Totalitarianism and Liberalism
Rising idleness: from totalitarianism to liberalism
Quite apart from by political power, any society must also be held together by shared ideas about its values and goals. We must, to some degree, have some shared vision of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.
Just as it has been argued 1 that the political structure of society is determined by its degree of idleness, with the least idle societies being kingdoms, and the most idle democracies, and the perfectly idle anarchies, so also it may be argued that the intellectual character of a society is determined by its idleness.
In the least idle societies, where few people have the opportunity to think about any matter, people must perforce leave thinking to other people - authorities -, much as they leave bread-making to bakers, and the general governance of society in the hands of a king. It cannot be the king himself who thinks much about anything, because he is already tasked with steering society. The intellectual authority of any society must always lie elsewhere than its executive, and be made up of largely idle individuals who have the time and inclination to think. In some cases these will the elders of society, no longer able to work. In others intellectual authority may lie in the hands of wise men, holy men, or the priests of some religion. Whoever they are, their task is always one of providing an understanding of society, its goals and purposes, and an explanation of the world, which they teach to the wider unthinking society.
Societies with such centralised intellectual authorities are likely to be authoritarian, and intolerant of opposition or heresy. They are likely to be 'totalitarian' in the sense of controlling every aspect of individual thought, belief, and activity - because in busy, low idleness societies, the price of error may be catastrophe.
But with rising social idleness, and more people finding themselves with time on their hands to begin to think for themselves, rather than leave such thinking to higher authority, it is inevitable that the doctrines of these higher authorities will begin to be questioned, criticized, and perhaps even rejected. The intellectual authorities lose their monopoly on thought, and new ideas begin to take shape.
This liberation from intellectual authority gives rise to a 'liberalism' which is tolerant and even encouraging of iconoclastic new ideas, new ways of seeing and understanding. Such liberalism is by nature pluralistic, experimental, and dynamic, whereas centralised authority is inherently monolithic, traditional, and static.
In pluralistic liberal societies, old certainties and beliefs and dogmas gradually dissolve. It becomes impossible to retain a rigid structure of authority against a rising tide of dissent, doubt, and disbelief. The teachings of erstwhile authorities are drowned in a rising chorus of many voices.
In perfectly idle societies, the plurality of ways of seeing would multiply to equal the numbers of individuals in society, each with their own unique view, with no person being any sort of authority.
Thus the least idle of societies are likely to have a totalitarian nature, to have singular and dogmatic views enforced upon every member of society. While the most idle societies are likely to have a liberal plurality of views, promiscuously multiplying.
Falling idleness: from liberalism to totalitarianism
When a largely idle society, with a plurality of views and a wide diversity of ideas, experiences falling idleness, the trend is reversed, and the motion becomes one of a decreasing liberalism, and an increasing tendency towards totalitarian centralisation of authority.
In the best of times, plants and animals multiply and diversify, and when hard times overtake them, they undergo a process of rigorous natural selection, leaving only a few survivors. The same might be said of ideas: that in the idlest of times, ideas multiply and diversify, but when idleness falls, this diversity of ideas undergoes a process of natural selection, whereby the most far-fetched or irrational or useless ideas are discarded, and the numbers of ideas are reduced to a handful, and perhaps to only one.
For as social idleness falls, and people increasingly lack the time to think for themselves, they must necessarily put their trust in the thinking of those who are still able to think. These persons become authorities. And as the numbers of these newly created authorities dwindle and merge, the end result is monolithic and totalitarian dogma exerted by a minority elite.
In times of falling idleness, knowledge tends to be lost. As ideas are discarded, they cease to be reproduced or copied as books or manuscripts. Entire systems of thought vanish completely, or only survive in some corrupted form. The task of emerging authority is to attempt to unify what remains into some sort of singular system.
And what knowledge survives must generally be that which is the most useful for the survival of society.
And it should be pointed out that, where social idleness falls to extremely low levels, societies are liable to completely disintegrate. In such societies, there ceases to even be the time for authorities to dispense their ideas through society, either because the authorities have no time to teach, or their society has no time to listen.
People can only think to the extent that they have time to think. In idle societies, where minds need not much be bent to necessary work, the opportunity to wonder, to dream, and to think presents itself. In busy working societies, few people have the time to indulge in that luxury, and of necessity what ideas or beliefs they entertain are those which are the everyday currency of the society in which they find themselves. Idle people are likely to be broad-minded, open to new ideas. Busy people are likely to be dogmatic, small-minded, perhaps even bigoted.
Therefore it should not be thought that there exists some totalitarian impulse in the soul of humanity which forever grapples with a liberal impulse, but rather a changing set of circumstances which encourage either a strict totalitarian organization of society, or a general liberal permissiveness, or some intermediate state.
A lifeboat from a sinking ship, struggling with oars towards the distant land, must be a totalitarian society in which everyone works dutifully in unity for the common purpose of finding dry land, and in which any slacking from the task, any dispute of command, any indulgence of personal whim, is utterly intolerable, because it might cause the loss of the lifeboat and all its crew. But in the same boat, with the same crew, at play paddling about in some small, warm, shallow lagoon, it really does not matter if all aboard are intoxicated, pulling at the oars in opposite directions, and periodically falling overboard.
And to some degree, it is not even as if totalitarian and liberal society are in absolute opposition. Totalitarian societies also need independent thinkers to clarify and organize and formalise their dogmas. And liberal societies need some vestigial structure of authority within which to promote and cultivate new ideas.
Modern liberal Western society is the successor of a totalitarian Christianity, which first emerged in the permissive pluralism of the Roman empire, and which eventually intruded into every aspect of life. This Christianity eventually, many centuries later, fell victim to its own success, as it first disintegrated into rival sects and heresies, which in turn dissolved into a liberal secular pluralistic society. If, periodically, totalitarian societies re-emerge, it is perhaps because these societies find themselves, in the aftermath of military defeat and economic collapse, in dire circumstances that demand dictatorial power and social conformism to some dogmatic party line, with all dissent suppressed, in precisely the way that Christian authority once suppressed heresy. If so, the surest remedy against such recurrence is the avoidance of war, and the maintenance and increase of the leisure which constitutes the only real wealth of any society.
Author: Chris Davis
First created: 3 March 2004