The forbidden word peace and the politics of fear

Veronika Sušová-Salminen warns against the normalisation of war and the narrative of the war in an already polarised Czech society.

The reactions of Czech politicians to last Saturday’s 70,000-strong protest in Prague demonstrated that the Czech establishment generally lives in a different world from the vast majority of citizens. This is perhaps not surprising. But in times of deepening social and economic crisis, the spiral of which has only just begun, this is a huge problem.

The fact that fringe political forces with sometimes bizarre attitudes, opinions and political styles managed to get almost a full Wenceslas Square, a huge area in the centre of Prague, for a demonstration speaks for itself.

Why this happened is quite simple: they have managed to reach out to people on what is now a crucial issue for them. I do not think the majority of people were in Wenceslas Square to make it clear that they wanted the Czech Republic to leave the UN or the WHO, or because they feared the “dilution” of the Czech nation, or to deny Covid-1, as some of the organizers claimed in the recent past). In today’s context, all this becomes secondary in terms of mobilisation.

It is clear that people came because they want peace and prosperity, not war and misery. They don’t agree with recent government policies.

Indeed, war and misery were not promised to them by politicians in their election campaigns and programmes. On the contrary, the current development is a fundamental disruption of the unwritten democratic consensus. This fact simply cannot be without political consequences. The question is, however, how will politicians decide to address the crumbling consensus in society and politics?

Anyone sensible is aware that Czech society is struggling with high inflation (17.5 % in July), falling real wages (10 %), a high degree of insecurity in the context of a weak welfare state. In addition, Czech welfare and middle class are based on the shaky foundations of a dependent economy. Furthermore, we will be very badly affected by the energy crisis because we are an economy based on industrial production.

And there are other nuances – for example, the fact that the Czech Republic is one of the largest energy exporters in the world and at the same time it has (in the long term) some of the highest energy prices in the EU or Europe. It would be hard to find a better example of dependency. But the current establishment is still living in the old dogmas of the 1990s when regulation and interference in the workings of the “invisible hand” of the market were taboo. The answer to almost everything was deregulation and privatisation. The conservative government of Petr Fiala (ODS) has no experts, no political imagination and no courage to abandon the economic dogmas that were effectively completely challenged by the global financial crisis. These people came into government with a plan to cut budget spending, reduce the deficit and not fundamentally change anything. And now we are facing an unprecedented social crisis caused by geopolitical pressures.

The government’s reluctance to resort to more substantial and systematic price regulation for the benefit of its own citizens, and not to keep chaotically postponing these steps, is in stark contrast to the policy of sanctions that the Czech government vigorously supports.

Sanctions show that politics (or geopolitics) fundamentally directs the market and market forces. Thirty years of the narrative that the hand of the market is invisible is being shown outright to be a lie. Of course, it has always been a lie, because neoliberalism was also deregulation by political choice. The present still has one thing in common with classical neoliberalism: both have led and are leading to the gradual impoverishment of workers and the middle class, i.e. the gradual dismantling of modern democracy. The speed of this process just accelerated. Some are already talking about the biggest drop in living standards since the transformational recession of the 1990s.

Now, in the Czech context, the very dangerous logic of the “argumentation” of war has been adopted, which normalizes war and also gradually colonizes the already distorted and limited democratic field. Prime Minister Fiala’s words about a “fifth column” being behind the Prague demonstration are a clear manifestation of attempts to delegitimise more than organizers of the protests. It is also an attempt to delegitimise demands and concerns of the people dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the crisis. Are you criticizing the government? You are an agent of Putin. You want to be warm in winter and you think it’s a human right? You are a traitor and a member of the fifth column. Are you worried about your job and your house? You must be “pro-Russian”. You want to live in peace? You’re pro-Putin and you want to take us back to 1989.

The problem is not just that government attitudes are out of touch with reality and continue to polarize society.

And the mismatch with reality and polarization is the basis for huge problems in times of crisis (in the old days they were called revolutions or uprisings). Normalisation of such narratives means two things. Firstly, it legitimises the repression of dissenting views, opinion or otherwise, and seeks to close down the public space, clean it up and establish a unanimity that will be controlled only by the “holders of one truth”. Thus, it reinforces a trend that has been around for a longer time.

Note also how words like “we are at war” or just “fifth column” are becoming normal. It is probably no coincidence that Army General Petr Pavel has now announced his presidential candidacy with words about “order” (řád) and “calm” (klid). But calm is not the same as peace, and peace is unlikely to be promised to us by the former chairman of the NATO military committee now.

Secondly, the normalisation of war may also be the preparation of society for war. Since Western great powers are indeed teetering on the edge of direct conflict with Russia in relation to the war in Ukraine, this is a very warning sign. This signal is all the more warning because the Western world is in a protracted internal and external crisis. It would not be the first time that a protracted crisis has been resolved by war. But war may have seemingly rational objectives, but as a process that affects society and individuals, the home front and the front, it is characterised by a high degree of irrationality.

History teaches us that war is often a denial of the values behind which it hides. And the quiet dismantling of democratic consensus, freedom of speech, along with increasing verbal aggression, does not bode well.

History also testifies that by fighting the enemy we are beginning to resemble him.

Thus, while Russia has banned the word “war”, we are slowly but surely banning the word “peace”.

And so we are increasingly using the words “fifth column”, while in Russia they talk about fifth columns and traitors in advance. By the way, the phrase “fifth column” in the Russian context was very much cultivated and promoted for years by the favourite of the Western media, Alexander Dugin).

I dare say that the majority of the citizens of the Czech Republic do not want to become cannon fodder in any war. Unfortunately, the current Czech government is more and more openly showing that it would not be particularly frightened by such a possibility. On the contrary, we hear almost daily about the fact that “we are at war” and that people must adapt to it and keep quiet. But war is a failure of politics, and it is made by the politicians we elect, who are (still) nobodies without our votes.

At a time when peace seems about to become an act of treason and politicians cannot resist the drums of war, full squares are the only way to show dissent and concern. Where are the days when freedom from fear was a fundamental pillar of the political agenda for Western politicians? And they knew well why…

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