Friday, October 03, 2008

Free to disagree

Over on his blog, Freeborn John, Peter Risdon has replied to my earlier post on totalitarianism defending Harry Barnes over his 'if I ruled the world' fantasy answer on his Normblog profile.  I thought I would repay the compliment with a post rather than a comment because I differ with much of what he writes.  Most of our disagreements are a result of our different political outlooks and cannot be reconciled. However, I can't leave the issue of totalitarianism aside.  This isn't just a semantic debate, but about the identification of something that is an unambiguous evil.

Let's make no mistake, that is what the word 'totalitarianism' should describe and that is why a loose use of the term is dangerous.  I am not going to do a full dissection of his post, instead I just want to make three main points.

The place to start is where Peter is right.  He writes: 
My argument with Harry Barnes centred, for me, on whether or not he recognises any proper limit to the role of government, and it still appears he does not. It also appears that Peter has missed this point.
Spot on. I missed it. That is because I cannot see anything in Harry's blogging that suggests that he sees no proper limits on the state.  He is a democrat after all and democracy itself, unlike the old absolutisms, limits the power of government.  The difference is that Harry is a democratic socialist and Peter is a classic liberal.  As such, of course, Harry has a more positive view of the state, he believes in the possibility of collective action to promote liberty. That doesn't mean that he sees no limits to state action, he simply draws the boundaries in a different place.

Secondly, Peter quotes a well-known passage from Hayek in his support.
Hayek made what seems to me from a contemporary perspective to be an observation both chilling and obvious:

... students of the currents of ideas can hardly fail to see that there is more than a superficial similarity between the trend of thought in Germany during and after the last war and the present current of ideas in this country. There exists now in this country certainly the same determination that the organisation of the nation we have achieved for the purposes of defence shall be retained for the purpose of creation. There is the same contempt for nineteenth-century liberalism, the same spurious "realism" and even cynicism, the same fatalistic acceptance of "inevitable trends".
Actually, I don't find this passage chilling, I find it silly.  After all, there are a few discontinuities as well.  Some of the trends of thought missing are little things like genocide, fascism, militarisation of the whole of society, extermination camps, racial 'theory', the abolition of democracy, book burning, officially approved kitsch art, systematic arbitrary arrest, torture and murder, the leadership principle, global conquest and so on, you get my drift.  I think that their absence is a wee bit significant.  Interestingly, Hayek wasn't alone in identifying a threat from the Post-War state. When George Orwell wrote 1984 he was explicit in saying that he was projecting forward trends that he saw in contemporary society.  The book's inherent pessimism is one of the reasons why it is not my favourite. Yet Orwell was also a supporter of the Labour government and, as he put it in his essay, Why I Write
Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.
Just like Harry.

Post-war reconstruction was necessary in the aftermath of total war - a war fought against totalitarianism.  Reconstruction was also a weapon against its resurgence.  Of course the dilemmas of the collective and the individual, of state control and individual liberty, were ever present and constantly changing, but reconstruction of Western Europe into a social democratic, welfare capitalist order was at its very essence an anti-totalitarian project.

Finally, Peter picks up on my use of Friedrich and Brzezinski. describing them as "Carter's Hawk and an obvious crank".  OK, he has a point, but he shouldn't get carried away with the ad hominems.  There are more than a few examples of less than rational behaviour amongst the libertarian ranks.  However, what he does avoid dealing with is that the main witness for the defence was another classic liberal, a follower of Hayek and a libertarian, the formidable Alex Shtromas.  His view was that the defining feature of totalitarianism was an official ideology, purporting to an absolute truth, to which there had to be a total and unwavering adherence, something that was a feature of periods of revolution.  I agree, and unless this is present, even in embryo form, we cannot possibly call a single policy, isolated from its context, totalitarian.

I think the clinching argument for me is something much more instinctive.  If we were ever faced by an existential threat from a totalitarian state waging total war against our imperfect democracy, I think that Peter, Harry and myself might find ourselves puffing and panting away in the Home Guard, 'doing our bit', however futile.  We would be comrades because we would understand the threat posed to our fragile liberties and the horror that would be unleashed by defeat.  I don't think then we would be calling each other totalitarians.  We would be facing the real thing.

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