Adaptation Milan Šimečka
Considered from a purely rational viewpoint, Czechoslovakia’s renewed social order has the appearance of a vicious circle of absurdities, abnormalities, and weaknesses. So, it is pertinent to ask why this system did not collapse a long time ago. It is a question that has no doubt kept the minds of experts on the global balance of power strategy very busy, one that is under scrutiny in excellently equipped scientific institutes, and is being examined by renowned journalists and authorities in the field of political science. I have read many answers to this question. And more often still I have racked my own brains over it.
I live in a country whose economic, political, and cultural life creates a host of absurdities on a daily basis that are an insult to common sense. Unless a person’s intellect has become completely numbed, he or she will come across a dozen situations which make the mind boggle in mute stupefaction during every ordinary day. And I am not saying that because I play the role of a quotidian social critic and carefully note down every minor social shortcoming. These insults to common sense are experienced by every citizen who has not yet been completely overcome by apathy. Every day, thousands of grumbling and cursing citizens are forced to take on the role of social critics. In the morning, the bus is late and the delay just keeps getting longer. When the bus finally arrives it is jam-packed with people and drives past the stop without stopping. As a result you arrive ten minutes late and they write your name in the book of latecomers, even though all you do for the next few hours is talk about football, getting your actual work done in two hours. The shop where you normally get something to eat during break is closed because the head worker’s child is ill. The scorching sun is heating up the milk bottles that have been unloaded in front of the shop and dust is settling on loaves of bread and rolls in wire baskets.
You get called to an entirely useless meeting during which you sit and draw doodles on a piece of paper. Out of the window you watch a group of construction workers sitting around and drinking beer. It seems some material they need for their work has not been delivered—piping, concrete, or something of that nature. It is also possible that the foreman has rattled their cages and they are refusing to work. The fridge in the canteen kitchen is out of order, the meat has gone bad, and you get a hard-boiled egg with your lentils. Your wife calls to tell you there is no hot water for doing the laundry because the stoker is drunk. Your colleague brags about managing to get hold of a coolant hose, and you are envious. On the way home from work you stand in an enormous line for melons because you want to make the kids happy. You meet an acquaintance and he starts to remonstrate loudly about the regime. You stand there in a cold sweat, looking around carefully, nervous that someone might be listening. You think about the fact that you have to put decorations out on the windows because there is a national holiday coming up. At the same time you realize that you have forgotten to bring your son some magazine or other so that he could cut out pictures from it for the school notice board. At home your wife will force you to write an essay for her training course about the inevitable demise of capitalism. For her, the concept of capitalism blurs with a two-day visit to Vienna which she spent in an ecstasy of consumerism in the department stores on Maria-Hilfestrasse. In the evening you read a detailed report in a magazine for motorists about the technical parameters of a new BMW. The knowledgeable author has reservations about the somewhat overstated dashboard design. You do not care either way because you are never going to be able to buy a car like that, even if you won the Sportka lottery five times in a row. It has not been on sale in Czechoslovakia in the past, nor is it available now. You fall asleep during a TV advert which recommends that you buy shoes in a shoe store. Just before you nod off, you imagine yourself asking for shoes in a butcher’s shop.
At the end of a day like that, at least one million social critics ask themselves how come a system which builds a pyramid out of stupidity, incompetence, and irresponsibility has not broken down a long time ago, and on the contrary manifests all the generally accepted hallmarks of political stability. A million or even more social critics forget the fact that even though in terms of its manifestations the system contravenes common sense every day, common sense is the last thing that makes the world go round. Not even this mass of critics composed of 90% of the men and women in Czechoslovakia will be provoked by the daily affronts to common sense into taking any kind of political action; instead, they will only grumble, fretting in the privacy of their homes. The motivation for their basic social attitude is concealed deeper down and has little to do with common sense. It is given by their existential integration into a system, their economic and even complex human dependence on the total omnipotence of the real socialist State. Common sense can defend itself and provoke the consciousness with thousands of objections; however, it is feeble against the perpetual dependence of the majority of human beings on material things. And in our case the material is supplied only as a result of the goodwill of the State, its basic function of the only allocator of the basic prerequisites for life. And in modern civilization that does not only mean bread, a rag around one’s loins, and a roof over one’s head, but rather the complicated gratification of the immoderate consumer needs of the human being of the 20th century. I do not know whether all this is well known to the politicians of real socialism—they never talk about it—but they certainly behave as if they knew this truth. The contempt shown for common sense, which one witnesses on a daily basis in the renewed social order, confirms this suspicion.
At the start of the era of renewed social order I deluded myself in telling myself that the absurdities simply could not go on any longer, that the systematic abuse of common sense would lead to some indefinite disaster. I underestimated one of the most important factors of the internal stability of real socialism, the factor of adaptation—the adaption of citizens to the basic determinants of human life under real socialism. What is more, this ability to adapt is not new, rather it is the result of a historical process, surprisingly one lasting a mere 30 years, during which three generations of Czechs and Slovaks became part of a precisely determined social structure, considerably different from those that preceded it. The inhabitants of a country whose development in terms of the main developmental characteristics of European society had been exemplary, have adapted to a system that many initially deemed to be transitional, absurd, unstable, and deranged in its excesses. However, adaptation was successful because the system of real socialism was in certain respects larger than life, simple, comfortable, and it did not make great demands on adaptability. Life in pluralist systems requires attentiveness; a person can often lose sight of what is going on, pluralist discussion leads to chaos. Too many truths lead to the depreciation of the value of truth itself, social standing cannot be precisely programmed, competition places high demands on personal performance. Life under the new system required citizens to be aware of just a few of the most conspicuous facts: that only one party rules, that there is only one truth, that a person’s destiny depends on the favor or disfavor of the State, that the world is divided into friends and enemies, that it pays to agree and that not agreeing does not pay, that you cannot break a wall down with your head, that the State does not need all of a person, just a part of him or her, the bit that sticks out from the private into public life, and that as long as this part of him or her nods in agreement to the only truth, they can do whatever they desire in the nonpublic sphere. The State showed its citizens that it does not need people who are profoundly convinced about the postulates of daily propaganda, that it is satisfied with passive loyalty, the recognition of the basic rules of the relations between citizen and State, between citizen as an employee and the State as employer, between the citizen as consumer and the State as the monopoly supplier of goods, services, culture, social security, education, and the like.
A good prerequisite for adapting under the new circumstances was the fact that no alternative existed. This realization became more profound with the passing of time as the reactionary, liberal, and reformist hopes—which had been maintained among the people up until the 1950s partly as a reflection of the basic understanding of that generation of adults that regimes change at least every ten years—progressively withered away. Many people thought that the new system would not endure, but the majority adapted. Enormous adaptive abilities were shown by the agricultural workers, for example, who were forced to reconstruct their entire economic base with a tradition going back a hundred years, and ways of life and customs going back centuries. And yet ten to 15 years sufficed, and the agricultural sector became so at home with cooperative farming that today it would be hard to find a sizable group of farmers who would like to go back to private agriculture. This process of adaptation is a chapter all of its own and to this day it is the only programmed social process that was, especially in Czechoslovakia, accomplished and managed perfectly. Through rapid adaptation, the original tragedy of an entire social class transformed into a new, incomparably more comfortable, more secure, and today also more financially solid, existence. Craftsmen and trade licensees went through as rapid an adaptation, even though all the crafts and services paid for this transformation through a decline of efficiency. The working class and employees in state sectors as a whole did not actually go through any economic transformation, instead undergoing transformation of habits, lifestyle, and civic existence.
The reason why the renewal of social order took place so smoothly in Czechoslovakia is that in their hearts and minds the inhabitants had already become accustomed to the given type of social order and the new tightening of rules simply became a signal for plugging in the already existing adaptation stereotypes. Everyone is employed somewhere and must observe the state rules for employees. They have to go to work on a regular basis, though it is not entirely necessary for them to actually do any work there. The adapted person knows thousands of ways of avoiding work, or working as little as possible, while still maintaining the reputation of a good worker. This kind of employment is a form of social security. Only for a minority of people in demanding but attractive jobs is this security conditional on demonstrating subservience to the regime. Even with lower wages it is possible to live on the lower levels of the general standard. Those with more cunning and lighter fingers can make extra money on the side. It is not necessary to put money aside in case of ill health in the future, nor save up for a pension. Modest housing is cheap. Adaptation in the consumer area means that we have become reconciled with the fact that consumer goods are often unavailable—if it is not one item, it is bound to be another. The fruits of adaptation include running from one shop to another, losing time waiting in queues and walking through shops, but also tremendous ingenuity in getting hold of appealing goods. Other fruits of adaptation include the citizen’s many remarkable skills, perhaps unknown in other parts of the world: the ability to travel around half of Europe with a car full of tinned food; to get hold of medicine that is only sold in Switzerland; to cook excellent meals with only a quarter of the assortment of ingredients sold normally in other parts of the world; to be in possession of an onion even though they have not been on the market for an entire month; to maintain an obscure make of car in working order, even though spare parts for it have never been sold in Czechoslovakia; to start building a villa worth half a million crowns with official monthly earnings of three thousand crowns. Adaptation in the area of consumption has led to the development of hundreds of such skills and sometimes they really do deserve respect, even though this is spoilt somewhat by the knowledge that there are more sensible ways for a nation to use its energy. Cafés, pubs, and restaurants are full throughout the day, even though everybody is employed. The mountains are littered with skiers whose equipment often cost more than half a year’s wages, almost all the young people know about rock and roll groups whose recordings are never played on Czechoslovak radio, in the morning cars driven by men in a hurry to get to work clog up all the streets in a country that has the most expensive petrol. I often observe phenomena of this type and I must admit that I am unable to explain them convincingly. This adaptation to the consumer inadequacies of the system is certainly a sign of the capabilities of a nation, but one is saddened by realizing how much initiative, invention, and time is consumed by the adaptive person in order to achieve second-rate consumer ideals while longing for a poorly understood notion of what it means to be worldly.
A citizen of real socialism does not spend anywhere near as much energy on political adaptation. The rules are just too simple. Only passive loyalty is required of the basic mass of citizens, which can be accomplished merely through keeping one’s mouth shut during all political discussions. Once or twice a year the citizen is called on to take part in a manifestation or celebration. Adapted people fill the squares or go marching in the streets, they converse with each other, trying not to listen to the speaker, and clapping half-heartedly when the claque beneath the tribune starts chanting slogans; they eat a frankfurter in a bun at the kiosk and wash it down with beer. At meetings these people sit with pensive expressions on their faces, trying to ignore phrases that have been repeated a thousand times over; they vote with everyone else so that the vote is unanimous; they accept duties, work contracts, and plans without protest; they condemn whoever needs to be condemned; they approve a protest sent to the US government and an expression of thanks to the Soviet Union; they give three crowns to help Vietnam even though for a long time they have not been aware of what is actually going on there. It is sad, but not surprising. Adapted citizens have already experienced the way that conflictive political situations are resolved and the affect this can have on their lives, or the lives and fortunes of somebody they know, or were at least nearby when such events took place. They have already experienced the model situations of political life under real socialism. They have been over certain crossroads in their lives and have gotten used to crossing with the green light, even if it contradicts their sense of truth, reasonableness, honor, and the like, a hundred times over.
But there are social groups, particularly those in the upper strata of social hierarchy, which must pay a much higher price for adaptation, employing much more complicated maneuvers to adapt and paying a higher price for doing so. This applies to people active in the executive sectors of economic and political life, people in the ideological sphere, and in culture. In these areas the renewed social order demanded much more than just passive loyalty. It ambushed and set traps for people, forcing them into betrayal and self-denial. Even so, even here adaptation asserted itself rapidly. The more demanding rules have been mastered, the boundary between permitted and nonpermissible thought is respected, the model of behavior that brings benefits has been learned. Everyone knows this model and the majority behaves accordingly. When someone deviates from it every now and then, they become the sensation of the day for those around them. Then those people simply watch how this deviation will be dealt with in line with a different model of behavior.
For years I lived in this demanding sphere of adaptation and I do not deny that I have an entire era of adaptive efforts behind me. I also kept my mouth shut when faced with a lie, or only carefully asked for it to be adjusted and smoothed out. I observed rampaging stupidity without doing anything about it and in critical situations I calculated the risk of every step out of line. Like many others, I gave precedence to prudent tactics before the sincerity of moral standing. I used words that were not my own, instead employing expressions that were mildly hypocritical. And there was always some logical construct at hand which substantiated such action perfectly. For my own needs I disconnected general truth from specific truth, general injustice from specific injustice, general violence from concrete violence, measuring the authenticity of my character only according to my attitude toward a specific wrong concerning a specific human life. In so doing I avoided pointing at the emperor and shouting out that he was not wearing any clothes. That was in fact the most risky thing. And I also knew, and know to this day, that no general formulation of evident, but suppressed truths will change an entrenched political system. It can only change people that have themselves adopted such an attitude. I only refused to adapt under the restored social order because the balance of political forces had gone beyond the tipping point. In this specific situation, all that remained on the side of the scales with the old ideals were dusty words, words, words. Adaptation was no longer justifiable through political logic or even the most dexterous rational arguments, but merely as being the result of fear of existential persecution and the enormous amount of injustice that an angered state can come up with to punish a person. And today I know that this refusal to adapt within the restored social order was for me, as for the majority of other people, motivated by a state of mind which the State Security Service calls pig-headedness. But it is actually a desire to hold on to a good opinion of oneself for the rest of one’s life. It is a very simple motivation and I am always surprised how many people who one would expect to understand it, do not. Or perhaps they do, but prefer to view the attitudes of those who refuse to adapt in terms of political speculation, arrogance, and goodness knows what else.
In terms of numbers, the nonadapted are, however, but a drop in the ocean when compared to the adapted. Sometimes I think that the renewed social order could easily have afforded to tolerate this drop in the ocean, thus improving its reputation in the international arena. In not doing so, and instead submitting the unadapted to constant harassment, the regime only shows that it itself is not entirely convinced of the stability of the adaptive habits of the majority of the population. And it is correct in that they do not believe in adaptation. That is because it is an extremely superficial adaptation, which only affects that small part of a person that is visible in the public sphere. The adapted person pays his or her political dues, and then lives deeply submerged in the private sphere. Over a period of 30 years the regime has become sensible enough to no longer follow the loyal citizen into his or her private sphere. It is not just a result of becoming wiser, however; in part it is resignation on the original intention of creating harmony between the public and the private human being. A long time ago that is how things actually were. In the propaganda of the 1950s, literature and all educational activities were subservient to this utopian goal. Soon, however, this aim floundered and renewed social order, aware of the shakiness of its moral basis, settled for the public agreement of adapted citizens and left their privacy to their own devices.
Under restored social order, this uncontrolled private sphere is relatively extensive. The State allows adapted citizens to do what they wish with money which they acquire in fairly honest ways. They can build houses, cottages, chalets, furnishing them according to their wishes and means. They can buy cars and drive around in them wherever they get the urge to do so. They can amuse themselves as they wish. They can fill up pubs, cafés, and sports grounds. They can travel abroad if they have money to cover the exorbitant surcharges on hard currency. In their gardens they can grow fruit and vegetables that one will never see in State-owned shops. Although they cannot read what they want to, the State will provide them with a shared antenna capable of receiving broadcasts from Austrian TV. However, it will not allow the ORF television guide to be printed in the newspaper (so people make copies of it and distribute it among themselves). In their privacy, adapted people can exchange gossip about prominent politicians, laugh at political jokes, incite and subvert the republic, tell each other stories about West Germany, Sweden, and Canada, about those wonderful countries where the unemployed get more financial support than a head worker in this country, legends about the staggeringly successful careers of émigrés, which differ so absolutely from the stories in the official press. Adapted citizens can grumble, flare up, badmouth the country’s allies indiscriminately, violate all that is sacred to the Soviet Union. As long as they do so in private and show their adapted faces in public, and no malicious person denounces them, the State does not concern itself with redeeming their adapted souls. Renewed social order readily provides them with this safety valve, because the private anticommunism of adapted citizens will not reach the heavens like the proverbial bark. As long as they vote and join the May Parade on the first of May.
I listen to adapted citizens talking in private and it seems to me that they are trying to exact revenge. Ferociously and powerlessly they take revenge for losing their public faces, for being humiliated, for their apprehensions, for their permanent fear, for their own hypocrisy, for lies that they have to listen to and agree with. For minor betrayals that they had to perpetrate on themselves and often also on family and friends. And despite everything they will once again manifestly agree, wave banners during the parades, pay for stamps for the Union of Friends membership card, raise their hands at meetings, and sign resolutions. Their entire existential basis is tied to the State and if they refused they could lose the only thing that remains for adapted citizens—their private sphere. Its limited, but still attractive possibilities are also a gift from the State. A reward for adaptation.
Adaptation in real socialism is a peculiar kind of social contract, one that Jean Jacques could hardly have come up with. However, it is a relatively reliable social contract that has been functioning for decades and it is the basis for the stability of real socialism. It ensures order within the State more reliably than expensive and hypertrophied supervisory bodies. The basic condition for the functioning of this contract is the level of pleasures that the State can allow citizens in their private sphere. In other words, in this shop citizens must get decent goods in return for adapting. And stability will be under immediate threat if the cost of adaptation becomes disproportionately higher than the value of the fringe benefits that real socialism is willing to allocate to its citizens.
Milan Šimečka, “Adaptation,” Obnovení pořádku, Atlantis, Brno 1990, p. 160–169.