Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The atavism of totalitarianism

The term ‘totalitarian’ was originally coined by Mussolini: ironic, since Fascist Italy was not a totalitarian state. Most land, industry and commerce was privately owned; the monarchy persisted; the army remained very much the Royal Army; the Catholic Church retained its schools: the alleged totalitarianism was, like so much of Fascist Italy, surface bravado with considerably less substance behind it. The Fascist project was ultimately a limited one of Italian “national greatness”, however usefully defined. Without a truly transformational project to direct it, the Fascist Party-State ruled what it surveyed but its control extended only as far as the project required, which was not all that far into the enduring structures of society.

The Nazi project—of a racially-purified Greater Deutschland ruling, as the Reich of the master race, over a vast lebensraum empire—was far more transformational, so the Nazi Party-State was far more totalitarian than its Italian Fascist precursor. The title of Thousand Year Reich was itself millenarian. Even so, German capitalism was dominated and directed, but not abolished. The Nazi project did not require the complete transformation of society, so the totalitarian urge did not go all the way.

The Leninist project of an absolutely “equal” society free of “exploitation” did require the complete transformation of society. The more absolute the commitment to equality of outcome, the more thorough the social transformation required, the more totalitarian was the result: hence North Korea under the Kim Family Regime and Enver Hoxha’s Albania being the most totalitarian of societies.

Italian Fascism and Nazism both used Lenin’s model of total politics: politics that acknowledged no limits in ambit and means. Mussolini’s great operational insight was to so quickly perceive that Lenin’s model of politics could be harnessed to other political projects: though Lenin's own project was a failure:
Lenin is an artist who has worked men, as other artists have worked marble or metals. But men are harder than stone and less malleable than iron. There is no masterpiece. The artist has failed. The task was superior to his capacities.
Mussolini's strategic insight was that the collectivism of nation was much more socially resonant than that of class. As he stated:
We deny the existence of two classes, because there are many more than two classes. We deny that human history can be explained in terms of economics. We deny your internationalism. That is a luxury article which only the elevated can practise, because peoples are passionately bound to their native soil.
As Lenin’s model of total politics was politics acknowledging no limits, the only limit was set by the nature of the project it was harnessed to. Hence, the animating project determined the level of totalitarianism of the various regimes.

What is striking is the atavism of all three projects. The atavism of Fascism and (even more so) Nazism was obvious. Both extolled heroic virtues in revolt against the bourgeois virtues of capitalist modernity, so looked back to previous ages—the Roman Empire in the case of Fascism; mythic Teutonic history in the case of Nazism. Ironically, both were modernising revolts against modernity. Both used cutting edge political and propaganda techniques for their atavistic projects.* Since the Nazi project was so much grander, it was far more modernising in its effects than Fascism.

But the equalitarian urge is also an atavistic one. It is a revolt against the dynamism, the complexity, the uncertainty of modernity. A society of equality of outcome is a much simpler society than one where the discovery processes of commerce—seeking new things to sell, seeking new people to sell them to—operate far more freely. This simplicity is no accident. Given the multi-dimensional nature of equality, the more thorough the equality sought, the more social dimensions have to controlled or blocked. This is a process of eliminating complexity; so freedom, dynamism and other drivers of modernity.

But it is also a process of massive centralisation of power, so a process of profound inequality. Not merely the massive power inequality between those being equalised and those doing the equalising but also the profound status inequality between those with the moral and cognitive insight to determine the supreme purpose, and to know how to carry it out, and those upon whom that insight is inflicted.

Which creates an elite whose profound insight sets it apart from the ordinary run of humanity. (The ardent partisans of “equality” in other societies often have a profound sense of their own moral and cognitive superiority.) The logic of greater insight and profound centralisation of power inherently tends to anointing a Great Leader of more than ordinary human insight: the Great Intermediary between society and the underlying true drivers of History and Society. Which is profoundly atavistic: a ruler who directs and controls the social surplus while acting on behalf of (a substitute for) the divine. The over-the-top praise offered up to Pharaoh, or a Khmer Universal King or similar has its exact analogue to that offered up to the Great Leader of Leninist (and particularly Stalinist) societies. In the case of the Hereditary Stalinism of North Korea under the Kim Family Regime, this extends to hagiographic stories of their supernatural birth.

It is an indicator of the power of such atavisms, of the appeal of a sense of profoundly greater moral and cognitive perspicacity and how intellectuals often understand so much less than they think, that such profoundly atavistic projects have been so often passed off (though, thankfully, much less as time goes on as their failure becomes ever more obvious) as the cutting edge of history.

* The similar atavism of the jihadis, with their violent extolling of C7th Arabia as the pinnacle of human social and political understanding is equally obvious. The term 'Islamofascism' captures some important similarities between Nazism, Fascism and the salafists--such as the atavism, the extolling of violence and heroic virtues, the unlimited ambit of politics, being a modernising revolt against modernity.

[Cross-posted at Critical Thinking Applied.]

ADDENDA: This post has been adjusted somewhat for style without any change in the argument. I also added the footnote about the jihadis.

FURTHER The "human shield" rhetoric of the North Korean regime reinforces its atavism.


  1. Excellent. Thank you for this post. Communism and even socialism is indeed openly atavistic in that they both believe there was a true period of primitive communism in which man's identity was bound up with his hunting/gathering group and class and individualism did not exist. This the socialists believe is man's natural state and that the discovery of the division of labor though economically useful was a disaster socially.

    Pharaoh is also one of the great lessons of the Bible. Clearly this man was not a god on Earth and his everyday life disproved it but an entire society was willing to ignore it if they could be "little pharaohs"- chamberlain of the butchers, the bakers, etc. Pharaoh also carried out the first redistributionist policy but at least famine gave him a good reason to. He did, however, enslave those who were forced to come to him to food rather than just accept fair market payment. Just like totalitarianism once in, there was no way out.