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Set My People Free

Original Article

In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt attempted to analyze how totalitarian regimes gain such pervasive power over every aspect of the lives of individuals. The creation of omnipresent fear, the use of terror, and the ascription of quasi-divine salvific powers to the leaders all play a part. But in a way, all of these depend on one strategic goal: the destruction of all intermediate institutions in the society—clubs, local civic organizations, independent local governing bodies, churches, and the family itself—that stand between the all-powerful government and the naked individual.

In Arendt’s words, “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals.” The strange loyalty of the masses to the totalitarian government comes about precisely because everything else between the government and the individual has been ruthlessly removed. “Such loyalty can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from this belonging to a movement, his membership in the party.”

Obviously, in speaking of the “party,” Arendt is here referring to Nazism and Communism. As she makes clear in her analysis of these evil regimes, it was the destruction of all intermediate institutions that made possible “the permanent domination of each single individual in each and every sphere of life.” That is the essence of totalitarianism.

Aren’t we in America immune from such evils? When the great Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville came to our country in the early 1830s, his answer was “yes and no.” As for the “yes,” in his Democracy in America, he applauds the sturdiness of all the myriad of intermediate institutions that enmesh individuals in each other’s lives, weaving a strong social fabric beneath and before the national government. Here, we find the cradle of liberty, and defense against tyranny imposed from above. Tocqueville offers especial praise for churches and for the local governing body of the township. Religion provides the shared moral core that makes common life possible. Even more, it defines the value and purpose of human life in a way that sets absolute limits to government. The most local of governments, the township, is the original school of liberty where the habit of self-government is first and most deeply nurtured. Local government is most natural because it is focused on the immediate good of our family, our home, and our neighbors. The stronger our love of God, the love of our family, and the love of our local community, the less likely we are to fall prey to the atomizing forces of those with totalitarian aspirations.

And the “no”? Tocqueville also saw a possible dark side. Granted we had a long tradition of strong local institutions that stood guard against despotism from above, but he also thought that we had some weaknesses that could slowly undermine them. Americans, said Tocqueville, have a desire for equality that borders on an obsession, and an impatient passion for physical gratification. To combine the two, our fault is that we want stuff that other people have, and we want it now. This fault could lead us, step by step, into a kind of servitude to a government that would cater to our fault. Tocqueville called this “soft despotism.” His words are well worth quoting at length, and have the air of a prophecy, in which he envisioned that

“an immense tutelary power is elevated [above the people], which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness; but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?

So it is that every day it renders the employment of free will less useful and more rare; it confines the action of the will in a smaller space and little by little steals the very use of free will from each citizen. Equality has prepared men for all these things: it has disposed them to tolerate them and often even to regard them as a benefit.

Thus, after taking each individual by turns in its powerful hands and kneading him as it likes, the sovereign extends its arms over society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd; it does not break wills, but it softens them, bends them, and directs them; it rarely forces one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting; it does not destroy, it prevents things from being born; it does not tyrannize, it hinders, compromises, enervates, extinguishes, dazes, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”

Obviously, this is a far different kind of totalitarianism than found in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but it is just as pervasive and deadly. The way that it destroys intermediate institutions is by neglect, by luring the individual away from the active love and care of his family and local community, away from the care of his soul and immortal destiny in his worship of God, to a life of menial toil in a tangle of bureaucratic regulations, punctuated with the reward of endless trivial amusements.