Sunday, September 28, 2008


I've been too busy to respond to this before now, but Peter Ryley opened his recent post about totalitarianism - a response to the discussions I'd been having with Harry Barnes - as follows:

Harry Barnes has opened himself up to a bloggertarian attack...
And his last paragraph began:
Sometimes I wonder about the exaggerated nature of contemporary political debate, inaccurate epithets abound.
Well, yes. Quite so.

We have a dialogue of the deaf here in which people do not listen to the other side at all, and frequently misrepresent their stances. Disagreeing with someone is one thing, disagreeing with some monstrous parody of their views is another thing entirely. Disagreeing with their views because you are suspicious of their motives is absurd.

I far prefer Peter's second sentiment, as quoted above. I'd far rather remain civil and try to see what merit there is in the other person's argument - and to do so without name-calling and "inaccurate epithets".

He argues that:
Risdon's definition of totalitarianism was so wide as to be a catch-all rather than a useful tool of analysis... One of the most egregious errors in political debate is the use of terms outside their specific meanings... 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.
I think it is sufficiently revealing to be in itself an end to the debate, and a proof of my point, that Peter considers my definition of totalitarianism - any political system that "lay[s] claim to control of the totality of my being" - is a catch-all. It isn't a catch-all for my politics. The definition I use fits the precise forms of politics that the old left - the pre-Marxist, Liberal left - fought against in its clerical and monarchical manifestations.

Oliver Kamm shone an interesting light on this in his book Anti -Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy. In this, Kamm noted that:
The historical idiosyncrasy of the debates since 9/11 is not that some parts of the Left excuse or identify with totalitarianism, but that an alliance has emerged between different and previously hostile forms of totalitarianism.
These are a recrudescence of theocratic totalitarianism, and the totalitarian left. That the left includes totalitarian strains is not in dispute. The source Peter Ryley cited, Friedrich and Brzezinski, accords with this. Peter quoted this passage:
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.
I have added a different emphasis to that of Peter. To say features are "common to totalitarian dictatorships" is not to say they form part of a definition of totalitarianism, but rather that they have been observed in those that had existed at the time of writing, 1956. That may or may not be the case, but it is not beyond dispute and does not constitute the authoritative analysis. I had suggested it was a convenient form of definition for the left, and that it had been drafted by left wingers. Brzezinski was Carter's National Security Adviser and no foe to an interventionist, centralising state. Friedrich was, well, a little odd:
Friedrich's concept of a "good democracy" rejected basic democracy as totalitarian. Some of the assumptions of Friedrich's theory of totalitarianism - particularly his acceptance of Carl Schmitt's idea of the "constitutional state" -- are viewed as potentially anti-democratic by Hans J. Lietzmann. Klaus von Beyme sees the main focus of Friedrich's theories in the "creation and preservation of robust institutions". This can be seen as influencing his work on the creation of Germany's States' constitutions. He presciently predicted and laid out a theoretical framework for the European Union, and also predicted, from his perspective as a scholar of totalitarianism, that the United States would turn towards dictatorship (his best guess as to when this might occur was the year 2000, which is so far incorrect).
In neither man was a strong view of the proper limitations of the power of the state with respect to the individual very obvious.

Yet this is the issue. Like the proto-Liberals of the eighteenth century whose greatest monument is the American Constitution, I hold that there are proper limits to the role of the state. I hold that it is not so much the case, for example, that it would be wrong for a government to outlaw homosexual, or consensual BDSM, sex but rather that the government has no proper authority to make any ruling whatsoever in the sphere of consensual private adult activities and that for any government to attempt to do so is a form of tyranny.

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. But Hayek, writing during the second world war, was very much alive to it. First, 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"...
(p3 of the edition linked to above) That passage still describes our contemporary political culture. But then he went on to analyse and define a new totalitarianism:
The common features of all collectivist systems ... [are the] deliberate organisation of the labours of society for a definite social goal... In many ways this puts the basic issue very clearly. And it directs us at once to the point where the conflict arises between individual freedom and collectivism. The various kinds of collectivism, communism, fascism, etc, differ between themselves... But they all differ from liberalism and individualism in wanting to organise the whoel of society and all its resources for this unitary end, and in refusing to recognise autonomous spheres in which the ends of the individual are supreme. In short, they are totalitarian in the true sense of this new word which we have adopted to describe the unexpected but nevertheless inseparable manifestations of what in theory we call collectivism.
(pp59 & 60).

If we are to trade the opinions of others, like mediaeval theologians seeing your Aquinas and raising you a Duns Scotus, then there is no reason why the earlier definition and analysis of Hayek - which has not been without influence - should not count heavily against that of Carter's Hawk and an obvious crank whose millenarian prophesies of the fall of the USA show no sign of manifesting themselves in the near future, any more than does the Second Coming.

But if we are to exchange ideas we have ourselves considered and formed, then I can return to the point I have been trying to get into the discussion from the very start. I'm not interested in your transport policy, Harry. I'm interested in whether or not we should have a transport policy that can dictate to individuals whether or not they be permitted to own their own means of transport. I think we should not. I think there are limits to the proper role of government and that this falls outside them. And I think it is an entirely accurate description - not an epithet - to say that such a policy is totalitarian.


Trooper Thompson said...

Totalitarianism is growing all around us for the simple reason that those who serve the state, and those who question nothing, cannot perceive of any limitation upon state power or its sphere of influence. The realisation that they *can* do some particular thing is immediately followed by the urge to do that thing.

As technology has advanced, the possibility of a total control grid, where everyone is watched all the time has become ever closer, and thus we face a totalitarianism far greater, although at present less brutal, than anything dreamed of by dictatorships in the past.

The new systems of control are to be global, with the same things implemented in America, as in Europe and elsewhere. There will be nowhere to run.

With governments having surrendered their economic sovereignty to the corporations, and their political sovereignty to global or regional organisations, they have nothing left to do but pry ever deeper into the lives of the people, who gradually internalise the systems of control, so even if they're not being watched they feel and act as if they are.

Anonymous said...

All systems tend towards totalitarianism. Debates about the true nature or definition of totalitarianism are beside the point and only serve the interests of power itself. Power merely hides behind high minded ideals such as "democracy" or "socialism", its true nature remains the same. A clear eyed understanding of the true nature of power is essential to the only debate that matters, that debate being how power might be curbed or even destroyed in the interests of the individual.

Bertrand De Jouvenel understood the true nature of power and where its ruthless pursuit would leave us:
" "Where will it end? In the destruction of all other command for the benefit of one alone-that of the state.In each man's absolute freedom from every family and social authority, a freedom the price of which is complete submission to the state.In the complete equality as between themselves of all citizens, paid for by their equal abasement before the power of their absolute master-the state. In the disappearance of every constraint which does not emanate from the state, and in the denial of every pre-eminence which is not approved by the state. In a word it ends in the atomization of society, and in the rupture of every tie linking man and man, whose only bond is now their common bondage to the state. The extremes of individualism and socialism meet: that was their predestined course."
"On Power. Its Natural History of its Growth."

Peter Risdon said...

Peter, I'm unsure how individualism tends towards this end.

Anonymous said...

Individualism itself does not, if we are to take it in its ordinary meaning of belief in self-reliance and respect for others.
By "extremes of individualism" I think Jouvenel means a belief in the absence of all constraints upon the actions of the individual. Such constraints being law, morality, religion, public opinion and so on. That is; where JS Mill's conception of liberty leads not to liberty but to licence, which is not liberty at all. His argument appears to be that power conspires with those who find these constraints irksome in order to destroy all other forms of authority in society so that only the state survives, hence the atomization of society.
Only individuals and the unfettered power of the state remain.

Trooper Thompson said...

"I think Jouvenel means a belief in the absence of all constraints upon the actions of the individual. Such constraints being law, morality, religion, public opinion and so on."

Rather than, as you earlier say, all systems tend towards totalitarianism, it's more the case that anything can be taken to absurd proportions.

As a libertarian, I look up to people like John Lilburne and the Founding Fathers, not Nero.

Peter Risdon said...

"I look up to people like John Lilburne and the Founding Fathers, not Nero."