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The Power of Powerless

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The Power of Powerless

Page 1 of 78
The Power of the Powerless
Vaclav Havel October, 1978

I
A SPECTER is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called “dissent” This specter has not appeared out of thin air. It is a natural and inevitable consequence of the present historical phase of the system it is haunting. It was born at a time when this system, for a thousand reasons, can no longer base itself on the unadulterated, brutal, and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity. What is more, the system has become so ossified politically that there is practically no way for such nonconformity to be implemented within its official structures. Who are these so-called dissidents? Where does their point of view come from, and what. importance does it have? What is the significance of the “independent initiatives in which “dissidents collaborate, and what real chances do such initiatives have of success? Is it appropriate to refer to “dissidents as an opposition? If so, what exactly is such an opposition within the framework of this system? What does it do? What role does it play in society? What are its hopes and on what are they based? Is it within the power of the “dissidents—as a category of subcitizen outside the power establishment—to have any influence at all on society and the social system? Can they actually change anything? I think that an examination of these questions-an examination of the potential of the “powerless-can only begin with an examination of the nature of power in the circumstances in which these powerless people operate. 1

II
Our system is most frequently characterized as a dictatorship or, more precisely, as the dictatorship of a political bureaucracy over a society which has undergone economic and social leveling. I am afraid that the term “dictatorship, regardless of how intelligible it may otherwise be, tends to obscure rather than clarify the real nature of power in this system. We usually associate the term with...