Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism
- Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts by John Keane
Bloomsbury, 532 pp, £25.00, September 1999, ISBN 0 7475 4458 1
Václav Havel’s life would seem to be an unrivalled success story: the Philosopher-King, a man who combines political power with a global moral authority comparable only to that of the Pope, the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela. And just as at the end of a fairy tale when the hero is rewarded for all his suffering by marrying the princess, he is married to a beautiful movie actress. Why, then, has John Keane chosen as the subtitle of his biography ‘A Political Tragedy in Six Acts’?
In the Seventies, when Havel was still a relatively unknown Czech dissident writer, Keane played a crucial role in making him known in the West: he organised the publication of Havel’s political texts and became a friend. He also did much to resuscitate Havel’s notion of ‘civil society’ as the site of resistance to Late Socialist regimes. Despite this personal connection, Keane’s book is far from hagiography – he gives us the ‘real Havel’ with all his weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. He divides his Life into six stages: the early student years under the Stalinist regime; the playwright and essayist of the Sixties; the defeat of the last great attempt at ‘socialism with a human face’ in the Prague Spring of 1968; the years of dissidence and arrest which culminated in Havel’s emergence as the leading spokesman for Charter 77; the Velvet Revolution; and finally the Presidency. Along the way, we get an abundance of ‘endearing foibles’, which far from tarnishing Havel’s heroic image, seem somehow to make his achievement all the more palpable. His parents were rich ‘cultural capitalists’, owners of the famous Barrandov cinema studios (‘bourgeois origins’). He has always had unreliable habits (a fondness for eau de toilette, sleeping late, listening to rock music) and is known for his promiscuity, notwithstanding the celebrated prison letters to his working-class wife Olga. (When he was released from jail in 1977, he spent his first weeks of freedom with a mistress.) In the Eighties, he was ruthless in establishing himself as Czechoslovakia’s most important dissident – when a potential rival emerged, doubtful rumours would start to circulate about the rival’s links with the secret police. As President he uses a child’s scooter to zoom along the corridors of the huge Presidential palace.
The source of Havel’s tragedy, however, is not the tension between the public figure and the ‘real person’, not even his gradual loss of charisma in recent years. Such things characterise every successful political career (with the exception of those touched by the grace of premature demise). Keane writes that Havel’s life resembles a ‘classical political tragedy’ because it has been ‘clamped by moments of … triumph spoiled by defeat’, and notes that ‘most of the citizens in President Havel’s republic think less of him than they did a year ago.’ The crucial issue, however, is the tension between his two public images: that of heroic dissident who, in the oppressive and cynical universe of Late Socialism, practised and wrote about ‘living in truth’, and that of Post-Modern President who (not unlike Al Gore) indulges in New Age ruminations that aim to legitimise Nato military interventions. How do we get from the lone, fragile dissident with a crumpled jacket and uncompromising ethics, who opposes the all-mighty totalitarian power, to the President who babbles about the anthropic principle and the end of the Cartesian paradigm, reminds us that human rights are conferred on us by the Creator, and is applauded in the US Congress for his defence of Western values? Is this depressing spectacle the necessary outcome, the ‘truth’, of Havel the heroic dissident? To put it in Hegel’s terms: how does the ethically impeccable ‘noble consciousness’ imperceptibly pass into the servile ‘base consciousness’? Of course, for a ‘Post-Modern’ Third Way democrat immersed in New Age ideology, there is no tension: Havel is simply following his destiny, and is deserving of praise for not shirking political power. But there is no escape from the conclusion that his life has descended from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Rarely has one individual played so many different parts. The cocky young student in the early Fifties, member of a closed circle which holds passionate political discussions and somehow survives the worst years of the Stalinist terror. The Modernist playwright and critical essayist struggling to assert himself in the mild thaw of the late Fifties and Sixties. The first encounter with History – in the Prague Spring – which is also Havel’s first big disappointment. The long ordeal of the Seventies and most of the Eighties, when he is transformed from a critical playwright into a key political figure. The miracle of the Velvet Revolution, with Havel emerging as a skilful politician negotiating the transfer of power and ending up as President. Finally, there is Havel in the Nineties, the man who presided over the disintegration of Czechoslovakia and who is now the proponent of the full integration of the Czech Republic into Western economic and military structures. Havel himself has been shocked by the swiftness of the transformation – a TV camera famously caught his look of disbelief as he sat down to his first official dinner as President.
Keane highlights the limitations of Havel’s political project, and the Havel he describes is sometimes remarkably naive, as when, in January 1990, he greeted Chancellor Kohl with the words: ‘Why don’t we work together to dissolve all political parties? Why don’t we set up just one big party, the Party of Europe?’ There is a nice symmetry in the two Václavs who have dominated Czech politics in the past decade: the charismatic Philosopher-King, the head of a democratic monarchy, finding an appropriate double in Václav Klaus, his Prime Minister, the cold technocratic advocate of full market liberalism who dismisses any talk of solidarity and community.
In 1974, Paul Theroux visited Vietnam, after the peace agreement and the withdrawal of the US Army, but before the Communist takeover. He writes about it in The Great Railway Bazaar. A couple of hundred US soldiers were still there – deserters, officially and legally non-existent, living in slum shacks with their Vietnamese wives, earning a living by smuggling or other crimes. In Theroux’s hands, these individuals become representative of Vietnam’s place in global power politics. From them, we gradually unravel the complex totality of Vietnamese society. When Keane is at his best, he displays the same ability to extract from small details the global context of what was going on in Czechoslovakia. The weakest passages in the book are those which attempt to deal more conceptually with the nature of ‘totalitarian’ regimes or the social implications of modern technology. Instead of an account of the inner antagonisms of Communist regimes, we get the standard liberal clichés about ‘totalitarian control’.
Towards the end of his book, Keane touches on the old idea of the ‘King’s Two Bodies’ and points to the equivalent importance of the Leader’s body in Communist regimes. A ‘pre-modern’ political order, he writes, relies on having such sacred bodies, while the democratic system, in which the place of power is supposedly empty, is open to competitive struggle. But this contrast fails to grasp the intricacies of ‘totalitarianism’. It is not that Keane is too directly anti-Communist, but that his liberal-democratic stance prevents him from seeing the horrifying paradox of the ‘Stalinist Leader’.
Lenin’s first major stroke, which he suffered in May 1922, left his right side virtually paralysed and for a while deprived him of speech. He realised that his active political life was over and asked Stalin for some poison so that he could kill himself; Stalin took the matter to the Politburo, which voted against Lenin’s wish. Lenin assumed that because he was no longer of any use to the revolutionary struggle, death was the only option – ‘calmly enjoying old age’ was out of the question. The idea of his funeral as a great state event he found repulsive. This was not modesty: he was simply indifferent to the fate of his body, regarding it as an instrument to be ruthlessly exploited and discarded when no longer useful.
With Stalinism, however, the body of the Leader became ‘objectively beautiful’. In ‘On the Problem of the Beautiful in Soviet Art’, an essay from 1950, the Soviet critic Nedoshivin wrote: ‘Amid all the beautiful material of life, the first place should be occupied by images of our great leaders … The sublime beauty of the leaders … is the basis for the coinciding of the “beautiful” and the “true” in the art of socialist realism.’ This has nothing to do with the Leader’s physical attributes and everything to do with abstract ideals. The Leader in fact is like the Lady in courtly love poetry – cold, distanced, inhuman. Both the Leninist and the Stalinist Leader are thoroughly alienated, but in opposite ways: the Leninist Leader displays radical self-instrumentalisation on behalf of the Revolution, while in the case of the Stalinist Leader, the ‘real person’ is treated as an appendix to the fetishised and celebrated public image. No wonder the official photos of the Stalinist era were so often retouched, and with a clumsiness so obvious it almost seemed intentional. It signalled that the ‘real person’ with all his idiosyncrasies had been replaced by a wooden effigy. One rumour circulating about Kim Il Yong is that he actually died in a car crash a couple of years ago and a double has taken his place for rare public appearances, so that the crowds can catch a glimpse of the object of their worship. This is the ultimate confirmation that the ‘real personality’ of the Stalinist leader is thoroughly irrelevant. Havel of course is the inverse of that: while the Stalinist Leader is reduced to a ritualistically praised effigy, Havel’s charisma is that of a ‘real person’. The paradox is that a genuine ‘cult of personality’ can thrive only in a democracy.
Havel’s essay on ‘The Power of the Powerless’, written in 1978, was perceptive in explaining how Late Socialism operated at the domestic, day-to-day level. What was important was not that the people deep down believed in the ruling ideology, but that they followed the external rituals and practices by means of which this ideology acquired material existence. Havel’s example is the greengrocer, a modest man profoundly indifferent to official ideology. He just mechanically follows the rules: on state holidays, he decorates the window of his shop with official slogans such as ‘Long Live Socialism!’ When there are mass gatherings he takes part affectlessly. Although he privately complains about the corruption and incompetence of ‘those in power’, he takes comfort in pieces of folk wisdom (‘power corrupts’ etc), which enable him to legitimise his stance in his own eyes and to retain a false appearance of dignity. When someone tries to engage him in dissident activity, he protests: ‘Who are you to get me mixed up in things which are bound to be used against my children? Is it really up to me to set the world to rights?’
Havel saw that if there was a ‘psychological’ mechanism at work in Communist ideology, it was not to do with belief, but rather with shared guilt: in the ‘normalisation’ that followed the Soviet intervention of 1968, the Czech regime made sure that, in one way or another, the majority of people were somehow morally discredited, compelled to violate their own moral standards. When an individual was blackmailed into signing a petition against a dissident (Havel, for example), he knew that he was lying and taking part in a campaign against an honest man, and it was precisely this ethical betrayal that rendered him the ideal Communist subject. The regime relied on and actively condoned the moral bankruptcy of its subjects. Havel’s concept of ‘living in truth’ involved no metaphysics: it simply designated the act of suspending one’s participation, of breaking out of the vicious cycle of ‘objective guilt’. He blocked off all the false escape-routes, including seeking refuge in the ‘small pleasures of everyday life’. Such acts of indifference – making fun in private of official rituals, for instance – were, he said, the very means by which the official ideology was reproduced.
A ‘sincere’ believer in official Late Socialist ideology was, therefore, potentially much more dangerous to the regime than a cynic. Consider two examples from countries other than Czechoslovakia. First, the emblematic figures of Evald Iljenkov (1924-79) and Aleksei Losev (1893-1988), the two prototypes of Russian philosophy under socialism. Losev was the author of the last book published in the USSR (in 1929) which openly rejected Marxism (he called dialectical materialism ‘obvious nonsense’). After a short prison term, he was allowed to pursue his academic career and, during World War Two, even started lecturing again – his formula for survival was to withdraw into the history of aesthetics. Under the guise of interpreting past thinkers, especially Plotinus and other Neoplatonists, he was able to smuggle in his own spiritualist beliefs, while, in the introductions to his books, paying lip service to the official ideology with a quote or two from Khrushchev or Brezhnev. In this way, he survived all the vicissitudes of Communism and was hailed after 1989 as the representative of an authentic Russian spiritual heritage. Iljenkov, a superb dialectician and expert on Hegel, was, on the other hand, a sincere Marxist-Leninist. He wrote lively, individual prose and endeavoured to engage with Marxism as a serious philosophy rather than as a set of official maxims. This didn’t go down well: he was excommunicated and committed suicide.
The second example is Yugoslav ‘self-management socialism’ and the fundamental paradox contained within it. Tito’s official ideology continually exhorted people to take control of their lives outside of the structures of Party and State; the authorised media criticised personal indifference and the escape into privacy. However, it was precisely an authentic, self-managed articulation and organisation of common interests which the regime feared most. Between the lines of its propaganda, the Government suggested that its official solicitations were not to be taken too literally, that a cynical attitude towards its ideology was what was actually wanted. The greatest catastrophe for the regime would have been for its own ideology to be taken seriously and acted on by its subjects.
Havel was especially penetrating in his denunciation of the inherent hypocrisy of Western Marxism and of the ‘socialist opposition’ in Communist countries. Consider the almost total absence of a theoretical confrontation with Stalinism in the works of the Frankfurt School, in contrast to its permanent obsession with Fascism. The standard excuse was that the Frankfurt School critics did not want to oppose Communism too openly, for fear that they would be playing into the hands of Cold Warriors in the Western countries where they lived. But this is obviously not sufficient: had they been cornered and made to say where they stood in the Cold War, they would have chosen Western liberal democracy (as Max Horkheimer explicitly did in some of his late writings). ‘Stalinism’ was a traumatic topic on which the Frankfurt School had to remain silent – silence was the only way for its members to retain their underlying solidarity with Western liberal democracy, without losing their mask of radical leftism.
Their ultimate alignment with the Western system is equivalent to the stance of the ‘democratic socialist opposition’ in the German Democratic Republic. Although members of the opposition criticised Communist Party rule, they endorsed the basic premise of the regime: that the Federal Republic of Germany was a neo-Nazi state, the direct inheritor of the Nazi regime, and that, therefore, the existence of the GDR as the anti-Fascist bulwark had to be protected at any cost. When the socialist system was really threatened, the opposition publicly supported it (take Brecht’s position on the East Berlin workers’ demonstrations in 1953, or Christa Wolf’s on the Prague Spring). The opposition retained its belief in the inherent reformability of the system, but argued that true democratic reform would take time. A rapid disintegration of socialism would, it thought, only return Germany to Fascism and strangle the utopia of the ‘Other Germany’, which, in spite of all its horrors and failures, the GDR represented.
This is why opposition intellectuals so deeply distrusted ‘the people’. In 1989, they opposed free elections, well aware that, if given the chance, the majority would choose capitalist consumerism. Free elections, Heiner Mueller said, had brought Hitler to power. Many Western social democrats played the same game, feeling much closer to ‘reform-minded’ Communists than to dissidents – the latter somehow embarrassed them as an obstacle to the process of detente. It was clear to Havel that Soviet intervention in 1968 had preserved the Western myth of the Prague Spring: the utopian notion that, were the Czechs to be left alone, they would give birth to an authentic alternative to both Real Socialism and Real Capitalism. In fact, had the Warsaw Pact forces not intervened in August 1968, either the Czech Communist leadership would have had to impose restraint, and Czechoslovakia would have remained a fully Communist country, or it would have turned into a ‘normal’ Western capitalist society (though perhaps one with a Scandinavian social-democratic flavour).
Havel also discerned the fraudulence of what I would call the ‘interpassive socialism’ of the Western academic Left. These leftists aren’t interested in activity – merely in ‘authentic’ experience. They allow themselves to pursue their well-paid academic careers in the West, while using the idealised Other (Cuba, Nicaragua, Tito’s Yugoslavia) as the stuff of their ideological dreams: they dream through the Other, but turn their backs on it if it disturbs their complacency by abandoning socialism and opting for liberal capitalism. What is of special interest here is the lack of understanding between the Western Left and dissidents such as Havel. In the eyes of the Western Left, Eastern dissidents were too naive in their belief in liberal democracy – in rejecting socialism, they threw out the baby with the bath water. In the eyes of the dissidents, the Western Left played patronising games with them, disavowing the true harshness of totalitarianism. The idea that the dissidents were somehow guilty for not seizing the unique opportunity provided by the disintegration of socialism to invent an authentic alternative to capitalism was pure hypocrisy.
In dissecting Late Socialism, Havel was always aware that Western liberal democracy was far from meeting the ideals of authentic community and ‘living in truth’ on behalf of which he and other dissidents opposed Communism. He was faced, then, with the problem of combining a rejection of ‘totalitarianism’ with the need to offer critical insight into Western democracy. His solution was to follow Heidegger and to see in the technological hubris of capitalism, its mad dance of self-enhancing productivity, the expression of a more fundamental transcendental-ontological principle – ‘will to power’, ‘instrumental reason’ – equally evident in the Communist attempt to overcome capitalism. This was the argument of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, which first engineered the fateful shift from concrete socio-political analysis to philosophico-anthropological generalisation, by means of which ‘instrumental reason’ is no longer grounded in concrete capitalist social relations, but is instead posited as their quasi-transcendental ‘foundation’. The moment that Havel endorsed Heidegger’s recourse to quasi-anthropological or philosophical principle, Stalinism lost its specificity, its specific political dynamic, and turned into just another example of this principle (as exemplified by Heidegger’s remark, in his Introduction to Metaphysics, that, in the long run, Russian Communism and Americanism were ‘metaphysically one and the same’).
Keane tries to save Havel from this predicament by emphasising the ambiguous nature of his intellectual debt to Heidegger. Like Heidegger, Havel conceived of Communism as a thoroughly modern regime, an inflated caricature of modern life, with many tendencies shared by Western society – technological hubris and the crushing of human individuality attendant on it. However, in contrast to Heidegger, who excluded any active resistance to the social-technological framework (‘only God can save us,’ as he put it in an interview, published after his death), Havel put faith in a challenge ‘from below’ – in the independent life of ‘civil society’ outside the frame of state power. The ‘power of the powerless’, he argued, resides in the self-organisation of civil society that defies the ‘instrumental reason’ embodied in the state and the technological apparatuses of control and domination.
I find the idea of civil society doubly problematic. First, the opposition between state and civil society works against as well as for liberty and democracy. For example, in the United States, the Moral Majority presents itself (and is effectively organised as) the resistance of local civil society to the regulatory interventions of the liberal state – the recent exclusion of Darwinism from the school curriculum in Kansas is in this sense exemplary. So while in the specific case of Late Socialism the idea of civil society refers to the opening up of a space of resistance to ‘totalitarian’ power, there is no essential reason why it cannot provide space for all the politico-ideological antagonisms that plagued Communism, including nationalism and opposition movements of an anti-democratic nature. These are authentic expressions of civil society – civil society designates the terrain of open struggle, the terrain in which antagonisms can articulate themselves, without any guarantee that the ‘progressive’ side will win.
Second, civil society as Havel conceived it is not, in fact, a development of Heidegger’s thinking. The essence of modern technology for Heidegger was not a set of institutions, practices and ideological attitudes that can be opposed, but the very ontological horizon that determines how we experience Being today, how reality discloses itself to us. For that reason, Heidegger would have found the concept of ‘the power of the powerless’ suspect, caught in the logic of the Will to Power that it endeavours to denounce.
Havel’s understanding that ‘living in truth’ could not be achieved by capitalism, combined with his crucial failure to understand the origins of his own critical impulse, has pushed him towards New Ageism. Although the Communist regimes were mostly a dismal failure, generating terror and misery, at the same time they opened up a space for utopian expectations which, among other things, facilitated the failure of Communism itself. What anti-Communist dissidents such as Havel overlook, then, is that the very space from which they criticised and denounced terror and misery was opened and sustained by Communism’s attempt to escape the logic of capitalism. This explains Havel’s continuing insistence that capitalism in its traditional, brutal form cannot meet the high expectations of his anti-Communist struggle – the need for authentic human solidarity etc. This is, in turn, why Václav Klaus, Havel’s pragmatic double, has dismissed Havel as a ‘socialist’.
Even the most ‘totalitarian’ Stalinist ideology is radically ambiguous. While the universe of Stalinist politics was undoubtedly one of hypocrisy and arbitrary terror, in the late Thirties the great Soviet films (say, the Gorky trilogy) epitomised authentic solidarity for audiences across Europe. In one memorable film about the Civil War, a mother with a young son is exposed as a counter-revolutionary spy. A group of Bolsheviks put her on trial and at the very beginning of the trial, an old Bolshevik demands that the sentence be severe, but just. After she confesses her crime, the court (an informal collective of Bolshevik soldiers) rules that she was seduced into enemy activity by her difficult social circumstances; she is therefore sentenced to be fully integrated into the new socialist collective, to be taught to write and read and to acquire a proper education, while her son, who is unwell, is to be given proper medical care. The surprised woman bursts out crying, unable to understand the court’s benevolence, and the old Bolshevik nods: ‘Yes, this is a severe, but just sentence!’ No matter how manipulative such scenes were, no matter how far they were from the reality of ‘revolutionary justice’, they nonetheless bore witness to a new sense of justice; and as such, gave viewers new ethical standards against which reality could be measured.
Havel seems now to be blind to the fact that his own opposition to Communism was rendered possible by the utopian dimension generated and sustained by Communist regimes. So we get the tragi-comic indignity which is his recent essay in the New York Review of Books on ‘Kosovo and the End of the Nation-State’. In it, he tries to say that the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia placed human rights above the rights of the state, that the Nato alliance’s attack on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia without a direct mandate from the UN was not an irresponsible act of aggression, or of disrespect for international law. It was, on the contrary, according to Havel, prompted by respect for the law, for a law that ranks higher than the law which protects the sovereignty of states. The alliance has acted out of respect for human rights, as both conscience and international treaties dictate.
Havel further invokes this ‘higher law’ when he claims that ‘human rights, human freedoms . . . and human dignity have their deepest roots somewhere outside the perceptible world . . . while the state is a human creation, human beings are the creation of God.’ He seems to be saying that Nato forces were allowed to violate international law because they acted as direct instruments of the ‘higher law’ of God – a clear-cut case of religious fundamentalism. Havel’s statement is a good example of what Ulrich Beck, in an article in Die Süddeutsche Zeitung last April, called ‘militaristic humanism’ or even ‘militaristic pacifism’. The problem with this approach is not that it is inherently contradictory, an Orwellian ‘peace is war.’ Nor is the Nato intervention best met with the pacifist-liberal argument that ‘more bombs and killing never bring peace’ (it goes without saying that this is wrong). It is not even enough to point out, as a Marxist would, that the targets of bombardment weren’t chosen with moral considerations in mind, but were determined by geopolitical and economic interests. The main problem with Havel’s argument is that intervention is presented as having been undertaken for the sake of the victims of hatred and violence – that is, justified by a depoliticised appeal to universal human rights.
A report by Steven Erlanger on the suffering of the Kosovo Albanians in a May edition of the New York Times was entitled ‘In One Kosovo Woman, an Emblem of Suffering’. This woman is from the outset identified as a powerless victim of circumstance, deprived of political identity, reduced to bare suffering. As such, she is beyond political recrimination – an independent Kosovo is not on her agenda, she just wants the horror over:
Does she favour an independent Kosovo?
‘You know, I don’t care if it’s this or that,’ Meli said. ‘I just want all this to end, and to feel good again, to feel good in my place and my house with my friends and family.’
Her support for the Nato intervention is grounded in her wish for the horror to end:
She wants a settlement that brings foreigners here ‘with some force behind them’. She is indifferent as to who the foreigners are.
She sympathises with all sides:
‘There is tragedy enough for everyone,’ she says. ‘I feel sorry for the Serbs who’ve been bombed and died, and I feel sorry for my own people. But maybe now there will be a conclusion, a settlement for good. That would be great.’
Meli is the ideal subject-victim to whose aid Nato comes running: not a political subject with a clear agenda, but a subject of helpless suffering, someone who sympathises with all suffering sides in the conflict, caught in the madness of a local clash that can only be stopped by the intervention of a benevolent foreign power.
The ultimate paradox of the Nato bombing of Serbia is not the one that was regularly rehearsed by Western opponents of the war: that by an attempt to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Nato triggered cleansing on a larger scale and created the very humanitarian catastrophe it wanted to prevent. A deeper paradox involves the ideology of victimisation: when Nato intervened to protect Kosovar victims, it ensured at that same time that they would remain victims, inhabitants of a devastated country with a passive population – they were not encouraged to become an active politico-military force capable of defending itself. Here we have the basic paradox of victimisation: the Other to be protected is good insofar as it remains a victim (which is why we were bombarded with pictures of helpless Kosovar mothers, children and old people, telling moving stories of their suffering); the moment it no longer behaves as a victim, but wants to strike back on its own, it all of a sudden magically turns into a terrorist, fundamentalist, drug-trafficking Other. This ideology of global victimisation, the identification of the human subject as ‘something that can be hurt’, is the perfect fit for today’s global capitalism, though most of the time it remains invisible to the public eye.
Havel praised the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia as the first case of a military intervention in a country with full sovereign power, undertaken not out of any specific economico-strategic interest but because that country was violating the elementary human rights of an ethnic group. To understand the falseness of this, compare the new moralism with the great emancipatory movements inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King. These were movements directed not against a specific group of people, but against concrete (racist, colonialist) institutionalised practices; they involved a positive, all-inclusive stance that, far from excluding the ‘enemy’ (whites, English colonisers), made an appeal to its moral sense and asked it to do something that would restore its own moral dignity. The predominant form of today’s ‘politically correct’ moralism, on the other hand, is that of Nietzschean ressentiment and envy: it is the fake gesture of disavowed politics, the assuming of a ‘moral’, depoliticised position in order to make a stronger political case. This is a perverted version of Havel’s ‘power of the powerless’: powerlessness can be manipulated as a stratagem in order to gain more power, in exactly the same way that today, in order for one’s voice to gain authority, one has to legitimise oneself as being some kind of (potential or actual) victim of power.
The ultimate cause of this moralistic depoliticisation is the retreat of the Marxist historico-political project. A couple of decades ago, people were still discussing the political future of humanity – will capitalism prevail or will it be supplanted by Communism or another form of ‘totalitarianism’? – while silently accepting that, somehow, social life would continue. Today, we can easily imagine the extinction of the human race, but it is impossible to imagine a radical change of the social system – even if life on earth disappears, capitalism will somehow remain intact. In this situation, disappointed Leftists, who are convinced that radical change of the existing liberal-democratic capitalist system is no longer possible, but who are unable to renounce their passionate attachment to global change, invest their excess of political energy in an abstract and excessively rigid moralising stance.
At a recent meeting of the leaders of the Western powers dedicated to the ‘Third Way’, the Italian Prime Minister Massimo d’Alema said that one should not be afraid of the word ‘socialism’. Clinton and, following him, Blair and Schroeder, are supposed to have burst out laughing. This says much about the Third Way, which is ‘problematic’ not least because it exposes the absence of a Second Way. The idea of a Third Way emerged at the very moment when, at least in the West, all other alternatives, from old-style conservativism to radical social democracy, crumbled in the face of the triumphant onslaught of global capitalism and its notion of liberal democracy. The true message of the notion of the Third Way is that there is no Second Way, no alternative to global capitalism, so that, in a kind of mocking pseudo-Hegelian negation of negation, the Third Way brings us back to the first and only way. Global capitalism with a human face.
This, then, is Havel’s tragedy: his authentic ethical stance has become a moralising idiom cynically appropriated by the knaves of capitalism. His heroic insistence on doing the impossible (opposing the seemingly invincible Communist regime) has ended up serving those who ‘realistically’ argue that any real change in today’s world is impossible. This reversal is not a betrayal of his original ethical stance, but is inherent in it. The ultimate lesson of Havel’s tragedy is thus a cruel, but inexorable one: the direct ethical foundation of politics sooner or later turns into its own comic caricature, adopting the very cynicism it originally opposed.