When the leader of Czechoslovakia’s 1989 “Velvet Revolution” and its former president, Vaclav Havel died last month, many eulogies were heard about this playwright and statesman, who was a hopeless romantic and a devoted fan of rock music, and who left an indelible imprint on the history of his nation and on the conscience of the entire world.
It would be appropriate today to recall the formative moment of his political thinking: The Power of the Powerless, an essay that Havel wrote in 1978 and which has lost none of its relevance and vigor, particularly in the wake of the stormy year that the Middle East has experienced. He finished writing that essay a year after launching Charter 77, an ideological movement that challenged the very foundations of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia; a few months after the essay was published, he was sent to prison to serve a five-year sentence.
“The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop,” writes Havel in The Power of the Powerless, “places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals?”
Havel’s answer to these questions seems reasonable enough: no. The explanation of the greengrocer’s actions is simple: “That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be.”
The decision of the greengrocer and that of the office worker who purchases a kilogram of tomatoes a short while after she herself placed a similar poster in the corridor of her office are seemingly minor daily decisions, which, however, broadcast both internally and externally a blind obedience to the regime; they preserve the imagined truth of the “post-totalitarian system,” whose very life’s breath is living a lie.
If that is the case, the road to change also passes through these minor, but actually major, decisions. If the greengrocer decides to replace the lie with the truth and if, even without actually voicing any condemnation of the regime, he removes the poster from his front-window, he will pay a heavy personal price. On the other hand, however, he will make a tear in the system’s ideological mask and, like the child who cries out that the emperor is not wearing any clothes, he will be shortening the days of that system.
But why would the greengrocer decide to remove the poster? Havel does not provide any simple answers and, believing, it would seem, that all people seek truth and liberty — controlling their own destiny. It is this belief that gave Havel the hope for a better future, and it is here that his vision most strikingly contrasts with George Orwell’s dystopia in his novel 1984 — people will always resist thinking that two and two are five.
Although the timing of the removal of the poster is left unexplained in The Power of the Powerless, between the lines there is an implied answer: The greengrocer retains the poster in his front-window as long as the poster’s true meaning is not explicit, as long as the lie manages to conceal itself behind a veil of an apparent truth. The poster, notes Havel, “must allow the greengrocer to say, ‘What’s wrong with the workers of the world uniting?’ Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power.” If the greengrocer were instructed to display a franker poster, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient,” it is doubtful whether he would so readily heed the regime’s instructions.
The Soviet Union sought to put up a similar symbolic poster on Polish soil after World War II. In March 1940, after Poland had been split in two and had been divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Polish army officers were taken prisoner; they were sent to their deaths in the Katyn Forest in Russia where they were also buried in mass graves.
After the war, Poland’s Soviet ally wanted to cover up the fact of that mass murder and argued that it had been the invading Germans who had carried out the massacre in 1941; however, testimonies piled up and transformed this attempt at camouflage, this imagined truth, into a naked, humiliating lie. Two years after Havel’s essay reached the hands of Poland’s Solidarity Movement and encouraged the movement’s leaders to hope for change, Polish citizens began to see a new landscape in their country: makeshift monuments bearing the stark message, “Katyn, 1940.” The lying poster of the greengrocer thus was transformed into a simple but powerful statement in support of truth.
Between Prague, Warsaw and the Tunisian village of Sidi Bouzid, a year and a day before Havel’s death, a Tunisian greengrocer was ordered to put up a similar false symbolic poster and he decided to immolate himself. We will never know for sure why Mohamed Bouazizi decided to set himself on fire; however, from the various testimonies that have been gathered, it seems clear that he reacted to a naked, humiliating lie: the determination of the regime’s leaders, who claim to speak for the people, to break his spirit and to shame him in public. It is possible that, in contrast with Havel’s wishes, this was an act of despair rather than of hope.
Nonetheless, it must be noted that Bouazizi did not commit suicide in some hidden corner; his act of self-immolation took place opposite the governor’s office after the latter refused to see him. His act of desperation was seen by a very wide audience — thanks to the social network — and Bouazizi’s self-immolation thus publicly tore off the last shreds of the mask that the Tunisian regime had been wearing.
The insult to the pride of Tunisia’s citizens in the face of WikiLeaks’ revelations of the corrupt practices of their president became abject humiliation. It is significant that the West lost no time in labeling the Tunisian revolution a flourishing Jasmine Revolution, while the Tunisians themselves called it the Dignity Revolution. Will the Tunisians and the rest of the Arab nations be able to avoid the trap of exchanging one lie for another? This question still remains open.
The flames that Bouazizi ignited and which spread throughout the Middle East over the past year have reached the West (and Israel) as well, and it is interesting to note that, in Havel’s eyes, there is no real difference between communist and capitalist regimes. Both communist and capitalist regimes seek to undermine human autonomism — the right of all individuals to control their own destiny — and to replace it with an apathetic automatism that destroys the essential value of a human being.
The imagined truth of communism and the relative or absent truth of postmodern capitalism leave citizens orphaned and turns them into a means to an end rather than an end itself. The agents of the “existential revolution” who fight for the human spirit, argued Havel, do not have to present, in the onset of their struggle, an orderly political ideology, because their ideology is their very actions, their efforts as individuals and as a group to lead a life of truth.
* First published on The Huffington Post, 3 January 2012