Our era is characterised by a phenomenon I term ultratotalitarianism. It is the culmination of the logic of modernity, a long process of surpassing the unity of Christianity with capitalist anarchy, backed up by state authority. The dynamism of the market economy and the stability of the modern state constitute the two pillars of modern liberal democracy, whose victory at the end of the Cold War constituted, for Francis Fukuyama, an ‘End of History’, after the defeat of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany by 1945 and the Soviet Union by 1991. But what replaced these totalitarianisms of the far right and the far left? I argue our time is constituted by something perhaps infinitely worse than anything our forbears could have dreamed of. I say this not to offend our ancestors but to honoured them, who denied fighting for freedoms on which we now trample. This is the age not simple of totalitarianism, or the arbitrary exercise of power of institutions over individuals, but of ultratotalitarianism, or the arbitrary exercise of power by everyone, all the time. This is not a totalitarianism through power, but a totalitarianism of power. It is the most terrifying phenomenon imaginable. And it is the beating heart of life in the third millennium.
Contrary to conspiracy theories, which attribute power to individuals or groups of individuals, my theory disregards the entire logic of individualism on which the modern world is legitimated. According to liberalism, and conspiracy theories, there is no explanation which is not reducible to individuals or units which resemble individuals — like cultures, or nations, or other kinds of discrete groups with unique characteristics. Liberalism praises the incommensurability of values; you can’t compare one individual with another, or one group with another, for every individual, and every group, is unique, and so are their traits, appearances, and values. This contrasts with capitalism, the system on which liberalism is grounded, which makes everything commensurable or comparable through the medium of money.
It was argued by classical liberals, who explicitly defended capitalism (unlike their progressive descendants who only implicitly do so), that the modern age replaced the classical emphasis on honour and virtue with the pacifying effects of commerce. However, little did these classical liberals expect that their beloved system of trade would produce the very divisions, imbalances and inequalities that lead to war. Trade, as critics of liberal capitalism such as Karl Marx suggested, led to class conflict between the parties to trade — a conflict that always risked decaying into open violence, or warfare. But Marx, in reviving the ancient Greek and Roman emphasis on the balance of class power, failed to notice the role the state — contrary to popular views of Marx as a great lover of the state. For John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago’s renowned professor of international relations, one result of trade is the redistribution of power among states. This leads to uncertainty as to which state is hegemonic, or possessing of a monopoly of power. Therefore, since the guardian of peace is the state (domestically) or the hegemon (internationally), trade can lead to war among states, not just classes.
War, however, also leads states to centralise internally and gain control over their classes. War also ‘selects’, in a quasi-Darwinian sense, for a hegemonic state to preside over a system of international trade. This happened when America became hegemonic after World War II. And the western system of trade has now globalised, as the nominally ‘communist’ state of China has integrated itself into world trade since 2001 and, more recently, global capital flows.
What has any of this got to do with totalitarianism? Because this is how it happened before. In 1913, few would expect the outbreak of hostilities a year later. International trade was high, and few saw the link I now draw between trade and war. Marxism was not massively popular, but neither was Mearsheimer’s structural realism, which had not even been invented yet. People talks about ‘civilisation’ and ‘nations’ as if these were the prime movers of history — rather than sovereign states and social classes. As a result, war broke out due to complacency about political economy and paranoia about cultural issues that did not make a difference to what was happening with the underlying system of warring states and trading classes.
Totalitarianism came in Russia before it arrived in Germany. The Soviet Union under Stalin became much more centralised than it had under Lenin. To protect his leadership against western influence, Stalin purged government and the army of possible opposition. This left Russia woefully vulnerable when another anti-western power, namely Nazi Germany, rose to challenge western Europe, eastern Europe, and in time much of the world, including America after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour (Germany was allied with Japan and Italy in the Second World War as the ‘Axis’ powers).
What was totalitarianism like? According to early member of the Frankfurt School, Friedrich Pollock, totalitarianism in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany was characterised by state capitalism — or the replacement of the market by the state as the locus of economic life. But some of those more loosely associated with the School disagreed, as it placed too much emphasis on the character of Soviet political economy. Franz Neumann wrote a book entitled Behemoth which described Nazi Germany as a system of ‘totalitarian-monopoly capitalism’, where monopoly capitalism denotes an intermediate form between market and state capitalism. For Neumann, totalitarianism less resembled Hobbes’ Leviathan or ‘reall Unitie’ around the sovereign state but Hobbes’ Behemoth, a description of the English Civil War — one that notes the role of trade and finance in causing that conflict. Totalitarianism, Neumann suggested, was not a hierarchy simply but, more importantly, an anarchy of competing interests — resembling Hobbes’ description of human nature as a ‘struggle for power, after power’.
This leads me to Hannah Arendt’s description of totalitarianism as a system of power emancipated from any moral or even material concerns. Although Arendt followed Marx in emphasising the political economy, not mere language games (to echo Wittgenstein’s astute analysis of the words we use to describe a world of silent horrors), she also thought that totalitarianism was not entirely congruent with capitalism, or communism. Neither money nor morals rules in a totalitarian state. Rather, power was set loose from all anchoring in the world, and became an alien force that confronted human beings with merciless potentiality. When power is removed from all other concerns, it becomes not original but banal. If Arendt’s summum bonum is natality, or the human capacity (or, perhaps, power) for new beginnings, then her summum malum, or perceived greatest evil, is the banality in the heart of totalitarianism. She described Holocaust administrator Adolf Eichmann as far removed from the Holywood villain stereotype. Eichmann was not an original thinker. He did not pioneer any new stories. He represented a curious banality, or emptiness of the soul. He was bureaucratic and unthinking. Totalitarianism overcomes thought and love itself with a blind impulse to execute the commands of power.
More recently, Professor Brendan Simms of University of Cambridge has described Hitler as possessing a certain ‘will to power’, to echo philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, which led Hitler to a paranoia about German impotence in the face of British and, increasingly, American hegemony. Germany’s chief task, in Hitler’s mind, was to climb the ladder of international power politics. The horrifying racial ideology Hitler adopted to accompany this blind powerism is, Simms suggests, a mask of power (to echo David Runciman’s Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond). Hence the title of Simms’ biography: Hitler: Only the World Was Enough.
Today, I suggest, we have all become puppets of a new totalitarianism. I would like to quote the song ‘Never Enough’ from the popular film The Greatest Showman to illustrate my point:
Towers of gold are still too little
These hands could hold the world but it would
Never be enough
Never be enough
[You get the picture]‘Never Enough’ from The Greatest Showman
In Nazi Germany, one of the most popular films was The Power Of The Will. How, exactly, have we improved on this kind of propaganda?
We haven’t. As Frankfurt School writers Adorno and Horkheimer argued in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the modern ‘culture industry’ of mass media perpetuates an ideology which reduces everything to mush. Only one thing is left in this totalitarian abyss, across east and west of the world system we so jealously hate and love, constituting the greatest evil of our time:
Don’t get me wrong: power is not evil. But the fact that our society has reduced everything to power is.
What should be done? We should consider how we defeated totalitarianism before. A military dictatorship was defeated by military means. So ultratotalitarianism, or the rule of power without law or constraint, can only be defeated by power itself.
In this way totalitarianism is self-defeating. It is the snake that eats its own tail. And since no power can arise in any state except that which arises from its people, it is in human power that I trust.
We must think again. We must reconsider everything. For ultratotalitarianism, like its simply banal totalitarian forbears, clouds the system of prices and power in a totalising ideology which systematically distorts our perception of the world. Question everything. Do not trust the news or the media or its critics. For in a totalitarian society we are all prey to inner totalitarianism, and we must avoid becoming inwardly evil in the effort to defeat the evil in society at large.
But so long we we remain human, and ultratotalitarianism refrains from using technology to fundamentally alter our physiology and neurology, we have a chance. But time is short. For the process of transforming planet Earth into a factory for turning people into mindless de facto zombies has already begun. To avoid this eternal apartheid, this human farm, we must return to ourselves and our essence as human beings. To defeat the rule of power, we must look to the power within, beyond all influence by totalitarian ideology or political economy. This true power: the pursuit, not of more power, but of the object and aim of all power — wholeness, or the love of goodness. Iris Murdoch termed the ‘Sovereignty of Good’ as a remedy to an age besotted by false idols. I would agree; but add that all philosophy, if taken too dogmatically, risks becoming ideology.
The true remedy to our ills is not simply ideals, but not the questioning of ideals, institutions, and the dogmas of individualism. Indeed, Socrates critiqued the primordial totalitarianism of Athens through unquestioned norms and rules that had never before been substantially challenged. What are the hegemonic norms and rules of our time? And can they be questioned? I do not have the answer to these questions. I merely suggest that, to defeat ultratotalitarianism, we must question everything. Then, something might emerge as a light by which to lead us from the shadowlands in which we slumber. Totalitarianism cannot keep us asleep forever. Someday, we must awaken from our slumber. For then, to echo Shakespeare, false accusations will blush — and tyranny, tremble. The truth will win. And evil will lose. Ultratotalitarianism will fall. Humanity will rise. So, let there be light —