I’ve been claiming that if you want to understand Occupy Wall Street, you need to think with Vaclav Havel, particularly his 1978 manifesto, “The Power of the Powerless.” I’ve meanwhile been suggesting that the Velvet Revolution he galvanized—I hesitate to say that he led it—was the blueprint for the rebellions of our time, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, on toward the great upheavals of 2012.
Here I’m going to continue reading “The Power of the Powerless” against the grain, insisting that, Havel notwithstanding, the Eastern European revolutions of the late-20th century rediscovered what he called the “sources of humanity” on the site of what he loathed—consumer culture—and that they did so by practicing the “politics of ‘more’.” Then I’ll suggest that Occupy Wall Street is recapitulating this very itinerary.
So I’ll be concluding that if you don’t want to be disillusioned by the impending revolutions of our time, rethink everything you know about consumer culture. To begin with, rethink the credo of Kalle Lasn, founder and editor of Adbusters, who serves, not incidentally, as a crucial source of inspiration to Occupy Wall Street.
A great deal of nonsense has been produced by close study of the revolutions that rocked Eastern Europe between 1975 and 1992—perhaps because they seemed such spontaneous, almost accidental events. They looked mysterious, inexplicable, mundane, and yet somehow glorious, too. The Left in the advanced capitalist nations didn’t quite know what to make of it all. On that side of the political divide, people typically said, “We love trade unions and we identify with ‘dissident’ intellectuals just like ourselves, but do we want ‘actually existing socialism’ to disappear? Do we want a revolution in the name of the right to wear cool jeans?” Meanwhile the Right congratulated itself on “winning the Cold War,” maybe even ending History, by reversing the search for the Missing Link and profiling the Last Man.
Neither side got it right because these revolutions were motivated by the “politics of ‘more’” in two related senses. First, conventional, “oppositional” politics, as conducted by a party system organized around public events, electoral campaigns, and programmatic debates—or as organized by armed guerillas—were irrelevant to the outcome. These weren’t “wars of maneuver,” in Gramscian terms, they were “wars of position.”
Second, the symbolic meanings of consumer goods—the significance of jeans, genres of music, even styles of hair, but also the prices of basic necessities—became central figures in the rhetoric and strategies of revolution. The constituents of this unarmed revolution didn’t want to overthrow the state; they wanted more art, more music, more time away from work—just enough exemption from necessity—to do something unimportant, like read a novel or write a play or strum a guitar. They wanted to inhabit a consumer culture, where the goal is more leisure, not significant work. Their desires produced revolutionary political change.
These constituents of a world elsewhere were up against a system that couldn’t quite accommodate the strange, subversive values embodied in consumer culture because that system had displaced the market, and thus couldn’t accredit consumer demand.
But economists in the Soviet Bloc understood this dilemma long before it acquired a cultural presence and a political standing in the late 1970s. In fact, throughout Eastern Europe in the early 1960s, influential economists were noticing a disturbing trend toward stagnation, and urging “marketization”—both political and economic reform—as the solution. Among these economists were Wladczmier Brus of Poland, Istvan Friss of Hungary, and Radoslav Selucky of Czechoslovakia.
They showed that mere additions to the capital stock and the labor force had worked to increase per capital incomes, and thus consumer spending, in the age of industrialization—a 19th century event in the West and a 20th century event in the East. They called this pattern “extensive growth,” and argued that it couldn’t work any longer, in the late 20th century, in the aftermath of industrialization. For net additions to either the capital stock or the labor force had somehow become unnecessary to fuel growth; a greater share of national income was therefore available for spending on things besides new plant and equipment—it was available for spending on things like consumer goods—but a larger volume of consumer goods was not available. So economic stagnation was inevitable, these economists claimed, unless the Soviet Bloc countries could use “marketization” to make the transition to a different, consumer-led pattern of growth, which they called “intensive growth.” In the West, they showed, this transition was already well under way; the East would fall behind if it didn’t follow suit.
The “Prague Spring” of 1968, when the Czech government introduced a reform program of “marketization,” was the first facsimile of the necessary transition. But it was a “technocratic” fix according to the reformers themselves (including Selucky). It addressed the economic problem of consumer demand in new, imaginative, market-oriented ways, but it didn’t, and probably couldn’t, address the key political question—how to limit state command of economic decision, which in practical terms meant, how to limit the power of the Communist Party?
So the great discoveries of the 1960s in Eastern Europe were that a consumer-driven pattern of “intensive growth” had become the obvious alternative to economic stagnation in the Soviet Bloc—and that the pursuit of this alternative would require massive political change. In other words, the “marketization” of resource allocation required the democratization of the political order: “genuine economic pluralism is impossible without unlimited political pluralism,” as Havel himself put it in retrospect. Translation: if democracy needs markets to work effectively, markets need democracy to work properly.
The question for the disillusioned reformers after 1968 was not whether but how to make this kind of political change. They eventually decided on a “war of position”—they relinquished the idea of “opposition” or “dissent” and instead cultivated a cultural politics. “The Power of the Powerless” is the summary statement of their new attitude toward the predicates of political change. The seizure of state power by means of a Leninist “war of maneuver” was never the goal. As Havel explained, Charter 77 operated on the assumption that “political reform was not the cause of society’s reawakening but rather the final outcome of that reawakening.”
Havel’s premise was that a “post-totalitarian society” had emerged in the aftermath of the 1960s, in both East and West—his own part of the world stood as a “warning” to the parliamentary democracies of the West. Like many other theorists of the 1970s, he sometimes called this new order an “industrial society” or a “technological society,” as a way of suggesting that its suffocating routines cut across any differences between capitalism and socialism.
And like most recent theorists of “late capitalism,” Havel also equated industrial society and consumer culture. He broadcast this indictment as follows: “The Soviet Bloc is an integral part of the larger world, and it shares and shapes the world’s destiny. This means in concrete terms that the hierarchy of values existing in the developed countries of the West has, in essence, appeared in our society. . . .In other words, what we have here is simply another form of the consumer and industrial society.”
Indeed he claimed that industrial society—whether socialist or capitalist, East of West—was inert, passive, “sopoforic, submerged in a consumer rat race,” because its constituents had been seduced the “the consumer value system.” Like Kalle Lasn, Chris Hedges, and the larger crew at Adbusters, Havel treated the most egregious clichés as self-evident truths; for example, the “general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity” was a mere fact, something beyond argument.
Poor Havel. In 1978, he was already railing against the demands of his own people, who wanted, above all, to be able to choose for or against the consumer culture of the West—of course they wanted more of everything, but mainly time and money and goods enough to discover themselves in the here and now, where their moral integrity would be in play, at risk.
Havel notwithstanding, the Velvet Revolution was fueled by the same “politics of ‘more” that ignited the workers’ revolts in Poland of the 1970s—food price increases were the spark every time—and fanned the flames of perestroika in the heart of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In the 1970s and 80s, more consumer goods were, in fact, more available in the Soviet Bloc because the authorities kept trying to meet consumer demand by borrowing from the West to import scarce items like children’s clothes (they could do so because Soviet oil revenues rocketed after 1973). But they couldn’t keep up, because as Steven Kotkin puts it, “although people had more, they were demanding more on the basis of wider horizons.” Those horizons were the distant, wavering lines they could see on TV series imported from the West (mostly BBC), which they watched for clues about material life, peering into the refrigerators with the actors as if they were on the set. Those horizons were the confident bass lines they could hear on bootlegged music imported from the Americas, which they listened to for ways of being in a world elsewhere, wondering what way of life could make sense of this noise. Those horizons were the sights and sounds of consumer culture.
The Velvet Revolution was no exception to this rule. Even Havel admits as much in explaining the origins of Charter 77. Here’s the narrative he offers in “The Power of the Powerless”:
“Undeniably, the most important political event in Czechoslovakia [after 1968] was the appearance of Charter 77. The spiritual and intellectual climate surrounding its appearance, however, was not the product o any immediate political event. That climate was created by the trial of some young musicians associated with a rock group called ‘The Plastic People of the Universe.’ . . .Everyone understood that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life. The freedom to play rock music was understood as a human freedom and thus essentially the same as the freedom to engage in philosophical and political reflection, the freedom to write, the freedom to express and defend the various social and political interests of society.”
In short, Charter 77, the Czech equivalent of Poland’s Solidarity, the “parallel structure” whose members would dominate the post-Soviet government, was founded in response to the arrest and trial of four men who had formed a rock band called Plastic People of the Universe.
There was enough irony in the name of the band to alert knowledgeable listeners to the subversive possibilities of the music: not to worry, it said, we’re just pretending to be hapless consumers. But its genealogy and Havel’s explanation of Charter 77 suggest that the detonating event in the Velvet Revolution was the reflexive defense of what had become both a common good and a consumer good—the black aesthetic embodied in and imported as rock ‘n’ roll.
The Plastics got their name and their aura from their affiliation with the obvious and the esoteric. To begin with, the name recalled a song, “Plastic People,” recorded in 1967 by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. It mixed bemused spoken dialogue with the already classic rock sound of “Louie, Louie,” changing tempo, timbre, melody, whatever, following the CIA through Laurel Canyon and telling listeners to “watch the Nazis run your town.” The song’s paranoia was pointed, ironic, and hilarious—perfectly suited to the wary, weary temperament of the Prague Spring and its aftermath.
The name of the band also recalled Andy Warhol’s multimedia project of 1966-67, the “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” which featured the Velvet Underground as the house band. The voices and the music on these occasions sounded like Bob Dylan had wandered into a disco—I know, this is impossible—at least until John Cale turned up the amp and sped up the sound before the end of a song; before then, it was all slide guitar verging on the plunky feel of a banjo, nasally vocals coming and going like strange weather over major chords as the strobe lit up the dancers in their cages. If you listened closely enough, you could hear the entire history of North American music in these performances. That was probably the point, and it wasn’t lost on the Plastics.
But their name came from yet another world elsewhere. This was the world delivered to the band by its manager, Ivan Jirous, an art historian, cultural critic, and close reader of Roland Barthes, the French semiotician who treated plastic—the signature stuff of postwar capitalism—as a wondrous, lovely, and “disgraced material,” the cartoonish lack of substance that defined consumer culture: “So, more than a substance, plastic is the very idea if its infinite transformation, as its everyday name indicates, it is ubiquity made visible . . . it is less a thing than the trace of a movement . . .because the quick-change artistry of plastic is absolute: it can become buckets or jewels.”
The Plastics knew they were already disgraced, “imitation materials,” as Barthes put it, practicing the kind of artifice that “aims at something common, nor rare,” something reproducible, not unique. At the outset, the band got its avant-garde standing from its imitative abilities—from it covers of in English of songs by the Velvets and the Fugs (the translations were by the Canadian Paul Wilson, who was recruited by Jirous, who promoted the band in much the same way that Warhol had promoted the Velvets). The Plastics copied the Velvets’ early droning sound from bootleg tapes smuggled into Czechoslovakia, they copied the Fugs’ playful lyrics using the same illegal sources, and they copied the dress code and attitudes of rock ‘n’ roll as displayed in Greenwich Village, ca. 1968, from album covers and Wilson’s wardrobe.
But they were licensed by the Czech government. As in Russia proper, where every factory had its own house band by the late-1960s, the Czech authorities didn’t treat rock ‘n’ roll as decadent or subversive; they saw it as a weird consumer good imported from the West along with children’s clothes, in response to the insistent demands of people who wanted “more” of everything. The authorities revoked the Plastics’ license in 1970 as part of a larger crackdown on participants in the Prague Spring—but the band played on into the 1970s without interference from the state, covering the Mothers and the Velvets and the Fugs until 1972 (when Wilson left the group), and then using the poetry of Egon Bondy, the banned Czech philosopher, as the lyrical content of its original music.
The three remaining band members and Jirous were arrested in 1976; all four were sentenced to prison terms of eight to eighteen months. Their crime wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll. The authorities weren’t singling out the music, surreal as it was, they were trying instead to silence Bondy once and for all by jailing the ventriloquists.
However you catalog the crime, the music came from farthest outpost of consumer culture, the USA. The Mothers, the Velvets, and the Fugs were avant-garde bands, to be sure, but they had recording contracts, they played concerts, and they sold lots of mass-produced vinyl records made with advanced technology (I know, my sister bought them). If the records hadn’t circulated worldwide as consumer goods, the Plastics would never have been able to copy the music, the attitudes, and the styles these industrial artifacts made both audible and reproducible—just like the white kids who wouldn’t have been able to copy the music, the attitudes, and the styles of African-American music produced in the southern United States if recording technology and mass distribution hadn’t let them cross a color line.
So when Havel invokes the “freedom to play rock music” as a basic human freedom and cites the Plastics, he’s actually invoking the freedom to listen to these new sounds imported from the headquarters of both capitalism and consumer culture; for without the audience, the consumers of the music, who appeared en masse and in public—and not just in Czechoslovakia—the band would never have drawn the attention of the authorities. In 1976, this basic human freedom meant access to the consumer good that was the black aesthetic embodied in rock ‘n’ roll.
No less than the constituents of the Velvet Revolution, then, Havel was demanding that a consumer society of free time, leisure, and play be released from the deadening constraints of industrial society. Despite his theoretical opposition to consumer culture, he was preaching and practicing the “politics of ‘more’.”
And speaking of more. Merry Christmas. More to come.