Václav Havel once gave us a beautiful parable to explain the fragile nature of political power when it is challenged by those living in truth.
It is worth retelling at the very end of a year that saw ordinary people take to the streets—from Cairo to Moscow—to rattle some of the most brutal regimes in the world.
The parable concerns a shopkeeper in Communist Prague who has bought his peace from a repressive regime by putting up a poster in his shop window announcing the mandatory proletarian solidarity: “Workers of the world unite!” He puts up the sign because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. Most importantly, he does not want to get into trouble. The shopkeeper lies. He pretends to be a loyal subject. One day, something snaps within him. He no longer wants to play the game. He is punished by the regime for deciding to live in truth.
Havel, the playwright, political thinker and politician, who died on 18 December at the age of 75, wrote about the shopkeeper in a powerful essay, The Power of the Powerless, published in 1978. That was 10 years after Soviet tanks rolled into the city to extinguish the Prague Spring and one year after dissident Czechoslovakian intellectuals had written Charter 77 in defence of civil liberties. The Communist system was ossified but stable. Few thought it was around a decade away from spectacular collapse. Havel argued that both the obedience of the citizen and the power of the Communist bureaucracy were shallow: “The sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power.”
Year of the protester: Václav Havel emerged as one of the heroes of the Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist system in East Europe in 1989. Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Havel emerged as one of the heroes of the Velvet Revolution that toppled the Communist system in East Europe in 1989. Too many people had stopped putting up the official posters in their windows, as a wave of hope washed over public cynicism. People stopped believing in The Big Lie.
Twenty-two years later, a young Tunisian street vendor could no longer bear the daily humiliations of a corrupt system. Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, set himself on fire outside a government building. That was the spark that lit the prairie fire that we now call the Arab Spring. The revolt of one powerless man led to the eventual overthrow of dictators such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Tahrir Square in Cairo continues to simmer.
Libyan rebels pushing back government troops near Ras Lanuf in March. John Moore/Getty Images
Havel helps us understand why repressed societies that seem calm on the outside suddenly see an explosion of the power of the powerless. He also argues in favour of putting morality above politics. “I think the moral order stands above the legal, political and economic orders, and that these latter orders should derive from the former, and not be techniques for getting around these imperatives,” he wrote in his memoirs. Author and former Lounge reviewer Chandrahas Choudhury had pointed out in his blog a few years ago that these views “closely resemble the thoughts of Gandhi, who, like Havel, sought to restore the spiritual and ethical dimension in politics, and whose thought, like that of Havel, achieved an extraordinary balance of idealism and realism”.
This year provided yet another reminder of the fact that systems based on lies and fear can suddenly collapse, be it East Europe in 1989 or the Arab region in 2011. The process has been explained in terms very similar to Havel’s by one of the most interesting economic thinkers of recent times. Timur Kuran is a Turkish economist who has done stellar work on how individuals do not reveal their true preferences but prefer to act in ways that are socially acceptable. The title of his most famous book, Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, brings back memories of the greengrocer in Prague, who had private truths but preferred to tell public lies. Economist Tyler Cowen believes it is one of the best economics books of the last 20 years.
Such “preference falsification” has profound implications for society. An individual sending out a false signal about his true preferences makes it more difficult for others to also speak the truth. It gives rulers a false sense of security. But Kuran shows that there are moments when there are sudden flips of opinion that can never be predicted. One man stands up in protest, then 10 more, then 100, and soon thousands. These are part of what Kuran and Cass Sunstein have called availability cascades: a chain reaction that feeds on itself. At the end of this cascade are very often the ruins of an old regime.
An anti-government protest in Yemen in March. Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Kuran argues that revolutions can never be predicted. A tame herd can suddenly run wild. But his work does offer us one clue about what can enable a sudden change in public opinion: information. Availability cascades are based on information. It is not a surprise that social media has played such a central role in protests that have rocked autocracies.
Even China has been struggling to keep its growing online citizenship under control. Information can travel fast these days, and not even censors in Beijing, leave alone Union minister Kapil Sibal, can control its flow. This year showed us that political regimes based on fear can be misled by their own citizens, who lie to them about their obedience. But then there comes an inexplicable moment when the lies wither away. People choose to live in truth. Havel wrote: “By breaking the rules of the game, he (the greengrocer) has disrupted the game as such. He has exposed it as a mere game. He has shattered the world of appearances, the fundamental pillar of the system. He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted façade of the system and exposed the real, base foundation of power. He has said that the emperor is naked.”
Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.