Decry the graffiti, bemoan the violence, and pity the wounded, but don’t deny that this sleepy little city needed a knock upside the ass, if only to force the fact that there is a big mean world out there beyond ODS and the latest EU assessment of the Czech banking sector.
For a few days, complacent Czechs and expats alike were forced out of mild routines. Even the editorial page of the Prague Post was stirred by the energy of the moment, dipping a toe into dime store revolutionary theory to remind us that violence is only acceptable or useful at the peak of revolt by the masses.
This is debatable, but at least it’s interesting, which is something Prague journalism certainly was in the run-up to the World Bank/IMF summit.
And so was life. The Greeks with hammer and sickle masks that looked like Sputnik-era Mexican wrestlers, the fleeting euphoria that is real solidarity, the cops on every corner that actually looked at you, the anticipation in the run up to the main event: all of it high drama, infused with issues of enormous import, and anybody who claims not to have enjoyed it at some level is either a liar or a corpse.
Even the nastiness below the bridge had the virtue of being coated in adrenaline, a precious chemical largely unknown to consumer-citizens at the End of History.
For street fighters, cops and hesitant observers alike, the rush of the moment held an immediacy only slightly diminished by its disconnect with the intricacies of Third World debt. Any honest phenomenology of Protest must include the reality of what it feels like to be chased, to pick up a can of tear gas and hurl it.
But of all the lenses through which to view the recent tumult, this is surely the most indulgent. The point was not get some kicks, although kicks were had. The point was not to cut off the morphine of a self-satisfied and predictable life, though cut off it was.
The point was to bear witness to and stand up against the institutions of global capitalism – institutions which, pretty speeches and smart public relations aside, show neither the interest nor the ability to cut into the profits of the few for the benefit of the many.
The leaders of these institutions may in fact be decent men, but even decent men are helpless when enslaved by ideology and the structural imperatives of a system that defies rational, humane control.
And so they deserve the full weight of protest in whatever forms the conscience of men dictate. The question of violence here presents itself, which some oppose as bad public relations. But History does not play out according to the latest CNN poll about what soccer moms think of violence.
Others oppose it on Camusian grounds, claiming it to be a morally indefensible means that sullies the noble end. But this all too easily slides into the kind of bourgeois morality that defines the destruction of fast food chains as violence, but not blood wrenching IMF “adjustments” that starve, unemploy and poison. Others argue that aggression is tactically insane.
This last point, together with elements of the others, presents the strongest case. Civil disobedience leading to arrests and gassing is one thing, but the kind of offensive attack attempted on the 26th is just futile. Even if the Blue march had penetrated police lines and made it to the steps of the Congress Center, reinforcements would have been there in seconds; the retribution swift and brutal.
Molotov cocktails versus superior numbers and armored tanks is romantic but stupid, and results in severe repression, both on the streets and inside the prisons. No wonder the first thing Lenin did was kill the anarchists.
But the movement for a just global economy is currently bereft of Lenins, or Trotskys or Luxemburgs for that matter. One of the most memorable scenes of the protest was the sight of Boris Kagarlitsky wandering anonymously around the crowds with his Ahab beard and kindly expression on Tuesday afternoon.
Kagarlitsky, arguably the leading critic of globalization in Eastern Europe, and who delivered an excellent talk at the counter summit, was completely unknown to those around him.
If there was one clearly recognizable intellectual leader present in Prague, it was him. But between the beating of drums and hanging around waiting for Ya Basta! to launch one more ridiculous charge against the barricades, he might as well have been just another journalist, and not the only leftist Russian dissident to be jailed under Yelstin as well as Breznev.
Watching him walk away from the scene, I searched for a coherent emotion, but couldn’t find one.