Vaclav Havel and the Power of the Powerless

Nothing to learn, everything to teach the poor children

In his speech to the Polish Sejm and Senate in 1990 (“The future of Central Europe,” New York Review of Books, 29 March 1990), Vaclav Havel exuded confidence that a “rich Western Europe” could receive Central Europe as someone “who also brings something with him: namely spiritual and moral incentives, bold peace initiatives, untapped creative potential, the ethos of freshly gained freedom, and the inspiration for brave and swift solutions.”

But as the right-wing historian Francois Furet mocked, “With all the fuss and noise, not a single new idea has come out of Eastern Europe in 1989.” In his captivating essay, Croatian Boris Buden (“Children of postcommunism,” Radical Philosophy, no. 159, 2010) punches the stuffing out of Furet’s blather. Today, he says, Eastern and Central Europeans are treated by the West as children who have everything to learn and nothing to teach.

Come, dear children, history is over, don’t look back, look only forward to wealth and riches awaiting you. And don’t be afraid of the marionette wires dangling you on the ground.

“Only yesterday,” Buden proclaims, “they [central and eastern Europeans] succeeded in in toppling totalitarian regimes in whose persistency and steadfastness the whole so-called ‘free’ and ‘democratic world’ had firmly believed, until the very last moment, and whose power it had feared as an other-worldly monster.

In the struggle against the communist threat, that world had mobilized all its political, ideological and military forces, its greatest statesman and generals, philosophers and spies, without ever really frightening the totalitarian beast. Yet, despite that, it calls those who chased it away with their bare hands ‘children.’”

Jan Komarek (“Waiting for the existential revolution in Europe,” revised paper prepared for the Conference ‘Revisiting Van Gend en loos,’ Paris 26-27 June, 2013) observes that the “existential revolution” called for by Havel failed to happen. The “children of postcommunism” were led by the hand into the promised land of liberal democracy and the market economy, away from silly and outmoded ideas such active citizenry, a mobilized civil society and provision for all.

What did the poor children end up with? Uncompromisingly, Buden accuses the predatory elites of the nihilistic West of engaging in “criminal privatization in which the wealth of whole nations has become the property of the few, almost overnight; for the new, postcommunist pauperization of the masses with all of its social and individual consequences; for historical regressions that in some places have thrown the postcommunist societies, culturally and morally, back below the levels that had already been reached under communism; and, finally, for all the nationalisms, racisms, bloody civil wars, and even genocides.”

The power of the powerless

Before some of Havel’s creative ideas and perspectives are lost forever, let’s insist that we can still learn something from the old communist regimes and Havel in particular.

The Czech dissident, playwright and politician, Vaclav Havel, rejected the view that power is a lost cause, that we are condemned to play in our little private sandboxes while the larger world outside our playground goes to hell. In the late 1970s, Havel wrote his famous essay, “The power of the powerless,” the immediate aim of which was to explain the significance of Charter 77 to potential supporters within Czechoslovakia and encourage opponents of late-socialism in the Soviet bloc.

Havel works with a fairly standard conception of power (the ability of certain humans to exercise their will over and against others). Yet the striking aspect of Havel’s essay is its lack of deference to power. He questions the cynicism of those who curse the bastards and then drift with the tide or drink themselves into oblivion.

“The power of the powerless” is definitely not attracted to institutional politics. He proposes that under any circumstances the downtrodden and oppressed always contain within themselves the power to remedy their own powerlessness. Consequently, they are the cause of their own continuing subordination.

Havel arrived this startling and controversial idea (oppression never displaces political [or agentic] subjectivity entirely) through his own eastern European experience, namely that late socialism could not be reformed from within. The centre of political resistance was, in fact, the lifeworld. Here one could ‘live in truth’ (which he would later call ‘anti-political politics’), shaking off the muck of the system. “This system serves people only to the extent necessary to ensure that people will serve it,” he wrote.

“Anything beyond this, that is to say, anything which leads people to overstep their predetermined roles is regarded by the system as an attack upon itself. And in this respect it is correct: every instance of such transgression is a genuine denial of the system.” Thus, as long as individuals act as if they accept the system, the system will continue to be confirmed. As Havel counsels us, citizens can say enough is enough. The green grocer can simply refuse to keep the party’s sign in his window. We can stop lying to ourselves and to others.

Upending the taken-for-granted

Havel’s daring thesis upended the presumption that the Gullivers who command states and have the weapons of coercive power at their disposal (guns, armies, propagandists, and so on) will have things their way, forever. Those who speak of sovereign power should not have the last word in politics. In effect, Havel argues that under certain circumstances the powerful are powerless. Their powerlessness is traceable to five related factors.

To start with, the powerful can never control the micro-movements of all of their subjects. They can never find quite enough spies to sit in every coffee shop; they cannot watch every living room. The powerful may wish to reduce the citizen to a cog in the machine, but usually they are too stupid or conservative to do that all the time.

Second, the power structure depends upon ideological rituals that become less and less credible (as well as bypassing public debate) as the people become less and less happy. Here a third consideration arises: some may call the ideology a lie, declaring the emperor’s thoughts naked. This possibility, Havel says, is nurtured by the ontological fact that the “every day, thankless, and never-ending struggle of human beings to live more freely, truthfully, and in quiet dignity” is ultimately not completely repressible.

Fourth, misery appears to nip at the heels of imagination, forcing the mind to reflect on the human condition. How has life come to this? Does it have to remain this way? Who is responsible for our suffering? Finally, individuals who live in truth reject the innocent fiction that power is a thing to be grasped or abolished. For Havel, power is not something one has; it is relational, so power relations are not reducible to the instruments of power.

Each individual is caught within a labyrinth of influence, repression, fear and self-censorship which swallows everyone within it, at the very least rendering them silent. Every person is both the victim and supporter of the system –and potential opponent. These five affirmations are the core of Havel’s “existential revolution.”

Since the lines of organized power within the system pass like low-current electricity through all its subjects, the latter can defend themselves only by preventing the system from ruining their personal lives. Those who choose to live in truth effect something of an existential revolution. They must agree that there are some things worth suffering for, and be prepared to say out loud what others think only in solitude.

We have arrived at the heart of Havel’s affirmation of political agency: the person can always act (write an open letter, hold a rock concert, a demonstration, or go on a hunger strike).The effective power of these acts cannot be judged in conventional political terms. Yet living in truth is a risky business. The consequences for the individual are unclear, but these acts can be surprisingly effective.

To be sure, totalitarian regimes can hound citizens, drag them from their beds, lock them up in psychiatric wards, beat them silly, even murder them. But such tactics prove the point: the powerless have within themselves the power to obstruct normality, to embarrass the authorities, to point to the possibility of living life differently –according to values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love.

Living in truth begins at the existential level

Living in truth (living authentically) begins, then, at the existential level. Although it can manifest in collective actions, it is essentially local, invisible, anti-political (that is, it is not committed to playing the game invented by the regime). The strategy of living in truth turns away from forming an institutional party. Living in truth is for this reason most ethically effective when it keeps its distance from formal politics. They must grasp that a better system will not ensure a better life.

In an influential essay written before 1989, “Politics and conscience,” Havel tells us what he means by “anti-political politics.” He says: “I favor ‘anti-political politics,’ that is, politics not as the technology of power and manipulation, of cybernetic rule over humans or as the art of the utilitarian, but politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them.” I like this statement.

Identifying politics with “practical morality”, Havel knew that many would see this as utterly impractical. Indeed, critics chided Havel and other dissidents because they left the door open for cynical technocrats to rush in and proceed to knock citizens out of the ring and demonize socialists. The latter critique stings.

Living in truth required the cultivation of mechanisms of individuation, self-protection and co-operation in areas underneath and beyond the reach of the state –within the household, among friends, at the office, within the parallel economy and sphere of unofficial culture. Perhaps the left humanist culture can begin to imagine something like a counter-polis or “parliament of civil society” that, with imagination and verve, could mount a serious offensive against a depleted democratic society in neo-liberal times.

In a phrase, the empowerment of the powerless first and foremost requires individuals to build open, flexible structures of resistance that run parallel to and underneath the late-socialist state. This is best accomplished from below through small-scale initiatives. We cannot give up building “small, beautiful places” where we are living, now. If we are watched from above, let’s go below.  If truth and enlightenment retreat from public culture, let’s build centres of light and truth where we are situated. Let’s dig where we stand. The latter phrase has its origins in the Swedish popular education movement.

Some questions for Havel

There are some limitations to Havel’s arguments. He avoids the different interpretations of what it means to live in truth. He may also downplay the truth that we generally do not love truthful living very much (it is very hard), and the hypnotic effects of the system bind us tightly.

The pessimistic proponents of the post-political thesis would query Havel’s abandonment of politics – the messy and complicated activity of collectively encouraging individuals to live in truth and thereby decide who gets what, when and how. Some civil society proponents would require a parliament-civil society dialectic for people’s voices to be articulated and then taken seriously by policy-makers.

Perhaps Havel and other eastern European intellectuals so feared the actually existing world of corrupt party politics that they thought it was non-redeemable.

Havel also eschews talk of parliaments, armies, police forces, civil service or local government. Always, for Havel, the primacy of the individual’s existence over the institutional frameworks within which they live. For me, Havel’s separation of the person from institutional framework reflects an important historical moment, a way of conceiving resistance and hope.

It ought not to be generalized into a normative “anti-politics” for everyone. Developmental humanists and proponents of the just learning society must view Havel’s recovery of the person as moral agent as a necessary conceptual retrieval for contemporary Left humanist practice. This new culture must be built within the ruins of global cultures of destruction and mindlessness.

Havel believes that only when the “independent life of society” is cultivated can the powerless be prevented from becoming new masters. Havel called this new and desperate possibility “social self-organization.” Soon thereafter, with greater confidence and precision, it would be called civil society (J. Keane, Vaclav Havel: a political tragedy in six acts [2000, pp. 268-86].

The resonance of Havel’s existentialism in the West

Komarek (2013) thinks that the “reason Havel’s essay resonated so much in the West and still speaks to (some of) us today was that Havel did not limit his ethical claim to the people living in the conditions of post-totalitarianism. What he called for was nothing less than an ‘existential revolution’, aimed at the crisis of contemporary society as a whole –liberal West and post-totalitarian East alike.” The main conductor of moral and spiritual critiques of the West and the post-totalitarian East in our world today is Russia.

Skeptical of classical parliamentary traditions, Havel has offered us an existential revolution that would lead to a “new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of higher responsibility, and a newfound inner relationship to other people and to the human community.” These are spiritual and moral yearnings; they are not mere utopian posturing.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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