Tuesday 12 June 2007

The Totalitarian Impulse

It remains an oddity of the human condition that there does seem to lie embedded in us all, a curious yearning towards totalitarian systems.
They seem at once to fascinate and repell us, stirring up a curious mixture of emotions that defies intellect.

Human history is littered with examples over and over again which attest to the strength of the ovine impulse to be a part of the machine.

Should we be surprised or alarmed?

Surprised, possibly not.
Alarmed, well that is the question that needs resolving.

I think the resentment that most of us feel towards our sham democracies is partly due to the fact that we have the worst of both worlds. We get the negative feelings of oppression, without the psychological benefits that totalitarian systems are built on.

The word totalitarian itself, is a word we owe to Benito Mussolini. By it, he meant a system that was all encompassing, thus you could have Fascist Economics, Fascist Art, Fascist Literature, Fascist Agriculture, you name it, the ideological system could be applied to anything.
Or so the theory ran.
It's unrealistic of course, and provides for a very narrow range of vision, but it does at least bring a strange sense of social cohesiveness, which is the whole idea.

And this is why totalitarian systems attract. We can hand over responsibility for thinking to a kind of thought approval body, who can always tell us the right opinion, in the context of the ideological system.
But for such a system of ideas to flourish, it needs to tap into something deeper than that.

Deeply ingrained instincts within us, that make us feel at home in such a culture.

We are pack animals, that evolved to hunt as a unit, fight as a unit, die as a unit. We find our instincts satisfied by the shouting and baying of slogans, by the blind rage of the mob.
We love the sense of being part of a unified whole.

I know this myself, for two of the most satisfying experiences for me have their psychological roots in exactly that.
One is the part of the Mass I feel most uplifting, the recitation of the creed.
The other is being part of the shouting, singing, jeering crowd at a football game.

Both are communal chantings, where the sense of being subsumed into the greater body is paramount. You are not an individual here, you are part of a force, something a hundred times more powerful than you as an individual, with a hundred times your constructive- and destructive- powers.

It is the adrenalin rush of hunting Homo Erectus.

We watch footage of Nazi Party Rallies and Communist Party demonstrations with a secret kind of mesmerised awe, shocked at the blind faith of the devotees, yet aware that if we were there, we would be shouting too.
And not only that, but we would feel euphoric doing so.

This is of course, how such systems work.

And herein lies the problem.

However much we condemn these systems and sneer at 'mob mentality', the fact remains we are programmed that way.
Most people will sieze the chance to be part of a mass demonstration, or watch a group live, no matter how bad they perform.

And we kid ourselves if it is not partly being part of that tribal solidarity, that blending of yourself into the greater body.

If we are to move beyond the totalitarian urge, we must find ways of harnessing these instincts in a free society, to create the sense of unity, the sense of being part of something bigger that we crave so much, so much so that people will sell their souls to rigid ideologies to get that satisfaction.

We need to acknowledge that in the long term, the greatest enemy to our freedom is the individualism we all seek to escape from.

Because the escape route needs to lead to something better, not worse.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post Crushed. I especially loved the ending.Really makes people think! Peoplealsolikethemob mentality for they may behave in socially unacceptable ways without accountability..and thus are reduced to the savage beast.

Anonymous said...

Yes, excellent post, Crushed. You are right - we all wasnt to feel that we "belong" and sometimes it can be a very dangerous instinct. Then by the time we realise that something is amiss, it is too late. Also, sadly, totalitarian governments, by their very nature, are often "efficient " - and this can be very attractive, especially where you have a nation where chaos has been the norm. History bears this out over and over again.

Anonymous said...

well said dood. humans are social beings and instinctually have that need to belong. not that i haven't experienced that totalitarian thrill, but the nazi reference made the point so vivid and brought it home for me.

Anonymous said...

I felt like I was reading Marx there in its style (I mean that as a compliment).

You are correct in what you say, nationalism equates to tribalism. In a world of 7/8 billion people, people need to feel a sense of national identity in order to feel significant in a world wildly beyond their control.

A deep primal need that runs deep through the animal kingdom is the need to feel significant. It's the one need that drives inter-special conflict right down the chain.

Animals only kill other species for survival... never for significance; this only occurs within the same species.

Anonymous said...

I've been meaning to ask.
WTF is an 'INGSOC'...

Anonymous said...

Freya- Sadly, true. Especially in our culture. Otherwise, reality TV would never work.

Welshcakes- Our 'free' societies fail by not recognising these primal urges and using them for the good. 2,000 years of Christianity shows that these animal urges can serve a purpose.

Raffi- Don't worry, we all experience those feelings, that's partly wehy we are so fascinated by endless documentaries about the Nazis. Because secretly, we see the attraction. Those guys were very good at what they did. And living through 1997 showed me that such urges still existed amogst red blooded males. We actually love our fellow man so much more than we realise, but this is often turned against us.

David- Nationalism has historically been the acceptable harnessing of these urges. It made sense in a certain stage of socio-technological progress, especially when linked to capitalist development. Now both are anachronisms. Because we are not now a collection of western powers scrabbling for a place in the sun.
We are human beings looking to move beyond this rock.

Fingers- Not the first, almost certainly not the last to ask. Ingsoc is the the name of the totalitarian system in 1984 by George Orwell. The main purpose of my blog is to discuss our future, one I hope isn't blighted by past failures. Because I want the best possible world for my children, as I think we all do.

But obviously, sometimes I just come online to have some fun.

Anonymous said...

Oh fuckety, fuck, fuck, fuck !!!
Eng Soc...it's been a long time since I read that book but I should have known. Doh.
Still, I take solace in knowing who The Poe Toaster is.
Good luck changing the world, people. With no heirs, I have little stake in the outcome of course. Selfish, I know...but as Yossarian said 'I'd be a fool to think any other way' given my circumstances...

Anonymous said...

And we kid ourselves if it is not partly being part of that tribal solidarity, that blending of yourself into the greater body.

You're right.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

That was a good post... quite thought provoking too. I think that Totalitarian govts can work for the short run -- to give the people time to regroup. But I can't see it working for a long time. Well it can work, but just not as ideally as others.