Capitalism As a Universal End and the Two Lives of the Queue

Saturday, 21 July 2018: 08:45
Oral Presentation
Pavel POSPECH, Masaryk university, Czech Republic
The transition to capitalism in post-1989 Czechoslovakia was seen as inevitable: a free-market capitalism was considered a universal end of history. Why this inevitability? What made the appeal of capitalism so unquestionable? This paper suggests that cultural factors play an important part in the transition to capitalism. To prove this point, it analyses the “two lives” of the communist queue.

Queues for food and basic goods were a pertinent feature of life in pre-1989 communist Czechoslovakia. As the economy experienced shortages due to misguided central planning and ineffectiveness of production, the consumers were the ones to suffer the consequences: long queues had to be endured almost daily for meat, fruit and other basic consumer goods. The analysis will show that these queues were experienced as unjust, humiliating and absurd by contemporaries. This was the “first life” of the queue, as a real everyday experience.

The “second life” of the queue is a life of a symbol. After the 1989 revolution, queues disappeared from the streets but the symbol of the queue became solidified in the memory of the Czechs. Disembodied from the original practice of queueing, the memory of the “queues in communist times” became a morally and emotionally charged signifier which became a synecdoche for the communist regime as a whole. The paper argues that the symbol of the queue played an important role in fuelling the post-1989 rush towards free-market capitalism. The strong neoliberal ethos which has been observed in post-communist countries of central Europe has been at least partly motivated by the desire to escape the queue. The transition to capitalism embodied a desire for system which, opposed to the memory of the queue, would be just, respectful and rational.