On the virtue of not knowing (WordPress anniversary repost)

Today I am posting the last (for now) of my reposts from earlier, retired blogs. This post comes from 2010 and is a reflection on Vaclav Havel’s thought, then still alive, and comment on the defeat of the masters of the universe in the global financial crisis.

As it happens I read Havel’s famous long essay, The power of the powerless, during the week. I also viewed this memorable photo-montage bring the text of Havel’s great essay to life in our own times of living in lies. Havel’s essay is a diagnosis of the post-totalitarian societies of Communist Eastern Europe, and what may be the conditions and the form of a revival of an ethics and a politics rooted in the real aims of life. Systemic change and reform were lies to Havel, and it was more important to him that citizens found the simple ways of asserting a life lived in truth than to indulge in mastery of systems.

Although it is an essay resisting the oppressive character of communist societies, Havel goes beyond that. He sees the shared fate in modern oppression of Being. Havel writes:

“The post-totalitarian system, after all, is not the manifestation of a particular political line followed by a particular government. It is something radically different: it is a complex, profound and long-term violation of society, or rather the self-violation of society.”

Havel “Power of the Powerless” in Living in Truth, p. 88

This focus on the “problem of life itself” rather than politics in responding to a malaise of powerlessness distinguishes Havel’s essay. It also creates a bridge to understanding not only late communist societies, but what we may call late democratic societies, indeed what Havel himself calls post-democratic societies.

“There are times when we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth, just as we must descend to the bottom of a well to see the stars in broad daylight…. In democratic societies, where the violence done to human beings is not nearly so obvious and cruel, this fundamental revolution in politics has yet to happen, and some things will have to get worse there before the urgent need for that revolution is reflected in politics.”

Havel, “Power of the powerless”, Living in Truth, p. 89

Surely, we must wonder whether we have reached this point today in our post-democratic societies. This is not because of Trump or Brexit, but rather the scrap heap of rule over 40 or more years by merchant elites, tech giants, mercenary political activists, celebrities, identitarian intellectuals, and institutional corruption of post-democratic societies.

Havel sees deeper roots in the crisis of both post-totalitarian and post-democratic societies. He refers to Heidegger’s diagnosis of technology’s rule over Being, and Solzhenitsyn’s critique of the illusory freedoms of the West.

“But to cling to the notion of traditional parliamentary democracy as one’s political ideal and to succumb to the illusion that only this ‘tried and true’ form is capable of guaranteeing human beings enduring dignity and an independent role in society would, in my opinion, be at the very least shortsighted.”

Havel, “Power of the Powerless,” Living in Truth p. 117.

So, Havel turned his hope to an “existential revolution” – not a political program – and celebrated the uncontrollable, organic, plural diversity of the real aims of life that would be pursued through such an approach. And so in this essay/blog post from 2010 I turned to one aspect of such an insurrection of virtue in a society oppressed by the dreadful certainty of management and the terrorism of change: the virtue of not knowing.

On the virtue of not knowing (18 Oct 2010, The Happy Pessimist)

During the week I read some remarks by Vaclav Havel at the opening of his Forum 2000 conference and an earlier speech to the European Parliament (see http://www.vaclavhavel.cz). Havel has long been one of my heroes ever since I read of Charter 77 as a teenager, and continuing on through the extraordinary Velvet Revolution in 1989. I have never read his plays but only his political writings and speeches. He has an odd mixture of pragmatic application of thought to the world as he encounters it, and striving to dwell with the mysteries of being, and to make ways of being an issue for us all. Whether his thought has all the rigour of the more rationally oriented thinkers of the world has never mattered to me because it is his animation of the parts of life that are beyond reason, and yet generate its form, that is most creative and provoking in his reflections.

How unusual is it to have a former long-serving President of a nation writing about Being? How provocative is it to see reflections on the global financial crisis which do not show politicians preening themselves about their foresight, their penetration of the mysteries of these complex transactions that unstitched the world’s economic system, or that immediately propose certain solutions within days of revealing ignorance of the problems?

Havel’s approach is different. He points to the malaise in modern thought, modern ways of being revealed in the global financial crisis – forgetting that nothing is self-evident: “We have totally forgotten what all previous civilisations knew: that nothing is self-evident.” We too willingly assume that we know and can know and that our behaviour and the behaviour of our worlds is explicable and able to be manipulated. This theme, which reminds me of Heidegger’s thought on technology and being, is the hallmark of Havel’s thought. Yet the aspects of life that cannot be ground down to theories and powerpoint charts, to models and rational expectations, are for Havel not the exit door for a quiet life. They are rather the ground for all his dissent and his assertion, together with all those who, like him, will not allow life to be destroyed by reason.

There is a beautiful parallel between his essay the Power of the powerless and the unforgettable theatre of the Velvet Revolution, when Czechoslovak citizens, opposed to the fully elaborated reason of the authoritarian state, shook their key-rings together in Wencelas Square, and so brought down the communist state. Even in his essays of the 70s it was clear that Havel was no advocate of the free market liberalism that celebrated his triumph over the communist regime, and he saw as many weaknesses in the market democracies as in the communist authoritarian regimes. His wrestling with the self-certainties of economists were evident in his years in the Hrad castle. In To the Castle and Back he wrote of his regret that in dealing with the economists, and especially the most ardent and self-certain bully of them all, Vaclav Klaus, he did not speak up more with his common sense doubts about the self-certain plans built on economic theories and principles. Again in the crisis he sees the same problem at play, and now he has no qualms to call it as it is:

“Most economists relied directly or indirectly on the idea that the world, including human conduct, is more or less understandable, scientifically describable and hence predictable. Market economics and its entire legal framework counted on our knowing who man is and what aims he pursues, what was the logic behind the actions of banks or firms, what the shareholding public does and what one may expect from some particular individual or community. And all of a sudden none of that applied. Irrationality leered at us from all the stock-exchange screens. And even the most fundamentalist economists, who – having intimate access to the truth – were convinced with unshakeable assurance that the invisible hand of the market knew what it was doing, had suddenly to admit that they had been taken by surprise.”

Havel, Forum 2000 Conference

Taken by surprise, but not allowing the moments of doubt to affect them for too long. We see this still, even in Australia’s response to the crisis. Arguably, the Australian officials had some more inkling, of at least some of the troubles. But it is clear in Shitstorm that the RBA and Treasury officials were truly blind-sided, and the extraordinary crisis response, though a testament to excellence in government to some degree, was also an over-reaction, based again on the fallacious assumption that the instruments could be relied on and the tools were within their control.

The way of being that Havel pinpoints may well be personified in the Czech Republic by Havel’s successor as President, and long time rival, even enemy, Vaclav Klaus. But it does not take much examination to find this way of being all about us. There are many young men and women I have met over the years who have spoken of the issues of government with this dreadful over-bearing faith in their opinions and in their analysis, and not only in their analysis, but in their confidence that analysis will yield the answers to the conundrums of life and of government.

Keating’s famous contempt for Balmain basket-weavers, infused a whole generation of apparatchiks and bureaucrats with a militant ethic of rationalism. So many of the arguments against economic rationalism were misplaced – they jousted a self-certain idea with another self-certain idea, when, as I look back now, the issue in contest was rather self-certainty itself, and the limits of knowing, and the need for the release of a way of being, free of the shackles of pre-conceptions, and more open to the mystery of Being.

This is not an argument concerning one side of politics or another. The strains of conservative thought that are influenced by Oakeshott, which I have sympathy for, evoke the habits of life that are resistant to rationalism in politics. So the title of one of the workshops at Havel’s Forum 2000 conference – the economy is a tool, not the objective – should be central to thinking about our goals, and it needs to be tempered with a greater knowing of the limits of knowing.

Personally I have felt profoundly this limit for at least ten years, felt deeply that I do not understand the world and its workings, indeed cannot understand the world and its workings, and yet I must act truthfully and respectfully within it. Ten years ago I was working on Nouriel Roubini’s theories of the financial system, and trying to make sense of what they meant to government, and its economic policies. It was a strange kind of prescience, a fumbling and unknowing prescience, which now in retrospect I did not make the most of. But in working through that material I did not leave with a conviction of being a prophet ignored, but being profoundly uncertain about the world and all that we shape within it.

So I praise Havel’s call to reawaken the irrational basis for dissent against the degradation of the world, human life, culture against the great commercial, inhuman machine, of a billion rational spiders enclosing us in their sticky web. This dissent begins with an act as simple as shaking key-rings in a crowd or posting these words for all the world to see.

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