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.
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.