The New Totalitarianism

A chapter from Michael O’Brien’s book, The Family and the New Totalitarianism (currently out of print) published in 1995 by the White Horse Press, Canada.

The word totalitarianism usually generates impressions of dictatorial systems which crush civic freedoms and negate the humanity of their subjects in an effort to achieve complete control. Images of barbed wire, jack-boots and thought-control are conjured up in our minds. 20th century literature has given us some powerful works of fiction which suggest a variety of possible totalitarian futures: one thinks immediately of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Common to these dystopias (utopias which have collapsed into tyranny) is the absolutizing of the power of the State, or systems controlled by the State.

Totalitarianism invariably strives to do away with genuine absolutes and to establish false absolutes in their place. Genuine absolutes are fundamental, ultimate, unqualified truths, independent of the ebb and flow of cultures, fashions, myths and prejudices. An example of genuine moral absolutes is the Ten Commandments. An example of false absolutes can be found in Marx’s ideology, where a theory called dialectic is posited as the mechanism which determines human history—an “abstraction” that has resulted in hundreds of millions of violent deaths.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in his 1935 book, The Well and the Shallows:

“It is the State which changes; it is the State which destroys; it is nearly always the State which persecutes. The Totalitarian State is now making a clean sweep of all our old notions of liberty, even more than the French Revolution made a clean sweep of all the old ideas of loyalty. It is the Church that excommunicates; but in that very word implies that a communion stands open for a restored communicant. It is the State that exterminates; it is the State that abolishes absolutely and altogether; whether it is the American State abolishing beer, or the Fascist State abolishing parties; or the Hitlerite State abolishing almost everything but itself.”

Chesterton touches upon an important characteristic of totalitarian states. The absolute ruler always attempts to destroy diversity. He cannot rest content with a passive populace. As he extends his grasp into more and more aspects of human life he becomes hostile to everything outside of his own will. As his power becomes near absolute it grows increasingly negative, because by its very nature it must oppose what cannot be extinguished in the human person. It must seek at some point to destroy the inner impulse to genuine creativity which depends for its well-being on freedom from manipulation.

The tyrant in the beginning rarely looks like a monster. He usually appears to be the savior of his people, though once he has attained power he soon shows his hand—at root he merely wishes to accumulate as much power as possible in order to obtain an absolute security or glory for himself, and to enjoy it at any cost. This kind of tyrant is not difficult to identify. When he runs out of gasoline or bullets or wheat the people cast him off, because he is a monster who looks like a monster. He has blown his cover. More difficult to pin down and to throw off is the idealistic tyrant who expands his power in order to protect what he considers to be the good of his subjects. He will reduce crime and make the trains run on time. He will balance the budget and bring order and a measure of material plenty to the nation. He will labor to make a better citizen of the raw material of his subjects. There can be a reassuring sense of security in all this. We like dependable public services and an ordered economy, though we would, perhaps, remain uneasy about trading away certain freedoms. But it is precisely the elimination of personal responsibility which is the tyrant’s ultimate goal, for this is what he sees as our fatal flaw.

It must be understood that the highly motivated idealist is not merely interested in improving the exterior forms of society. He wishes to save us from ourselves. Of course, he will find that basic human nature is rather difficult to remold, and as time goes on he will need to continuously expand his power until his control approaches the level of totality. If he is clever at it and fills up the world with beautiful rhetoric, and takes care not to grossly infringe upon our pleasurable rights, and if, at the same time, he takes upon his own shoulders our unpleasant rights, the ones which demand effort and sacrifice, then he may get away with it. This is never more possible than in a historical period of extreme stress. In such a climate the lifting of our responsibilities is not felt as deprivation; it feels, rather, like relief from intolerable tensions. Somebody at last is doing something about the human condition! A sick society is getting therapy! A cancer patient puts himself into the hands of his doctor, so why shouldn’t a “dysfunctional” people entrust itself to its social or political physicians? Somewhere during the therapy there is a decisive transfer of power and responsibility. When this happens on a massive scale something is seriously amiss. There may not be brown-shirts and jackboots marching in the streets. No public book-burnings. No grotesque executions. In some cases there may even be no visible dictator, only a system or a social philosophy which permeates and controls everything. Indeed, the world may appear to be perfectly normal. The Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper points out that this is the most dangerous form of totalitarianism of all, almost impossible to throw off, because it never appears to be what, in fact, it is.

Both the monster tyrant and the “humanitarian” tyrant offer something that appears to be a good. Both, in the end, will exact a terrible price. The person who wishes to remain free must understand that he cannot and should not pay that price. In the beginning the payments may appear small and harmless enough. We are asked to compromise a little here, a little there, unsuspecting that eventually there will be no strength left to resist the betrayal of everything. Pope John Paul II once said, “I would a thousand times rather have a persecuted Church than a compromised Church.” The Church stands as the one defender of the entire range of human and divine absolutes in the world. She knows that if she wishes to remain free—that is, free in the fullest sense of the word, free to be completely herself, free to defend Love and Truth—she must be ever willing to be a sign of contradiction, and if necessary to accept that society will condemn her.

Christopher Dawson, in The Judgment of the Nations contrasted the collapse of the Roman Empire to the collapse of a Christian civilization. He believed that something far more ominous is at work in the latter:

“For the civilization which has been undermined, and is now threatened by total subversion, is a Christian civilization, built on the spiritual values and religious ideals of Saint Augustine and his like; and its adversary is not the simple barbarism of alien peoples who stand on a lower cultural level, but new Powers armed with all the resources of scientific technique, which are inspired by a ruthless will to power, that recognizes no law save that of their own strength.”

Dawson was referring to overt tyrannies. However, he went on to sound some additional warnings for us all:

“Thus, the situation that Christians have to face today has more in common with that described by the author of the Apocalypse than with the age of St. Augustine. The world is strong and it has evil masters. But these masters are not vicious autocrats like Nero and Domitian. They are the engineers of the mechanism of world power: a mechanism that is more formidable than anything the ancient world knew, because it is not confined to external means, like the despotisms of the past, but uses all the resources of modern psychology to make the human soul the motor of its dynamic purpose.”

Dawson was describing here the shape of a possible future, a global non-violent totalitarianism that is the most serious of all tyrannies, from the Christian viewpoint, because in it evil has become depersonalized, “separated from individual appetite and passion, and exalted . . . into a sphere in which all moral values are confused and transformed. The great terrorists . . . have not been immoral men, but rigid puritans who did evil coldly, by principle.”

In his fascinating book, Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and armaments minister, wrote about the state of mind of the German people as Hitler rose to power. He says that most Germans disliked the sinister side of Hitler’s policies, but in a spirit of optimism, they assumed that he would leave behind his more unpleasant policies once he attained the dignity of high office. They overlooked his errors because they thought his form of law and order would be a lesser evil than the social disruption they were suffering during the nineteen twenties and thirties. By succumbing to the “lesser evil” argument, they brought upon the world an evil of epic proportions.

But what happens to the discernment of a people when a tyrant arrives without any of the usual sinister costumes of brutal dictators? What happens when the errors come in pleasing disguises, and are promoted by very fine people? Those living in such an environment have more than one difficulty to overcome in properly assessing what is happening. They find themselves within the events which are unfolding, and thus are faced with the problem of perception: how to see the hidden structure of their chaotic times, how to step outside of it and to view it objectively while remaining within it as a participant, as an agent for the good. How are we Catholic people to do this if we are not rooted in the Truth? Will we be willing to compromise moral absolutes in the education of our children merely because attractive personalities, very intelligent idealists, say we should? Will the homogenization of our children’s minds be acceptable simply because we want the next generation to be nicely outfitted to cope with a profoundly disordered society? Will we be willing to sacrifice genuine diversity for the sake of the illusion of unity? Did our Catholic people help to elect a murderous social movement in this province and others, because its economic policies appeared to be kinder to the poor than the capitalist party that it replaced, forgetting the fact that abortion takes the life of far more children of the poor than children of the comfortable? Just as Dawson predicted, the confusion and transformation of moral values is seen widely as a moral cause.

How long will it take for our people to understand that when humanist sentiments replace moral absolutes, it is not long before very idealistic people begin to invade human families in the name of the family, and destroy human lives in the name of humanity? This is the idealist’s greatest temptation, the temptation by which nations and cultures so often fall. The wielder of power is deluded into thinking he can remold reality into a less unkind condition. If he succeeds in convincing his people of the delusion and posits for them an enemy of the collective good, then unspeakable evils can be released in society. Those who share a mass-delusion rarely recognize it as such, and can pursue the most heinous acts in a spirit of self-righteousness. Democracies are not immune from such delusions, although they tend to forms of oppression that are not overtly violent. Democracies in decline, however, will eventually revert to covert oppression and the overt, gradual erosion of human rights.

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life, John Paul II writes:

This is what is happening also at the level of politics and government: the original and inalienable right to life is questioned or denied on the basis of a parliamentary vote or the will of one part of the people—even if it is the majority. This is the sinister result of a relativism which reigns unopposed: the “right” ceases to be such, because it is no longer firmly founded on the inviolable dignity of the person, but is made subject to the will of the stronger part. In this way democracy, contradicting its own principles, effectively moves towards a form of totalitarianism. The State is no longer the “common home” where all can live together on the basis of principles of fundamental equality, but is transformed into a tyrant State, which arrogates to itself the right to dispose of the life of the weakest and most defenceless members, from the unborn child to the elderly, in the name of a public interest which is really nothing but the interest of one part. The appearance of the strictest respect for legality is maintained, at least when the laws permitting abortion and euthanasia are the result of a ballot in accordance with what are generally seen as the rules of democracy. Really, what we have here is only the tragic caricature of legality; the democratic ideal, which is only truly such when it acknowledges and safeguards the dignity of every human person, is betrayed in its very foundations: How is it still possible to speak of the dignity of every human person when the killing of the weakest and most innocent is permitted? In the name of what justice is the most unjust of discriminations practiced: some individuals are held to be deserving of defense and others are denied that dignity? When this happens, the process leading to the breakdown of a genuinely human co-existence and the disintegration of the State itself has already begun. . . .

In seeking the deepest roots of the struggle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death”, we cannot restrict ourselves to the perverse idea of freedom mentioned above. We have to go to the heart of the tragedy being experienced by modern man: the eclipse of the sense of God and man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism, which, with its ubiquitous tentacles, succeeds at times in putting Christian communities themselves to the test. Those who allow themselves to be influenced by this climate easily fall into a sad and vicious circle: when the sense of God is lost, there is also a tendency to lose the sense of man.

Our defense of reality itself, our resistance to various forms of totalitarianism, will demand both strong reactive measures and pro-active ones: an examination of conscience, a restoration of reverence for the “whole truth about man,” a return to Gospel principles in all aspects of our lives, and above all a profound conversion to worship of God. We must become a people who are in submissio, that is, submitted completely to the mission of the Church, in statu missionis. Thus, fully within the mainstream of grace, under the mantle of God’s divine authority, and uniting ourselves to the obedience of Christ on the Cross, we participate in the reversal of Adam’s sin. In this way we will find a personal, secret joy hidden within the crucifixion of our willfulness, a gateway to freedom, a dying that leads to life. And in doing so we will assist in the redemption of the world.

We must also support a widespread rebirth of those small, diverse, and beautiful works of man which retain their human dimensions and thereby foster the full meaning of the human person. There is need for a rediscovery of the family farm, cottage industries, new and old literature that is as vital as it is true, arts and crafts that are beautiful and made with love, schools small enough so that children can be known and nurtured as unique individuals, worker-owned co-operatives, small presses, libraries, community bees, works of mercy, discussion groups, etc.—these are only a beginning. We must learn and relearn that the only effective response to degeneracy, political, cultural, or otherwise, is to create an alternate culture that is so good, so beautiful, and so true that man is drawn back to his own true home.

The rediscovery of the family as a genuine social absolute is a crucial element of mankind’s rediscovery of this home. We must hope for it against all odds, but in the hoping we must have a realistic understanding of what those odds are. Pessimism is not Christian hope; nor is naïve optimism. We should not underestimate the capacity of modern man for self-delusion, especially when he has a great deal invested emotionally in the delusion. If awareness of the sacredness of the family has waned in our era, it is only partly due to attacks by exterior enemies. Catholics, to put it simply, have not valued Truth. In many of the particular churches we have been poorly educated in knowledge of the Truth and even more poorly educated in the spirituality of living the Truth. We did not see that our very lives hang upon the effective defense of Truth. As a result we have been fundamentally weakened and rendered virtually unprotected against the onslaught of propaganda from the media and the social sciences, which for many years have posited the origins of most human “dysfunction” in the internal politics of the family. Traditional marriage and family life are now commonly considered to be a form of oppression, even bondage. This, coupled to a loss of the sense of sin, has created a generation in which men and women no longer feel ennobled by self-sacrifice and the honoring of commitments. Nor do they feel endangered by the world of evil, by the possibility of personal slavery to invisible forces or to their own fallen natures. It is difficult for them to imagine that a pagan state might one day reinstitute an exterior form of slavery (although it would call it by a more attractive name). In his l930 essay “The New Paganism,” Hilaire Belloc noted that the liberal mind always abhors slavery in theory, but in the future, when liberalism has brought about the return of paganism, it will shortly thereafter resurrect the grand old institution of . . . slavery. However, he suggests, it will then be called “permanent employment.” Most people will have become unable to recognize that it is, in fact, what it is.

The supposed rationality of the idealist is perhaps the worst aspect of his condition, for it renders him less capable of pausing for a moment of reflection on what is real, or experiencing a healthy skirmish with self-doubt. It is this invincible self-righteousness which should alert us to the possibility that we may be living in the preliminary stages of a massive shift to totalitarian Statism on every level of society—including our religious institutions. If so, what are its exact parameters? How far will it go to usurp the perennial rights and duties of man? And if it is going to go very far (which is not yet certain) how do we stand in its path and resist it?

There are no precise blueprints of totalitarianism, for by its nature, even in its exercise of power, it is a shifting mirage. It does not know what it is, because it has no real absolutes on which to stand still and to know itself. It is urgent, therefore, that we recognize it for what it is, wherever it takes on a new form and attempts to dominate the human community. But how are we to accurately identify a force which appears in pleasing shapes and absorbs institutions with hardly an indiscretion? There are some traits which are common to violent and nonviolent forms of totalitarianism alike. The former justifies its harsh measures in the name of a so-called greater good—usually “the good of the people.” Soft totalitarianism is not fundamentally different in this regard, although its invasion of the rights and duties of man are executed with somewhat more diplomacy. We must remember here that in the beginning most oppressive regimes do not begin with overt oppression; in their early stages they appear as liberators. But when the moral foundations have crumbled under the euphoric advance of theory, it is only a matter of time before the living reality works out its awful consequences in practice. It bears repeating that this form is in the long run more destructive of the family, for it preserves the illusion of freedom. It directs its subjects to many roads, but the roads do not lead anywhere. It creates an impression of a broader world, but it is a vast prison, on the borders of which are impenetrable walls—impenetrable most of all because its residents have come to believe that there is nothing beyond it. It maintains power by continuously shifting the ground on which its subjects stand. Right, wrong, good, evil, and the identity of persons and things are each re-examined in an ongoing inquisition.

In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis SplendorThe Splendor of Truth, John Paul II warns of the consequences of sliding into this moral relativism:

Today, when many countries have seen the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world—Marxism being the foremost of these—there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics. This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible. Indeed, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”

Clearly, the Holy Father is not saying that Christians should abandon politics, for elsewhere he urges us to involve ourselves directly in the political process. He is here warning mankind against the folly of making politics into a religion that would displace the absolute rights of God and morality. The danger of this is so immediate that we can now reply to Marxism’s famous sneer, “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” with the more accurate observation that the politics of manipulation is the opiate of romantic intellectuals. Have we arrived at the stage where the politics of manipulation, and the manipulation of politics, is indeed drugging the people of the traditionally democratic nations? Consider that in the present day West, the arts, the media, the courts, education, psychology, sociology and anthropology and their hybrid disciplines, have contributed to a redefinition of the human person. Judging by the literature and the rhetoric coming out of these seemingly disparate movements, they have made a unanimous leap of faith: the restoration of man, apparently, now largely depends on the restructuring of behaviour and personality.

In his masterful essay on education, The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis pointed out that man’s power to make of himself what he pleases really means the power of some men to make of other men what they please. In other words, the human person will be increasingly perceived as a cell in a collective, needing not so much redemption by conversion as re-education and rehabilitation. Lewis foresaw that programs of reform would be developed and managed by a new class which he called The Conditioners. They will not be bad men, he advised. They will be highly motivated, and in fact will see themselves as the producers of motivation. They will become more and more dangerous as they are “armed with the powers of an omni-competent state and an irresistible scientific technique.” Their primary point of focus will be the reconstruction of human conscience: “They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce.” They themselves are outside, above, the dictates of the very conscience they produce, yet they consider themselves “the servants and guardians of humanity.”

Lewis observed the growth of this phenomenon from a Christian perspective, but there were non-Christian minds of his generation who also saw it developing. Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World Revisited (l958), said that the totalitarianism he had foreseen in l931 was materializing in the Western world at a much faster rate than he had thought possible. In Brave New World he had predicted a society in which the family, religion, language and art had been neutered and all conflicts eliminated by genetic engineering. He portrayed a perfect synthesis of technology and paganism. In Revisited he had come to believe that the totalitarianism of the immediate future would be less visibly violent than that of the Hitlers and Stalins, but it would create a society “painlessly regimented by a corps of highly trained social engineers.” He maintained that in such a society “democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial,” but the underlying substance would be a seemingly benign totalitarianism. Huxley’s otherwise perceptive book was itself a victim of the modern misunderstanding of authority. He could not see the connection between his own brand of liberalism and the world it was helping to create. The book is marred by his prejudice against the Church, which he lumps together with Marxism and Fascism. George Orwell makes the same mistake in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language.” Like so many modern anti-totalitarians, they failed to distinguish between raw power and responsible exercise of authority. We should note their failure carefully, for if even the most honest and courageous minds in the secular camp cannot grasp such basic distinctions, then late Western man is in grave trouble.

Modern secularists, regardless of how articulate they may be, are very often victims of one-dimensional thinking. In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis points out:

“Christianity thinks of human individuals not as mere members of a group or items in a list, but as organs in a body—different from one another and each contributing what no other could. When you find yourself wanting to turn your children, or pupils, or even your neighbors, into people exactly like yourself, remember that God probably never meant them to be that. You and they are different organs, intended to do different things. On the other hand, when you are tempted not to bother about someone else’s troubles because they are ‘no business of yours’, remember that though he is different from you he is part of the same organism as you. If you forget that he belongs to the same organism as yourself you will be come an Individualist. If you forget that he is a different organ from you, if you want to suppress differences and make people all alike, you will become a Totalitarian. But a Christian must not be either a Totalitarian or an Individualist.

“I feel a strong desire to tell you—and I expect you feel a strong desire to tell me—which of these two errors is the worse. That is the Devil getting at us. He always sends errors into the world in pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one. But do not let us be fooled. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and go straight through between both errors.”

There is a dangerous crack in the mind of modern man. In his supposed love for liberty and hatred of tyranny, he ignores the yawning crevasse which has opened up between freedom and responsibility. Unless those two are bridged by moral absolutes, he must eventually fall into the abyss, dragging his society in after him. In doing so he may unwittingly inflict a totalitarianism more complete than the full frontal attacks of monsters like Hitler and Stalin. The straw man of an “Inquisitional Catholic Church” lurks like a bogey in his subconscious; it does not impress him that the Roman Catholic Church has functioned for more than a century solely as a spiritual authority. It has no police, no armies, only the force of Truth and Love operating in the consciences of men. Veritas and Caritas, the Church knows, are the only real guarantees of social and individual freedoms. Curiously, it is her persistence in this regard which is found most objectionable to the modern mind, and especially to the totalitarian mind, violent and non-violent alike. The Catholic Church is portrayed on many levels of culture (including arts, communications media, education, and politics) as the monolithic structure thath produces oppressed and oppressive personalities. Modern liberalism in its secular and religious mutations is creating this universal impression. The world it is forming is in an agony of moral and spiritual sterility. Truth is made relative, undependable. Love is eroded in the name of love, communication rendered pointless in the name of “openness,” human life is devalued (being itself is despised) in the name of “quality of life.” We swim in a tide of such ominous symptoms but we have come to think of them as “normal.” We assume that the barbaric and the diabolical will be restrained by the democratic process. This is colossally naïve. Not only does it fly in the face of the very informative events which have taken place in our century, it ignores some key warning bells which are ringing here and there in the Western world.

We are at a turning point in history. The extraordinary pontificate of John Paul II is drawing many souls back to God, and even some nations to reflection on the moral absolutes and the meaning of man. The Church has all the resources necessary to restore man to his sense of purpose and identity. Yet, in the exercise of the ecclesial life of the West a kind of schizophrenia continues: we pay lip service to the Truth, and go on to do what we feel like. We say “Yes” and do “No,” but cushion the disobedience with subtly nuanced theology. The magisterial authority of the teaching Church is ignored while near-infallibility is conferred upon academic experts and committees.

Crucial choices have arrived and more are approaching. The abortion and euthanasia issues are the most ugly of these crises, but they are symptoms of something much deeper. We face a situation similar to the crisis which Christian Germany reached when the National Socialists enacted the racial laws, when state-sanctioned evil was funded by a large number of its citizenry who regarded the acts they were paying for through taxes to be crimes. Is this acceptable merely because the state or that elusive “voice of the people” has decided that the Jew or the pre-birth child is not quite human? And in a few short years will the orthodox Catholic or Christian be considered “an enemy of the people?” And will the family which fails to conform to state-defined notions of health be categorized as “dysfunctional,” and thus undeserving of custody of their children? If we should wake up some morning to find that a massive infrastructure of Conditioners is proceeding with the reconditioning of society—in the name of the people, in the name of the family, in the name of the child—who then will judge the State, and who will judge the people? Will we look back upon the present as the last brief period in which it was still possible to reverse the tide?

Is this a paranoiac nightmare or the shape of the world materializing under our very eyes? The objective signs should be sufficient to at least raise the necessary questions. Our pogroms and our crystalnachts are hidden away in clinics and hospitals. The people of the West are a nice people. An idealistic people. But note carefully the public rhetoric, note how the destruction of a child, the violation of conscience, the undermining of personal responsibility, the steady elimination of diversity, are lauded as steps in the protection of rights and freedoms. Have we reached that point to which Dawson, Pieper, Huxley, and Belloc referred? If it is true that rhetoric about freedom and democracy proliferates as the real thing declines, then the Western world has entered a period of institutionalized unreality.


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