The totalitarian impulse

I find myself coming back to the word “totalitarian” a lot these days.  It’s an ugly word. 

Totalitarianism places all aspects of life under the control of a centralized authority.  It is a common misconception that democracy and totalitarianism are mutually exclusive.  Sadly, that is not the case.  The “centralized authority” can be managed by elected representatives.  It can develop institutional power that survives the occasional departure of defeated incumbents.  The most powerful incumbents don’t really leave the system when they lose elections anyway.

If you would resist the totalitarian impulse, your most important goal is to resist the spread of politics into every aspect of life.  The specific electoral mechanisms of a given political system become less relevant as it expands in size.  You always end up with authority triumphant over dissent. 

Democracy is a buffer against the totalitarian impulse, but not a barrier.  It obliges the State to expend more energy on manipulating the people than a dictatorship would need to oppress them.  As the State grows, the amount of influence and coercion it can deploy against voters increases as well.  Larger carrots and sticks appear in the hands of politicians. 

Deploying those resources to influence voters inevitably forces politics into a greater percentage of private life.  More aspects of life become subject to official control, from the goods we purchase to the food we eat.  Beyond the direct legal influence of the government, an expanding penumbra of life choices and cultural preferences assume political significance.  Leaders become celebrities, and celebrities with the right politics become leaders.  Ideology permeates everything.  Discourse becomes hot and bitter, because thickening strands of influence connect previously apolitical subjects to party agendas.

There is great power to be harvested through the marriage of politics and culture, because culture can be used to program the public mind with certain ideas, shaping the boundaries of debate.  Pre-emptive strikes with cultural ordnance can destroy dangerous political figures before they win broad popularity among the electorate.  The terminology used in political debates can be defined through culture.  Dissenters can be marginalized by selling the illusion that they float in lonely orbits, far beyond the light and warmth of consensus.  It is very useful to be the arbiter of what “everyone knows.”

Of course free speech eventually suffers.  The masters of a totalitarian democracy may be prevented from officially suppressing it, as a dictator would, but it’s not too difficult to get the people to muzzle each other.  Every society has taboos.  Cultural leaders can easily manufacture a few more, at the convenience of their political allies.

The growth of government inevitably shrinks the boundaries of acceptable discourse.  As the “center” swings closer to total State power, notions of independence vanish into the “extremes.”  When independence is equated with selfishness, any recovery of liberty from the State becomes “greed.”  The people are assured that “progress” runs inevitably toward larger government, and history does not have a reverse gear.  Reducing or dissolving even the most dismally failed program is unthinkable, because it’s portrayed as an attack upon the beneficiaries, and they are quite ready to fight back. 

The political calculus of dependency makes a growing number of positions politically untenable, while the urgency of financing a massive government sweeps more options off the table.  High-voltage political “third rails” multiply.  Government does more, but less of what it does is subject to the approval of voters.  Verbal dissent in some areas may be permitted, but practical dissent – the withdrawal of consent – becomes impossible.

Worst of all, once the totalitarian impulse has been indulged, it very quickly develops a monstrous appetite for growth.  The many dependents of a swelling State have a strong common interest in nourishing its further expansion.  They can be easily persuaded that any cut to government will come out of their hide.  Political capital becomes a vital resource for every industry.  The demand for anti-competitive advantages, and insurance policies against failure, increases. 

Politicians assert with increasing confidence that every problem is evidence for further growth of the government.  They’re very good at blaming their private-sector “partners” for any deficiencies in joint endeavors, and their increasing power gives them plenty of opportunities to create crises they can later exploit with demands for greater power.  There are never enough regulations, “stimulus” bills are never big enough, and affluent citizens always have a little more money to “contribute.”  When the machinery of the State is everywhere, all breakdowns require the immediate repair services of a qualified politician.

All of these things result naturally from raising the level of political influence in society… any society.  Totalitarianism can be imposed externally, or grown organically.  It can be delivered by agencies with the best of intentions, employed toward benevolent ends, and wrapped in the language of “freedom.”  It can be voted into office, and re-elected by bare majorities.  The only way to defeat it is to reject it utterly.  That’s much harder than it sounds, because the totalitarian impulse is seductive in its youth, persistent in adolescence, and very intimidating when it reaches maturity.