erosion of the binary system, as well as an end to the Communism – Anticommunism opposition (although the Chairman of the ANO movement faced accusations that he was a secret police agent; this did not make it to the media or his political adversaries’ election campaigns). It seems likely, then, that in the future, voters will opt for ad-hoc assembled movements without a past, as having a history increasingly looks like a burden rather than an advantage.

Unwanted nation

The ethical opposition has marked society not only from the perspective of practical politics, but routine rejection of the Communist past has simultaneously given rise to the idolization of liberal democracy as a system that is a priori good. Any adverse phenomena (social inequality, mafia capitalism, etc.) were, on these grounds, regarded as a deviation or a one-off defect, not as a fundamental problem. This moral dimension of post-communist democracy, however legitimate, also allowed the transmission of democratic principles into areas where they do not work, and may even have disastrous effects.

One of these areas is identity and self-confidence of the national community. Condemnation of the past entails, among other things, obliteration of the bonds that are based on this past. Thus, since the 90s, our identity has ceased to be associated with the term “nation”, because this represents the type of interpersonal relations that are not founded on “instrumental reason” and are not subject to democratic electoral cycles. They do not spring from the promise of individual happiness – on the contrary, they are fostered by a common awareness of responsibility for the past. The constitutive principles of post-communist liberal democracy thus became individualism and the formation of temporary utilitarian alliances.

In addition, nationalism largely appeared as a relic of Communism, as it is precisely the totalitarian governments that tend to exploit the notion of a nation to define their role in history. Emphasizing nationalism accentuates the type of interpersonal relations and social order based on destiny as opposed to democratic choice. At the same time, though, the nation was perceived as opposition to the totalitarian regime, forced upon us by the Soviets, and a guardian of democratic identity. November 1989 with its flood of the red, blue and white flags in the squares could also be understood as a manifestation of such national awareness. Nevertheless, as soon as the threat (prompted by the Cold War and experienced directly by the pressure of the Communist rule) that stimulated this national awareness had passed, the nation crumbled into a myriad of individual interests, and as these comingled, a democratic society came into being.

This was tellingly exposed by the breakup of Czechoslovakia. While Slovaks still perceived their existence within the federation as vulnerable, which resulted in struggles for emancipation, Czech society responded by sincere misunderstanding. Instead of accepting the efforts of Slovaks as an opportunity to redefine our own national interests, we interpreted these events with a mixture of a sense of injustice and contempt for such expression of infantile nationalism.

The moral dimension associated with democracy weakened the more or less visible network of relations, within which Czech society had identified itself as a nation. For the identity of a Czech man of the early 90s, it was more important whether he was an entrepreneur, a conservative, gay, an ecologist, or an ice hockey fan than the fact that he was Czech. Indeed, the concept of the nation seemed to be a historical obstacle to the advancement of these new democratic identities. A good example of this is the fact that the term “Czechia” has never taken root here, and even in everyday communication, we prefer to use the Czech Republic, which refers to a constitutional arrangement, and where the “Czech” is a mere attribute. After all, this is understandable because the country did not spring up from the logic of historical development and articulation of national interests, but rather as an administrative byproduct of Slovak emancipation.

In the end, being Czech did not provide any special reasons to be proud during the 90s. In an effort to get rid of the evils of the past, the decisive political powers of the 90s ousted historical questions from their agendas. The administration of history was placed in the hands of “experts”: historians who were to disclose it, and lawyers who were to judge it. However, applying the historical and legal lens could bring nothing but the conclusion that all the good in our past had been due to a number of outstanding individuals, while the nation as a whole kept on failing. Thus, since the early 90s, Czech society was continuously being blamed for its past failures: collaboration with the Nazis, wild post-war expulsions, the crimes of Stalinism and a near consensus on the immorality of the normalization years. This flagellation, labeled “coming to terms with the past”, was by no means a manifestation of national self-confidence. Rather, it served to boost the moral credit of the new regime, and triggered further atomization of society.

When ethics supersedes aesthetics

Coming back to the problem of ethical opposition, we keep on touching on the issue of discontinuity. As it was, the November changes that practically occurred overnight disabled the process of democratization that had taken place in the 60s: the integration of the values that emerged within the context of the prevailing regime with those shaped in opposition. This radical break with past was then negatively reflected in the arts and education, the arenas where historical continuity is one of the paramount principles.

If art accepts the perspective that the past is equal to evil and the present is good, it can mean only one thing: the victory of ethics over aesthetics. The art loses the ability to contemplate over the recent past on a more profound level, and above all the will to question the values upon which the present is built. It ceases to be a social institution and a corrective force and resorts either to closing up or adhering to the entertainment industry. The fact that over the past 25 years, not a single piece of work has materialized in the domain of literature, theater or film that would manage to – without an unambiguous aesthetic key – grasp and name something fundamental from the post-November development, shows that the ambitions of art are directed elsewhere: they are wasted on maintaining the rites within the ghetto of insiders or pandering to commerce.

However, if art as a whole does not feel the need to confront something “outside” of its own realm (be it sociopolitical developments or traditions), it results in the breakdown of a common framework needed for understanding individual works of art. The art becomes individualized and the criteria for its assessment become relative, too. Ethical positions paradoxically bring about aesthetical disorientation. As it is, the qualitative indicators to “measure” art are derived from its links to tradition on one hand (which, however, was discarded as ethically worthless), and from its confrontation with current social values on the other (to which art has been loyal). The only universal criterion thus eventually becomes a liberal democratic value: the number of consumers. And it is obvious that this indicator is also slowly becoming accepted by the art critique that perceives the majority orientation of artwork with growing respect. The critics seem to have given up on thinking through aesthetical programs and the search for general artistic values; they came to view art as a series of isolated phenomena. This process points to a danger that looms over art whenever it starts to take the world as ethically unambiguous: it loses the aggravation, sensitivity and the sense of wonder that enable it to conceptualize the whole from particularities.

Hence, if we read through the discussions claiming that art should be ideological (in the sense that it advocates a particular worldview), if new art organizations are being founded and if art is attempting to inhabit public spaces, it is yet another outcome of the breakdown of that post-November ethical opposition. The young generation especially expresses its need to look for new frameworks within which it can define its own values and shape its own language.

The ethical opposition had a similar effect on the education system, primarily on its top tiers. The universities were, next to the artists, the most significant social force that instigated Communism’s fall. Thus both the intellectual elites and artists sensed a natural responsibility for the new regime, and they shared loyalty for the new political powers. Or quite the contrary: the art scene as well as the universities were ashamed of their long-term loyalty towards the previous regime because they had resigned their role to act as a natural opposition to the governing power, and so they redeemed their “guilt” with fervent support of the new regime. But whether it was feelings of shame or responsibility, the result was the integration of liberal democratic mechanisms into the university system.

Instead of exclusiveness and continuity, which form the basis of university education, a democratic majority orientation – that is, the mass character of education and temporality of research – became the guiding principle. In the latter case, the periodical democratic election cycle was transposed onto the system of support grants, which shifted the orientation of scientific research towards short-term goals with an emphasis on their applicability.

In the spirit of the new social values, the education and research came to be labeled as “investment”. The mass character of education and temporality of research resulted in the devaluation of university education as well as the birth of an inflated bureaucratic system, which has maintained its hold over the institutions of higher education until today. Yet, these bureaucratic mechanisms are not able to capture the complex nature of education and research: when entrusted with power, they may substantially paralyze both of these activities.

Coming to terms with the future

The November revolution was not merely limited to an unequivocal “no” to the past – it also meant a big “yes” to a better future: free elections, withdrawal of Russian troops, accession to NATO and the EU and visions of economic prosperity; the latter proving remarkably capable of bringing society together in the early post-November years. It entailed both a promise of fulfilling the consumer dreams from the days of normalization as well as a shared sacrifice – that we were willing to tighten our belts in the name of future prosperity.

However, today, many years after we began loosening them again, there are no more free holes left along their length. The financial crisis did not result in a dramatic drop in living standards, but it pointed out that prosperity had its ceiling. Our society managed to achieve a certain level of wellbeing, yet, its growth has slowed to the extent that it is no longer an evident indicator of positive development. On its own, it can hardly continue providing life perspective and motivation. In other words, it is plain to see that material prosperity is not a value capable of being a person’s lasting motivation, let alone answering all questions related to future.

The tight link between the future and economic prosperity was of course understandable. It offered the prospect of fulfilling the desires upon which the European “normalization” of the 70s and 80s was built after the enthusiastic and idealistic upsurge of the “Golden 60s”, which the Socialist society was unable to answer. Material wellbeing was therefore inevitably associated with Western values such as freedom and democracy. However, the very same causality also implies that freedom and democracy are established through economic prosperity, and this should thus become a widely shared ethical value on its own.

And there is one additional problematic aspect of the future. If it takes on an ethical value (because the past has lost it), the present becomes subject to moral disorientation. Unlike the past, where the good is specifically identifiable via a broad consensus, the future lacks any such norm-setting dimension simply because everyone imagines it differently. This leads to the hypertrophy of the legal system and a reinforcement of bureaucracy. In order to safeguard the good of the future, bureaucracy spawns a myriad of paranoid laws, decrees and other red tape to describe situations that may hypothetically arise. However, by doing so, it frequently generates the very same situations that it is trying to prevent. Worse still: nowadays, the complexity and inconsistency of the legal-bureaucratic system even prevents a man from acting in line with reason and natural ethics.

Besides the faith in the future, which, having grown out of mere negation of the past, appeared attainable, there was also freedom. Freedom represented an ethical value all its own, too, because it was in opposition to the totalitarian system. As such, it was not considered to be a means of doing something else, but rather a goal in itself.

With respect to the communist past, freedom was understood primarily as independence and was closely connected to individualism. To be free equaled being released from the territorial, social, political, bureaucratic, moral and in extreme cases also the legal restrictions. In relation to the future, it was associated with economic independence, which was frequently expressed by the catchphrase ‘to be over the water’. To have more money stood for having a greater future as well as greater freedom. ’Being over the water’ meant being definitely relieved from the past.

To be the storyteller, not a character

We are getting to the point of how the generation of today’s 20 and 30-somethings is different. They do not live in ethical opposition towards the past anymore, and thus, they do not perceive the future as a value on its own. And since the future is no longer the non-past and thus it is not easily attainable, the freedom in which this generation grew up, is also not a goal, but merely a prerequisite. And above all: since freedom does not relate to the past anymore, “liberation” does not have a meaning.

To put it simply: the new generation does not see a value in the fact that it can vote, travel and speak freely; a value is only defined by who one votes for, why one travels and what he speaks about. This generation grew up in an environment of freedom understood as individual independence, and since this understanding did not result from life experience, it brings a sense of loneliness. The questions of “Whom?”, “Why?” and “What?” and the answers to them are then the means to break the involuntary isolation, and to search for and share social ties and visions for the future.

The values that defined the previous multi-generation – freedom, democracy and future (and to a certain extent also consumerism) – are not shared by the upcoming one. The past is a continuum; they do not see the need to define themselves against it, to the contrary, they naturally look back for the landmarks. They look for these within a collective in order to confirm their supra-individual validity. What’s more, members of the forthcoming generation are even willing to give up a portion of their own individual freedom so that the collective that they feel a part of can set the new norms.

The 90s enabled my generation to venture into the world that was suddenly available. With the exception of personal dispositions, there was virtually no limitation preventing us from self-realization. Today’s generation comes into a world that is already densely inhabited. There are age-old structures and norms; and in particular: it is a world that once again has a past. In order to succeed in it, the young ones look for allies against those controlling it and they are finding them in places where our generation has weaknesses: an unsorted relationship with the past and individualism. To them, Communism is merely a part of the continually perceived past. They do not see it as the empire of lies and hatred. Instead, they are looking for the positives, which would enable them to upset the ethical certainty of their fathers. At the same time, they suspect that in a world built on individualism, it may be easier to succeed as a team.

The catchphrases about a return to Communism, a revision of democracy or a need for new ideologies, which the young generation sometimes whisks around, those phrases that make the hair stand on our heads, cannot, however, be interpreted in light of our own experience. A more persistent denouncement of the past is certainly not the right response. Otherwise, we might expect a renaissance of the former orders in a form that is not even desired by those proclaiming these mottos.

The last quarter of a century has simply brought about a generation that does not share our experience;  to them, figuratively speaking, a banana is not a symbol of economic prosperity, democracy or freedom, but only a piece of fruit. The facts, or the ethical weight that we attribute to them, do not help us find a common ground. In order to share and hand over the essence, we must begin to tell a story. It is only the language of this story that is intelligible across generations – it does not construct an ethical opposition, but forges a continuity through the will to understand. And above all: if we start telling a story, we cease to be its actors and become the narrators instead. This, however, means that we lose the right to judge our past. For should our story be credible, it must not be guided by the logic of a purpose, but solely by that of a story.

And since a story is neither good nor bad from an ethical, but only from an aesthetical point of view, we have to put aside the dualism of the “evil past” vs. the “good present”. Yes, we may feel nostalgia for that simple and easily comprehensible world that is gone for our generation, however, we should also perceive the pathos of the task that makes us responsible for the history. For we will not only talk about it to those that have not lived through our experience, but perhaps primarily to ourselves – so that we can go back in time. We will come to understand that it is not possible to settle accounts with the past, because history was not – it is, and the only thing to which we are entitled is to try to understand it.

The original Czech version of this article was published by the daily Lidové noviny, in its print section “Orientace” (17th January, 2015) 

Notes:

  1. In Czech “Jakeše do koše“. Milouš Jakeš was the then General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czecholsovakia.
  2. In Czech “Na Štěpána bez Štěpána“. Miroslav Štěpán was a high-ranking Communist politician believed to have ordered violent suppression of the opposition rally in Prague on 17th November 1989, who thus became the symbol of normalization and Communist oppression. The slogan expressed the demand for his resignation, so that the Day of St. Stephen (26th December) can be celebrated without him in power.
  3. In Czech “Není Vasil jako Vasil”. The slogan pointed to a contrast between two representatives of the Communist régime – Vasil Mohorita, Chairman of the Czech Central Committee of the Socialist Youth Association and Vasil Biľak, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia until 1988. While the first one represented the young generation of the party functionaries, willing to accept certain level of reforms resembling the Gorbachev´s perestroika, the latter embodied the regime’s hard line. He was one of the signatories of the letter inviting the Warsaw Pact armies to help suppress the Prague Spring of 1968 and as such was widely considered a traitor.
Miroslav Balaštík

Miroslav Balaštík

is the Chief Editor of the magazine and publishing house Host.