The present age, part 1

On the unpredictability of political revolt

“The essence of the lie implies in fact that the liar actually is in complete possession of the truth which he is hiding.” – Sartre, Being and Nothingness

PART 1 OF 2

In my January 19, 2021, newsletter “American Putsch,” I said that “As the cumulative medical, social and economic effects of the manipulated global lockdown agenda build to a devastating crescendo of human suffering over the coming 12 to 18 months, the political impact will register like a sonic boom rippling across the political spectrum, and fear will give way to new forms of citizen-driven political action.”

Is this likely? What might it look like? Is there historical precedent?

AN AGE OF PUBLICITY

In 1846, commenting presciently on the rise of mass media and its elevation of information over knowledge, no less astute an observer of history than Søren Kierkegaard wrote.

“A Revolutionary Age is an age of action; the present age is an age of advertisement or publicity – nothing happens, but there is instant publicity about it. A revolt in the present age is the most unthinkable act of all.” 

Two years later, the Revolutions of 1848 swept Europe and inspired revolt in more than 50 nations across the world – all before the existence of so called social media!

Although many of these revolts were eventually crushed, historians today see them as “the only truly European revolution there has ever been,” and one that resulted in a new kind of politics in which the political center expanded dramatically to accommodate overwhelming demands for change from across the political-economic spectrum. It was the reverse of what is happening today when demands for change are dominated by the fringes as the center contracts.

But for our purposes, the salient question is – how did Kierkegaard, one of the great thinkers of the time, miss the most significant political revolution of his era?

Tom Hayden, a close student of revolutionary movements whatever one thinks of his personal politics, offers an insightful answer.

"Any oppressed people will always look like they are asleep to everybody from the oppressor to the organizers to the experts who are observing and writing about them . . .The people who seem asleep always awake at the most unusual times. No one ever predicts when or where people will rise up. . .If you predict a revolt here, it will start there.”

History does not unfold on our timetable nor in accord with our preconceptions about what form it will take, but it offers a valuable perspective on the deeper undercurrents that typically drive political change.

THE POWER OF THE POWERLESS

Now if you will allow me to jump forward a bit from Kierkegaard’s era, I would land in Eastern Europe in 1979, when Czech playwright and activist Václav Havel was arrested along with dozens of other Eastern Bloc dissidents who were being rounded up and imprisoned for their activism. 

Havel had written an essay titled "The Power of the Powerless” in 1978, a year prior to his arrest. He said that he “wrote it in a hurry” as a topic for a workers’ discussion group. After his imprisonment, Havel’s compatriots released and circulated the letter to the dissident community across the Eastern Bloc throughout 1979 via the Samizdat network. Today, it is considered a major turning point in the revolts that toppled the former Soviet Union a decade later. 

Zbygniew Bujak, a Solidarity activist in Poland, described the impact of Havel’s letter.

There came a moment when people thought we were crazy. Why were we doing this? Why were we taking such risks? Not seeing any immediate and tangible results, we began to doubt the purposefulness of what we were doing. Shouldn’t we be coming up with other methods, other ways?

Then came the essay by Havel. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later–in August 1980–it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered. And the rank and file saw us as leaders of the movement.

When I look at the victories of Solidarity, and of Charter 77, I see in them an astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel's essay.

In 1989, ten years after the circulation of Havel’s manifesto, the Berlin Wall fell, with the Soviet Union dissolving a year later. One day, the Wall and the nuclear armed 15 nation Soviet regime it symbolized seemed insuperable, a permanent feature of European and international political life. The next day, without violence or bloodshed, it was a historical relic.

Zbygniew Bujak’s comments from 40 years ago are full of wisdom that is relevant today for those who are open to simple truths. (“We did not give up. We mattered.”) But there is a critical difference between then and now.

The anti-Soviet activists of Eastern Europe had been working for decades at great personal risk to build a movement whose main function was to speak truth to the power of the monolithic Soviet regimes suffocating their countries. They persisted through crushing defeats in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the Prague Spring, and many other costly flesh and blood setbacks. These experiences produced a well developed underground political apparatus and leadership that was ready to assume power as the Soviet regimes lost credibility.

A huge difference today is that over the past 40 plus years, a majority of citizens in almost every developed country have been transformed into passive political consumers conditioned to choosing between competing electoral brands in periodic election spectacles. Official propaganda relentlessly reinforces the notion that the highest and most patriotic act of personal political agency is voting, which in its current form, is little more than an act of electoral consumerism

Sadly, it is becoming clear in real time that accepting the empty convenience of this kind of consumerist political dilettantism gives putative citizens – woke and unwoke alike – about the same power as a Walmart customer. Except unlike Walmart buyers, voters can’t return or exchange the faulty goods after an election.

In his prescient Power of the Powerless essay, Havel described the impact of the consumer ethos on political life.

“A person who has been seduced by the consumer value system, whose identity is dissolved in an amalgam of the accouterments of mass civilization, and who has no roots in the order of being, no sense of responsibility for anything higher than his own personal survival, is a demoralized person. The system depends on this demoralization, deepens it, is in fact a projection of it into society.

Havel understood the real world nature and cost of resistance, of “…fighting to be able to live within the truth…”

The people who led Eastern bloc resistance movements were not professional politicians nor traditional activists. They were, rather, everyday citizens who, per Havel, “…had been given every opportunity to adapt to the status quo, to accept the principles of living within a lie and thus to enjoy life undisturbed by the authorities.”

Revolution started with a refusal to accept this kind of institutionalized self-betrayal. The choice today is eerily similar.

THE PLASTIC PEOPLE OF THE UNIVERSE

Zbygniew Bujak’s comments about the importance of Charter 77 are likely to send most people to the internet in search of a Wikipedia entry, even people who live in Eastern Europe. Not only has the Charter fallen into obscurity, Czech diplomat Zdenek Beranek notes that even at the time, “Those who drafted, signed and promoted it did it with no glimpse of hope emerging on the horizon.” Yet in retrospect, the act of signing itself seems like a powerful expression of both hope and overt resistance.

The Charter was published January 6, 1977, as a demand for government adherence to universal human rights rules codified in various international agreements the Czech government had signed, such as the Helsinki Accords. The Charter was written by activists in response to the December 1976 arrest and imprisonment of members of the psychedelic rock band The Plastic People of the Universe for “organized disturbance of the peace” at their public concerts.

The names of all 241 original signatories were published with the Charter, resulting in more arrests and imprisonment and a coordinated government effort to isolate, discredit and marginalize those who had signed. Today, we might call it the ultimate level of “de-platforming.” Havel’s leading role in writing and disseminating Charter 77 was a primary factor in his 1979 arrest and subsequent 4 1/2 year prison sentence for “subversion against the state.”

Martin Palous, one of the Charter’s original signatories and later Czech ambassador to the US and UN, characterizes the signing of the Charter as one of those “moments in history…when hope plays a role in the practical world.”

This epoch-defining, citizen-driven political revolution in the making went largely unnoticed for decades, and one of its most important moments, the signing of Charter 77, initially involved only 241 people acting solely on principle and a determination to live authentically in defense of an activist rock band.

In a beautiful irony of history, Havel started 1979 in prison and ended the year as the newly elected President of the Czech Republic.

PART 2 OF “THE PRESENT AGE” published Friday, April 23, 2021
DARPA, Yogi-Commissars, radical freedom & 24/7 hyper-reality in the time of Covid

Give a gift subscription