Freeman

PERSPECTIVE

Today’s Totalitarianism

APRIL 01, 2014 by THE FREEMAN

When people go around armed with mobile phones and makeshift shields, what are the powers that be to do? Recent events in Venezuela and Ukraine suggest no status quo is safe when popular movements are networked and determined.

The trouble is, the world has not yet learned to be networked and determined as a permanent alternative to State control. After any revolution, a networked and determined people could be self-governing, though this rarely happens; revolutions remain as likely to usher in something not much better—maybe even worse—than what preceded them. Egypt is currently living out a version of this.

Most people still default to the idea that a more benevolent leviathan is going to make everything okay. And there are always would-be leviathans waiting in the wings. The hope that they’ll be less brutal is just that—hope. After regimes are toppled or swept aside, strongmen, puppet governments, or hostile neighbors are almost always well positioned to take and keep power. Problems return.

Further, when you strip off a dictator like removing a scab, what’s left underneath is often a factionalized people.

In the case of the Ukraine, it appears there’s a Russian-speaking faction that is sympathetic to Putin. There is a Ukrainian nationalist faction that is decidedly not into wearing any more totalitarian yokes, but that flirts with notions of ethnic purity, blood, and soil. There is yet another faction that fancies itself European and thinks the European superstate is the right umbrella. And on and on. Foreign powers may also have helped set a match to the tender—the United States, the EU, and Russia are all prime suspects.

In the case of Venezuela, however, the protests seem to have originated primarily among the young who are tired of shortages and suppressed freedoms that come from the Bolivarian state. CNN reports:

The weeks of protests across Venezuela mark the biggest threat President Nicolas Maduro has faced since his election last year. Demonstrators say they have taken to the streets to protest shortages of goods, high inflation and high crime.

Opposition protesters and government officials have traded blame for the violence for weeks.

The current Venezuelan leader argues that brutal suppression is justified; his charismatic predecessor, Hugo Chavez, thought the same thing. And in the mind of the State, it almost always is:

Think about what the U.S. government would do if a political group laid out a road map for overthrowing President Barack Obama, Maduro said.

"What would happen in the United States if a group said they were going to start something in the United States so that President Obama leaves, resigns, to change the constitutional government of the United States?" Maduro said. "Surely, the state would react, would use all the force that the law gives it to re-establish order and to put those who are against the Constitution where they belong."

Surely it is a bizarro-world justification in which such regimes appeal to any Constitution in the same breath as President Obama, who thinks of the U.S. Constitution as quaint, brittle toilet tissue. But then again, Maduro is right that the U.S. government has all the power it needs to suppress any serious popular uprising—and, one expects, wouldn’t hesitate to use it.

What about states with determined but unconnected people? North Korea is still squirming along under a totalitarian thumb, as the portly Kim Jong Un takes leads from his father and grandfather, whose advice can be summed up in the dictators’ dictum: “A weak fist wipes away tears.” The highest echelon in Pyongyang reserves its fists for striking down and holding down its people—a determined, but sadly unconnected people. Thus the Hermit Kingdom could stay in penury and subjugation for many more years.

Wherever one lands on the continuum between pacificism and hostile interventionism, it is difficult not to let one’s feelings for oppressed people guide his thoughts away from either pragmatism or principle. And yet we must take care: Meddling in foreign affairs rarely ends up in any sort of postwar stability, liberation, or liberalization. It’s frustrating to see Putin get away with it. And we certainly wouldn’t want to live next to such a regime. But the simple fact that the United States could bomb or sanction Russia into even more suffering by no means guarantees a positive outcome if the United States does. The last 40 years of American military misadventures demonstrate that.

A couple of our readers challenged our publishing sentiments with respect to Ukraine. For example, we lent our pages to an anonymous Ukrainian journalist early on, when few outlets were reporting much of anything at all. Indeed, we got this story out relatively early. While we stand by any peoples longing to be free, we remain uncertain about the extent to which foreign meddlers were involved in the uprising, much less whether such meddling was warranted.

In any case, if The Freeman takes any position on matters like these, we side with peoples against illiberal States, realizing all the while that self-determination can be an imperfect process carried out in a world of opportunistic state actors and Hobbesian calculi. And of course we hope that determined and connected people can learn to do more than throw off power. We hope that someday, they can keep it and lock it away from the totalitarians forever.

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Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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