The West in Crisis

Petr Drulák, Politika nezájmu: Česko a Západ v krizi. [The Politics of Indifference: the Czech Republic and the West in Crisis] SLON, Praha 2012.

Petr Drulák’s book explores the direction in which the Czech Republic is headed now that it has returned to Europe.

“Czech society lacks a binding agent. It exists solely as a vast group of individuals interconnected by private interests, language and institutions, whose purpose and effectiveness are generally under question. Czech society lacks the concept of public interest which could make public engagement by citizens meaningful, pointing the way to further development. This has resulted in a total lack of interest in public affairs and an escape into the private sphere. In many respects this lack of interest and escapism are reminiscent of the impact of the communist normalization regime in the 1970s and 1980s, complete with moral devastation in the form of indifference and corruption.”

It is paragraphs like the one quoted above that make Petr Drulák’s book The Politics of Indifference: the Czech Republic and the West in Crisis essential reading. More attentive observers of Czech affairs will not find this quotation shocking since it contains nothing they have not already suspected. What makes the book attractive is the author’s ability to encapsulate, in a few lines, the basic facts and offer an immediate interpretation.

Drulák’s publication may well be read as a textbook in that it follows the logic of a textbook rather than that of an essay: it begins by defining a problem, goes on to analyze the selected variables and their transformation over time, and then offers a synthesis followed by a recommendation for the future. The author’s starting proposition is that by joining the European Union in 2004 the Czech Republic has completed its return to history and is now in need of a new narrative. Unlike after 1989, however, this narrative is not to be found in the geopolitical West, which is in the grip of the same crisis as the Czech Republic itself.

Long Live the Invisible Hand of the Market

The first, theoretical part of the book examines liberal democracy as the dominant concept of Euro-Atlantic civilization, providing a basic blueprint for the unfettered organization of individual states. The reader soon realizes that the author’s first message amounts to the following: what we lack is fraternity—the third essential component, in addition to liberty and equality, of any community based on the ideals of the Enlightenment—and our present-day crisis both derives from, and is amplified by the absence of fraternity as a binding agent of society.

Petr Drulák does not call for the dismantling of the liberal concept and redefining the paradigm. Rather, he notes that by reducing human freedom solely to its economic value in the free market economy and by emphasizing the maximizing of individual personal profit we jeopardize solidarity and social equality and thus also society as a whole.

It is hard to argue with this conclusion against the backdrop of the bursting of various economic bubbles, the financial crisis and bailouts of institutions deemed too big to fail and Drulák is certainly not the first to reach it.

At the same time, already the introductory chapter hints at the author’s general conclusion since, following the logic of his argument and logic in general, self-preservation dictates that Western societies, including that of the Czech Republic, must above all strive to renew fraternity.

Czech readers, who have lived through the 1990s—a time when the mantra of “capitalism without modifiers” and of the all-embracing “invisible hand of the market” was more prominent in this country than in any other post-communist state—will find some unexpected retro humor in this chapter, too.

Servicing the Oligarchs

The second part of the book applies the theoretical approaches to historical practice. The author presents a typology of the communities that the West has passed through since emerging from the ruins of the Western Roman Empire—from Christian and dynastic communities, through various forms of nationalism, right up to current liberal market society. This is followed by an analogous survey of the Czech historical development with its moments of glory, from the Great Moravian Empire to 1968 or, indeed, 1989.

He then presents a synthesis focusing on the current state of affairs: the disintegrating and fumbling Western stage. Drulák believes that the geopolitical West began to lose self-confidence as early as 1945 as a result of the rise, and success, of communist ideology. Later, following the decline of the USSR, it also lost its external glue. The 9/11 attacks and the subsequent financial and economic crisis have only deepened the long-term process of disintegration of the glue that bound societies. All that is left are atomized individuals whose “materialism [is] focused on the struggle for the greatest possible consumer opportunities,” says Drulák.

Present-day Czech society mirrors all these problems. As Václav Klaus’s notion of society prevailed over that of Havel, and privatization acquired the status of a universal remedy in the modern Czech Republic, everything communal has become pointless and public interest has fizzled out. In Drulák’s words, Czech politics is now tantamount to nothing but “servicing the oligarchs.”

What Is Missing

Although in the early parts of the book there are some major generalizations that do not always necessarily apply, they create the expectation that the author will supply a possible solution for all these problems. Nevertheless, in one particular respect, he does not quite succeed.

In a brief passage Petr Drulák tries to come to terms with the“dysfunctional European fraternity,” i.e. the repeated negative outcome of referendums held by the founding countries of the EU in an attempt to provide common institutions with new legitimacy. He lays the blame for this largely on the European political elites, on the grounds that they do not treat the European level with the same amount of solidarity and “love” as the national one.

“The eurozone crisis provides a good illustration of this,” says the author. “By imposing its solutions on countries that are experiencing serious problems Germany is forgetting that, as its chief architect, it carries responsibility for the eurozone and that in the past it profited from it substantially (…) thereby deepening the crisis and destroying the already incomplete and fragile web of European fraternity.”

This step aside seems inappropriate. For one, we lack sufficient distance to reach this conclusion since the eurozone crisis is not yet over and the roles of the individual players as well as their assessment of the situation is still subject to change.

But first and foremost, by now readers have come to expect a more profound analysis of European fraternity, one that would go beyond the current election cycle. Particularly since Drulák regards the absence of European fraternity as the main reason why Western Europe is currently in free fall. This raises a number of burning questions that the book should have dealt with.

Love Us, Angela

At the very least, it raises the question of whether a purely instrumental European fraternity symbolized by the EU is a project that has a chance to survive in the long term. Especially in a space formed and reformed on the basis of the nation state—or an even narrower identity— and where the last supranational binding agent was provided by Christianity and royal dynasties which, unlike the EU, involved a mystical link between human beings and the infinite, in other words, emotions? To put it simply, would European fraternity be truly functional if only it was more ardently championed by political elites? Is this the case and if not, why not?

Since Petr Drulák’s claim that the reset of the West and the Czech Republic alongside it depends on its “spiritual renewal that will, in turn, revive fraternity,” the absence of answers to the above-mentioned questions fails to prepare the reader for the final chapter.

A renewed fraternity, the book reads, must not neglect the following elements: “Love, as we know it from Christianity; nation, as developed by the patriotism of the modern era; and liberty and equality of individuals, as the main focus of various currents of liberal ideology.” Drulák suggests that we should look for an underpinning of this renewal at the supranational level since a “purely national concept of a future community does not meet the requirements of present-day reality.”

Naturally, the reader might ask which of the elements listed by the author are present in the existing EU community and which ones are not, particularly since Petr Drulák regards the outlines of the present-day European Union as the basis for a new incarnation of Western Europe. Is it “love” that is missing in an EU that is strictly secular, technical and based on regulation of commodities? Or is it rather the nation, the oft-invoked single European demos that is missing? Here, too, the book does not go deep enough.

When Will the Turning Point Come?

Nearing his conclusion Petr Drulák adds that a “renewed fraternity can grow from a narrative or narratives” in which the essential elements of the potential glue mentioned above are cultivated in a new way and which grapple with the need for a mystic union between the individual and society on the one hand and God or the universe on the other.

This, however, adds even more complexity and generates more questions than answers. For where is this development supposed to come from and what form will it take?

The author believes that it will grow out of the “discontent of the people” with the state of their societies and that it will take the form of a “protest movement.” Such a movement can have the chance of making its mark in history only if it represents as many social and professional groups as possible and, while having its national epicenters, only if it involves the entire West, is based on inclusive discussions and grapples with the human desire for the infinite. And—that’s all. By the end of the book, the reader is left with the impression that he or she doesn’t have any idea how the West and the community to which he or she belongs can be salvaged.

However, it would be unfair to blame the author for this. The turning point is not easy to predict and is often impossible to recognize as such, even as and when it happens and even if it is very clearly outlined. Who would have thought that the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi would spark off a revolution throughout the Arab world?

Petr Drulák is right to say that many decisive events depend on forces nobody can control. That is why his book does not provide for a fast and easy step-by-step renewal of the West recipe. After all, providing this kind of exit for today is not the job of an academic, since specific recipes are pre-eminently a task for politics, rather than political science.

It is just a pity that the author has not expanded this section of the book by adding a few pages covering the protest movements that have recently emerged in the West, the Occupy movement in particular.

Occupy has met the requirements of a supranational movement motivated by popular discontent: it has involved several social groups and elements of positive democracy (active and selfless interest in public affairs on the part of most participants and their willingness to give the movement the “gift” of labor, time, etc.) and possibly, in a wider sense, also love, as defined by Petr Drulák. That is why an analysis of this type of protest movement through the author’s optics might help the reader anticipate a future “grand narrative” and assess future political recipes.

Students Who Haven’t Been

In my introduction, I said that this publication can be read as a textbook. Its strength lies in the fact that, as opposed to many textbooks, it is not sterile in spite of the occasionally excessively encyclopedic style. This is because it uses “live matter”—our present—and that gives it an urgency. Its weakness consists in the fact that it is most likely to miss its key “student” audience. The Politics of Indifference: the Czech Republic and the West in Crisis will be read mostly by people who are already interested in the issue whereas, in fact, it ought to be read mainly by those who long to be our leaders and want us to enable their ambitions. Most of these people are unlikely to read it. That, however, is hardly Petr Drulák’s fault.

Katerina Šafaříková

Katerina Šafaříková is a Czech journalist who covers mostly the Czech foreign policy and the EU matters. She now works for Česká Pozice, an online investigative media.

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