Through its debut this past autumn, Occupy has already taken an honored place in a long, varied, beautiful tradition of militant, inventive, nonviolent, democratic direct action that stretches from Gandhi in South Africa in the early 1900s to the civil rights movement of the United States of the ’50s and ’60s to the Eastern European movements against Soviet repression of the ’70s and ’80s to the Arab Spring. These movements undid the greatest empires of their time (the British and the Soviet); administered a lasting correction to the gravest social wrong in American life, racial oppression; and toppled dictators in the Middle East. Now, in the new form of Occupy, this current of activism has trained its sights on what may be the most far-flung and entrenched system of all—the one of which Margaret Thatcher infamously said, “There is no alternative,” the neoliberal economic and political order of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
These are early days for the movement, and its long-term direction is anything but clear, but it is not too soon to listen to past voices—not to imitate but to sift, weigh and take inspiration. I have in mind the voice of the late Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic and, more important, a leader of the civic movement in the ’70s and ’80s against what he called “post-totalitarianism” in Czechoslovakia. In those days of the cold war, the system under which Havel lived and the liberal order of its time were tensed in struggle, and few observers found many similarities between them. Havel saw things differently. He saw the two systems as two manifestations of a single, more encompassing system. As he wrote of post-totalitarianism in his essay “The Power of the Powerless”: “What we have here is simply another form of the consumer and industrial society, with all its concomitant social, intellectual, and psychological consequences.”
Havel’s genius was that he found the points of leverage—the Archimedean points—at which the seemingly immovable post-totalitarian boulder could be dislodged. It is now gone. It seems uncanny, as we read him now, how pertinent his discoveries of that day and place are to the dilemmas of our day and place. Here are a few examples, offered with urging to read the full essay.
On the relationship of ideology to reality:
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them…. Ideology becomes at the same time an increasingly important component of power, a pillar providing it with both excusatory legitimacy and an inner coherence. As this aspect grows in importance, and as it gradually loses touch with reality, it acquires a peculiar but very real strength. It becomes reality itself, albeit a reality altogether self-contained, one that on certain levels…may have even greater weight than reality as such.
Is it possible to read this today without thinking of the fact-free alternative universe of the Republican Party, and, to a lesser extent, of both parties? The two have arrived at the destination by separate routes, but isn’t the destination much the same?
On the relationship of the individual to the system:
In the post-totalitarian system, this line runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system. What we understand by the system is not, therefore, a social order imposed by one group upon another, but rather something which permeates the entire society and is a factor in shaping it, something which may seem impossible to grasp or define…but which is expressed by the entire society as an important feature of its life. The fact that human beings have created, and daily create, this self-directed system through which they divest themselves of their innermost identity is not therefore the result of some incomprehensible misunderstanding of history, nor is it history somehow gone off its rails. Neither is it the product of some diabolical higher will which has decided, for reasons unknown, to torment a portion of humanity in this way. It can happen and did happen only because there is obviously in modern humanity a certain tendency toward the creation, or at least the toleration, of such a system.