Totalitarianism and the Soul

It probably goes without saying that the ideal of any totalitarian system is the automaton — the human being as a kind of marionette. The individual must be disciplined — made predictable, calculable, and consequently controllable. To effect this, everything spontaneous must be rigorously suppressed or extinguished. And since spontaneity is also creativity, and both are connected with the meaning of “individuality”, individuality must be extinguished.

It is, however, quite possible to have a system of “individualism” but without real individuality.

Hitler, for example, thought of himself as the only real “personality” in Germany, and so reserved to himself the unconditional and exclusive right to be unpredictable and spontaneous. Everyone else was expected to serve only as an instrument of der Führer’s will and purpose. And this process of aligning everybody and everything with der Führer’s will was called “Gleichschaltung” — a difficult word to translate effectively, but which means “coordination” or “alignment”, and is connected with the mechanical idea of gears interlocking — synchromeshing. The “cult of personality” can only be appreciated in a context where de-personalisation, which Durkheim called anomie, was the norm, and so “de-personalisation” is one of the essential objectives of totalitarian systems. “Persons”, as such, must be converted into functions, and creativity must be reduced to “productivity” only. Creativity, or the surprising, is not predictable. Productivity, however, is predictable, calculable, and controllable.

The devaluation of creativity into mere productivity parallels the devaluation of the whole into a mere totality and the integral into the merely uniform and assimilationist, and therewith, of course, everything qualitative into the quantitative. Totalitarianism is, in that sense, the logical endgame and outcome of all fundamentalism and reductionism — the systematisation of all fundamentalism and reductionism — which is why the struggle against religious fundamentalism or secular reductionism is sound. What William Blake in his time already anticipated as “Single Vision” was the psychological precondition for the emergence of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is the formal political and social realisation of Single Vision. And whether it is fascistic or Bolshevistic makes very little difference. That is a false antithesis.

Of course, you can ask the pertinent question: why do so many allow themselves to become automatons, nothing but the servants of a perverse will and to give up all responsibility for their own individuality? To become, in effect, non-persons? To become, in effect, little more than servo-mechanisms and a bundle of conditioned reflexes? They don’t see themselves that way, naturally. But that’s the function of terror and of propaganda. Their “self-image” is just the opposite — the “master race”, or “the elect” or “the chosen few”, “the noble ones”, “the exceptional” and so on and so forth, whereas in truth they have merely become servo-mechanisms. The profile of the perfect servo-mechanism was Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.

Arendt’s profile of Eichmann and her characterisation of evil as “banal” raised a storm of controversy. It cost her many friendships. But she was quite right, and perhaps her opponents felt that the description she gave of the “banality of evil” struck too close to the bone for some. Eichmann was the perfect servo-mechanism. He had no personality and no individuality whatsoever. He had no spontaneity. He was the perfect functionary and organisation man — little more than “a bundle of conditioned reflexes”. He was sentient, but not conscious. But that’s just another way of saying “servo-mechanism”. And when war criminals justified their crimes by saying they were “only following orders”, they were quite correct. Nothing of a “person” as such was left. They had been transformed into perfect servo-mechanisms. That’s the meaning of “loss of soul”. That’s what Arendt meant by “banal”, but few understood her — or, perhaps, understood her too well and wanted to distance themselves as far as possible from the logical conclusion — that they themselves merely functioned as servo-mechanisms of another “will”.

But that’s the totalitarian ideal — the human being as perfect servo-mechanism, in which everything suspiciously “spontaneous” has been extinguished — predictable, calculable, quantifiable, controllable, and the means to bring this off, surgically and precisely, without the human being even being necessarily aware of it.



One response to “Totalitarianism and the Soul”

  1. LittleBigMan says :


    Indeed, “terror and propaganda” are central to totalitarianism. But the soul wants to be free, to express itself and experience things, and to acquire knowledge. The struggle that results comes forth from the Ever-Present Origin. Then, in which direction one is pushed (respondeo etsi mutabor) will determine on which side of the cross of reality one lands.

    It seems to me, then, that victory in the face of totalitarianism will depend on how one adapts in such a way that one does not become a participant in totalitarian regimes and manages to save his/her soul. That’s quite of an art.

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