Friday, August 5, 2011

How Totalitarianism Works

When we study totalitarian regimes, we always seem to ask ourselves "how were they able to sustain such horrors for so long without the people rising up against them?"  We look at our own nation's birth, and we marvel at how a rag-tag militia outlasted the greatest military force on the planet at the time, and we did it under conditions that were far less opressive than any totalitarian regime we've seen.

If you know nothing about totalitarian regimes and how they work, then the only logical explanation is that the people who don't rise up against their opressors must support the regime.  As I mentioned, that's only logical if you know little to nothing about how these regimes operate.*

How was Hitler able to do what he did with little fear of reprisal?  How did Stalin stay in power for so long despite his barbaric behavior?  Why didn't the Iraqis just rise up and kill Saddam if they were so unhappy with his regime?  The short answer is fear.  The long answer is far more horrifying.

The 20th Century philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote a fairly definitive piece on totalitarianism aptly titled The History of Totalitarianism.  In part three of the series, she actually analyzes the regimes of her time, including the one that she fled (Nazi Germany).  There is one persistent theme that permeates all the totalitarians of the 20th Century, and that theme is horror: unmitigated, illogical, random, senseless horror.  Totalitarian regimes last so long because they successfully create an unyeilding sense of hopelessness in the people.

Not a totalitarian
A very interesting point that Arendt spends some time on is the fact that totalitarians try to destroy the people's sense of humanity.  They put people in horrific work camps, and they even make death meaningless.  Think you're going to be a martyr for the cause of freedom?  Think again, because there are no martyrs in a totalitarian society.  As Arendt said, they even destroy the meaning of death.  If you commit suicide, or if you rebel against the regime to the point that they have to execute you, they promise you that your family will pay for your transgressions.

Not a lot of people know this, but Saddam Hussein personally sanctioned rape as a tool to be used to get dissidents to capitulate.  Some of you might say "I'd be willing to endure that for liberty!"  But would you be willing to doom your family to that fate?  Saddam's goons wouldn't just rape you, they'd arrest and rape your entire family in front of you.  They would round up anyone that was even remotely related to you: cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, your spouse and your children.

That's also how the Nazis operated.  Jews in concentration camps knew that should they commit suicide or try to escape, the SS would torture their families.  And who in a totalitarian society would even hear about your death?  How can you be a martyr if no one even knows that you died for a cause you believed in?  Executions are only public for high profile figures, and that's to show that no one has a power greater than the regime.  For everyone else, they get the silent treatment.  They disappear into thin air, and it's as if they never existed.

So riddle me this: if you knew that partaking in some sort of resistance would almost inevitably doom your family to a horrifying fate, would you still rebel?  To suggest that totalitarian regimes exist in the Middle East because the people actually support them is a ridiculous claim at best.  The people may be uneducated and brainwashed, but they all know the price for dissent.

Totalitarian government is not just about who has the most guns.  It's about how much humanity you can strip from the people.  It's about how much fear you can instill in their hearts.  Mbarak fell because his regime, although despotic, was not totalitarian.  If Ghadaffi falls, it will be because the rebels had help from NATO.

Let's not equate acquiescence for complicity, shall we?

*Although I am by no means an expert on totalitarianism, a good portion of my scholarship in college was spent studying totalitarian regimes and how they are born from democratic societies.


Damien Charles QC said...

When asked of what was the reasons for living under Stalin and not doing something about it, according to many the answer was "we became morally tired" and thus allowed it to happen.

When asked of what was then the reason to fight against Stalin and doing something about it, regardless of the risks to one's own self or family, the overwhelming answer was "we bacme morally tired", and thus did not care what happend to them.

"István Bethlen" former Hungarian Prime Minister, died 1946 a prisoner in Moscow.

Anonymous said...

"The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness . . . This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs. When he first appears, he is a Protector. . . In the early days of his power he is full of smiles. . . When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies . . . and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other in order that the people may require a leader. . . Has he not also another object . . . that they may be impoverished by taxes and thus compelled to devote themselves to their daily wants and [be] therefore less likely to conspire against him?"

Plato (427-347 B. C.)

By looking outside themselves for "protection," people automatically give up their freedom in exchange for what-they-hope-will-be "safety" or "security."

The witch Hecate said in Shakespeare's Macbeth:

"Security is mortals' chiefest enemy."

In putting safety ahead of liberty people forge their own chains and manacles, then wonder why they remain oppressed and desperately unhappy.

Our infinite capacity for corruption, however, would make tyrants of us all, if we had power.

So power, itself, is our "chiefest enemy," and we must confer it on even the most benign-sounding individuals with great caution.

And we must be far less lazy tan we are. Once we sit back comfortably and say to ourselves, "Let George do it," that fellow "George" almost invariably becomes a tyrant.

Muslims are one of many elements in humanity who favor AUTHORITARIANISM. So, in that regard they are entirely responsible for the conditions under which they've been suffering for many centuries.

People who are willing to "let George do it," and who favor authoritarianism over enlightened individualism deserve their fate.

"If it is to be, it's up to me" may be the only way to get out of the wilderness. Find your own way or die trying, just don't look for someone to follow, because he doesn't know any more than you do; he just has bigger balls.

~ FreeThinke

Damien Charles QC said...

Free thinkie - well strucutred comments there and the Plato reference is very interesting and raises many thoughts.

However, I would disagree with the comment "Muslims are one of many elements in humanity who favor AUTHORITARIANISM. So, in that regard they are entirely responsible for the conditions under which they've been suffering for many centuries.".

Though it is a generalised sweep and as such I understand how that position it makes, I believe that argument fails because the question needs to be asked why so many if not most other developing countries that are non-Muslim result in the same qualities, problems and anarchic life?

Silverfiddle said...

Very well stated, Jack. I have lived in a few dictatorships (not quite up to Stalin or Saddam standards, but cruel dictatorships nonetheless), and my experience jives with what you said.

First of all, a regime builds a facade of invincibility, making any would-be challengers believe it would be futile to challenge it.

The dehumanizing punishments are the next deterrent. Humiliation, rapes, tortures and brutal murders are not for the punished, but for everyone else, as an example. Seeing what happens to those who challenge authority is enough to scare the vast majority into docility.

In such societies, people are trying to get on with their lives for themselves and their families. It is very easy for a man to justify servility by telling himself that he should just get on with his life and mind his own business, if for no other reason that for the continued welfare of his family.

Man is the most dangerous animal.

Jersey McJones said...

I've known many people from totalitarian countries, and facinated by the same things as Jack, I've studied the, quite a bit over the years.

First things first - there is no one prototypical "totalitarian" state.

The one that always caught my eye as the perhaps the closest would be Romania during the Ceausescu years.

Iraq was not necessarily a totalitarian state. Control of the people was not nearly absolute. In fact, during the last decade of the Baath regime, the central government have very little control over almost half it's population.

Stalin's USSR was another matter. This was a massive reorganization of an empire at the cost of millions of lives.

The irony of all this, of course, is that conservatives and libertarians complain about what tee-shirt they can wear in a school, or what toxin they can spew in the name of profits, or whether they should be allowed to have howitzers in the back yard, while the one thing all totalitarian regimes have in common is a disproportionately massive military/police state.

Funny. Huh?


Harrison said...

They make sure nobody has any guns. Police state. Control. Sure, all true. But the thing is the people let these leaders into their lives and power mainly due to social chaos - the CCCP and Nazi Germany for example. Once in power, they murder to stay in charge. But that's not how they get into power - there is a weakness in their society that allows them to take the reins.

Jack Camwell said...

Hitler Seized power by force, as did the Bolsheviks.

Damien Charles QC said...

I agree with JMJ's comments and would like to add some "issues" that bother me.

As some know, I live in Gibraltar some 16kms from Morocco. I have an office in Ceuta which is a Spanish enclave in that country and I service many Moroccans and travel there regularly.

In most senses of the word speaking Moroccoa is a totalitarian kingdom (though it is about to become a fully fledged Constituional Monarchy) and so there is a lot of jumping up and down about it being "just another exmaple of an Arab totalitarian state). However the reality is very much different and after speaking for many, many years with people from various walks of life, officials and even people who were important in that country.

We should consider that what is the history and culture of a land when leadership is taken into consideration and how it can develop into a free society. Morocco and Algeria shares a history, similar culture, language, colonization and population size but yet one had a stable Monarchy the other chose to change. Morocco's King Hassan II (the previous King) was strong and severe but not brutal and ensured no communist takeover like Algeria, no guns in the street like most other countries, pushed education and infrastructure upon its people. Algeria had coups, assassinations, a backdoor military dictatorship and we know what it is like now. It has oil but yet the life of the population is poorer than Morocco that has nothing but some phosphate, agriculture and tourism. The reality is that Morocco needed a "strongman" as the political party system was and remains immature and corruption is at that middle-management level. 35 poltical parties of which mostly are personality cults that cannot work with other similar platforms because of personal desires to be the lead.

Speaking of "strongman", that is the second issue. What if a country is incapable of handing over power directly to the people? The word democracy is great but as Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu says, forcing democracy on Africa has been the single greatest catastrophe it has ever faced. When I was studying philosophy we discussed "the strongman syndrome" which talks about the need for a strongman and how his legacy turns out. The strongman either dies in power, is kicked out or hands over power when his goal is reached. Not many have done the latter....

Anonymous said...

Mr. Charles,

Please notice I said:

Muslims are one of many elements in humanity who favor AUTHORITARIANISM. So, in that regard they are entirely responsible for the conditions under which they've been suffering for many centuries. (emphasis added this time around)

I didn't mean to imply that Muslims are the only segment of humanity that favors authoritarianism. I'm afraid most members of our species do exactly that -- all protestations of wanting to be "free" notwithstanding.

People tend to organize themselves in hive-like patterns. Surely you've noticed that?

No matter what some of us do to try to change -- the USA being one notable example -- sooner or later we revert to the Hive Syndrome. In other words, as soon as we got rid of kings, we started to revere and elect "charismatic leaders," who soon became demagogues and would-be dictators.

After the Industrial Revolution was well under way, corporate magnates, moguls and CEO's became our newest version of Lords and Suzerains. The corporate structure quickly organized itself into a reincarnation or reinterpretation of the Feudal System.

Now we are in the process of succumbing to pressures to form an "International Community" -- i.e. One World Government aka The New World Order. If this nightmare Orwellian vision is fulfilled, the earth will see the emergence of The Ultimate Form of Totalitarianism, and Mother Earth will become The Prison Planet.

People gravitate towards hive-like structures, because there are few "queens" among us, and even fewer who can handle the challenges of freedom. Most of us are "worker bees." Theirs' not to reason why, theirs' but to do and die.

Artists, writers, "intellectuals" and inventors live outside this pattern, and drarely feel comfortable, because they are not constituted to be impersonal cogs in a large piece of machinery.These rare individuals insist on maintaining their unique identity. Because of this they are often scorned, feared, despised, rejected, punished, accused of insanity, tarred, feathered and ridden out of town on a rail, but their compulsion to "think outside the box" and strive to achieve remarkable, new, sometimes revolutionary things makes them valuable.

Occasionally -- usually many years after they have died -- these singular types become celebrated and even revered. Persons of his rare breed are much easier to deal with posthumously. Alive they are apt to be a disturbing element, and might even be forced to wear the moral equivalent of a scarlet letter.

Thomas Mann wrote a beautiful story called Tonio Kroeger on the theme the isolation and loneliness experienced by a singular individual. It's well worth reading to gain insight into the human condition.


~ FreeThinke

Harrison said...

Actually, Hitler's party was Democratically elected and Hindenburg chose him to be in the government. Hitler actually used the government process to combine the offices of Chancellor and President after Hindenburg died.

Damien Charles QC said...

A well written piece Free Thinkie and I see nothing to argue or contradict in that statement.

The comment about the tendancy to go into the hive is certainly the case. Even I do so in many formats from the unified legal perspective to closeting myself in this small protected community we call Gibraltar.

Jersey McJones said...

FreeThinke, you are engaging in hyper-conspiratorial rhetoric.

In most cases, throughout history, Totalitarianism was the result of too much "democracy" - in winning the love of the majority of the people at the expense of the some. It is anti-Enlightenment. Anti-American. Modern Conservative.


Jack Camwell said...

You're right Harisson, and I realized that as I was typing what I said. One of the things that I marvelled at was how Hitler was able to do what he did technically within the bounds of the rules.

But we can't forget that he liquidated the Reichstag and created a climate of fear, even during the time that he was implementing his machinations withing the confines of Germany's democratic rules.

At least, that's all I can come up with at this state of inhebriation.

Harrison said...

Hitler simply gave the people what they wanted (at the time) and that's for Germany to get its Mojo back.

Silverfiddle said...
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Silverfiddle said...

Jersey: Your comments belie your typical progressive love of the strongman. they also reveal your gross ignorance of this subject.

Hussein's Iraq was indeed a totalitarian state. Ever heard of Halabja? Ever heard about how he drained the marshes right out from under the Marsh Arabs? Heard about how he slaughtered Shia in the south? Cutting out tongues?

He got 99% of the vote and you actually spout this inanity?

this is the utterly stupid statement that tops the cake:

Totalitarianism was the result of too much "democracy"

Even regimes that got their foot in the door through elections ended up resorting to very un-democratic violence to seal the deal.

How totally ignorant. I've disagreed with you often, but I always respected your perspective. Not this time. This, this from you is sick and disgusting.

History's freedom fighters weep tears from beyond the grave that the Western World would produce such callous, unstudied and liberty-hating stupidity.

Dictatorships are made of faceless millions just like you, scared of "too much democracy."

You've disgraced yourself, especially since you call yourself a liberal.

Peter McCullough said...

I'm scratching my head trying to understamd the artist ala free thinker crap. Unless I'm misinterpreting the obvious, todays artistic world is sucking Obama's dick. Where is the independance, the free thinking? Their privilidged world has morphed into nothing more than an elitist hive where almost all of them subscribe to any fucked up liberal cause like the lemmings that they have become. Liberal Lemmings in a hive...not a pretty picture.

Jack Camwell said...

Remember Silver, the Founding Fathers considered "democracy" to be somewhat of a dirty word, but I get what you're saying.

The thing we have to remember is that totalitarian regimes don't happen because the people let them happen. The people that seize control do it violently and without warning.

Hitler is a perfect example. He gained control of the Reichstag through semi-democratic means. If you look at his rise to power, he initially played by the rules. When he disolved the Weimar Republic and bestowed power to himself, it was too late for anyone to stop him. He already had his inner circle and secret police in place.

Plus, every human has an innate survival instinct. If Obama had the unyeilding support of the military and a secret police, and then suddenly liquidated all the members of Congress overnight, and say had every governor murdered and replaced by a puppet, any of us would think twice before starting any sort of resistance, especially if you know that compliance would ensure the relative safety of you and your family.

And then if Obama made it clear that he would torture any dissidents and their families, you would doubly think twice about resisting.

Silverfiddle said...

And I get what you're saying as well Jack.

I was criticizing Jersey's asinine comments.

I appreciate the perspective he brings, and he can usually be counted upon to emit a small cloud of common sense or historical relevance, but he is off the chain this time.

SteveJ said...

There just isn't any way to have a real Bill of Rights or a "rights respecting government" without the private property rights that came out of feudal Europe. And those institutions develop over many decades under the best of circumstances. It usually takes centuries.

Which is why the Wilsonian liberals that run the Republican Party are doing more harm than good. That is the mark of liberals. They have good intentions, at least some of them, but they hurt the people they are trying to help.

There are serious problems with comparing the dictatorships in post-war Germany and Japan with those in the Middle East or Stalin's Russia. The dictatorships in Germany and Japan came about as the result of economics.

German society was not treated well by Europe or the United States after World War 1. I think there is a lot of blame to go around as to why those two countries backslid.

And I think it is important to note that the dictatorships in Germany and Japan, unlike current dictatorships in the Middles East did come about as the result of a backslide.

Japan embarked on the Meiji Restoration in the 1860s. It copied the entire European land code. Private property was not a foreign concept to them.

Germany had Constitutional development going back to the Roman Empire.

We did NOT nation-build, nor did we introduce these societies to Constitutional notions of private property when we initiated democratic reforms in those two countries in the 1940s.

There are no property rights in the Arab world. (In fact, Sharia law as currently interpreted forbids it). The worst thing you can do to a country that has known only dictatorship is to introduce democracy. With dictatorship you have order. With democracy, you do not. Democracy without previous constitutional development also promotes extremism.

Iraq was the most secular Arab state in the Middle East. Now, it is a Shiite theocracy -- to the extent anything functions there at all.

There are reasons why a dictator would embark on the kinds of land reform that brought about feudal Europe. People with land-autonomy tend to produce wealth. That benefits the dictator. Of course, private property owners also create Parliaments -- real Parliaments with power, not the kind of Parliament we created in Iraq. (Iraq resembles Iran, Venezuela, Indonesia, and a host of other illiberal democracies plaguing the planet.)

If you have vast oil reserves, you may not have the same incentive. But that hardly means we are going to benefit by converting dictatorships to democracies in these places.

The general progression, with some backsliding here and there, for all of the stable constitutional democracies in existence today was Absolute Monarchy progressing to Constitutional Monarchy (or some sort of Constitutional Monarchy phase) progressing to Constitutional democracy.

The United States itself evolved out of a Constitutional Monarchy -- NOT a dictatorship.

If the United States had tried to create a Constitutional Democracy from a dictatorship, it would have failed.

Jack Camwell said...

Thanks for stopping by, especially since you had some very well thought out points to add to the conversation.

I see what you're saying about the difference between the totalitarians of 20th Century Europe and those of the 21st Century. However incomparable they might be in the reasons for their formation, I think the end result is much the same, philosophically at least. I highly urge you, and all my readers, to read Arendt's Totalitarianism piece. It's a pretty dense read, which is par for the course for Hannah Arendt, but she does a brilliant job of explicating the characteristics of totalitarian regimes.

And you're right that American government evolved out of a Constitutional Monarchy. I was reading "The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution" by Bernard Bailyn not long ago, and in it he goes at length to show that the Founding Fathers thought the British constitution (although unwritten) was one of the marvels of the modern world.

They simply felt that the constitution was subverted because of some inherent flaws, but they loved it nonetheless, and modeled our Constitution heavily upon what they knew from how British government was ideally supposed to operate.

Very excellent point that not many people consider.