Saturday, 7 December 2013

Vinohrady Synagogue

Postcard of Vinohrady Synagogue

In the self-styled literarni kavarna (literary cafe) Blatouch two young women play dress-up with the vintage clothes they are selling. To nondescript rinkydink piano they adorn themselves in faux-1920s pyjamas and beads. I walk through from the empty bar, catching sight of their hoard - displayed on hatstands in the backroom parlour - down the jumbled, wood panelled corridor. They laugh slightly as I ask if I can come through. They are surrounded by things - some rich and luxurious; some trashy or just torn - on all sides, strewn gorgeously over the vintage gramophones and kitschy Weimar chairs that make up the cafe's decor.

As I walk towards the parlour - catching a glimpse of a cheap bowler perched on a hatstand; a clutter of suitcases and piled clothes behind it - I am reminded of a photo taken not far from here, in 1939. Unintentionally recreating the oblique angle of Hitchcockian anxiety, a black and white camera points down from the upper gallery of a synagogue in the direction of the far left passage. Things belonging to lives now knocked violently off-kilter are stacked everywhere. Fur coats and expensive hats; old wardrobes and mirrors; stacks of dressing tables. All the material of full lives. The synagogue in question is Vinohradska Synagoga (Vinohrady Synagogue) and it no longer exists. It was bombed - one assumes accidentally - by the Allies in 1945.

The day after the first December snow I walk down to Sazavska Street where the synagogue used to stand. It's still too warm on the groud to settle so the snow forms a thin, icy paste on the cracked pavements. A few pubs - still to open; it's early Saturday afternoon - have swung open their doors to let the cold air filter through their dank passages. These rare stabs of colour and light contrast dramatically with the greys and sunken pastels of the buildings which house them. The roads are nearly empty. An old man with a single crutch carefully makes his way to the road's end, where he will turn left and walk to the potraviny on Francouska. I follow him at a distance and watch him pass by the big faded-yellow block of the modern Zahradni skola (basic school) that has replaced the synagogue. I walk back and forth in front of it for a minute or two as the snow starts drifting down again.

The only sign I can find of the old Vinohradska synagoga is a plaque fastened to the inner wall of the school's entrance:

Na tento misto stala od roku 1896
14 Unora byla bombardovanim
jezce poskozena v roce 1951 zborena

(From 1896 the Vinohrady Synagogue stood here
On the 14th February it was bombed
In the year1951 it was demolished)

After the war a few Jewish survivors returned to find a shell where the synagogue had stood. They recommended the site be turned into apartments for other survivors. The authorities refused and eventually built a totally new structure in the synagogue's place - a typical 50s school bearing a clunky mural of some proletarians tousling over the future. The plaque on the school's entrance shows the old synagogue in its twin-towered glory, though it's fissured down the middle. I like to imagine this last detail was a deliberate insertion by local Jews: a remark upon the unhealable wound inflicted, and the lack of possible redress. After the declaration that a school would be built there, the local Jews requested that the remaining bricks be used to help in the restoration of a synagogue in neighbouring Liben. The city authorities refused on the grounds that the bricks were state property and had to be disposed of appropriately.

The Jewish community of Vinohrady is often forgotten. The old Prague ghetto had, between 1893 and 1913, been demolished. The sinister flood plane that had housed such terrifying myths as the clay-based Golem was finally transformed into a glittering Parisian show-piece. Similarly, Vinohrady, previously a semi-established village, had evolved into an important suburban refuge for the city's wealthy. The city's districts were rationalised and incorporated into a much extended municipal body (this in line with the Habsburg drive towards economic modernisation). Vinohrady was central to this, its magnificent, tree-lined boulevards signalling a notable transformation in urban life and the emergence of a newly-minted, self-confident social class: the industrial and financial bourgeoisie. The swanky neo-Gothic apartment blocks were deliberate statements of wealth. They were also built to be self-consciously historical, a celebration of grandeur and a claim to significance. Traders were no longer to be scorned, but clearly perceived of themselves as the new social drivers of change. Throughout Vinohrady huge spires and squat domes stand atop apartment blocks. Cherubim leer down from archways. Gold-leaf entwines itself around the drooping lips of balconies. Neo-Gothic statuettes retreat into the alcoves of roomy frontages. 

Momentarily triumphant, the new bourgeoisie mistook technical improvements in its local conditions for the form of its world historical predominance. Prague Jewry found, in this sudden liberalisation of money and attitudes, a certain freedom. Vinohradska Synagoga was equivalent to the self-declaration of the Christian bourgeoisie - though fewer mobs gathered outside the latter. Indeed the synagogue took on totemic significance for native anti-semtism. Stereotyped as 'Agents of the Germans', Prague Jewry made its home in quiet Vinohrady. Mobs would descend occasionally, and long before 1939. In the event, the synagogue itself nearly survived the war. But architectural survival was always possible, if only in the form of a museum piece. It was the Jewish life of Prague that would fail to survive. In this sense Nazism and extreme nationalism had the ultimate triumph.         

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Russia and the Left: From Statism to Civil Society Part II

The following is a partner piece, written to accompany and deepen the argument made in an essay recently published by New Left Project. That text is available here:

Legacy of Statism

Though commentators turn their eyes to autocrats past, no period is so influential and yet so difficult to integrate into a general narrative as that of the Russian Federation's immediate predecessor, the Soviet Union. As Soviet life grows historically more distant, so it appears incommensurably simpler. One manifestation of this is nostalgia for the bygone era. Another, of western descent, is a feeling that the nationalist behemoth of the Putin era bears little relation to the progressive rationalism of, say, the Khrushchev years. Yet even this apparently straightforward rationalism is prone to misinterpretation.

The deformation of the USSR had both structural and voluntarist causes, both rooted in the initial phase of the post-revolutionary era (from roughly 1917 to, say, Trotsky's expulsion). On the voluntarist side can be put the philosophical and doctrinal composition of the Bolshevik Party, the rapid development of which, during 1917, led almost inexorably away from revolutionary principle and towards something like "pure practice" (or in other words, "what Lenin says goes"). Though extraordinarily strategically adaptable, Bolshevism became increasingly narrowly focused on securing the Party's interest within the Russian domestic sphere. Paradoxically, their political flexibility and skill came at the cost of theoretical myopia. On the other hand were the efforts of the Allied Powers to "strangle the Bolshevik baby in its crib" (according to Churchill), by the singular means of invasion. No matter that the Bolsheviks, in line with their declared opposition to the war, had already withdrawn.

At the structural level the Russian economy was deeply unsuited to the strain of social transformation needed to further the goals of the Revolution. Russia was broke from the War and deeply in need of modernisation anyway. Add to this a profound nationalist reaction and ever increasing global economic instability and you have the makings of a catastrophe.

This instability not only created the conditions for the October Revolution, but also drove its protagonists in the harshest of directions, distorting the project of socialist transformation from the outset. Bolshevik ideology always contained the seeds of grotesque distortions of socialist practice; the situation of the world economy, and of Russia in particular, after the end of the First World War practically guaranteed them. In the long run Churchill's desire was met. Shorn of the ability to experiment with new economic and social institutions by global instability, and finding it necessary to impose harsh labour controls in the face of continuing unrest, the Soviet Union became just another, particularly volatile reflection of tendencies within global capitalism.

A Fulcrum of Volatility

Take this description of the capitalist world economy in the 1980s:

...the technologies and operating procedures of most modern corporations; the forms of labour-market control defended by many labour movements; the instruments of macroeconomic control developed by bureaucrats and economists in the welfare states; and the rules of international monetary and trading systems established immediately after World War II - all must be modified, even discarded, if the chronic economic diseases of our times are to be cured.1

If we except the reference to independent labour movement activities (and, initially perhaps, to global financial governance) it's quite possible to extend this description to the post-War USSR and the whole of the Socialist bloc. In many ways these were the most radical expressions of the meeting of administered capitalism (the Taylorist division of labour; 'scientific' managerialism; macroeconomic controls overseen by centralized bureaucracy, and so on) with welfare state redistributive government. It was this set of characteristics that eventually made the USSR so vulnerable when the post-War Golden Age came to an end and the new regime of "flexible specialisation" kicked in.

Following the oil shocks of the 1970s, which were themselves partly the result of the breakdown of the old monetary order of the Gold Standard through which the dollar bankrolled Europe and Japan and managed prices, western Europe cut its oil consumption by 40%. The USSR only managed cutbacks of 20%.2 Continuing to rely on increasingly volatile markets where other, more adaptable economies could drive demand in different directions, the institutional rigidities built into the Bloc economies meant they amplified the contradictions of the world market. "By the early 1980s Eastern Europe was in an acute energy crisis. This in turn produced shortages of food and manufactured goods."3 The only exceptions were those, like Hungary, who plunged further into debt to sustain domestic consumption.

Incapable of political reform, and being prised open by the increasingly volatile global economy, the USSR and the rest of the Soviet bloc began to regionalise, fragment, and slowly to combust. Capital shrugged off its Post-War baggage, and was in the process of shrugging off 'really existing socialism'.


The weekend that Gorbachev resigned as party leader, and plumes of smoke began rising from party archives across the country, I was at a conference about anti-corporate environmental strategies in Los Angeles... I didn't hear the Soviet Union or the collapse of communism mentioned once... The Soviet Union's disintegration, the end to what electrified it all three quarters of a century ago, didn't seize the imagination of those conference-goers and, suffocated by the ecstasies of the corporate press, they wanted to talk about anything else.
Alexander Cockburn, 'Radical as Reality'4

Socialism is a living creature which can live without coercion or distortion.
Communist Party official, 19895

In Russia today around 100 billionaires own 30 per cent of all assets.
Washington Times, 22/11/12

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and after nearly forty years of energetic denunciations of Stalinism, the western contingent of the radical Left (or what remained of it barring defectors) fell somewhat quiet on the topic of communism. 'Goodbye to All That' was Eric Hobsbawm's dismissal. Two of America's most prominent Marxist economists, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, confessed their impatience with the old guard's persistent apologism. The feeling of shaking off old burdens - in this they resembled capitalism itself - was almost audible.

In the mid-80s Noam Chomsky insisted on a radical contradiction between the Soviet Union and socialism. The association of one with the other was a simple coup of propaganda (for both sides). Old Trots like Ernest Mandel permitted the description "deformed worker's state" and, a la the old man, insisted that backwards countries never could have produced socialism anyway.6 Susan Woodward suggested that, beneath the surface, communist and non-communist systems shared a common inheritance: they were attempted "rational approaches to the material world and its development."7

Even as some former dissidents have moved to the Left (realizing the rosiness of Europe's welfare states was only ever for the few and has been buckling of late), it is rare to find a satisfactory account of what 'really existing socialism' was and how it got that way. The Hungarian dissident and philosopher G.M.Tamas offers this description: "A system of state capitalism" in which "commodity production, wage labour, money and the separation of the producers from the means of production" still predominated. In other words, it was just another, more poorly designed capitalism.

On their 1990 visit to the Soviet Union Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin reported on the flourishing, for the first time since the early 1920s, of genuine soviet democracy. A civil society group called the Popular Front, having secured a 20% presence in the Soviets, was organising the restoration of churches in the industrial city of Yaroslavl. This loose compendium of social movements, a sort of hastily assembled Big Society thrusting itself into the socialist state apparatus, operated, as the authors say, entirely "in the spirit of Perestroika". While in Moscow laws overriding the Soviets and reducing the newly-acquired powers of the independent unions were being quietly passed, workers in the industrial hinterlands were creating a novel form of freedom. As the state turned towards the interests of capital, however, this novelty became increasingly restricted.

At the time of Panitch and Gindin's visit, Yeltsin had already been elected President of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation. Gorbachev's, and by extension the Soviet Union's, days were numbered. The streak of liberalism introduced by Gorbachev's cadre of reformers was about to be overwhelmed by decentralizing, nationalist forces far beyond their control. In the absence of a state concerned with regulating the atmosphere in which worker's democratic freedoms were explored, the whole experiment was to be quickly stubbed out. The story of mass unemployment and impoverishment that followed is by now a familiar one. To conclude, then, with the reflections of female auto plant workers in Yaroslavl in 1990, on the recent pro-union changes, shortlived though they were, and the swelling optimism of the newly assertive worker's movement:

Woman I: Before the change, almost all decisions were made by the administration. Now there must be consultation with the trade union committee and the workers have a much greater say.

Woman 4: Control by [Government] Ministries is still there, and this limits managers' power and workers' collectives' power. So the enterprises must become free of the Ministries first of all, and then the workers' collective councils will really become strong. 8

1Piore and Sable, The Second Industrial Divide, 4-5
2Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, 473-4
3Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes, 474
4Available in, Blackburn ed., After the Fall
5Quoted in Panitch and Gindin, 'Perestroika and the Proletariat', Socialist Register 27
6See: Mandel, Trotsky: A Study in the Dynamic of his Thought
7Woodward, 'Soviet Rehearsal in Yugoslavia?' in Socialist Register 27
8See: Panitch and Gindin, 'Perestroika and the Proletariat', in Socialist Register 27

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Eight Things You Shouldn't Bother Doing in Eastern and Central Europe

Tourism in Europe: A World of Fun

"Come to Europe! It's full of history." What this really means is that Europe is full of old things supposed ipso facto to exude importance. This is analogous to an old person insisting on their right to teach history by virtue of being older than most people. Old stuff can, of course, be very interesting, but this happens only when it's hammered into meaningful shape by someone who knows something about it.

So with this in mind, here are eight thoroughly uninteresting places you shouldn't bother visiting in Eastern and Central Europe. Uninteresting not because of something lacking in themselves (not usually at least) but because no one has bothered to make them interesting.

1. Prague Public Transport Museum

"Oddly pedestrian," was my (unfairly ignored) quip. A run through tram history is only ever going to command a niche audience, but I'm - potentially at least - among that number and was still left wanting. A dull shed of 120 years' worth of old trams, it's literally made for tram-spotters. Unfortunately the most recent 20 have been left off (because, I suppose, they're still being used). 1990 appears to have marked the point at which tram evolution sped up, so almost all the exhibits are very similar. The inspection of very minor differences this entails is what I imagine watching evolution in real time would be like: that is, a kind of cosmic paint-drying process.

2. Rynek Underground, Krakow

A big budget spectacular (holographs projected onto curtains of mist!) which fails to hide the fact you're really just walking around some old foundations. Unlike other entries in this post, it's essentially dull, not just dull in execution, and the show-off designers know it. Full of reams of incomprehensible statistics about column widths and periodical fires, no amount of interactivity can rescue it. The original investors wanted to open a subterranean mall, which would at least have served a penetrable function.

3. Bastion Tunnels Museum, Tallinn

A short film (confusingly fronted by a friendly cartoon worm) whizzes through all of Estonia's history, then a stentorian, glazed-eyed guide marches you below ground where you take a "train to the future" (essentially a Stannah stair-lift placed horizontally down a narrow, unadorned tunnel). The train was broken when we went, so we looked at it and then walked. At the end of the tunnel was a TV showing possible futures of Tallinn. Then we walked back, listening as the tour guide vented her frustrations at the city's homeless (selfish enough to take up residence in the tunnels in winter). Next we were shown some dressed up shop dummies in various states of medieval contortion and finally kicked into the mid-day sun, blinking dizzily.

4. Museum of Czech History, The National Monument on Vitkov Hill, Prague

Vitkov is home to a glowering Jan Zizka, eyeing up the city below him from horseback. But the museum in the building behind him lacks any of his stern atmospherics. Another confusion of showy exhibits, garbled translations and lack of direction, there's some great stuff hidden in here. The problem is, with its jumping from one point in historical time to another, its lack of decent writing, and its strange pacing, it manages to make modern Czech history at once boring and dispiriting. Then it starts on about sports uniforms. Thoroughly unenlightening despite the spectacle.

5. Funicular Railway, Budapest
Ok, it might seem churlish to get angry with transport (twice), but this is appallingly dull. You can't really see out of it, it doesn't go very high or fast, and it costs a lot of money. The fact you're riding something old adds nothing to the experience, and certainly the terrifying staff won't make things better. Save the money and go on Budapest's much more entertaining Metro Line 1 - the second oldest in the world, complete with little tiny trains and platforms that look like some Georgian nostalgist's living room. Excellent.

6. Design Museum, Helsinki

By no stretch is this either eastern or central, but it is boring. Like everything else in Scandinavia it's very cool and not at all hateable. In fact, I really wanted to enjoy it. But there's just so much of it. This is a real case of quantity over quality. Eventually the comparative novelty of seeing different types of the same thing (scissors with square handles; scissors with round handles, and so on) wears off and you start to feel like you're just wandering around a warehouse.

7. The Biggest Church in Gdansk

Once the biggest Lutheran church in the world, it's spacious enough for 25,000 worshippers to fit in. Pews aside, there's not really much there, however. It's capacious and echoey, but with its white-washed walls it feels more like a badly painted waiting room than a site of God's magnificence. It's also completely open, meaning there's no point walking around it because you can see it all from the entrance. Where's the Mystery in that?

8. Prison Museum, Brno

Finally, Brno. Not a city known for its abundance of charm, this is the literal pinnacle of its mediocrity. In the heart of the hilltop castle Spilberk, this museum promises a re-creation of daily life in the underground warren of tunnels (again!) that once made up the local prison. Except here the typical badly posed shop dummies in silly wigs are decidedly thin on the ground. In their place is - well, nothing actually. An occasional plaque bearing a number guides your feet. Apart from that you are left in semi-darkness pondering blank grey walls and your own existential pointlessness. No info cards, no real clue as to what went on, no pictures, just the sound of your own foot-steps in the dimming twilight. 

And two honourable exceptions...

DDR Museum, Berlin

Good exhibits, proper lighting, a sense of historical place and time, and a prodding sense of humour, combine to genuinely illuminating effect. I left not only knowing more, but also entertained and a tiny bit baffled. Which is exactly how a tourist attraction should leave you.

Rakvere Castle, Estonia

You'll almost certainly never go there (it's in a provincial Estonian town with all the tourist pull of Gillingham), but it is a very good day out. No convincing sense of history or research (budget limitations probably pertain here), but it does make the most of its limitations. People bound about on horses, there's a re-creation of a medieval red light district, and a haunted chamber in which a grizzly old man assaults you in bad German. Great fun.

Monday, 14 October 2013

The Sea King

On the big day he said, 'Her excellence
yields to the discerning eye.'
So, who could expect much on the
wedding night?

Who could expect much of his cool pastures,
his sallow buttocks (spied juddering
from a luke-warm tub)?
She let herself have what there was of him.

The Revolution came as a relief - in the
village somebody said the Palace was
happily stormed, and now there was
a scuffle going on.

It was no time at all before the small-holders
were liberated of their proprietary concerns
(niggling though they were)
and the good word spread:

the threshold of the interval between liberation
and freedom had, on tip-toe over ice,
been crossed.

This (indefinite) perspiring interval - the hard-work of whetting the blade,
of poising the sword - liberated first
the fallow earth. And next, till such a time as tendencies
were trusted, so much else was to be suppressed.

The birth of freedom was to be gratuitously midwifed,
and so they found externalized the very
prison of their marriage: the submission
of individual desire to the rigours of discipline.

He, of bookish anti-Semitism, took to wrestling
with a tumbler or two of whiskey, and a friend,
in a shed. She got on
with it, hoping not to have a child.

Life plus electricity, plus the banning of this
or that, trampled over dogged habit,
but failed to extinguish it too thoroughly.

Like the sea king, subject to barnacles and the
battering of the tide,
all the rape and boredom of daily life,
didn't go away, it just took on mutant forms.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Debt and Architecture

Read my article on 'Debt' from the Prague Revue here

And then have a look at this lovely archive of Prague buildings.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Dubrovnik, Aug 2013, and Memories of Mostar

Perhaps I should preface this by saying I'm on my first proper summer holiday since we drove to Center Parcs in France about fifteen years ago. My only ever buckets and spades affair was in Tunisia, a sweltering two weeks spent flustered and dodging the heat. Disappointed with the general malaise and discomfort the sun inflicted on Tunis, I stuck to either the pool or the hotel room. The congested beaches I gave a miss.

The sun was always something of an unknown quantity in our family, at once rarely sighted, unpredictable and vicious. These in concert led to awful anxiety and obsessive over preparedness. I once met a (decidedly modest, British) heatwave with the exasperated cry, "Well, this is how the Sahara started."

So arriving in Dubrovnik, stepping off an aggressively, eye-itchingly air conditioned coach, I was likewise unimpressed. It is an experience I would liken to being punched repeatedly in the face by a scolding bath. No wonder nobody here seems to do anything - at least none of the men do. They sit in cafes half-reading the tabloids, occasionally mustering the energy to smoke a fag. Meanwhile Brits lie incapacitated on deckchairs. Italians - almost totally at home - do their endless standing up chatting.

No such indolence for us. Siobhan's tactical approach to holidays is at once simple and brutally effective: march through as many activities as you can. Actually, as we're doing this on a tatty, threadbare shoestring of a budget, this mostly entails just marching - from one sight to the next.

Still, there are worse places to be broke and on holiday. A compact Baroque maze (like one of those round plastic games you have to tip up and down to get a little metal ball around), Dubrovnik's Old Town carries off its swamp of tourists with surprising panache. Its warren of alleys siphons off the worst of the foot-traffic, sequestering pedestrians in a hidden world of white stone rivulets and jumbled roof tiling.

On our first visit we scale the City Walls, Siobhan noting - at regular intervals - that this very place was where Games of Thrones was filmed.
'Just imagine,' she says, 'Eddard Stark walked through here.'
'Which scene was that?' I ask, peering over the high ridge of the Pile Gate.
'No, just imagine it. Geoffrey looked out from the Red Keep here, over this view.'
'So this bit was in the series?' I ask, pointing at a nearby house.
'I don't know if that particular house was in it. But this is where they filmed it...'
'Which series...?'
And so on, me persistently literal and failing really to imagine anything at all; Siobhan undeterred in her marvelling.

Partly on the promise of air conditioning we march over to the baldly titled War Photo Limited, which - despite its title - is a permanent exhibition of photography taken mostly during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. It combines this section with other, temporary exhibitions - on this occasion Cedric Gerbanhayo's excellent and shocking coverage of South Sudan. The pro-Croat (or more precisely anti-Serb) bias of the permanent exhibition was more than offset by Wade Goddard's pictures of Mostar (the capital of Herzegovina).

Untitled, Goddard, 1993

Giving ample time to both the peculiar Bosniak-Croat alliance against Serbia and the subsequent bombardment and siege of the city by Croat nationalists (supported by the main Croatian military) in 1993, Enclave reproduces the struggle of daily life in the war-torn city. Moments of high drama (one UNICEF volunteer is shot trying to rescue a fatally injured civilian from sniper fire; she lies in a shallow gutter, one eye visible and staring into the sky, anticipating the next shot) are interspersed with snapshots of apparently everyday domesticity. These are of two orders: the first shows an ordinary activity taking place in extraordinary surroundings (a woman calmly making coffee in a devastated apartment); the second elevates ordinary settings by punctuating them with extraordinary details (a young man smoking in his apartment, tobacco paraphernalia strewn around him - and amongst it a gun). We walked around it pointing out the burnt bones of structures we had seen ourselves just two years earlier. The sight of the collapsed Old Bridge remains a truly devastating sight.

Mostar, 2010

Mostar, 1993
Untitled, Goddard

This is representative enough, and it's fair to say any war exhibition's job should be to be honest. But the permanent exhibition still participates in that familiar, troubling competition for victim status that characterizes relations between ex-Yugoslav states. Though the "apartheid" of Kosovar Albanians, and Milosevic-instigated ethnic cleansing, are rightly collected in the catalogue of sufferings, no mention is made of the contemporaneous bombing by NATO of Belgrade - a grotesque and strategically useless intervention which cost civilian lives. As much as anything, there is pragmatism here: funding priorities need to be considered after all. But there's still more than a touch of anger involved.

In Croatia there is still a calculated refusal to flatter Serbs with the halo of victimhood. By resorting to an active politics of victimhood, Balkan and ex-Yugoslav states risk elevating national majorities to the level of martyrs, inspiring further vicious nationalism in future.    

Monday, 30 September 2013

Split-Dubrovnik, August 2013

Neum, Bosnia and Herzegovina

The road meanders along the coast, winding at often stomach churning heights through dusty cliff-perched villages. Everybody we pass on the road is in some stage of undress, usually sun-charred red. Every couple of kilometres we stop at the waving request of a young woman in shades and crop top, hand tickling the dead air above her head. Occasionally she's accompanied by an older woman. No men get on or off.

The landscape reminds me of two places - first, the valley strewn train-ride from Sarajevo to Mostar, but more vividly the Sicilian countryside. The hills stagger upwards in clashing outcrops of woody green until, at a certain point, a yellow-grey eruption of stone ends their grassy ascent. All this huge grey mass is scribbled over with shallow-rooted, tilting shrubbery, a wire mesh puncturing its still surfaces.

As the road hunkers higher up on white-knuckle bends the cliff-face bounds up to us on the inside. We shudder past its over-hanging mouths, its hoard of thin trees whispering towards us. Scored into the mountains' many faces are the bright orangey-yellow trails of rock slides. They run patchily across its surfaces, rippling in zigzags over its bumps and grooves like the scratch marks of a falling cat. Scattered in the messy green of the foot-hills are tidy rows of olive trees, the squat, rusting shells of old Yugos, and the occasional holiday home.

We pass through Baska Voda, dangling over the Adriatic, its shimmering distance doing nothing to cool the air. Beyond it the sea and the mountains suddenly part ways and we are thrust into the first open landscape in miles. But the sea quickly rushes back. At Bratus we pelt round a narrow mountain pass and rise up and over the sparkling water.

By the time we reach the border checkpoints into Bosnia and Herzegovina, the hills have shrunk, clouded now to their peaks in green. Where the hills are less steep there are whole forests, great rows of pine sauntering straight into the bays below.

We cross Bosnia's sole 20 km of coastline, stopping near the border back into Croatia to buy cheap cigarettes and beer. Last time I was in Bosnia we passed through Croatia, so this turn of events feels fitting. We arrive at a glorified petrol station on a cliff, an under-staffed and over-priced restaurant attached to one side. The waiters charge angrily between rows of chain-smoking Italians. Dozens of coaches are squeezed into the tiny car park. People throw money - Croatian, Bosnian or Euros - at a young woman at a till inside the shop. They're buying Turkish delight, cheap beer, cigarettes and spirits, as if stockpiling for a very debauched apocalypse. 

As we cross the last of the hills into Dubrovnik, my passport checked for perhaps the tenth time in the former Yugoslavia, I wonder if the existence of border controls is a permanent or merely passing phase. Certainly the removal of checkpoints has its future as a political project pegged, for the moment, to the future of the EU. As there were none under Tito, so perhaps there shall be none under Brussels. Though this would no doubt be a great achievement (in a region torn apart by ethnic cleansing just thirteen years ago), can the people of the former Yugoslavia rely on the stability of the EU settlement any more than they could Tito's?   

Monday, 23 September 2013

"Put thine Castle in Order!": Vaclav Havel and the Ideology of Power

Vaclav Havel: Czech playwright, dissident and later president

To The Castle and Back, Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel, the great Czech dissident and playwright, attained an almost canonical status in the west. His elevation above, say, Walesa (creepingly autocratic), Gorbachev (still a socialist at heart), and Woytyla (Catholic), speaks volumes about which particular lessons we like to draw from the fall of communism. Havel, grumpy and vaguely elitist, never presented himself as a 'man of the people' (unlike Walesa, however knowingly). His wit and ironic distance from the organs of power made him an anti-ideological figurehead. This while having assumed the highest office in the land. In the words of Tim Garton Ash, ubiquitous devotee of the east's 'return to Europe', he never deigned to "examine the political surface of things" but rather lifted his eyes constantly to the transcendent.1 Havel himself described the cleaving of the world into left and right as a mystification arising from the prejudices of modernity.2 The truer mode of distinction was the ancient, moral one - that between right and wrong - which permits an escape from the absurdity of totalitarianism into an older, more sceptical world.

What could not have been appreciated at the time was the way in which Havel's deep scepticism of political ideas began not merely a demystification of the last century's morality but a laying of the foundations of the ideology of the next.

It is telling that Tony Blair, another politician dear to Garton Ash's heart, is likewise keen to stress the primacy of renewed moralism over sectarian politics. All of which bluster assumes that the old division of left and right was somehow artificial, an unnatural substitute which impeded access to this transcendent order of right and wrong. Never mind the gross hubris implied in declaring your own moral constructions transcendentally superior to all others.

The subtlety of Havel's conception of ideology, so influential since first voiced in 'The Power of the Powerless' (1979), is often missed today. His originality was to conceive ideology not as the 'instrument for the rational articulation of ideas' (to sink for a moment to the lowest level of Party jargon), but instead as a kind of "veil" which "permeates" and helps to "form" society itself. In a situation he already described as "post-totalitarian", the guarantee of social cohesion was undertaken through essentially cynical means - while nobody really believed, everybody remained within the system in order to avoid any problems. Ideology became the (cynical) legitimization of power, a way of totalizing social space, of making people accept society as they found it. Yet for Havel this desire for totality was not strictly unique to communist societies, but in fact stemmed from the "historical encounter between dictatorship and consumerism", and contained a warning to the west. After all, he asked, wasn't totalitarianism merely an "exaggerated caricature" of modern life in general? Communism, therefore, was lumped in with all the other symptoms of the condition of humanity under modernity. 

The crucial aspect was to understand how ideology was no longer adopted out of naive idealism, but had taken on the role of a cynical mode of self-justification, a sort of universal deception which allowed a debased society to function. In a conclusion which always contained the potential for mysticism, it was modernity as such that degraded truth.

Havel believed in a kind of social and political order, but in what specifically? Clearly not the order of the Communist Party, which was for him a reactionary Orleanism, a reinstitution of the old cycle of coercion and repression. Havel's order is the response to a divine injunction - "put thine castle in order!" Following this revelation of divine will, one's task is literally to give order to the clutter of the world. Giving order to the humdrum in the face of a great wave: popularly this is known as fiddling while Rome burns. It is the "structures that embody our statehood"3 - coats of arms, dinner etiquette, properly emblazoned cutlery - which obsess him. There is a certain charm to this. At one point in To The Castle and Back he damns an old cleaner who, firmly ensconced somewhere in the Castle's political heart, stubbornly refuses to let anybody make use of the good silver for diplomatic dinners. Havel's delight in heraldic motifs (the Castle itself being one) was an expression of a desire to reinvigorate a more magical side of Europe, one more concerned with exploring the occult than anything like mass politics. Hence his affection for the Rudolfine court and its vast, eccentric treasure-troves.

Havel's suspicion of political ideas stemmed from a more general distaste for rationalism. For Havel order was the creation of personal balance. His was the Truth of prophets and poets, one that could be disclosed only through revelation, and even then only fleetingly. Reason fractures the unity of the World, yet in the absence of human reason (in Nietzschean overtones) "everything is related to everything else."4  The World is thus a priori harmonious; it is in human consciousness that the violence exists. He speaks of a "hidden fabric of life"5 accessible through ruptures with linear, rational thought, such as the collage (a reference to the non-linear or rather multi-linear structure of the book). While negatively this resulted in disdain for the modern "machinery" of the state, its positive aspect was a deep nostalgia for a more heraldic, romantic past. Revelation was an act of the individual creative will, a glimpse of a mysterious unity outside of human reason. Hence Havel's dislike of honest capitalism (or "capitalism without adjectives", in the words of the ODS slogan) - too protestant and earthy to satisfy his need for something transcendent and unbothered by the merely material.

In a sense then this was a specifically Catholic method of revelation: the divine order of reality fleetingly revealed. His 'post-political' (sometimes even, in his more daring, anti-consensual moments, 'post-democratic') politics was really only a reversion to some pre-modern conception of political order as social balance, harmony with nature, and atonement in the eyes of a transcendent power.

This poetics of revelation, with its emphasis on the mysterious and alchemical, found its apotheosis in the Prague Castle itself. At once the embodiment of noble grandeur and mystical experiments, in the Castle Havel could explore the psychical depths of Central Europe, situated at the very heart of its cultural repository (one of his great diplomatic blunders was an attempt to have Sweden return the sacked artefacts of Rudolf II's famous collection to Prague). Yet as any visitor to Prague knows, the Castle refuses to 'reveal' anything besides a slightly ridiculous testament to imagined histories of power, rendering the city somehow inadequate relative to its lofty ambitions.

In contrast to Kafka's eponymous Castle, which reveals itself through the mists as a ramshackle assemblage of dull huts, Hradcany (The Castle district) dissolves into mere 'aristocratic splendour'. As people wander its odd little streets they might be heard to ask where the famous Castle actually is. From a distance it is sombrely imposing, but on the approach it breaks down into its constituent parts: cathedral, dwellings, old shops, presidential quarters. Yet, as something more than the sum of its parts, it is forever visible on the skyline, a black crystalline embodiment of a fantasy of power utterly alienated from the city at its feet. Its very pageantry, awash with the occult, only reinforces its reality for 'cynical' Czechs as a magnificent chocolate-box screen image - the benign mask of an intangible trauma, a troubling hangover from centuries of religious oppression and foreign domination.

Havel was a kind of benign mystic reactionary, rejecting modern consciousness as essentially sullied by technocratic rationalism. It was this very rejection which mired him in an impotent campaign for a fantastical revolution in the general human consciousness, a groundless religious mission which lacked (and lacks) any concrete support, and left him startlingly isolated by the end of his time in office. Havel regrets that the "political technocrats outnumber the dreamers"6: it's no cruel trick on the dreamers, however, that this remains the case. Nonetheless, the more interventionist of liberals; those, like Blair, of a more militaristic pose, have also been bloodier. For Havel's rare political quietism we should in the end be thankful.

1Ash, The Uses of Adversity, 163
2qtd., Ash, 171
3Havel, To The Castle and Back, 286
6 ibid., 295

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Weather in Budapest: Rain-Sleet-Snow with a Hint of Sludge

When I imagine Berlin it's always June and alternating between sun and showers in that typically unpredictable northern European way. In the Budapest of my memory, meanwhile, the temperature hovers forever around zero. The constant, lazy drizzle alternates between wet snow and icy rain. Unbroken, claustrophobically dense cloud covers the whole sky for days on end. This is the world of shifting greys that I picture in John le Carre novels. It is a picture of perfect, rain-lashed streets; of weather made for hiding in big low-lit cafes and watching the pavements outside.

As I've said before, Budapest is a far cooler place than Prague. Imagine Berlin but more dishevelled, with a bombed out feeling, and perhaps more homeless people. So, Berlin as it might have been in 1989. This only adds to its sense of espionage; its atmosphere of hidden intrigue and trouble; the energy of the hyper-modern colliding with another, altogether more stilted world. Of course, in high summer, when hundreds of thousands of tanned, happy young people bundle onto Sziget island for its annual pop festival, this fantasy of danger couldn't be further from the truth. But this proves my point entirely: bunting and carnivals are not what I'd like to remember about Budapest.

I recall its brooding riverfront; the vast, intense sprawl of its craggy, half-restored facades; the incessant, driving rain. All this gave it the appearance of somewhere not yet fully accustomed to the attentions of outsiders. This is sort of the case: even as Hungary itself grows more typically entwined with the capitalist world, its politics is becoming more radically nationalist. It's a pattern as old as capital itself: the cultural vacuum imposed on capital's most recent entrants leads to violent reaction. Capital imposes no set of values in its wake, unlike state-planning, which does so with a manic, self-destructive energy. The result is that those who fought the old tyranny have ended up instituting a regime of even more extensive repression than the one that preceded it.

In the Hungary of Janos Kadar, who was crowbarred into power following the crushing of the 1956 uprising, travel restrictions were removed, space for free market style activities was carefully allotted, and a great deal of censorship was relaxed. Socialist Hungary was described as 'the merriest barracks in the camp'. This concealed its enormous indebtedness. As was also the case with Yugoslavia, its very openness to the world economy helped undo the precarious regime and the defeatist, narrowly consumerist social contract that underwrote it. There is less danger of that in sight today. Under the supermajority of Prime Minister Victor Orban new forms of media control have been devised, along with authoritarian adjustments to Hungary's constitution, even as the country brings in international investment. None of this has made much difference to the debt situation, even though it's made some people very rich. Dissent, both liberal and leftist, is being marginalised in a way the creaky old bureaucracy, having relinquished the reins of censorship, could no longer manage.

Those who dismiss the Orban regime as the latest in a long line of ugly, xenophobic post-communist governments - rabble-rousing populists who only momentarily challenge the forward march of liberal order - should be careful. For a start, he's no populist: the people, in any properly defined sense, can not be said to support him. He's a high Magyar elitist of the old school, and in that he owes more to Lajos Kossuth and 19th century nationalism than to skinhead thuggery, as uncomfortable as it is for many to admit. Yet his enduring, in fact tightening, hold on power, along with the success of the far right Jobbik party, attest to the rise of an unrepresentative, western-educated, and deeply nationalist elite.

That the government does not make the country was evidenced everywhere. Daily life continued in its half-speed winter fashion. Hipsters and tourists and Roma rubbed along fine. And rain-sodden posters from big organised protests were plastered on walls. Yet a visit to Budapest's famous English style Parliament suggested the obsessive defensiveness of the Orban state. Armed guards prevented anyone from getting near it. Big signs asked tourists to stop where they were and come no closer. The whole place smacked of petty regulation and a kind of withdrawal of government power into blissful isolation. It was how I imagined things would have been for tourists before 1989.

As the rain fell on the long curl of the Pest riverfront, melting the snow and creating big mounds of sludge, we dodged the roar of traffic to get closer to the water. Tramlines sliced through the muddy river bank, separating pedestrians from the views of hilly Buda on the other side. Still, there was something alluring about it: the river was swollen and churning - a real river, the kind on which a stern, steel metropolis could be built. The massive, unadorned chain bridge lashed itself across the two shores. Boats fought the chaotic tide. Budapest felt like the awesome centre of something, whereas Prague always feels a little marginalised by its own chocolate box beauty. Here, I felt, was a place where things were happening.

Klaus Wowereit once called Berlin "poor, but sexy". He was mayor at the time. This, for many, encapsulates Berlin's charm. It's self-deprecating, hugely talented, but somehow under-achieving. It lacks gloss. Budapest, with its pubs built into derelict buildings and its thousands of pop up art galleries, exudes a similar atmosphere. It's as if the grim, imperial splendour of the official city leaves inadvertent space for such transgressions in its own alcoves. Still, what lo-fi, indie-ish creativity there is is being quickly and smartly professionalized by an international business class who still see Hungary, and Budapest in particular, as a safe bet. Safer than, say, Poland, where everything is still creeky and risky. And more interesting than the Czech Republic, which is viewed as a sort of aspirant Switzerland. The chaos and creativity of Budapest is breeding big investment. This is no surprise, but we should recall here that opening a gallery in Budapest is very often an act of defiance, one enacted against a repressive state with oligarchic ambitions. One should not exploit such creative industriousness lightly.

The new government's whims, legally pursuable through an unassailable supermajority further guaranteed by electoral gerrymandering and constitutional alteration, have led to absurdities every bit as remarkable as those fostered under communism. A couple of winters ago Hungary banned homelessness, making it punishable with a fine equivalent to about £400. With a population of up to 10 000 homeless people (in a city of 2 million), that's a lot of fines in Budapest alone. It's also an act of outright barbarity. Yet this law also conveys everything you need to know about the government's attitude towards its own citizens: if they are unsightly or bad for business, rapidly change the law, and pursue punitive financial action. The legitimacy conferred on government through parliamentary majority is here taken to absurd extremes. The logic assumes that 52% of the vote, on a turnout of 63%, morally guarantees the right of the government to do exactly as it pleases. A purely legal majority (in reality only 30% of the voting population) becomes a weapon for massive legal reform. Orban continues to rail against international (read: Jewish) financial capital even as he gets Hungary deeper into debt. He has introduced neoliberal style low taxes on small business even as he introduces tariffs on foreign, financial capital. Here again are the echoes of the paternalist Kossuth and the high water mark of Magyar nationalism. Ideologically, Orban is above all a nationalist. But he is by no means averse to capital insofar as it furthers his goals of chauvinist Magyar expansion. One should not assume, as the advocates of liberal order within the EU do, that there is any immediate contradiction between nationalism and the interests of capital The danger is precisely that the two will coexist quite happily.

The pathetic fallacy comes full circle then: those brooding clouds over the national parliament spell trouble ahead. But the driving rain, the city's ability to get on with it, to draw creative strength from within itself, suggests there's a fight ahead.