How seriously should anyone take complaints that American society is “totalitarian”? After all, people here can mostly say and do what they want. Elections are free, the press uncensored, the police and courts comparatively honest and law-abiding, person and property generally secure. Education, religion and culture are as independent of outside control as their practitioners are willing to make them.
The statement thus seems too extreme to justify. Nonetheless, there is truth in it, at least as a matter of tendency. “Totalitarian” does not mean “extremely violent.” What it means is suggested by Mussolini’s statement that “everything is in the State, and nothing human or spiritual exists, much less has value, outside the State.” The basic point of totalitarianism, then, is not that the state should use overwhelming brutality, it’s that the state by its very nature overwhelms opposition—that it is the supreme source and embodiment of everything spiritual and moral, so that opposition to it is illegitimate and even meaningless.
The word thus refers most fundamentally not to inhuman methods but to an inhuman understanding of the nature of social existence that has emerged in the wake of the disordering of tradition and “death of God.” Any social order that recognizes no spiritual or moral authority transcending human desire, and that accepts the modern technological outlook, tends toward that understanding and therefore toward totalitarianism. Advanced liberalism does not explicitly say that it is the source and embodiment of spiritual and moral order, but it denies validity to all spiritual and moral order that lies outside itself—it insists that such order can only be a purely private taste—and that comes to the same thing. American institutions have quite generally adopted advanced liberal principles and committed themselves to rooting out all others. It may thus be said that while the bulk of our practices are not yet totalitarian, our ideals as officially stated have become so, and to the extent we “live up to” them we become totalitarian.
The problem is quite fundamental. Liberal modernity is analytical and individualistic, while man is a social being who becomes human through participation in a shared social order. Since wills conflict, the order must possess an authority that transcends the wills of individuals. Otherwise, it would not be an order at all.
If no such order is given by nature or God, man must nonetheless construct one. However, collective man can only construct something so fundamental in a figurative sense, through the slow growth of consensus and tradition. In the modern world, that process has been disrupted. Only a small and cohesive group can hope to reach agreement and act decisively on fundamental issues.
Under such conditions, the absolute human requirement that there be social order means that some such group must be given sufficient power to decide what the order is and establish and maintain it. To give a small and cohesive group such power, while denying that there is any higher standard by which to judge their actions, is to turn that group itself into the ultimate standard. It is to authorize it to remake human reality and so make itself a substitute for God.
It is the conversion of governing elites into a sort of this-worldly God that is the essence of totalitarianism. As Mussolini says, “nothing human or spiritual exists, much less has value” outside the order the ruling group creates and controls. It follows that in principle neither natural nor divine law can set a limit on what they do. As a consequence the general run of humanity is reduced to insignificance except as material to be worked on.
In what sense, however, can a constructed social order transcend individual wills? After all, if God is dead there is no natural law that subordinates the individual will to collective decisions. The transcendence the public order possesses can therefore consist only in the deference it actually receives from those subject to it. Several reasons come to mind why it might receive that deference:
- Habit. If things go well, men are kept busy and amused, not much is demanded of them, and independent institutions are weakened, deference will be the easiest course and will become habitual.
- Confusion. Transcendence is necessary to the way people understand things, so in spite of explicit philosophy it creeps back into whatever is thought authoritative and gives it support to which it has no right.
- Manipulation. Free and reasoned discourse can be suppressed in various ways, for example by PC and by the centralization and professionalization of intellectual life. The governing classes use their control of education and intellectual life to persuade people that deference is always in their best interest, and opposition is pathological. They also appeal to various myths and symbols (the Flag, the Constitution, Martin Luther King, the Holocaust), and substitute them for arguments.
- Fear. When other reasons are bad, the ultima ratio comes to the foreground. Also, irresistible violence unquestionably transcends one’s will in a way that can’t be ignored, and therefore must be taken seriously as a guide to action.
What distinguishes hard and soft totalitarianism is the degree of reliance on various of the foregoing. Hard totalitarianism relies on fear, soft totalitarianism more on the other factors. That makes it harder for it to extinguish human elements at odds with its totalitarian outlook and policies. On the other hand, the difficulty leads to closer attention to various systems of manipulation that show some promise of greater effectiveness than terror. Under communism people knew they were being lied to and respect for the classics survived. Under advanced liberalism, people are cynical but they don’t disbelieve what they’re told and they have no respect whatever for intellect.
The similarities between soft and hard totalitarianism are fundamental. Both are total regimes, in the sense that each feels called upon to remake human life comprehensively, in accordance with abstract principles and without regard to restrictions other than the ones they impose upon themselves. In both regimes rulers and ruled accordingly differ fundamentally, since the latter essentially count as raw material for the reconstructive schemes of the former. And in both the rulers deny that any of these things are so, and claim to base their power on the will of the people.
The argument so far has been quite abstract. How do these principles play out concretely in real life in America today? The basic objection to the managerial liberal order is that it destroys what makes us human and reduces us to the level of animals. Our rulers are willing to recognize that we want things and suffer, but not that our free participation is needed for realization of moral order. The latter is to be brought about by the correct and thorough administrative implementation of the schema upon which the regime is based. The role of the people is to be “tolerant” and “open to change”—in short, to do as they’re told and like it.
The situation is symbolized by the difficulty professional philosophers now have distinguishing us morally from dogs. The difficulty arises from several tendencies that tend to abolish the setting in which a fully human life is possible:
- By abolishing shared public meanings, liberal modernity deprives man of a social world that means anything. The only possible motive for public observances today is the celebration of diversity—that is, of the absence of commonly-accepted meanings. Architecture, dress, and manners express the difference between the past and the post-60s present. Where those things were once designed to furnish an ordered public world in which all participated, they now display a mixture of slovenliness, personal assertiveness, and sentimentality.
- The current order of things thus cuts off significant connections among human beings. Further, the welfare state, the demands of “inclusiveness,” the multiplication of increasingly radical individual rights, and the emphasis on purely economic and bureaucratic considerations all promote the abolition of informal local and traditional institutions like family and people.
- Liberal modernity also deprives man’s moral agency of significance. If our choices and acts affect others we dominate them to that extent, contrary to the principle of equal freedom necessitated by the abolition of God and the consequent equal legitimacy of all desires. It follows that things that affect others cannot be left up to the decisions of individuals but must be decided by expert functionaries on morally neutral grounds. Anything else would be oppressive.
- Further, we and our acts are significant only if we have a stable identity that matters because the things that constitute it include qualities and connections that establish our membership in a particular enduring community. Liberal modernity abolishes connection, community and continuity. It thus destroys concrete personal identity and the possibility of meaningful action.
All these injuries are in a sense ideal. Some people might like to be freed from the shackles of family, culture and good manners, and so not view them as injuries. They might prefer the life of a well-tended domestic animal to that of a human being. Still, our custodians are not in fact gods, and we are not beasts. Acting as if things were so has consequences that are harder to shrug off than ideal injuries. Those consequences are the stuff of our commentary on current events here at
To suggest a few of the consequences: One that is more important than it appears is “bowling alone”, the radical decline in membership in social and civic organizations in recent years. Another is the replacement of normal systems of friendly and voluntary cooperation among neighbors, colleagues and fellow-citizens, based on common habits, understandings and commitments, with the carrot and the stick. The collapse of educational standards is yet another. Then there is the obvious brutalization of culture and a radical increase in misbehavior. And even if those can all be shrugged off or explained away, an utterly decisive consequence in the long run is the physical disappearance of the peoples who buy into liberal modernity through their failure to reproduce themselves. None of these things is as dramatically cruel as the Great Terror, but collectively they mean the degradation of souls and the destruction of a people and a civilization. And there can be few things more worth fighting than that.