Vaclav Havel's 'The Power of the Powerless' Endures

As his speech ended, and before he could be whisked from the room, I ignored his bodyguards and rushed the podium. I approached the small and unlikely man and silently held out the book and pen. He beamed with a smile. Authors quietly rejoice whenever they are asked to sign their own works — even this giant whose words steered the events of world history.


The well-worn paperback was Open Secrets, a collection of essays by the Czech poet President Vaclav Havel. It was 1998 and President Havel was visiting the United States. I had been tipped off that he’d be speaking to an audience in the bowels of Congress, so I grabbed my copy of his book and set off.

I’ve collected signed books of moonwalkers and rock stars, politicians and new-media pioneers, but I treasure my signed copy of Open Secrets above all. Under his signature, he drew a simple and charming heart.


1998 seems so far off now, and not merely in time. In 1998, America had lived through an age of moral clarity, despite the best efforts of Havel’s foes to blur those lines at home and abroad. America had enjoyed a largely unbroken string of presidencies where America’s moral place in world affairs was without question: Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Nixon, Kennedy, Eisenhower, and on.

Decade after decade, American leaders had defended the universal truth of human liberty.

Naturally, Havel himself had experienced this binary battle between human dignity and what he would refer to as “living the lie.” His recurring visits to the regime’s prisons sharpened this understanding. Good was good and evil was evil.

Only the most dedicated administration shill or the most comfortable Beltway parasite could deny today that America has become detached from the moral clarity that guided the nation through those decades. Nearly 7 in 10 Americans think the country is headed down the wrong track. A sizable majority thinks that America’s best days are in the past, not in the future.

Americans in 2015 might find value in discovering, or revisiting, one of Havel’s monumental essays, “The Power of the Powerless.” Though in that essay Havel was describing efforts to escape from what he referred to as a “post-totalitarian” existence, the essay has value for those in the West seeking to arrest the drift toward it.

To Havel, “post-totalitarian” was not a term relating to sequence. “Post-totalitarian” did not mean a government that arises after the evolution or collapse of a totalitarian structure of the sort we typically associate with singular omnipotent leaders.  Instead, “post-totalitarian” to Havel described a massive, bureaucratic culture that controlled vast territory over people’s lives, the economy, and was not tolerant of deviation or dissent.


Havel’s distinction between “post-totalitarianism” and the more consuming and familiar forms of totalitarianism has serious implications for our discourse today. Americans, even conservatives, tend to skip over Havel’s post-totalitarian nightmares in the continuum between Scandinavian-style socialism and Hilter’s style of totalitarianism. We forget about a big bureaucratic leviathan that masks its truly evil nature. Reading “The Power of the Powerless,” you explore a post-totalitarian bureaucratic system that sucks out the soul in ways that a traditional totalitarian system does not.

For example, in the traditional totalitarian system of an outlaw regime, it is usually a small gang of heavily armed thugs who have seized control through the threat of extermination of enemies. The enemies sulk and cower until they finally act.  In a post-totalitarian world, the culture becomes the regime and the regime becomes the culture. A massive legalistic bureaucratic state driven by ideology holds power and suffocates every corner of life with ideology, snuffing out all sparks of dissent not by violent intimidation, but by something more sustainable.


Constitutional conservatives often fast forward this or that policy of the Left straight into a bleak Orwellian or Nazi totalitarianism. Leapfrogging over Havel’s description of the post-totalitarian world of the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s invites ridicule. Media Matters and other defenders of large government institutions likely have macros on their keyboards: “CTL+T” will spit out Sowell/Adams/Bocephus/Breitbart “compared Obama to Hitler.” Indeed, a piece I wrote about the 1933 Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Angell led to Media Matters drones hitting their “CTL+T” macros and accusing me of comparing Obama to Hitler. To be sure, I compared Obama to a man who also didn’t deserve to win the Nobel Peace Prize. But Havel describes a model of post-totalitarian power as absolute and all-permeating, but with outward appearances as something more legalistic, more benign.

Unlike the dictatorship of Nazi Germany, for example, the post-totalitarian system:

… commands an incomparably more precise, logically structured, generally comprehensible and in essence, extremely flexible ideology that, in its elaborateness and completeness, is almost a secularized religion.

In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind, it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more.


In this post-totalitarian surrender, “one pays dearly for this low rent home, the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience and responsibility.”

What sustains this system are large numbers of people, comfortable, risk averse, and happy to “live a lie” in an act of self-preservation. Power thrives in a post-totalitarian structure because people are afraid to stick their necks out. People are afraid they will be accused of having an ill “tone” if they question those in power. Bad acts by government multiply because nobody ever questions them. I have some experience with a contrary approach.

So does the West. While Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless” is addressed primarily to those seeking to understand the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s, it has messages for defenders of human liberty in the West in 2015.

Havel described the post-totalitarian system as:

… thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government, the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class, the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation, depriving people of information is called making it available …  and the arbitrary use of power is called observing the legal code.

What was down is up, what is outside is in, what was wrong is now right. Some call this a fundamental transformation.  Havel calls it the culture of the lie. Whatever, it is the core of Marxism, to destroy and replace systems which place individual dignity as the highest value.

Prague 1968

Prague 1968

In the post-totalitarian system, power is wielded not by singular omnipotent leaders and their uniformed lieutenants, but instead by the nameless and faceless:

Power becomes clearly anonymous.  Individuals are almost dissolved in the ritual. They allow themselves to be swept along by it and frequently it seems as though ritual alone carries people from obscurity into the light of power. … Individuals are increasingly being pushed aside by faceless people, puppets, those uniformed flunkeys of the rituals and routines of power.

And herein lies the most essential lesson for modern conservatives to learn. The problems this nation faces will not vanish with the election of a Republican, no matter what the Beltway consultants tell you in radio ads and fundraising emails.  The problems run much deeper now. The bureaucratic state has become unmoored from the political branches.


The most aggressive Republican president coming to power will have a hard time containing it. Layer upon layer of bureaucrats exist, skilled at justifying their own existence and artful in hiding their most outlandish behavior. Imagine 5,000 Lois Lerners. Multiply that by ten, and you have described just one single federal agency.

But surely we need only elect a Republican to the White House to solve the rise of the untethered bureaucratic state, right?

Recall our Constitution already gives the Republicans running the House and Senate power to constrain the fuel that sustains the Leviathan, but they have not mustered up the courage to do so. The Founders gave Congress the power of the purse to restrain the drift toward a federal bureaucratic monster. Surely a government shutdown would merely be the end result of any effort, right, so why make waves?

Havel’s essay speaks to those in the West too comfortable with their material satisfaction to take a stand. He specifically cautions Western democracies that material comforts create a culture of risk aversion that sustains a post-totalitarian world. It was precisely the same unwillingness of the Czech greengrocer to take down the sign in his window saying “Workers of the World Unite!” that sustained the culture of the lie. After all, taking a small stand, a risk, might lead to financial discomfort. If those in Congress took such a stand, the powerful New York Times might ostracize Congressional leadership, and we can’t have that, can we?

The title of the essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” speaks of how to break through this fear. Shattering expectations and living in truth is the singular revolutionary act that threatens the power structure. Refusing to continue to live a lie, to continue to allow fear to dictate actions, that is the beginning of power for the powerless.

Havel’s greengrocer who takes down his sign saying Workers of the World Unite:

… has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth. … After all, the greengrocer was a threat to the system not because of any physical or actual power he had, but because his action went beyond itself, because it illuminated its surroundings and, of course, because of the incalculable consequences of that illumination.


The conventional wisdom, especially among libertarians, is that consumer riches are an excellent hedge against a drift toward statism. Liberty is a stronger gravitational force than culture, we are told. Culture, often branded as conformity, is inventoried at best as a nuisance, and at worst as stifling repression. Libertarians praise culture only as long as libertarianism is the dominant feature of the culture. Culture, if conforming, however is a mighty foe of the state. Culture delivered a wrecking ball in Poland to Soviet domination. It was the culture of the Poles, indeed, oft appearing as religious conformity, which wrecked Gen. Jaruzelski’s regime. Culture delivered the same death blow to the Soviets in Estonia’s singing revolution.

Havel warns how Western consumer societies make themselves vulnerable to post-totalitarian tendencies. He describes how the consumer society inside the Eastern Bloc helped sustain the post-totalitarian system. The desire for material satisfaction created a culture of risk aversion that protected the state:

A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accouterments of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.

True, Havel’s post-totalitarian world comes with its own circumstances very different from our own.  Examining “The Power of the Powerless” isn’t an exercise in comparison between the lives of the Czechs in 1978 and the lives of Americans in 2015. Rather, it is an examination of the psychological experiences of bureaucratic control and the power individuals have to affect systems of power through individualized rejection of the structures supporting the bureaucratic state.  Havel’s brilliance is in understanding power and individual choices to oppose or facilitate it:

You do not become a “dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society. … Today, if we are not to be snobbish about it, we must admit that “dissidents” can be found on every street corner.


It is a Jeffersonian truism that government governs best which governs least. Havel describes a post-totalitarian system:

… utterly obsessed with the need to bind everything in a single order; life in such a state is thoroughly permeated by a dense network of regulations, proclamations, directives, norms, orders, and rules. (It is not called a bureaucratic system without good reason.) … [The] legal code serves the post-totalitarian system in this direct way as well, that is, it too forms a part of the world of regulations and prohibitions … Like ideology, the legal code functions as an excuse. It wraps the base exercise of power in the noble apparel of the letter of the law.

I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide whether America in 2015 is closer to Jefferson’s vision or Havel’s nightmare.

Havel warned that in Western democracies, with greater technology, “people are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post totalitarian society.” Secularized, Western democracy may invite, according to Havel, an inadequate bulwark against the rise of the suffocating state.

But to cling to the notion of traditional parliamentary democracy as one’s political ideal and to succumb to the illusion that only this tried and true form is capable of guaranteeing human beings enduring dignity and an independent role in society would, in my opinion, be at the very least, shortsighted.

Of course the Founders of the United States shared Havel’s suspicion of parliamentary democracy. On that score, Havel is more in the camp with America’s founders. He would speak of how modern Westerners are unable to integrate calamity and random catastrophe into their worldview. ISIS videos, 9-11, the Boxing Day tsunami, a gunman at a Batman premiere. Of course, such events would be understood by many just a few generations ago. Havel:

I have become increasingly convinced that the crisis of the much needed global-responsibility is in principle due to the fact that we have lost the certainty that the Universe, nature, existence and our lives are the work of creation guided by a definite intention, that it has a definite meaning and follows a definite purpose.


Havel thereby places himself against the current that flowed from east to west across Europe starting in 1917. The utopian vision of the Marxists and Bolsheviks led to the murder of millions in gulags and gas vans. It was a vision undone by the ideas and witness of men like Vaclav Havel and Karol Wojtyła. Understanding the nature of power, and the power of the powerless within those systems eventually destroyed an evil empire.  It’s worth understanding how that happened, regardless of how removed in time we have become from that experience.


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