Monday, November 30, 2009

What Is Totalitarianism?



If the United States came under the control of a totalitarian regime, would we recognize it? This question is of utmost importance today, when many of us harbor fears that some time in the near future ideas such as freedom, liberty, and privacy will be alien to our society. But as we witness the regular passage of legislation designed to restrict and regulate, and the tendency of the Federal government to increase rather than decrease its power (with a handful of exceptions), we are struck by the uninterrupted routine of life in the USA . As the central government brings more and more of private society under its control, we continue to watch cable TV, shop at supermarkets overflowing with products, and eat at our favorite restaurants. Could it be that we have already passed that dreaded threshold and missed it? The trouble with diagnosing our condition is that most people are unaware of what totalitarianism actually is. Among even the most politically astute, there is little mental room for the possibility that a state in the process of becoming totalitarian might lack the most brutal and outward signs of oppressive regimes portrayed in popular culture. Because of our rather simplistic frame of reference—picture black and white images of National Socialist Germany or the Soviet Union —we recognize a country as either being in the advanced stages of totalitarianism or not at all. But just because a state maintains the structures and language of democracy and continues to have elections, for instance, that does not preclude it from being totalitarian. In fact, North Korea has a constitution and holds regular elections with three competing political parties—the Workers' Party of Korea , the Korean Social Democratic Party, and the Chondoist Chongu Party—all united under an organization called the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland. In April 2009, North Korea revised its constitution to include Article 8, which reads, “The State respects and protects the human rights of the workers, peasants and working intellectuals who have been previously freed from exploitation and oppression and have become masters of the State and society.” Yet North Korea is recognized as being one of the most oppressive totalitarian states in the world. Totalitarianism and authoritarianism do not necessarily go hand in hand. Throughout human history, most governments have been authoritarian, but totalitarianism didn’t appear until the 20th Century. That is because until the birth of mass society, governments lacked the means to exercise total control over a large population. Tribes and municipalities may have sworn fealty to an overlord or emperor, for example, but beyond collecting taxes or levying armies, the monarch took very little interest in the personal lives of his or her subjects. Personal behavior was left to be governed by custom or religion. Totalitarianism is therefore not specifically a system of government, but a way of organizing society by means of a powerful, centralized modern state. It requires a mass media, education, and political culture in which the state—that is to say a class of bureaucrats and officials governing a large geographic area—takes over every aspect of civil society. Totalitarianism, as succinctly defined by former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, is “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” The totalitarian mind views individuals not as citizens with their own interests, but as dependents with only one interest, and as such, it attempts to organize these masses around a particular ideology. Any thoughts, words, or actions that do not conform to this dominant ideology are made criminal or driven underground. In short, the state seeks total control over the people living within its jurisdiction. Totalitarian regimes attempt to achieve this control through personality cults, by mobilizing the population into national organizations, by censoring the media, through mass surveillance, and through various levels of state ownership of commerce and the means of production. Traditionally, though with some exceptions, governments have recognized a distinction between public and private life. The earliest civil laws governed interactions between individuals that could result in material or physical harm. The totalitarian state, on the other hand, seeks to extend its authority not just over the public actions of a person, but to his or her own private associations, family life, and possessions as well. The individual interest thereby dissolves into the public interest, or in the words of radical leftist Carol Hanisch, “the personal is political.” Ultimately, the totalitarian goal is not just legal control over our actions, but our thoughts as well. Finally, totalitarianism is a teleological worldview, meaning that the totalitarian mind sees all of history as unfolding toward an inevitable end—whether it be a communist state, a world government, or some other utopia. This end result, though never really achieved (thus the need for a “perpetual revolution”), is held up as a justification for every possible abuse, including mass murder. After all, opponents of the regime are simply getting in the way of historical progress. Therefore, totalitarianism requires not only a belief in the power of the centralized state to eliminate all of humanity’s woes, but a belief in the inevitable victory of that state over private interests. As Mussolini inferred, there is nothing the totalitarian fears more than an individual acting outside the state. It is vitally important to understand that totalitarianism is not an exotic or abstract idea, but a reality of the contemporary world. It is something that we do not often recognize in our society, but is nevertheless an ever-present and growing danger.In the first part of this essay, we defined totalitarianism as the state-orchestrated dissolution of the private sphere, initiated by an ideologically-driven political organization with the goal of exercising total control over the population of a country. In the words of the father of Italian fascism, Giovanni Gentile, the totalitarian state seeks “total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals.” While this control is most obvious and pronounced under a dictatorship, it is not entirely absent in democratic republics. A legislature may vote in favor of a totalitarian state just as easily as a dictator may impose one. This is totalitarianism in theory, but in order to fully understand what totalitarianism is, we must recognize it in practice. In practice, totalitarianism is expressed in the mass surveillance of the public, in laws that criminalize a broad range of activities usually reserved for individual discretion, as well as in direct government interference in matters of business and religion. These laws are enacted with the purpose of organizing a country around a particular social, political, and economic ideology—such as Marxist-Leninism, Islamism, State Corporatism, etc.—and to restrict dissent against that ideology. There are several areas that have become fertile ground for the growth of totalitarianism in recent years: the Internet, electronic surveillance, and thoughtcrime. The Internet, as the most obvious symbol of the free exchange of ideas in the contemporary world, has routinely come under attack by totalitarians of all stripes. The People’s Republic of China , for instance, maintains a force of over 30,000 “Internet police,” who monitor the country’s estimated 338 million Internet users. Among other restrictions, no one in China may use the Internet to “incite to overthrow the government or the socialist system,” “injure the reputation of state organs,” or “promote feudal superstitions.” Most of these regulations can be broadly interpreted to shut down any dissent—or even discussion to that effect—against the state or its official ideology. China ’s Internet police monitor discussion groups and chat rooms and erase comments that are deemed unsympathetic to the government. Keywords such as “Falun Gong” and “Red Terror” are blocked on search engines. China is not the only totalitarian state to target the Internet. Use of the Internet in Cuba , North Korea , and Burma requires official permission, and even then its users are heavily scrutinized. Those are, of course, the most extreme examples of Internet censorship in the world, utilizing the least sophisticated means of regulation. By attempting to erase online privacy, many democratic governments have embraced mass surveillance—another hallmark of totalitarianism—to attack the free flow of information on the World Wide Web. At the beginning of November, the Daily Telegraph reported that the British Home Office established new rules for telecom companies and Internet Service Providers requiring them to “keep a record of every customer’s personal communications, showing who they are contacting, when, where, and which websites they are visiting.” This information is now accessible to 653 public bodies, including police and the Financial Services Authority, without permission from a judge or magistrate. In June 2008, the Swedish parliament, led by the Swedish Social Democratic Party, approved a similar law that allowed a government agency called the National Defence Radio Establishment to tap its citizens’ cross-border Internet and phone communication, meaning that all digital information coming into Sweden is now carefully monitored. The mass surveillance of communication is only one way totalitarians threaten privacy through electronic means. In recent years, closed circuit cameras have sprung up all over urban areas. While we in the West are quick to criticize the Chinese government for its surveillance programs, London , England has one of the highest number of street-corner cameras in the world; 10,524 to be exact, or roughly 16 cameras for every square mile. The United States is not far behind. Washington , DC has led the country with its network of over 5,200 cameras (or roughly 76 per square mile), recently linked together by the Video Interoperability for Public Safety program. Mayor Adrian Fenty has cheerfully noted that his video monitoring system will have an “all-hazards” approach, rather than just focusing on crime. According to the Mayor’s own news release, phase two of his project will see “all remaining CCTV user agencies…integrated into a central facility and a new common monitoring facility will be established.” Totalitarianism is further characterized by a government’s desire to go beyond regulating behavior into regulating thought and its expression in the form of speech and the written word. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, this was called “thoughtcrime.” Thoughtcrimes were committed when an individual deviated from official state ideology. Many left-leaning governments have adopted this approach in order to criminalize unfavorable opinions toward officially protected groups or associations. The Canadian Human Rights Act, for instance, “forbids the posting of hateful or contemptuous messages” on the Internet, and while expressing hatred or “possessing hate propaganda” is prohibited, it is allowed if the person’s intent is to illustrate said hatred “for the purpose of removal.” Hate propaganda has been defined by the Supreme Court of Canada as any expression that is “intended or likely to circulate extreme feelings of opprobrium and enmity against a racial or religious group.” Laws against feelings such as hatred are a direct attack on individual opinion and imply that the only appropriate emotions are those approved of by the government. While all of these restrictions are common under totalitarian regimes, they do not in and of themselves constitute totalitarianism. A totalitarian state requires both the tools and a political class who employs those tools in the service of a national ideology. The United States certainly possesses the infrastructure to support a totalitarian state, and various ideologues who would readily embrace totalitarianism, but it lacks a cohesive, dominant ideology. Unlike the three political parties of North Korea , political parties in the United States are not united in a common front. The danger we face in the United States today is that if a particular ideology were to ever gain predominance, a totalitarian state would not be difficult to impose. Since we now know what totalitarianism is and how it operates, we are that much closer to defending ourselves against it. If we wish to prevent a future reminiscent of 1984, our task is threefold: to dismantle the state apparatus that consolidates power into the hands of the Federal government, to expose the agenda behind mass surveillance, censorship, and thought crimes, and to prevent the nationalization of private industry. While we cannot force the totalitarian-minded to give up their designs, we can make it difficult for them to force those designs upon us. Educating ourselves in the what and how of totalitarianism is just the first step in that battle.Source: Strike At The Root


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