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"The Power of The Powerless" Is More Relevant Than Ever
An Eastern Bloc party don't stop
"Living within the truth has become a form of rebellion."
It is impossible to read “The Power of the Powerless,” an essay written by Czech dissident Vaclav Havel in 1978, without being struck by the similarities between the oppressive regimes of the Communist-era Eastern Bloc and our modern “free world.”
A prominent critic of Czechoslovakia's Communist regime, Havel led an anti-authoritarian movement which eventually led to the overthrow of the government and the transition of Czechoslovakia to a liberal democracy. Havel served as the last President of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and the first President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. He was known for his commitment to civil rights and free market economics, and for his efforts to bridge the East-West divide in Europe.
“The Power of the Powerless,” written during the darkest days of Soviet-style authoritarianism in Eastern Europe, describes living under what Havel calls a “post-totalitarian” regime. Unlike conventional totalitarianism, in which conformity is enforced through simple brutality, post-totalitarianism is a system of psychological control under which every citizen becomes complicit in the maintenance of a fictitious narrative about society.
“Life in the system is thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies,” Havel writes. “government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; 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 repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; 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; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance.”
Sound familiar yet? Keep reading. “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.”
Welcome to the bloc party, comrade! Then and now, post-totalitarianism is built on an ideology that claims to be dedicated to freedom and equality, but actually creates an environment in which human rights are trampled by a ruling elite in the name of the common good.
But wait! There’s more. How about this? “Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”
Over the last few years, between COVID, BLM, transgender activism, and now the rhetoric around climate change, we are seeing the same kind of demands that we “live within a lie.” It doesn’t matter if you truly believe that 10-year-olds can decide they were born with the wrong genitals, it only matters that you add pronouns to your LinkedIn profile. It doesn't matter if you support harmful public health policies, it only matters that you wear a mask in public. It doesn't matter if you have doubts that race riots are justified in the name of equality, it only matters that you keep your mouth shut. As long as people live within the lie, they reinforce it, make it stronger, and push anyone who disagrees farther towards the edges of society.
Just as in the Czechoslovakia of the 1970s, government and media collaborate to bolster this effort (propaganda) and to smother disfavored perspectives (censorship). Havel explains why this is vital to maintaining the regime: “An essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle involved here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.” Our contemporary leaders’ mania for fact-checking and stopping the spread of “misinformation” is directly descended from this idea that truth can only come from those in power. Trust the experts, but only the right experts!
It would not surprise Havel to see the power of the state merging with the power of the private sector, forming a monolithic establishment that operates in its own self-interest (at the expense of everyone else). Nor would it suprise him to see that this has led to an increase in authoritarian measures, such as the expansion of surveillance and the normalization of censorship. Indeed, it would be familiar to him, because it is virtually indistinguishable from the oppressive regime he describes in “The Power of the Powerless.”
Havel’s 45 year old essay makes it clear that the similarities between today’s West and yesterday’s Eastern Bloc have become undeniable. The sacrifice of individual rights for the collective interest of a ruling elite is well underway. The power of the public and private sectors has been unified to enforce a hypocritical ideology that pressures us to live within its lies.
Here, though, is where Havel gives us the benefit of his experience: to oppose a structure built on lies, we must begin living within the truth. In that way, we can build new systems that will ultimately displace and replace the old ones. This, according to the man who went from persecuted dissident to president of his country, is the power of the powerless.
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