One September afternoon in 2013, the Occupy Wall Street crowd welcomed Slavoj Žižek, the popular Slovenian philosopher. Žižek thanked the crowd for all their efforts, then delivered this warning: “There is a danger. Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?”
In other words, protesting is the easy part. The real question is: How should we live in the day after, when the carnival has left town?
In an earlier life I taught a course entitled “Gandhi, King and Havel” for the evangelical elites who attend Wheaton College in Illinois. I offered this course because I wanted these students of faith to consider whether these three historical figures—who all resisted an oppressive regime, each in his own way—might exhibit something suggestive of the Kingdom of God as an altera civitas. That is, I wanted them to consider whether by their resistance these three point to a meaningful life beyond our current vanity circus. Each did so, I suggested, not only by being a protester or dissident, but also by exemplifying what Havel called “living in truth.”
In a public letter written in 1975 and addressed to the Communist Party boss Gustáv Husák, Havel had diagnosed totalitarianism as an “entropic” regime in which the Czechoslovakian political authorities misinterpreted widespread social calmness as an indication of citizens’ enthusiasm for, or at least consent to, the regime’s ideology. “True enough, the country is calm,” Havel observed. “Calm as a morgue or a grave, would you not say?” This deathly calm had returned to Czechoslovakia after Soviet tanks violently crushed the brief experiment of partial liberal reform in 1968 known as the Prague Spring. Havel was frequently interrogated by the secret police during that time and his work was publicly blacklisted in 1969. The letter to General Secretary Husák was his first public statement following the blacklisting. In “Power of the Powerless,” written three years after the letter, Havel again examines the spiritual threat such a system poses for its citizens. He does so by narrating the fate of an imaginary character, a greengrocer.
We first encounter Havel’s greengrocer as he goes about his daily routine, which includes, besides putting out crates of fruits and vegetables, placing a sign in his shop window: “Workers of the world, unite!” He does this by rote, unconsciously, without a thought or a flicker. He has always done so. Indeed, that once-revolutionary slogan had become a stultifying instrument for state oppression, omnipresent but now incarcerating rather than liberating. The sum total of all such routinized actions, from grand statist marches to these simple signs in shop windows, constitutes a panorama of performances which create, sustain and further the oppression of the system. From the perspective of the state, one need not believe the public ideology; it is enough if one simply acts as though one believes it. But for Havel such routinization comes with a personal cost. To participate in these performances, even to merely tolerate them, requires that each individual, from the highest party boss to the most humble shopkeeper, must “live within a lie.” Havel elaborates, “They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”
Participation in these routinized acts signaled to each person in Czech society what was publicly expected of them and how they should act to fulfill their duty as consenting citizens. Above all, the fear of losing peace and security led citizens to withdraw into themselves, to preserve and protect themselves and their own. So for the greengrocer in such a state (as for all citizens), there is no day after because there is no day before. Each day is the same dance of spiritual death, with the citizen locked in place and with fear as his drumbeat.