Reflections on “The Power of the Powerless”

In 1978, Vaclac Havel wrote an essay, “The Power of the Powerless”. It followed the publication of “Charter 77” in 1977. In the essay Havel attempted to explain his view of what it meant to be a dissident in Czechoslovakia at that time, but the essay also described the nature of the all-pervasive ideology prevalent in the country. Havel defines the political structure in Czechoslovakia, and by extension the Soviet Bloc, as “post-totalitarian”. Havel admits that the term is perhaps clumsy but defends it on the basis of it allowing a description of the embedded nature of the ideology at that time and its acceptance by the entire population as a default position.

It is important to note that Charter 77 was not an organisation; it had no rules, permanent bodies or formal membership. It embraced everyone who agreed with its ideas, participated in its work, and supported it. It did not form the basis for any oppositional political activity. The aim of Charter 77 was to enable all the citizens of Czechoslovakia to work and live as free human beings.

The right to freedom of expression, for example, guaranteed by article 19 of the first-mentioned covenant, is in our case purely illusory. Tens of thousands of our citizens are prevented from working in their own fields for the sole reason that they hold views differing from official ones and were discriminated against and harassed in all kinds of ways by the authorities and public organisations. Deprived as they were of any means to defend themselves, they became victims of a virtual apartheid.

Havel uses the image of a sign in a grocer’s window “Workers of the World Unite” to represent the embedded nature of the Communist ideology in those times. Havel insists that – though the message is posted simply as a matter of course, without any import either for the grocer posting it or, for that matter, his customers, and passers-by – it nonetheless signifies the underlying, pervasive Communist ideology across the entire population. The message does not describe the Communist ideology, it does not need to do so, the population understands.

In explaining the essential nature of dissidence in Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s, it is against this ideological background, that Havel works. For most, though not all of the dissidents, Havel suggests that dissidence represents living within the essential individual (human) truth, rather than living within the (ideological) lie. The challenge to the system lies in exerting a cultural difference. He accepts that this challenge may be interpreted by some of the dissidents and by the authorities as a political challenge, hence promoting a systemic change. Havel is not one of those dissidents and argues that promoting dissidence resistance to the ideology as creating an “opposition” is a mistake and one inviting repression from the authorities. Havel sticks closely to the essential nature of Charter 77, as indicated above. His desire is rather to use dissidence as a demonstration of proof of the unquenchable human spirit, to “live within the truth”. Here Havel’s (Catholic) Christianity informs this position.

Havel’s commitment to the expression of cultural difference extends, as he suggests, to the West. He suggests that the West has succumbed to consumerism, demoralisation, and apathy in relation to politics. The implication is that the West does not have an embedded ideology. Writing in 1978 Havel could not then have seen the advent of modern neo-liberalism in the 1980s and its subsequent pervasive ideological influence on Western countries’ polities. It is the applicability of Havel’s prescriptions in relation to the West (Havel believed they were relevant), within the all-embracing technological modernity of the 21st century, accompanied by “identity politics”, that this essay is concerned with.

Cultural and Political Challenges in the Modern “West”

In the US, the cultural challenges and identity clashes take several forms, across the conventional left-to-right political spectrum. Increasingly, elections in the United States, are about identity – race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual identity, youth, as well as other lines of socio-economic demarcation – more than policy choices.

On the conservative right, there are the counter-cultural drumbeats of the Trump supporters claiming, with considerable credibility, that their voices, social, economic, and political are not being heard. (It matters not that Trump is a charlatan, a rentier-capitalist claiming to have his followers’ interests at heart, while satisfying his immense ego and becoming even richer). Trump manages to articulate the anger and despair in modern America of a substantial proportion of the population. This significant group, though not entirely homogenous, share both an economic concern about their working future and a social concern about the disappearance of “traditional” values and their replacement by identity values. The danger in the US is the potential for cultural conflicts to become violent.

On the liberal left in the US, there are a variety of groups, partly at least, represented by the ironically self-titled,  the “Squad”. Formed of originally four, and now six, elected, young Democratic politicians. Representing, it is said, the demographic diversity of a younger political generation, their informal manifesto covers issues such as the advocacy of progressive policies such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, aside from liberal identity group values.

Liberal sexual and gender orientation issues, connected with several identity groups, have also become an arena of conflict between social liberals and social conservatives. An increasing litany of smaller groups, attached to the original gay and lesbian diversity groups (LGBTQ+, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and others), with rainbow flags replacing national symbols, are viewed by social conservatives as challenging “traditional” community values. These socially conservative views are shared by a broad swathe of public opinion when language references in health and social settings are seen to be changing.

To an extent these conflicts could be regarded as inter-generational and hence likely to be ameliorated over time. Moreover, it is essential to prevent discrimination, even of relatively small groupings. However, the role of modern media, conventional and social, ensures both communication and  confrontation are placed directly in the public sphere. This situation also helps to entrench opinion in the segmented identity group silos.

These issues of identity politics and cultural clashes are replicated across other Western countries. The characteristic of all of these cultural differences is that they not only represent what Havel describes as the essential expression of human cultural differences, but the conflicts are both straining overall national community adhesion and also the stability of the neoliberal market state.

The problem partly derives from a feature of neoliberal market which leads to the market segmentation of social and economic groups, in relation to mass consumer marketing. However, in the neoliberal market paradigm, the segments are not meant to clash with one another. In reality, identity groups do tend to clash with each other, threatening the political stability of the underlying ideological system. This phenomenon inevitably limits the tolerance of the political and bureaucratic authorities and is likely to result in their implementing autocratic actions.

It may be argued, of course, that all political authorities need to be able to keep public order and hence use legal powers to maintain public order, against challenges by interest groups, including limits on “free” speech. The use of lawful constraints, per se, is not disputed. Rather is the issue where the boundary is set to allow the expression of cultural and political difference, while preventing challenge to the underlying ideological system. It appears that, in the West, this boundary has been significantly shifting towards the autocratic maintenance of neoliberalism, itself affected by the linking of consumer market commodity segments with conflicting cultural identities.

A demonstration of this tendency towards autocracy in the West occurred during the Covid19 pandemic. In several Western countries, vaccination against severe illness in some at risk groups, though not against infection as such, was made mandatory not only, perhaps understandably, for foreign travel, but also for domestic events and venues, such as restaurants. In most countries, vaccine “passports were utilised, together with mandatory mask wearing, even outdoors. There were groups opposed to vaccinations. Some were opposed to all vaccinations (anti-vaxxers), but most of these dissidents, especially among the younger (under-40) population cohort, simply argued that the choice was a matter of balancing the low risk (for this cohort) of catching the virus and developing severe illness, against the low, but certainly not negligible, risk from taking the vaccine. (Repeated assertions by public authorities that the vaccines were “completely safe”, were patently false).

It may be suggested that, now that the pandemic has eased in the West, this example of autocratic behaviour by governments may be forgotten. To assume this is the case would be wide of the mark. Preparations for a continuation of vaccine passports for domestic purposes are continuing, even in the UK, where restrictions on behaviour were mild compared with some countries in continental Europe, and in Canada and Australia, for example.

Another example in the UK is the proposed legislative restrictions on the right to protest, and the strict treatment of dissident protests against UK government climate change policy action by Extinction Rebellion activists. Once political and bureaucratic public control measures have been activated, whatever reasonable purpose may have triggered their use, public authorities are loath to abandon them.

The West in 2022 is clearly not Czechoslovakia in 1978. The Soviet communist ideology that led in that country, and in other Soviet satellites, and including Russia, set the boundaries of dissident protest at a point which prevented cultural as well as even the semblance of political systemic reform. When even the mildest of challenges to apply human rights’ laws in practice, already within the Czechoslovak constitution, as Charter 77 advocated, was regarded by the political authorities as, effectively, treasonable, then the boundary against protest is dangerously tight.

No-one is suggesting that it is easy for any state to set the boundary for cultural or political protest at an appropriate point, somewhere between extreme libertarianism and dictatorship. This is especially problematic for Western countries that have traditionally permitted a wide range of dissident cultural expression. In this essay, it is suggested that in the West, perhaps fearful of cultural clashes between opposed identity groups, and challenges by other dissident groups, possibly posing systemic political challenges to the stability of the state, the boundary appears to be shifting towards autocratic governance.

Lessons from Havel

Havel’s advocacy of the role of dissidence and the need for powerful surges of cultural difference to reinforce “living within the truth” – as the demonstration of the indomitable human spirit – may be seen as perhaps less required in the 21st century West. As Solzhenitsyn is reported to have suggested, following his sojourn in the West, there is little problem in writers and others expressing cultural differences, and even political challenges in the West. It is simply that no-one pays any attention to the opinions of writers and artists as representing a political problem for the authorities. This assertion, however, may becoming less valid in the West.

It is important to recognise that the importance that Havel attached to cultural difference and the role he gives it, is partly because of his disbelief in the validity of systemic change, of whichever variety. His deep pessimism in this regard need not be shared. One does not need to embrace utopianism to believe that systemic improvement is both possible and desirable.

Moreover, Havel’s pessimism about systemic change was misleading – though he could not know it at the time – such change was brought about subsequently by Gorbachev, to the advantage of Czechoslovakia and the other satellite Soviet countries in the late 1980s. Ironically, Havel himself may have sensed that change was coming. In the penultimate paragraph of his essay Havel suggests that it maybe that ”right here, in our everyday lives, certain challenges are not already encoded, quietly waiting for the moment when they will be read and grasped”.

Notwithstanding the desirability of progressive systemic change to improve societal development in a positive manner, Havel’s critical concern and caution about systemic change does need to be borne in mind. Perhaps more importantly, Havel’s advocacy of the recurring need to demonstrate, via dissidence, the flowering of the essential human spirit, is a phenomenon that all societies and political systems should bear in mind. To support dissidents, even when we may disagree with them, is a key element of any successful polity and society. Perhaps in the West where political apathy is always with reach, Havel’s message is more important than ever to be heard.

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