Post-Totalitarian Society, Part II


In claiming that Edward Snowden is a “national hero,” I invoked Vaclav Havel’s notion of a “post-totalitarian society,” which he developed most explicitly in a zamizdat essay of 1978 called “The Power of the Powerless.” In context, I was trying to differentiate between George Orwell’s heavy-handed depiction of totalitarianism (in 1984) and the more insidious state of surveillance revealed by Snowden’s theft of NSA records.

To clarify those televised remarks, I wrote up a summary and refutation of the charges, formal and informal, that Snowden faces, which I posted as “Post-Totalitarian Society, Part I.” In concluding, I declared that Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser were the presiding spirits of Havel’s epochal essay.

I look at that conclusion and I ask myself, “What were you thinking?” Not because Gramsci and Althusser are insignificant figures, but because they’re both results of the intellectual revolution transacted under the sign of pragmatism or pluralism in the early 20th century. How could I, of all people, forget this genealogy? I’ve spent the last 25 years trying to demonstrate that the earthquake we characterize as post-structuralism—-and attribute to European sources—-has its techtonic origins in the published work of William James and John Dewey, ca. 1900-1920.

Who cares? Since when is the genealogy as important as the ideas themselves? My purpose in tracing the roots of the post-structuralist rhizome has been almost parochial-—I’ve been searching for a usable past in the American sources, trying to show that, like socialism or rockabilly, this exotic growth isn’t a foreign import. I’ve been insisting, in other words, that we don’t have to mourn the exceptional absence of an intellectual tradition that equips us to understand, criticize, and transcend post-industrial capitalism. We don’t have to be exiles from our own past, which is to say our own country. So, yes, I’ve been pursuing a political purpose all along.

It’s not as if the pragmatists were the only thinkers to notice that the dispersal of power from state to society—-the signature of what Havel would call post-totalitarian society-—was the most salient feature of their time, the early 20th century. They were, however, the most interesting intellectual registers of this extraordinary shift, because they were fortunate enough to witness events that came earlier and more dramatically to the US than to Europe—-events that were driven by the decomposition of proprietary capitalism and the emergence of corporate capitalism, ca. 1890-1920. (The popular or vernacular version of these events was captured in phrases like “the trust question” or “the rise of big business,” and, in Europe, the advent of “finance” or “monopoly capital.”)

And there’s no way around the fact that the three Europeans who seized on this dispersal of power as the reason to renovate social and political theory-—Georges Sorel, Antonio Gramsci, and Carl Schmitt, precisely the men whom Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have installed as the key figures in articulating the political problematic of “hegemony”-—were also close students of social-intellectual developments in the US. Sorel was obsessed with pragmatism, Gramsci with “Fordism,” Schmitt with pluralism: they plotted their new positions by reference to American coordinates.

Understood in these terms, as intellectual heirs to a Gramscian legacy, Althusser and Havel are distant echoes or late tremors.


A post-totalitarian society is one in which the modern, liberal distinction between state and society (thus public and private) has become a problem rather than an assumption—-a question rather than an answer to every political query-—and in which the slogan “the personal is political” can, therefore, become a commonplace. Totalitarian and/or corporatist states, whether fascist or communist, subsisted on the destruction or erasure of this distinction: civil society shriveled as the state expanded its repressive apparatus, in accordance with the Party’s program of social-economic progress via revolution. In a post-totalitarian phase of development, by contrast, we see the dispersal of power from the state to society.

How then could Havel, the citizen-captive of a Soviet satellite, discern the symptoms of post-totalitarian society in Eastern as well as Western Europe, indeed predict that the state of the East was the future of the West? Was it the experience of the Prague Spring, which, however briefly, asserted the supremacy of society over the state? Havel thought not: “All the transformations [of 1968], first in the general mood, then conceptually, and finally structurally, did not occur under pressure from the kind of parallel structures that are taking shape today. Such structures—which are sharply defined antitheses of the official [state] structures—quite simply did not exist at the time, nor were there any ‘dissidents’ in the present sense of the word.” (‘Power of the Powerless,’ Open Letters, pp. 145, 203)

No, what makes East and West different species of the same genus is “the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society”—Heidegger’s nightmare. (pp. 205-07; not incidentally, Havel also cites Heidegger’s student, Jose Ortega y Gasset)

So conceived, post-totalitarian society, which “has at its disposal a complex mechanism of direct and indirect surveillance that has no equal in history” (183), enables two divergent sensibilities within the hidden, independent, parallel structures that develop, necessarily, outside of the formal political arrangements and languages of state power. On the one hand, the indolent, hedonistic consumer culture that ultimately relies on the state to deliver the goods. On the other, the possibility of “living within the truth,” in opposition to both the idiocies of consumer culture and their sponsor in the omnipresent surveillance state. In 1978, Havel thought this oppositional, dissident sensibility was losing ground to consumer culture, as did his counterparts in the West, most prominently Christopher Lasch and the left-wing academics who were similarly inspired by the Frankfurt School’s “critical theory.” ( pp. 131, 145, 151-53, 183, 206-08)

The political valence of the original conception is clearly unpredictable, as the careers of Sorel, Gramsci, and Schmitt demonstrate. You can acknowledge the dispersal of power from state to society as Sorel did, by attributing hitherto unimaginable capacities to the masses; as Gramsci did, by redefining revolution and the relation between intellectuals and subaltern strata, between philosophy and politics; or as Schmitt did, by declaring that to reinstate its legitimacy, the state had to reassert itself as against the competing claims of society, that is, of cultural and political pluralism. As I said, all three plotted their positions by reference to American coordinates, but what goes missing in each case, with the possible exception of Gramsci, is the modern-liberal tradition that insisted on the supremacy of society over the state and on the value of individualism (as against functional-economic classes or racial-ethnic groups).

The great irony of Havel’s victory is, then, that it came not in spite but as the result of a consumer culture, in the sense that the inhabitants of Eastern European realized in the 1970s and 80s that the state could not deliver the goods obviously enjoyed in worlds elsewhere. Nor could “society” as he conceived it, as a beloved community defined by the limits of personal devotion and connection. (pp. 209-14) He, too, plotted his position by reference to American coordinates—-Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground, Plastic People of the Universe (a Czech band that did covers of the Velvets)-—but he, too, left out the liberal tradition that empowered individualism and, yes, validated consumerism. The pathetic bewilderment of his years in office might be understood as an effect of this absence.

Still, the concept of post-totalitarian society matters, perhaps more now than when Havel gave it new meaning and significance. For it reveals that “living within the truth” is impossible outside of or in opposition to consumer culture, where deliberate, public abstentions from both products and public policies-—in a word, boycotts—-have become the most effective political devices; that electoral triumph and political “reform” are the long-term effects of self-organization “out of doors,” in the “parallel structures” of civil society, not their proximate causes; and that control of the state, by whatever means, is not the prize in the struggle for social justice.



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3 responses to “Post-Totalitarian Society, Part II

  1. Kurt Newman

    Jim, I wonder how this later Deleuze piece fits in the post-totalitarian genealogy?

  2. Kurt, I consciously refrained from any mention of Foucault, but yeah, this fits rather nicely. The connection of Deleuze and James makes all the more sense, worth a whole book. Who’s gonna write it, you or me?

  3. We’ll write it together, of course.

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