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COMMENTS 

Defining a new political contract for the EU

The EU is faced with the challenges of fashioning practices and institutions that reconcile the conflicting demands on political representatives from their international partners and their domestic constituents. This has been particularly manifest in the eurozone recently, but it reflects a deeper challenge which also concerns non euro-area members such as the UK.
Prof Albert Weale (UCL SPP)
19 March 2015 More...

Starts: Mar 19, 2015 12:00:00 AM

Don’t let the Paris murderers win

Professor Laborde warns against the reactivist response to the Paris murders: they misunderstand the role played by free speech and by laïcité. Further, they allow criminals to set the term of the debate on how to better facilitate Muslim integration if France.
Professor Cécile Laborde
26 February 2015 More...

Starts: Feb 26, 2015 12:00:00 AM

Britain and EU reform

Piet Eeckhout revisits the question of EU reform, including different options for and legal as well as political constraints of such reform.
Professor Piet Eeckhout
20 January 2015 More...

Starts: Jan 20, 2015 12:00:00 AM

Reflections on the Death of Václav Havel: Havel Today

Publication date: Dec 21, 2011 03:15 PM

Start: Dec 21, 2011 12:00 AM
End: Mar 20, 2012 12:00 AM

Tim Beasley-Murray, 21 Dec 2011 


Tim Beasley-Murray
Senior Lecturer in European Thought and Culture
UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies


Václav Havel’s essay of 1987, ‘The Story and Totalitarianism’, opens with the following anecdote:

‘A friend of mine, who had serious problems with asthma, was sentenced for political reasons to several years in prison.  In prison he suffered greatly because his cellmates were smokers and he could not breathe properly.  All his requests to be transferred to a cell of non-smokers fell on deaf ears.  His health was seriously in danger, indeed his life was at risk.  An American woman, who found out about the situation, wanted to help and telephoned an acquaintance, the editor of an influential newspaper, asking if he might be able to write an article about the situation.  The editor replied, “Ring me when he’s dead.”’

Czechoslovak asthma isn’t enough of a story for the Western editor.  ‘We are not worthy of attention because we don’t have stories and we don’t have death.  We just have asthma.  And who wants to hear our stereotypical coughing?’ Totalitarianism, Havel argues, neutralizes the drama of stories and it makes everyday suffering into something normal and unexceptional.

Now that Havel is dead, it is worth asking what sort of story his death makes.  Havel’s death is the cause of great sadness, in Prague and around the world. And yet, long expected and undramatic, it does not appear to be much of a news story, rather one of the final melancholy pages of a certain chapter of history. (In addition to Havel, this year has seen the death of a number of his comrades in dissidence and power, including Jiří Dienstbier and Jiří Gruša.  That is to say: a generation is passing.) That mortality is kind to no one and has no respect for goodness and reputation is shown by the swift and unceremonious way that Havel’s death was replaced on the front pages by the death of another, very different sort of political leader.

Havel’s insight into the relationship between power and stories does not hold for totalitarianism only.  One way that all regimes, totalitarian or not, legitimate themselves is by conferring the appearance of normality on suffering, injustice and inequality.  Power says: ‘there’s no story here; this is just the way that things are.’ As thinker, writer and reluctant politician, Havel sought to revive and cultivate the power of stories everywhere.  He insisted that one must write about asthma, ‘not despite the fact that people are not dying of it, but exactly because they are not dying of it’.  In so doing, he was instrumental in co-writing the most miraculous and unexpected story that Europe has ever heard: the story of citizens taking back power for themselves.

What is happening in the world today, the asthmatic wheezing of a bankrupt capitalist system, is not normal and not natural.  As the achievements of sixty years of peaceful cooperation in Western Europe - and twenty years of similar working together of West and East - are threatened by an economic and political crisis no one seems to be able to solve, Havel words in ‘The Power of the Powerless’ are as relevant they were in 1970s and 1980s Czechoslovakia: ‘Politicians seem to have turned into puppets that only look human and move in a giant, rather inhuman theatre; they appear to have become merely cogs in a huge machine, objects of a major automatism of civilization which has gotten out of control and for which no one is responsible.’  Concepts and practices like adhocracy, anti-politics, but above all a renewal of a democratic sense of responsibility, may be needed more than ever in a world where traditional politics seem so ineffective.  (It is encouraging to see elements of these ideas and ways of doing things - although one must perhaps express this with reservations - in the ‘Occupy’ movement, in the Arab Spring, and in opposition to Putin in Russia.)

The challenge, then, is to make Havel’s death not only the cause of sadness and an opportunity for commemoration, as a great man passes in history, but also to make it a story: a new(s) story that would tell – in Havelian terms - of ‘the art of the impossible’, of ‘the rehabilitation of human uniqueness, human action and the human spirit’, and that would put freely acting men and women at its dramatic centre.  A story of Havel today.