Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Havel: Systems seek legitimacy

I've read about half of the Havel book so far, including the famous essay "The Power of the Powerless."  I'm linking a .pdf copy with a few of my favorite passages highlighted.  The essay is largely about how people try to live honestly in a system that demands lies.  He returns repeatedly to the metaphor of a Greengrocer, a store manager who puts up a sign that says "Workers of the World Unite!" in his window.  The manager isn't an ideological man, and almost certainly doesn't think of his government as one that's particularly concerned for the plight of ordinary workers.  But the system demands that he put up this sign so he puts it up.  He has bills to pay, a family to care for, and a life to live.

Of course, the real message of his sign is not one of labor solidarity, but rather a way of saying "I am a man who complies with the system and does what he has to, so please leave me alone."  However, he can't just post a sign saying that explicitly.  For starters, it would offend his own dignity if he were to admit what he's really doing.  It's much better to have a pretext, so that if somebody were to ask him why he displays that sign he could respond "What's wrong with worker unity?"  It would avoid him having to say what he's really doing.

But what struck me most was how much the government itself preferred the soft message.  The Communist governments apparently desperately wanted the legitimacy that comes from ideology.  None of them believed in the ideology, but having an ideology meant not having to say what they really were: Men (and women) with guns who could compel people to do what they were told to do. They didn't really want to be gangsters.  It just sort of worked out that way.  As he says:
This explains why ideology plays such an important role in the post-totalitarian system: that complex machinery of units, hierarchies, transmission belts, and indirect instruments of manipulation which ensure in countless ways the integrity of the regime, leaving nothing to chance, would be quite simply unthinkable without ideology acting as its all-embracing excuse and as the excuse for each of its parts.
He keeps referring to these systems as post-totalitarian because they aren't interested in naked power in the way that Stalin and his ilk were.  Yes, there were thugs in those systems, men who would be happy to just do away with pretense and rule by force (and the collapse of Communism arguably enabled some of them to shed their pretenses and act more openly, as evidenced by the exploits of gangsters and oligarchs in the post-Soviet era), but there were plenty of men who had to persuade themselves that what they were doing was not gangsterism.  They surely knew that they weren't really building a workers' paradise, but having ideology on paper meant that they were at least following codes and laws.  They were products of civilization, heirs to Hammurabi, following a code, however flawed it may be.  They were not the barbarians living by the rule of might.  Some of them needed to believe that.

I see surprising analogies in the egalitarian ideologies of academia.  We pay lip service to so many mantras about student success and opportunity, we deny so many obvious facts about how not all students will succeed, and we tell ourselves that our every benefit is really for their benefit.  We drink this kool-aid and tell ourselves we're engaged in a project of changing the world rather than conferring credentials on those who show up while truly educating only those who work for it.  We tell ourselves that we believe the things we're told because it's easier than admitting that we only repeat these words in order to receive our paychecks.

When I prepare documents with ritual phrases in them, I am a greengrocer who needs to keep paying his bills. I speak some truths, but only at the edges of the permissible.  I don't cross certain lines because I make far more money than my wife and I need to keep us supported.  I know what I am and what I do. I don't like it, but I know it.

I would have made a shitty Communist, and I would have been almost as shitty as a dissident.