Are we living under totalitarianism?

Ted Grimsrud – 5/23/11

Well, probably not. In the United States today, we still are able to express ourselves freely. I don’t feel any anxiety about posting this essay, for example, even though it will end up being quite critical of the powers that be in our society.

We still have a lot of power, though more so on the local level, to practice participatory democracy. We still have freedom of the press, problematic as our media might be in practice. I am writing right now in Phoenix, Arizona, and will be traveling home to Virginia tomorrow—I may be annoyed at the airport “security” measures, but I have a great deal of freedom to come and go as I please, to travel thousands of miles across the continent whenever I want.

And yet…

I don’t think imagining how American society might have some totalitarian elements is without merit. And pursuing this imaginary thought a bit might provide some ideas for how peaceable people might negotiate social and political life in 21st century America.

Maybe “totalitarian” isn’t the best term for the dark side of American political life, but the challenge remains to find language to convey the huge gulf between the stated ideals of our society as the “free world’s” beacon of democratic practices and the actual reality on the ground when the will of the majority of the people seems continually to be manipulated and even utterly contravened.

My intent in this essay is not to make the case for why we should be worrying about totalitarian tendencies in our current situation. Rather, I want to reflect on what it might mean for our political imagination if we were top proceed as if we are, to some genuine degree, living under totalitarianism—and what kinds of resources we might want to be attentive to in this context.

My interest in this line of thought was stimulated from two different examples of peaceable people seeking to find their way in genuinely authoritarian environments. I noticed exciting insights that made me think I would have quite a bit to learn from these examples, and this triggered the thought that maybe part of the reason I thought the insights were exciting was that indeed I am living in a context that has more in common with those totalitarian environments than I would have assumed. This in turn made me wonder if maybe part of the reason people interested in a politics of peace in our society have had such seemingly frustrating experiences is that they have not taken the totalitarian dynamics seriously enough and have set themselves up for deep discouragement by assuming that peace might be much easier to achieve here than it actually is.

Before saying more about these insights, let me just mention one reason why I would even raise the specter of totalitarianism at all. I am writing a book on the moral legacy of World War II. I have been deeply impressed (and depressed!) as I have learned more about this legacy—in a nutshell, I would characterize the main legacy as the profound victory of the spirit of militarism and the concomitant defeat of democracy. Two obvious manifestations have been (1) the amazingly corrupt and destructive American war on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and the ability of the architects of that moral monstrosity to survive the disaster they engendered more or less unscathed and unaccountable; (2) the extraordinary and successful effort to elect as president in 2008 a candidate who did not enter the race that the choice of the political establishment and who conveyed the image of being peaceable (perhaps more than any other victorious presidential candidate in American history—witness Obama’s being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize near the very beginning of his term in office), who nonetheless ends up being just another war-monger who, shockingly, in some ways has even turned out to be more militaristic than his immediate predecessor.

I had concluded during George W. Bush’s presidency, that American democracy had essentially been killed and buried. While I was never smitten by Obama, I did think it possible that his successful campaign might herald a turning from the abyss of totalitarianism (post-modern style). I’m not sure whether the Obama presidency truly could have restored democracy had he wanted it to, but I can’t help but conclude now that he didn’t want to restore democracy. In any case, he hasn’t.

Of course, these political judgments are highly debatable (though by no means original with me). Here, though, I am just using them to set the stage for some reflections that I have not seen replicated elsewhere.

What are the two resources for political imagination that I mentioned above? One is the book of Revelation from the first century in the context of the persecution of Christian churches by the (totalitarian?) Roman Empire. Regardless of the actual historical reality of Revelation, the book itself does clearly (I believe) present itself as operating in a totalitarian-like environment. Hence, John’s strategy might inform ours insofar as we live in a similar environment.

The second resource is writing from Central European dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s who resisted the Soviet Empire—in particular Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Adam Michnik in Poland.

Havel and Michnik wrote of simply seeking to create space to be human—not seeking to overthrow their totalitarian governments or to effect a widespread social transformation. They did not appeal to the leaders, to the people with power, the political elite, to change. They weren’t so much motivated by “speaking truth to power” as by finding ways to disbelieve in the state’s portrayal of reality and to find other people to be human and humane with.

As it turned out, the system these people “disbelieved” in came to the end of its days (certainly with the help of such courageous and perceptive critics as Havel and Michnik). The (velvet) revolution happened almost in spite of the intentions of its leaders. I suspect, though, that the profundity of the insights of these thinkers does not depend on their remarkable success in this one case. As it turns out, the consequences of the revolution in Central Europe have not been nearly as life-enhancing as seemed possible initially (for one discussion of why this was the case, especially in Poland, see Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine).

However, I think the less-than-stellar results of the velvet revolution should not keep up from honoring the revolutionaries—or for imagining that their basic insights have been rendered less insightful by the subsequent events.

And I am struck with the possibility that reading the book of Revelation in light of writings by Havel and Michnik might lead to some insights relevant to peaceable existence in the early 21st century American empire.

Revelation, too, could be read (I’m thinking, should be read) as an exercise in disbelief toward the ideology of Rome (an ideology John feared was gaining traction in the churches—a fear justified over the subsequent generations of gradual accommodation to the ways of empire that culminated in the 4th century emergence of Christendom). With this call to disbelief, we may also see John (like the Central European revolutionaries) calling for a banding together of the “powerless” in communities of resistance that would focus not so much on overt, top-down social reform or even revolution as on simply creating human spaces, cultivating compassion and solidarity in face-to-face life, preparing for the City as yet unseen.

If we thought today in the United States that our political context shared at least some important similarities with Christians in the first century Roman Empire and with democracy advocates in 1970s-80s Central Europe, we might not put so much stake in top down social reform, getting “a seat at the [policy-making] table,” or gaining the ear of power so we may speak truth to it. These kind of activities certainly are important and necessary—as long as the U.S. is not totalitarian and retains its commitment to free speech, et al, peaceable people have an obligation to speak out and organize and effect the system however they can. But that is not all; maybe it’s not even the most important emphases.

People who believe in the supremacy of love, compassion, and universal personhood should (I believe) grow in understanding about the anti-democratic elements in our current system. We should recognize the spiritual dimension of those anti-democratic elements and how extremely powerful they are. And, in light of this understanding and recognition, we should realize just how crucial, even priceless—and also how powerful—it is simply to learn better to disbelieve and to join with at least a few others, and to create humane spaces wherever we can.

7 thoughts on “Are we living under totalitarianism?

  1. “[Havel and Michnik] weren’t so much motivated by ‘speaking truth to power’ as by finding ways to disbelieve in the state’s portrayal of reality and to find other people to be human and humane with.” That’s an important sentence.

    Chris Hedges is saying similar things, although without the unnecessary (in my view) juxtaposition with speaking truth to power. What is at stake is our humanity, Hedges says; we resist because doing so affirms life and bears witness to our faith. He quotes Havel too. And says (approximate quote), “We have no illusion of saving the existing decayed system. We recognize the repression will get much worse than it is now. To live, to exist as a human being, is to be in open rebellion against corproate authority. Our resistance keeps us alive.”

    Ted, perhaps this is too obvious to point out, but while you have framed things accurately, in my view, the vast majority would find your framing exaggerated. I’m not referring to god-and-country enthusiasts but rather political progressives who are loathe to think of their country as a menace.

    You don’t help matters when you characterize our situation as a “gulf” between what we aspire to and what our nation state actually does. That word suggest s we have a problem with incompetence, or corruption, or hypocrisy, or a tragic failure notwithstanding noble goals.

    So let’s begin to name what we will no longer believe. That 9/11 happened the way we’ve been told. That the invasion of Iraq was a mistake due to failed intelligence. That the U.S. wants to withdraw from Afghanistan. That it seeks peace with Iran. That it is attempting to stabilize Pakistan. That it is engaged in a mortal struggle with Islamic terrorists.

    Think of all the conversations you’ve had with people who basically conclude U.S. policy is misguided and will fail to achieve the objectives it seeks. Recall what happens when you (or someone) says, “I don’t think the policy will fail; I think it will achieve its real objectives, which are more violence, more war, more instability, more contracts for Pentagon contractors, more drug money for the secret services, more fear and manipulation of the American people.” It’s like you’ve farted out loud.

    My point is that first we must accurately name our reality. Then maybe we can move forward.

    1. Thanks, Berry. Good points. I think my ultimate agenda with my current project on World War II is to strengthen the case for “disbelief” in the American project over these past 70 years.

  2. The suggestion that we live in a totalitarian country is offensive and demeaning of the truly voiceless. One wonders if the author has traveled to, or spoken with, citizens living with the degree of constant fear that billions on our planet experience daily. If he calls the USA “totalitarian” what then does he call the powers in Syria, Belarus, Equatorial Guinea, China, etc.? Such a move truncates our imagination by suggesting the oppression of Eastern Europeans in the past, and two billion people today, bears any resemblance to the reality of life in the USA.

    U.S. citizens are not living in a totalitarian state – we are, through our consumption, the beneficiaries of totalitarian states doing our bidding by exploiting the wealth and labor of voiceless people. We are global slave masters, not slaves, and any attempt to believe otherwise distorts our imaginations and insults the truly voiceless.

    That said the author moves on to more worthy considerations. Christians have had their imaginations captured by the ultimately violent coercive idol of electoral politics (which is never the politics of Jesus). The first step in a recovery of Christian imagination is to cast off the blindness produced by worship of this idol, recover the deep nonviolence of all but modern Anabaptists, and vote only with our bodies rather than the worshiping the ballots of coercion. (This, of course, while continuing to engage the world rather than be seduced by temptation to isolation common in much of Anabaptist history.)

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