The 20th Century gave us the right-wing totalitarianism of the Nazis and the left-wing totalitarianism of the Communists. The trauma caused by these ideologies caused people to gravitate towards the centre, in the belief that this was the opposite of totalitarianism. But the 21st Century has given us a new, centrist form of totalitarianism: the neoliberal form.
Neoliberal totalitarianism announced itself last week with the unpersoning of American President Donald Trump. Trump was first banned from Twitter, and then FaceBook, and then the rest of the neoliberal establishment piled in. Within days, he was even banned from Spotify.
The tech tyrants justified this by saying that Trump had violated the terms and conditions of the respective websites. But Twitter continues to host representatives of ISIS – who have been described as “winning the social media war” – as well as supporters of the Chinese Communist Party who argue in favour of concentration camps, and people sharing videos celebrating the Charlie Hebdo murders.
Nazi totalitarianism sought to control everyone’s lives down to the minutest detail, and was willing to destroy anyone who resisted. Communist totalitarianism also sought to control everyone’s lives down to the minutest detail, and was also willing to destroy anyone who resisted. The rhetoric that these forces used may have been different, but fundamentally both were authoritarian movements.
Neoliberal totalitarianism is just as bad. Like Nazism and Communism, it seeks total control over the lives of the citizens. Much like other totalitarian systems, it involves Big Business and Big Government working together against the common person. The degree of authoritarianism is the same. As Trump learned, when the neoliberal totalitarians decide that you’re gone, you’re gone.
Neoliberal totalitarianism is much more sophisticated than either Nazism or Communism.
The crude tyrannies of the 20th Century were not at all shy about making enemies, whether external or internal. Theirs was very much a rule of iron. Dissenters were crushed, sometimes literally as in the case of Tienanmen Square. Consent was achieved through submission to fear. Secret police were an everyday menace.
The tyrannies of the 21st Century are more the rule of silver. The logic is to abnormalise violence as much as possible, with the intent of making it unthinkable for any of their victims to use it against them. Neoliberal totalitarianism achieves its power through absolute control of the media matrix.
The reason for the current purge of wrongthinkers from social media is to maintain the effectiveness of that media control.
Josef Goebbels, in his Principles of Propaganda, wrote that “Propaganda must be planned and executed by only one authority. It must issue all the propaganda directives. It must explain propaganda directives to important officials and maintain their morale. It must oversee other agencies’ activities which have propaganda consequences.”
This totalitarian approach was the basis of the Nazi propaganda strategy. Far from recognising the value of free speech, the Nazis banned every propaganda organ that wasn’t under their control. The Nazi Party would be the sole source of truth for the German citizenry. A similar situation arose in Communist countries.
Goebbels understood that, if all other voices were silenced, people would unquestioningly follow the narratives they were given. It was only when other voices started to question the veracity of the Nazi propaganda that it started to become less effective. So all those questioning it were silenced. Anyone pointing out how the Nazis were lying were liquidated, many in concentration camps.
Totalitarian governments attack free speech with more fervour than they attack any other freedom. This is because free speech is the basis of every other freedom. Without free speech, the other freedoms cannot be peacefully defended. The loss of free speech is therefore the breach in the dam that leads inevitably to tyranny.
The neoliberal totalitarianism of today is pushing for the same degree of central control over media content that existed in Nazi or Communist countries. They do this out of similar motivations to the Nazi and Communist totalitarians. Desiring power, and being indifferent to the suffering of the people whose freedoms would be lost, the totalitarian is happy to trade those freedoms away for more control.
The only major difference between the neoliberal totalitarians of 2020 and the Nazi/Communist totalitarians of 1940 is that today’s tyrants are more subtle. They use their total control of the apparatus of propaganda to train the citizens to police each other. They don’t need to put wrongthinkers in gulags if they can train the citizens to shun those wrongthinkers into submission.
Because the citizens themselves act as the overseers of the slave plantation, it feels like they are doing so consensually. As long as no-one questions why it is that people think they way they do, or who decided that they should think that way, the hate machine can roll onwards unimpeded. In this manner, wrongthinkers can be neutralised without provoking resistance.
Any future solution to neoliberal totalitarianism must base itself on anti-totalitarian grounds. This will require common agreement across all of left, right and centre that totalitarian measures are unacceptable. The first step might be to declare common agreement with George Washington that “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”
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