The Courage to Think and the Spectre of Dissent

Dissidents reject living a lie. That is why they come into conflict with the state, not deliberately but simply because they do what they feel they must do.

The dramatic opening lines of Vaclac Havel’s pathbreaking essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’ (1978) read thus: “A spectre is haunting Eastern Europe, the spectre of what in the West is called ‘dissent’.” Havel, the well-known Czech playwright, essayist, politician and one-time dissident was the tenth and the last president of Czechoslovakia, and the first president of the Czech Republic. He wrote this essay for a joint Polish Czechoslovak project on freedom and power.

The piece proved prophetic for it foresaw the collapse of what he termed the ‘post-totalitarian’ state in Czechoslovakia in 1989. Confronted with massive but peaceful protests in the streets of major cities in Eastern Europe, powerful Stalinist states disintegrated like the proverbial house of cards. It is time for us to rediscover and re-read the meditation on dissent; why it arises, and what is the power this form of expression gives to those who have been stripped of their right to freedom.

The essay was written at a time when the concept of civil society had taken hold of the imaginations of dissidents in Eastern Europe. Leaders of the movement knew that in history people struggling against the bonds of dictators had chosen one of two options. The first strategy was ‘revolution from above’, and the second was ‘revolution from below’. Both these options were unworkable in actually existing socialist societies backed by the might of the erstwhile Soviet Union. East Europeans decided to turn their backs on unfeeling and uncaring bureaucratised states, and concentrate on what they called civil society.

Though civil society can be interpreted in different ways, for the East European dissident, civil society was the sphere of associational life. Reading clubs, debating societies, discussion groups, and film, theatre and music associations brought together people who had been removed from the warm world of sociability and critical engagement with the ideas and practices of transformative politics. As people inspired by collective readings and enactment of great literature, political philosophy, drama and music began to reflect on their own situation in particular, and on the human predicament in general, they initiated multiple dialogues with the self and with others.

This was in itself significant because human beings are dialogical beings. We speak to an inner self when we are confronted by choices or the lack of them, we enter into a conversation with ourselves when we think of what a good life is, what routes lead to its realisation, and what are the pitfalls we encounter on the way. Above all, we engage with other reflective individuals and groups, for no one can arrive at informed decisions in isolation without an enriching exchange of ideas. The launch of multiple dialogues on say a theatrical production might appear a supremely apolitical act, but politics is never too far away from debates on human experiences and human predicaments. History bears witness to this proposition. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, a seemingly apolitical sphere of associational life was transformed into a vibrant political movement that demanded an end to authoritarianism.

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We have seen such political theatre reenacted time and again since 1989, the Arab Spring, the lawyers’ movement against military rule in Pakistan, the anti-monarchy struggle in Nepal, and the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests across India. The language of civil society embodied in freedom and solidarity has proved to be an effective antidote to the power-hungry state and the profit-hungry market. For societies that seek emancipation from states that possess an inexorable will to power, civil society with its commitment to freedom can be an effective option.

Students and members of the NSUI display placards during a protest to condemn the arrest of climate activist Disha Ravi in Bengaluru, February 16, 2021. Photo: PTI/Shailendra Bhojak

When governments interpret peaceful protest as treason, environmental consciousness as a global conspiracy, think-pieces published by courageous newspapers as treachery, and civil society activism as subversion, the first casualty is freedom of speech. When we hesitate to express our opinions on what is, and what should be, to others and to ourselves, we stop thinking. We are diminished and disoriented. Descartes has been mocked by postmodernists for his famous proposition, ‘I think therefore I am’.

The significance of proposition can be grasped only in a society where people are compelled to stop thinking, when they stop reflecting on the human condition, when they no longer dare to launch multiple debates on aesthetics, film, music, art, architecture, philosophy and science. People stop thinking when they are surrounded by clichés. A cliché is a place, writes the political theorist David Runciman in his book How Democracy Ends, where the truth comes to die. We become lesser beings. Our society begins to decline bit by bit.

It is precisely at this point that Vaclav Havel offers us a way out of this particular situation of thoughtlessness. After the spectacular opening line, a spectre haunts Eastern Europe that of dissent, Havel suggests that dissent is born the very moment state institutions and practices are unable to accommodate non-conformity. The moment the state shows intolerance of dissent, is also the moment when people become conscious of the illegitimacy of repression and denial of the right to freedom.

Havel’s state is not the openly coercive state. His state is the post-totalitarian state. Here the ruling class is obsessed by the need to bind everything in a single order through a dense network of regulations, proclamations, directives, norms, orders and rules. It creates a perfect bureaucratic society and a network of rules that rigorously monitor the thoughts and actions of every citizen. Every departure from rules is treated as anarchy and license. The system subordinates all expression and aims of life to its own aims.

Why do people accept coercive state power in the first instance? Havel believes that the holders of state power forge an ideology that is so precise, so logically structured, so comprehensible and so complete that it amounts to a secularised religion. In an era where metaphysical and existential certainties are in crisis, and where people who have been uprooted and alienated lose control of what their world means, a neatly worked out ideology possesses hypnotic charm. “To wandering humankind it offers an immediately available home…suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety and loneliness vanish”.

Of course, we pay dearly for the illusion that we have found a home in a world that makes no sense. The price, we pay is nothing less than the abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility. An essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The price we pay for a sense of home numbs our mind and suspends our finer sensibilities. The ideology might resonate, but it also alienates human beings from the purpose of their lives and from each other.

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Havel touches a raw nerve here; the uncomfortable recognition that human beings can be easily persuaded to live a lie. The argument is familiar. We do not recognise our own alienation and suspension of disbelief, because the ideology sweeps us up into its orbit, it plays upon our darkest fears, it evokes terrible suspicions of history, and it taps uncertain speculation on what the future holds. The system alienates humanity. Alienated humanity supports this system, writes Havel, ‘as a degenerate image of its own degeneration, as a record of people’s failures as individuals’. The argument resonates. How quickly we suspend or rational and critical faculties, how rapidly we abandon innate empathies and solidarity with our fellow beings, how precipitously we begin to see our fellow citizens as the ‘other’ with whom there can be no truck nor transaction.

We accept targeted killings, we accept hate, we accept the most absurd and dangerous speeches as normal to the project of living together. We put aside our morality, our ethics, our sense of wrong when violence becomes a spectator sport and we become a silent but participant audience.  For we know if we rebel and speak out, we will be hammered into submission by the full force of the coercive apparatus of the state. This is because as Havel reminds us, we have broken the rules of the game, we have disrupted the power of the ideologically driven system. We have to be punished.

Yet all is not lost he suggests. Politics, particularly of the authoritarian variety breeds paradoxes. As long as a life of lies seals off hermetically the entire society, it appears to be made of stone. The moment someone breaks through in one place, the moment someone cries out ‘the emperor is naked’ the whole crust seems to be made of tissue. The trigger towards self-realisation can be a rock concert, an open letter from intellectuals, activists and retired bureaucrats, a worker’s strike, a student demonstration, or even minor discontent expressed by ordinary citizens. These actions accomplish nothing less than a breakthrough in the web of deceit our ruling classes have beguiled us into.

Farmers protesting at Ghazipur border. Photo: PTI

Havel inspires us, or rather forces us to think and reflect. The power of the ruling classes rests in its ability to stop people from thinking and uncritically buy into dominant ideologies. Opposition parties collapse, the media celebrates the cult of leaders, star anchors glorify the military, and pay ritual obeisance to an abstract national interest that prevails all the time and every time over the concrete interests of individual who want to live a fulfilling life. We are at the mercy of absurdities, of painfully distorted versions of concepts and leaders we hold dear, of the reduction of democracy to numbers, and of coercion for perceived crimes so slight, that the judiciary should be throwing these cases out the window. It is precisely at this point that dissent based on the courage to think bores a hole in a political armour made of steel.

There is much more going on at the point dissent erupts. Dissidents, writes Havel, try to carve a sphere of truth in order to affirm their own human identity and reject what is false and alienating in their lives. They reject living a lie. That is why they come into conflict with the state, not deliberately but simply because they do what they feel they must do. Others might feel the same way but not be open about it. Their silence is taken as consent, and dissidents are put into a special category; a minority of little relevance.

But governments are wary of dissidents because dissidents insist on the indivisibility of human rights and freedom for themselves and for others. “It is truly a cruel paradox that the more some citizens stand up in defense of other citizens, the more they are labeled with a word that in effect separates them from those ‘other citizens’.” All this is accomplished through a legal code, writes Havel, that wraps the base exercise of power in the noble apparel of the letter of the law, creating the pleasing illusion that justice has been done, society protected, and the exercise of power regulated.

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What is then to be done? East Europeans chose a third route to emancipation. They turned their back on the state and began to nurture an associational space that they called civil society. Havel uses the term ‘second culture’ to indicate the spread of literary, artistic and performance events such as rock-music concerts. The term ‘second culture’ describes the process of regeneration of a whole area of independent and repressed culture of arts, humanities, social sciences, and philosophical thought. These parallel structures represent the most articulated expressions of living within the truth.

The argument gives us cause for thought. Familiar modes of protest will not succeed in authoritarian regimes unless dissidents learn to create a domain of truth through the intelligent use of cultural resources. Truth is of course another term for knowledge, for the ability to make sense of the world and to carve out a route that enables us to renounce living with a lie. The rich cultural resources of the world enable us to do this. In history, the sayings of a Voltaire or Rousseau or Gandhi may resound with crowds who have learnt to live with a lie, as much as engagement at the barricades will.

There is a caveat that needs to be inserted into the argument. In societies where vigilante groups armed with sticks and knives roam the streets, where goons sniffing out the slightest deviation from a rule bound and ideologically charged system are ready to administer brutal punishment, this second culture in civil society will have to speak indirectly and communicate through metaphors. The language of social resistance has to be coded.

Police officer in riot gear stands guard behind concertina wire at a protest against farm laws at the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border in Ghaziabad, India February 3, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Take the powerful play The House of Bernarda Alba written in 1936 by Federico Garcia Lorca in times of fascism in Spain. After their father’s death, five young women are forced to live in a barricaded house of mourning for eight years. Doors are latched, windows are curtained with thick black fabric, and every nook and cranny is closed. The consequences of living in claustrophobic spaces without men are tragic. The sisters repeatedly attack each other in grotesque performances of frustrated sexual desire.

Bernarda, the mother, is the poster-girl of fascism. One daughter dares to wear make-up, Bernarda snatches the lipstick from her daughter’s hand and viciously smears it on the face of the young woman. Beyond the barred room, we catch tantalising glimpses of sunlight. Within the house we encounter pitifully deformed psyches and disturbed minds. Lorca authored a formidable play. It was to be his last. Shortly after, he was murdered by fascist forces in Spain. But his message remains with us, repressed sexuality is a powerful metaphor for political repression and frustration.

Lorca’s message was powerful. Open societies encourage us to accept and welcome different ideas and practices. They liberate and expand our imaginations and our commitments. When societies turn inwards, they construct barricades to prevent thought. At some point members transfer the notion of the outsider to parts of the collective self. Political subjugation carries heavy costs.

Other examples can be given. Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari speaks of the densities of politics. Shakespeare’s King Lear acquaints us with the ghosts of domination and exploitation, sadness and loneliness. We become aware of an exhilarating sense of dissent through the poetic lens of Antigone. We relearn the horrors of communal conflagration through the powerful pen of Yashpal in his Jhootha Such. The second culture in the words of Benda deployed by Havel, does not transmit information alone, it contributes to the making of knowledge; knowledge of how to renounce the lie and learn to live a good life based on truth.

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Havel closes his argument with the suggestion that any existential revolution should provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, or for the radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to the human order which no political order can replace. In order to achieve this, the parallel culture that is developed in the space of civil society must not replicate the bureaucratic structures of power upon which the power of the state rests. Civil society is the site for the construction of solidarity and freedom through citizens associations. The task requires imagination, courage and the ability to tap imaginations. It is difficult, but it can be done.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.