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>”It’s Legal to be a Loser” – And How!

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The Czech Republic’s small liberal Freedom Union (US-DEU) party, once the rising hope of reform in the wake of the Klaus era in 1998 and again in 1999-200 as part of the Quad-Coalition with the Christian Democrats and others in is now crashing out of Czech politics with some style. With poll ratings consistently at around 0.3%, it only real hope was to ally with the plethora of other small liberal groups just under the radar of Czech national politics and hope for an electoral upset.

When the chimera of such a ‘European Liberal Party’ proved illusory, US decided to contest the elections alone promising an election campaign based on electronic communications with ‘usual elements’ with a (not insignificant) budget of up to 20 million crowns (Lidové noviny 17 February). And they have certainly found a way to blow 20 million in style.

The Union’s campaign swansong is a radical re-branding exercise, which owes more to MTV than conventional political marketing. The self-styled “New Freedom Union” hasreplaced its logo with white pentangle on a purple background – resembling widely used the anarchist symbol – jaunty pop graphics and a range of cryptic English language slogans with a broadly libertarian message, such as ‘It’s legal to live’, ‘It’s legal to be different’ and (more appropriately) ‘It’s legal to a loser’ – I identify with this one and have already ordered the T-shirt.

However, as former leader of the liberal Freedom Union Jan Ruml (LN 8 April 2006) observed, the Union is in practice not undertaking any campaign, but giving some admen something good to put on their CVs. The Freedom Union’s last minute attempt to revive itself from political death by re-inventing itself as a fashionable anti-establishment media phenomenon seens predicactably to be proving totally unsuccessful. The Greens despite their self-destructive urges do seem set to make it into parliament asrepresentative of the decent ethical liberal soft centre of Czech politics – and possibly if final polls are believed may do quite impressively.

Still as the New Freedom Union tells us It’s Legal to Live…

>Anti-totalitarian liberalism and Gellner’s Viennese whirl

>Read with interest of Ernest Gellner’s “Viennese theory” that the anti-totalitarian liberalism of Popper and Hayek reflects the experience of “the individualistic, atomized, cultivated bourgeoisie of the Habsburg capital had to contend with the influx of swarms of kin-bound collectivistic, rule-ignoring migrants from..the Balkans and Galicia”. People like Popper and Hayek – whom Perry Anderson writes of as a White Emigration, I think in his English Questions – “would seem to be haunted by the contrast between the creativity of an individual bourgeoisie and the cultural sterility of kin-hugging gregarious migrants from some Balkan zadruga, whose clannish and collectivist leanings threaten liberty and progress’ (Plough, Book and Sword, London, Collins Harvill, 1988, 26-30). This is basically familiar populist/liberal cleavage known in much postcommunist politics literature in a new guise, it seems. Shades too of the Victorian liberal reaction to the political rise of the working class and the influx of Irish navvies, except that this political/rule class succeeded in integrating such ‘swarms’ culturally and politically. There was no Habsburg Disraeli and no compelling Austrian political identity akin to Britishness, though as Tom Nairn suggests in recent writing the British state at the turn of the 21st century had a whiff of Habsburg Austria about it.

>Hayek and ‘planning postcommunist reform

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Hayek had a number of political ideas about the liberal, democratic reconstruction of post-war Germany, principally federalism based on regional states (not Laender)

However, do many of the problems of democratic politics and planning he describes in Road to Serfdom and elsewhere not recur in ‘planning for freedom‘ especially in the context of transition from totalitarian rule – the problem of reaching prior agreement and subsequently agreeing to stick whatever the consequences. When no such agreement is forthcoming is there not here a tendency to fudge things with propaganda and the delegation of powers from divided parliaments to unaccountable all-powerful technocrats (or authoritarian modernizers?) and back again to populist politicians backed by collectivist democratic majorities. However Czech and CEE experiences – as Greskovits suggests was not this Latin American scenario this would imply Here, however, the slippery concept of ‘planning‘ needs unpacking. Can it be extended from an etatistic command planning to top-down technocratic policy-making. How did Hayek envisage the implementation of Constitution of Liberty with associated interventions into the democratic process as previously understood? What political vehicles did in anticipate – in practice the IEA and Mrs T, as we know, but what is implied in his writings. Time to read dear old Friedrich more carefully.

>Snow White, Hayek, liberalism and national political culture

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Read parts of the Road to Serfdom while watching Snow White with my daughter. Snow White is still impressive today and must have really wow-ed them in 1937. Hayek’s tract is more clunky and uneven and – despite its (then) heterodox message – more of its time. A rather inelegant restatement of classical liberalism, edged with the foreboding extinguishing of freedom that one can also find in the supposed Golden Age of classical liberalism Hayek looks to – Mill’s fears in On Liberty comes to mind, although here the tyranny of democratic majorities, social convention and the homogenising effects of mass culture and mass consumption are the main culprits

Hayek is at pains to stress that the liberal tradition he defends is a product of Western and/or European civilization, not of any particular national political culture. Similarly, although he speaks of collectivist and socialist thinking in terms of ‘German ideas’ he sees the collectivism he opposes as a general trend more advanced in certain countries than others.

He also notes that the propensity of collectivism for large-scale organization and centralization overrides the autonomy and identity of small nations, noting inter alia Marx and Engels’ dismissive views of the Czechs and other Central Europe nationalities as ‘unhistoric’ nations destined to disappear in the course of (German-led) economic modernization. Influences on Czech right-wing euroscepticism perhaps?

>Political parties and Milton Friedman

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One of my PhD students notes the obsession of the East European party literature with fitting theoretical models of party organization and reflecting cleavages, rather than considering parties as forms for participation. A very valid point. Most parties, especially in CEE of course, seem more oligarchies, networks of elites, closed clubs of enthusiasts or subcultures like stamp collectors or bungee jumpers – they are of course basically seen by the literature as service organizations or public utilities, but the old normative idea of party membership as participation lingers on . A select form of participation, at best then

I later return to Milton Friedman wondering whether he like Hayek had informed the Czech right’s fear of Third Ways. A quick reading of Capitalism and Freedom suggests Friedman, however, was less preoccupied with the drift to totalitarian collectivism, which he sees as checked half way by Anglo-American political culture and the inherent economic inefficiency of socialist planning – a judgement perhaps ultimately bore out by the collapse of communism itself- than the need to restrict the scope of politics to expand the scope of freedom.