• Michael Martin

The Parallel Polis, or How to Beat the Technocracy


In my book Transfiguration, I write about various possible alternatives to the sterile and anti-human, anti-sophianic institutions that surround us. For one, I propose the idea of “the sophianic hedge school” as a healthy alternative to Education, Inc. that has done so much to ruin human flourishing and poison society. I also floated the idea of perishable currency, inspired by both Rudolf Steiner and Guido Preparata. This is to say nothing about the importance of the CSA (“Community Supported Agriculture”) movement as well as the availability of herd shares as a way to secure clean food and dairy products uncompromised by the death-bestowing toxins of BigAg and the diabolical interventions of BigPharma that follow in their wake. What I propose in that book is a kind of alternate society, almost, as I’ve written in this blog, like the invisible society within society that operates almost like the parallel universes found in the novels of Philip K. Dick.

I am not the first one to suggest such movements, of course, but in my ongoing consternation at the increasing totalization of the Governmental-Pharmaceutical-Technocratic paradigm, I have found myself reexamining the responses of earlier (but not that much earlier) generations when faced with such menacing totalitarian structures. As I’ve mentioned before, Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind is a great place to start if one wants to trace the gradual acquiescence of more or less good people to the will of the corporatocracy’s insidious egregore. In such scenarios (and this was also the case in England’s gradual transformation from a Catholic into a Protestant nation in the 16th and 17th centuries), the Archons first work on the middle-manager class—the intellectuals, professors, teachers, prelates, and so forth—trusting that they will lead the rest of society into a brave new world.

I also revisited the writing of Václav Havel. I probably first heard of Havel when I was in high school and he was a Czechoslovakian playwright and dissident imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain in his homeland. Some years later in one of my first major publications as a poet (in the journal Cross Currents), I was very proud to find my work alongside an interview with Havel in which he argued that a “sense for the transcendent” was the only hope for uniting multicultural and multifarious societies. This time, however, I revisited his essential essay, “The Power of the Powerless.”

“The Power of the Powerless” was written in 1978, long before the Iron Curtain showed any signs of cracking. But crack it did. Havel and his compatriots in the Eastern Bloc at that time were advocating for “parallel structures” or a “parallel polis” (the term contributed by his fellow dissident Václav Benda) as ways for peoples under whatever form of oppression (things were very different in Poland than in Czechoslovakia, for instance). For Havel, the lynchpin for such an undertaking is the ability to “live in truth,” since the Communist governments were notorious for lies (not that modern Western democracies are any better), what led in the USSR to “hypernormalization” (i.e.. “everybody knows everything is a lie, but let’s all act like it isn’t”).

According to Benda, “the mission of the parallel polis is constantly to conquer new territory, to make its parallelness constantly more substantial and more present. Politically, this means to stake out clear limits for totalitarian power, to make it more difficult for it to maneuver” [1]. This parallel polis was envisioned as primarily cultural, as in the arts, but also social. It simply had to do with giving up on the lie and living in truth (I think of Pope John Paul II, when still a Polish cardinal, leading a procession through the streets of Krakow with an empty frame since it was illegal to process with a religious image, in this case of the Virgin). As Ivan Jirous writes in “Parallel Polis,” “Those who take part are active people who can no longer stand to look passively at the general decay, marasmus, rigidity, bureaucracy, and suffocation of every living idea or sign of movement in the official sphere” [2]. How these words resonate today.


Havel extends this:

The point where living within the truth ceases to be a mere negation of living and becomes articulate in a particular way, is the point at which something is born that might be called the ‘independent spiritual, social, and political society.’” [3]

I think our own moment calls for such a rebirth, much in the way the Dark Ages presaged the coming of Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, and Francis of Assisi or the waning of the Middle Ages opened onto the Florentine Renaissance. Surely the second coming is at hand.

I have been waiting, in vain as it turns out, for some Distributists or Communitarians to step up and be counted at this, their moment. But...no. They seem either to have retreated into their pipes and ale or become Catholic Marxists or worse.

But part of the problem is the overarching tyranny of our technology, a technology that has so aided the Archons in their quest for totalizing power. Havel—like Heidegger, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, and so many others—was onto this. In 1978, he wrote,

Technology—that child of modern science, which in turn is a child of modern metaphysics—is out of humanity’s control, has ceased to serve us, has enslaved us and compelled us to participate in the preparation of our own destruction…. We look on helplessly as that coldly functioning machine we have created inevitably engulfs us, tearing us away from our natural affiliations (for instance, from our habitat in the widest sense of the word, including our habitat in the biosphere) just as it removes us from the experience of ‘being’ and casts us into the world of ‘existences.’” [4]

I will submit that part of the instinctive resistance we have to “lockdown culture” resides precisely in such a sensibility. A Zoom meeting with nature, even human nature, is not possible.

Like Havel, his exact contemporary Ivan Illich also saw what technology (not to mention modern medicine!) was doing to us. “If tools are not controlled politically,” he writes, “they will be managed in a belated technocratic response to disaster. Freedom and dignity will continue to dissolve into an unprecedented enslavement of man to his tools” [5]. It’s almost as if he were watching us. I can only imagine what he and Havel are thinking.

Havel, for example, observed the trajectory upon which even Western democracies were headed:

It would appear that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being helplessly dragged along by it.” [6]

Bingo.

We have many ways to build our own parallel polis. We can extricate ourselves as much as possible from the technocracy and their flunkies in government and simply live. At Stella Matutina Farm (where I live), for example, we rely almost entirely on traditional tools (with the exception of a few modern contraptions like my chainsaws). We mow some of our grass, but the cattle take care of most of it. And what we do is not an anomaly: most sustainable farmers employing no-dig methods operate pretty much the same way—and even our tiny 1.5 acre garden supplies an enormous amount of food.

But even more, our idea of a parallel polis extends to the social sphere, in particular in the ways we celebrate the Christian year. We observe all the feasts, but our biggest celebrations occur at May Day and Michaelmas. At May Day this year, when our state was still under various mandates and most social activities were suppressed by government and, alas, the Church, a friend asked if she could invite some of her friends who were starving for conviviality. Surprisingly, over fifty people—mostly families—showed up to dance around the maypole and feast together. This is what a parallel polis looks like. It may not be much, but it certainly fits what Jiří Dienstbier described as something contributing to “the continual renewal of the meaning of authenticity” [7]. Bureaucracy may be death by a thousand papercuts, but the parallel polis—by which I mean “a sophiological structure”—bestows life by a thousand tiny, some might even say “insignificant,” gestures. Even our recent forays into house church can be seen as an example of this. “The failure of the modern experiment,” as H.J. Massingham so cogently observed, “is seen to be so because it is anti-Christian, anti-natural, and anti-realistic” [8].

It’s not hard. Live in truth.


Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

1. Václav Benda, et al., “Parallel Polis, or an Independent Society in Central and Eastern Europe: An Inquiry,” Social Research 55, nos. 1-2 (Spring/Summer 1988): 211-46, at 219.

2. Ibid., 228.

3. Václav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless” in Living in Truth, ed. Jan Vladislav (Faber and Faber, 1986), 85.

4. Ibid., 114.

5. Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (Harper, 1973), 12.

6. “The Power of the Powerless,” 116.

7. “Parallel Polis,” 231.

8. H.J. Massingham, The Tree of Life (London, 1943), 173.

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