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Civil society, civility and the market

- with special emphasis on the situation in the CSFR.

Presented at a seminar in Bechyne, Czechoslovakia, October 22.-26.1990.

I would like to start out with some very general remarks as to what in my perspective is a possible approach to dealing with the new political, social and economic situation in Eastern Europe in general, and thus also in Czechoslovakia.

First: Somehow a balance must be established between the market, the state and "civil society" and to a great extent this amounts to a decision as to what should be the role and actual contents of the latter phenomenon.

In practice this will probably lead to the recognition that a number of activities which were formerly carried out either by the state or in the "private" economy will have to be recaptured by some local institutions, giving local people responsibility and rights in areas where they did not have them before.

Secondly: In order to get a picture of how this will effect local social and political conditions it might be helpful with a critical analysis of these relations in small Western societies.

You might say, that this is an attempt to get a clearer vision of that "pluralistic" society which is one of the more immediate objectives of the Czech people and their new leaders.

In my view the most fruitful and positive theoretical contribution of Western social science to the future development of the East European countries would lie in a renewed and thorouggoing analysis of capitalism as a social and economic system.

In the German weekly "Die Zeit" (Nr. 49 - 1/12-89), Helga Hirsch writes about the situation in Czechoslovakia after the aborted "Prague Spring":

"Der harte Kurs einer dogmatischen Parteiführung hatte die Bevölkerung ins Private vertrieben, wo sie, noch geprägt vom Trauma der sowjetischen Invasion, passiv und schweigend verharrte."

One of the oft-repeated complaints about the situation in Western societies of the welfare capitalist type is exactly, that people have been driven into a state of self-centred and self-sufficient privacy, not being willing or able to care about the surrounding community and in many cases not even the closest of kin.

If this is true, one of the dangers of introducing a similar system in say Czechoslovakia would be that one would see a switch from one type of privatism to another, or to be more specific, from a privatism instigated by political suppression to one originating in the lures of an open market economy based on capitalist principles.

You might even say that the Western political systems have been adapted to this situation, that is of a sharp distinction between political and economic aspects of social life, leading on the one hand to widespread political passivity and a self-seeking economic attitude on the other.

The main reason that this situation so far has not caused greater social and political tensions must be referred to the fact that the market economy has proven capable of providing large majorities of the populations of Western societies with a materialistically very comforting life.

All doubts as to the likelihood of this being repeated in the countries of the East (not to speak of the Third world) must lead to very serious deliberations as to the actual introduction of the economic system of the West in these countries.

In this connection an estimation of the environmental and natural ressource situations must play a decisive role.

If there is a spectre haunting the global system to-day, it is the Spectre of Unbridled Consumption.

It probably wasn't a Kain-Abel type of society Alexander Dubcek was thinking of when in November 1989 he admonished the masses gathered in the Wenceslas Square to create "eine neue brüderliche Gemeinschaft".

But the hard cold facts seem to be that the possibilities of excessive consumption have led to a less brotherly and sisterly society in the West. This leads to the conclusion that people in the West and in the East who long for a more humane and caring ("brotherly") society would have a mutual interest in trying to create it.

The situation which has to be confronted by such eventual partners in co-operations has been thus described by Claus Offe:

"In den kapitalistischen Demokratien Westeuropas verbindet sich betriebliche Mikro-Planung mit volkswirtschaftlicher Makro-Anarchie, während die realsozialistische Makro-Planung unfähig ist, die betriebliche Mikro-Anarche unter Kontrolle zu bringen. Die Folge sind ungelöste Steuerungsprobleme hier, gravierende Produktionsrückstände dort."

This was part of his reply to an enquete "Ist der Sozialismus am Ende?" in "Die Zeit" (Nr. 50 - 8/12-89).

All of the above has been an attempt to argue that what we are now witnessing is the coming together of two social, political and economic systems, both with their particular advantages and disadvantages. In this situation it is of the greatest importance that we consider all the facts and we should be insistent on having all those problems which have been "forgotten" or "swept under the rug" brought out in clear daylight. Only then shall we be able to chart a course leading us in the desired direction.

When reading the very shrewd analysis by Vaclav Havel of the political situation under what he labels "post-totalitarianism", I came to think that this was in many instances a very precise description of the conditions prevailing in a capitalist market society. Havel, for instance, writes of the conflict between the aims of life and the aims of the system. (p. 37) This conflict in Havel's view is not a conflict between two socially defined and separate communities, that is, it is not a sociological conflict between definable groups, as I read him.

It is not one class suppressing the other, the line of conflict runs elsewhere:

"In the post-totalitarian system, this line runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his or her own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system. What we understand by the system is not, therefore, a social order imposed by one group upon another, but rather something which permeates the entire society and is a factor in shaping it, something which may seem impossible to grasp or define (for it is in the nature of a mere principle), but which is expressed by the entire society as an important feature of its life" (p. 37)

I take it that in such a post-totalitarian system some members of society are more victims than supporters, just as in a market system some are more owners/producers/capitalists than non-owners/consumers/wage-laborers and what have you. I would venture the proposition, that the capitalist market economy is as totalitarian in its effects in the economic sphere as the post-totalitarian actually existing socialism/communism has been politically in Czechoslovakia.

So the rhetorical question posed by Vaclac Havel in continuation of the above argument:

"Is it not true that the far-reaching adaptability to living a lie and the effortless spread of social auto-totality have some connection with the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity?" (p. 38)

must be answered by a resounding yes, that is true, and what more is, it must be taken very seriously.

In this connection Frederic Jameson in a recent article delivers a scathing critique of the ideology of the market, in many ways parallelling Havel's critique of post-totalitarianism.

Jameson's article is an attempt to sort out the problems of market, socialism and planning in the West and the East and he presents the thesis that: "..the rhetoric of the market has been a fundamental and central component of /the/ ideological struggle, /the/ struggle for the legitimation or delegitimation of left discourse. The surrender to the various forms of market ideology - on the left, I mean, not to speak of everybody else - has been imperceptible but alarmingly universal; everyone is now willing to mumble/...../that no society can function efficiently without the market and that planning is obviously impossible". (p. 98) According to Jameson this has led to the conviction that 'The market is in human nature', a

"..proposition that cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged, and that is, in my opinion, the most crucial terrain of ideological struggle in our time." (p. 98)

I am not intending to give here a detailed rendition of Jameson's analysis (in parts it is "deeper" than I can fathom right away), but I add a few quotes to underpin the conviction that I share with Jameson, namely that the introduction of and the workings of a capitalist market economy is much more than an instrumental act. "Market" is also a state of consciousness, a creed, a fundamentalistic belief and as with all other fundamentalisms one has to beware of its negative consequences.

According to Jameson:

"Market ideology assures us that human beings make a mess of it when they try to control their destinies ('socialism is impossible'), and that we are fortunate in possessing an interpersonal mechanism - the market - which can substitute for human hybris and planning and replace human decisions altogether. We only need to keep it clean and well-oiled; it now - like the monarch so many centuries ago - will see to us and keep us in line." (p. 106)

Or, one might add, like the Party until yesterday. Referring towards the end of his article to Thatcher and Reagan and their respective attempts at de-regulation, that is, attempts to get closer to the "pure" market situation (with their well-described consequences), Jameson makes the observation that the 'market' turns out to be as Utopian as socialism has recently been held to be. And he finishes his article as follows:

"Under these circumstances, nothing is served by substituting for one inert institutional structure (bureaucratic planning) another inert institutional structure, namely the market itself. What is wanted is a great collective project, in which an active majority of the population participates, as something belonging to it and constructed by its own energies. The setting of social priorities - also known in the socialist literature as planning - would have to be part of such a collective project: it should be clear, however, that virtually by definition the market cannot be a project at all." (p. 110)

Reading the various manifestos and documents issued in Czechoslovakia during the period of "normalization" as reprinted in the book by Jiri Pelikan, manifestos and documents to a large extent written by the people now in power in Czechoslovakia I guess, it seems to me that there is a great degree of correspondence between Jameson's analysis and those statements of the 70's.

To come back to my introductory remarks about the market, the state and civil society: if we desire civil society to be the topos where the control of both the market and the state is grounded, it calls for the construction of an "ideology" of the civil society strong enough to suppress and at times put out of function the ideologies of state and market respectively.

This is no small endeavor considering the tendency in most theorizing and philosophizing until to-day to identify civil society with the economy/the market.

I wonder whether there is some kind of overlapping between such a "new" interpretation of 'civil society' and the notion of the parallel polis, introduced by Vaclav Benda and summarized by Vaclav Havel in this manner:

"...the parallel polis points beyond itself and only makes sense as an act of deepening one's responsibility to and for the whole, as a way of discovering the most appropriate locus for this responsibility, not as an escape from it." (Note 1 - p. 81)

After these more abstract deliberations about the market economy in the West and some references to what some of the leaders in the CSFR have been saying about their situation, I'll turn to the concrete situation in CSFR.

Local Self-Government in CSFR in a period of transition.

When intolerably harrassed by their children messing around in the house, Danish parents may exclaim in a cynical-humorous tone: "Go play on the highway!"

After having listened for two days to descriptions of what is going to happen in the CSFR in the nearest future, it seems to me that people in this country say to each other: "Let's go playing on the highway!"

Our task now seems to be how best to suggest some rules of this new game, "Playing on the Highway", rules which will ensure a minimum of casualties during the time (hopefully short) that must elapse before it is decided to end that game.

What are some of the characteristics of this highway on which the game is going to take place? Let me suggest a few.

There are no more traffic lights. Most direction signs have been removed or made incomprehensible through rough treatment and/or lack of maintenance. Fenders along the dangerous parts of the road, preventing cars from falling into the abyss, also are almost non-existent. As for the traffic itself, it is coming from all directions at once, not in any particular side of the road, and even the type of vehicles has changed: the well-known cars and lorries are now being bullied by gigantic corporate trucks on the search for parking lots. On the other hand traditional means of collective transportation seem to be vanishing, heading towards terminals or scrap-yards because of lack of fuel.

Well, I'll stop metaphorizing before I get carried away and now make an abrupt switch to the notion of "civil society". In this context, namely, I would define the degree of civility in society according to the determination and consequentialism with which the many new local governments in CSFR get down to the act of making rules and setting priorities for their respective communities, now that they have made the decision of trying to make it on their own, that is, relying on some sort of autonomy.

I think that the inevitable starting point should be a taking stock of the existing state of life in the community: living standards in terms of consumption of food, clothing, housing, etc. But also social and cultural consumption: health service, education, artistic activities, a.s.o.

Likewise a realistic assessment of the local economy, the labor market, etc. and its weaknesses and potentialities should be carried out.

Preferably all this should not be done in economic terms only, but in a descriptive and coherent manner which would allow the greatest amount of citizens to relate to and acknowledge as legitimate the ensuing depiction of their actual life situation.

Next step would be to establish and initiate a public debate as to what kind of changes in this status quo will be likely in the future and most importantly, which of the changes the community wants to fight against and which ones it wishes to promote.

In this process a very important element will be to locate interlinkages between various forms of activities, for instance between education and economic improvement. (I deliberately use the concept "improvement" instead of growth).

Is it, for example, economic improvement if a certain proportion of the citizens start to make money for themselves, thus enabling them to send off their children to better schools elsewhere, or new, private schools in the community, with the probable consequence that the basis of the communal school system will be eroded, leading to deterioration resulting in uneducated and perhaps unemployable youths?

What I have been able only to hint at here amounts to an attempt to establish a genuine and realistic confrontation between the workings and mechanims of a market economy and a desire to create a relatively autonomous (and self-sustaining?) community.

I fully realize the extreme degree of idealism in my suggestion, but then again, it seems to me that the intentions of the people of the CSFR also are rather idealistic. So there ought to be a preparedness for idealistic admonitions.

In many places the ability and the willingness to engage in activities as described above will not exist. What to do about that?

Would it be totally out of question to have president Havel write a letter, urging the newly elected bodies to carry out a small number of recommended activities? Such a letter could probably have a beneficial effect, and at least not do any harm.

It might be accompanied by a number of "model situations" which with great likelihood are about to confront the communities. Such recommendations could include exhortations to set up citizens groups or committees as advisory and/or working groups related to the local government. Advocacy and consultancy from national and/or republican institutions (academies, universities, statistical offices, etc.) could be offered to the extent available.

This, in a way, would amount to an attempt of implanting the notion of the "parallel polis", of which I quoted president Havel above, right in the midst of the new local governments in the CSFR.

In what I have been writing here, it seems that the state has totally disappeared. That is for good reasons, since during the discussions here at the seminar I have not been able to trace the slightest indication of any foreseen significant role for central government, be it on a national or republic level.

It goes without saying that state activities must develop but it also seems that this should not happen until the local governments have developed some minimal capability and willingness to engage in discussions as to the future role of the state.

Until then it seems that the role of the 3 central governments (apart from the necessary judicial activities) will be of a mainly administrative and consultative character. But this, as far as I grasp the mood in the country, is well within the expectations of most of the population.

Bechyne Castle, October 24, 1990.


Havel, Vaclav "The Power of the Powerless" in Keane, John (Ed.) The Power of the Powerless Palach Press, London 1985

Jameson, Fredric "Postmodernism and the Market" in Miliband, Panitch & Saville (Eds.) Socialist Register 1990 Merlin Press, London 1990

Pelikan, Jiri Socialist Opposition in Eastern Europe - the Czechoslovak Example Allison & Busby, London 1976