The material basis of totalitarian tendencies.
Currently many mainstream commentators think that the main problem we face today in the advanced capitalist countries, is that liberal democratic politics is under extreme stress and severe attack by angry, misguided and misled mobs. But on the basis of the evidence abbreviated in Totalitarian Tendencies Part 1, it should be recognised that the current political turmoil is just a surface symptom of a much deeper tectonic type shift in the socio-economic foundations of hierarchical mass societies. I suggest that the current problems go far deeper than the democratic form of rule operating in some current mass societies. It is the hierarchical mass society form of living, producing, and consuming itself which is once again in a deep existential crisis. Furthermore, it is one every bit as problematic as the one occurring between 1910 and 1945. To fully grasp the significance of the surface political turmoil of 21st century hierarchical mass societies we need to understand the underlying socio-economic contradictions upon which all these systems rest.
Within all mass societies that contain extensive divisions of labour between their citizens, there are a set of underlying practical socio-economic circumstance which give rise to fundamental socio-political symptoms and dilemmas. First of all each individual citizen is in competition with other citizens for partners, jobs, housing, status and much else. Citizens of mass societies are simultaneously thrown together in large numbers, yet remain economically, socially (and even emotionally) separate; people are essentially alone whilst being surrounded by thousands. In hierarchical mass societies, these competitive economic and social divisions also produce a range of responses from indifference, through callousness, and onto hostility and even hatred. These have become ‘normal’ responses occurring between members of the same society, the same species and at times even members of the same family. That brief description is the fundamental existential dynamic for the masses in hierarchical mass societies. Yet there is another dynamic with regard to the hierarchy.
The elites, who dominate and rule hierarchical mass societies also face competition between each other, but in this case the competition is mainly over obtaining the benefits of the surplus production extracted from the masses. In pre-capitalist mass societies, that surplus production was generally in the form of a significant proportion of everything produced (a ‘tithe’ or tenth of everything) plus a supply of luxury goods and services. In capitalist based hierarchical mass societies the surplus production is transformed into a monetary form and appropriated as taxes, grants and gifts or credit, which is then used to purchase essential as well as luxury items.
But of course that is not the only dynamic. In all such class-divided cases, an increase in the numbers of elites means that the surplus production (or value) extracted from the masses must be increased to maintain (or increase) the average elite levels of wealth. There are only two ways this can be done. 1. To increase the productivity of the masses of working producers (by more productive working) or increase the proportion of wealth extracted from the masses (by higher taxes). 2. To increase the extent of the resources controlled and/or the number of working producers controlled (by direct conquest of territory and people or proxy control).
The above is the underlying socio-economic dynamic which fuels the recurring elite instigated armed campaigns to obtain pillage, tribute, conquest or imperial type control using a delegated elite. Such campaigns have continued from the very earliest ancient, pre-Common Era hierarchical mass societies of Sumer, Babylon, Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Roman Empires, through the Medieval period of European and Eastern Wars and the eventual establishment of the Islamic, Mogul and Ottoman Empires. The same elite motive operated in establishing the Hapsburg and Russian Empires, the British Empire, and the Western colonising expansion of the USA. Even the origins of the two 20th century World Wars, were also over which group of ‘allied’ elites would control the main sources of profit from global natural resources and global human labour. This shortened list, just includes the most recognisable, tribute grabbing, resource stealing, human enslaving and genocidal instances.
That this 5,000 year old history of elite ‘need’ (and greed) is a built-in dynamic of the hierarchical mass society form is not only evidenced by this long episodic inhumane history but by the fact that it’s impulse still operates within the 21st century. Its relatively peaceful international means is to export capital in order to exploit foreign labour or import cheap labour and exploit it in the home country. Both these ‘peaceful’ (sic) international trading strategies are in order to increase the rate of surplus-product or value accruing to the various elites. The extreme violent variant of obtaining surplus-production in 21st century is demonstrated in the Russian elites desire to annex the land and people of Crimea and Ukraine and the Chinese elites desire to annex Hong Kong and Taiwan. Ruling and exploiting one territory or human community is never enough for the type of elites born into and formed within successive hierarchical mass societies.
The fact is that no individuals in any mass society conurbation can provide themselves with food, water, clothes, shelter and warmth from their own individual efforts. Consequently, despite the severe levels of competition, exploitation, oppression etc., contained within them, each individual member needs their mass society to function – at least economically – in order to simply survive. These contradictory circumstances create a strong pressure to both conserve the individual against other individuals and conserve the existing social system, against other existing societies. Hence the phenomena of some of the masses volunteering to join in the ‘special military operations’ their elites justify as ‘defending the mother country’. Others have to be compelled by conscription.
Living in a hierarchical mass society which is alienating and oppressive, means individuals are living amid a huge and often crushing social contradiction. Hence on top of any occupational and environmental illnesses, within hierarchical mass societies, there is a steady stream of alcoholism, drug addiction, schizophrenia, psychotic levels of random and targeted anger, plentiful suicides and many other negative psychological symptoms.
For working class humanity in particular, being trapped within a modern hierarchical mass society form of living is, on a much broader and more universal scale, an analogue of someone living with an oppressive and aggressive partner. With no realistic alternative she or he might reason: “I know its horrible being here, but it is somewhere to live”! I know from direct experience that women’s rights campaigners in the 1970’s and beyond, needed to establish refuges and lines of practical support before some women could break free from a family commitment which was deeply dysfunctional and dangerously destructive.
Similarly, a worker in a sweat shop industry (or serving soldier) might express it thus: “I know this job will likely kill me but I and my family need the money”. I also personally know that shop stewards in such industries had to constructively deal with a workforce often divided on how to respond (put crudely; whether to strike or not to strike) when faced with atrocious working conditions.
So despite any successful workplace actions the threat to livelihood and self-esteem within a hierarchical mass society – in crisis – can actually lead some people to a desire for a strong leader to forcibly keep job and benefit competition (foreign or otherwise) under control and the system functioning. This can be a particularly strong symptom when a crisis begins and tensions and emotions run high. Moreover, such contradictory responses occur in politically diverse hierarchical mass societies such as those designated as Fascist, Liberal Democratic or Socialist. The reason becomes clear when it is born in mind that it is the lived reality of the mode of production which determines these eventual human responses, not the political labels used to describe them.
Obviously if mass societies are exploitative, oppressive and discriminatory then discontent will surface sooner or later no matter how it is politically defined or ‘spun’. Consequently, real life contradictions such as deploring the system whilst needing it to continue are to be expected. Therefore, particularly in a crisis, prematurely forcing an issue or imposing a demonised description upon working people – when they do not know who to trust and have not yet grasped the scope, scale and detail of what is unraveling or is needed – can be a tragic mistake. Such arrogant sectarian posturing (eg. ‘only we know what is true and what is false – about everything!’) should be avoided in the first place and challenged were it occurs.
Millions of people know that capitalist societies are unfair, unjust, unequal and unsustainable. Millions also know that the so-called 20th century established ‘socialisms’ also retained wage-labour exploitation, extreme physical coercion to conform, extensive social discrimination, high levels of hierarchical privilege for the party elite and the constant destructive devastation of nature. Therefore, in the absence of a humane alternative, many will reason that ‘their’ current societies need to be supported because they are the only places which allow enough of the population to actually survive. In such complex and contradictory circumstances it should be understandable, therefore, that some individuals will take longer than others (and may need time and contemplation) to break away from various commitments to an existing hierarchical form of mass society. Impatience with the masses slowly emerging perceptions and mis-perceptions of the nature of socio-economic crisis is seldom a positive characteristic.
From a revolutionary-humanist perspective, therefore, an element of conservatism, existing within working class communities does not necessarily stem from a deep rooted right wing, fascist style conviction. Indeed, it is more likely that a limited, but rational element of confused and contradictory thinking, can be predominantly at play. With regard to political confusion and modern totalitarian tendencies, it should not be forgotten that the 20th century form of totalitarian tendencies we now call Fascism was introduced and gained power in both Germany and Italy – in the guise of Socialism!
In both Germany and Italy, it was a ‘National Socialist’ (Nazi) political tendency which adopted a radical programme of rights for workers and consequently attracted a huge working and middle class following. Millions of working people on all sides were fooled and divided by their own confused thinking and misplaced loyalties into fighting each other in favour of competing versions of hierarchical mass society ideologies. This confusion was supplemented by a father-figure, hero worshiping trust in strong men such as Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. Such confused thinking around poorly analysed political categories has arisen once again in the 21st century and urgently needs to be countered. A much broader and deeper historically accurate narrative needs to be articulated. Totalitarian Tendencies Part 3 (to follow) will continue offering these contributions toward such accuracy.
Roy Ratcliffe (November 2022)