Daniel Prokop: Czech populists are primarily focused on “the enemy within”

Daniel Prokop, photo: Lenka Kabrhelová / Czech Radio

In his new book Slepé skvrny (Blind Spots), sociologist Daniel Prokop offers illuminating perspectives on various aspects of today’s Czech Republic. This makes the Charles University academic the perfect person with whom to discuss issues such as the connections between pay level and political outlook and between social mobility and education – and how the coronavirus crisis is likely to affect the country’s worst off. But our conversation begins with Czech populism.

Daniel Prokop,  photo: Lenka Kabrhelová / Czech Radio

“I think there are more kinds of populist movements

“ANO is a centrist populist movement which is not based on rhetoric against the elite that much, but more on effective rule and so on.

“On the other hand there are other populist politicians, like Václav Klaus Jr. or Miloš Zeman, who are purely using new populist rhetoric, and they are very similar to Donald Trump in the way he uses it.

“So the difference is that there are more kinds of populism in Czech politics, I would say.

“And another difference – and maybe it’s the reason why centrist populism is the most popular one in the Czech Republic [laughs] – is that I don’t think we have in our past some very successful period which would be conservative and nationalist.

“Before World War II there was kind of a liberal regime in the Czech Republic and before that it was the Austrian Empire.

“So if you want to refer to some past and to this populist argument that once we were big and so on, it’s kind of harder in the Czech Republic than in, let’s say, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia.

“They have these movements from the past and these periods from the past which are very conservative and nationalist.

“What they portray as these enemies within are the media, the European Union, politicians and also intellectuals and NGOs.”

“In the Czech Republic the most successful periods were kind of liberal, I would say.

“When Czech populists are referring to some past, they go back to the 17th century or the 18th century, and it’s kind of not working that much.

“So I think that’s one of the reasons we don’t have so many strong national conservative populist parties, like in Poland and in Hungary.”

You say in your book that President Zeman has capitalised on a sense of the “enemy within”? But who or what do Czechs perceive as the enemy within?

“This argument is based on an analysis of speeches which were given in 2016 at anti-immigration rallies by Konvička, Okamura, and Zeman – his rhetoric is similar.

“When you analyse these speeches you can hear that it’s not against migration so much, it’s not against Islam – very short parts of the speeches are focused on this issue.

“They’re mostly about the enemies within.

“What they portray as these enemies within are, of course, the media, public service media mostly, the European Union, politicians and also intellectuals and NGOs.

“But it’s not so clear about public service media. Trust in Czech Television as a public broadcaster is quite high.

Miloš Zeman | Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio
“It’s declining a little, like with all the media, but it’s not something terrible.

“So you have to differentiate between what is on social networks, which is anti-NGO, anti-public service media and so on, and what is actually accepted by the public, which is more some kinds of NGOs, but not so much the rhetoric against public service media.

“That is also why I think the fight against Czech TV as a public broadcaster is not so aggressive as in Poland and Hungary.

“They are trying to kind of take over the leadership of the TV, not to destroy it like Orban and the Polish government did.”

It’s often said that many Czech voters are frustrated and that’s why they come to support populist parties – because they are low paid, this is a low-pay nation. Is there something in that?

“We did an interesting survey for Czech Radio last year [Rozdělená společnost/ Divided Society] and it shows one interesting thing.

“When you analyse the capitals of each household and you don’t focus only on economic capital, which is income and wealth, but also on their social networks, their social capital – how many people they know in some good position who might help them, their cultural capital – if they have these new competencies, like languages and ICT skills…

“When you describe the kind of strength of a household or a person by these things, and if you incorporate the fact that they face some things like debt evictions or problems in housing and so on, you can make some scale of quality of life from one to 10.

“This scale of quality of life, or the strength of the household, is very correlated to how people perceive democracy and how people perceive the populist movement or our membership in the European Union, for example.

“But it’s not as it clear as how it’s been portrayed in some liberal media, meaning that the people who have a lower quality of life and lower capitals and face debt evictions are not some authoritarian thinking part of the population.

“The people who have a lower quality of life and lower capitals and face debt evictions are not some authoritarian thinking part of the population. But they usually say that for a person like them it doesn’t matter if there is democracy or some authoritarian regime.”

“It’s not that they would be sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, for example.

“But they usually say that for a person like them it doesn’t matter if there is democracy or some authoritarian regime.

“Because they don’t feel that they are gaining enough from democratic capitalism.

“It’s kind of resignation which leads to them being a potential audience of the populist movements and authoritarian politicians, when they persuade this part of the public that they offer something new, something better than the democratic capitalism of the last 30 years.

“So it’s not some authoritarian mind in these people – it’s kind of resignation regarding the social structure which is now in the Czech Republic.

“This is very dangerous, because I think we sometimes limit this problem of populism to analysing who is more authoritarian and so on.

“But it’s also about who is more engaged in defending democracy and how many people know that they are benefitting from it.

“So we have to focus on that. And on the problem of some poorer Czech regions and of some social classes, which are not doing that well, even after six years of economic growth.”

Isn’t it the case that in the Czech Republic the gap between the earnings of the highest earners and the low earners is not as great as in some other countries? If that’s true, why isn’t there more social cohesion, or solidarity?

“It is the case. For example, the Gini coefficient [a common measure of inequality] of income is very low in the Czech Republic.

“It’s one of the lowest in the OECD.

“But there are problems. One of them is that we have much higher inequality if wealth.

“Only inequality in estates, in houses and so on, is 1.5 times higher than wealth inequality.

“Many people own some houses here and it’s very differentiated – if you own an apartment in Prague, if you get it from your family, and so on.

Illustrative photo: Štěpánka Budková
“So this type of inequality which is not so meritocratic – it doesn’t matter how you try, you just inherit it from your family – is much higher in the Czech Republic than in income equality.

“Another problem is that inflation in the Czech Republic was quite low in the last 20 years – on average two percent.

“But it’s highly oriented toward necessary goods, so the prices of food and housing and health items have increased a lot and the prices of travel and some things in culture, luxury things, stagnated or decreased.

“And this type of almost mixflation, or biflation as economists usually call it, harms poor households more than households which are average or above average.”

Another question I have is, how fluid is Czech society? By this I mean, how easy it for somebody to move up in society, to become wealthier and their parents and to become part of a higher social class?

“As you might know, there is something which is called the Gatsby Curve, according to which societies which have higher inequalities usually have lower intergenerational mobility.

“This means that in societies like the United States, with high inequalities, it’s very hard to get from the low 20 percent to above average; when you are born in a poor family, it’s not so probable that you will be in some much better conditions when you are 40.

“This is much more probable in Denmark and Scandinavia. So the American Dream exists, but it exists in Scandinavia, if I can put it in short.

“In the Czech Republic, interestingly, we don’t have some skyrocketing inequalities.

“But social mobility, judging from all the data we have, might be limited because of Czech education.

“Within the OECD we are the country where your results in education – what your test scores in the TSA are when you are 15, what high school you go to, if you’ve got a college degree, and so on – are most dependent on in which region and in which family your are born.

“Your pay check and your position is still very dependent on your education in the Czech Republic.”

“So it’s highly dependent on what socio-economic class you are born into.

“Kids from poor families and kids who have parents without high school have a very limited chance that they will get a college degree.

“And this relationship in the Czech Republic is one of the strongest in the OECD.

“This of course limits social mobility, because your pay check and your position is still very dependent on your education in the Czech Republic.

“This kind of unequal education is sorting kids when they are 11… some of them go to better schools and they are better prepared, their parents have high aspirations.

“Some of them end up in very bad schools.

“Some of them, like Roma kids, are segregated to Roma schools, and this leads to a reduction in social mobility, which might otherwise be quite high, because we have limited inequalities in income.

“We also have public education, so we don’t have financial limits so much.

“But the system of Czech education is still very unequal in the way that it treats children from different backgrounds.”

You write a lot about the position of Roma children in Czech education, with many of them essentially excluded from mainstream education. Why is this still going? Why is it still the case in 2020?

“We found out that the number of schools which are Roma segregated schools are more or less the same as many years ago.

“The original cause why they got there was created many years ago by some bad diagnostics, which were sending these kids to schools with mentally disabled kids.

“That was changed a little bit, but there still some mechanisms under which it works.

Illustrative photo: Gabriela Hauptvogelová
“For example, in some cities these areas that are assigned to schools, districts, they draw in such a way that streets with Roma people are sent to one school.

“It’s kind of gerrymandering of school districts. That’s used in many Czech cities.

“In other ones there’s a kind of silent agreement between the different agencies in the field.

“They will suggest that children go to some school because, you know, your older brother is there, and they are prepared for these kids; they have more experience.

“So they suggest informally to the parents to send their younger kid also to that school.

“The parents are usually not so informed and sometimes they are afraid of discrimination in non-Roma schools, so they agree.

“So the parents send their kids there willingly, they agree with that.

“And then it’s connected with white flight. When the number of Roma kids reaches something like 30 percent, the white parents try to get their kids out.

“And worst of all, these kids are usually a combination of Roma kids, which are without any handicap, and kids which have mental handicaps and so on.

“So they are learning a curriculum which is easier and is for mentally handicapped kids. Which is really shameful.”

Obviously we’re in the middle of a crisis like we’ve never seen before. I presume we can expect this will hit the worst off in Czech society the hardest?

“My book is called Blind Spots because, as I described when we talked about inequalities, sometimes they are a little hidden.

“Because in the six years of economic growth we used that to kind of cover it up, I would say.

“We didn’t solve the root causes.

“I’m afraid this three-month period will even increase the inequality of Czech education, because the better schools and families which are educated will use it to kind of update their approach to education.”

“For example in debt enforcements and evictions we still have 800,000 people from 10 million, so it’s around nine percent.

“Eight or nine percent of the population is under debt enforcement.

“We didn’t solve that in six years of economic growth and this will of course be a huge problem, because other people will get into debt and judges and the bankruptcy agencies won’t be able to process it.

“It will be horrible for months and I think it’s very unfortunate we didn’t solve it in six years of economic growth.

“Because in the Czech Republic it’s very hard to go to personal bankruptcy, much harder than in the United States and other countries.

“So that will be visible in the next months or years, I’m afraid.

“There are big differences in the regions.

“In this country the crisis may be a little bit specific, because it might hit urban areas quite hard.

“I expect that some of the companies that will go bankrupt will be from the services, from urban areas.

“But it might spill over to the poorer regions, I think, by reducing demand from these areas and destroying industry there.

“And also it will show, I’m afraid, the inequalities in Czech education.

“Because we have very different quality of schools and when you have kids being home schooled for two or three months and you send them some online courses and so on, it will be very dependent on how you are able to process this and on the quality of the school.

“I’m afraid this three-month period will even increase the inequality of Czech education, because the better schools and families which are educated will use it to kind of update their approach to education.

“And the poorer schools will just let the kids stay home and they won’t improve, and so on.

“So it might show some inequalities as well.

“Hopefully it won’t be that hard, but I think the Czech government has to step up in supporting Czech companies in the next two months.

“Otherwise it will hit the Czech economy quite hard.

“So I think they are not doing enough definitely to keep companies and services alive for one or two months.”