All Commentary
Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Two-Faced Totalitarianism

A great political exchange is eroding limits on the state

Last month, it was the F-word. Vladimir Putin’s favorite American presidential candidate brought it to the forefront of public debate. The think pieces on fascism poured out, with a new sense of discovery and reflection on the meaning of the term.

This month, further reflection on the darkened political environment — darkened for anyone who still believes that Thomas Jefferson was on to something with this whole liberty thing — brought out the T-word: totalitarian.

The Democrats’ Theme for 2016 Is Totalitarianism” writes Kevin Williamson in National Review. He cites a growing censorious spirit in Congress and on campus; the suppression of political dissent via law and legislation; the demonization of the opposition; the turn against free speech; the creep of total surveillance.

“Americans might want to think a bit about whether they wish to invest an openly totalitarian political party with the power of the presidency,” he writes.

Well, perhaps we should look at the other party as well. The Republicans talk of carpet bombing a borderless enemy, rounding up millions people without the right papers and deporting them, religious tests for national entry, closing parts of the internet, preventing companies from opening overseas plants, ramping up the drug war, and tightening security all around. Such policies seem also to smack of a certain totalistic mentality.

As with fascism, the key to understanding totalitarianism is to think about it not as a swear word but as a kind of political philosophy. What does it mean? Ludwig von Mises in 1919 — at the dawn of the total state — described it as the ideology that admits no limits on the power and competence of the state. There is no aspect of life that is conceptually beyond the reach of the political sphere. That is to say, the state is potentially or actually master of the totality of society.

Where do we stand today? Each side in the great ideological divide of our time admits some limits of state power — but not the same limits. Working together in a great political exchange, each giving what the other wants, we might have that thing: a total state.

Indeed, the face of modern totalitarianism was nicely summed up by Tonight Show comedian David Deeble. He tweeted out a merge of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.


It’s creepy and hilarious, but it causes some serious reflection. There are gigantic differences between these two candidates in their tone, emphasis, cultural signaling, targeted constituencies, and priorities for the use of power.

But in the essential question of whether the power of the state should always predominate over individual liberty, they both agree. Neither presume a separation between society and state; neither posit an sphere of life where politics dare not tread; neither dare utter that now-banned term individualism.

United on Economics

In the Road to Serfdom, F.A. Hayek observed that the urge to domination is usually a multi-party phenomenon. In Hayek’s view, the right and the left in Europe at the time (the 1940s) were really two flavors of the same poison. They offered competing versions of a total state. It was their mutual opposition to liberalism that created the conditions for a full-scale embrace of top-down servitude.

Neither the right nor the left could do it on their own. They each have their own perennial appeal to particular constituencies. Each builds their ranks in opposition to the other. The right warns of the egalitarianism and cultural alienation of the left, and the left warns of the police-state tactics and nationalism of the right.

Each is emboldened in opposition to the other. Their disagreement concerns the priorities and purposes of state power, not its general primacy or expediency. In particular, Hayek notes that the road of the total state is marked by “the increasing similarity between the economic views of the Right and Left and their common opposition to the Liberalism.” Here is where socialism and fascism fully agree: the competitive market economy of free enterprise has failed and must be destroyed.

Hayek explains:

The doctrines which had guided the ruling elements in Germany for the past generation were not opposed to the socialism in Marxism, but to the liberal elements contained in it, its internationalism and its democracy.

And as it became increasingly clear that it was just these elements which formed obstacles to the realisation of socialism, the socialists of the left approached more and more to those of the right.

It was the union of the anti-capitalist forces of the right and the left, the fusion of radical and conservative socialism, which drove out from Germany everything that was liberal.

Then as now, the population was led to believe that, in supporting one or the other, they were opposing something dangerous that would otherwise claim victory. In this contentious atmosphere, it is easy to overlook the points of unity within the structure. What are they? That all production must be regulated by the state, that the institution of money belongs to the state and must be managed by the state, that the health and education of the people is primarily a state responsibility, that the management of the macroeconomic environment is mainly a task that falls to the state, that an individual’s primary duty and responsibility is to society (through the state), and so on.

In campaigns past, I can vaguely recall that Republicans at least made some attempt to promise dramatic cuts in government (not they that ever followed through). Now we only hear vague calls for “reform,” and hopes that the existing systems can be made to work better. They once promised to repeal Obamacare, but always without specifics or any viable plan for what would replace it. Now we don’t even get that much. Budget cuts? Candidates fear being specific. Tax cuts? They fear being called partisans of the rich. Deregulation? That would surely cause chaos.

Hayek’s Road Signs

Hayek identifies a number of features of the totalitarian mind.

  1. The totalist mindset does not fear the coming of totalitarianism. That is something that happened back then but can’t happen now. It happens over there but doesn’t happen here. It is something that extends from those people’s culture and religion but not ours.
  2. It rules out economic liberalism as a solution to economic crisis. No one is willing to say: letting the market work is the best way forward.
  3. It venerates the state and its symbols, admires power, and celebrates “leadership” as the answer.
  4. It has enthusiasm for organizing everything; nothing is beyond the power of the rational mind to manage and improve.
  5. It disparages institutions and processes that are organic to the social order, rather than those that are designed, imposed, and supervised from above.
  6. It values expediency over principles; indeed, it avoids any talk of the application of fundamental principles to political life.
  7. There occurs a mysterious disappearance of the liberal intellectual tradition, so that there is no more talk of proponents of liberty past or great resistance to state power.
  8. In political rhetoric, the distinction between society and state evaporates to the point that the state is assumed to be extension of the will of individuals.
  9. There emerges a penchant for “scientific management” of the social order, so that specialists in management and measurement overtake moral philosophy and liberal arts.
  10. Political forces imagine the creation of a unitary society: we crush terrorism, we stop greed, we create equality, we participate in the creation of greatness.

All Is Not Lost

It’s impossible not to recognize such signs around us. When you consider the forces allied against human liberty, it is not hyperbole to speak of the real and present danger of “totalitarians in our midst,” as Hayek puts it.

So, why not despair? Not all of life is politics. Indeed, less and less of it is politics. The would-be total state is losing ground. These once-in-four-years events are the outliers in the long game. Thanks to the emergence of a vast and infinitely complex and global information infrastructure of limitless communication and creativity, the world is far too advanced to be truly controlled from the center.

What Hayek said in 1944 is truer today than ever before: “We are every day helping to build something that is greater than anyone of us can fully comprehend.” Least of all the politicians, no matter how totalist their intent.