18 February 2008

Horse-trading and instability in Communist Czechoslovakia

Horse-trading is "negotiation accompanied by mutual concessions and shrewd bargaining". I think much of the power dynamic under totalitarian regimes depends on horse-trading. This is unstable. More effective is inculcating "false consciousness" in your citizens: then they'll support you even as you act against them. If I was Putin, this would look like a good strategy.

No through-line, sloppy conclusions: that is the best this post has to offer. But I've been wrestling with this for a couple of weeks - maybe someone can shed some light on this area, because I don't seem able to do it for myself...

In 1989 the Czech state was badly weakened. In November of that year people spilled onto the streets and the old regime fell. It seems there was nobody to defend Communism against collapse - all it took (and please excuse me while I pull a number from nowhere) was for 10% of the population to rebel and the remainder to do nothing, and bang! New government. No more USSR.

I think we can assume that the UK and US states wreck enough people's lives to produce an underclass of equivalent size to that which rebelled in November 1989 and brought down the Communist regime. 10% of the population must be in pretty dire straits (there's that number again - it says here that 11.4 million people in the UK live on low incomes).

But this leaves a puzzle: in the UK and US we have this underclass - yet government change in these two countries occurs without drastic upheaval and revolution. Whatever the extent to which people might despise George W Bush or Gordon Brown, be opposed to the Iraq war, dislike tax levels or whatever, they aren't fundamentally opposed to the state and its basic institutions.

What explains the difference in mass behaviour? It must be to do with what the other 90% are doing. In the Czech Republic in 1989, the 90% just went with the flow. In the US and UK, they must be resisting rebellion - I don't mean by taking to the streets, but just refusing in general to go along with the 10%. They resist by being immobile, not active.

Let's look for a minute at the difference in relationship between state and citizen is in the US/UK and pre-revolution Czechoslovakia.

The Communist State wanted its organs and civil society to behave according to a set of goals and priorities that were some way out of step with what many of its citizens themselves considered important: essentially, it needed its citizens to act against their own interests.

To achieve cooperation, the Communist state offered its citizens a complex bargain: to be left alone, on the understanding the citizen never overstepped the boundaries of permitted action.

This horse-trading left a citizenry fundamentally at odds with its leadership: a citizenry tolerant of but opposed to the state. It put the state in a precarious position - it relied on its citizens' consent to remain in power, but was securing that consent contrary to the conscious wishes of its citizens.

Although the Communists had managed to get people to voluntarily act against their own interests, their solution was inherently unstable - should anything happen to drastically weaken the State, its citizens would be expected to rise up against it rather than in support of it.

Obviously, it's better if a state can rely on its citizens to defend it - to oppose the rebellious - rather than accept whatever change is afoot. I think this is the major difference between the Communist regimes, and the UK and US (and, I suppose, Putin's Russia).

In all states there is an underclass ("the 10%"), but I think the politically advanced states know that the important thing is not to get people to put up and shut up (which was the Communists' technique for control) but to make sure the other 90% don't roll over when the 10% get fractious. The US and UK governments may or may not do this by design. Putin may well be using this as his strategy.

How do you isolate the 10%? You need to convince the 90% that everything is OK for them - then the 10% can get as fractious as they like, but it will have no repercussions for the stability of the state.

It's at this point I wanted to include Marx's notion of false consciousness: in the UK and US, there is a lot of people there whose interests are not represented by government policy - who are increasingly alienated from government.

My intuition was that inculcation of false consciousness is one technology of power particularly important in advanced (and above all, stable) states. But I no longer see where that fits into the picture - it's not obvious to me that the 10% live in a state of false consciousness. And it's not obvious to me that the other 90% do, either.

To be honest, I don't even know what false consciousness is. I suspect that it's better simply to look at communications and propaganda, and think about how that can have its effects, than worry about false consciousness - an almost meta-psychological state which will be different in every different circumstance.

Although I'm sure a lot of people believe that many policies are working in their favour when they aren't, I don't see if that's enough for them to live in false consciousness. Until I know how many people live in a state of false consciousness, I don't know what role it can have in explaining power dynamics.

All I can conclude with is the obvious: systematic misrepresentation of State agenda garners a more stable, consensual support from citizens, which represses a revolutionary instinct. States which employ this power technology will last longer than those which don't... I just wonder where the weaknesses are in this system?

I suspect in alienation from the political process. More rambling on that another time.


Ales said...

Hi, interesting idea, but the fall of the communists was based on the different reasons, not that 10% or less or more people started do something against regime.

Paul said...

My thought is more about the difference between regime-change in the UK, for example, and in 1989 in Czechoslovakia. The latter seems illustrative of a latent and extreme instability - the former is smooth. The question is why this is so - especially given that there is a comparably-sized disenfranchised and alienated population in both regimes.

Obviously, the answer isn't just that some people went out into the streets. It's complex - but I have a feeling that a horse-trading type of social contract may have some role to play in the political instability.

Something must feed (and allow) revolution. Whatever it is, it's not present in the UK. What is that thing? (Or many things, really).