Sunday, 18 December 2011

Václav Havel, 1936-2011

My mother has just told me on the 'phone that Václav Havel has died.

Havel, like my mother, was born on 5 October 1936.

My mum fled Leipzig with her family in 1947 following the Soviet takeover of the eastern part of Germany.

Havel was her hero.

I know very little about his life myself, but I have gleaned the following interesting remarks from Žižek's review [LRB 21.21 (28 October 1999)] of John Keane's Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, here:

'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.'

Next post: disability think-piece

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