Research Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Totalitarianism in Our Time

Philosophy in the Contemporary World: Totalitarianism in Our Time

By Nathan Eckstrand

Several dystopian classics became bestsellers—1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and The Handmaid’s Tale—following Donald Trump’s election, presumably by people who wished to compare the disturbing visions of those authors to the present. At the same time, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism attracted many readers who wanted to know the parallels between the rise of Nazi Germany and the resurgence of far-right groups in the USA.

Many authors who studied Nazism and the contemporary far-right agreed that there are parallels between Europe in the 1930s and America today but resisted the idea that we are witnessing the rebirth of totalitarianism. After all, one said, Arendt was discussing the origins of totalitarianism, not explaining its causes. We should read Arendt but confront the today’s problems rather than relive the problems of the past.

This claim is clearly correct. It is also true that Arendt discussed totalitarianism in specific circumstances, not in the abstract. Nevertheless, there are two reasons to reconsider how Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism applies in our own era.

First, most of these articles rejecting a parallel with the phenomena Arendt described were written around the time of Trump’s inauguration; we now have a year of evidence to sort through.

Second, while Arendt was focused on her place and time, she was explicit that totalitarianism was not so limited. If we can track how totalitarianism develops, she said, then it is clear that “it will no more disappear with the death of Stalin than it disappeared with the fall of Nazi Germany.” Just as dangerous as only seeking answers in the past is to blind ourselves with our uniqueness.

It is time to reexamine the question of totalitarianism in our time. We must realize that conservatism today—to be distinguished from the Republican Party—bears a striking resemblance to totalitarian movements of the past.

Arendt begins her discussion of totalitarianism with an analysis of ‘the mob,’ which she distinguishes from ‘the people.’ The people revolt for representation in government and against elitism and corruption of those in power. The mob, who are composed of “the residue of all classes,” seeks strong men who can punish the society from which the mob feels excluded. In Nazi Germany, this feeling of exclusion came from the mob’s despair following World War I. Traditional practices seemed absurd in the wake of an event which shattered normal social rules. As Arendt puts it, the mob yearned “for anonymity, for being just a number and functioning as a cog, [and for a transformation] which would wipe out the spurious identifications with…predetermined functions within society.”

Totalitarian leaders reproduce both the mob’s despair and the individuals’ desire to cease being individuals and to be part of a larger movement. Leaders’ advocacy of violence was embraced as a way of bringing the mob to power and overturning bourgeoisie morality. Cruelty was a way of thumbing one’s nose at the humanitarians whose doctrines had been exposed as impotent. Similarly, when the bourgeoisie declared devotion to principles of fairness and compassion but practiced the opposite, the mob saw disregard of human values as revolutionary in repudiating duplicity. Leaders like Hitler were welcomed because they provided individuals an authentic existence as part of a larger, homogenous whole.

The demographics of Trump voters match this description. Income was not a significant factor; according to one poll 33% of those who supported Trump in the election made less than $50K, 39% made between $50K and $100K, and 28% made more than $100K. More significant were factors like race (91% white) and ideology (82% of Trump voters supported his ban on Muslims entering the US, compared with 54% of Republicans). One poll reported that voters who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say about what the government does” were 86.5% more likely to prefer Trump to his Republican rivals. Political scientist Matthew McWilliams wrote that the best predictor of Trump support was authoritarianism, or the worldview that “value[s] conformity and order, protect[s] social norms, and [is] wary of outsiders.” Trump voters felt ostracized from society and wanted to return to a closed world where they could feel at home.

Similarly, violence and cruelty were—and still are—their tools of choice. Prominent Alt-right leaders and vocal Trump supporters advocate abandoning the humanitarianism and liberalism of the past in favor of ethno-centrism and domination. Richard Spencer said in 2013 “Our dream is a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans. It would be a new society based on very different ideals than, say, the Declaration of Independence.” Augustus Sol Invictus claimed “[The Federal government] has abandoned its eugenics programs and elitist mindset in favor of a decadent ideology that rejects the beauty of strength and demands the exponential growth of the weakest.”

While these quotes use more explicit language, they are not fundamentally different from claims Trump often makes. In his February 22 CPAC speech, Trump emphasized Americanism over liberalism, saying “We celebrate our history and our heroes and we believe young Americans should be taught to love their country, and to respect its traditions” and that we must “protect our heritage [and] promote our culture.” Multiple times he emphasized how conservatism is at war, saying “we have ended the war on American energy [which is] very important for our defense,” and “We’re fighting a lot of forces. There are forces that are doing the wrong thing” before praising his advocates as “warriors, warriors all.” Democrats were called “crazed.” Immigrants were compared to snakes, irreducibly evil and incapable of change. The message was clear: we must be tough soldiers to protect the ‘true’ America from both the outside enemies and establishment threats.

Arendt’s discussion of Nazi propaganda also yields disturbing parallels with our own time. Propaganda was aimed at the not-yet-dominated – those who weren’t ready to accept the true aims of the movement. These individuals needed to be manipulated because they are part of the external, nontotalitarian world with which totalitarianism is at war. Such manipulation requires convincing the people of the external world’s threat, and the consequent need to embrace totalitarian solutions.

Propaganda does this in several ways. First, it appeals to prophecy, projecting the totalitarian movement as if it were bringing about something historic. Human development is painted in stark terms as heading towards a clear and desirable goal that totalitarianism will bring about. Those who stand in history’s way are targeted with veiled and indirect threats. The goal, which is often simple minded and unrealistically ideal, promises a world defined by community and harmony. Arendt describes the Nazi vision of “Volksgemeinschaft” as a vision of community developed to confront the Communist vision of classlessness. But whereas the Communists pictured a world where work was equally shared, Nazis pictured a world where Germans would never again have to work. This vision was embraced because it satisfied a human desire for consistency, even if, as in this case, it was conjured from pure fantasy.

Perhaps most important in Arendt’s discussion of propaganda is the reason for falsehoods. For totalitarian leaders, truth is simply a matter of power. She says, “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it,” concluding that propaganda “betrays [totalitarianism’s] ultimate goal of world conquest, since only in a world completely under his control could the totalitarian ruler possibly realize all his lies.”

More and more conservative rhetoric follows this pattern. This is clearest in portraying the external world as dangerous and the indirect warnings against those who oppose them. News outlets such as Fox News, Brietbart, and Infowars consistently attack groups that don’t fit into their vision of America and those who support them. African-American groups endanger our safety, immigrant populations are taking jobs and resources from Americans, the Muslim population is plotting to overthrow the government, and anyone speaking on their behalf is naïve, a bully, or a collaborator.  Minimal fact-checking reveals that these claims are false.

Attacks against groups considered “un-American” are not new; what is new is the number of conspiracies leveled against them. There are too many to name, but they include implying the DNC or Clinton was behind the murder of Seth Rich, that the Democrats manufactured the violence in Charlottesville, that the Parkland, Fl shooter was motivated by Islam and the left, that Obama is a Muslim, that The Washington Post paid people to accuse Roy Moore, that the opioid crisis is due to immigrants, that a Black Lives Matter supporter is killing and freezing white peoples’ bodies, that Loretta Lynch called for “blood and death in the streets,” that Obama was born in another country, that Obama wiretapped Trump during the 2016 campaign, that immigrants are bringing Ebola into the country, and that Muslims in New Jersey cheered when the World Trade Center fell. These are not the work of minor conspiracy theorists on the edge of society; these falsehoods are being spread by major news sources, elected leaders, conservative luminaries, and the president himself. Large numbers of conservatives believe these conspiracies. For example, 43% of Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim, 51% believe he wasn’t born in the USA, and 58% believe global warming is a conspiracy. The numbers are even greater in polls focused on Trump supporters.

Does the rhetoric of conservatism today project a sense of prophecy, desire for consistency, and unrealistic ideal? A significant number of conservative commentators presented Trump’s victory in prophetic terms, saying that it was the inevitable outcome of failed liberal policies and global intervention. The desire for homogeneity and unrealistic ideals can be seen in their calls for a border wall that Mexico will pay for, a ban on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, and massive job growth. Experts question the plausibility, not to mention the ethics, of each proposal. More and more conservatives want to return to a society with fewer minorities and more jobs—a vision of America that never really existed but has been advocated by the Right for generations—and are now proposing unworkable solutions to bring it about.

Finally, we should be disturbed by the similarities between totalitarian movements and ultra-conservatism. The totalitarian movements Arendt describes focused on a leader, who was portrayed as a visionary capable of bringing the movement’s lies into being out of sheer will. Subordinates become the leader’s representatives in all things, and every action was traced back to the leader. The totalitarian leader held “a monopoly of responsibility for everything which [was] being done.” This is a key distinction between totalitarianism and despotism. Whereas a tyrant may tolerate criticism of his subordinates, a totalitarian leader cannot, for a subordinate’s wrong actions reflect upon the leader. Flawed subordinates are not just bad employees, but “the impersonation of the leader by an imposter.”

Totalitarian movements are often brought to power by creating civil war conditions. Belief in the justness of law is condemned, while the virtue of the movement is praised. Fear of the society outside keeps people within the movement, as does the feeling of security that comes with “the organized violence [used to] protect the party members from the outside world.” The goal is to create a body of individuals more afraid of leaving the movement than participating in illegal violence on its behalf. While those inside the movement can see its inner workings, the movement engages the outside through front organizations that hide the its true nature. This allows the message of the totalitarian movement to be distilled and spread more easily than it would if first encountered in concentrated form. While the actions and truths of the front organizations may change as needed for tactical effect, the inner truths of the movement are believed like “sacred untouchable truths.”

Some of the White House’s personnel issues make sense in this light. Many people have left, been fired, or been attacked by Trump because of disloyalty or because they cast him in a bad light. James Comey was asked by Trump to pledge his loyalty and was fired after he refused. Sean Spicer left following a public disagreement about hiring Anthony Scaramucci, though Trump was reportedly looking to fire him for not being “tough” and because an SNL sketch made Spicer look “weak.” Reince Priebus was unexpectedly ousted—and given less than a day to leave—because the President thought he was too close to other Republicans like Paul Ryan (illustrated by Trump’s nickname for Priebus, “Ryan-ce”). Initially Trump placed great faith in his son-in-law and daughter, as illustrated by the huge tasks he gave them, but after Kushner lost his security clearance Trump reportedly asked Chief of Staff John Kelly to find a way to push them out. The one representative Trump accepts attacks on—in part because he participates in them—is Jeff Sessions, and this is because Sessions was not loyal to Trump when he recused himself from the Russia investigation. On March 16, Trump fired Andrew McCabe hours before his retirement, which simultaneously eliminated a person overseeing the Muller probe (and who was thus disloyal) while denying McCabe his retirement benefits. Trump clearly prizes loyalty and strength over expertise, and his statements indicate a concern for how he is perceived through his surrogates.

The bitter disagreements and hatreds in the US also fit Arendt’s analysis. Many have described Civil War-like conditions throughout the country, including the South, Washington, and Hollywood. In the midst of the 2016 election, history professor Steve Ross claimed “Donald Trump is certainly on the road to fascism,” saying that Trump’s rise is like a “Second Civil War.”

A growing group of conservatives are dedicated more to their movement than to the law. Cliven Bundy disputed federal authority by refusing to pay over $1 million in grazing fees. In the midst of protests over a Confederate statue, James Alex Fields Jr. ran a car into Heather Heyer. Edgar Welch shot up a pizza restaurant in Washington after reading false news stories about a Hillary Clinton-run child sex ring. In 2012 Craig Cobb tried to create a bastion of white supremacy in Leith, South Dakota before being arrested on seven counts of terrorizing others. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 100 people killed or injured by people influenced by the “alt-right” since 2014, with the vast majority of the incidents occurring in 2017.

This is a great concern, especially because many conservatives seemed unconcerned with unlawful actions. Major elected leaders and presidential candidates supported Cliven Bundy, and polls indicated significant conservative sympathy with his position on the federal government. A majority of Republicans supported Trump’s comments on Charlottesville where he equated the violence of James Alex Fields with the left-wing protestors. 87% of Republicans support preserving Confederate monuments of leaders who sought to overthrow the U.S. government. Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz invited a fundraiser and activist for the alt-right to Trump’s 2018 State of the Union. Major conservative news outlets—Brietbart, Fox News, and Infowars among them—have voiced support for the alt-right movement. And the recent CPAC 2018 conference invited Marine Le-Pen, Sherriff David Clark Jr., and Michelle Malkin, who each have at times advocated Western supremacy and violence.

While it is a relief to see that major conservative figures and news organizations condemned the violence in Charlottesville, Washington, Leith, and elsewhere, this doesn’t disprove the totalitarian comparison. Conservatism looks a lot like the front organizations Arendt describes. Some of the politicians, groups, and media that defend the principles of more radical conservatives are acting—whether they realize it or not—as the public faces of a movement that has as its goal the creation of a totalitarian country.

While this article has avoided using Trump’s more exaggerated statements, such as his desire for a military parade, there is a recent one that needs to be brought in. During a fundraising event held at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, Trump praised China’s leader Xi Jinping for getting rid of term limits, saying “maybe we’ll have to give that a shot someday.” Though given in a speech described as ‘jokey,’ Trump has often praised strong men who are repressing their citizens. The statement was not introduced as a joke, nor has it been walked back since. Already commenters on right-wing news sites have embraced the comment as indicative of Trump’s superior trolling ability.

Taken on its own, the comment could be brushed off. But in the context laid out above, it indicates a disturbing move towards the society Arendt describes. Conservatives have eschewed the principles they used to follow (including individuals in the Republican Party who still hold them) in favor of an unrealistic vision that is perpetuated by their news, politicians, and organizers. Their pursuit of this utopia has already resulted in multiple deaths and destruction. The direction of this movement—totalitarianism—needs to be called out before their quest creates one of the greatest dystopias humans have ever seen.


Update (June 19): The recent news stories about the Trump Administration’s decision to separate immigrant children from their families is another similarity that should make us all take the claims of this article seriously. For those who think that moving the Jewish population to Ghettos and concentration camps is not the same as the detention facilities because the former were a “final solution” while the latter is temporary, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center documents how the Nazis initially said that taking the property of the Jews was a temporary measure and that the Ghetto process was just a prelude to deportation. We shouldn’t wait for the appearance of actual concentration camps to start worrying about these similarities.


Nathan Eckstrand is Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fort Hays State University, and is the Associate Editor in charge of research and inclusivity/diversity at the Blog of the APA.


  1. Totalitarianism has always been with us, and probably always will be. While it certainly is a phenomena that merits our serious concern, it’s not new.

    What’s new, say in the lifetime of older readers such as myself, is the accelerating emergence of powers of existential scale, that is, technologies with the potential to crash civilization.

    Hitler and Stalin were perhaps the last of the old era, they rose, they rampaged, and then they passed from the scene. Society recovered from the damage and moved on. This age old pattern was possible because while the despots could cause great damage, they didn’t have the power to crash civilization. Thus, there was always some kind of structure left somewhere which could move in and repair the damage once the crisis was over.

    What’s new is that totalitarian despots are being increasingly empowered by an accelerating knowledge explosion which since 1945 has been capable of producing technologies of existential scale.
    This development means the old “first the crisis, and then the cleanup” paradigm is in the process of passing in to history. The Cuban Missile Crisis might serve as a milestone marking the dawn of the new era, where the room for error is being steadily erased, and totalitarian crimes are ever more likely to take us to a place that we can’t recover from.

    This challenge can not be fully met by converting all countries to democracy because as the Trump election illustrates, all democracies are vulnerable to totalitarian influences. Hitler was voted in to office.

    The bottom line is that while an accelerating knowledge explosion continues to deliver wonderous miracles, it is also producing exceptionally dangerous powers which humanity is not mature enough to successfully manage.

  2. Dear Phil,

    Thanks for your comment. I have one thought and one question for you.

    First, the question. I am unclear what you mean when you say technologies now exist on an existential scale. Can you clarify? My understanding of existentialism is that it focuses on the nature of existence/being and the processes that produce meaning. It sounds like you’re saying technologies now have their own being and/or produce their own meaning. But in my reading of existentialism, technologies always did this. They can just do more of it now (in other words, it is not that technologies weren’t existential and now they are; it is that their existence has changed).

    Second, my thought. I think you are right in focusing on how technology has changed totalitarianism. While I didn’t go into great detail about this in my article, the internet is playing a huge role in what’s occurring now. The way it forms communities that have their own epistemologies, and how those communities can leverage it to apply pressure to marginalized groups or the political system, is something new. I’m not sure what the solution is, but I think it will get worse before it gets better.


  3. Hi Nathan,

    My apologies. My use of the phrase “existential scale” does often introduce more confusion than clarity, and I can see why this would be especially so in the context of professional philosophy. All I mean by that phrase is any technology which has the potential to crash civilization. So I should probably just say that, instead of trying to sound fancy. 🙂

    Yes, you are right to bring up the Internet’s role. As just one example, it’s been revealed recently that Russia is busy getting inside our power grid so they can shut it down in the event of a conflict. As best I can tell from NPR stories all the great powers, and some smaller ones too, are getting in to this business with some enthusiasm.

    This example points to a range of powers which themselves can not collapse civilization, but which may trigger other forces which can. Another example of this might be our highly complex financial system and the 2007 crash, which could have triggered all kinds of global chaos. The 1929 crash brought on Hitler and then WWII, which led to the cold war and Cuban Missile Crisis etc.

    It seems the bottom line is our relationship with the knowledge explosion. It’s been really successful so far and so no one wants to change course. But if we don’t change that relationship in some way, the door to Pandora’s Box will continue to open wider and wider, and it’s only a matter of time until the one bad day which brings the house down.

    Our best hope may be a crisis which is large enough to scare us profoundly, but not large enough to crash civilization. It’s probably going to take some real world event like this to inspire us to challenge some very deeply held assumptions.

    Steering back on topic, my primary concern is what happens if Trump’s presidency is threatened by one of the ongoing investigations. I don’t see him retiring quietly like Nixon did. It may be better if the investigations don’t get anywhere, we get through the next 3 years and vote him out. If he were to get impeached he’d immediately become a cherished martyr to the dangerous forces you point to in your piece.

  4. Dear Nathan Eckstrand,

    I strongly agree that totalitarianism always will be a great danger to contemporary societies, whether communist, fascist, or democratic. And I agree there is some danger to the American democratic system posed by the Trump presidency and its right-wing fringe elements, along with certain political interest-groups, whether leftist or rightist, who attempt to impose their agenda upon the public, whether by propaganda or violence (although we have so far mostly avoided the latter). What I would question is 1) whether you can define totalitarianism to apply strictly to ‘conservative’ (!) groups and ignore the arguable fact that communist, socialist, and even democratic parties can also be equally totalitarian as those ‘conservative’ parties you describe, and 2) whether it is correct to apply the label ‘totalitarian’ to certain fringe-zone right-wing groups whose current influence, however pernicious, certainly does not threaten a totalitarian takeover of American democracy. I would then finally ask 3) whether certain fringe-zone leftist (anarchist, black bloc etc.) organizations do not pose an equal danger to the preservation of democratic institutions in times of crisis, like those with which, arguably, we are currently faced, than the conservative organizations you describe. Or maybe more so…

    By my definition, a totalitarian society would be one in which 1) a single monolithic party, whether communist, fascist, or democratic, monopolizes both 2) the legitimate methods of exercising violence (military, police, courts etc.) in domestic and foreign affairs and 3) the public discourse that determines what opinions and behaviors are acceptable or not acceptable, and finally also 4) enforces those opinions and behaviors, whether violently or not, on its citizens and subjects. A totalitarian regime then would be one in which a dictator leader military junta or single party oligarchy dictates what opinions and behaviors are acceptable and enforces them on everybody, thereby ostracizing marginalizing exiling or killing anybody who does not at least at pay lip-service to those opinions and conform to those behaviors, whether those opinions and behaviors are communist or fascist, democratic or republican, liberal or conservative, heterosexual or homosexual, patriarchal or matriarchal, black white red brown green or purple, and so on. (Please see Jean-Francoise Lyotard’s definition of totalitarianism in ‘The Differend: Phrases in Dispute,’ for a much more sophisticated and better argument than mine.)

    Frankly, I do not see a situation fitting this description of totalitarianism existing in contemporary American society. Whether or not Trump might like to enforce his opinions or behavior on everybody, by propaganda or violence, I’d say he is very much failing to do so, and, instead, the major problem with the Trump administration is its sheer incompetence to address major, major foreign and domestic policy problems, or even, for that matter, to carry on the basic functions of government on a day to day basis. Unlike Stalin, Mussolini, or Hitler, Trump cannot make the trains run on time, nor can he enforce his opinions even in his own party (viz., John McCain or Rand Paul, although I admit there is a dangerous spinelessness evident in the Republican Congress’ failure to face up to Trump’s incompetence). I have suggested that the American Constitution should be amended to allow for invalidating fraudulent elections (viz, 2016) and for taking a no-confidence vote against an administration that clearly does not represent the will of the people (viz, the Trump administration). So far, no American politicians have recognized wisdom of (?) and the need for (!) these measures, but I would question whether more drastic measures would be necessary, and whether more drastic measures would not be just as totalitarian (or more so…) than Trump. There is, of course, also impeachment. But that would require proving that Trump has actually committed high crimes and misdemeanors equivalent to treason by, for example, colluding with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which, at the time of the current writing, has not yet been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in a court or tribunal, even if the investigation is still in progress…

    Secondly, I think your definition of totalitarianism might just as well be applied to certain elements of the so-called democratic liberal left, who would like to enforce their own lifestyle preferences (political thinking, liberal philosophy, sexual orientation, thoughts about marriage or abortion etc.) on everybody else, and who are sometimes tempted to resort to extremist methods to do so. (I think of the efforts made by gay-rights advocates in California to remove people from their jobs because they voted to support the marriage bill, for example, which might be compared to efforts made by conservatives to ostracize people who vote for abortion rights.) And when I think of speech and actions by an American political figure which might be compared to the fascist propaganda of a totalitarian regime, I don’t think of Trump (or, well, I don’t just think of Trump…). I think of former President Obama’s speech comparing the Islamic State (arguably a totalitarian organization, by my definition…) to a disease or cancer to be exterminated at all costs, by any means necessary, including the indiscriminate bombing of the Syrian and Iraqi cities of Raqqa and Mosul, resulting in tens of thousands of innocent civilian casualties, which might arguably be compared to Hitler’s description of Jews as vermin to be exterminated, with the horrible results we all know of, even if, also arguably, the wholesale death-toll of the US war on terror has not yet reached Holocaust proportions (3 or 4 million versus 6 to 10 million dead? But who’s counting?…). And I think of Obama’s targeted assassination of US citizen Anwar Awlaki, who, while arguably a sympathizer with radical Islamist terrorist organizations, was never convicted of a crime (except possibly dissemination of propaganda, if that’s a crime…), never even accused of perpetrating violent acts (except by proxy…), and was certainly never given a fair trial afforded due process or allowed to defend himself in a court of law, but who was killed in an American drone strike which the Obama regime neither officially confirmed nor denied (while still, of course, scoring propaganda points for it…). And, shortly thereafter, the Obama administration also killed Awlaki’s 15-year-old American citizen son in another drone strike, for no crime whatsoever except guilt by association with his father. Oh, and the Obama administration, while neither confirming nor denying it had committed this killing, admitted that they didn’t even know who they were killing, but chalked it all up to collateral damage. Yes, I admit the Trump administration has committed equal or greater crimes (currently in progress, most of which nobody even wants to know about…), but my point is they are not the first to commit crimes and get away with it. And I don’t hear liberal-leftists attacking Obama as a fascist. Quite the contrary…

    But I don’t want to go on monopolizing the discourse here. I’d just ask you to clarify your definition of totalitarianism, and ask whether it does not apply to both left-wing and right-wing factions. And I’d ask you to consider, for example, whether the Stalinist (Bolshevik) Communist regime in Russia was not just as totalitarian as the German National Socialist regime, even if the death-toll and body-count from the Gulag (10 million?) might not be greater than that of the Nazi death-camps (ditto). But then, that communist death-toll doesn’t include the Ukrainian terror-famine of 1933-1934 (3-4 million starved to death), which took place before the Nazis and Hitler came to power. And what about the Chinese Communist Revolution? Or The Great Leap Forward? The Cultural Revolution? What about the Chinese reeducation-through-labor camps (laogai) (currently also still in operation…)? And what about Vladimir Putin’s Russia? which is clearly a borderline totalitarian-fascist state, despite the pretext of democratic elections. (Consider the assassination of Boris Nemtsov, say…) Surely you cannot label all those phenomena as ‘conservative’ and therefore ‘totalitarian,’ by your definition? Can you? Really…? But perhaps I misrepresent your position, and I welcome your reply.


  5. Dear Eric and Phil,

    Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments engaging my work. And my apologies for not responding sooner; last week I was swamped with teaching and grading. But I’m more or less out from under that pile of work now, so let me go through your points.

    First, Phil, thanks for clarifying your use of the term “existential.” With that in mind, I don’t think I disagree with anything you said. I have many of the same concerns myself, and see potential good and bad outcomes from the possibilities your suggest.

    Eric, as I understand your argument, you object to my application of the term totalitarianism to conservatives exclusively. I have two responses to this. First, I never said in my article that the term should only ever be applied to conservatives–I don’t believe it should. As you rightly point out, it is not only people who identify as conservatives that are susceptible to totalitarian tendencies. The article was focused on conservatism because that is where I see the danger coming from today. They are, above all, the ones who deny basic truths, who are demonizing certain identities, and who desire a social purity that is impossible to achieve. It was a matter of circumstance, not necessity, that led me to my focus on conservatism.

    However, I do disagree with some of the claims you make about the totalitarianism tendencies of other groups. Regarding your definition of totalitarianism, it is important to recognize that a totalitarian party would be democratic or communist in name only (the same is true of traditional conservatism, which is also opposed to totalitarianism). For this reason, I do not accept the claim that totalitarianism can be “communist or fascist, democratic or republican, liberal or conservative…” While totalitarianism can mobilize these ideas in support of its own end, a movement that insists upon homogeneity cannot be one that is by its nature heterogenous.

    Regarding your skepticism of totalitarianism today, I tried to make it clear in the article that what we are seeing is not the same as Nazi Germany at its height, but rather that there are disturbing similarities with Nazi Germany around the time of Hitler’s rise. This is why the article concludes with a call that we prevent a similar situation from happening.

    As for the comparison with parts of the radical left, I don’t agree with your conclusion. While I have my own disagreements with parts of the left, I find the claim that they are acting in a totalitarian manner to be, frankly, absurd. The leftist elements you mention (e.g. sexual orientation, political philosophy, thoughts on marriage) are not demanding that people conform; they are demanding recognition for different ways of living. If the left were demanding that people BE homosexual, or that they MUST marry men, then it would be totalitarian. But I see nothing wrong in forcefully advocating that people accept other peoples’ choices. To put it simply, if you support openness and heterogeneity, then you must oppose the forces that prevent society from embracing those values. This doesn’t mean that you yourself advocate closedness and homogeneity, but that you recognize that openness and heterogeneity cannot coexist with anything and everything. But there’s a difference between fighting the forces preventing heterogeneity and fighting for homogeneity.

    I’ll conclude with just one word about Obama’s legacy. You and I agree that numerous things he did are abhorrent (e.g. the killing of Anwar Al-Alaki) and war crimes by any reasonable definition. But that doesn’t make them totalitarianism. I see a qualitative difference between the examples you mention and what’s going on now.

  6. Is it true that “an accelerating knowledge explosion is producing exceptionally dangerous powers which humanity is not mature enough to successfully manage”? If it is true, I’m unclear of the logic of discussing much of anything else.

    Consider the intellectual work being done by millions of philosophers, academics, scientists etc around the world. If it’s true that violent men will inevitably crash civilization with vast powers, all that intellectual work will be washed away in a coming crash. So what’s the point of doing that work? What’s the point of discussing it? Shouldn’t our primary focus be on avoiding a crash?

    Imagine that you are in your home office working on a paper that is important to career. And then your kitchen erupts in flames and threatens to blow up your house. In this scenario, what is the point of talking about your paper??

  7. One quick thought about your question. Avoiding a disaster is of course important. But there are many directions disaster can come from (e.g. global warming). We also don’t want to create a disaster in our attempt to stop one (e.g. in order to avoid a ‘knowledge explosion’ we stop tracking the spread of diseases, and create a massive plague). I also don’t know how you would begin to have a worldwide discussion on knowledge that doesn’t ever touch upon any other issue.

    We definitely need to focus on certain issues more than others. But I would argue you are overstating things by saying there is no point in discussing anything else. In fact, we may learn some things in these other discussions that may aid us in solving the first problem (just as discoveries in math have helped us solve problems in science, history, philosophy, and politics).

  8. Hi again Nathan,

    I admit to a degree of rhetorical excess, fair point. I suppose that’s one of the ways I attempt to invite engagement, by offering exaggerations that are easy to push back against. This strategy may be less relevant to this site than others, more agreement, but then we don’t yet know what will fuel engagement here. Your posts steer carefully clear of such exaggerations, and they are not being engaged either. Hmm…. Wait, I’ve got it, nude celebrity photos with every post! 🙂

    Your reference to global warming seems useful. That’s clearly a big problem of course. But it won’t pose a mortal threat to civilization for at least decades, perhaps longer, perhaps never. The marriage of violent men and knowledge could topple civilization before lunch today. The immediacy of that threat seems to create a compelling argument for it being a priority. Remember, if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

    I think it’s fair to offer a theory that 1) professional philosophers have a bias for sophisticated complexity, and 2) there really is little evidence that thousands of sophisticated papers on thousands of complex topics is successfully meeting the mortal threat to civilization presented by our era.

    I see the continuation of such an unproven process in the face of mortal danger to represent either a lack of clarity, or a defeatist admission that there is nothing we can do, so we might as well do what we enjoy.

    I’m attempting to argue that the problem is not that there is nothing we can do to achieve “world peace”, but that we aren’t willing pay the required price tag. If that is true, the logical outcome of such a decision seems to me to be the coming end of intellectual inquiry, and all the sophisticated papers on complex topics.

    If the office building you are writing from catches on fire, you have to deal with that before you can begin to write your next paper.

  9. Dear Nathan Eckstrand,

    You begin your response by agreeing that the definition of a totalitarian society—which I defined as one in which 1) a single monolithic party or faction monopolizes both 2) the legitimate methods of exercising violence and 3) the public discourse that determines what opinions and behaviors are acceptable or not acceptable, and 4) enforces those opinions and behaviors on its citizens and subjects—cannot be restricted simply to so-called ‘right-wing’ (‘conservative’) or ‘left-wing’ (‘democratic,’ ‘socialist,’ ‘communist’; etc.) political groups. But you then redefine the term (which you do not define…) so that again, by your definition, only ‘conservative’ groups can be considered ‘totalitarian,’ and not ‘democratic,’ ‘communist,’ or ‘radical left’ groups. It’s difficult to escape the impression that you are simply defining terms so as to apply the pejorative term to those you consider your political opponents, and refusing to apply the term to those your consider your allies. Can you really refuse to admit that the Soviet Bolshevik Communist Party during Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s, for example, or the Chinese Communist Party during The Great Leap Forward of the 1950s or The Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, were totalitarian regimes that used terrorist methods to impose their party dogma on the people? If so, I’d ask you to consult the historical evidence and recall that just as many (or more…) people were murdered by those so-called ‘communist’ or ‘leftist’ regimes as by the German National Socialist (Nazi) (fascist!) regime, and reconsider your definition of terms against the evidence.

    I’d admit that when considering the actions of certain contemporary ‘radical leftist’ groups (the self-styled ‘anarchists,’ the ‘anti-fas,’ and the so-called ‘black blocs’), who infiltrate peaceful demonstrations and non-violent protest actions, wearing ski-masks and black clothes to disguise themselves, to provoke confrontations with opposing groups and the police, to smash windows and start fist-fights, and so on, and to discredit both themselves and the groups they associate with, that it’s difficult to decide whether the terms ‘fascist’ or ‘totalitarian’ better apply to those actions and those groups. But I’d also question, based on the previous experience of the FBI response to 1960s protest movements (like the COINTELPRO program…), whether those so-called radical leftist groups aren’t actually provocateurs, either self-recruited or hired to disrupt socially conscientious protest movements, and whether they can be considered either ‘leftist’ or ‘rightist’ or whatever and not simply ‘sociopaths’ or ‘vandals’ or ‘thugs’ or some other such egregiously pejorative term. And as for the actions of official political parties, like the Democratic and Republican parties in the US or, say, Vlad (‘the Impaler’) Putin’s United Russia or Benjamin (‘Bibi’) Netanyahu’s Likud, which are associated with contemporary states, like the United States of America, Russia, or Israel, and which commit war-crimes and atrocities, whether against foreign countries or against their own citizens, I’d admit it’s often difficult to tell which party (leftist or rightist? democratic or republican? liberal or conservative?) is responsible for which atrocity? (For example: Is Barack Obama or Donald Trump responsible for the deaths of 40,000 civilians during the bombing of Mosul? which killed maybe 1000-2000 Islamic State fighters. The answer: Both and…) But, then, that observation simply suggests that defining the terms so that one political party (the ‘leftist-‘ or ‘rightist-‘ faction…) is responsible for all the crimes and atrocities, and the other is not, is a false dichotomy and a bad definition of terms, which need to be re-defined before ‘we’ can rightly discuss what ‘fascism’ or ‘totalitarianism’ are, and which calls in to question whether the terms ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ really mean anything at all, anymore, when both sides can be guilty of the same crimes. Maybe you would like to respond by defining the term, ‘totalitarian,’ and showing how it applies to ‘conservatives’ and not ‘democrats,’ ‘communists,’ and ‘radical leftists’? and by offering evidence that that definition would hold up against the bloody history of the last few centuries? I’d be glad to read your response, if it doesn’t slip by me on the blog-stream, where inconvenient information often seems to somehow disappear when your computer shuts down, for no discernible reason, and the war-crimes and atrocities of yesterday are simply old news or no news, sooner forgotten before bedtime tonight…

    Speaking of which … I’d just add that your belief that somehow all political crimes are attributable to ‘conservatives,’ and not to ‘democrats,’ ‘communists,’ and ‘radical leftists,’ reminds me of my previous belief that because the Jewish people (…not J-F Lyotard’s ‘the jews’…) suffered horrible atrocities in World War II during the Holocaust or Shoah, that the Jewish people were therefore the proud carriers of the flaming torch of political conscience before the whole world and the self-righteous spokespersons for all the victims of all crimes and atrocities everywhere, and certainly could never themselves commit crimes and atrocities against others… That was before I discovered that the State of Israel was founded upon the terrorist actions of the self-styled Jewish freedom fighters and Zionist liberationists of the Haganah, the Irgun, or the Lehi (Menachim Begin, Yitkak Shamir, et al.), which organizations carried out, for example, the bombing of the British King David Hotel in Jerusalem and the expulsion of 100,000s of Palestinians from their homes during the catastrophe called the Nakbah. If you would like some evidence that Jewish political parties (the Likud) and Jewish paramilitary groups (the IDF) can commit crimes and atrocities, I’d ask you to watch the videos and read the news about the IDF’s killing of 18 Palestinians and wounding of 700 others during the protests against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, currently ongoing… Which, of course, does not mitigate German collective guilt for the Holocaust or Shoah. But if you think the Germans were the only ones who committed war-crimes and atrocities during (and before…) WWII, I’d ask you to consider the Soviet Bolshevik Communist Party’s carrying out of the Ukrainian terror-famine of 1932-1933 )the Holomodor), in which 3-4 million peasants were slowly starved to death (some resorting to cannibalism before dying…), and which no doubt played some role in the Nazi Party’s success in the 1932 elections and the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933… All of which simply proves that, as a Taiwanese refugee once said to me about the Chinese Communist regime: “Over there, there’s no good guys. Only bad guys …’ Except, as Orwell might have said in 1984 or Animal Farm (…which, by the way, weren’t about German or Italian fascism, they were about Soviet Communism…), some are bad-der than others, though…

    Thanks for your response.



    Israel Kills Palestinians and Western Liberals Shrug. Their Humanitarianism Is a Sham.

    Mehdi Hasan
    April 2 2018, 12:55 p.m.

    Killing of Palestinians in Gaza ‘unlawful, calculated’
    No evidence that any Palestinians seriously threatened Israeli soldiers in Gaza protests, Human Rights Watch says.

    And so on…

  10. Perhaps it’s helpful to point out that Hitler and Trump both arose from essentially the same circumstance, Wall Street manipulators crashing the economy. Such widely shared painful events seriously undermine faith in the established order and create a desire for a confident no-nonsense strong man who will, in today’s lingo, “drain the swamp”.

    The 2008 financial crisis brought home to many people, including this poster, the degree to which hyper-rich people are sucking our society dry with impunity, because they are smart enough and rich enough to buy off the political structures that are supposed to be constraining their greed. As evidence, the big banks are bigger than ever, and the new laws which were supposed to fix “too big to fail” are now being unraveled.

    Check out this quite educational documentary on the Federal Reserve entitled “Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve”…

    The film does a good job of explaining the degree to which the global economic system is built upon faith in the United States government, a kind of high risk ponzi scheme enterprise which solves problems simply by creating mountains of new money out of thin air.

    This is where totalitarians come from, corrupt democratic systems which lose the confidence of the people they are supposed to be serving. The Washington Post reports that…

    “The wealthiest 1 percent of American households own 40 percent of the country’s wealth”

    Point being, our economic and political does not serve the average citizen, it serves the rich. As more and more people come to understand this, the threat of totalitarianism will continue to rise.


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