|01-05-2013 - Traces, n. 5
THE “I” AND THE POWERS THAT BE
Twenty years after his election as President of the Czech Republic, the CL Movement invites us to re-read the historic pamphlet by VÁCLAV HAVEL, written when he was a dissident. The Power of the Powerless questions us on the relationship between the person and politics, indicating the method by which a man can discover that he is more powerful than any system.
by John Waters
Václav Havel was not, as is often suggested, merely an “anti-Communist” writer and intellectual, whose work relates to one period of history, with diminishing significance now that the political conditions he wrote out of no longer appear to exist. His themes, always, were universal, demonstrated in a specific political and ideological context. He distilled the particular from the general . His subject, really, was the soul of man under systems seeking to extinguish it.
Frequently in his writings can be found references to Western democracy representing merely a marginal enhancement of Soviet Communism–which he called “a convex-mirror image” of the democratic West. But he goes deeper, always, to talk of “freedom,” which he understood not as something political, but an infinite and eternal freedom.
In his most famous essay, The Power of the Powerless, he takes this quest beyond mere diagnosis, offering a method by which the human person–alone if necessary–might confront such a system and not merely reject its oppression but actively work, in a non-political way, to bring its power to an end.
In speaking of the ideological configuration of the Communist system, Havel uses the word “dictatorship,” but taking pains to emphasize that what we encounter here is quite different from classical dictatorships, which imposed themselves through naked terror and violence. At the core of the modern form of dictatorship–the “post-totalitarian” system–he identifies the phenomenon of ideology, which he describes as “almost a secularized religion.”
Faith and the greengrocer.“In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis,” he writes, “when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind, it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on a new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle involved here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.”
It should be obvious that he could be talking here about many forms of religion. But Havel was himself a “religious” man. In his writings more generally, he places man in front of “the absolute horizon” which defines and describes man’s natural circumstances. In a published collection of letters written in prison to his wife (Letters to Olga), he wrote that he had always rejected the idea of a “complete, unified, integrated, and self-contained” belief system, because “I simply don’t have the internal capacity for it.” What he had was faith: “a state of persistent and productive openness, of persistent questioning, a need to ‘experience the world’ again and again.” The “Order of Being,” he wrote, is “multiform and elusive,” and cannot be grasped and described by a consistent system of knowledge.
“The more slavishly and dogmatically a person falls for a ready-made ideological system or ‘worldview,’ the more certainly he will bury all chances of thinking, of freedom, of being clear about what he knows, the more certainly he will deaden the adventure of the mind and the more certainly–in practice–he will begin to serve the ‘order of death.”’
A central motif of The Power of the Powerless is the story of the greengrocer who is required by the governing ideology to place a sign in his shop window bearing the slogan: “Workers of the World Unite.” Havel takes us beneath the literal surface of this episode, naming and describing its constitutive elements, even into the mind of the greengrocer, who places the sign, essentially, as a gesture of obedience. The sign might just as easily read: “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” but this would cause the greengrocer to lose face. The message relates to the ideology, which nobody really believes in, but its unquestioning promulgation serves both the needs of the regime for power and for the greengrocer a means of saving face.
Hence, Havel carefully elaborates, the social phenomenon of self-preservation exhibited by the greengrocer is a form of acquiescence in the “blind automatism which drives the system.” By displaying the sign, the greengrocer has shown his willingness to enter into the prescribed ritual of pretense, colluding in his own enslavement. Here we see how ideology serves to conceal the enslavement by creating a series of “excuses” which allow both parties–system and enslaved–to deny, if not conceal, the true nature of their relationship. Ideology thus offers a pseudo legitimacy, giving the process of domination an external coating of morality. “It pretends,” writes Havel, “that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.” In such a system, everything is falsified, twisted, inverted, and corrupted. Words, if they signify anything, indicate the opposite of their meanings. Having corrupted what is real, the dictatorship rituals become the only reality. In the end, ideology itself becomes the dictator–what Havel calls “the dictatorship of the ritual.” And because the ideology is not human, it has a superhuman capacity to transcend the short lives of those who form the changing guard of power. Even the ruling figures become mere puppets, “blind executors of the systems internal laws.” Totalitarianism of this kind, therefore, becomes not something imposed on one group by another, but on everyone by everyone. Those who conform to the dictates of the regime become “both victims of the system and its instruments.”
Latent tendencies. Havel insists that the “post-totalitarian system” provides a warning to the West of its own latent tendencies. In the West, the function of the party slogan is supplied by advertising, no less powerful for being subtler than the placard in the greengrocer’s window. People are manipulated and demoralized in ways that are infinitely more refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies, but the processes of capitalism, materialism, advertising, commerce, and consumer culture all combine to repress in the human being the questing for the “something” that defines the human. In the Communist system, fear or repercussions led to a quiescence usually enforced without external evidence of violence; in the West, the “oppressor” is the human unwillingness to sacrifice material benefits to retain spiritual and moral integrity.
Human beings, Havel observes, live within lies as an alienated form of humanity, not because they have no choice, but because something about them makes it congenial to live this way. But the power of the lie, precisely because it is dependent on the collusion of the individual, can be broken by the individual choosing to refuse. To live within the truth requires just a short step, but its power is tremendous. Everyone who steps out of line with the lie “denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.” This is the “power of the powerless.”
In a single act. In this there is an answer to those who feel that the power of modern society, in whatever guise, is too overwhelming to be resisted by just one person. This sense of powerlessness is often spoken of by Christians who feel that their faith is no longer recognized as a reasonable response to reality, and is therefore being driven from the public realm of the modern consumer society.
Havel shows us that it is precisely in the single act of one person that the lie is exposed and undermined. “Individuals can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence.” The lie occurs, therefore, because the truth exists, is seductive and powerful, and always threatens to resurface.
Havel shows us that, to live in the truth, in the face of a powerful lie, is not as risky as it sounds. Truth is unmistakable for anything else. The hidden sphere of truth is dangerous for the regime, but the ally of the slave. The truth does not require soldiers of its own but finds its strength in the repressed longing for authenticity, for human life as it ought to be lived. Hence, to live within the truth is to create a subversion that can only grow and grow.