Different languages ?

Before clicking on the continuation, evaluate the following propositions

* Tidiness and orderliness are, in themselves, indicative of totalitarianism

* Australia and other Western countries are totalitarian states and likely to become more so

If you regard both statements as being obviously false, then you speak the same language as I do, and use a definition of totalitarianism something like this one from Wikipedia. I’d expect to find claims that these statements are true, if anywhere, on the extreme left (for example, among members of an anarcho-syndicalist commune.)

Yet Abiola Lapite takes the following remark of mine (made regarding Sidney and Beatrice Webb and their sympathetic view of Stalin’s Russia)

Support for tidiness and order may not be remarkably attractive, but is not, in itself, indicative of totalitarianism.

and says

I cannot imagine a more obviously false statement. How can a supposedly intelligent person say such a thing?

Lapite seems sensible enough in general, but I can’t make any sense of this. Does he really mean to say that support for tidiness and order is, in itself, indicative of totalitarianism?

Then Scott Wickstein, who I know to be sane and sensible most of the time, weighs in to the comments thread with the following

I think because the likes of Professor Quiggin never actually feel the consequences of the ideas he champions, he can delude himself into thinking they are not ‘totalitarian’.

He sees a difference between a state order enforced by the secret police on the individual, as opposed to the western method of having a beaurocrat enforcing the state order, with the uniformed police kept well in the background.

There is a difference in the stress levels that such methods induce, but the net result is still the same- the hapless citizen has his life comandeered by the state.

Again, I’ve read this kind of thing from the extreme left, but I’m surprised to see it being asserted by the moderate right.

Wickstein goes on to refer to “soft totalitarianism”, a notion he attributes to Hayek[1], and described the policies of the Australian Greens (which are, as I’ve observed, an updated version of those traditionally put forward by Labor) as being characterised by such “soft totalitarianism.”

Both Wickstein and Lapite seem to be extending the term “totalitarianism” to mean something like “any government policy I regard as an infringement of my liberty”. Such rhetorical use of extreme terms is damaging both to the language and to civilised debate – it’s the reason we have Godwin’s Law (as it happens, one of my readers has kindly added a subclause in my name which fits the present case pretty well).

As I’ve already indicated, the left is just as guilty of this kind of rhetorical overkill as the right, for example in relation to the term “genocide”. But I can’t see that this is a justification.

fn1. This attribution is, I think, incorrect. AFAIK, this term first came into use during the “political correctness” scare of the 1990s – a Google search suggests it was coined by Steven Marcus in Partisan Review. This was silly, and was ably refuted by Andrew Norton

30 thoughts on “Different languages ?

  1. A fair comment. But it’s worth asking where you would draw the line between the totalitarian and the non-totalitarian. The Australian Greens, for instance, often attempt to excuse the actions of protesters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they endorsed ‘direct action’ amongst many protesters. And what about minority groups like the Socialist Alliance – people who turn a blind eye to the crimes of Castro and actively advocate revolution.
    And would you actually go so far as to endorse the interference in our individual liberties by interfering bureaucrats? Everyone has made a complaint against the public bodies from time to time, and if the Australian bureaucracy can not be described as ‘totalitarian’, I don’t think its over-interference in our lives can be interpreted as anything but negative.

  2. In this context, just a couple of observations from both sides of the political spectrum

    These were people who believed everything about the Soviet Union was perfect, but they were bringing their own toilet paper.
    — P.J. O’Rourke

    There isn’t much point arguing about the word “libertarian.” It would make about as much sense to argue with an unreconstructed Stalinist about the word “democracy” — recall that they called what they’d constructed “peoples’ democracies.” The weird offshoot of ultra-right individualist anarchism that is called “libertarian” here happens to amount to advocacy of perhaps the worst kind of imaginable tyranny, namely unaccountable private tyranny. If they want to call that “libertarian,” fine; after all, Stalin called his system “democratic.” But why bother arguing about it?
    Noam Chomsky

  3. Abiola has said sensible things in the past. It is regrettable that he appears to be making a Mons Olympus-sized mountain out of a molehill. The sad thing is that in his denunciation, he hasn’t even explained what is objectionable about John’s sentence.

    The main issue is: is John’s sentence true? Let me offer my experience. I could say many things about Việt Nam (still a big “C” Communist country), living there as I do. I could, but I prefer not to do so. However, I can state the following with no hesitation: Việt Nam may be many things, but it is neither include “orderly” nor “tidy”.

  4. Totalitarianism occurs when a monopolistic dictatorial party uses its civil-society pervading apparat to apply a collectivist ideology, usually when embarking on a program of revolutionary civil war or foreign conquest. A necessary condition for totalitarianism is therefore the existence of a monopolistic-dictatorial political party apparat with a revolutionary collectivist ideology.
    Totalitarian power may remain latent so long as the party is in a quiescent mode, such as occurred in the USSR during the NEP period in Russia during the twenties, or in the PRC during the “let a hundred flowers bloom” period in the fifties.
    A sufficient condition for totalitarianism obtains when the party becomes militantly activist, usually at the behest of a charismatic leader seeking to entrench his power or protecting it under the threat of foreign invasion or domestic subversion.
    The party’s totalitarian power then becomes manifest, the ruthless enforcement of “lies through terror” as Arendt put it.
    It wilfull silliness, sloppyness or mischievousness, rather than “a failure of linguistic communication” to describe as “totalitarian” the inconveniences caused by inefficient, or invasive, bureaucracies ruled by multi-party polities in pluralist civil societies.

  5. Pat K, I was going to make precisely the same point, but didn’t get around to it. And it’s much better to have the voice of direct experience.

  6. Abiola is one of the finest centre-right bloggers around & I agree with him 95% of the time. I too am mystified by what he meant to say in this particular post. The best interpretation you can put on it is that places like Singapore are probably the most ‘orderly and tidy’ on earth and not exactly beacons of invididual liberty yet they are hardly totalitarian either. By contrast most genuine Communist/socialist societies are a bloody mess.

  7. I can venture two hypotheses causing these cross purposes.

    Abiola Lapite is clearly a Yoruba. I know something of their cultural traditions, having spent many early years in Lagos. To the Yoruba, particularly a member of the elite (as he must be, to be accessible to us at all), any regulatory framework is lacking in moral authority and to be casually evaded. It is only surprising that he is registering indignation. I will not go into greater length about the many interesting insights the major tribes of Nigeria gave me, except to note in passing that their structures are far more sophisticated than any Australian aboriginal system.

    As to the other part, it is clearly correct to distinguish what we have now from what had to be used before the early 19th century. By the standards of the languages in use up until then we are not living under the rule of law at all, but rather in police states; that is, states in which order is imposed by policing activity rather than by the interesting network of procuring compliance that had to be used before modern efficiency made direct rule affordable. Seen in that light, the only issue is how humanely the direction has its agenda set, and not whether we are being ruled by force rather than law these days. While it is clearly a misnomer to call this totalitarianism, it is at least less misleading than calling our particular version the rule of law. By historical standards, we already experienced a shift of meaning and in fact we – more particularly, JQ – are struggling with the consequences of a prevailing triumph of Orwellian control of the language we have available. Me, I think it makes sense to call what we have a police state, hastening to add that this says nothing about the direction of the policing but only about the nature of today’s enforcement systems. Again, I won’t go into detail on how things used to be done, but it was all rather ingenious and came closer to anarchist ideals than anything we have today.

  8. PML, are you referring specifically to Great Britain here, or do you mean to include France, Prussia and similar absolutist monarchies in your claims about the rule of law?

    As regards Britain, how do the Black Acts, Stamp Acts, Combination Act, Unlawful Oaths Act, Press Gang, Test Acts (I could go on at great length here) fit into your argument ? Not to mention the fact that, for the great majority of the population dependent on landlords and employers, most legal freedoms were dead letters. Britain was less of a police state than most, but much more so than any modern democracy.

    I agree that pre-modern oppression was usually inefficient, and that this was particularly true of Britain, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t oppressive.

  9. It would be more correct to call the modern polity a “proprietorial-administrative state”, where regulatory authorities vary along a spectrum from private-legal to public-political.
    Those without an eforceable charter of rights are ignored by authorities. The rest have to grin and bear it.

  10. It would be more correct to call the modern polity a “proprietorial-administrative state”, where regulatory authorities vary along a spectrum from private-legal to public-political.
    Those with an eforceable charter of rights are proteced by authorities. The rest have to grin and bear it.

  11. This discussion seems to have avoided the task of defining “totalitarian”. Sounds like a semantics debate.

    I think JQ is taking the word to describe a degree of political freedom (freedom to vote etc – by which I would actually fail Singapore, contra Jason’s comment). I think the anti-JQ forces are using totalitarian to describe individual liberty (specifically “negative” liberty — which I believe to be the only sensible sort of liberty, but that’s a different debate).

    Using these definitions will result in a very confused debate when discussing the virtues of democratic socialists (which is how I would describe many people in the Greens).

  12. In the absence of any clarification from the man himself, all this speculation about what Lapite meant is quite (=perfectly) pointless.

    But thanks for that link to Andrew Norton’s essay. It’s a gem.

  13. The Australian Greens, for instance, often attempt to excuse the actions of protesters, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they endorsed ‘direct action’ amongst many protesters.

    where’s the “fine line”? i’d agree that civil disobedience / direct action has the potential to become thuggish on occasion, but that’s a different thing to totalitarian. indeed, there’s a sense in which civil disobedience is totalitarianism’s opposite.

  14. JS argues that
    ‘Totalitarianism occurs when a monopolistic dictatorial party uses its civil-society pervading apparat to apply a collectivist ideology, usually when embarking on a program of revolutionary civil war or foreign conquest.’

    That might be true in the past but in the present it is clearly not. Islamic Fascism (or alternatively International Jihad) is very much a transnational form of totalitarianism. It is a movement that ultimately cannot win but which along the way could do a good deal of damage both to moderate Muslims as now and to everyone in the future if it gets hold of WMDs such as biological or nuclear weapons.

    Also without wishing to insult the memory of those who suffered until Communism and National Socialism by making too liberal use of the notion, I think some of what goes on in Universities today is a more subtle form of totalitarianism. To be accepted on the left, for example, it is not sufficient to support the affluent paying more taxes and gay rights etc one also must be anti-Israeli, anti-war, like Michael Moore’s awful film, be anti Tony Blair (the most impressive politician of recent years) and keep quite when middle class women complain about inequality in the public sector and academia when clearly they are getting promoted far more rapidly than men.

  15. The term “totalitarian” is generally taken to refer to forms of state in which the ruling party-and-state attempts to direct all aspects of society and culture in accordance with official ideology. Implicit in the term is the prohibition of political or civic association and activity independent of, or in opposition to, the ruling party-and state.

    It would probably help the discussion to bear in mind that political terms like “totalitarian” usually have an ideal-typical meaning, which is only imperfectly approximated by actual entities described by such terms. Cambodia under Pol Pot or the USSR at the height of Stalinism would have approximated the ideal-type of totalitarianism very closely; Yugoslavia under Tito and Kardelj, and Cuba under Castro far less so.

    That said, to extend the term to apply to all forms of regulation of social and economic life in societies like ours in accordance with democratically agreed societal goals is the kind of abuse of language which makes meaningful political communication impossible. What underlies such thinking is the idea (a) that any such intervention by the state, however democratic its constitution, is always a violation of liberty, and (b) that liberties can only be violated by the state. The error in this view is obvious when we ask whether the citizens of various Australian states were made less free by laws outlawing rape within marriage, or by laws which made it illegal for employers to fire, or refuse to hire, Catholics on the grounds of their religion, amongst many other examples.

  16. No, JQ, you’re picking up on oppressiveness and not on the methods used – I suspect precisely because you cannot think in the right terms. We don’t have rule of law now, and we did then (even in despotisms), not because it is or isn’t oppressive but because it is now possible to use policing methods very broadly. On the other hand, pre 1800 or so it was impractical for even the most oppressive regimes to do that, and they relied on getting general acquiescence in a structure of law; those oppressed were either co-opted, or oppressed by means of a subtle version of divide and rule (vastly oversimplifying for reasons of time and space).

    I was actually thinking of a great many cases in history, but two to look at are how Scotland and Ireland were held down. There was no policing. But this is a huge area and I don’t want to do a huge essay, so I will just repeat that being a police state relates to policing, not oppression. We are only fictitiously under the rule of law, to the extent that the policing here is actually going through the same motions as the law wants achieved – but we are no longer ruled by the mechanisms within law but by the policing.

    Oh, and I forgot to mention that Yoruba cultural norms (unlike Ibo ones) don’t include cleanliness and tidiness; to a Yoruba they are inherently outside impositions.

  17. indeed, there’s a sense in which civil disobedience is totalitarianism’s opposite.

    Really? Protesters chaining themselves to trees? Violence and civil unrest at trade talks? Wilfully disobeying the law (ie, painting anti-war slogans on the opera house)? These are different examples, but ask yourself two things. Are they backed up by vocal pressure groups (tick!) and political parties like the Australian Greens (in some cases, yes. tick!)
    If they are, then in what way would that not be totalitarianism?

  18. Read the Wikipedia (or any other dictionary) definition, Tim. Totalitarianism does not mean “political actions I disapprove of”. It means an all-pervading system of state-control, of a kind which precludes, among other things, protesters chaining themselves to trees and living to tell about it.

    I’m sure the protesters at Tienanmin square were violating all sorts of laws, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they had painted slogans on walls.

  19. from reading abiola’s physics analogy, he regards total personal freedom as the only “non-totalitarian” state. any system that constricts this freedom in the slightest is “totalitarian”.
    i am unable to agree with this view and award the point to the professor.

  20. John: Is it possible for totalitarianism to exist in a two party state if both parties are dedicated to maintaining certain oppressive laws?

    After all, the right to vote doesn’t mean much if it doesn’t change anything other than who is oppressing you.(For example, you had the choice of voting for either Stalin or Mao in the election.)

  21. Yobbo, there are some examples of totalitarian states with more than permitted party – in some Eastern European states the Communist parties maintained the form of a “coalition” with peasants’ parties and the like, who were allowed a certain number of seats, provided they did not oppose the Communists on any matter of substance.

    But this doesn’t mean for example that I (or you) can assert, since I dislike the policies of both major parties that “we’re living in a dictatorship”. I’m free to vote for the Greens, or for independents, or to run for office myself, and if enough people agree with me, the policies I dislike will be changed.

    The crucial feature of totalitarianism is the prohibition of any activity or organisation that is outside the control of the ruling party.

  22. Is it possible for totalitarianism to exist in a two party state if both parties are dedicated to maintaining certain oppressive laws?

    The crucial feature of totalitarianism is the prohibition of any activity or organisation that is outside the control of the ruling party.

    I’m not sure that actual prohibition is necessary. All that’s required is the lack of an actual alternative. Yes, we’re free to vote for the Greens or whomever, but in the lower house, such a vote is meaningless until such time as a Green candidate becomes the second most popular in any particular electorate. The chances of them doing that are made almost nil by the entrenched media dominance of the two major parties. What’s more, when everyone knows that there’s effectively no chance of a Green candidate getting up in their electorate, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because many people would see a vote for the Greens in the lower house as being wasted (and yes, I’m assuming that there are many voters who remain ignorant of the nature of the preferential system, a point for which I think there’s at least anecdotal evidence).

    May be the only time I’ll say this, but I think Yobbo has a point.

  23. i think “actual prohibition” is necessary. we cannot regard a conformation (the situation abt the wasted Green votes) as fully indicating totalitarianism without asking how that conformation was arrived at. the fact that u are lying down instead of being on ur feet is not in itself an indication that u can only assume that position – u could stand up if u CHOSE to although it might cost u some energy.
    contrast that with a patient in a mental ward lying on a bed with straps accross the body and arms cuffed to the bed.

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    “Oh, and I forgot to mention that Yoruba cultural norms (unlike Ibo ones) don’t include cleanliness and tidiness; to a Yoruba they are inherently outside impositions”

    That is as insulting as it is false, and for the record, the Yoruba aren’t a “tribe”, any more than any other collection of some 30 million individuals can be called a “tribe.” Finally, my ethnicity has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my thinking, and I don’t see why you’re trying to drag it into the discussion.

    I’ve already tried to expand upon the point I was trying to make on my own blog, and as I’m currently pressed for time that explanation will have to serve, but I will say one thing: Jason Soon mentioned Singapore as a state where tidiness and order reigned without being totalitarian, but the fact is that totalitarianism is a matter of degree, and in my eyes Singapore very definitely has the look and feel of a totalitarian state, however prosperous it may be, and however mild the weight of state authority by comparison with the usual examples like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Wealth aside, is Singapore really that much freer than Franco’s Spain was?

    “Freedom”, if it has any meaning at all, will mean the freedom to do things some (maybe most) people won’t like, and there’s just no way one can reconcile that with a hankering after “tidiness and order.” If states like Australia are freer than a lot of other places in the world, this owes not at all to the “tidiness and order” brigade, but entirely to the obstacles in their way presented by constitutional restraints and the lack of a monopoly on political power. How “free” would a state be that combined the economic policies of Ralph Nader with the social policies of John Ashcroft?

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  25. I think Abiola’s comment confirms the “different languages” interpretation. If, like Abiola, you use “totalitarian” as a synonym for “authoritarian” (exactly what the people who coined the term were trying to avoid) then you can include a lot of states like Singapore, which certainly curtail civil liberties in the interests of tidiness and order. At this point the claim “tidiness and order = totalitarianism” becomes an arguable proposition rather than a piece of nonsense.

    But you still have the problem, raised by several commenters, that there are plenty of oppressive states that are messy and chaotic. And there are plenty of ordinary conservatives who value tidiness and order while still supporting the standard democratic freedoms.

  26. We seem to lose the distinction between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” very easily.

    Many of us grew up in a much more authoritarian Australia, subject to strong rules which could intrude into the private and business spheres. Menzies’ Australia was more about “doing what you were told.” If you suffered for that, you were a good Australian, and understood your place.

    In very broad terms the baby boomers redefined those limits – we are much less inclined to fetishise rules, to feel safe within bounds. We have established more intact private and commercial spheres. The current libertarian debate seems to be consistent with this move.

    Totalitarianism is very different. Lots of authoritarian people are the most horrified by totalitarianism. The central characteristic of a totalitarian government is that law is no more than a tool to advance the power of an elite. I must not hit anyone, but the party members can bash me in the street. If I protest, I am a traitor. Without the bounds of agreed rules and laws, the totalitarian state is run by egomaniacs, is psychotic and racist.

    Rather than law, the totalitarian state is subject to a clump of mystic ideas, the ends which justify illegal means. Blood, nation, race, the dictatorship of the proletariat; the object of power is to control the definition and expression of these central entities.

    Conflating these two ideas is really destructive. It stops us from imagining and recognising the extraordinarily horrific nature of Fascism and Stalinism. It means we can’t debate the libertarian position realistically. And we can’t discuss the genuinely authoritarian elements in some parts of the Green movement.

    In our political context, too, it means we can’t look at the particular role of puritanism in Australian public life. And we can’t make sense of the intuitive relationship of individuals and the larger collective which underpins so much of our personal politics.

  27. My comments were not insulting, they were offensive (i.e. the effect was the same but the intention was not) – which was one reason I didn’t emphasise them at first. Nevertheless, they are true (from my own personal observation, having spent many early years in Nigeria – my father ran Kingsway Stores there). It was the truth and relevance of all this that made me bring them up. As I pointed out, however, the usual Yoruba reaction is to take all remarks easily but keep on doing it – Mr. Lapite seems unusual that way, to find it offensive. And of course his ethnicity has nothing to do with it – that is why I was at great pains to point out it was Yoruba cultural norms that mattered. I only mentioned the Ibo to head off any assumption that I was making a racist remark, implying that sub-Saharan Africans were like that.

  28. PML, I accept that your comments were not intended as offensive, but I think they could easily be taken as such, and obviously this was the case here.

    Moreover, I don’t think it’s appropriate to respond to an argument by saying that it’s explained by the cultural background of the person who proposes it.

    I request commenters to avoid characterising people’s views in terms of their ethnic or cultural background in future.

  29. Noted. I should point out that I did not attempt to explain AL’s response that way; I did something one level further back. I offered a hypothesis, to be tested. The difference is, short of knowing AL as an individual we can’t know more – offering an explanation would have been offering a stereotype as such and not as a first approximation. It is already clear to me that he has not reacted as ll the other Yorubas have, to whom I have said these things to their faces. They laughed, agreed, and went right on with whatever they had been doing.

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