Václav Havel on “The Power of the Powerless”

The Power of the Powerless

I recently read Václav Havel’s essay on “The Power of the Powerless.” I thought I was going to be rereading it, but I realized that what I had read before was only excerpts. Today I’m going to summarize and paraphrase and riff on the full essay for a bit. It’s a fascinating and surprising piece of work and I think it has useful lessons for us today.

The context for the essay is Czechoslovakia in . The country had been behind the Iron Curtain for , and had passed since the brief experiment in political liberalization known as the “Prague Spring” which had been quickly stopped by a Soviet-led invasion.

Havel was a Czech playwright with international renown, whose works had been banned in his own country since the crushing of the Prague Spring. In he helped to spearhead “Charter 77” — a document that called on the government to respect human rights and its own Constitution.

Charter 77 was spurred into action by the arrest and trial of members of the rock band “The Plastic People of the Universe” — the “Pussy Riot” of their day. The government took the threat represented by the Charter very seriously — it persecuted its signers and made it illegal to print or distribute the text. In , Havel would be sent to prison for his role in advocating for the Charter.

At the time Havel wrote this essay, he was under constant police surveillance and harassment for his Charter 77 activism. Meanwhile he was being noticed by freedom-loving people around the world and being held up as a prominent example of a Soviet bloc dissident.

The “Post-Totalitarian” System

The essay begins by suggesting that this idea of “dissent” needs a closer look: who are these “dissidents” and what are they up to and what can they hope to achieve? But first, what is the nature of the beast they’re up against: is it static and all-powerful as it sometimes seems, or is it changing and growing weaker somehow?

This government is a strange sort of dictatorship — a dictatorship not by a person or people, but by a bureaucracy and by certain principles and external contingencies (primarily, that the Soviet Union intends to maintain Czechoslovakia as an obedient client state). This means that this is not the sort of dictatorship that can be threatened by attacks on a particular person or clique; there is little chance for some alternative person or group to become strong enough to overthrow or replace the dictator, as this variety of dictator isn’t the sort of thing that lends itself to being overthrown.

He notes that the particular form of Communist dictatorship (State control not only of traditional state functions but also of the means of economic production) gives it more thorough totalitarian power and access to resources. (He also notes that this has not kept the Soviet bloc countries from falling prey to the cult of consumerism and industrialization that characterized the First World nations.)

Czechoslovakia (and the Soviet Union and its client states collectively) was being ruled in part by an ideology — almost a religion — one that had proven to be a very tempting refuge for the confused, uprooted, and alienated people of these dark times. “Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for 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.”

Havel comes to refer to this system as “post-totalitarian” but he might have chosen “secular theocracy” as he observes that under Communism “the highest secular authority is identical with the highest spiritual authority.” (The term “post-totalitarian” is confusing, as it seems at first to imply that it is no longer totalitarian, which isn’t the case. “Neototalitarian” might have been more apt.)

He anticipates the argument that though this ideology is dominant and everpresent, very few people really believe its platitudes. They’re like schoolchildren reciting the Pledge of Allegiance without paying attention to the words because it’s what is expected of them. And to meet this argument he introduces us to a grocer:

The Obedient Grocer

In the window of the grocery is a sign that reads “Workers of the world, unite!” What does the grocer mean by putting this sign in the window? Not that he is enthusiastic about global worker unity and wants to spread the word about it. Putting signs like that in your window is just what you have to do to avoid trouble.

The real message on the sign reads something like this: “I, the grocer X––, 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.” The message is not meant for the grocer’s customers, but for officials who might suspect him or for informers who might care to turn him in.

If the grocer had to put that very message explicitly in his window, he might be embarrassed to kowtow publicly in such a way, but by doing this genuflection in this indirect manner he saves face. If you ask him why he has the sign in his window, he can answer “What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?” and protect his dignity. In this way a gesture of obedience and subservience is disguised by ideology as one of solidarity and empowerment.

(Why does seemingly every corporate headquarters, hotel, school, and so on in the U.S. have the stars and stripes flying on a big pole not far from the front door? When people visit the U.S. from other countries they often remark how weird it is to see the flag everywhere instead of primarily on certain government buildings. Is this because American corporations, or foreign corporations with offices here, are especially enthusiastic about the flag? Or is it because nobody wants to be the target of some Fox News two-minutes hate about being insufficiently patriotic — that is, insufficiently subservient to the ruling ideology? Why do sporting events open with the national anthem, and what do you think would happen if you stayed seated when it played?)


“Ideology,” Havel summarizes, “is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.… It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.”

Ideology is the key to the success of the modern post-totalitarian dictatorship. Today’s dictatorships are too large and complex and cannot be held together by raw force and fear. They require their subjects not merely to submit passively but to participate actively in their own subjection, and ideology is the mechanism to accomplish this.

Ideology represents the life-denying, self-perpetuating, narcissistic, repressive acts of the bureaucracy as being devoted to their opposites: “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. 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.”

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.

In other words, once you make the decision to participate in the ideological mask for your subservient behavior — like the grocer putting the sign in his window — you become a part of this glue that affixes ideology over reality and gives ideology power. It doesn’t matter that you inwardly don’t really believe the explicit message of the ideology, because the explicit message isn’t the important one, and it doesn’t matter if you believe it or not so long as you agree to continue acting as though you did.

But while ideology is central to the post-totalitarian power structure, the interests of the structure itself are paramount, and the ideology — or the interpretation of it anyway — will tend to be subordinate to it. The tighter the control that the government exercises over communication and expression, the better it will be able to enforce and manipulate the orthodox interpretation of the ideology and the more the ideology will come to float far above reality, more-or-less completely detached from it: “a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.”

So for instance, in China today, “communism” is still the name given to the sacred ideology that is said to govern the system, but its meaning has come a long way: now it means the total state-enforced subjection of the working class to a small minority of fantastically wealthy private owners of the means of production. (As an illustration, the wealth of China’s National Congress makes the U.S. Congress look like a bunch of ordinary middle-class schmoes.) It’s still “communism” you’re expected to be loyal to, the flag is still red, and that’s still Mao’s face staring back at you from the money — and you can still signal your loyalty to the system with the same empty platitudes about the rule of the working class — but the system doesn’t care about the explicit meaning of the platitudes any more than you do.

But because ideology can become so absurdly detached from reality in this way, it can be a real art to try to maintain your fiction of adherence to it — “the virtuosity of the ritual” comes to be more important than actually being able to attach meaning to what you are doing or saying. Aspects of the ritual and ideology almost exclusively come to represent only one other. This can cause the ideology to detach even from the bureaucracy it serves, until it becomes an independent, malignant, power-appropriating menace all its own.

At this stage, when the ideology is serving itself more than it serves the bureaucracy, the power structure stops attracting the ambitious and starts attracting the faceless — empty suits — people who can articulately and cleverly engage in the virtuosity of the ritual but who don’t seem to have much else going on outside of this arena of rhetorical swamp gas and who are so thoughtless that they have thoroughly internalized the ideology’s criteria of success and prestige.

If ideology is so powerful that it can eventually even conquer and press into service the post-totalitarian dictatorship itself, what hope do we have? It is this: the ideology “is built on lies [and] works only as long as people are willing to live within the lie.”

Who Enforces the Ideology?

What if our grocer were to stop living in the lie in one little way: by not hanging the sign in his window that means nothing to him. Well, what possible difference could that make? It’s unlikely any of his customers even notice the sign. The sign is not meant to be read individually, anyway, but “to form part of the panorama of everyday life.” It is as a contributor to this panorama that the grocer serves the system. The message of the panorama is not the message on the sign but the message: “this sign-hanging is what the ideology demands of us today and we are complying.” Those who hang the signs are not only complying with the ideology, but are expressing the ideology’s demands, by the same action. They are simultaneously the voice of command and the posture of submission.

This has a pernicious psychological effect. The latent consciousness that you are both victim and perpetrator of this ideological control influences you to identify with the ideology. You feel better both submitting and commanding if you think you are doing so in service of an ideology you believe in, so you have a tendency to try to believe that you believe in this weird, untethered, nonsensical ideology — and you come to see attacks against the ideology as threats to you personally.

Thus the conflict between the aims of life and the aims of the system is not a conflict between… the rulers and the ruled.… In the post-totalitarian system, this line runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system. What we understand by the system is not, therefore, a social order imposed by one group upon another, but rather something which permeates the entire society and is a factor in shaping it, something which may seem impossible to grasp or define (for it is in the nature of a mere principle), but which is expressed by the entire society as an important feature of its life.

…It can happen and did happen only because there is obviously in modern humanity a certain tendency toward the creation, or at least the toleration, of such a system. There is obviously something in human beings which responds to this system, something they reflect and accommodate, something within them which paralyzes every effort of their better selves to revolt. Human beings are compelled to live within a lie, but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living in this way. Therefore not only does the system alienate humanity, but at the same time alienated humanity supports this system as its own involuntary master plan, as a degenerate image of its own degeneration, as a record of people’s own failure as individuals.

We have to acknowledge that alongside the striving for dignity, integrity, and personality that we value and treasure in ourselves, there lives a less-acknowledged, sinister striving “to merge with the anonymous crowd and to flow comfortably along with it down the river of pseudolife.”

Havel says that the post-totalitarian system he has described may have evolved from the merger of traditional totalitarian dictatorship with the modern consumer society. He thinks that the ability to live comfortably within the lie has some connection to “the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity[,] their willingness to surrender higher values when faced with the trivializing temptations of modern civilization[, and] their vulnerability to the attractions of mass indifference.” He sees the post-totalitarian system as something like the logical conclusion of these modern tendencies, and wonders if such systems are “a kind of warning to the West, revealing to it its own latent tendencies”.

The Disobedient Grocer

So if going along with the lie means not just submitting to the system, but enforcing the system, what is the alternative for people who find the system intolerable? What if the grocer stops participating in the lie and starts living in the truth?

Well, first and most obviously, the system retaliates. And since the system is enforced not just by the officials who overtly persecute him but by the ordinary citizens, they as part of their life-in-the-lie must also shun him. Does he then just become a vivid display of the danger of rebellion — useful to the regime and no threat to it? According to Havel, no: the grocer’s quixotic act is indeed a serious threat to the system:

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. He has broken through the exalted façade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened: by his action, the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can co-exist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.

As he said before, the biggest vulnerability of the ideologically-ruled post-totalitarian system is its unmooring from reality. But this vulnerability only becomes a liability when the system is brought into contrast with reality — and the system works hard to ensure that this doesn’t happen; that’s the whole point of that panorama of platitudes and of the conscription of the grocer to play his part in bringing it about.

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. If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth. This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.


In Havel’s view, the lie can never gain total control of someone. There’s always a seed of truth left behind. The lie, merely because it so vigorously claims to be the truth and claims to be a route to authenticity, reinforces the idea that there is such a thing as truth and authenticity and that these things are valuable. The truth, then, is not exterminated in the post-totalitarian system, but pushed underground. There, it continues to flow through society like an underground stream. Those who decide to live in the truth are not, therefore, isolated and having to invent themselves from scratch, but they’re able to tap into this reservoir.

Because the post-totalitarian system is so detached from and hostile to the truth, the flow of this underground stream can evade its notice, “and by the time it finally surfaces into the light of day as an assortment of shocking surprises to the system, it is usually too late to cover them up in the usual fashion. Thus they create a situation in which the regime is confounded, invariably causing panic…”

This manner of striking at the main vulnerability of the post-totalitarian ideological system is a peculiar form of opposition: it doesn’t take place in the halls of power or in the voting booth or in conspiratorial revolutionary cells or in strikes and street protests, but at “the level of human consciousness and conscience, the existential level… in the fifth column of social consciousness, in the hidden aims of life, in human beings’ repressed longing for dignity and fundamental rights… This power does not participate in any direct struggle for power; rather, it makes its influence felt in the obscure arena of being itself.” But once established there, it can and does contribute, in subtle but definite ways, to such things as “a social movement, a sudden explosion of civil unrest, a sharp conflict inside an apparently monolithic power structure, or simply an irrepressible transformation in the social and intellectual climate” and thereby has powerful political consequences.

The Prague Spring itself, Havel says, only superficially was a conflict between groups vying for political power. Looked at more closely, it appears as “the final act and the inevitable consequence of a long drama originally played out chiefly in the theatre of the spirit and the conscience of society” and prompted by a few individuals with no pretensions to political power who simply decided to begin living in the truth. The Prague Spring wasn’t the birth of something promising that was then cut down, but the above-ground blooming of something that continues to flourish underground.

And this is why these post-totalitarian ideological systems are so intolerant of leaks and dissent. Why was Solzhenitsyn hounded out of Russia? For the same reason Ed Snowden was hounded into it: “a desperate attempt to plug up the dreadful wellspring of truth, a truth which might cause incalculable transformations in social consciousness, which in turn might one day produce political debacles unpredictable in their consequences.”

But living the truth isn’t just a matter of exposing facts; it isn’t even just a verbal thing: “It can be any means by which a person or a group revolts against manipulation: anything from a letter by intellectuals to a workers’ strike, from a rock concert to a student demonstration, from refusing to vote in the farcical elections to making an open speech at some official congress, or even a hunger strike, for instance.… every free expression of life indirectly threatens the post-totalitarian system politically, including forms of expression to which, in other social systems, no one would attribute any potential political significance, not to mention explosive power.” There’s a reason why Charter 77 was prompted by the prosecution of a rock-and-roll band.

Living in the Truth as a Moral, not Political Revolution

The fact that living-in-a-lie has emerged as a self-perpetuating political system suggests that something has gone badly wrong at the core of society and in the moral centers of the people who make it up. It reveals that we have demoralized ourselves by abandoning our senses of responsibility in order to dissolve our identities in the solvent of mass culture and consumerism.

Seen in this light, the political side effects of living in the truth are secondary to its function of allowing us to reclaim our moral agency. Indeed, because the beneficial political effects of living in the truth are so diffuse and difficult to trace, and the consequences of confronting the system in this way are in contrast so personal and visceral and likely, nobody would be likely to make the attempt if there were not this additional imperative.

Politics Under Post-Totalitarianism

How can a citizen participate in the political process that governs his or her society? In the post-totalitarian system, the normal way to participate is by living in and helping to enforce the lie that perpetuates the stranglehold of the system over the lives of its subjects. Part of this lie is the farcical processes of voting or pleading with representatives and so forth that mimics (and, according to the rules of the lie, constitutes) political deliberation and action. The only form of participation permitted you is one that helps you propel the system that smothers politics, not one that actually allows you to make decisions together with your fellow citizens.

What if you want more than that: participatory politics of equals, rather than the obedient pseudopolitics of the galley slave? Do you participate in the fake elections more vigorously? lobby your fake representatives more persuasively? These things are hopeless and dangerous and make people cynical about politics in general; if you don’t see beyond the officially-sanctioned outlets of pseudopolitics, there seems to be no point to politics at all.

Living in the truth is the remaining method of political activity — the last alternative to the pseudopolitics that the system enforces. This can sometimes trip up the most earnest and well-meaning activists, who may overestimate the usefulness of confrontational and bold “political” acts — that is, acts within the permitted pseudopolitical sphere — and thereby bolster the perceived legitimacy of that sphere. This is another way of participating in the lie. Instead, effective activists need to understand that they’re in a new sort of system with new rules, and they need to be imaginative and not try to build within either the pseudopolitical framework or within models of dissent that would only be appropriate if they were up against a democracy or a traditional dictatorship.

To foment an opposition, don’t paint a picture of a better set of rulers or a new political party or a constitutional amendment or electoral reform or any of that perennial hogwash. Instead, aim concretely and directly at “the continuing and cruel tension between the complex demands of [the post-totalitarian] system and the aims of life, that is, the elementary need of human beings to live, to a certain extent at least, in harmony with themselves… in a bearable way, not to be humiliated by their superiors and officials, not to be continually watched by the police, to be able to express themselves freely, to find an outlet for their creativity, to enjoy legal security, and so on.”

We cannot free ourselves by overthrowing a tyranny and imposing freedom from above the way communism was imposed on us from above; instead we have to strive to become free and then impose our freedom on the government from below.

Dissent and Opposition

Here, Havel spends some time going back to his original question of what “dissent” and “opposition” mean in a post-totalitarian system… In a democracy, the opposition is a party currently out of power working through legitimate channels within the system to try to gain or exert power. In a traditional dictatorship, the opposition is those people who are trying to replace the dictatorship with something else.

He says that the Charter 77 movement is not an opposition in these senses, though some of the signers may have aspirations in this direction. It isn’t a political party with aspirations of gaining political power, and it doesn’t have an alternative system it hopes to install in place of the present state. Nonetheless, “Western journalists” have seized on Charter 77 as an “opposition movement” and the Czech government treats it as an oppositional organization simply by virtue that it “manages to avoid total manipulation and which therefore denies the principle that the system has an absolute claim on the individual.”

“Opposition” is a tricky word. Once the label gets attached to you, you tend to collect a lot of really bad attention from the state: you are considered a traitor and can expect treatment ranging from character assassination to outright execution. But it’s also deceptive in that it defines your work not in its own terms or in how it relates to reality, but in terms of the system of lies you’re trying to escape: rather than living in the truth you find yourself defined as living in opposition to the lie.

Some people who are trying to live in the truth in the Soviet Bloc have gained the title of “dissidents” — something Havel belittles as a sort of Western media-granted celebrity status (he always puts the word in quotation marks).

One danger of this label is that it comes to sound like a sort of special profession — almost like you have to have a license or special training to dissent, or like it’s an activity only for people who have made it their special vocation. In fact, “dissidents” are not people who “consciously decided to be professional malcontents” but ordinary people “who are doing what they feel they must and, consequently, who find themselves in open conflict with the regime.”

The label has a way of separating a small group of people into a sort of elevated clique and treating them like some sort of tiny interest group distinct from society at large: journalists ask “is the government going to respect the rights of the dissidents” rather than “is the government going to respect everyone’s right to live in the truth?”

It is truly a cruel paradox that the more some citizens stand up in defense of other citizens, the more they are labeled with a word that in effect separates them from those “other citizens.”

Small-Scale Work

What of the argument that it’s worth making small concessions to the lie in order to be granted the limited freedom and resources necessary to do good work? Why not work within the system and try to make it better or to ameliorate its problems?

There’s something to this: “It is hard to say how much worse things would be if there were not many hard-working people who simply refuse to give up and try constantly to do the best they can, paying an unavoidable minimum to living within a lie so that they might give their utmost to the authentic needs of society. These people assume, correctly, that every piece of good work is an indirect criticism of bad politics, and that there are situations where it is worthwhile going this route, even though it means surrendering one’s natural right to make direct criticisms.”

But Havel says that this option has become less tenable in Czechoslovakia. Things have become too rotten. It is too difficult to do good work because the compromises are too overwhelming, and too much good work ends up being hijacked and parasitized to feed the corrupting engine of the system. When the system requires total adherence to an ideology that has become totally unmoored from the truth, how much good can you do without butting up against the ideology’s limits? If you decide to stay safe, you lose your ability to do good; if you decide to keep doing good, you find yourself suddenly a “dissident” in spite of your modest intentions.

But this is not one-size-fits-all advice. If you find that in your situation you can do the most good by making tactical concessions to the lie, make your judgment call and do what you can. It is possible to live honorably this way. If you do the right thing and find out that (surprise!) it’s also permitted — that’s a marvelous discovery.

Living in the truth is its own sort of small-scale work; not necessarily overtly oppositional or dissenting at all. Some of this is subtle and not particularly visible — “you simply straighten your backbone and live in greater dignity as an individual.” But other parts of this are more visible and shared: “everything from self-education and thinking about the world, through free creative activity and its communication to others, to the most varied free, civic attitudes, including instances of independent social self-organization.” When there is enough of this going on, it forms the soil in which more overtly and consciously political initiatives can grow.

In other words, a movement of “dissent” requires as its precondition a healthy substrate of independent, grassroots social activity and organization; this in turn depends on individuals willing to seed such independent ways of living by living in the truth as individuals even in the absence of this social support structure.

But remember those quotation marks around “dissent” — it’s not so much that self-consciously dissident groups are going to emerge from this strata of independent ways of living, but that some of these independent ways of living are going to be persecuted by an intolerant government and will thereby become dissident activities.

People and Politics

The “dissident” movements in the Soviet Bloc, Havel says, are defensive in nature: that is, they are defending human beings and human needs against a smothering anti-human system. He contrasts this with political movements, which may have an offensive as well as defensive program, for instance a program to institute a different sort of system or to reform the existing one in a particular way.

Havel thinks this is not a liability but an advantage: “it forces politics to return to its only proper starting point… individual people.” He thinks that things have gotten so bad in his country that the central issue isn’t about what shape the political system ought to take but about what to do for the people who are enslaved by the political system. In contrast: “In the democratic societies, where the violence done to human beings is not nearly so obvious and cruel, this fundamental revolution in politics has yet to happen, and some things will probably have to get worse there before the urgent need for that revolution is reflected in politics.”

Every society, of course, requires some degree of organization. Yet if that organization is to serve people, and not the other way around, then people will have to be liberated and space created so that they may organize themselves in meaningful ways. The depravity of the opposite approach, in which people are first organized in one way or another (by someone who always knows best “what the people need”) so they may then allegedly be liberated, is something we have known on our own skins only too well.

Revolt and Law

So maybe it’s time to revolt, to overthrow the system entirely and to enact a new one by force. But such a revolt is difficult to imagine in the post-totalitarian system. Such a revolt involves two opposed forces of roughly equivalent strength meeting in the arena of actual force and political power. But in the post-totalitarian system:

Society is not sharply polarized on the level of actual political power, but, as we have seen, the fundamental lines of conflict run right through each person. In this situation, no attempt at revolt could ever hope to set up even a minimum of resonance in the rest of society, because that society is soporific, submerged in a consumer rat race and wholly involved in the post-totalitarian system (that is, participating in it and acting as agents of its automatism), and it would simply find anything like revolt unacceptable. It would interpret the revolt as an attack upon itself and, rather than supporting the revolt, it would very probably react by intensifying its bias toward the system, since, in its view, the system can at least guarantee a certain quasi-legality. Add to this the fact that the post-totalitarian system has at its disposal a complex mechanism of direct and indirect surveillance that has no equal in history and it is clear that not only would any attempt to revolt come to a dead end politically, but it would also be almost technically impossible to carry off. Most probably it would be liquidated before it had a chance to translate its intentions into action. Even if revolt were possible, however, it would remain the solitary gesture of a few isolated individuals and they would be opposed not only by a gigantic apparatus of national (and supranational) power, but also by the very society in whose name they were mounting their revolt in the first place. (This, by the way, is another reason why the regime and its propaganda have been ascribing terroristic aims to the “dissident” movements and accusing them of illegal and conspiratorial methods.)

“Dissident” movements tend to have a strong bias against violent change, though not one that veers dogmatically into pacifism:

“[D]issidents” tend to be skeptical about political thought based on the faith that profound social changes can only be achieved by bringing about (regardless of the method) changes in the system or in the government, and the belief that such changes — because they are considered “fundamental” — justify the sacrifice of “less fundamental” things, in other words, human lives.

The “dissident” view is that you don’t change the system first, but that the system changes incidentally as an artifact that represents the changes that take place in the people who uphold and evolve the system. They “do not shy away from the idea of violent political overthrow because the idea seems too radical, but on the contrary, because it does not seem radical enough.”

Thus an attitude that turns away from abstract political visions of the future toward concrete human beings and ways of defending them effectively in the here and now is quite naturally accompanied by an intensified antipathy to all forms of violence carried out in the name of a better future, and by a profound belief that a future secured by violence might actually be worse than what exists now; in other words, the future would be fatally stigmatized by the very means used to secure it.

Havel notes that many of the “dissident” groups claim to be acting in the defense of various doctrines of international or national law — “such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Human Rights, the Concluding Act of the Helsinki Agreement, and the constitutions of individual states.” Why might this be? After all, it is completely naive to think that their governments actually respect these laws, have any interest in respecting them, or can be compelled by some greater force to respect them. Is pretending that the law is meaningful just another way of living in the lie?

I can relate to this. I frequently find myself frustrated by activists who seem to get bogged down in pointless legalistic codswallop — whether it be that cult of American libertarians and paleoconservatives who worship at the altar of the True Constitution, or those peace activists who think they can pass a law against war. Instead of working for change in the real world, these activists spend their lives wrapping words around a tar baby.

But Havel means to defend the legalistic approach, at least as it applies to the post-totalitarian system.

This system is not dominated by power-wielding groups or individuals, the way a traditional totalitarian system is, but by bureaucracy and ideology. Such a system “is utterly obsessed with the need to bind everything in a single order: life in such a state is thoroughly permeated by a dense network of regulations, proclamations, directives, norms, orders, and rules.” The legal code is one expression of the ideology that serves the system and that the system serves, and it is the expression of one of the lies of the system: that it is well-regulated, governed by law, eager for justice, and vigorous in its defense of human rights.

If an outside observer who knew nothing at all about life in Czechoslovakia were to study only its laws, he would be utterly incapable of understanding what we were complaining about. The hidden political manipulation of the courts and of public prosecutors, the limitations placed on lawyers’ ability to defend their clients, the closed nature, de facto, of trials, the arbitrary actions of the security forces, their position of authority over the judiciary, the absurdly broad application of several deliberately vague sections of that code, and of course the state’s utter disregard for the positive sections of that code (the rights of citizens): all of this would remain hidden from our outside observer.…

But that is not all: if our observer had the opportunity to study the formal side of the policing and judicial procedures and practices, how they look “on paper,” he would discover that for the most part the common rules of criminal procedure are observed: charges are laid within the prescribed period following arrest, and it is the same with detention orders. Indictments are properly delivered, the accused has a lawyer, and so on. In other words, everyone has an excuse: they have all observed the law. In reality, however, they have cruelly and pointlessly ruined a young person’s life, perhaps for no other reason than because he made samizdat copies of a novel written by a banned writer, or because the police deliberately falsified their testimony (as everyone knows, from the judge on down to the defendant). Yet all of this somehow remains in the background. The falsified testimony is not necessarily obvious from the trial documents and the section of the Criminal Code dealing with incitement does not formally exclude the application of that charge to the copying of a banned novel. In other words, the legal code — at least in several areas — is no more than a façade, an aspect of the world of appearances. Then why is it there at all? For exactly the same reason as ideology is there: it provides a bridge of excuses between the system and individuals, making it easier for them to enter the power structure and serve the arbitrary demands of power. The excuse lets individuals fool themselves into thinking they are merely upholding the law and protecting society from criminals.

The legal code is also the formal mechanism through which the various parts of the system communicate with each other and establish their places in the system. It’s a sort of scaffolding. “It provides their whole game with its rules and engineers with their technology.… Without the legal code functioning as a ritually cohesive force, the post-totalitarian system could not exist.”

So this is the reasoning behind the legalistic approach. There’s no need to pretend that the law is anything but what it is, but that doesn’t mean that the law cannot be used to advantage. The system depends on it and, to some extent anyway, must flow through the channels it defines in order to function.

I have frequently witnessed policemen, prosecutors, or judges — if they were dealing with an experienced Chartist [Charter signer] or a courageous lawyer, and if they were exposed to public attention (as individuals with a name, no longer protected by the anonymity of the apparatus) — suddenly and anxiously begin to take particular care that no cracks appear in the ritual. This does not alter the fact that a despotic power is hiding behind that ritual, but the very existence of the officials’ anxiety necessarily regulates, limits, and slows down the operation of that despotism.

I didn’t find Havel’s defense to be very convincing, and he acknowledges the limitations of the legalistic approach, and in particular legalistic utopianism. Better laws, or a better legal system, or better adherence to the law isn’t the answer we’re looking for.

Building Parallel Structures

There’s another choice besides the alternatives of revolt and legalism. Rather than try to overthrow the current system, or to try to figure out how to turn its rulebook against it, you can extend your participation in ways of life that substitute for the system’s.

In a way this naturally follows from the independent ways of living mentioned earlier. As more people live in the truth and develop these independent ways of living, they will more and more do so together, interacting and creating new ways of organizing and structuring these independent activities. These new organizations and structures will fill spaces that the State has left unfilled, or that it tries but fails to completely monopolize. Some examples of this in Czechoslovakia were the underground music scene and the samizdat publishing and distribution industry, but the form had potential to extend further, into such things as “parallel forms of education (private universities), parallel trade unions, parallel foreign contacts, to a kind of hypothesis on a parallel economy” and eventually a parallel state (Havel attributes these ideas to Václav Benda).

This approach has a lot to be said for it. It is people-centered, it is not just aimed at establishing some future benefit but is inherently beneficial in the here-and-now, it’s practical and not just theoretical, it’s something everyone can participate in, and it’s radical in the sense that it works directly at the root of people’s day-to-day lives rather than in the superstructure of the system.

Because people who decide to break with the system and live in the truth are, at first anyway, isolated rebels distinct from society, there is a temptation to see them as individualists in retreat from society: outcast or in isolation (the title “dissident” is another way of emphasizing this point of view). It is more accurate to see them not as retreating from society but advancing before it: as experimental pathfinders beating new trails and inviting society to follow their lead. Similarly, when groups of people develop parallel structures that substitute for those sanctioned by the system, this is not an act of monastic retreat or ghettoization but one of experimental advance.

So be careful not to see this parallel world as an end in itself, as though once we get it established we will be able to migrate there and leave the other world behind. So long as the system rules, our participation in the parallel world will be tainted by the same schizophrenia that everyone under the post-totalitarian system suffers: trying to live with partial respect for the truth and partial subservience to the lie. The point is not to establish an underground in which you can enjoy furtive moments of freedom, but to free everyone (a sort of mahāyāna agorism perhaps).

The system will react to these parallel structures in two ways: by trying to repress them and by trying to coopt them. The repression is straightforward: practices will be banned, practitioners persecuted. Cooptation is a little more subtle. The system may adopt those aspects of the parallel world that are especially popular or effective or difficult to control. This may be a positive thing, something of a real reform, but it often is just a way of rendering the parallel world safe to the system — defanging it, integrating it into the lie, and slapping a patina of progress and liberality onto the system’s façade. It can be confusing, if not deliberately baffling.

But the cooptation works both ways, and it will be through such grudging attempts at compromise that the post-totalitarian system will eventually wither away. You cannot make a generalization and say either that all of these attempts at cooptation are bad and should be resisted or that all of them are good and should be encouraged. Is your attempt at a parallel structure partially contaminated by the system? Of course it is. Don’t let this discourage you; don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good; just keep your ideals pure of the contamination of political compromise and keep moving forward in the direction they point.

The post-totalitarian system and the parallel system of people developing ways of coordinating their lives of living in the truth are two incompatible worlds, and one of them must go: “either the post-totalitarian system will go on developing (that is, will be able to go on developing), thus inevitably coming closer to some dreadful Orwellian vision of a world of absolute manipulation, while all the more articulate expressions of living within the truth are definitely snuffed out; or the independent life of society (the parallel polis), including the ‘dissident’ movements, will slowly but surely become a social phenomenon of growing importance, taking a real part in the life of society with increasing clarity and influencing the general situation.”

What will prompt the coup de grâce is impossible to predict. It will probably be some accident of history or the culmination of trends that are only clear in retrospect if at all. Our task is not to plot this revolution but to lay the groundwork that makes it possible or inevitable.

The Crisis of Contemporary Technological Society

The problem we’re faced with is deeper than the specific post-totalitarian system we’re up against.

Technology — that child of modern science, which in turn is a child of modern metaphysics — is out of humanity’s control, has ceased to serve us, has enslaved us and compelled us to participate in the preparation of our own destruction. And humanity can find no way out: we have no idea and no faith, and even less do we have a political conception to help us bring things back under human control. We look on helplessly as that coldly functioning machine we have created inevitably engulfs us, tearing us away from our natural affiliations (for instance, from our habitat in the widest sense of that word, including our habitat in the biosphere) just as it removes us from the experience of Being and casts us into the world of “existences.”

Here, too, we need a revolution, but it’s going to have to be more fundamental, not “merely philosophical, merely social, merely technological, or even merely political” but existential, “a generally ethical — and, of course, ultimately a political — reconstitution of society.”

The post-totalitarian system is only one aspect — a particularly drastic aspect and thus all the more revealing of its real origins — of this general inability of modern humanity to be the master of its own situation. The automatism of the post-totalitarian system is merely an extreme version of the global automatism of technological civilization. The human failure that it mirrors is only one variant of the general failure of modern humanity.

And Western liberal democracy — that famous “end of history” — is not an adequate response to this crisis. “It may even be said that the more room there is in the Western democracies (compared to our world) for the genuine aims of life, the better the crisis is hidden from people and the more deeply do they become immersed in it.…

People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies. But this static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy, and politically pragmatic mass political parties run by professional apparatuses and releasing the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility; and those complex focuses of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture, and all that flood of information: all of it, so often analyzed and described, can only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself.… In a democracy, human beings may enjoy many personal freedoms and securities that are unknown to us, but in the end they do them no good, for they too are ultimately victims of the same automatism, and are incapable of defending their concerns about their own identity or preventing their superficialization or transcending concerns about their own personal survival to become proud and responsible members of the polis, making a genuine contribution to the creation of its destiny.

For this reason, it would be short-sighted for post-totalitarian dissidents to set their sights on trying to establish a democracy of this sort as anything but a temporary stepping stone to a society of dignity. If we are confronted with a “post-totalitarian” situation, we need a “post-democratic” solution.

What Is to Be Done?

What we really need is not a reformation of the political order, but a reconstitution of the larger human order of which the political order is just a part. And this means a society-wide moral revolution of such things as “[a] new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of higher responsibility, a newfound inner relationship to other people and to the human community.… In other words, the issue is the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love.”

The political reformation will follow naturally from this. It is hazardous to try to predict in advance what it will look like, but there are some aspects that we might anticipate: It will probably rely more on smaller units of organization that are based on natural communities of people with shared interests (rather than big states with arbitrary geographical boundaries). These units of organization will not have monopolistic impulses but will be welcoming of new and of parallel structures. They will be less formal — not like organizations but like communities. Their authority will be based on their utility, not on sovereignty. They will be more likely to spring up ad-hoc as needed rather than being on-going institutions. Individuals who have authority will not have it by virtue of their title or position, but because of the trust they have earned in taking responsibility for the specific tasks at issue. This may mean that they enjoy more political power than the politicians today.

And this goes for economic organization as well as political organization: Self-managed, purposeful units — not autonomous, self-interested corporate institutions with subservient workers who have no stake in or responsibility for their work.

And come to think of it… these little clusters of people living in the truth, finding each other, forming human bonds of solidarity by desperate necessity, and creating experiments in parallel structures based on concrete human needs — aren’t they demonstrative examples of the sort of world we’re trying to feel our way toward?