Vaclav Havel Library Foundation Fellowship Essay: Kari Barclay
Resisting Supportively: Dissent in the Era of Neoliberalism
by Kari Barclay
In some ways, humans rights abuses today resemble the kind of “posttotalitarian” oppression that Václav Havel described in “The Power of the Powerless”—one only needs to look at the Belarusian dictatorship’s violence against dissidents or police confrontations in the U.S. with Black Lives Matter protestors.
However, human rights abuses today also take the form of the systemic neglect of those in need. With a mix of austerity, xenophobia, and racism, North America and Europe have seen rising inequality and have failed to direct resources to low-income and otherwise marginal communities. Describing the history of political art, Shannon Jackson writes that “the anti-authoritarian critique of the sixties could be directed not only at capitalist hierarchies or genocidal dictators but also at ‘bureaucratic’ unions and state welfare systems, making the dismantling of social welfare look like the triumph of individual resistance. . . . ‘Flexibility’ was the ultimate desideratum; by extension, a generalized ‘resistance to regulation’ was a stamp of creative agency” (23). Activist artists in today’s neoliberal economies therefore find themselves in a quandary; how can we dissent without rejecting the social support structures that benefit the poor and society’s most marginalized?
“The Power of the Powerless” offers a framework for dissent that cannot be coopted by neoliberal arguments. Havel’s vision of resistance values social solidarity and does not abandon those in need of support. Examining Havel’s distinction between “opposition” and “dissidence” and his theory of the “hidden sphere,” I will suggest ways in which the arts—and in particular theater—can protest injustice while fostering community and valuing human dignity. Artists and dissidents should not only dismantle unjust government practices but also build a vibrant, moral civil society in their place. In light of corporate and government neglect of social welfare, activists today can hold governments accountable and can model the kind of social support that they want governments to provide.
In his essay, Havel writes that he prefers the term “dissent” to the term “opposition.” Dissent aims at “living within the truth” and undertaking the positive project of honoring human worth. Opposition, meanwhile, solely rejects the current political order. Havel writes, “there is something negative in the notion of the ‘opposition.’ People who so define themselves do so in relation to a prior ‘position’” (53). Rather than working toward a moral truth, opposition can tear down existing structures without any guiding vision. This is not to say that opposition is altogether unproductive. As Havel argues, refusing the current order can be a starting point for living within the truth (64). Yet solely working in opposition, one can fail to build community and to support those who need support.
Perhaps we can read neoliberal ideology as one of opposition rather than dissent. Distrustful of government structure and of one’s fellow citizens, neoliberalism retreats into an individualism without larger moral or social dimensions. Neoliberal ideology states that anyone, through hard work, can achieve financial success; poor people, then, lack success solely through their lack of hard work. As Thomas Piketty has noted, these claims of “meritocracy” justify wealth inequality and encourage governments to remove structures supporting the poor (264). So the story goes, any support for the poor will disincentivize work; therefore, social support must be eradicated to make room for a more “pure” marketplace. In this way, like the opposition Havel describes, neoliberalism has no aspirations beyond capital accumulation and a market free from outside intervention.
True freedom does not come from substituting one political structure for another (switching free trade capitalism for state-run socialism or vice versa). As Havel argues, “only by creating a better life can a better system be developed” (52). This drive for a better life is best developed in the “hidden sphere” (41) or “second culture” (78), the parts of civil society in which people form social identities and alternative value systems to the dominant ideology. The hidden sphere is the realm of artists, intellectuals, community organizers, and average citizens who choose to “live within the truth.” In this theory of social capital, Robert Putnam argues that when citizens gather together through organizations like parent-teacher associations, activist groups, and book clubs, these organizations improve community wellbeing (66). The beauty of the hidden sphere is that it can support people even while protesting injustice.
Dissident art is at its best when, like the hidden sphere, it supports those in need. For example, Bread and Puppet Theater has a vibrant history of making dissident theater in the U.S. Based in Vermont, the group has protested injustices ranging from the Vietnam War to the bank bailout of 2008 to strict immigration laws. At one point, the government actually destroyed a warehouse full of puppets to stifle the theater’s protests (Cayley, “Puppet Uprising”). While resisting unjust policies, Bread and Puppet nevertheless aims to renew and support its audiences.
Before each performance, the head of the company, Peter Schumann, serves his audience sourdough bread and aioli, the food his mother served him as a child in East Germany. In this way, Bread and Puppet aims to nurture its audiences physically as well as spiritually. A testament to the theater’s urge to renew society, one of its most successful shows was called “Our Domestic Resurrection Circus” (“About Bread and Puppet”). Protest art must not solely speak from a place of bitterness; it must also provide joy and beauty to the hurt.
In Utopia in Performance, Jill Dolan writes, “live performance provides a place where people come together, embodied and passionate, to share experiences of making meaning and imagination that can describe or capture fleeting intimations of a better world” (2). This is the beauty of Havel’s work as a playwright. He not only bitingly critiques the pervasiveness of communist ideology but also gives us glimpses of a better life. For example, The Garden Party satirizes the limits placed upon art and ideology under totalitarianism by presenting a ridiculously rigid celebration thrown by the state. Yet The Garden Party also features forbidden flirtation between bureaucrats, Hugo Pludek’s attempts at independent thought, and an absurdity that points to cracks in the communist system. Far from a lifeless critique, the play has a life of its own and recognizes people’s yearning for a different way of living. As Havel said in an interview, the absurdity of his theater “was able to capture something that was ‘in the air’” (Havel and Hvížďala 54).
Because art and the hidden sphere can challenge dominant ideology, elites and government are often quick to control or dissolve civil society. In communist Czechoslovakia, this meant disseminating propaganda like the green grocer’s sign in “Power of the Powerless” and punishing those like Havel who held dissident viewpoints. In contemporary Europe and America, overtly punishing dissidents is less acceptable (but is still practiced, to be sure). As a result, corporations and neoliberal governments have found slyer ways to stifle civil society. Austerity often targets the arts particularly severely. Anti-unionization laws threaten the power of communities to organize economically. “Flexible” labor conditions with unpredictable hours make it difficult for people to join civil society organizations.
Despite government hostility, dissidents find ways to keep civil society alive as a realm of independent thought. French philosopher, playwright, and director Alain Badiou notes how, during the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong attempted to reform the Beijing Opera to remove the aristocratic characters and replace them with workers. However, “to purge the theatre of its traditional heroes . . . was not within the power of the historical leaders of the revolution, not even when supported by twenty million Red Guards, worker factions, and a few army units.
Nobody can take the theater by assault. Theatre is more solidly statelike than the state itself” (23). Culture maintains its authority even in the midst of persecution.
At a time when neoliberalism threatens the hidden sphere and when state support structures are dissolving, dissidents must work all the more strongly to maintain a vibrant civil society and support those in need. Havel envisions oppressive government withering away to make room for a society in which people care for each other and strive for a more moral world. However, when government withers away and civil society is not vibrant enough to take its place, we’re left with the neoliberalism and hyperindividualism that we see today. We need more than opposition, than the hollowing out of support structures; we need artists and activists that are committed to supporting society’s most marginalized. Civil society can hold government accountable to serving its people. Minimum wage laws are the results of civil society activism. The free breakfast program in U.S. public schools was adopted from civil society programs of the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Building codes around accessibility for people with disabilities are the result of advocacy from civil society. We can build a more moral society. Working off of Václav Havel’s model of dissent, we can resist injustice and still direct resources to the people who need them most.
“About Bread and Puppet.” Bread and Puppet Theater. Accessed March 14, 2016. Web.
Badiou, Alain. Rhapsody for the Theatre. Transl. Bruno Brosteels. London, UK: Verso, Print.
Cayley, David. “Puppet Uprising: The Art of Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater.” CBC Radio. New York, December 2002. Podcast.
Dolan, Jill. Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2010. Print.
Havel, Vaclav, and Karel Hvížďala. Disturbing the peace: A conversation with Karel Hvížďala. Transl. by Paul Wilson. New York, NY: Vintage, 1990. Print.
Havel, Václav. “The Power of the Powerless”. Transl. by Paul Wilson. International Journal of Politics 15.3/4 (1985): 23–96. Web.
Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014. Print.
Putnam, Robert D. “Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital.” Journal of democracy 6.1 (1995): 65-78. Web.
About Kari Barclay
Kari Barclay majors in Theater Studies and Political Science at Duke University. He has directed plays about social issues in the U.S. and is committed to use theater to strengthen civil dialogue.