Ricky Gervais as David Brent in The Office, BBC, 2001
From The Nation:
“I approach philosophy somewhat the way we approach art,” Havel once confessed. Despite his lack of method, he took a reading of Heidegger and a handful of homegrown metaphors and set forth in his writing powerful ideas about politics, truth and human nature. Havel believed that under communism and capitalism, people are threatened by what he described in his 1984 essay “Politics and Conscience” as “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power—the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans.” He coined a word for this power, samopohyb, which his graceful and sensitive longtime translator, Paul Wilson, believes is derived from samopohybný (“self-propelled”). Wilson has rendered the word variously as “self-momentum” and “automatism.” In the plays, which continue Havel’s philosophy by other means, automatism appears on stage through the dramatic technique of having characters repeat one another’s lines. “I hate phrase-mongering and I resolutely reject all sterile cant,” the office worker Maxy Falk declares in The Garden Party, in which managers engage in small talk while trying to destroy one another’s careers. “But of course I hate phrase-mongering and I resolutely reject all cant,” the anti-hero Hugo Pludek in turn tells Falk, a bit later in the same scene. No one breaks the mood of fake bureaucratic chumminess by noticing the repetition. Everyone is long past the point of taking questions of originality and authenticity seriously.
The absurdity of Havel’s early plays speaks as much to the managerial nonsense and social blackmailing of capitalism as to those of late socialism. The obvious thing to say about Ptydepe, the artificial language that ruins life for the office workers of Havel’s play The Memorandum (1965), is that it’s a satire of Marxist-Leninist dogma. But it would be equally effective as a satire of American businessmen who inflict upon their subordinates Who Moved My Cheese? or any other manual of obedience packaged as managerial analysis. When, in The Garden Party, Falk proudly announces, “Main thing, I’ve managed to establish this friendly, informal atmosphere among you. That’s the way I am. Wherever I come there’s lots of fun,” it is hard not to think of the character played by Ricky Gervais in the BBC series The Office. One wonders if in early years the existence of the Iron Curtain enabled audiences in Western Europe and the United States to set a false and comforting limit to the pertinence of Havel’s plays.
In “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel claimed that he and his fellow dissidents were not rebelling against a classic dictatorship—a small elite, short on ideas, whose hold on power is unstable, sharply limited by its country’s borders and reliant on military and police enforcement. Havel pointed out that, thanks to the Warsaw Pact, the Communists’ grip on power was firm and geographically extensive. Moreover, he credited the Communists with a flexible ideology that even in the 1970s still exerted a “certain hypnotic charm,” because of its powerful insights into the social conflicts between capitalists and proletarians of the nineteenth century. In Havel’s opinion, the line separating ruler from ruled in Czechoslovakia ran not between one social group and another but rather “through each person.” By means of petty hypocrisies, such as a greengrocer’s decision to ritually display a Communist Party slogan in his shop window in order to lubricate his dealings with local authorities, Czechs and Slovaks became complicit in their oppression. “Each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie,” Havel wrote. What prevented rebellion was “the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity.”
In Havel’s analysis, in other words, the basis of Communist power was consumerism. The Communist regimes were not different in kind from the West; they were merely, to borrow a phrase, the avant-garde, and Havel thought the West should consider them “a kind of warning.” In hand-to-hand combat, the dissident’s antagonist was banal greed, a force not destined to pass out of the world with the fall of the Iron Curtain. A post-totalitarian regime didn’t need to execute rebels. All it had to do was reward conformists who mouthed its empty slogans, the true meaning of which was always, “I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.” When one weighed material comforts against something as ineffable, and unpriceable, as integrity, standing up for one’s beliefs could seem like a utopian gesture—a moral luxury that was “admirable, perhaps, but quite pointless.” As Havel emphasized in his open letter to Husák, “We are all being publicly bribed.”