In my first installment, I quoted extensively – and unapologetically – from Vaclav Havel’s brilliant essay, “The Power of the Powerless.“ In many respects, Havel’s work reminds me of Frederic Bastiat’s timeless classic, “That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.” Instead of using a glazier to illustrate economic fallacies, however, Havel uses his greengrocer to explain the nature of power in modern totalitarian socialist regimes, which our United States is rapidly becoming by the efforts of a diverse cabal of associated interests.
If an entire district town is plastered with slogans that no one reads, it is on the one hand a message from the district secretary to the regional secretary, but it is also something more: a small example of the principle of social auto-totality at work. Part of the essence of the post-totalitarian system is that it draws everyone into its sphere of power, not so they may realize themselves as human beings, but so they may surrender their human identity in favor of the identity of the system, that is, so they may become agents of the system’s general automatism and servants of its self-determined goals, so they may participate in the common responsibility for it, so they may be pulled into and ensnared by it, like Faust by Mephistopheles. More than this: so they may create through their involvement a general norm and, thus, bring pressure to bear on their fellow citizens. And further: so they may learn to be comfortable with their involvement, to identify with it as though it were something natural and inevitable and, ultimately, so they may-with no external urging-come to treat any non-involvement as an abnormality, as arrogance, as an attack on themselves, as a form of dropping out of society. By pulling everyone into its power structure, the post-totalitarian system makes everyone an instrument of a mutual totality, the auto-totality of society.
The fact that human beings have created, and daily create, this self-directed system through which they divest themselves of their innermost identity is not therefore the result of some incomprehensible misunderstanding of history, nor is it history somehow gone off its rails. Neither is it the product of some diabolical higher will which has decided, for reasons unknown, to torment a portion of humanity in this way. It can happen and did happen only because there is obviously in modern humanity a certain tendency toward the creation, or at least the toleration, of such a system. There is obviously something in human beings which responds to this system, something they reflect and accommodate, something within them which paralyzes every effort of their better selves to revolt. Human beings are compelled to live within a lie, but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living in this way. Therefore not only does the system alienate humanity, but at the same time alienated humanity supports this system as its own involuntary masterplan, as a degenerate image of its own degeneration, as a record of people’s own failure as individuals.
I confess that Havel seems to me to have a trenchant grasp of the “post-totalitarian” system that at times can bring despair. But just like my other favorite essay* on the problems of socialism, Havel’s ultimate conclusion is that these systems contain within them the seeds of their own inevitable collapse and destruction. And that’s where I want to pick up from last time – with the Power of the Powerless.
*Albert Jay Nock’s incomparable “Isaiah’s Job.”
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Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.
The bill is not long in coming. He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate. His children’s access to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will harass him and his fellow workers will wonder about him. Most of those who apply these sanctions, however, will not do so from any authentic inner conviction but simply under pressure from conditions, the same conditions that once pressured the greengrocer to display the official slogans. They will persecute the greengrocer either because it is expected of them, or to demonstrate their loyalty, or simply as part of the general panorama, to which belongs an awareness that this is how situations of this sort are dealt with, that this, in fact, is how things are always done, particularly if one is not to become suspect oneself. The executors, therefore, behave essentially like everyone else, to a greater or lesser degree: as components of the post-totalitarian system, as agents of its automatism, as petty instruments of the social auto-totality. (Emphasis added)
– Vaclav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless”
This is the part that hit me hard the first time I read Havel’s essay because of how perfectly it describes our own “cancel culture.” This is why it is so insidious. Beyond the injustice of any particular case, “cancel culture” is about embedding the post-totalitarian system into our collective culture, of normalizing the behavior, of ensuring that people “behave… like everyone else” as “petty instruments of the social auto-totality.” Facebook could not be more perfectly described, nor could it be a more perfectly designed instrument for the post-totalitarianism of modern America. It provides the perfect window for the socialization of everything, down to and including personal identity – and people do it willingly.
But Havel – like Nock – did not see hopelessness, even from behind the veil of the Iron Curtain. He sees vulnerability. And opportunities to claim Power by the Powerless.
It seems that the primary breeding ground for what might, in the widest possible sense of the word, be understood as an opposition in the post-totalitarian system is living within the truth. The confrontation between these opposition forces and the powers that be, of course, will obviously take a form essentially different from that typical of an open society or a classical dictatorship. Initially, this confrontation does not take place on the level of real, institutionalized, quantifiable power which relies on the various instruments of power, but on a different level altogether: the level of human consciousness and conscience, the existential level. The effective range of this special power cannot be measured in terms of disciples, voters, or soldiers, because it lies spread out in the fifth column of social consciousness, in the hidden aims of life, in human beings’ repressed longing for dignity and fundamental rights, for the realization of their real social and political interests. Its power, therefore, does not reside in the strength of defamable political or social groups, but chiefly in the strength of a potential, which is hidden throughout the whole of society, including the official power structures of that society. Therefore this power does not rely on soldiers of its own, but on the soldiers of the enemy as it were-that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth (or who, out of an instinctive desire to protect their position, may at least adapt to that force). It is a bacteriological weapon, so to speak, utilized when conditions are ripe by a single civilian to disarm an entire division. This power does not participate in any direct struggle for power; rather, it makes its influence felt in the obscure arena of being itself. The hidden movements it gives rise to there, however, can issue forth (when, where, under what circumstances, and to what extent are difficult to predict) in something visible: a real political act or event, a social movement, a sudden explosion of civil unrest, a sharp conflict inside an apparently monolithic power structure, or simply an irrepressible transformation in the social and intellectual climate. And since all genuine problems and matters of critical importance are hidden beneath a thick crust of lies, it is never quite clear when the proverbial last straw will fall, or what that straw will be. This, too, is why the regime prosecutes, almost as a reflex action preventively, even the most modest attempts to live within the truth.
– Vaclav Havel, the Power of the Powerless
On the one hand, it’s hard to look out on our society – businesses collapsed, people ordered to stay in their homes, the riots of the last year – and not feel a certain level of despair. But Havel explains that post-totalitarianism is doomed precisely because of its reification of the ritual in place of the concrete, the absurdity of an unending rebuke by Reality over socialist planned societies. But the first and most important pushback against the system is the simple act of living within the truth – of rejecting the lie.
A friend of mine owns a gym in California that was at the forefront of fighting the lockdowns. He has a huge gym, well-ventilated and well-lit, with roll-up doors and skylights, and he has refused multiple orders to close his doors to his community. He’s been fined and even arrested once. I wasn’t sure how to help or what I could do in support, but after meditating on it one day, I had a breakthrough. I called him up anxious to share my message, which might be best summarized as follows:
How lucky are we!?! We, who have both a noble cause – individual freedom – and an opportunity to live into that principle! Those of us lamenting the current state of affairs, those of us who know better and know just how screwy the current zeitgeist is, should take heart by the opportunity we have been given. Like the Isaiah of Nock’s essay or the greengrocer of Havel’s, we have been given the extraordinary task of standing in the breach, of living the truth, and in that way standing against the forces of totalitarianism. We don’t have to go over the wall at Gallipoli or into the German MG-42s at Normandy. Not yet, anyway. But even if we did, what better way could one ask to live? What greater good is there to stand for than the right of the individual conscience against the dictates of the totalitarians?
We never know when our moment may arise, where the simple act of refusing the follow the masses might become a source of inspiration long after we have ceased our journey in this meatsuit. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that the man in the picture, August Landmesser, would have well-appreciated Havel’s essay, even if he wasn’t a greengrocer himself.