Today the West struggles under the Left’s tightening grip on the economy, education, individual rights, and nearly all facets of society. Voices from the past who warned of the perils of the threat resonate more than ever; Ayn Rand, George Orwell, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman saw it coming.
Yet there is another leading voice who didn’t just see the Left coming, but who also devised a means to escape it. A voice that doesn’t receive near enough attention.
You may have just read that name and said: Vaclav who? Understandable, because despite his greatness, Havel is largely unknown in America. But lamentable, especially in times like these, with numerous contributions to explore, learn from, and emulate.
Evolving Excellence in Tumultuous Times
Havel was born in Czechoslovakia just prior to World War II, in 1936. He lived an exceptional life.
He was many things: author, poet, playwright, dissident. And ultimately a statesman and leader of his nation(s).1 You might remember him as the poet who rose to the presidency of Czechoslovakia around the time the Berlin Wall came down.
Havel served as the first and last president of Czechoslovakia up to its dissolution. He then became the first president of the Czech Republic, serving for a decade.
But Havel first rose to prominence as a playwright. He utilized an absurdist style of writing to criticize the communist system. After participating in the Prague Spring in 1968, he got blacklisted when the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia and forcibly put down the movement.
Havel became more politically active, and he spent years under government pressure and as a political prisoner; he spent nearly four years in prison during the late 1970s into the early 1980s.
Havel played a key role in the Velvet Revolution that toppled the communists in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s. He assumed the presidency shortly after. Havel led the charge to undo the Warsaw Pact and grow NATO eastward.
Czechoslovakian citizens flood the streets of Prague during the Velvet Revolution in 1989
Credit: Velvet Revolution Street Museum
Many of his stances ended up controversial domestically; by the end of his political life, he had greater popularity abroad than at home. Havel continued life as a public intellectual after serving in office and until his death in 2011.
The Big Picture
Havel’s views have been labeled many things over the years. Anti-consumerism, humanitarianism, environmentalism, civil activism, and direct democracy activism.
But one Havel theme reigns supreme over all others: the implications of the individual dissident who decides to live within the truth in a post-totalitarian system.
Let’s unpack that.
Havel feared a future where society’s attention would be diverted by consumerism and television (today add reality TV and social media). The distraction would draw individual citizens’ attention away from the substance of public policy and governance. He foresaw today’s crisis of culture and technology: individuals enslaving themselves because they don’t ask who they truly are and what they should be doing. A form of modern dis- or un-freedom.2
Havel applied first-hand experience to develop his philosophy and construct his plays.
A key example of this dynamic was a friend of Havel’s who worked at a brewery. The employee-friend was smart, knew of ways to improve the brewing process, took pride in his job, and he cared about the product.
But the employee also knew he should keep quiet and his head down in a socialist and communist system. And defer to his superiors at the beer plant. Yet the employee could not help himself. He spoke up with his ideas for improving brewing efficiency and the quality of the beer. That exposed him to the likelihood of negative consequences.
Havel used that experience to illustrate the key concept of ‘living in truth.’
Even though a single, lowly employee within a giant bureaucracy of an organization or collective had little direct connection to the output (beer), the individual fundamentally cared about the quality of the beer and the efficiency of the process. It connected to the essence of who the individual was, even though the employee didn’t own the brewery and wasn’t responsible for the product. He cared because it was core to who he was.
Havel referenced this employee who speaks up as an individual who chooses to live within the truth. And Havel introduced the idea that the employee brewer, or anyone else trapped in a controlling society who chose to live in truth, were dissidents of the system.3
Enter The Power of the Powerless
In the late 1970s, Havel penned the essay The Power of the Powerless. It is genius, inspiring, thought provoking, and timely.
He used a character in the essay, a greengrocer shopkeeper, to illustrate how one living within a lie might choose instead to live in truth. Making such a transition means becoming a dissident in a post totalitarian system or society.
Havel’s referencing of ‘post-totalitarian’ does not mean that the system is no longer totalitarian. Quite the contrary. He defined a post-totalitarian system as one where every individual is trapped within a dense network of the state’s governing instruments made legitimate by a comprehensive ideology.4 The post-totalitarian system is a secularized religion of coerced decision-making, repression, fear, and self-censorship.
Havel applied his themes using a communist system as backdrop. But the learnings and lessons apply to the West today with the ongoing stifling of individual freedoms by the Left.
The nameless greengrocer hangs a sign in his shop window that says: “Workers of the world, unite!” Yet the greengrocer cared nothing about that famous line from Karl Marx. It was a stock phrase that everyone came to blindly accept and adhere to. It was not unifying or inspiring to the individual in Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s, whether it be the greengrocer in the essay, Havel’s friend who worked in the brewery, or any other typical individual.
By placing the sign in the window, the greengrocer was telling society that he was compliant, that he fit in, and that he was willing to live in the environment defined to him by the post-totalitarian system.
Note the greengrocer used a common, popular phrase to say this instead of stating something more direct, like “I am a sheep and I blindly and obediently follow what the system (i.e., shepherd) tells me to.” The sign explicitly states one thing but implicitly informs of something very different. Yet the greengrocer was able to communicate the implied meaning through his sign without having to explicitly state it.
And the greengrocer is playing into a form of peer pressure, or what within a post-totalitarian system of government or ideology would be considered as indoctrination. He didn’t receive an order by the government to compel him to put that sign in the window. He did it because he saw that others did it too.
Such behavior becomes self-fulfilling and self-determining. The next person who walks past the shop sees the sign, making it more likely that they will then put the same sign up in their home or business. It feeds on itself as a form of auto-indoctrination.
Havel realized some systems are totalitarian not because a single person, a dictator like Hitler or Putin, has total power. Instead, a system or society may be totalitarian because power is shared in a state of collective irresponsibility. Citizens become both supporters and victims of the totalitarian system, individually and collectively deciding to not live in truth. The system or society becomes post-totalitarian.
Havel highlighted freedom may not always be as we think of it, particularly in post-totalitarian societies. In the West freedom is viewed as doing things we are inclined to do. But Havel taught that freedom is contemplating what you should do as an individual and then having the courage to go do that very thing, even though it will risk the ire of the system or society. That’s a deeper, more meaningful, form of freedom.
Comparing Havel’s Eastern Europe in the 1970s and the West of Today
Today’s West is showing symptoms of becoming a post-totalitarian system, one where many individuals refuse to live in truth (and thus live a lie). Worse, those who decide to live in truth are feeling and looking more and more like those dissidents that Havel spoke of.
The first two sentences in The Power of the Powerless read, “A spectre is haunting Eastern Europe. The specter of what in the West is called dissent.” Havel leads with this to set up an explanation of his premise. And indeed, a similar specter is now haunting the West which is increasingly controlled by the Left.
The post-totalitarian system subdues citizens with the drugs of government subsidy and giveaways to the individual. Havel pointed out how government gifts (rent and housing subsidies, etc.) come with a price: surrendering one’s reason, conscience, and responsibility. A core objective of a post-totalitarian ideology is to rip these away from the individual and assign them to a higher authority.
Today the Left in America and Europe provides government handout after handout to individuals. Entitlements, healthcare, student debt forgiveness, corporate subsidy, and so on. In exchange for something quite precious: surrendering the individual’s right to choose for themselves and to live in truth.
Whether it was Havel’s Eastern Europe in the late 1970s or America today, the benefits bestowed upon citizens by a post-totalitarian system are far from free and are the most expensive benefits one might imagine.
That sign in the greengrocer’s shop window, ‘Workers of the world, unite!’, has an eerie analogy today in the West with ‘Climate action now!’ You see those signs everywhere, in large manicured suburban front lawns (ironic), in corporate public relations materials, at over-priced colleges hanging on bulletin boards, and on T-shirts. Are the people who post these signs truly enthusiastic about climate action? Have they given any serious thought as to what the message might mean?
It’s evident that the overwhelming majority are not and have not.
But someone, or something, produced those signs and then distributed them to the greengrocer in Havel’s story or to the suburbanite, corporation, or student in today’s America. The signs go up because everyone is doing it; because that’s the accepted norm within the system. If you don’t sport a sign, there will be consequences. You show the sign to get along in life. It assures you of not being hassled.
Those displaying the sign are telling us something subliminal yet powerful. That the greengrocer then, or the college student today, knows what one must do and how one must behave. And the sign looks to deliver such a message to those in power as well as to fellow citizens.
Such behavior through the signs also implies that the individual is scared, intimidated, and a follower. That’s where the role of the explicit message on the sign comes into play; it provides a salve to the ego of the obedient individual. Because the explicit message demands proactive action: uniting the workers or climate action, both with an exclamation point.
The approach in a post totalitarian system is diabolically genius: it provides an explicit illusion of being moral while the reality underneath makes it easier for the individual to part with his or her morality. And that’s true whether it was for communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1970s with the greengrocer and his workers sign or with the Left running the West today with the student or suburbanite and their climate signs.
Havel illuminated the difference between the objectives of the post-totalitarian system, or government run by the Left, versus the objectives of a meaningful life and the human spirit. There was what he referenced as an abyss between the two.
With the individual’s human spirit, there is a striving and hunger toward variety, choice, individualism, self-determination, and a fulfillment of one’s own potential.
Compare that to the objectives of the post-totalitarian system: forcing individuals into predefined states and a movement toward rigid structure and belief.
That post-totalitarian approach, or the playbook of the Left, forces individualism to be secondary to a blind obedience that drives the system. Individuals are not deemed by the system or the state to be worth much, only inconsequential cogs in the machinery of the post-totalitarian system.
Building and growing the post-totalitarian system generates continual hypocrisy and irony.
- Government by bureaucracy is called popular government, even though it’s anything but.
- The middle class becomes enslaved within the system, but that occurs in the name of the middle class.
- Taking away the freedoms of the individual is in the name of defending the rights of the individual.
- Denying society information and censoring is labeled as making things transparent, truthful, and accessible.
- A bureaucrat’s subjective and wide use of power gets labeled as adhering to the law or the Constitution.5
- Suppressing free speech becomes a way to protect individual rights, including free speech.
- And punishing scientific thought and the scientific method is to further ‘The Science.’
To propagate the charade in the post-totalitarian system of Havel or with contemporary government run by the Left today in the West, the system must fabricate and contort statistics, data, and history. Climate change is a prime example, with the cherry-picking of statistical datasets for climate models, selectively reporting one set of weather events while ignoring other sets of weather events, and by constantly changing predictions into the future and conveniently ignoring prior predictions that keep proving inaccurate, time and again.
The culmination is the system transforms reality into a ritual of signs and pseudo-reality. Science gets replaced with political science. Objective reality is replaced with religion of the system. Backed by signs and slogans such as ‘climate action now’ and ‘code red.’
It impacts everyone in society, from the lowliest of the working class to the most elite of the educated class. That’s why some of the most educated and successful individuals blindly adhere to ideologies such as extreme environmentalism. The process that the post totalitarian system employs works across all strata of society and all education levels.
There is a psychology at play. People sport the slogans and the signs not looking to persuade others, but instead to conform and contribute to the wider view and objective of reminding people what is expected of them. It’s affirmation of the herd, and subliminally coercing others to comply or face alienation and losing the peaceful lifestyle that comes with obedience. Individuals are conscripted into the system’s effort to assist each other to become obedient; instruments of control and at the same time subjects of control.6
Pivoting to Living in Truth
What happens if the greengrocer decides to pull down the sign in the window or if the homeowner removes the ‘climate action now!’ sign from the suburban yard? What if both start to say what they think, and start following objective truth and what conscience demands?
Perhaps it’s a form of revolt. But Havel defined it as an attempt to live within the truth.
Living within the truth breaks the veneer of the system and exposes it as a manufactured scheme. Living a lie is exposed as just that, living a lie. Like the Wizard of Oz, one finally gets to see what’s behind the optics. Thus, for the post-totalitarian system (or for government run by the Left in the West today), the ultimate fundamental threat to its power will be individuals daring to live in the truth.
Just as there was a cumulative effect that plowed society into living the lie, when an individual chooses to live within the truth, the system runs the risk of teetering and crumbling.
Trust that the post-totalitarian system will react. Today the Left will accuse someone speaking their mind as wanting attention, money, clicks, or notoriety despite none being true. In fact, most individuals who decide to live within the truth have no prior political activity or affinity for politics. They just want to be able to exert their own individual freedoms: to speak, participate, and think.
And freedom to achieve, create value, make decisions for themselves, and utilize energy. Starting to see how climate change and Code Red are foundational tactics of the Left’s post-totalitarian system today?
This is why Havel considered individuals looking to live within the truth in a post-totalitarian system as dissidents. It’s a different connotation than what we typically think of dissident; it’s not so much that the individual proactively acts as a dissident as much as it is the system treats the individual as a dissident.
The media will shun and ignore individuals living in truth. But if the individual speaks freely despite the system looking to suppress them, the views of the dissident living in truth start to stretch beyond immediate circles and start to gain wider traction across society. The individuals in this category start to be known for their thoughts and ideas beyond their respective professions.
That’s how Havel evolved from a renowned poet and playwright into a political leader. He was the ultimate dissident living in truth in a post-totalitarian system.
Individuals living within the truth in a post-totalitarian system are often labelled rebels. But they don’t consider themselves to be. They aren’t rejecting anything. Instead, they are exerting freedom. They are thrown into the situation by a sense of personal responsibility coupled with the times.
And when these individuals say aloud what others are afraid to say or cannot say, dissidents living in the truth become inspiring. Another threat to the system. Especially if the dissident living within the truth jumps from no longer living within the lie and into proactively advocating for the truth, becoming vocal and visible to all.
There is a key difference between the post-totalitarian system of the Left and a dictatorship.
A dictatorship has no need to respect the law. But the post-totalitarian system, or today’s big government of the Left, has great use for the law. It uses the law to create power and to preserve it in the form of control over the individual. Tightly regulating and weaving an intricate web of complexity within the law are useful tactics for the post-totalitarian Left.
What Would Havel Think Today?
Havel, interestingly, considered himself an environmentalist. But environmentalism back then is a far cry from what it is today. No doubt that much of what he exposed of the post-totalitarian system is embedded within today’s extreme environmental movement. One wonders what Havel would think of today’s Code Red and Climate Action Now!
I’d like to believe he would carry the torch of dissidence when it came to the supposed scientific consensus of Climate Action Now!
Let’s follow his lead in the full spirit of living within the truth.