Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 2
17 January 2000

Generic Prague scene B O O K   R E V I E W:
Ten Years of Rebuilding Capitalism: Czech society after 1989
Zpráva o vývoji české společnosti 1989-98
Jiří Večerník and Petr Matějů
Academia, Prague, 1999 (364p).
ISBN 80-200-0774-1 (English); 80-2000-7032 (Czech)

Helen Carter and Magali Perrault

As the editors of this book make clear from the start, it "intends to partially fill a gap [...] in works on Czech society, especially from social and political perspectives" (p.15). This social report aims to "show something more than individual trends and implemented changes" (p.17).

The work places itself in the tradition of Western sociology, explicitly taking as its primary models the British Social Trends and the French Données Sociales, in an attempt to move away from the traditionally narrow Czech understanding of a social report (i.e, "a description of the situation of pensioners, families with children, and of all categories of the population in need, in addition to other social problems" (p. 297)). It therefore covers a broad range of issues and is divided into three parts: resources of economic change, economic and social inequalities, and social and political structures. One of the strongest achievements of Jiří Večerník and Petr Matějů is to have brought together an interdisciplinary team of Czech sociologists, political scientists, economists, demographers and educationalists and thus to provide the English-speaking reader with a coherent picture of Czech society following the velvet revolution and the collapse of Communism.

Local scholars do not always make the most impartial and objective observers of their own societies, but this book appears to be an exception to this rule since the authors demonstrate the advantage of a culturally-sensitive understanding of the recent history of their country. For example, the first chapter rightly emphasises (p.21), in contradiction to much of the literature written by Western "outsiders", that under socialism a labour market did exist, even if it was distorted in comparison with those of the functioning market economies. The whole assessment of the post-Communist labour markets indicates a strong recognition of its changing dynamic and its inherent weaknesses, in an academically rigorous fashion that is often missing from similar analyses.

Another example: Czech privatisation was necessarily unique, most significantly because of the need to overcome (to a far greater extent than in Hungary and Poland) the legacy of a centralized state-owned economy and the pervasiveness of party influence in economic life. For Czech leaders such as Václav Klaus this justified the adoption of "radical" modes of privatisation, of which "the most striking form" was the voucher privatisation programme (p. 71). The report does not stop at an assessment of the formal programme which ended in 1995, but also considers the implications of the so-called third and fourth waves: the consolidation of ownership and the emergence of bankruptcy and restructuring within enterprises.

One (small) criticism we might make here is that, although the authors are correct in highlighting a number of unique characteristics of Czech property transfers, their claim that it was unique becuase "it allowed for the restitution of property to former owners or their heirs" (p. 71) is misguided. Bulgaria's 1992 Privatisation Law, for example, included provision for property restitution, albeit in a much more restricted form than under the Czech scheme (Frydman et al, The Privatization Process in Central Europe, 1993, p. 34).

Changes in Czech society

The book does not however forget to stress how far Czech society has changed positively during the transformation.

The emergence of new social groups is one of the concrete outcomes of ten years of capitalism (p. 83) with privatisation giving an opportunity to differentiate between "individuals who had an inclination towards business" and "the passive non-entrepreneurial types who preferred social security" (p. 87). Communist society, as sociologists such as Pavel Machonín demonstrated at the end of the sixities (in his influential study Československá společnost: Sociologická analýza sociální stratifikace) was certainly differentiated, but post-Communist Czech social structures have been on the road towards a greater maturity - if we take "maturity" to mean a progressive and gradual harmonisation in the structural forms of Czech and Western societies. which is of course a matter of debate.

A second and related development has been the transformation of class structures and the increase of social mobility (p. 164). Moreover, a chapter on "the Czech family, the marriage market, and the reproductive climate" demonstrates how Czech demographic trends are increasingly distancing themselves from the artificial constraints of the Communist era and more and more reflecting those seen in the West (a process which the authors term "the return of the Czech family to Europe", p. 101).

Finally, the Communist regime attained social stability primarily through its full employment policies, but at a significant economic cost, both in terms of economic inefficiency, but also the degradation of the human capital resource. With the transformation, the political imperative for this was lost, and unemployment began to emerge. This was not unique in the Czech case, but there alone amongst the countries of Eastern Europe unemployment remained below the critical threshold of 5% beyond the first two years of the transition (p. 313).

There is debate over whether this phenomena is a "miracle" or a "mirage" (Robert J.Gitter and Markus Scheuer, "Low Unemployment in the Czech Republic: 'Miracle' or 'Mirage'?, Monthly Labor Review, 121 (8), 1998, pp.31-37). In the present work though, the authors correctly identify how low unemployment positively affected the Czech people's personal perception of the transformation (p. 187), mostly to the political (and electoral) advantage of Václav Klaus's government in introducing its policies.

Myths and realities of the Czech transition

However, the book also convincingly documents why the Czech economic "miracle" was largely an illusion and how the years 1996-1997 saw the end of the so-called "Czech exception" and of the initial enthusiastic support of the population for free-market capitalism. For instance, "whereas in spring 1990 90% of the population were willing to accept greater differences in earnings, at the beginning of 1998 hardly a half of the population agreed with this" (p. 132). Generally speaking then:
[i]n contrast to the beginning of the 1990s, today most Czech citizens are no longer zealous supporters of a free economy and a minimal role of the state. After a short period of post-November 1989 market euphoria, public opinion on the free market has become more reserved and unconditional support has diminished...During the 1990s, people have gradually lowered their support for a 'market without attributes', and are rather inclined towards an economy in which the government plays a more important role in areas of social protection and economic stability. Thus instead of support for a free market economy, support for a social market economy in which (according to the wording of the question) 'the government exercises influence on the economy to a considerable extent" has become prevalent' (p. 193).

The book highlights the problems likely to affect Czech society and economy in the future. Firstly, the role of human and educational capital is still insufficiently acknowledged by Czech economic agents. A correlation between educational level and wages is still largely lacking, as demonstrated by the fact that "a bank employee earns double the wage of a teacher" (p. 134).

Secondly, and this should not appear as a contradiction, there is a very genuine risk of a dual economy, with a significant discrepancy between high-paid, high-qualified sectors such as services, and more traditional low-paid, low-cost and precarious employment. An increasing gap in employment conditions between public and private sector also appears to be a matter of concern.

Thirdly, these issues are further enhanced by the still limited reach of retraining and further education programmes: "the percentage of individuals undergoing retraining in the entire labor in the Czech Republic... is only 0.2%, which is not only much lower than in advanced European countries (Sweden 3.4-4.4%, Germany 1.6-2.0%, Portugal 3.7%), but is also lower in comparison with countries with countries like Hungary (0.8-1.2%) and to a certain extent Poland (0.5%)" (p.29).

Labour mobility is further restricted by persistent housing shortages and the "non-existent housing market": this in turn "prevents frequent relocation and in certain regions jobs remained unoccupied due to a lack of employees with the necessary specialized skills" (p. 30); this has also "demographic" consequences (p. 110-111).

The school system is in dire need of reform and still suffers from the consequences of years of Communist centralism and ideological approach (p. 54), and equal access of education is far from being a reality (p. 67). Transition had winners as well as losers, and the marginalisation of certain groups in Czech society such as the Roma, women or the elderly, presents disturbing features that are unlikely to help the process of democratic consolidation.

Finally, Jiří Večerník, Petr Matějů and the other contributors emphasize the role of the middle classes as the main supporters of democratic institutions (Jacques Rupnik in his foreword quotes Barington Moore's famous axiom "No bourgeoisie, no democracy", p. 13), but stress how at times they have, paradoxically, been relatively impoverished by the economic reforms. Unconditionally accepting the connection between democratisation / democracy and powerful middle classes could, however, arguably be problematic, but this is clearly a far larger debate and goes beyond the objectives of the study. Furthermore, there is indeed, at least in the Czech case, historical evidence from the pre-Communist past to demonstrate that the emergence of the bourgeoisie and middle classes in the political arena played a decisive role in the establishment and resilience of the First interwar Republic (see for example Joseph Rothschild, East Central Europe between the two World Wars, pp. 75-76, or George Schöpflin, Politics in Eastern Europe, 1945-1992).

The most significant contribution of this book to the literature on the Czech experience is perhaps the documentation of how the success of the Czech liberal right was in fact tied to its social democratic practices (p. 12). It is of course nothing new to point out the discrepancies between Klaus's rhetoric and practice (see for example Martin Dangerfield, "Ideology and the Czech Transformation: Neoliberal Rhetoric or Neoliberal Reality?", East European Politics and Societies, vol.11, no.3, Fall 1997, pp.436-469) but the originality of this book is that it brings us statistical evidence of this and links economic subjective and objective categorisations of the population to voting patterns. The authors note that subjective "social self-ranking plays a greater role in voting in favor of the right-wing than objective membership in a certain class" (p. 223), and even supporters of Klaus's ODS were in many respects similar to voters of other political formations since they essentially still adhered to a paternalist vision of the role of the state in economy (p. 271) or property.

Given the aims set out at the outset, the book manages to address a wide spectrum of issues with a good blend of description and analysis, and includes 50 pages of comprehensive appendices. It consistently succeeds in "demystifying" Czech transition and looks at the differences between perceptions and realities. For example, it makes explicit how the "difference between the declared and actual value-related political orientation of voters helps to explain the transition process of socio-economic values after 1989" (p. 271). In short, this work should become a useful handbook for a wide number of practitioners in showing advances in Czech sociology since 1989.

Helen Carter and Magali Perrault

Order Zpráva o vývoji české společnosti 1989-98 from the Czech on-line bookstore Vltava.
Editor's Note: The English edition of this book was obtained directly from the Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences (AV ČR) in Prague. A list of all AV ČR publications since 1990 is available.

Some other works mentioned in the review:


Theme: Poverty


Mel Huang:
Estonia's Bungled
Military Reform

Sam Vaknin:
Mind of Darkness

Jan Čulík:
Fear of Rationality

Catherine Lovatt:
Too Many Parties in Romania?

Gusztáv Kosztolányi:
Hungarian Corruption

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