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Kay on Havel, Orwell and the Greengrocer

Posted: 12/22/11 04:14 PM ET

John Kay has a characteristically graceful little column today in the Financial Times that opens up new vistas rather than slams doors shut. This is rare and worth an end-of-the-year comment or two. Kay begins with the recent death of Vaclav Havel and on the central figure in his essay against totalitarian rule, "The Power and the Powerless," the greengrocer who seeks to avoid trouble with the regime by putting a placard in his window that reads, "Workers of the World Unite!" Kay points out that that statement runs against nearly anything that the now-defunct Soviet-era Communist regimes really wanted; it is a gesture of the greengrocer's intention "to signal conformity and avoid trouble. Havel translates the slogan as: 'I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.'"

Kay links the slogan to North Korean mourners of Kim Jong-il and then sets out to explore the idea. Even liberal democracies, he says, have their slogans emptied of real content and are designed only to display conformity.

"Are corporate mission statement, or motivational displays in offices and factories, really spontaneous demonstrations of sincerely felt sentiments? Or do people say these things and hang them on the walls with the same indifferent resignation of the greengrocer? Is there much distinction between official exhortations to drive well, recycle conscientiously and to celebrate diversity, and official exhortations to redouble efforts to build a workers' paradise?"
Havel, Kay, goes on, emphasized the "mechanical nature of the process of effusion." In the post-totalitarian system -- that's ours -- Havel argues that everyone is drawn into the "rhetoric that traps the speaker as well as a hearer, the leaders as well as the led."

Kay links Havel's critique to George Orwell, who also "denounced the debasement of political speech." That "cancer," Kay argues, has spread into the private sector, then was "re-imported" back into politics.

"Political discourse has reverted to soundbites, the process Orwell described as 'gumming together long strips of words, which have already been set in order by someone else.' Various slogans are today found as often on the walls of the public sector offices as in the business sector."

Kay must have caught some of the Republican debates -- not to say any political ad or for that matter any political show on cable television. But the "gumming together long strips of words" has proven even more contagious: For all the good intentions of Occupy Wall Street, the movement still consists of little but slogans, including the "we are the 99%." This may work as politics and branding, but it quickly empties itself of content, as the confusion of means and ends often does; it becomes a gesture of conformity and identity, like a liberal driving a Prius or a Tea Partier waving the Constitution. So much of the public face of OWS was like that: gestures and slogans, but no real evidence of thought. The process of "mic checks" during general assemblies takes on the grinding, mechanical quality Havel refers to. Mic checks work against spontaneous debate; they quickly resemble the call and response of a church service. Their aim is democratic consensus, but they produce either paralysis or a Tocquevillian conformity, the crowd triumphant. The cliché becomes the language of democratic consensus, the spark for a new great awakening.

Kay ignores one recently deceased figure that, on the surface at least, might seem to fit into the Havelian, Orwellian critique of language and politics: Christopher Hitchens, who died of cancer last week and who has been the subject of great comment ever since, much of it adulatory, some inevitably critical. The prolific Hitchens regularly and noisily identified himself with Orwell; in fact, he seemed to model himself down to the endless cigarette smoking with the British essayist. Their careers share eerie parallels, including an abiding contrarianism and independence from the crowd and from authoritarianism. (It's particularly macabre that both died of cancers that at least appear to be associated with cigarette smoking.) But the links between the two may be more ambiguous than one might think. Hitchens was apparently often a bully, empowered by his endless certainties (useful for a pundit always on call), his indisputable verbal gifts and booze, and he often hammered out his pieces, as Katha Pollitt in The Nation laments, "when sozzled." Andrew Sullivan, a friend of Hitchens, links to Pollitt and wonders about the sources of his compulsiveness, which lasted until his final, heroic days. Sullivan actually sees parallels even there with Orwell, who similarly all-but-died cranking out another piece.

Hitchens' case suggests how tricky and complex these notions that Havel and Orwell, and now Kay, raise. How thin is the line between steadfast belief and the stringing together of clichés and soundbites? How porous and fragile is the line between democratic deliberation and conformity or reflexive thinking? As this benighted year ends, Havel's notion of "mechanical effusions," and of the ease of conformity within systems does provoke a kind of resonance, particularly in an age of "thinking machines" and "social media." I'm reminded of a book I reviewed earlier in the year by NYU's Roman Frydman and the University of New Hampshire's Michael Goldberg, "Beyond Mechanical Markets: Asset Price Swings, Risk and the Role of the State." Much of their study is technical and daunting to non-economists: It essentially argues that when we attempt to reduce human interactions in markets to rigid and mechanical processes -- whether through rational or behavioral theories -- we are heading for trouble. Markets are not mechanical, they insist, and the future is never known or predetermined. Markets consist of rational individuals struggling to discern a murky future, much like citizens in a liberal democracy. Human behavior is larger than any equation, more elusive than any cliché or slogan. Models, like slogans, may be useful but they are easily abused as the means so easily become ends. As Kay suggests, that's the eternal tension of liberal democracy.

Robert Teitelman is editor in chief of The Deal magazine.