Philosopher Hannah Arendt is, in my view, the most perceptive analyst of totalitarianism. In her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, she points out that Darwinism played an essential role in the rise of totalitarian governments in the 20th century. Arendt:
Underlying the Nazi’s belief in race laws as the expression of the law of nature in man, is Darwin’s idea of man as the product of a natural development which does not necessarily stop with the present species of human beings, just as under the Bolsheviks’ belief in class-struggle as the expression of the law of history lies Marx’s notion of society as the product of a gigantic historical movement which races according to its own law of motion to the end of historical times when it will abolish itself.
Nazism was clearly inspired in no small part by Darwin’s theory, and Arendt notes that Marx and Engels explicitly credited Darwin with insights essential to Marxism. She points out
…the great and positive interest Marx took in Darwin’s theories; Engels could not think of a greater compliment to Marx’s scholarly achievements than to call him the “Darwin of history”… the movement of history and the movement of nature are one and the same.
An Unprecedented Phenomenon
The word “movement” is the key to understanding the Darwinian foundation of totalitarianism. Arendt is right to point out that totalitarianism has no precedent in human history. It is an utterly new form of government. Traditional governments — monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, autocracy, democracy, even tyranny — despite their substantial differences, are static, in the sense that they aim basically to preserve an (often idealized) social order. Even the autocrat and the tyrant worked to maintain the status quo — their own unchallenged power.
Totalitarianism introduced a novel dynamic into human affairs. Indeed, “dynamic” is the right word. Totalitarianism introduced movement into politics. By movement, Arendt does not mean the kind of internecine give-and-take one sees in democratic politics or even the kind of active violence one sees in tyranny. She means massive compelled unidirectional movement — powerful forced flow of an entire nation in a single direction. Totalitarians are always a minority — think of the Bolsheviks or the Nazis or the Maoists or the Khmer Rouge — and moving a nation the size of Russia or Germany or China or even Cambodia is a herculean task. To accomplish this movement — analogous to herding millions of livestock — totalitarians use three strategies that are at the core of totalitarian politics: atomization, terror, and paralysis.
A Glacier Becomes a River
A useful analogy (mine, not Arendt’s) is to think of traditional society as a glacier — a large mass of frozen ice, with its own characteristic shape and location. It is, in any ordinary span of time, immobile. Totalitarianism turns the glacier (of people) into a river, a torrent of liquid water in constant unidirectional motion. To do so, totalitarians must melt society, which entails atomization, terror, and paralysis.
Atomization is the radical isolation of each individual from every other individual. Atomization breaks the bonds that hold society in its traditional shape — the breakage of family ties, of religious affinity, of ordinary social clubs and organizations, of labor unions, etc. The goal is to disconnect every person from every other person, akin to melting a glacier into liquid water.
Terror, Not Just Fear
Terror is the means by which atomization is accomplished. Terror is not just fear, in the ordinary sense. Fear is specific to a threat — I may have a fear of heights or of snakes. I can assuage my fear by avoiding heights and snakes, and thus fear becomes a motivating factor that leads me to specific adaptive behaviors. It is exactly this motivation that totalitarians seek to extinguish, because in the totalitarian paradigm, all of my movement must be controlled by the state. Thus the totalitarian uses terror, which is something very different from fear. The essential characteristic of terror that sets it apart from fear is terror’s absolute unpredictability. Terror is constant dread of the unknown that cannot be avoided or assuaged. A Soviet citizen could not know when or if or where or why he would be arrested. The knock on the door could come at home at night or at work at noon or on the street anytime. It could be a warning or a deportation or a death sentence. He could, at a moment’s notice, be on a train to Siberia, to serve a 3-year sentence or 15-year sentence for a crime he had never heard of or that was never quite specified or even no crime at all. Or perhaps he would never be arrested, but live in a kind of suspended animation, waiting for the knock that never comes. Totalitarian terror pervades life and extinguishes purposeful attainment of any ordinary individual goals. Terror is the wait for the unknown.
Terror leads to atomization. It is routine in totalitarian societies to arrest family and coworkers and even casual acquaintances of victims, simple due to their association with the accused. This leads to a radical atomization of society, because self-isolation is the only strategy by which you can avoid joining your brother or co-worker or friend in Dachau or the basement of Lubyanka.
Atomization and terror create paralysis, which is the indispensable state of individuals in a totalitarian state. Radical isolation from any social network and constant terror prevent individuals from acting on their own. They are rendered docile, helpless and paralyzed. This is the only state in which millions of people can be moved in a single direction with minimal effort — the only way that a minority of totalitarian rulers — often just a handful of fanatics — can commandeer a nation the size of Russia or Germany or China to move in a single direction.
And it is in movement — “The Movement” (an apt name for totalitarian politics) — that Darwin was so important to totalitarians. All totalitarian movements justify their atomization, terrorizing, paralyzing and commandeering of a nation by the conviction that all of mankind is inexorably moving in a single direction via a process of violence. This may be a conflict based on class or on race. The evolution of humanity from capitalism to dictatorship of the proletariat or from racial miscegenation to triumph of the Aryan race is (in the totalitarian paradigm) an evolution of nature by a dialectic of struggle. Nature cannot be denied or successfully resisted, and any temporary resistance is a denial of natural law, every bit as futile and insane as denial of gravity or natural selection.
Marxists and Nazis understood Darwinism as the paradigm in the natural sciences of what they were doing in the economic and social sciences. Totalitarianism is (as understood by its architects) evolution by natural selection, red in tooth and claw. Totalitarianism is facilitated evolution — Darwinism — applied to politics.
Our Reichstag Fire?
In this regard, our response to COVID-19 is a bit chilling. Although some measures we take to contain the pandemic are beneficial, the measures replicate, in a way that makes me quite uncomfortable, the atomization, terror, and paralysis that are essential to totalitarian government. Face masks, social distancing, prohibitions on religious or social gathering, and pervasive uncertainty and fear of contagion are strikingly analogous to the routine measures used to impose totalitarian government. COVID seems at times a bit like a 21st-century Reichstag fire. The remarkable legal exceptions to the forced atomization and paralysis of our pandemic response — the casual permission granted to mass movements, to protest, vandalism, looting, rioting, and mass violence, which are (bizarrely) accompanied by strict prohibition of ordinary religious and social gathering — certainly has a totalitarian feel, regardless of the stated or actual intentions of our policy-makers.
This is not to suggest that the response to COVID is a deliberate use of totalitarian tactics, but only a fool would deny that it at least has the flavor of a dry run.
Photo: Reichstag fire, February 27, 1933, via Wikimedia Commons.