The Power of the Powerless: A Sequel
   Fr. Emmett Jarrett, TSSF


A specter is haunting the American Empire: the specter of nuestra America, "our America," drawn from the hopes of people everywhere that the revolutionary promises of 1776, 1863, the 1930's, 1968, might be fulfilled. The American vision of freedom and equality has turned to ashes in the mouths of people around the world who looked to our country as an example. The dream of Emmett Jarrett TSSFindependence and democracy has turned into the nightmare of Empire for countries who took our Declaration of Independence as a model. But even now, the dream has not quite died, the hope is not yet crushed, the example is rising again from the grave in the ideas and actions of Americans and others whom our corporate media can only sneer at as "protesters."

Who are the "protesters"? What do they protest? Can they in fact change anything? Vaclav Havel said in his essay "The Power of the Powerless,"

. . . 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.
I read Havel's essay during the weeks when Anne and Mark and Laura and I as members of the St. Francis House community, worked with the Mock Terror Attack Task Force of the Southeast Connecticut Peace and Justice Network, prepared to make a public witness against the Homeland Security Department's TOPOFF 3 exercise in New London. As we presented our arguments to local officials and the public that the real purpose of the "mock terror attack" during the week of 4-8 April 2005 was not to train local first responders to meet disasters of whatever kind, but an exercise in state-induced fear to intimidate opposition to government war policies, I felt more and more that Havel's description of "post-totalitarian" Czechoslovakia in October 1978 fit the American Empire under George W. Bush in our time. I write this essay - a sequel to Havel's - for two reasons: first, to draw out the comparison and reflect on the similarities, and second, to claim for those who resist the monolithic power of Empire in our time and place the dignity and strength of earlier revolutionaries, both Americans and others.


I was first struck by the practice of newspaper reporters, local politicians, and others, to refer to us as "protesters." Our friend Cal Robertson, Vietnam War veteran and twenty-year peace witness in Southeast Connecticut, declines the title. "I am not a protester," he says, "I'm a witness." A protester is against something; a witness speaks for what he believes to be true, and is willing to risk his life for the truth.

"Protester" is a catch-all term for anyone who thinks or acts in nonconformist ways. It is a noble calling. But citizens who attended our Community Forum on March 13 were referred to as "protesters," even though the city's emergency management coordinator was in the audience and spoke to the issues. The Rev. Canon Edward Rodman spoke of the pattern in U. S. history of the use of fear to intimidate dissenters and support war, and Megan Bartlett, a New York City first responder on September 11, 2001, and founder of Ground Zero for Peace, spoke of the need for first responder training not exercises in state-induced terror, but both were labeled "protesters."

At a Quaker meeting conversation about the mock terror attack, a well meaning Friend suggested that we be careful not to appear as 1960's "hippies" in our opposition to the exercise. But who characterizes the witnesses for peace in this way? Who benefits from the depiction of supporters of nonviolent social change as "hippies"? Protest is a legitimate activity, especially when one accepts the assumption of the political system and wishes to oppose a particular policy within that system. But when one wishes to witness to a different way of being that contradicts the political system under which one lives, it's not protest but witness in which one is engaged.

Havel's comments on the use of the term "dissident" for himself and others in the "post-totalitarian" systems of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and finally Russia itself, are useful in this regard. The Communist Party-dominated press referred to him and his friends as "dissidents," meaning renegades or backsliders from the socialist vision. But, he argued, "a 'dissident' is simply a physicist, a sociologist, a worker, a poet, individuals who are doing what they feel they must and, consequently, who find themselves in open conflict with the regime." A wonderful witness joined our number who fits this description completely. Sandra Pike, who works at our local hospital as a respiratory therapist, threw herself into resistance to the mock terror attack because she was convinced it was wrong. It was the first act of political resistance of her life. She deserves not dismissal by fellow citizens but admiration and respect for her faith and her courage. She is a witness, like the "dissidents" of Havel's society, not because she is a professional political activist but because of "an existential attitude" of a free human being in the face of repression. Sandra's constant presence in our "Fear Free Zone" in New London's Union Plaza made our witness more powerful than it would have been without her.


"Who are these so-called dissidents?" Havel asked, and "Can they actually change anything?" We have been dealing with that question all of our lives. Can we really change anything? This is a question about power. Nonviolent activists in the U. S. today are almost as powerless as Havel and his friends in Europe in the 1970's. But what is the nature of power?

Havel defined the system under which he lived - which we in the U. S. called "the Soviet bloc" - as "post-totalitarian." It was not a simple dictatorship, in the classic sense of a small group who take over power in a society and rule by military or police force an unwilling people. The system had been in place for decades, and used the external forms of democratic government and guaranteed human rights. Indeed, the Communist Party rule in these countries claimed to institutionalize "the leading role" of the workers' party in society. He saw also that Western democratic society had strong resemblances to post-totalitarian society. For the post-totalitarian governments that fell in 1989 were "simply another form of the consumer and industrial society, with all its concomitant social, intellectual, and psychological consequences."

This is hard for Americans to realize because we have so many residual forms of democracy in our society. Our imperial ideology is largely invisible, because we truly believe ourselves to be free when in fact we are as deeply ensnared in our system as Czechs and Poles and Russians were in theirs. Like them, for example, we have elections which do not really offer any possibility of change in our system. As Howard Zinn remarked in A People's History of the United States, we learn in our history books that "the supreme act of citizenship is to choose among saviors, by going into a voting booth every four years to choose between two white and well-off Anglo-Saxon males of inoffensive personality and orthodox opinions."

The first election I participated in was the 1960 contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. It felt to me, as a young soldier defending the Empire from the shores of Okinawa in the East China Sea, like a real choice. Successive elections have seemed less so. Dorothy Day knew that when there is never a substantive choice to be made, elections are a farce, and never voted. I now believe she was right.


Havel argues that voting in such elections is cooperating with the system, giving it one's approval and blessing. Believing that such elections can change anything is colluding in an ideology of falsehood and keeping the powerful in power. Ideology, he says, "is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them." We spoke in America in the 1950's of "the end of ideology," and the belief that we live without an ideology is the most subtle and effective strategy of our imperial ideology to protect itself. One doesn't revolt against something that isn't there.

A good example of our ideology at work is the widespread belief that the Soviet Union collapsed because of Ronald Reagan's military strategy, when in fact it was the work of people like Havel in Czechoslovakia, Lech Walesa in Poland and others, against incredible odds, that won freedom for their people. Reagan and his successors - Democrat and Republican alike - claimed that the end of the Soviet empire was the triumph of capitalism, but in fact it was the triumph of working people seeking to live their lives in freedom. Polish industrial workers, fighting for a union, brought down the government, not capitalism. The fact that their struggle was nonviolent makes it all the more tragic that we Americans refuse to believe it. Ideology by its very nature is opposed to the human quest for truth.

It is truth that is at issue for us today, as it was for them in the 1980's. "The principle involved here," Havel writes, "is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth." When the system is a lie, then the man or woman who says "No" in some small way begins to live in the truth, and exposes the system as a lie. Havel uses the story of a greengrocer who refuses to put a political slogan in his shopwindow. It's not that he doesn't believe the slogan. Nobody believes it, least of all the government that articulates the ideology. But nobody denies it either, and therefore the lie continues. A simple act of resistance calls the whole system into question. The desire to live in human dignity with a modicum of self-respect denies the validity of the dominant ideology. That is why our resistance to the mock terror attack on New London - a small gesture, ignored by most, known only to a few people - was so important. To speak to truth to a system that is lying is a dangerous witness.

But what is truth, and who dares to claim to speak the truth? American society in the twenty-first century might have been in Yeats's mind when he said

The best lack all conviction while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Post-modern academic thinkers seem to deny the existence of any objective truth. They seize upon the fact that different observers describe different experiences of a thing or feeling or concept, and leap to the conclusion that subjectivity is all. Right-wing Christians in politics assert a reductionist version of Christianity and seek to impose it on others. Vaclav Havel, speaking of the post-totalitarian system in another book, claims that ours is the first truly atheistic worldview. We cede to systems the truths of life. Our bureaucracies seek a "least common denominator" understanding of human life. We proclaim that we are open to freedom and new understandings of human nature, but we ultimately deny difference by making everything and everyone the same as every other.


A key element in understanding the similarity of the situation of nonviolent war resisters to that of the "dissidents" in post-totalitarian societies two decades ago is an understanding of the nature of bureaucracy. When Havel speaks of the post-totalitarian system he calls it a bureaucracy. But bureaucracy is as much a part of life in the U. S. as it was in the states of the Soviet bloc. Havel writes of a system "utterly obsessed with the need to bind everything in a single order: life in such a state is thoroughly permeated by a dense network of regulations, proclamations, directives, norms, orders, and rules. (It is not called a bureaucratic system without good reason.)"

This description sounds like our experience of U. S. government, especially the burgeoning bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security. "With ever-increasing consistency, it binds all the expressions and aims of life to the spirit of its own aims: the vested interests of its own smooth, automatic operation."

Alisdair MacIntyre, in his seminal work on moral philosophy, After Virtue (1981), spoke of the bifurcation of our social world into organizational structures in which "the ends are taken to be given and are not available for rational scrutiny" and the personal world in which argument about values is central "but in which no rational social resolution of issues is available." MacIntyre specifically compares societies which define themselves in terms of individual liberty and those which focus on planning and social goods, and notes that both societies are bureaucratic in their organization. He quotes the Russian novelist Solzhenitzyn as saying that "both ways of life are in the long run intolerable."

In the days before the mock terror attack on New London, the Connecticut State Department of Homeland Security became aware that some of us were planning "acts of faith and resistance" to the exercise. They learned this from a paid advertisement in the local newspaper, and contacted a Groton city policeman who had experience with war resistance actions at the U. S. Submarine Base and Electric Boat Co. in Groton. Joanne Sheehan, of the War Resisters League, and I, met with them. They were relieved to learn that we did not intend to block ambulances or throw ourselves in front of fire trucks during the "drill," and we were happy to know that our actions would be understood as protected by the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution for free speech. As we talked, it became clear that the police and Homeland Security folks thought in terms of first responder activities: police, fire, emergency medical technicians, etc., and we were thinking in terms of the broader political perspective of the "war on terrorism." We tried to widen the conversation, but were met with the belief that "you can't change the people at the top." After several such frustrating exchanges, I said to the young man in charge of the drill: "But we can change things at the top!" Such is the nature of monolithic bureaucratic systems that it's hard for even intelligent and good-hearted people to believe in the possibility of change.


One of the ways we sought to educate ourselves and our fellow citizens about the upcoming "mock terror" event was a film series, and one of the films we showed was the PBS series on twentieth century nonviolent social revolutions. The ones I know most about are the Indian liberation from the British Empire under Gandhi, the Civil Rights movement in the United States led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and the South African struggle against apartheid, led by Nelson Mandela with strong support from Christian churches in that country. I looked first at the story of the Polish workers revolt against their Communist Party government led by the Solidarity movement. It was there I discovered Vaclav Havel's essay, "The Power of the Powerless," for the leaders of Solidarity were inspired by that work.

It should come as no surprise that the struggle was nonviolent, not from a theoretical commitment to nonviolence, as with Gandhi and King, but for the practical fact that the Poles had little hope against the Red Army in Russia, which had already intervened in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But they worked nonviolently to build what Havel called "parallel structures" that ultimately replaced the ideological structures of the state. The workers in the Gdansk shipyard had a "union" - what we in the United States would call a "company union" that served the interests of the Party rather than the workers - so they built a union of their own that was responsive to their needs, and because their union actually represented the workers, they forced the government to recognize their presence.

If I look back to Dorothy Day and the early Catholic Worker movement, in a time of labor ferment in the U. S., I'm reminded of the Industrial Workers of the World - IWW, the "Wobblies" - whose strategy was embodied in their motto: "To build the new society within the shell of the old." Solidarity actually did that. I believe that we can do that in America today.

It's a question of power. Havel called his essay "The Power of the Powerless," and I am writing this essay as "a sequel." What is the nature of power in our world, and what is the power of the powerless for us?

Power seems to be either "power over" others, domination, or the "power of being," the ability to do what you choose to do in the living of life. It is easier to see the difference in the lives of individuals. The dominance of one person over another seems wrong to us, and the exercise of the ability to create, to work, to relate to others, seems right. The poet Robert Duncan said years ago: "I make poems as other men make love, make war, make states or revolutions: to exercise my faculties at large." The power of the powerless - a social power for those whom the state or system denies power - is like this. Havel says:

Therefore this power does not rely on soldiers of its own, but on the soldiers of the enemy as it were - that is to say, on everyone who is living within the lie and who may be struck at any moment (in theory, at least) by the force of truth (or who, out of an instinctive desire to protect their position, may at least adapt to that force). . . . This power does not participate in any direct struggle for power; rather, it makes its influence felt in the obscure arena of being itself."

In an authoritarian system of "power over others," the individuals and groups who first see the truth of the situation, and then act, in some initially small way, to say "No" to the claims of truth and power by the system, are the "powerless" of whom I speak. When we had 50 people in New London's Union Plaza, reading Martin Luther King, Jr's 1967 Riverside Church speech, and the government had 600 reporters in busses going to press conferences, and 1,200 "victims" going into hospitals, not to mention the Homeland Security forces, the police, fire, and EMT personnel, and finally the U. S. military, we were few in number. But we said "No" to the concept of fear as security that the might of the U. S. government was promoting. We lived in that moment the Christian conviction that "there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear" (I John 4:18). We had power in that moment - the power of the powerless.


The word "freedom" is used by many today and means many things. We must be clear that "free markets" and "free people" are not the same, and may often by opposed to one another. On the other hand, both state planning and corporate dominance work through bureaucratic structures to deny freedom to individuals and communities. An imperial ideology masks the truth of human freedom and resistance, and gives the impression of a monolithic power that is, if not worthy of human life, irresistible by human beings. Either way, we are trapped by our circumstances. But the circumstances serve the interests of an elite that is as powerful - and as wrong - as the leaders of post-totalitarian society.

An important thing about freedom is that you lose it if you don't exercise it. We are not free if we do not act in freedom. At the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his disciples to "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matthew 7:13-14). We stand today before the narrow gate. The multitude are being herded through a wide gate into an intellectual and moral prison of imperial power. The fact that resisters are few is not a disappointment. It is what we know from experience. All revolutions begin with a few people recognizing the lie and beginning in small ways to live the truth in the face of the system.

There are "false prophets" aplenty. The prophets of an individualistic and reductionist Christianity lead many astray. The prophets of doom, who say change is not possible, lead more to resignation and despair. The prisoners of hope see the narrow gate, and invite us to follow them out of the prison into the freedom of the children of God. Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21).


"What then is to be done?" Vaclav Havel asked that question in 1978, recalling Lenin's question at the time of the Russian Revolution of 1917. We ask the question of ourselves today. What is to be done?

I am often asked the question in another form. Where are the Martin Luther King, Jr's and the Gandhi's of today? Who will lead us to the promised land? Who will be our savior? My answer is: we do not need a savior. We need to trust our experience and begin to live as free men and women today. The Buddhists say, when the pupil is ready, the teacher will appear. I say, when we are ready to say No to the lie and begin to live in freedom, we will produce our own leaders, and walk together into freedom. As Ella Baker said in the Civil Rights movement, "We don't need leader-centered movements; we need movement-centered leaders."

The first thing we have to do is recognize that we are not free, that our imperial American ideology has blinded us to our slavery. Havel wrote:

The post-totalitarian system is only one aspect - a particularly drastic aspect and thus all the more revealing of its real origins - of this general inability of modern humanity to be the master of its own situation. The automatism of the post-totalitarian system is merely an extreme version of the global automatism of technological civilization. The human failure that it mirrors is only one variant of the general failure of modern humanity.
This is our problem. The Soviet Empire is gone. Why does the American Empire still have a military budget that squeezes out education, housing, health care for citizens and exports arms to client states? Why are we still working on the militarization of outer space, when no one but North Korea is threatening us with missile attack? What ever happened to the "peace dividend"?

Once we recognize our situation, we must, like the "dissidents" in Eastern Europe a generation ago, begin to build "parallel structures" of society where we can exercise our freedom as people.

Whether we are religious or not, we must recognize the spiritual dimension of our crisis, and honor the traditions that have nourished us in the past: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and others, including the best of the tradition of secular society informed by the free expression of faith by people who believe in the God of justice and peace.

Those of us who are Christians have a special responsibility. We must claim the mantle of Jesus and the prophets. We must begin to live as they lived, not in a ghetto of faith protected by the armies of our Empire. We must refuse to offer the pinch of incense to Caesar, and be willing to die for our faith rather than kill, to live for Christ rather than "kill a Commie" or a Republican or a terrorist "for Christ."

We must follow Gandhi's example and work together on "constructive programs" for individual and communal well-being. At our "Fear Free Zone" in New London last week we named a number of such possibilities, including housing, creative work, art and music, alternate forms of transportation (bicycles don't require dependence on oil!), continuing film series, work with returning veterans and families, counter-recruiting in schools, more and more "fear free zones."

Furthermore, we must not try to prescribe the outcomes of our conversations in advance. Joanne Sheehan pointed out in one of our task force meetings that the beginning of resistance to fallout shelters and civil defense drills in New York City in the 1950's was a small group of individuals from the Catholic Worker and the War Resisters League. I couldn't help noticing that our mock terror attack resistance was rooted in the same configuration: St. Francis House and the War Resisters League. Our conversations around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in New London's Union Plaza doubled the number of people committed to resistance. These new resisters will bring their own visions and interact with ours to produce a new agenda.

Speaking of the organization of economic life in the "post-democratic" world that would succeed "post-totalitarian" states in Eastern Europe, Vaclav Havel said:

I believe in the principle of self-management, which is probably the only way of achieving what all the theorists of socialism have dreamed about, that is, the genuine (i.e., informal) participation of workers in economic decision making, leading to a feeling of genuine responsibility for their collective work. The principles of control and discipline ought to be abandoned in favor of self-control and self-discipline.

Students of Gandhi will think immediately of swaraj - the "self-rule" which went far beyond Indian independence from the British Empire, to include each person's responsibility for himself and his neighbors, and each community's responsibility to their own people and other communities.

These virtues will be no easier for us to achieve than they have been for Indians, or South Africans, or Poles, or Czechs, of African-Americans in the U. S. But they are the means to the goal of nonviolent life in our country, nuestra America, "our America."

Fr. Emmett Jarrett, TSSF
St. Francis House
New London, Connecticut

April 2005