Posted by Ed Folsom, June 2, 2023.
I continue to be intrigued by Vaclav Havel’s essay, The Power of the Powerless. Havel wrote it from the belly of the socialist beast that was 1978 Czechoslovakia, then a satellite of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Havel suspected that the dystopia that existed there might serve as a kind of warning to the West, revealing the West’s own latent tendencies. How so?
Imagine a Western nation in which mass-produced signs and symbols become nearly ubiquitous, carrying political messages reinforcing the policies of the ruling party and the Administrative State. Imagine the Government and its unified media collaborators casting agreement with the messaging as virtue, and disagreement as evidence of bad character. Imagine a Western nation where people are called upon to publicly bend a knee before others whom they are told they have oppressed; to renounce their “privilege;” to denounce themselves and others members of their (arbitrarily defined) group as oppressors; where mass-produced signs and banners bear slogans reinforcing the messaging; where the Government endorses agreement with the messaging as signifying who are the good people among us and disagreement as signifying who are the bad – a nation in which the Government overtly takes sides in the matter, where the President himself denounces those who express disagreement with the messaging as a threat to Our Democracy.™
Imagine a Western Nation in which parents are required to sacrifice the bodies and minds of their minor children to an ideology symbolized by a flag, the colors of which have draped the official residence of the nation’s President — where those who dissent are officially denounced; where participants in the auto-totality constantly probe, in day-to-day conversation, to determine who stands sufficiently in favor of the message and the ideology; where failure to actively endorse the message and the ideology is branded “silence,” which is equated with “violence,” which marks one as a social pariah under official government policy. Then you can begin to imagine how our own latent tendencies might cause us to participate in the conditions that Vaclav Havel analyzed in The Power of the Powerless.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the main character, Winston, is tortured by upper Party member O’Brien in the Ministry of Love. Winston refuses to say that two plus two can equal anything other than four. When he begins to express willingness to say that two plus two equal whatever number he believes O’Brien wants to hear, O’Brien continues to torture him — Winston has not sufficiently internalized that two plus two truly is whatever The Party says it is. At one point, Winston asks how he can be expected not to see what’s plainly in front of his eyes – that two plus two equal four. O’Brien replies: “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once. You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.”
Of course, we could never face government sponsored and endorsed messaging insisting that something as fundamental and basic to truth as two plus two equal four is a mere, readily-changeable construct, could we? But if we did, it would almost certainly involve redefinition of the word “two,” or “four,” or “plus,” wouldn’t it?
Check out the following excerpts from Havel’s essay (or the whole thing, here), and then look around at the mass-produced signs and symbols that surround you.
Any emphasis in the quoted text below, in the way of bold italics, is mine:
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.
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.
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.
Quite simply, each helps the other to be obedient.
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.”
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 facade of something high. And that something is ideology.
The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government;… the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; …the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.
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. 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 posttotalitarian system makes everyone an instrument of a mutual totality, the auto-totality of society.
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.
As long as living a lie is not confronted with living the truth, the perspective needed to expose its mendacity is lacking. As soon as the alternative appears, however, it threatens the very existence of appearance and living a lie in terms of what they are, both their essence and their all-inclusiveness. And at the same time, it is utterly unimportant how large a space this alternative occupies: its power does not consist in its physical attributes but in the light it casts on those pillars of the system and on its unstable foundations. After all, the greengrocer was a threat to the system not because of any physical or actual power he had, but because his action went beyond itself, because it illuminated its surroundings and, of course, because of the incalculable consequences of that illumination. In the post-totalitarian system, therefore, living within the truth has more than a mere existential dimension (returning humanity to its inherent nature), or a noetic dimension (revealing reality as it is), or a moral dimension (setting an example for others). It also has an unambiguous political dimension.
Thus the power structure, through the agency of those who carry out the sanctions, those anonymous components of the system, will spew the greengrocer from its mouth. The system, through its alienating presence in people, will punish him for his rebellion. It must do so because the logic of its automatism and self-defense dictate it. The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie.
Is it not true that the far reaching adaptability to living a lie and the effortless spread of social auto-totality have some connection with the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity? With their willingness to surrender higher values when faced with the trivializing temptations of modern civilization? With their vulnerability to the attractions of mass indifference? And in the end, is not the grayness and the emptiness of life in the post-totalitarian system only an insulated caricature of modern life in general? And do we not in fact stand (although in the external measures of civilization, we are far behind) as a kind of warning to the West, revealing to it its own latent tendencies?
Shortly after writing The Power of the Powerless, Havel was imprisoned by the Czechoslovakian authorities for living outside the lie. But he survived long enough to become the nation’s President after the socialist beast imploded some 11 years later.
Do you know what a woman is? What’s up with all those striped, multi-colored flags? What’s up with all that jive that the only way for massive numbers of minor children to ever become their authentic selves is through genital swap-out surgery and opposite-sex hormone treatments?
Are you at times disquieted that the official policy line is completely against the reality you see with your own eyes (example: there are no pregnant men)? You must try harder. It is not easy to become sane.