“The concept of totalitarianism is itself a false concept, invented in the contemporary era for the purpose of confining social analysis and critique within the horizon of so-called liberal, democratic, and insurmountable (the “end of history”) capitalism.” – Samir Amin
In the early 2000s, with the expansion of the European Union (EU) over the countries of the former Eastern Bloc, the narrative of “two totalitarianisms” spread throughout Europe. Jean-Pierre Faye’s book with his Horseshoe Theory seems to be most responsible for popularizing this narrative. According to this theory, the political spectrum is presented, not as a linear continuum with the radical left or communism at one end and the extreme right or fascism at the other, but as a horseshoe where these two extremes, “two totalitarianisms” meet as two sides of the same totalitarian tendencies. Thus, a completely different conceptualization of the political sphere is realized, according to which on one side there is a (neo)liberal center with a certain, limited space for maneuver (left or right) and on the other side totalitarianism with its two faces – fascism and communism.
This way, totalitarianism as an antithesis to liberalism becomes the defining term of 20th century politics because the brutal demonization of so-called totalitarian systems indirectly generates unconditional support for neo-liberalism. We encounter symptoms of this tectonic shift in political thinking in every corner of public life. When support for Hillary Clinton, as the embodiment of American imperialism and right-wing neoliberal politics, is presented as a moral imperative in the fight against the fascist evil of Donald Trump, behind such a statement hides a view of politics based on the opposition between liberalism and totalitarianism. The same setup is used when it is necessary to justify American aggressions in the Third World. When a more aggressive policy towards left-wing governments in Venezuela, Cuba or North Korea is advocated, it is justified by the fight against totalitarianism, and leftists and right-wingers both in the West and in countries that are the target of Western imperialism fall into this given matrix.
The anti-totalitarianism of Western liberals, leftists and conservatives is the basis of their anti-Russian and anti-Chinese hysteria. In other words, wherever Western-style liberalism does not rule, the anti-totalitarian card is drawn, which then consolidates the entire political spectrum in the fight against what is labeled as totalitarian. The horseshoe theory is so deeply embedded in the matrix of political opinion in the West that it is enough to label the target of Western aggression and hysteria in the media as totalitarian, and the leftists and the rightists start competing in demonization of that totalitarian threat. Leftist media outlets in the West such as The Guardian or DemocracyNow are more likely to broadcast articles criticizing North Korea or China than many conservative media outlets. Thus, in the countries of the imperial center, the term “totalitarianism” and the associated Horseshoe Theory represent the key point and mobilization password that gathers all imperial forces and directs them towards the external enemy. At the same time, totalitarianism functions as the main justification of the liberal order of the countries of the imperial center against which they are positioned as the “lesser evil”.
The power of anti-totalitarian ideology also lies in the fact that it gathers auto-colonial forces in peripheral or semi-periphery countries. Russia and China are probably the main targets of this ideology. The Russian opposition uses the epithet tyrant or totalitarian ruler to describe Vladimir Putin on a daily basis. Without going into whether such a description is adequate, what is crucial is that the term itself acts as a certain kind of moral blackmail that leaves the interlocutor without arguments. Any attempt to oppose such an appellation automatically leads to defeat because anyone who opposes this characterization is immediately described as a fascist or a totalitarian. The power of this rhetorical strategy is very well known to people in Serbia, where many politicians and intellectuals who opposed the Western policy towards Yugoslavia at the end of the 90s were automatically described as fascists, even if they self-declared as leftists. Being a leftist and opposing the Western imperial policy towards the FRY had them labeled as “National Socialist” or Nazi due to the supposed fusion of nationalism and socialism. Politically illiterate collaborators of imperialism who carried out their political activities on the ground to the greatest extent through cooperation with open and direct Nazis and fascists who were ready to confront the police, routinely labeled leftists who opposed imperialist aggression on the FRY and open interference in its political processes as the “Nazis”.
Currently, a very similar dynamic is developing in China, primarily on the topic of the so-called persecution of the Uyghurs or the Muslim population of central and southwestern China. The element of ethnic intolerance that is thus added to China, which has already been labeled totalitarian, completes the image of this society as proof that communism and Nazism are ultimately one and the same, and all of this gives justification to the Western power centers to implement as aggressive a policy as possible towards China.
For any even remotely objective witness of the history of geopolitical events from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the present day, it is quite clear that the anti-totalitarian narrative played unmistakably in the hands of Western politics throughout this period. From the overthrow of Milosevic and the aggression against Iraq, over the attack on a series of left-wing governments in Latin America, to the offensive against China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, the fight against totalitarianism was a war cry that rallied conservatives, liberals and pro-imperial leftists behind NATO interventions. However, the mere fact that this narrative served the benefit of the US and NATO does not constitute direct evidence that it is an ideological subterfuge. “What if the US was really led through all these processes by a sincere struggle against total state power?” could be asked by those who advocate imperial policy. In order to prove that the US is really committed to the fight against totalitarianism, it is first necessary to demonstrate that it actually implements an anti-totalitarian and liberal policy on the internal and external level. However, the facts show that the internal policy of the US more often corresponds to the description of a totalitarian state than many regimes that it accuses of totalitarianism, as well as that the regimes installed in countries that undergo Western interventions fulfill the anti-totalitarian criteria of the West exclusively through the accommodation of their economic interests, so as such do not pose a threat to the hierarchical division of the world economy.
We would not have to go beyond the fact that the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Israel are European settler colonies that were initially established by totalitarian methods of enslavement, often genocide of the indigenous population. However, as this fact is lightly passed over, because through the perspective of Eurocentric history and the international legal order, each of the mentioned occupations is legalized, critics are expected to ignore the past and devote themselves exclusively to the present image of the mentioned societies, and even separately from the rest of material reality and current world conditions. Thus, it is often overlooked that liberal and anti-totalitarian policies in the countries of the center of the world system are made possible by both historical and contemporary political circumstances, which are the direct consequences of totalitarian, i.e. colonial and neo-colonial policies and the absence of economic hardships due to the hierarchical structure in the world economy.
American political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, who identifies as a consistent liberal democrat (so, not a communist or an anarchist), exposes the totalitarian nature of American corporate capitalism. Wolin coined the term “inverse totalitarianism” to characterize the US political regime. According to his diagnosis, that political system has all the practical and essential characteristics of totalitarianism, although it retains the formal framework of democracy. Unlike classical totalitarianism, which is reflected in the absolute power of an individual who rules thanks to his charisma and ability to manipulate the masses, inverse totalitarianism ensures the total power of corporate networks and the complete powerlessness of the individual to influence the decisions of the government, even though there is a formal possibility of political organizing. Wolin observes that the US does not meet any of the criteria of the liberal system on which it formally rests. The murders of African-Americans by the police are only the most recent manifestation of the police state, which in poor neighborhoods has long been acting as an occupying force and not as an organ of law and order. Related to this is the highest percentage of prisoners per capita in the world. The US has 5 times more prisoners per capita than China. Of course, the vast majority of prisoners belong to colonized populations, so there is definitely an ethnic and racial dimension in American totalitarianism.
The revelations of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning show that this totalitarian government possesses such an apparatus of internal espionage that would pose an envy to widely denounced and demonized regimes such as the one in East Germany with its famous secret police. Furthermore, it has long been shown that the US Government does not adhere to its Constitution when it comes to the rights of prisoners and the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time. There are many political prisoners in Guantánamo prison who have been denied almost all human rights without ever being charged. There is also concrete and irrefutable evidence that the US authorities have carried out the murders of their own citizens, which is the grossest violation of the Constitution. Anwar al-Awlaki is perhaps the most famous example of an American citizen killed by a drone in the so-called War on terror. In the end, studies show that the policies of the American authorities do not have any correlation with the wishes and beliefs of almost two-thirds of the citizens of that country, while they are almost one hundred percent aligned with the wishes and political beliefs of the richest one percent. In other words, as Wolin explains, the US has all the elements of a totalitarian regime even though it retains a formally democratic framework.
Inverse totalitarianism is in a very certain way more dangerous than what they perceive as classical totalitarianism precisely because of the fact that in this form of government power is less concentrated. In the classic totalitarianism of the Nazi or fascist type, the leader holds all the power in his hands and his associates make only parts of the pyramid at the top of which he stands. In inverse totalitarianism, the president or head of state is essentially a puppet or chief manager of a corporation that has a slightly larger board of directors that includes the owners of major corporations from the military-industrial complex, the financial industry, the energy sector, the media, the pharmaceutical industry, etc. Because of this distribution of power, classical totalitarian systems often collapsed after the death of a dictator, or regimes fell after the leader was removed from office by a military coup, or sometimes even after defeat in an election. What makes totalitarian rule in the US particularly frightening for citizens who see its essence is the fact that it is impossible to imagine a scenario in which the corporate state could be reformed. On the other hand, Putin’s opposition in Russia, for example, has only one goal and that is to replace Putin, which makes its narrative much more powerful and dangerous.
Some apologists of imperialism may say that even such a form of government as the USA has is better than all other forms of government in the world. However, many of those regimes that the US and its allies call totalitarian have far fewer elements of totalitarianism than the US itself. Let’s just take the example of Bolivia, whose previous president, Evo Morales, was accused of being an autocrat and often a totalitarian leader, even though elections were regularly held during his entire reign, in which he convincingly won, and even though the media and financial power of the opposition was at least on par with his party, very likely even bigger. Morales himself was removed from the presidency with a huge effort by the US propaganda machine despite winning the election and replaced by a proven racist and Christian fundamentalist. Let’s also mention that the socialist regimes that the West considers totalitarian are organized on the principle of participatory democracy, which means that the share of working people in managing their own workplace or electing their local and central political representatives is far greater than is the case in parliamentary democracy, where voters are only offered to choose once every five years which subgroup of the ruling class they will give free rein to arbitrarily lead state policy.
Finally, what the so-called critics of non-Western totalitarianisms are unable to do is broaden their horizons to a global perspective. In that case, it would become more than obvious that the very way of organizing the global economy – which is based on the transfer of value from impoverished to enriched countries, and which we call imperialism – was established and maintained by totalitarian methods (from monopoly on telecommunications and technology, through access to resources and global finance, to means of mass destruction). Such a perspective would very easily expose the totalitarian nature of precisely those countries that they represent as democratic, while even those that, at the expense of formal democracy, build a system potentially resistant to imperialist domination and exploitation, would be amnestied from the label of totalitarianism. Also, through such a perspective, the transfer of formal democracy of the Western model to oppressed, peripheral countries, and the restrictions it imposes in terms of pretensions to more independent development, would become an easily noticeable handicap.
We have seen so far how the anti-totalitarian narrative serves to justify imperialism around the world, regardless of the fact that the USA and other Western countries have far more characteristics of a totalitarian system than the numerous countries that they try to demonize with that label.
On the other hand, we have also seen that the very insistence on the notion of totalitarianism produces a very powerful line of criticism of the US policy. Since the West, as we have shown, has shaped its entire ideological narrative around the concept of totalitarianism, people who truly understand and consistently use this concept perceive the totalitarian essence of the West itself. So, if we return to the economy and class struggle and level the horseshoe again, we prove that one part of the spectrum (fascism) does not occupy the extreme position of this line, but the middle one – it is (economically speaking) not a digression but a necessary progression from liberalism, once it becomes uncompetitive or is under pressure from other world (anti-colonial) forces. Of course, it must not neccecerily lead to a general consensus, so we can have, as we do in the US, a divided society into those who believe that the same economic goals of global domination can still be achieved with liberalism as with fascism, but at some point we could expect a two-party national strategy and the acceptance of fascism or liberalism as a national model, depending on world economic trends.
For our part, as Engels said (and we would have to apply it to the periphery and the internally colonized in settler colonies) the revolution (or, in this case, national/economic liberation) is the most authoritarian act there is, because it is about imposing the political will of the majority (in this case the world majority) over the minority. We, therefore, must not forget that development through stages is key to Marxist thought and, accordingly, we should not run away from authoritarianism, but accept it as one of the tools at our disposal, which (as history proves) give birth to more progressive social relations, more capable of giving birth to anti-authoritarian mechanisms. Also, it is important that we completely stop the practice of addressing imperial and pro-imperial critics, and start addressing our own peoples, status groups and classes with an interest in anti-systemic and anti-totalitarian action in the true sense of the meaning of the word.
Predrag Kovačević & Abdelraheem Kheirawi