Vaclav Havel's Critique of the West

In his own words: "We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved"

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Reuters

Vaclav Havel, the former Czech independence activist and president who died on Sunday, has been justly eulogized for his intellectual leadership and personal courage in the fight against communism. Havel was also a thoughtful observer of western democracies, seeing similar absolutist trends in government structures that strive toward uniformity and ultimate solutions. In a series of speeches given in the 1990s, he laid out an analysis that seems, if anything, even more relevant today.

Western governments, he said, are organized on a flawed premise not far removed from the Soviet system that had just collapsed. "The modern era has been dominated by the culminating belief," he said, "that the world ... is a wholly knowable system governed by finite number of universal laws that man can grasp and rationally direct ... objectively describing, explaining, and controlling everything."

These bureaucratic structures are profoundly dehumanizing, Havel believed, striving to control choices that should be left to human judgment and values. This "era of systems, institutions, mechanisms and statistical averages" is doomed to failure because "there is too much to know" and it cannot "be fully grasped." The drive towards standardization is fatally flawed, Havel believed: "life is nonstandard."

The heavy hand of centralized bureaucracy, Havel observed, makes everyone first powerless, then listless. "We have lost sense that there is a way out, lost the will to do anything," he said. "The more we know about dangers like global warming, the less we seem able to deal with them." These systems also marginalize community and leave people with a "fundamental sense of nonbelonging."

The quest for uniform systems does not reduce social conflict but creates a claimant culture that feeds social conflict. "The more systematically and impatiently the world is crammed into rational categories, the more explosions of irrationality there will be to astonish us," he said. We long "for an unattainable order of things, a longing that increases as the terrain I walk through becomes more muddled and confusing. I sometimes feel the need to confirm my identity by sounding off at others and demanding my rights."

In a society where authority is embodied in complex bureaucratic systems, no one can take responsibility to do what seems right. Modern societies are suffering what he called a "profound crisis of authority and resulting general decay of order." What does that mean? "Politicians seem to have turned into puppets that only look human and move in a giant, rather inhuman theatre; they appear to have become merely cogs in a huge machine, objects of a major automatism of civilization which has gotten out of control and for which no one is responsible."

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Philip K. Howard is a lawyer and author, and the chair of Common Good. He most recent book is The Rule of Nobody.

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