Not Quite the Essence of Totalitarianism I: Process Is Primary, Research Time, 09/03/2015

As I’ve read The Road to Serfdom, some questions have lately occurred to me whose answers I’m still unsure about. What were Friedrich Hayek’s thoughts about how the totalitarian and military regimes of that time (Nazi Germany, Bolshevik Russia, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan, Iron Guard and Antonescu’s Romania) made racism a central pillar of their politics? When he was writing the book, how much did he know about the death camps, if anything?

This isn't just a racist image (although it's incredibly
racist). It's something that many people actually
believe, which is a major part of Hayek's legacy.
I ask these questions for two reasons, one centred in Hayek’s own time, and one rooted in contemporary concerns to understand libertarianism’s modern roles. I’ll examine the historical question first, and I think I’ll get to the contemporary matter tomorrow or Wednesday, depending on how long it takes me to think through it.*

* Okay, a bit of a sidebar to say that, as I write this entry, this is the kind of thinking experience that I was interested in drawing from this blog. As I’ve gotten better at the form of blogging and its narratives, a lot of the entries here look like finished pieces, self-contained works in themselves. Well, they never are. The basic idea of the blog is the same as it was in my first entry: this is the process of ideas coming together in my own thoughts. Nothing here is finished; everything is a work in progress contributing to a bunch of other, larger works in progress. Nothing here will ever be finished. One day, it will stop.

The Road to Serfdom is, as a piece of writing, a more interesting book than it appears at first. On first glance, it looks like a polemic written for a popular audience, intellectual arguments stated in simple (but not too simple) language that could, for instance, easily be abridged into a Reader’s Digest version that catches fire with the popular consciousness of what was then a 140-million person population. 

Its ideas are simple, and I always found them too simple when people would talk to me about them, before I really engaged with this book. All collective action was a threat to individual liberty. The government has no direct role in the lives of free people. All left-wing and generally big-ish government politics have Nazi totalitarianism as the ultimate aim. These didn’t feel like rational theories or arguments when I heard them; they felt like ad hominem attacks.

Hitler was more than just a bureaucracy. His
political innovations go far beyond the comic
nightmares of Kafka.
Now I see that these are the conclusions of a rationally constructed argument and perspective on the world that emerged from an engagement with a genuinely dangerous political idea. The Road to Serfdom is an argument against nationalizing an economy, which was a major trend in the politics of the early 20th century. It’s an argument that any attempt to plan an entire economy comprehensively from a single centralized scientific state bureaucracy would inevitably result in tyranny.

This is the case. Hayek convincingly argues that total state control of an economy through its bureaucratic institutions requires too many decisions about how individual citizens would live their daily lives for anyone to maintain their individual liberties and personal freedoms. The bureaucracy would invade everyone’s private lives because every decision in our private lives (who we associate with, our jobs and careers, our likes and dislikes) constitute our economy. 

A state-controlled economy would have to empower a bureaucracy to manage all these tasks that are essential to our freedom. Insofar as the left-wing movements (and quite a few conservative ones as well, which included a decent helping of upper-crust technocrats) of Hayek’s time sought to put our governments on this track, they would have curtailed a lot of freedoms essential to democratic life. 

The Road to Serfdom is a work of philosophy that seeks to define the essential freedoms of humanity, so that its readers can understand the threats to those freedoms that deceptively speak in freedom’s name. But the individualism that drives Hayek’s mission also results in philosophical blind spots. He may understand totalitarianism as a state bureaucracy, an institution with a particular kind of relationship to individuals, but he can’t understand totalitarianism as a social movement.

Arendt will be one of the most important ghosts for
the Utopias project.
There is more to totalitarianism than the nationalization of the economy. Hayek wasn’t the only person in the last years of the Second World war writing a work of philosophy that would become legendary over the following decades. Hannah Arendt was also writing The Origins of Totalitarianism

Arendt understands the nature of totalitarianism as extending far beyond a state bureaucracy. A bureaucratic institution doesn’t go anywhere. It sits comfortably in its territory managing its material and population. Hayek believes totalitarianism is a bureaucratic institution alone because he understands it in the context of a problem of state planning. Arendt understands it in the context of problems of imperialism, the state-centric drive to conquest.

Totalitarianism is an intensification of imperialism. Imperialism is the constant expansion of a state’s territory, the sphere of its geographic control. Totalitarianism is the constant expansion of a state’s powers themselves, into new qualitative expressions, new sectors of citizens’ lives. It’s the expansion of the state into economic planning, with an analytic focus on the process, instead of, as in Hayek’s case, the institution.

This imperialist dimension of the process is how racism is so essential to totalitarian politics. Hayek just doesn’t understand this, minimizing the racist ideologies of the Nazi blend of totalitarian government as a post hoc attempt to justify state-led thuggery with haughty universals. 

This is why I ask (and I’m actually asking the question of any readers who might know of know where I can find this out) how much Hayek knew about the Holocaust, the death camps of the Nazi empire. A program of horror on that scale cannot be the product of petty prejudice against Jews because of stereotypes that they have lots of money. Even though that’s ultimately what Hayek is saying the racist ideology of Nazi Germany really is. To be continued . . . 

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