Freedom, Videos

Scapegoating and the Road to Political Persecution

The following is a transcript of this video.

“Humanity is arming itself, in dread and fascinated horror, for a stupendous crime.”

Carl Jung, Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

While we cannot create a heaven on earth, we can create a hell and history is full of examples. Many of these man-made hells are the result of war and conquest, but many others are the result of governments persecuting their own people. Be it the Gulags of the Soviet Union, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Nazi concentration camps, the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, or the Cultural Revolution in China, power-hungry political leaders are responsible for the deaths of millions of people in the 20th century.

How much have we learned from these recent horrors? Could a modern democratic government commit a political persecution and kill a portion of its own population? In this video we are going to explore how this risk is high in any society that is naïve and sheepish enough to permit the rise of totalitarian rule.

“. . .the totalitarian hell proves only that the power of man is greater than they ever dared to think, and that man can realize hellish fantasies without making the sky fall or the earth open.”

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

Totalitarian government is a modern phenomenon. It first emerged in the 20th century and as Rod Dreher explains:

“…a totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality.”

Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies

To achieve its ideological ends a totalitarian government mobilizes all the mechanisms of the state to exert a strict top-down control of the populace, a mass surveillance system is put in place, and all aspects of life become politicized.

In the 20th century Nazism was the ideology that drove totalitarianism in Germany, it was Fascism in Italy, while in Asia and other parts of Europe it was Communism. Today a new totalitarian ideology appears to be taking root. This ideology is built on the belief that at current population levels human beings are parasitic creatures, and if allowed to be free, will run roughshod over mother earth. Harmony can be returned to our planet, and ecological disaster averted, but only if certain politicians and bureaucrats are granted the power to control our lives. What to eat, what type of energy to use, where to work, how to spend one’s recreation time, how many children to have, and where one travels – all these questions are to be answered by the totalitarian ruling class, not by free individuals planning their lives within the law and order of a free society.

“The controlling mind [of the totalitarian] foresees a paradise in which every action and every object is monitored, labeled, and controlled. There will be no room for any bad thing to exist. Nothing and no one will be out of place.”

Charles Eisenstein, Fascism and the Antifestival

Will we in the modern world allow another group of sick minds the opportunity to remake society in the image of a deluded ideology? Will we permit the rise of totalitarian rule? If we do the result will be same as it was in the 20th century, society will be destroyed, poverty will be the norm, and many people will be killed. To understand why every time totalitarianism is tried it devolves into mass killings by the government in power, we must examine the mind of the totalitarian politician and bureaucrat. For when we understand the pathologies that afflict these individuals it will be clear why totalitarians will drive society into ruin before abandoning course and admitting failure.

A first characteristic of the politicians and bureaucrats who make up the totalitarian government is that they are deluded true believers in their ideology. They are convinced, in other words, that what they are trying to accomplish is for the good of humanity and that society would be worse off absent their rule. The totalitarian mind is similar to the schizophrenic mind. It believes the web of delusions in which it is caught; it sticks to its ideological model of the world in the face of disconfirming evidence; and it tends to hate those who try to pierce its illusions.

A second characteristic of totalitarians is that they hold a contemptuous view of the masses and see normal men and women as inferior and incapable of making good choices. For their own good, it follows, and for the good of mother earth, the masses must obey the government. Totalitarians also tend to view the masses as unneeded, in such large numbers, for the realization of their ideological aims and so view whole segments of the populace as useless eaters who are overpopulating the world.

“Only where great masses are [viewed as] superfluous. . .is totalitarian rule. . .at all possible.”

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

A further characteristic of totalitarians is their tendency to judge moral issues through a utilitarian lens. When making policy decisions, in other words, totalitarians tend to use the criteria of the greatest good, for the greatest number of people as the justification for their actions. Individual rights matter little to the utilitarian, what matters is the good of the collective and to the totalitarian the good of the collective always means achieving its ideological ends. This utilitarian approach to moral issues is reflective of a very disturbed mind, or as Iain McGilchrist explains:

“The tendency to adopt a calculating and utilitarian approach in judging moral issues is more marked in those with reduced aversion to harming others, lower trait empathy, higher psychoticism (which is itself characterised by reduced empathy and emotional blunting). . .and greater Machiavellianism. It is also characteristic of the moral thinking of psychopaths. . .”

Iain McGilchrist, The Matter with Things

A deluded true believer in a utopian ideology, viewing him or herself as a superior being, seeing the world as overpopulated, and judging moral issues through a utilitarian lens, such is the mind of a totalitarian, and such is a mind capable of committing a mass atrocity. After totalitarians have taken power, all that is needed to initiate the process of political persecution is the inevitable failure of their rule. And fail they will, as all attempts to control society in a strict top-down manner are doomed from the start. The more order the totalitarians try to impose on a society the more chaos they create, and with such chaos comes a never-ending series of crises. But when the crises come instead of admitting that the fault lies with their rule, totalitarians deflect blame to others through the process of scapegoating. For as true believers totalitarians never consider the possibility that the crisis is a by-product of trying to force a deluded ideology on society through top-down control. Rather they convince themselves, and strive to convince others, that responsibility for the crisis lies elsewhere.

Who is to be offered as the scapegoat? In the early stages of totalitarian rule, it is the non-believer or dissident who becomes the scapegoat for government failures. Such individuals are blamed for disseminating misinformation and sabotaging the ability of the government to fix the crisis. A quick utilitarian calculus will deem free speech expendable when the benefit, in the mind of the totalitarian, is quicker progress toward ideological aims. But this cracking down on free speech is but a preliminary step, and a dangerous warning sign, that a society is moving in the direction of a violent political persecution, for as Arthur Versluis explains:

“Key to this transformation [of the totalitarian] into [the role of] a persecutor is a set of doctrines that one holds to be absolute or universal truth: thus everyone else is made into an unbeliever, or a traitor. . .It is only a short step from this to the belief that one’s duty is to impose the doctrines on everyone else, and that such an imposition is for “their own good,” or for the “good of society.” From this point, it is not far to persecuting the recalcitrant and, in the frenzy of persecution, only a small further step to rationalize even mass murder under the guise of “the greater good”.”

Arthur Versluis, The New Inquisitions

To move from the mere silencing of dissidents, to imprisoning and committing violence against them, totalitarians must turn them into what Hannah Arendt calls the objective enemy. The objective enemy is the ultimate scapegoat. These people are not guilty of any crimes, nor are they a threat to society, rather they are men and women whose way of life is incongruent with the totalitarian ideology. The objective enemy could be a certain ethnicity, they could be owners of private property in a communist country, or they could be the educated class, as in communist Cambodia. Or as Arendt explains:

“. . .the Jews in Nazi Germany or the descendants of the former ruling classes in Soviet Russia were not really suspected of any hostile action; they had been declared “objective” enemies of the regime in accordance with its ideology. . .the [objective enemy] is never an individual whose dangerous thoughts must be provoked or whose past justifies suspicion, but a “carrier of tendencies” like the carrier of a disease.”

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

Rampant and repetitive propaganda is the tool used to create the objective enemy, and in this situation words matter. For it is the terminology with which the objective enemy is branded that eventually convinces the totalitarians, and much of the public, that violence can legitimately be used against them. Or as Donald Dutton writes in his book The Psychology of Genocide:

“…a common perception of [totalitarians] is that their target group are vermin or a virus.”

Donald Dutton, The Psychology of Genocide

As the crisis intensifies, so too will the propaganda used to demonize the objective enemy. The totalitarians will become increasingly desperate to deflect blame, and with free speech outlawed those with sane and reasoned opinions will find it increasingly difficult to reveal the absurdity of the totalitarian’s claims. The masses will be desperate as well – wanting to escape from the misery of a society deteriorating and an economy collapsing, they too will need someone to blame. If the propaganda is successful, the frustration of the masses will turn toward the objective enemy and the ground will be paved for the ultimate crime to be committed:

“If the [objective enemies] are vermin,” writes Arendt “it is logical that they should be killed by poison gas; if they are degenerate, they should not be allowed to contaminate the population. . .”

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

But it is not the ruling class who commits the violence against the objective enemy, but so-called normal men and women who occupy lower levels of government bureaucracies. How can these individuals commit such horrific crimes? And how can such a large segment of the population be convinced to support the political persecution, or at least to stand idly by and watch as innocent men and women are stripped of their rights, imprisoned, and then sent to an early grave? In the next video we will explore these questions.

“The road to totalitarian domination leads through many intermediate stages . . .[during this process] what common sense and “normal people” refuse to believe is that everything is possible.”

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism

Further Readings