James Foster's Reviews > The Power of the Powerless

The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

really liked it

This book is a collection of essays by “dissidents” from the former Soviet Union bloc, just before the Soviet Union fell. I only read the Havel essay, “The Power of the Powerless”, and only comment on that here.

There are two ways to read this essay: as a historical document capturing the mood in Czechoslovakia at the time of the “velvet revolution”, or as a reflection on how to respond to authoritarianism (or, more accurately, to what Havel calls “post-authoritarianism”). My motivation was the second, which I think is far more important and interesting.

Nonetheless, as a historical document, the argument is that the kind of revolution that led to a “post authoritarian” society in Czechoslovakia was neither political nor a rebellion, nor even dissent (which is why Havel refers to people like him as “dissidents”, in quotes). Rather, it was the necessary consequence of individuals choosing to live authentically. One prime example was Egon Krantz and the Plastic People, an early Czech punk rock group that was tried by the regime as enemies of the state. The only song I remember from this group (yes, I did listen to them in the 80s) was “Poduvhody Mandarin” (forgive the spelling), “the Miraculous Mandarin”. So, here was a group of artists singing about the artificial, “plastic” nature of their countrymen, and the authoritarianism that made them so. Their art embodied the spirit of the time, where just making your own kind of music was officially rebellion. (I also think the song was a reference to “the Miraculous Mandarin” by Bartok, inviting Czechs to remember their radically innovative musical past—but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Reading Havel’s essay today, we have to wonder what went wrong. When the essay appeared, it seemed that freedom was in the air, fueling a nascent cultural renaissance that would enrich the entire world. But today, much of Europe is sliding back into authoritarianism, with Poland and Russia being the saddest examples. Even the United States has embraced a new authoritarianism. Today, the mood is grim, either because we recognize the abyss that authoritarianism presents, or because we choose to use raw political power to respond to our grim perception of reality. So, it behooves us to read this essay as more than a memoir.

The deeper argument here is that the true power of the Velvet Revolution was the spirit of individual free expression, which Havel calls “living in truth”, rather than political opposition. His memorable example is a grocer who stops putting his “workers of the world, unite” sign in his vegetable bin, because he recognizes it is meaningless and he chooses to stop saying meaningless things. There are many analogues today. People might choose not to applaud when someone says “thank you for your service”, because the words have become meaningless (and service members deserve material support, not cant). Or people might refuse to stifle discussion or policy with claims of “Islamaphobia”, or “homophobia”. Or voters might reject slogans like “government is (always) bad” or “deficits are (always) evil”. The simple act of refusing to speak nonsense, of living “in the truth,” is how we could exercise the “power of the powerless”.

The next step is to form “parallel structures”, as Havel calls them, where groups of people who choose authenticity also choose to build community. But here is the risk and, I think, the key to understanding why authoritarianism and ideology are resurgent. These communities can become insular when the “truths” in which they live are selective and incompatible. It can be difficult to avoid the temptation to use political power tribally.

Today, we have a regressive left who has largely stopped talking or listening to the right. And we have an affronted right who thinks they have been passed by. Both are putting their little signs out, for example as “coexist” bumper stickers or yellow ribbons. Both recognize the essential meaninglessness of the others’ signals, but neither recognizes their own. Thus we have two camps of “powerless” people, who are using the “power” of honest expression to demonize the other, while refusing to “live in the truth” within their own clique. This tendency to fragment and selectively “dissent” is the weakness in Havel’s argument.

I mustn’t leave the impression that there is parity between the left and the right, though. The left tends to use political power to help those who need help (ignoring the paternalism therein). But the right often uses power as punishment, and to support the already powerful. Thus the left is more likely to retain ill-considered social programs. But the right is more likely to restructure the economy for the very rich, bloat the largest military in the world, or rewrite election rules to stifle competition (or perhaps they are just better at it). This is why the back-sliding from the Velvet Revolution and its kin is overwhelmingly toward authoritarianism.

In short, the powerless do have the power to live authentically. But there is no guarantee this will make life universally better in any sustainable way. There is always the risk that our honesty will only go so far.
9 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Power of the Powerless.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

December 5, 2016 – Started Reading
December 5, 2016 – Shelved
December 30, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-1 of 1 (1 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Great review!!

back to top