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Life in a Post-Totalitarian System

Signs of “woke” culture are popping up everywhere in a society increasingly dominated by white people falling all over themselves to show how much more “woke” they are than everyone else and how much less tolerant of anything they consider “unwoke” and “unclean.” It’s the contemporary equivalent of the Victorian attempt to show how much more “cultured” they were than others with their grandiose demonstrations of righteous indignation at any example of behavior that appeared to them insufficiently “cultured.”

In such circumstances, Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals has become the textbook for political involvement rather than the Constitution or the Framers. But Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless should become required reading for all those who wish to defend, against seemingly insurmountable forces, what is increasingly America’s most threatening counter-cultural movement:  creedal Christianity.

Havel described life in 1970s Communist Eastern Europe as “post-totalitarian,” not because the system was not totalitarian, but because the way the totalitarianism was exercised in society was radically different from the totalitarianism of dictators like Hitler or Mao.   Havel’s biographer, John Keane, described Havel’s definition of a post-totalitarian world thus:

Within the system, every individual is trapped within a dense network of the state’s governing instruments. . .themselves legitimated by a flexible but comprehensive ideology, a “secularized religion”. . . .it is therefore necessary to see, argued Havel, that power relations. . .are best described as a labyrinth of influence, repression, fear and self-censorship which swallows up everyone within it, at the very least by rendering them silent, stultified and marked by some undesirable prejudices of the powerful.

Havel’s most famous example was the greengrocer who displays in his shop window the sign “Workers of the world, unite!” – not because he is especially interested in the workers of the world, but because failure to do so would signal an impermissible disobedience from the ruling ideology of the society.

© Marcin Kadziolka/

Those who would enforce obedience upon him, refusing to tolerate any failure to display the required sign of submission, are no more concerned for the “workers of the world” than the greengrocer.  But they will report him and see him punished to show that they remain faithful adherents of the ruling ideology, even though the greengrocer is himself one of those workers for whom they claim concern.

The greengrocer would be embarrassed to put up a sign saying, “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.”  Displaying the required “Workers of the world, unite!” sign allows the greengrocer to hide his cowardice behind a façade of disinterested concern.  “But the workers of the world are being oppressed,” he can say.  And that is undoubtedly true.  But that is not why he posted the sign.  The sign is a sign of his submission, not of his personal conviction.

“Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world,” writes Havel. “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 supra-personal 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 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.”  It is a “world of appearances,” says Havel, “trying to pass for reality.”

“The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government. . . .the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views.”

Havel argued that the restoration of a free society could only be achieved by refusing to lend power to empty slogans and meaningless rituals – by refusing to become part of the lie that oppresses others without liberating anyone.  Havel described this as “living in truth.”  And this, he argued, was the most important power left to the powerless.

And yet “truth” by itself is rarely enough.  “Truth” must be defended by courage and the willingness to serve others and sacrifice oneself.  The greengrocer will almost certainly lose his shop if he refuses to display the sign.  What then?  Will others rise to his defense?  Will they help support him, perhaps hire him? Or will they stay silent so the harsh glare of suspicion is not cast upon them?

Those who speak “truth to power” must have the credibility that comes from serving others in truth.  When people cannot deny that you care for workers, it makes it harder for them to tear down your store.  They still will.  But when they do, it reveals the system for what it is:  a thin tissue of lies.  The choice is ours: To care for others in truth, or to put up signs of our submission to the narratives that oppress without liberating.

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a tenured Full Professor of Theology. His book Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners is available from Emmaus Press. And his book Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary is due out from Cambridge University Press in the fall.