By Kevin O’Sullivan
Isn’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. But in the end everyone had to pay for the fact that so many speculators were given so much room to operate – like the money changers from the communist era … [I]t merely seems to me that the fundamentalist solution that was chosen led to a certain public cynicism. If, for example, a baker loved by the whole street or neighbourhood didn’t stand a chance against someone who excelled only in cunning, this could not contribute to a positive climate in the country. What bothered me most, however, was the fact that I found a lack of conceptual vision, not only in the economy, but in our understanding of what the state should be. “The invisible hand of the market” was supposed to take care of everything, but there are things it simply can’t take care of, and I would even say that this glorious “invisible hand” is occasionally capable of committing some highly visible crimes.