Mind your business.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Vaclav Havel On Real Change

Vaclav Havel argues in "Power of the Powerless" that real change in the post-totalitarian Eastern Europe in which he lived and wrote could not happen by traditional political means, but must happen by a ground-up transformation of the people themselves. The people must learn to, as he often puts it, “live within the truth,” refusing to remain under the foot of the ruling regime. He puts it as follows:

A genuine, profound, and lasting change for the better . . . can no longer result from the victory (were such a victory possible) of any particular traditional political conception, which can ultimately be only external, that is, a structural or systemic conception. More than ever before, such a change will have to derive from human existence, from the fundamental reconstitution of the position of people in the world, their relationships to themselves and to each other, and to the universe. If a better economic and political model is to be created, then perhaps more than ever before it must derive from profound existential and moral changes in society. This is not something that can be designed and introduced like a new car. If it is to be more than just a new variation of an old degeneration, it must above all be an expression of life in the process of transforming itself. A better system will not automatically ensure a better life. In fact, the opposite is true: only by creating a better life can a better system be developed.

I would argue that this is true, not only of Havel’s post-totalitarian, but our pseudo-democratic, wannabe socialist (perhaps pre-totalitarian?) society as well. If one wishes to step outside of the mainstream, outside of the major two parties, and go beyond the supposed consensus, doing so by usual political action borders on the pointless. Third parties have no chance in the present system, nor do views outside the mainstream of a party tend to last long within the party. Real change must be gradual and fundamental. The American system has come where it is, straying so far from the liberty insured by the limited government that its founders intended, by a slow and steady process of corruption. We had no socialist revolution, yet every day we inch closer to European-style democratic socialism. Alexis de Tocqueville pointed to the lack of democratic revolution as one of the great strengths of early American government. Our nation was born a democracy, and was born free. The move away from the liberty for which the American system was designed, however, has not been a revolution either. It has been a slow process of forgetting the clear ideals on which our nation was founded, and which are embodied in our Constitution, and replacing them with vague and problematic ideas that require interpretations of our Constitutions whose confusion borders on the ridiculous.

I worry that the lack of revolution that lent the formation of our liberal democracy strength will also lend strength to the not-so-liberal democracy into which it is developing. I also worry that those advocates of freedom operating today have the wrong idea about how to achieve change. Real change, as I am fond of saying, is heart change. And heart change must precede institutional change. Voting and, what seems to me to be a favorite means of political action of many libertarian-minded folks today, protesting, are perhaps the least important means of change open to those who desire it. Real change takes hard work. It takes letters to the editor. It takes blogs. It takes conversations in coffee shops. It takes hours on the phone. It takes friendship. It takes business relationships. It takes families, churches, and schools. Real, lasting change doesn't happen according to a blueprint. Real change is bottom up. It starts in the hearts of people transformed by the power of truth. It begins in the realm of the truly political, in the daily lives of individual people interacting with others. Only later can it move from people to the people. Only after change invades the heart of society will the transformation of government be possible, meaningful, or lasting.