Former Czech leader Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel on Bringing Humanity to Politics

In 1992 former Czech President Vaclav Havel gave an address to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. In that speech, Havel reflected on the end of communism and called for bringing humanity back into politics by moving away from a culture driven by a cult of “depersonalized objectivity,” whether through ideologies such as communism or an over-reliance on science and technology.
Although written 27 years ago, his address is very much relevant today. He warns us about an ineffective and dangerous reliance on technological and institutional solutions, which can enslave us to new masters.
Havel calls on a reversion to personal experience as the answer, recommending that politicians become persons again, nor formulas. He has a firm belief that the answers will come from putting human beings at the centre of the equation, not technology, a view that The Conciliators Guild shares and disseminates knowledge to help achieve.

Below are a few excerpts from his address. For clarity and emphasis, we’ve provided subject titles to the quotes, and have bolded some sentences that we find especially poignant and prescient.


Our era

The modern era has been dominated by the culminating belief, expressed in different forms, that the world and Being as such is a wholly knowable system governed by a finite number of universal laws that man can grasp and rationally direct for his own benefit. This era, beginning in the Renaissance and developing from the Enlightenment to socialism, from positivism to scientism, from the Industrial Revolution to the information revolution, was characterized by rapid advances in rational, cognitive thinking.

It was an era in which there was a cult of depersonalized objectivity, an era in which objective knowledge was accumulated and technologically exploited, an era of belief in automatic progress brokered by the scientific method. It was an era of systems, institutions, mechanisms and statistical averages. It was an era of ideologies, doctrines, interpretations of reality.


Control and a Technical Civilization

Communism was the perverse extreme of this trend. It was an attempt, on the basis of a few propositions masquerading as the only scientific truth, to organize all of life according to a single model, and to subject it to central planning and control regardless of whether or not that was what life wanted.

This era has created the first global, or planetary, technical civilization, but it has reached the limit of its potential, the point beyond which the abyss begins.


Reliance on Technology will not work

I think the end of communism is a serious warning to all mankind. It is a signal that the era of arrogant, absolutist reason is drawing to a close, and that it is high time to draw conclusions from that fact. Communism was not defeated by military force, but by life, by the human spirit, by conscience, by the resistance of Being and man to manipulation. This powerful signal, this important message to the human race, is coming at the eleventh hour.

We all know that our civilization is in danger. The large paradox at the moment is that man, a great collector of information, is well aware of all this, yet is absolutely incapable of dealing with this danger to himself. Traditional science, with its usual coolness, can describe the different ways we might destroy ourselves, but it cannot offer us truly effective and practicable instructions on how to avert them. There is too much to know; the information is muddled or poorly organized; these processes can no longer be fully grasped and understood, let alone contained or halted. Modern man, proud of having used impersonal reason to release a giant genie from its bottle, is now impersonally distressed to find he can’t drive it back into the bottle again.


A Need for Answers beyond the Machine

We cannot do it because we cannot step beyond our own shadow. We are trying to deal with what we have unleashed by employing the same means we used to unleash it in the first place. We treat the fatal consequences of technology as though they were a technical defect that could be remedied by technology alone. We are looking for an objective way out of the crisis of objectivism.

What is needed is something different, something larger. We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be fed into a computer in the hope that sooner or later it will spit out a universal solution.


The Answer in Personal Experience

It is my profound conviction that we have to release from the sphere of private whim and rejuvenate forces such as a natural, unique and unrepeatable experience of the world, an elementary sense of justice, the ability to see things as others do.

We must see the pluralism of the world, and not bind it by seeking common denominators or reducing everything to a single common equation. We must try harder to understand rather than to explain. The way forward is not in the mere construction of universal systemic solutions, to be applied to reality from the outside; it is also in seeking to get to the heart of reality through personal experience.

The world, too, has something like a spirit or soul. That, however, is something more than a mere body of information that can be externally grasped and objectified and mechanically assembled. Yet this does not mean that we have no access to it. Figuratively speaking, the human spirit is made from the same material as the spirit of the world. Man is not just an observer, a spectator, an analyst or a manager of the world. Man is a part of the world, and his spirit is part of the spirit of the world.


Implications for Politics

(The world today) presents a great challenge to the practice of politics which, it seems to me, still has a technocratic, utilitarian approach to Being, and therefore to political power as well. After they have gone through the mill of objective analysis and prognosis, original ideas and actions, unique and therefore always risky, often lose their human ethos and therefore, de facto, their spirit. We can see this in political language, where cliche often squeezes out personal tone. And when a personal tone does crop up, it is usually calculated, not an outburst of personal authenticity.

It is my impression that sooner or later politics will be faced with the task of finding a new, post-modern face. A politician must become a person again, someone who trusts not only a scientific representation and analysis of the world, but also the world itself. He must believe not only in sociological statistics, but in real people. He must trust not only an objective interpretation of reality, but also its soul; not only an adopted ideology, but also his own thoughts; not only the summary reports he receives each morning, but also his own instincts.

Looking at politics “from the inside,” as it were, has if anything confirmed my belief that the world of today with the dramatic changes it is going through and in its determination not to destroy itself presents a great challenge to politicians.

It is not that we should simply seek new and better ways of managing society, the economy, and the world as such. The point is that we should fundamentally change how we behave. And who but politicians should lead the way? Their changed attitude toward the world, toward themselves and toward their responsibility can in turn give rise to truly effective systemic and institutional changes.