Swans Commentary » swans.com March 13, 2006  



Totalitarianism Then And Now


by Michael Doliner





(Swans - March 13, 2006)   The word "totalitarianism" is, in itself, a piece of deft propaganda. With it spinmeisters yolk together the Nazis and Stalinists and claim that leftists are Stalinists and hence Nazis. Burdened with this harness the left had to drag Hitler and Stalin along as baggage. "Totalitarianism" became a tool in the ideological battle of the Cold War and effectively turned a class struggle into a struggle between "freedom" and Nazism. Now which side are you on?

Hannah Arendt, in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, had another view of totalitarianism. Although she did identify both Hitler's Reich and Stalin's Soviet Union as totalitarian regimes, she would not have labeled all leftist governments as totalitarian. Totalitarianism is not a form of government, but a mass movement organized as a political party that hijacks the state and uses it as the tool to set in motion a whirlwind. In both Nazi Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union the party rather than the state had power. Totalitarian regimes don't have normal political goals, but under the guise of a utopian vision they let loose the apocalyptic urges of mass man. Those in power harbor dark longings for the end of the world. Inside totalitarian regimes the population is atomized, first stripped of all non-party affiliations, and then, through indoctrination, emptied even of thought. Once they are in this condition the leader can say the most outrageous things and ignore the most obvious facts without any opposition. Day-to-day reversals of direction stir no ripples. Totalitarianism is immensely destructive, unstable, and like a hurricane, soon exhausted. Post-Stalin Soviet governments may have been authoritarian, but not totalitarian. The use of the word to characterize Saddam Hussein's Iraq is also wrong.

Arendt claims that totalitarianism is a new phenomenon different from the forms of government that the Greeks identified long ago, such as democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny. We can only judge for ourselves whether or not her description fits our situation, but what we are seeing in the Bush administration is no ordinary government. They seem to be on a constant frantic vacation. Whenever needed they are not there. If something actually has to be done, for example during and after Hurricane Katrina, we can be sure they will bungle the job or simply not bother to do it. Is it intentional or accidental bungling? With this administration that seems to be a legitimate question, but it is useless to ask them anything. Their words so surely and obviously conceal the truth that one can comfortably dismiss anything they say as lies just because they said it. Their violations of the Constitution damage not merely the law but the very idea of law, for they interpret law arbitrarily, revealing that written words no longer have a definite meaning. The world under their rule is a slow-motion crack-up. Their senseless cruelty makes one yearn for the good old days of the Caligula administration. It is futile to continue to expose their lies, their crimes, and their incompetence, for these are their strengths. Certainly Bush and his ministers are very cunning, but are they also mad? Are they intentionally or only blindly hurtling down the road to doom?

Totalitarianism is a mass movement with political power. Masses, according to Arendt, are not merely large groups of people, but people who find they are, and feel, superfluous to the workings of society around them. They are at the start people who have lost their place in the world, and when in power they are "bohemians with guns." Having been thrown out or having withdrawn from all social affiliations, they have no stake in the world as it is, and had been thought, until the totalitarian movements, politically irrelevant. They are a collection of underground men, atomized individuals. The collapse of the class structure of Europe and the political parties that represented class interests produced the European masses. Many of the members of these classes had had no particular political lives, but had gone along with the leaders of the parties that represented their interests. When the class structure disintegrated after World War I, the goals of the now atomized classes became absurd. The formerly apolitical members of all classes became the confused mass men. They found themselves adrift, without any organized affiliations. Without context, mass men lost their bearings and even their understanding of their own self-interest. Confused by their situation, without practical alliances or class affiliations, they were drawn to a vision that promised to end their suffering.

When Nixon appealed to the "silent majority" he appealed to a mass that was defined by its lack of political participation. These people felt themselves to be on the outside of the politics of the late sixties. Earlier, when unions were stronger, America had a fairly well-defined class structure. The unionized working class was conscious of itself, but it mistakenly depended upon the Democratic Party to represent its interests. The Democratic Party's purpose was to siphon off support for the left through strategic concessions that transferred no power, such as those of the New Deal. Nevertheless, there was an attempt to form a Labor Party. The crucial moment came in 1948 when Progressive Party voters turned away from Henry Wallace at the last minute and voted for the Democrat, Truman, to keep Dewey from being elected. That's why the famous polls were all wrong. Truman won, but far more importantly, the Progressive Party was weakened and soon lost its place on the ballot. With the Progressive Party went the last chance for an American Labor Party. The left has been forced to vote for Democrats as the lesser evil ever since. Without any political voice the working class saw more and more of the New Deal concessions erode. Indeed, the unions themselves shrank as the rich discovered many ways to avoid hiring unionized labor.

By the sixties the red scare and accusations of "totalitarianism" had killed the labor party. The "New Left," cowed by accusations of "totalitarianism," was "new" because it was non-ideological. Instead of thought it had theater. It was not class based or class conscious, and was largely middle class. Opposition not only to the Vietnam War but to the military itself, civil rights activism that seemed to threaten working class jobs, and the disruptive counter culture threatened the working class "silent majority" who were already losing their place. Their longing for an imaginary former American paradise, especially after Nixon conjured up an image of it, was simply a desire for what they thought they had had. With unions already weakened, free market ideology persuaded many to abandon working class loyalty and join the imaginary "ownership society." Here is how Joe Bageant assesses today's blue-collar barely working class.

Every customer at Burt's loves George Bush. Worships George Bush. One reason is because George Bush doesn't give a shit. When his detractors point out the complete fraud of WMDs, he doesn't give a shit. When newspapers worldwide suggest Bush may be the biggest international threat today, Bush does not give a shit. This gives him street cred among these people who for better or worse, I must call my own. (1)

Bageant's people who don't give a shit are mass men. They enjoy the atmosphere of violence and apocalypse so characteristic of the totalitarian scene.

Evangelical Christians with their rapture that they love to talk about but deny they long for are also mass men. Their issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, are all selfless, having nothing to do with them. Underneath their feel-good rhetoric is an immense longing for the end of the world.

So what does Zechariah say is going to happen? What Zechariah says when this happens, "And all nations," he says, "the Lord will come and all of His angels, Holy Ones with Him, and they will fight for Jerusalem."

We're looking at some serious prophetic significance. Watch the year 2007, because that's 40 years after the Jews took over Jerusalem, but it's also 400 years after the first permanent English settlers started the United States of America

I pray, I pray that we won't get crosswise with the prophecy of God. But it looks like we're heading down the so-called road map as hard as we can go, driven by the Arabs, driven by the Russians, driven by the Europeans, driven by the United Nations, all saying, "Let's put the squeeze on tiny, little Israel". And God, Himself, is going to fight for Israel. (2)

Totalitarian propagandists organize masses through an appeal, not to their self-interests as one might with a social class, but to a selfless vision of some politically unattainable goal. Mass men are not interested in obtaining some benefit for themselves and their allies, but want to transform the whole world. When people have lost their bearings through social disintegration the world looks wrong and such goals can be mesmerizing. For the Nazis the goal was a pure Aryan state; for the Stalinists, a classless society; for fundamentalist Christians, the rapture; for the silent majority, white picket-fence America. The end is always distant, the means apocalyptic. The masses who responded to these goals were not the common people, but just as frequently people from the cultured classes who had likewise lost their bearings in social turmoil. Many intellectuals and aristocrats supported Hitler. The elites of Europe were sick of the hypocritical bourgeois values, and, in the alliance of the elites with the bourgeoisie, it turned out that the bourgeoisie were also sick of them. What unifies all these groups is a substitution of utopian vision and apocalyptic longings for suddenly lost sense of self-interest. This loss of self-interest even to the point of an indifference to death is a defining characteristic of mass man.

To serve a glorious totalitarian vision is to turn the present world into raw material to be transformed somehow into the shining utopia. The utopian dreamer can justify crimes, such as the killing of innocents, as the necessary pains of the old world giving birth to the new. Since the new world is far off he is not surprised or discouraged by his own ignorance as to how to get there or by any lack of apparent progress towards it. He must rely on the leader to tell him which steps lead him along this endless road. He reconciles himself to never living in the new world and easily consoles himself with the belief that he has contributed, however minutely, to this fine purpose. A party member can even acquiesce in his own death, as in the Stalin show trials, so long as he can think his death is a step on this glorious journey.

The first totalitarian leaders come from the mob, rather than the mass. Arendt distinguishes between masses and mobs. A mob is something like the mafia, people who are outside the rules of the state, but still embrace the values of the dominant class, that is, acquiring wealth and position. Instead of organizing legitimate capitalist enterprises mobs organize crime, but their goals are exactly the same as the successful businessman's and very much in their own interest. The mob and the bourgeoisie have always had close ties. The popularity of the TV show, The Sopranos, shows just how easily Americans think of mobsters as just ordinary businessmen.

As Joe Bageant says, the masses love Bush because he doesn't give a shit. Bush, in spite of his blue blood origins, could be a totalitarian leader. His drunken lost years bespeak a mass-man anomie, and his family history is full of questionable deals and brushes with the law. The mobster totalitarian leaders inflame the mass by committing the crimes they only dream of, and the war on Iraq is an open crime. Bush flagrantly violates the UN charter and the Constitution. The illegal war is wanton mass murder. Iraq would be a disaster for a normal politician. American soldiers are dying, money is being wasted, and neglected American cities are drowning. What could be worse? But is all this bad for Bush? Pas de tout. True, President Bush's popularity is falling, but a staunch remnant of about forty percent of the population, the core of a remade Republican Party, gleefully supports him. He doesn't give a shit and they don't give a shit. They support him for the very catastrophes outsiders blame him for. Best of all, the rest of the world can't do a damn thing about it.

In truth, for the Bush administration the war is an overwhelming success. Normal citizens think we went to war to win. Not at all, my friend. That just shows how far out into the reality-based left field you are. "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!" (3) said President Bush senior after the Gulf War. The "Vietnam syndrome" is a coinage meant to describe America's reluctance to take casualties in an imperialist war. The ruling elite would like to think this is a mental problem that can be cured through wars in which Americans accustom themselves to being killed, maimed, and crazed. Bush senior hoped the Gulf War had successfully treated this malady, but it had too few casualties. It was too short; we won too easily. Now the long Iraq War is much more effective. Casualty reports have fallen to the back pages and Americans have, indeed, become used to them. Dead, maimed, and crazed soldiers are all part of the normal landscape now. Bush and Rumsfeld don't even have time to sign the letters of condolence and had a machine do it for them. Isn't modern technology something! Otherwise they ignore all returning soldiers except for an occasional photo-op. For a totalitarian leader hatching schemes for endless wars, these casualties serve the purpose of preparing the public for endless losses. You don't want to win an endless war, because winning puts an end to the fun, and endless wars are the plan.

What about the steady disestablishment of the Constitution of the United States? "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to offer what may have been the weakest legal argument for presidential power to conduct warrantless electronic surveillance since Nixon's Justice Department invoked the views of King George III." (4) Surely the exposure of outrageous violations of the Constitution and impeachable offences will hurt Bush! Nope. Mass man will just lap it up. The more lawless the better, and it will further the totalitarian program. Totalitarian regimes require absolute loyalty to the leader. The regime must destroy loyalties to any other organization, political or not, and to any laws and principles, for these other loyalties might conflict with that to the leader. Even though there seems to be no rational need to circumvent the already outrageously authoritarian FISA procedures, circumvention serves to damage the rule of law. Absurd arguments, contorted meanings, and blatant self-contradiction all corrupt language and so further the totalitarian purpose.

Congress has now been trained to follow the leader and Bush chose the Justices of the Supreme Court for their belief in a unitary executive. That is, they affirm that Bush is the absolute boss. Torture and illegal surveillance do not serve to obtain information to protect the country, but do strengthen the anti-legal totalitarian regime. They claim the right to do anything. Anyone who objects to the obvious irrationality merely exposes himself as rational and hence dangerous to the program.

But the world has changed since the first half of the twentieth century. We have already seen Nazism and Stalinism, and our vision is even darker than theirs. Whereas these earlier totalitarianisms could offer a glorious vision at the end of a bloody rainbow, we have no such hope. We are living with a sense of end times. Few can really believe Bush's proclamations of spreading democracy or any other hopeful talk. What inspires the mass is the endless "War on terror" with its growing paranoid atmosphere that justifies proliferating secret police organizations, the dark heart of totalitarianism. Bush has not been able to formulate a utopian vision, and his regime is not really totalitarian -- yet.

For the Bush administration to become totalitarian the Republican Party would have to dominate the government just as the Communist and National Socialist parties did. As long as divisions within the party itself remain this won't happen. Right now the "moderate" Republicans oppose the "social" Republicans in red states where the Democratic Party has all but disappeared. The interests of these two groups are, in the end, incompatible, for bourgeois capitalism sells its commodities with flagrant sexual display, and sex is what the Evangelical Christians want to suppress. Sooner or later the "social" Republicans will have to push out the "moderate" Republicans who still care about their businesses.

The best hope to quell the growing totalitarian storm is within the Republican Party itself. Bush's crimes help militarist corporations but will hurt Main Street America. Even many multinationals will be hurt when peak oil begins to restrict globalization. Bush's wars will cost businesses that depend upon consumer spending, spending that will surely dry up because of the immense deficits used to support the wars. Wal-Mart, Disney World, and General Motors will not thrive in an impoverished totalitarian America. Perhaps the Fitzgerald investigations are a sign of moderate Republican opposition to the Bush coup. But if moderate, that is, imperialist, Republicans are to oppose Bush they will have to do so before he launches his war against Iran, which he seems to have scheduled for this spring. Once that war starts Bush will force wartime unity around his regime. He will suppress dissent and will then be free to blow a new ideology concocted out of "freedom" and "democracy" directly into the empty heads of the uneducated young.

If our present subconstitutional government is to fall to a totalitarian party, Bush himself is essential. Only he is a true mobster-bohemian. We will know we have a totalitarian regime if Bush manages to cancel the election of 2008 or finds a way to run again. But by then it will hardly matter.

Even if we can quiet the totalitarian storm this time, the ever more isolated atomic masses in America will only be waiting to crystallize around a new leader. To end this threat the rich will have to end the more than century-long class war at the heart of our politics and write a new and fairer social contract. In any case, radical change, totalitarian or not, is in our future.


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1.  "Sons of a Laboring God: Getting Down and Dumb at Burt's Tavern," by Joe Bageant, CounterPunch, July 3/4, 2004.  (back)

2.  "On Prophecy and Babylon," by Pat Robertson, patrobertson.com.  (back)

3.  "America and Vietnam: The Unending War," by George C. Herring, Foreign Affairs, Winter 1991/92.  (back)

4.  "Vice President Cheney and The Fight Over 'Inherent' Presidential Powers: His Attempt to Swing the Pendulum Back Began Long Before 9/11," by John W. Dean, FindLaw, February 10, 2006.  (back)

Internal Resources

America the 'beautiful'

Patterns which Connect


About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published March 13, 2006