Review: The Power of the Powerless–Citizens Against the State in Central-Eastern Europe

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5.0 out of 5 stars Public Truth Can Overcome Political-Corporate Corruption,

July 26, 2002
Vaclav Havel
Living within the truth is the ultimate act of citizenship, and such living, even in the face of totalitarian repression (as in Czechoslovakia) or consumerist subversion and corporate corruption of the political and financial systems (as in the USA) can ultimately empower the powerless.This is an *extraordinary* book that is directly relevant to the circumstances that we now find ourselves in–what Ralph Nader calls “corporate socialism,” where the nominal owners of both the federal government (the voters) and the corporations (the stockholders) find themselves disenfranchised, abused, shut out, and their life savings looted by the most senior chief executive officers and politicians.

The book is slightly mis-represented, with “et al” in small print after Havel’s name as the author. I was even tempted to skip the additional small essays (his leading essay constitutes 44% of the total book, with ten other essays each being roughly 6% of the book) but that would have been unwise. There is real value in the other essays.

Both Eastern Europe prior to the revolution, and the USA in particular but Western democracies in general, share a common overwhelming problem, that of the silenced majority. As both Havel here and Nader elsewhere observe, the word “progressive” is contaminated and diluted, while democracy and capitalism (or socialism) in the ideal are completely compromised by a combination of asymmetric information (keeping the people uninformed) and corporate or bureaucratic or political corruption.

Havel opens by noting that “the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for …nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures.” This forces the vast majority of the public to “live within a lie,” and accept, either consciously or unwittingly, the huge chasm between political freedom and economic fairness in the ideal, and what the totalitarian or hijacked capitalism models offer in reality.

Brutally stated, from the point of view of the normal wage earner, there is no difference between totalitarianism and corrupt capitalism. In page after page, Havel, poet and president, documents this truth.

Speaking specifically of the West, Havel notes that Western leaders, “despite the immense power they possess through the centralized structure of power, are often no more than blind executors of the system’s own internal laws–laws they themselves never can, and never do, reflect upon.” Who does that remind us of? Clue: it makes no difference which party is in power. Havel specifically relates the Czech and Eastern European experience to the West, “as a kind of warning to the West, revealing its own latent tendencies…”

Havel places most of his emphasis on reform at the individual and community level, outside of politics and economics. He is especially encouraging in speaking of how unlikely it is to predict the moment when widely differing groups can come together in truth and freedom to overcome an oppressive regime, and yet how likely it is, in today’s environment, that such a change might occur.

In many ways his long essay reminded me of George Will’s collection of thoughts published as “Statecraft as Soulcraft,” except that Havel has found the state (either communist or capitalist) to be a failure at its most important function–the people must instead constitute an alternative polis that is initially side-by-side with the state, and ultimately displaces the state with a fresh new start. Incumbents beware, Havel finds that more often than not a clean sheet fresh start is the way to go.

As the USA confronts terrorism and a right-of-center approach to law enforcement, Havel offers a clear warning to citizens at risk of being labeled as terrorists when in fact they are only dissidents and speakers of truth. He speaks of the communist regime “ascribing terrorist aims to the ‘dissident movements’ and accusing them of illegal and conspiratorial methods.” Shades of the present in the West, where anti-globalization activists and legitimate Arab and Muslim personalities have been tarred with the terrorist brush, held without recourse to lawyers, and generally abused in the name of an ill-defined and badly-managed counter-terrorism program.

Among his deepest thoughts, and I will stop here for the essay needs to be read by the same thoughtful people that are reading “Cicero” and “What Kind of Nation” and “Crashing the Party” and “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy”, is the following: “The ‘dissident movements’ do not shy away from the idea of violent political overthrow because the idea seems too radical, but on the contrary, because it does not seem radical enough. For them, the problem lies far too deep to be settled through mere systemic changes, either governmental or technological.” Havel, perhaps in concurrence with Lawrence Lessig and his “Future of Ideas” finds both the law and the legal code to be oppressive and abusive of the people–the recent effort to modify bankruptcy laws to reduce the protections of the people from abusive credit card companies, are but one small example–the outrageous extension of copyright and patent laws to keep innovation from the marketplace are another.

Havel anticipates the “whithering away and dying off” of traditional political parties, “to be replaced by new structures that have evolved from ‘below’ and are put together in a fundamentally different way.” He speaks briefly of technology being out of control, and of the ultimate war now taking place, between state control and social control. He concludes that parliamentary democracies are essentially institutionalized forms of collective *irresponsibility*, and that only a moral reconstitution of society, the resurrection of core “values like as trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love” will show the way out of the “classic impotence of traditional democratic organizations.”

The other authors are not to be missed, and provide complementary but distinct views that are helpful to sparking debate and reflection. This volume will in my opinion stand as one of the great basic texts for political science and public administration, and it has great value for courses and reflections on ethics, citizenship, sociology, and economics.

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