Rather open republic than “critical liberalism”

13. 7. 2017 / Karel Dolejší


This essay was originally published here in Czech as "Raději otevřenou republiku než 'kritický liberalismus'".

In 1990, the sociologist Ralph Dahrendorf observed that the wave of revolution in Central and Eastern Europe did not bring about any new ideas. According to him, the Western model that was uncritically introduced by the new democracies was well past its peak and heading into apparent crisis. In 2017, Czech journalists Petr Honzejk and Erik Tabery disputed the proper form of liberalism, whether “critical” or basic. At the same time, Radoslav Procházka has observed the creeping return of “people’s democracy” in Slovakia.

There are more than 200 political parties and movements in the Czech Republic. Unlike in developed Western countries, the mass popularity of TV has been passed to another generation, and multiplexes and satellite broadcasts have provided tens - and soon to be hundreds - of channels. Despite statistics suggesting the potential for a flourishing public discourse in a wide media space, public attention is concentrated upon irrational fears instigated by demagogues. In a country with 3,000 well-integrated Muslims, which receives 80-90 asylum applications a month and is a pure recipient of EU financial support, the greatest threats are seen as Islam, immigration and “Brussels”.

It is naïve to suppose that we can falsify this agenda by rational argument: this supposition rests on a misunderstanding of the collective mental condition of our scared citizens. Attempts to provide facts to disprove irrational fears do not yield results, because they are not perceived as part of an honest and reasonable debate. Disproval of irrational worries is seen by the scared as a perfidious denial of their subjectively real dread. It is perceived as a lack of seriousness on behalf of the opponent and as personal disrespect. Moreover, fears around Islam, immigration and “dictation by Brussels” are being moulded into a peculiar worldview. Worldviews are not set aside for the sake of “mere” facts: people are in the habit of identifying with them.

It is well known that in the military, a frontal assault of a furiously-defended position is not always the best idea. Local neo-conservatism for the poor (a political myth mobilising citizens of a militarily-dependent country against a fictitious enemy) is so well established in the Czech Republic that attempts to alleviate the fear of muslim immigrants, which is felt so deeply by an overwhelming majority of Czechs, by mobilising gamekeepers and firefighters against them (yes, indeed, this has been seriously suggested ias a remedy) give only a slight prospect of success. It is better to give up such attempts and to target the existing background infrastructure.

Surely it would be much more sensible to try to establish a discourse of a different agenda, another view of the world, separate from the one suggested by populist bogeymen. It is vital for the long-term existence and operation of the national state of the Czech Republic, still a substantial part of the framework of political activity.

Postclassical politics”

Western industrial civilization went through its “classical” phase in the 19th and 20th centuries. During this period, key cultural and political forms emerged which we still have to handle, despite being largely inadequate to the current condition, simply because it has become fashionable to relativize, “expose”, and “deconstruct” their inherited forms in recent decades - and critics so focused upon them do not make serious attempts to create anything really new.

From a practical point of view, “postclassical politics” needs to handle collective identities and the series of institutions founded upon them, created in a bygone period of nationalism and nation state, because there is currently no substitute. Even though the problems at hand regularly and ever more frequently surpass the nation state, and cannot be solved at that level, the nation state is still the basis of forming a collective will which we cannot get by without. Many difficulties stem from this contradiction, and the neo-conservatism for the poor is one possible interim maladaptation – a project pretending to defend the “nation” from non-existent threats, which it supposedly “handles well”, unlike the real ones.

Liberalism or anti-liberalism?

Honzejk correctly describes the liberals as living in an enclosed social bubble. Similar bubbles – often virtual, and concentrated around social networks – represent a current form of “tribal identity”. Honzejk’s problem is that he wishes to speak to all, but as a liberal he automatically speaks only to his own tribe.

History and connotations of the notions “liberal” and “illiberal” present a burden disallowing any meaningful debate between the two camps.

But even if you aren’t going to establish the two-hundredth-and-first political party with a compromise program, there is a potential way out of the deadlock. This possibility has the current character of a mere Weberian ideal type – a measure applied to reality, never to be fully realised – and may become a starting point of wider debate. It is not a political program.

Primacy of the civic principle

Advanced globalization, and the growing strain on international structures, has lead liberalism to an actual devaluation of the civic principle, which formed the basis of Western political projects after WWII. It has been replaced by global cosmopolitanism, unclearly outlined and mostly understood as a form of unlimited social deregulation.

The “illiberal” reaction opposes this in favour of an archaic national (and sometimes religious) principle in different guises, and can thus unite supporters of the ultra-right and of extremists under its banner.

There is a political rule that any absolute or infinity is unworkable, which also applies to the removal of borders, regulations and various other limits. Instead of arguing whether to be a liberal (and of which flavour) or “illiberal”, or whether to advocate deregulatory cosmopolitism or xenophobic nationalism, it is necessary to renovate the civic principle, and to differentiate it sufficiently from the national principle.

Open republic

In respect to the significant shifts of meaning which occurred in Czech society in recent years - in words such as “democracy” and “direct democracy” - surely it is much more suitable to say that the Czech Republic is simply a republic.

“Democracy” always contains reference to Rousseau’s volonté générale and in well-known past mutations had been additionally operationalized as “the unity of will of the ruling and the controlled”, with a warranted popular führer at the helm; while the “republic” points firstly to the rule of law.

When there is rule of law as opposed to the sovereign (i.e. not the popular majority which would vote for the deportation of the Jews), executive power is always principally limited. Minorities are protected by the constitution, and justice heeds protection of guaranteed rights. Such is the costly lesson of WWII. Constitutional order should be stronger than the general will of the people and it should not be easy to change it. In this sense, the project of the “sixth republic” of the French left in reality does not count as a republic, and rather constitutes an ill-conceived break from the principles of representative democracy.

An open republic would be such a republic that consistently separates the civic from the national principle. Citizenship presupposes first of all a clear expression of the will of the applicant to become a citizen, an obedience of laws of the given state, an effort to adopt the political culture and an endeavour to integrate into existing society on the given state’s territory. In contrast to this, citizenship does not certainly demand a national bond based “on kinship” or an inherited mother tongue or cuisine - nor generally any “leading culture” (Leitkultur), as described, for example, in the proposal of the Bavarian CSU. The citizenry is principally broader than the nation, while at the same time much narrower than humanity, for practical reasons which can never be fully bypassed in politics.

The civic principle moderates between tribal atavisms of all kinds, including national atavism and class atavism; and humanity as a whole. The traditional mixing of civic and national principles is a great disadvantage to Czech society, which modelled its belated one-sided modernisation in the 19th century on German romantic nationalism. It is necessary to refuse and overcome this tradition. It is also desirable to blunt the hysterical worry that “the Czechs will melt into global cosmopolitism”.

National myth and the functional approach to cultural diversity

The Czech national myth is an attempt to hold on to the fiction that the Czech basin is “traditionally” inhabited by members of a single ethnicity, i.e. the Czechs. Regardless of the fact that this “single ethnic group” is constituted by three different subgroups (with the Moravians and the Silesians) it never controlled the whole Czech basin until 1945. Furthermore, it was never sufficiently interested in settling the whole territory alone - if it would have been, there would be no reason for either German or Wallachian colonisation. These processes were initialised by local rulers as the dominant ethnic group did not wish to, or could not sufficiently, settle and use the territory in question. By contrast, the colonists, whether by virtue of different culture or just with talent loosened from the bonds of local majority culture, managed to settle and utilise these territories.

This example shows us the real meaning of what is called “cultural diversity”. It certainly is not a purpose in itself (the more, the better), as supporters of multicultural ideology claim, but is always subservient to the viewpoint of function. Without German smiths and miners or Wallachian herdsmen, the Bohemian lands could not have reached their level of importance in Mediaeval Europe. As an ethnically homogenized territory since 1945, they have continued to lose any international relevance.

Cultural diversity can certainly be an asset, as uncensored Czech history shows. The Vietnamese restaurateur, Syrian doctor or Ukrainian engineer may all be excellent contributors to Czech society. The depopulated Czech countryside and borderland (again becoming vacant) can potentially accommodate a considerable number of newcomers, especially if these areas would be developed and brought to prosperity – even by the employment of farming and herding traditions of their original homeland not devastated by collectivisation. All sorts of things are possible. The idea we can gain anything by enforcing our customs on every newcomer is essentially wrong.

The ideal though is not the most varied “multi-culti” society: rather, the ideal society is as functional as possible. Citizens with differing cultural and religious backgrounds must learn to live together so that needless conflicts do not occur. But that is no problem in the Czech Republic today. Simply put, talk of Muslims not wanting to obey Czech laws are lies. As a matter of fact, the average Muslim obeys laws far better than average atheist Czech. And it is certainly not Muslims who today spread hatred in the Czech Republic and incite violence.

Openness and security

The openness of the republic cannot be measured by the fact that it can accept “a million refugees” without consideration of who they are or where they came from. An open republic must also take care of its security. Background checks of asylum seekers for links to organised crime and terrorism should be seen as entirely in order. Asylum and citizenship are not, and should never be, granted on the basis of religious or ethnic affiliation. Certainly not in a republic ruled by a constitution and law as opposed to the will of a xenophobic majority.

The relationship between openness and security is also rooted on another level. The key security problem of our region is not (and in foreseeable future will not be) terrorism based in Islamism. The main security threat is a Russia frantically arming itself - and the Czech Republic cannot enclose itself in its borders and pretend not to be concerned by the problems of the region. Control of the invasion corridor stretching through the Central European plain constitutes a common task for Polish, Czech and German armed forces. We cannot be short-sighted and deny this cooperation with our northern neighbours.

Social cohesion as necessary condition

Bad sectarian politics that convert all problems to that of wage levels and income differentials within a nation state cannot work in this postclassical period of European civilization. The national frames are too tight and it is necessary to start harmonising the wage policy on a regional scale at least. On the other hand, many problems and topics cannot be translated to social questions - and if you do that, other, potentially worse problems arise.

It is however not advisable to reject the obsolete left, which is self-defined by internationalist values but intends to solve only national problems on the national level, in favour of the right, as both possess very similar behaviours.

The voices of “experts” can be heard to say that the rejection of obsolete leftism is somehow analogous to the manoeuvre once accomplished by Blair, in that it is another appearance of the “new centre”. However, that centre can only be discussed if we suppose categories such as “left” and “right” still function and possess stable meanings. In Czech conditions when the “left” gathers to support xenophobic and conservative politicians, while part of the “right” remains the symbolic guardian of internationalism, we are somewhere else than we were in the times of Blair.

The Czech right systematically underrates the question of social cohesion, and critics are partially correct when they relate current pathologies to this blindness. The party labelling itself as social-democratic distinctly prefers a national principle over a civic one, and intends to employ “national prosperity” as a barricade against the evil world. The party calling itself communist advocates ultra-right policies and the interests of a hostile foreign power. Left radicals, by logical fallacy, accuse “imperialism” of having brought about the very existence of security policy.

It is certainly better to make a wide circuit around this kind of public discussion - even at the risk of being cheaply labelled a centrist.

The pivotal dispute will in the end take place between those who recognize the existence of security politics (even in this, the most unstable period the continent has witnessed since WWII) but do not want to sacrifice openness to it; and those who see a future with barb-wired borders defended, as has been suggested in the Czech Republic, by gamekeepers and firemen. It will be between those who intend to modify civic principles according to the demands of these changed times - and those who prefer tribalism.

(Translated by Michal Horák and Sean Mark Miller, subedited by Sam Beaton and Amy Mackinnon)


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