Way back in college, I was fascinated by totalitarianism. In retrospect, I was probably a budding libertarian even then, so the idea that people would submit to a system that took away all their freedom at the threat of being shot in the head was perplexing to me. That which perplexes me also amazes me.
This election season saw that word “totalitarianism” thrown about a lot. According to Kevin Williamson at the National Review, it was the Democrats’ theme for 2016. He had a salient point. John Kerry (who almost won the presidency 12 years ago) told Rolling Stone that he looked forward to seizing Exxon’s assets for the “crime” of questioning global warming. The Democrats had recently voted in the Senate to essentially repeal the 1st Amendment, proposing to imprison people for holding the wrong view on global warming. At the time time, they were seeking to prohibit the showing of a film critical of Hillary Clinton. They had filed felony charges against a Republic governor for vetoing a piece of legislation. They had used the IRS and ATF as weapons against political critics. They had gone to the Supreme Court to argue that they should be empowered to ban books, films, magazines, and newspapers when they desire to do so for political reasons.
Williamson’s article showed that the Democrats are energetic suppressors of free speech. Lovers of freedom and conservatives cannot be indifferent to this — that’s our speech they intended to prohibit first, and it is us that they were attempting to imprison for our political views.
“Americans might want to think a bit about whether they wish to invest an openly totalitarian political party with the power of the presidency.” Kevin Williamson, National Review
I suspect that may have given some wishy-washy “independent” voters pause and they voted against Hillary Clinton because of it. There is no doubt the Democratic Party has taken on a distinctly totalitarian tone, but we can’t absolve the Republicans of the taint either. The Republicans talk of carpet bombing a borderless enemy, rounding up millions people without the right papers and deporting them, religious tests for national entry, closing parts of the Internet, preventing companies from opening overseas plants, ramping up the drug war, and tightening security all around. Just as you can do many variations on a good white sauce, totalitarianism has variations of flavor, but it’s all the same basic recipe.
The key to understanding totalitarianism, whether fascist or socialist in practice, is to understand that it is an ideology that admits no limits on the power and competence of the state. There is no aspect of life that is conceptually beyond the reach of the political sphere.The state is potentially master of the totality of society.
Where do we stand today? Each side in the great ideological divide of our time admits some limits of state power, but they don’t agree on what those limits should be. Working together in a great political exchange, each pretending to resist giving what the other wants, they creep slowly toward that total state, keeping us distracted by the swing pendulum that ultimately means nothing.
Whether we like it or not, we saw totalitarianism on display in the Trump-Clinton standoff. There were gigantic differences between these two candidates in their tone, emphasis, cultural signaling, targeted constituencies, and priorities for the use of power, but they totally agreed that the power of the state should always predominate over individual liberty. Neither of them sees a separation between society and the state. There is no sphere of life that they recognize where politics dare not tread. You never heard either on of them talk about individuals and their right to be left alone.
F.A. Hayek (Road to Serfdom) observed the urge to dominate is usually a multi-party phenomenon. Hayek saw that the right and the left in Europe in the 1940s were really two flavors of the same poison. They offered competing versions of a total state. They were united in their mutual opposition to liberalism and that created the conditions for a full-scale embrace of top-down servitude.
Neither the right nor the left can institute totalitarianism on their own because they have to appeal to their particular constituencies which are built opposition to the other. The right warns of the egalitarianism and cultural alienation of the left, and the left warns of the police-state tactics and nationalism of the right. Their disagreement concerns the priorities and purposes of state power, not its general expediency.
Hayek notes that the road of the total state is marked by “the increasing similarity between the economic views of the Right and Left and their common opposition to the Liberalism.” Socialism and fascism fully agreed that the competitive market economy of free enterprise had failed and must be destroyed.
The doctrines which had guided the ruling elements in Germany for the past generation were not opposed to the socialism in Marxism, but to the liberal elements contained in it, its internationalism and its democracy. Hayek
And as it became increasingly clear that it was just these elements which formed obstacles to the realization of socialism, the socialists of the left approached more and more to those of the right. The anti-capitalist forces of the right and the left unified, radical and conservative socialism fused, driving out everything that was liberal in Germany and ultimately creating the fascists.
Back then, the respective constituencies of the right and left were led to believe they were opposing something dangerous that would otherwise claim victory. In that contentious atmosphere, it was easy to overlook the points of unity within the whole structure.
- that all production must be regulated by the state
- the institution of money belongs to the state and must be managed by the state
- the health and education of the people is primarily a state responsibility
- the management of the macroeconomic environment is mainly a task that falls to the state
- an individual’s primary duty and responsibility is to society (through the state)
In previous campaigns Republicans at least made some attempt to promise dramatic cuts in government. They didn’t follow through, but they at least paid lip service to the need. This time we heard vague calls for “reform,” and hopes that the existing systems can be made to work better. The GOP once promised to repeal Obamacare. Now they’re discussing “tweaks”. Budget cuts? Candidates fear being specific. Tax cuts? They fear being called partisans of the rich. Deregulation? That would surely cause chaos.
Hayek identified a number of features of the totalitarian mind.
- The totalitarian mindset does not fear the coming of totalitarianism. That was then with those people over there. It’s not now with us here. We can handle it.
- It rules out economic liberalism as a solution to economic crisis. No one is willing to say that letting the market work is the best way forward. Letting the “unseen hand” work would lead to chaos.
- It venerates the state and its symbols, admires power, and celebrates “leadership” as the answer.
- It has enthusiasm for organizing everything; nothing is beyond the power of the rational mind to manage and improve.
- It disparages institutions and processes that are organic to the social order, rather than those that are designed, imposed, and supervised from above.
- It values expediency over principles; indeed, it avoids any talk of the application of fundamental principles to political life. That’s not practical and would lead to chaos.
- There is a disappearance of the liberal intellectual tradition, so that there is no more talk of historical proponents of liberty or great resistance to state power.
- In political rhetoric, the distinction between society and state evaporates to the point that the state is assumed to be extension of the will of individuals. “We” are prosecuting a war in the Middle East … forget that “I” didn’t ask for the government of our country to interfere in the internal workings of another country.
- There is a penchant for “scientific management” of the social order, so that specialists in management and measurement overtake moral philosophy and liberal arts.
- Political forces imagine the creation of a unitary society: we crush terrorism, we stop greed, we create equality, we participate in the creation of greatness. And if you disagree, you’re a force for chaos who must be opposed.
It’s not hard to be pessimistic about the future of classical liberalism. We’re surrounded by the signs of totalitarianism on the rise and our light seems so small. Fortunately, not all of life is politics. Thanks to the emergence of a vast and infinitely complex and global information infrastructure of limitless communication and creativity, the world is far too advanced to be truly controlled from the center. But hang on because getting through this mess may be a very bumpy ride.