The Greengrocer Snaps

I was writing yesterday, in Learning To Be Nobody, how I felt that the EU had become a sort of new Soviet Union, with the European Commission playing the same role as the Soviet Politburo, and exerting top-down control over an increasingly planned society. I’m not the first to have seen the EU this way: Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, said much the same about it some years ago.

And I was also saying that if we were to find any political inspiration anywhere, it really ought to be in the “dissident” movements that sprung up in the Soviet Union and its satellite states, rather than the equivalent movements of the Western world. That is to say that we should pay more attention to the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, or Vaclav Havel, or Lech Walesa, than to Saul Alinsky or Martin Luther King. Because those people had actually lived within the kind of totalitarian state on which the EU had been modeled, and under which we now live.

It was by a strange and happy chance that, no sooner had I penned this essay, than I happened to notice that I already had on my computer a copy of Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless. I had downloaded this long essay some years ago, and begun to read it. And now that it had fortuitously presented itself to me again, I began to re-read it. Or rather to carry on reading where I had left off. And so I fairly rapidly re-encountered Havel’s greengrocer:

THE MANAGER of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

This greengrocer re-appears again and again throughout the essay, as the obedient worker, doing what he’s told. He even gains a companion, an office worker, who has the same slogan pinned to the wall of her office. Neither of them pay any attention to the slogan. And nobody else pays any attention to it either.

And I wondered if there was an equivalent slogan that could be discovered in our modern western re-incarnation of the Soviet Union. In a flash I realised what it was: the ubiquitous No Smoking sign.

Its presence in almost every public place testifies, just like Havel’s greengrocer’s Marxist slogan, to the obedience of their proprietors to central political authority. These signs appeared in their millions, overnight, throughout the UK on the morning of 1 July 2007. Why had the proprietors of countless pubs and shops (and even churches) done this? What were they trying to communicate to the world? Did they really want people to stop smoking? Had they all been simultaneously gripped by an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with their ideals?

by exhibiting their slogans, each compels the other to accept the rules of the game and to confirm thereby the power that requires the slogans in the first place.

The greengrocer’s slogan was part of Communist ideology. And Havel went on to discuss the role of ideology:

Ideology, in creating a bridge of excuses between the system and the individual, spans the abyss between the aims of the system and the aims of life. It pretends that the requirements of the system derive from the requirements of life. It is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.

To what ideology do No Smoking signs belong? Well, they are derived from an antismoking “healthist” ideology that has been overrunning the world much like Marxism or Communism, and for almost as long. It is an ideology which is now endemic in the upper echelons of the medical profession, in the BMA, the RCP, the WHO, and countless government-funded NGOs like ASH. It is an ideology which permeates government at every level. And is trumpeted by all the mainstream media, including the BBC. And it is an ideology of top down control –  what else is Tobacco Control all about, other than control? – that is just as totalitarian in character as that of the old Soviet Union. Havel again:

the post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline.


This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; 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 is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics.

Hypocrisy? Lies? Falsified statistics? Bureaucracy? Degradation? The repression of culture? Isn’t this all too familiar today, in a Britain in which freedom has been reduced to being “smoke-free”?

Everyone, Havel says, is involved. And everyone is enslaved.

Everyone, however, is in fact involved and enslaved, not only the greengrocers but also the prime ministers. Differing positions in the hierarchy merely establish differing degrees of involvement: the greengrocer is involved only to a minor extent, but he also has very little power. The prime minister, naturally, has greater power, but in return he is far more deeply involved.

This is something I had been wondering about myself recently. How far up does it go? Is our Prime Minister, Theresa May, just as much a slave to Tobacco Control as anyone else? The answer, Havel would have it, is that she is probably more enslaved than anyone. And didn’t a majority of British MPs enthusiastically vote in 2006 for the healthist ideology, and the ubiquitous No Smoking signs?

Under totalitarianism … there is nothing to prevent ideology from becoming more and more removed from reality, gradually turning into what it has already become in the post-totalitarian system: a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.

The healthist ideology is increasingly disconnected from reality, is it not? It’s describes a pseudo-reality in which Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, smokers lungs are black, and secondhand smoke can go through walls and along telephone cables. And isn’t the parallel global warming ideology equally disconnected from reality?

Havel, writing in Czechoslovakia in 1978, even had a warning for the West:

And do we not in fact stand (although in the external measures of civilization, we are far behind) as a kind of warning to the West, revealing to its own latent tendencies?

That was prophetic. For it’s what we’re all now living under in the West.

Havel then discusses what happens, in a society permeated by lies, people try “to live within truth.”

LET US now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.

The bill is not long in coming. He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate…

I am myself, I suppose, one of those snapped greengrocers. I say what I really think. I break the rules of the game. I express solidarity with others (and even hope to build an army). And I probably won’t vote in our rather farcical upcoming election.

But – and here’s one significant difference from Havel’s Czechoslovakia – I haven’t yet been made to pay for my temerity. Or at least no more than any other UK smoker. There won’t be any holiday in Bulgaria for me, but not because my passport has been taken away, but instead because I don’t want to visit a Bulgaria that now has as many No Smoking signs as the UK. And if I am pretty much a hermit in my own flat, it’s not because I am a prisoner, or have been prevented from travelling, but because there is no longer anywhere I can go where I am welcome.

Vaclav Havel, furthermore, as a prominent Czech “dissident” was placed under surveillance. In a documentary about him I once saw, the secret police could be seen lounging by their Trabant in the distance. But as a fairly prominent “dissident” blogger, I have yet to see a single secret policeman. Although these days, everyone is surveilled by the NSA or GCHQ, and everyone knows they are being surveilled. And there are of course all those CCTVs in every shop and street and garden. We are perhaps being far more surveilled than Havel ever was.

I haven’t finished reading this very long essay. But I recommend that everyone read it, making their own translations from the Communist post-totalitarian system under which Havel wrote his 1978 essay to our own Orwellian Britain in 2017.


About Frank Davis

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32 Responses to The Greengrocer Snaps

  1. In the UK, if you didn’t have a No Smoking sign on your premises – you got fined. I know. I had a shop in those days.

    And your phone and computer are probably tapped Frank.

  2. to our own Orwellian Britain in 2017.
    Oh bloody hell! Thanks for the reminder! Keep meaning to watch 1984 (with the Eurythmics sound track). I read the book at school but far too much alcohol has flowed over my synapses since then to actually recall any of it (although I do recall quite a bit of ‘Animal Farm’). And, as far as I can recall, I’ve never watched the film. I get sick to death of ‘not getting’ references to the book in people’s posts and comments.

  3. jaxthefirst says:

    Do re-read it, BD. I did so a few years ago (having first read it back in the 1970s) and I was genuinely shocked to see how much of what I scoffed at in the 70s – along the lines of “well thank goodness that won’t happen,” so unthinkable was it – has now come to pass. With a few wording substitutes (substitute “CCTV and internet surveillance” for the un-turn-offable “telescreen” and “10,000 steps a day” [or similar exhortations] for the obligatory morning “physical jerks”) and, to all intents and purposes, Orwell could have been writing his book as a result of mystical visions from the heart of a crystal ball rather than from his own inspired imagination. The one glaring inaccuracy, of course, being that in 1984 citizens were still openly permitted to smoke cigarettes (and drink alcohol). It seems that the banning of that simple daily pleasure was something that not even Orwell could contemplate that a State would see fit to withdraw from its subjects. So that, in many ways, life is even worse now than Orwell envisioned it would be. How scary is that?

  4. Dmitri says:

    Frank, thank you for reminding me of my country’s past. I’ve several very deep remarks of someone who lived in the USSR for a while, not to mention the fact that my latest book, just hitting shelves, is essentially about communism and conservatism and their correlation.
    1. The dissidents will tell you it’s them who destroyed communism. It’s what they think, while in reality the Checks got their freedom because Moscow itself saw bloody well that the economic system had no chance of survival. They (we) began to mend it, and it crashed down totally. And I mean totally, anybody who remembers our 1990-s “reforms” now, shudders.
    So, what will bring down the totalitarian system this time, what will play the role of USSR – a total breakdown of the US, where the anti-tobacco scam started? Do I want a complete destruction of America? Not at all.
    2. In the USSR and East Europe the system was too rigid for its own good. There were the 60-s, when it was very real to reform it from the inside. But the majority, afraid of a total dilapidation of everything (like the one that actually happened) was pushing the brake to the last.
    So, do you think it’s possible to bring change only in one area, TC to be precise, without downing the whole system?
    3. TC is a part of a bunch of semi-religions of your societies (I say “your”, because Russia is very different). First it was the medieval church that was saying what’s good and what’s not. Then it was the age of Enlightenment, when the scholars and thinkers like us were the source of truth. And then democracy came along, where religion is been regularly imitated by mad campaigns like feminism, or global warming, or TC. These mass obsessions come and go, filling the value void.
    So, isn’t it better to think about taking out just one of those cults out, maybe replacing it with something less destructive? Play by the rules rather than hoping to destroy everything, which is what revolutionaries and dissidents wanted to do?
    You may tell it to someone in UKIP.
    Ban me for a month if I’m boring you to death.

    • Frank Davis says:

      So, do you think it’s possible to bring change only in one area, TC to be precise, without downing the whole system?

      I think the crisis in the West is deeper than just TC. We have all these mad TC people, and all these mad global warming people, and we have all these mad globalists who think we’re all “citizens of the world” and don’t need borders. There’s a deepening madness afflicting the whole of the Western world in multiple ways.

      3. TC is a part of a bunch of semi-religions of your societies (I say “your”, because Russia is very different).

      Russia has got a smoking ban too. Russia has the TC semi-religion too. You still haven’t explained to me why Russia has any smoking bans at all, given that Russians haven’t had 70 years of antismoking propaganda like us lot in the West.

      • Vlad says:

        It’s the same in Romania…I really thought that 45 years of communism, and a particularly bad version of it in the 1980s, would make Romanians resistant to TC. Boy, was I wrong. TC successfully used exactly the same propaganda tactics as in the west…SHS is a danger to health, save the children, non-smoking customers will flood the pubs and so on.

        Considering that from 1991 until the mid 90s we had cigarettes advertised on TV, up to ’98 there were no health warnings on cig packets, and there hasn’t been any anti-smoking propaganda on TV, the bans came as a big surprise. In just 8 years, starting in 2008 when the so called pictorial health warnings were introduced and ending in 2016 with the smoking bans, Romania has been ‘civilized’.

        • Vlad says:

          Another thing…particularly in the 1980s but also in the early 1990s, Kent cigarettes were as good as hard currency. They were US made (I remember the US Surgeon General warning on the side). You look now at a Kent pack, how defaced it is and words such as vandals or vandalism comes to mind

        • TheBlockedDwarf says:

      • beobrigitte says:

        TC successfully used exactly the same propaganda tactics as in the west…SHS is a danger to health, save the children, non-smoking customers will flood the pubs and so on.
        All this I read firstly in English. Then I read the same lines in German and got even more annoyed when I read them in Indonesian (took m a while to remember as I haven’t spoken it since 1979). All the other languages I had to use Google translate for who is remarkably good when it comes to TC cr*p.

        Another line TC uses with great success: “All the other countries (an outright lie at the time!) have signed up. You’re the last”.

        Perhaps we all should compare internationally HOW we were conned.

      • Dmitri says:

        No, Frank, it’s different here. We don’t have universal madness about smoke. Our nation is used to a lot of Communist bans of things that nobody agreed with, and everybody sabotaged any moment. So I think we have hope.
        Why we have the bans – it’s technology. A deputy Health minister goes to a WHO conference, signs papers, pushes them up until somebody up there says exactly what Beobrigitte mentions a couple of pages below: we don’t want to be the last country in the world to adopt bans. Then the MPs vote – KNOWING QUITE WELL THAT THE BANS WILL BE BOYCOTTED whenever possible. Nobody takes the bans seriously, that’s what is different here.
        And, incidentally, that’s why Communism failed – everyone obeyed anything, but sabotaged it in daily life.

        • Frank Davis says:

          So are the bans being boycotted or sabotaged in Russia? Do people smoke in bars like they do in Greece, despite No Smoking signs on the walls?

        • “we don’t want to be the last country in the world to adopt bans.”
          Yep, that’s a standard antismoking attack. E.G., here in the US they’ve been using it to force outdoor bans on college/school/medical campuses for close to ten years. Back then they’d say, “Over 300 campuses have gone smoke free! Don’t be the last to give your students clean air!” Of course there are something on the order of 6,000 campuses in the US, but they never mention THAT half of the statistic. Today they’re on a bit firmer ground: I think they claim 2,000 campuses. If you look closely though I believe you’ll find two things in common on many of them: 1) loopholes of various sorts; and 2) a constant stream of letters from Antis in the campus newspapers complaining about how there are STILL “clouds of smokers” outside of the library etc and SOMETHING **MUST** BE DONE!

          France has always mystified me. Not only do they have a long history of ignoring bureaucracy, but they also have a strong anti-American/UK streak — fighting against the “corruption” of their language by English etc. So how the hell did they so calmly accept the US/UK push for bans? Or did they truly just somehow see it as a Euro thing?


    • beobrigitte says:

      I do remember Gorbachev and perestroika. At the time it was (for us) something big. Only later did a Russian girl tell me that the Russians hated him (?).
      For me it was an interesting time as the household I grew up in was rather interesting when it came to the Sunday that every adult went to give their vote. My father was a communist, my mother staunch conservative and my brother-in-law was an active socialist.
      When I was 18 and finally had to accompany the family arguing with each other on their way to the voting place for the first time I voted for the communists. It was a vote for my dad who had died when I was 15. And my mum annoyed me with the sentence: “You know what you have to vote!” in a rather firm voice. My brother-in-law with his socialist babble was even more annoying.
      I thought (at the perestroika time) that I would learn exactly what my dad believed in.

      So, do you think it’s possible to bring change only in one area, TC to be precise, without downing the whole system?
      That is a good question. How do you remove the filaments of a fungi without leaving a void?
      TC has infiltrated every government on this planet – fear is a powerful weapon, health fear is the most powerful weapon.
      Even president Putin fell victim to that. Perhaps he has noticed his own ageing and doesn’t like it? The Americans go for cosmetic surgery and follow every idiotic advice about foods/exercise. Fear again. Age. And both believe the fungi TC who tells them that smoking caused all the evil and becoming old in their lives.
      I can only guess that if a system is corrupted it needs to go. Next question: Can we trust our voting systems?
      I see disgruntled people getting angry. Angry people don’t think about fear, they are just angry and act. I believe this anger is international – we all see that our governments are failing us NOW. The logic thing coming to see is that there will be revolts and after that people will gather in small communities again.
      But then, I can only guess.

  5. Barry Homan says:

    Sometimes, I think it’s all the signs. The signs have all the power, telling us what not to do. Nobody is in charge anymore, they’ve let the signs do all the speaking and make all the commandments.

  6. waltc says:

    Funny; the other day after reading an article on the feminization of everything– — I was thinking that Political Correctness in all its forms exists as a direct contradiction of reality and in an effort to suppress it. People begin to mouth, by rote, its platitudes and proscriptions, whether about sexual sameness or “social justice” or global warming or secondhand smoke kills, whether or not they believe them or even know or care if they believe them. Some may even be suppressed by their own words, but the rest see the disjuncture and carry on as usual in a reality gone underground in which the emperor is still naked and the cognitive dissonance is a constant itch.

  7. Smoking Lamp says:

    Excellent observations… The post-totalitarian society is essentially the totalitarian society on steroids. I agree that ‘healthism’ is an underlying ideology but I would add global corporatism to the mix as well. We must resist the ‘smoke-free’ state and destroy tobacco control.

  8. waltc says:

    Frank: I too have the Havel piece on my computer –dated May 11, 2015 and it rang a bell that it was discussed at the time on your blog. Maybe you’d want to look that up?

  9. beobrigitte says:

    Hypocrisy? Lies? Falsified statistics? Bureaucracy? Degradation? The repression of culture? Isn’t this all too familiar today, in a Britain in which freedom has been reduced to being “smoke-free”?

    Everyone, Havel says, is involved. And everyone is enslaved.
    When did it all start? Our misery didn’t come as a bang. It started drip by drip. I do remember the fashionable bandwagon of anti-nuclear power protest marches.
    Then came the seat belts which became law in Germany the year I passed my driving test along with the helmets for motorbikes. The anti-smokers jumped onto the “safety” wagon and had to dig up the passive smoke lie as otherwise they could NEVER achieve a smoking ban. All for us and our “safety” because a bunch of people is too scared of living.
    Without noticing we became slaves to health&safety and fear began to rule our lives. Then, in the 80s, it was noticeable that another fear was fed and watered. The fear of not being successful. These people burned the midnight oil to be classed as “successful”, dreaming of “early” retirement which in many cases came far earlier with a break-down/heart attack. Often they did not make it to the “early rich retirement” year they set for themselves. In any case, they did not have real friends, anyway. Fear of being classed as unsuccessful led to competition and back-stabbing rather than to co-operation. Fear is the most powerful weapon. Every dictator uses it.
    I still want to have a happy life. I don’t want to spend the rest of my days to be scared of this or the other. I have the right to live my life being me.

  10. Joe Jackson says:

    I’m also a big fan of Vaclav Havel – I recommend his books ‘Disturbing The Peace’ and ‘Letters To Olga’ (written to his wife while he was in prison). He was also a defiant smoker. The Czech Republic was my favourite place to go for a civilised drink and smoke. And now they have a smoking ban.

    However: we were told that Russia, China, and Greece have all passed smoking bans, end of story, and yet I hear from first-hand reports that in those countries, bans are routinely ignored. There are also countries whose bans turn out to have significant exemptions which make them quite bearable (Holland and Denmark, for example). Even Ireland, whose ban is as draconian as the UK’s, bends the rules a lot more (e.g. with a lot of technically ‘outside’ spaces which are well-heated and comfortable). The reality ‘on the ground’ is more interesting to me than the legal box-ticking. I have my own theories about why the Brits are so much more compliant than say, the Russians, but meanwhile, can I suggest that readers of this blog keep us informed whenever possible, about what’s going on in other countries? It’s another way to build the ‘army’ that Frank talks about – pooling information about where to go and where to spend our money!

    • Barry Homan says:

      I live in Denmark, all bars with less than a 30 sq m serving area can allow smoking, and they do. They can’t offer food with it though, unless it’s crisps or simple snacks. There are no signs of this being altered, the Danish government doesn’t need massive closures of small pubs with all the resulting unemployment – they probably saw the hard lesson learned in the UK.

  11. DP says:

    Dear Mr Davis

    HM Government via Smoker Control™ would seem to be the sole advertiser of cigarettes in this country. Every no smoking sign is an advert for smoking. The tobacco companies must be so grateful to our Debs. I wonder how much they pay her.


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