... Harry's first comments are totalitarian in the broad, generally understood and used meaning of the word and may not accord with other more contrived definitions.This is so off beam that I felt that I wanted to post more here. One of the most egregious errors in political debate is the use of terms outside their specific meanings. For example, I tend to use the word 'fascist' to mean anyone who disagrees with me. It is a bad habit. It turns important concepts into slogans, whilst imprecision allows people to slip between different meanings of the same term to confuse and obfuscate.
His comments are particularly unlikely to accord with those definitions of totalitarianism contrived by some on the left to acquit the left of the charge of totalitarianism.
There is a huge literature on the subject of totalitarianism, but the term was popularised in the post-war period by Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski (later President Carter's National Security Advisor) in their book, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy, first published in 1956. Far from being "contrived by some on the left to acquit the left of the charge of totalitarianism" the book was denounced by many on the left as a Cold War device to equate Soviet Communism with Fascism. However, though part of their analysis is specific to their times, I think that the main thrust of their argument holds up pretty well and only a few old tankies would now deny the horrors of Stalinism.
Friedrich and Brzezinski put forward a thesis that saw totalitarianism as consisting of a number of interlocking features,
The basic features or traits that we suggest as generally recognized to be common to totalitarian dictatorships are six in number. The "syndrome", or pattern of interrelated traits, of the totalitarian dictatorship consists of an ideology, a single party typically led by one man, a terroristic police, a communications monopoly, a weapons monopoly and a centrally directed economy. Of these, the last two are also found in constitutional systems ... These six basic features ... form a cluster of traits, intertwined and mutually supporting each other, as is usual in "organic" systems. They should therefore not be considered in isolation or made the focal point of comparisons ... (my emphasis)Considering them in isolation is precisely what Harry's critics are doing. They are taking two proposals, with which they disagree, and labelling them as 'totalitarian' on the basis that they could fit into a general definition of totalitarianism as, for example, "modern regimes in which the state regulates nearly every aspect of public and private behavior." Even with this generalisation, the only way they can paint Harry as a totalitarian is to ignore all the other areas that he doesn't want to regulate!
In fact, as a democratic socialist, all Harry is arguing for is the use of collective means to deliver universal, individual freedoms, in this case the right to free and unhindered travel. Libertarians can coherently say that they disagree with the means, they can follow Hayek in expressing their concern that this may be a 'road to serfdom', however, it is manifestly not the case that this proposal is, in itself, totalitarian or in contradiction with Harry's anti-totalitarian sentiments.
The world has changed since 1956, but totalitarianism is still with us. Today the description is often used to describe jihadi Islamism, in my view correctly. This does suggest that Friedrich and Brzezinski overemphasised the institutional features of totalitarianism and its link with modern mass societies. Islamism certainly has an all-encompassing ideology and would arm itself with all the repressive powers of the modern state. However, it does not have a leadership principle, nor is there a mass single party. Its organisation is diffuse and self-sustaining. This brings me back to my undergraduate days and the start of my long engagement with the history of political thought.
I have had many fine teachers in my time, but I owe most to Alex Shtromas, a libertarian. He was terrifying in tutorials and charismatic in lectures. Though our politics were different, I learnt so much from him and his influence has been profound. Totalitarianism was one of his main topics and he brought more to the debate than the astonishing depth of his scholarship. He spoke with immense moral authority as a refugee from Stalinism and as a Holocaust survivor. His line was that totalitarianism is not exclusively modern, it is a phenomenon that has arisen throughout history at times of revolutionary upheaval, including in Calvin's Geneva and Mediaeval Millenarianist movements. The key to it was the belief in an ideology that claimed to be "in possession of absolute and/or finite truth and wisdom". This was not just dangerous in itself, but, wedded to state power, could be an instrument of mass murder. He would have had no problem identifying jihadi Islamism. All of which makes Harry's advocacy of public transport seem just a tad insignificant in the totalitarian stakes.
Sometimes I wonder about the exaggerated nature of contemporary political debate, inaccurate epithets abound. Some, though by no means all, libertarians also strike me as having a monist absolutism that makes me uncomfortable. They have a very different approach from Alex's eclecticism. I certainly have never been able to see the Welfare State as the moral equivalent of the gulag. Surely it is time for a sense of proportion here, Peter and Harry are arguing over transport policy in a democratic society, not the imposition of a new reign of terror. Totalitarianism should be no part of it, even as invective.