‘Losers’, ‘usurpers’, and their linguistic and historical translation

Lani Seelinger

The Normalization regime in Czechoslovakia — as Václav Havel aptly illustrated in his widely read work, “The Power of the Powerless” — rested on a carefully constructed social contract. As long as Havel’s greengrocer was willing to put a sign amongst his goods displaying the “Workers of the world, unite!” slogan, he could reap all the materialistic benefits that the regime provided. The words on the sign, however, didn’t express the greengrocer’s deeply held belief; instead, they were a signal that he was willing to comply with what the regime asked.

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Václav Havel

But what about when people didn’t comply? The government could deploy certain punishments against the so-called “unreliable” individuals — demotions, blacklisting, the refusal of exit permits, even imprisonment — but one of its most important and effective methods of attack was through the propaganda machine. In the government-controlled media, like the Rudé Právo (Red Justice) newspaper, the regime could denounce the offenders in vicious terms, though their words weren’t intended merely to convey meaning. Again, they served an additional purpose — but this time, they acted as a warning.

In 1977, 242 people signed Charter 77, a document criticizing the regime for its failure to uphold the human rights requirements of documents like the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia and the 1975 Helsinki Accords. The precipitating event for the Charter was the arrest of the members of the Plastic People of the Universe, a psychadelic rock band whose messaging didn’t align with the regime. The so-called “Chartists” then banded together to express their support for the band, because they saw the arrest as being in direct conflict with the regime’s commitments to human rights on paper. The regime reacted in numerous ways, but one of the most important of these was its attacks on the signatories in the press. On January 12, 1977, an article came out in Rudé Právo called “Zkroskotanci a samozvanci,” which translates to something like “Losers and Usurpers” or “Traitors and Renegades,” in which the government denounced the dissidents who had signed Charter 77.

The article begins with a description of the regime’s enemies: “imperialism,” “ the bourgeoisie,” and the “rule of capitalism,” which together have been “looking for new

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Via socialismrealised.eu

forms and methods to mount anti-communist attacks, to disrupt the unity of the socialist countries.” This, the article claims, is what the good citizens of Czechoslovakia have to fear — and then it introduces Charter 77 as “the newest defamatory article,” which “a group of people from the failed Czechoslovak reactionary bourgeoisie and the failed organizers of the 1968 counterrevolution passed on to certain western agencies at the order of the anti-communist and zionist headquarters.”

Already, this description relies on a number of recognizable enemy forces purported to be at work in the article’s publishing. In the language of the communist regimes, the bourgeoisie was always the enemy of socialism and the people working to build it, and here too the concept repeatedly turns up. The article also refers to the Prague Spring as “the 1968 counterrevolution” — the period of liberalization that resulted in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in an effort to “protect socialism” — and a “failure”, meant as both a derisive statement as well as a warning to anyone who might try something similar. In the Cold War context, which the article also acknowledges, the West was the main antagonist, connected to all of the enemies mentioned above. By pointing to “western agencies” as the force that spread the charter, the article set up the charter’s authors as connected to Czechoslovakia’s enemies, rather than Czechoslovakia itself.

In essence, this article’s introduction illustrates the characteristics of an antagonist — the “bourgeois world” — and then describes how exactly Charter 77 is working on behalf of that antagonist against the equality, progress, and peace that the socialist system offers. The harsh denunciation of the Charter and its authors, though, only makes up a relatively small section of the article. After calling the Charter an “anti-state, anti-socialist, anti-people, and demagogic lampoon,” and describing its authors as members of the bourgeois, cosmopolitan class attempting to break up the socialist government, it quickly moves on to describing socialism as a system that is more than prepared to deal with such attempts.

“Everything against socialism is good for it,” the article reads, referring to a document calling for reform published in the lead up to the Prague Spring as an example of the sort of “bourgeois print” that the regime had readily handled in the past, despite the best efforts of numerous western media outlets, which it names in particular as the BBC, The Guardian, Le Monde, and others. These and other attempts to “dirty and malign” the system never succeeded, however, as the system was always prepared for such flimsy attack jobs, as the article’s writers maintain: “Socialism nevertheless didn’t even recoil from atomic extortion, much less from hack writers of reactionary pamphlets done to seed fear.”

In conclusion, the article moves into a full-on celebration of socialism’s successes, emphasizing the unity of the socialist countries and their progress beyond the “imperialistic circles.” Charter 77, it says, is just part of the “stream of lies” that the “reactionary propaganda has unleashed into the world about us.” The socialist system and the people within it constitute, the article concludes,

a good, honest path that will steadily guide us to the communist goals. Everyone who works honestly and contributes to the common good will find for himself life security. No mendacious defamatory article can negate history’s truth.

Throughout the article, the authors rely on terms important not so much for their meaning in the dictionary, but for their broader meaning in the national and Eastern bloc-wide discourse. We’ve already discussed the terms used to mark the enemy — reactionary, bourgeois, imperialist, Western — but on the positive side, “Life security” is a good example — in the Czechoslovak case, this meant exactly what Havel’s greengrocer was after — a job, a second house in the countryside, access to passable schools for his children. Readers may not have believed everything that the article claimed, but they would have understood the threat lurking between the lines — this, readers, is the treatment that you can expect if you join the dissident movement.

To audiences today, on the other hand, “Losers and Usurpers” reads rather as a parody, extolling the virtues of a system that would fall less than two decades after the writing of this article and denouncing the people who would emerge, in the eyes of most, as heroes. The terms that held such meaning coming from the Czechoslovak communist leaders have lost that meaning today, deprived of the discourse surrounding them. This phenomenon, however, of government propaganda and at times even normal propaganda relying on fixed discursive elements that mean more than what it says in the dictionary, is far from relegated to the past. “Losers and Usurpers,” then, serves not only as a glimpse into the past, but also as a reminder that it’s always important to approach media, especially when it comes from someone with an agenda, with a critical and discerning eye.

Lani Seelinger is a PhD student at the University of Helsinki and a remote member of the  Department of Education at the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, Prague. She is also the co-creator and curator of Socialism Realised, an online learning environment aimed at forging a deeper understanding of the lives of the people in communist regimes, and a comparison of these experiences to the present. You can find Socialism Realised on Twitter at @SocialismR.

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The Institutionalization of Injustice: The Emperor’s New Clothes?

By Sagar Deva

Despite unspeakable horrors that were routinely carried out against indigenous populations across the globe during the Colonial era, it was rare for colonisers to present their repression of native peoples in anything other than morally positive language. The justification for withholding basic rights from native populations was couched in the language of civilisation, where the native and ‘coloured’ populations were portrayed as insufficiently civilised, and too subhuman to enjoy the basic human rights and dignity that were the prerogative of the white, Christian man.

The coloniser, cloaked in righteous whiteness was divinely ordained to rule over the lesser peoples for their own good, his authority shrouded in benevolence and wisdom. In this way, the rapacious exploitation of entire peoples and nations could be portrayed as a glorious and noble endeavour to ‘elevate’ repressed people closer to the level of the white man through forcible processes of ‘civilisation.’

After the end of the Second World War and the global movement towards self-determination, colonial powers which had previously possessed vast empires were no longer able to directly exploit other nations through the use of military force and direct rule. However, this did not mean that the factors which initially drove these nations to colonise vast swathes of the globe disappeared overnight. Unrestrained greed and a ruthless economic mentality were still prevalent amongst many important states, and were particularly apparent within the emerging global presence of the USA, which had rapidly emerged as the worlds dominant power.

In addition, racial and cultural attitudes which perceived white, western civilisation as fundamentally superior to civilisations in the developing world had not entirely disappeared and were still prevalent amongst certain governments and populations within this dominant diaspora.

Nonetheless, the fact that powerful states could no longer dominate other nations militarily necessitated innovative solutions for entrenching their hegemony in the international system. Military multipolarity, and particularly the existence of nuclear weapons, had substantially reduced the ability of powerful states to impose their authority on the global order. A new approach was thus required to impose the authority of developed, northern powers on the autonomy of developing countries in the Global South and to ensure maximum dominance within the international system.

To this end, the core international economic constitutions were created, which comprised of the GATT (which later became the World Trade Organisation) and the ‘Bretton Woods’ institutions, which included the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Ostensibly, the purpose of these organisations was to provide a fairer economic playing field by promoting ‘free trade’ and opening up markets to ‘fair competition’, as well as, in the case of the IMF, providing emergency loans to countries with questionable liquidity to ensure the financial stability of the international system.

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The ‘Gold Room’ at Bretton Woods, where the establishment of the World Bank and IMF was first agreed. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Much of the rhetoric of the US led coalition who were key in the creation of these organisations has been distinctly utopian, referring to the ‘egalitarian’ nature of a global free market and consistently emphasising the supposed ‘fairness’ of the organisation. Thus, the rhetoric and language used by dominant powers has sought to normalize the intensive process of market liberalization engendered by these organisations by positing them as an objective normative good and promoting them as the only way in which ‘good’ global governance might be achieved, a process which will supposedly benefit the entire global system.

However, this attempt to normalize, even constitutionalise, practices of intense, global, market liberalization has in many ways, simply been a way to entrench the economic hegemony of the developed world over the underdeveloped South. In a world where power is increasingly expressed economically rather than militarily, powerful states and associated multinational corporations have utilised the rhetoric of market liberalization and free trade to exert control over other states and entities to the benefit of themselves and the detriment of others.

Many examples of this paradigm exist but two immediately spring to mind. The first of them refers to the process of ‘structural adjustment’ practiced by the IMF, an organisation dominated by powerful developed countries as voting power is directly tied to fiscal contribution.  Structural adjustment was a process whereby IMF loans were only given to countries if they reformed their markets according to IMF guidelines, which invariably demanded as a key condition market liberalization.

These conditions included opening markets to foreign competition and the creation of ‘fiscal discipline’, particularly with regard to reducing government spending on welfare budgets. This strategy was particularly used in the Latin American Debt Crisis of the 1980’s.

However, the only beneficiaries of these processes were multinational corporations, almost invariably based in the developed world, which now had access to enormous new markets. The effects of structural adjustment on Latin American economies were disastrous, lowering real GDP substantially, creating mass unemployment and driving many local, previously government protected businesses into bankruptcy in favour of multinational corporations backed by powerful developed countries. Despite this disaster, the IMF and World Bank continued to utilise slightly amended processes of structural adjustment well after the end of this crisis, often resulting in substantial damage to the host nation.

A second example of where dominant economic powers have sought to normalize unfair trade practices with potentially damaging and dangerous consequences was in the creation of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspect of Intellectual Property Rights’ or TRIPS agreement. This agreement allows for the almost universal enforcement of global intellectual property rights over almost all products including medicines. Under the guise of ‘free trade’ and ‘fairness’, TRIPS has been accused of creating ‘artificial scarcity’ for important medical products by preventing domestic producers from producing generic drugs.

As a result of this, the price of multiple necessary and lifesaving drugs has been increased considerably, with developing countries highlighting the unfairness of the agreement as well the potential loss of life caused by unaffordable medicines. Once again, the key beneficiaries of this agreement were powerful multinational pharmaceutical countries who possessed enormous lobbying power within dominant developed states.

In the past, colonial powers used the language of racial, cultural, or civilizational superiority to justify dominance and exploitation over other, less powerful nations. Nowadays, powerful states instead seek to normalize their dominance through the language of market liberalisation and free trade which unfairly advantage them over less developed states, allowing for their exploitation. Instead of simply accepting the dominant narrative of the global economic institutions, it is instead imperative to understand the impact that such language can have on imposing injustice and disparity in the world today.

Sagar Deva is a doctoral candidate in the University of Sheffield Department of Law. His research focuses on the relationship between international legal theory and global politics.