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Slovakia Since 1989: A Bastion of Mutually Constituting Liberalism and Illiberalism, Still Waiting for a Left

We are told that it was thirty years before when our era has started and that we have never escaped the questions posed by that year. The Conventional liberal moral of these thirty years is mobilized against „old-new“ threats and views which essentialize the whole region (often by pointing to the deviations from the „right way“ of transformation and integration to the „sin“ or „temptation“ of illiberalism). To open the debate, which could counter this conformism and these simplifications, this series of essays brings together various critical voices from different countries of the region, to propose various experiences, analyses, topics and temporalities missing from the standard liberal narrative of the transition.

In the next two weeks, we at LeftEast will be publishing a series of nine essays on the effects of 1989 on post-state-socialist Europe and beyond. The pieces were developed around the workshop “Eastern Europe after 30 years of transition: New emancipatory perspectives from the region,” held in Prague on 25-26 October 2019, organised by the Transnational Institute (Amsterdam) and the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (Prague), coordinated by Agnes Gagyi and Ondrej Slacalek. In addition to their commentary on the present, these articles also give a virtual tour of the collapsing state-socialist world at the moment of its demise, through the memory of those who lived through it, and implore us to reconsider what critical memory might look like, that is, memory that helps us work toward a substantially different future. Joe Feinberg’s is the third essay in this series.

A Bastion of Perpetually Unsuccessful Liberalism

Slovakia has something of a reputation as a conservative, nationalist country. Leaders like Mečiar and Fico—not to mention the recent rise of fascist Marian Kotleba and the xenophobic populist Boris Kollár, added to the lasting presence of the radically national-conservative Slovak National Party—have done their share to give substance to this reputation. But Slovakia is also one of Europe’s most enthusiastic bastions of liberalism. Opposition to the illiberal nationalist leaders has consolidated liberalism, which remains intact and powerful long after it lost much of its public appeal in Slovakia’s neighbors. In recent years Slovakia has even become a minor exporter of intellectual liberalism, as the liberal daily Denník N founded a Czech subsidiary 2018—not a small feat if one considers that fact that, thanks to historically asymmetrical cultural relations between Czechs and Slovaks, it’s almost impossible to find a single Slovak-language book in any Czech bookstore, although every Czech speaker is perfectly capable of understanding Slovak (while, by contrast, Slovak bookstores are full of books published in Czech).

The dramatic victory of the liberal Zuzana Čaputová in Slovakia’s 2019 presidential elections, in the wake of mass outrage at the 2018 murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak, has drawn further attention to the country as a beacon of hope for those otherwise watching the rise of illiberal authoritarianism all around. But given the battle lines of Slovak politics, thanks to which political liberals ally with economic neoliberals and cultural conservatives and shun association with the left, it is doubtful that Čaputová and her former party Progressive Slovakia will be able to turn this genuine public enthusiasm for liberal freedoms into a consistently progressive program.

A Successful Left?

The limitations of Slovak liberalism are related to a fundamental failure of the Slovak left. Liberalism has been unable to find in the left a partner that might make it possible to consistently enact a program defending cultural minorities as well as the poor and exploited, in part because of prejudice against the left, and in part because no such left exists in Slovakia as an organized force. Judging by election results, one might be led to be believe that the Slovak left has spent much of the first three post-Communist decades in power. Yet political discourse and policy in the country—like in so many other parts of the region—remain distinctively on the right.

Unlike in several other countries, where reconstituted and renamed Communist Parties won elections in the 1990s, the Slovak political scene was dominated in its first post-Communist decade by Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), which rejected labels of left and right and explicitly invoked the legacy of the struggle overthrow Communist Party rule. But Mečiar’s movement was often identified as leftist by his opponents, partly because it adopted a policy of slower privatization and more moderate austerity than his leading opponents favored, partly because he offered positions of power to many former Communist Party functionaries and managers, and partly because he showed only moderate enthusiasm for the projects of NATO expansion and European integration. In this way, already in the first years after 1989 there emerged the basic dividing line that would characterize Slovak politics up to the present: on one side, a self-identified right that united liberal and conservative Christian democratic forces in favor of liberal democratic rule of law, Western political alliances, and a radical break from the Communist past; on the other side, an ambiguously labeled “left” associated with Communist managerialism, corrupt connections to former-Communist oligarchs, and populist appeals to national sentiment and the narrow material self-interest of the uneducated. As this characterization of the two camps suggests, the terms themselves were largely set by the liberal-conservative right, which has consistently enjoyed greater access to mass media and, especially, to intellectually prestigious media, even when it has formed a minority opposition in the political sphere.

The self-identified right first entered government in 1998. Since losing power again in 2006, Mečiar former position was largely taken over by Smer (“Direction”) led by Robert Fico, a party that explicitly claims the legacy of social democracy, which has ruled the country for eleven of the last thirteen years. But what has the left—whether understood as Mečiar’s illiberal post-Communism or Fico’s self-proclaimed social democracy—to show for all this success?

Slovakia was spared some of the worst shock therapy suffered elsewhere, but austerity and mass unemployment came all the same, and Mečiar never really made an effort to preserve public property, since his primary purpose in slowing privatization was to ensure that assets were allotted to his political allies. Although the bases of the welfare state were still partially intact when Smer rose to political hegemony in 2006—during a time of significant economic growth that continues up to the present—over a decade of leftist rule has managed only marginally to improve on the social system that it inherited. Healthcare, the school system, and public transportation have hardly improved, and housing prices in the capital city have gone through the roof.

What’s more, this moderate defense of welfare and regulation has come with a rise in ethno-nationalist and conservative rhetoric that justifies social welfare for the national majority and the culturally normative, while blaming the system’s inadequacies on those who draw on resources that they don’t deserve: immigrants (or hypothetical future immigrants) who might take advantage of supposedly generous welfare policies, Roma who accused of not wanting to work, intellectuals whose work is unproductive and a waste of state funds. In the early 1990s, it was the self-described right that positioned itself as the defender of minorities, intellectual elites, and moral statesmanship against the national-populism of Vladimír Mečiar. When the self-described left emerged as a formidable electoral force, it hardly made an effort to change the terms of political discourse, but seemed content to play the part assigned to it by the right.

The nominal left in power has left the right hegemonic. Where did this hegemony come from?

Liberalism between Civil Society and Uncivil Capitalism

When disparate discursive elements are put together into consistent ideological formations, they find central concepts that hold these elements together and give the appearance of coherence rather than gross contradiction. When the post-Communist liberal-conservative right championed multicultural tolerance alongside class inequality, political morality alongside economic exploitation, public debate alongside unquestionable technocratic governance, it did so in the name of “democracy” (with the free market being a necessary precondition of democracy). It did so in the name of “Europe” (which allegedly required all manner of economic “reform” to make Slovakia worthy of entering the EU). But probably no concept has played a more central ideological role than “civil society.”

When the revolutionary changes were just coming to a head in December 1989, an influential article entitled “The Citizen Is Born” was published by Martin Bútora, one of the founders of the organization Public Against Violence that would lead the transition to liberal democracy and market capitalism. In this short text, Bútora he celebrated the civic engagement that had been quietly emerging in the last years of the old regime and had now burst out in full force. He declared that the principle of citizenship or civic engagement (in Slovak, občianskosť) meant “struggling against all totalitarian power,” and if this struggle was carried out consistently, it could “create a society of citizens, a civil society.” So civil society, for him, was not merely a sociological structure, whose content might remain undefined; it became a normative category, defined by positive, democratizing action.

This was one of the first Slovak appearances of the contemporary concept of civil society as a vanguard of democracy (in Slovakia, in contrast to Poland and Hungary, the term hadn’t been actively taken up in dissident discussions). The new meaning of the term quickly took hold, almost without critical discussion of what else the term could mean. Marxists—including Slovak Marxists like Miroslav Kusý, who had been a leading advocate of socialist democracy in the 1960s and became a leading Marxist dissident in the 70s and 80s—had previously pointed out that civil rights did not guarantee equal political representation or social standing, as long as some had the “right” to exploit others and to earn more money and influence than others. But such critical views did not make much of an impression on the new champions of civil society.

Civil society became a conceptual repository for moral authority on which public figures could draw to justify their criticisms of state policy—or to justify their own ascendancy to state power, as numerous candidates would claim to represent civil society. This claim would generally be most convincing when candidates could demonstrate support from symbolically privileged representatives of civil society like NGOs and intellectual and cultural elites. But even the simple assertion that a candidate was based in “society” and outside politics could form the basis of a claim to political authority, a fact that has granted political success to a series of often short-lived parties, as well as numerous “movements,” “alliances,” “independent personalities,” and (in the most recent municipal elections) “teams” that claim not to be parties at all. By invoking civil society, political aspirants could make a virtue of their independence from existing political elites, while drawing attention away from their independence on wealthy non-political donors. (This is, incidentally, the same discursive move that helped propel Andrej Babiš to power in the Czech Republic.)

But most importantly, “civil society” produced a consensus in public discourse that tied liberal democratic and European values to a neoliberal transformation that could be presented as continually under threat. By invoking the normative value of civil society against the state, the liberal-conservative right could simultaneously favor democracy (against the threat of authoritarianism) and market reforms (against the welfare state, the few remaining publicly owned enterprises, and the corrupt politicians who were bound to misuse any public property). But market reforms would also be justified simply because they were “inevitable” and necessary for Slovakia to enter “the West.” Already by the early 1990s, Slovakia had become more privatized than most Western European, which maintained active state sectors and relatively more robust welfare systems, but the myth of Western prosperity linked to market capitalism proved so powerful that up until Slovakia’s 2004 accession to the EU, almost every otherwise-unpopular economic reform would be justified rhetorically as a step taken towards bringing the country up to some fabricated Western norms.

But the supposed inevitability of market reform also fit into the ideological understanding of civil society in another way. Even if the state was presented as a danger to pluralistic democracy, one part of the state could be used effectively to limit the dangers of another: namely, a technocratic elite would gain prestige and appear as a bulwark against “populist” politicians who were said to misuse the state to for short-sighted political gain. Experts could manage the state without seeming to pursue narrow political interest—in fact, without seeming to make any political decisions at all. Up more or less until the economic crisis of 2008 (which briefly halted Slovakia’s economic growth), almost every economic expert invited to speak in major media outlets would insist on the unquestionable necessity of further market reforms. Citizens were apparently good at challenging state power, but economic questions were too important to be left to them.

One of the great ironies of the notion of civil society is that, by drawing attention to the dangers of the state, in many ways the notion actually drew awayfrom what was taking place outside the state, in “society.” Although the figures of the citizen and civil associations would be idealized, the social structures in which those citizens were organized disappeared from view. Society was made up of an array of associations, rather than social classes. Citizens would be seen primarily in their modes of acceptable public appearance, while their living conditions would become matters of private concern, and their status as employees was hardly of concern at all. When workers entered public discourse, they did so primarily as a cultural category, a stereotype of the poorly educated populism-prone voter, whose economic status as waged laborers was politically irrelevant. A stranger observing liberal and conservative political discussion for the first twenty years of post-Communist Slovakia could easily come away believing that the country contained no workers at all.

Proper Citizens against Non-citizens

The persistence of Slovak liberalism has possibly helped keep authoritarianism in check, but it has also succeeded in cementing a connection in the popular imagination between liberal values and neoliberal market reforms, which has in turn helped illiberal nationalism to consolidate itself as the country’s main defense against social insecurity, and has left little room for the emergence of a progressive left. Throughout the 1990s, this went hand in hand with continued disregard for workers. While illiberal nationalists joined liberals in speaking of economics without class, they also nationalized economic discourse by presenting rapid market reforms as Czech and presenting their own crony privatization as an attempt, in part, to keep the economy in Slovak hands. In 1992, this disagreement over who should acquire state resources would become a central factor in the break-up of Czechoslovakia.

When Robert Fico’s Smer party began to push Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia out of the political scene, workers began slowly to make their appearance as well. But now workers, like the economy as a whole, would be nationalized. Smer’s most influential ideologue on this point has been Ľuboš Blaha, a Smer MP and self-styled Marxist philosopher who, as of this writing, leads all Slovak political personalities with 49,014 followers on Facebook. Blaha is only slightly more strident than most national-conservatives in his characterization of Slovak liberals as a camp that “hates Slovakia, hates ordinary people, hates other opinions” and “supports immigrants, gays, big finance, and the liberal media mafia.” What is more remarkable is how Blaha (in the same article just quoted) constructs his own camp, opposed to the liberals, as one that “emphasizes social themes, patriotism, and common sense on cultural questions.” Elsewhere he explains what such “common sense” entails: rejecting the claims of ethnic and sexual minorities in favor of “workers,” who supposedly have “more conservative and authoritarian views.”

In Blaha’s hands, the old national-conservative opposition to liberalism has donned in Marxist work clothes. The image offered by liberalism of the worker as a danger to pluralist democracy remains unchanged, but is now elevated as the basis of a political project to defend conservative sexual values and ethnic homogeneity—and social welfare for those who conform to norms and protect their borders from foreign dangers. This celebration of the conservative, patriotic worker is, perhaps unsurprisingly, frequently combined with an attack on cosmopolitan NGOs and, above all, the their secret patron George Soros.

Yet even while the ideology of civil society has been challenged through attacks on some of its central values, other aspects of anti-liberalism have developed in conformity with the ideology. Already in 2012, the liberal-conservative party SDKÚ government would justify a proposal to crack down on allegedly illegal constructions by Roma as a defense of “proper citizens,” and the fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia of Marian Kotleba would employ the same rhetoric when it began to organize marches against Roma and, later, armed militias to defend against Muslim immigrants. Proper citizens would be mobilized against the imagined threat of improper citizens—or, we might say, uncivil non-citizens and second-class citizens—who don’t work hard enough or don’t share the majority’s cultural practices or respect the majority’s norms. Anti-liberal discourse has brought the category of work back into the ideal of citizenship as a marker of the citizen’s exclusive value, and it has maintained the denigration of laziness that was an aspect of pro-market liberalism since the beginning. Now the lazy parasite has been identified with the “improper” citizen or immigrant non-citizen who threatens the polity of Slovak citizens.

Meanwhile, the historic alliance between liberals and only-moderately-nationalist conservatives, which prevailed for the first two decades after 1989, has begun to break down. Whereas the parties of the Christian democratic tradition had long shunned the national-populists, the Christian Democratic Movement, for example, became increasingly willing to appeal to Slovak nationalism, while the traditionally liberal-conservative Party of the Hungarian Community split, with one of its factions becoming more radically national-conservative since 2010. But nationalist xenophobia has also made a strong showing in the liberal camp, as Richard Sulík, the leader of the (ironically named) party Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), has tried to position himself as one of the country’s foremost critics of EU immigration policies. Drawing on the American tradition of conservative libertarianism, Sulík has given liberal justification for refusing to help immigrants, just as one should refuse to help the lazy and the poor. In this worldview, not only social welfare but prosperity in general becomes a limited resource that should only be made available to a nationally privileged population.

Shifting the Dividing Line of Politics

In spite of the renewed popular appeal of Slovak liberalism, its new manifestations differ rather little from its earlier manifestations, which repeatedly watered down liberal demands after allying with conservatives and lost public support after promoting neoliberal austerity. Though the new liberals are relatively less enthusiastic about market reforms than the parties that came and went before them, they have not made significant appeal to social or economic justice, and they have left virtually unaffected the dividing line that has cut through Slovak politics ever since the early 1990s. There is no reason to expect them not to alienate poor and working-class voters once again, who will, as always, be courted by conservative-nationalist forces, whether they call themselves left or right. It may take considerably more work by the progressive left to move this dividing line and make possible serious social change.

Joseph Grim Feinberg is a research fellow at the Philosophy Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, in the Department for the Study of Modern Czech Philosophy, where his work focuses the history of critical social thought in East-Central Europe, the problem of citizenship and non-citizens, and the notion of internationalism. He has edited a volume of writing by the Czech philosopher Ivan Sviták (Ivan Sviták, The Windmills of Humanity, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 2014), a volume of essays by Hungarian philosopher G. M. Tamás (in Czech, co-edited with Pavel Siostzronek, Prague: Filosofia, 2016), and a volume of articles on the work of Czech philosopher Karel Kosík (co-edited with Ivan Landa and Jan Mervart; Leiden: Brill, forthcoming). His book The Paradox of Authenticity, published in 2018 by the University of Wisconsin Press, addresses folklore performance in Slovakia and the shifting meaning of “the folk” or “the people” during the de-legitimation of Communist discourse and the rise of a new discourse influenced by dissident thought.

By Joseph Grim Feinberg

Joseph Grim Feinberg is a cultural anthropologist and social theorist at the Philosophy Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences and the Sociology Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences. He has written on the concept of civil society, the politics of culture, and the future of the left.