Thursday, 22 January 2015

Top 10 of 2014

In 2014 the world finally spun off its axis into a suffocating vortex of incomprehension (just like the last half of Interstellar). Yet consolation was always available in the form of culture, which continued despite the progressing apocalypse. The next few posts will include some of this year's cultural consolers and a few of its challengers too - from Chekhov to Aphex Twin, the Oxford historian Selina Todd to the posthumous Vaclav Havel, Gang of Four to Gyorgy Lucacs, Nietzsche to the economist Thomas Piketty and many more.

3. Havel by Michael Zantovsky

This star-studded - and to some extent star struck - biography of the late Czech president and national playwright Vaclav Havel befits its author's CV: Michael Zantovsky is a former Ambassador to the United States and now Ambassador to the UK. In diplomacy more than other political dark arts, the face-to-face manoeuvres of the individual outweigh the grand symbolic gesture. To paraphrase Clausewitz, in the sodden turf of political warfare diplomacy is the clash of foot soldiers: charm works here like gunpowder. Zantovsky is most at home in the dazzling world of official state visits. However his subject clearly was not; hence, perhaps, Havel's need to keep people like Zantovsky close to him.

In one encounter with a surly, post-Berlin Wall Gorbachev, the naif Havel hands the General Secretary a short, plain-spoken note demanding equality between the superpower and the smaller nation, much against the advice of Zantovsky and others. Later Havel offers Gorbachev a "peace pipe" (though not of the jazz variety). Gorbachev is startled by both gestures; though, however idiosyncratically, they work. Havel, Zantovsky tells us on presumably intimate grounds, liked Gorbachev much more than Yeltsin, despite or perhaps because of Yeltsin's ebullience and fondness for a good Czech dinner. If there is a political - as opposed to purely personal - element to this we might assume it is that Gorbachev was closer to Havel in the global scope of his vision. Yeltsin exuded too much of the dirty odour of daily democratic doings; of the schemes and conspiracies that were, as the dissidents of Eastern Europe now realised, hardly the sole preserve of the ex-Soviet bloc. Zantovsky does little to explore the political dimensions of these preferences - again he is more comfortable psychologising than politicising his subject (he is a trained psychologist). He may also take Havel too much at his own "post-democratic" word. Havel's stated disinterest in politics - and his often metaphysical public ponderings - hardly mean his thought was apolitical. He was a president, after all.

Zantovsky's weaknesses are few: the prose is mostly eloquent and his satire of Communist officialdom effective, if familiar (Timothy Garton Ash would nod in approval). Still, his near perfect grasp of Anglo-American style is only slightly upset by niggling convention. The occasional definite article crops up where it shouldn't (not much of a failing for one whose first language does not use grammatical articles but perhaps some closer proofing could have been done for such a high-profile publication?) 

The problem for this reader is in his strengths. With over two hundred pages devoted to Havel's post-revolutionary years, the flashy diplomacy tends to dominate the nitty-gritty. The fundamental limits of democratisation in the context of deep economic liberalisation and the creation of extraordinary social inequalities, are not addressed by the book or the cadre of globetrotters who are its subject. For the real, unacknowledged subject of the book is in fact a political ideology which emerged as a kind of dissident orthodoxy to compliment the vanquished Communist one: "liberal-conservatism", which took power in all the new Central European democracies, though exceedingly narrow in its intellectual horizons, was the privileged partner of US power-play throughout the 1990s. 

In most cases the liberal-conservatives formed a kind of fringe within the broader, reformist and dissident movements. Most had begun life as scions of disinherited bourgeois dynasties (Havel himself was heir to the Lucerna and Barandov fortunes of his father) or more rarely as "papist"  devotees (as with Lech Walesa in Poland). Zantovsky, integral to the movement, is dismissive of the suppressed Trotskyists and reform Communists within Eastern Europe, as well as left social democrats and Eurocommunists beyond it. The real energy, he claims, came from the small band of conspiratorial liberals hustled together in the Balustrade Theatre, just off Smetanov Embankment in Prague's Old Town. Never mind that Havel started out as something of a left social democrat himself, the practical limitations of dissidence, which meant Marxism-Leninism could only be publicly opposed from within, pass Zantovsky by.

Whether they knew it or not, Zantovsky believes, the dissidents of 1968 - of so-called "socialism with a human face" - were liberals in nuce. This is not only revisionism; it is selective distortion of the real patterns of oppositional thought and its ideological weaponry. It risks reducing the long evolution of anti-Communist movements - both within and outside of the Soviet bloc - to a kind of "pre-history" of liberalism, which led in a deterministic fashion to the type of society born in the post-1989 world. This is a shame, as an opportunity is missed to write - from the perspective of Havel's own intellectual development - a history of dissidence true to its real manifestations. Despite his insistence on "living in truth" Havel's own truth was hardly static. It developed in the midst of a changing concrete situation, embracing the extreme social scepticism which inspired Central and Eastern European free-market fundamentalism only ever incompletely.

The backbone of Havel's thought was pristinely assembled during his decades of enforced inaction during "normalisation". Reference to Vladimir Lenin - about as significant in building the world Havel opposed as Havel was in breaking it up - is revealing: whereas Lenin's philosophy is in every sense one of action (indeed, the culmination of a legacy of thought-as-action inherited in part from Machiavelli and in part from Hegel), Havel's philosophy reflected his own material circumstances: physical inaction coupled with a profound commitment to the morality of the intellect. This was, to put it bluntly, a weakness. Havel's transcendental ontology - a "great chain of Being" in which all our actions are "inscribed" - knits all thought and action into a single, neat bundle through which each can be categorically judged irrespective of time and place. A sense of the "infinite judgement of being" hangs over his tortured self-recriminations following his arrest and the concessions extracted from him by the secret police in the 1970s. Havel realized at this time the non-correspondence of "the moral significance of an act and its practical consequences." (191) Although his friends saw no wrong in what he had done, Havel continued to reflect on the betrayal he had committed throughout his life. "Living in truth" was thus not a series of reconciliations made with the ontic, historical world as one found it; but rather morality was guaranteed by reference to the transcendentally ontological.

For Havel political morality was an immediate extension into the practical realm of this transcendental ontology. It is true, as Zantovsky argues, that the method and outlook of Havel's politics bore little relation to the workmanlike conservatism of Vaclav Klaus and his party the ODS (Obcanska democraticka strana or Civic Democratic Party). Due to ructions within the dissident elite it was not long after Havel's invitation to Klaus to join Civic Forum in 1989 that Klaus quit and formed ODS. Klaus's bullish style as prime minister inevitably jarred with Havel's aloof unworldliness. Yet on fundamental "democratising" processes - including membership of NATO, the European Union, and economic liberalisation - they would fall into line, even if for Klaus these were phrased pragmatically and for Havel as deep commitments.

It had not always been thus. In the first years of Czechoslovak democracy Havel, following his Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier, had toyed with the notion of a "universalist, collective security concept" (437) which would displace both the Warsaw Pact and NATO, tackling the geopolitical asymmetries in the European state system, and developing transparent channels of diplomatic and economic collaboration between East and West. Instead, by 1993, Havel became the world's most determined lobbyist for Central European membership of NATO and the European Union, both of which would isolate Russia and render non-members like Ukraine and Belarus deeply vulnerable to any shift in the balance of regional power. The Soviet bloc's foremost "peacenik" was soon keenly supporting US interventions in Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq. These were not, as Zantovsky rightly argues, simply manifestations of political expedience. As Havel put it, it was only a small step from the recognition of one's responsibility to "live in truth" to entering an international struggle in which others would be made to live in truth too: "We [Czechs] must accept our share of responsibility for peace and freedom in Europe." (434)

At root Havel's transcendental guarantee of morality was blind to its own presuppositions. The abstraction "civic democracy" became a powerful and enduring justification for liberalisation, privatisation and inequality once re-contextualised by historical forces. In this the rigour of Havel's moral thought - standing in such sharp contrast to the free market conventionality of his peers - merely gave deeper, albeit eccentric, thrust to Czech capitalist development. In his reconstruction of the "aura" of existentialism - or what Theodor Adorno called the "jargon of authenticity" - Havel was very close to a kind of philosophical common sense of the age. Although he critiqued the "divesting" of people "of their innermost identities" by the domination of cynical thought systems, he failed to account for that identity's formation in historical time. He reified the subject as the spiritual monad of resistance to the domination of the objective world. By the hypothetical designation "post-democracy" Havel meant an age of spiritually empowered individuals which would supersede the crass sectional interests characteristic of both the Soviet bloc and liberal democracy. Yet this fantasy of freely self-empowering individuals ignores the part played by the structures of power in constituting those very individuals.

Havel is ultimately a tribute to the naivety and idealism of the first postcommunist governments and their "pre-history" in the twilight years of the one-party state. For all the achievements - artistic, intellectual, and political - of that generation, not even a mind as supple and probing as Havel's could prevent the atrophy of that movement under the pressure of strict alignment with the United States and the verve with which the marketisation of daily life was to be pursued.   


  1. I wrote a long comment, but it was lost. In a nutshell - like the article