Vaclav Havel and the Post-Totalitarian System: Living Within a Lie


Ever since I read George Orwell’s essay “Charles Dickens” and then immediately read it again, I’ve known that great literature is always political.

Dickens was constantly probing social problems in his novels, and he clearly thought they could be remedied by individual effort alone. Soften the heart and open the pocketbook of some tightfisted tycoon, he believed, and you could do a bit to alleviate poverty and hunger, stop child labor, improve education, and so on, at least in one green little corner of England.

“[Dickens’s] whole ‘message,'” Orwell writes in his eponymous essay, “is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.” Take Scrooge. He wakes up Christmas morning a harrowed and morally changed man. How do we know this? He gives the Cratchits a goose and some cash. For Dickens, this small act of generosity makes the world a better place.

I suppose it does, but does it address the deeper problem of endemic poverty? What England really needed was a tax-spend-and-regulate government that prevented Scrooge’s exploitation of the Cratchits and other poor people to begin with. And why did Tiny Tim have to be pitiable to earn Scrooge’s charity? Wasn’t it enough that he was a human child, with or without the crutches?

Orwell believes Dickens’s emphasis on sentimental, individual morality is the reason his hopes for improving society are so limited. “There is no clear sign,” that Orwell can see in Dickens’s writings, “that he wants the existing order to be overthrown, or that he believes it would make very much difference if it were overthrown. For in reality his target is not so much society as ‘human nature.’ It would be difficult to point anywhere in his books to a passage suggesting that the economic system is wrong as a system.”

Recently I’ve been re-reading some of the classics of 20th century central European liberation literature. These include Adam Michnik’s 1985 Letters from Prison and Ceslaw Milosz’s 1953 The Captive Mind. At the glowing core of this genre, for me, is Vaclav Havel’s 1978 pamphlet The Power of the Powerless, a wellspring of deeply humane wisdom that remains electrifying 42 years after its publication. Havel’s analysis of totalitarian political culture still illuminates what is wrong with our system as a system even today. It shows that we still have demons to cast out even in the post-communist world.

(Image: Penguin Random House)

Havel’s fundamental claim in The Power of the Powerless is that the people of central Europe living under Soviet dominion in 1978 existed, not as you might expect a dissident to say, under a totalitarian system, but rather under a post-totalitarian system. What does he mean by this?

Before I go into definitions, let me put my first card clearly on the table. Havel’s diagnosis of post-totalitarian politics applies to Americans today. That’s why I’m writing about it. Although our system is clearly not as bad as the Soviet one, it exhibits many of the same characteristics in embryonic form. More to the point, our system is based on the same fundamental proposition as the Soviet system was–the government tries to buy the people’s enduring loyalty by causing the provision of enough material goods.

If you would like a simple historical reference that helps keep this point in mind, recall the famous “Kitchen Debate” of 1959. That was when Nixon and Kruschev met in Moscow to compare the comfort and purchasing power of their citizens in terms of kitchen conveniences. Even though the communist economy consistently under-performed western capitalism on such quality-of-life scores, Havel writes that it is crucial to remember Moscow nonetheless accepted the comparisons as a valid measure of performance. “What we have here [behind the Iron Curtain],” Havel writes, “is simply another form of the consumer industrial society, with all its concomitant social, intellectual, and psychological consequences.” In other words, communists and capitalists were never as utterly different as they made themselves out to be. Moscow wanted to show its followers they were materially better off for being communists, and Washington wanted to do the same by capitalism.

So with this commonality in mind, let’s look at what Havel means by a post-totalitarian system; if such a system seeped its way into the basic bond between government and citizen then, under communism, it could happen today under capitalism.

In a classic dictatorship, Havel writes, governing authority is based on a dominant personality and is geographically circumscribed in the place where the dictator can exercise the full force of his charisma. Although fascism was becoming a broad political movement in 1930s western Europe, Hitler, to take the classic example, was never going to rule Italy directly as its dictator. Mussolini was required, to declaim in Italian from a wrought iron-railed Roman balcone about the glories of Rome, and so forth. Each man’s power was based on nationalism, which has borders on the map and a particular ethos and aesthetic.

Another feature of a classic dictatorship for Havel was the pivotal role of armed security forces. Although dictators start out popular (sometimes, at least), their lasting authority “derives ultimately from the numbers and the armed might of [their] soldiers and police.” Coercive force is everything for a strong man. (For a case study in how charisma and armed force fit together to form a classic dictatorship, see the life and career of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. He was a walking, talking definition of what Havel meant by a classic dictator.)

Havel identifies four ways in which Soviet communism differed from classic dictatorship and, in a sense, moved beyond the old model:

  1. The ideology of post-totalitarian systems has potentially global appeal and therefore competes for global influence. The point of its struggle is to master the world. And although Soviet communist ideology germinated in a small ideological center in Moscow, it had indeed spread over much of the globe by the time it was entrenched in Havel’s Czechoslovakia.
  2. While the authority of classic dictatorship depends on the ephemeral appeal of personalities, and is therefore unstable and insecure, post-totalitarian systems are rooted in real, historical movements that have (or once had) popular legitimacy. As Havel writes of Soviet communism, “Even though our dictatorship has long since alienated itself completely from the social movements that gave birth to it, the authenticity of these movements . . . give it undeniable historicity.”
  3. The governing “philosophy” of a post-totalitarian system is precise, adaptable, and comprehensive, which makes it valid across changing times and circumstances. It is, Havel writes, like a state religion, which answers all life’s questions and to which one can convert with a subjectively genuine feeling of conviction and enlightenment. The post-totalitarian system wants its citizens to feel like rational agents who choose the state’s ideology freely, not subjugated drones.
  4. In a post-totalitarian system, the means of exercising authority are comprehensively prescribed in a body of established laws and regulations. This is unlike a classic dictatorship, in which improvisations can be made at the ruler’s whim and government officials have to constantly update their operating directives accordingly. (Think of how utterly unpredictable North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un is and how assiduously his underlings must constantly change step to stay in line with him.) In a post-totalitarian system, a state official occupies a fully-elaborated, logically coherent system, with its priorities and procedure all spelled out. He is what Havel calls a “blind executor” of the system’s internal laws.

This last feature, although it looks ho-hum, is actually the dreadful summation of the first three, more sinister-looking features. Once you have a globally ambitious system that commands mass loyalty (or at least conformity) even without the charisma of a great leader or the direct threat of force, encoding the whole thing in law makes it a recipe for perpetual, self-regulating totalitarianism. This is a new danger in the world. Now, not just an armed brigand or a muscled Big Man can subjugate you, but any wan, anonymous bureaucrat can take your property, send you to prison, dissolve your family, or end your employment and say, “It can’t be helped, friend. This is what the law demands.”

Havel goes on to describe the symptomology of this disease. Even though communism had its pantheon of charismatic revolutionary heroes, by Havel’s lifetime, the job of governance could be, and was, mostly done by faceless functionaries. The system was automatic. It had a life of its own and followed its own aims. The most horrific effect of this transformation was to make each individual’s worth conditional on, and subsumed under, the aims of the system–even while the system gave the people a fake versions of their own lives as “good” communists. The state’s ruling ideology, Havel writes, “offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them.”

Furthermore, the subjects of the system are self-policing. They speak in a code of shared loyalty with one another, where one person “helps” another show obedience to the ruling ideology, and the other person returns the help in kind. Havel imagines such an exchange in terms of political slogans. A grocery store manager displays a poster in his store window that says “Workers of the world unite!” But what the sign really means, is “I am obedient, and I have the right to be left in peace.” An office worker enters the grocer’s shop. Just hours before, she hung a similar poster in the hallway of her workplace. Although neither person “means” what the posters say, both display their posters to contribute to the “general panorama” of obedience, under an unspoken diktat. “Each proposes to the other,” Havel writes, “that something be repeated and each accepts the other’s proposal.”

Communism collapsed under the weight of so many lies, it might seem pointless to highlight one or two of them. But it is not. There is one fundamental lie that implicates the subjugated people in the creation of the very power structures that subjugate them. This is the ur-lie.

The state proclaims itself inerrant. Whatever it says or does is correct by definition. Of course people know this is not true. But if they wish to share in any fraction of the state’s power–even the tiny fraction of power required to live in peace–they go along with the state’s mystifications. Some of these mystifications are outright lies, capable of easily being shown false.

But still, people go along to get along. It seems so ordinary. But, Havel tells us, it is not. Going along to get along is what constitutes the post-totalitarian system:

Individuals need not believe all [the government’s] 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.

The bind that decent people find themselves in is this: they genuinely need that small share of the government’s power that allows them to live in peace. They need to go along to get along, tacitly assenting to the slogans that are pasted up in the general panorama, which propagates the myth of an inerrant government.

So it turns out that Charles Dickens was not wrong. The proper target of political literature (and other kinds of moral suasion) is human nature. Any government that demands that its citizens go along with a comprehensive network of lies in the service of some national program is effectively demanding that people debase themselves and, as Havel put it, “part with” their capacity to make moral choices–their dignity. This demand can only be defied one person at a time.

Havel was a miraculously clear writer and moralist. He wrote that if the main evil of a post-totalitarian system is living within a lie, the antidote is to live within the truth. This will be the focus of my next post on this topic.





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