Monday, September 22, 2008

Thoughts on totalitarianism

Harry Barnes has opened himself up to a bloggertarian attack with the suggestions in his Normblog profile that the UN should, in effect, be the vehicle for a new, more extensive, Bretton Woods agreement and that most private transport should be replaced by public transport. Peter Risdon of Freeborn John is one of those who commented that these suggestions conflicted with Harry's determined anti-totalitarianism. In comments on Harry's response, I argued that Risdon's definition of totalitarianism was so wide as to be a catch-all rather than a useful tool of analysis. He replied with the following,
... 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.

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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

My thoughts on totalitarianism are in a short book (ISBN 978-1-60047-232-9) published last month. The title is "Hell on Earth:Brutality and Violence Under the Stalinist Regime." Excerpts are at:

Share this with those who might be interested. Thanks, Ludwik Kowalski

George S said...

Good post. If Harry Barnes had suggested a ban on all private forms of transport - cars, motorbikes, bikes, yer feet - that might have smacked a little too much of the firm hand of government.

The question - usually - is not where you fit a system like public transport into ideology, but how, as an empowered authority, you see the question of mobility in practical terms. Can you make the ideology work?

These practical terms are, in any case, likely to be forced on us individually some time fairly soon.

Harry Barnes said...

Peter : I first fully discussed the concept of totalitarianism in 1961 in a tutorial held by my Political Theory Tutor at Ruskin - Jay Blumler. It was around an essay he had set me which involved my reading Rousseau's "Social Contract" for the first time. The reading list included essays in "Totalitarianism" (proceedings of an academic conference) edited and introduced by Carl Friedrich (Harvard University Press, 1954) which included Friedrich's own contribution called "The Unique Character of Totalitarian Society".

On the thread on Freedom John's blog we have finally moved onto the empirical and evalutive nature of my case. Hopefully you have helped those arguing with me to move away from their attempts to close down my stance by a resort merely to crude definitions.

I knew that an expert on Anarchism would have to have rather a good take on the other side of the coin.

Shuggy said...

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.

He did? Cool. I argued the same in my honours dissertation, "Protestantism and the spirit of Scottish capitalism". Unavailable in any bookshops, good or bad.

Anonymous said...

I would love to see Harry's transport policies take effect, but I can't see it winning votes. A lot of people would find not having a car a greater blow against their freedom than removing the classic liberal freedoms like speech and association.

I once heard Jackie Collins on the radio speaking on how she found London was becoming more and more like a police state. Why? Because of the congestion charge. Car owners have a deep sense of right to have cities and roads shaped for their convenience, and to be allowed full access to their movable home from home.

If you suggest that it might not be to the public good that every individual should own a polluting, street cluttering, dangerous machine, they react with the same indignation as a Southern slave owner on being told that they might lose their useful piece of property, which they bought and paid for.

Paul E. said...

"A lot of people would find not having a car a greater blow against their freedom than removing the classic liberal freedoms like speech and association...... Car owners have a deep sense of right to have cities and roads shaped for their convenience..."

I think that this is more one of those biases we have against having things taken away. Cars are partly positional as well. I got rid of mine as an experiment for a while, and I didn't mind it at all. It's not the losing it that they seem to object to - its having it taken away - the affront, and all of that.

Will said...

Fuck all that clever clever shite -- car owners should be shot on the spot if they don't give their addiction up.

Poisonous fuckwits.

Will said...

"A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure".

A vile murderous bitch.

Mr Eugenides said...


one of those biases we have against having things taken away.

Surely you accept that this is more than merely a "bias"? That there's a major difference between not having something - or voluntarily giving it up - and having it taken from you?

I don't have a car, and don't drive (contra the oft-repeated line about bloggertarians, I don't have a Lexus, and indeed almost certainly have less money than you do) and regard it as a fairly trivial manifestation of individual liberty, but being relaxed about not having one is very different from being relaxed about the state appropriating for itself the right to take mine if it doesn't approve of it.

Similarly, I don't own a home, and am relaxed about that, too (particularly at the moment). But if I did, I'd be outraged if the government decided that I was to be forced to cut my carbon footprint by knocking half of it down. And so would you.

I don't think "affront" is a fair label to apply to this, because you use it to suggest that this is mere pique and little else. But it's much more than that. It's not about having it versus not having it; it's the right to make decisions about your own life, in so far as that is practically possible, without someone else removing that autonomy from you.

Waiting at home for six hours for a plumber who never arrives is an "affront". Being locked up for six hours under terrorism legislation for taking a photo of a police station is rather more than that.

The practical effect may be the same in both cases - your day is ruined - but the two cases are otherwise not remotely comparable, because living in a state which locks people up for no reason, or routinely appropriates people's property for the sake of "communal goods", would compromise human dignity in a way which many people would indeed colloquially refer to as "totalitarian".

The Rodent's characterisation of libertarianism as "hands off my Lexus, hippy", referenced above, is funny, but I wonder if he'd find it quite so amusing if I walked up to him in the pub and drained his pint in the name of the greater good. I suspect not.

As a footnote, let's all enjoy the incomparable Will attacking Thatcher as a "vile murderous bitch" in the same rhetorical breath as opining that "car owners should be shot on the spot". Satire lives.

(Yes, yes, I know, loathsome bloggertarian scum - bullet to the head - fuck every scumsucking one of them.

And that

The Plump said...

in a way which many people would indeed colloquially refer to as "totalitarian"

And that is what the post is about - it isn't totalitarian. It trivialises totalitarianism, especially as the term is being used with deadly seriousness and not flippantly.

Also I am a car owner. And some bloody fascist has just fined me fifty quid for having one wheel just outside a marked parking bay outside my house because I hadn't parked it quite straight!

I am with Will, traffic wardens not car owners mind, oh and Thatcher.

Harry Barnes said...

Kb player : I also see my proposals as solid vote losers. But the context in which I made them was in answer to Normblog's questionaire where he asked "If you could effect one major change in the governing of your country, what would it be?" If I "could" effect the policy I would, but I also know even if I was suddenly turned into Labour's replacement Prime Minister I would be in no position to do this. My answer in fact fits in with your "I would love to see Harry's transport policies take effect,.." But I then also know that the way you complete the sentence is correct. There is, however, a need to put forward a case for public v private transport. I had another go at this here -

Anonymous said...

I am suprised nobody here (seeing as you are all clever clever peeps) has mentioned Arendt and her take on totalitarianism and what it means to prevent totalitarianism (even though I have some disagreements with her).

"...the urgent but extremely problematic enforcement by all nations of the right to have rights, the right of all human beings "to act together concerning things that are of equal concern to each."

As for the scum eugieneedsakicking -- you tory scum.Fuck off mentalist cunt. Your throat -- my knife -- tory filth.

PC language police fuckwit, bad analogy using shitbag you.


Stock up on canned goods.

Anonymous said...

"All of which makes Harry's advocacy of public transport seem just a tad insignificant..."

I think there might be a teensy-weensy bit of difference between "advocacy" and using the power of the State to ban all possible alternatives.

The former is admissable argument; the latter is - yes - totalitarianism.