Totalitarianism and Hierarchy.
In terms of hierarchical mass society dynamics, totalitarian rule is merely a further extension of existing hierarchical rule. The one cannot be understood without understanding the other. Furthermore, state and non-state forms of coercion and compulsion are the means which allow the transition from one phase of authoritarian rule to the other. Without coercion hierarchies cannot continue to rule over a majority and in an existential situation, without extreme compulsion hierarchical control cannot be transformed into totalitarian control. Compulsion is also the glue which holds hierarchical mass societies together. This has been the case in both ancient and modern mass society forms.
Hierarchical mass societies, with their extensive divisions of labour, are at the same time the source of human ‘alienation’ and the cause of the multitude of struggles within mass societies. Elite prescribed rewards to individuals for what amount to social activities lead to economic struggles, social struggles, ethnic struggles, gender struggles, educational struggles, ecological struggles, national struggles, political and politico-religious struggles. These are all responses to the ‘normal’ functioning of hierarchical mass societies – including the present capitalist ones. Additional struggles over the rights of animals and those campaigns to ‘save’ this or that endangered species now cover practically every species currently alive on planet earth.
Although they are all fragmented, these human rights, struggles animal rights struggles and now climate struggles signal the growing discontent of citizens with the ruling elites who control the many global mass society formations. However, this plethora of 20th and 21st century struggles have not generally been seen by their campaigners as the particular symptoms of a common alienation experienced within all hierarchical mass societies. However, many elites have begun to understand the potential danger these struggles pose to the normal forms of social control. For when too many serious struggles take place, the ‘normal’ functioning of mass societies begins to break down.
Moreover, it is only when ‘normal’ levels of authoritarian compulsion cease to keep order in hierarchical mass societies, that hierarchies begin to extend their powers toward the totalitarian spectrum. This extension of powers is done in attempts to prevent a complete socio-economic breakdown or a potential revolutionary transformation of the mass society system. In country after country in the 21st century, the ordinary citizens of global humanity are beginning to resist the existential degradation of their animal vegetable and human communities. Implicitly, if not everywhere explicitly, the capitalist profit-led form of mass societies, is under critical review. At the same time ordinary citizens are faced with the re-emergence within the elites of totalitarian tendencies aimed at conserving the existing system.
Hierarchy in ‘normal’ times.
For generations, the absence of peace, justice and well being within ‘normal’ civilised societies, has ‘witnessed’ many religious believers being advised to, or coerced into, doing what no other life form would do; – passively bear whatever happens to them and turn the other cheek. All other species of ‘life on earth’ including most humans would sooner or later fight back or just move somewhere else. Indeed, those responses are the recurring strategies which often result in civil wars or emigrations.
One of the few active things religious officials encourage people to do when faced with common existential problems is to kneel down and pray to an imaginary invisible, all powerful man in an invisible unknowable (!) heaven. One other unnatural active thing some religions elites encourage is to disrespect other denominations religions and at times even kill their members, for religiously distorted views see these as rival worshipers of the same or a different God.
Perhaps predictably, given that the symptoms of alienation noted above are so pervasive, in the 20th century, secular versions of religious style patience and resignation to mass society alienation were also invented. A spectrum of physical and psychological ‘helpers’ expanded during the 1960‘s offering a range of services from drugs to surgery and from ‘counselling’ to ‘courses on well being. Just like religion, such prescriptions are all offered with the purpose of assisting the sufferer – purely as an individual – to ease the individual distress and pain of living within hierarchical social structures.
That so many problems and coping strategies exist within hierarchical mass societies points to something seriously wrong and unnatural with the hierarchical mass society social form. Yet despite the huge numbers of disturbed, discontented, disaffected, discriminated, disillusioned, dysfunctional citizens and endangered species, the type of remedies provided are all targeted at the individuals within them. This individual focus conveniently ignores the obvious social nature of the problems commonly encountered and at the same time serves to undermine the idea of individual sufferers combining with other sufferers to achieve better living conditions. However, that narrow individuated perspective cannot continue indefinitely.
The preferred elite solution to a modern authoritarian social system treating people consistently badly, is to undergo the individual medication or experience the individual therapy recommended and be thankful that their situation is not worse. Revealingly, where available, the drug and non-drug versions of therapy have been consistently taken up by individuals in all classes. This fact also highlights the depth and breadth of the problems built into the social fabric of hierarchical mass societies. Yet it is an obvious fact that in many cases, mental exercises to achieve inner well being do not really help. Talking things through or concept modification exercises for someone permanently, unemployed, homeless and living in a city centre shop doorway, or living with a partner who beats or rapes will not alter their reality or allow them to feel good about it.
Furthermore, even when considered in their most benign, current forms of hierarchical mass societies are authoritarian throughout the whole of their social fabric. The global response of elites using emergency powers to control citizen movements during Covid19 Pandemics indicates that in order to maintain them, hierarchical-led systems at all times are ready to adopt a totalitarian outlook and introduce extreme forms of control and violence if necessary. The experience of hierarchies becoming totalitarian are also reflected in the culture and literature of the First and Second World Wars. This transition occurred even in societies supposedly opposed to capitalist ones as Orwell’s ‘1984’ and ‘Animal Farm’ graphically portray.
The Elephant in the Room.
However, it often seems that only in science fiction stories is the logic of hierarchical mass society living portrayed as a morphing into a full blown Mad Max style dystopia. But the actual real-life alienated logic of ‘normal’ hierarchical capitalist mass societies is continually displayed in the taken for granted mass production and use of weapons of mass destruction – both in the case of conventional explosives and nuclear alternatives. There can be nothing more totalitarian than the fact that the existential end of practically everything we know can now be achieved – in real life – at the press of a certain button, by order of a political or military leader – without citizen consultation – even in supposedly democratic countries as well as dictatorial ones!
It is in the ubiquitous nature of predatory warfare perpetrated by all hierarchical mass society elites from ancient to modern that suggests this form of society is the originator of all such unnatural and nihilistic human common behaviors enumerated above. Yet amazingly pre- Atom bomb, industrial levels of human annihilation by warfare are invariably framed by mass society elites and their media echo chambers as heroic events to celebrate rather than as tragic socio-economic human failures to rectify. Humans are the only species of ‘life on earth’ that deliberately exterminate vast numbers of their own kind along with logging or spraying other species into forest or field oblivion. Yet so few people bother to point this out..
I suggest, that if we think about it, there is also something bizarrely schizophrenic about mass society elites who wear poppies and parade in stern faced, pomp and circumstance past memorials and cenotaphs to the millions dead in the wars their class started. For surrounded by huge personal wealth, they will coldly administer the reduction of wages, benefits and living conditions for millions still alive! And bizarrely many other people consider both these political actions as perfectly ‘normal’.
I hope the previous paragraphs will not be quickly passed over, but carefully considered, for what they contain illuminates practically all the unresolved contradictions now being played out within modern capitalist societies. This is occurring because in periods of extreme crisis, the fundamental socio-economic contradictions and their ideological expressions tend to surface with profound and violent intent. Indeed, often even the most intelligent and astute historical, social, economic and political commentators fail to understand the basic socio-economic contradictions of hierarchical mass societies or the nature of the pent up passions when they start to be forcefully expressed. The latter will be considered in Totalitarian Tendencies (Part 2.)
Roy Ratcliffe (November 2022)