Vaclav Havel’s death prompts me to share a bit from the book on democracy I am currently finishing. In the book I use Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” quite a bit. I am particularly drawn to his figure of the greengrocer, especially in light of the events of 2011.
Havel writes about a greengrocer who lives under a totalitarian regime in communist Czechoslovakia. He “places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: ‘Workers of the world, unite!’” He does it not because he agrees with the slogan but “simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble…he does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life” (pp. 27-28). The message isn’t directed to his customers, or to Czechoslovakians more generally. It is directed above, to his party bosses. The message is: “I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace” (p. 28). This is not the greengrocer speaking with his own voice, he is not saying things he means or really wants to say. He is “living within a lie” (p. 31). The greengrocer lives within the lie, doing what must be done without thinking. He becomes, to paraphrase Italo Calvino, such a complete part of the lie that he no longer knows it is there. Havel says this is easier than we think, to settle for living within the lie, to succumb to “a profane trivialization of our inherent humanity,” to merge with the anonymous crowd and flow comfortably along with it “down the river of pseudo-life” (p. 38).
In this situation, when we have fallen into a routine of passive acquiescence, Havel says what is required is a radical break. He invites us to imagine
that one day something in our greengrocer snaps, and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those of his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity…His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth (p. 39).
Of course the power structure will respond. Agents will come after him. Consequences will be imposed. The greengrocer has not liberated society, by any means. What he has done is all that could be hoped for: he has initiated a struggle. When he snaps, he breaks
through the exalted façade of the system and exposes the real, base foundations of power… by his action the greengrocer has addressed the world. He has enabled everyone to peer behind the curtain. He has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth (1985, p. 40).
The greengrocer provides society with a precipitating event, with the opportunity to recognize its addiction, its passive acceptance of oligarchy. Henri Lefebvre might say that the greengrocer has opened a path to the possible. He has given us a glimpse of a different reality, shown (or perhaps reminded) us it exists, and invited us to struggle for it if we choose to.
Once we begin to think in terms of precipitating events, we find no shortage of examples. In Beijing in 1989 the hunger strike of Chai Ling and others helped spark massive popular outrage against the government and helped the uprising of 1989 become much more than just a student movement (Zhao, The Power of Tiananmen, p. 161ff). In Iran in the summer of 2009 the blatantly rigged presidential election caused Iranians of all ages, classes, and genders to flood the streets and voice their chronic dissatisfaction with an authoritarian and mendacious government. In December 2010 in Tunisia another greengrocer, Mohamed Bouazizi, burned himself in protest in front of the municipal government office. In March of 2011 15 Syrian children in Dara’a were arrested for writing anti-regime graffiti.
In each of these cases, there is a complex story to tell. In Bouazizi’s case there is much question just what took place. He was a produce vendor who sold from a mobile cart in the streets of Tunis. His margins were thin. He ran into difficulty with the local authorities, who harassed him for not having the proper permits (or perhaps for not paying the proper bribe). He was slapped by a female official, or his wasn’t, there is debate. Some think he felt his manhood had been undermined, others think he was fed up with corruption, others think he was tired of being harassed because he worked in the informal economy. The story is ambiguous, but that is partly its power. What seems clear is that people in Tunisia generally interpreted Bouazizi to have snapped, to have reached a point where he was not going to be intimidated, or humiliated, or ruled anymore by the government, by this government. People in Tunisia interpreted Bouazizi as responding to an intolerable situation by taking the most dramatic action a person can take. I don’t mean that the truth of Bouazizi’s story doesn’t matter, it does. I mean rather that whatever the truth was, the surge of popular reaction resulted from some affinity of feeling, some idea that Bouazizi felt like we feel, that he said what we have been wanting to say but were afraid to, that his act made it OK for us to act as well, to rise up and articulate what we are all feeling: enough of humiliation and domination, enough of this government.
Of course the uprising in Tunisia sparked other uprisings in turn, in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Oman, Yemen, Syria, Israel, Chile, Greece, Spain, and later in the US. None were inevitable. Events might have unfolded otherwise. But there is a very palpable sense that such precipitating events do sometimes un-dam a potential flow, that they can give license to say what one could not say and do what one could not do. Precipitating events do not create this flow—it was already present, already felt. They merely open the gates, help actualize the flow. If the flow is not present, the event won’t precipitate anything. Bouazizi’s dramatic act opened a crack in the dam; the dam collapsed because of the pressure generated by hundreds of thousands of Tunisians wanting to speak and to act.
And so all of this is to say that whatever narratives emerge in the wake of Havel’s death, I think we should try to foreground his overt political writing, especially “The Power of the Powerless,” both for its insightful and nuanced political theory, and for its attention to everyday experience. For me, Havel is a reminder that whatever else it is, democracy is a perpetual struggle. It requires each of us to work every day to become active, to continually rededicate ourselves to the project of collectively managing our affairs for ourselves. It is not easy, by any means, but there can nevertheless be a real reward, a feeling of deep delight, in the effort to live within the truth.