The oblique reference to de Sade in the title is intentional, because what we face is not the bare-faced tyranny of a Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao or Hitler, but the soft tyranny of the bureaucratic state. I had noted yesterday the concept of Gleichschaltung in discussing John Cochrane's article, "Rule of Law in the Regulatory State," Today, I reference another article, by J. Christian Adams, entitled: "Vaclav Havel’s ‘The Power of the Powerless’ Endures." Adams writes:
To Havel, “post-totalitarian” was not a term relating to sequence. “Post-totalitarian” did not mean a government that arises after the evolution or collapse of a totalitarian structure of the sort we typically associate with singular omnipotent leaders. Instead, “post-totalitarian” to Havel described a massive, bureaucratic culture that controlled vast territory over people’s lives, the economy, and was not tolerant of deviation or dissent.
Havel’s distinction between “post-totalitarianism” and the more consuming and familiar forms of totalitarianism has serious implications for our discourse today. Americans, even conservatives, tend to skip over Havel’s post-totalitarian nightmares in the continuum between Scandinavian-style socialism and Hilter’s style of totalitarianism. We forget about a big bureaucratic leviathan that masks its truly evil nature. Reading “The Power of the Powerless,” you explore a post-totalitarian bureaucratic system that sucks out the soul in ways that a traditional totalitarian system does not.
For example, in the traditional totalitarian system of an outlaw regime, it is usually a small gang of heavily armed thugs who have seized control through the threat of extermination of enemies. The enemies sulk and cower until they finally act. In a post-totalitarian world, the culture becomes the regime and the regime becomes the culture. A massive legalistic bureaucratic state driven by ideology holds power and suffocates every corner of life with ideology, snuffing out all sparks of dissent not by violent intimidation, but by something more sustainable.
... Havel describes a model of post-totalitarian power as absolute and all-permeating, but with outward appearances as something more legalistic, more benign.
Unlike the dictatorship of Nazi Germany, for example, the post-totalitarian system:
… commands an incomparably more precise, logically structured, generally comprehensible and in essence, extremely flexible ideology that, in its elaborateness and completeness, is almost a secularized religion.…In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind, it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more.In this post-totalitarian surrender, “one pays dearly for this low rent home, the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience and responsibility.”
What sustains this system are large numbers of people, comfortable, risk adverse, and happy to “live a lie” in an act of self-preservation. Power thrives in a post-totalitarian structure because people are afraid to stick their necks out. People are afraid they will be accused of having an ill “tone” if they question those in power. Bad acts by government multiply because nobody ever questions them.
* * *Adams notes that "[r]efusing to continue to live a lie, to continue to allow fear to dictate actions, that is the beginning of power for the powerless."
In the post-totalitarian system, power is wielded not by singular omnipotent leaders and their uniformed lieutenants, but instead by the nameless and faceless:
Power becomes clearly anonymous. Individuals are almost dissolved in the ritual. They allow themselves to be swept along by it and frequently it seems as though ritual alone carries people from obscurity into the light of power. … Individuals are increasingly being pushed aside by faceless people, puppets, those uniformed flunkeys of the rituals and routines of power.And herein lies the most essential lesson for modern conservatives to learn. The problems this nation faces will not vanish with the election of a Republican, no matter what the Beltway consultants tell you in radio ads and fundraising emails. The problems run much deeper now. The bureaucratic state has become unmoored from the political branches.
The most aggressive Republican president coming to power will have a hard time containing it. Layer upon layer of bureaucrats exist, skilled at justifying their own existence and artful in hiding their most outlandish behavior. Imagine 5,000 Lois Lerners. Multiply that by ten, and you have described just one single federal agency.
Havel’s brilliance is in understanding power and individual choices to oppose or facilitate it:
You do not become a “dissident” just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society. … Today, if we are not to be snobbish about it, we must admit that “dissidents” can be found on every street corner.It is a Jeffersonian truism that government governs best which governs least. Havel describes a post-totalitarian system:
… utterly obsessed with the need to bind everything in a single order; life in such a state is thoroughly permeated by a dense network of regulations, proclamations, directives, norms, orders, and rules. (It is not called a bureaucratic system without good reason.) … [The] legal code serves the post-totalitarian system in this direct way as well, that is, it too forms a part of the world of regulations and prohibitions … Like ideology, the legal code functions as an excuse. It wraps the base exercise of power in the noble apparel of the letter of the law.I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide whether America in 2015 is closer to Jefferson’s vision or Havel’s nightmare.