Eric Kasper

This winter humanity lost one of its great champions with the passing of Czech “dissident,” writer, and president Václav Havel. The significance of the loss was beautifully captured in Paul Wilson’s article in the New York Review of Books. But in 1985, in the years just before the world was shocked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Havel published an essay titled “The Power of the Powerless,” in which he criticized the dehumanizing nature of the Soviet system – which he labeled “post-totalitarian,” in an attempt to capture the essence of a dictatorship by ideological system grounded in historical social movement rather than absolute rule by an individual. He also emphasized the way that such systems naturally set the stage for everyday people to set large changes in motion with simple acts of humanity – what he called “living in truth.”

In the essay, he reflects on the Charter 77 Declaration, which was issued in 1977 and demanded legal protections of human rights and accountability from the Czechoslovak government. In the following quotes I have made only one small edit, substituting the words “Arab Spring” where Havel actually said “Prague Spring” and “Charter 77.” His analysis is incredibly relevant and prescient. Note, also, that not only did his words prefigure the Arab Spring, but also the collapse of the Soviet Union, which even to him at the time of writing must have seemed completely incomprehensible.

“The Arab Spring is usually understood as a clash between two groups on the level of real power: those who wanted to maintain the system as it was and those who wanted to reform it. It is frequently forgotten, however, that this encounter was merely the final act and the inevitable consequence of a long drama originally played out chiefly in the theatre of the spirit and the conscience of society. And that somewhere at the beginning of this drama, there were individuals who were willing to live within the truth, even when things were at their worst. These people had no access to real power, nor did they aspire to it. The sphere in which they were living the truth was not necessarily even that of political thought. They could equally have been poets, painters, musicians, or simply ordinary citizens who were able to maintain their human dignity. Today it is naturally difficult to pinpoint when and through which hidden, winding channel a certain action or attitude influenced a given milieu, and to trace the virus of truth as it slowly spread through the tissue of the life of lies, gradually causing it to disintegrate. One thing, however, seems clear: the attempt at political reform was not the cause of society’s reawakening, but rather the final outcome of that reawakening.”

“Seen from the outside, and chiefly from the vantage point of the system and its power structure, the Arab Spring came as a surprise, as a bolt out of the blue. It was not a bolt out of the blue, of course, but that impression is understandable, since the ferment that led to it took place in the ‘hidden sphere’, in that semi-darkness where things are difficult to chart or analyse. The chances of predicting the appearance of the Arab Spring were just as slight as the chances are now of predicting where it will lead. Once again it was that shock, so typical of moments when something from the hidden sphere suddenly bursts through the moribund surface of ‘living within a lie’. The more one is trapped in the world of appearances, the more surprising it is when something like that happens.”

“In societies under the post-totalitarian system… people have no opportunity to express themselves politically in public, let alone to organize politically… In such a situation, people’s interest in political matters naturally dwindles and independent political thought, in so far as it exists at all, is seen by the majority as unrealistic, far-fetched, a kind of self-indulgent game… something admirable, perhaps, but quite pointless, because it is on the one hand entirely utopian and on the other hand extraordinarily dangerous, in view of the unusual vigour with which any move in that direction is persecuted by the regime. Yet even in such societies, individuals and groups of people exist who do not abandon politics as a vocation and who, in one way or another, strive to think independently, to express themselves and in some cases even to organized politically, because that is a part of their attempt to live within the truth. The fact that these people exist and work is in itself immensely important and worthwhile. …And yet… They have little understanding of the specific nature of power that is typical for this system and therefore they overestimate the importance of direct political work in the traditional sense. Moreover, they fail to appreciate the political significance of those ‘pre-political’ events and processes that provide the living humus from which genuine political change usually springs.”

“If the driving force behind the various ‘dissident movements’ comes from so many people in ‘non-political’ professions, this is not because these people are more clever than those who see themselves primarily as politicians. It is because those who are not politicians are also not so bound by traditional political thinking and political habits and therefore, paradoxically, they are more aware of genuine political reality and more sensitive to what can and should be done under the circumstances.”

“The real sphere of potential politics in the post-totalitarian system is elsewhere: in the continuing and cruel tension between the complex demands of that system and the aims of life… to live in a bearable way, not to be humiliated by their superiors and officials, not to be continually watched by the police, to be able to express themselves freely, to find an outlet for their creativity, to enjoy legal security, and so on. [A]nything that relates to this fundamental, omnipresent and living tension will inevitably speak to people. Abstract projects for an ideal political or economic order do not interest them to anything like the same extent – and rightly so – not only because everyone knows how little chance they have of succeeding, but also because today people feel that the less political policies are derived from a concrete and human ‘here and now’ and the more they fix their sights on an abstract ‘some day’, the more easily they can degenerate into new forms of human enslavement. People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being.”

So, Havel suggests that citizens themselves, owning the political power inherent in their humanity, in their fundamental need to live within the truth, can oppose oppressive systemic structures. To outsiders or those that accept the “world of appearances”, cascade moments when small activities ripple consequences across the system come as a great surprise. Certainly, we cannot predict exactly when and where such things will take place. But there is something in the nature of widely oppressive and dehumanizing systems that forces them to a state of what Complex Systems theorists call “self-organized criticality.” Because the system is existentially threatened by any dissent, thoughtless compliance is the only acceptable form of behavior. When people act simply in the interest of their own humanity, this becomes a radical political act. When the overwhelming suppression of the state is turned against an innocent expression of humanity, it exposes the dehumanizing reality for what it is, and makes it easy for the unhappy masses to reach a point of solidarity. This allows a simple act – like Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation – to become “pre-political” and to echo throughout the system, being amplified by all the other latent dissidents who are in place to exploit the opportunity, and it ultimately leads to a cascade of effects, sometimes even to revolutionary systemic change.

The defining characteristic of self-organized critical systems is power-law behavior, where the size of the cascade cannot be predicted ahead of time, but large cascades are much more likely to happen than if dynamics followed a normal pattern (literally a “normal” Gaussian distribution). Of course it was impossible to predict an Arab Spring event based solely on the fact of widespread oppression. But, history and complex systems dynamics show us that there are always a few people who are unwilling to sacrifice their humanity beyond a certain point, and those people, whose actions (and the associated social ferment) take place in a “hidden sphere,” sometimes trigger widespread system change (so-called “fat-tail” events) by simple acts of defiance in support of their own humanity.

Havel suggests that this is rooted in the power of truth in the face of a life of lies, that this power is held by the “powerless” and not the official, organized political opposition, that the end result of such revolutions are always unpredictable, but that authentic solutions must emerge organically from the bottom up, never designed from outside and imposed.

“More than ever before, such a change will have to derive from human existence, from the fundamental reconstitution of the position of people in the world, their relationships to themselves and to each other, and to the universe. If a better economic and political model is to be created, then perhaps more than ever before it must derive from profound existential and moral changes in society. … If it is to be more than just a new variation on the old degeneration, it must above all be an expression of life in the process of transforming itself. A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.”

Despite the differences between the Charter 77 movement and the Arab Spring as well as the important context-specific nature of social movements, we can see in them something universal and profound about the way “powerless” everyday citizens can exploit properties of their oppressive social systems and empower themselves to achieve fundamental change. In ongoing struggles across the Arab World, people are trying to self-organize, trying to create a better life, trying to replace unjust systems with a grassroots democracy. In the wake of revolution, there will be no straightforward transition to a better system. One will have to be grown from the bottom up based on the agency and autonomy of everyday citizens working together in a way that fosters humanity.

Eric Kasper is a PhD candidate within the Governance research team at IDS.