“The most interesting thing about responsibility is that we carry it around with us everywhere.” – Jan Patočka
We have already had good cause to turn to Václav Havel as a part of our search for humility; for more sustainable kinds of personal freedom; and for an openness to old-new ideas which can help us realise the original dream of a world wide web of informed light.
We quoted Havel in the piece linked above as writing:
“The main task in the coming era is something else: a radical renewal of our sense of responsibility. Our conscience must catch up to our reason, otherwise we are lost.”
Let us now reflect on this statement in greater detail.Setting the Stage¶
Havel wrote The Power of the Powerless in October 1978, and it was published in the wake of a document known as Charter 77. After continual harassment by the state police, he was arrested in May 1979—along with other members of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted, an organisation that Havel co-founded that year—and remained imprisoned until February 1983. Keep this context in mind as we reflect on what he means by “responsibility”.
The Power of the Powerless is an extended essay on what it means to “live within the truth” when one exists in what Havel calls a “post-totalitarian” system. By this term, he does not mean that the system is no longer totalitarian, but rather that it is totalitarian in a way fundamentally different from classical dictatorships.
In particular, post-totalitarian systems are those in which “the centre of power is identical with the centre of truth”. Havel means this in a subtle way, because it was clear even then that no-one really thought the powers-that-be were telling the actual truth. Havel’s point is that you don’t need to believe the ideology by which power is exercised to nevertheless propagate it. You simply need to accept the convenient truths offered to you, rather than thinking carefully about what your truth truly is. The post-totalitarian power obscured by such convenience is also exercised via “intricate and well-developed mechanisms for the direct and indirect manipulation of the entire population”, a feature with which we are all now well acquainted.
These two aspects are critical to our reflection, because they illustrate that Havel–while writing for and within a specific context–is nevertheless describing issues that are still relevant today. Moreover, when we are confronted with power that is exercised in order to manipulate or manufacture truth, the response has always been (and will always be) to live within the truth.
This is critical, because the thing that Havel is most concerned about in such systems is not some specific dictator, or evil party, or conniving group of ruling elite: it is “normalization”. That is, Havel worries about the way we convince ourselves–through lack of creative thought and the exercise of personal responsibility–that power just is what it is and that alternatives are unthinkable. In this, he agrees exactly with the stories told by Graeber and Wengrow.
Havel saw that we are diverted by consumer goods, distracted by television serials, and demotivated from any sort of action in the public sphere. In this “self-violation of society”, he saw a “crisis of contemporary technological society as a whole”, a modern “unfreedom” in which we imprison ourselves because we do not ask who we are and what we can do.Truths Are Weird¶
“The sources of dissidence are the authentic aims of life. If beer can be good it should be. Such are the minor metaphysics from which a civic life can be built.” – Peter Snyder
Peter Snyder summarises normalization in his 2018 introduction to the English translation of Havel’s essay:
“Normalization meant accepting the way things were without any argument about how they should be, and it was the suction of this vacuum that troubled Havel most [...] For Havel, then, the restoration of civic life began from truth.
“He did not mean a grand truth of some new ideology, meant to make sense of everything. Nor did he have in mind a beautiful narrative, a national story in which facts and lives could be arranged. He was also not thinking of the objective truth of science or the subjective truth of confession. Each of us is responsible for truth, Havel maintained; we cannot delegate that responsibility to an outer world that we imagine to be entirely separate from ourselves nor to an inner world that we imagine to be completely private. Truth is what moves us in the world, and how we move the world back. Truth is unpredictable, for each of us is moved in our own way.
“The point of [this essay] is not to overcome one ideology with another, displace one story with another, overwhelm one emotion with another, or to defeat a specific lie with a specific fact. It is to disenchant the unfree daily world so that we see ourselves and our responsibility with clarity. Havel’s reference points are therefore as quotidian as can be: brewing beer, playing music, buying groceries, watching television.”
One such unpredictable truth that we are still grappling with today–perhaps even more so than in Havel’s time (strange as that may be to say)–is this:
“The system is post-totalitarian not because some individual has total power, but because power is shared in conditions of total irresponsibility. There is no clear line between evil and good, power and servitude, Party and people, because ‘this line runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his or her own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system.’”
Snyder is quoting Havel, who is quoting Solzhenitsyn. The links that connect us all are as unpredictable as the truth that they transmit, something which Havel (and Snyder) both spend a great deal of time exploring:
“‘While life ever strives to create new and “improbable” structures,’ Havel writes, normalization ‘contrives to force life into its most probable states’. Freedom is not doing the things that you are inclined to do. It is reflecting upon what you ought to do, as your unrepeatable self, and just occasionally taking a risk and doing that thing.”
Havel begins his first chapter with the statement that “a spectre is haunting Easter Europe, the spectre of what in the West is called ‘dissent’”. He then proceeds to ask a long series of increasingly better questions, like so many others you’ll find through Kernel.
“Then it occurred to me through the direction that my work has taken, which is renunciation of choices and the substitution of asking questions. I’ve merely changed my responsibility from making choices to asking questions.” – John Cage
When our responsibility is enacted through the questions we ask, then it is not possible for Havel’s “panorama” of the post-totalitarian to take root, precisely because it is an unquestioning acceptance which enables totalising attitudes. This panorama, which is conveniently accepted by everyone from greengrocers to office workers, makes us all victims and perpetrators simultaneously.
“They conform to a particular requirement and in so doing they themselves perpetuate that requirement [...] Quite simply, each helps the other to be obedient. Both are objects in a system of control, but at the same time they are its subjects as well. They are both victims of the system and its instruments.”
This is what makes it so easy to manipulate large groups of people in often subtle ways in our time. We are all complicit. We are all complicit, and so anyone who seeks to divide others or push their own agenda need only press on this open wound and watch any sense of cohesion or solidarity evaporate in the fog of war around identity or race or political affiliation or sexual orientation, or any of a hundred other arbitrary lines we draw across the one, living spectrum in which we all participate.
In the face of such manipulation, Havel offers ‘dissent’ as a social alternative, or as Graeber and Wengrow put it: ‘the freedom to disagree’. The asking of questions that matter, the living of a unique and unrepeatable life, the exertion to “live within the truth” is what Havel means by ‘dissent’. It is not some special group of people who have made a choice. It is those who, by having the courage to be who they are and do what they can to the best of their abilities–”if beer can be good, it should be”–find themselves posing an inevitable challenge to an empire premised on convenient mistruths.Living Within Truth¶
Havel is clear that living within truth is not done in opposition to the post-totalitarian panorama in which we spend most of our time dreamwalking. It is done for its own sake, and so the power it holds does not participate in any direct struggle for political power.
Remember, however, that he wrote this knowing it was likely to land him in prison. Living in truth entails seeing the world just as it is. There are enormous political implications to asking the questions which keep us living in such truth (and such truth alive in us), but the capture and wielding of political power is not their primary aim:
“The confrontation does not take place on the level of real, institutionalized, quantifiable power which relies on the various instruments of power, but on a different level altogether: the level of human consciousness and conscience [...] it makes its influence felt in the obscure arena of being itself.”
Havel returns over and over to this hidden arena, or underground stream, which imbues with reality all the daily experiences we have. Why is truth hidden? How is it possible for post-totalitarian systems to take root across a whole society? Perhaps we would do better to ask, “What is it in me that is so willing to accept the stories of others, rather than find the questions that reveal who I really am?”
“Why was Solzhenitsyn driven out of his own country? Certainly not because he represented a unit of real power, that is, not because any of the regime’s representatives felt he might unseat them and take their place in government. Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion was something else: a desperate attempt to plug up the dreadful wellspring of truth, a truth which might cause incalculable transformations in social consciousness.”
Critically, living within the truth has nothing to do with class or intellect or past achievements.
“When I speak of living within the truth, I naturally do not have in mind only products of conceptual thought [...] It can be any means by which a person or a group revolts against manipulation.”
Nor is such revolt to be understood superficially as some act of violence or destruction, for living within the truth takes place in your own being itself. Once you move with the truth of this, you can see with Havel how events like
“The Prague Spring [...] was merely the final act and inevitable consequence of a long drama originally played out chiefly in the theatre of the spirit and the conscience of society. Somewhere at the beginning of this drama there were individuals who were willing to live within the truth, even when things were at their worst. These people had no real access to power, nor did they aspire to it. They could equally have been poets, painters, musicians or simply ordinary citizens who were able to maintain their human dignity.”
The words we use betray us by living on, just as they carry the hidden aspect of human consciousness realised by living within truth forward in time. The Prague Spring was not the final act, but something more like home: the note to which any life dedicated to truth inevitably returns.
Despite declaring its finality, Havel knew this (and lived to see himself become President). This knowledge is most clearly demonstrated in his turn to what he calls the “pre-political”.
“The more thoroughly the post-totalitarian system frustrates any rival alternative on the level of real power, as well as any form of politics independent of the laws of its automatism, the more definitively the centre of gravity of any potential political threat shifts to the area of the existential and pre-political: usually without any conscious effort, living within the truth becomes the natural point of departure for all activities that work against the automatism of the system.”
This is the true meaning of dissent: not rejection or denial, but rather the attempt to affirm our own humanity and turn away from what is false and alienating in life. If we see dissidents as a special group of malcontents with a particular set of interests, arrayed in opposition to the system, then this
“Profoundly contradicts the real importance of the ‘dissident’ attitude, which stands or falls on its interests in others, in what ails society as a whole, in other words, on an interest in all those who do not speak up.”
This is Havel’s particular genius, for a genuine interest in others springs from what he calls “the everyday human world” and is given particular importance in times of struggle with any kind of totalising system precisely because there is a tension between the aims of the system (predictability, legibility) and the aims of life (non-repeatability, love).
“The political organs and police do not lavish such enormous attention on ‘dissidents’ [...] because they are a power clique, but because they are ordinary people with ordinary cares, differing from the rest only in that they say aloud what the rest cannot say or are afraid to say.”
So, what is it that must be said aloud in the systems we live within? Havel makes the point that,
“The post-totalitarian system is not the manifestation of a particular political line followed by a particular government. It is something radically different: it is a complex, profound and long-term violation of society, or rather the self-violation of society.”
In the face of such a phenomena, with which we are all complicit, in which we are all both victims and perpetrators, what does it mean to defend life and defend humanity? Havel has already hinted at the first part: a genuine interest in (and care for) those who do not speak. Then comes his masterstroke:
“There are times we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth, just as we must descend to the bottom of a well to see the stars in broad daylight. It seems to me that today, this ‘provisional, ‘minimal’, and ‘negative’ programme – the ‘simple’ defence of people – is in a particular sense [...] an optimal and positive programme because it forces politics to return to its only proper starting point, proper, that is, if all the old mistakes are to be avoided: individual people.”
Defence of life and humanity is premised on, and calls forth, an embodied understanding of the full spectrum of consciousness. Once you have met the tyrant, the martyr, the saviour, and the victim in your own self, then any kind of totalising impulse is neutralised. Knowing intimately these aspects of your identity protects you from both the hubris and despair implicit in any attempt to “save the world”. In place of such totalising dreams arises a genuine interest in, and care for, the others who make up with you this-world-as-it-is-right-now, a desire to come into more intimate and humane contact with them, and gratitude beyond words for the life we are each given to lead, challenging though it may at times appear to be.
We are who we are through others, and it is this everyday truth that is defended by anyone living within the truth, not through any special act or intention, but simply by virtue of what is.
All of this points us back to Havel’s interest in being itself, prior to any kind of politics. Living within the truth is not about changing the system, it’s about changing yourself. When this is strongly coupled to the realisation that changing yourself in a practical sense primarily means cultivating an interest in others, in relationship, in reciprocity, then there is the hope of balance.
“‘Dissident movements’ understand systemic change as something superficial, something secondary, something that in itself can guarantee nothing [... What matters are] non-violent attempts by people to negate the system within themselves and to establish their lives on a new basis, that of their own proper identity. Does this tendency not confirm once more the principle of returning the focus to actual individuals?”
Havel’s focus was–and remained throughout his life–the everyday, concrete problems of individual human beings, underpinned by this wide and open curiosity about, interest in, and care for each and every human being who crossed his path.
His pre-political stance is oriented towards “the only proper starting point” for politics, which is the individual human being just as they are: greengrocer, office worker, brewer, or teenage rock musician. However, in framing the questions he asked around such individual, particular, and concrete experiences with other human beings, Havel comes to this realisation:
“Historical experience teaches us that any genuinely meaningful point of departure in an individual’s life usually has an element of universality about it. In other words, it is not something partial, accessible only to a restricted community, and not transferable to any other. On the contrary, it must be potentially accessible to everyone; it must foreshadow a general solution and, thus, it is not just the expression of an introverted, self-contained responsibility that individuals have to and for themselves alone, but responsibility for the world.”
When our politics is grounded in the everydayness of one another, and values individual human beings rather than some abstract notion of a better future, then this creates the conditions for each one of us to recognise the real scope of our responsibility, this strange thing we carry around with us everywhere. We are responsible for this whole world, not in some grandiose sense, but in the way we approach each one of our individual actions.
Am I acting this way because it is convenient; or am I acting this way because it is an expression of the authentic aims of my life, a way to do things well because they can be done well, and a means of living within the truth?
If it is the latter, then the world is already safe and the future secure. You need do nothing more: just keep being who you are and walk in the beauty of what that really means. Such courageous individuals and the movements they cause,
“Address the hidden sphere; they demonstrate that living within the truth is a human and social alternative and they struggle to expand the space available for life; they help – even though it is, of course, indirect help – to raise the confidence of citizens; they shatter the world of ‘appearances’ and unmask the real nature of power. They do not assume a messianic role; they are not a social ‘avant-garde’ or ‘elite’ that alone knows best, and whose task it is to ‘raise the consciousness’ of the ‘unconscious’ masses (that arrogant self-projection is, once again, intrinsic to an essentially different way of thinking, the kind that feels it has a patent on some ‘ideal project’ and therefore that it has the right to impose it on society). Nor do they want to lead anyone. They leave it up to each individual to decide what he or she will or will not take from their experience and work.”
“It is of great importance that the main thing – the everyday, thankless and never-ending struggle of human beings to live more freely, truthfully and in quiet dignity – never imposes any limits on itself, never be half-hearted, inconsistent, never trap itself in political tactics, speculating on the outcome of its actions or entertaining fantasies about the future [...] For the real question is whether the ‘brighter future’ is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?”