Learning to Love Totalitarianism

By David Cogswell

Spring 2001

Fascism, Bolshevism and corporations came out of pretty much the same intellectual background: these kind of Neo-Hegelian ideas about the rights of organic entities over and above the individual. This kind of thing was more or less formulated in the late 19th Century and moved into the American legal system, not by legislation, but through court decisions, lawyers, intellectuals and so on early in this century.

--Noam Chomsky

Even the most starry-eyed idealists will probably no longer suggest that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Communist Bloc was really "the end of history" -- as was widely touted at the time -- or that it was the ultimate triumph of freedom and democracy over tyranny and totalitarianism. The fall of the Third Reich at the end of World War II likewise was not the end of fascism. Although the major U.S. media went on a big campaign in 1984 to declare triumphantly that "Orwell was wrong," totalitarianism is alive and well in the 21st century. And we don't have to look as far away as China and Indonesia, or even Guatemala, to find it. We can find it right here in America in the corporate institutions that increasingly rule our world.

No one seriously contends that corporations are democratic institutions. They don't operate democratically any more than a basic mom-and-pop shop does. But there are important differences between a family business and a corporation, the most critical one being that a corporation is invested with human rights. In the proprietorship, the owners have rights, the institution doesn't have rights. The owners and operators of corporations escape accountability to a large degree. The legal interpretation of money as "free speech" gives huge corporate entities a power over the government that transcends and nullifies democratic power.

Under the present system, with few limits on campaign financing, and with expensive media advertising an essential requirement for gaining office, powerful financial interests in the form of lobbies can effectively usurp the power of Congress. If corporations that are totalitarian institutions can undermine the democratic principle in legislation, you do not have a democratic society.

In a democratic society people each have an equal share in the power of government and are treated equally under the law. Under the system of corporate power now in effect, the major decisions of life and death, war and peace, and economic controls all take place far from the majority of citizens.

While we are advancing technologically, socially we seem to be evolving backward to a more feudalistic society in which the principalities of the middle ages are replaced with corporate entities in the modern world.

The United States is continuing to evolve. Though the U.S. is arguably a much less democratic country than it was 30 years ago, under present trends, it will be even less democratic in another 10 years.

Certainly there are problems with democracy and we can see them voiced by men of such stature as Socrates and Plato. A pure democracy would probably not be a good way to run the family business, as most successful business owners would tell you. There are also problems with democratic government. But good or bad, there would seem to be little value in maintaining the belief that we live in a democracy when it is not borne out by the facts.

In the early days of the rise of corporations, conservatives were opposed to them because they undermined both individual liberty and competition in the marketplace. Those who today carry the banner of conservatism are a different sort entirely. They support a concentration of wealth and political control among a corporate elite, which is antithetical to freedom of the individual, a free market and democracy. The corporate state is closer to the formula of fascism than to democracy.

As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, these realities that rule our world today, such as the control of social and governmental institutions by huge corporations, are not natural laws. Social Darwinism is not determined by nature. There are other principles besides the survival of the fittest which have operated in human societies for thousands of years. Americans are crying out for the re establishment of some of the more humanistic values that have fallen out of favor among American politicians and the powerful interests that they represent.

If we examine the history of corporations, we can see that they were established through sophisticated legal maneuvering by an elite to serve the purposes of that elite, and they can be disassembled, or their present form can be altered to make it less deleterious to human life.

When the founding fathers spoke of "eternal vigilance" in order to maintain a democratic form of government, they were not merely spouting pretty rhetorical flourishes. They were stating the fact that a free society must be maintained by an ongoing struggle against the forces of tyranny, which are always poised to take control. It is too easy to look at the battles against tyranny from the American Revolution to World War II as though the struggle for human freedom is a fait accompli. It is never done for all time. The struggle must be constantly renewed. Adlai Stevenson said that although people think of democracy as the most natural form of government, it isn't natural at all. The most natural form of government is fascism. Maintaining a democratic society is a constant struggle.

Americans have become complacent and have allowed their most precious institutions and principles to be undermined. As much as politicians love to talk about democracy and use the word to justify military interference in other countries, the United States is not a democratic culture and its leaders to not support democracy at home or abroad.

If we are to prefer the technobarbaric totalitarianism that is now in operation, let's not delude ourselves with this idea that we are the bastion of democracy.

In fact, the mechanisms still exist by which the democratic majority could take power over government back from the corporate elite that is now in control. But if we prefer not to act, let's at least be cognizant of the fact that we prefer an oligarchic totalitarianism. We may have turned over our political power, we don't have to give up our sanity.

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