"Polite totalitarianism," part two
"Polite totalitarianism," part three
"Polite totalitarianism," part four

From Vol. I, No. 1
of The Last Ditch (September 1994)


Polite totalitarianism
Part one



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When The Last Ditch refers to itself as a foe of the Permanent Regime, two components of its claim cry out for examination: in what sense is the regime permanent? and who are these reges, these rulers, who make up the regime? I shall be discussing only the first question, with a treatment of the second by Nicholas Strakon to begin in the next issue. [1]

Let us make no mistake: we live in a totalitarianism. The Bill of Rights notwithstanding, no area of your life is safe from the encroachments of the state. Consider the most invasive, the most tyrannical state in the history of the world prior to the 20th century. Insofar as the daily texture and the minutiæ of your life are concerned, the United States claims a wider authority and exercises a wider power than the one you selected. Politically prudential considerations aside, there is no limit to the amount of your property it can take from you by taxation, inflation, prosecution, civil "forfeiture," or eminent domain, provided only that it follows certain procedures — which it may alter in its legislatures, courts, or regulatory agencies. There is no limit to the amount of time it may require you to "serve" your country — whether by military conscription, the proposed civilian conscription called "national service," criminal sentence, or even the "community service" required for graduation from some government schools — except such limits as may be found in the very statutes that created the enslaving legislation in the first place. If your time and property are at the pleasure of the state, there is nothing left to be controlled. To the extent that they are at the pleasure of the state, you are its slave. That some areas of your life are not currently of interest to the regime is the random precipitate of statism's accelerating spin.

The permanence of our regime is masked by elections and the freedom to vote in them. While American elections seldom change the personnel of the state, that is not why the possibility of change is illusory. Rather, it is because elections no longer affect the state in a substantial way. If voting could change the nature of the regime, it would be illegal.

In the 1970s, it seemed to some libertarians that we might really witness the collapse of the Permanent Regime. Not only had we seen the fulfillment of the predictions of Harry Browne that there would be a devaluation of the currency — prompting us to believe that some of his other predictions of catastrophe might be as accurate — but Watergate had renewed the public's ever-tenuous grasp on republican virtue. Moreover, for a moment it appeared that the ruling class, dispirited by having lost a war, might also have lost its own self-confidence and willingness to rule, one of four possible causes of a ruling class's fall, according to Emmanuel Goldstein's Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism. [2] Instead, the economy adjusted to free-floating exchange rates, it was trumpeted on all sides that "the system worked," and much of the republican virtue that had been animated was quickly defused. Even during the Carter "malaise" of 1977-1981, the Permanent Regime strengthened its hand on nearly every front, rendering the ousting of Richard Nixon in retrospect little more than a democratic, bloodless coup.

Unlike some of the other totalitarianisms of this century, the United States has achieved its control over a mostly docile populace. There is no massive civil disobedience against even the most intrusive of regulations, no rebellion, no principled opposition. To be sure, the Permanent Regime finds occasional muscle-flexing necessary, but its purpose on specific occasions is often murky. Even in the case of the military attack on the Branch Davidians at their Mount Carmel retreat, the ever-changing rationalizations for it served more to perplex than to clarify. Certainly such demonstrations of force further cow the citizenry and — in the absence of independent reporting — reinforce their mental habit of believing that when the state strikes with its jackboot and nightstick, it is invariably justified. Such demonstrations also serve warning that those who fight back, or are even capable of fighting back in any but prescribed and limited ways (e.g. by suing), are fatally in the wrong. One imagines a pimp beating up one of his whores in front of his other girls, and then murmuring to her, "Why you make Onyx do this to you? Onyx only wanna love you." He is not merely punishing her; he is putting the other girls on notice.

Mount Carmel got the publicity it did precisely because the attack was atypical of the way in which U.S. regimes — Lincoln's excepted — have governed. Yet the attack signaled in no uncertain terms that this regime has not lost its will to rule.

Just how that will is exercised is not always easily perceived. As the columnist Joe Sobran has observed, ours is a tyranny of laws, not of men. In virtually no setting does the will of a single man predominate. The fact that power is diffused throughout society, sometimes being entrusted to persons who are not state officials, makes its exercise appear not to be totalitarian.

Indeed, this appearance of non-totalitarianism has been the primary contribution of democracy to the growth and expansion of the state. It is precisely by appearing to be an agent of the will of a sovereign people that the American state has enjoyed its relatively uninterrupted growth from 1787 to the present: a people who regard themselves the true sovereigns do not much fear or oppose the growth of a power they believe themselves to control.

But how does the state preserve, consolidate, and extend its power while maintaining the illusion that the people it rules are free?

Posted November 3, 2007

To Part two.
To "Polite totalitarianism" table of contents.

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1. "Dark Suits and Red Guards" appeared in five parts, in the October, November, December 1994, and January and February 1995 issues of TLD.

That essay will soon be posted as well.

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2. See George Orwell, 1984. The other three causes are: "either it is conquered from without, or it governs so inefficiently that the masses are stirred to revolt, or it allows a strong and discontented Middle Group to come into being...." The first of these is no longer possible in the United States, and the third will form part of Strakon's discussion. I shall return to the second later in this article, although "masses" is not a term I am willing to apply to freeborn men, even when they are cowed.

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