Social Engineering David Kulhánek

Social engineering today commonly refers to the acquisition of information about those who use the Internet and those who misuse it, by hacking into computers and selling sensitive data, for example. However, in Czechoslovakia and later in the Czech Republic in the 1990s it was a component of the newly built, postcommunist political framework.

The term “social engineering” was used by politicians of the right (particularly Václav Klaus when he was finance minister of Czechoslovakia and, later, prime minister of the Czech Republic) in order to discredit individual political opponents and left-wing politicians as such. The terms “ideology” and “third way” were used similarly.

The political spectrum began to take shape in Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the 1990s after the breakup of Občanské fórum, OF (Czech: “The Civic Forum”) and the shared platform it allowed for the expression of different opinions. The development of parties and movements culminated in the elections of 1992, which resulted, for the first time, in democratically elected members of parliament with a regular four-year term. In the Czech Republic, one of the two states resulting from the division of Czechoslovakia on January 1, 1993, the parties of the right retained their dominant position. Their members had had a significant influence on the direction that reform, particularly economic reform, had taken between 1990 and 1992. It was in the context of defending this reform and the ideological leaning toward the values of market liberalism that the term “social engineering” began to be used in the language of right-wing politicians.

Those accused of social engineering were chiefly politicians connected with the reform of socialism in 1968 in Czechoslovakia. For actors on the neoliberal right these “reformers” represented the main adversary. Their attacks, including a media campaign, sought to associate such reformers of socialism, together with other supporters of left-wing social-democratic politics, with the communists, thereby discrediting them; behind the veil of reform, the argument went, they were in fact defending a failed ideology. According to this interpretation, it was a proven fact that socialism could not be reformed, as confirmed by the collapse of the entire communist bloc. It was declared that there was no space for a “third way” between a centrally planned communist economy and a free market. The very idea was viewed as a dangerous fantasy, an irresponsible ideological delusion, which could only lead away from democracy and the freedom gained back to the errors of the past.

In the rhetoric of the right-wing political campaign conducted by Občanská demokratická strana, ODS (Czech: “The Civic Democratic Party”) and Občanská demokratická aliance, ODA (Czech: “The Civic Democratic Alliance”), social engineering represented a deviation from the one true path—from the path that led to the market economy as part of the natural order. But a paradox remains, for although the instigators of reform used neoliberal vocabulary from the time of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at the theoretical level, in practice they brought about only one of several completely unexceptional transitions from a planned to a market economy. While the ideas behind the right-wing reforms in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic in the first half of the 1990s were presented as original by their proponents (in particular Václav Klaus, Tomáš Ježek, and Vladimír Dlouhý), in reality they did not deviate at all from mainstream postcommunist development in the region. Some consequences of the right-wing reforms in the Czech Republic, however, can be more easily understood as the result of social engineering as practiced by the state rather than as confirmation of the moral values of the free market. (For example, the coupon privatization, the transformation of state-owned companies into joint-stock corporations by handing them over to the existing management, or state oversight of newly established banks, as well as other creative solutions bordering on the criminal.)