I've been reading about the First World War because it was the moment when the central concept of totalitarianism was forged, and totalitarianism is the greatest enemy of the Utopias project. The core concept of totalitarian politics is the conception of individuals as entirely functional. There is no singularity to individual lives in totalitarianism, as the value of life is defined only through the service to the whole.
This is the logic that, as I write in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, is used to condemn the environmentalist movement for understanding humanity as systematically integrated and interdependent with ecosystems and the wider biosphere. This is Luc Ferry’s contention that environmentalist politics are eco-fascism because the absolute freedom of the individual is subordinated to the good of an ecosystem.
Environmentalist politics does require us to compromise our freedoms. And these compromises are for the sake of our long-term, or even short-term, survival and overall prosperousness. We cause severe limitations to our freedom and that of many other people when we callously pollute major water supplies with toxic wastes.
Robert Nozick also said that human freedom must include the freedom to renege on social obligations to repay favours or give benefits in return for help you’ve received. That’s the substance of the radio show argument, that no matter how much good and joy others have brought to me, any obligation on me to repay that kindness is a form of oppression. My absolute freedom is violated by social rules that limit my freedom to be a selfish jackass.
Friedrich Hayek similarly said that any attempt to control individual freedom by pressure to contribute to a common social good or large-scale project is oppressive. Totalitarian, even.
This trio, Hayek-Nozick-Ferry, makes for a fine demonstration that liberalism has become bankrupt. In the name of protecting individual freedom, they enable oligarchy, ethical indifference, and ecosystemic destruction. These are the major destructive forces tearing human civilization down in our era. When they defend such terrible regimes and the moral concepts that such regimes run on, they do so in the name of the liberal tradition.
Every political philosophy that achieves mass success and acceptance eventually grows decadent. Decadence is when what was once a source of creativity, nobility, life, and joy instead promotes misery, resentment, and destruction. All without changing its fundamental concepts. The world has changed, and what was once an absolute good now leaves blood on our hands.
This is the teleology of Nietzsche’s vision of human history. A revolutionary idea arises, and we pig-headed humans run with it until we run it into the ground, and we become so devoted to the idea itself, that it must be absolutely, inherently good, that we blind ourselves to the misery its guidance now creates. Concepts have finite political lifespans. The prophet (Nietzsche) recognizes this. The revolutionary (internet feminists, black liberators, environmentalists, the sexual and sexuality revolution, Occupy) forges a new political order.
|Hannah Arendt was the first to understand totalitarian|
government as imperialism's playbook running in the
domestic sphere on the entire population.
The trick is recognizing which new political orders will actually produce creative, life-affirming change that opens up new possibilities for humanity. Because there are many others that will only speed the destruction.
Totalitarianism was the first revolutionary reaction to liberalism, forging an image of a new kind of humanity. The problem was that it was even more destructive than liberalism ever was, more quickly and intensely. Before the 20th century, liberalism as a political philosophy was articulated most purely in the movements to abolish slavery and build democratic state institutions.
Totalitarianism was a reaction to liberalism that, I think, came before the true moment of liberal decadence. If anything, I think it was actually the decadent stage of imperialism, when all the destruction that the empire-building powers were always able to offload to its colonies came home to work their horrors. And it used the greater intensity that modern technology was capable of, to push that destruction into an all-consuming inferno.
Sounds like a good metaphor, really. Totalitarianism as a political fluorine fire.
The First World War was the first such fire of imperialism brought to its highest intensity. Imperialism is something that the great industrial powers of Europe could get away with when all the violence was done to colonized people in lands very far away from the seats of their civilizations. You can even get away with it when you colonize a people in your own country, when a minority is racialized or enslaved.
And when your own political majority population becomes the colonized, the machinery of imperialism turning on itself. The oppressors oppress themselves, destroying their own civilization through military violence instead of some other. Totalitarianism makes you into a self and an other at the same time.
I’m not quite sure what’s going to come of this. All I know is that I’m thinking. This is a long project in progress.
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