Totalitarianism

 

My girlfriend has been a bit weirded out by my sudden interest in Fascism over the past few weeks.

Let me explain.

I have been convinced that Fascism is far more misunderstood as a pathology than I previously thought (even very recently). Of course nobody really learns about the policies of other regimes in any depth except as a lever for some mythologized historical event, but the propagation of the word as a “snarl word” (as Greer calls it) and the continuous fear of its resurgence demands a cursory knowledge of what it is that we are denigrating, why it’s worthy of denigration (and of course I hold that it is), and how to avoid the return of such a movement.

Authoritarian regimes are roughly as old as agrarian society is. Totalitarian regimes, though, are a relatively recent invention, requiring technologies (both mechanical and social) that we might consider modern. (Chart credit to Wikipedia)

Totalitarianism Authoritarianism
Charisma High Low
Role conception Leader as function Leader as individual
Ends of power Public Private
Corruption Low High
Official ideology Yes No
Limited pluralism No Yes
Legitimacy Yes No

Authoritarian systems are generally cynical, conservative, and kleptocratic, operating within the limits that their brute power allows, and usually incidentally yielding a private sphere for citizens to live within. Totalitarian systems by contrast have a mandate, a popular vision- their leaders tend to rely on some concomitant concept of legitimacy, they act as ‘puppets of the national will’. Their understanding of the national purview is total- there is not private sphere, the entire system must be rebuilt to the New Vision. This requires centralization, mass mobilization, surveillance, messaging and media control, popular civil service, etc. Totalitarian thought is guided by the idea that the future is knowable and inevitable. By contrast, all that authoritarianism generally requires is a big stick and an improvising spirit. Totalitarianism’s champions in the early 20th century did embrace the phrase and the idea explicitly- and I’m considering reading some of them, out of curiosity.

To be fair, these typologies are not concrete rules but matters of family-resemblance; no two governments are perfectly identical. Putinism is unique to a time and place, as is Chavismo, for instance. (Note: On Russia’s recent deployment of the slur-word “fascism”).

Fascism, typically wedged into our religious Cold War lens as a “far right” phenomenon, is actually a “centrist/populist” movement, outside of the political spectrum, with an intent to “reboot civilization”- it is a rejection of both liberalism and conservativism in our narrow Overton Window. We now understand that this impulse is prone to unfavorable consequences. Anyway, for those that haven’t, I recommend reading Greer’s recent sequence on Fascism.

 

From “Our Comrade the Electron” (really interesting read):

Termen had good timing. Lenin was just about to launch a huge campaign under the curiously specific slogan:

COMMUNISM = SOVIET POWER + ELECTRIFICATION OF THE WHOLE COUNTRY

Why make such a big deal of electrification?

Well, Lenin had just led a Great Proletarian Revolution in a country without a proletariat, which is like making an omelette without any eggs. You can do it, but it raises questions. It’s awkward.

Lenin needed a proletariat in a hurry, and the fastest way to do that was to electrify and industrialize the country.

But there was another, unstated reason for the campaign. Over the centuries, Russian peasants had become experts at passively resisting central authority. They relied on the villages of their enormous country being backward, dispersed, and very hard to get to.

Lenin knew that if he could get the peasants on the grid, it would consolidate his power. The process of electrifying the countryside would create cities, factories, and concentrate people around large construction projects. And once the peasantry was dependent on electric power, there would be no going back.

History does not record whether Lenin stroked a big white cat in his lap and laughed maniacally as he thought of this, so we must assume it happened.

I’m reading Fred Turner’s two books on how The Man (during the Cold War) quietly produced the infrastructure for the much-celebrated ’60’s counterculture which in turn provided the soil for Silicon Valley and the institutions and consumer markets that would birth The (new) Man of the early 21st century. I recently started The Democratic Surround, and then will read From Counterculture to Cyberculture. 

One interesting idea was the belief that one-to-many mass media channels were a naturally authoritarian mode of communication, and that the idea of choice and diversity should be built into not just American messaging but also the structure of American media (thus, the concept of the “surround” that would develop into mid-century weirdness, including the Human Be-Ins that I currently know so little about).

I’ll share any ideas of broad interest as I comb through the book.

From How Silicon Valley Became the Man:

I think there’s always been a tension between the countercultural rhetoric of Silicon Valley and its insurgent but ultimately corporate ethos. It’s much easier to claim a kind of insurgent stance when you are in fact a brand-new industry and you’re taking on groups like Microsoft. At this point, Google is not a small player. It may have come on the scene quickly, but it’s huge, as are Facebook and a number of other local players. So the irony is that they’ve entered a place of corporate dominance with a rhetoric built from an era of business insurgency. That’s an irony that we’re living with at the moment. But I do think that there’s always been a tension between being a liberating force and being The Man. And that goes back to the counterculture.

I always thought the ‘60s and the counterculture were one thing. I didn’t understand until I started doing that book that in fact there were two actually fairly distinct movements, one, the New Left, doing politics to change politics, and the other, what I ended up calling the New Communalists, who were headed back to the land and wanted to change the world by changing essentially their minds, their consciousness. That first group, the New Left, believed in bureaucracy, believed in hierarchy, believed in organizations. The second group, the New Communalists, believed in doing away with all of those things and turning instead to small-scale technologies, LSD, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes, etc. as technologies with which to kind of change our minds.

Having gotten our minds changed, having gotten our heads together, as the phrase went, we could then build communities oriented around the shared mindset. We would no longer need rules. We would no longer need governance. We would no longer need bureaucracy or hierarchy at all. Now the trouble is, when you actually do that, and folks discovered this on the communes, you end up embracing the very social norms that organize life outside of bureaucracy.

Bureaucratic systems are actually really good systems for distributing resources. You have to negotiate. You have to express explicitly what resources exist and how they should be distributed. In a communal system built around shared consciousness, what starts to happen is that people with charisma start to lead and cultural norms kick in. Communes ended up being places that were deeply racially divided, even though none of them would ever cop to being explicitly racist or wouldn’t even want to be. Gender norms were incredibly conservative on communes. I don’t know how many photographs I’ve looked at of young women, pregnant, barefoot, carrying loaves of bread.

One of the things that I think we’ve inherited from the ‘60s is a habit of seeing the cultural space as the space in which we do business and make change. And the trouble with that is that it makes it very hard to negotiate things like class or race or distribution of the kind of social goods that come from business.