No More Heroes: The End of History and the Death of the Idealist
Elections in the US and the UK have dominated international news for months, feeding pundit speculation over the future of either country and entertaining viewers with the more colorful characters in this media circus. In either country, there have been a couple of politicians who’ve risen above spectacle and earned the admiration of the masses. They managed this not through strategy that impressed policy wonks or faux pas shared across social media, but for their ideals. In the US, Senator Bernie Sanders’ platform vowed to dismantle fixtures of American capitalism that unjustly favor the wealthy. And in the UK, the late Member of Parliament Jo Cox championed the rights and protections of immigrants and refugees against nationalist fervor gaining momentum in parliament.
These idealist politicians managed to obtain a folk hero status (for a time) by fighting for ideals while also appearing to be morally incorruptible, which is a status that has become increasingly rare since the end of the Cold War. In fact, it was in that era that the last, most successful idealist politician managed to eek out a victory in the western world. Vaclav Havel. But fundamental changes in technology, communication and capitalism made it difficult for Havel to compete with a more potent ideology.
Working Class Hero:
Vaclav Havel was a playwright who began his career as a communist dissident through scathing critiques played out on stages across Prague. As early as 1959, Havel remained unbowed to threats of violence and embraced rebellion, making him an iconoclast who embraced other obscure artists in Prague’s underground scene, such as the Plastic People of the Universe. These associations soon became a network of idealists who were on the front lines of the Prague Spring in 1968, calling on the government to take their demands for institutional reforms seriously.
Ultimately the Soviet Union quelled the uprising and resumed authority over Czechoslovakia. But for Havel it was the beginning of a decades-long career of fighting institutions of power on behalf of the powerless. This made him a constant person of interest for secret police who placed him, his friends and their work on blacklists; monitored his movements; and repeatedly placed him under arrest. Yet despite these restrictions on his person and freedom, Havel remained hopeful. Havel, like Sanders and Cox, envisioned a future with true democratic representation, a fair and effective economy, and protections for ethnic minorities. Prior to entering a position of authority, his challenges to these injustices took the form of plays, long-form essays, novels, songs, protests and the formation of human rights groups such as Charter 77, which eventually matured into the forum the future leaders of Czechoslovakia used to chart out the future of their country.
Years on, Havel became a potent influence for insurrectionist movements in Czechoslovakia, including the Socialist Union of Youth, who led demonstrations on November 17, 1989, observing International Student’s Day and the students who’d died at the hands of Nazi soldiers 50 years before, fighting for the same causes. He marched with some 1,500 students and professors through Prague, drafting Czechs as they went along. In a matter of weeks, hundreds of thousands shook the city with their voices and forced the communist party to fold and relinquish their authority.
Beyond the country’s borders, the world watched as these demonstrations collapsed a column supporting a crumbling empire. News agencies around the world couldn’t produce segments fast enough to truly articulate their fascination at the sight of Communism’s loosening grip over Eastern Europe. Yet they never failed to voice their hopes for a future that incorporated the west. And at the center of the media’s fascination was Vaclav Havel, a cultural icon turned political rock star; an anchor that held firm the world’s hope for a free and equal Eastern Europe. It was only natural that he would be sworn in as Czechoslovakia’s last, and the Czech Republic’s first president.
Václav Havel’s life would seem to be an unrivaled success story: the Philosopher-King, a man who combines political power with a global moral authority comparable only to that of the Pope, the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela. And just as at the end of a fairy tale when the hero is rewarded for all his suffering by marrying the princess, he is married to a beautiful movie actress.
Aside from political upheaval, another revolutionary act was taking place in the United States—the mass production of affordable personal computers and the expansion of the internet’s infrastructure. When combined, these two agents of communication would radically transform the way information was being transferred through television, radio and print. In this era of hyper-communication, there was a shift in Havel’s image; reality disrupted the fantasy of this idealist’s political future.
A Man Apart:
Havel entered political life with high hopes, but lingering vestiges of communism still held sway over many and rivals in the government were all eager to use such sentiments to make a mark on their new country. From the beginning it seemed the Czech presidency was merely an honorary position, leaving Havel unable to champion the issues of racial equality, economic stability and overall reform regardless of his tactics. According to some, the media bore significant blame for this.
In “Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism,” Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek analyzed Havel’s failed presidency; how the idealist became a pragmatist; how the image of a rebellious artist on the outside became the jaded suit walking the halls of power.
How do we get from the lone, fragile dissident with a crumpled jacket and uncompromising ethics, who opposes the all-mighty totalitarian power, to the President who babbles about the anthropic principle and the end of the Cartesian paradigm, reminds us that human rights are conferred on us by the Creator, and is applauded in the US Congress for his defence of Western values? Is this depressing spectacle the necessary outcome, the ‘truth’, of Havel the heroic dissident?
One of Žižek’s arguments has to do with Havel’s unreliable image as promoted by western media. Though Havel’s celebrity pushed him into politics, and remains a beloved figure in Czech society today, there are discrepancies with his legend and his actual life. Letters to Olga was one of Havel’s most promoted books leading up to his presidency, collecting letters Havel wrote to his wife Olga while in prison, yet upon his release in 1983, he spent weeks in the company of a mistress; Havel was portrayed as a laid-back champion of the poor who lived and worked among them, yet he was known for indulging his bourgeois upbringing and hobnobbed with celebrities like the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed and Frank Zappa; and challengers to his political celebrity from other corners of Czech society were quickly dismissed as Soviet-back provocateurs with only the flimsiest of evidence to support those claims.
Despite these clear irregularities of the Havel folk legend, British, Canadian and American media found him a telegenic darling that could not be discarded. Thanks to the infrastructures of television radio and print (and to a lesser extent the internet) of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, these networks could use their international presence to reach across a great portion of the world. With their ever-growing audience captive, they could report how Havel was liberating Eastern Europe, and they did so with an image tailored for a narrative rather than accuracy.
This was not the first nor the last time media has created false images to further someone’s celebrity, but it has become endemic since the advent of the internet, encouraging news outlets to favor simplification over messy truths. The result of which was made clear when Havel’s term came to an end. Ousted by adversaries in parliament, Havel’s idealism was put on trial by the same news outlets who had championed his legacy a few years before, citing it as well-intentioned but not politically efficacious. And though Havel had attempted to curb his wishes for the Czech people and become more stately in his negotiations, compromise more like a traditional politician, it simply wasn’t enough to compete with a more appealing prospect that was fast approaching. Capitalism.
Prime Minister under Havel, and eventually President himself, Vaclav Klaus had a more successful political career. A liberal technocrat, Klaus arguably had greater influence over Czech society in the ‘90s than the beloved Havel. By distancing himself from Havel’s idealism and embracing political machinations, Klaus thrust the Czech Republic into the modern era, embracing consumerism at a rapid pace, and forcing the government to adopt to a format that mirrored western democracies. And by joining this fraternity of liberal, capitalist countries, Klaus did not simply agree to trade agreements, form alliances with neighboring countries and adopt a country code top-level domain, he placed the Czech Republic on a path of globalism that progressively aligned it with societies that are slowly merging into a singular entity.
The End of History:
In 1989 western punditry attempted to rationalize the aftermath of the inevitable fall of the Soviet Union. One of the more prescient analysis came from political theorist Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History.” The thesis of the essay argued that with the fall of the Soviet Union, communism, like all other major political ideologies, had been bested by the superiority of liberal capitalism, the political and economic systems promoted by the United States.
The promise of utopia through communism was never actualized, nor sustainable when attempted, as Eastern Europe and much of Asia had learned through the 20th century, leaving a vacuum of political leadership. Whatever sincere idealism those political philosophies held were quickly abandoned when American interventionism introduced materialism, consumerism and democracy. Political and economic investments in countries like Germany, South Korea and Japan were proof positive that quality of life for the individual could indeed be elevated once those nations were liberated from the ideologues that had ruled them. And the individual quickly adapted, embracing the chance to form a more direct relationship with their surroundings through spending. This was something the Vaclav Havels of the world were finding difficult to compete against, as ideas rarely manifested benefit as quickly as things.
Though a provocative title, Fukuyama never intended to suggest that history would come to an actual end after the fall of the Soviet Union. Capitalism would still face ideological challenges, particularly in the form of nationalism and religious fundamentalism, two ideologies that have increased in intensity in recent years seemingly all over the world.
But for the most part, this new era could signal an end to world wars between established superpowers. Nuclear Armageddon was less of a concern. Capitalism could now make globalism a serious possibility, and with countries accepting this economic and political partners laid the foundation for a “universal homogeneous state.” On the governmental level we see this with institutions like the United Nations, the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which are bodies that have a threshold for uniformity all partners must adhere to in order to maintain their membership and receive returns on their investments. For the average person, globalism is more readily experienced through consumerism, a practice that has never been as potent as it is today, thanks in no small part to the internet.
In the past decade, there have been unmistakable changes in the intellectual climate of the world’s two largest communist countries, and the beginnings of significant reform movements in both. But this phenomenon extends beyond high politics and it can be seen also in the ineluctable spread of consumerist Western culture in such diverse contexts as the peasants’ markets and color television sets now omnipresent throughout China, the cooperative restaurants and clothing stores opened in the past year in Moscow, the Beethoven piped into Japanese department stores, and the rock music enjoyed alike in Prague, Rangoon, and Tehran.
The development of the internet introduced what speculative fiction author William Gibson called a “spooky post-geographical feeling,” a borderless exchange between people and computers, traveling at comparable speeds for governments, corporations and individuals, steadily reducing the number of individuals touched by mass media with each connected platform. And that pace has quickened with each of the 27 years since Fukuyama’s thesis, allowing for great developments beyond the scope of communication.
Unfortunately encroaching globalism has also acted as a tide that threatens to slowly erode cultural and national identities. Partly this unification of people and the thinning of borders between neighboring states are to blame for the violent uptick in nationalism and religiosity, both of which have caused political and social complications, even claiming the life of Jo Cox. Fukuyama saw this as a possible consequence of the spread of capitalism and the adaptability of technology. This brings about a new pessimism, not surrounding belief systems of individuals or potential actions from nations, but in a global attitude that’s being adopted, one where the concerns of the average citizen are treated like the demands of a customer. That is to say the needs of capitalism have outweighed the responsibility one has to remain politically and socially engaged.
The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.
When interaction and the exchange of ideas has been converted to a transaction, and celebrity serves only to entertain and never engage, the world shuns the possibility of an actual idealist to affect change from within governments; celebrated thinkers, like those of historical periods, take a different shape; their words don’t feel as sharp. In order for these members of society to exist in the current age, which is to communicate through the internet, they must assume the shape of entertainment, succumb to being a commodity. This requires concessions that aim to detract from their original theses, making it more difficult to communicate both effectively and truthfully in the same instance.
None of this is to suggest Havel wasn’t sincere in his idealism. Were it not for his sincerity, he would never have risen to such prominence in the Cold War, nor be seen as the romantic, true believer who could hurry along the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Havel’s political ascension at the end of the 1980s came at a time where philosophical ideals had exhausted many, and the allure of commerce could not be matched. There have been others who’ve attempted to carry their idealism into government and fight on the behalf of the powerless, but they are locked out of any position of authority by rivals, unable to affect meaningful change; the toxicity of divisive ideologies overpower them; or they fail to maintain spectacle in the eye of the media as others who can dance across the global stage towards success. Havel understood this with time, and grew despondent while in office, seeing the Presidency as a prison that prevented him from acting on his conscience, keeping him put until he could be made an example of.
With consumerism, communication and information having been hybridized into this ever-evolving chimera, mediums like social media has given rise to political leaders and an intelligentsia that subsists on celebrity with little of substance to contribute to its followers. Even if more idealists decide to follow in Havel’s wake, is there room for their ideals to spread without succumbing to commodification?