The Rise of Total Government in the 19th and 20th centuries

A SAC Narrative Extension


Narrative Chronology
The three great "totalitarian" states
Diagnostic features of "totalitarianism", listed according to SAC "taxonomy" [ID]
I.   Mentalities
II.  Institutions
III. Social structure
IV. Economy
V.  Geography


The word "statism" (and its adverbial form "statist") is a bit of a neologism. Its meaning can be summarized in the following way. The word "state" refers to centralized executive authority (administration of laws, management of national budgets and maintenance of what is sometimes called "monopoly on violence" -- police and military establishments). Thus the words "statism" and "statist" describe institutions and political practices in which executive authority gathers increasing levels and varieties of power into its hands.

Such executive power often neutralizes the remarkable institutional creations of the liberal era ("parliaments" or democratic "representative bodies", civil liberties, independent courts and regional governing bodies within a federated hierarchy of institutions).

Statist executive or managerial authority side-steps traditional "Western" notions of independent judicial authority. Even when it extols "rule of law", statism means obedience to regulations handed down by the state [the nation-state]. However prescriptive and however exempt it is itself from legal restraint, statist power has an inclination to insist on its version of "rule of law". The choice of "rule" rather than "governance" in this famous phrase is significant.

Statism reaches out with disciplined and centralized ruling institutions into areas of domestic social, economic and mental ("intellectual" and creative) life where states seldom ventured in earlier times, where historically only religiously sanctified institutions were allowed to intrude.

Statist authority is so strongly encouraged by such projection of power in the domestic realm that it is easily tempted to project its power beyond its borders into vulnerable surrounding territories. Total statism can be described as a situation in which the power of government demands and enforces unrestrained SOVEREIGNTY both with respect to international relations -- the relationship to the wider world -- and with respect to domestic policy -- its relationship to its own subjects. [Hop and read top 5 paragraphs that describe the historical origins of the two-faced European concept of sovereignty.] Statism acknowledges no enforceable external or internal restraint on its power. The total state thrives, or stagnates, or collapses, but all on its own terms. Yet total states have been challenged and overcome by domestic and/or international force.


Narrative Chronology

"Statism" (accent on the ascendant power of governments over populations) has been a discernable feature of human experience since the beginning of historical times.

However, one of the most dramatic accomplishments of "Western Civ" -- from the era of the US Revolution into the 20th century -- has been the broad and largely successful effort to escape that common feature of earlier human experience. The ascendant power of executive authority (as in the European aristocratic/monarchical polities) was challenged, weakened and sometimes overthrown in the period we have designated phase one of the European revolution [ID].

Statism is used here to describe 20th-century global trends which sought to reverse the dominant 19th-century political trends, for example, liberalism, socialism and conservatism. The 19th-century spectrum of European political life was squeezed in the twentieth century from both sides, left and right, as if the tips of our iconic omega were a powerful pinching jaw [ID].

Modern statism made its first moves back toward the center of the historical stage in "The West" in the years of Napoleon III [ID] and can be seen in the policies of the German Imperial Chancellor Bismarck [ID]. It was a long-term feature of Russian political culture [EG].

Nationalistic, Chauvinistic, militaristic and frequently racist and imperialistic statism grew from the middle of the 19th century to monstrous proportions in the 20th century. It grew in direct proportion to -- and in close connection with -- the colossal growth in centralized industrial and financial power.

The financial, military and administrative power of "The West" developed in stark disproportion to that of other areas of the globe.

The financial, military and administrative power of the "Western" nation-state developed in stark disproportion to the power of populations under its administration.

Statist power developed in stark disproportion to that of domestic European civil societies. Neither liberals, socialists nor conservatives were able to find just the right way to deal with the newly grown wage-labor component of modernizing society [EG]. This lingering political/institutional inability weakened and compromised society in its relationship to the state in the late 19th century [Huge LOOP on "wage-labor"].

As the 19th century wound down, the great German sociologist Max Weber [ID] concluded that the progressive ideals and innovations of the European 18th and 19th centuries were dissolving. What was charming, liberating and charismatic earlier had become disenchanting, oppressive and hyper-rational and bureaucratic in the era of "The Second Industrial Revolution". As Weber put it in his influential study of the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism, the light cloak of economic modernization with its generous invitation to laissez-faire freedom and prosperity was, in his view, becoming an "iron cage" [TXT].

The "iron cage" of managerial elitism expressed itself with increasing force in the early 20th century, even in the midst of the world's most liberal political cultures. New techniques of managerial control entered into industrial economic life and promised to find applications in political and social life [SAC LOOP on "managerial"].

Then came the great world wars. "Statism" (managerial authoritarianism within central government) threatened to overwhelm and absorb the wide variety of independent and complex social and economic structures and practices new to the past century or so (industrialization, urbanization, liberalism, democracy, socialism, public welfare). WW1 taught European nation states the techniques of total war-time mobilization [TXT] to meet the needs of the first modern industrialized total war [SAC LOOP on "military-industrial"].

In our iconographic illustration of civil society [ID], so far as it might be deployed to illustrate the growth of "statism" in the 20th century, the circle labeled "state" (to use a medical metaphor) expanded like a malignant growth (as viewed from the European liberal perspective) into the circles labeled "society" and "economy". Overlap had proven essential and healthy, but suffocation of any circle by another circle was judged malignant in the eyes of those who adhered to the first phase of the European Revolution [ID].

The collapse of European and, eventually, North American capitalist economies after WW1 played a central causative role in the emergence of hyper-statism in the 1920s and beyond [7-hop LOOP on "collapse", including a summary entry on the decade of sharpest crisis]

Moderate European doctrines, like Social Democracy and Liberalism, came under powerful attack, particularly between WW1 and WW2 [EG] | Take a hop or two on post-WW1 LOOP on "liberalism"]. Authentic conservatism was just as thoroughly dismissed, or was co-opted into the ranks of militant reaction. "Conservatism" was beginning to redefine itself as chauvinistic militarism. "Statism" transcended even those closely-related 19th-century "isms" = nationalism, Chauvinism, patriotism. Statism devoured those earlier "isms" and grew stronger.

Then WW2 built on WW1 economic/managerial trends and could be thought of as 20th-century versions of what Charles Tilly identified as two of the three varieties of economic modernization = "coercion-intensive" and "capitalized coercion" [ID]. In the German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and other "national" regional 1930s [ID], "coercion-intensive" trends and "capitalized-coercion" trends triumphed over pre-WW1 "capital-intensive" trends.

Since then, "globalization" [ID] has created many variations on each of the three trends -- "capital-intensive", "capitalized coercion" and "coercion-intensive".

By the 1960s the descriptive phrase "Military Industrial Complex" [LOOP] came into wide usage in USA. 

In these years, The People's Republic of China began regularly to accuse the Soviet Union of falling away from the socialist ideals or from "communism" and into "state capitalism" [ID]. With time many have come to feel this was an example of the pot calling the kettle black.

But most surprising was the discovery in those "Cold-War" years of certain profound similarities in positions and behavior of industrial planning and managerial elites in the USSR and USA [EG, especially Granick's conclusions about "managerial class"].

Then in the early 21st century industrialists and financiers of USA and the People's Republic of China have discovered few barriers to their commercial intercourse, whatever the alleged differences in their larger political-institutional heritages. When did China cease to be called "Communist China", even as the same Communist Party rules there in the 21s century as it did since 1949.


The great 20th-century totalitarian states =
Mussolini and Fascist Italy [LOOP]
Weimar Constitution and the Rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party [LOOP]
Joseph Stalin and "Socialism in One Country" [LOOP]

|_Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared | A powerful study that largely rejects the concept of "totalitarianism" and emphasizes the great differences as well as the similarities between Hitler Germany and Stalinis USSR. Read this 2011je:AHR review [E-TXT]

<>Bullock,Alan| a{1914}e{2004}n{}o{
*1992:NYC,Knopf|_Hitler and Stalin : Parallel lives| ((1081p bbl ndx))

<>Cassinelli,CW|_Total revolution : A comparative study of Germany under Hitler, the Soviet Union under Stalin, and China under Mao| *1976:CA.Santa Barbara,Clio Books| ((252p bbl ndx))

<>Gellately,Robert|_Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler : The age of social catastrophe| *2007?:NYC,Knopf| ((UO JC495.G45 2007| 696p bbl:595-670 ndx|The great social and political catastrophe that enveloped Europe between 1914 and 1945--a period of almost continuous upheaval [WW1 RREV, the Holocaust, and the Third Reich]. Historian Gellately argues that these tragedies are inextricably linked and that to consider them as discrete events is to misunderstand their genesis and character. Central to the catastrophe, of course, were Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, and this book makes use of recently opened sources to explain how these dictators' pursuit of utopian--and dreadfully flawed--ideals led only to dystopian nightmare. Gellately argues that most comparative studies of the Soviet and Nazi dictatorships are undermined by neglecting the key importance of Lenin. Rejecting the myth of the "good" Lenin, the book provides a social-historical account of all three dictatorships))

<>Overy,RJ|_The_Dictators : Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia| 2004:Norton| ((UO DD247.H5O94 2004| 848p bbl:653-818 ndx))

<>Snyder,Timothy|_Bloodlands : Europe between Hitler and Stalin| *2010:NYC,Basic Books| ((UO DJK49.S69| 524pp bbl:423-462| ndx. Hitler and Stalin -- The Soviet famines -- Class terror -- National terror -- Molotov-Ribbentrop Europe -- The economics of apocalypse -- Final solution -- Holocaust and revenge -- The Nazi death factories -- Resistance and incineration -- Ethnic cleansings -- Stalinist antisemitism -- Humanity| A groundbreaking investigation of Europe's killing fields and a sustained explanation of the motives and methods of both Hitler and Stalin. ...anchors the history of Hitler's Holocaust and Stalin's Terror in their time and place and provides a fresh account of the relationship between the two regimes))

Diagnostic features of total statism,
arranged according to our
Taxonomy of Historical Experience [ID]

Statism was not simply a "political phenomenon". It touched all levels of historical experience. In the 20th century, another "ism" -- a 20-century neologism -- came into wide usage to describe this phenomenon = totalitarianism. Statist trends observable in the 19th century gained strength in the 20th.

I. Mentalities

*--Official ideology. Ideology engulfs, explains, guides all things. Nothing is just "for its own sake"

*--Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), argued that the most important political division in the modern world is between ideological/theological ways of thinking and political ways of thinking. The two are not compatible. There is a place for theological and perhaps also for ideological ways of thinking, but these are in essence not "political ways of thinking". The ideals of the "political intellect" must be distinguished and separated from the ideals of the "ideological/theological intellect".

Characteristically, the political intellect, if it is to operate at all as a kind of civic force rather than as a mere set of maneuvers to advance this or that special interest, must have its own way of handling the facts of life and of forming strategies.

Hofstadter here echoes an embarrassing and much misunderstood "Western" tradition = the Machiavellian tradition [ID].

Hofstadter continues his explanation of "the political intellect" (IE=the politically oriented frame of mind) =

It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based on the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane [134-5]

Hofstadter offers the remarkable observation that ideological/theological ways of thinking make the world of human political interrelationship into a Manichaean world [ID], an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil. Hofstadter here refers to a major early -- and persisting -- Christian heresy. The Manichaean view, he observes, scorns compromises, tolerates no ambiguity, despises careful distinctions, and poisons democratic civil society.

*--Some more interpretations of statism = Nikolai Berdiaev | Leni Riefenstahl | Johan Huizinga | Ignazio Silone | Arthur Koestler | Ernst Cassirer | Hanna Arendt

*1935se13:Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg | Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels delivered speech in which he endeavored to distinguish National Socialist (Nazi) rule in Germany from Communist rule in the USSR [TXT]

II. Institutions

*--Monopoly control over information or knowledge in general. The media are forbidden independent expression (negative censorship control, suppression) and also compelled to express an approved narrative (positive censorship control, manipulation of public consciousness).

The European progressive notion of "the public sphere" refers to this arena of comprehensible, intellectual, rational give and take. The public sphere is where the interests of state institutions overlap with and come under the discipline of public interests and the systems of production and distribution of things of value (economy) [EG]. Using the geographic or geometric metaphor "sphere", the reference is to places or sets of institutions or public habits of communication, exchange of opinion, and dissemination of information.

Over time, the following "media" have been central to the public sphere = the village or city square, forum, circus, the pulpit, censorship, coffee houses and other places of recreation and entertainment, theatre, newspapers, journals, books, libraries, schools, billboards, radio, television, and the world wide web.

When "people" dominate the "public sphere", then popular interests will be served. When powerful elites dominate, elite interests will be served. When officials dominate it, official interests will be served. When censors dominate it, their interests are served. When media giants dominate it, their interests are served. Totalitarianism seeks monopoly control over the public sphere.

Totalitarianism persecutes spontaneous social participation in the public sphere (negative censorship) and seeks complete managerial or manipulative domination of it (positive censorship). In other words, totalitarian notions of the pubic sphere not only suppress expression contrary to its interests and promote expression supportive of its interests, it suffocates all neutral expression as well. The public sphere is saturated with the totalitarian message.

*--Terror, often focused on a specified group, a malevolent "otherness", to be purging as scapegoat [EG]. This connected with increasing levels of national crisis, at one and the same moment causing and justifying terror. Terror [ID] works as an especially motivational form of control over information or knowledge or more broadly of "understanding"

*--Strict enforcement of general "secrecy". Whole areas of information, knowledge or understanding are removed from the public sphere, shifting focus from public openness or publicity to "privacy", essentially official privacy from public scrutiny, on grounds of "security" but often to promote "insider interests". This is often connected with an ironic trend = the breakdown of restraints on authorities when it comes to official scrutiny into realms of individual privacy.

*--Imposition of "police values" on the civilian public sphere = predictability. Substitutions of military virtues for civilian virtues. Police and military are instruments of violence in protection of public order, but also of political power. Totalitarianism is prone to violence in protection of its political power

*--Utter disregard for the greatest legal accomplishment of the liberal era, courts independent of executive, legislative or social control =

Nikolai Bukharin's 1938 final statement before the Stalinist court that was about to sentence him to death =

....while in prison I made a re-evaluation of my entire past. For when you ask yourself, 'If you must die, what are you dying for?' -- an absolutely black vacuity suddenly arises before you with startling vividness. There was nothing to die for, if one wanted to die unrepented. And, on the contrary, everything positive that glistens in the Soviet Union acquires new dimensions in a man's mind. This in the end disarmed me completely and led me to bend my knees before the Party and the country. And when you ask yourself, 'Very well, suppose you do not die; suppose by some miracle you remain alive, again what for? Isolated from everybody, an enemy of the people, in an inhuman position, completely isolated from everything that constitutes the essence of life.... [sic].' And at once the same reply arises. And at such moments, Citizen Judges, everything personal, all the personal incrustation, all the rancor, pride, and a number of other things [one may presume he implied by this his technical innocence of the charges brought against him], fall away, disappear. And, in addition, when the reverberations of the broad international struggle reach your ear, all this in its entirety does its work, and the result is the complete internal moral victory of the USSR over its kneeling opponents.... The point, of course, is not this repentance, or my personal repentance in particular. The Court can pass its verdict without it. The confession of the accused is not essential [nor perhaps is the guilt]. The confession of the accused is a medieval principal of jurisprudence. But here we also have the internal demolition of the forces of counter-revolution. And one must be a Trotsky not to lay down one's arms [WRH:648-9].

Bukharin seriously exaggerated Trotsky's obduracy =

Leon Trotsky, defending himself at the Thirteenth Party Conference against Stalin's attacks and his impending ouster from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, uttered these words =

The party in the last analysis is always right, because the party is the single historic instrument given to the proletariat for the solution of its fundamental problems. [...] I know that one must not be right against the party. One can be right only with the party, and through the party, for history has created no other road for the realization of what is right [Deutscher,Stalin:278]

*--The "Political Party" (or parties) rule through highly centralized and closed political machinery. They have been called "cadre parties" [ID]. Frequently a clear distinction is made between the party and governmental institutions. The party is not identical with the governmental institutions, but it assumes monopoly managerial control over government and all its resources.

Mass party organizations and other instruments of executive authority substitute for "Social Structure". Parties are not socially organized nor are they concentrated expressions of public interests and issues, they are officially organized expressions of state interests and issues. Neither the party nor its government are "grass roots organizations". The party and its state plant and mow the grass, so to speak. A small portion of the whole population is recruited by the party itself from a de-politicized mass society and into a meaningful identity based solely on party membership. And that brings us to the third taxonomic realm of historical experience where totalitarianism expressed itself =

III. Social Structure

*--Populations are amalgamated into "mass society". The webs of social affiliation are swept away [ID]. Individual or group ties to anything like a spontaneous public sphere are severed. Individuals are "atomized". The total state depends on extreme individualization of the population, but without obvious individuality
Individuals are freed (uprooted) from community settings and then tied directly to the state
. There are no intermediary voluntary associations. Social cohesion is smashed. Identity is given by the state and tends toward uniformity and regimentation in groups that correspond to the interests of the insider statist elites. Statism imposes on its subjects an extreme egalitarianism without community and without freedom. Voluntary association becomes as problematical as individual "deviance". THOUGHTS ON DISSENT

Goebbels said that the greatest human happiness was to be a genius or to serve one. Another Nazi official once said, "The only person who is a private citizen is someone asleep"

Elie Cohen on human behavior in the total environment

*--Elie A. Cohen, a Dutch physician who was for three years held in Auschwitz, composed his memoirs, Human Behavior in the Concentration Camp (1953). He generalized about people in the totalitarian environment, employing the Nazi concentration camp as an apotheosis of total statism.

Apotheosis of total statism = the concentration camp. Going into the camp Elie Cohen felt an "acute depersonalization". Substitution of a number for his given and family names was a special form of "degradation". Things were happening TO him, as if he were an object. A process of depersonalization got under way immediately. Prisoners' skulls were shaved. They were stripped and given total inspection, oral, rectal and, for women, vaginal, all in the presence of armed guards, all strangers.

When he was arrested, Cohen could not walk. "The gassing of my family ... found me unprepared" to understand or accept. Terror was his reaction, a substitute for thought. His attention began to focus on only one thing = self preservation. Thus his first reaction to life in this total environment was adaptation.

"Behavior is reduced to survival tactics" [cf. Social Darwinism (ID)]. Cohen stole food from a close relative as he lost strength. Those who survived best were either

(1) those who could maintain at least a shred of identity within their own inner "spiritual life" (either religious or ideological, e.g., Christianity or Communism), or
(2) those who were able to "lower standards" or adapt to the environment of the camp, what Aldus Huxley in the post WW2 era called "fitness to an unfit fitness".

A medical doctor was forced to empty garbage cans. He gained certain benefits from this, such that most inmates did not have. But he felt belittled. He declined and died.

Thus for the second group of survivors, an additional device also supported them = apathy. Things were terrible, but nothing could be done. There was next to no rebellion or rocking the boat. Survival recommended personal "regression" into a state of helpless pliability.

The only relief was humor, "deliberate ignoring of the seriousness of the situation". A certain resigned cynicism predominated. Inmates learned to become instruments in the hands of camp masters. This led some to identify with their SS guards, especially since the SS were the only ones there with "personality". They had the attraction of celebrities. Fixation on such celebrity drew attention away from one's own deplorable state. The KAPO was the ideal prisoner. The prison became his life. He totally identified with the authoritative, powerful and organized SS because he now had none of those traits himself. The KAPO was rewarded for special services, minor rewards, but all important in this otherwise nearly totally deprived environment. The KAPO was a "person of very little spiritual property". He was constrained or regulated by no inner compass, only by the authority of his superior. Cohen pondered the question of how prevalent the KAPO personality is in any population. Some told him that anyone could become a KAPO, but Cohen felt that only a few could sink that low.

Cohen was certain that the concentration camp was a sort of paradigm of total statism, a "concentration" of its major characteristics

*--Alain Resnais, Nuit et brouillard = [Night and fog, a 32 min. videorecording of original 1955 movie]. The final words of this film suggest something very general about the crimes of the concentration camps =

The crematorium is no longer in use. The devices of the Nazis are out of date. ... Who is on the lookout ... to warn us of the coming of new executioners? Are their faces really different from our own? ...there are those of us who sincerely look upon the ruins today, as if the old concentration camp monster were dead and buried beneath them. Those who pretend to take hope again as the image fades, as though there were a cure for the plague of these camps. Those of us who pretend to believe that all this happened only once, at a certain time and in a certain place, and those who refuse to see, who do not hear the cry to the end of time.

IV. Economy

*--Control, management or manipulation of the national economy. Mobilization of the whole population and the entire national economy to vast projects. The original classical Greek word that gives the world the expression "economy" meant  management of the household. By the 20th century in Europe it had come to mean "gross national product", within which the myriad little households were but atoms
*--Regimentation of labor. Suppression of labor unions
*--Totalitarian approaches to national economic life shift away from the old-fashioned liberal goal, "wealth of nations", to "grandeur and power of executive elites"
*--Therefore the state becomes not so much the "owner" of the means of production as the "manager" of it, either directly or via tax subsidies, procurement orders out of state ministries or bureaus or departments. Modern "statist" conomics arose in the late 19th century, reaching back historically to a time before the emergence of "laissez-faire" market economics [EG], back to a period of national economies called "mercantilism" [LOOP on "mercantilism"]. The totalitarian state increasingly becomes both producer and consumer of the most valued products. From the middle of the 20th century, the term "military-industrial complex" [ID] came to be used to package this whole bundle of arrangements

V. Geography

*--Aggressive, unchecked, sometimes adventurist, military engagement with wider world. [LOOP on "sovereignty"] Totalitarianism expends or "uses up" the commodities it orders, finances, purchases, and then consumes according to its purposes. This creates the need for replacement orders, more financing out of public revenues, more procurement purchase, and more insider profit.