by Benjamin B. Page
Chapter Three: 1992
As Egon Bondy, my old friend Zbynìk had had a rather hectic year of it so far, traveling, speaking, and organizing around the whole country in two contexts. He spent most of the spring writing and speaking on behalf of the Left Bloc and, along with Ivan Sviták and a few others, is credited with contributing significantly to its strong showing in the June elections; it placed second in both Republics. The second project, on which he has actually been working on for even longer, is an exhibit of the work of post-modern artists who for whatever reasons, were not officially recognized, for which he was invited to write the catalogue; he ended up doing much of the locating and selecting of work as well. We met this time at the little house in South Bohemia that he and Julia bought a few years ago because of her health. They are starting to think that they may have to let the apartment in Prague go. They have had only good relations with their new landlady, an elderly woman somehow related to the pre-Communist owner. She apparently has few plans for it, but has relatives from a younger generation waiting in the wings, who presumably hope to capitalize on its location, under the Prague Castle. More immediately, however, because of that location, the shops in the area have already gone up market so that, with no car, shopping even for necessities has become astronomically expensive.
Bondy was livid at what Klaus and Meèiar were doing to the country, "completely illegally and unconstitutionally." During the campaign for Parliament, no one had any idea that splitting the country would emerge as the main outcome. Klaus, Bondy felt, is the main force behind the split, considerably aided, to be sure—but only since the election made him Slovak Prime Minister—by Meèiar's megalomania. During only two months in office Meèiar had replaced top personnel in virtually every institution in Slovakia with his own people—"even the Art Gallery!" He talks only to journalists known to be favorable to him, to him as a person as well as to his policies, and he is talking openly of ending the cultural autonomy the half million or so Hungarians in southern Slovakia have enjoyed since the country was founded. Meèiar is showing himself, Bondy suggested, to be a candidate for the title of Central European Saddam. But Klaus is hardly less egotistical; just more refined. And he is doing some of the same things. For example Jaroslav Koøán, appointed Mayor of Prague in early 1990, says he was removed from office even before the election by Klaus' party in order to strengthen its position (Koøán, a professional translator of US authors, is now editor of the Czech edition of Playboy).
Bondy, along with most other people, is still somewhat taken aback by the speed with which everything seems to be happening. Klaus and his crew are determined to create a new class as the foundation for their rule, and to do so by any means, including closing their eyes to—or participating in— corruption, money laundering, and now the division of the country if Slovakia won't play their game. The "Slovak question" is holding them up. That's why they are insisting that Slovakia either accept their economic plans or go its own way, and do so now, by January 1, and not over the period of several years that the Slovaks say they would need. Even with regard to the rest of the Czech Lands, this new class is clearly going to be "Pragocentric"—although he got only 30 percent of the vote overall, Klaus got some 60 percent in Prague itself.
This "wild west" phase in creating the new class society is likely to play out in a year or so, Bondy predicts, when its builders feel firmly in control and ready to start denying access to those who come later. But it will not be an independent class; it will be a comprador, not a national bourgeoisie. It will be composed of people who work as the local employees and agents of Western capital. And Western capital is already showing its true colors. A year or so ago, Bondy indicated, he still believed that the West was interested in Czechoslovakia primarily as a source of cheap labor and minimal ecological regulation for industrial production, i.e. as a lever with which to reduce the benefits Western workers had been able to win earlier in the century. That is probably still part of the picture, but there is another. "The West wants our markets—not, of course just the few millions who live here, but the markets we have served for over forty years in the old Soviet bloc and the Third World. If a company like Siemens is interested in the factories where for over a century we have been making railroad locomotives, it is to de-skill us and switch the factory to making spare parts for the locomotives Siemens wants to sell in our old markets." And the well-paid managers of the Czech side of this process—they are Klaus's new class.
But there are other issues, Bondy stressed, that are far more important to the future of humankind than what is going on in Czechoslovakia. To begin with, the fall of the Soviet Union does two things. It means that Europe can also free itself from the United States and it leaves a vast power vacuum in the East. Within that power vacuum ethnic passions are boiling to a dangerous, tragic extent. The ethnic differences have always been there, usually, throughout most of history, somehow bridged over. Why is it that they are erupting everywhere just now? The countries that are today falling apart are all countries in which Germany—the dominant player in a Europe freed from both the Soviets and the Americans—has had long standing interests...but only in part of the country: Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia. Martin's account of how Slovakia had come to be independent during the Hitler era came to mind. Bondy agreed that there seems to be a clear parallel today, that "independence" is once again the "natural" solution to the question of what to do with a Slovakia in which Germany has no interest.
Bondy still maintains that what is going on in East Europe is part of the larger process whereby capital—the world's economy, its natural resources, its supplies of energy and human labor, and its ways of producing and distributing goods and wealth—is becoming increasingly globalized and concentrated under the control of a handful of interests in the West and Japan, with the rest of the world being kept in or, as in the case of Czechoslovakia, reduced to the peripheral, dependent status of a banana republic. This, in Bondy's view, is ultimately what Klaus and his supporters are about.
In this regard, the answer to the question of where Klaus came from, how he entered the scene and so rapidly became so decisive for Czechoslovakia's destiny, becomes particularly interesting. An economist at the Forecasting Institute of the Academy of Science, he was never a Communist; nor, however, had he ever let himself be publicly identified with the human rights movement or the political dissent into which it evolved. When he first began showing up at the public discussions that took place in the theaters of Prague in the fall of 1989, hardly anyone in what had by then become Civic Forum knew who he was. But Havel did. Rita Klimová, later to become Havel's Ambassador to the US, claims to have introduced him to the man she described as "our future Minister of Finance," in the mid-eighties. There are also stories that Klimová would occasionally bring Klaus incognito to meetings of the dissident leadership—Bondy's "shadow establishment." Reportedly, she would let them know ahead of time that she was bringing a special, unnamed guest, her warning being the sign that those present were not to introduce themselves. In this way Klaus could preserve his claim to not knowing the dissidents.
The extent to which Klimová or Havel was then fully aware of the direction Klaus would later seek to impose on the country, is unclear. What is known is that Klaus had extensive Western contacts, had studied at Cornell University, and rapidly became known as the IMF's point man in Prague. In this context, the political innocence and naivete of Havel and the inner circle of colleagues and advisors he took with him from his days in dissent to his Presidency, take on more than anecdotal significance. They provided the context in which a Klaus, i.e. someone with expertise and a thought out plan and direction, could easily create for himself a dominant role. Last year, before his role had become patently clear, cartoons depicted Klaus as Scrooge McDuck; this year as a buccaneer with one foot resting on a chest labeled "Privatization," and a legend reading "He took from the poor and gave to the rich."
The globalization and concentration of capital, Bondy stressed, is after all an expression of the logic of capitalism, the direction in which capitalism must move or cease to be capitalism. It is also a necessary stage in the inevitable, if gradual evolution of human society toward communism; socialism and after it communism presuppose the prior remaking of the entire world in the image of economically and technologically developed capitalism. From this perspective, one cannot say that in the Soviet collapse communism has failed; all that failed was the Soviet attempt to build it in the context of Tsarist Russia, in which the necessary preconditions were totally lacking. In a sense the existence of the Soviet Union stood in the way of this logic; the existence of the first country committed to trying to build socialism may actually have hindered the development of the necessary world-wide economic preconditions for it.
There is one thing, however, that Bondy said he could not understand, something that was not a necessary element of the Soviet collapse or the logic of capitalism. It its glee at the "fall of communism" the West, particularly the US, seems to be willing to see the formerly Soviet peoples sink to the lowest levels of civilized life. "I am not talking just about the absolute degradation of a large part of the world's people who are being reduced to eating the bark of trees. The Soviet Union contained about one quarter of the world's scientists, engineers, researchers, physicians, and others at the forefront of scientific and technological development. Today most of these people are living on the edge of poverty and working in other fields merely to support their families. The willingness to see nearly a quarter of the world's scientific potential be amputated and left to wither; the assumption that Western science by itself is capable of doing all that is needed for the human future, is a most arrogant shortsightedness." The only Western country that has acted significantly differently once again is Germany.
The logic of capitalism and the technology that supports it (in the way industry used to) is moving us toward a the formation of a world wide culture. This is happening whether we like the idea or not; that is not the question. What matters, in Bondy's analysis, is that if this culture is to be genuinely global, species-wide, and genuinely human, it must embrace and drawn upon the cultures of all human societies. This in turn presupposes the creation of a society that is no longer characterized by patterns of hierarchy, domination, subordination, marginalization, exploitation, and so on. Bondy is deeply concerned that unless capitalism, now that it has no significant external opponent, suffers some sort of internal crisis—provoked, for example, by an ecological disaster, a plague, new Chernobyls, or the like—there will one day be a day of reckoning wrought by the peoples both within its own centers as well as in the Third World, that capitalism has marginalized, deprived, degraded, and dehumanized. Should this happen, not only will capitalism be destroyed, but with it the opportunity to create a culture that is genuinely global.
To some the prospect of the destruction of capitalism may appear a blessing, However, Bondy cautions, human progress unfolds not by destruction but rather by building on past achievements—and shortcomings—to move beyond them. Moreover, the creation of a genuinely universal human culture would have to draw on all of humankind's cultural traditions. Although those of Europe and North America are in no way "superior" to those of any other cultures, like all others they do have unique elements to contribute. But since those same traditions are inevitably associated with the capitalism Europe and North America have also produced, they too would be likely to be swept away in any day of reckoning.
For Bondy, the unique contribution of Western culture stems from something it shares with most others: an almost chronic sense of dissatisfaction with "the human condition." The uniqueness lies in what Western culture has done about it. Most other cultures have sought, by prayer, meditation, ritual, or the like, to sublimate, subdue, or transcend this dissatisfaction; in Western culture it has become the source of activity, exploration, of daring even to "challenge the gods." Many of the pre- and non-Christian myths of Europe express this, myths like the Odyssey, Pandora's Box, Prometheus, Faust (Goethe's, Bondy chuckled), or even some of the better science fiction and horror stories of the present, myths that have no parallel in other cultures. Some people have suggested that this dimension of the European mentality is the source of the West's current scientific and technological superiority. But, Bondy insists, other cultures have also developed very high levels of science and technology—Babylonia, India, China, various centers of Islam, for example. The difference once again lies in what different cultures have done. Most others, in keeping with their tendency to subdue, sublimate or transcend the sense of dissatisfaction, have used science and technology to expand and enrich leisure time, "free" time, which has then been used creatively in the arts, ritual, celebration, meditation, conversation, cosmological speculation, and so on. We in the West, in contrast, have used science and technology to enhance our capacity to act, to work, to perform, sometimes to the point of caricature. We in the West have much to learn from those cultures which use science and technology in the interest of creative leisure, as well as from cultures like that of Australian Aborigines, for example, who have lived for thousands of years in ecological harmony, internal equality and peace, and with a minimum of energy and time devoted to food production and other aspects of material maintenance. But by the same token, peoples like that would never have discovered genes or atoms, or begun the exploration of space. This uniquely Western commitment to action, its openness to risk, it readiness to challenge the gods, is what Western culture has to contribute to the creation of a global human culture of the future; it is what is at risk if capitalism is allowed to continue its present course unchecked. In fact, if capitalism is allowed to continue its present course, it is likely that science and technology, which could otherwise contribute to the genuinely global society and culture of the future, will be used instead to develop new means of domination and social control.
For all of these reasons, then, Bondy is convinced of the need to move beyond capitalism, to use its achievements to overcome its shortcomings and to build a genuinely classless society. However, such a society cannot be built as long as patterns of hierarchy, subordination, and domination still exist anywhere in the world of humankind. Overcoming these patterns presupposes a parallel project in the field of philosophy, the project that has been closest to Bondy's heart for years, the subject of most of his writing and of our conversation in 1990: the creation of a nonsubstantial model of ontology.10 For only when we have broken through assumptions of the existence of any sort of being, entity, principle, law, or the like that we then see as prior or superior to human being, to which human being is subordinate, will we be able to break through patterns of domination and subordination, sources of alienation, exploitation, and dehumanization, in human society.