WikiLeaks, antipolitics, and the post-modern state

Talking-point politics, taken for political discourse is delusion. It's akin to the cunning nature of chatter in the mind of a neurotic. It masquerades itself as thinking. I will not offer the reader a well-intentioned flag to die under. It's contrary to my nature to send anyone to my gallows. I believe in wisdom. In doing (and not doing the above), I hope that I have paid respect to any reader who happens to offer this essay his or her kind and undeserved attention.

If I were asked who the most relevant and important voices in post-modern political thought are, I would say former Eastern European dissidents. I only became acquainted with them three year after the Soviet Union collapsed. I was teased that I read them like 'self-help' for Eastern Europe. Not being too interested with the previous generations' culture war, I remarked, "Yes. But, also for the West." Wikileaks, to me, is simply a larger dose of the medicine that these thinkers prescribed for the individual in the post-modern state.

If the success or failure of 'antipolitics' is predicated on the 'antipoliticians' ownership of power - in other words, that to be successful, or live successfully or justly, I have to be the subject of a just regime - or more truthfully the ruler himself, then clearly 'antipolitics', a term I might add the 'antipoliticians' rejected, were failures; just as Socrates would have also been, since he was executed by the Athenian regime.

'Antipoliticians,' are not interested in being, "masters over others for the sake of averting harm." They are interested in being 'masters of themselves,' of living 'justly' or 'in the truth' in the 'here and now' (Footnote 1); a belief I might add that regards harming others as harming to the self - or as an example of 'living within the lie'.

Some critics probably consider this position childish. The world is an anarchical state of nature, they might say, where men and nations play trickster to both allies and enemies alike. These same critics, however, may have already overlook their own demoralization at the hands of their regime, be that regime a totalitarian one or a democratic republic. Havel writes:

In a democracy, human beings may enjoy many personal freedoms and securities that are unknown to us [in the former communist Czechoslovakia], but in the end they do them no good, for they too are ultimately victims of the same automatism [as post totalitarian states], and are incapable of defending their concerns about their own identity or preventing their superficialization or transcending concerns about their own personal survival to become proud and responsible members of the polis, making genuine contribution to the creation of its destiny. (91)

Which leads me to my first point about Havel: Havel does not look at totalitarian regimes from the vantage point of 'classical politics' (his words). He does not look at power relationship of totalitarian regimes as an opposition between what Milovan Djilas labels as the 'New Class' and its prey, the exploited class. Havel writes:

Some people, faithful to the classical Marxist doctrines of the nineteenth century, understand our system as the hegemony of an exploiting class over an exploited class and, operating from that postulate that exploiters never surrender their power voluntarily, they see the only solution in a revolution to sweep away the exploiters. Naturally, they regard such things as the struggle for human rights as something hopelessly legalistic, illusory, opportunistic and ultimately misleading because it makes the doubtful assumption that you can negotiate in good faith with your exploiters on the basis of false legality. The problem is that they are unable to find anyone determined enough to carry out this revolution, with the result that they become bitter, skeptical, passive and ultimately apathetic-in other words, they end up precisely where the system wants them to be. This is one example of how far one can be mislead by mechanically applying, in post-totalitarian circumstances, ideological models from another world and another time. (72)

According to Havel, totalitarian regimes are far more complex than classical tyrannies. Firstly, 'post-totalitarian' regimes, as he calls them, are not limited geographically like classical tyrannies, since they "hold sway over a huge power bloc controlled by one of the two superpowers" (24). Moreover, this control is based and structured everywhere on the same Marxist-Leninist principles. So, each country is "completely penetrated by a network of manipulatory instruments controlled by the superpower center and totally subordinated to its interests" (24).

Post-totalitarian regimes unlike classical tyrannies have historical origins, whose roots are in an ideology of 'correct understanding'. This ideology, commanded by post-totalitarian regimes, is "incomparably more precise, logically structured, generally comprehensible and, in essence, extremely flexible," almost akin to religious ideology (25). So the result of this paradigm is that the "center of power is identical with the center of truth" (25).

Finally, the physical aspect of power is nothing like that in a classical tyranny. Post-totalitarian regimes possess such "intricate and well developed mechanisms for the direct and indirect manipulation of the entire population" that are only made even more effective by state ownership and central command of the means of production (26).

In order to understand Havel's critique of the classical perspective 's usefulness, we need take a closer look at ideology and the role it plays in post-totalitarian regimes.

The post-totalitarian legitimacy rests on Marxist-Leninist ideology and cannot exist without it. Moreover, Havel characterizes ideology as a crutch, which provides people with instant meaning, a fast-food for the soul so to speak. This concept should not be too unfamiliar to us as the children of the modernist and existential movements, and the 24-7 talking point partisanship of television's cultural warriors.

Ideology prevents us from recognizing our own ignorance about 'the most important things.' It spares us the energy we would have to spend, or the risk we would have to take to really investigate the curious nature of our human condition. As Havel writes, "Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality, while making it easier for them to part with them (28).

As the excuse for the post-totalitarian system, it provides people, "who are both victims and pillars of the very system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe" (29). As the regime continues to exist in time, it educates and consequently pulls individuals into the system. Finally as Havel points out: "[T]hat complex machinery of units, hierarchies, transmission belts, and indirect instruments of manipulation which insure in countless ways "the integrity of the regime, leaving nothing to chance, would be quite simply unthinkable without ideology acting as its all-embracing excuse and as an excuse for each of its parts" (29).

Havel argues, the aims of life run counter to the aims of the system; therefore, the system "needs ideology in order to exist." It acts as a "bridge of excuses between the system and the individual." It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the "requirements of life" (30).

Whereas the aims of all human life actually, as Havel points out, are that of 'becoming,' rather than simply 'being'; the system "contrives to force life into its 'most probable states' (30). The post-totalitarian regime's inner aim is not the "mere preservation of power in the hands of the ruling clique"; rather, the aim of the system is the subordination of all individuals to the 'automatism' of the system itself. Havel writes: "No matter what position individuals hold in the hierarchy of power, they are not considered by the system to be worth anything in themselves, but only as things intended to fuel and serve this automatism" (30).

Ideology does not serve the power of the individual, individual power serves ideology (33). Havel maintains that Western Sovietologists mistakenly exaggerated the role of individuals in post-totalitarian regimes. They "overlook the fact that the ruling figures, despite the immense power they possess through the centralized power structure, are often no more than blind executors of the system's own internal laws-laws they themselves never can, and never do, reflect upon (34). So, the automatism of the system is far more powerful than the will of one individual.

This principle of social auto-totality is the reason why Havel argues that the fundamental line of power or opposition runs through every individual in post-totalitarian regimes and not between an exploiting and an exploited class. Everyone is a victim and a supporter of the system. Everyone, including the ruling elite, is practicing some form of ketman. Havel writes:

Part of the essence of the post totalitarian system is that it draws everyone into its sphere of power, not so they may realize themselves as human beings, but so they may surrender their human identity in favor of the identity of the system, that is, so they may become agents of the system's general automatism and servants of its self-determined goals. (37)

Moreover, the system loses power when an individual consolidates his own power or maintains his own individuality; in other words, when the individual 'lives within the truth'. By doing so, the individual threatens the whole power structure, since the power of the system is ultimately dependent upon appropriating the power of the individual. Havel writes:

Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. The principle must embrace and permeate everything. There are no terms whatsoever on which it can coexist with living within the truth, and therefore everyone who steps out of line denies [the system] in principle and threatens it in its entirety. (40)

Since the post-totalitarian regime runs contrary to the aims of life, the regime has no real legitimacy. This assertion explains why Havel does not choose to regard the 'antipoliticians' or 'dissidents' as the opposition. To do so would to pretend that the regime has a certain legitimacy or truth; in other words, the opposition would be defining themselves according to what they regard as a false. Havel writes:

The final reason why many reject such a term is because there is something negative about the notion of an 'opposition'. People who so define themselves do so in relation to a prior 'position'. In other words, they relate themselves specifically to the power that rules society and through it, define themselves, deriving their own 'position' from the position of the regime. It is the regime that is in opposition to life. (56)

Here, we see the roots of Havel's argument in the notion of rights and the voluntary construction or organic growth of the social contract. The notion implies that social contract must be entered into voluntarily and that it must constantly be renewed. It must grow out of the aims of life, and cannot exist <em>a priori</em>. The 'antipoliticians' are not interested in offensive or hypothetical political constructions, before the chance to enter one even exists. They are interested in living better in the here and now.

They are interested in individuals living 'truthfully' in the present, not simply dreaming of some time in the future when they will be able to; in other words, they are interested in individuals recognizing their support for the system and ultimate responsibility for the system. By virtue of the fact that individuals can 'live truthfully' under any circumstances illustrates that there is such a thing and that the individual possesses power in themselves.

Consequently, individuals and life comes before politics; politics do not come before life. This assertion is also why Havel argues that his actions are not fundamentally political. Their political nature arises only after the fact of action, they are not political by nature. Havel is not interested in constructing a polis, but in 'living truthfully.' According to Havel the origin of politics cannot be found in mathematical formulas, but in the individual:

[T]he central concern of political thought is no longer abstract visions of a self-redeeming, 'positive' model (and of course the opportunistic political practices that are the reverse of the same coin), but rather the people who have so far merely been enslaved by those models and their practices. (68)

I believe denying this implies that individuals do not have power over themselves; that individuals are not responsible for their actions; that justice and truth are merely the advantage of the stronger; that the citizen has no choice.

'Antipoliticians' would argue that individuals who claim that this capacity as impractical are demoralized human beings, caught up in consumer-pacification or fear. I will add a layer of complexity. My own mother who chose to spend most of her life working so that I might go to school would probably add, "Only when you have food in your belly, CB, do you have the luxury of drooling over your own words."

I would like to incorporate the "concrete political, social, and cultural consequences of pursing 'antipolitical' strategies' before I end. In that way, I can demonstrate the "all or nothing" gamble of the 'antipoliticians'.

By stressing legality and the accountability of the Czechoslovakian regime to human rights as outlined in the Helsinki Accords, the 'antipoliticians' acted as the moral conscience of the Czechoslovakian regime. Yet, while they may have shown light on the hypocrisy of the system to Czechoslovakian subjects as well as the world at large, they were also harassed, thrown in jail, or killed. Moreover, Czechoslovakia was the last country to de-Stalinize after the 1989 Revolution in the Soviet Union. As Stokes writes, Husak-B'ilak's "normalization" program was not only the advent of repression, but also an example of how the country could be bought off with 'Goulash Communism," or bartering the maintenance of the status-quo for economic security:

Husak-B'ilak managed to keep real wages rising, and ordinary Czechs and Slovaks were sufficiently satisfied with daily life that for almost twenty years the opposition generated by Charter 77 activists did not strike deep roots in Czechoslovakia. This was not because the population accepted or liked the regime but because ordinary people were convinced that any overt display of "living within the truth" would have unpleasant financial and emotional results. (Footnote 2)

To my mind, this demoralization of the population does not deconstruct Havel's larger point that the system itself eventually collapsed because it ran counter to the aims of life; ran counter, because it was unable to 'become' instead of just 'be'. The slow but constant agitation of individuals 'living within the truth' or the agitation that arose from the real aims of life ultimately forced the system to collapse in on itself; not because they were overtly political, but because the system could not continue to exist as the lie that it was.

Sources:

1 Havel writes: "[T]hese 'dissident' movements do not have their point of departure in the invention of systemic changes but in the real, everyday struggle for a better life 'here and now' (88). Vaclav Havel, "The Power of the Powerless," The Power of the Powerless: Citizens against the state in central-eastern Europe, trans. Paul Wilson, ed. John Keane (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.), 1990.

2 Gale Stokes, The Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) 67-68.

Alexa O'Brien Alexa O'Brien is a investigative journalist. Her work has been published in The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Guardian UK, Salon, The Daily Beast, and featured on the BBC, PBS Frontline, On The Media, Democracy Now!, and Public Radio International. In 2013, she was shortlisted for the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in the UK and listed in The Verge 50.
_