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Is liberalism totalitarian?

My Liberal Lawyer correspondent has provoked me to the following reflections on the relationship between liberalism and totalitarianism:

How you use political words depends on the features of political life you think deserve to be played up. People view these things differently so maybe the best I can do is explain what I have in mind and see where we agree and where we differ.

We can probably agree that totalitarianism has two aspects, substantive and procedural:

  1. It involves a doctrine of man, society and the world that claims to be complete, final and plainly correct. People who reject the doctrine are thought stupid, evil or crazy, and have nothing worthwhile to say. It is able to make that claim persuasive to its followers—totalitarianism couldn’t exist if it didn’t have lots of followers—because the doctrine radically simplifies human existence and makes some one thing that is capable of clear definition and concrete realization the standard by which all issues are to be judged. That ultimate standard is normally the triumph of someone’s will or a bogus claim of special expertise possessed by some small group (e.g., “scientific socialism”).
  2. That isn’t a normal way to look at things. The only pre-modern examples I can think of are from the Warring States period in China. So somehow normal human thought and reactions are disrupted and suppressed. That’s likely to involve various devices that keep the doctrine from being effectively questioned and opposed. In the most obvious cases of totalitarianism the mechanism is also obvious—mass terror. Since you agree that Brave New World was totalitarian though you agree that much less brutal devices are also possible.

To my mind the first is the fundamental point. For me the basic question regarding anything social or political is what kind of surroundings and what kind of life people end up with. As to any one of us the social world always involves lots and lots of compulsion. So I view totalitarianism as basically the imposition on the whole of human life of a simple easily-graspable total explanation of everything that provides a clear enforceable rule for deciding all issues. Its essence isn’t mass terror, it’s suffocating and inhuman totality. A front-line soldier experiences mass terror but not normally totalitarianism. I read somewhere that in Russia durring WW II men actually felt relief when they arrived at the front because they felt they could breath easier.

But what’s needed under the second point? A totalitarian system can’t exist unless lots of people buy into it, and any system of government can be peacefully and legally changed if those who hold power agree to the changes. We saw in Russia that a totalitarian system can fall apart without much violence if everyone just stops believing in it. I suppose there could be a situation in which tyranny of the majority becomes totalitarianism of the majority because people voluntarily agree on something I would view as totalitarian. I’d imagine most people in Brave New World would have voted for the established order. Cults might be another example. Can a voluntary community like Jonestown be totalitarian? I don’t see why not.

So to my mind what’s basic on the second point is some radical distortion in how people form their beliefs and attitudes. A problem of course is that we judge distortions in how people form beliefs and attitudes partly by looking at the ones they actually form. Still, life is difficult and not all problems can be avoided.

All of which is very vague so here’s how I apply it:

  1. My primary claim is that liberal ideology is totalitarian. It reduces politics to the utter simplicity of human will and equality (Rawls’ two standards), and then expands politics to supervise all significant human relations everywhere so they can be brought in line with that standard (international human rights pronouncements and documents are an example). The ultimate standard is thus a combination of the triumph of the will, with each will counting equally, and claims of expertise—philosophers, judges, bureaucrats, therapists and whatnot are needed to identify what people really want and then go through the technical process of arranging things so all desires get satisfied as much and as equally as possible. Those who don’t buy into the ideology are ignorant, stupid or sick—to be specific, they’re bigots. The only relevance their views have to government is that government should do what it can to cure people of such views.
  2. My secondary claim is that liberalism arises from distortions in how beliefs and attitudes form. That has a theoretical and a practical aspect. The theoretical aspect is the view that modern natural science is the model for all knowledge and belief, so that knowledge and belief should be (1) determined by trained experts operating by professional standards that leave out qualitative considerations to the extent possible, and (2) oriented toward practical prediction and control. The practical aspect is then the growth of professionalism and the centralization and rationalization of social, cultural and intellectual life.
  3. Most of what people see and hear today passes through the mass media which are staffed by professionals conscious of their position and responsibilities who therefore develop professional standards of what goes and what doesn’t go. To the extent they want to know what their standards should be, or a concerned citizen wants to go beyond what’s available on TV, they consult the experts—academics and other professional functionaries in the bureaucracy of knowledge. People think that’s an enlightened and appropriate way of forming opinions. I say it’s a catastrophe. It turns intellectual life and even the formation of popular opinion into a rationalized industrial process that produces products that look perfect but in fact reflect the needs of the process much more than actual human life.
  4. A tertiary claim is that the degree of popular self-rule we have in America and the West generally is much less than you suppose. Fundamental decisions are simply not left up to the people. Evidence for that claim would be the contrast between popular views on affirmative action, mass immigration, and abortion on demand (lopsidedly and durably against) and the results the political and legal process gives us. Do you suppose the American regime was radically secularized—the school prayer decisions were the decisive event—because the people wanted it that way?
  5. I don’t say that what we have today in America and the West is a totalitarian system. I say we have a system that has totalitarian aspects and tendencies, and that the governing ideology to which its elites are committed is totalitarian. The fact that people can talk and organize does matter, and it matters a great deal. It doesn’t sanitize everything though since we don’t in fact have government by the people. Right to lifers can elect—and have elected—Republican president after Republican president who fight, more or less, to get their guys on the courts. It’s a very long and complex process though with lots of steps, and all elite opinion is totally committed to abortion, so it’s very hard to make headway uphill and keep whatever ground you gain. The same is likely to be true of “gay marriage.” (Incidentally, how will all this play out as international human rights standards become accepted as authoritative?)
  6. The basic problem with liberalism is that it pretends to avoid ultimate questions but it can’t help answering them because it’s a comprehensive theory of government. Since man is social and modern government has pervasive effects the modern state is necessarily intertwined with the whole of human life. If the authoritative social view on which all law is based is that all ultimate answers are of equal value and each should be treated equally then that in itself is an ultimate answer: it says that each man makes his own good by choosing it, and since each equally makes choices the goods of each man are equally good. That’s a complete theory of the good, so it’s an ultimate answer like any other ultimate answer.