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Agnieszka Kolakowska


Political Correctness and the Totalitarian Mentality



Rousseau is responsible for a great deal of the trouble. One can also blame the French utopianists, principally Saint-Simon and Comte; the idea of universal human rights (of which the most recent poisoned fruit is the European constitution); and of course the Enlightenment as a whole, always chief among the usual suspects when sources of totalitarianism are discussed. It has often been argued that some of the roots of totalitarianism lie here. But the new totalitarian mentality - the mentality of political correctness - owes more to the Rousseauian vision, and perhaps to the French utopianists, than it does to the spirit of the Enlightenment. It is not characterized by a faith in Reason and the power of knowledge; it is profoundly anti-rational, inimical to science and to empirical investigation. The universalism, the utopian spirit, the faith in man (up to a point, and only in certain kinds of ideologically correct man), the belief that the world can be changed and evil eradicated from it, and a new world created - all these features, partly of the Enlightenment, partly of what Eric Voegelin, and Alain Besançon in his Intellectual Origins of Leninism, identified as gnosticism, are still there in the new, politically correct version of the totalitarian mentality. But the rationalism is absent. The new totalitarian mentality also displays a number of features that were absent from the old, or that seem, at first glance, to be different. But the core is the same, and springs from many of the same roots.

Benjamin Constant put it well: after Rousseau and his "absurd and eloquent theory", according to which society may exercise unlimited power over the individual, it was long believed, he wrote, that "for the people to be everything it was necessary that individuals be nothing". Which implies, he observed,  that "freedom is nothing other than a new formula for despotism." He also observes that those who are in power, or who usurp power, "may, to legitimate their encroachments, borrow the name of freedom, because, unfortunately, the word is boundlessly obliging." Those who seized power during the French Revolution did so "by veiling the interests which controlled them, by laying claim to seemingly disinterested principles and opinions which served them as a banner." The Rousseauian idea (which sprang, according to Constant, from a confusion between the principle of authority and that of freedom) is responsible "for most of the difficulties the establishment of freedom has encountered [...], for most of the abuses that worm their way into all governments [...], and indeed for most of the crimes which civil strife and political upheaval drag in their wake."

I succumb to the temptation to quote Constant not only because he makes a change from Tocqueville, but also because he warns not so much against the tyranny of the majority, but against the tyranny which usurps the name of the majority and exploits democratic rhetoric for its own ends; the kind of tyranny that, in addition to oppressing people, proclaims that they are free and wants to force them to say so, and claims that what it does expresses their will. All of which sounds disturbingly familiar to us. But the disturbing thing is that it sounds familiar not just from the days of the Soviet empire, but also when we look at what is happening in Europe now. I also quote him because he, too, blames a great deal on Rousseau. I don't want to claim that Rousseau's "eloquent and absurd theory" is the source of all evil, and in particular of totalitarianism; that had a number of sources. But he was certainly an indirect inspiration for the utopian aspects of totalitarian thought, and for the politically correct thought of the 60s generation, to which  many aspects of the modern totalitarian mentality can be traced back. The two have common roots, and one of them is the Rousseauian vision.  

Fifteen years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall. If we take the chief distinguishing features of totalitarianism - all of them necessary though perhaps none of them by itself sufficient - to be the principle of maximum state control over every aspect of life, both public and private, the unchecked omnipotence of the state, and an all-subsuming ideology, then North Korea seems to be the only truly totalitarian state at present left in the world. (It is debatable whether Islamic theocracies or middle-eastern doctatorships such as Saddam Hussein's Iraq can properly be called totalitarian; I think it is at least arguable that they can.) One would have thought that by now there would be little left to say. And indeed about totalitarianism itself and its historical sources there is perhaps little new to say; I certainly have nothing original to offer. Unfortunately there is quite a lot left to say about the continuing totalitarian temptation: the astonishing growth of the totalitarian mentality in the West. For in the West, the totalitarian mentality, instead of receding, as we anticipated after the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, seems to be spreading and gaining ground. At the time of the Soviet empire it was limited to left-wing intellectuals and hippies. Paradoxically, now that communist regimes in Europe have been dismantled, it has spread its tentacles wider and deeper: not only among Western intellectuals, who, notoriously, have always been prone to totalitarian tendencies; and not only in the academy, where it has always, just as notoriously, flourished (and where it is expressed both in political or social views and in a variety of disciplines in the humanities); but also to large numbers of educated people, and, crucially, to political leaders, who seem to have absorbed it from the air by some kind of osmosis.

For the intellectuals, the disappearance of the communist bloc has proved liberating; many of them have conveniently forgotten that it was ever there, consigned it to oblivion with a sigh of relief and returned happily to their Marxist beliefs, once again self-satisfied in their feeling of moral superiority. The Soviet empire has collapsed, communism in Eastern Europe dismantled, the communist ideology seems bankrupt - and yet everywhere we turn, we are surrounded by apologetics for communism and lectures on the evils of capitalism and the "savagery" of "unbridled" economic liberalism. More than this: everywhere we turn, in every sphere of life, not just in prevailing attitudes but also, more and more glaringly, in the government policies of European states, and in particular of the European Union, we see the triumph of a profoundly illiberal spirit, which calls itself liberal, and some of the same tendencies which were characteristic of 20th century totalitarian regimes: the implementation of ideologically based policies which achieve precisely the opposite effects to those allegedly intended, while increasing state intervention and multiplying bureaucracy. With one important difference: the new totalitarian mentality is profoundly anti-scientific; it does not even proclaim a faith in science or human knowledge. It is based on obscurantism and ignorance; it promotes ignorance and wallows in it; it wants "progress" without the science.

"Imagine all the people," says that dreadful song. That is what Rousseau did, and what all contractarian political thinkers have done; that is what the flower children of the 60s did; that is what intellectuals have always enjoyed doing; and it seems to be precisely what European governments are doing now. That utopian vision, infantilizing and immensely destructive, is at the centre of the totalitarian mentality. It has been responsible for the great crimes of the 20th century; it will continue to be responsible, directly and indirectly, for the erosion of democratic freedoms in the West, and will finally, perhaps, be responsible for the loss of our freedom altogether. This conjunction of two words, "the people", is one of the more sinister phrases in the English language. Whenever anyone talks of "the people", it is time to be wary; and certain European political leaders have, in the past few years, taken to talking about "the people" in a way that makes one's blood run cold.

The very idea of "the people" is a deeply and eloquently illiberal one. Imagining "all the people" presupposes viewing them as a whole, and thus, necessarily, as an abstraction, which in itself has strong ideological consequences. And imagining them all in the utopian world envisaged in the song is a nightmarish prospect. Yet this vision seems to be a widely shared aspiration of the twenty-first century, particularly in the "new Europe".

Some of the other distinguishing features of totalitarian regimes, in addition to an all-encompassing ideology and the attempt to bring all aspects of life under state control, have been: the manipulation of language; the falsification of history; the refusal to view people as rational and responsible agents; and the implementation of policies in the name of ideological principles, even if this has consequences directly counter to the results one claims one wants to achieve. And these have always been accompanied by at least the trappings of belief in human knowledge, education, and science; indeed, these were important Marxist-Leninist slogans.

All these features, with the important exception of the last, are also features of the modern totalitarian/politically correct mentality. The absence of the last of them, combined with the familiar subordination of political programmes to ideology, is particularly significant, and gives the new totalitarian mentality its distinctive flavour. For one of its distinguishing features is a disinclination for rational argument or analysis, the rejection of facts which do not fit the politically correct theory, and a refusal to inquire into the consequences of putting the approved theory into practice. The proponents of universal panaceas and utopian solutions to the world's problems have no need to confront their beliefs with science or experience, for they believe that they are right by definition: they believe themselves to be morally superior simply because they have utopian ideals. That they are right is, they believe, self-evident; and it seems to them just as manifestly true that all those who question them must be evil. Theirs is the moral superiority of the bolshevik.

The liberal conscience prides itself on being uniquely sensitive to human misfortune. And the liberal belief in the uniqueness of this claim to sensitivity in turn fosters in liberals of the politically correct variety a tendency to ignore  the unfortunate - and illiberal - practical consequences of the programmes they advocate. Their proposed solutions to the world's ills are to be regarded as valid in defiance of science and experience - just as marxism-leninism was to be so regarded by the faithful. With, again, this one important difference: that they do not proclaim their theories to be "scientific." Science can be ignored. (This - since political correctness, like the totalitarian mentality in general, is an all-encompassing ideology - is not unrelated to the wilder shores of political correctness in academia, and some of the more extreme post-modernist and feminist attacks on science.)

One of many examples of this anti-empirical, anti-rational and anti-scientific attitude is the issue of "globalisation". "Globalisation", like "capitalism", is a scare-word, a slogan which unites the politically correct of the world against it. Like "capitalism", globalisation is neither an ideology nor a diabolical conspiracy of rich against poor, nor even a human invention: it is a natural process. But it is condemned as an ideology, a "system" which - one hears repeated time and again - "widens inequalities" and oppresses the poor; an evil scheme imposed by a satanic imperial power in order to control and "exploit" the Third World and its working people. This is regardless of a wealth of evidence which shows that it furthers the declared aims of those who protest against it, like the eradication of poverty, democratisation and the development of the Third World. Which suggests that the declared aims of anti-globalist campaigners are perhaps not their real aims. Certainly the reasons for their beliefs seem to have little to do with empirical evidence. Many of those who argue against globalisation also suffer from a tendency to gloss over some crucial facts. For example, I have never, in any arguments against globalisation as a cause of inequalities, come across any  mention of the fact that it is the pursuit of wealth, and the freedom to pursue it, that leads to inequalities. Inequality is indeed what happens when people are allowed to make money; it happens, for instance, when poverty-stricken people in Third World countries are given the opportunity to work for evil multinationals which "exploit" them by paying them a wage which, however pitiful by Western standards, is far above anything they could otherwise earn. Those who condemn the free-market "system" and globalization would apparently prefer to deny citizens of the Third World these opportunities; better that they remain poor but equal than that inequalities arise through the enrichment of some but not others. It is assumed that inequality, whatever its sources, is intrinsically evil - a greater evil than poverty, apparently. Again, campaigners against "globalisation" assume, in defiance of all evidence to the contrary, that they must be right, by definition, because are morally superior - altruistic and generous and "concerned" about the poor, and engaged in a moral battle against multinational corporations (which of course are evil by definition) - not because their proposals bear any relation to reality. The witch-hunts they launch against those who dare to question the approved line are reminiscent of Stalin's campaigns against enemies of progress and right-wing deviationists (though without the gulags and the executions). 

Then there is the slogan of "sustainable development," which means, in practice, the precise contrary of what it claims. (No doubt understanding it is a matter of Marxist dialectics.) "Sustainable development" in fact means protectionism, maintaining trade barriers instead of eliminating them, maintaining subsidies instead of reducing them, keeping people dependent on hand-outs, denying them responsibility and the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty - in what would be precisely a "sustainable" way. It also means shoring up corrupt and incompetent governments.

Underlying much of this is a visceral dislike of markets - a sentiment shared by many liberals, all anti-globalists, and proponents of old and new totalitarian utopias. The dislike of markets in turn involves the refusal to accept (at least) three things: that self-interest is a natural and ineradicable human motivation; that action in one's self-interest is rational action; and, finally, that the pursuit of self-interest on the whole furthers rather than diminishes the general good and overall prosperity. These truths are not just a matter of economic theory, but are borne out by experience and observation (and by various exercises in non-zero-sum games of the prisoner's dilemma type, which show the benefits of pursuing policies based on rational self-interest). Markets, far from being conducive to inequalities, inculcate responsibility, teach people to keep promises and to honour contracts (because this is in their interest - but the result is in everyone's interest), and allow everyone, rich and poor, the same opportunities. For poor countries a free market furthers prosperity and democracy. But the liberal and politically correct thinking, like the old totalitarian thinking, is that since markets are driven by self-interest and greed, which are both evil, markets, too, must be evil; it is said, in defiance of all experience, that they deepen inequalities, deny opportunities, and oppress the poor while enriching the rich. And since markets are evil, it follows that they cannot lead to anything good, and must be restrained and state-regulated - as must human self-interest. 

It is axiomatic for this mentality that the world is divided into dominating and dominated, persecuting and persecuted, and that no natural ways of eradicating these divisions can be admitted to exist: they are intrinsic to how the world is, and must be suppressed by force. Nor can it be admitted that the poor, too, are rational agents, capable of acting in their self-interest; they must be viewed as helpless, and the obstacles to their progress as unsurmountable without aid. It cannot, therefore, be admitted that it might be a good thing if markets were opened to them and they were given opportunities freely to pursue their interests (especially since this would leave anti-globalists, campaigners for Third World Aid and many NGOs with no jobs. Not to mention thwarting the interests of protectionists, which, regardless of marxist-leninist views about markets and human nature, is what much of this, and a great deal of political correctness, is about: vested interests). In general, contempt, and the related tendency to infantilize people and deny them responsibility, is a feature prominent in both the old and the new totalitarian mentality. As is the related conviction that the only true authority is the state, and that the state should legislate in all spheres of life, private and public.

There is one further absurd and pernicious belief, related to the belief in the evil of markets and capitalism, that is common to the old and the new totalitarian mentality, namely the belief that prosperity is a zero-sum game: that the rich are rich, and get richer, at the expense of the poor; and that if only the rich could be persuaded (or forced) to give up some of their riches, the poor would directly benefit. On the basis of ideology and envy, in defiance of both common sense and experience, the logic of redistribution has become a tacit, mindless assumption underlying not only the thinking of the woolly-minded Left but also the policies implemented by European political leaders, of the Left as well as the centre-Right. And it has become taboo to question this.

Some features of the new totalitarian mentality which were not (on the face of it) present in the old nevertheless spring from the same roots. One of them is the idea of group identity: the belief that we are essentially defined by our belonging to a certain sexual, social, religious or ethnic group. This has led to the "ghettoisation" of certain ethnic groups - in the name of their freedom and dignity. The idea that all that we do and all that we are depends on our sex, race, sexual orientation or membership of an ethnic group, apart from being absurd and profoundly insulting, shatters the very vision of social harmony and the common good which supposedly inspires the ideology of political correctness. Instead of uniting people, it divides and segregates them, creating a vast number of conflicting and hostile individual interests and widening, rather than narrowing, the gulf between them. Similar consequences flow from the assumption - as axiomatic for the new totalitarian mentality as it was for the old - that the world is split into two classes: the persecuted (minorities) and the persecuting. As a result, there is no longer any foundation for the "diverse" and "multicultural" society which is the alleged aim, for there are no longer any grounds for mutual understanding, and no possibility of attaining the proclaimed ideals of openness and tolerance. There are only individual interest groups and their endless "rights".

Not surprisingly, underlying a great deal of this are vested interests - particularly in academia, where the imposition of political correctness and postmodernist theory, and the creation of new disciplines which subvert reason and academic values in the name of multiculturalism, feminism and freedom, brings academic positions, power and status. This is achieved, as Constant remarked, "by veiling the interests which control them, by laying claim to seemingly disinterested principles and opinions which serve them as a banner".

But this feature of the new totalitarianism is not that new. Certainly the division of the world into two classes, the persecuted and the persecuting, is familiar; now they are just slightly different kinds of classes. But the politics of group identity, too, did not come out of nowhere: it is also based on a vision of "all the people" as an abstraction, which is then divided up into segments with different labels, each with a well-defined role. Individuals are slotted into these roles, reduced to them, and defined by them. Women, minorities, homosexuals - each member of such a group is defined essentially as such. There is a perfectly good parallel in the old totalitarianism: the basis of identity has simply changed from class to race and sex. Where once we had workers, peasants, kulaks, and the bourgeois, we now have women, blacks and homosexuals. Moreover, the parallel holds not only for the communist variety of totalitarianism, but for the fascist one as well: such definitions are reminiscent of Nazi views of race. One could also mention, in this context, the fondness for conspiracy theories, and the new anti-semitism: the conviction that Israel is to blame for all the world's ills; that everything would be fine, and terrorism -  bred of poverty and injustice, American imperialism and Western greed - would go away, if only the Jews were toppled from their stranglehold on power. 

It is ironic that the proclaimed ideal behind the Rousseauian vision was precisely the autonomy of the individual: the rejection of determination by class or race. The aim was precisely to abolish the (illiberal) concept of group identity. And yet, paradoxically, it is central to the mentality of many of those inspired by that vision. But perhaps this is not so paradoxical: the fact that it was also, in a slightly different way, very much a part of the old totalitarian mentality leads one to suspect that this vision of utopia ineluctably distorts itself also in this way.

At the same time, however, we also have the slogan of "anti-racism" - in the name of which campaigners for Palestinian rights like to chant "Death to the Jews" while holding up placards that read "Justice" and "Peace". It is also in the name of anti-racism that certain ethnic groups are deprived of the education to which they are entitled: it is considered wrong, for example, to make immigrants, and in particular their children, learn the language (not to mention the values and culture) of the country in which they live. (It is worth noting that this form of "anti-racism" only "privileges" certain types of immigrants; it would not apply, for example, to Finns, or Latvians, or Greeks.) Then there is "anti-elitism", which persecutes schools that achieve good results through discipline, the maintenance of teachers' authority and traditional methods of teaching, and holds back children who want to learn. Such examples, now common and depressingly familiar, are characteristic of how political correctness wants to restrict freedoms and opportunities in the name of freedom, equality and "rights". This, too, is very much a part of the old totalitarian mentality. It is ironic that the proliferating "rights" have in fact been eroding equality before the law - thus, once again, leading to results contrary to those allegedly aimed at.

In all of this one of the most glaring things is the manipulation of language. It is a feature common to both the old and the new totalitarian mentality, and it is a growing tendency among political leaders, many of whom seem, when they speak, to be not so much lying as detached from reality altogether. Their speech, increasingly a type of Orwellian newspeak, is meant not to inform but to obfuscate and deceive. When we listen to modern European leaders, we have stopped thinking of them as actually saying anything relevant; it is pure rhetoric, which addresses not problems but the speaker's image. And the words are taken straight from the songs of 60s flower-children, supplemented with scatterings of slogans like "access" or "exclusion", or "inclusiveness" (used, particularly in the promotion of certain groups, to mean whatever one likes); "tolerance" (which means intolerance, and privileges for certain segments of the population); and "multiculturalism" (which means promoting only anti-western cultures and condemning our own). "Rights" have supplanted justice, equality of opportunity and democratic processes. And of course the ever-present slogan of "democracy", which has become almost meaningless; it is often confused, indiscriminately, with human rights, or civil rights, or the rule of law. Usually it is used to mean no more than individual "rights" - in particular the rights of individuals belonging to certain "minority" groups. My favourite is "raising standards", which, like "sustainable development", means exactly the opposite of what it claims: it always means lowering standards, notoriously in education. And we are constantly being told that we are becoming freer and freer, even as our freedoms become more and more restricted. The fall of communism has not significantly reduced our opportunities to observe how endlessly obliging is the word "freedom"; nor how the rhetoric of democracy is manipulated. Nor how surprisingly elastic are the meanings of certain other words we used to think we had a fairly good grasp of, such as "truth", for instance, or "equality", or "justice", or "evil". (I was present a few years ago at a conference on evil where almost everyone seemed to think that the problem of evil was tantamount to the problem of Third World poverty, globalisation, multinationals, global warming and environmental pollution - caused of course by imperialist oppression and the ruthless greed of the capitalist West, in particular the United States of America - and hence that it would simply go away if we could only find the right cure for these ills.)

We come, finally, to the falsification and manipulation of history. This, too, is not limited to totalitarianisms of the communist or Nazi variety. It is still - unbelievably - evident in the reluctance of the politically correct Left to mention certain inconvenient aspects of Soviet communism, and in the taboo on mentioning them in the same breath as Nazi atrocities, let alone comparing the two. The only thing Nazi atrocities may be compared to are Israeli atrocities and American atrocities, and indeed this is increasingly done. But this has always been the case on the Left. What is new is that political correctness now decrees not only that Western civilization must be rejected, in the name of "multiculturalism", "anti-racism", etc - we have seen anti-Western propaganda at work for many years, in schools and universities in various European countries, and of course in America - but also that Europe's Judaeo-Christian past - and thus its entire culture and history - must be denied. What is also new is that, admittedly owing largely to pressure from a growing Muslim population, especially in England and in France, this has now made its appearance in government policy. President Chirac recently declared that Europe and European values are just as much - if not more - rooted in Muslim as in Judaeo-Christian culture. In his case, if we assume, charitably, that he has not yet entirely lost his mind, the motivation for this statement was probably largely cravenness and fear. A similar fear may explain the absence, in the preamble to the latest draft of the European constitution, of any mention of Europe's Judaeo-Christian heritage. Nevertheless, the trend is there, and it is a deliberate manipulation of history. And everything suggests that the builders of the new Europe and its constitution are motivated not only by fear, but also by an ideology which involves the rejection of history and tradition: they want a truly "new" Europe, the creation of a new world, built on modern, progressive foundations, unconstrained by historical ties. This, too, is an idea familiar from the communist utopia.

All these things - the manipulation of language, the falsification, manipulation or outright denial of history, the pandering to minority interest-groups, the subordination of policy to woolly-minded ideological principles - come together in the constitution of the European Union, a text of mind-boggling meaninglessness and spectacular incoherence. Its language is deliberately vague; its stated goals are, to the extent that they are comprehensible at all, mutually contradictory. Article 3 about Union Objectives, for instance, states, in all seriousness, that the union will work towards "sustainable development", based on a "social market economy" that will be "highly competitive" and aiming at "social progress" and "full employment". This is, quite literally, nonsense. "Sustainable development" is already a phrase fraught with ambiguity. No one knows what a "social market" is - not even the people who advocate one, perhaps not even those who invented the phrase. Even if this fuzzy and, I suspect, internally contradictory concept turned out to have some possible application to reality, it is certainly irreconcileable with being "highly competitive", which in turn is at odds with the guarantee of "full employment". Furthermore, the market by definition does not "aim" for anything. Perhaps the social market does, but since its meaning is difficult to discern, it is hard to tell. "Social progress" is presumably supposed to mean something like "social justice"; and, like "social justice" and "social market", it can be interpreted in any way one likes. The proposed draft of the European constitution also wants a "high level of protection" for the environment, but at the same time (as an afterthought) it wants to "promote scientific and technological advance". What it does, in other words, is to "imagine all the people", think of what it would like them to be, and of all the things that it believes would constitute an ideal world, and write them all down. Since the constitution also enshrines a huge expansion of the European Union's powers, allowing it to legislate in almost all spheres of life, from foreign policy to social and economic policy, and its legislation is binding for all members of the Union, superseding the decisions of national parliaments, this vagueness and incoherence are truly dangerous, for they mean that the European Union will be able to impose on member states whatever it feels like imposing at any given moment. And we know the Olympic scale of its whims. 

One difference between the old totalitarianism and the new is that an astonishing number of people have let themselves be brainwashed by the ideology and cant. The new totalitarianism, in the form of political correctness, provides convenient, pre-packaged, oven-ready opinions, like the old variety. Just pop them into your brain and watch it turn to mush. And, like the old, they are convenient precisely because they are almost all-encompassing. A pre-cooked utopia to be reheated and served up on a plate, with facile, attractive slogans: democracy, justice, tolerance, diversity, peace. Diversity is fairly new; the rest is familiar. But it seems to have succeeded in addling people's brains much better than the old, communist variety. We also have governments which, while talking about "the people", pander to interest-groups and legislate accordingly; and now the European Union, which will legislate for them. Will we also forget how to govern, and what sovereignty - of the person or of the state -  means, and what it is for? Are we coming closer to a variant of Saint Simon's utopia where government is be replaced by the "administration of things" - and of people?


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