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.
What can set the greengrocer free from this death-in-life? In a moment of existential epiphany, one that Havel in his narrative leaves unexplained and, perhaps in recognition of the mystery of contingency, unexamined, the greengrocer, like the Prodigal Son, comes to himself. Or as Havel puts it, “one day something in our greengrocer snaps” and he stops putting those damned signs in the window. And it’s at this moment in the essay that Havel employs the phrase that would come to define not just the story of the greengrocer but also Havel’s own legacy:
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.
From here the greengrocer’s journey unfolds until he joins others who are like-minded and becomes, with them, a citizen in a “parallel polis,” a “rudimentary prefiguration” for the “foundation of a better society.” Though written in bleak days, Havel urged his fellow-suffering readers to consider whether “the ‘brighter future’ is really always so distant,” for it was possible that “it has been here for a long time already, and only our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it.” In a blink of historical time, Havel, of course, confirmed his own prophecy, becoming Czechoslovakia’s first democratically elected president after the fall of communism. The greengrocer saw the fruit of his actions.
In his movement from death to life, from living a lie to living in truth, how did the greengrocer embody the qualities of character necessary for living after the protest carnival?
At the outset one should note that the greengrocer resisted thinking of himself as a dissident or a protester. Rather, he remained in the calling to which he was called. As Havel once noted with regard to his own political activity, “We never decided to become dissidents. We have been transformed into them, without quite knowing how.” When the greengrocer took part in those meetings, lectures and cultural activities, he did so as himself, not as a “protester.” And in choosing to live truthfully the greengrocer also willingly accepted the loss of those things that had previously provided him with security and (relative) safety: in order to live in truth, he was willing to suffer.
Havel states with conviction that human nature longs to live in truth even as it is pressured to live a lie. In everyone “there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence.” Thus humans aspire to live in truth not only on the day after but on each day after that. There is eternity in our hearts. And this recognition, the affirmation of a shared life different from and greater than the living death of their regimes, animated King and Gandhi as well as Havel. Each in their own particular context pitted their concrete vision of a better life against the oppressive regime that claimed to be the truth of the way things are and are meant to be. It is what led Gandhi to get rid of his colonial British attire and adopt the simple Indian khadi, and it is also what led King to sit in the solitude of a jail where he could “think long thoughts and pray long prayers.” One might say: a weight of glory pressed in upon them.
Havel recognizes that to live in truth may simply “be confined to not doing certain things.” To drop out of oppressive routinized practices may be all that some are capable of accomplishing. Such refusals are not insignificant, but for Havel the “essential aims of life” prompt us to do “something that goes beyond an immediately personal self-defensive reaction against manipulation.” Still, the scope and scale of such actions need not rise to the level of public spectacle or enact the drama of public confrontation. Havel describes those who seek to live in truth through “small-scale work,” recognizing that in the totalitarian context “every piece of good work is the indirect criticism of bad politics.” His example (drawn from his own experience) involves the firing of a brewmaster who, out of his love for the art of beer making, ran afoul of the politically appointed managers when he made suggestions for some needed improvements. “You are thrown into [dissidence] by your personal sense for responsibility,” Havel writes. “It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”
Žižek called on the protesters at Occupy to reckon with the inevitable transition from the excitement of public demonstrations to the more sober light of the days to come—the return to a life defined more by constraint, routine and finitude. Where the carnival seems timeless, normal life is all too time-bound. Havel’s living in truth can serve as a hopeful account of living well the day after. And the good news is that it may require nothing more than starting with a simple shift in one’s quotidian experience.
About six months after the publication of “The Power of the Powerless,” on June 3, 1979, near the out-of-the-way town of Madison, Indiana, 89 citizens undertook a public protest against a nuclear power plant. They were subsequently arrested and charged with criminal trespass. One of those participants was the farmer and author Wendell Berry.
In his essay “The Reactor and the Garden,” Berry expresses impatience with labels such as protester and dissenter. Rather, he says, he undertook his action as an expression of his being “a father, a neighbor and a citizen.” Though he undertook this criminal action willingly, Berry does not believe such public acts are “equal to their purpose, or that they will ever be.” Though sometimes they are justifiably necessary, for Berry, “they are not enough.”
Like Žižek, Berry warns about the temptations that such public protests possess for the self-understanding of the participants. Involvement in public protests subjects the protester’s mind to certain dangers. While protests can raise public consciousness concerning an important issue, “it appears to be possible to ‘raise’ your consciousness without changing it—and so to keep protesting forever.” Critical consciousness can only denounce the world; the point is to change it. The movement from consciousness to practice culminates in what Berry calls a “complete action,” which he defines as an action taken “on one’s own behalf, which is particular and complex, real not symbolic, which one can accomplish on one’s own and take full responsibility for. It is so effective a protest because it is much more than a protest.”
While Berry’s complete action bears some obvious similarities to Havel’s small-scale work, it clearly takes place in a different context. The latter action is, by Havel’s own view, intrinsically political given the totalizing context of Communist Czechoslovakia. The former appears a merely economic action, directed against a privately owned power company in a democratic society. But for Berry the power plant is a symptom of a much deeper malady. The American polis has its own indigenous version of “living a lie.” So the overcoming of this lie requires its own version of “living in truth.” In his essay Berry fingers the American lie as consisting in the principle of excessive consumption:
The ideal of “limitless growth” is based on the obsessive and fearful conviction that more is always needed. The growth is maintained by the consumers’ panic-stricken suspicion, since they always want more, that they will never have enough.
Like Havel, Berry believes that public protests are only the beginning of resistance. What kind of action would complete what public protests only gesture at? In an existential turn similar to that of the greengrocer in Havel’s account, Berry redirects the focus inward to the soul of the contemporary American consumer, maintaining that “it is futile to attempt to correct a public wrong without correcting the sources of that wrong in yourself.” The Czech greengrocer had to step beyond his fear; so too must the American consumer. What kind of step can that be?
Against the colossus of a nuclear power station (and the industrial interests—and fear—that sustain it), Berry pits the modesty of the home garden. By putting one’s own hands in the dirt and working it until it yields its fruit, the American consumer chooses to make a stand against the lie of endless and cheap consumption. From this vantage point, Havel’s greengrocer can be seen to share attributes with Berry’s home gardener. Where the greengrocer responds to the call for personal dignity, the gardener responds to the call for personal responsibility. For both, their actions begin a journey of living in truth.
In terms resonant with Havel’s “parallel polis” and the aspiration contained within “small-scale work,” Berry contends that a “garden is the most direct way to recapture the issue of health. It has a power that is political and even democratic.” By cultivating one’s garden for home consumption, one is resituated in the world: away from the routinized practices of excessive consumption, to the responsible production of a good that by its very production signals independence and integrity. Just as the greengrocer’s first steps may be seen as relatively insignificant in themselves, so Berry claims that “it is too easy to underestimate the power of a garden.” A garden is “a solution that leads to other solutions.” It is an initial act that subsequently opens up an imaginative world of new possibilities and actions.
Still, we must live in the world. And the world is thus, even if we have made it thus. Both Havel and Berry make clear that to live in society, even as we seek to change it, necessarily involves our continued participation (though now to a lesser degree) in certain routinized practices. Therefore the day after carries with it both an element of romance and of tragedy. But neither the Czech greengrocer nor the American home gardener would have it otherwise.
On that day in Zuccotti Park, Žižek urged his (mostly) young Occupy Wall Street listeners to avoid the broad and easy path that will lead today’s “dissident” to become tomorrow’s “nostalgic”:
I don’t want you to remember these days, you know, like “Oh. We were young and it was beautiful.” Remember that our basic message is “We are allowed to think about alternatives.”
But merely thinking about alternatives is not enough to change the world. Radical talk is cheap. As he noted, “There is a long road ahead. There are truly difficult questions that confront us. We know what we do not want. But what do we want?”
In that Wheaton course a lifetime ago, I urged my crazy-bright, eager and ambitious students to consider how radical the practice of Christian contentment could be in the contemporary American context. For if we accept Berry’s argument that we Americans live in the lie of excessive consumption, then Wheaton’s elite evangelicals and Occupy’s protesters might share a common challenge. Faced with the routinized practices of American consumption, both need not only to hold open the possibility of alternative social arrangements but also to find ways of evoking their own versions of a “parallel polis” in their everyday lives. Of course, the shift from radical thought to radical practice is not easy. My unscientific survey of those Wheaton students who absorbed their lessons on the Kingdom of God as an altera civitas finds many of them still pursuing elite occupations and opportunities. Likewise, many today bemoan how the Occupy protesters did exactly what Žižek warned against—becoming nostalgic for the beauty of the protest experience while forgetting what it was they had really been there to protest.
So when the carnival comes to town, let’s go. But the day after, maybe what we must do is take a sign out of a window, or plant a garden. If the world we hope for is long in coming, at least our lives can be marked with dignity and maybe even a little beauty. A small, but good work.