My extended NSA blog series has an entry that got me thinking about totalitarianism. (Check out the quotes in that entry from the following: Binney, Schell, Moglen, Alexander, and Hunt. They are enlightening.) Also, in another entry in that same series, under the heading Disciplining and Punishing the American People, I touch on the issue of illegitimate external control and provide examples. Here I address the dynamics that I see in play and not so much the examples.*
Cases of state brutality abound. People on the Right such as at the Cato Institute cover police misconduct; meanwhile, people you'd more traditionally associate with the Left cover police brutality. It is an issue wide in scope and audience.
I secretly think reality exists so we can speculate about it.
Slavoj Zizek, contemporary philosopher, 2008
Americans need to speculate much more on this subject - especially in light of 20th century Asian and European totalitarian legacies, not to mention whatever is exactly going on in Russia right now.
Even though totalitarian states killed nearly 130 million people in the prior century, the subject seems distant, absurd, or just boring. It is the obsession of the academic, the conspiracist, and the intellectual. That is true at least until it's too late per the 'Then-they-came-for-me'-adage. Perhaps we are all too aware that confronting power is dangerous work and, or worse, that possessing it is even more horrifying.
Whereas we may have survived the Orwellian vision of totalitarianism (heavy-handed, propagandistic, external, and traditional), we are perhaps slipping into the Huxleyan vision of it (subtle, doctrinal, pharmacological, and technological). Whereas Winston drinks gin, Lenina takes 'soma'; it has no hangover - making it all the more insidious. For Orwell, the self still existed despite the state's impositions. For Huxley, the state and the self had become a single nightmare. (I'm not the first to make this observation.)
'A Quantum of Aggressiveness'
[Anna Freud] and Bernays provided the ideas that were used by the US government, big business, and the CIA to develop techniques to manage and control the minds of the American people. But this was not a cynical exercise in manipulation. Those in power believed that the only way to make democracy work and create a stable society was to repress the savage barbarism that the psychoanalysts told them lurked just under the surface of normal American life.
Adam Curtis, filmmaker, 2002
This prosperity...consciously or unconsciously leads to a kinda of schizophrenic existence...In this society an incredible quantum of aggressiveness and destructiveness is accumulated precisely because of the empty prosperity, which then simply erupts.
Herbert Marcuse, 1967 (near 53:00, emphasis added)
Although conspiracy plays a role**, I suspect the ultimate origins of totalitarianism lie in the public mind and the efforts to manage it. Anna Freud, Sigmund's daughter, and Bernays felt that people in a democratic society required external control - precisely to avoid the political implosions that had created totalitarian states in Europe. The irony of course is that that external control precisely tends toward totalitarianism of one sort, as Marcuse suggests. He felt that that very control and its attendant 'empty prosperity' inhibits healthy growth and even creates in people 'an incredible quantum of aggressiveness and destructiveness', which itself could manifest in totalitarianism of yet another sort.*** (A proper discussion of this subject could fill a book.)
We don't see much hard physical evidence for this aggressiveness in society at large; crime has fallen in recent years. But we see this aggressiveness in another place: among the police and other law enforcement officials, the subject of part 2.
* As of 2007, USA Today reported increased police brutality. I have not found recent definitive evidence so far but many believe police brutality is on the rise today.
** American totalitarianism, if it emerges, will not simply be the fruit of our own mass irrationality; conspiracy will have played a role. But nature of that conspiracy is potentially quite subtle. Nevertheless, I am certain average people face a conspiratorial class who, in effect, manages the maelstrom of history. More on that here soon.
Bernays, Anna Freud, Paul Mazur, and all the purveyors and beneficiaries of corporate propaganda are not real conspirators on the level of which I speak. They participated in an ordinary (and deceitful) sort of class warfare and partisanship for the sake of their vision of stability and personal gain.
*** Marcuse's words: "By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For 'totalitarian' is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulations of needs by vested interests. Not only a specific form of government or party rule makes for totalitarianism, but also a specific system of production and distribution which may well be compatible with a 'pluralism' of parties, newspapers, 'countervailing powers,' etc."