The Velvet Revolution rocked the Czech communist government and changed the course of liberal democratization around the world 33 years ago.
Vaclav Havel Library hosted a debate about this legacy on November 16, the eve of the Revolution. Moderator, Michael Zantovsky, began by asking the panelists Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European Studies at Oxford University; Misha Glenny, a journalist and rector of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna; and Anna Durnova, a professor of political sociology at the University of Vienna about the accomplishments and pitfalls of the revolution.
“What happened between 1989 and 1991 was the new normal, and that democracy, and that prosperity, and peace would spread as part of an almost natural process. … We turned what is actually a struggle or what is a struggle for freedom and turned it into a process, and we yielded to overconfidence, complacency, and hubris,” Ash said.
The Czech Republic has not learned from history. Without a system and history of protecting freedoms, many post-communist countries struggled because freedom does not arrive from dismantling an oppressive government. The problem is not black and white; it is complex and interconnected, according to Durnova.
In the 1990s, globalization and the spread of liberal democracy were advertised to bring people together and create a global culture. However, it internalized a split in society: one globalized side worried about wars in Asia and the economic effects, for example, and the others concerned with the local bus schedule and getting to work on time. Historical culture continued to be local, and international culture was superficial, according to Zantovsky.
“I think the problem lies in the 1990s, which I refer to as the Decade of Delusion when we all thought it was going fantastically well because we were accumulating wealth based on assets that didn’t have that value. … 2007, 2008 (and in particular 2008) was the culmination of that almost orgiastic indulgence in financial capitalism around the world,” Glenny said.
The rise of populism and illiberal democracy is happening everywhere, just in different cultural contexts, interfering with citizens’ recognition of the patterns. According to Glenny, the response to the Cold War was capitalism which carves society into divisions of wealth and success, but this phenomenon is linked to culture, globalization, and technology.
Technology was introduced to improve life; in addition, it has changed the socialization process for younger generations. The generation of Czechs who survived communism tend to be less globalized and in favor of capitalism: the ultimate freedom. Populists in Poland and Hungary, for example, take advantage of older voters’ wishes for immediate solutions, but the new, globalized generations see the world in a more complex way.
“The idea that we are supposed to be more in control of our lives, and yet feeling ever less in control of our lives. … So enormous are the processes that are going on economically, culturally, socially, and politically—even in warfare we have the possibility of new weapons, of a new type of non-kinetic (i.e cyber warfare) coming into play—that it is really difficult for us individually and collectively to comprehend what is going on,” Glenny said.
Liberal democracy competes with the conservative right’s nationalism and tangible solutions. It is impossible for liberals to crack all the world’s problems while appealing to the local populations where real change can be accomplished. Populism is a well-dressed trick that will not work in the long run because of the dangerous polarization it causes. Liberals need to challenge the idea that the nation is not a part of liberal democracy if there is hope to save democracy and freedom, according to Ash.
“Every crisis contains an opportunity. This is a very big crisis and contains a very big opportunity,” Ash said.
While addressing the problems we are facing includes the acknowledgments of “us” and “them” because not everyone is fighting the same battle, framing solutions to polarization in terms of liberalism and conservatism reinforced a western-centric, individualistic view. Populists are not the only ones causing stark divides in the population, between grandparents and grandchildren.
The world is brimming with the possibility of being wrong, so how can the younger generation be educated to think critically about each other? In a divided society, an unbiased and non-accusatory common ground seems generations away.