May 4, 2003

Chávez, Totalitarianism, and the fecklessness of the opposition

These days, it seems to happen alarmingly often. And it makes me shudder each time. Antichavista talking heads keep describing the Chávez government as a "totalitarian regime." Like nazism or Stalinism, or Pol Pot's Cambodia.

But do they stop to think about what that actually means?

It takes a bit of a re-read of Hannah Arendt to realize afresh the scale of the historical travesty perpetrated when Venezuelans liken our half-baked autocracy to actual totalitarianism. As a jew who lived through the holocaust, Arendt knew a thing or two about what real totalitarianism is like, of the scale of human suffering it inflicts. Reserving the term mostly for the regimes of Stalin and Hitler, she dissected it with clinical precision.

The first thing to understand about "totalitarianism" is that the term has a precise meaning. It's not just some loose synonym for dictatorship, autocracy, and authoritarianism. For Arendt, it's a unique form of state power, a conceptual category all its own.

Totalitarianism isn't about losing any inhibition in the use mass-scale violence to stay in power: mere dictatorships reach that level all the time. Totalitarianism of the brand pioneered in Germany and Russia in the 1930s goes much further than that. Its aim is not just to silence all sources of political dissent. Its goal is to dominate the totality of each and every thought and activity of each and every citizen each and every day.

As Arendt explains in The Origins of Totalitarianism, this form of political organization is not to be confused with dictatorship, which is much more common historically. Dictatorial violence is politically motivated, politically-rational violence. It's violence that "makes sense" if your main goal is to hang on to power.

Totalitarianism isn't like that. The Stalinist purges could not be explained in those terms. Stalin was willing to put Soviet society through immense dislocation, not just in human but in economic and military terms, even though as Arendt puts it,

None of these immense sacrifices in human life was motivated by a raison d'état in the old sense of the term. None of the liquidated social strata was hostile to the regime or likely to become hostile to the regime. Active organized opposition had ceased to exist by 1930.

In the Soviet Union, dictatorial terror (which is distinguished from totalitarian terror insofar as it threatens only authentic opponents, not harmless citizens without political views,) had been grim enough to suffocate all political life, open or clandestine, even before Lenin's death.

But totalitarianism is not content with that. Going beyond the bounds of the political sphere as traditionally understood, Stalin's totalitarian violence was about gaining total power over everything anyone in Russia did or thought.

In a chilling passage, Arendt explains what this means:

If totalitarianism takes its own claim seriously, it must finish once and for all with 'the neutrality of chess,' that is, with the autonomous existence of any activity whatsoever. The lovers of 'chess for the sake of chess,' are not absolutely atomized elements in a mass society whose completely heterogenous uniformity is one of the primary conditions for totalitarianism. From the point of view of totalitarian rulers, a society devoted to chess for the sake of chess is only in degree different and less dangerous than a class of farmers for the sake of farming.
This is what the "total" in "totalitarian" means - a system of government that will use any amount of violence it takes to control literally everything that happens in that society - even something as seemingly harmless as a citizen's relationship towards chess. Authoritarianism might be contented merely with absolute control over the political sphere. Totalitarianism is about total control over everything - about eradicating any basis for social organization not dominated by a central authority.

To achieve this level of control, the state must destroy any alternative links that could imaginably call into question any citizen's loyalty - it must "atomize" its citizens, destroying any alternative objects of identification or repositories of loyalty they might have. This it does through fear:

Mass atomization in Soviet society was achieved by the skillful use of repeated purges which invariably precede actual group liquidation. In order to destroy all social and family ties, the purges are conducted in such a way as to threaten with the same fate the defendant and all his ordinary relations, from mere acquaintances up to his closest friends and relatives.

The consequence of the simple and ingenious device of guilt by association is that as soon as a man is accused, his former friends are transformed immediately into his bitterest enemies; in order to save their own skins, they volunteer information and rush in with denunciations to corroborate the nonexistent evidence against him; this obviously is the only way to prove their own trustworthiness. Retrospectively, they will try to prove that their acquaintance or friendship with the accused was only a pretext for spying on him and revealing him as a saboteur, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, or a Fascist. Merit being gauged by the number of your denunciations of your closest comrades, it is obvious that the most elementary caution demands that one avoid all intimate contacts, if possible - not in order to prevent discovery of one's own secret thoughts , but rather to eliminate, in the almost certain case of future trouble, all persons who might have not only an ordinary interest in your denunciation but an irresistible need to bring about your ruin simply because they are in danger of their own lives.

In the last analysis, it has been through the development of this device to its farthest and most fantastic extremes that Bolshevik rulers have succeeded in creating an atomized and individualized society the like of which we have never seen before.

Take a minute to think about that passage, about the extent of domination, terror and violence it reveals, the next time you hear Antonio Ledezma describe the Chávez government as totalitarian.

"Totalitarian governments," Arendt concludes,

are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals. Compared with all other parties and movements, their most conspicuous external characteristic is their demand for total, unrestricted, unconditional and unalterable loyalty of the individual member. Such loyalty can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement, his membership in the party. Totalitarian domination is something that no state and no mere apparatus of violence can achieve, namely, the permanent domination of each single individual in each and every sphere of life.

In other words, make no mistake about it: if the Chávez regime was "totalitarian", I would be dead, and so would you.

The tendency to call the Chávez government "totalitarian" lays bare, to my mind, a worrying contempt for history, a kind of idiotized indifference towards the past. The comparison is so shrill, so obviously detached from any kind of serious consideration, that it suggests to me a deeply worrying contempt for the meaning of the words used in the public sphere.

Yet the charge is so commonplace it's become almost a cliche, constantly hurled through the media by opposition leaders who've clearly never stopped to consider that if they lived in anything even approaching the kind of regime they claim to be oppose, making such a statement in public would certainly cost them their lives.