Why I Think Totalitarianism Matters Today

The deepest foundation of my critique of totalitarian succor – yes, succor – is the simple fact that, of the people I grew up around, the most impressive, self-possessed and contented were almost all born in the United States before 1930. As a consequence, each of them lived through the Great Depression. The males were drafted into the military and made personally responsible for killing totalitarians. The females were supportive of this and materially sacrificed to ensure the grand moral visions of Hitler, Stalin and Kim Il-sung etc. did not spread globally. To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to these people as the pragmatic old-timers.

I noticed several characteristics these pragmatic old-timers shared in common. None of them suffered from much existential angst for the simple reason they were religious. God, in their belief systems, worked in mysterious ways, yes, but he was also good. The purpose of life, then, was to be as much like Jesus as possible, with the caveat that the previously mentioned mysteriousness of God required guess work. The moral imperative in this system was to “do good” and “help people help themselves” but we were not too judge others too harshly or stridently because most moral questions were “between him/her and God.”

The pragmatic old-timers were also very skeptical of grand narratives. I remember discussing tales of universal equality, dignity and human rights only to be rebuked for “making the world too simple.” Equally, there was a strong preference for doing good in concrete, face to face ways and a suspicion for what they called “preaching.” A cousin, for example, received a stern rebuke when she pontificated on the suffering of the homeless, the goodness of charity and the moral imperative to help such pathetic people. Not only was it “unseemly” to display such “virtuous compassion,” it was dishonest since this cousin hadn’t done anything to physically help a homeless person. Having one’s heart in the right place carried very little weight, in other words, unless one’s hands were also in the right place.

Finally, the pragmatic old-timers were relentlessly practical. When, as a child, I took apart a stone wall I ought not have taken apart, there was practically no discussion of my sins. “Don’t take things apart unless you ask first,” was all my great grandfather said. After that, I joined said grandfather in putting the wall back together.

When it came to their attention that a child was being abused, they did not waste time on the metaphysics of bad parenting, nor did they spend more than a few sentences condemning the abusive mother. Instead, they came together, made a plan for taking the child in, sharing the burdens of raising him and getting him the stability he would need to grow into a productive man. Then they executed that plan.

I compared these to the most miserable, unstable and weak people I grew up around. For convenience, and for contrast, I’ll refer to them as the dreamers. Unlike the pragmatic old-timers, these dreamers were either very religious or very anti-religious. For the very religious dreamers, God was eminently knowable and we needed to subject his words to mathematical analysis and/or deep study in order to find the “one true way” and thus avoid an eternity of hell-fire. For the anti-religious dreamers, atheism represented a sort of revenge against God for his failure to provide the “justice we all desire.” In both cases, these dreamers could always imagine something better and, seeing how the world did not align to their games of make-believe, grew spiteful.

And I noticed how little the anger and misery differed according to the left or right wing leanings of these dreamers. The ultra-right biblical idealist hated the world for failing to match her vision of heaven. The ultra-left atheist hated the world for its failure to match his vision of equality. The libertarian hated the world for failing to meet his passionately held dream of “freedom.” One egalitarian hated people simply for “being happy in this terrible world.”

In each case, these dreamers followed a consistent pattern. Imagine some platonic ideal -> use deductive reason to go from the platonic ideal to a way the world “should” be -> point to the mathematical or deductive consistency of this system to declare it “truer” than any set of observable field conditions -> use this “truth” to condemn the world as it exists -> use this condemnation as justification for hatred and revenge. In short, I always found idealism and dreams of better worlds to be synonymous with hatred.

Grand narratives, for the dreamers, consistently overwhelmed the practical needs and problems of living people. Where the pragmatic old-timers devised practical plans for helping the individual abused children in their communities, the dreamers composed long denunciations of parental failures and lamented the impossibility of ever helping “abused children” in the abstract. One went so far as to condemn the act of helping any one abused child on the logic that “what is one child when there are millions who need help?”

There was a particular subset of these dreamers who I particularly wished to be unlike – a group that Marcus Aurelius, in his Meditations, called “perverse, like the Christians.” The first time I encountered these “perverse Christians” it was during the sermons at my church as a child.

Our church did frequent outreaches to criminal, mentally handicapped and homeless communities. This was mostly for charity, but also, to “perversely” support a system of morality Nietzsche called slave morality. Drawing inspiration from the New Testament in general and the Beatitudes in particular, the church held these homeless, criminal and mentally handicapped people up as exemplars of moral goodness to which the healthy, successful members of the congregation should look for inspiration. To explain the ideal necessary for this morality, I quote from the New International Version (NIV) Bible, Luke 6:20-26:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for this is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.”

The leaders of my childhood church took this literally. They warned the congregation that it is bad to be happy. They cautioned that having a good relationship with your neighbors constituted a secret corruption. They pointed to the criminals, ne’er-do-wells and black sheep of the congregation and, on the beatitude-logic that everything good is bad, told the church goers they should get worse at basic life skills in order to match the spiritual goodness of said criminals and ne’er-do-wells. In very prosaic language, they wanted us to be failures because God loves a failure.

When I compared the views of the old-time pragmatists and the dreamers, I came to feel that practical solutions are, in almost every sense, superior to soaring ideals and lofty rhetoric. They are certainly more honest. I came to associate idealism with misery and weakness. I especially thought of the church dreamers and decided I would never be the sort of person to “profit” from the admiration and compassion of a beatitude-believer. Such “goodness,” to me, felt extremely perverse and dishonorable compared to the mysterious, private God of the old-time pragmatists. Final solutions and grand narratives, I decided, were incompatible with truth.

These conclusions form the pre-philosophic base of this article’s philosophical approach. From now on, we’ll discuss the post-philosophical basis.

Machiavelli and Marx

My first serious philosophical investigations occurred as an undergraduate at the University of Nevada. During my first semester, I was assigned both Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” and Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” The effects of these books formed an important part of my philosophy going forward.

With regard to Marx, I immediately recognized a kinship with the perverse Christian dreaming of my childhood church. Where the beatitudes tell us, “blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” Marx blesses the workers, for theirs is the dictatorship of the proletariat. Where the beatitudes bless “those who weep now, for you will laugh,” Lenin blesses the oppressed, for they will destroy the old classes. Where the beatitudes bless “you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil,” Mao blesses the party cadres because “it is good if we are attacked by the enemy, since it proves that we have drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and our selves. It is still better if the enemy attacks us wildly and paints us as utterly black and without a single virtue; it demonstrates that we have not only drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves but achieved a great deal in our work.”

Indeed, I mentioned this to my professor, wondering if it was perhaps not best to interpret Marxism as “economics rearranged according to Christian morality.” He rejected this idea on the grounds that “it feels different,” but could not offer anything more concrete than said feeling. I did not find his feeling convincing and continue to agree with Russell and Arendt when they portray Marx as an “excessively practical messiah.” In particular, the shared glorification of all that’s sick, the shared suspicion for all that’s healthy, the shared prophetic tone and the same rejection of positive good in favor of “reduced suffering” make me think my professor was basically mistaken.

By contrast, Machiavelli was a revelation. “The Prince” was the first book of ethics I’d ever read that cared more about how people are than some idealistic standard of how they ought to be. When Machiavelli wrote “how we live is so different from how we ought to live that he who studies what ought to be done rather than what is done will learn the way to his downfall rather than to his preservation,” he at once told an obvious truth and brutally shattered a taboo I hadn’t known existed beforehand. Namely, the taboo against telling truths when they conflict with pleasant, moral fictions. This taboo breaking, I believe, is the single biggest reason for his scandalous reputation. It is also the biggest reason I admire the man.

Inspired, I read “Discourses on Livy” on my own and found it to be even better than “The Prince.” Here, in clear prose, I read hundreds of pages of utterly practical advice for predicting the petty betrayals, lies and “evils” people perpetrate against each other all the time. Machiavelli, so distinct from Marx, stated these as mere matters of fact and, rather than wasting time on moral condemnations or appeals to some imaginary standard of how “men ought to be,” doubles down on his pragmatism and gives even more practical advice on how to prevent would-be traitors becoming actual traitors. Where Marx never tires of pointing to the injustices of impersonal social forces against which we individuals are helpless, Machiavelli never tires of explaining the practical ways to take power and avoid helplessness.

Drawing on my pre-philosophic experiences, I associated Marx with the dreamers and churchmen and the “perverse” misery they seemed to embody. Machiavelli, on the other hand, I imagined fitting in very well with the pragmatic old-timers I’d known, finding much common cause with the triumphant survivors of the Great Depression, the rescuers of individual abused children.

Nietzsche and Kierkegaard

As much as Machiavelli offers salvation from the hatred and revenge of idealism, of Marxist heavens and Christian beatitudes, he does not replace them with any metaphysics to speak of. While I would argue that metaphysics are often overrated, they are necessary. As such, I had to continue my philosophical journey beyond Machiavelli and Marx.

Nietzsche was my first post-Christian step into metaphysics and, though probably and “atheist,” I consider him very much a fellow traveler with my second existentialist teacher, the theologian Soren Kierkegaard. These philosophers offered both a freedom from idealistic dogma and its equally dangerous opposite, nihilism. 

They pointed to a dangerous, manly metaphysics of duty and hardness I found very appealing. Struggle and courage are mandatory in Nietzsche, a sacred duty in Kierkegaard. Nihilism is dismissed as cowardice. Nietzsche assesses “the power of a will by how much resistance, pain, torture it endures and knows how to turn to its advantage.” Kierkegaard, in Fear and Trembling, explains that “pain reconciles one to existence. Infinite resignation is that shirt in the old fable. The thread is spun with tears, bleached by tears, the shirt sewn in tears, but then it also gives better protection than iron. The secret in life is that everyone must sew it for himself.”  

These philosophers, like the pragmatic old-timers I remember, see hardship, danger and even death as obstacles to be conquered through exertion, courage and self-cultivation. They insist on positive goods, not passively avoiding evils. They make success glorious when they refuse to promise salvation and they promise absolutely nothing for the protagonists of the beatitudes. Neither has fallen into the soft nihilism of “reduced suffering” I remember from Marx and the church sermons.

Confucius, Mencius and the Stoics

The Analects of Confucius and the Mencius, to me, dovetail with the stoic tradition to present a joyful, ordered ethics in many ways. In particular, the stoic “logos” and the Confucian “will of heaven” seem to offer an excellent justification for ideological humility or, to channel the pragmatic old-timers, a reason to believe most moral decisions are “between you and God.”

Both the will of heaven and the logos of stoicism represent “universal” standards we might aspire to and thus deny the nihilistic compassion of Marx and the Beatitudes. However, with the mysteriousness built into both the will of heaven and the logos, these traditions teach that we can never arrive at perfection of any sort. We can get closer to perfection with self-cultivation, discipline and courage, but the journey will never end. This represents a humility and flexibility sorely lacking in the dreamers’ idealism, Plato’s forms, Marx’s egalitarianism, de Gabineau’s racist utopia and the beatitudes’ “perversion.”

There’s also an essential benevolence in the Confucians and stoics that makes life seem beautiful rather than ugly. Seneca tells us that nature is kind, giving us so much time in our lives and reminds us that, if we feel life is too short, it’s either because we expect too much or because we are wasting the time we’ve been given. Marcus Aurelius sees evil men and reasons they are necessary compliments to good men, upper and lower sets of teeth, right and left hands. Mencius tells us of the child about to fall into a well and demonstrates how any onlooker will, as the mere consequence of their humanity, wish to stop the child falling. He then proves how this basic humanity shows the “sprouts of goodness” universally present in our species, sprouts that we can chose to neglect but, equally, can choose to nourish.

Virtue is embraced and the Beatitudes are banished, utopia is abolished but a generous natural world is established, perfection is denied but improvement acclaimed. Such a worldview, for the purposes of this paper, is treated as preferential to the idealism, compassionate nihilism of “reduced suffering” and vengeful utopianism of not just the pastors and dreamers already mentioned, but the totalitarians as well.  

Totalitarianism as Compassionate Idealism, Arendt as Sympathetic Pragmatist

Totalitarianism, whether “right wing” as in Nazi Germany or “left wing” as in North Korea, displays the philosophical consequences of the Beatitudes, Marx’s idealism and determinism, and the dignity killing compassion of those who wish to “reduce suffering.”

The Nazis, Soviets, Maoists and North Koreans all fundamentally attempt to simplify the world to fit their idealisms. They butcher and deform people, at least in part, because the crippled, stunted and dead fit their idealistic models of reality better than any healthy person ever could.

In all cases, this simplification and dumbing down of life is justified as compassion and a “real goodness” ideal very similar to that found in the Beatitudes. The entire world, these totalitarians insist, can be explained in either a few biological principles or through a selection of pithy Marx quotations. This simplicity has to be true because a complex world would be more accessible to intelligent, diligent and courageous people than average people and thus, ultimately, go beyond the ability of an equality-based ideology to explain. The Kierkegaardian knight of infinite resignation represents far too much difficulty for the everyman to embody. The life of a stoic sage requires too much discipline, the standard of a Confucian gentleman is too rigorous and thus, the totalitarians argue, such standards are cruel and inegalitarian. Making everything mediocre, then, represents the triumph of both moral goodness and compassion.

What is striking is how all the totalitarians studied in this paper, including Hitler, propose an equality of condition as their central moral imperative. Not an equal opportunity, not a more equal condition, not an equality before the law or the presumption of equality as a useful lie, but absolute equality of condition, regardless of personal qualities or choices. This is an end to history, a conclusion to the human experiment, a perfect and unmoving heaven where we all sit around radiating essences or something. Such is the obvious consequence of Marxist ideology, but Hitler writes basically the same thing in Mein Kampf.

“The State is a means to an end. Its end is the preservation and promotion of a community of physically and psychically equal living beings.”

Hannah Arendt in particular, but also Bertrand Russell, Bimrao Amdedkar, Viktor Frankl, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Friedrich A. Hayek and many others who lived through the totalitarian 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s seem to diagnose and oppose this idealistic barbarism and compassionate nihilism through a program of pragmatic, “better rather than perfect” solutions, an emphasis on personal virtue and positive self-improvement from individual people who, owing to the fact each one is unique, will never be equal.

For Russel, this is the careful excision of rationalistic determinism from history or politics. It is why he denounces the ur-idealist Plato for “proto-totalitarianism.” For Ambedkar, champion of India’s untouchable caste, it was the frank admission that equality does not describe any two people in practice but remains a serviceable “noble lie” because it allows unequal people a chance to self-sort into meritocratic hierarchies of the sorts castes prevent from forming. For Frankl, it is the Kierkegaardian imperative to overcome utopia, reject scientifically prophesized “end points” and impose meaning on an infinitely complex world. For Solzhenitsyn, it is the discovery that “if (human beings) are free, they are not equal. If they are equal, they are not free.” For Hayek, it is the belief that unified moral outlooks are some of the most monstrous things humans can create and that, as such, one of the primary virtues of a capitalist market is its inherent amorality. For Arendt, it is a flat skepticism of ideology in general and a pragmatism evocative of Machiavelli’s indifference to the theories of “how men ought to be.”

These philosophers, many of whom survived the plague of totalitarian compassion only through luck and courage, I believe, combine the virtues of my pragmatic old-timers, the realism of a Machiavelli or Han Fei-tzu, the courageous striving of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and the optimistic humility of the Confucians and stoics. They represent a flexible and positive alternative to the nihilistic compassion and idealistic misery of not just 20th century totalitarians, but our rising 21st century proto-totalitarianism as well.

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