Living in the Age of Covid: “The Power of the Powerless”
A specter is haunting the world: the increasing prospect of a new totalitarianism under the extended covid response. Unlike the specter of communism, or the specter of “dissent” to communist dictatorship that Václav Havel ironically identified in his groundbreaking essay “The Power of the Powerless,”1 this specter originates from those in power and not from the revolutionary or the powerless.2 And rather than haunting only Europe or Eastern Europe, this specter casts its long shadow across the future of all humanity, such that one wonders how one might plan, if at all, for this future.
Mixed into this spectral fear are grave doubts promoted by some about the intentions of world leaders and a medical and technocratic elite apparently bent on new lockdowns, masking, and mandatory mass vaccinations.
Heterodoxies burgeon in the shadows. The mere mention of these heterodoxies will rank one among the heterodox. Nevertheless, I venture to name them. They include the belief that a mass eugenics program is underway and that the vaccination regime amounts to the greatest crime against humanity in world history. They include the belief that the entirety of the covid response has been nothing if not a means for increasing the power and control of the elite over the world population. And they include the more modest claim that “the science” being peddled by “the experts” has been hastily and erroneously construed and represents a grave series of errors, yet merely errors after all. Another claim is that the covid crisis, while real, has been opportunistically used by the ruling elite to further a preexisting agenda for resetting the world economic system and forever changing the shape of the social order (the Great Reset). These claims are not necessarily mutually exclusive and two or three may either be held simultaneously or all four juggled. That these and other heterodoxies are being rigorously suppressed, and that their messengers are either cancelled or vilified, or both, only lends them subterraneous force and adds to the overall anxiety, whether spoken or not. While I will not adjudicate all these claims, it is enough to say that their existence is part of the terror campaign that is the covid regime itself. It is as if the mendacity of the regime spontaneously generated them.
You may wonder why I suggest that the extended covid response poses the gravest threat to humanity, rather than believing that the real threat is covid-19 and its variants. I will address this question below. But the question underscores the fact that clear precedents for this situation are nonexistent. The world has never seen anything like it and could not have—before the age of digital communications, modern virology and epidemiology, and pharmacological technology.3 What makes the covid regime different from other totalitarian prospects is the fact that “disease” is now the stated basis for its establishment. The ideology is thus infused with the dominant narrative of protecting the population from a pestilence, rather than delivering a future worker’s paradise, for example. This claim by the authorities makes any opposition to their diktats forever fraught with having to refute “the science,” variously and inconsistently delivered by “the experts,” while demonstrating the incommensurability of the response to the perceived threat. The question of freedom becomes embroiled in the question of what freedom means in the face of a possible death sentence, for oneself and others. And yet there is the possibility that the efforts at mitigation themselves amount to a death sentence.
In seeking comparable scenarios to the covid regime, I thought it time to look to Eastern bloc exemplars of resistance. As such, my search led me to the essay that forms part of my title. However distinct the two scenarios, parallels may be drawn between what Havel called the “post-totalitarianism” of Soviet bloc Czechoslovakia and the system developing out of the covid crisis. The issue at stake is pursuing “the aims of life”4 in the face of ongoing terror. It should not matter what side of the fence you are on if pursuing the aims of life is your agenda.
By post-totalitarianism, Havel did not mean a state or condition after totalitarianism. He meant a new form of bureaucratic rule, a totalizing system in which power does not simply originate from a singular dictator and flow downward, but rather one that involves the entire society and conscripts the population into its very structure. “In the post-totalitarian system,” Havel suggested, “this line [of power] runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his or her own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system.”5 Everyone is forced to “live within the lie,” and all subjects become “agents of its automatism”—automatic receivers, messengers, and executors of the post-totalitarian logic.6
Havel provides an example of one such subject: a typical greengrocer. The greengrocer routinely puts a sign in his storefront window that reads, “Workers of the World Unite!” He does so, not necessarily because he believes in the semantic content of the slogan, although he may. But he puts the sign in his window because he would become conspicuous by the sign’s absence if he did not. By posting the sign, he consciously or unconsciously seeks to stay out of the crosshairs of severe repression.
The greengrocer’s sign is ideological because its semantic content is “noble” while its semiotic function works in an opposite direction. Its function is to ensure conformity to a system that has nothing to do with the welfare of “the workers.” (Under communism, it is the Marxist
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