You Want to Understand Occupy Wall Street? Start Reading Havel





James Livingston is Professor of History at Rutgers University and the author of "Against Thrift."

If you want to understand Occupy Wall Street, the impasse of American politics, and the coming explosions of 2012—they will make the “events” of 1968 look quaint—try thinking with Vaclav Havel, the DJ of the Velvet Revolution who died Sunday at the age of 75.

To begin with, read “The Power of the Powerless,” his zamizdat manifesto of 1978. Havel wrote it to explain the invention of Charter 77, a small band of intellectuals, dissidents, musicians, artists, vagabonds, and ne’er-do-wells which became the headquarters and staff of the Velvet Revolution—but you can say that only in retrospect, because at the time it looked like a rag-tag bunch of misfits with no program, no plan, and absolutely no intention of overthrowing the state. All its members had to start with was anger at Absurdistan, as Havel like to call the Czech regime.

Charter 77 was formed to protest the fact that the Czech authorities had thrown a rock band in jail. Seriously. To be sure, almost all of its signers remembered the Prague Spring of 1968 as participants or partisans—still, the occasion for the meeting and the manifesto was the arrest of “Plastic People of the Universe,” a band that, from 1968 to 1972 had covered songs by the Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Underground, and the Fugs. It got itself into trouble after 1972 by setting the poetry of Egon Bondy, a banned Czech philosopher, to music—but notice that for four years, until 1976, it played without interference from the authorities.

“The Power of the Powerless” quickly circulated throughout Eastern Europe, becoming an inspiration for members of Solidarity in Poland and appearing as Exhibit A in the Czech state’s case against Havel. It cost him four years in prison—all for explaining that the arrest of three musicians and their manager was unacceptable, and beyond that, for explaining why seemingly insignificant, anti-programmatic resistance to post-totalitarian society was itself a surreal retort to the absurdity of arbitrary power.

You could read this manifesto as the product of privilege, because Havel (the bourgeois scion of a wealthy Czech family) asks us to step outside the everyday obligations and believable lies that deflect our frustrations and anger from their actual origin—and that would be our own complicity in the reproduction of what he calls “post-totalitarian society” (a genus that includes the post-industrial species known as the USA). Who can afford to do that? Who would ask us to, except someone exempt from the demands of making a living, someone willing to camp out on the perimeter of real life?

That’s the way Occupy Wall Street has been read by the pundits from Day 1, unless of course they’re denouncing it for making radical demands or complaining that it has no demands to make.

You could read “The Power of the Powerless,” on the other hand, as the product of experience and investigation, as the modern-day equivalent of James Madison’s redefinition of revolution and the republics they create. That’s the way I like to read it, as the harbinger of revolutionary social change that requires no vanguard, no party, no leadership, and maybe not even any armed struggle except the spastic violence doled out by the cops who are paid to do it, because this is a cultural revolution—this is a war of position, not a war of maneuver, as Gramsci put it—held in check by political counter-revolution, by the power of the state and the fear of emancipation from economic necessity.

This war of position begins and ends in a “pre-political” space. Havel calls that space a “hidden sphere,” an “independent life of society,” a “parallel structure”—parallel, that is, to the state—or just “culture” as such. It isn’t a retreat from society available only to the bohemian, the diffident, or the affluent (“an act of islation”), it’s where the real social life of the future can be glimpsed, and maybe even experienced.

So the revolution requires patience and humility, and skepticism of “politics” as convened by any party. Havel keeps saying we’re not interested in overthrowing the state (the war of maneuver): we don’t want to own this thing. We’re not an “opposition,” he says, we’re not interested in “dissent”—we don’t want to erase the modern-liberal distinction between state and society, like the fascists and the communists did by seizing power—no, we think “politics,” especially the electoral kind, comes last, and the power that comes with “politics” so conceived, well, you can spare us that, too.

That’s the way I read Occupy Wall Street, as the realization of Vaclav Havel’s prescient insights into post-totalitarian societies like the one we inhabit, which are insights into both the vast inertia created by our own complicity and the possibilities of fundamental change in such societies.

Now I can quote him—I thought you’d never ask—from “The Power of the Powerless,” and see where he points us.

“The real background to the movements that gradually assume political significance does not usually consist of overtly political events or confrontations between different forces or concepts that are openly political. These movements for the most part originate elsewhere, in the far broader reaches of the ‘pre-political,’ where living within a lie confronts living within the truth, that is, where the demands of the post-totalitarian system, conflict with real aims of life. . . . Such a conflict acquires a political character, then, not because of the elementary political nature of the aims demanding to be heard but simply because, given the complex system of manipulation on which the post-totalitarian system is founded and on which it is dependent, every free act of expression, every attempt to live within the truth, must necessarily appear as a threat to the system, and, thus, as something which is political par excellence.”

Havel knew he was speaking across borders most intellectuals and activists couldn’t cross, not even in the twilight of the Cold War: he thought of Eastern Europe and its Western antagonist as different stages of development, not antithetical models of industrial society. “And do we not in fact stand (although in the external measures of civilization, we are far behind) as a kind of warning to the West, revealing its own latent tendencies,” he asked, and answered this way: “The post-totalitarian political system, after all, is not the manifestation of a particular political line followed by a particular government. It is something radically different: it is a complex, profound, and long-term violation of society, or rather the self-violation of society. To oppose it merely by establishing a different political line and then striving for a change in government would not only be unrealistic, it would be utterly inadequate . . .”

The “fundamental revolution in politics” that would be adequate to the challenge of post-totalitarian society was underway in the form of the “pre-political” Charter 77, Havel surmised, and offered this prediction: “In the democratic societies, where the violence done to human beings is not nearly so obvious and cruel, this fundamental revolution in politics has yet to happen, and some things will probably have to get worse there before the urgent need for that revolution is reflected in politics.”

Welcome to our times, courtesy of the Great Recession and the DJ of the Velvet Revolution. The “fundamental revolution in politics” Havel hoped he saw happening in the invention of Charter 77 is now upon us, just like he predicted—it’s a “parallel structure,” a “hidden area,” a new moral universe, a cultural revolution still in the making. It’s called Occupy Wall Street.


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