Blogs > Liberty and Power > No Dictatorship as Long as This Can Occur

Sep 14, 2007 1:04 am

No Dictatorship as Long as This Can Occur

An important question for libertarians is how much of a force for freedom exists in the internet. Well I saw something today that makes me very optimistic about the answer to that puzzlement. It touched on my belief that it is difficult if not impossible for a totalitarian dictatorship to co-exist with the people’s ability to openly ridicule it. Therefore authors such as Jonathan Swift, journalists like H.L. Mencken, and television stars in the mold of Jon Stewart provide a necessary and effective check on extreme governmental abuse. What the internet has done is to speed up the process of ridicule as well as increase the potential for ridicule by giving opportunity to tens of millions of people to participate. They can now not only engage but also build on one another’s work.

I offer an example of what I am talking about with links to two short videos. It is important to watch them in order (link one and link two). The first film is the latest internet sensation and its creator is currently enjoying a great deal of media attention. The second clip is a brilliant piece of political satire and I found both of them to be very funny.

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Keith Halderman - 9/17/2007

Why is it circular to say that one of the features of totalitarianism is massive censorship? This does not preclude other systems not defined as totalitarian from having that feature also. Dictatorship and even supposedly free societies often employ the same tactics as totalitarian societies but within word totalitarian is the word total so I think there has to be more than just practical control. In 1984 the rulers felt that it was very necessary that Winston not only obey Big Brother but that he love Big Brother too.

Anthony Gregory - 9/17/2007

And indeed, if that's not totalitarianism, then how much comfort should we take in knowing that so long as we can dissent, the most we will be subjected to is total control over our lives, no consistent rule of law, false imprisonments and enslavement?

Anthony Gregory - 9/17/2007

So you're defining totalitarianism purely in terms of expressive liberty? (Not actual liberty in belief, which cannot be stamped out the same was as expression.)

I don't know how useful that definition is, and it would seem then to be circular and nearly tautological to say we can't have totalitarianism without massive censorship, since, by definition, totalitarianism without massive censorship is impossible."

Let's say you have a slave system, tens of millions of people enslaved by the state, disappearances, a fascistic economy, conscription, midnight knocks on the door, detentions without trial and widespread torture and state terror — is it still not technically totalitarianism, so long as people aren't united in any doctrine any more specific than loyalty to the state?

Keith Halderman - 9/17/2007

I think for a society to be labeled totalitarian you have to have one person or at least one idea that demands total unquestioned loyalty. Patriotism in the United States, at least for today, is too ill defined to fulfill that role.

Anthony Gregory - 9/16/2007

Yes, Stalin was one of the very worst. Do you think things have to get nearly that bad for it to considered totalitarian?

Keith Halderman - 9/16/2007

I saw a movie some time ago with Tom Hulce playing Stalin's film projectionist and that incident was portrayed. I then looked up the events surrounding his death but I do not remember what it was exactly that I read. Your figure about the actual number of deaths is probably correct but it is still substantial. Your analogy with Old Glory is I think on the mark in that in that to the average Russian peasant Stalin and the country were one in the same. So criticizing him was the same as criticizing the country. In their minds when bad things happened it was because Stalin did not know about them.

Mark Brady - 9/15/2007

"Yet, when Stalin died over 1500 people were trampled to death in the effort to view his body. He was a god to the majority of the population."

Two thoughts. First, I can find an account that five hundred died. What is your source for "over 1500"?

Second, what exactly do you mean when you write "[h]e was a god to the majority of the population." Certainly there was a cult of personality and the personality was Stalin. Do you mean that the majority of the Soviet population regarded him in the same way that so many Americans pledge unquestioning allegiance to Old Glory?

Keith Halderman - 9/15/2007

I agree with both of you that ridicule definitely has significant limitations as to how useful it is in preserving freedom. Nevertheless, I think it can be effective at the extreme edge. The example that comes to mind is Stalin. There would not be much disagreement among the readers of this space that his government has a legitimate claim to the title of worst government in world history. Millions of people starved to death, they got in a major war they were unprepared for, and many people lived in constant fear while he was in charge. Yet, when Stalin died over 1500 people were trampled to death in the effort to view his body. He was a god to the majority of the population. Yes, there was some private ridicule of him but that sort of thing could land you in the Gulag or worse.

Contrast Stalin’s position with that of George Bush, not many of even the people who support Bush think of him as god like. Also, if he began to use his Patriot Act powers against leading political opponents or the military’s officer corps many people would have enough of a problem with that to do something about it. There are many things George Bush can not do that Stalin could have, yes because of the fear he instilled but also the reverence.

I would argue that a necessary pre-condition to Bush or any other American leader achieving god like status and becoming a 1984 style leader is the removal of videos like Leave General Petraeus Alone from the public sphere.

Robert Higgs - 9/15/2007

I believe you are right on target, Anthony. Moreover, your point about freedom of expression (including the right to mock and ridicule the state publicly) can be generalized as part of a characterization of what I call participatory fascism, which I maintain is the end state toward which nearly every country has been gravitating since the breakdown of outright totalitarian collectivism.

This is the principal ground on which I part company with the life-style libertarians. They are optimists: they look around and see that people are freer than they used to be to indulge in deviant and previously condemned life styles, types of consumption (e.g., porn and outlandish attire), styles of "family" life, and sexual practices, and they conclude that the world is becoming steadily freer.

In contrast, I am a pessimist: I look around and see the state grasping ever greater amounts of people's earnings, issuing ever more outrageous regulations in countless areas of social and economic life, bringing everyone within an enormous system of surveillance and monitoring, claiming completely arbitrary powers, such as the denial of the writ of habeas corpus that you mention--an absolutely critical matter for the reasons you state. Raking in ever more enormous quantities of loot, imprisoning ever more political (because their "crimes" have no victims) prisoners domestically, killing and destroying people by the tens or hundreds of thousands routinely in the Middle East and, as the president chooses, elsewhere, the state ascends without any substantial check, because everybody with real political heft has been cut in on the deal. How anyone can look at this monstrous and growing apparatus of arbitrary exploitation, death, and destruction and imagine that we live in a free country escapes me.

Yes, any freedom is good, and we can all hasten to exercise our freedom of expression to mock and ridicule our masters. But, let us face the facts: they don't give a damn what we say. They are quite happy to settle for power and loot. Hell, the president even mocks himself from time to time, as if to mock our mockery of him!

Anthony Gregory - 9/14/2007

I fully agree that the right to ridicule is glorious and crucial to liberty. Yet I wonder if America could continue sliding toward totalitarianism even with the right to dissent mostly intact. What if 85% of the people believe that just because 15% are allowed to complain, they are free? There seems to be a danger of this in America. Sure, we can decry, for example, the prison-industrial complex, housing more inmates than any other state on earth, where rape and brutality are the norm. But our freedom to criticize it does not mean all of a sudden those prisons stop being the totalitarian rape rooms that they are. And for the million or so peaceful people locked within, I think totalitarianism is a fair enough description of what they are subjected to.

So long as most people support aggressive war, unjustified detentions, and torture, the liberty to dissent doesn't necessarily mean we're otherwise free. What if it is the only freedom we have left, as the state learns that the less repressive it is in this arena, the more it can get away with certain other things, since the American people assume they're free because they can complain? The state already avoids overbearing intervention in some areas so as to allow its continual expansion. It already, for example, resists taxing us as much as it would want to, since it knows if it raised taxes too much it would reduce funding for its imperial war machine. Why couldn't dissent be one of those token freedoms we're allowed to have even as in all other ways we continue to lose liberty and a dictatorship emerges? After all, if the state can jail people and torture them without habeas corpus, if it can bomb whole cities or draft young soldiers, how is there any true guarantee of individual liberty left, regardless of what people are allowed to say within their free speech zones? Especially with the loss of habeas, it seems to me the nominal legality of dissent is in practice jeopardized by the autocratic power to detain anyone for any reason. And in America's history, there have been moments of authoritarianism where dissent was nevertheless, to some extent, tolerated. Americans during WWII could dissent. But there were still internment camps and military slavery.