Neumann’s ‘Behemoth’ and the rebirth of totalitarian-monopoly capitalism

Franz Neumann published one of the earliest books on the totalitarian state, entitled Behemoth. It is a startling representation of the divided state of Nazi Germany, one that challenges established conventions on totalitarianism. According to conventional interpretations both then and now, totalitarianism represents a singular entity, a powerful state echoing the ‘reall Unitie’ of Hobbes’ Leviathan. For Friedrich Hayek, the rule of law and the market economy are brushed aside in favour of the sovereign state in totalitarianism. But Neumann, having lived in Germany before moving to America to complete his book, had a different view. It is as shocking as it is riveting, terrifying, and — quite possibly — closer to the truth than most interpretations. Let me explain Neumann’s view and the concerning parallels between his description of totalitarianism and the market society we live in today.

Franz Neumann, critic of totalitarianism and early advocate of American military action against Nazi Germany. In the event, Neumann’s advice was heeded, and fascism was defeated by force of arms. But first, there was a war of words, one in which Neumann’s contribution was at once significant, revealing, and prophetic.

For Neumann, the totalitarian state is better described as totalitarian-monopoly capitalism. The totalitarian ‘state’ was, in fact, a Hobbesian ‘war of every man, against every man’. This made it more akin to market society than political society, as the divisions within the state were so wide that it ceased to resemble a state and more closely echoes the economic competition of a market economy. There was on the one hand the bureaucracy and the party, in tension with one another, and on the other hand the army and the industry, also in dialectical conflict with one another and with the other two branches of the four-fold stateless field of power known as totalitarianism. The comparison was not with Hobbes’ Leviathan but with his Behemoth, a description of the English civil war and its roots in religious and political conflicts which supervened on an economic base — including, in particular, the exorbitant privileges afforded to the city of London, fuelling the financial backing of the Parliamentarians and Cromwell’s New Model Army. For Hobbes, then, this civil war stemmed from an early form of bourgeois revolution, to borrow from later literature in the Marxist tradition to which Neumann partially belonged.

But Neumann was, like friend and colleague Ernst Fraenkel, largely external to the core of the ‘Frankfurt School’ of critical theory, which drew on a combination of Marxian political economy, modern economics, and classical and neo-Kantian philosophy. Neumann did not think totalitarianism was simply grounded on class conflict, though he did regard the exorbitant power of capital as infringing on the unity of the state — so much so that the totalitarian system more closely resembled a market of competing corporate and bureaucratic monopolies than it did a stable legal-political order backed up by sovereign power.

Neumann found the legal theories of Schmitt and Kelsen to fall apart when confronted with the realities of totalitarianism — which was founded neither on the exceptional rule of the sovereign (Schmitt) nor on a stable system of laws (Kelsen) but rather on the chaotic pursuit of ‘power after power’, echoing Hobbes’ imagined ‘state of nature’ prior to the creation of a sovereign state with stable laws. The state and the laws were weaponised by money and power, eroding their normative compulsion and their structural coherence. The state, to ironically echo Marx, withered away — but instead of a paradise of associated producers, all that was left was a living hell of competing capitalists and their legions of devoted workers and soldiers. Labour was suppressed and capital was victorious, and the market was ubiquitous. The ‘state’ was nowhere to be found, apart from in its discreet competing pieces, warring over the carcass where a breathing body politic should be.

Neumann’s description of totalitarianism as a Dantean inferno is frightening not only due to its realism at the time, as shown by recent scholarship which elucidates the anarchy and chaos at the heart of the totalitarian statelessness, but due to its prophetic foreshadowing of some elements of our own time. The state has licensed important public utilities such as healthcare and esoteric luxuries like space travel to private monopolistic corporations. Meanwhile, the ‘military-industrial complex’ that Eisenhower described during the Vietnam War has reared its tentacular structure to confront our unstable world with oil wars and a spiralling global arms trade. When the vital resources of the state are privatised and marketised, either de facto or (as is often the case) de jure, what is left of the ‘state’ but vain propaganda and empty promises?

Neumann’s Behemoth remains as challenging today as it was then. As a call to action against the abyss of economic marketisation and monopolisation, political disintegration, and witch-hunting of all ‘enemies of the state’ (read: this or that offended party), it remains as prescient as ever. Let us hope we wake up to the cold, hard realities of totalitarianism, then and now, and defeat these institutional anachronisms with a counterpower worthy of human dignity and freedom — before it is too late.

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?

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