Vaclav Havel’s Critique of the West
In his own words: “We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved”
Vaclav Havel, the former Czech independence activist and president who died on Sunday, has been justly eulogized for his intellectual leadership and personal courage in the fight against communism. Havel was also a thoughtful observer of western democracies, seeing similar absolutist trends in government structures that strive toward uniformity and ultimate solutions. In a series of speeches given in the 1990s, he laid out an analysis that seems, if anything, even more relevant today.
Western governments, he said, are organized on a flawed premise not far removed from the Soviet system that had just collapsed. “The modern era has been dominated by the culminating belief,” he said, “that the world … is a wholly knowable system governed by finite number of universal laws that man can grasp and rationally direct … objectively describing, explaining, and controlling everything.”
These bureaucratic structures are profoundly dehumanizing, Havel believed, striving to control choices that should be left to human judgment and values. This “era of systems, institutions, mechanisms and statistical averages” is doomed to failure because “there is too much to know” and it cannot “be fully grasped.” The drive towards standardization is fatally flawed, Havel believed: “life is nonstandard.”
The heavy hand of centralized bureaucracy, Havel observed, makes everyone first powerless, then listless. “We have lost sense that there is a way out, lost the will to do anything,” he said. “The more we know about dangers like global warming, the less we seem able to deal with them.” These systems also marginalize community and leave people with a “fundamental sense of nonbelonging.”
The quest for uniform systems does not reduce social conflict but creates a claimant culture that feeds social conflict. “The more systematically and impatiently the world is crammed into rational categories, the more explosions of irrationality there will be to astonish us,” he said. We long “for an unattainable order of things, a longing that increases as the terrain I walk through becomes more muddled and confusing. I sometimes feel the need to confirm my identity by sounding off at others and demanding my rights.”
In a society where authority is embodied in complex bureaucratic systems, no one can take responsibility to do what seems right. Modern societies are suffering what he called a “profound crisis of authority and resulting general decay of order.” What does that mean? “Politicians seem to have turned into puppets that only look human and move in a giant, rather inhuman theatre; they appear to have become merely cogs in a huge machine, objects of a major automatism of civilization which has gotten out of control and for which no one is responsible.”
The solution, Havel believed, is to reclaim human control over daily choices. We must “get to the heart of reality through personal experience … in short, human uniqueness, human action, and the human spirit must be rehabilitated.” Let communities too be different: “There is no need at all for different people, religions and cultures to adapt or conform to one another. … I think we help one another best if we make no pretenses, remain ourselves, and simply respect and honor one another, just as we are.”
Responsibility, not systems, must be the activating mechanism for public choices. “Democracy is a system based on trust in the human sense of responsibility, which it ought to awaken and cultivate,” he said. “We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved … a body of information to be fed into a computer in the hope that sooner or later it will spit out a universal solution.”
The first step in taking responsibility, Havel thought, is to believe in right and wrong. “The present crisis of authority is only one of a thousand consequences of the general crisis of spirituality in the world today.”
“If democracy is … to survive,” he explained, “it must renew its respect for the nonmaterial order … for the order of nature, for the order of humanity, and thus for secular authority as well. …The relativization of all moral norms, the crisis of authority, the reduction of life to the pursuit of immediate material gain without regard for its general consequences — the very things Western democracy is most criticized for — originate not in democracy but in that which modern man has lost: his transcendental anchor, and along with it the only genuine source of his responsibility and self-respect. “
Changing the system then requires people to shed their indifference and start speaking the truth. “Let us finally endeavor to get rid of not only our fear of lies,” Havel observed, “but also our fear of truth. … Salvation can come only through a profound awakening of man to his own personal responsibility.”
Havel did not merely talk, of course. He famously broke away from the sheep-like indifference of subjugated public, and stood up to the communist regime that was telling lies all day long. He paid for this with five years of prison and broken health. But telling the truth eventually worked.
It is not hard to imagine what Havel would do in our shoes. The difficulty of changing an entrenched system is no reason not to try. “I do not know whether or not the world will take the path which that reality offers. But I will not lose hope.”
Originally published at www.theatlantic.com on December 20, 2011.