Totalitarianism as a Material Fear

I’ve always had an interest in the political conception (or invention) of “Totalitarianism” that arrested the imagination of the 20th century and continues to emerge in moments of crisis or change. The fear of totalitarianism contains an odd convergence of left wing and right wing intellectual history: disillusioned (tentative) leftist Arendt moves to liberalism through its analysis, and Hayek declares laissez-faire markets as the solution in Road to Serfdom.

Today, the notion of Totalitarianism as a cohesive or useful category has started to come under new waves of criticism. While Orwell is often carted out by Republicans or Democrats every time surveillance or “fake News” becomes an issue, little mention is made of his Democratic-Socialist background, or his participation with voluntary Trotskyist forces in the Spanish Civil War. At the same time, few would know about how hesitant Marxists or proper socialists would be to claim Orwell for their own given the infamous list he composed of writers “too left” to contribute to the Information Research Department’s anti-communist propaganda. Orwellian totalitarianism seems defined as much by particular images as by real structural considerations: the conclusion that runs through much totalitarian theory in this line is a total conflation of Stalinism (which is usually taken at face value as what Marxism or Communism is) and Fascism without seeing them as actually different systems politically and ideologically. On the one hand, it does seem important to look at how these similarities occurred in the moment as seen by people like Arendt or especially Victor Serge (the “Bolsheviks’ pet anarchist”) who would feel it necessary to make these similarities central to their analysis and discussion. On the other hand, with contemporary historical research being distanced from these regimes and with information that goes beyond in-the-moment observation, we should situate the potential faults of these analysis in opposition to historiography that has since emerged. Enzo Traverso makes a particular case concerning Arendt:

When Arendt wrote her book, during and immediately after the Second World War, both National Socialism and Stalinism were political phenomena of the present, not yet historiographical objects. Arendt was not a historian and, from a historical point of view, her book is highly problematic: she does not distinguish very clearly between concentration and extermination camps; she depicts a genealogy of totalitarianism-anti-Semitism, colonialism, total rule — which clearly does not fit the history of Stalinism, etc. Nevertheless, she emphasizes the novelty of totalitarianism in history: the twentieth century experienced a new system of power whose purpose was the destruction of politics itself, i.e. the diversity of human beings. In other words, totalitarianism is an attempt at building a monolithic, homogeneous community in which any form of pluralism and division of the social body is eliminated. According to Arendt, politics is not an ontological category; it is rather the realm of infra, a space of interaction between citizens, very different human beings sharing a common political sphere as equal actors. It seems to me that this definition of totalitarianism as an experience of the destruction of politics deserves to be saved and highlighted. Conceived in this way, totalitarianism, a system of total, overwhelming state power, is also antipodal to communism, a classless and stateless community of free and equal human beings.

What is important here is not simply proclaiming “but communism is really about freedom!” but instead investigating how communism and fascism are always turned into polar ends of an imaginary dystopian state that primarily has come to exist in opposition to the virtues that liberalism has set for itself. Ishay Landa’s The Apprentice’s Sorcerer: Liberal Tradition and Fascism breaks apart this conception in part by showing how much the fascist tradition drew from the classical political theory of liberalism – all the way back to figures like John Locke and Benjamin Constant, and with Italian Fascism’s political philosophy explicitly being built on Hegelian considerations on the state.

… it is possible to appreciate how the anti-democratic spirit of the fascists was not simply a rebellion against or repudiation of liberal values. Fascism did not have to ‘defeat liberalism’ on that ground, as much as it needed to meet it half way. Against the widespread notion that a modern, capitalist, industrial and liberal nation would be naturally inclined towards a democratic political structure, it should be recalled that democracy can often complicate things for the capitalist order, by imposing on it political, social and moral limits and inhibitions, while promoting a re-distribution of wealth through progressive taxation. While liberal historians of our time tend to overlook this simple fact and ascribe the anti-democratic thrust of fascism to the unwholesome sediments of ‘pre-industrial, pre-capitalist and pre-bourgeois traditions,’ [Jürgen Kocka] 19th century and early 20th century liberals throughout the Western world would not have needed any reminder of it. Extension of the suffrage to those without property thus regularly had to be carried through in the face of staunch liberal opposition. Sometimes, in fact, it required an unlikely alliance between the social forces that were more critical-antagonistic of bourgeois society, the lower classes and the conservative nobility.

Landa, 32-33

This is not to ignore that the Italian Fascists and German Nazis drew upon the image and militant structure of the Bolsheviks for their own political formations (Mussolini being an ex-left-communist), but it is these connections that are more commonly investigated and built upon in the first place. Traverso also makes a particularly interesting point about how stressing the purely political and state-driven forms of violence (as Nolte did by positioning the start of totalitarianism in the Red Terror which would be mimicked by Fascism) in these movements actually overlooks other historical tragedies that were enacted by them:

in this reconstruction of the origins of totalitarianism, the collectivization of Soviet agriculture at the beginning of the 1930s is practically ignored. The death of several million Russian and Ukrainian peasants from starvation and mass deportations appears much less important, in Nolte’s approach, than the violence of the civil war after the Revolution. At the same time, his reconstruction of the history of the Russian civil war is very superficial (on this point, his book is incomparably less well documented than the works of Edward H. Carr, Orlando Figes or Nicolas Werth). For example, he gives no estimate of the number of victims. His attention is focused less on the real horrors of this conflict than on its portrayal and distortions in the German collective consciousness… Nolte’s collection of quotations does not prove a thesis, but rather summons up a certain atmosphere.

Perhaps it is this “summoning” of “a certain atmosphere” that really concentrates what totalitarianism really is and why it continues to resonate as a fear of what could happen. It is something like a material fear. Material interest includes more general needs (food, water, shelter) but is also always particular and has integrated particular desires and forms of needs (not just food proper, people conceive of food in particular). Material fears are their fears that come from social situations and the material conditions. Many people have a general fear of invasive control into their personal lives. The particular form of that fear is contingent on what could enable that. The (Western) totalitarian fear as it exists today involves fears that are particularized through the relationship to mass media, surveillance, and the party-centered nation-state. While his analysis draws heavily on Arendt’s conception of totalitarianism as that which “destroys politics” and makes many of the same conflations and use of dubious documentation (heavy reliance on The Gulag Archipelago, not unusual for the time), I’ve always found Claude LeFort’s Machiavellian formulation of totalitarianism more interesting: the foundation of democracy is the capacity of individuals to differentiate themselves and their interests from others within the body that they compose. With the removal of the king the state is the empty throne wherein politics becomes – not the determinations of sovereignty or decisions of interpretation concerning prior law or natural right – but the capacity for struggle. This preserves the capacity to admit that it is not an interest in totality itself that creates totalitarianism, because politics by nature is the capacity for any individual need to be addressed. Totalitarianism, then, is actually where the controlled state-body sees totality only expressed in itself, not in the open space for conflict of interest. Of course, this means that practically totalitarianism is basically impossible as an actual concrete form that can take hold. And, disperse thinkers like Jean-Luc Nancy, Lacoue-Labarth, and Traverso have all pointed out, this conception does mean that Totalitarianism is expressible as a fear of structures of liberalism itself:

…totalitarianism should not be reduced to its twentieth century forms. A completely reified world, in which all human and social relationships take a commodity form, in which the market becomes a universal anthropological model and human beings are unable to conceive of their relationships outside of individualism and competition: such a world would be totalitarian. Paradoxically, a new form of neoliberal totalitarianism is coming into being, dressed in anti-totalitarian clothes (market and individualism as symbols of freedom against racial and class collectivism).

By thinking of Totalitarianism as a “material fear” I would hope that perhaps this could adjust our way of dealing with accusations and concerns about Totalitarianism, because it forces us to see those fears as produced by real history and real problems that are present in contemporary society. It also forces those of us on the left to conceive of analyzing contemporary liberal states, not simply as great ideological machines that hide secret injustices or produce blind automatons, but as areas that are already engaged in struggles where people of different classes are trying to express and gain a foothold on their interests. We therefore need to take seriously that many liberal states do effectively allow for conflicts of particular interests between particular recognized groups, but also find better ways to identify which interests and groups will by necessity be excluded given that a major foothold of liberal political formation is the defense of property. This, I would hope, is a potentially better application of notions built in Gramsci’s “Modern Prince” that fall less into the develop simply of pragmatic, revolutionary leadership as the formulation of political space where the practice of division of interest is an issue that matters for the very formation and continuation of the political body. As many, many other Marxist theorists have pointed out, the oft-quoted phrase from Critique of the Gotha Program intended to summarize the principle foundation of a communist society – “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – is precisely a principle that opposes the equalization of all interests and abilities. It is a recognition of individual difference. From earlier in the same document:

…one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only – for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.

But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.

Obviously what I’ve written here is itself largely a collection of thoughts from observation and readings, but even if Totalitarianism is too general to be a real political category in the way that its often used – as a yardstick for particular social structures – then I still think it’s important to address it as a real fear that exists. Addressing those fears, even if it means revealing that they are a symptom of much more complicated social processes that escape such a simple categorization, cannot be accomplished by chiding or dismissing people for their concerns. In the future I’d like to see if there are ways to look more objectively through history, psychology, and contemporary political analysis to see if there is fertile ground in this line of analysis.


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