TOTALITARIAN TENDENCIES (Part 5)


The ideology.

A link can be made between the totalitarian ideas maturing within thinkers in ancient hierarchical mass societies, through those in the middle ages and on to those in the modern era. Greek thinkers such Plato, Aristotle, the unknown Abrahamic monotheist narrators, Papal Catholic thinkers, such as Augustine, the Jesuits and on to Hobbes and Hegel, in the 17th and 19th centuries all developed ideas along such lines. The philosopher, Karl Popper, for example considered that Hegel represented a “missing link” between Plato and more modern versions of totalitarianism and he also connected this with the totalitarian tendencies in the Abraham religions, writing the following;

“The church followed in the wake of Platonic-Aristotelian totalitarianism, a development that culminated in the Inquisition…It is set out in the last three books of the Laws, where Plato shows it is the duty of the shepherd rulers to protect the sheep at all costs by preserving the rigidity of the laws and especially religious practice and theory, even if they have to kill the wolf, who may admittedly be an honest and honourable man whose diseased conscience unfortunately does not permit him to bow to the threats of the mighty.” (K. Popper. Open Society etc. RKP. Page 24.)

Note that the inquisition had its own ruthless version of torturing and burning for ‘crime think’. However, a more developed concept of totalitarianism was introduced into early bourgeois consciousness by Thomas Hobbes. He asserted the need for supreme authority to be given to one man in order to secure the peace and defence of bourgeois “industrie”;

“For by this authority…he hath the use of so much Power and Strength conferred upon him, that by his terror thereof, he is in able to forme the wills of them all..” (Leviathan. Hobbes.)

Hannah Arendt in her book ‘Totalitarianism’, also traces the roots of modern totalitarianism to Thomas Hobbes in his ‘Leviathan’ in which Hobbes argues that the sovereign power, however formed, has 12 absolute powers of life, death and opinions etc., over everyone it rules. She correctly distinguishes between dictatorship where elite rule is satisfied by the exercise of overwhelming power to actively promote the dictators own interests, and the much further extension of such power to include the absolute power over every action and thought – for the good of the system.

She reminds her readers that the prelude to the totalitarianism achieved in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin Russia was the colonial/imperial rule by Europeans of so-called ‘subject races’ in Africa, Asia and North and South America. Rule and exploitation of land and bodily labour was never enough for the insatiable greed of European wealth accumulation. Only total rule over thinking and culture including language and custom could ensure exclusive bourgeois rights over any other prior rights of conquered peoples.

The practice.

The British Empire was the most clear example of this transition from dictatorship to totalitarian rule where the conquered were required to be grateful for being conquered and however painful it became, be thankful for their subjection. They were required to learn to absorb and admire the bourgeois culture and alleged benefits of European capitalism. Those who rebelled were made an example of by graphically horrible means. (Just like Iran’s Islamic rulers are doing by this months public executions and Putin’s Iranian sourced drones have been doing for months on civilians in Ukraine) Furthermore, the ‘rectification of thinking’ is a logical step for totalitarian control as in 20th century Soviet Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. However, it should not be overlooked that;

“…totalitarian government is different from dictatorships and tyrannies; the ability to distinguish between them is by no means an academic issue which could be safely left to the theoreticians, for total domination is the only form of government with which coexistence is not possible. Hence, we have every reason to use the word ‘totalitarian’ sparingly and prudently “ (’Totalitarianism’ H. Arendt.)

Therefore, we need to monitor authoritarian tendencies and register how close they are to becoming fully totalitarian. For example, the existence of ‘criminals’ without having committed a real crime such as the ‘thought crime’ of Orwell’s 1984 and the Turkish imprisonment of teachers etc. in 2016 are examples of authoritarianism tending toward totalitarianism. The full suite of totalitarian categories include; one party rule, no freedom of association, no freedom of opinion or thought, no public expression of dissent, arbitrary arrests, assassinations, secret trials and summary executions. These are the usual indicators of the arrival of the final totalitarian stage of mass society governance. However, there are several stages before that final one. There are seven steps from being a ridiculous figure to a seriously terrifying autocrat in the estimation of Ece Temelkuran in her book ‘How to Lose a Country’ (from Democracy to Dictatorship in Turkey under Erdogan).

To understand the social dynamic involved, the following description of the situation regarding the masses in hierarchical mass societies needs to be considered. In a serious crisis of such societies, the desperate, discarded ‘I want’ something better individuals, begin to recognise their needs are common to many more and therefore often become the ‘We want’ something better collectives. These collectives become a potential revolutionary force, often described by the establishment as the ‘mob’ (or despicables) and are seen by themselves as the ‘real people’.

The needs of such ‘left behind’ ordinary people are actually social not political, but so habituated are the mass of people to thinking within a political framework, that they are easily persuaded to put their trust in some form of populist politician to improve their socio-economic position. However, populist leaders needs are different from their followers. The politicians needs are to gain political power, their followers needs are to improve their socio-economic situation. Once the politicians have gained power, the people are then invariably betrayed. In their eyes, the people become Plato’s sheep and therefore at the mercy of a radical political shepherd. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao in the early 20th century, and later, Khomeini, Putin, then Erdowan, Bolsonaro, Trump, Sisi, etc., in the 21st.

There are many partially correct observations concerning totalitarianism and links, such as those noted above, but most authors seeking theoretical continuity between practices and ideas, miss the real material connection between the resurgence of these actions and ideas. The real material connection is the existence of hierarchical mass societies themselves during all ancient and modern periods. For example, one celebrated ruler, Ashurnacirpal, (approx 860 BCE) even openly boasted of his totalitarian brutality in the subjugation of those who rebelled after having been previously conquered. Thus;

“I drew near to the city of Tela. The city was very strong; three walls surrounded it. The inhabitants trusted to their strong walls and numerous soldiers; they did not come down or embrace my feet. With battle and slaughter I assaulted and took the city. Three thousand warriors I slew in battle. Their booty and possessions , cattle, sheep, I carried away; many captives I burned with fire. Many of their soldiers I took alive; of some I cut off their hands and limbs; of others the noses, ears and arms; of many soldiers I put out the eyes. I reared a column of the living and a column of heads. I hung up on high their heads on trees in the vicinity of their city. Their boys and girls I burned up in the flame. I devastated the city, dug it up, in fire burned it; I annihilated it.” (Standard Inc. , col. I. 113 – 118./ quoted in ‘A History of Babylonian and Assyrians’. By George Stephen Goodspeed. Section 168.)

It would not be difficult to furnish similar examples from the historical records of ancient Egyptian, Persian, Greek and Roman imperial periods of hierarchical mass societies. Even the Old Testament in Genesis 34; Exodus 32; Numbers 31 (10-18) and Isaiah 61 (12-16) demonstrate the same aggressive, acquisitive and punitive mentality by the nearly Israelites. It is also not difficult to recognise essentially the same thing being done to communities in the 20th and 21st centuries from a bomber a mile high or from a distantly located missile launch pad.

So in fact, the links between acts of totalitarian terror do not directly flow via a continuity between the ideologies of totalitarian iconoclasts but the link is through the hierarchical mass society form itself. This form of social living itself is authoritarian and totalitarian and thus continually gives rise to actions and theories about it which relate to it either negatively or positively. The positive supportive ones emanate predominantly from the elite beneficiaries of such societies and the negative views predominantly ( but not always) from the subservient sufferers.

Original Sin or material context.

Nevertheless, a fundamental confusion about motives arise when the logic of hierarchical mass society wealth accumulation is insufficiently considered and understood. Abstract terms, particularly among those whose thinking runs in predetermined political or religious grooves can be used to interpret conquest and violence as necessary – for a greater good. Yet there is no greater good than fully accepting the natural rights of humans, animals and other life forms to live in the utmost harmony possible. For example, it is not a natural or biologically inbuilt symptom of humanity to be nasty and horrible, as some suggest. The answer to the developmentof such aggressive behaviour lies in the type of society people live in. In settled societies as distinct from nomadic societies, far more wealth – in whatever form is considered wealth – can be accumulated than can be carried on human shoulders or animal backs whilst moving around.

Therefore, unlike early human societies, in settled mass societies, wealth accumulation is only limited by somewhere large enough to store it, the ability to obtain it and the power to retain it. Hence, the ‘grab and go’ armed military conquest histories of ancient Babylon, Sumer, Egypt, Persian, Greece, Rome and the European fuedal land wars and later colonial conquests. Such organised mass murders and pillaging do not occur prior to hierarchical mass societies. Among hunter gatherer societies there is simply not enough accumulated objects to steal and since it was (is) easier to gather and hunt than risk life and limb to raid what others have gathered or hunted, very little stealing and chopping off heads existed.

It also needs to be born in mind that, excessive inequalities in wealth and power in mass societies have always been viewed as unfair and largely resented, often accompanied by attempts to circumvent it or reduce it by one means or another. Consequently, in hierarchical mass societies where excessive wealth is appropriated by an elite, then that elite needs an unlimited extension of power to prevent any citizen attempts at wealth re-distribution. In calm periods, the elite needs only as much power as is necessary to accumulate and retain that wealth, but they also need the flexibility to increase that power if and when necessary.

Thus in ancient times when normal authoritarian control was insufficient, these were superseded by ‘extraordinary measures’ in the form of military crackdowns on civil disobedience or colonial unrest. These featured regularly in the ancient world and the modern Foreign Policies and Emergency Powers Acts are a similarly derived feature of the elites in Capitalist countries, precisely because wealth accumulation remains a conditioned feature of their entire lives. Consequently, total control is never going too far.

Roy Ratcliffe (December 2022)

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1 Response to TOTALITARIAN TENDENCIES (Part 5)

  1. Tony Taylor says:

    Thanks so much for this stimulating series, Roy. I should reply in some depth but must confess to feeling pretty low about the overall political situation and the authoritarian threat from across the political spectrum. Will try to pull myself together. In solidarity. Tony

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