Archive for August 5th, 2009

The Beggar’s Opera

5 August 2009

By Kevin O’Sullivan

Vaclav HavelIsn’t it funny how history can always teach you something? Or, more appropriately, remind you what you should have learned, after it’s too late? I’m reading To the Castle and Back at the moment, the autobiography of playwright and former Czech president (1989-2003) Václav Havel. It is, as you might expect, no ordinary memoir. Compelling and brilliantly written across three parallel narratives (interviews, reflections, and instructions to his staff), Havel’s experiences offer a fascinating account of the transition to democracy and the travails of a country (and, after 1993, two countries) re-asserting its place in the modern world. A very different situation to our own current malaise, yes, but as anyone who has been in Tesco’s ten floors across two buildings in the centre of Bratislava will attest, there’s a certain parallel with the more is better, grab-what-you-can climate of the last fifteen years.

Quelle surprise then, that Havel, recalling the privatisation of the Czechoslovak economy (pp. 158-9), should write in terms that resonate so strongly with post-Tiger Namaland.

Many years later I began, for the second time, to change my mind. It happened when I observed that the majority of our most dubious new capitalists, Mafiosi, and entrepreneurial con men had emerged from the small privatisation process, that is to say, from the auctioning off of small business. At the time, anyone could borrow money, buy any property at an auction, and then either sell it off again at a profit or strip the assets and file for bankruptcy. Then all they had to do was keep on investing borrowed money, without, of course, ever returning the loan. This led to the collapse of banks or to enormous state bailouts in the banking sector. Read More


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