As If

Christopher Hitchens writes about the revolutionary potential of living "as if".

Nobody in the supposedly affluent and disillusioned 50s had seen any of this coming; I am quite certain that there will be future opportunities for people of high ideals, or of any ideals at all. However, in the interval between 1968 and 1989 - in other words, in that period where many of the revolutionaries against consumer capitalism metamorphosed into "civil society" human-rights activists - there were considerable interludes of stasis. And it was in order to survive those years of stalemate and realpolitik that a number of important dissidents evolved a strategy for survival. In a phrase, they decided to live "as if".

Vaclav Havel, then working as a marginal playwright and poet in a society and state that truly merited the title of Absurd, realised that "resistance" in its original insurgent and militant sense was impossible in the central Europe of the day. He therefore proposed living "as if" he were a citizen of a free society, "as if" lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, "as if" his government had signed (which it actually had) the various treaties and agreements that enshrine universal human rights. He called this tactic the "power of the powerless" because, even when disagreement is almost forbidden, a state that insists on actually compelling assent can be relatively easily made to look stupid. At around the same time, and alarmed in a different way by many of the same things (the morbid relationship of the cold war to the nuclear arms race), Professor EP Thompson proposed that we live "as if" a free and independent Europe already existed.


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