The Economy, Stupid

A different type of ghost


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“Everyone in the resistance knew of [Václav] Havel.” In Anna Porter’s The Ghosts of Europe: Central Europe’s Past and Uncertain Future, Havel plays the role of rock star. The former blacklisted-playwright-turned-national-leader is a star, of course: The poet turned president. The intellectual who will lead the people out of corruption; out of despair; out of a system that denies citizens control over their income, their homes, and their jobs; out of institutionalized abuse and into a new way of being. And he did. Kinda/sorta.


  • The Ghosts of Europe: Central Europe’s Past and Uncertain Future by Anna Porter. 320 pages. Thomas Dunne Books. $25.99.
  • Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything by F.S. Michaels. 202 pages. Red Clover. $15.95.

Under the communist regime of Czechoslovakia, Havel staged plays such as the banned The Garden Party. In the play, a man adapts so well to the absurdity of the communist system in order to get placed into a good job that his family no longer recognizes him. Secret invitations to The Garden Party went out, and performances were set up spontaneously. Havel was arrested, harassed, beaten, and ultimately dumped out of the prison on his deathbed — the government had no desire to turn the most visible member of the resistance and intelligentsia into a martyr. But then, after he physically recovered and communism fell in the Velvet Revolution, Havel stepped into a position of power to help navigate Czechoslovakia back into the rest of the world.

It did not quite go according to plan. Many of the intellectuals, writers, and artists who found themselves surprisingly running the region’s fledgling democracies didn’t want straight-up capitalism. The only system they knew was a regime in which governments had complete control over citizens’ lives. Desirable jobs such as teaching were handed out to the most loyal party members, while the experienced college professors, many of whom had a whiff of dissent on them, were assigned jobs of labor and toil. Many of these new leaders still leaned far enough left that they wished for some sort of middle ground between communism and capitalism, a gentler sort of beast. But capitalism does not play nice. Central Europe today is as much a part of the consumerist culture as New York or London (though perhaps in a more aspirational, fantasizing role than as an active participant). Many of those intellectuals were just as surprised when they were voted out of office and replaced with nepotistic career politicians.

Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, Havel gave a public speech in which he assessed the current state of the free Czech Republic. “On the one hand everything is getting better — a new generation of mobile phones is being released every week,” he said. “But in order to make use of them, you need to follow new instructions. So you end up reading instruction manuals instead of books and in your free time you watch TV where handsome tanned guys scream from advertisements about how happy they are to have new swimming trunks… The new consumer society is accomplished by a growing number of people who do not create anything of value.”

The artistic and literary scene that flourished paradoxically under censorship and repression has died off. The public intellectual is, for the most part, no longer invited to the most important parties. Anna Porter writes, “Now that everyone can publish what they want, what is the role of the intellectuals?” and she can’t find an answer. It’s no longer the police state that’s attacking the intelligentsia — it’s disinterest and boredom. It’s distraction. It’s a trade off. And it’s one that we should be able to acknowledge and be allowed to mourn. When the historian Timothy Garton Ash visited Poland in the 1980s, he admitted to an envy for the environment there. “Here is a place where people care, passionately, about ideas.” The people of Central Europe traded in ideas for groceries and for not being beaten to death by the police. No one could possibly blame them, but at the same time, Havel and the other leaders had no sense of the true cost of democracy.

It’s impossible to foresee how such massive changes in society will play out. The society in which you are born, raised, and function as an adult will necessarily seem like the only possible version of society. During the communist reign, Czechoslovakia’s vast population was so bogged down in the daily realities and struggle for survival that imagining even the possibility of a way out became nearly impossible. As F. S. Michaels writes in Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything, “When you’re inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things… Over time, the monoculture evolves into a nearly invisible foundation that structures and shapes our lives, giving us our sense of how the world works.” The reason Havel became a strong figure of resistance and was unanimously voted into the presidency by the Federal Assembly was because he offered — literally — a different story for the people of Czechoslovakia.

So Central Europe gave up one monoculture and installed another. It also happens to be the presiding monoculture of nearly the entire world: the economic story. But perhaps it’s easier to see the monoculture through the filter of Central Europe because the transition was so quick and total there. The economic story of the United States came on creeping, subsuming our culture so pervasively and gradually that it’s almost difficult to believe things here ever worked any another way. But East Berlin became West Berlin with the crumbling of one thin wall.

What is the economic story? Michaels, a writer for The Journal of Business Ethics and other similar publications, lays it out: “[E]conomic beliefs, values, and assumptions are shaping how we think, feel, and act.” It’s not simply consumerist greed, that sort of predatory capitalism wildly on display on Wall Street. In Michaels’s definition, the economic story is one in which communities are not as important as individuals, in which one’s placement and performance in society is the result of an honest assessment of abilities, in which progress is driven by people’s desires and the fulfillment of those desires. In other words, each individual person is an entity striving to satiate their wants through rational economic decisions and their success or failure to achieve those goals is a direct result of the quality of their performance. As the “winner takes all” hierarchy spreads and the middle class bottoms out in nation after nation, a competitive “If you have what I want, I have to take it from you” system takes over. Or, as Intel president Andrew Grove put it, “If the world operates as one big market, every employee will compete with every person anywhere in the world who is capable of doing the same job. There are a lot of them and many of them are very hungry.”

This story affects every aspect of our culture, from a medical system that punishes the ill with massive debts and withholds care from the poor, to the corporate ownership of our artistic treasures (Bank of America’s art collection stands at more than 60,000 pieces, and they are happy to rent them out to museums strategically in order to increase their estimated value), to the increased instability in almost every job market. Most of our politicians, if not all, would agree this is the most efficient way to run our world. And they will fight to the death to maintain this status quo, if not drive us deeper into the story.

The result is that everything in our lives is evaluated by its economic value. If you’re making an argument for putting a stop to mountaintop mining, best couch it in terms of lost revenue from pollution, the economic burden of those in the area made ill, and the potential for lawsuits. Fights for worker rights such as paternal leave are framed with stats showing that rehiring and retraining a new worker is more expensive than allowing a new father to stay home for a few weeks. Even human rights groups, charities, and environmental advocates have taken up the language of economics because, when we talk about what things cost us these days, we generally mean “financially” and not “morally.”

Michaels’s book has its faults. Her summations of how the world once work — meant to both show how much we’ve devoted to this economic story today and remind us that things can be different — are tinged with the hue that colors Ostalgie: the backward-looking amnesia that infects those Central Europeans who have decided things were so much better under communism, or, if you’re in the right country, under the Habsburgs. “Back in the 1950s, the relationship between employees and their companies involved commitment and reciprocity; workers were committed to the job in return for wages and promotions, and the company was committed to its workers in return for their hard work and loyalty.” Well, maybe. But admittance to the wider workforce was restricted at best. Such a point is like looking back on the days of incredibly low unemployment in communist Poland… without mentioning that if anyone protested for safer working conditions, the police might just shoot him in the head. Every monoculture will have its downsides, and trading one for another will always lead to unexpected deficits. But maybe if we acknowledge that the economic story looks like it’s coming to an unhappy ending of environmental degradation, widespread poverty, and hunger as resources become scarce, we can see what we might get in return.

Leaving the economic monoculture, particularly now that it’s a worldwide system, is not going to be any less of a dramatic act than Havel’s Velvet Revolution. Michaels makes a strong case that this story is stripping us of our environment, our creativity, and our personal happiness. We are, for the most part, bogged down in the daily struggle for survival, too worried about losing our fragile position within a corporation to envision an entirely different way of being. It’s going to take another Havel, someone who can see the world for what it is and find a better story to tell. • 13 September 2011