Let’s follow the wisdom of Greek rhetoricians and agree on the terms of discussion.
It’s generally believed that the West has historically featured three types of governance: authoritarian, totalitarian and liberal-democratic.
The first is typified by all Western monarchies of old, various South American states and countries like, say, Franco’s Spain or Salazar’s Portugal. The second term usually describes Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and the Soviet Union along with all its satellites. And then there are the modern Western countries that all proudly wear the tag of liberal democracy.
Now, I don’t accept this taxonomy. My contention is that there really are only two types of states, not three. The true line of demarcation separates traditional authoritarian states from modern ones, either totalitarian or liberal. These two sub-types, different though they may be in variously important details, are closer than people think in their philosophical and, if you will, intuitive foundations.
Proceeding from terminology to observation, we all notice in today’s liberal West tyrannical practices that used to be associated with totalitarian states only. Suppression of free speech, banning of books, persecution of people for what they say and increasingly think, imposition of ideological uniformity, ever-increasing power of central government – you can extend this list at your leisure.
Yes, everybody notices such things. Yet most people believe they are perversions of liberalism, which is where I diverge from majority opinion. I regard liberalism and totalitarianism as Siamese twins separated at birth. This degree of kinship presupposes inordinate mutual affinity and an inclination towards ever-growing proximity.
In other words, because liberalism is close to totalitarianism, it reaches out to it by cultivating the totalitarian aspects of its own DNA that have hitherto been more or less suppressed.
Actually, we aren’t quite done with terms. I’d like to introduce another one, which designates the crosshatched area on which liberalism and totalitarianism overlap: anomie.
It derives from the Greek word nomos, the sum total of traditions, creeds, conventions, natural injunctions, customs, mores and morality that have been passed on from one generation to the next for centuries. Anomie thus signifies the abandonment and debauchment of all such things.
The traditional and only possible depository of nomos is the family, along with familial institutions patterned after it: parish, clan, neighbourhood, guild, township, village and so forth. Such bodies come together by free association, and they lie outside the political realm. In fact, they act as gaskets separating and protecting private individuals from political tyranny.
Thus there is a fair amount of organic, as opposed to political, pluralism built into authoritarian societies. The king (president, prince, duke etc.) neither has nor wishes to acquire control over nomos, which makes his control of the populace limited.
Authoritarian states monopolise central political power, but, as power radiates towards the periphery, it’s absorbed and attenuated by nomos. In such states of yesteryear, nomos had a mighty protector: the church, the guardian of the kingdom that is not of this world.
When Christ used that phrase, he effectively separated the political realm from his own, which in the West produced, protected or at least underpinned much of nomos. As long as people left national politics to the central state, the state was satisfied or at least had to act as if it was.
Liberalism appeared as a child of the Enlightenment, which misnomer designates a revolution against the church and the nomos intertwined with it. The revolt was merciless and all-encompassing, treading underfoot not just the church, monarchy and aristocracy, but also all institutions capable of claiming generational, dynastic, cultural or apostolic succession going back centuries.
That means that every sanctuary of nomos was ripped apart: revolutions are by definition mortal enemies of tradition. The West became anomic, with every synapse of the traditional ganglion snipped either immediately or over time.
Falling by the wayside was the established concept of man as a creature corrupted by original sin, whose purpose in life was to overcome that handicap by virtuous exercise of free will. Instead, the liberal state adopted a raft of variations on the Rousseauian fallacy of the inherent goodness of man. The ideal the liberal state sees in its mind’s eye is the noble sauvage, his slate clear of nomos, a tabula rasa readily inscribable with liberal messages.
Man was no longer driven by nomos. His supposedly innate goodness unleashed and encouraged by liberalism, he was ready to rebuild the world in its image. He was cast adrift and made to chuck overboard the ballast of nomos.
Gone with it was the ancient separation between the realms. The liberal political state is innately expansionist, seeking to subjugate and eventually absorb nomos, whatever is left of it. One dire consequence of the Enlightenment was the thorough politicising of life, with the power of the central state usurping ancient localism.
That is a feature of all liberal states, and in fact the bloodiest conflict in American history, the Civil War, was fought to overcome residual resistance to runaway political centralisation. The liberal state is dirigiste by definition.
So of course is the totalitarian state. It too seeks to extend the power of the political realm ad infinitum (“Everything in the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state,” was how Mussolini expressed this aspiration). It too correctly identifies traditional nomos as its deadly enemy. It too concocts a bogus ideal that must by fiat supersede custom and convention.
That similarity of purpose between the liberal and totalitarian states overshadows the divergence of their methods. Both are equally anomic, but they tend to enforce anomie differently.
The totalitarian state is more impetuous and impatient. It wants everything and it wants it straight away. This is bound to produce resistance, and resistance is bound to produce violence.
The liberal state is a believer in natural and ineluctable progress, covering not just things like science and technology, but the very essence of man. If violence is the only way of making sure people don’t deviate from that straight path, then the liberal state won’t be above it. But by and large it prefers to seduce people, not rape them.
Both the liberal and totalitarian states are aware of their natural affinity, as they are of their shared enmity towards the traditional state with its nomos. That’s why an authoritarian state is hardly ever directly followed by a totalitarian one. Such states, be that Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, tend to come out of the liberal antecedent the way Eve came out of Adam’s rib.
It’s instructive to compare the liberals’ feelings towards, say, Stalin’s Russia and Franco’s Spain. When the heinous crimes of the Soviets became public knowledge (or rather when that knowledge could no longer be suppressed), the liberals feigned indignation, and some might actually have felt let down. But that was nothing compared to the visceral hatred they spewed on Franco’s authoritarian regime.
The former was a wayward friend gone awry. The latter was the devil incarnate.
I remember first hearing the term ‘political correctness’, back in the 1980s. The noun didn’t surprise me: everything liberals believed in was ipso facto correct. But why was it political?
Why was saying things like chairperson instead of chairman politically, rather than, say, morally, ethically or socially, correct? But of course my amazement was misplaced. Correctness is political as a part of the general tendency to dissolve and thereby expunge whatever is left of nomos in the political realm. It is political because everything is political, or should be.
What we are witnessing today is an accelerating convergence of liberalism and totalitarianism. The anomic twins separated at birth are coming back together. And while I tend to shy away from playing Cassandra, I can confidently predict that this convergence will be getting more and more pronounced. We are in for a rough ride.