I thought of Havel as the poet who proved the pen mightier than the sword, the
man who brought Western democracy to Eastern Europe…
until I read this New Yorker article by Pankaj Mishra.
Havel saw the problem as deeper than the opposition between socialism and capitalism. The latter, though materially more successful, also crushed the human individual, inducing feelings of powerlessness, which is not just inhuman but potentially incendiary, certainly destabilizing in the long run. Politics has become “machine-like” and unresponsive, degrading flesh-and-blood human beings into “statistical choruses of voters.”
“A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system,” he wrote, and who has “no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.”
Havel saw the possibility of redemption in a politically active “civil society” (he coined the phrase). True escape from despotism requires “living in truth”: refusing participation in the regime of untruth, and also rejecting refuge in material comforts and pleasures that are its fruits.
More than thirty years ago, Havel complained, “I cannot avoid the impression that many people in the West still understand little of what is actually at stake in our time.” Today,it seems, they are finally waking up. It’s not too late.