The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life “in harmony with society,” as they say.
Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer’s superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan’s real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer’s existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the façade of something high. And that something is ideology.
— excerpted from Vaclav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless.”
For those who haven’t read it, Havel’s essay is a masterpiece, comparable in its effect and significance to Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense.” Havel was a playwright of some renown in the 1960s and his outspoken support of freedom led to multiple arrests by the communist government in Czechoslovakia. After his imprisonment in 1978, the essay was published and helped spark a tide of dissidence across many former Soviet Union client states, run by communist party leadership approved governments. Havel’s essay helped give breath to the independence movement in many of the countries that would later arise in the wake of the USSR’s collapse.
I was stunned at the prescient applicability of Havel’s essay to the modern United States. Instead of posting signs from the central committee, the American version of the greengrocer has to make sure her Facebook page, Twitter bio, and social media history displays the proper slogans. And they need to “just wear the mask.”
And get the vaccine. And admit their whiteness and white privilege is what’s responsible for… well, everything that’s wrong in the country. And not be a climate change “denier.” Or a QAnon “conspiracy theorist” (whatever the f*** that is).
Or, literally, a national socialist Nazi.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
One of the other great underlying themes of Havel’s essay is the why of such ridiculous slogans beyond the social(ist) signe de vertu.
We have seen that the real meaning of the greengrocer’s slogan has nothing to do with what the text of the slogan actually says. Even so, this real meaning is quite clear and generally comprehensible because the code is so familiar: the greengrocer declares his loyalty (and he can do no other if his declaration is to be accepted) in the only way the regime is capable of hearing; that is, by accepting the prescribed ritual, by accepting appearances as reality, by accepting the given rules of the game. In doing so, however, he has himself become a player in the game, thus making it possible for the game to go on, for it to exist in the first place.
If ideology was originally a bridge between the system and the individual as an individual, then the moment he steps on to this bridge it becomes at the same time a bridge between the system and the individual as a component of the system. That is, if ideology originally facilitated (by acting outwardly) the constitution of power by serving as a psychological excuse, then from the moment that excuse is accepted, it constitutes power inwardly, becoming an active component of that power. It begins to function as the principal instrument of ritual communication within the system of power.
The whole power structure… could not exist at all if there were not a certain metaphysical order binding all its components together, interconnecting them and subordinating them to a uniform method of accountability, supplying the combined operation of all these components with rules of the game, that is, with certain regulations, limitations, and legalities. This metaphysical order is fundamental to, and standard throughout, the entire power structure; it integrates its communication system and makes possible the internal exchange and transfer of information and instructions. It is rather like a collection of traffic signals and directional signs, giving the process shape and structure. This metaphysical order guarantees the inner coherence of the totalitarian power structure. It is the glue holding it together, its binding principle, the instrument of its discipline. Without this glue the structure as a totalitarian structure would vanish; it would disintegrate into individual atoms chaotically colliding with one another in their unregulated particular interests and inclinations. The entire pyramid of totalitarian power, deprived of the element that binds it together, would collapse in upon itself, as it were, in a kind of material implosion.
As the interpretation of reality by the power structure, ideology is always subordinated ultimately to the interests of the structure. Therefore, it has a natural tendency to disengage itself from reality, to create a world of appearances, to become ritual. In societies where there is public competition for power and therefore public control of that power, there also exists quite naturally public control of the way that power legitimates itself ideologically. Consequently, in such conditions there are always certain correctives that effectively prevent ideology from abandoning reality altogether. Under totalitarianism, however, these correctives disappear, and thus there is nothing to prevent ideology from becoming more and more removed from reality, gradually turning into what it has already become in the post-totalitarian system: a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality. (Emphasis added)
— Vaclav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless, V“
The modern Progressive-Statist disconnect from reality is stunning. I don’t really mean this as an insult, either. It’s just the only way I can describe my observations of Reality as distinct from what the Cathedra Media and Government tell us we must believe – and say – in public. A friend of mine once observed that putting the term “politically” in front of “correct” was a way of signaling the opposite. In other words, it used to be that there were no flavors of correct; something either was or wasn’t correct. “Politically correct” is something that is actually INcorrect, but because of the social pressure extended from the totalitarian control, that truth can no longer be spoken and instead the “politically correct” phrase must be uttered instead. At least the sham claim that the political Left was merely looking for “acceptance” or “equality before the law” has been revealed as such. I think (broadly speaking) many people viewed the “woke” movement as more oddball curiosity than anything to be taken too seriously. Then the Progressive shibboleths included the Impossible Gender Fraud (IGF): You – a member of the animal kingdom, of the chordate phylum, of the class mammalia; yes, you – unlike every other living creature in all that hierarchy – your biological sex is actually all in your head, mmkay? #IFLoveScience! Tamika Brents got her skull fractured and her orbital broken in 7 places on the Altar of Statist Absurdity by Fallon Fox, a woman who was once a man. Girls high school athletic records are being demolished by post-pubescent males who now “identify” as being dominant in female sports. I did some of the earliest litigation on this issue and I’ve watched slack-jawed as major sports regulatory bodies (looking at you IOC) caved and abandoned even their last tenuous dock-lines to Reality. Now gender is just what a child or the mentally ill want to believe.
But the matter for crucial inquiry (for me, anyway) is the “why” of such a posture. I think Havel’s essay does as good a job as any at identifying a big part of the “Why.” Why must the Woke Brigades insist on forcing others to bend the knee? Why isn’t it enough to have acceptance… why must they have obeisance to their unReality? And by this “why” I want to be precise: I’m not talking about the psychological needs and drives of the Modern Progressive that compels them to control others through force of law. The Progs are not unique in this – the Right certainly has its Drug War and bedroom issues – but those “whys” are matters of motivation of compulsion. I’m talking about the “why” in a more practical sense: why the public struggle sessions? Why the need for people to profess the catechisms? What purpose does it serve? Havel has a brilliant answer.
Why in fact did our greengrocer have to put his loyalty on display in the shop window? Had he not already displayed it sufficiently in various internal or semipublic ways? At trade union meetings, after all, he had always voted as he should. He had always taken part in various competitions. He voted in elections like a good citizen. He had even signed the “antiCharter.” Why, on top of all that, should he have to declare his loyalty publicly? After all, the people who walk past his window will certainly not stop to read that, in the greengrocer’s opinion, the workers of the world ought to unite. The fact of the matter is, they don’t read the slogan at all, and it can be fairly assumed they don’t even see it. If you were to ask a woman who had stopped in front of his shop what she saw in the window, she could certainly tell whether or not they had tomatoes today, but it is highly unlikely that she noticed the slogan at all, let alone what it said.
It seems senseless to require the greengrocer to declare his loyalty publicly. But it makes sense nevertheless. People ignore his slogan, but they do so because such slogans are also found in other shop windows, on lampposts, bulletin boards, in apartment windows, and on buildings; they are everywhere, in fact. They form part of the panorama of everyday life. Of course, while they ignore the details, people are very aware of that panorama as a whole. And what else is the greengrocer’s slogan but a small component in that huge backdrop to daily life?
The greengrocer had to put the slogan in his window, therefore, not in the hope that someone might read it or be persuaded by it, but to contribute, along with thousands of other slogans, to the panorama that everyone is very much aware of. This panorama, of course, has a subliminal meaning as well: it reminds people where they are living and what is expected of them. It tells them what everyone else is doing, and indicates to them what they must do as well, if they don’t want to be excluded, to fall into isolation, alienate themselves from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of their peace and tranquility and security.
The woman who ignored the greengrocer’s slogan may well have hung a similar slogan just an hour before in the corridor of the office where she works. She did it more or less without thinking, just as our greengrocer did, and she could do so precisely because she was doing it against the background of the general panorama and with some awareness of it, that is, against the background of the panorama of which the greengrocer’s shop window forms a part. When the greengrocer visits her office, he will not notice her slogan either, just as she failed to notice his. Nevertheless, their slogans are mutually dependent: both were displayed with some awareness of the general panorama and, we might say, under its diktat. Both, however, assist in the creation of that panorama, and therefore they assist in the creation of that diktat as well. The greengrocer and the office worker have both adapted to the conditions in which they live, but in doing so, they help to create those conditions. They do what is done, what is to be done, what must be done, but at the same time-by that very token-they confirm that it must be done in fact. They conform to a particular requirement and in so doing they themselves perpetuate that requirement. Metaphysically speaking, without the greengrocer’s slogan the office worker’s slogan could not exist, and vice versa. Each proposes to the other that something be repeated and each accepts the other’s proposal. Their mutual indifference to each other’s slogans is only an illusion: in reality, by exhibiting their slogans, each compels the other to accept the rules of the game and to confirm thereby the power that requires the slogans in the first place. Quite simply, each helps the other to be obedient. Both are objects in a system of control, but at the same time they are its subjects as well. They are both victims of the system and its instruments.
— Vaclav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless, VI“
The final paragraph directly above is for me the kill-shot of Havel’s essay.
Just Wear the Mask, Citizen. Don’t you care about grandma?!
Just Bake the Cake, Citizen. Do you hate The Gayz??
Boys Are Girls if they want to be!! (As long as they take some hormones and we ignore the decade of puberty when almost all male mammals grow larger, get stronger, build greater bone density, more red blood cell O2 carrying capacity, develop stronger sinews, thicker muscles, etc., than their female counterparts.)
The need for compliance is a HUGE part of the process of taking, establishing, and maintaining control; it’s how the culture wars are won.
When I was a kid, detention was still a pretty common punishment in school. It was also quite common (either at detention or some other time during the school day) for students to be punished by having to write 500 times on the blackboard or on a piece of paper: “I will not talk/laugh/fart/(insert other stupid thing) in class and disturb others.” It always seemed like the most monotonous – and idiotic task – to have to complete as a punishment. And yet, I look back on it now as an adult and I start to see other threads…
I’ve read tons of self-help books. Every good one talks about writing out goals as helping to bring about their successful manifestation. I’ve also read tons of military history books, including a number of POW stories. In every one, regardless of the culture, forcing prisoners to write or speak out the central tenets of the torturer seems to be a critical point of the contest of wills that is involved. Which has always seemed a bit odd to me. Did anyone really think that any of the American pilots in the Hanoi Hilton who were forced to write confessions to war crimes really believed it? We’ve all seen Al-Q’aeda videos with this same process played out where the broken victim mutters the necessary shibboleths. China occasionally still has these today when a dissident bookseller in Hong Kong disappears for weeks, then suddenly pops up on CCTV to tell the Chinese people he’s sorry for his crimes against them. Ditto North Korea. Everyone watching knows the victim is not there of their own free will, and yet, it serves a purpose.
Havel gives what I think is the most complete explanation of the necessity – the why – of the totalitarians’ quest for dominance over what can be said – over the cultural narrative. I note that as a matter of behavior modification, there really is something peculiar to human beings that writing things down – that speaking them aloud – helps bring them into existence. It is almost magickal – and the people who want to tell you what can be said, and what can be done, in public are not going to stop there. They can’t. They have to control what’s said privately, too. It’s why they always go after control of education – they know that they may not be able to break adults who are too far gone already, so they set about making sure your kids write down the catechisms. Earth Day. Juneteenth. Climate Crisis!!
From the subtle to the sledgehammer, it never stops and it never will.
Now, this may seem like a grim, hopeless essay, but I feel just the opposite. To know the why of something, to understand the engineering of a system, how the whole thing works together, is how one begins to find where the monkey wrench will be most effective in stopping it, in dismantling it. I’ll leave those thoughts for the next attempt.