The Power of the Powerless

“The Power of the Powerless” ( is an essay written in October 1978 by Vaclav Havel about the political situation of Czechoslovak. It is written in terms of the cold war rhetoric and compares the realities of soviet-style central controlled society with an idealized referent of western democracy. It is main point is that political systems are perpetuated  by compliance of the citizen fueled by convenience, apathy, and inertia.

Havel considers a political system as an unavoidable evil and warns of the cost of putting the system before human dignity, an approach in which people are first organized in one way or another (by someone who always knows best “what the people need”) so they may then allegedly be liberated.

Havel recognized that the crisis of democracy expressed by Heidegger is a planetary challenge to the position of human beings in the world. The traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society.

Historical experience teaches us that any genuinely meaningful point of departure in an individual’s life usually has an element of universality about it. In other words, it is not something partial, accessible only to a restricted community, and not transferable to any other. On the contrary, it must be potentially accessible to everyone; it must foreshadow a general solution and, thus, it is not just the expression of an introverted, self-contained responsibility that individuals must and for themselves alone, but responsibility to and for the world.

Our attention, therefore, inevitably turns to the most essential matter: the crisis of contemporary technological society. We look on helplessly as that coldly functioning machine we have created inevitably engulfs us, tearing us away from our natural affiliations (for instance, from our habitat in the widest sense of that word, including our habitat in the biosphere) just as it removes us from the experience of Being and casts us into the world of “existences.” This situation has already been described from many different angles and many individuals and social groups have sought, often painfully, to find ways out of it (for instance, through oriental thought or by forming communes). The only social, or rather political, attempt to do something about it that contains the necessary element of universality (responsibility to and for the whole) is the desperate and, given the turmoil the world is in, fading voice of the ecological movement, and even there the attempt is limited to a particular notion of how to use technology to oppose the dictatorship of technology.

Havel is writing about Czechoslovakia in 1978 and makes references to events that happened 1968. Nonetheless, when he talks about the “post-totalitarian” society, he is talking about Mexico, including the bloody pre-Olympic events of 1968. In Mexico, like in soviet-era Czechoslovakia, the principle of legality is used to legitimize the system. In paper, the Mexican legal system was, now it is a hodgepodge of ad hoc resolutions, in the letter a good framework. Why, in conditions where a widespread and arbitrary abuse of power is the rule, is there such a general and spontaneous acceptance of the principle of legality? Like ideology, the legal code functions as an excuse. It wraps the base exercise of power in the noble apparel of the letter of the law; it creates the pleasing illusion that justice is done, society protected, and the exercise of power objectively regulated. All this is done to conceal the real essence of post-totalitarian legal practice: the total manipulation of society. The hidden political manipulation of the courts and of public prosecutors, the limitations placed on lawyers’ ability to defend their clients, the closed nature, de facto, of trials, the arbitrary actions of the security forces, their position of authority over the judiciary, the absurdly broad application of several deliberately vague sections of that code, and of course the state’s utter disregard for the positive sections of that code (the rights of citizens): all of this is part of Mexican reality.

Havel says that the key to a humane, dignified, rich, and happy life does not lie either in the constitution or in the Criminal Code.

Ideological pressure manifests internally as cognitive biases, and externally as group thinking and social pressure to conform.

Cognitive biases are impossible to eliminate but one can compensate for them somehow by the scientific method of relaying in hard data and to try to disprove one’s own position.

Groupthinking can be compensated some by interacting with an open-minded attitude with outsiders.

To overcome social pressure to conform is essential to have deep convictions and a clear sense of direction. In other words, it is extremely hard to do.

The current zeitgeist is the neoliberal capitalism dogma and the pseudo ideology of political correctness. For the libertarians, the new religion is technology, a magical provider of eternal growth and prosperity for the chosen ones (for the unchosen, Darwinian oblivion).

Despite the claim of IQ dominance of their proponents, neoliberal theory is simplistic and disregards historical facts and physical laws ( ).  The high priest Milton Friedman actually got a chance to walk the walk ( in Chile. The “Miracle of Chile” was a term used by economist Milton Friedman to describe the reorientation of the Chilean economy in the 1980s and the effects of the economic policies applied by a large group of Chilean economists who collectively came to be known as the Chicago Boys, having studied at the University of Chicago where Friedman taught. He said the “Chilean economy did very well, but more importantly, in the end the central government, the military junta, was replaced by a democratic society. So the really important thing about the Chilean business is that free markets did work their way in bringing about a free society.” Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, among others, have argued that the experience of Chile in this period indicates a failure of the economic liberalism posited by thinkers such as Friedman, claiming that there was little net economic growth from 1975 to 1982 (during the so-called “pure Monetarist experiment”). After the catastrophic banking crisis of 1982 the state controlled more of the economy than it had under the previous socialist regime, and sustained economic growth only came after the later reforms that privatized the economy, while social indicators remained poor. Pinochet’s dictatorship made the unpopular economic reorientation possible by repressing opposition to it. Rather than a triumph of the free market, the OECD economist Javier Santiso described this reorientation as “combining neo-liberal sutures and interventionist cures”. By the time of sustained growth, the Chilean government had “cooled its neo-liberal ideological fever” and “controlled its exposure to world financial markets and maintained its efficient copper company in public hands”.

The problem with neoliberalism is not some theoretical shortcomings, but that it rationalizes and legitimizes psychopathic disregard of people’s wellbeing, overexploitation of resources, and destruction of the environment. For example, Friedman ( is on record saying that, in reference to the Pinto story, arguing the morality of saving  (or spending) 11 dollars per car to increase the safety of the Pinto is not subtle nor sophisticated. He does so in a smirking patronizing manner.

However, it is very hard to change the inertia of the global socio-economic system. For example, the ecological footprint ( of a person is mostly determined by location. Any effort to deviate from social norms of consumption, transportation patterns, and energy usage, are severely limited by local customs, infrastructure, and availability of resources. Ironically, the well-to-do, members of the upper-middle-class, are the ones that have the resources and knowledge to adopt green-energy sources and organic produce.

Regardless, one should take Havel and Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk notion of “small-scale work” (drobna práce), and do honest and responsible work, within the existing social order, that would stimulate communal creativity and self-confidence. Humanity’s first task was to create the conditions for a more human life; and in Masaryk’s view, the task of transforming the stature of the nation began with the transformation of human beings. At the very least, one must be aware of the positive and negative impacts of one own actions. This is very hard to do, yet we can always follow the rule to do what it is necessary with as little as possible.

It is natural to differentiate between us and them. But as Rachel Corrie ( ) said, they are us, we are them. We must see beyond chauvinism and narrow identities and recognize that the end is closing, and the only chance of survival is to affront the challange united.

About arnulfo

veterano del ciberespacio
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