Václav Havel believed that dissent in a post-totalitarian power structure could not be effective when expressed through direct political confrontation. Although direct confrontation is an irritant to the power structure, it also merits, according to the internal law and logic of such a system, a harsh reaction towards the perpetrator. Direct confrontation then, gives an oppressive government an excuse to behave like an oppressive government.
The post-totalitarian system that Havel describes in his essay The Power of the Powerless has, at its foundation, ideology. Although it’s possible that this ideology was originally formed for the purpose of serving real human needs, it evolved into a doctrine whose sole purpose was to sustain the power structure. The result — an ideology not grounded in the “aims of life” but rather in the “aims of the post-totalitarian system.”
Ideology is attractive when it offers an illusion of something greater —“the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with” real identity, dignity and morality. Ideology supplies an excuse to deny those virtues and go along with an abusive system.
For example, United States foreign policy ideology provides an excuse to use violence to insure the flow of oil while at the same time making us feel good that our presence in the Middle East is all about peace, democracy and women’s rights. The ideology of the war on terror also supplies the excuse for lost rights here at home. Say, that of electronic privacy. Out of fear, you don’t frequent websites that criticize government invasion into your privacy. You may say you don’t visit such sites because you believe the government actions are legitimate and meant to provide safety, but might it really be because of the risk that your internet searches and emails will be the next ones scrutinized?
Havel explains that ideology “pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.” That people go along with this pretense is necessary for the stability of the system. He posits that “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.” Living in the truth then, Havel argues, is the most effective dissent.
If effective dissent in a post-totalitarian system is not direct political confrontation, but rather it is living in the truth, then I wonder what living in the truth looks like in pre-totalitarian United States of America?