Vaclav Havel, one-time czech dissident and playwright, writing samizdat in the days of communistic eastern europe, talked of the ‘post-totalitarian’ system – a system of governence not so much based on overt violence, but on fear and more subtle controls. It’s always struck me how relevant that voice from behind the Iron Curtain and thirty years ago is to this place, this time…
Despair leads to apathy, apathy to conformity…The more completely one abandons any hope of general reform, any interest in suprapersonal goals and values, or any chance of exercising influence in an “outward” direction, the more his energy is diverted in the direction of least resistance, i.e., “inwards.” People today are preoccupied far more with themselves, their families and their homes. It is there that they find rest, there that they can forget the world?s folly and freely exercise their creative talents. They fill their homes with all kinds of appliances and pretty things, they try to improve their accommodations, they try to make life pleasant for themselves, building cottages, looking after their cars, taking more interest in food and cloth and domestic comfort. In short, they turn their main attention to the material aspects of their private lives.
Clearly, this social orientation produces favourable economic results…In the interest of the smooth management of society, then, society?s attention is deliberately diverted from itself, that is, from social concerns. By fixing a person?s whole attention on his mere consumer interests, it is hoped to render him incapable of realising the increasing extent to which he has been spiritually, politically and morally violated.
Yet these same authorities obsessively justify themselves with their revolutionary ideology, in which the ideal of man?s total liberation has a central place! But what, in fact, has happened to the concept of human personality and its many-sided, harmonious, and authentic growth? Of man liberated from the clutches of an alienating social machinery, from a mythical hierarchy of values, formalised freedoms, from the dictatorship of property, the fetish and might of money? What has happened to the idea that people should live in full enjoyment of social and legal justice, have a creative share in economic and political power, be elevated in human dignity and becomes truly themselves? Instead of a free share in economic decision making, free participation in political life, and intellectual advancement, all people are actually offered is a chance to freely choose which washing machine or refrigerator they want to buy.
In the foreground, then, stands the imposing fa?ade of grand humanistic ideals … and behind it crouches the modest family house of a socialist bourgeois. On the one side, bombastic slogans about the unprecedented increase in every sort of freedom and the unique structural variety of life; on the other, unprecedented drabness and the squalor of life reduced to a hunt for consumer goods.
In “Dear Dr. Husak”, 1975
The post-totalitarian system, after all, 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, or rather the self-violation of society. To oppose it merely by establishing a different political line and then striving for a change in government would not only be unrealistic, it would be utterly inadequate, for it would never come near to touching the root of the matter. For some time now, the problem has no longer resided in a political line or program: it is a problem of life itself.
In the democratic societies, where the violence done to human beings in not nearly so obvious and cruel, this fundamental revolution in politics has yet to happen, and some things will probably have to get worse there before the urgent need for that revolution is reflected in politics.
In “The power of the powerless”, 1978
It really is not all that important whether, by accident or domicile, we confront a Western manager or an Eastern bureaucrat in this very modest and yet globally crucial struggle against the momentum of impersonal power….all of us, East and West, face one fundamental task from which all else should follow. That task is one of resisting vigilantly, thoughtfully and attentively, but at the same time with total dedication, at every step and everywhere, the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal and inhuman power – the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages and political slogans. We must resist its complex and wholly alienating pressure, whether it takes the form of consumption, advertising, repression, technology or clich? – all of which are blood brothers of fanaticism and the wellspring of totalitarian thought
In “Politics and Conscience”, 1984.