Grant Finch

It’s difficult, impossible even, to objectively look back at the totalitarian governments of the last century. From our vantage, we only see the evil and inhuman systems they became and presume they always were. But were they intended to be as abusive as they became? In reference to Nazism, Albert Speer said (I paraphrase), ‘We never intended to be evil, it’s just that people got in the way’. The American journalist Lincoln Steffens, following his visit to the new USSR, said, “I’ve seen the future and it works.”

If a totalitarian system’s origins were benign, and that had to be the perception of many to welcome, or allow them in, then the next question is, were they corrupted over the course of time, or were the roots of their evil inherent in the system all along? That debate will continue as long as there are debaters but I would argue that totalitarian rule will always end up as abusive. As Lord Acton said: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

The problem begins with a select group of self-appointed individuals presuming that they have the knowledge and ability to deliver a more cohesive and contented society than the status quo. These movements come from the left or the right (a meaningless political divide) but are summed up in their belief that they can control the totality of life. How we are governed, how we do business, who we can mix with, where we can move, what information we are allowed, are all decided from above. This coterie, and their initial believers, see virtue in these constraints, or at least see them as better than the alternatives.

But are some humans more capable and prescient than their peers? Have they actually got the ability to run human affairs better than processes and interactions that have grown organically over centuries? The status quo, messy as it is, has evolved to meet the real time needs, and expectations, of its citizenry. And, if we dig deep enough, we often find that the problems they intervene to ‘fix’ with a totalitarian response are themselves the result of earlier governmental attempts at ‘repair.’   

In the short term, with compliant information sources, the totalitarians try to get everyone to see reality as they do. Over time however, it becomes apparent that not everyone is happy with their perspective and not everyone will go along with their plans. That requires a bit more tweaking of the message and a bit more stick and carrot to encourage compliance with whatever the expectation is.

This is then aided by the ‘curtain twitchers’ who are so keen to see everyone comply that they will willingly become agents for the state. (Later some will be paid, which muddies the water as to the motivations, but that’s how the secret police come into being.) The ‘us’ and the ‘them’ plays well into a sense of belonging and provides a group of outsiders that, by omission, defines the ‘insiders.’ Creating outsiders as the ‘fall guys’ when the inevitable failures of the ‘total’ system occur is all Totalitarianism 101. This is basic human psychology, well known and well understood. That it gets loosed on society, made compliant by anxiety is not excusable.

The BFD. Photoshopped image credit SadButTrue

Next comes the ‘you can’t make an omelette without cracking a few eggs’. By this time, it doesn’t matter what the mindset of the populace is. It will be composed of willing believers, the coerced, and the compromised, and they may not even be aware of which of those they are, having been manipulated by state media for so long. To live an unquestioning life becomes the safest option, regardless of one’s ideals.

I’m not projecting a fixed track for our current government, nor am I saying what their motivations are, I’m just ‘watching this space’. However, all I have initially laid out here is actually happening, and I hear no disquiet about the next steps which will follow an inability to achieve their goals. Still with a 60+% approval rate for their handling of Covid (though I’ve never been asked my opinion, have you?), I’ve seen little disapproval of or distancing from, measures taken to date.

I’m sure most people haven’t joined the dots, and it is possible, as the next steps are required, that public disquiet will grow. If, however you are waiting for our vaunted human rights of freedom of movement, freedom of expression and of ‘my body my choice’ to come into play, you should already be disappointed.

Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish resident of Prague who ‘never took Hitler seriously’, said in a 2002 publication, “You are used to living in freedom, but you should recognize the danger that lies in fast changes that can take away your freedom before you even realise it”.

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Totalitarian Governments Didn’t Start off That Way
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