Republics in distress

As I look around the world at the state of politics, I conclude that our democratic republics are in distress.

This judgment is not a mere oppositional response to Donald Trump or Brexit or any form of disappointment that my preferred leader or team has lost the electoral lottery. It is a more deeply and long held view about decay of our political, governing and public institutions. It is a view I have gestured towards occasionally on The Burning Archive, but never fully articulated. The full argument is the work of a long essay or a short book, but let me at least stammer out some brief fragments here this morning.

1. Politics has turned into a spiteful shouting match, little more than highly conventionalised panel shows.

2. Our political leaders chant mantras of grandiose reform, overwhelmingly about the economy – not humanly measured care for our fellow humans. They have abandoned the true grounds of democratic politics – practical morality, concerned for our neighbours and strangers alike – to preen themselves before the merchant masters of the universe.

3. Governments have lost authority. People mistake this for the public losing trust in politics. But trust is the basis of personal transactions. Authority is the basis of politics. Authority is earned by rightful action, and while it may be claimed by the governing, it can only be bestowed by the governed. Our republics have lost the Mandate of Heaven.

4. Political elites have become parasites on government. They no longer direct the institutions of the republic towards commonly agreed goals, but use those institutions to market themselves to their followers. Elites is too kind a word to describe the camp of followers who seek to make their careers through the exploitation of the resources of government in this way.

5. Political parties have become husks of their former role of mobilising ideas and networks towards a purpose. They have become empty marketing machines which are only viable through commandeering the patronage and marketing resources of government.

6. Governments in these conditions fail to deliver the basic, of ever evolving, services and infrastructure people want. This is Fukuyama’s judgment too. It is for this reason – not social media or fickle people – that public trust is so low. It is a function of poor performance.

7. Political patronage networks and marketing/managerial ideas have cannibalised public institutions, which were once among the independent platoons of democratic society. These institutions, including the public service bureaucracy, professional services and universities, have become spritless shells of their former selves.

8. Public debate has plummeted with the dominance of professionalised party machines, marketing and spectator media. Sources of better public debate – the public institutions – have been sidelined in favour of celebrity, spin doctors and automaton politicians with talking points.

These are gloomy points on a gloomy winter’s morning, and may be refashioned over time.

But how should one respond to the republics in distress? That is a great conceptual and ethical dilemma. To respond with populist sentiment – power to the people? – would be naively heroic. To respond with partisan sentiment – party X is the best, most responsible, most progressive of the credible alternatives – would be heroically naive. To respond with serene optimism – we have faced crises before and we will find a way through this one too – would be Panglossian and stupid.

I am drawn rather to images of endurance, withdrawal and renewal. Our civic problems of governing have escaped our control. We cannot stop the disintegration of our political institutions, and all the adverse consequences of our broken tools of governance, the cascades of spite and failure we see each night on the news; no more than we cannot stop climate change, economic inequality, cultural fragmentation, the unravelling of empires and geo-strategic conflict.

We are entering a new Dark Ages, and the history of those times may provide a lamp to guide us on our long walk to a better life. In the monasteries and margins of the Dark Ages, new ways of living in truth took hold. We should look today to the actions within our control that can serve as the wellsprings for new ways of living. This blog, this practice of writing despite the destructive flames that threaten the culture I hold dear, is one such practice. So too is the care of my family, and the practice of the ordinary virtues (dignity, compassion, humility, respect for human frailty) at work. In acceptance and commitment therapy, I also see a path. There, you deal with life’s adversities my taking committed action that approaches your values. So, in our distressed republics, a committed life will only destroy itself if it tries to break the wheel of our decadent politics. Rather, in each of our lives, we should turn to the simple actions that preserve, protect and nourish for renewal in a better time a more virtuous politics.

The antidote to our republics in distress is the commitment by each of us to living in the truth, and an ethical stance of dissidence, in which our spaces of freedom, such as these blogs as a new samizdat, become sanctuaries from the flames for at least one seedling of a virtuous life.

As Vaclav Havel wrote and as I have drawn on his inspiration before

“I favour… Politics as one of the ways of seeking and achieving meaningful lives, of protecting them and serving them. I favour politics as practical morality, as service to the truth, as essentially human and humanly measured care for our fellow humans. It is, I presume, an approach which, in this world, is extremely impractical and difficult to apply in daily life. Still, I know no better alternative. (From “Politics and conscience”) “


Six asides about culture (and Havel, reblogged)

Six asides about culture (and Havel, reblogged)

Who among us can know what may seem today to be marginal graphomania might not one day appear to our descendants as the most substantial thing written in our time?

Vaclav Havel

A premonition of blogging? No, but part of a profound essay on culture as the freedom of the human spirit.


(I am experimenting with curating my own material here. I hope readers don’t mind)

Six asides about Vaclav Havel

Six asides about Vaclav Havel

I. Culture forms chaotically from spirit. Havel begins his essay, or talk, “Six asides about Culture” with some speculation that tomorrow he might write his best ever literary work, or then again he might never write another word again. Culture escapes determinants. It has the quality of life, and not the predictable attributes of an economist’s spreadsheet. So Havel writes the future of a culture is open to freedom and the spirit. In Communist Czechoslovakia this message was one of possibility. The “second culture” – that formed against the grain of the official culture of the regime among dissidents, in private life, shared covertly through samizdat – could bloom. It could also die. It could also wither on the vine in a dull compromise with the regime, perhaps as so much contemporary culture in the West had since done. But its future rested in the spirits of those who carried forward their projects, however small. Havel had been asked to speculate on the future development of this culture. In a characteristic feint, he left the future in the hands of all who read him”

“When even a single author… cannot foresee his literary future, how can anyone foresee what the overall development of culture will be?…. The secrets of a culture’s future are a reflection of the very secrets of the human spirit.” (Havel, “Six Asides about Culture”, Living in Truth pp 123-4)

II. The community’s “living organism has an “irrepressible cultural hunger.” To believe in this credo was an act of faith, and a will to survive the repression of the regime in communist Eastern Europe. That regime fought its own people, and made the conditions of participation in culture enormously difficult. For many it compromised and brutalized lives. Roger Scruton speaks of meeting many “stokers” in Czechoslovakia who were punished by the regime by placement in a menaingless job, to stoke a furnace, an engine, rather than to work in their field, whether that was science or philosophy or carpentry. We do not have the same repression today, except the strange repression imposed by marketing and the commercial operations of the production of culture. Where Havel looked out a saw hope and survival for the second culture in samizdats, theatres, young people crossing the country to attend a concert that may not even be allowed to be staged, I see hope for a new second culture, unshackled from endless compromised selling, in blogging, alt-lit and the aesthetics of play.

III. Thought – free thought, not luxurious thought – involves sacrifice. Havel wanted to free the thought of the dissidents both from the obligation to be a martyr in person, since he knew very well the real suffering endured by those who opposed the regime, and from the condescension of the liberal West, who pitied and belittled the second culture with the label of a martyr. And in doing so, Havel saw a truth about the West’s culture that many still not see today:

“as I follow from a distance various individual actions and social upheavals in the ‘free world’, I am not at all sure that they are inevitably characterized by penetrating thought. I fear that far too often the idea comes limping behind the enthusiasm. And might that just not be because for the most part no great price need be paid for that enthusiasm? Are thought and sacrifice really so mutually exclusive? Might not sacrifice, under some circumstances, be simply the consequence of a thought, its proof, or conversely, its moving force” (p 126)

IV. Culture – and within it, of preeminent importance to me, writing – has no mould to conform to, whether that be advocated by five-year plans, the ideologically pure, or the demands of the market. “If there is anything essentially foreign to culture, writes Havel, “it is the uniform” (p 128). Culture and writing need to be what they are, and let aside any judgements of their worthiness, their marketability, their relevance to the times.

A great many people can peck at a typewriter and, fortunately, no one can stop them. But for that reason, even in samizdat, there will always be countless bad books or poems for every important book. If anything there will be more bad ones than in the days of printing because, even in the most liberated times, printing is still a more complicated process than typing. But even if, objectively, there were some possibility of selection, who could claim the right to exercise it? Who among us would dare to say that he can unerringly distinguish something of value – even though it may still be nascent, unfamiliar, as yet only potential – from its counterfeit? Who among us can know what may seem today to be marginal graphomania might not one day appear to our descendants as the most substantial thing written in our time? (p , my emphasis)129

V. Culture does not divide into political allegiances, and there is no more reason to celebrate some art as independent, alternative or progressive, just because it aligns with some form of political idea. What counts for culture is not political preferences, but the pursuit of “autonomous free humanity” (p. 131). Havel’s first culture, which was that of the Communist regime, and both today’s mainstream and subsidised alternative culture (all the fringe festivals as well as the opera companies) belong to “what is permitted, subsidized or at least tolerated, an area that naturally tends to attract more of those who, for reasons of advantage, are willing to compromise their truth.” (p. 132) I choose the heirs of the second culture, “an area constituted through self-help, which is the refuge, voluntary or enforced, of those who refuse all compromise (regardless of how overtly ‘political’ or ‘non-political’ their work is.)” p 132.

VI The creation of culture is an intrinsic good in itself. Whether the culture is created in the first or second culture, in the mainstream media or on an alternative literature blog, in a bestseller or a samizdat, if it is authentic, it is valuable in itself. Belonging to one or other culture, like the ceaseless badges of identity we are confronted with, matters little. “Every meaningful cultural act – wherever it takes place – is unquestionably good in and of itself simply because it offers something to someone.” Havel asks, “Does not the bare fact that a work of art has meant something to someone – even if only for a moment, perhaps to a single person – already somehow change, however, minutely, the overall condition for the better.” This idea of cultural acts as free gifts takes us back to the human spirit. So Havel concludes his six asides on culture, composed at Hrádeček in August 1984:

“Is not precisely some ‘impulse to move’ – again in that deeper existential sense – the primordial intent of everything that really belongs to culture? After all, that is precisely the mark of every good work of culture: it sets our drowsy souls and our lazy hearts ‘moving.’! And can we separate the awakening human soul from what it always, already is – an awakening human community?”

Vale Vaclav Havel. Havel forever.

Image Source: Photo from Wencelas Square, Prague, which says in Czech, Havel Forever. By David Sedlecký – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

All references to Havel “Six Asides about Culture” in Living in Truth (1986)