In Vaclav Havel’s seminal essay The Power of the Powerlessness, written by the future president of the Czech Republic in October 1978, he introduces the concept of post-totalitarianism. Havel distinguishes between the notion of a classical totalitarianism and that of post-totalitarianism. For Havel the chief means of distinguishing between the two is that in the post-totalitarian state, the means of control over the organisation of society have been so perfected that each individual plays the role that the system delivers it, authenticating the system and his/her consent to it in their daily actions. In the Post-Totalitarian society, individuals have lost all identity and are instead automations in a system that (in the case of the Soviet Union) has full control over all means of production. Daily life then in a world where all needs are delivered by the state in return for labour, becomes a reality of inflection, where the state’s bureaucracy has becomes the middle man between the individual and the life sustains him. Unlike previous examples of social organisation that existed in history, of the fief and the serf, of the factory owner and the worker, of the master and the slave, where what existed was at least some physical manifestation where one could see that whom one served and grounded the individual in some form of physical reality, the post totalitarian method of social organization can only survive by means of the complete and utter separation of worker and the means of production. The means of production exist like an inversion of the mythos that sustains the system, behind a bureaucracy that aims to document and account all manner and all aspects of life. What Havel describes as post-totalitarianism can be summed up by his biographer John Keane;
“Within the system, every individual is trapped within a dense network of the state’s governing instruments…themselves legitimated by a flexible but comprehensible ideology, a ‘secularised religion’… it is therefore necessary to see, argued Havel, that power relations …are best described as a labyrinth of influence, repression, fear and self censorship which swallows up everyone within it, at the very least by rendering them silent, stultified and marked by some undesirable prejudices of the powerful.”
Although Havel was talking about post-totalitarianism in terms of the system of social organisation of the USSR, his reflections are no less valid for the current means of bureaucratic control in the world today. Consider that Havel speaks about the subversion of individuality within state bureaucracy, that any individuality becomes sublimated to the automation that drives the whole mechanics of bureaucracy, that the idea of bureaucracy becomes something of an organic means of governance, that through charters, articles and civil servants, the state is supposed to reach a state of complete objectivity, a living breathing reality that individuals have to accept and confront as they would the ocean currents. Bureaucracy is, in its distance, in the hierarchical nature of the civil servants that express its will through the passing over of paper and pointing at the lines of which ones sign, subsumes nature, quashes the active and innovative faculty of man who responds to the nature around him as he sees fit and leaves him comatose on the shores of its paperwork. It becomes a legislatrix of a will that does not see the sun of today, does not see problems of today, that has such a stranglehold over life it is like a net pulled across an asthmatic’s lungs, preventing her from taken one long draw of oxygen into the lungs.
“…the post-totalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline. While life ever strives to create new and improbable structures, the post-totalitarian system contrives to force life into its most probable states. The aims of the system reveal its most essential characteristic to be introversion, a movement toward being ever more completely and unreservedly itself, which means that the radius of its influence is continually widening as well. This system serves people only to the extent necessary to ensure that people will serve it… It can be said, therefore, that the inner aim of the post-totalitarian system is not mere preservation of power in the hands of a ruling clique, as appears to be the case at first sight. Rather, the social phenomenon of self-preservation is subordinated to something higher, to a kind of blind automatism which drives the system. No matter what position individuals hold in the hierarchy of power, they are not considered by the system to be worth anything in themselves, but only as things intended to fuel and serve this automatism.”
This “blind automatism which drives the system” is no different for Havel’s USSR as it is for the current means of social organisation, which instead of the central state controlling the means of production, there are the central institutions that determine the credit that is given to keep a national state operating. Whether we are talking about individuals heading to the council offices to apply for social housing or our government, down on one knee with a plea for more funds to keep its financial system running, bureaucracy has cast its net over all. What is bureaucracy but that which determines the course of human action yet lacks a heartbeat. There is little to differentiate the means of social organization between Communism and Capitalism when it comes down to it. Both rely upon bureaucracy as the means to distribute wealth in a society. Fromm argues that, “A planned economy of the scope of any big industrial system requires a great deal of centralization and, as a consequence, a bureaucracy to administer this centralized machine” and despite the divergences in ideologies, the means of social organisation remained pretty much the same, the means of production centralised. Nowadays look at the social political landscape and we see it dominated by non democratic institutions such as the IMF, the ECB etc. and how they use bureaucracy as the tool to configure society in a such a manner that individuals (and increasingly nation states) are at the behest of such institutions in order to access the means to their survival in terms of credit.
“The problem of the manager opens up one of the most significant phenomena in an alienated culture, that of bureaucratization. Both big business and government administrations are conducted by a bureaucracy. Bureaucrats are specialists in the administration of things and of men. Due to the bigness of the apparatus to be administered, and the resulting abstractification, the bureaucrats’ relationship to the people is one of complete alienation. They, the people to be administered, are objects whom the bureaucrats consider neither with love nor with hate, but completely impersonally; the manager-bureaucrat must not feel, as far as his professional activity is concerned; he must manipulate people as though they were figures, or things Since the vastness of the organization and the extreme division of labor prevents any single individual from seeing the whole, since there is no organic, spontaneous co-operation between the various individuals or groups within the industry, the managing bureaucrats are necessary; without them the enterprise would, collapse in a short time, since nobody would know the secret which makes it function. Bureaucrats are as indispensable as the tons of paper consumed under their leadership. Just because everybody senses, with a feeling of powerlessness, the vital role of the bureaucrats, they are given an almost godlike respect. If it were not for the bureaucrats, people feel, everything would go to pieces, and we would starve.”
This is the implicit power of the non caring bureaucrat. They hold the means to our survival yet remain on all accounts unaccountable. But what is the bureaucrat’s power (if that is the right word) based on? It is based on the written word, written by the dead men and women that came before him applying to a different time and different place. This written word’s power rests on a previous time and place one that aims to totalise the present situation through a semi-divinity imbued in it by a state that determines its will. Yet it is both outside the state in terms of it having a past that in many cases precedes the state (much of Irish law for example is an inheritance from a previous colonial legislature) and also inside the state in a way that they imbue it with significance. The bureaucrats then are simply the custodians of the will of daed men and women and even then, this will was written outside of any individual’s will. It was written as a means to reify the abstractedness of a ruling class’s vision so that social cohesion could be implemented. Such reification was perhaps not understood in these terms, it was understood as a collective responsibility that citizens had to authority and authority had to its citizens. However, as we are all aware the law is easily manipulated and finds itself most often wielded against those that do not have the means to overcome it.
Bureaucracy’s chief power is the neutralising of human action, that human action can seldom react to an event or situation in its present and time and space without infringing on the will of the dead that nevertheless is respected and upheld by one class or another. Through the hierarchy of authority, the law is always upheld by one faction or another. The twentieth century is the century in which mankind and the action of man coming together to make decisions has finally become futile. No matter on what point of the hierarchical ladder, from those facing the local government to nation states aiming to implement the best course of action for their population, the power of politics has become futile and with it any notion of democracy.
“Obviously, one of the greatest difficulties in the establishment of the conditions for the realization of democracy lies in the contradiction between a planned economy and the active co-operation of each individual. A planned economy of the scope of any big industrial system requires a great deal of centralization and, as a consequence, a bureaucracy to administer this centralized machine. On the other hand, the active control and co-operation by each individual and by the smallest units of the whole system requires a great amount of decentralization. Unless planning from the top is blended with active participation from below, unless the stream of social life continuously flows from below upwards, a planned economy will lead to renewed manipulation of the people. To solve this problem of combining centralization with decentralization is one of the major tasks of society. But it is certainly no less soluble than the technical problems we have already solved and which have brought us an almost complete mastery over nature. It is to be solved, however, only if we clearly recognize the necessity of doing so and if we have faith in the people, in their capacity to take care of their real interests as human beings.”
That feeling that my action is valueless, the decisions we have come together to concur on are no longer capable of implementation, that all our life is now beholden to the decisions of a managerial class that have never encountered the people nor the place that their decisions hold sway over means that mankind is left with a feeling of ineptitude despite its history showing that it is capable of complete innovation when it comes to its relationship between itself and its environment. Such a feeling of alienation does not just induce a feeling of paralysis, it induces in a species that is always geared for action, a feeling of resentment that may not make itself manifest yet quietly bubbles away under the surface. Encountering bureaucracy implies that the individual’s will can never fulfil her or his best interest, nor their community’s interest that the law, the written word already has solidified the best interest and is implemented with the best intentions of bureaucrat’s and the police. Part of the worldwide rebellions that have occurred since the start of the decade can be viewed in this light, of the constant desire for mankind to rebel for something better versus the cold articulation of power written in words by hands that are no longer alive.
Perhaps it is time for an example, one close to home. The one that immediately springs to mind is the community of Rossport and the will of the community proving ineffective against the Dutch conglomerate Shell. Despite the community’s resistance against Shell, their efforts were futile as there was no single point against which the community could rally. All along the way bureaucracy was used to isolate the community from the decision making process. There was little consultation process and despite it being the community’s area, the State shielded the interests of the conglomerate against the community of Rossport through Compulsory Acquisition Orders and the full coercion of the police. Any effective decision making and action by the community was effectively neutralised by the bureaucratic swamp. This is just one small and brief illustration that highlights the difficulties of politics on a local level and aids the feeling of disenfranchisement from the political process, that my action and my action with others is meaningless. The community’s inability to navigate the corridors of managerial decision makers, to find a path is not their problem. The problem is that their is no path into this bureaucratic mire. This however is not just the problem for those which Havel call the powerless. All nexuses of the society of decision makers are effected by this.
“The greater the bureaucratisation of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one can argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”
Politics, in my understanding of Hannah Arendt’s understanding of it is a very positive human condition; it is the coming together of people to determine action, action that will effect all members of the group (as well as members outside of the group). (A brief aside: in my view ideology is that which predetermines the course of decision making from the vantage point of an idealised future. It always has under its remit a totalitarian agenda. That is why, as Camus so deftly argues in The Rebel, that all political decision making should be made through the conditions of the present rather than through the prism of the future. Nothing quite hides the problems of today like talk of tomorrow). Yet, politics as the coming together to make decisions has been so stifled by the hall of mirrors of bureaucracy that no longer does there seem to exist any effective platform for one group to make a decision. For example, for Labour Party Leader in Ireland Pat Rabbitte delivered this speech to the Dáil on the last day of the previous government. It is a speech that one would expect from an outgoing government minister that wishes to preserve a legacy but his use of vocabulary is interesting to note. Here he is talking about the pressure his government was under from senior members of the Troika.
“M. Trichet’s dictat was punitive of Ireland. But the question remains concerning whether the ECB had the legal authority to impose arbitrary costs on the Irish Exchequer in pursuit of broader Eurozone objectives. The Irish Times reported in December that the Inquiry team wished to recommend that the government should sue the ECB for damages over its actions in 2010 and 2011 but were prevented from so recommending by the Inquiry’s own lawyers. If that is so, it seems to be an unnecessary intrusion into the domain of politics.”
He continues, “I remain convinced that any Parliament that does not have the right of Inquiry by Parliamentary Committee into legitimate matters of public interest is a diminished parliament. Properly organised and conducted, it is a natural extension of parliamentary oversight and would improve the performance of government. Following failure of the Referendum, repeated experience of the costly and slow public inquiry system under the 1921 Act and the latter day difficulties encountered under the Commission of Investigations Act, we now have an impasse. What is so unique about our jurisprudence that makes impossible here a form of hearing that is routine in so many other settled parliamentary democracies?”
Two things are made manifest in the above by Pat Rabbitte; the usurpation of parliamentary power by a technocratic class and the weakening of parliamentary power into leading an enquiry into its own nexuses of influence due to the porous nature of the decision making processes. If this is a member of the political establishment in Ireland bemoaning the ineffectivity of the political process, one can begin to understand the Brexit result in June and the popularity of Donald Trump in the States. Farage framed the current social stasis experienced in Britain on the inefficiency of the EU and its bureaucratic systems while Trump has adopted something of the same tone.
“Trump’s core message – tariffs, immigration restriction, limiting tax inversions – offers a radical departure from the policies and partisan divides of the last several decades and is intuitively linked with the dismantling of the global managerial economy. What is perhaps most curious at the policy level is how few and feeble have been the attempts to actually attack these basic pillars of his message.”
What so much commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have failed to understand is that Farage but especially Trump have adopted the posturings of action in a political landscape that has become mired in stagnancy. In the case of Farage, they do not just promise change, they have effected change. In the case of Trump, his whole rhetoric and apparel are tied up in the mediated image of him as a man of action, of a doer, of a success, of a high achiever. Trump’s message is so appealing as it is working the power that lies dormant in people. It is them that Trump inspires, and there is a little bit in all of us that awes slightly of an individual that is exposing the chink in the armour of the technocratic class that wishes to micromanage every aspect of the political and social order. Trump inspires a feeling of action, of elevating people out of their passivity. If, as Arendt states “what makes man a political being is his faculty of action”, Trump is giving the impression of returning this faculty man and one can see in the behaviour of his supporters such a feeling being unleashed.
As Arendt finishes On Violence “but we know, or should know, that every decrease in power is an open invitation to violence-“. Lurking in the shadows of Trump’s rhetoric is this same open invitation. The target of Trump’s rhetoric is not just the immigrants and the marginalised, it is the inertia of the political system itself.