As I continue my self-guided tour of the work of Roger Scruton, I find that a significant portion of what I like about his work is his ability to express ideas I’ve held, but might not have been able to describe as elegantly.
This brings me to the piece I read this morning from his collection A Political Philosophy, called “The Totalitarian Temptation.” A fundamental assumption behind totalitarian is that
[E]very aspect of society, however remote from the normal concerns of government, is one over which the central government can, should it choose, exert control.
The method for asserting this control may be more or less violent or repressive, and it may be more or less extralegal, depending on the existence of a constitution and the government’s desire to have a fig leaf. What matters, as Scruton notes, is that the totalitarian “does not respect or acknowledge the distinction between civil society and the State.” As Mussolini put it, “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
I would suggest that totalitarianism manifests in the attitude that (to use a phrase often attributed to feminist Carol Hanisch) “the personal is political.” If this is so, then the personal (which had been the realm of civil society) becomes the province of the State, which brings us back to “nothing outside the state.”
And even in American culture, it appears that more and more private decisions are attracting the interest of the State, either from direct legislation, taxation, or what people like Obama adviser Cass Sunstein describe as public organizations “nudging” people to make “good decisions.” All this, of course, is what Jonah Goldberg describes as Liberal Fascism.
Returning to Scruton, however, he argues that the rise of totalitarian governments (e.g., Nazism, State Communism) in the 20th Century occurred because “there is something in human nature to which they respond.” The temptation is to believe that the failures of the totalitarian states have stemmed from putting the wrong people in charge, and each new batch of totalitarians believes that they will at last get it right.
But what is the human trait that totalitarianism pretends to assuage? This is where I find Scruton to be electrifying. “Totalitarian systems of government and totalitarian ideologies have a single source, which is resentment.” Scruton notes that resentment is a natural part of the human condition, an inevitable consequence of competition for resources. The would-be totalitarian sees the institutions of civil society as creating the inequalities that bred his resentment, and by using government, he would bypass or altogether eliminate those institutions.
This is what Rush Limbaugh has described as “get even with ‘em-ism,” but for those of us in the medievalism business, we recognize it as the second deadly sin in the Gregorian order: Envy. We can define envy as sorrow for the good of others, the flip side of which is schadenfreude. The Left sees the good of others as inherently unfair, and its members resent/envy that and describe it as illegitimate privilege. In order to ease their resentment, they would have whoever they see as privileged taken down a peg. Because left to their own devices, some people will wind up less successful or subordinate to others, it becomes the task of the resentful to see to it that as few people are left to their own devices as possible. Hence, the desire for totalitarianism. And if the totalitarian dream of equal outcome fails (as it invariably has), then as long as the formerly privileged suffer, the would-be totalitarian at least can wallow in schadenfreude.
So where’s my point in all this? I would argue that, no matter how gently the Left presents its agenda, it can only be accomplished through some form of totalitarianism, and it always comes back to the same old sin.