Some thoughts on Soviet dissident and eventual Czech president Vaclav Havel's essay, The Power of the Powerless.
On Parallel Structures and Living Within the Truth
You see it. I see it. Despite the persistent mirage, it’s become virtually impossible to ignore the fact that our world is in a state of utter chaos. From environmental emergencies, to economic collapse, to social break down and creeping authoritarianism all over the globe, humanity finds itself faced with existential crises on all fronts.
How did we get here?
Vaclav Havel, in his essay The Power of the Powerless, describes our condition in this way, “We have no idea, no faith, and even less do we have a political conception to help us bring things back under human control. We look on helplessly as that coldly functioning machine we have created inevitably engulfs us…”
Where do we turn for answers? Can politicians save us? Can we depend on our government officials, who have so plainly proven themselves to be incompetent if not colluding and conspiring to perpetuate this very same power structure that enslaves and exploits - can we depend on them to legislate solutions?
Is there some perfect ideology we can all embrace that will address our environmental, economic, and social crises with the kind of efficiency, determinedness, and unanimous approval necessary to be any match for the crises themselves?
If there is one thing that’s clear in these bewildering times it’s that the answers aren’t going to come pre-packaged and ready for us. It’s easy to pass off responsibility to a “higher authority” and half-heartedly trust that some vague collection of ‘others’ will take care of those terrifying realities that overwhelm and paralyze the individual. It’s easier still to look the other way and live in a comfortable little bubble of denial because the truth is too painful to touch.
You do it. I do it. We catch wind of some terrible atrocity taking place in some other country and we gasp, “Oh, what a tragedy. Something should be done about that.” And then we continue on with our comfortable little lives, contenting ourselves with a bit of shallow gratitude that such tragedies aren’t happening to us. At least that’s been the case for those of us privileged enough to have been born into modern “democracies” or “first-world” countries.
But lately something has shifted. The tragedies are getting closer and closer to home. The illusion that’s been sustaining our comfortable little lives is crumbling. The veil is lifting. And now we, the beneficiaries of modern industrialization, are faced with some difficult choices. We have to take a close look at ourselves and ask ourselves some important questions.
“Will I continue to exist and invest my energy in the paradigm that brought humanity to this place: continue to blindly consume and indulge in the creature comforts that have been provided to me at the cost of the horrific exploitation of both human beings and our natural environment? Will I continue to live within a lie?
Or will I allow myself to wake up to the perilous plunge we’re all taking into our own destruction; force myself to reflect on those painful realities I’ve been brushing aside in order to stay comfortable? What will be the nature of my being, and what kind of impact will I have on the collective experience of humanity in these times?”
Havel compels us to acknowledge our own potential with these beautiful words, “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.”
There is no hero coming to save us. There are no solutions coming to us from on high. For those of us who wish to effect real change in these ‘unprecedented’ times, the responsibility rests on each of us to be that change. Of course, to exhort someone to take personal responsibility for the problems of the world seems completely impractical and frankly unfair on its surface, but this is where Vaclav Havel’s idea of “parallel structures” comes in.
In his essay, The Power of the Powerless, Vaclav Havel presents the idea of “parallel structures” as an effective force against the “post-totalitarian” Soviet Union and the lies it perpetuated to sustain itself. He defines “parallel structures” as key components of a sort of ‘second culture’ formed within a larger power structure from which humanity desires to escape. This ‘second culture’ is composed of individuals who have refused the lies of the established power structure and decided to ‘live within the truth’.
Though Havel faced somewhat different challenges living under Soviet occupation in Czechoslovakia than we face in modern Western civilization, the forces at work are very much the same. Havel himself acknowledged that the Soviet post-totalitarian system was only one element of the “deep crisis” of the consumer and industrial society “dragged… helplessly along by the automatism of global civilization”.
“The post-totalitarian system is only one aspect - a particularly drastic aspect and thus all the more revealing of its real origins - of this general inability of modern humanity to be the master of its own situation. The automatism of the post-totalitarian system is merely an extreme version of the global automatism of technological civilization.”
We find ourselves today, as Havel found himself in his day, living in a society founded on lies and sustained by lies, and so the opposing force we need to align ourselves with in order to effect change has to be truth.
“Under the orderly surface of the life of lies… there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth... The singular, explosive, incalculable political power of living within the truth resides in the fact that living openly within the truth has an ally, invisible to be sure, but omnipresent: this hidden sphere.”
Living in the truth, Havel argues, is the most powerful force against a system built on lies. But how can simply living in the truth be the answer to such complex issues as we face today? It’s because the crises we are facing were created by the system of lies, and there is absolutely no way to address these issues from within the established system. Just as Einstein says, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.” We can’t just “reform” the current system. The system itself is fundamentally flawed by design. Like a parasite, modern industrial society is exploitative at its core, structured in such a way that the rich will always get richer at the expense of the planet and of human dignity and freedom.
So, what can living in the truth do to fight this exploitative system? The system thrives on lies. Lies are the sustenance by which it flourishes. As Havel states in his essay, “...life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies… depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code: the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy: banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance.
Because the regime (the system) is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything… It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”
Lies are the lifeblood of the established power structure in which we live. Truth is its kryptonite. By accepting this system, even just passively by living within it and not confronting the blatant lies, we are feeding and perpetuating it. By choosing to confront the lies we are touching that “hidden sphere” of truth, and thus empowering the truth. In this way, we peel back the veil and reveal the hideous reality that’s been hidden in plain sight.
Havel refers to the all-pervasive illusion created by the system as a “world of appearances” and by living in harmony with ourselves (that is, living within the truth), we shatter that world of appearances and “[enable] everyone to peer behind the curtain…and… [show] everyone that it is possible to live within the truth.” When we refuse to repeat a talking point that’s popular or expected of us, but we believe to be false or contrived, we are confronting the system of lies. When we speak the truth even when we know we will be alienated, humiliated, or even punished for doing so, we are confronting the system of lies and creating a space for others to do the same.
“...as long as appearance is not confronted with reality, it does not seem to be appearance. As long as living a lie is not confronted with living the truth, the perspective needed to expose its mendacity is lacking. As soon as the alternative appears, however, it threatens the very existence of appearance and living a lie in terms of what they are, both in their essence and their all-inclusiveness.”
It’s only by shining the light of truth (by living in truth) and exposing the current power structure for what it is that we can begin to eradicate and supplant it. The answers to the pressing issues of our time won’t come from outside, but from feeling around for the truth within ourselves and then aligning ourselves with that truth. It’s by this process of aligning with the truth that we begin to form parallel structures that can replace the current, faulty structures. Once we begin resisting the lies and speaking our being forward, we create a space for others to do the same. We create a parallel structure, or a “second culture” in which others are free to live in truth as well.
Havel emphasizes this personal undertaking by writing, “What else is [a parallel structure] than a non-violent attempt by people to negate the system within themselves and to establish their lives on a new basis, that of their own proper identity.”
He lists examples of parallel structures ranging from artists and rock bands to parallel publishing houses, seminars, and education systems. In order for a parallel structure to be effective, it doesn’t require a million followers or a political platform - it just has to be authentic. It has to be a natural manifestation of a “life that is in harmony with its own aims” rather than the arbitrary and mechanical aims of the system. A single individual living in the truth is a massive threat to the system not because of the influence in numbers per se, but because of the profound power of truth.
The power of the act of stepping out of the darkness of a life of lies and into the light of the truth is found in its universal applicability to every single individual. It’s something that anyone can and should do. It is a remedy for all and the responsibility of each and all. Havel goes on to write, “... any genuinely meaningful point of departure in an individual’s life usually has an element of universality to it. In other words, it is not something partial, accessible only to a restricted community... On the contrary, it must be potentially accessible to everyone; it must foreshadow a general solution and, thus, it is not just the expression of an introverted, self-contained responsibility that individuals have to and for themselves alone, but responsibility to and for the world.”
The existential threats we face today are daunting to say the least. The solutions won’t be given to us by some other, but they’re available to us if we look within to find the universal truth that will set us free of the lies that got us here. There is no packaged policy, legislation, or ideology that we can rely on to address the many crises of our time. The “general solution” can only be found in the truth, and that truth lies in the heart of every individual on the planet - whether he’s aligned with it or not. By acting out the truth within ourselves we manifest into existence a model for the foundation of a better society. In this way, we bring that society into the here and now, as Vaclav Havel so eloquently closes his essay, “...the real question is whether the “brighter future” is really always so distant. What if, on the contrary, 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?”