The Myth of Powerlessness

March 2012

One of my heroes died late last year. Vaclav Havel was a source of much inspiration for me ever since he came into office as the first President of the newly-formed Czech Republic back in 1989. He was one of the first prominent political figures I knew of who publicly spoke of consciousness and the need for humans to change. Here is a part of his address to the U.S. Congress on February 21, 1990:
Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed – be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown – will be unavoidable.

More recently, I was reminded of a 31,000 word essay* he wrote in 1978, while the then-Czechoslovakia was under Soviet rule, entitled “The Power of the Powerless” which was subsequently published as a book. Havel wrote about very similar dynamics as we facing in our Arab Spring and our Occupy Movement, as I wrote about last month (see last month’s editorial here). Havel’s writing was prompted by the oppressive Soviet ideology but the words are just as applicable today as ideology is still at the core of the oppression many people are experiencing worldwide. Here is one paragraph from his essay:
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe.
In reading the entire essay, I am deeply touched by his words, not simply for their application to our social challenges today but for their brilliance, their inspiration, the poetic nature of his vision. He was true artist in many ways! Here is another bit from the essay:
Ideology, in creating a bridge of excuses between the system and the individual, spans the abyss between the aims of the system and the aims of life. It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.
Finally, Havel brings it home and gets in our faces about our role in the matter. It amazes me how the truth cuts through it all so simply:
Individuals need not believe all these mystifications, but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.
It is on us, folks! If we want a better world it is up to us to create it. We are the system we are feeling oppressed by; we are the ones who have accepted “the lie”, we are the ones who can take back the power we have abdicated.
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*”The Power of the Powerless,” an essay by Vaclav Havel, 1978, more recently published as a book and a movie narrated by Jeremy Irons (see link for trailer).

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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