United States after the failure of democracy

Democracy is at risk in the United States. Why do leading political observers like Steven Levitsky and  Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) fear for the fate of our democracy? Because anti-democratic forces have taken over one of America’s primary political parties — the GOP; because GOP officials, governors, and legislators openly conspire to subvert future elections; because GOP activists and officials work intensively in state legislatures to restrict voting rights for non-Republican voters, including people of color and city dwellers; and because the Supreme Court no longer protects the Constitution and the rights that it embodies. 

Here is how Levitsky and Ziblatt summarize their urgent concerns about the future of our democracy in a recent Atlantic article (link):

From November 2020 to January 2021, then, a significant portion of the Republican Party refused to unambiguously accept electoral defeat, eschew violence, or break with extremist groups—the three principles that define prodemocracy parties. Because of that behavior, as well as its behavior over the past six months, we are convinced that the Republican Party leadership is willing to overturn an election. Moreover, we are concerned that it will be able to do so—legally. That’s why we serve on the board of advisers to Protect Democracy, a nonprofit working to prevent democratic decline in the United States. We wrote this essay as part of “The Democracy Endgame,” the group’s symposium on the long-term strategy to fight authoritarianism.

Any reader of the morning newspaper understands how deadly serious this threat is. Many residents of Michigan find it absolutely chilling that the most recently appointed GOP canvasser for Wayne County has said publicly that he would not have certified the election results for the county in 2020 — with no factual basis whatsoever (link). With GOP officials in many states indicating their corrupt willingness to subvert future elections, how can one have a lot of hope for the future of our democracy?

So, tragically, it is very timely to consider this difficult question: what might an anti-democratic authoritarian system look like in the United States? Sinclair Lewis considered this question in 1935, and his portrait in It Can’t Happen Here was gloomy. Here is a snippet of Lewis’s vision of a fascist dictatorship in America following the election of the unscrupulous populist candidate Berzelius Windrip and his paramilitary followers, the Minute Men:

At the time of Windrip’s election, there had been more than 80,000 relief administrators employed by the federal and local governments in America. With the labor camps absorbing most people on relief, this army of social workers, both amateurs and long-trained professional uplifters, was stranded.

The Minute Men controlling the labor camps were generous: they offered the charitarians the same dollar a day that the proletarians received, with special low rates for board and lodging. But the cleverer social workers received a much better offer: to help list every family and every unmarried person in the country, with his or her finances, professional ability, military training and, most important and most tactfully to be ascertained, his or her secret opinion of the M.M.’s and of the Corpos in general.

A good many of the social workers indignantly said that this was asking them to be spies, stool pigeons for the American OGPU. These were, on various unimportant charges, sent to jail or, later, to concentration camps—which were also jails, but the private jails of the M.M.’s, unshackled by any old-fashioned, nonsensical prison regulations.

In the confusion of the summer and early autumn of 1937, local M.M. officers had a splendid time making their own laws, and such congenital traitors and bellyachers as Jewish doctors, Jewish musicians, Negro journalists, socialistic college professors, young men who preferred reading or chemical research to manly service with the M.M.’s, women who complained when their men had been taken away by the M.M.’s and had disappeared, were increasingly beaten in the streets, or arrested on charges that would not have been very familiar to pre-Corpo jurists. (ch xvii)

But perhaps this is extreme. Foretelling the future is impossible, but here are several features that seem likely enough given the current drift of US politics, if anti-democratic authoritarian politicians seize control of our legislative and executive offices.

Undermining of constitutional liberties

  • weakening of freedom of the press through additional libel-law restrictions, bonds, and other “chilling” legal mechanisms
  • weakening of freedom of thought and speech through legislation and bullying concerning critical / unpopular doctrines — “Critical Race Theory”, “Queer Studies”, “Communist/anarchist thought”, …
  • weakening of freedom of association through extension of police surveillance, police violence, “anti-riot” legislation limiting demonstrations, vilification by leaders, trolls, and social media of outspoken advocates of unpopular positions

Further restrictions on voting rights and voter access to elections

  • extreme gerrymandering to ensure one-party dominance
  • unreasonable voter ID requirements
  • limitations on absentee voting
  • voter intimidation at the polls

The imposition of laws and mandates that are distinctly opposed by the majority of citizens by minority-party-dominated legislatures 

  • repressive and unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation
  • open-carry firearms legislation

Implementation of an anti-regulation agenda that gives a free hand to big business and other powerful stakeholders

  • weakening of regulatory agencies through reduction of legal mandate and budget

Intimidation of dissenters through violent threats, paramilitary demonstrations, and the occasional murder

  • encouragement of social violence by followers of the authoritarian leader
  • persecution through informal and sometimes formal channels of racial and social minorities — immigrants, people of color, Asians, LGBTQ and transgender people, …
  • threats of violence and murder against public officials, journalists, and dissidents

These are terrible outcomes, and taken together they represent the extinction of liberal democracy: the integrity of constitutionally-defined equal rights for all individuals, and the principle of majoritarian public decision-making. But what about the extremes that authoritarian states have often reached in the past century — wholesale persecution of “enemies of the state”, imprisonment of dissidents, forcible dissolution of opposition political organizations, political murder, and wholesale use of paramilitary organizations to achieve the political goals of the authoritarian rules? What about the secret police, the Gulag, and the concentration camps? What are the prospects for these horrific outcomes in the United States? How likely is the descent imagined by Sinclair Lewis into wholesale fascist dictatorship?

One would like to say these extremes are unlikely in the US — that US authoritarianism would be “soft dictatorship” like that of Orban rather than the hard dictatorship of a Putin involving rule by fear, violence, imprisonment, and intimidation. But actually, history is not encouraging. We have seen the decline of one after another of the “guard rails of democracy” in just the past five years, and we have seen the actions of a president who clearly cared only about his own power and will. So where exactly should we find optimism for the idea that an American Mussolini or Windrip would never commit the crimes of the dictators of the twentieth century? Isn’t there a great deal of truth in Acton’s maxim, “power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely”? Here is Acton’s quote in its more extended context; and it is very specific in its advice that we should not trust “great leaders” to refrain from great crimes:

If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.

Would any of us want to trust our fate as free, equal, and dignified persons to the kindness and democratic values of a Greg Abbott, Ron DeSantis, or Donald Trump? 

The best remedy against these terrible outcomes is to struggle for our democracy now. We must give full and deep support to politicians and candidates who demonstrate a commitment to democratic values, and we must reject the very large number of GOP politicians who countenance the subversion of our democracy through their adherence to the lies of the Trump years. This is not a struggle between “liberals” and “conservatives”; it is a struggle between those who value our liberal democracy and those who cynically undermine and disparage it. And perhaps we will need to take the example and the courage of men and women in Belarus, Myanmar, Thailand, and Hong Kong in their willingness to stand up against the usurpation of their democratic rights through massive peaceful demonstrations.

Snyder’s big idea about genocide: state smashing

Tim Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning is an exceptional and innovative history of the Holocaust, and of the mass killings that occurred during the Second World War in the territories he refers to as the Bloodlands.

There are tormenting questions raised by the facts of the Holocaust and the deliberate killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children. Some of these questions are obvious, but Snyder argues that we haven’t asked the most important questions yet. We have not yet understood the Holocaust in the ways we need to if we are to honor the victims and prepare humanity for a future in which genocide does not recur.

The most difficult question is that of historical causation: what factors caused the massive genocide that occurred in 1941 and following years? The conventional answers to this question revolve around familiar factors: the aftermath of the First World War, the extensive realities of anti-Semitism, Hitler’s single-minded ideology, and the successful efforts by Germany to build a military and police apparatus that was very efficient in waging war and massacring vast civilian populations. But Snyder doesn’t believe that these conventional ideas are correct. They are all relevant factors in the rise and power of the Nazi regime, but they do not by themselves suffice to explain the ability of the regime to kill millions of innocent people in a matter of months.

The dominant stereotype of Nazi Germany is of an all-powerful state that catalogued, repressed, and then exterminated an entire class of its own citizens. This was not how the Nazis achieved the Holocaust, nor how they even thought about it. The enormous majority of the victims of the Holocaust were not German citizens; Jews who were German citizens were much more likely to survive than Jews who were citizens of states that the Germans destroyed. 337

Rather, Snyder argues that the most fundamental factor that facilitated the Holocaust was the “state smashing” that occurred through Nazi military aggression and Soviet occupation of many of the countries of Central Europe. Snyder refers to the “double occupation” that was part of the period of the 1930s and 1940s: occupation by the Soviet Union of the Baltic countries, the Ukraine, half of Poland, and much of the remainder of central Europe; and then the conquest of these same territories by German military and police forces, beginning in 1939 in the rapid conquest of Poland and in 1941 in the rapid military conquest of much of the territory between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, extending to the outskirts of Moscow.

Snyder puts forward a powerful thesis: the Holocaust and the annihilation of six million Jews resulted most importantly from the destruction of state institutions in the countries that were occupied by USSR and Nazi Germany. It was the destruction of state institutions, systems of law, and rules of citizenship that led to the mortal peril of Jews in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and parts of the Soviet Union itself. Hitler’s war on the Jews was the ideological driver of his policies. But his ability to carry out his plans of mass murder depended on the smashing of the states of the countries it attacked, defeated, and occupied. And in this destruction the Soviet Union and the NKVD had played a crucial role during the 1930s.

Why were state institutions so important? Not because they consistently came to the support of persecuted minorities. They were important rather because states establish systems of law, rights, and citizenship. And states establish institutions, bureaucracies, and judicial systems that preserve those rights of citizenship. States provided a basis for oppressed groups to defend themselves within the institutions and bureaucracies of the state. The experience of the attempt in Germany in the 1930s to remove citizenship rights from its own small Jewish population — less than 1% of the population — was illustrative: it took years to succeed. Statelessness was a crucial feature of the deadly vulnerability of the Jews of Eastern Europe.

The state stood at the middle of the story of those who wished to kill Jews, and of those who wished to save them. Its mutation within Germany after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and then its destruction in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in 1938 and 1939 transformed Jews from citizens into objects of exploitation. The double assault upon state institutions in the Baltic states and eastern Poland, at first by the Soviet Union in 1939 and 1940 and then by Nazi Germany in 1941, created the special field of experimentation where ideas of a Final Solution became the practice of mass murder. 320

Why did both Germany and the USSR undertake such deliberate efforts to destroy the states of the territories they occupied, and the political elites who had played roles in those states? Both Nazi and Soviet states sought to create absolute political dominion in the territories they controlled. This meant killing the “political elites” in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, … This motivation explains the Soviet atrocity of the massacre by the NKVD of over 20,000 Polish military officers at Katyn Forest in 1940; they sought to decapitate any possible Polish political alternative to Soviet rule in the portion of Poland they had occupied (Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth). And it meant destroying the civic and political institutions of these states. Both Nazi and Soviet murder machines were entirely ruthless in killing potential sources of political opposition. Mass killings of civil servants, mayors, governors, judges, and politically engaged citizens occurred, first by the Soviets and the NKVD and then by the Nazi occupiers.

Snyder offers the case of Denmark as support for this position. Denmark too was occupied by Nazi forces, and the Nazi regime was interested in destroying Danish Jews. However, he argues that the survival of its political institutions made extermination of Denmark’s Jews impossible. Snyder discusses the efforts of Rudolf Mildner, Gestapo chief in Denmark, in attempting to carry out genocide against Denmark’s Jews. “He was confronted in Copenhagen with institutions that had been abolished further east: a sovereign state, political parties with convictions and support, local civil society in various forms, a police force that could not be expected to cooperate” (216). And when that citizenship protection failed, Jews in Denmark were killed. “The Jews who were denied state protection in Denmark shared the fate of Jews who lacked state protection in Estonia or, for that matter, everywhere else: death” (217).

Snyder argues that the bureaucracies of a modern state work to protect the individuals and groups who fall within their scope. “Citizenship in modern states means access to bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has the reputation of killing Jews; it would be closer to the truth to say that it was the removal of bureaucracy that killed Jews. So long as state sovereignty persisted, so did the limits and possibilities afforded by bureaucracy” (221).

This point is highly consequential for our reading of the nature of totalitarian murder. And in fact, Snyder believes that the centrality of “state smashing” in the Holocaust is the clue to preventing genocide in the future. We need to build and defend the institutions of law, judiciary, and citizenship; these institutions are the bulwark against horrifying atrocities in the future.

If we are serious about emulating rescuers, we should build in advance the structures that make it more likely that we would do so. Rescue, in this broad sense, thus requires a firm grasp of the ideas that challenged conventional politics and opened the way to an unprecedented crime. 320

Mass killings generally take place during civil wars or regime changes. It was the deliberate policy of Nazi Germany to artificially create conditions of state destruction and then steer the consequences towards Jews. Destroying states without such malign intentions produces more conventional disasters. 336

This concern by Snyder for the persistence of resilient institutions of state also helps explain the passion and seriousness he brings to his concerns about the degradation of the institutions of democracy that has occurred in the United States and Europe in the past decade (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century). It is not merely that we care about democracy; it is that the institutions of state are themselves the most important bulwark against atrocities directed against individuals and groups by the powerful. When Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orbán, or Donald Trump work deliberately to undermine the judiciary, the institutions of voting, the citizenship rights of minority groups in Brazil, Hungary, or the US, these actions are not just undesirable in a generic sense. They are highly dangerous for the future. They leave the citizens of their states with diminishing protections against arbitrary power, violence, vilification, and sometimes murder.

Here are the closing lines of Black Earth:

Understanding the Holocaust is our chance, perhaps our last one, to preserve humanity. That is not enough for its victims. No accumulation of good, no matter how vast, undoes an evil; no rescue of the future, no matter how successful, undoes a murder in the past. Perhaps it is true that to save one life is to save the world. But the converse is not true: saving the world does not restore a single lost life. The family tree of that boy in Vienna, like that of all of the Jewish children born and unborn, has been sheared at the roots: “I the root was once the flower / under these dim tons my bower / comes the shearing of the thread / death saw wailing overhead.” The evil that was done to the Jews—to each Jewish child, woman, and man—cannot be undone. Yet it can be recorded, and it can be understood. Indeed, it must be understood so that its like can be prevented in the future. That must be enough for us and for those who, let us hope, shall follow. 343

Snyder has made a very important contribution to how we understand the genocide of the Holocaust, and how we can best strive to prevent such moments in the future.

(Here is a powerful piece of memory in music and video, for the tragedy of Babi Yar; link.)

The Warsaw experience of Janina Bauman

Janina Bauman, along with her sister Sophie and her mother Alina, miraculously survived the slaughter of the Jews of Warsaw and the crushing of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April, 1943. Born in 1926, Janina was only thirteen when the German army invaded Poland and besieged Warsaw. Her remarkable 1986 memoir, Winter in the Morning: A Young Girl’s Life in the Warsaw Ghetto and Beyond 1939-1945, conveys both the circumstances and some of the emotional consequences of this horrific experience. (The book is also available on the Open Library; link.) Janina had managed to preserve many of her diaries from those years, so the text is grounded in her own contemporaneous observations and thoughts. Her father and her uncle Josef were among the 14,500 victims of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers and prisoners of war at Katyn Forest in 1940. And most of her friends and family members were murdered during the Nazi terror and waves of Aktion in the Warsaw ghetto. Her family suffered from both Nazi genocide and Soviet atrocity, both arising from merciless totalitarian regimes. The survival of Janina, Sophie, and their mother Alina was the result of their own courage and resourcefulness, the aid they received from their extended family and non-Jewish friends from before the war (Auntie Maria), the willingness of a number of non-Jewish strangers to shelter them at critical moments, and a few moments of monumental good luck. (For example, Janina’s mother’s ability to speak German fluently saves their lives during transport to an extermination camp.)

Much of the book is factual and autobiographical in tone, sometimes even laconic. The text conveys a good deal of the texture of life in the ghetto — struggling to find food, to avoid capture and execution on the streets, to find secret ways of continuing school, and occasionally having friendships, even boyfriends. Here is a passage from fifteen-year-old Janina’s diary, from a time shortly after Janina’s family has been forced into the Warsaw ghetto (April 18, 1941). Their conditions are tolerable, but severe suffering and deprivation are all around them.

‘Don’t you think the way we live is highly immoral?’ I asked. ‘We eat our breakfast, lunch and supper, we occupy our minds with the French Revolution or Polish poetry, or just which one of us L. fancies the most; then we go to bed with a good novel and peacefully fall asleep. At the same time they are starving and dying.’ ‘There’s nothing we can do for them,’ said Zula sadly, ‘for the hundreds and thousands of them.’ ‘Of course not. But for some of them perhaps? Each of us for somebody?’ ‘Would you and your family be willing to take home these two begging boys?’ asked Hanka very seriously. ‘To share not only food but also beds with them, live with them for better or worse?’ I had no ready answer to her question, and the more I think about it now, the clearer I see the answer is ‘No’. (42)

But Janina does find ways of helping others in these desperate conditions. She helps to organize a collective effort to grow vegetables for the destitute in the ghetto (she turns out to be very good at cultivating the garden), and she writes of her efforts to join the armed Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto. (She was excluded from the Home Army resistance group because she was Jewish.) (Zula and Hanka were her closest friends. Zula was later raped and murdered by German soldiers, while Hanka survived the war.)

Here is a passage describing the Aktion (mass removal of Jews from the ghetto to death camps) on July 22, 1942. 

The first three days of the Aktion I spent in the flat, following Julian’s firm instructions not to set foot in the street…. On the fourth day I could wait no longer, and, ignoring Mother’s pleas, set out to the ‘little ghetto’. At first the streets seemed uncannily quiet, almost deserted. I walked fast, not looking around, quick, quick along Leszno Street, until I plunged into the tangle of narrow lanes leading to Roman’s flat. There, all of a sudden, I found myself in the middle of a panic-stricken crowd. In a little square a score of men — both Jewish policemen and civilian helpers — tried to hold a swarm of screaming people inside a ring of tightly locked hands. Other policemen ran up and down the back alleys searching for more victims, pulling them violently along, pushing them by force into the ring. Just concealed behind a large building, two lorries waited for their human load. A couple of Nazi soldiers leant leisurely against them. Their guns ready to fire, they watched the round-up lazily, talking and laughing in the bright sunshine of the mid-summer day. 

I hardly had time to be frightened when one of the men forming the deadly enclosure broke away from the ring, rushed at me, seized my arm, and began to pull me, as if intending to force me into the ring. He was just pretending. I recognised him at once: he was Mr. N., Stefan’s friend. As an employee of the Jewish Council he had evidently been ordered to take an active part in the round-up. His face was white, twisted with fear and agony, his hands trembling. With feigned brutality he pushed me into a dark gate and whispered imploringly, ‘Run away, child, run back home as fast as you can!’ He showed me a narrow passage between two buildings. Terrified, I darted away without another word. (66-67)

The book is primarily a narrative account of the young Janina’s own experiences. But the author sometimes offers general observations about the experience as well. Several passages are especially meaningful —

During the war I learned the truth we usually choose to leave unsaid: that the cruellest thing about cruelty is that it dehumanises its victims before it destroys them. And that the hardest of struggles is to remain human in inhuman conditions. (preface)

And here is an expression of shame, or survivor guilt, at having escaped the ghetto to a temporary refuge with strangers on the Aryan side of the wall:

A torrent of bitter thoughts washed away the last trace of ecstasy. I was in an unknown place, facing an unknown future among strangers. My own cruel but familiar world where I belonged remained behind the walls. I had deserted it, running for my safety, for the luxuries of a fragrant bath and a soft bed. I had deserted my people, leaving them to their terrible fate. In the early hours of the night, flooded with tears of agony and guilt, I crept out of bed and stretched myself out on the carpet. There, cold and miserable, I finally fell asleep. (100-101)

It is very interesting that Zygmunt Bauman, the husband of Janina, writes that his own willingness to write about the Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s was triggered by reading his wife’s personal experience through this book. Janina is explicit in saying that she had never previously shared her experience with him. Zygmunt too had never addressed the experiences of anti-Semitism, genocide, and totalitarianism that he had witnessed, until the 1980s. (It is interesting to note that Bauman directly addresses the question of “shame” in his discussion of the Holocaust in Modernity and the Holocaust (205).)

Several issues arise in Winter in the Morning that are important points of debate today: the role of Polish Catholics in supporting the Nazi extermination of Polish Jews, on the one hand, and their role in sheltering Jews, on the other; the role played by Ukrainian police and soldiers in enforcing Nazi commandments in the ghetto, including murder; and the role played by the Jewish Council and the men who served as Jewish policemen in the ghetto in carrying out the mandates of the Nazi regime. (Hannah Arendt raises the issue of the possible culpability of the Jewish Councils in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.) On the whole, Bauman’s stance towards the Jewish Council and the Jewish policemen is a measured one, and she mentions life-saving efforts by the Jewish Council and by individual Jewish policemen in the ghetto — as well as their collaboration in several waves of Aktion leading to the deaths of the majority of the Jews living in the ghetto. As an adolescent observer, she was not in a position to know about the activities of these organizations at a higher level; she saw only their local activities in the streets and urban destruction of the ghetto — including in the scene of terror during the July Aktion described above.

Janina Bauman’s memoir is an important contribution to later generations’ ability to address the Holocaust in a human way, with compassion and a degree of understanding of the horrific human experience it embodied for many millions of men, women, and children. Her narrative is part of our collective memory of that trauma.

Another important document about the Warsaw ghetto is Hanna Krall’s interview with Dr. Marek Edelman, published as Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation With Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Polish 1977; English translation 1986); available on Open Library (link). Edelman was a leader in the armed Jewish resistance during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and survived to become a leading cardiologist. Edelman’s recollections are stark and unblinking in his testimony to murder, rape, humiliation, and unmeasured cruelty to the Jews of the ghetto; and he is informative about the efforts made by the Jewish Combat Organization to gather arms and resist the final round of extermination undertaken by the Nazi regime.

Edelman demonstrates courage in his account. But his life also displays a significant and important level of understanding of the evil of the Holocaust. In their afterword to Shielding the Flame the translators quote an important set of comments by Edelman at the time of the Polish martial-law government’s 1983 commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising:

Forty years ago we fought not only for our lives. We fought for life in dignity and freedom. To celebrate our anniversary here where social life is dominated throughout by humiliation and coercion would be to deny our fight. It would mean participating in something contrary to its ideals. It would be an act of cynicism and contempt. I shall not participate in such arrangements or accept the participation of others who do so, regardless of where they come from or whom they represent. Far from these manipulated celebrations, in the silence of the graves and in people’s hearts, there shall live the true memory of the victims and the heroes, the memory of the eternal human striving for freedom and truth. (122)

Here Edelman makes an important point about history and memory, and the political use to which commemoration is all too often put. And his point is broad enough to encompass both the crimes of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the subsequent Soviet-backed dictatorship of Poland. Timothy Garton Ash makes a similar point about memory in his preface to the book:

The gulf between Poles and Jews today is not just a matter of physical separation. There has also been an extraordinary divorce of Polish and Jewish memory. A Polish child growing up in the 1970s learned next to nothing about the immense Jewish part in Polish history, let alone about the Polish part in Jewish history. (viii)

Again — memory, its importance, and its suppression.

A key question for me in the past year has been how historians should confront the evils of the twentieth century. Tim Snyder answers the question in one way, painting a very large canvas over the “bloodlands” of Central Europe. But — as Snyder insists — it is crucial to have a basis for empathy and compassion for the human beings who were tormented, humiliated, and destroyed by these massive and numbing atrocities. It is crucial to confront the personal memoirs of genocide and atrocity, like Bauman’s or Edelman’s, if we are to put a human face on the cold historical facts of the Holocaust, and to have a more acute understanding of the human realities of children, adults, and old people as they confronted cruelty, violence, humiliation, and extinction.

*     *     *     *     *

Literary theorist Julia Hell provides a fascinating treatment of the relationship between Janina Bauman’s memoir and Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, along with writings by W. G. Sebald and Peter Weiss, through the lens of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (“Modernity and the Holocaust, or, Listening to Eurydice”; link). It is a very interesting piece. Here is a brief summary of Hell’s approach:

Seen through this particular lens, Bauman’s texts, especially Modernity and the Holocaust (2000 [1989]) and related essays and lectures, emerge as deeply entangled in a cultural imagination that is obsessed with issues of representation, acts of looking, and the nature of human bonds in the wake of the Holocaust, a cultural imagination that tried to capture these topics by returning to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. (126)

And Hell attempts to identify traces of the Orpheus/Eurydice story in Janina’s narrative as well:

Let me gather the bits and pieces of the Orphic story that have surfaced so far: with respect to the Orphic topography, we have the frequent use of the inferno on the one hand; on the other hand, we have a river dividing the almost-dead from the living. That is, Janina Bauman’s story situates Eurydice in hell. And then we have the different figurations of Eurydice — the woman being led from the inferno by her mother and aunt or the woman waiting to be rescued ^ the Orphic topography of love and death, the underworld of the ghetto, the river dividing world and underworld, and the woman, who was doomed to die, the man who might or might not save her. What I want to draw attention to is the fact that Janina Bauman takes hold of particular moments in Eurydice’s story: the moment of danger when Eurydice is about to die, the moment of being about-to-be rescued, the moment of being rescued. (140)

This is an intriguing effort at explaining the narrative structure and language of Janina Bauman’s memoir. It gains plausibility when we recall from the text of Winter in Morning that Janina was a passionate reader of literature during the years of her adolescence in the terrors of Warsaw. She mentions reading most of Russian literature in one of the sanctuary apartments she and her sister and mother were able to find. It is entirely possible that Janina had read and absorbed The Divine Comedy in one half-illuminated cellar or another.

Guest post by Izabela Wagner on Zygmunt Bauman

Izabela Wagner, author of Bauman: A Biography, is Professor of Sociology at Collegium Civitas (Poland) and fellow at Institute Convergence Migration (Paris). Thank you, Izabela, for this invaluable and insightful guest post!

The Sociological Imagination of Zygmunt Bauman

By Izabela Wagner

Thank you, Dan Little, for your inspiring comment and questions. I want to mention a couple of essential elements that shed some light on your raised issues.

Can we connect the life and the sociological writings and theories that Bauman created during his long career?

It was a question that I tried to respond to in my book, claiming that there is a link. For me, it was obvious, but I agree that this is not a direct or easily visible connection.

After the war they (especially young and active people in Poland) were all (and Bauman in the first rank) turning toward the future. It was the only way to survive the war—building a new world that would be different from the previous one.

I wish to start from this critical question—why ZB didn’t work on Jewish questions before the eighties?

1. Disciplinary context — sociology production conventions.

Bauman was a sociologist educated in the late 1950s. At this period, there was a firm conviction that science should be objective, and the personal-subjective opinions were not “scientific”. Despite the works by Ludwik Flecks (Published in German in 1935, known from its English version Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, but well known in Poland and published just after the war in more epistemological papers in Polish: “Problems of the Science of Science” (1946) and “To Look, To See, To Know” (1947)), the positivistic approach was the most important in social sciences, and qualitative methods, like auto-ethnography and personal experiences in scholarly writing, were excluded.

The use of personal experiences was reserved to fiction writers, and Bauman officially wasn’t. However, he published two novels based on his life, but the Jewish issue is not included. Why? The novels were published in 1953 in a military edition house, and it was in the middle of a fierce antisemitic campaign. At that moment, Bauman was kicked out of the Army (more in Bauman: a Biography).

So, as a sociologist, he conformed to conventions which were in use at that time, and by consequence, he didn’t mobilize his personal experiences in his writing. Moreover, as a Polish sociologist, he focused on problems elaborated by: a) his mentor Julian Hochfeld — open marxism; b) one of the most prominent sociologists in Poland at that moment — Stanisław Ossowski — humanistic marxism. As a sociologist seeking excellence, Bauman’s sociology was theoretical rather than empirical and general rather than specific.

2. Generational context. Why was ZB’s generation—young intellectuals—after WW2 mainly silent about the “Jewish question”? Because they all believed that it was over—this means antisemitism, the division between two categories—Poles and Jews (they knew that it was a work in progress, but it was considered the problem of the past).

ZB was very engaged in the so-called “assimilation”—he didn’t speak Yiddish and was not religious. Except for rare historians, no one worked/published about the war (yes—writers and some scholars published their journals or books-testimonies). We need to take into consideration the post-war context and the large spread of Polish antisemitism. In 1946 took place the Pogrom in Kielce, one of the tragic events in the years characterized by huge hostility towards Jews. (See Julian Kwiek’s recent book, Nie chcemy Żydów u siebie. Przejawy wrogości wobec Żydów w latach 1944-1947 [We don’t want Jews at home. Symptoms of hostility towards Jews in 1944-1947]; and an excellent and groundbreaking book by Joanna Tokarska Bakir, Under a Curse: A social portrait of the Kielce pogrom (to be published by Cornell University Press in 2022).) The open discussion about this dramatic past started fifty years after the end of WW2; a book by Jan T. Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland, started a large debate on the Polish-Jewish relationship.

We also need to remember that in these after-war years, survivors were not heroes—the story and their status were complicated. Again ZB was an active young man—not a passive victim, such as survivors were perceived. His mission and his duty weren’t to analyze the past but built the future.

3. Censorship—a very important factor determining all intellectual and artistic production.

We need to remember (and yet frequently forget—even young scholars working in post-communist countries) that all intellectual output was under censorship! Very hard censure was implemented in Poland. Even if it wasn’t the same level as in the USSR, the author’s work was difficult. It was impossible to publish something without this heavily controlling office. Another “curiosity” strongly limiting the coverage of publications was the scarcity of paper—each editor had a small amount of paper and needed to manage it carefully (this is not a joke). So the authors could not write and publish what they wanted. It was apparent that the authors practiced the auto-censorship. The level of restrictions was dynamic, and during some periods, authors had more freedom. However, before 1989, Poland wasn’t a free-speech country. This is why many scholars—especially historians (Modzelewski, Gieremek) never worked in the contemporary times and the 20th century, but were Middle Ages specialists.

4. The Holocaust experience. ZB was not a survivor in the strict sense. Being absent from Polish territory during WW2, escaping to USSR, he was in another category. However, being in the Soviet Union, he wasn’t an inmate and wasn’t in gulag. His experience of the Soviet Union was not traumatic—he was well treated, and for the first time in his life in this country, he was not at all discriminated against. His wife Janina Bauman (b. Lewinson) was a Holocaust survivor. This biographic experience constituted a considerable difference between them (they both wrote about this difference—more about this in Bauman: a Biography, and in my article, which will be published in a collective book edited by Jack Palmer and Dariusz Brzeziński, Revisiting Modernity and the Holocaust: Heritage, Dilemmas, Extensions in Routledge ‘Classical and Contemporary Social Theory’ (2022). I explain in my chapter, why ZB in Modernity and the Holocaust didn’t include the individual testimonies of survivors and didn’t use his own experiences of life in totalitarian country.

5. Political engagement. Last but not least, ZB’s anti-Zionist attitude: he was against his father’s Zionism. ZB had a deep conviction that Poland was his homeland, and he belonged to that society. At the same time, he believed that Jews belong to the community in which they live, and they have a cultural mission in this world—not as a separate state but as a component of various societies. As Bauman wrote in his autobiographical text, he was against “tribal” divisions. This is why he couldn’t work on Jewish issues; if he did, this would be the recognition of the failure of his convictions; he was an activist (intellectual activist too) who was building the future.

The fact that ZB wasn’t Zionist influenced his approach to the Holocaust. He believed that it was a genocide, a horrible treatment that humans can do to other humans. It was a general, not specific event, which could happen in other places on our planet (here Bauman is following Everett Hughes’ 1962 paper “Good People and Dirty Work” (link), mentioned in the introduction to Modernity and the Holocaust. More about this question will be published soon in Revisiting Modernity and the Holocaust.

I also argue that the current vision about the strategy regarding Holocaust, in these years (around 1989) and in Europe was influenced by Spain and its policy toward their recent past. This “turning-page” attitude (Spain refused to charge fascists after the collapse of the Franco regime) should help people to create European Union, in which unity was vital. Germans “were no more guilty” for Nazi crimes—the new generations were not responsible for the previous generation’s acts so that we can move on. No need to open the old wounds barely healed. I think that behind M&H we can find the similar approach that was so popular about making peace and forgetting history. Today we know that it was a failure—see J-F. Daguzan “Mémoire de la Guerre Civile Espagnole: reconquête d’une mémoire amputée par la moitié” in Confluences Méditerranée, 2014/1 N.88 pp. 171-184; link.

6. The last but not least (contextual) point is the trauma. After the war, most people didn’t speak about it—see the excellent analysis of the interview as a method in Holocaust history by Christopher Browning. He explains that only decades later, historians were able to conduct the interviews only several years after the Holocaust Survivors spoke (the Eichmann process was a significant turning point in this process).

7. Only several years after the war occurred a “Jewish Turn”; this was analyzed by Bryan Cheyette in his excellent article “Zygmunt Bauman’s window: From Jews to strangers and back again” (2020 Thesis Elevenlink). Cheyette shows how disciplinary evolution (history of Holocaust) and the flourishing of survival testimonies in general and Zygmunt’s wife Janina’s critical and well-written book Winter in the morning: a young girl’s life in the Warsaw ghetto and beyond, 1939-1945 (link) influenced Bauman’s work.

So all these elements help to explain why before 1968, ZB was “not interested” in Jewish questions. (Actually, it was rare for anyone to pursue these topics at that time in Poland.)

The Sociological Imagination

I agree with Dan Little on ZB’s sociological imagination being nourished by sociological literature; however, I wish to imperatively add here the influence of creative literature (fiction) as well. Bauman was undoubtedly inspired by books—because it was for him a safe space. He was a person who liked to control his environment. While his childhood’s chaotic and traumatic context contributed to the vast feeling of uncertainty and lack of agency, Bauman’s escape was literature. Books are “safe”—you can manage knowledge. It was his world in which he was at ease. Emotionally he needed to control himself—as all kids of that generation, and as all war-kids. Emotions were dangerous, and self-control was crucial. Like all people who experienced communism, Bauman knew that he must protect his personal life. People never knew if private information wouldn’t be used against them. That was the essential attitude and both unconscious and conscious path/model of safe behavior. It was necessary to navigate in the hostile environment; controlling emotions in the society under communist dictatorship was a survivor behavior.

Janina Bauman was his alter ego and, at the same time, a counterpoint. Highly self-reflecting, her writing is personal and based on her experiences. They collaborated a lot, so finally, ZB’s interest in Holocaust was also influenced by Janina’s experiences. But he also wrote on topics directly connected with his own past. His focus on refugees, on the poor, on discrimination (he devoted a lot of work to it, especially in the last years) was undoubtedly the result of his life trajectory.

It is important to recall that the experience of totalitarian systems influenced Bauman’s work. He understood very well that feeling of being a tiny cog in a giant machine, an eyelet in an over-powerful system, which is using you. Literature was his escape from totalitarianism—writing was his passion, even addiction.

However, his experiences mattered a lot, not in a visible way but as a basso continuo in music—the line of bass that is fundamental for the construction of the piece; however, the public doesn’t perceive it.

As I wrote in Bauman: a Biography (401-402), Bauman followed the Tikkun Olam mission—and this was directly related to his educational and cultural immersion in secular Judaism. This chain—Judaism-Marxism-Socialism—is found in Bauman’s career, and it is difficult to see now which element was the most important; probably all three, but at different moments, one dominated others.

Thank you, Dan Little, for your inspiring questions — I hope this is only the beginning of an inspiring conversation.

******

DL: Readers of Izabela Wagner’s comments here will also be interested in her 2020 essay in Thesis Eleven, “Bauman as a refugee: We should not call refugees ‘migrants’” (link). There she explores the connections between Bauman’s social identity as a Polish Jew, his personal experiences of statelessness, and his writings on the refugee crisis in Europe. Here is the abstract:

ABSTRACT This paper claims that Bauman’s personal experiences deeply shaped his work. In the first part, I draw upon my own research, combining archive documents and interviews data, as well as – for the very first time – details taken from Zygmunt Bauman’s own unpublished autobiography, accessed courtesy of the Zygmunt and Janina Bauman Archive project at the University of Leeds. The second part of the paper draws upon my wider ethnographical study into the lived experiences of asylum seekers, conducted between 2017 and 2019 in Southern Europe. I focus here upon their experience of escape and their present life conditions in order to highlight important parallels with Bauman’s own experiences as a refugee. The conclusion draws both cases together in order to understand a less overt aspect of Bauman’s sociology and to claim that the term ‘migrant’ is both discriminatory and, in academic terms, incorrect. I argue that this diagnosis is reinforced further by the voices of intellectuals who themselves experienced the status of refugees: namely, Zygmunt Bauman and Hannah Arendt.

Kołakowski on Stalinism and reform

A recent post featured the evolution of the thought of Zygmunt Bauman. There I mentioned a comparison with his Warsaw contemporary, Leszek Kołakowski, and suggested that Kołakowski’s break with Stalinism was earlier and more profound than Bauman’s. I am not able to find a full-length biography of Kołakowski, but his history parallels that of Bauman. He was born in Radom, Poland, in 1927, and in 1939 had personal and tragic experience of the Nazi invasion of Poland. And, like Bauman, he was expelled from Poland in 1968 and spent much of the rest of his career in the west (at Oxford, in Kołakowski’s case, and at Leeds, in Bauman’s case). Here are a few lines from Steven Lukes’ biographical statement on Kołakowski in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

After the Nazis invaded Poland, Kolakowski’s father was arrested by the Gestapo and later executed. His remaining family found refuge in a village in eastern Poland where Kolakowski’s secret, largely solitary education was aided by teachers from the Polish underground. … Kolakowski had embraced Communism as the Russians drove the Germans out of Poland, thinking it promised a better world of equality and freedom, but he then moved away from Soviet-style Marxism and became increasingly influential on the younger generation of Poles as a leading voice for democratization and reformed Communism, or what came to be called ‘revisionism’. This led to his expulsion from the university, constant police surveillance, the banning of his publications, and his departure for the West. (link)

Here is a document written in 1971 that expresses the depth of Kołakowski’s critique of Polish Communism. In this piece Kołakowski published a short but profound critique of Stalinism as a system, “In Stalin’s Countries: Theses on Hope and Despair” (link). This short essay appeared in Paris in its Polish version in 1971, and was published in Paris in Politique Aujourd’hui in July-August 1971. The essay is highly valuable as an indication of the nature of the reformers’ critiques in Poland of the rigidities of Stalinist Communist systems. It is written clearly and cogently, reflecting Kołakowski’s talent as a philosopher and a writer. And it presents the case for the possibility of change in Poland and other Communist dictatorships.

Kołakowski begins his account by rehearsing the reasons that some believe that reform of Soviet-style Communism is impossible:

Stalinism, in the strict sense — that is, the bloody and cruel tyranny of an individual — was the most perfect material embodiment of the principles of the system: later transformations, and particularly the considerable relaxation of terrorism as practiced by the government, although important for the security of individuals, have not in any way changed the despotic nature of the regime, any more than they have limited the specifically socialist forms of oppression and exploitation. (2)

But notice the rhetorical strategy that Kołakowski adopts: he presents the extreme views of the most severe critics of the Soviet system first, and offers commentary. And, he notes, the extreme view rules out reform entirely: change control of the economy or information, and you destroy the foundations of communism. Therefore communism cannot be reformed or changed; its despots will never relinquish power over even the most minor issues. But Kołakowski himself does not take this view:

Now, my opinion is that this thesis is not correct, and that to defend it amounts to [adopting] an ideology of defeatism rather than a revolutionary appeal. I base my conviction on four general principles: first, we are never in a position to define in advance the limits of the capacity for change… of any social organization; and experience has not at all demonstrated that the despotic model of socialism is absolutely rigid. Secondly, the rigidity of a system depends in part on the degree to which the men who live within that system are convinced of its rigidity. Thirdly, the thesis which I am challenging is based on an ideology of “all or nothing,’ characteristic of men formed in the Marxist tradition; it is not in any way supported by historical experience. Fourthly, bureaucratic socialist despotism is pervaded by contradictory tendencies which it is incapable of bringing into any synthesis and which ineluctably weaken its coherence. (7-8)

Kołakowski’s optimism concerning the possibility for change within “despotic socialism” (but, one might reasonably argue, within Franco fascism as well) is the willingness of individuals and groups to think and act differently from their prescribed roles. Individuals can resist in a variety of ways, and their resistance, in a long and slow tempo, can lead to profound change.

This is why resistance to oppression and exploitation — within the system of Soviet despotism — takes place in the worst social conditions. No class of exploiters in history has ever had such extensive power at its disposal. But if this concentration of power is a source of strength, it also conceals weaknesses, as the whole post-Stalinist history of communism testifies. (9)

If I speak of a reformist orientation, it is in the sense of a faith in the possibility of effective pressures that are partial and progressive, exerted in a long-term perspective, that is, the perspective of social and national liberation. Despotic socialism is not an absolutely rigid system; such systems do not exist. (16)

What system does Kołakowski himself favor? It appears to be a form of democratic socialism, rather than either despotic socialism or liberal capitalism:

It is probable that, if they had the freedom to choose, the majority of the Polish working class and intelligentsia would opt for socialism, as would the author of this article. For socialism — that is to say for a sovereign national system which involves control by society over the utilization and development of the means of production and over the distribution of the national income, as well as over the political and administrative organization, working as an organ of society, and not as the master which rules over society in the guise of “serving” it. (18)

This paragraph entails democratic socialism as the favored ideal (not liberal capitalism), because it places the people in control of economy and government. And it rules out the arbitrary and despotic use of power that was universal in Poland, the USSR, and the rest of the Soviet bloc.

Kołakowski also has a view about the future of the Soviet bloc (as of 1971):

In spite of the military power of the Soviet empire, and in spite of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the centrifugal tendencies within the “bloc” cannot be contained, and the corrosion of nationalism will continue to erode a structure which has lost the cement of ideology. (19)

His essay ends with a call for a free Poland:

Our own dignity entitles us to proclaim aloud the old words: “liberty,” “justice” and “Poland”. (20)

This essay was written in 1971, only three years after the March 1968 protests in Warsaw that led to Kołakowski’s and Bauman’s expulsion from Poland. But notice as well: it was written only about a decade before the rise, and eventual success, of the Solidarity movement in Gdansk and other Polish cities, leading ultimately to the fall of Communist government in Poland. And the centrifugal tendencies that Kołakowski describes within the Soviet bloc led eventually to the collapse of despotic socialism throughout Eastern Europe. So in many ways Kołakowski was pretty close to the truth about the coming several decades in Poland and Eastern Europe. What he did not anticipate is the next chapter: the turn to nationalistic, far-right government in Poland, Hungary, and other former-Soviet bloc nations. But, as Hegel said, “the Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of the dusk.” (Here is a very brief description of Alain Touraine’s 1981 research in Gdansk on the Solidarity movement (link), and his account of the pathways through which worker non-violent resistance resulted in fundamental change in Poland.)

As I attempted to do in the case of Zygmunt Bauman, it is intriguing to ask how history, life experience, and academic influences combined to create the intellectual world of Leszek Kołakowski. Much of Kołakowski’s work was focused on the history of philosophy, the meaning of religion, and the ideology and deficiencies of Marxism. (His greatest book is his three-volume work, Main Currents of Marxism: The Founders – The Golden Age – The Breakdown.) Is there any evidence in his academic work of the imprint of the experience of war, genocide, murder, and authoritarian rule? His decades-long engagement with the topic of Soviet-style dictatorship plainly reflects his own experience as a brilliant Polish intellectual in the post-War period and high-ranking Communist Party member. He understood the nature of Soviet-style authoritarianism. But — like Bauman — there is little in his work that involves deep reflection on Nazism, genocide, anti-Semitism, ordinary evil-doers, and the use of terror by totalitarian states to achieve their ends. (Here he stands in contrast to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.) And yet Poland stands at the heart of the Bloodlands described so vividly by Tim Snyder. So we seem to confront a puzzle: why were both these brilliant intellectuals, both leading professors in the Polish academy, both children of the 1920s — why were they both somehow reluctant to reflect on the horrors confronted by Polish Jews from 1939 to 1945?

Explaining GOP behavior

If only Chuck Tilly were still with us … I’d give a lot to hear his interpretation of the behavior of GOP officials throughout large swaths of the country, in state governments and in Congress. But I’d like to hear from Cicero, Machiavelli, and Hannah Arendt as well. Perhaps only theorists who have witnessed the collapse of a republic can find the words necessary to describe our current condition when it comes to the behavior of our GOP politicians. What has become of a simple and principled dedication to the principles of democracy? What has become of politicians who care more about the wellbeing of our country than about their own political fortunes? What has become of integrity?

Think of the range of extremism from the right to which our country is now subject: extremist elected officials like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz, Josh Hawley, and other seemingly unhinged political voices channeling QAnon; servile compliance with the lies and authoritarian impulses of Donald Trump by establishment politicians like Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and Kevin McCarthy; and the concerted efforts by Republican majorities in Red states to restrict access to the right to vote, aimed at communities of color. These seem to be separate manifestations of a broad impulse towards raging, irrational authoritarianism on the part of virtually all segments of GOP leaders and rank and file politicians. There are the small number of anti-Trump Republican leaders like Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and others. But they seem to be almost invisible embers in the conflagration of our current crisis. 

So how should we understand the motivations of these various players? The first group seem easiest to understand. These are the political entrepreneurs selling their snake-oil to the extremist fringe, the base, of ideologically disaffected people on the extreme right. They both pander to these emotions of suspicion, distrust, antagonism, and hatred, and they fan them. This is the right wing extremism that Cas Mudde dissects in his books and writings about right wing populism (for example, The Far Right Today and (with Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser) Populism: A Very Short Introduction).

The second group seems to fall in the obvious category of cynical, unprincipled, and craven politicians who have no commitments beyond their calculations about retaining their offices and keeping a majority of voters in their districts. His history makes it apparent that Mitch McConnell is nothing more than a cynical political operative in the strict Machiavellian sense. Manipulating outcomes in support of his party and his own personal political fortunes is his entire story. The Twitter hashtag #ProfilesinCowardice is entirely descriptive of this group.

GOP figures in the third group — elected officials holding majorities in legislatures in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arkansas, … — are also unprincipled, but their motives are clear and goal-directed. They are looking to change the rules of the game, through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and new restrictions aimed at reducing the votes going to their Democratic rivals. This effort has been underway for decades and has accelerated in the past two years. Their efforts aren’t about ideology or rhetoric, but instead aimed at securing a permanent grip on power. They are blatantly anti-democratic; they care nothing about the sanctity of the vote and the right to vote for everyone, irrespective of race, wealth, or political preferences. They care only about their own party’s ability to dominate their state’s legislature. And there is a sub-text: the shifting demographics of the US population towards greater diversity is profoundly unsettling to these politicians, and they are doing what they can to stave off the political changes that these shifts seem to imply. (For extended analysis, see Kloos and McAdam, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.)

The themes that cut across all three groups are insidious: white supremacy, xenophobia, rejection of the legitimacy of government, and a willingness to believe even the most absurd conspiracy theories. These themes contribute to a potent and toxic mix — witness the fantastically unconstitutional effort to enact legislation banning “Critical Race Studies” from schools and universities (link). How can such an effort be understood as anything but a totalitarian effort at imposing thought control on teachers and students? What became of our liberal conviction that independence of mind is a cherished part of a democratic citizen?

What is most worrying about these separate threads is how they converge on a broad and powerful assault on our democracy. And they come together as well in contributing to a broad anti-democratic constituency drawing large numbers of voters. 

Our democracy is at risk, and people of integrity need to speak up for our basic values: the rule of law, the fundamental equality of all, the inviolability of our rights and liberties, and the crucial requirement of neutrality of state institutions across persons and parties. Recall Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s fears for the trajectory and fate of contemporary American democracy in How Democracies Die:

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere. 

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

How can we find our way back to a shared social understanding — a social compact — about the framework of our democratic society and its crucial importance for the future of our country? How can political leaders and followers alike be helped to see that a democracy depends upon trust, upon dedication to the integrity of our political institutions, and a degree of good will by all for all? How can we reclaim our democracy from those who seem determined to destroy it?

The great threat to democracy

Democracies have fallen to strongmen, tyrants-in-waiting, bullies, thugs, spewers-of-bombast. But these powerful personalities are not the greatest threat to democracy today. The greatest threat is a loss of trust in the institutions and offices of a democratic society, on the part of the citizens of the democracy. And what are these institutions? Courts, judges, police; legislatures, representatives, agencies; election officials and procedures; tax authorities; presidents and governors.  

Here is a recent Pew survey on trust in government that provides disturbing reading (link).

As the report emphasizes, the current period is a low point in public confidence in government since the 1950s, with over 75% of the public expressing trust and confidence in government during the Johnson administration and under 30% expressing trust in government during the Trump administration. (At present only 9% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters express trust in government.) Here is a similar report from the OECD reflecting 2019 data (link), indicating a similar but less drastic fall in trust in European democracies as well.

In 2014 John Tierney undertook to analyze variations in trust in government across the states of the United States (link). The variation across the states is striking, from North Dakota and Wyoming showing levels of trust in excess of 75% and Illinois at about 28%. And Tierney tries to identify some of the factors that would help explain this variation. (It would be very interesting to re-examine Tierney’s analysis and the Gallup data for the past several years; it would seem likely that the data will have changed substantially since 2014.)

Why has there been such a precipitous decline in trust in our democratic institutions? This is not a mystery. Right-wing media, cynical politicians, lying youtubers, passionate conspiracy theorists … anti-democratic activists and opportunists have taken every opportunity to undermine, discredit, and subvert our political institutions. Right-wing politicians, cable news pundits, and social media voices actively seek to further their own careers and fortunes by actively generating suspicion, doubt, and mistrust of virtually everyone they can. Tucker Carlson is only the most visible example of this cynical and dishonest approach.

Why is the odious and deliberate strategy of cultivating mistrust so invidious to the future of democracy? Because our democracy depends crucially on the endurance and fairness of our institutions; but it is clear that institutions have no underlying, enduring source of stability. There is no solid granite underlying the judiciary or the system of voting; an institution lacks a “skeleton”. Unlike a towering modern building which maintains its integrity of steel girders long after its external architectural elements have degraded, an institution is more like a collective but real illusion. When we stop believing in the institution, it immediately begins to die. Institutions depend upon the continuing support and adherence of the individuals who fall within their scope. In a sense, institutions have more in common with the social reality of “money” than with that of a coral reef. In order for a paycheck for $1,000 to be real for me, I must also believe and understand that it is also real for other people — and that 1/100 of that check will buy a meal for two at Wendy’s and 1/4 of it will be accepted by my landlord as payment for a week’s rent. Without that collective ongoing belief in money, the currency has no social reality whatsoever. But likewise — citizens will engage in a system of voting only if they believe that the votes will be counted honestly and the candidate with the most votes will be sworn into office. 

What does it take to sustain trust in an institution? One favorable feature supporting trust is institutional transparency. “Blind” trust is hard to sustain; trust is more stable when it is based on a continuing ability for participants to see how the institution is functioning, how its actions and outcomes are brought about, how its officials and staffers conduct their work. This is the reason for “sunshine” laws about public institutions. And the less gap there is between private and public reasons for action, the more reasonable citizens will have confidence in their government.

A related feature of a trustworthy institution is the reputation for integrity possessed by its officers. If most citizens in a state have a fairly direct personal relationship with a handful of legislators, and if they believe, based on their acquaintance, that these legislators are honest and committed to the public good, then they are more likely to have confidence in the institution as well. (This is one of the arguments made by Tierney in the 2014 Atlantic article mentioned above.) Conversely, if legislators engage in behavior that makes the citizen doubt their integrity (corruption, lying, conflict of interest), then citizens’ trust in the institution is likely to fall.

A third feature of governments that instills trust in their citizens (highlighted by the OECD report above) is competence and effectiveness by government in performing the tasks needed to secure the common good. The OECD report summarizes its recommendations in these terms: 

OECD evidence shows that government’s values, such as high levels of integrity, fairness and openness of institutions are strong predictors of public trust. Similarly, government’s competence – its responsiveness and reliability in delivering public services and anticipating new needs – are crucial for boosting trust in institutions.

When governments fail in crucial tasks affecting the health and safety of large numbers of citizens — for example in managing COVID vaccination programs, or administering disaster relief after natural disasters — it is understandable that public trust in government would fall.

Several earlier posts (linklinklink) have explored the “moral emotions of democracy” and how to enhance them. Plainly, cultivating trust in our democratic institutions is an urgent need if our democracy is to survive. And, like a house of cards or a carefully balanced pile of field stones, our institutions will only be stable if there is a persistent pattern of mutual reinforcement among institutional rules, official behavior, and citizen awareness and trust in government.

(Pew has also done some important survey work on the challenge of regaining trust in democracy; link. Also of interest is a very interesting 2011 research conference paper by Juan Castillo, Daniel Miranda, and Pablo Torres exploring the connections that appear to exist between Social Dominance Orientation, Right-Wing Authoritarian Personality, and the level of trust individuals have in government; link. SDO and WRW are explored in an earlier post.)

(See Paul Krugman’s very ominous diagnosis of the state of our democracy; link.)

Trumpism and Hannah Arendt’s reflections on totalitarianism

In a recent post I considered Hannah Arendt’s reflections on what she termed the totalitarianism of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Her observations in The Origins of Totalitarianism amount to less than a developed theory of a political system, and more of a case study of two unusual political regimes that did their ugliest work at roughly the same time in history. Are there any themes in Arendt’s observations that seem relevant to the current day, and the political experience of the last four years of the presidency of Donald Trump?

Plainly the United States did not become a dictatorship during the Trump years; it did not witness mass violence against “potential enemies of the state”; it did not result in the wholesale transformation of Federal police agencies into the private secret police of the Leader. The term “totalitarian” cannot be applied to the United States in 2020. The rule of law was repeatedly flouted by Trump and his administration, but in the end Trump did not prevail in his most authoritarian impulses.

And yet there are a number of worrisome parallels between Arendt’s diagnosis of the workings of the National Socialist and Soviet regimes and the political developments we have witnessed in the United States since 2017. Here are several that seem salient.

Orientation of politics towards an all-encompassing ideology or world-view, often involving racism and social division. It is Arendt’s view that totalitarianism is defined by ideology, whether left or right, secular or religious, coherent or incoherent. Hitler’s commitment to world hegemony and his profound program of anti-Semitism constituted an ideological system which governed virtually all actions of the Nazi regime, according to Arendt. Likewise, the Soviet Union was guided by a mish-mash theory of communism that it pursued at all costs. It is plain that Trumpism possesses an ideology and a worldview, and that this ideology has substantial components of racism, division, and hate. Moreover, Trump’s coterie has included ideologues like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller who actively worked within the administration to turn the details of that ideology into policies and actions. It hasn’t seemed to matter that the premises of this worldview are odious to the majority of Americans, or that the policies that emanate from this worldview are objectively harmful to US economic and international interests; the ideology drives the actions of this administration. And it is quite clear that Trump’s base of supporters — perhaps 40% of voters — have bought into the ideology, thanks to the persistent propaganda offered by right-wing social media, YouTube conspiracy videos, Fox News, and Trump’s own Twitter feed. 

Consistent and sustained efforts at destroying liberal political institutions. Arendt documents the consistent strategies used by Hitler and Stalin to destroy institutional and legal obstacles to their will. Trump’s obvious and continuing contempt for the institutions of law, the processes of elections, and the judiciary makes plain his desire to cripple or destroy the institutions and practices of liberal democracy that interfere with his exercise of personal will. His willingness to assault the judiciary when it fails to support him and his relentless attacks on the press illustrate the same impulse.

Use of violence-prone paramilitaries to further political objectives. Arendt documents the crucial role that violent paramilitary organizations played in the rise of Hitler to power, and to his continuing exercise of power. This appeal to illegal violent actions was subsequently incorporated into the workings of elite secret police groups like the SS. Trump’s unwillingness to denounce the violent behavior of white supremacist groups who use violence and the threat of violence to press for Trump-ideology policies is well known. It seems evident that he welcomes threatening demonstrations by armed groups like the Proud Boys in support of his groundless claims of “election fraud”. And his administration’s appalling use of armed and anonymous Federal officers in unmarked vans to quell protests during the months of Black Lives Matter protests is very reminiscent of both Germany and the USSR during the worst times.

Fundamental deference to the Leader. Arendt argues that the totalitarian regimes of Germany and the USSR differed from other dictatorships in the extreme power and voice they created for the Leader — Hitler or Stalin. In Arendt’s view, both Hitler and Stalin were highly adept at preventing the emergence of possible coalitions of policy-makers, generals, or bureaucrats who could oppose their will; instead, the ultimate authority was in the hands of the Leader, and subordinates were subject to constant suspicion and threat of dismissal, arrest, or death. Trump hasn’t locked up his subordinates for perceived disloyalty; but he has taken consistent steps to take away the power of agencies (EPA, CDC, State Department, Interior, Voice of America), to appoint loyalists in every possible position, and to remove subordinates who failed to show the required level of deference to his Twitter preferences. His plain view is that he is “the decider” and that every office of government needs to follow his will.

Persistent use of lies and fabrications. Arendt refers to the worldview of the Nazis or the Stalinists as a false reality, a fake world, and the whole force of the propaganda tools of the party and state is devoted to making people believe the false narrative rather than the obvious truth. This is highly resonant with the experience of politics under Trump’s direction over the past four years. How many lies have Trump and his many spokespersons and advocates told since January 2017, beginning with lies about the size of the Inauguration crowd? The number is astounding. Some of the lies are laughable — crowd size, for example; and others are seriously dangerous to our democracy — lies about fraud in the 2020 election. Lying and fabrication are regarded as perfectly legitimate political tools by the Trumpist party, and the lies are believed by “true-believer” followers.

Intimidation and cooptation of legislators and political leaders. What about the other powerful actors in society — in the Weimar Republic during Hitler’s rise, or within the Communist Party before Stalin’s absolute hegemony was established? These independent sources of political power could not be tolerated by the Leader — Hitler or Stalin. They needed to be coopted, or they needed to be eliminated. Hitler and Stalin used both strategies. Trump has only needed the strategy of cooptation and intimidation; he has succeeded in threatening, intimidating, and coopting the members of his party to provide almost unconditional support for his most outrageous demands. This has been most evident during the period since November 3, when any honest observer will recognize that a fair election took place and Trump lost; whereas the vast majority of GOP legislators and other leaders have fallen in step behind Trump’s groundless claims about election fraud. (Here is an earlier discussion of the phenomenon of “collective abdication” in times of political crisis; link.)

Fellow-traveler organizations. Arendt maintains that Nazi and Soviet dictatorships differed from other forms of authoritarian states in their efforts to cultivate and convey power through “fellow traveler” organizations — social and political organizations that were not part of the Nazi Party or the Communist Party, that were not visibly committed to the most extreme ideological positions of the party, and yet that were supportive of its ideological goals and positions. Arendt believes that this was a key mechanism through which these parties gained mass following — even when their actions were contrary to the interests of many of the men and women who supported the “fellow-traveler” organizations. This feature seems relevant to our current circumstances when one considers the common view, “I don’t support all of the President’s wildest views, but I like his style.”

So it turns out that Arendt’s analysis of the totalitarianism of the 1930s and 1940s highlights a number of important features that are familiar from the political strategies of Trumpism. Trump’s presidency has involved a mass-based movement mobilized around a unified ideology that isprofoundly contemptuous of existing political institutions and that embraces the symbols and reality of political violence. Further, this movement is organized around a provocative and boundary-smashing Leader who promotes lies and fabrications as basic tools of political advancement, and who makes racist antagonism against a part of the population a central theme of mobilization. And we have the phenomenon of moral abdication by other leaders and political power-holders in the face of the Leader’s will — perverse and anti-democratic as it may be. Thus Arendt’s inventory of totalitarian methods shines a bright light on the perils Donald Trump has created for our democratic institutions, practices, and values. Donald Trump did not create a totalitarian state in America. But he and his collaborators embodied many of the techniques and practices that resulted in anti-democratic, authoritarian regimes in other countries in the last century, and they have created genuine risks for the future of our own institutions of liberal democracy. 

Hannah Arendt was writing about other countries, and she wrote over fifty years ago about events that took place as long as eighty years ago. So maybe her observations are historically irrelevant to the politics of the present day. But recall Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s contemporary fears for the trajectory and fate of American democracy in How Democracies Die:

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere. 

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president. (1)

Here is Robert Paxton’s definition of fascism in his very good book on the origin and dynamics of twentieth-century fascism, The Anatomy of Fascism:

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (218)

Paxton’s analysis is drawn from the history of Italian and German dictatorships; but the terms of this definition are disturbingly contemporary. Only the goal of “external expansion” finds no real counterpart in Trumpism; it is replaced by an aggressive doctrine of “America First!” as the keystone of international policy.

Now is a good time to re-read Tim Snyder’s observations and advice in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Here are five observations from On Tyranny that seem especially pertinent.

1 Do not obey in advance. Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

2 Defend institutions. It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institution you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labor union—and take its side.

3 Beware the one-party state. The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historic moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.

6 Be wary of paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.

20 Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny.

Is “totalitarianism” a thing?

Hannah Arendt’s most important contribution to political theory was her book on totalitarianism, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her models were Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union; in fact, she writes that “up to now we know only two authentic forms of totalitarian domination: the dictatorship of National Socialism after 1938, and the dictatorship of Bolshevism since 1930” (420). She wanted to understand how these regimes came to be, whether there were large historical forces that favored their emergence in the twentieth century, and the role that ideology, leadership, and power played in their execution. Her central idea was that totalitarianism is fundamentally an ideological system of thought adopted by a Leader and a network of “elite totalitarian organizations” who work single-mindedly to carry out the prescriptions of the ideology. In Nazi Germany the ideology was spelled out in Mein Kampf; in the Soviet Union it was Stalin’s version of Bolshevism — “socialism in one country” and the idea that every sacrifice is justified for the sake of future communist utopia. But Arendt remains surprisingly indefinite about how she conceptualizes totalitarianism. Here is the most succinct description that she offers of totalitarianism, and it occurs in the final chapter:

In the preceding chapters we emphasized repeatedly that the means of total domination are not only more drastic but that totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship. Wherever it rose to power, it developed entirely new political institutions and destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country. No matter what the specifically national tradition or the particular spiritual source of its ideology, totalitarian government always transformed classes into masses, supplanted the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by a mass movement, shifted the center of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination. (460)

The features mentioned here are total domination, distinctness from other forms of despotism, entirely new political institutions, destruction of social, legal, and political traditions of the country, mass movement, power in the hands of the secret police, and a foreign policy aimed at world domination. The Nazi and Soviet regimes are the central cases, so the reader is invited to understand that “totalitarianism is what regimes like these twentieth-century disasters share in common”. Racism, terror, propaganda, mass-politics, and ambitions of global conquest are mentioned by Arendt in the course of her narrative, but this falls short of a definition, and gives no idea about the political structure and mechanisms of the political systems she intends to study. Arendt doesn’t provide a clear, diagrammatic definition or discussion of totalitarianism as a functional political system. 

So what does “total domination” come down to? It involves the idea of erasing all individual differences and creating a new form of human nature — SS man, Communist man — in which the individual’s creativity and spontaneity — freedom — are erased, and the individual becomes the embodiment of the ideology. It involves the idea of fully implementing the details of a worldview, perhaps mythological, that can be impressed upon every human being. What is maximal about totalitarian regimes is their complete effort to quench human freedom and independence of mind and action.

How does this domination take place? Through regulation, indoctrination, surveillance, terror, coercion, and extermination. Arendt gives extended treatments of three features of Nazi and Soviet regimes: the prominence of party and “front” organizations; the prominence and ubiquity of the organs of the secret police; and the extermination and concentration camps which serve, beyond their function of extermination, to extinguish the humanity of their inmates. 

Is this enough to constitute a theory of totalitarianism as a form of government? It is not. Absolutist monarchy in France in the sixteenth century too asserted unfettered power and authority over its subjects, but of course this was a charade. The French crown lacked the tools of control and repression that would permit it to exercise unlimited dominion, and French society embodied social groups that possessed enough social and political power to insulate themselves from the unwelcome demands of the king. The Catholic Church, the aristocracy and landed classes, the merchants, even the emerging urban population and their cousins in the countryside possessed meaningful mechanisms for securing themselves against capricious or ruinous demands from the monarch. This isn’t to say that the French monarchs had little power, but it is to say they lacked the ability to completely dominate the rest of society. 

The aspirations of the National Socialist state in Germany and the Soviet state went vastly beyond these limits. Each state built the apparatus of surveillance and coercion that was needed in order to exercise total control over society. And each state likewise built powerful and effective mechanisms of propaganda and thought control of their populations that made the challenges of social control easier to surmount. The cult of the leader and the ideologies of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and Communist utopianism were designed to secure some measure of willing acceptance from their populations, just as the marches, music, and images of fascist Italy were designed to elicit support for the fascist government and Mussolini. The elaboration of the apparatus of the bureaucracies of the secret police, the gathering of secret files, and the terrifying knock in the night rounded out the picture of the bureaucracy of total control. Orwell captured some aspects of this emerging system and Koestler articulated others (link).

There is another perspective along which these questions might be posed that focuses not on “totalitarianism” but considers the wider range of authoritarian states that were involved in the conflicts of the twentieth century, including fascism, military dictatorship, and authoritarian rule. Mussolini, Franco, and Tōjō Hideki all created authoritarian state apparatuses, each of which had both similarities with the Nazi German state and important differences. And, significantly, Spanish Fascism under Franco maintained a shaky neutrality in World War II. Arendt is quite definite that totalitarianism is different from authoritarian single-party rule, and it is distinct from fascism. Totalitarianism involves a radical upturning of society and politics that goes vastly beyond anything imagined by other tyrannies. 

After the first World War, a deeply antidemocratic, pro-dictatorial wave of semi-totalitarian and totalitarian movements swept Europe; Fascist movements spread from Italy to nearly all Central and Eastern European countries (the Czech part of Czechoslovakia was one of the notable exceptions); yet even Mussolini, who was so fond of the term “totalitarian state,” did not attempt to establish a full-fledged totalitarian regime and contented himself with dictatorship and one-party rule. Similar non-totalitarian dictatorships sprang up in prewar Rumania, Poland, the Baltic states, Hungary, Portugal and Franco Spain. (310)

How are these political forms distinct from totalitarianism? Here is Arendt’s way of distinguishing them: 

Once a party dictatorship has come to power, it leaves the original power relationship between state and party intact; the government and the army exercise the same power as before, and the “revolution” consists only in the fact that all government positions are now occupied by party members. (420) 

A totalitarian regime, by contrast, refuses to merge with the apparatus of the state; instead, all real power is retained within the organizations of the movement (Nazi Party or Communist Party in the USSR). 

All real power is vested in the institutions of the movement, and outside the state and military apparatuses. It is inside the movement, which remains the center of action of the country, that all decisions are made; the official civil services are often not even informed of what is going on, and party members with the ambition to rise to the rank of ministers have in all cases paid for such “bourgeois” wishes with the loss of their influence on the movement and of the confidence of its leaders. (420)

An important expert on totalitarianism in the past half century is Juan Linz, author of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes (1974; republished with a new introduction 2000). An earlier paper, “An Authoritarian Regime: Spain” (1964) is a highly interesting and informative presentation of Linz’s analytical framework (link). Referring to C. J. Friedrich’s analysis of totalitarianism, Linz defines the concept of totalitarianism in terms of five key features:

an official ideology … , a single mass party unquestioningly dedicated to the ideology, near complete control of mass media, complete political control of the armed forces, and a system of terroristic police control not directed against demonstrable enemies only. In another version central control and direction of the economy is added. (296-297)

In a review of Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes Ronald Francesco (link) suggests an additional set of questions to be posed about how authoritarian (or totalitarian) regimes actually work: 

What would we want to know about non-democratic regimes if we were completely ignorant of past research? One would argue that we would like to know how these regime sustain themselves, particularly in the presence of dissent. How much repression is enough to stifle dissent? Where is the point at which members and supporters of the state defect from it? What are the vulnerabilities of these regimes? How do they collapse? (186)

These are the right questions to ask, and Arendt’s book does not pose them at all. (Here is a prior post from 2008 that attempts to pose these kinds of questions about authoritarian power today.)

So — is totalitarianism a thing? It seems fairly clear that Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism does not really serve as a theory of the political and governmental realities of authoritarianism in the twentieth century. It is more akin to an extended case study of two horrific examples. Linz is right in the article mentioned above, that we need to have a more developed treatment of authoritarianism as a regime type. So we might answer the guiding question here by stating that “totalitarianism is not a social kind”, a recurring political regime type. But it is also evident that Arendt’s book serves well to capture what was distinctive and singular about both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — the single-minded prominence of the political ideology of the party in power, and the efforts by that party and its leader to impose the prescriptions of the ideology on the population and the world through the most murderous means imaginable. One might hope to incorporate Arendt’s insights into a more general theory of authoritarian politics by paying attention to her insights into some of the specifics of the regimes she studies — the ambition of promulgating a totalizing ideology throughout the whole population, the techniques of ideological propaganda, the use of mass terror, the creation of vast systems of secret-police surveillance and repression, and the creation of parallel systems of power between party and state apparatus. 

(Readers who want a more extensive discussion will find Peter Baehr’s entry on “Totalitarianism” in the New Dictionary of the History of Ideas to be a detailed and highly useful resource (link).)

Conservative and progressive forms of democracy

An earlier post suggested that we cannot really address the issue of the stability of liberal democracy without considering issues of economic justice as well. 

It is worth separating the features of a modern society into the “liberal democratic” cluster and the “social democratic” cluster for a reason that is familiar from Rawls (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement). Rawls argues that the stability of a just society depends on finding an “overlapping consensus” of values that converge to provide support for the existing system. Different groups have different “comprehensive conceptions of the good” which disagree with each other and give rise to different goals for legislation. But agreement about rights and democratic process may provide a basis for an overlapping consensus across these differences. In the United States and Britain it seems that agreement about individual rights and liberties and the institutions of majoritarian democracy are likely to fall within the overlapping consensus in those countries, whereas the social and economic assumptions of the “social democracy” cluster are likely to remain controversial and to fall outside the overlapping consensus. This seems to imply that the social-welfare and redistributive provisions of the social-democracy cluster are appropriate content for majoritarian legislation, not constitutional stipulation.

So let’s consider the issue in a broader canvas. Suppose that we are thinking of a just liberal democracy as including these elements, as outlined in the prior post: (1) a set of constitutional guarantees of equality and key individual rights, and (2) a set of social and economic guarantees establishing a reasonable level of human wellbeing for all members of society. Together these clusters of features establish the nature of a social democracy. These ideas capture the idea of equal freedom and rights within an overarching system of law, in which each individual is free to pursue his/her purposes as desired, limited only by the constitutional and legal protections of the rights of others, and the rights of the minority. Further they capture the value of the equal worth of liberty — the material requirements necessary for the exercise of freedom. And they conform well to Rawls’s principles of justice; the “constitutional guarantees” spell out an interpretation of the liberty principle, and the “social-economic guarantees” spell out an interpretation of the difference principle.

But here is the complication. “Liberal democracy” is best defined as a system that embodies a constitutional system that establishes inviolable rights and liberties for all individuals along with majoritarian principles in the establishment of legislation. The constitutional protections are prior to majoritarian legislation in the sense that ordinary legislation does not have the authority to create laws that violate the rights guaranteed in the constitution. (The constitution can be amended, of course, through a clearly defined process, and a process that generally involves a super-majority for completion.) But the “social democracy” provisions fall outside the overlapping consensus, and they would need enactment through normal majoritarian processes of legislation.

So the two groups of items do not play the same role within a given liberal democracy. The items mentioned under the list of liberal guarantees of equal rights are constitutional provisions, not subject to ordinary majoritarian legislation. But the items listed under the “social democracy” clauses are not constitutional provisions; rather, they would be established through ordinary political processes of legislation and majoritarian politics. This is because legitimate disagreement over these provisions persists among reasonable people, and therefore these provisions do not fall within the “overlapping consensus”. (This distinction parallels the structure of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in that the first batch of rights are “negative” rights, while the second batch are “positive” rights.)

And we are forced to ask the question: in a modern society much like our own, governed by constitutional protections like those listed in (1), would the provisions described in (2) ever be enacted through a democratic majoritarian process of legislation? It is clear that in most advanced democracies the statements under (2) fall at the heart of profound political and ideological disagreements: the idea of using the coercive power of the state to limit inequalities of wealth, the idea of using taxation (redistribution) to provide for basic amenities for poor people, the idea of establishing strong regulatory systems designed to protect the health and safety of the public — these are all policies that are strongly opposed by conservatives. These are precisely the kinds of issues over which parties of the left and the right disagree in many democracies; in Britain the Conservatives reject the redistributive policies advocated by Labour Party, in the US the Republicans reject “welfarist” or “socialist” policies advocated by the Democratic Party, and so on. The ensemble of assumptions listed here describes “liberal social democracy”, which is a substantively stronger assumption about a just society than simply a “liberal democracy”.

Crucial parts of a progressive agenda for a just society are encompassed by the constitutional assumptions listed here. Liberal democrats are anti-racist, anti-discrimination, political-egalitarian, and insistent on equal and neutral application of the system of law. And historically, many conservative leaders and parties have shared these commitments. But progressives and conservatives are likely to disagree strongly about the second batch of assumptions about a good society. And since we are committed to democracy, we are committed to the idea that a functioning democracy that respects the provisions of (1) but rejects one or more provisions of (2) is no less democratic for that difference.

So the question comes down to this: would the system that combines (1) and (2) — a liberal social democracy — find majority support in some or many existing democracies?

It would seem that there is nothing in the social-democracy list of conditions (2) that would be limiting or unpalatable for most ordinary people; on the contrary, these circumstances of an effective liberal social democracy would seem to be ideal for ordinary people to fulfill themselves and to live satisfying lives. And these arrangements seem to give a basis for confidence in the wellbeing of future generations as well.

But not everyone would reach the same judgment about these arrangements. Here are some likely exceptions.

  1. People who expect to be super-rich. Their wealth and their political influence are likely to be limited and constrained by these arrangements.
  2. People who want to exercise authority and privilege over others — based on race, ethnicity, sex, or other human categories. The arrangements described here are specifically designed to prohibit and deny practices that embody domination and control — racial, ethnic, or gender superiority.
  3. People who feel that their own value system, or their religious system, is inherently correct and privileged, and would not want important social decisions to be left to the rule of law and the will of the majority.
  4. People who are ideologically committed to the principle of a minimal state: no use of the coercive power of the state beyond the maintenance of order, defense, and the bare minimum of regulation for health and safety. 

These are the kinds of exceptions that Rawls attempts to head off using the idea of the veil of ignorance: if people don’t know that they are rich, male, white, Christian, or powerful, then they are well advised to protect their future selves by favoring principles of equal liberties, minimal inequalities, and strong guarantees of basic wellbeing. Rawls believes we get unanimous rational support for a just society if participants do not know their eventual position in that society. Behind the veil of ignorance everyone would support the arrangements of a liberal social democracy.

But real political disagreements do not take place behind a veil of ignorance. In realistic arenas of political disputes we have to accept the fact that individuals have full knowledge of their positions, including wealth, power, race, religion, ideology, and sex. Under those conditions we can expect that individuals will form their political beliefs and affinities in consideration of their interests, values, ideologies, and predilections (including possibly “social dominance orientations” or beliefs of racial and ethnic superiority). They will give their support to candidates and parties that best conform to those beliefs and affinities. And there are some configurations of interest and affinities that would lead individuals to support an authoritarian party or leader whom they expect to favor their interests (and whom they believe they can collectively influence and control). Given that the majority of voters are likely to support the institutions and values of a liberal social democracy, this means that these anti-liberal voters are inclined to favor the fortunes of political parties committed to minority rule over the majority. Here is the authoritarian impulse from the populist voter’s point of view: “This particular authoritarian populist politician shares my values and will act in such a way as to impose them on society; I can trust this politician to serve my interests and values.” 

Here is what the populist anti-liberal strategy looks like: identify groups of potential supporters, based on mistrust of other racial groups, antagonism towards elites and urban populations, as well as support motivated by fervent religious and ideological activism; identify potential sources of large-scale funding for political mobilization among the super-rich who will benefit from anti-liberal economic and tax policies (e.g. Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson); identify powerful communicators in media, social media, and other venues to craft and disseminate effective mobilization messages (Fox, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson); pressure and subvert traditional conservative political organizations in support of the radical populist agenda; and — as Steve Bannon said — “wage war on liberals”. This strategy isn’t likely to produce an electoral majority, but it doesn’t need to, if it is possible to suppress the votes of the other side and to achieve power through other means.

In fact, we seem to be in such a circumstance at the present moment in the United States. The presidential election took place more than four weeks ago, and Joe Biden has beaten Donald Trump by more than seven million votes, and has won a sizable majority in the Electoral College. And yet there appear to be many millions of citizens who continue to support Trump during his undisguised attempt to overturn this democratically completed election. Millions of voters are apparently untroubled by this authoritarian “strongman” effort to remain in office following decisive electoral defeat. For these voters the stability and persistence of our constitutional democracy is not of primary concern; rather, they believe the strongman will serve them well. And his willingness to subvert and destroy our democratic institutions does not discredit him in their eyes.

This line of thought leads to a nightmare possibility: neither “laissez-faire” democracy nor social democracy is politically stable. Neither traditional conservative Republican economic policy nor reform-minded Labour or Democratic policies can retain a majority. Laissez-faire democracy loses support because it creates increasingly intolerable conditions for a growing proportion of the working population; social democracy loses support because right-wing populist political movements are able to use their mobilization strategies to gain support from the less-well-off segments of the ordinary working class population. The winner? Right-wing populist illiberal democracy, with strongman populist authoritarianism in the driver’s seat. And we have precisely such examples in the world today, in the form of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.