All the stuff of mainstream history — wars, revolutions, economies — is becoming a subset of the engulfing, elemental question: the fate of the earth; what humans have done to it and what they may yet do to repair and redeem the damage. We are running out of time. But what we have not yet exhausted is what, in the end, makes us human: the great storehouse of visionary imagination. If, at the eleventh hour, we have what it takes to pull off the greatest escape act in the human story, it will not be databanks or algorithms that will have got us there, but something like a poem, a novel, a painting or a song.
What Václav Havel, in his most original and penetrating text, called “the power of the powerless” is capable of putting despotisms on the back foot, simply by being in sync with the simplest and most natural human instincts. Authoritarians can mobilise their heavy artillery of terror, torture, imprisonment and persecution; but in the end, Havel argued, they are not that well equipped to fight the asymmetric battle between lies and truth. Havel believed that the vast majority of people are not content to be forever walled within a prison of falsehood, where the price of material security and domestic safety is the unconditional surrender of personal freedom.
But what if Havel was wrong?