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
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”.