Two Forms of Totalitarianism

Fascism is a form of tribalist totalitarianism. A traditional particularist tyranny, which privileges a core ethnic identity, and views the individual as an ‘organ’ in the ‘body politic’, which must conform in order for the organism to succeed. Where the individual rejects “the body”, he will, after the fashion of Rousseau, “be forced to be free”. History tends toward the ascendance of the most righteous organism, in this view.

Communism is a form of universalist totalitarianism. A non-traditional, quasi-scientific tyranny, which privileges a wholistic “rational order”, above ethnic identity, nationality, or any particular feature of individual identity. Where the individual is given any regard, it is merely as an atomic component of a mass. History tends toward the unification of all organisms, in this view.

The reason why the latter seems to fascinate us most, today, is because of our penchant for scientific determinism, which gives the idea of communism a certain superficial credibility by analogy to scientific explanations of causal necessity. Both forms of political organization deny the importance of the individual, but fascism seems to transfer the idea of the individual onto a local collective identity, while communism rejects all particularism.

The liberal response to this, is to attempt to revivify enlightenment notions of the self, and the dignity of the “sovereign” individual. But this is also incomplete, and unsatisfying. The end result of the absolute libertarian ideal can be just as alienating and destructive, as the end result of either the absolute collectivist ideal. It’s the ultimate horseshoe.

The American system - a fusion of the enlightenment individualist ideal, with various forms of religious communitarianism - seemed stable at first. But even this has proved unstable over time. Even setting aside the pressure from communist and socialist ideology, the American state, and its citizens, have radically circumscribed their notion of the free individual, from its initial ideal conception, encapsulated in the Declaration of Independence.

Dismissing this analysis on the basis of circumstantial “corruption” or “perversion” of the ideal simply makes my point more vivid, and is to miss the forest for the trees. It is precisely the problem that the ideal is not conforming to reality, that we must re-evaluate the ideal. Absolutist individualism has sustained numerous valid critiques, which have yet to be addressed politically. Absolutist collectivism, in both its forms, at this point is self-evidently untenable to anyone sane. So, what is left?

I do not think a merging of collectivism and individualism is the right way to think about this. Blending milk and Pepsi doesn’t make a new drink. It makes an undigestible mess. Rather, there must be some narrow path between the two, which we have yet to navigate. I’m not convinced secular communitarianism is a good answer to that question, either. But I’ll take that up elsewhere.

There must be some third axis we’re not seeing, that will allow us to escape the linear dichotomy of individualism vs collectivism (in all its forms). Maybe the answer is not a static model at all, but some sort of temporal framework, in which we move in and out of various groups over time, assuming different degrees of individual responsibility as we do.