New -- 22 September 2008
Entropy (more specifically the Second Law of Thermodynamics) might suggest that any closed system (such as everything from black boxes and isolated countries, to the universe itself) tends to move toward disorder. Actually, it’s a law of physics… or at least physicists’ best guess on the subject… and one they have not admitted to finding any contrary evidence… yet.
Consciousness, on the other hand, seeks to impose order on its environment. This may not violate entropy, as consciousness runs on energy (and is thus not a closed system).
One natural extreme of consciousness imposing order on a grand social order has come to be known as totalitarianism. This end result becomes the attempted imposition of absolute order on everything in sight. It doesn’t violate entropy’s one-way street, but it does imply a lot of energy being used to maintain order in a system seeking disorder. The sad truth is that all totalitarian states require a great expanse of energy in order to maintain itself. That’s the good news. (The bad news is that all too many people are willing to expend the energy, for a multitude of reasons, to maintain totalitarianism.)
What constitutes “totalitarianism”? The simple answer is that the dictionary defines it as:
Small wonder that the concept does not get a lot of good press. This lack of positive PR might be surprising in that from the definition, totalitarianism sounds pretty much like many traditional/patriarchal family values. This might include ye olde father knows best style of thinking, and the fact that the father is often ready to intimidate, maim, kill, and destroy everything in sight just in order to enforce his will. Curiously, many totalitarian States (i.e., governments) often describe their dictators as “father”.
A more traditional description of totalitarianism can be derived from Wikipedia :
There are obviously rules in totalitarian societies, but inevitably these rules are strictly for control and are not in any manner intended to or are ever be used to limit the power of the state, or more accurately, the head of the state, the Numero Uno Head Honcho! Rules for the elite never under any circumstances include the 90% more restrictive statutes that are regularly applied to commoners, serfs, parishioners, slaves, and/or workers. (Apparently everyone has to obey the law of gravity... for the most part.)
But no definition is ever going to be quite sufficient in terms of describing in detail what totalitarianism means for anyone living in a totalitarian state… other than the Numero Uno Head Honcho. For those who are currently experiencing totalitarianism first hand… you unfortunate souls will not be reading this article… for such an act would also certainly result in your death. Sorry about that. If on the other hand, you’ve a graduate or former resident of totalitarianism, i.e., if you’ve been there, done that, and suffered without even a lousy T-shirt, then you may not need to read this essay… or for that matter you may not want to be reminded by reading anything on the subject from any of the works of literature that describe this deplorable state of existence.
Finally, for those who have no real experience and/or appreciation for totalitarianism – and might prefer, incidentally, to avoid in the future living under such inhuman conditions – we have many wondrous descriptions of what it’s all about from some really notable literature… written for the most part by people who lived in a totalitarian regime. Not that they necessarily lived through it, but at least their work did. And for that we can thank them… inasmuch as some knowledge or understanding of what it means to live in a totalitarian society (and without any hope or expectation of ever leaving) is one of the prerequisites for an educated and moderately enlightened human being... particularly someone who would thereafter not want to live under totalitarianism.
Some of the better literature on the subject are novels that: 1) describe in dramatic detail how totalitarianism affects the lives of humans and 2) creates diverse characters who have widely different reactions to the dictates of the state dictates. These characters may or may not cope, or even survive, and with well described persons, the reader can easily become emotionally involved such that what happens to the character becomes a force to drive home the reality of living with totalitarianism.
Critical to the totalitarian state are communications, propaganda, and publicized ideology, and simultaneously the prevention of contrary views. Censorship, such as that currently found on the Inter Net, is an absolutely essential requirement and one that includes writers to refute the by definition radical, non-mainstream media output. The combination of pushing the totalitarian state's very narrow agenda and arguing against any and all contrary arguments – inevitably requires the services of writers. And yet, how do those who write – while at the same time, living within the system -- deal with totalitarianism and its influence on their writing? As it turns out there are several options, i.e.:
Cooperating within the totalitarian state might be said to be an act of self-defense, an attempt to survive (regardless of fitness), and in fact to continually bastardize the truth in order to reap the possible, tenuous benefits of the state imposed society. One should not be to quick to dismiss this choice with righteous indignation inasmuch as one really needs to live through it before making profound philosophical arguments against what must be considered collaboration, cooperation, or being a member of the team. The fact remains that most all totalitarianism regimes of any consequence require massive amounts of energy to maintain their tenuous hold, and in addition will always require enough Public Relations to keep the vast majority of the populace thinking that in some manner it is better for the populace to sacrifice for the cause, than to admit to one’s utter helplessness and lack of a reason for existence.
In this regard it is worth noting the alleged differences between fiction and non-fiction. (Hoffer’s book is allegedly non-fiction.) Note that no one ever terms “non-fiction” as “Factual” or “Reality-based”. Rather, it’s a matter of either admitting (“fiction”) or denying (“non-fiction”) that one’s work is really just fiction, spin, invented, imaginary, vaguely based on truth, often fantastical and wholly illogical, based on false assumptions and/or narrow paradigms… well... you get the idea. Instead, all writing is merely an attempt to manipulate others into thinking along the same lines as the author(s) and/or their bosses. For our purposes, the only distinction that might ever be made with regards to literature and writing (and a subjective one at that) is the degree of fiction purposely employed. In a totalitarian state, the degree is inevitably maximized inasmuch as truth or even close approximations to truth are almost always contrary to the goals of the state.
Writing has long enjoyed a certain mystical wonderment… especially among those with limited literacy. The Chinese peasantry once believed that if it was written, it was true – as though writing a lie was not possible if only because writing was a sacred task. With this kind of mental thinking by the populace, writers can do quite well in a totalitarian society… and all they have to do is adhere strictly… very strictly… to the party line. A good writer – as defined by the totalitarian state as one who can inspire and motivate others through books, plays, articles, speeches, and so forth and so on – a writer to can convince others to go out and give their all for the state… literally give their 100%all! These people are invaluable to any state that specializes in making the most unbelievably outrageous demands… and routinely gets away with such outrage.
The inevitable problem of writers living within a totalitarianism society is that good writers tend to have a creative streak, one that is nourished by a tendency – even a talent -- to see things from different and alternative perspectives. In totalitarianism societies, “different perspectives” are termed: heresy, idolatry, blasphemy, schismatic, counter-revolutionary, and all too often the last words allegedly uttered by the condemned. Thus while writers – those surviving in a totalitarian regime -- are encouraged to adhere to a very, very narrow perspective -- avoiding at all costs anything resembling free-thinking -- the fact remains that the creative impulse is a potent force that needs to be realized or manifested in some manner or another. Unfortunately, there are just so many ways one can dramatize in a creative way the glories and exemplary character of a Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, George of the Jungle, Vladimir Putin, and/or George Bush. [BTW, it has been written that one of the key differences between Adolph Hitler and George W. Bush is that Hitler was elected.]
The end result… at least in all forms of literature in which “character arc” is present… is that the writer begins to stray from the party line, and in the process attempts to write or say things that seriously violate the state’s sensitivities – and we’re talking about some very, very sensitive sensitivities. Heck, if even a speeding ticket constitutes disturbing the peace and tranquility of the State in America, can you imagine how a hyper-sensitive totalitarianism state might react to the suggestion that Adolph has a funny mustache?
Some seriously creative writers, literally under the guns of the totalitarianism state, will often initiate what might be termed “overt resistance”. This is called identifying a spade as a spade. Obviously, such truth in the face of restrictive dogma (or every imaginable kind) invariably leads to serious backlash. It also strongly suggests that: “He who tells the truth should have one foot in the stirrup.” [Turkish proverb]
Overt resistance might also be said to come under the category: “art is long; life is short.” In other words, from the State’s point of view, the shorter the life of an errant author the better… and by the way, art is in the eyes of the… State. Period.
About the only thing that will allow a writer to resist overtly and simultaneously survive the wrath of the totalitarian State is when the writer is so well known or honored (as for example a Nobel Prize for Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn in 1970), that the State hesitates to overtly discipline the author less the State look bad in the eyes of any other States, the latter who might actually have the power to cause problems within the totalitarian state. After all, the façade of totalitarianism is of the utmost importance – and thus the reasons for allowing writers to exist in the first place. [It also speaks well for the power of the Nobel Prize to protect and encourage dissidents.]
Another example of an author surviving in a totalitarian state by virtue of his or her being sufficiently well known and respected is the case of Mikhail Bulgakov, the author of The Master and Margarita and a host of other novels, plays, and writings in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Bulgakov had at one point become so distressed at his inability to write anything that would pass the censors (and thus be published or produced on the stage) that he asked to be allowed to leave the country (the USSR). The story goes that Joseph Stalin himself called Bulgakov and suggested he apply for a particular job instead – one which obviously Joey Baby had already arranged to be granted. It’s one of the classic examples of it always being nice to have friends in high places!
As to Stalin’s motivation… that is a matter of conjecture. For example, some scholars have argued that Bulgakov’s play, The White Guard, was a favorite of Stalin’s, and thus Bulgakov had a fan who would automatically be the president of any Bulgakov fan club. Unfortunately, for the romantics among us, there was also the fact that several famous Russian authors of the day had recently committed suicide and this undesirable trend was bad PR and not in the best interests of Stalin’s regime. The only positive common ground for such considerations is that Bulgakov did in fact survive long enough to complete his masterwork (in early 1940), just prior to his death from natural causes. Of course, “natural causes” needs to be interpreted here as including living in a notoriously unhealthy (mental and physical) environment… also known as the USSR prior to WWII… and thus not merely dying “naturally” at the tender age of 48 years old.
Another example of a writer surviving (despite a host of enemies derived from the writer’s penchant for calling spades spades, quacks quacks, hypocrites hypocrites, and so forth and so on)… surviving simply because the dictator of dictators prefers the author to be more alive than dead… is Jean-Baptiste Poquelin ( Moliere) under the rule of King Louis XIVth of France.
Some might argue that Louis XIVth’s reign was not a true totalitarian state – civilization having not quite developed the technology that would allow it to reach such a pinnacle of inhumanity to humans. However, for our purposes, writing under an autocracy still serves as an excellent example. Moliere had, in fact, the advantage (for the most part) of having the patronage of Louis XIVth. He was thus able to satirize much of the upper class and be allowed to continue such satires because and only because such satires served the purposes of the King in keeping the upper management of the country under a form of subtle control.
Of course, when Moliere was on his deathbed, after having penned and performed The Imaginary Invalid, no doctor would attend him. It’s one thing to have the King tolerate a satirical comedy, it’s quite another for the powers that be to tolerate such insults for long… provided only that the King is not solidly in the playwright’s corner. And unfortunately, in the last years of his life, the King had for his own purposes distanced himself from the playwright. The same can be said to be true of Bulgakov and the lack of any assistance being provided by Stalin in Bulgakov’s last years.
Interestingly enough, Mikhail Bulgakov -- who like Moliere had to live and write under autocracies – wrote a biography of Moliere: A Portrait… of The Life of Monsieur de Moliere. As Mira Ginsburg has written :
One can also surmise that Bulgakov in Moliere' biography was making definitive statements about the plight of writers in authoritarian states – but effectively cloaked by referring only to events that were at the time some 250 years in the past. Nevertheless, Bulgakov’s biography on Moliere was not published until 1962, or 22 years after Bulgakov’s death.
A fictional counterpart to Bulgakov’s real life adventures is the one reflected in the novel, Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. In this case, a nuclear physicist, Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum, is to all appearances on the verge of taking an all expenses paid, one-way trip to Siberia when he too receives a telephone call from Comrade Stalin.
One of the fascinating aspects of Grossman’s character is that Viktor is at first a man of principle, one who goes against the grain by defending individuals who were apparently out of favor with the regime. Because of his staunch stand, he was soon ostracized and all of the benefits he had reaped by being a key figure in the nuclear physics world of the first half of the 1940s, were being withdrawn at a rapid and threatening rate. Viktor had seen himself and his family devastated by the possibilities, and was about ready to admit utter defeat… when Stalin called.
Clearly, being an accomplished and respected nuclear physicist at a time when the race for building an atomic bomb carried a high priority was highly beneficial toward acquiring friends in high places. And yet, after the fateful telephone call – and indirectly the implication that Viktor was considered by Stalin to be important enough to keep on the payroll... and that furthermore Viktor might very well be allowed to enjoy some extra benefits (such as the right to speak his mind) – Viktor was then asked to unjustly denounce a fellow scientist. And he did so… almost without hesitation.
Viktor’s case demonstrates one of the key elements of totalitarian states: At some point, an individual simply doesn’t want to fight city hall anymore. It’s just not worth it. The need for a degree of moral flexibility in order to survive and maintain a degree of comfort in the totalitarian world becomes an essential characteristic of anyone. It is easy for the distant observer to think that when pressed with Viktor’s case, that they would do the “right thing” and righteously refuse to denounce a comrade and associate.
But living in a totalitarian state is a far cry from describing it. The “daily grind” that such a state imposes as a matter of routine, soon takes on a whole new meaning, as every day, every hour, every minute is consumed with watching your back, minding your tongue, and being ready at a moment’s notice to denounce your co-worker before he or she denounces you. In fact, the key element in any totalitarianism state is a consistent policy that anyone at anytime doing anything beyond the narrow confines of the state’s philosophy is doomed. Quite literally, doomed.
Keep in mind that anything anyone ever says in such a society can and will be used against that individual… without fail! It’s just a matter of time. Furthermore, anything a second individual hears the first guy say, must be reported, lest the second individual be accused of conspiracy. No one can trust anyone, and thus the conspiracy of silence and denouncements keeps everyone in line.
In Grossman’s novel, this latter horror of the totalitarian state was described in incredible detail with, among others, the character of Nikolay Grigorevich Krymov (the ex-husband of Viktor’s sister-in-law). Krymov was a Marxist’s Marxist. He was the idealist in the tradition of Lenin, the man with the rose-colored glasses (pardon the pun) who saw a glorious new world in the totalitarian communist state. He was the true believer!
Unfortunately, in Stalin’s ascendancy to power after the death of Lenin, idealism was short-circuited, and all the true believers were summarily put to death in a series of mock trials – 1937 being the year of the primary blood bath.
Krymov’s ultimately dismal fate makes another critically important point: the ideals and standards of the totalitarianism state can change without notice. Worse yet, if a thug (such as Stalin) takes over from an idealist (such as Lenin), then the new order of the day will consist primarily in thugs being the power wielders. Rational discourse is quickly dismissed as being inconvenient to the sole purpose of the regime: the latter which is to enslave the masses and allow the morally flexible (or morally devoid) to enjoy the fruits of dictatorship.
After all, dictatorships need a middle management that enforces, without question or hesitation, the often irrational, lunatic-inspired, and mindless dictates of the supreme authority. No dictatorship can survive without a LOT of collaboration from others. It helps for the collaborators to have access to raw physical, military power, but it’s not essential. Often the ability to articulate (e.g., write) the party the line is more than sufficient.
Covert resistance in such a State is often the name of the game. One of the better literary examples of this is the movie, The Lives of Others. Here a writer… writers do like to use fictional, principled writers as their heroes (for obvious reasons)… decides to take on the East German totalitarian (Communist) State by publishing an article in a West German magazine about the uncommonly high suicide rates among East Germans. Obviously, the East German government at the time did not like the idea of their alleged superior society being painted as one in which more and more people would prefer to die rather than live in their vaunted society. It’s really hard to spin an extraordinarily high suicide rate into something positive and desirable -- other than perhaps improvements in available housing and/or the lack of need for birth control to avoid overpopulation. The irony is that Germans are really into keeping efficient and complete records of everything… but in this East German case, the suicide records were curiously, for all apparent purposes, non-existent.
This movie by the way is highly recommended. (In other words, we're not going to tell you how it turns out... or the last line of dialogue that is fantastic!)
Another tool of covert resistance is satire. In one of its most effective forms, an author can, for example, name his fictional characters in such a manner than everyone knows whom he is talking about… but at the same time allowing for plausible deniability. [The fact the politicians have plagiarized ‘plausible deniability’ from the writers is just another example of the despicable nature of politicians.]
Bulgakov (one of my favorite authors, obviously) had a real penchant for naming his characters in such a way as to single out specific people for sarcasm, and in some other cases, whole classes of individuals. In the first case, Bulgakov took to task a whole range of former enemies who attended Satan’s Ball as invited guests.
Another clever technique derives from translating names. For example, in Bulgakov’s play, Madame Zoyka, there is a lawyer named “Row-bear” – or, at least that is how anyone whose native language was not English (i.e., the vast bulk of Bulgakov’s audience) would pronounce it. It is in fact an automatic for anyone speaking Russian, or even French. But the character’s name was spelled (and pronounced in English) as “Robber”. Could there be any more fitting description of lawyers… that is, besides swindlers, sharks, scum, Satan-worshipers, and other “s” based names? But if you're not thinking in English... you miss the slam.
Notably missing from Wikipedia’s otherwise excellent description  is any reference to the totalitarianism of religions and religious-based governments. Here the “official all-embracing ideology and propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media” includes the even more mind-boggling imposition of ancient (and often grossly out of date) teachings and restrictions on life, fantasies not even reaching the level of mythology, and fictionally based bouts of madness (e.g. “God spoke to me”).
Religiously based totalitarian states in fact often represent the more hideous forms of totalitarianism (if “more hideous” is even possible). It’s no longer merely what one says, but what one thinks… or what others might conclude that you’re thinking. And when trials are not inconvenienced by the necessity of producing evidence against an accused wrong-thinker, it’s much easier to allege that the “victim” of the witch trial was thinking evil thoughts… even when there has never been an utterance of a discouraging word.
In the genre of literature, religious totalitarianism is often mixed with political totalitarianism… with the religion being merely a tool for the imposition of dictatorial decrees. One marvelous piece of literature in this arena is Stefan Heym’s, The King David Report… or as entitled in the novel itself:
The title itself speaks volumes about the spin, deceit, and armaments of how to impose a hero worship sufficient to silence any claims for the legitimacy of a reign… and by implication its dynasty. Obviously, such a report was authorized, demanded, and dictated by King Solomon… hopefully to legitimize his own reign.
On a more general thesis, this kind of thing is an absolutely critical ingredient in any totalitarian state: legitimizing the authority for whoever is in power (in this case, as a result of divine intervention), and providing a reason why others should go along with the farce (other than at the point of a sword… there are just so many swords to go around, and there are so many people who need to adhere to the party line).
Legitimizing can in fact become an essential illegitimate word! If one is legitimate, then great. If not, paying the piper, the state, or the diocese is not going to change things. The very act, for example, of claiming that George W. Bush actually carried more counties in the United States in 2000 is meaningless, except as an attempt to somehow legitimize what was fundamentally (pardon the pun) illegitimate.
Religiously based totalitarian states – in effect, religions themselves – require some form of legitimacy. The astounding part is that virtually all religions are based upon hearsay, i.e., the claim of one or more characters, prophets, kings, priests, founders of the religion, and so forth and so… as to what God or a supreme being has said or demanded, and then left to the human intermediary to carry out said instructions... upon pain said of death for anyone resisting.
The King David Report, as is pointed out in the novel, actually exists.
Finally, Mr. Heym also notes:
And therein lies the crux of the matter. All such stories are inevitably not just about some blip in history where everything went astray… they are stories that relate to current days. This is, in fact, the reason that these stories are so appealing, if only because the reader can easily recognize the same ingredients of modern deceit, spin, and manipulation being used to once again, over and over, attempt to enslave the populace of virtually every society. The threat of totalitarianism will likely never cease to threaten even the most enlightened of societies.
If you question such a statement, consider the existence of totalitarian societies today.
Current Totalitarian Societies
Where are the totalitarianism societies of today?
Besides several religious and secular totalitarian states (for example, Iran, North Korea, et al) – who thankfully have not been able to mimic the East Germans in terms of efficiency in making the populace toe the mark -- there are, much closer to home, the totalitarian segments and specialized groups of various, allegedly more enlightened and less totalitarian societies.
For example, one such truly totalitarian society is the United States Marine Corp. The mindlessness of this particular "society" has been dramatized (“fictionalized”) in the play and later the movie, A Few Good Men. The story makes an excellent case for marines under orders violating the very rules they live by, and inadvertently killing one of their own. Critically important was the fact that superior officers – in order to look good to the higher ranking officers up the chain of command – never directly ordered the marines under their command, but instead conveyed precisely what they wanted done… and at the same time maintained a plausible deniability for themselves. The play/movie was based on a real story – but in the latter, the marines only came close to killing their fellow marine. But even in the movie, the commander ultimately responsible was not punished (other than seeing his military career seriously stained). The reason he was not punished is called RHIP (Rank Has Its Privileges).
Militaries are almost the perfect definition of totalitarian states in that: 1) They have one Commander in Chief (dictator, Numero Uno Head Honcho, and so forth), 2) An elite cadre of officers who enjoy special privileges (RHIP) and find their place in an enormously strict hierarchy (the “chain of command”), and 3) more often than not treat the lower classes (lower ranks) with contempt bordering on a form of genocide. There are in fact countless stories -- virtually any book or movie about the trench warfare of WWI, the lunacy of Vietnam, and many, many others -- that depict officers callously using their men as just so much cannon fodder.
On a slightly less regimented hierarchy there are lawyers (attorneys, barristers, et al) and the legal hierarchy of judges, appeal judges, and Supreme Court Justices. The chain of command in this monster is clear, as is the identification of the cannon fodder, i.e., the serfs, clients, and losers. The strict adherence to hierarchy is most noticeable in those cases where a client (appearing pro se) sues one or more attorneys. Such a vain action is considered by the legal profession akin to regicide, betrayal on the level of Judas, and/or an action demanding the use of weapons of mass destruction against the client. Despite a client, for example, having a signed, notarized confession by the attorney in front of 4400 unimpeachable witnesses, the judge would nevertheless almost certainly deliver a not-guilty verdict (or premature dismissal)… unless of course, the press was sufficiently present so as to suggest or even require a verbal slap of the hand and a sad, shaking of the justice’s head.
But for anyone entering into the world of the totalitarian state of legal jurisprudence, good frigging luck… UNLESS you pay the exorbitant entry fee to hire your very own counsel… who will of course, counsel you into bankruptcy. The exceptions to this are if you just happen to have a favorite uncle worth about a billion dollars and the characteristic of loving to dispense his own version of totalitarian justice. Another possibility is having a very close friend in the mafia… itself a mini-totalitarian state. In other words, it’s almost always a case of fighting fire with fire.
In science fiction, the ultimate nightmare is when a totalitarian state becomes the only state… and thus there is not even the pro-forma hint of paying attention to the masses and/or populace. Few people may have enjoyed the Cold War, but in retrospect, it may have had its merits -- at least when compared to the potential for a single, all-powerful nation without any effective and in force checks and balances, and one that is ruled by a mad man. Totalitarian states really seem to thrive best under the aegis of man men.
 Mikhail Bulgakov, The Life of Monsieur de Moliere, Mira Ginsburg, translator, A New Directions Book, New York, 1986.
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