How Not to Resist Modern Despotism

Václav Havel was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic.

Initially, his career was in drama of the literary sort, but it took a decisively political turn when he was imprisoned for fostering dissent against the communist despots oppressing his people.

His 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” is essential reading for us, as Western democracies seem eager to succumb to forces similar to those he confronted—a fate he distinctly warned we would also face.

His words are chilling in light of what Americans are currently experiencing.

Havel begins with the manager of a grocery store, who places a Marxist slogan in his window. He does so, not from conviction, but in order to avoid persecution.

Since succumbing to threats is an affront to human dignity, however, the shopkeeper cannot admit his true motives. Though not persuaded in his heart of hearts, he cloaks his cowardice by pretending to believe the party’s propaganda.

One of Havel’s many brilliant insights is the observation that the victims of contemporary totalitarianism are also is agents. By rationalizing his compliance with oppressive diktats, the grocer seeks material and social comfort at the expense of his own better self, and contributes to the social pressures directed against anyone even thinking of acting otherwise.

A question Havel explores is how one effectively opposes such pervasive tyranny.

To begin with, I would direct the reader’s attention to a mode of resistance Havel identifies as particularly ineffective: revolt, whether armed or unarmed.

“Where social forces of comparable strength . . . are confronting each other on the level of actual power,” he concedes, revolution can be appropriate. Where “the fundamental lines of conflict run right through each person,” however, physical resistance is not only futile, but counterproductive.

The very basis of modern despotism is a deceptive claim to guarantee our security and comfort at the price of freedom and the realization of human potential. When dissidents do anything that even appears to threaten the stability and well being of their fellow men, society is apt to “interpret the revolt as an attack upon itself,” and “very probably react by intensifying its bias toward the system.”

In other words, aggressive resistance to modern despotism tends to make despotism that much more formidable.

What then does Havel advise? I will return to this question soon, but in the meantime, reader suggestions are welcome!

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