Monday, December 26, 2011

The Power of the Powerless

Over the holidays Vaclav Havel died. The newspaper headlines of his funeral said something like, "The world says good-bye to Vaclav Havel."
I took it as an opportunity to say hello to him.
I sat down and read his amazing 1978 essay, "The Power of the Powerless." It's not easy going; but it's worth making the effort.
In it, over and over again he extols the importance, the virtue, the hard work and courage of "living within the truth." Because so much of what "the system" requires of people is that they live within a lie.
"Between the aims of the post-totalitarian system and the aims of life there is a yawning abyss," Havel wrote. "While life, in its essence, moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution and self-organization, in short, toward the fulfillment of its own freedom, the post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline. While life ever strives to create new and improbable structures, the post-totalitarian system contrives to force life into its most probable states."
And the system? This oppressive regime that demands conformity and imposes over a society the requirement that everyone pretend that what is clearly oppressive is somehow a matter of free choice?
"Therefore not only does the system alienate humanity, but a the same time, alienated humanity supports this system as its own involuntary master plan, as a degenerate image of its own degeneration, as a record of people's own failure as individuals."
In other words, as long as we all go along with our own systematic self-alienation and self-imposed powerless, that is exactly how long the system will hold power over us.
And the weapon of choice for those who wish to express their own power?
"If the main pillar of the system is living a lie," Havel wrote, "then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth."
Havel wrote at a particular time and a particular place, addressing a particular political system.
But his essay and his message are still relevant and powerful today.
In some respects, the cause of Solidarity and Charter 77 are the cause of the early voices of Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. Havel's words may have been prophetic in talking about the need to emphasize "human factors" in defining what makes life worth living, in the responsibility of individuals to speak the truth and live in the truth, to create examples of a "second culture" that finds alternative solutions and modes of expression to the dominant ones that define and govern the status quo.
At the end, Havel writes, "For the real question is whether the brighter future is 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 around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?"
What if?
What if the powerless actually became aware of the source of their own power?
The power of living within the truth.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb