186. Holding together (III)
Totalitarianism is always an accusation thrown around political discussion, everyone is totalitarian—liberal totalitarians, Muslim totalitarians, Marxist totalitarians. Yet the term has a specific technical meaning: it is, per Arendt, a new political category; an addition to Aristotle’s democracy, tyranny, oligarchy, and so on. What distinguishes totalitarianism from mere tyranny is that it attempts to reorganise the private space—particularly the home and family. The tyrant makes bad laws; he is selfish, he plunders the treasury: he is the typical African dictator. He has no interest in what people say in pubs or at home, so long as it is not about him; he has few, if any, ideas beyond his own power—he is a creature of whim.
The totalitarian includes all the characteristics of the tyrant but wants to reorganise behind the curtain: he is interested in the family, the pub, and the club. The totalitarian is interested in your children. This comes about because the tyrant is a perversion of the king: the good king loves glory and honour, the tyrant takes this too far; he demands the respect that can only be won through virtuous action. The totalitarian is, by contrast, a perverted priest—or, in our day, an intellectual. He seems more harmless than the tyrant; he is often, as with Lenin, an apparently innocuous scribbler.
The totalitarian will strip away the wings of the polity: there will be no place to retreat; and without a retreat, there is no play—everything becomes a stage, even the props in the back. A man no longer puts on a mask to go to the agora or the assembly to trade or discuss laws; he has no place to rest from the public act. He is stripped of persona—not unlike the schizophrenic—and no longer master of his home or business, occupations that should be the microcosm of royalty: a little kingdom within the kingdom. Women and children become political; everything is political now, since there is no division between what is public and private. The total surveillance state reflects this aspiration; no secret conversations between friends and family, no place to utter frank words. Nothing ever really happens in a totalitarian state, because there is no stage to act on; everything becomes a forced performance.
Totalitarianism exists by degrees, just like liberty and democracy; even North Korea has some liberty, except it is liberty for a few families and not the nation. Similarly, the West today is on the totalitarian spectrum. Totalitarianism emerges from the application of the scientific worldview to society; a view that aspires to the systematisation of knowledge, not organic growth. Totalitarians are not always friends of science, but they come about when priest-intellectuals adopt a scientific stance towards society that is not really possible; there is no control experiment for policy or tradition—a tradition is an experiment over thousands of years. Yet the totalitarian believes it is possible to ape science in society.
We see totalitarianism in the West’s hegemonic progressive ideology: there is a conceit among ideologists for feminism and LGBT that the private space between men and women—the existence of these categories—can be rearranged; divorce and abortion liquidate the family, so there is no retreat there; and the general “scientific” sensibility encourages politicians and bureaucrats to think of society as a subject for total organisation; even in business, due to equalities legislation, a person cannot employ whom they wish—the little kingdom is no more. It is not as bad as the USSR, but the instruments of mass surveillance, Alexa or Facebook, are already in place, better than the Stasi. It would take a flip of a switch to police ideological conformity down to the living room—instant collapse of the private realm. And, during Covid-19, it has been demonstrated that Western states can impose mass house arrest—a technical innovation. Totalitarianism is here, if only as a sensibility—it is, in fact, the normal sensibility for educated people in the West.