The crisis in which we find ourselves today has dimensions that we hardly fully realise. It is a crisis that has both economic and social aspects and threatens to tear apart the fundamental pillars of the Czech and European economies. It is a crisis that is poised to end Europe’s historical trajectory that began at the end of the 15th century and to make Europe definitively a province in a new power constellation with its centre of gravity in Asia.
It is a security crisis that has already taken the form of a war in the east of our continent. This conflict is gradually escalating and threatens to erupt into a world conflict or the use, even if only tactical, of nuclear weapons with immeasurable consequences in the context of the climate crisis. It is therefore a truly existential crisis.
But this mega-crisis (cumulation of several different crises) is by no means a sudden phenomenon; the clouds of this storm have been gathering over our homes for a very long time. The will to prevent this storm has been lacking.
The global financial crisis and the breakdown of the transformation consensus
The roots of the current multiple mega-crisis are longer. They go back to the global financial crisis of 2007/2008, which hit the Czech Republic with full force in 2009. Since the financial crisis, things have never returned to pre-crisis normality. On the contrary, the normal has become an interregnum, an interregnum in which the old dies in convulsions but the new has not yet been born.
In Czech politics, the effects of the global crisis became apparent during a series of political crises between 2010 and 2013. Several important changes took place: the existing “neoliberal bloc” of established political parties began to fragment (the formation of TOP 09) and failed to cope with the local version of the crisis (the fall of the Topolánek government, the 2010 elections, the fall of the Nečas government, the 2013 elections). At the same time, new political forces emerged – Babiš’s ANO (founded in 2011) and Okamura’s Úsvit (founded in 2013, now SPD).
These political forces differed from the existing additional political projects for single-government use (Věci veřejné, Čtyřkoalice, Unie svobody) in that they have remained in Czech politics since then. Thanks to the introduction of the direct presidential election in 2013, the position of the president has been strongly politicised.
the Czech “post-communist transformation” did not end in 2004, with the accession to the EU, but between 2012-2013,
when the populist Miloš Zeman, hated in the neoliberal circles of the “Prague café” (pražská kavárna – the name is used for metropolitan establishment as a sign of their “snobbism” and out of touch with reality), and the pro-business ANO, which offered a programme of political pragmatism instead of ideology and “values”, gained significant positions of power.
The transformation order, which ensured the alternation of the tame ČSSD and the neoliberals from the ODS with their allies in power, began to gradually disintegrate. It also meant the disintegration of the social consensus that had formed in the early 1990s. Although the transformation consensus was never completely homogeneous, it nevertheless set the boundaries and the main points of reference for society and politics.
This order was based on a belief in market capitalism and the trickle-down effect, on a targeted weakening of the state and the public sector, on anti-communism, on an uncritical admiration for the West as the source of Czech prosperity and the model to follow, on a barely suppressed nesting orientalism towards everything “Eastern” and on comprador policies expressing an alliance between foreign capital and the neoliberal bloc.
Its somewhat ornamentalist underpinning was the media-driven political kitsch hypocritically talking about the values and morals that the neoliberal bloc’s policies were supposed to embody despite systemic corruption and various scandals.
The misery of post-transformation resentment politics
The rise of Andrej Babiš and ANO began in the year between 2012 and 2013. Babiš’s policies were challenging in their pragmatism rather than in their Polish- or Hungarian-style populism. First of all, Babiš, as a representative of the Czech oligarchy, broke the existing rules – he went from big business to big politics without the intermediaries from ODS under the slogans “run the state like a company”, “we don’t bullshit, we work” or “it will be better”. But Babiš’s electoral support also openly rejected the previous anti-communism and lustration mechanisms that had been operating in Czech politics within the framework of the aforementioned political kitsch.
Miloš Zeman, who served as president, made good use of the newly emerging conflict line in Czech politics opened up by the 2009 crisis, namely the split between “metropolitan Czechia” and “peripheral Czechia”. Paradoxically, Zeman as prime minister was one of the creators of this cleavage, but this did not prevent him from exploiting and articulating it politically in presidential campaigns and presidential politics.
This increasingly visible split between the metropolis and the periphery is a consequence of neoliberal globalisation and transformation, i.e. a side effect of the economic model that the Czech Republic chose in the 1990s under the leadership of the neoliberal bloc and within the framework of the transformation consensus.
The pragmatic ANO and the populist president represented the post-transformation face of Czech politics (not to mention that both were politically created by the transformation).
The word post-transformation implies an ambivalent (not entirely negative or dismissive) relationship to the post-1989 developments. In a sense it already represents a very limited critical reflection of this development, it contains some correctives but it certainly does not depart from the basic premises; it is a mixture of continuity and discontinuity. Thus, post-transformation does not mean a complete break with the period between 1990-2012, but it does contain protest elements that are no longer in line with the transformation order and ideology.
Post-transformation Czech politics has to a large extent become a politics of resentment (collectively shared injustice).
Resentment has gradually strengthened over the last years and has been linked to the awakening from the transformation haze, to the “transformation wounds” and losses, and to the reality of the developments after the global crisis of 2007/8 (EU crisis, migration crisis, slowdown in convergence trends), which incidentally severely damaged the authority of the West as a model to follow.
The political hegemony of Babiš and Zeman lasted until 2021. Their post-transformation position was very shaky, however, thanks to the great personal handicaps of both politicians. Although the policies of Zeman and Babiš exploited the new cleavage between the “metropolis” and the “periphery” in different ways, they never entailed any thoughtful advocacy of the interests of the periphery and its citizens or the formulation of political alternatives. In this respect, both were fully part of the post-transformation interregnum.
The following chart illustrates the basic dynamics between the two blocs from 2013 to 2021 based on the electoral results in the parliamentary elections. The data shows the rise and gradual weakening of the post-transformation parties (ANO+SPD+KSČM and others) and the consolidation of the neoliberal bloc (ODS+TOP09+KDU+Pirates and STAN), which led to the current stalemate (parity). The figure also reflects the very ambivalent or transitory role of Czech social democracy (ČSSD) in relation to both trends after 2013.
The consolidation of revanche and neo-normalisation
In 2021, change is coming. The neoliberal bloc has joined together in two electoral coalitions, the formation of which was made possible by the intervention of the Constitutional Court, led by Pavel Rychetský, in the electoral law.
The neoliberal coalition split into the “old” transformation forces (ODS, TOP 09 and KDU-ČSL) and the “new” products of transformation in the form of the Pirates and STAN. Of the post-transformation bloc, only ANO and SPD made it into parliament with a total of almost 37%, while the neoliberal bloc strengthened to 43% (from previous 38% in 2017). This not-so-strong hegemony is the result of the collapse of the KSČM (communists) and ČSSD as parliamentary forces (and only allies of ANO in political isolation by “neoliberal bloc”), as well as the fragmentation of electoral support between the KSČM, ČSSD, Trikolóra and Přísaha-Oath (a total of 15.5% of the vote, of which 10.9% went to rather post-transformation parties with protest elements).
This almost non-parliamentary 11% makes the hegemony of the neoliberal bloc much weaker than it seems from the net results of the parliamentary elections. Leaving aside parliamentary politics, almost 48% of the electorate in 2021 realistically subscribed to post-transformation parties of some form. However, some of these votes remained outside parliament.
Unfortunately, the main political motive of the neoliberal bloc is political revanche now, which is supposed to be the main tool for restoring its lost transformational hegemony in Czech society. In its revanchism towards the post-transformation and resentment camp, the neoliberal bloc increasingly relies on the normalisation, i.e. factually illiberal, roots that permeate the transformation of the 1990s.
The Czechoslovak normalization of the 1970s and 1980s, in fact, ideologically shaped and deformed many of today’s politicians and journalists as well as political culture. This fact creates a new mix of neo-normalisation and revanche, which relies on the logic of war and begins to securitise public space and Czech democracy, understood as the preserve of the neoliberal bloc, which has identified itself with democracy as such.
The purpose of this specific “revanchism” (i.e. not revanchism in the original sense of the word) is to conquer the entire public space as a territory for one political opinion to be associated with democracy and moral superiority.
The normality is supposed to be a kind of “return” to the 1990s and to the comfortable hegemony of transformational certainties. But it forgets that this hegemony was consensual. Repression is no substitute for consensus.
Thus, today’s power wants to cement itself through silencing, censorship, bans (shutting down websites), firing from work for “wrong” opinions, labelling with terms like a traitor, Putin agent, pro-Putin revisionist, “dezolát” (i.e. in Czech slang a basically homeless person, the name became to be used as general swear word for those citizens with critical stances towards policies of neoliberal bloc) or disinformer. In essence, this raises the possibility that any critical, dissenting, different or otherwise opinion, interpretation or position can be labelled as a service to a foreign power (meaning Russia and China), treason or a threat to state security.
This political revanchism and neo-normalization are merely local manifestations of the morbid symptoms of interregnum and as such are desperately out of the touch with changing reality. They show, firstly, that the neoliberal bloc is stagnating in thought, unable to cope with the new problems and challenges of the present, disoriented by the changes in the world, and, above all, unable to imagine anything else, and, above all, unable to accept the withering away of its own neoliberal hegemony.
The latter is undoubtedly a manifestation of the complete personnel desert in contemporary Czech politics, which is woefully lacking in distinctive and educated personalities with political sensitivity and a backbone of their own. There are, of course, economic interests in the background, because it cannot be forgotten that the neoliberal bloc is closely linked to foreign and Czech capital and has been essentially oligarchic since the 1990s.
Ten years on, Czech society, the state and politics find themselves in a situation where resentment and revanche are the main driving forces of politics.
In times of crisis like the current one, this is very bad news. These two political emotions have very material contexts because they only express the different socio-economic realities of metropolitan Czechia and peripheral Czechia, which are no longer understanding each other and are losing common ground for a new consensus.
The ongoing mega-crisis is likely to reinforce this reality and deepen the trenches of social inequalities. It will become increasingly difficult to find a basic consensus because the crisis and its effects will only strengthen resentment, while the logic of revanche will lead to an intensification of repressive mechanisms that are in direct contradiction to consensus and only represent a way of not managing political conflict in times of mega-crisis in a democratic, i.e. non-violent, way.
This text has been first published in Czech on the site of !Argument Magazin, the partner of Cross-Border Talks.