VÁCLAV HAVEL’S LESSONS ON HOW TO CREATE A “PARALLEL POLIS”

Pankaj Mishra in The New Yorker:

Mishra-VaclevHavelsLessonsonHowtoCreateaParallelPolis-1200The recent political earthquakes have found us intellectually and emotionally underprepared, even helpless. None of our usual categories (left, right, liberal, conservative, progressive, reactionary) and perspectives (class, race, gender) seem able to explain how a compulsive liar and serial groper became the world’s most powerful man. Turning away from this unintelligible disaster, many seek enlightenment in literary and philosophical texts from the past, such as Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” George Orwell’s “1984,” and Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here.” It may be more rewarding, however, to turn to Václav Havel: a writer and thinker who intimately experienced totalitarianism of the Orwellian kind, who believed that it had already happened in America, and who also offered a way to resist it. Born in 1936, Havel came of age in Czechoslovakia, whose Communist rulers repeatedly imprisoned and continuously surveilled him while suppressing many of his writings. Defiant right until 1989, when he engineered the fall of the Communist regime, Havel came to be celebrated in the West as a “dissident,” a word commonly used to describe many in Communist countries who valiantly struggled against a pitiless despotism. However, his major prose writings, from the late nineteen-seventies onward, took a mordant view of the self-righteous Cold Warrior from the West who sought to turn the dissident into a distant object of pity and admiration. In one of Havel’s most famous essays, “Politics and Conscience,” from 1984, he asserted that dissidents like him, with their “flawed efforts” for freedom, were engaged in a universally necessary endeavor. He insisted on a “shared destiny” with people in Western democracies, presenting his fate as “a warning, a challenge, a danger, or a lesson” for them.

The problems before humankind, as Havel saw it, were far deeper than the opposition between socialism and capitalism, which were both “thoroughly ideological and often semantically confused categories [that] have long since been beside the point.” The Western system, though materially more successful, also crushed the human individual, inducing feelings of powerlessness, which—as Trump’s victory has shown—can turn politically toxic. In Havel’s analysis, politics in general had become too “machine-like” and unresponsive, degrading flesh-and-blood human beings into “statistical choruses of voters.” According to Havel, “the sole method of politics is quantifiable success,” which meant that “good and evil” were losing “all absolute meaning.”

More here.

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