The meaning of my Wheatfield experience is that sometimes we must just say no

Opinion: Vaclav Havel taught us the useful lesson of the power of the powerless

Vaclav Havel: not merely an anti-communist, his themes were universal. Photograph: Reuters

Vaclav Havel: not merely an anti-communist, his themes were universal. Photograph: Reuters

Fri, Sep 6, 2013, 12:01

Whether we know it or not, we are all of us, all the time, oppressed by the kind of power exercised, ostensibly at least, in the name of organising society and holding it together. When I think about “power” in this sense – of a vaguely oppressive force bearing down upon me – it’s easy to ignore its encroachment, or to brush any such nagging feelings aside and decide that my unease is a collateral price for other freedoms. This is lethal to the human person.

Oppression of this kind is not something distant, but ever-present in my psyche and body. Much of it may well seem necessary, but sometimes it crosses a line. And the experiencing of that intrusion may in each of us arise differently: for one, in a “big” thing; for another, in a “small” thing. It’s always personal. Freedom is not necessarily epic. Only in the “I” – the absolute subjectivity which is my only accurate apparatus of judgment – can this be decided. No one else can make this decision for me.

There are no small freedoms, but one great freedom, spread over the totality of a life in reality.

In his essay The Power of the Powerless, Vaclav Havel took for granted this idea that freedom is not a matter of the absence of tanks in the streets.

Havel was not, as is sometimes suggested, merely an “anti-communist” writer and intellectual whose work relates to one period of history. His themes, always, were universal, timeless, though demonstrated in a specific political and ideological context. His subject, really, was the soul of man under any kind of system seeking to extinguish it.

A central motif of The Power of the Powerless is the story of the greengrocer required by the governing ideology to place a sign in his shop window bearing the slogan: “Workers of the World, Unite”. The sign, Havel observes, might just as easily read: “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient”, but this would cause the greengrocer to lose face. The message relates to the reigning ideology, which nobody really believes in, but its unquestioning promulgation becomes, for the greengrocer, both an outward show of loyalty and a way of saving face. By displaying the sign, the greengrocer has shown his willingness to enter into the prescribed ritual of pretence, colluding in his own enslavement, acquiescing in the “blind automatism which drives the system”.


Failure of modern humanity
Havel defined the Soviet regime as a “post-totalitarian” system, by which he meant that “actually existing socialism” was fundamentally different from classical dictatorships. “The automatism of the post-totalitarian system”, he wrote, “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”.

Frequently in his writings, he described Soviet communism as “a convex-mirror image” of the democratic West. The “post-totalitarian system”, he insisted, provided a warning to the West of its own latent tendencies.

In the West, the idea that administrative unreason is part of the price of democratic freedom is just one way in which people are manipulated and demoralised.
Gradually, the idea of economic and administrative coherence seems to become more important than this or that freedom of the individual – each time a small price to be paid, allegedly in the greater good.

Eventually these instalments add up to something intolerable because it is no longer life. Totalitarianism of this “subtler” kind becomes not something imposed on one group by another, but on everyone by everyone.

Those who conform to the increasingly senseless diktats of the regime become, as Havel says, “both victims of the system and its instruments”. By fitting in with the dominant mentality, the person contrives to no longer exist.

But the “I” can stand against such power as no other power can. Havel tells us that it is precisely in the single act of one person that the lie is exposed and undermined.


An attempt to live within the truth
To live within the truth requires just a short step, because everyone who steps out of line with the lie “denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety”. This is the power of the powerless, and its latent existence means the regime will always prosecute even the smallest gesture which occurs as an attempt to live within the truth. The crust of lies needs to be broken just once, in one place, for the whole thing to split and disintegrate

We all possess this power. We only need to say no. And the saying no is not primarily for the benefit of others – it’s for ourselves, so we understand that there is within us a desire for freedom that absolutely defines what freedom actually means. “Individuals,” writes Havel, “can be alienated from themselves only because there is something in them to alienate. The terrain of this violation is their authentic existence.”

This, for me, is the ultimate meaning of my Wheatfield “adventure”.

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