He knows a couple of words of Dutch, because after the fall of communism in Slovakia he went to paint houses in The Netherlands for far more money than he could ever have made in Slovakia. They who arranged this for him and others made a deal in the Netherlands. The workers would be paid 15 euro per hour and he would get 5 euro out of that for arranging it, leaving the workers with 10 euro. 10 euro being still way, way more than they could make in Slovakia. Hello, capitalism, where the slick and bright make money off the backs of those who just want to work, and in the end both kinds of people are better off. Something communists do not want to see: how the money incentive drives the creative and the brightest.

The receptionist always greets me warmly and we always chat a bit.

Today he starts talking about communism, so I listen intently, because am fascinated by socio-economic systems.

The irony is that we are talking about communism in Slovakia in the entrance hall of one of the most succesful companies that is active here in Slovakia. Alza is expanding, its headquarters is in Prague, in the Czech Republic. The company started out of a dormroom. Something unimaginable under communism. The company is something like Amazon but specialized in electronics.

So what can he tell me about communism?

The first big negative all Slovaks mentions is that you couldn’t travel. The country was like one big prison. Even travelling to an other communist country like Yugoslavia was a challenge, because the communists were afraid you would forsake your communist paradise and run off to Italy. Nearby Austria was out of the question.

On the bright side, if you worked somewhere, you had to work for six years and then you got an apartment sort of for free. At least, if you didn’t do or say anything to ingratiate you with the Party. After the fall of communism the people who lived in those apartments could buy them for next to nothing. My father in law does not see this as something positive, because under capitalism you get a loan and you do not have to wait six years to get into an apartment. Plus, if something is broke you will have no trouble finding someone to come and fix it, whereas under communism services were a nightmare, since people did not have much incentives to really work.

That’s exactly the other positive point that the receptionist mentions: You did not have to work hard, you had a lot of free time. The shops weren’t open every day till 10 pm, on Saturday they even closed at noon, but thanks to this neighbours were closer. If you ran out of something you had to go and borrow it from a neighbour, so you were more in touch with neighbours. Today nobody knows anybody, if they need something they can just buy it, there’s little need to rely on the goodwill of others, you only need the good will of money and you can always count on the good will of money.

If you were not ambitious, if you cared little for luxury or comfort long considered standard in the west, if you felt no need to travel abroad, if you did not feel any urge to decide about anything, you could have a very quiet time under communism.

In the end it was of course impossible to keep the system going since nobody was motivated to… start a billion dollar company from their dormroom. These economic forces were only unleashed after the fall of communism.