17 May 2017

The Right to a Normal Life – The New Conservatism in the Czech Republic and Europe

That European politics, from its nexus in Brussels to the individual nation states, is in a state of flux is hard to dispute. Indeed, the result of the US presidential election indicates that politics throughout Western civilisation is in a similar state.

The symptoms of this turmoil can be felt in many different areas. For instance, the European migration crisis revealed stark differences in approaches and solutions between established and, until recently, relatively ideologically distinct parties on the one hand, and political coalitions which had a common position on social and economic issues, on the other. The difference between how what we call the old left and the new left have approached the migration crisis is as wide as the differences between the right and the left. Old-style socialists have found themselves on board the same ship as conservatives by saying no to the naïve and idealistic vision supported by neo-Marxists and liberals of a world of fluid borders where everything belongs to everybody. Similar differences can be found around the issue of deepening European integration and, even more, in the issue of values.

 

CONFUSION AND CONTRADICTIONS

 

We have witnessed such confusion in the Czech Republic before for example, on the left wing, where, during the 2013 presidential election, the old left was represented by Miloš Zeman and the new left by Jiří Dienstbier. Their mutual animosity for each other did not and does not have merely personal reasons; it is truly ideological. Although they both rose from ČSSD and were both supported by ČSSD at different stages of the election process, they were extremely far from each other politically. The situation was similar on the opposite side of the spectrum – many die-hard right-wingers would not cast their vote for Karel Schwarzenberg, who, at the time, was chairman of a nominally conservative party; instead, in the second round of the presidential election they tended to vote for Zeman. The reason was not a mass outbreak of confusion but rather a metamorphosis of political confrontation. In economic issues, ODS and TOP 09 are very close to each other; in value-related issues or approach to the EU, however, their positions diverge.

It appears that terms such as “right-wing”, “left-wing”, “liberal” or “socialist” may not do any more. We have reached a turning point where political divides as we have known them have lost their relevance. What will come next? Our idea of political (and party) dividing lines today is based on the notion that the key sociological split which determines politics is the famous socio-economic dichotomy of owners vs workers or, simply put, the right vs the left. However, this confrontation has never been the only one since modern politics began; in fact, it is a relatively recent line of demarcation.

The tension between the centre and periphery triggered by the national revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries formed a much earlier split. What followed – at least in some countries – was a vehement debate between the state, which tried to limit the power and influence of the (mainly Catholic) Church in society, and the clergy. Combined with strong secularisation, this schism between the Church and the state was a deep one. The beginning of the Industrial Revolution was followed by a rapid growth of cities – both in their size and their significance. Rural areas responded with resistance. The divergence between urban and rural areas was one of the products of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, the Industrial Revolution also changed the nature of the economy by its creation of capitalist entrepreneurship and hired labour. It is this split of factors of production between capital and labour where the fourth and, to this day, the most significant dividing line within society can be found; one that gave birth to the great Marxist revolutionary movement and has influenced the political mainstream until the present day.

These splits have since blurred and merged, at turns making the other stronger or weaker. They help us understand why the right and the left wing did not always oppose each other. The main rivals of the Tories in England were not the Labourists; they were the Liberals. Competition between parties in Ireland does not take the shape of left against right. Polish politics, where the economy is not the major issue of split, incomprehensibly for many, can be explained similarly. Political commentators and activists find the weakness or complete absence of the left in these countries confusing, and, because they are used to the dichotomy of thinking, they use the terms pro- and anti-European (which, in their mind, are synonymous with good and evil). To summarise, there have been numerous oppositions; on the other hand, it is true that the right–left dichotomy has been dominant (with a few exceptions). The fact that this was the case, and maybe even still is, does not mean, however, that it will remain so.

First, the situation is complicated by the fact that even when the nominal right– left confrontation is preserved in the form of right-wing and left-wing parties opposing each other, such parties have inherent splits in them. This can be demonstrated by the example of the British Conservatives and Labourists and their approach to the key issue of the UK’s future in the recent referendum on leaving the EU; in other words, to the issue of regaining sovereignty, or continuing to be governed from Brussels. Neither of the parties was unified in its position. What other political issue, however, should bring parties together to adopt a shared vision of the world and their future other than such a basic and critical one? However, at this crucial moment, the parties really were not acting like parties – economic liberals and libertarians found themselves on board the same ship with many socialists and nationalists.

 

SPLITS IN THE CZECH CONTEXT

 

Even Czech politics was not defined by the confrontation between right and left for most of its modern history. Later, after the fiction of having only one national political entity – the National Party – to protect Czech interests against German expansionism vanished in the 1870s, a new tension point between old and young, or the Old and the New Czechs emerged. After the party system fragmented in the 1890s, Czech politicians spent a few years focusing on the clerical/anticlerical conflict (the state/the Church). Later, when Austria collapsed and the power shield of the Church subsided, the topic literally disappeared in the first few years of the new Czechoslovakia. Besides the relationship with the Germans, the politics of the new state was dominated by the confrontation between urban and rural areas, the latter represented by the strong voice of the Agrarian Party. Where is that divide today? Who has heard about it?

Similarly, immediately after the fall of Communism, the right/left confrontation was not the topic of the day. It was more about Communism/anti-Communism, although the latter position included a wide spectrum of approaches, and so Petr Pithart, Václav Klaus, Petr Uhl, Miroslav Macek, Pavel Dostál and a few other politicians holding entirely different views could work together within the frame of the Civic Forum, although their cooperation was necessarily a short-lived one.

Czech politics gradually took on the features of Western-type political confrontation after Miloš Zeman clearly defined the Social Democratic Party as opposed to the liberal-conservative ODS. That evolution however arguably came just twenty years before the apparent twilight of the Western division of politics as we knew it.

THE NEW SPLIT

 

Looking at Western Europe and other parts of the Western world it becomes obvious how much the identity of the main poles of political confrontation is changing. Witness the advance of the National Front of Marine Le Pen in France; the Austrian Freedom Party is pushing aside the so-called right-wing and the left-wing; neo-Marxist Syriza in Greece has already won two general elections; the election of Donald Trump in the United States, etc. All these political entities and politicians go beyond the traditional division and speak to voters from originally different political positions.

Zygmunt Bauman said that we have been living in a liquid time for a while; we can even compare it to quicksand covering our former certainties. Politics – national and regional – is becoming more and more dominated by so-called post-material issues not primarily related to the economy but more centred around value-related priorities.

Agenda-setting here was until recently done by progressivist forces, often labelled as neo-Marxists, the New Left, etc. We will see below that what they have in common is the rejection of traditional society and human nature. Lately, probably since those forces have begun exercising significant pressure in advancing their agenda, a reaction truly worth its name emerged. This reaction is coming from forces that define themselves as opposed to those deep and often irreversible interventions in the life of society, forces representing the desire for a normal life.

Such a progressivist approach is often represented by some social democratic or green parties. The fact that such post-material topics did not play an important role in Czech politics for a long time can be explained by the influence of Miloš Zeman and Jiří Paroubek, old socialists who did not give room to progressivists in their Social Democratic Party.

But times are changing. Socio-economic topics are giving way; we less and less argue about the form of employee protection or entrepreneurship support, or whether we prefer direct or indirect taxation; instead, we spend increasingly more time with arguments such as whether a same-sex couple should be entitled to child adoption. Social democrat MPs like Mrs Nytrová are asked to leave their party due to their opinions on homosexuals, rather than due to their support of direct or low taxation.

In fact, while we have accepted a relatively high level of taxation and protest against corruption – real or presumed – we do not really argue much about why exactly the state takes almost half of our earnings, and possibly even more through other taxes. Instead, we are more concerned about smoking in pubs.

As a society, we have given up our ability to protect our country with arms. Several coastal states admit their inability to defend their borders. We have completely forgotten that one of the few basic roles of any state is to defend its territory. We do not even defend our own culture and civilisation; also in our country, we are witnessing the spread of this Western self-flagellation which despises civilisation created by white men. Which of our so-called serious politicians will say out loud today that our civilisation has been the most valuable one of all throughout human history?

We wilfully degrade centuries-old power structures, both from the right and the left. We incite children against their parents. States led by neo-Marxist elites are increasingly trying to interfere in family life and sexual education. Instead of analysing reasons and consequences of juvenile criminal behaviour, we wonder how it is possible that young offenders are kept behind bars and cannot leave the institution for the weekend. In correctional facilities for adult offenders, human rights and the dignity of inmates have become the priority at the expense of the ideas of just punishment, remorse, correction and protection of society. A burglar breaking into my house has rights and I am not allowed to hurt him. Shoplifters have the right not to have their pictures hung up on the door of the shop from which they stole.

Instead of tackling the problem of the looming demographic catastrophe seriously, we question whether our right to privacy is violated by indicating gender in our passports or ID cards, or whether there are enough women in top management of private corporations, or we study the issue of public toilets for transgender people. Instead of fairy tales where good defeats evil and where Mommy and Daddy live happily ever after together with their children, we write and publish fairy tales of two princes who took a fancy in each other, with a wonderful wedding for a happy ending. Instead of trying to encourage our children to compete because competition would stimulate them, we remove this principle out of fear that the gentle feelings of those with less competitive natures would get hurt.

Above this all, we wilfully break down the mechanisms of sovereign nation-states, falling for the illusion of a supranational paradise empire where all the revolutionary social benefits could be shared without any annoying debates.

Of course, the lines above offer a concentrated view of trends and topics that have been around for several decades; the problem is that now they begin to prevail in political debates and push aside issues related to the organisation of state or the economy.

 

SEVERAL REASONS

 

No single reason can explain such developments. One of the possible reasons is the fact familiar from other civilisations which had reached their zenith and whose decay was manifested, among others, by their devoting energy on insignificancies and banalities instead of important issues. Another one is paying less attention to economic issues as capitalism had vanquished its rivals by the end of the last century. Whether we can still talk about capitalism given the high degree of regulation and state interventions is a moot point. Too many things are taken for granted and not thought worthy of protection. The general conviction in this part of the world is that capitalism can be upgraded by ever more perfect regulations. We are valuing safety more than freedom.

The fact that economic laws related to capitalism still defeat all regulation, however, is obvious even in Greece. When Alexis Tsipras needs to get more loans, he fulfils not his Marxist but at least to some degree (neo)liberal requirements.

A significant reason why socio-economic growth is diminishing can be very likely explained by the fact that more and more people are in the position of employees or depend on state redistribution. Many entrepreneurs depend on public contracts, the status of many so-called “independent” contractors is a fig-leaf to cover the so-called “schwartz system”, and many NGOs would not survive without public support. When the Church lost its former role, both clerical and anti-clerical parties got weaker and gradually disappeared. When the true private entrepreneurs disappear from public space and almost everybody is classified as an employee or strongly dependent on public authorities, how can the classical right-wing and left-wing parties remain strong?

 

JOINT PATH OF THE OLD RIGHT AND THE OLD LEFT?

 

This paper is not meant to be the umpteenth version of the hundred or more years old prophecies that the confrontation of right and left was going to lose its meaning. It is going to, but with entirely different consequences. Usually, prophets declaring that the right–left split will fade into oblivion are, in fact, heralding the end of political confrontation as such and the beginning of expert governance free of opposing parties that will bring only one possible solution. At the same time, this includes an effort – maybe even an unacknowledged or completely unconscious one – to take the unnecessary element out of discussion. I would like to make a different conclusion from this weakening of the socio-economic confrontation. Political confrontation as such does not end there. And it absolutely does not mean that opposing parties will become extinct. The same way as Czech parties of political Catholicism did not cease to exist, but became minority but still functioning parties, the same way as parties representing the periphery did not disappear in certain countries; the same way as the Old Czech party did not immediately disappear, parties representing explicit right-wing or left-wing economic principles will not necessarily go extinct. What would change would be that they would no longer represent the two main poles of political competition. In some aspects, they might even find something in common. It can even happen that the old right and the old left will find a way to cooperate (as did the Old Czechs and the Young Czechs in the past when they even ended up in one joint party) in their fights against the new left of social engineering and its stance on refugees, political correctness, climate and the rights of various, often dubious minorities.

The opposition of freedom and non-freedom will not disappear; it will instead be clad in a different gown, not the one we have been familiar with. The key issue is and will be the state’s freedom of applying and enforcing laws serving the interests of its citizens in its territory, and to decide itself who will be allowed to live there. It will be individuals’ freedom to think in natural categories and bring up their children in line with their beliefs and conscience. It will be the freedom of promoting the opinion that personal failure and criminal behaviour of individuals cannot be always explained by societal structures.

The poles of these debates today cannot be defined by old parties like the British Conservatives and Labourists, or the German Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. In issues of values, the split goes beyond such formations. That is the reason why some politicians forge seemingly surprising, unexpected alliances. Forces which aim for a radical change of human nature and society position themselves against those defending the remaining parts of the existing order, hoping that “the mean old world would die”.

 

CULTURAL MARXISM AND AN OPPORTUNITY FOR CONSERVATISM

 

In this changing situation, a great window of opportunity has opened for conservatism. Although it does not look like this in the Czech Republic today, it can easily happen that after the moral kitsch of “anti-corruption revolution”, “reconstruction of state”, etc., the conservative view of the world (not of the economy) will regain its position as one of the major poles of public discourse as it has done in some other countries. Conservatism represents and will continue to represent the effort to preserve the world in its – at least partially – comprehensible and natural form. The main adversary of conservatism will not be embodied in a socialist or even a communist party with their focus on the economy; instead, it will be a progressivist formation that pursues progress with an emphasis on re-education of our children and ourselves.

However, this will be a not so new confrontation with Communism – not the old Communism but the new, cultural one, with its strategy developed by A. Gramsci, G. Lukács and the whole Frankfurt school after the First World War. We tend to fail to perceive Cultural Marxism, and we forget that Communism is more than a mere socio-political doctrine which laid a foundation (more or less accurately, or perfectly) for political regimes from Berlin to Kamchatka and from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is more than a mere guide to nationalisation of factories, mines, the tailor’s three-legged stool and the last calf in the farmer’s shed.

Endorsing (neo-)Marxist ideas without an explicit connection with the term Marxism or Communism makes an interesting strategy. Looking at the six main moral commandments of Marxism as defined by Józef Maria Bocheński, we can see that at least the first two ones can be discovered in several political movements and doctrines inspired by Marxism to the present day, although they do not necessarily feature the problematic word “Communism” in their names. The fight against these movements must become the mission of conservatism today and tomorrow.

The first of these commandments reads “Everything for man” and is based on rejecting any kind of transcendentalism and the belief that humans are the superior and the most perfect creatures, in terms of both being and values. Therefore, Communism is, in a way, a form of radical humanism. Another one of the main commandments with a wider reach than the 20th century politics and economics is the following: Act in such a way that good and true humanity win in humans.” In this sense, the inspiration which goes against the main postulates of Jewish-Christian anthropological approaches to man becomes very clear; it is the belief that although many things are entirely wrong in humans, they can be amended, and, more importantly, such a situation is not natural. Good is the natural state of things. The reason for all imperfections and all evil is private ownership of means of production. This explains the desire to remove private property and, even more so, the never-ending attempt to re-educate people, and the belief that humans are born good and their moral qualities deteriorate due to the unfortunate environment in which they live.

 

ABOLISH THE PRIVATE

 

By changing society, we can change man.” “By changing thinking, we can change reality.” This belief is shared by all forms of Marxist doctrines of the past and the present. Communism is, thus, eternally alive. Its role and the attractive power of its ideas failed to extinguish themselves after the fall of the Berlin Wall or the death of El Comandante in Bolivia. We just need to make the next step and reduce the three-word Marx-Engels definition of Communism as “Abolishment of private property” to the two-word “Abolishment of the private”. This trend of abolishment or minimising the private sphere in favour of the public one is dominant in today’s politics.

Here is where conservatism says a clear no. Its very mission is the defence of the private – not only individual privacy but also family privacy, public privacy, group privacy, etc.

This task can also be formulated as the mission of defending the right to live a normal life without significant interferences by the state. The backbone of this text, which was originally printed by Týdeník Echo, was written in the woods at a scout campground in the evenings. Such camps are not authorised in many countries today. Even in our country, it is getting more and more difficult to organise them. However, such camps are useful and necessary for the upbringing of new generations. In a way, they simulate the desirable natural, normal environment. They teach children that having a place to sleep or food to eat depends on how hard and how productive their work is. Children get in touch with the normal world of real duties, work and competition. Neo-Marxist, progressivist forces strive to abolish all that by placing an emphasis on subjective rights which are disconnected from duties, on guaranteed income disconnected from work, and on abolishing competition.

The conservative approach – which endeavours among other aims to bridge the differences in economic policy has a chance to reclaim its position as the central pole of the discourse, as can be seen in the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, Hungary and Austria… No, it does not mean that it is going to win or reclaim lost territory. It “only” means that after a period of being quietened or silenced it can again become a major line of discourse in society by articulating interests and attitudes of those segments of society which it did not consider as allies. A while ago it seemed that the cultural-Marxist agenda was predestined to success, and that no significant portion of society would be able to rise against it. These optionless times seem to be gone. That was no mean feat, although the task ahead is not a small one either, be it one without hope of a final victory. Ultimately, conservatism as inspired by Rio Preisner knows that it cannot hope for victory on Earth.

(This text is based on the author’s text entitled “Konec starých a začátek nových štěpení” (End of the Old and the Beginning of the New Splits) published by Týdeník Echo, issue number 29/2016. This text was modified and extended.)






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