by Anne Archist
I’ve spent the past few days immersed in the break-up of the ‘Soviet Bloc’. Having first watched Shooting Robert King, I decided to finally crack open Summer Meditations, a book written by Václav Havel, the post-‘Communist’ Czechoslovakian president. Since the former follows a photojournalist through various conflict zones over the course of a decade and a half, sections of the film highlight aspects of the fall of ‘Communism’ (I can’t bring myself to write it without the scare quotes when referring to the USSR and other totalitarian-socialist party regimes) as he encountered them.
Naive to almost the end of the film, King views the fall of the ‘Communists’ from power as an event of unbridled good; while undoubtedly there were significant steps forward in the release from totalitarian party rule, King overlooks the social harm that can be done by a transition from even the most poorly-managed and indifferent socialist economy to a market-based one. King sees a silver lining but misses the cloud, and particularly has no thoughts on how the public might react when they realise that West-style capitalism is not all they have been led to believe.
In one telling scene, a woman buys fifteen bananas and attempts to eat them in twenty minutes – fresh fruit is only just being released back into the ‘Second World’ markets at the time. King sees this not only as a bizarre form of erotic fulfilment for himself, but also as a vindication of the market and a triumph for American producers. Indifferent to detail, he simply replies “part of NAFTA” when it’s pointed out that the bananas came from South America, not the USA. Again, the journalist seems nonplussed when the subject of his supposedly-erotic art vomits a dozen freshly-ingested bananas on to the hotel room floor; “low grade fruit” is the excuse this time. Clearly, “want bananas, get bananas, eat bananas, be sick, regret bananas somewhat” could be an allegory for the whole process of globalisation and westernisation of second- and third- world countries under the auspices of NAFTA, IMF, WTO, World Bank, etc.
Summer Meditations, written very much in the period of reform and liberalisation in Czechoslovaki, shortly after the fall of the ‘Communist’ party and before the country fractured into two states, paints a portrait of a confused man with his own words. Despite his position as a champion of the market and Western ties, Havel considers himself a type of Socialist. It’s remarkable at times to see how little faith Havel actually has in the market and how realistic he is in the face of market dogma:
“[On state funding of culture and heritage:] There can’t be a hotel in every castle or château to pay for its upkeep, nor can the old aristocracy be expected to return and provide for their upkeep merely to preserve family honour”
“[On energy policy:] One doesn’t need to be an expert to understand that the marketplace alone cannot decide which direction Czechoslovakia should take in the matter of energy production”
“[On the environmental impact of industry and agriculture:] The state must systematically make use of all the means it has to compel companies to behave responsibly.”
There is also evident contradiction in Havel’s writing between the pro-market approach he adopts and the end results he hopes to see; it is a contradiction we have seen throughout history since at least the development of capitalism, if not earlier. Wishing to build a society in which land is cared for, work is fulfilling, the environment is treated with caution and so on, Havel naively expects the market to provide this. Havel’s politics come across more as one-nation-toryism with a place for the state-sector than neoliberal deregulation and profit maximisation. Readers might wonder why he has even the limited faith in the market that he does, given passages like:
“At all levels, schools must cultivate a spirit of free and independent thinking in the students. Schools will have to be humanised, both in the sense that their basic component must be the human personalities of the teachers… and in the sense that technical and other specialised education will be balanced by a general education in the humanities. The role of the schools is… to send out into life thoughtful people capable of thinking about the wider social, historical and philosophical implications of their specialities… The schools must also lead young people to become self-confident, participating citizens; if everyone doesn’t take an interest in politics, it will become the domain of those least suited to it.
The universities will not select students; everyone must have access to education… The more citizens who complete university, the better. I do not see what harm it can do for a businessman, a restaurant owner, or an official of state to have studied law.”
Overall it’s a pretty interesting book, and if you get your hands on it then take a day or two to flick through. Obviously some of his political analysis is highly flawed, but at the very least it’s an opportunity to get inside the head of a fundamentally altruistic and ‘progressive’ pro-capitalist reformer. I’ll leave you with a practically comic demonstration of Havel’s inability to accurately assess the effects of the market, in a passage that could just as easily be a fast food chain handbook as a critique of ‘Communist’ agricultural policy (but all of which is mistakenly singled out as the results of ‘Soviet’ policy, of course):
“Farmers are no longer close to their livestock of the soil. Animals were moved from pastures and well-kept stables laid with clean straw into vast factory barns where they stand in stalls on metal grates, often never seeing the sun or having the run of a meadow in their entire lives. These barns were painted with toxic disinfectant. The land was polluted with chemical fertilisers. Ploughing under the strips and hedgerows dividing the fields and introducing heavy machinery led to the destruction of the ecological balance, to erosion, and to the disintegration, compacting, and deadening of the soil, which in turn led to more excessive chemical fertilising and the expensive liquidation of pests that would otherwise be eaten by the birds that had been driven from the fields. The yields are decent, it is true, but the produce is not of high quality, and the meat sometimes contains toxic substances. The absurd centralisation (so-called wholesale production) and, in some places, unnatural specialisation disproportionately increased the consumption of energy in agriculture. Farmers are dependent on the large and often monopolistic purchasing, processing and distributing organisations that have them – and the distributors – completely in their hands. “