Havel: For young radicals or middle aged and middle of the road?

Václav Havel has lent his name and inspiration to many events and movements. His dissident writings have been translated into Arabic, serving as point of reference for activists and thinkers contemplating entrenched but brittle authoritarian regimes.

 More expectedly, perhaps Havel’s is a liberal oppositionists in Putin’s Russia which – as Havel himself suggested in later life – has seen communist structures morph into a new repressive structures.  So it’s no surprise to see a Guardian commentary by Natalie Nougayrède that flags Havel and the Central European dissident movement as inspiration for young, radical left movements that have emerged in Western and South Europe.

It’s a balanced piece, which notes the obvious differences between normalisation era Czechoslovakia regime and the far more open and competitive political and social systems of Western Europe.  The typewriter and carbon paper technology of 1970 and 80s samizdat is also clearly a world away from networked and internet-based communications of the early 21st century – even for those fighting authoritarian regimes thumb drives and encryption software have replaced clandestine printing and duplicating.

And Nougayrède is surely right when she suggests Václav Havel is in some ways an unlikely source of inspiration for Podemos, Syriza and similar movements (themselves often the products of mash-up of various heterodox Marxist traditions, Trotskyist, Maoist, Euro-communist etc)

 The sharp critique of Western societies Havel expressed in his writing of 1970s and 1980s as somewhat less extreme version of a single impersonal technocratic mass civilization mellowed after the fall of communism into a pragmatic, if critical, acceptance of conventional parliamentary democracy, capitalism and the European Union.  Havel’s disdain for party politics and big scale economics also saw him quickly outmanoeuvred after 1989 by opponents, on both left and right, who realised more quickly than he did both that parties were necessary workhorses of democracy and that voters’ concerns about economic security and prosperity needed addressing head on.

Lessons learned?

In these two respects, Europe’s new parties of the radical left appear already to have learned the key important lessons from the intellectually rich, but quickly marginalised, traditions of Central European dissidence: whatever social movement elements they might have, they are up to fight and win elections and to so on programmes where big issues of (anti-)capitalism, and (in)equality squarely on the agenda.

Havel’s ideal of a locally rooted market economy and with a strong Mittelstand and strong civil society, as John Keane noted two decades ago, are attractive to the left and centre-left, but are perhaps sufficiently vague that they might equally be embraced by Blairite or even ‘Red Tories’ wanting a ‘Big Society’ to swallow up the remains of the welfare state. We are left, it seems, only with two themes: a rather loose anti-establishment critique

“static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy and politically pragmatic mass political parties, run by professional apparatuses and releasing the citizen from all form of personal responsibility”

as Havel put it in his classic 1978 essay in Power of the Powerless.  This certainly has strong contemporary echoes and is loosely in tune with the movement ethos (and origins) of some new parties –  although the bureaucratic mass parties Havel saw dominating West European democracies were declining even then, evolving into looser (if no less elitist) alliances of career politicians, pollsters, think-tankers and policy wonks we know to today.

Secondly, there is the diffuse appeal of a culture of citizen dissent to ‘non-violent, civil-society action based on individual free choice’; a ‘rejection of nationalism’ (or perhaps rather a civic, liberal democratic vision of national identity as Stefan Auer’s fine book points out) and values: being principled, courageous and resilient in the belief that change will come, maintaining idealism that does not succumb to short-term tactical considerations and electoral Realpolitik. Europe’s frustrated young radicals are, I suspect, not  short of dissident spirit, although Nougayrède suggestion that the rediscovery (or perhaps re-re-discovery) of the dissent tradition can help bridge the diverse of experience of the demobilised, disillusioned groups in many different regions of Europe is insightful.

Ultimately, a work like Power of the Powerless is so markedly of its time and place that it is hard to set in in easy dialogue with contemporary European politics. Long sections are devoted to specifically Czech and East-Central European debates about reform communism or now obscure criticisms of Charter 77 as neglecting the Masarykian nationalist tradition of ‘small scale work’.

Much of its intellectual thrust is also deeply anti-political – or, to pick the word Havel more often uses in the essay, stresses the ‘pre-political’ – seeking to move beyond traditional Western parliamentary politics but politics per se in sketching ‘post-democratic’ order  based on moral and philosophical laden ‘existential revolution’. Indeed, at one point Havel even suggests that East Europeans living under one party regimes had the advantage over citizens of Western democracies seeing the limitations of politics more sharply and soberly.

The closest real life equivalent in contemporary politics to the Havel vision of 1970s – and perhaps even 1990s – is not anti-austerity politics of social movement and emergent radical left movement-parties, but the much lower level, ‘non-ideological’ initiative of Flatpack Democracy that have had some striking successes in local politics some towns and villages politics in the UK  – although the presence of grassroots independents’ lists and movements at local politics is hardly a new phenomenon in European politics.

Indeed, fittingly, it is a well-established (and reviving?) feature of municipal politics in Havel’s native Czech Republic and elsewhere Central Europe. But as Neal Lawson suggests in The New Statesman, for anyone contemplating the broader transformation of politics – and the possibilities of remaking (social-)democratic left –  these little platoons are only one element on a much bigger battlefield.

The micro-politics of the workplace

From Delcroix to last week’s Sunday newspaper, coverage about politics is seduced by image of banner waving, and if possible, youthful, protest and the scene masses flooding onto filling onto streets and squares and filling to bursting point.  Contentious politics is sexy.

And, of course protest work s– sometimes. Eventually.  But, while sensible to the possibility of protest, much of Power of the Powerless is focused on inaction and invisibility. The essay is replete with references is ‘hidden sphere’, ‘hidden movements’ or the ‘hidden aims of life’ which lie out of sight beyond a ‘world of appearances’. The iconic figure of the essay is not the Dissident, but the Greengrocer, the conformist citizen who unthinkingly (but not altogether unconsciously conforms with the rituals of the regime. Not the Bohemian intellectual, the student or the radical activist, but the Mr (or Mrs) Average with a job, a flat, a family, and aspirations (and doesn’t that word have a contemporary ring?) to send the kids to university or go on a foreign holiday or see the kids get through university. It was, as Havel recognised, pinning down this generation that was the key to social control in communist Czechoslovakia – and the key to the regime’s overnight demise in 1989 finally took to the streets en masse 1989.

The young may bear the brutal brunt of austerity in terms of unemployment, housing and squeezed opportunities, but perhaps it is the Greengrocers of contemporary capitalism, the sad solid citizens who, if they can find the time between spreadsheet and lifts for the children – should turn an eye to Havel’s writing.  Bureaucratic hierarchy, empty ideological language, conformism as a default, and wrenching moral cowardice may not shape the arenas of national electoral politics, but they are perhaps ever present in the micro-politics of the workplace, private or public sectors, that dominate many lives.

Perhaps it is Europe’s disaffected middle aged, middle income middle of the road who need to take a tip from Havel, not just its young radicals.

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