Robert Kaplan has some interesting thoughts on a potentially looming new totalitarianism, on The American Interest. Basically, people need meaning, and those who would dominate their fellow man work to create (or simply take advantage of) a void in which to insert their own answers. One way of playing on the emotions en masse in this way is to lead individuals to feel isolated or lonely:
… Toward the end of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt observes: “What prepares men for totalitarian domination . . . is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the evergrowing masses of our century.” Totalitarianism, she goes on, is the product of the lonely mind that deduces one thing from the other in linear fashion toward the worst possible result, and thus is a “suicidal escape from this reality.” Pressing men and women so close together in howling, marching formations obliterates individuality and thus loneliness. But even with all of our electronic diversions, is loneliness any less prevalent now than it was when Arendt published her magnum opus in 1951? People are currently more isolated than ever, more prone to the symptoms of the lonely, totalitarian mind, or what psychiatrists call “racing thoughts.” …
But doesn’t technology empower, by putting people in touch with each other so that they can speak with one voice? Precisely: It is speaking with one voice that is the danger. The freedom of the internet is a conceit. Most people think that they generate their own ideas, but the truth is that most of their ideas are prepared by others who think for them. That some sermon or blog or tweet has gone viral is a sad reflection on the state of individualism in the 21st century. The electronic swarm is a negation of loneliness that prepares the way for new ideologies of totalitarianism. Imagine the swarm of electronic followers in countries where all personal dignity has been erased because of war, crime, and chaos, where a postmodern form of extreme religiosity is the only imaginable panacea.
One crucial correction I’d make to these paragraphs is to mitigate Kaplan’s cynicism that “most of [people’s] ideas are prepared by others who think for them.” The totalitarian trap also includes a path of overt (while homogeneous and predictable) rebellion. Along that path, people are made to feel as if they are not fully human unless their ideas and personality are entirely of their own making, which is impossible. We build on ideas that came before, and our individuality arises in applying those ideas to specific, often unique-to-us, circumstances.
We aren’t somehow shirking our responsibility to think for our selves simply because that which is unique in our thinking applies only narrowly, even as narrowly as your relationship with one other person. In contrast, it is very much possible to sell people on the idea that repeating specific beliefs is a marker of having thought for ourselves. Assent to some prepackaged propositions — according to the promise — proves that you thought for yourself. It’s all a matter of being in a position to tell people what clichés are markers of individual thought and which are markers of mindless conformity.
What is actually dehumanizing about “the electronic swarm”? It isn’t that we strive to connect with others by sharing something that has fluttered into our social-media view. Rather, it’s that we too rarely receive person-to-person feedback to whatever it is in us that makes us unique.
Recognition is the cure for loneliness. I’m not talking, here, about the adulation of fame or professional awards, which can have its own pitfalls, but rather one person’s recognition of the unique individual humanity of another. It’s not “you are seen.” It’s “I see you.” It’s the sense that that person is responding or reacting specifically to me.
We see this in rowdy teenagers or controversialist artists. Making others recoil produces the sensation of having been seen through that which is uniquely hurting in us. Likewise, the cult of victimhood can create a sense that others are responding to our unique circumstances.
But this is akin to chasing a chemical high as a substitute for spiritual euphoria. In pursuing such adolescent solutions to loneliness, we conflate ourselves with that which is hurting us, or the superficial markers of our identity group. The conflation need not be negative, of course; we can also gain a false sense of recognition by defining our identities according to a menu of positions that, we’re told, all good people hold. Thus, the purple-haired, smoking rebel with an alternative lifestyle and a mouth full of curses, who basks in the negative reactions of the Cis, also professes to be a warrior for “diversity” and “sustainability” (both narrowly and strictly defined by others) because that is a well-paved route to approval.
This conflation of ourselves with the masks by which we spark recognition is exactly what the totalitarian wants. I’m not so sure that the facts of “howling, marching formations” or of “the electronic swarm” are the cause that “obliterates individuality.” Instead, they seem more like the indications that we’ve been successfully herded. They’re the effect. The totalitarian’s work was in getting us there, prepared to be led.
The problem is that the counteraction is so difficult. In the long run, we can’t just get an opposing army to herd up and march in a direction that we’d prefer. Do that, and the sorts of people who want to tell others what to do will simply switch from Left to Right.
The Left is winning because its minions overtook cultural institutions that define the good and the bad. Book after book, article after article, and movie after movie has instilled the gut, non-rational feeling that conservatives, traditionalists, Christians, and patriots represent the group from which we should want to receive negative recognition, while liberals, rebels, skeptics, and big-government internationalists represent the group from which we should want to receive positive responses.
The problem is that people who oppose totalitarianism actually value freedom and true diversity, and so are susceptible to allowing the others in. Those who like controlling others do not share those values and will lock the others out.
That means that large-scale action and, especially, broad propaganda are seen as attempts at manipulation by the Right, while the same from the Left are presented as simply the way things work. We can fight the battle, and maybe win it for a time, but it will only be “The Right” that wins, not freedom and individuality.
Unfortunately, that leaves the hard work of genuine personal connection — of actually seeing individual people, one by one, and getting them to see that we see them, while not approving of those of their masks that are destructive of themselves or of others. Fortunately, a model emerged for this difficult work some 2,000 years ago.