Syria’s Experience with Post-Totalitarianism: The Need for Havelian Pre-Political Thinking

Marwan Safar Jalani

Syria’s experience with the Assad regime sets an unfortunate precedent in authoritarian regimes’ ability to survive through violence and repression. However, understanding the regime’s survival requires us to search for explanations grounded in the regime’s techniques to polarise Syrians and limit their ability to dissent civilly and peacefully. One way to explain the regime’s attitude towards dissent is through Havel’s theory on post-totalitarianism. The theory sets forth economic, political and philosophical tools through which post-totalitarian regimes control the functions of society. Havel necessitates the establishment of “pre-political thinking” in order for civil dissent to successfully free the country from post-totalitarianism, a type of thinking which, this paper argues, was doomed to fail in Syria. The regime embodies post-totalitarian elements of consumerism, automatism, ideology, and deference to legal facades to gain legitimacy. However, it differs from post-totalitarianism by defining regime elements around the leader’s personality cult, the crony capitalists, and a powerful security apparatus, elements that polarise and divide Syrians. This polarisation prevents Syrians from grounding their dissent in a shared experience of repression, which is the basis of pre-political thinking that Havel deems so necessary for confronting post-totalitarianism. This lacunae in pre-political thinking forces Syrians into violence, polarises some of them into extreme nihilist thinking, and prevents them from developing a civil and peaceful dissent, grounded in a shared human experience.

Marwan Safar Jalani is a Rhodes-Saïd scholar, pursuing an MPhil in Comparative Government at the University of Oxford. Marwan researches the effects of sequencing of peacebuilding reforms on peace outcomes in multiethnic settings. Marwan completed his BA in political science and human rights with distinction from Yale University, where he researched the effects of territorial divisions or lack thereof in two cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brčko and Mostar, on the operations of inter-ethnic youth initiatives.