Home/Rod Dreher/The Road To Soft Totalitarianism

The Road To Soft Totalitarianism

The road to soft totalitarianism (Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

It’s frustrating, having just finished writing a book, Live Not By Lies, but having to wait till late September for it to be published. So much of its content is highly relevant to the grave social crisis the US is experiencing today. Here’s how the book starts:

“There always is this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and with it Soviet totalitarianism. Gone was the communist police state that had enslaved Russia and half of Europe. The Cold War that had dominated the second half of the twentieth century came to a close. Democracy and capitalism bloomed in the formerly captive nations. The age of totalitarianism passed into oblivion, never again to menace humanity.

Or so the story goes. I, along with most Americans, believed that the menace of totalitarianism had passed. Then, in the spring of 2015, I received a phone call from an anxious stranger.

The caller was an eminent American physician. He told me that his elderly mother, a Czechoslovak immigrant to the US, had spent six years of her youth as a political prisoner in her homeland. She had been part of the Catholic anti-communist resistance. Now in her nineties and living with her son and his family, the old woman had recently told her American son that events in the United States today reminded her of when communism first came to Czechoslovakia.

What prompted her concern? News reports about the social-media mob frenzy against a small-town Indiana pizzeria whose Evangelical Christian owners told a reporter they would not cater a same-sex wedding. So overwhelming were the threats against their lives and property, including a user on the Twitter social media platform who tweeted a call for people to burn down the pizzeria, that the restaurant owners closed their doors for a time.
Meanwhile, liberal elites, especially in the media, normally so watchful against the danger of mobs threatening the lives and livelihoods of minorities, were untroubled by the assault on the pizzeria, which occurred in the context of the broader debate about the clash between gay rights and religious liberty.

The US-born doctor said he had heard his immigrant parents warn him about the dangers of totalitarianism all his life. He hadn’t worried—after all, this is America, the land of liberty, of individual rights, one nation under God and the rule of law. America was born out of a quest for religious liberty, and had always been proud of the First Amendment to the US Constitution that guaranteed it. But now there was something about what was happening in Indiana that made him think: What if they were right?

It’s easy to laugh this kind of thing off. Many of us with aging parents are accustomed to having to talk them down from the ledge, so to speak, after a cable news program stoked their fear and anxiety about the world outside their front door. I assumed that this was probably the case with the elderly Czech woman.

But there was something about the tension in the doctor’s voice, and the fact that he felt compelled to reach out to a journalist he didn’t even know, telling me that it would be too dangerous for me to use his name if I wrote about him, that rattled me. His question became my question: What if the old Czech woman sees something the rest of us do not? What if we really are witnessing a turn toward totalitarianism in the Western liberal democracies, and can’t see it because it takes a form different from the old kind?

During the next few years, I spoke with many men and women who had once lived under communism. I asked them what they thought of the old woman’s declaration. Did they also think that life in America is drifting toward some sort of totalitarianism?

They all said yes—often emphatically. They were usually surprised by my question because they consider Americans to be hopelessly naive on the subject. In talking at length to some of the emigrants who found refuge in America, I discovered that they are genuinely angry that their fellow Americans don’t recognize what is happening.

In the book itself, I make a case for what soft totalitarianism is, and how I believe it will manifest itself here. I won’t go into that here — believe me, we’ll have plenty of time to talk about it when the book is out — but I will say simply that by “totalitarianism,” I mean an all-encompassing ideology that seeks to control not just the actions, but the thoughts of those under its power. By “soft,” I mean to distinguish it from the “hard” totalitarianism of the Soviet-style dictatorships. This is going to be something much more akin to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It will be like James Poulos’s concept of the “Pink Police State” — hardline managerial progressivism that permits personal liberties, but restricts political ones. And it will be administered not wholly by the state, but by corporations and other institutions run by managerial elites, enabled by the vast network of surveillance technology that is already in place, thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet, smartphones, and smart devices.

The subtitle of my book is “A Manual For Christian Dissidents,” because I wrote it as a traditional Christian, for traditional Christians, who are going to be one (but only one!) of the targets of this regime. I wrote it to awaken us so that we may prepare for it, while we have time. In January, while I was still working on the first draft of the manuscript, I wondered how I was going to be able to persuade readers to open the book and give my thesis a fair hearing. Might it sound too extreme?

Then Covid-19 happened, and it became much easier to imagine a scenario in which the state would have to manage the masses for the sake of keeping pandemic from overwhelming us. And now comes the riots.

Let me tell you how I think this is going to go down.

Let’s start with this tweet from yesterday. I apologize for the profanity for ye who are bothered by such, but the tweet is important:

 

I believe there is a straight line between Yale in 2015 — Prof. Nicholas Christakis being yelled at when he was trying to reason with students — and today. In the 2015 case, the students screamed bloody murder at him, and demanded to be yielded to. Christakis wanted to reason with them, but they didn’t care about that. The Yale administration sold out Nicholas and Erika Christakis, and gave the emotive students a big win. What happened at Yale didn’t cause this today, but it revealed the repulsive weakness of liberal institutions. They will not defend themselves when they are attacked from the left. And so it is today.

Here is a professor commenting on the prominent white-lady Egyptologist who tweeted out instructions for how to topple the Washington monument, because it’s an obelisk dedicated (she says) to white supremacy:

Yes, that’s precisely correct.

At some point, the riots will end, or be ended. Maybe our weak, paper-tiger president will be thrown out of office in November over it, or maybe not. But this is how the Establishment — corporations, media, academia, and others — will act.

For background, read this great First Things profile of the late Sam Francis, by Matthew Rose. Francis . The late Francis was a far-right newspaper columnist who was a racist and an anti-Christian. In fact, before he died, he wrote that Christianity was the enemy of white racial consciousness. He might have been a bad man, but that doesn’t mean he was unintelligent, and without insight. One of the things you learn when you read work by writers on the far left and the far right is that even though they are very wrong about big things, they often have insights that elude people who are closer to the respectable center.

This was the case with Francis. Matthew Rose is a Catholic, and understands exactly where and how Francis, the anti-Christian racist, went wrong, and says so. But he knows why Francis is important — how Francis saw things that normie conservatives could not.

That said, take a look at this 2004 Francis column about “anarcho-tyranny”. He wrote:

“Society cannot exist,” wrote the great eighteenth century conservative Edmund Burke, “unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more of it there must be without.”

Restraints come from within when a population shares cultural and moral values; when they don’t, external force has to provide the restraints.

More:

Unwilling to control immigration and the cultural disintegration it causes, the authorities instead control the law-abiding.

This is precisely the bizarre system of misrule I have elsewhere described as “anarcho-tyranny”—we refuse to control real criminals (that’s the anarchy) so we control the innocent (that’s the tyranny).

Francis was focusing on immigration in this column. I don’t think immigration applies at all to the current situation. What is going to happen to us now is that to buy social peace, the Establishment elites, who have been saturated in Social Justice Warrior ideology, are going to impose a woke tyranny on everybody else. You might have thought that the economic collapse from the Covid pandemic would have forced universities to dismantle their diversity bureaucracies. Nope. Now maintaining and expanding them are going to be the price of peace. Expanding these things through corporations, media, and other institutions is going to be the new line.

What we will not be able to talk about is how a liberal democratic order requires a people capable of governing themselves. What we will not be able to talk about is how well our entire culture, especially since the 1960s, has catechized the American people in the lie that you can only become your real Self if you cast off restraints — and that any unhappiness you suffer is because somebody, somewhere, is not letting you do that. What we will not be able to talk about is the role ordered family life and developing bourgeois habits plays in academic and professional success.

All this, especially the last one, would lead to unwelcome conclusions (such as: it is very hard for a young person of any race, raised in a chaotic family structure, to develop the habits and skills that would take her out of poverty.) Instead, we will play the game. And everybody will have to lie about what they see with their own eyes, and what they know to be true. And real problems will be ignored.

For example, a just civil and economic order is one that fairly rewards people who work hard, treat others fairly, manage their resources well, and live by self-discipline (and, it must be said, one in which the police do not abuse their powers.) In all too many cases, the power-holders in our society have created an economy where those who were willing to live by that creed have not been rewarded for it. This is unjust, and demands reform. But the only kind of reform that our liberal and progressive elites are interested in is the sort that make it more difficult for the hardest-working, most self-disciplined Americans — those of Asian descent — to advance on the basis of their own accomplishments. The only kind of reform they are interested in is the kind that increases their own power as bureaucratic functionaries who allocate rewards to groups favored by the system (as well as to members of unfavored groups who have learned how to play the game).

Here, from Matthew Rose’s deeply considered profile of Sam Francis, is a description of the people Francis called “Middle-American Radicals” (MARs):

MARs feel they are members of an exploited class—excluded from real political representation, harmed by conventional tax and trade policies, victimized by crime and social deviance, and denigrated by popular culture and elite institutions. Their sense of grievance points both upward and downward. They believe they are neglected, even preyed upon, by a leadership class that favors simultaneously the rich and the poor over the middle class. “If there is one single summation of the MAR perspective,” Francis wrote, “it is reflected in a statement . . . The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.” Francis seized on the idea that a major American demographic, so decisive to Republican success, was motivated not chiefly by an ideology, but by a feeling of being “disinherited” by its own nation. This corroborated his argument that a structural collusion existed between the powerful and the poor, who form a coalition against middle-class values and interests.

What is going to happen now will only deepen their radicalization. The managerial elites will identify all those who don’t go along with their reform program as the Enemy: racist, sexist, anti-gay, religious bigots. Black and Latino Christians are going to suffer too, as Christians. Look at Lee Jussim’s list of “dangerous ideas” — things that academics have said or written that caused them to suffer serious professional punishment. This is going to be even more severe going forward, and will manifest more powerfully in corporations and other institutions. All those social media posts we’ve been seeing since the weekend, in which people signal their loyalty to new ethic of antiracist public virtue? This is the ideology of those aspiring to be in the professional classes. Pledging fealty to it will be the cost of admission. This is something that has been going around a lot in the past few days:

Read that closely. Note that ordinary conservative views are construed as “white supremacy” — an evil that cannot be reasoned with, only destroyed. I write this in Live Not By Lies:

The contemporary cult of social justice identifies members of certain social groups as victimizers, as scapegoats, and calls for their suppression as a matter of righteousness. In this way, the so-called social justice warriors, (aka SJWs) , who started out as liberals animated by an urgent compassion, end by abandoning authentic liberalism and embracing an aggressive and punitive politics that resembles Bolshevism, as the Soviet style of communism was first called.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the cultural critic René Girard prophetically warned: “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition.”

This is what the survivors of communism are saying to us: liberalism’s admirable care for the weak and marginalized is fast turning into a monstrous ideology that, if it is not stopped, will transform liberal democracy into a softer, therapeutic form of totalitarianism.

Events of the past week have put us on a rocket sled for this.

A couple of years ago, a reader drew my attention to the things a black radical philosophy professor at Texas A&M was saying to justify violence, especially against whites. I wrote several posts on it; here is one. I strongly encourage you to read it. I quote Curry claiming that America is undertaking the “systemic genocidal elimination of our people” — a hysterical, unjustified claim that has no basis in fact, and is only designed to terrify and incite black readers to racial violence. More Curry:

Fanon tells us that there are no innocents in the colonial situation. “Colonialism is not a type of individual relation but the conquest of a national territory and the oppression of a people: that is all.” The colonial context justifies itself to whites in the persecution and criminalization of Blacks, and in this way it knows that it is legitimate and permanent. Every white that participates in the colonial context, as if the tyranny against Blacks is the norm, and acceptable, in so far as it requires no individual action or culpability, is guilty of colonization, and as such is neither innocent nor absolved for being the particular manifestation of the colonial matrix. The possession of a white racial identity is a very real danger for African people insofar as that identity is embraced as the badge of white superiority. In this sense, every white is a concrete threat to the life of an African descended person, either as their executioner or the enforcer of white supremacy. Insofar as “whiteness” is the expectation of privilege, whiteness is also the expectation of those who cannot enjoy those privileges and the maintenance of their deprivation. Violence against whites is a revolt against both the colonial structures of the American context, as well as the rebellion against the individual whites who choose to claim the legacy of that oppression in a white racial identity.

Understand what he’s saying here: that there is no such thing as an innocent white person, and that violence against white people as white people is justified self-defense.

This is stone-cold evil. If Curry had been talking about Jews instead of “whites,” it would be instantly clear what he was calling for. It is very close to the ideological basis for the Red Terror, the mass killings undertaken by the Bolsheviks in 1918. In Live Not By Lies, I talk about this kind of thing:

That is a soft form of totalitarianism. Here is the same logic laid down hard: in 1918, Lenin unleashed the Red Terror, a campaign of annihilation against those who resisted Bolshevik power. Martin Latsis, head of the secret police in Ukraine, instructed his agents as follows:

Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words. Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror.

Note well that an individual’s words and deeds had nothing to do with determining one’s guilt or innocence. One was presumed guilty based entirely on one’s class and social status. A revolution that began as an attempt to right historical injustices quickly became an exterminationist exercise of raw power. Communists justified the imprisonment, ruin, and even the execution of people who stood in the way of Progress as necessary to achieve historical justice over alleged exploiters of privilege.

You might think: yeah, this is bad, but this guy is an obscure intellectual, so what’s the big deal? Once again, a quote fromLive Not By Lies:

In our populist era, politicians and talk-radio polemicists can rile up a crowd by denouncing elites. Nevertheless, in most societies, intellectual and cultural elites determine its long-term direction. “[T]he key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks,” writes sociologist James Davison Hunter. Though a revolutionary idea might emerge from the masses, says Hunter, “it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites” working through their “well-developed networks and powerful institutions.”

This is why it is critically important to keep an eye on intellectual discourse. Those who don’t, leave the gates unguarded. As the Polish dissident and émigré Czesław Miłosz put it, “It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.”

The fact that Tommy Curry’s kind of violent, morally insane racist ranting is normative within academia tells you something about what the elite networks are prepared to believe, and enforce. The other day on CNN, Van Jones, a black commenter who is often one of the network’s most insightful analysts, said that the white people have “a virus in their brains” that allows them to turn racist in a heartbeat. He further said: “White people are always innocent — and their innocence constitutes their crime. It is too late to be innocent.”

Thus does a version of Tommy Curry’s madness make it out of the philosophy department to cable news.

Here’s what makes what’s coming worse for white Christians. There is no way — no way — that any faithful Christian can tolerate racial bigotry and still call himself faithful to Jesus Christ. Racism is a sin, straight up. You may not hate your brother because of the color of his skin, period. It is a compliment to Christianity that the white supremacist Sam Francis identified the Christian faith as an obstacle to the white racial consciousness that he wanted to see.

We are now in post-Christian America. The Millennials are the first generation in American history in which a minority identify as Christian. Only nine percent claim a non-Christian faith. Forty percent say they are unaffiliated with any faith. What, exactly, will keep them tied to the mast and unable to respond to the siren song of white nationalism — especially when they look around them and see that liberals have established a new order based on heightened racial consciousness for non-whites? The white working class is also dropping out of church. 

White Christians — except for the progressive ones, who already accept the respectable, illiberal racism popular on the Left — are going to be in the agonizing position of having to stand both against the racialist progressive Establishment, and against the angry white racialists whose radicalism will have been raised or intensified by the emergence and consolidation of the new progressive order. Living in truth will be very, very difficult — and will require sacrifices that we can only begin to imagine.

One last word, and a quote from Live Not By Lies:

At dinner in a Russian Orthodox family’s apartment in the Moscow suburbs, I was shaken by our table talk of Soviet oppression through which the father and mother of the household had lived. “I don’t understand how anybody could have believed what the Bolsheviks promised,” I said glibly.

“You don’t understand it?” said the father at the head of the table. “Let me explain it to you.” He then launched into a three hundred-year historical review that ended with the 1917 Revolution. It was a pitiless tale of rich and powerful elites, including church bureaucrats, treating peasants little better than animals.

“The Bolsheviks were evil,” the father said. “But you can see where they came from.”

I was chastened by this. The more I dug into Russian history, the better I understood where the radicalism came from. Ordinary Russian people had been kept down for so long that they were willing to believe that anything would be better than what they had. So, Russia had a revolution, and it got incomparably worse. As Solzhenitsyn wrote (and I quote in the book):

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings, that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the “secret brand”); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

It could always be worse! We will never, ever live in utopia, where there is no racism, no bigotry, no suffering. Anybody who tells you that is lying to you, and creating false hope that is bound to be disappointed. And yet, the pain that calls out for relief is real. Watch this:

It’ll shake you up. It should shake you up. The rawness of those men’s pain. It’s the kind of thing that will cause a man to believe in anything that promises him relief — even if it’s a poisonous lie. But then, we have become a country in which many people, regardless of their race, are willing to believe lies if the lies feel right to them, and suit their ideological preferences. Hannah Arendt said this kind of thing is a prelude to totalitarianism.

Read this poem by W.H. Auden — September 1, 1939 — about the start of the Second World War. It feels very contemporary. Here’s how it starts:

This decade that has just begun will be even lower, and more dishonest than the one that preceded it. And it will be a decade of soft totalitarianism. The Establishment will consolidate its control by implementing something like the Chinese social credit system, in which technology will be used to surveil the private lives — the thoughts, the words, the deeds — of the masses, who will be punished or rewarded by algorithms. Imagine the ideology represented by that pyramid applied via an algorithm to all your social media posts, online commentaries, and suchlike — and you being flagged in databases as Deplorable. The Chinese call this process “harmonization.” The American corporate and institutional elites are about to start harmonizing all of us dissidents. Donald Trump is too crude and foolish to know how to use political power to fight this. Besides, he has no moral authority — none — to stand against it.

This beautiful, deeply human moment offers a way out. Not white supremacy, not black supremacy; not Tommy Curry, and not Sam Francis; not revolution, but compassion (suffering with) and humanity:

Can we do this? I hope we can.

But if not? Then prepare yourselves. This is the reality of what anarcho-tyranny is going to bring about, and very soon. Managerial liberalism will harden into soft totalitarianism. I wish Live Not By Lies was coming out this week. September 29, the publication date, is ages away — but you can pre-order it here.  Sadly, the need for the wisdom offered by these people who lived through hard totalitarianism is going to be much more evident by the autumn.

UPDATE: This is one way it works:

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

leave a comment

Latest Articles