Václav Havel’s Lessons on How to Create a “Parallel Polis”
Source: The New Yorker / www.newyorker.com / By Pankaj Mishra /
The recent political earthquakes have found us intellectually and emotionally underprepared, even helpless. None of our usual categories (left, right, liberal, conservative, progressive, reactionary) and perspectives (class, race, gender) seem able to explain how a compulsive liar and serial groper became the world’s most powerful man. Turning away from this unintelligible disaster, many seek enlightenment in literary and philosophical texts from the past, such as Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” George Orwell’s “1984,” and Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here.” It may be more rewarding, however, to turn to Václav Havel: a writer and thinker who intimately experienced totalitarianism of the Orwellian kind, who believed that it had already happened in America, and who also offered a way to resist it.
Born in 1936, Havel came of age in Czechoslovakia, whose Communist rulers repeatedly imprisoned and continuously surveilled him while suppressing many of his writings. Defiant right until 1989, when he engineered the fall of the Communist regime, Havel came to be celebrated in the West as a “dissident,” a word commonly used to describe many in Communist countries who valiantly struggled against a pitiless despotism. However, his major prose writings, from the late nineteen-seventies onward, took a mordant view of the self-righteous Cold Warrior from the West who sought to turn the dissident into a distant object of pity and admiration. In one of Havel’s most famous essays, “Politics and Conscience,” from 1984, he asserted that dissidents like him, with their “flawed efforts” for freedom, were engaged in a universally necessary endeavor. He insisted on a “shared destiny” with people in Western democracies, presenting his fate as “a warning, a challenge, a danger, or a lesson” for them.
The problems before humankind, as Havel saw it, were far deeper than the opposition between socialism and capitalism, which were both “thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories [that] have long since been beside the point.” The Western system, though materially more successful, also crushed the human individual, inducing feelings of powerlessness, which—as Trump’s victory has shown—can turn politically toxic. In Havel’s analysis, politics in general had become too “machine-like” and unresponsive, degrading flesh-and-blood human beings into “statistical choruses of voters.”
According to Havel, “the sole method of politics is quantifiable success,” which meant that “good and evil” were losing “all absolute meaning.” Long before the George W. Bush Administration went to war in Iraq on a false pretext, Havel identified, in the free as well as the unfree world, “a power grounded in an omnipresent ideological fiction which can rationalize anything without ever having to brush against the truth.” In his view, “ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans” had amassed a uniquely maligned power in the modern world, which pressed upon individuals everywhere, depriving “humans—rulers as well as the ruled—of their conscience, of their common sense and natural speech, and thereby, of their actual humanity.”
Since Western democracies as well as Communist dictatorships had suffered a devastating loss of the human scale, it mattered little that free markets were more efficient than Communist economies. For, Havel believed, “as long as our humanity remains defenseless, we will not be saved by any technical or organizational trick designed to produce better economic functioning.” Individual freedom and social cohesion were no less under threat in the depoliticized capitalist democracies of the West. “A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system,” he wrote, and who has “no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.”
After he became President of his country, Havel attacked, in 1997, its “post-communist morass”: an iniquitous capitalist economy that convinced many that “it pays off to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible; that political parties—though they all declare honest intentions in lofty words—are covertly manipulated by suspicious financial groupings.” But Havel had long before noticed some manifestly deep similarities between the two rival ideologies and systems of the Cold War; they had provoked him to describe the Cold Warriors who wanted to eradicate Communism as “smashing” the mirror that reminded them of their own moral ugliness. Indeed, Havel predicted in the mid-nineteen-eighties, even as Communism began to totter, that the kind of regime described in Orwell’s “1984” was certain to appear in the West. He warned “the victors” of the Cold War that they would inevitably resemble “their defeated opponents far more than anyone today is willing to admit or able to imagine.”
For Havel, the main question before him was “equally relevant to all”: whether we could succeed in “placing morality above politics and responsibility above our desires, in making human community meaningful, in returning content to human speech, in reconstituting, as the focus of all social action, the autonomous, integral, and dignified human ‘I.’ ” Havel saw the possibility of redemption in a politically active “civil society” (he, in fact, popularized this now-commonplace phrase). The “power of the powerless,” he argued, resides in their capacity to organize themselves and resist “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power.”
Active resistance is necessary because it is the moral and political indifference of demoralized, self-seeking citizens that normalizes despotic power. According to Havel, true escape from despotism requires “living in truth,” which means not only refusing all participation in the regime of untruth but also rejecting all false refuge in the “small pleasures of everyday life.” He insisted that the individual “be bound to something higher, and capable of sacrificing something, in extreme cases even everything, of his banal, prosperous private life.” Contemptuous of professional political parties, which he derided for releasing “the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility,” Havel dreamed of an “informed, non-bureaucratic, dynamic, and open communities that comprise the ‘parallel polis.’ ” For him, his own community of dissidents offered hope for the future; it was “a kind of rudimentary prefiguration, a symbolic model, of those more meaningful ‘post-democratic’ political structures that might become the foundation of a better society.”
Thinking of his own close-knit fraternity of political outcasts in Eastern Europe, Havel called for “the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love” in politics. He believed that “a genuine, profound and lasting change for the better . . . will have to derive from human existence, from the fundamental reconstitution of position of people in the world, their relationships to themselves and each other.” This all sounds a bit New Age–y, vague and impractical. But, long before Havel formulated the “power of the powerless,” Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., showed that the coöperative action of self-aware individuals can be a formidable force. Moreover, Havel’s diagnosis of political pathologies has a special resonance in the age of Trump.
More than thirty years ago, Havel complained, “I cannot avoid the impression that many people in the West still understand little of what is actually at stake in our time.” For many people in the United States today, a lying Twitter bully with access to nuclear bombs has finally highlighted the stakes. As the main political parties lie in disarray, the dissident, who takes upon her own conscience the burden of political responsibility and action, rather than placing it upon professional politicians, has suddenly become a figure of immense consequence in America.
The spontaneous and vigorous opposition to Trump, whether at the women’s marches the day after his Inauguration or at the protests at U.S. airports in support of a viciously demonized people, has already manifested many of the qualities that Havel wished to see in civil society: trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, and love. Many more people realize, as Havel did, that arbitrary and inhuman power cannot deprive them of the inner freedom to make moral choices, and to make human community meaningful. They are shaping a redemptive politics of dissidence in the free world, nearly three decades after the fall of Communism. To measure the American dissidents’ success in electoral or any other quantifiable terms would be beside the point. For they are creating a “parallel polis”: the vital space where many, over the next four years, will find refuge from our age of anger, and learn to live in truth.