America’s Totalitarian Tendencies

America has been on the road to totalitarianism for some time now. Totalitarianism has two schools. Old school totalitarian governments wield power openly. They use the apparatus of the state against their own citizens, arrest and hold political prisoners without due process, and violate people’s right to privacy in their own homes. In short, as Vaclav Havel observed from Communist Czechoslovakia in 1978, old school totalitarianism grants itself legitimacy “from the numbers… of armed… soldiers and police.” 

In addition to all the above, new school totalitarianism, what Havel called post-totalitarianism, farms out power to subsidiaries who do their dirty work for them, and who through shame or threat of violence force the commercial and corporate class to play nice or pay the price. This, of course, is just an earlier version of cancel culture which has a rather long and grimy history.

Havel’s example of the greengrocer is an example of how new school totalitarianism works. Havel’s grocer simply places a sign in the window of his shop which says, “Workers of the world unite!”

“Why does the grocer put the sign in the window?” Is he a truly concerned about the unity of workers around the world? Is he enthusiastically trying to educate the public? Is he trying to alter public opinion? No, probably not. He’s probably never even really thought about it very much, and it’s unlikely that the sign even represents his real opinion.

It's much more probable, Havel argues, “That the poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life.”

America had its “greengrocer” moment in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. The obligatory and ubiquitous BLM signs in the windows of corporate America appeared with lightning speed. Most did it not because they thought about it very much, or because it expressed their real opinion. They did it because to refuse could mean trouble. It could be seen as a sign of disloyalty. It was just accepted that these things must be done if one is to get along in this life. The BLM movement revealed, more than anything else, that America had entered into the post-totalitarian moment.

It should be noted that Havel called it post-totalitarian, not because it was less totalitarian then other forms of authoritarian governments, but because it was more subtle, and permeated all strata of society -- even to the grocer.

America had its old school totalitarian moment on Monday August 8, when the FBI raided the home of former President Donald Trump in Palm Beach, Florida. It’s likely no coincidence that this totalitarian act happened exactly forty-eight years to the day after President Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency over the Watergate scandal. As with terrorists, dates are important for totalitarians too. We are now at the point when the FBI is trending in a totalitarian direction.  

Usually when we think about totalitarian regimes, we think of it in non-religious terms. But Havel reminds us that totalitarianism is rabidly religious in its own way. It’s a kind of “secularized religion.” Through the “elaborateness and completeness” of its rituals every act takes on a kind of metaphysical character. Indeed, totalitarian states consider the “virtuosity of their rituals as more important than the reality” they represent. It’s the inverse of the sacramental order in Christianity where the reality signified is more important than the sign.

Also, because of its religious character, totalitarianism self-righteously views its own beliefs and actions as superior to all others. It allows no dissent. All other ideologies are considered heretical, evil, and of the enemy. These contrary ideas must not only be abandoned, they must be forbidden, and permanently forgotten. Cultural amnesia is mandated by the “thought police” of the totalitarian state.

Finally, totalitarianism requires the ultimate sacrifice. One must not only “live within the lie,” one must be willing to die for the lie. Totalitarianism is total, in the sense that it must “embrace and permeate everything.”

Living within the totalitarian lie cannot coexist with “living within the truth,” and therefore, according to Havel, “everyone who steps out of line denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.”

For Havel, the only way to defeat the totalitarian lie, is by living within the truth. This “singular, explosive, incalculable political power of living within the truth resides in the fact that living openly within the truth has an ally, invisible to be sure, but omnipresent,” and I might add, omnipotent.

So then, what is “…the simplest, the most accessible key to our liberation?” asks Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: “a personal nonparticipation in lies! Even if all is covered by lies, even if all is under their rule, let us resist in the smallest way: Let their rule hold not through me!”

Jim Fitzgerald is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and a missionary in the Middle East and North Africa. His articles have appeared in American Greatness,, and the Aquila Report.

Image: Petri Damstén

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