The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, by Robert Nisbet
“I think,” wrote the brilliant Tocqueville in 1840, “that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world…”
Tocqueville goes on to define it – how this despotism will take over the world:
“The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives.”
Above such men “stands an immense and tutelary power” that is “absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild” keeping men “in a perpetual state of childhood.”
Tocqueville continues defining this new form of oppression, before offering:
“I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.”
In one of our longer and more robust exchanges, Nick Badalamenti has asked: “I think the front and center failure of the US to maintain libertarian outcomes should be explored seriously.” Many in the US look back only as far as FDR, or the Progressive Era, or the Civil War – as if America was “free” before that.
On the surface, maybe. But underneath, the destruction of liberty was already inevitable – and Tocqueville saw this coming long before any of these milestone events. The Enlightenment was a critical juncture, but the Reformation and Renaissance offered the most visible manifestations of the turning point. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence offers the perfect statement of Enlightenment thinking – all men are created equal, etc. Tocqueville sees this as all men being both equal, and equally impotent.
Nisbet notes: what makes Tocqueville’s analysis so unique is that he doesn’t latch onto the horrible and grotesque of totalitarianism; instead, he points right to the masses – the atomized, individualized aggregates, who are neither tortured or flogged.
…the genius of his analysis lies in the view of totalitarianism as something not historically “abnormal” but as closely related to the very trends hailed as progressive in the nineteenth century.
Far from being, as it is sometimes absurdly argued, a lineal product of nineteenth-century Conservatism, totalitarianism is, in fact, the very opposite of it.
Totalitarianism requires two elements: first, the existence of the masses; second, the ideology of a political community. What works toward the establishment of one also works toward establishment of the absolute State. The elimination of competing social and governance institutions leaves only one social and governance institution.
“The despair of the masses,” concludes Peter Drucker, “is the key to the understanding of fascism. No ‘revolt of the mob,’ no ‘triumphs of unscrupulous propaganda,’ but stark despair caused by the breakdown of the old order and the absence of a new one.”
Watch any ballgames on the 4th of July? A picture is worth a thousand words.
Therefore, it is more proper to view the annihilation of social groups and voluntary institutions – and not of individuals – that is the hallmark of totalitarianism. It manifests as a “ceaseless process of cultural nihilism.” Safe to say we are living through this process even today.
The political enslavement of man requires the emancipation of man from all the authorities and memberships (obstructions to popular will, as the Nazis and Communists describe them) that serve, in one degree or another, to insulate the individual from external political power.
What follows is the total, political community, following the removal of all forms of membership and identification which might compete with the State.
A sense of the past is far more basic to the maintenance of freedom than hope for the future. The former is concrete and real; the latter is necessarily amorphous and more easily guided by those who can manipulate human actions and beliefs.
Manipulating human action and belief:
Neo: What is the Matrix?
Trinity: The answer is out there, Neo, and it's looking for you, and it will find you if you want it to.
Morpheus: What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.