Havel’s Children, Part 2

Last time out, I suggested that Vaclav Havel was the Antonio Gramsci of the late 20th century, promoting a war of position (a long-term cultural revolution) as an organic intellectual rather than engineering a war of maneuver (the sudden overthrow of a state) as the leader of a vanguard party.

I claimed that to understand the effect and the promise of Occupy Wall Street, you have to think with Havel, especially with his 1978 manifesto, “The Power of the Powerless,” where he insisted on the political significance of those “hidden areas” and “parallel structures” embedded in everyday social life—where he insisted that “opposition” and “dissent,” or programs and platforms and policies, were simply irrelevant to the kind of revolution required to dismantle post-totalitarian society.

Now it’s time to think across the grain of Havel’s manifesto.  Unless we do, we won’t understand the revolution that’s happening under our feet, shifting the grounds of every political difference, and, more important, we won’t know how to change the terms of intellectual debate—we’ll end up as Havel himself did, estranged, exhausted, and even embittered by what he so desperately wanted, just another radical disillusioned by reality.

Toward the end of “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel turns to address the pragmatists and the Leninists who must be wondering what it all could mean in the real world: “And now I may properly be asked the question: What then is to be done?”  His answers are anything but reassuring.  At any rate they make me think he was too much the radical, the outsider, and the insurgent, never willing to compromise in a “parliamentary” manner, never able to bear the weight of the political past.

And why not, you might ask, he lived under a brutal totalitarian regime, the equivalent of Nazi Germany—how could he not want to repudiate the political past?  It’s a good question until you realize that, like Solzhenitsyn, his deepest scorn was reserved for the fragile, feckless democracies of the West.: “This static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy, and politically pragmatic mass political parties run by professional apparatuses and releasing the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility; and those complex focuses of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulation and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture, and all that flood of information: all of it, so often analyzed and described, can only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself.”

Of course there was no institutional or intellectual groundwork for the renewal of “democratic discussion” in the Soviet bloc—but this absence was even more characteristic of the hapless West.  The “existential revolution” required to get beyond post-totalitarian society would, then, have to escape the “everyday mechanisms of Western (or, if you like, bourgeois) democracy.”  But how?

Havel didn’t duck the question.  In fact he answered too honestly, revealing a fondness for charismatic leadership and extra-parliamentary power we might dismiss as soft-hearted silliness if it weren’t for the slaughter bench we remember as the 20th century.  He tried to imagine the structures that would allow for “the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love.”  They had to be “open, dynamic, and small.”

But these ad hoc organizations wouldn’t be leaderless.  They would be animated by what Max Weber called charismatic authority (and associated with pre-modern politics): “The leaders’ authority ought to derive from their personalities and be personally tested in their particular surroundings, and not from their position in any nomenklatura. They should enjoy great personal confidence and even great lawmaking powers based on that confidence.  This would appear to be the only way out of the classic impotence of traditional democratic organizations, which frequently seem founded more on mistrust than mutual confidence, and more on collective irresponsibility than on responsibility.”

No wonder Havel died a disillusioned man.  He wanted to replace bureaucracy with  the “human ties” created by “personal trust and personal responsibility” (the last phrase was the trope that Havel and Solzhenitsyn shared as a defiant testament against modernity as such).  Authority had, then, to derive from the personal charisma of leaders, who would, having gained the trust of the people, be endowed with “even great lawmaking powers.”

This is what must happen to your thinking if your ethical principles aren’t legible in the historical circumstances that surround you: it becomes utopian, romantic, and, at it outer edges, downright dangerous.  For it proclaims moral imperatives that are empty of any social content that strangers could recognize and make their own—these imperatives can apply only to those within the ambit of your personal trust and personal responsibility.  We typically call these people friends or family, but however we designate them, they cannot constitute a political community, because, whether ancient or modern, this kind of community is predicated on the recognition and articulation of the difference between personal interests—or responsibilities—and public goods.

What, then?  What could be “the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself’?  Kant’s famous dictum from The Critique of Pure Reason was clearly the blueprint of Havel’s will to lawmaking powers: “For whereas, so far as nature is concerned, experience supplies the rule and is the source of truth, in respect to the moral law, it is, alas, the mother of illusion!  Nothing is more reprehensible than to derive the laws prescribing what ought to be done from what is done, or to impose upon them the limits by which the latter is circumscribed.”

Ethical principle (“ought”) and historical circumstance (“is”) are always at odds according to this dictum, as are mind and body, reason and desire, freedom and necessity, subject and object, thought and thing.  But if you can’t read your principles in the actually existing circumstances, the only honorable recourse is evacuation—you have to escape the weight of the past, head for the territory, look for new beginnings on that horizon where anything is possible.  And where anything is possible, we can conjure charismatic leaders with “great lawmaking powers” as the political solution to both post-totalitarian societies and parliamentary democracies.  Politics becomes science fiction, or a cult of personality.

It’s a pathetic place to be at this hour, but it’s in keeping with the sensibility of Adbusters, a crucial inspiration of Occupy Wall Street—it’s in keeping with the apocalyptic imagination fired there by the most extraordinary images and purple prose now available.  And yet Kalle Lasn, the figure behind the magazine and its culture-jamming project, is more interested in “rethinking” capitalism than in abandoning it: that’s why he gets quoted as favoring the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall rather than recommending the overthrow of the state.

Next time out, I’ll propose consumer culture as “the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself.”  Yes, I’ll be revising Havel and Lasn in ways that neither would like (and neither would OWS), but the point is to grasp what is as the groundwork of what we ought to be doing—to understand our ethical principles as residing in and flowing from the historical circumstances that surround us.


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