Vaclav Havel on Defying a System of Lies

Written fifty years ago, Czech writer—later Czech president—Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless reads as if it was published yesterday to caution Australia today. I read and then re-read it during the Covid lockdowns when pervasive surveillance via QR codes, restrictions on association and movement, and—in most states—intolerance of even peaceful protests against official policies gave an alarming taste of the punishing control that government plus technology plus coercive policing and propaganda can achieve. Even without the Covid experience, it’s evident the social policies of state and federal governments—for example on gender equality, gay rights, the environment, indigenous matters and abortion—are broadly shared by domineering corporations, leading to a new type of societal levelling and mass-formation.

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Fortunately for those who want to maintain some semblance of independent thought and some commitment to truth, Havel’s valuable book is compact (154 pages) and easy to read. It’s shrewd in its examination of politics and any society unfortunately soaked—and darkly stained—by stubborn, heavily-bureaucratised politics.

Havel, a poet and playwright, wrote The Power of the Powerless after the Soviet-instigated repression of the 1968 Prague Spring—an attempt to form a native Czechoslovakian socialism that worked for people rather than against them. A leader of Charter 77—a group associated with this gentler aspiration—Havel was harassed for years afterwards by the communists: his Prague apartment bugged, his movements followed, his plays banned. To survive, he worked in a brewery. 

Havel was distressed by the population’s spiritless conformity with the local communists. He recognised that the Soviet bloc regimes were different from the autocracies of previous generations; older dictatorships exercised brutal power with little attempt to justify themselves via ideology or legality. The new dictatorships—he called them post-totalitarian—primarily used manipulative power, although still willing to destroy careers, to jail and abuse. Vaclav wanted to live with integrity, attentive to the real impulses of individual life and in mutual trust with other people. The Power of the Powerless articulates the difficulties placed before this modest ambition—and the sort of steps anyone can take to live a more fully human life for their own sake and the sake of those around them.

First, Havel had to understand the nature of the post-totalitarian state and to consider why humanity was capable of creating it.

The ideological basis of the new dictatorships was a radical departure from megalomaniac-led dictatorships. Ideology was like an absolute, secular religion; agreement with the ideology was agreement with truth:

It offers a ready answer to any question whatsoever; it can scarcely be accepted only in part, and accepting it has profound implications for human life. In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humanity it offers an immediately available home; all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety and loneliness vanish. 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 part of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority.

The misguided people in this low-rent home suffer—and impose—degradation. They have stripped themselves of authenticity:

Ideology 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 to part with them … It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own “fallen existence”, their trivialisation, and their adaptation to the status quo … 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 … It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.

The unreality of the ideology explains its need to falsify and then demand that people accept these falsifications. Havel unmasked the lies of the compliant individuals who are the system:

The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: 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 or her 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 … 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, fulfil the system, are the system.

Absolutist ideology has a crucial weakness: it confounds rather than harmonises with the human order—let alone the order of the universe. It’s therefore fundamentally dependent on people living with lies. Havel provided an example of this quietly mendacious conformity. The manager of a Czech grocery shop hangs a sign above the shop, Workers of the world unite! The manager doesn’t have to care about the workers of the world. People don’t have to pay attention to the slogan—similar expressions are seen on many buildings and billboards, forming the panorama of everyday life:

This panorama, of course, has a subliminal meaning as well: it reminds people where they are living and what is expected of them. It tells them what everyone else is doing, and indicates to them what they must do as well, if they don’t want to be excluded, to fall into isolation, alienate themselves from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of their peace and tranquillity and security.

The grocer’s banner and similar banners on nearby offices are important signals:

Each proposes to the other that something be repeated and each accepts the other’s proposal … by exhibiting their slogans, each compels the other to accept the rules of the game and to confirm thereby the power that requires the slogans in the first place. Quite simply, each helps the other to be obedient … They are both the victims of the system and its instruments.

Havel calls this mutual enforcement of the ideology’s norms auto-totality. The grocery shop manager could refuse to hoist the slogan, but he would lose his job. No more holidays in Bulgaria. There are consequences for any step towards authentic feeling or thought.

The willingness of so many people to perform this enforcing role indicates a profound problem in humanity that was beyond political answers. Havel knew it was also a problem in the consumerist West. The post-totalitarian Eastern Bloc societies were a kind of warning to the complacent Western democracies of their own demise:

There is obviously something in human beings which responds to this system, something they reflect and accommodate, something within them which paralyses 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.

Humanity’s problem was existential and must be existentially addressed. Havel realised that personal responsibility came first, freedom later. Politicians—Australian politicians included—routinely get matters back-to-front:

If a better economic and political model is to be created, then perhaps more than ever before it must derive from profound existential and moral changes in society. This is not something that can be designed and introduced like a new car. If it is to be more than just a new variation on the old degeneration, it must above all be an expression of life in the process of transforming itself. A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.

The sense of personal responsibility—together with the refusal to accept the ideology’s lies— provides many small opportunities to begin to live authentically, honouring one’s own and other people’s better nature. The rulers cannot tolerate this honesty; their system is built on falsehoods, so any truth proclaimed anywhere is a danger. The proclamations may be small; for example, someone says that the state-run brewery produces terrible beer; or that the concerts organised by authorities are tedious compared to amateur music nights; or that elections are farcical.

These truths are prosaic—beginning to live in truth usually is—but they signify a shift. And they have an odd, disproportionate potential because any system founded on falsehoods will always be subject to recurrent social, cultural, economic or legal crises barely restrained by the crust of lies. A small truth enacted “in the ‘hidden sphere’, in the semi-darkness where things are difficult to chart or analyse” may have huge effects with surprising speed. This hidden sphere—of real human vocation involving communication, trust, choice and freedom—is obscure but omnipresent; it’s the everyday sphere where the genuine aims of life burst beyond the aims set by the system. It’s the powerful ally of truth.

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. 

Auto-totality made non-conformity difficult—courage was needed. Havel doesn’t specify but he implies that in a society scornful of theological and cardinal virtues, the rulers’ values are the only values people see rewarded. It’s a reminder of the Proverbs principle: If a ruler listens to lies, all his servants become wicked.

The state may promote via propaganda the illusion that conformity to its laws signifies good citizenship and many people may be shallow and rudderless enough to accept this definition—and judge others accordingly. But laws can never establish meaning, purpose, vocation and loving-kindness. A thoroughly law-abiding “good citizen” may be an empty, unhappy, lonely and unfulfilled human being. An alternative vision of what it means to be fully human is needed, and this will not be the state’s vision. Creativity and sacrifice are required. Parallel structures that support alternative ways of thinking are necessary.

Parallel structures facilitate living in truth by sidestepping the ruling lies. For example, university students frustrated by doctrinaire Marxist lectures met to discuss banned philosophers—like Kierkegaard. Official unions represented the Communist Party’s interests, so workers started their own alternative representative groups. Painters, musicians and writers created, performed and published (by samizdat if necessary) outside official channels. Clergymen sought to maintain free religious life with their people despite the dictates of bureaucrats. Parallel structures created communities of shared knowledge and hope; friendships were formed (despite informers) and more strategies for living in truth were initiated. The Church is an ancient—and perhaps the most effective—example of parallel structure.

Parallel structures begin with individual inner emancipation. This inner emancipation refuses the aims of life imposed by the state and affirms other natural, human aims of life. Havel says:

What is this independent life of a society? The spectrum of its expressions and activities is naturally very wide. It includes 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-organisation. In short, it is an area in which living within the truth becomes articulate and materialises in a visible way.

Havel saw how the totalitarian system determined to operate by laws in order to provide a legal basis for its operations—as if laws and not crude power were their operating principle:

Like ideology, the legal code functions as an excuse. It wraps the base exercise of power in the noble apparel of the letter of the law; it creates the pleasing illusion that justice is done, society protected and the exercise of power is objectively regulated. All this is done to conceal the real essence of post-totalitarian legal practice: the total manipulation of society.

The regime multiplied laws to control even the citizens’ minor activities and freedoms. Often the laws were contradictory and were, in addition, subject to frequent change. The plethora of confusing, fussy laws gave brave lawyers—representing people harassed by officialdom—the opportunity to use the state’s laws against the state’s officials and agencies. This litigation needed fortitude and came at a cost but it was one more way of confronting the state with its own meddling stupidity.

The Soviet bloc fell apart rapidly and unexpectedly, in large measure collapsing under the weight of its own dysfunction. Any system built on lies will eventually collapse, but it will cause great harm before this collapse and what replaces it may not be any better. Throughout, decent people will need to protect their own humanness by developing virtue and bravely living in truth.

Vaclav Havel understood that politics can do a great deal to frustrate common sense and basic human satisfactions. More importantly, he knew that political systems—of any stripe—by themselves can never fulfil mankind’s most profound needs and aspirations. The Power of the Powerless is a provocative guidebook, written by a man who—with other good people—charted a wise course for an entire nation by first identifying the individual’s need to embrace truth and integrity.

Gary Furnell, a frequent contributor, lives in rural New South Wales

5 thoughts on “Vaclav Havel on Defying a System of Lies

  • Michael says:

    We have the woke ideologies versions of the grocer’s banner; the mutual enforcement of the ideology’s norms Havel calls auto-totality:
    – The rainbow/inclusion flag and related paraphernalia
    – Welcome to country ceremonies
    – Climate action now banners, net zero by 20xx commitments, etc.

  • Alistair says:

    I have also read and re-read Vaclav Havel – and most rewarding it was too.
    Here is a link to the full text for those who want drink it its fabulous message of hope.

  • Jack Brown says:

    A delightful man named Yuri, forgotten his surname, had been the Minister for Finance in the Dubcek government and had been dismissed from his post when the Russians invaded but given a job pumping petrol in a gas station. He managed to make his way to Australia and employed in the public service. In his former capacity his job was to arrange trade deals using bartering eg he met Castro and arranged they swap tractors for sugar. He hated flying, having survived two Aeroflot crashes. His main impression of Austrslia was how sparse it was and he could drive to Melbourne without having to always change gear. Highly educated in economics and finance he was very humble and had a great sense of humour. Returning to Prague would have been a dream for him.

  • 27hugo27 says:

    Will have to read Havel. He is note perfect on ideology, so relevant today.

  • Sindri says:

    In September 1989 I trooped up the the Czech consulate, in Woollahra I think, to get a visa to visit in December of that year. I sat in a waiting room full of lugubrious communist propaganda, with particular emphasis on the utter wickedness of Vaclav Havel, who was at that time enduring one of his periodic bouts of harassment and imprisonment. Not three months later I was in Prague on 29 December – the day that Havel was inaugurated as President of Czechoslovakia. I’ve never seen such wild rejoicing, or a people so deleriously happy.

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