"Realism in politics worries people."
An interview with Czech philosopher Václav Bělohradský
Václav Bělohradský (b 1944) is one of the leading figures of Czech intellectual life. A graduate in philosophy and Czech from Charles University, Prague, he has lived in Italy since 1970, where he is currently Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Trieste. Cited as an intellectual influence by Václav Havel in the mid-1980s, he was later one of the first Central European thinkers to examine the consequences of the "post-modern turn" for the region. After 1989, he was supportive of then Prime Minister Václav Klaus and his centre-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS) and often critical of the views of the new Czech President, Václav Havel. More recently, he has taken critical stances on globalisation, NATO, intervention in Kosovo and the role of the USA in the post-Cold War world.
Central Europe Review: When we suggested talking to you, some Czech contributors to Central Europe Review were scandalised. They protested that you were personally responsible for the "absolute relativisation of values" in the Czech Republic. Why do you think so many Czech intellectuals find you and your views so controversial and unacceptable?
Václav Bělohradský: The Czech discourse on "values, culture and morality" - what the novelist Karel Poláček rather untranslatably used to term šťavnáním - compensates for the political failure of the Czech nation. Here, I don't mean only the individual failures in the particular historical circumstances in 1938, 1939, 1945, 1948, 1956 or 1968, or the break-up of Czechoslovakia after the 1992 election, or the whole second half of the 1990s, when instead of building a democratic state, an arrogant new political and economic nomenklatura started to form in the Czech Republic, seizing immoral privileges for itself (take, for example, the multi-million crown salaries of the heads of Komerční banka, a badly managed, state-subsidised dinosaur).
What I have in mind is the failure of the Czech nation in its relationship with politics generally, with politics as the constitutive dimension of Modernity. In their modern (and also their more ancient) history the Czechs did not succeed in becoming a political nation, and it is already too late now for them to do so. In our national history, politics was always "a matter for those foreigners in Vienna" (or Berlin, or Moscow). Czechs replaced it with [President of the First Czechoslovak Republic Tomáš Garrigue] Masaryk's gradualistic conception of emancipation through "cultivation of the mind of nation" based on "small-scale work," with Sokol gymnastic displays, poems, "moral truth" and "true values." Jaroslav Hašek, the celebrated author of The Good Soldier Švejk, described the enthusiasm of the Sokol movement in Prague thus:
on the first day we were selling portions of roast pork for 1 crown 40, but when Wenceslas Square had been brightened up by huge, diverse crowds, we sold portions of pork for 3 crowns.
A well-deserved demystifying look at Czech political culture.
In the first days of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, in March 1939, instead of encouraging the nation to resist the invasion in some way, radio stations called on Czechs to "impress the Germans with their civilised character as an ancient and cultured European nation," what is referred to in German as a "Kulturnation." This substitution of culture and šťavnání about the values of a cultured nation for politics, typical of the period of the Czech National Revival, caused the political culture in Czechoslovakia to be incurably intoxicated with moralising hypocrisy, kitschness, narcissism and sectarianism, something mainly characteristic of the professional intellectual and literary milieu. Instead of a defence of Czechoslovakia's democratic state in 1938, there were kitsch poems with lines such as "Tonight Wenceslas's steed stirred and the prince weighed up his lance." Instead of the defence of democracy after the Second World War, there was the nationalisation of film studios and the expulsion of the Germans, the moral failure of writers in the 1950s - a vast failure with irreversible consequences. And after 1968, there was the massively successful process of "normalisation" based upon the radical depoliticisation of national life.
What made Czechoslovak Communism so repulsive, in my view, was that it was saturated with the special, abstract extremism of literary and intellectual sects. Think of the surrealists and their mania for expelling each other, for example. When practically on his deathbed, the Communist poet Stanislav Kosta Neumann, who was a moral authority for all Czech Communist intellectuals, horrified the poet Jaroslav Seifert by asking if they had managed to hang Ferdinand Peroutka, the founder of the liberal-democratic review Přítomnost, who had spent the whole of the Second World War as a prisoner of the Gestapo in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
CER: Such historical examples of the strong romantic, anti-political vein in Czech political thinking - even, or perhaps particularly, within Czechoslovak Communism - are very interesting. But how do they relate to the rather rough reception you received in the Czech lands after 1989 as a "relativiser of values"?
Bělohradský: When set against the background of the political history of the Czech nation, to say that "values have been absolutely relativised" in the Czech lands after 1989 - the term absolute relativisation is an interesting paradox, by the way - is monstrously cynical. You just have to read Jiri Švejda's novel Moloch from the mid-1980s, which describes the ruthless and disrespectful greed of people during the "normalisation" period to rid yourself of any illusions about "pre-1989 values." I think this false consciousness is a product of films sucha as Vesničko má středisková. The film celebrates "values standing above politics," valid in any era, and even includes some allusions to ecology (!).
Naturally however, this standing above politics is a fraud. In reality, public life is being depoliticised and a false notion is spread that what really matters in our life is placed "above" politics. However, "the use of chemicals in agriculture," against which the maverick country doctor played in the film by Rudolf Hrušínský is protesting, is a political matter. It is my firm conviction that the first step towards democracy in the Czech Republic should be the absolute relativisation of "values standing above politics," which merely serve to mask the failure of the Czechs in relation to politics as such.
One of the leaders of the revolt of the 1960s in Italy, Mario Capanna, has summarised the message of that period thus: "everything is politics, nothing is politically neutral." Well, I hate summarising, but this one summary I agree with. The far-reaching message of the post-modern condition is, I believe, this pervasive politicisation of all aspects of human/non-human life: there are at present global and local politics of Truth, of body, of mind, a politics of moral consciousness, a politics of the Genome and of the Environment, and even a politics of "fair Motherhood" - I am referring here to issues raised by the impact of the new "technology of heterological conception (conception outside a traditional family)" recently discussed in the Italian Parliament.
CER: What alternative view of politics were you trying to promote?
Bělohradský: From the early 1990s, in radical opposition to the traditional "anti-political" Czech discourse founded on a dichotomy between "decent people" and "politicians," or "civil society" and "parties," I sought to promote "political realism." This expression does not mean that the end justifies the means in politics, as it is commonly interpreted, or that interests of state - the baroque "Ragione di Stato" - stand outside good and evil. Political realism means first and foremost an "existential" acceptance of one tragic dimension of modernity: the irreducible pluralism of values. Modern individualism is a struggle for emancipation from the sacred authorities of the past; people are becoming more and more different from each another but, at the same time, ever more dependent on each another. This is a consequence of the division of labour and globalisation, which has since the onset of the Industrial Revolution been the pivotal civilizational process conceptualised by the founders of modern sociological discourse, such as Marx, Smith, Durkheim, Weber, Simmel or Toennies.
Every individual has a right to his or her values, but there are more and more values, and they contradict one another; and yet, despite that, each of them seeks to be the supreme value, to exercise a monopoly. Liberal democracy has found a solution to this tragic "human condition" - this solution is institutionalised "freedom of opinion." Doxa, opinio, opinion is one of liberalism's great words. People voluntarily reduce their convictions to mere "opinio," mere opinion, and no longer have to kill in the name of their convictions. Hobbes's famous (and for Christian tradition scandalous) formulation of what we call "political realism" - Auctoritas non veritas facit legem - means simply that in the conditions of irriducible (religious) plurality political power must be founded not on the possession of Truth but on a "consensus about the general utility of the State."
The holder of an opinion is always more valuable and interesting than the opinion itself - this is a founding principle of liberal democracy, the core of "sympathy" as the basis of ethics of which Hume and Smith wrote. Even the Catholic Church has - albeit hesitantly and incompletely - finally accepted the reduction of religious faith to mere "opinio" in exchange for its being accepted into the democratic community.
CER: This does seem a radical break with the a major aspect of the Czech intellectual tradition, which has usually stressed notions such as "truth will prevail" or, more recently "living in truth"...
Bělohradský: "Truth" as a category assumes that there exists some state of knowledge in which other people are superfluous: anyone who knows the truth doesn't need other people, as the quality of his choice is already "metaphysically" guaranteed. Democracy, by contrast, is based on the conviction that there exists no state in the system in which the opinion of other people is superfluous. Politicians always makes decisions on the basis of mere opinions, but often they must decide absolutely, as was the case with President Beneš in 1938 or President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The situation of modern people is a tragic one, because both the pluralism of opinion and the political necessity of choosing between alternatives with irreversible consequences are increasing rapidly. And, it must be remembered, the plurality of values is itself a great and generally shared value.
Take the issue of whether to complete the Temelín nuclear power plant, for example. We chose to have nuclear power plants and there is no way back. It will never be possible to turn them off, and their consequences will remain with us for thousands of years. Or to put it another way, in a democratic society we have to make decisions about an ever greater number of things, to choose between ever more complicated alternatives, but we never have unequivocal, unquestionable reasons for our decisions.
A dialogue between values never ends. Works of art, with their special truth, never fade away. Religious believers look at the world from the standpoint of eternity; but a politician has to decide today. Political realism means having a sense of the finite time of decision-making. The Pope says "think of the needs of the sick" and allows his hands to be kissed, but politicians must make decisions about how hospitals are financed in the here and now. Politicians have to make decisions despite not knowing today which method of financing is the most correct one, because they have only inadequate information and experience. However, they cannot postpone their decision until they have all the information gathered, until such time as they are "in possession of the truth," and the views of other people are superfluous. In a democracy such a time will never come.
CER: How does a fixation with values and truth relate to the problem of the "political nation" and the Czechs' failure to become one? After all, in Czechoslovakia in 1918, Czechs did create a national state and national political institutions. Czech politicians have made momentous decisions. You mention President Beneš's decision in 1938 to accept the Munich Agreement, for example...
Bělohradský: A political nation emerges at the moment when the tension between the realistic political time - the time within which we have to make decisions - and the unrealistic, infinite time of art, values, faith or morality is legitimately resolved. It is unrealistic, and hence immoral, to delegitimise politics by constantly making reference to an unending dialogue between values, a dialogue in which one person will in the future be in possession of the truth and everybody else will be redundant; this is something a politician must reject as an unrealistic concept of "historical time."
Realism in politics worries people, and they seek refuge from it in an infinite (and thus irresponsible) discourse about eternal values. The final stop on this escape route is totalitarianism, which elevates the single truth of the victor above the inconsistent, and thus contradictory, condition of pluralism - the new era of Communism, the Thousand Year Reich and so on. People want to be liberated from the dramatic time of decision-making and are thus often willing to hand all power to someone such as Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin, or to scientists and experts, who, they cravenly believe, has the truth; that way at least they can shirk the responsibility of making a choice between contradictory alternatives.
Public space in the Czech Republic is governed by a hypocritical moralism against which I have tried to speak out. For example, I consider hypocritical the behaviour of charitable foundations working for the "good of others" - by, say, raising funds to help disabled people - who act as if what they are doing is the one and only correct policy. They should involve themselves without looking down censoriously at politicians, because politics cannot be replaced by raising funds to buy wheelchairs for the disabled. The values of these foundations would quickly dissolve into conflicts between representatives of various legitimate interests between which politics has to seek a reasonable compromise. Solidarity with vulnerable people should always be a "civic" activity which does not seek to substitute itself for politics.
Czech rhetoric, compensating for its lack of political realism with a lyrical exaltation that "we have the truth and the values we profess are not relative," is an instrument of the rule of kitsch, which Kundera so immortally described in his most universal (and hence most Czech) novel Life is Elsewhere. The book was originally to have been called The Age of Lyricism. And indeed it seems the age of lyricism is something the Czech nation has never grown out of.
To sum up, in the Czech context talking about "values and truth" compensates for what is today an already irretrievable failure of our nation: an inability to integrate the relative and contradictory nature of values into our national life as the key dimension of modernity, and thus an inability to become a political nation. What I have always hated most in this country is the wide-eyed expressions of those who excused their collaboration with oppressive political authorities with the words "I believed in it." The reduction of faith to mere relative opinion - for sake of which you have no right to discriminate against or oppress your fellow citizens - is a prerequisite of modern ethics. Czechoslovak Communism was the culmination of the substitution of lyrical moralism for political realism: in the eyes of Czechoslovak Communist intellectuals, their political opponents were not "representatives of different legitimate interests" but moral and cultural monsters, whom it was morally right to hang.
CER: Do you really see a politics based on moral values as inherently dangerous? I understand, of course, that there are gradations to your argument, but I think many of our readers will be surprised, perhaps even a little shocked, that you can place 19th century liberal nationalism, Stalinist lyric poetry and charitable foundations in today's Czech Republic on a continuum simply because they share a belief in some form of transcendent values.
Bělohradský: What I call the "Czech style of political discourse" is deeply rooted in our national history. The archaeologist Petr Charvat, for example, maintains that archaeological research shows that, on the one hand, "feeble and frail social stratification," and, on the another hand, "ideological conflictuality" were already key characteristics of the Czech state in the 9th century. Naturally, power which is not legitimated by strong social stratification must be legitimated ideologically. A moral discourse compensates for "frail social stratification." To sum up, these two characteristics, conflated in various ways, have generated the modern Czech anti-political or politically unrealistic discourse. This discourse is a sort of curse of all Central European (and German) political culture, but we don't have time to analyse the historical context of the Cult of Antipolitics, in, for example, the Austrian empire in greater detail.
But let's talk about values a little more. A value does not describe what is but dictates what should be. How strong can this diktat be? What can everything be in order that a value should be or can apply? How much violence against other people, to put things realistically, can a value demand? Violence is legitimate insofar as it is dictated by some great value, but how great? Max Weber distinguishes between an ethics of responsibility and an ethics of conviction. Every person decides between their conviction that certain values are superior to others and their responsibilities to other people for the costs of implementing those values. Are there values so great that we may promote their validity at any cost - at, say, the cost of nuclear war? There is no escape from this dilemma, and the greatness of a politician is that he does not seek such an escape but takes responsibility for his or her decisions. He does not say "orders are orders" or "laws must be obeyed" but "these are my orders."
The utopia of the West is to deduce "what should be" from "what is," that is, to found ethics on knowledge. What is dictated by a certain historical group, the rich industrial nations, is supposed to be the dictate of reason - something against which no one has the right to protest. The idea of NATO as an instrument for the universal imposition of "human rights" and hence of "ethical wars" shows how this utopia works in reality.
In one of Karel Čapek's famous Apocryphal Tales, Pilate compares truth to a landscape which we might find unfamiliar but which cannot be incorrect. Understanding that every truth belongs to a landscape in which it is useful - it might overshadow something, unify it, bridge it or act as a short cut - is the first prerequisite of democracy. The Italian philosopher Vattimo speaks of "hermeneutics" or the "art of interpretation" as the koiné of democracy: to interpret means to plant our utterances in a verbal landscape in which they fit in. Politics has its own unforgiving imperative: truths shift their ground, bulldoze the landscapes from which they emerged, the boundaries between landscapes have to be redefined, their proximity and hierarchies have to be decided upon. And there exist no truthful boundaries; they have all been decided by us merely on the basis of "opinions of relative validity."
CER: If we could turn to a slightly different theme. The term "Central Europe" is widely used today, but until 1989 it was employed very little outside the region itself. The British historian Timothy Garton Ash even wrote an essay called "Does Central Europe exist?". You have written a number of essays and articles on the experience of Central Europe. How would you answer this question - does Central Europe exist?
Bělohradský: The concept of "Central Europe" gained world-wide recognition thanks to Milan Kundera. He used it to fight against the arrogance and lazy narrow-mindedness of Western readers who placed Kundera's works in "Eastern Europe" and read them "politically" as an account of life "behind the Iron Curtain under Communism." Eastern Europe is merely a military concept and has no historical legitimacy, Kundera told these lazy Western readers. Russia exists with its demons and its great literature, and Central Europe exists also with its officialdom and its multi-national culture, a culture only a philistine could break from its historical context and reduce to a mere "testimony of life under Communism."
Kundera was thus struggling against the conceited and arbitrary way in which powerful Western publishers cut down any text "from over there" to fit the mental horizons of the limited Western reader. The first Spanish edition of the novel Life is Elsewhere, for example, was rewritten in a flowery style by some veteran poet, because the publisher said to himself - it's about a poet, so it has to be flowery. In the first English edition of The Joke, too, the order of the chapters was modified so that all the characters were together; Western readers weren't interested in the complexity of Kundera's composition. Even the first French edition of The Joke was arbitrarily rewritten in a redundant baroque style considered "more proper" by the translator. After all, it wasn't literature but a record of life "over there."
In one of his lectures on the literature of exile, Petr Bílek analysed the workings of the process by which the unfamiliar context of a work of literature is mediated for Western literary consumers; the American publisher of Ludvik Vaculík's The Guinea Pigs supplied the book with a quite false sleeve note, stating that the author had been sacked from the newspaper where he worked on 21st August 1968, for example. The egocentric conceit of the West was (and still is) offensive, and Milan Kundera successfully fought it with the concept of "Central Europe." The undoubted persuasiveness of the concept did force Western readers to redefine in their own minds the context of a whole number of works from the imaginary "Eastern Europe" to the historically real Central Europe of Kafka, Freud, Wittgenstein, Broch, Musil and Hašek.
Kundera's inventive piece of counter-mystification was successful for three reasons. Firstly, it struck a chord with a prevailing mood in the Europe of the late 1970s and the 1980s, when Europeans sensed that the cutting of cities such as Prague and Budapest out of the context of European unification was a scandal for European historical consciousness, a scandal which was threatening their moral credibility. Secondly, Central European, mainly Viennese, modernism exercised a powerful fascination, because, unlike the avant-garde, it anticipated the great themes of the post-modern turn: the fragmentation of traditions, the turn towards language, the turning away from the cult of history. And thirdly, interest in Austria-Hungary, as the model of a supra-national state whose demise was highly instructive, played a great role.
CER:Do you think this historic Hapsburg legacy in Central Europe is still politically relevant today?
Bělohradský: As a political concept, Central Europe is an opportunity missed forever, mainly because of German-speaking Austrians who, as Josef Roth put it in his novel The Capuchin Crypt, sang "Wacht am Rhein" instead of the Austrian anthem "O Lord Preserve Our Emperor." They wanted to be part of a powerful German Empire, rather than citizens of a supra-national Austria, that Danubian monarchy which was only an unstable collection of European peripheries. This can be seen from the street names of Sudeten German towns at the end of the last century as well as from the ill-fated results of all the attempts to democratise and federalise Austria and grant the languages of its nations equal rights.
The idea of the Austrian state as a "close union of small Danubian nations" that the 19th-century Czech statesman František Palacký wrote of could never be politically realised, because of the will to power of the Germans and Hungarians; although, I would immediately add, the Czechs also bear a great deal of the blame. They did not fight determinedly or consistently for their political independence but instead wrote poems, "were in possession of the truth" and organised balls. The non-political character of the Czechs, their inadequate sense of the state, was a direct cause of Austro-Hungarian dualism, that is, of the imbalance between the nations of Austria and thus of the final end of any hope of federalising Austria.
CER: What about Central Europe as metaphor? You used the word "instructive." What is philosophical or historically instructive about the demise of the old Mitteleuropa?
Bělohradský: In the late 1970s in Italy, and in the 1980s at Kundera's seminars in Paris, I interpreted Central Europe as a place where people underwent an existential experience of great historical importance for modern Europe, an experience whose fateful meaning Central European literature and philosophy sensed with exceptional perspicacity. The whole of Central European literature and philosophy analyses the absurdity that the impersonal language of legality and legal clauses injects into people's lives - the abstract necessity contained in official procedure and the unrelenting strictness of the bureaucrat which the Austrian state elevated into a sort of new secular religion. In doing so, it was seeking to preserve its unity in an era dominated by the demons of nationalism.
Everyday life in Austria was suffused by the impersonal language of the law and by a bureaucratic ethos like that of no other country in Europe. The reduction of legitimacy to legality was seen as a categorical civic imperative. In the thin, abstract ether of the Law, as Doderer wrote, the ambiguity of the life world was put into uniform and subordinated to the relentless coherency of official procedure and the absolute command of the Office.
Kafka summed up this hegemony of bureaucratic necessity in Joseph K's dialogue with the doorman guarding the entrance to the Law: "You don't have to consider everything to be true but to be necessary," says the doorman. "The Lie is thus becoming ruler of the world," replies Joseph K.
Indeed, any impersonal necessity is a lie tearing us away from our real life chances, whether it be the necessity of economic growth, globalisation, the expansion of NATO or scientific progress. These chances will never return. They were historical and thus only appeared once on the horizons of our life worlds. Truth is always an experience about alternatives, about other possibilities. Asking questions only has meaning when, within ourselves, we allow for the possibility of different answers. Are we really allowing for the possibility of different answers when we ask if globalisation is necessary today?
The Central European critique of the flight to necessity is still very much alive. It anticipates the post-modern rejection of the neutrality of science and law: nothing is neutral, all measurement serves some form of Power, every law denies something, separates someone from someone, or something from something, orders someone to do something, or gives something to someone.
CER: In 1991, in a column you wrote for the Mladá fronta Dnes newspaper, you asked an interesting rhetorical question: would it be possible for the post-Communist democracies of Central Europe to make a "Leninist leap" over the era of consumerism that Western Europe experienced in the 1960s and 1970s. How would you answer this question today?
Bělohradský: The contemporary Czech poet and philosopher Jiří Gruša, who spent many years in exile, once wrote that human experience in Communist countries was one of the anti-entropic centres of our age. In these countries people tasted modernity in its decisive and most pervasive form. Despite all its violence, Communism contained great emancipatory force. It brought social equality, the mass expansion of education and a reduction of the intensity of the struggle for survival. Its main goals were the same as those of capitalism - prosperity and the scientific management of society.
One of the founders of Charter 77, the philosopher Jan Patočka pointed out to me many times - as part of a polemic with my liberalism - that despite all the absurdity of the Communist present, we should not forget that it was a system that had emerged from the spirit of Western philosophy. Lenin was right when he defined classical German philosophy, Scottish economics and French utopian socialism as the "three sources and components of Marxism." The crisis of Communism is to a great extent the crisis of modernity generally. Havel wrote in the Power of the Powerless that Communism was only a "convex mirror of the inner direction of Western modernity"; and this, I should add, was a sentence my students adored.
CER: Yes, I remember reading those lines myself as a student in England in the 1980s and being astonished and fascinated by them....
Bělohradský: Communism offered us the opportunity to leap over a certain phase of Western capitalism, but it was an opportunity which we did not manage to take. [first post-1989 Prime Minister] Václav Klaus, for example, dreamt that we would be able to leap over European corporatism - the power of professional organisations posing a threat to democracy and a skein of abstract, initiative-stifling legal regulations administered by a rapidly self-enriching lobby of lawyers - but we did not manage this. In the article you refer to, I also say that without experiencing the ephemeral and chaotic character of the consumer society, we will be unable to redefine democracy "post-modernistically." The affluent society or post-industrial consumerism has its historical role - it dissolves the metaphysical foundation of the society and to this extent is an emancipating force.
In the Czech lands today a "winners of the Cold War" discourse prevails according to which Communism was a criminal system over which NATO, under the heroic leadership of big chief Ronald Reagan, emerged victorious. This is a shameful lie. The bi-polar world was based on a pact which was mutually beneficial to both sides. Post-Communist Czech journalism has taken up this "winners of the Cold War" discourse and in doing so has reduced our experience of Communism to mere "moral devastation," as our Czech McCarthyists put it. The discourse that has been taken up by most of the nation, as can be seen from the massive success of the recently released Czech film Pelíšky (Cosy Dens), which is an arrant mystification of the past. We have definitively stopped being an "anti-entropic centre," to the detriment of everybody I'd say.
CER: In the columns you wrote for Mladá fronta Dnes in the 1990s you introduced notions of post-modernity very directly into a Czech context. People from Western Europe and North America often see Central Europe as relatively backward in comparison with their own post-modern, fragmented, multi-cultural societies. Do you really think ideas of post-modernity are relevant to the region? In what sense are Czechs or other Central Europeans "post-modern"?
Bělohradský: Let's recall first of all that the prefix "post" had been closely linked with Communism since the late 1950s, when Daniel Bell invented the idea of "post-industrial society." Post-industrial society was a political myth which significantly redefined the post-war world: it persuasively introduced the idea that there was a discontinuity between industrial society and post-industrial society. Consequently, post-industrial society could not be interpreted using ideological categories such as the proletariat, the capitalists, the struggle between capital and labour, that is, using the vocabulary of Marxism. The basic productive forces of post-industrial society were science and education and thus the most productive investment was investment in people and their specific qualities - qualities such as inventiveness, independence and creativity.
Communism was supposed to "humanise" itself, because oppression did not pay economically, and only free people could make a contribution to the development of the system. The 1960s were suffused from top to bottom by this myth of discontinuity, which was the ideological justification of the "convergence of all political systems around a new and increasingly more human form of modernity" spoken of in the Kennedy and Khrushchev era. There is undoubtedly a hidden connection between the adjectives "post-modern" and "post-industrial": the common idea of discontinuity in the history of industrial society.
CER: There are many competing definitions of post-modernity and the post-modern. Could you perhaps just clarify how you understand the term?
Bělohradský: The German sceptical thinker Odo Marquard introduced the expression Kompenzationsprinzip into contemporary philosophy, an expression he used to denote a key need felt by modern people: the need somehow to compensate for the consequences of progress, innovation and a growing mobility and communication, which are devaluing the standpoints of the past into mere historical prejudices at breakneck speed. Modernity is faith in the coming of a new, more rational world, but one in which past experience is just an obstacle, dead because present is radically different from past and time is not cyclical but linear.
Western philosophy has a special concept for this gulf between past and present: "actuality." It uses the term to describe any force whose actions separate present time from past time and give it new meaning: science, technology, the market, the Marxist discovery of the final meaning of human history. Kant created a model of philosophy of actuality in his article "What is the Enlightenment?". In the article he defined actuality as overcoming the dependency we have caused ourselves, as "man becoming master over himself." Karl Löwith has shown that faith in "actuality" is nothing more than the secularisation of Christian hope. However, Christian hope was addressed not to the history of this world; it located the meaning of life "beyond" it, in the history of salvation or the "other world."
Modernity, by contrast, projects the eschaton, the happy ending, final meaning or salvation into the history of this world. It is from this source that the idea of socialism drew its epoch-making energy and pathos. This idea was the great religion of modernity, as we can still sense in the writings of Masaryk. It was the history of this world which would bring the righting of all wrongs and within which a "New Man" would be formed; this hope is the source of the modern "effervescence," the sweeping enthusiasm that Durkheim speaks of in his sociology of religion.
For Marquard, for example, the "human sciences" are compensation for lost traditions: the radical-Marxist revolts of the 1960s in Germany are sons' compensation for their parents' obedience and failure to rise up against Nazism in the 1930s; Habermas's "discursive ethics" is compensation for the disintegration of hierarchies in post-industrial society and society's lack of transparency. In this Marquardian spirit, I conceive of the whole of the human subjectivity originating with Descartes as compensation for heliocentrism: the Earth was no longer the centre of the cosmos, man was lost in infinity, but the maxim "I think therefore I am" rescued everything. Once again, it was necessary to start from man, from his thought and perceptions of the world. Man might be a reed in the cosmos but he was a "thinking reed," as Pascal's most famous reflection has it.
Man's supreme form of compensation for having to live in a world defined by science, a world in which he was a mere reed, was Communism. Human labour, taken as "practical proof" that Man-the-Thinker was changing the world, was venerated; the real history of humanity began with Marxism, the end of alienation, history as a sweeping narrative of human subjectivity, of "the active side," of a new world in which Man created himself through his own labour. Communism pulled nature deep into human history and elevated human labour into a force for salvation. I well remember the repercussions of this in the rituals of Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. In his Building of a State, Masaryk rightly sensed the "titanism" of German philosophy, its enormous compensatory function. Totalitarianism is only an extreme form of this titanism, of the need to compensate for Man's being lost in the cosmos.
The question which still haunts me is this: are consumerism, globalisation and other religions of Growth only a functional substitute for Communism and thus necessarily developing into a totalitarian forms of Power? Is totalitarianism not already present in this need for compensation? My answer is yes.
CER: This notion of Big Ideas of the modern world as a rather worthless form of compensation is fascinating, but I'm not sure it amounts to a definition of post-modernity...
Post-modernity is a phenomenon which is not easily definable. In an article entitled "Post modernity and Post-Communism" (European Review, January 1998), Segedy-Maszák defines post-modern culture as intertextuality, the notion of a work of art as a network of references to other artefacts, and of the artist's position as writing "for society," as opposed to the modern artist writing "against society." These are certainly constitutive elements of the post-modern style, but nevertheless, I prefer to define post-modernity more philosophically: it is an era in which people are freeing themselves from the need to be compensated for having to live lost in the infinite cosmos constituted by science; they free themselves from the need to "be the subject," a select being in whose history - a history conceived as a process of self-discovery - something absolutely different is happening from what occurs in the lives of all other living beings on Earth. A post-modern person releases nature from his history and accepts his status as one living being on Earth, becoming a patriot of planet Gaia as a whole.
In this sense, post-modernity is the culmination of the process of secularisation. I am indeed a reed in the cosmos, but I share this position with all living beings in the cosmos, feel a sense of solidarity with their mortal existence and am not trying to escape from it into an eternal world of ideas. You must know the conclusion of Foucault's Les mots et les choses: Man is a recent discovery and became the main problem of philosophy in the last three centuries, because of a certain organisation of knowledge and the working of certain methodologies and apparatuses; when these methodologies and apparatuses are replaced, Man disappears from philosophy like "waves washing away a face drawn on the seashore." I think that the Man who compensated for his cosmic insignificance by defining himself as the "subject" is starting to disappear; the waves of a new ecological sensibility, a new solidarity among the living beings on Earth, is slowly erasing the cruel, selfish, grimacing face forced upon us "in the interests of humanity" by the apparatuses promoting the growth of Growth.
CER: A theme that concerns many writers on post-modernity is the fragmentation of social identities. Since the mid-1990s, you yourself have written of the breaking down of shared identities into a large number of "in-between worlds" (mezisvěty). What are the consequences of this for a region such as Central Europe?
Bělohradský: As I've said, what was strong in Central European culture has been transfused into post-modern culture: Wittgenstein, Freud, Gödel, Musil, Broch, Hašek or the Prague Linguistic Circle. All that remains of Central Europe today is merely a powerful intellectual aura from old Vienna, but no sense of living connection or a common fate among nations. Czechs know very little about Hungary, we are starting to ignore the Slovaks, and who amongst us knows anything about contemporary Polish philosophy?
However, I'd like to say a few words about the expression "intermundia" or in-between worlds, which I use often. This was the expression the Latin poets used to denote the spaces between worlds where cold winds blew and where only gods dwelt. I use the word to mean the worlds, which produce the democratic public space of the West. In these worlds a fundamental role is played by "literature," eccentric descriptions of the world, a mixture of different genres whose overall effect is to subvert objective and official versions of the world.
Public space is governed by a "polylogy," a multiplicity of vocabularies, canons and languages which are not hierarchically arranged from top to bottom, none of them exercises any hegemony; they are in a state of constant competition and tension. For every version of the world there exists a counter-version, for every universe there exists a "diverse." I like Bakhtin's thesis, according to which this polylogy is a Roman heritage: this sense of "diversum" has been imposed on us by the power of Latin culture.
Consequently, democracy is based not only on the Roman notion of "ratio" and of "lex," but also on that of "risus," on "laughter," the most proper product of the different "diversa," or counter-versions of the universe. Feudal or Communist public space was metaphysical, magnificent and monumental, its product was a "hinter-world," for example, a Communist paradise visible on the horizon. Democratic public space is farcical, anti-monumental, it forces us to see the landscapes of our utterances and thrusts us into a windswept "in-between world," where meaning is not guaranteed or assured by anything beforehand.
Speech is a "medium," because it does not belong to anyone but is something between us. In the competition between vocabularies, genres and languages, the boundaries between our landscapes of utterance collapse. We have to think up new connections for the landscapes in which we plant our truths. We know that Western universalism brought massacres and the Inquisition, because we made the interest of one historical "us" into the "interests of humanity." I think, nevertheless, that "polylogy" and its historical product - living in "in-between worlds" - is the genuinely universal feature of the West. Anyone who has encountered it can no longer return to the innocence of monologue, to one single, immaculate version of the world. He is incurably infected by the Latin tradition of "risus," of farce, of the laughter that such Magnificient Monologues provoke. But can free public space subvert the current hegemony of the globalisation nomenklatura and its Magnificient Monologues?
CER: Politically you are a right-wing liberal. At the same time, however, you often warn against the dangers of globalisation and consumerism. How do you explain these apparent contradictions?
Bělohradský: I certainly am not a right-wing liberal. I should remind you of the 1960s, when the pastoral power concentrated in the welfare state reached its peak. Freedom was draining away. Currency laws allowed the English, whose free institutions liberals hold sacred, to exchange only 80 pounds a year and Italians to exchange about 800,000 lira, roughly 600 marks. I remember vainly trying to change pounds into francs in London, something foreigners were forbidden to do by one of more than 100 currency regulations. I also remember that the day after Mrs Thatcher came to power, these humiliating regulations disappeared.
CER: We obviously have very different experiences of Britain in the 1970s, which I remember as a time of relative security and prosperity. I do, however, recall having similar experiences in a bank in Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s. Such currency control regulations are irritating, of course, but are used by a variety of governments in a variety of contexts. I don't necessarily see any close connection with the welfare state...
Bělohradský: Naturally, I do not claim any privileged value for my perception of Britain in the 1970s. Anyway, what emerged more and more clearly at that time, and also emerged at the level of mass perception, as the sweeping electoral success of Mrs Thatcher confirmed, was that the welfare state was a paralysing structure of sectional and corporative interests: trade unions, bureaucrats, the pharmaceutical industry, politicians, hospitals and public sector employees. The state was starting to become like de Tocqueville's shepherd, herding his flocks onto pre-designated pastures. I was instinctively opposed to this "caring" state and to the pastoral power concealed within it. It is certainly no coincidence that Michel Foucault began his critique of "care" as the most dangerous (terminal) form of Western power after experience of the Swedish welfare state.
CER: To return to your earlier answer, if yours is not a right-wing liberalism, how would you define it?
Bělohradský: My liberalism has always been a critique of Foucaultian pastoral power and caring institutions. In his epoch-making reflections about the Subject, Foucault shows that the left-wing interpretation of modern history as Man-the-Subject fighting for his own authenticity against the state, capital and false consciousness is itself a form of false consciousness. In reality, our subjectivity, what we consider to be our authentic "selves," is the product of technologies of power incorporated in the modern state. Real emancipation presupposes that we will be able to find the courage to reject not only the totalitarian tendencies of capital and the modern state but also the subjectivity in whose name we are fighting against them.
Our "selves," the way in which we see ourselves and wish to see ourselves, have been forced upon us by the pastoral power which the modern state has developed from older Christian practices, such as confession, the profession of the creed, listening to the voice of conscience, submitting to the authority of the father and so forth. Today, when our interest in ourselves is clearly managed and manipulated by that most aggressive form of pastoral power - advertising - and when the phrase "Know Yourself" is an advertising slogan for underwear, Foucault's rejection of "authenticity" is extraordinarily actual.
To repeat the point: my liberalism has been above all an opposition to the opposition represented by the Left in the 1970s: the Left was seeking to take up this pastoral power and to wield it in order to emancipate people. But pastoral power is the greatest danger for people's freedom regardless of who wields it.
In Italy, I become familar with a particularly insidious form of pastoral power, that theorised by Antonio Gramsci. The historical role of what Gramsci rather sinisterly calls "intellettuale organico" is to implement a totalitarian politics whose two constitutive features are the following: firstly, to organise a new type of mass political party - the Communist Party - in such a way that members of this party would find within it all gratifications and experiences they previously found in a plurality of organisations; secondly, that the Communist party should progressively encapsulate and integrate all other socio-cultural organisations and institutions in a system regulated by the single Party. It is significant that only two thinkers in this century used the term "totalitarianism" with a positive meaning: Gramsci and the official fascist philosopher Gentile.
Frankly, I was horrified by the pastoral power so cleverly managed by leftist Italian "organic intellectuals" in the 1970s, and I sought to resist it with all the moral and intellectual commitment available to me. Secondly, my liberalism has been a defence of individualism in the sense of the following thesis of Hayek, a thesis I took very seriously: "What individualism teaches us is that society is greater then the individual only so far as it is free. In so far as it is controlled or directed, it is limited to the powers of the individual minds which control or direct it. If the presumption of the modern mind, which will not respect anything that is not consciously controlled by individual reason, does not learn in time where to stop, we may, as Edmund Burke warned us, 'be well assured that everything about us will dwindle by degrees, until at length our concerns are shrunk to the dimension of our minds.'"
It seemed to me that the Left wanted to "shrink society to the dimensions of the minds of those governing it," and I viewed this shrinking of society as a great threat to human freedom and dignity. I conceive of liberalism as a theoretical and a practical struggle to ensure that society always remain bigger than all the individuals and groups of individuals within it, however well-organised, massive and powerful they might be. Freedom is nothing more than a "society which is bigger than all its parts," because nobody can act in its name, only in his or her own name. As a liberal, I consider myself more of a social democrat than the official Left.
To return to the start of our conversation, my liberalism is a set of philosophical and practical positions inspired by the conviction that there is no end-state for the system, no state in which one person or one group of people are right and in possession of the truth and in which only one rational function remains for the others,acting as mere functionaries in the execution of the orders of Truth. Only in liberalism do we find this respect for society, which must always be "bigger than the minds of those governing it."
CER:It's interesting that you stress society and the "social," rather than simply the individual or individual freedom. But how does this philosophical outlook relate to politics, say, to Czech politics and your support of to Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus and his Civic Democratic Party (ODS)?
Bělohradský: I think that Václav Klaus knows of these dangers and, in his own way, is also trying to prevent them, whilst Václav Havel really is convinced that society should be governed by the most moral, most educated and most altruistic individuals. However, a society governed by the best is also a dangerously shrunken society, and the fact that it is shrunken to the "dimensions of the minds" of its most moral, educated and altruistic leaders does not change this.
CER: At one time you were politically very close to the ODS. I believe you even contributed to the party's programme in 1992...
As far ODS is concerned, my relationship with the party was never an organic one. I didn't contribute to the ODS programme in any specific way apart from working with the preparatory committee chaired by Josef Zieleniec, an ODS deputy chairman who later became minister of foreign affairs in the 1992 ODS-led government, where I often and actively took part in discussions. Of course, I welcomed the emergence of the ODS: at last the party Čapek and Peroutka had waited for in vain had been formed, a party of the Czech liberal bourgeoisie. It is good for the Czech political system that such a party exists and I hope it will soon overcome the crisis it is currently in. What I value in Václav Klaus personally is the following strategic thesis of his: we are changing the system, not the people. In a country where intellectuals had gone into politics in order to change "people's thinking" and "transform their hearts," this sounded extremely liberating and invigorating.
CER: In 1994, you also described yourself as a "pro-capitalist" philosopher. Is this a description you would still use? Are you less "pro-capitalist" than five years ago?
Bělohradský: My pro-capitalism forms a special chapter in my intellectual biography. It is linked to my 20-year experience as an emigrant in an old mercantile, maritime republic, the city of Genoa. I studied a very instructive episode in the state archive there, the circumstances surrounding the very tolerant laws regulating the residency of Jews in the city, adopted by the republic's government in 1658 and confirmed in 1752. The free-thinking spirit of these laws was opposed by the Holy See, which steadfastly insisted on severe discrimination against Jews in the name of Christian values.
The Genoese patriarchs attempted to protect the Jews using commercial arguments. They said, for example, that to forbid Jews to buy houses which they wished to purchase would go against free trade and that simple respect for their industriousness meant that they should be permitted to walk around the city freely even late at night, because they also worked at night, that the requirement that they should wear yellow scarves as a warning sign would mark them out within the community and might give the impression they could be robbed with impunity. These mercantile arguments can be found in the letters the Genoese wrote to Father Centurione, the Vatican ambassador.
The Pope and his emissaries, by contrast, argued in metaphysical terms that the Jews might infect Christians and that they were "outside the truth" and should therefore be isolated as "unclean." Now, tell me what guaranteed the freedom of the Jews of Genoa? Christian love for one's neighbour and humanist values? No! Commercial respect for utility turned out to be a better guarantee of human freedom and dignity than the whole of Christian love and ethics. The tolerant Genoese merchants, who were seafarers with a respect for difference in the world, resisted the concerted pressure of the Church only because to their mercantile way of reasoning it did not seem useful that the industrious Jews of Genoa be stripped of their freedom and dignity. The Genoese were fighting for the rights of the Jews in name of the commercial virtues not "values" and love for one's neighbour.
CER: So this historical insight was an intellectually formative experience?
CER: This episode played a very big role in my intellectual history. I understood that in many respects Milton Friedman was right. Values and the Good often serve as a justification for persecution and oppression, while the market and respect for commercial utility are liberating. The trade routes emanating from the Arab and Jewish Middle East have since time immemorial linked the world up into a gigantic bazaar for the exchange of information, objects and skills. The merchant's gaze gives an important outside view of our life worlds, because it tears us out of our provincial egoism and confronts us with the multi-faceted nature of the world. The struggle for democratic freedom owes much to this gaze. The oldest travelogues are merchants' diaries. In 966, the merchant Ibrahim Ben Jacob saw Prague on a journey transporting his goods to Poland and recorded its name - in Arabic and in a merchant's script.
Today, this secularising and hence liberating spirit of capitalism is dead. The market has become an ideology. The whole system works only because the vast majority of people are unable to defend their real interests. I criticise globalisation because I see within it a development in the direction that so horrified Hayek: the whole of human society will soon be shrunk to the dimensions of the minds of the globalisers governing us.
CER: It's very often argued that in today's post-modern world traditional notions of left and right have become obsolete. The British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, claims to have pioneered a "Third Way" between traditional Social Democracy and free market liberalism. Many sociologists and politicians in Central Europe have found Blair's ideas an attractive model. What is your opinion of Tony Blair and "Third Way" politics?
Bělohradský: I see Blairism as the greatest danger facing the European Left, because it hypocritically camouflages absolute conformism to globalisation and American neo-imperialism as a "new Third Way." Just think back to its unreserved support for the bombing of Iraq and Serbia or to the British role in the anti-European "Echelon Affair." Even in the chaos of globalisation, the Left should not abandon the issues that have historically defined it.
These are firstly, how can the primacy of politics over economics be realised in a unipolar world? Here the word "unipolar" does not only mean America's planetary "technotronic" (Brzezinski) neo-imperialism but the fact that globalisation only privileges and enhances the value of the "mobile factors" in human life, that is, of capital, which can be rapidly transferred wherever it will bring profit. But is what is most mobile also most fundamental to our lives?
Jan Patočka spoke of three movements of human life and defined the first of these as the movement of rootedness in the lives of other people, being in a community with them and sharing a natural language. It is easy to translate information into English but not its historically constituted context, which is sedimented in natural language and not very mobile at all - it can often take generations to change. Were we not talking at the start of this debate about the persistency of the Czech "anti-political discourse"? And is the persistency of this anti-political attitude not ultimately a subconscious defence of something fundamental to our national existence in this corner of Europe, of something we are unaware of?
So your philosophical critique of today's "unipolar world" relates not only to the dangers of a "technotronic" world for democracy and "public space" but also to the threat posed to national identity and cultural diversity?
Bělohradský: Philosophically, "unipolarity" means the radical and unilateral privileging of mobile factors in people's lives, a devaluation of "Earthliness," of connection with the Earth. People are being pulled "unipolarly" in one direction towards enhancing the value of "mobile factors," which is destroying what is fundamental in human life, our rootedness in natural language communities and specific historical landscapes.
CER: But to return to politics, I think we were talking about the Left...
Bělohradský: Secondly, the Left cannot talk of the end of the welfare state as superficially as Blair does. The welfare state is surely dead but not the welfare society, which we must implement in some way. The welfare state, after all, is a certain development of the national state. It was within its cultural and political framework that institutions guaranteeing social justice and solidarity emerged. The national state is not just a leftover of the ideological blindness of the last century, as the globalisers maintain. It is a historical framework within which the economy was subordinated to politics, albeit inadequately. Simply put, the democratic Left today should be a robust defence of the non-mobile factors in human life. And, we should not forget, meaning is the least mobile of all the factors that determine our lives. Things that can be translated into English easily are not worth living for.
Thirdly, the Left must be critical of "efficiency" as the key value of the global economy. Efficiency asserts itself by abolishing everything that is superfluous and redundant. However, in a complex society governed by uncertainty it is dangerous to get rid of potential alternatives, replacement options and dual certainties. "Efficiency" is a dangerous goal in a complex society, and the Left should promote its moral delegitimation not support the "growth of efficiency" in society.
No, Blairism is not a source of hope. Rather, I believe that the Catholic Church will soon attempt to revolt in some way against the cynicism of the globalisers and will successfully draw upon its own contradictory, dangerous but authentic "Third Way." It should link itself firmly to democracy, something which in the past the Catholic Church was not able to do.
CER: You are very critical of the United States, both for its role in the contemporary world generally and in relation to the Kosovo crisis in particular. Why is this? Many liberals see the USA in a very positive way.
Bělohradský:My critical position towards the role of the USA in the unipolar world must be clearly defined. Firstly, I am critical of a rhetoric which describes the end of Communism as a "victory of the West in the Cold War." The attempt to reform socialism symbolised by Gorbachev was not just a "defeat in the Cold War" but had a very instructive logic of its own, which has been drowned out by the rhetoric of the victors. Seen against the background of the appalling social problems of the USA, the poverty of the Third World and the ecological crisis, this self-aggrandising rhetoric of victory is especially offensive. Capitalism has still not yet dared to attempt its own "perestroika."
Secondly, I am convinced that the Americans' new status as a single superpower has caused a certain delirium in them. This is documented by the wave of self-glorifying films flooding the world; by the rhetoric of mystification used in the dirty war against Serbia, which the USA dragged Europe into; by the arrogant edging out of the UN; and by a paranoid political vision of the world as a place where villains conspire against democracy, while America self-sacrificingly watches over a threatened world as the world's policeman, equipped with the illegal Echelon planetary eavesdropping system. Only they have the moral right to decide about what is good and bad for humanity. Non-Americans make up an "insane society," which has no right to judge them.
CER: The notion that capitalism is waiting for a "Gorbachev" to lay bare its real problems is an arresting one, although rather pessimistic; Gorbachev, destroyed the system, he wished to reform. But even to me, as someone with quite strong residual leftist anti-American sympathies, your characterisation of the United States sounds a little exaggerated. Surely all great powers have from an overblown sense of their own importance, especially in their mass culture. And great powers rise and fall. Is the "delirium" of the United States in today's world really so dangerous?
Bělohradský: It is a dangerous delirium. For example, in a speech in May to Italian pilots at the Gioia del Colle NATO base, General Wesley Clark said: "The Serbs can't do anything to us, but we can take light from them. In Belgrade people are saying that fighting NATO is like fighting God" (La Stampa, 12 May). America emerged from the spirit of a religious sect and General Clark is speaking as a sectarian. How widespread is this delirium in the USA? How many people think that "fighting NATO is like fighting against God"? The absolute majority, I fear.
To give another example, Captain Richard Ashby, whose aircraft brought down a cable car with more than 20 people on board in the Italian town of Cermiz, declared after having been found - what else? - not guilty by an American court (Corriere della sera, 6 March 1999): "The truth has absolved me of blame. The Italian government gave the National Imagery and Mapping Agency a copy of the maps containing the ill-fated cable car installation. But the National Imagery Agency didn't take this into consideration and ignored it when creating its own map... There was no cable car link marked on the maps of the National Imagery Agency."
Only taking your own maps into consideration is a delirium. It is dreadful to know that we exist only to the extent that we are marked on American maps. And how do we probably appear on them, as coloured dashes? Whatever the case, we Europeans do not have a great deal of importance on them, as the verdict freeing Captain Ashby shows. I think every person living on the planet has a moral duty to contribute in some way to help Americans recover from this delirium. In 1998, American generals bombed a pharmaceutical plant somewhere in Sudan in retaliation for a terrorist attack on the embassy in Nairobi. In reality, it was a factory producing medicines, but on their maps it was circled as a threat to American interests (!). In reply to the protests of the UN they answered: no one has the right to judge us!
Another example of a map replacing rather than describing territory is modern American "pan-legalism," an attempt to solve everything through the application of the law. The American Left, which has proved quite unable to promote social justice to even the slightest extent, today makes its living by struggling against discrimination against gays, sexism, ageism and smokers, while the life chances of a quarter of the population of New York are lower than in Third World.
A stubborn memory for the difference between the map and the territory, that the map is only an image of the territory not a substitute for it, this is European philosophy's most characteristic inheritance. I see the role of Europe today as the dogged defence of the difference between map and territory, which the Americans, in their post-Communist delirium, have forgotten.
CER: Reading your work and listening to your answers, I can't help feeling that there is a certain "left-wing" element in your thinking. The idea that consumerism and the market can act as a pyschologically oppressive structure, for example, seems strongly to echo the "New Left" of the 1960s.
Bělohradský: As I said, for me, the Left in the form of pastoral power and a centrally financed welfare state is dead. But I think that Albert Camus's The Rebel is still a magnificently relevant book. The revolutionary is a metaphysician; he or she believes that there exists some final phase, form or state of reality, which the vanguard of humanity will discover in history as the true content and basis of human identity and mediate to the whole of humanity. Violence is legitimate insofar as it is carried out by this vanguard which projects "historical truth" into the institutions of the socialist state.
In the early 1980s, I published an essay entitled "A Critique of the Eschatology of Impersonality," which was based on the following idea: hope must not be linked with any final form of the world, with some final solution whether it be socialism, globalised capitalism or the realisation of Christian virtues. I share Richard Rorty's admiration for American pragmatism in the original democratic version given to it by James and Dewey. In his introduction to pragmatism, William James compares two philosophical styles, the first of which he calls "tender-minded," the second "tough-minded." "Tender-minded" thinkers privilege the purity of abstract principles and guard their coherency, whilst "tough-minded" thinkers privilege the brutal factual reality that mires these principles into the outrageous mud of experience and thus calls them into question.
He quotes the pamphlet "Human Submission" by the American anarchist Morrison I Swift, one of the so-called "muckrackers," the journalists and thinkers who realistically described the violence and corruption of American capitalism at the turn of the century. Swift describes the lives of the unemployed in Cleveland, who have been driven out of their wretched homes and counts the number suicides committed out of desperation. He cites "the Professors of Philosophy," Royce and other idealists, who defend the notion that "the absolute is always richer than the contradictions it contains" and compares their views with the living conditions of the people inhabiting the universe whose principles these professors are interpreting.
James sympathises with Swift's anarchist rage against pure principle, and so do I. I think that Western cant about human rights quite shameless, when every three seconds someone on this Earth is dying of hunger. Shaking principles to their foundations is an old aspiration of art and philosophy, perhaps their original aspiration. In depicting horror, a writer is trying to shake what Weinrich termed the Heiterkeit, or serenity, of those who speak in the name of rights and principles.
CER: So, you are saying that it is the Left's historically critical stance towards the status quo - or at least the critical and "tough-minded" attitude of some on the Left towards the status quo - that attracts you?
Bělohradský: For me, the Left today can only mean a repeated daily attack on the serenity of defenders of values, principles and morality. The revolutionary left was only the historicisation of the old metaphysics; the revolutionary believes in History in the same way that the Christian believes in the Christian God. Seattle convinced me that the old metaphysical Left can now no longer return; an era of local, unpredictable revolts against the cynicism of the globalisers, revolts without any scientific justification, has arrived.
From the demonstrations in Seattle we can catch the scent of a new polylogy. Human Society, Public Citizen, the Sierra Club, the Green Cross, farmers from Europe, people defending their own bodies against genetic manipulation, thousands of spontaneous organisations - each with their own local reasons for their revolt against the globalisers' cynicism, motivated by their own life histories. They all agreed only on one thing: that revolt could no longer be postponed. Not a revolt against Evil in the world but against the evil somebody here and now is doing to somebody else here and now, before our very eyes!
What made the greatest impression upon me was the sight of a girl who simply held up her pocket mirror to the policemen clad in anti-riot gear, who resembled robots or Martians: this is what you look like in the interests of the globalisers, you are victims too! There is an element of unconscious European cultural memory in this, the legend of the Medusa who could not survive the sight of her own image reflected in Perseus's shield.
CER: Some of comments you have made in the past about the "totalitarian" character of the consumer society or the global market remind me of Herbert Marcuse.
Bělohradský: I take Marcuse's theory of the "one-dimensional man" very seriously. Marcuse used this expression to describe the transformation of consciousness caused by the fact that in mass society the energy of utopian thinking critical of the status quo is pulled into the workings of everyday life, into the functioning of that status quo, and thus tamed and abolished in its liberating negativity. In the past, meditating on Plato at a distance from everyday life was the preserve of elites isolated in monasteries. Today, pocket editions of Plato lie on the kitchen table beside the toaster. Education has been democratised but at the price of being integrated into the workings of everyday life. It has been harnessed to the reproduction processes of the status quo.
Marcuse is asking a fateful question here: what has happened to "negativity of thinking" in mass industrial society, to that distance from the process of mere reproduction that was the exalted core of the great works of art of the past? Popular art has been emasculated, its liberating vulgarity, which transcended the universe of the powerful, has been reduced to mere obscenity; high art has been deprived of its utopian distance from the everyday. Does that not fatefully weaken the democratic public space?
CER: Have any other the 'critical theorists' influenced you?
Among the "critical theory" authors, I set greatest store by Adorno and his Negative Dialectics. I understand the work as a philosophy of revolt in the sense I formulated it a moment ago. Negative, because after Auschwitz we can no longer be on the side of any eternal truths or positive principles, only on the side of mortal, trembling, injured human bodies and the experience that resides in them. In his "Meditation on Metaphysics" Adorno wrote that it is essential for a philosopher never to forget how they felt as a child on seeing a dog that has just been caught being dragged off to a grilled van in a noose to be taken to the knacker's yard. Today's children probably no longer know what a knacker's yard is, but, I believe, they too have their own unforgettable archetypes of revolt - like the dog's head in the noose.
CER: For example...?
For example, the battery farm where each cage is crammed with hens whose beaks have been cut off to prevent them attacking one another. Or the Martian robocops of Seattle. Will they rise up and revolt at some point against their own image as seen in a girl's pocket mirror? Is the difference between a large battery farm and a large city that great, moreover? Somewhere I read that Chaplin's "anti-battery farm" film Modern Times was declared the greatest film of the century. So, the managers of the battery farms will perhaps not emerge victorious after all; culture serves as a memory, warning us and offering us persuasive reasons for revolt.
Interview conducted by Seán Hanley, 20 May 2000
Seán Hanley is Lecturer in Politics at the Department of Government at Brunel University, West London.