Few heads of nations these days think themselves appointed by God, but for thousands of years before the dawn of modern democracy, this was the usual conceit of aristocrats, monarchs and emperors. They boasted of their ‘Divine right’ to bully lesser mortals. These tyrants had the power of life and death over their subjects, and almost all of them used that power capriciously.
It is not long since totalitarian power died out in Western Europe. The last of the fascist dictators, Francisco Franco, only perished in 1975. I support Abe Lincoln’s determination that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’, and extend that principle into every aspect of human society: totalitarianism is not simply a political doctrine – it is the core aspect of destructive cult groups, criminal gangs and abusive spousal relationships. Totalitarianism – or totalism – is bullying, coercion and contempt for others.
Hitler and his cronies were nothing more than a vicious criminal gang and achieved national power as a quasi-religious cult. The same is true for the dictatorships imposed under the guise of communism. While promising the brotherhood of man, the totalitarian communists actually created power élitesthat ruled like a feudal aristocracy. While totalitarianism has thankfully driven out of favour in politics, it still permeates every level of our society. Even representative democracy is no guarantee that governments will not act in a totalist way.
There are situations where hierarchy is necessary: neither the police nor the military could function if every decision had to await a vote. Babies cannot look after their own needs, and parents must make decisions for them; but those babies should be nurtured to gradually become independent by the time they reach adulthood.
Authority is right and proper where it is earned. The competent should be respected for their competence and afforded respect for their skills. The skilful teacher is one of the most important members of any society, and it is right that teachers should have authority over their pupils, as long as they teach those pupils to take responsibility for themselves, rather than simply imposing uncritical obedience on them.
It is proper that we should have laws that protect the rights of the individual. But authority easily deteriorates into authoritarianism, if those applying the law serve tradition or self-interest rather than the public good.
Politics fails when dogma ignores scientific or rational intervention. For decades politicians dawdled over climate change, busily arguing whether we were causing it, rather than accepting that we were most certainly contributing to it. Scientists were compelled into silence to avoid upsetting the electorate with scary facts.
This grand folly will be rued by our descendants; it is an echo of totalitarianism, where the electorate are not considered intelligent enough to be shown the evidence.All too often, the truth is that the politicians have failed to understand the evidence themselves. Power tends to corrupt. We need to be pragmatic rather than dogmatic: do what is best rather than following tradition. We desperately need to find political leaders who can legislate according to evidence rather than opinion.
Prejudices that run counter to logic and evidence remain entrenched. The contemporary caste system in India or Japan belies sense, and should be seen for what it is: apartheid segregation. It is simply totalitarian behaviour and has no place in a fair and equitable society.
The rights of women have advanced significantly in the last century, but we have not achieved an equal society, and millions of women live under the coercive control of their spouses because of that inequality.
Any situation where uncritical devotion is given to a leader is totalist. It might be a political party with an anti-social ideology, a pseudo-religious group that ill-treats its members, or a therapy system that causes dependence rather than self-determination. It might be a criminal gang, like the Mafia, the Crips, or the drug cartels. It might be human traffickers, or radicalising terrorists, or a coercive spouse. These are all forms of anti-social totalism, and they succeed because the law is not strong enough to prevent them, because we shy away from bullies, and because people are not educated in the tricks and traps of such behaviours.
Indeed, in our society, we tend to teach obedience rather than co-operation, so priming the young to join totalist groups, most often because they do not have the critical thinking skills and the assertive behaviour necessary to resist recruitment.
We should at the very least express our disdain for manipulation wherever we find it. At best, we can actively expose manipulation and undo it.
We all understand the worst excesses of the totalist mentality. There were few tears when Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi fell. The whole world recognised his tyranny. He was a cruel dictator who ruled by whim. He was fairly evidently mad. As with all autocrats, Gaddafi was utterly self-involved and had no concern for the suffering he inflicted on those around him. Gaddafi was the very model of a totalist cult leader.
At Open Minds, we are working towards a society that will refuse to fall into line behind such totalists. We aim to achieve a more open society by exposing the methods of manipulation that are rife in our contemporary world. We have some ideas that will help to change the world for the better. Working together, we will make a better world.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Jon’s new book? Do you have a story about totalitarianism that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!