Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel did more than anyone to bring about the fall of Communist power in Czechoslovakia in 1989. He called the Communist Eastern European dictatorships of the 1970s post-totalitarian, quite different from the straightforward totalitarianism of Stalin. His understanding helped in his own day. Judge for yourself whether it says anything about our own time and place. Consider the following from The Power of the Powerless:

This system serves people only to the extent necessary to ensure that people will serve it. Anything beyond this, that is to say, anything which leads people to overstep their predetermined roles is regarded by the system as an attack upon itself. And in this respect it is correct: every instance of such transgression is a genuine denial of the system. It can be said, therefore, that the inner aim of the post-totalitarian system is not mere preservation of power in the hands of a ruling clique, as appears to be the case at first sight. Rather, the social phenomenon of self-preservation is subordinated to something higher, to a kind of blind automatism which drives the system. No matter what position individuals hold in the hierarchy of power, they are not considered by the system to be worth anything in themselves, but only as things intended to fuel and serve this automatism. For this reason, an individual's desire for power is admissible only in so far as its direction coincides with the direction of the automatism of the system.

Ideology, in creating a bridge of excuses between the system and the individual, spans the abyss between the aims of the system and the aims of life. It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.

The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance.

Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.

And yet having had such understanding and having written these things, Havel supported the American invasion of Iraq, in spirit just like the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 - except that the Americans in Iraq destroyed far more and killed a whole lot more innocent people, by anyone's count, than the Soviet Union did in Czechoslovakia. "The expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed . . . military occupation becomes fraternal assistance."

His enemy that locked him up, Communist Party General Secretary Gustav Husak, was the shill for Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia, and Havel became a shill for American invasion, slaughter, and domination of Iraq - which was far more murderous and brutal that either the Soviet invaders or their puppet government - with Havel's hearty approval.

Now that should make any of us tremble for how easily corrupted the best of us can be - whoever the best may be. And maybe that's not me or you!


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