The Totalitarian Tipping Point
I am sometimes accused of exaggerating the threats to modern civilization, or of engaging in hyperbole in discussing today’s political trends. I am certainly not one inclined to feel self-deludedly sanguine about the current state of things, or blind to rising evils and dangerous follies. I note this merely to preface an anecdote that demonstrates the extent to which we are all, even the most skeptical among us, susceptible to the effects of normalcy bias, which today means the reflexive denial of that which would be quite self-evident were we not mired in the warm muck of modernity’s abstract language and habitual rationalization — more simply, were we not all living in the midst of the very conditions we would criticize.
Recently, while discussing Brave New World with a student, I casually used the word “totalitarian” as a shorthand description of Huxley’s dystopia, whereupon the student, wishing to grasp my explanation more concretely, asked, “What is ‘totalitarianism,’ exactly?”
“Totalitarianism,” like most modern political vocabulary, exemplifies the problem Locke (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Bk. III) defines as “words used without signification,” due to their having been learned as sounds prior to the formation of any clear idea in our minds. We may eventually find ourselves uttering such vacuous but sophisticated sounds more and more frequently, and in ever more complex contexts, though without going through the remedial step of delineating precise meanings for them. That is, as we mature, we speak with increasing confidence and certainty about the matters to which these terms seem to apply, while in fact saying nothing more careful and reasoned than when we were merely mouthing words that meant nothing to us at all, since such undefined abstractions still mean nothing to us, for all intents and purposes. As Locke himself explains, the danger of this particular error of language learning and use is compounded in the case of so much political and religious terminology, which we all learn to use without having developed a clear concept of what we are naming, such that discourse about the most important things becomes a self-perpetuating sophistry or intellectual shell game in which we ourselves are both the swindler and the swindled.
Thus, not only is there no universally agreed-upon definition of “totalitarianism,” but much worse, there is probably no distinct and fully-evolved idea corresponding to this word in anyone’s mind. It is, for everyone, a convenient catchall term, vaguely encompassing plenty of genuine sound and fury, but precisely signifying nothing.
To use such words, then, without doing damage to discourse itself — which is to say without actively diminishing the capacity for rational communication — requires that one consistently adhere to a clear stipulative definition. (This inherent problem with modern political language was my impetus for writing the articles aggregated here in Limbo as “Progressivism 101” and “Freedom 101.”) And such a stipulative definition was, in effect, what my student was asking me to provide when she asked, “What is ‘totalitarianism,’ exactly?”
I answered approximately this way: A country is totalitarian if most aspects of the citizen’s normal life and daily social interaction are somehow controlled by the government — if no significant part of the individual’s life is permitted to carry on independently of the state’s regulations and overall intentions.
After taking a moment to ponder this explanation, my student asked, without any hint of sarcasm, “Are there any countries that are not totalitarian?”
Instinctively, due to the insidious effect of “words used without signification,” as explained above, I immediately responded, “Yes, of course there are many countries that are not totalitarian– yet.” I then went on to explain how various nations, including the one in which we were sitting, did not meet the threshold of totalitarianism, in spite of their many flaws and dangerous tendencies.
Even as I spoke, I felt somehow uncomfortably compromised by my own answer, almost as though the language itself were pulling me along, rather than being produced by me in response to my own pre-linguistic reflections. This is the psychological dynamic of Locke’s notion of words used without signification: rather than being instruments carefully chosen by us for their aptness, such words tend to make us their instruments, rushing in to fill conceptual vacuums created in our minds by the repeated use of such ill-defined words themselves.
Upon reconsideration, I have to say I am inclined to change or at least qualify my original knee-jerk answer. For my answer was grounded in the implicit premise that at the core of true totalitarianism there is a certain blunt force aggression in the state’s manner of exerting control; but in truth, during the intervening years between the earlier applications of the term “totalitarian,” which indeed carried this implication, and our current political reality, theoretical progressivism has increasingly developed and asserted the practical means to winning the essential aims of totalitarian rule (as defined above) without most of the heavy-handed brutality deemed necessary in the early days of the concept. In other words, the overtly oppressive elements once regarded as almost definitive of totalitarianism have proved rather to be mere incidental methods, typical of a certain age or stage of social devolution, but subject to modification over time.
The basic explanation of this change may be found in Tocqueville’s prescient notion of soft despotism, which is to say tyranny achieved through a gradual exploitation of the twin human weaknesses for comfort and divestment of responsibility. Soft despotism, as Tocqueville predicted, has proved to be the special disease of successful and wealthy societies, in which the individual becomes so inured to his practical ease and myopic pleasure that he no longer remembers the conditions required to achieve those supposed goods, and is therefore increasingly willing to sacrifice these very conditions to leaders who benignly promise to protect this ease and pleasure in perpetuity.
Today’s most impressive progressive regimes have found ways to enact and enforce most of the essential draconian controls of modern “scientific” dictatorship, but to lead men into obedience and acquiescence to this condition with patient cajoling and the gradual narrowing of genuine alternatives, rather than with the precipitous madness of midnight arrests and secret police. Our enlightened despots ply rather than prod. Hence, the word “totalitarian,” like the broader but more concrete term “tyranny,” never quite seems applicable. And yet if one stops to ask of so much that our modern societies take for granted regarding the relationship of the government to the governed, “Would our forebears have regarded this as a reasonable extension of the purposes of the government of a free society?” the descriptive situation becomes more complicated.
“But we vote for our leaders,” we say to assuage our fears — half-ignoring the many obvious ways in which our ruling establishments exploit the mechanisms of party politics to micromanage electoral options, rendering genuine alternatives, and particularly the liberty alternative, impossible in practice.
“We are free to say and believe what we want,” we plead in our pride’s own defense, overlooking the ever-expanding arena of political and moral speech that is directly and indirectly regulated and subject to legal penalty for violators, and the manner in which the public’s own money is used to fund the propagation of this progressive moral agenda through both overt propaganda and coerced school indoctrination.
“We still have the freedom to form our own opinions and raise our children according to our own consciences,” declare the self-deluded, overlooking the most universal spiritual atrocity in our midst, namely the fact that the entire population of the advanced world has, for more than a century, effectively been raised by the state in public schools, or at best (in a tiny minority of cases) in alternative educational conditions designed to satisfy government-defined standards of learning and life-direction through private means. To contend that modern man forms his own opinions, let alone that he raises his own children, in a society grounded in government education, is implicitly to deny that education — the primary intellectual and moral influences in a person’s upbringing — has any significance in his development whatsoever, which is in effect to deny that humans are thinking, feeling beings.
“But the free market naturally resists authoritarian controls,” reason the libertarians and economic conservatives, willfully blinding themselves to the history of global corporate progressivism, from John Rockefeller to Mark Zuckerberg, in which the world’s most famous and storied “capitalists,” as a means of protecting and expanding their financial empires, invest heavily in the political establishments of the world in order to bring about statist regulatory controls congenial to their personal goals and power lust. As I have explained in detail elsewhere, the free market” is indeed essential to political liberty, but there is nothing about the free market itself that fosters or guarantees the kind of character and political moderation requisite to the sustenance of political liberty. In fact, the real history of modern “capitalism” (a term I use only to distinguish the very unfree market-based economic structure on which modern advanced societies rely from the genuine economic voluntarism implied by the phrase “free market”) is a history of progressive power lust and immoderate material acquisitiveness in the service of soft despotism. For a simple example, you may read in my book, The Case Against Public Education, about the secret and seminal role of Rockefeller’s General Education Board in the establishment of compulsory school laws in the United States during the early years of the twentieth century, the express aim of which was to mass produce a diligent but humble and obedient general population prepared to comply with the demands of life as an efficient labor force for Rockefeller et al, while suppressing independent thought and the cultivation of higher spiritual aims.
“Still, unlike a victim of totalitarian rule, my life essentially belongs to me,” we are inclined to think, since this is always preferable to the opposite thought — as long as we carefully disregard the socialized medicine that has become the norm almost everywhere on Earth, and is personally favored by the current U.S. president, along with anyone else who will ever be permitted to be U.S. president in the foreseeable future. Socialized medicine effectively makes state ownership of the individual human being a universal value, as it limits and regulates the manner and rules of order in which citizens may pursue their own physical well-being and survival, as well as that of their loved ones. Then, of course, there are the income taxes, universal social welfare programs, and other manifestations of redistributive “economic justice,” all of which are derived from the Marxist principle that coerced material equality is a social good trumping individual freedom, self-reliance, and personal virtue. Above all, such programs and policies, taken collectively, are practical daily reminders that your life (i.e., your time, energy, and productive labor) is merely at your disposal if and when its real proprietor, the state, has decided that she has no use for it at the moment — so practical and so daily, in fact, that we all gradually learn to ignore these reminders entirely, and to reduce fundamental issues of self-ownership vs. enslavement to mere policy disputes, in which essential liberty and self-determination somehow never seem to be among the policy options on the table.
For the sake of brevity, and to prevent nightmares, let us leave aside for now both today’s perversely pervasive presence of government-operated CCTV cameras and the even more ominous and quickly-evolving world of digital data storage and algorithm-based social and commercial surveillance. Suffice it to say these phenomena are increasingly ubiquitous, and — given the symbiotic relationship developing between the corporate progressive self-servers atop the internet and social media pyramid and the authoritarian progressive schemers atop the modern political pyramid — they are likely to become far more effective means of social monitoring and manipulation than anything hitherto conceived by even the most ambitious tyrants of the twentieth century. This, after all, is why China herself has taken to replacing the old Maoist system of neighborhood spies in favor of new online “morality score” algorithms. The new system is more foolproof, promotes fear and citizen self-censorship more universally, and provides a veneer of objective law to the most brutally arbitrary oppression.
With that, I return to the naïve student question that prompted these reflections: “Are there any countries that are not totalitarian?” Try to answer now, without allowing the insidious effect of “words used without signification” to pull your speech along carelessly ahead of your rational thought.
“Oh, come on,” scoffs the reasonable reader, in defense of his comfortable equilibrium. “I agree with all those concerns you mentioned, and I know the trend is bad — but totalitarian? That concept simply doesn’t comport with any realistic perception of the daily life I am living.”
Let me tell you a little secret. Every semester at my Korean university, I teach a few Chinese exchange students. They all use smart phones, wear trendy clothes, listen to pop songs, have boyfriends or girlfriends, love their mothers’ cooking, play sports or other games for amusement, watch comedy programs or romantic dramas on television, drink beer with their friends, and enjoy traveling during their vacations. They are not propaganda props or paid actors. They are normal young people, reasonably intelligent and well-educated by modern standards, living lives that, looked at superficially, seem just like yours and mine.
Or perhaps the resemblance is more than superficial. Perhaps none of the signs of modern normality listed above has anything essential to do with the question of freedom vs. oppression. For if you deny that communist China is a totalitarian country, then you have rendered the word “totalitarian” meaningless and obsolete. And yet if you met my Chinese students, you might be left wondering how their daily lives as social beings are so fundamentally different from yours.
That is exactly my point about the effects of normalcy bias, words used without signification, and the current state of political reality in the so-called free world. (And if you are inclined to say, “But, unlike the Chinese, I can vote for new leaders,” then I suggest we have come full circle, and invite you to review my previous response to that objection, above.)