Craving for Crisis - Alternatives to Totalitarianism

SUBJECT: Social Criticism

L. Kurt Engelhart

Introduction Action and Imperatives Fascism as Totalitarianism
Modern Science as Utopia The Enemy's Perspective Craving for Crisis Explained
Conclusion References Email


This series of papers describes the militant anti-liberal atmosphere, reflected in reactionary behavior in the scientific community, as contributing to a rising level of tension surrounding unresolved anomalies. I have described the ultimate effect of this confluence of factors as a craving for crisis. Part I addressed specifically the actions of the so-called Unabomber as evidence of such tension building in US culture. Part II addresses the same phenomenon from an alternative perspective, the reaction to postmodern Angst in the scientific community. This paper, Part III, presents a systemic model of totalitarianism, showing under what conditions it may become fascism. I then compare this model with the model held by the scientific community, developed in Part II, and the societal model according to Unabomber, developed in Part I. Comparison reveals that Unabomber and the scientific community share the same worldview, although from opposite perspectives, and that worldview corresponds to a fascist totalitarianism model. These comparisons are presented as conclusions and I offer speculations concerning the meaning of these conclusions within our current social context.


The previous papers in this series have presented the polemics of the Unabomber and anti-liberal academics as two sides to a debate. I have proposed that the crucial challenge in the debate is the possibility of absolute truth because its existence determines the existing social dispensation of power and privilege, and its loss will require new ways of thinking about everyday life. Let me explain how this debate relates to the characteristics of truth.

We are all familiar with the myriad sources of various claims to truth. Society bombards us with conflicting statements about "the way things are." The barrage of opinion and the resulting debate may be intellectually stimulating when their effect on our lives is slight. However, when our survival and prosperity are deeply involved in the answers, and the situation requires immediate action, we are no longer just intellectually stimulated. At this point, we highly value absolute means to decide what is "true." We are driven to arbitrarily silence debate and take action.

Action and Imperatives

The perceived nature of "truth" marks the significant difference between totalitarianism and non-totalitarianism. Truth can be seen as either provisional or absolute, and where truth is absolute totalitarianism reigns. The nature of truth is affected by extraordinary levels of concern for security needs, which we call "fear." Fear motivates action, and more fear creates stronger demand for action. Ubiquitous, overpowering fear precludes any debate, which would delay action, over what is acceptable as the "truth" and so determines the nature of truth. Cultures subject to all-encompassing fear will invariably be totalitarian societies.

Collective action, warfare being the prime example, cannot proceed based on an ambiguous understanding among those who must combine their resources to achieve success. A settled understanding is prerequisite to action. Settled understandings, either imposed or justified, are institutionalized as cultural imperatives. In either case, when debate on cultural imperatives is closed in order to act, subsequent decisions become arbitrary, or totalitarian.

Closure of debate may be itself subject to debate, in which case it is deemed voluntary, or it may be closed by arbitrary means, when it is deemed involuntary. Thus when closure of debate results from a process of public justification, the totalitarianism is voluntary, and when the decision to close debate is itself unilateral, arbitrary, and absolute the totalitarianism is involuntary.

In those societies where closure of debate occurs, imposition or justification will still be based on arguments supported by fear. The object of fear is an accepted element of rationality, or "truth," and will be seen to be either external or internal to the rationalized society. In systemic terms, an external object is "other" while an internal object is part of "self." The configuration specifically of interest here, and important to my definition of fascism, is the internal enemy, where the feared object is perceived as part of one's self, one's own united community. I will call this configuration "inclusive," where "exclusive" is reserved for those situations where the enemy is defined outside the rationalized community.

As familiar as we are with limitations on debate, we have not solved a problem that accompanies arbitrary closure of debate: when truth is chosen as absolute for the moment it often becomes absolute for all time. When power and privilege are assigned, based on a specific configuration of truth, they become very difficult to reassign. Changes in the configuration of truth and the possible result, redistribution of power and privilege, threaten existing holders of these resources, who may use their resources arbitrarily to silence the debate. When the arbitrary use of power and privilege becomes institutionalized we call it totalitarianism.

Fascism as Totalitarianism

However, I am distinguishing here a specific form of totalitarianism, one that can masquerade as a democracy. Tyranny can be freely chosen by a society, or at least by those elements of the society perceived to be the most important. Truth is subject to debate but debate can be arbitrarily limited by use of power. Whether power is, or is not, being used arbitrarily is itself one of those "truths" that may be subject to debate. Whether debate over the use of power is allowed, has historically and culturally been a matter of "imperatives." "Imperative" refers to a collectively accepted, absolute (i.e., undebatable) truth that determines the limits of debate on specific issues, precluding the charge of arbitrary use of power to impose such limits. Pacey describes a "technological imperative" (1983, p.79) that determines action in an industrial culture. Aronowitz describes a "power imperative" by which a logic of domination is "rooted in the hierarchical structure of society" (1988, p.5). Where cultural imperatives both rationalize and justify a totalitarian structure, I call the condition "voluntary."

Totalitarianism is rationalized around fear that becomes an obsession when collective need for immediate and continuous action precludes debate. Where totalitarianism is involuntary, for example in Stalinist Russia, there is no equivocation over the arbitrary character of the use of power to evict capitalism. Absolute use of power is rationalized but there is no attempt to justify it because absolute power requires no justification. In fact, the form of the Soviet state based on absolute power was popularly expected to "wither away" (Cohen, 1972, p.139) as it was rendered unnecessary by Socialism.

The form of totalitarianism I want to discuss here is the "voluntary" form that can be configured in two ways: exclusively and inclusively. I use the word "voluntary" because the society rationalizes and chooses this form in collective debate where the choice of the form must be justified. An example of exclusive voluntary totalitarianism is Nazism. Here, power is not absolute but provisional, so its legitimation requires justification. As Aronowitz points out, by virtue of its control over knowledge, power can manufacture any justification needed (1988, p. 6). Nazism manipulated collective fear to direct it at a well-defined external enemy. Their enemy was external in the sense that Nazis clearly did not perceive their enemy in any way as part of Nazi society. The enemy was an external threat that had to be eliminated.

The final form of voluntary totalitarianism is distinguished by the definition of the enemy within. I believe only this form can properly be called fascism. "The original fasces were bundles of thin rods bound together with an ax among them; they were carried . . . as a symbol of the authority and of the strength that comes from tight unity" (Cohen, 1972, p.256). Cohen mentions three complementary "streams of thought" (p.256) through which the political will of fascism becomes manifest: absolutism, organicism, and irrationalism.

1) Absolutism: collective power must be centralized in one supremely competent entity.

2) Organicism: the collective body necessarily has hands, feet, and (most importantly) a head, where control is centralized.

3) Irrationalism: an attitude and methodology that produces results conflicting with and superior to ordinary human reason is the only means to decide truth, and these results are immune to popular criticism.

I believe these may be seen to constitute a cultural imperative as defined above.

A significant example of fascist organization, well matched to the above criteria, is the Catholic Church. This example also illustrates why this form of totalitarianism is inclusive instead of exclusive. The Catholic Church claims to be the absolute and universal church. The enemy within of the Catholic Church is original sin. Collective fear is projected, not onto an external entity, but onto an aspect of the individual and collective Self. Obsession with eliminating the evil within the self becomes raison d'etre for the Self, and the ordinary self is thereby transcended. The Catholic Church may actually have external enemies, but that is irrelevant to how it rationalizes its own existence. Since the Catholic Church is self-defined as universal, any enemy must exist within.

Modern Science as Utopia

Although utopia is frequently associated with socialist dogma, Karl Popper noted, "Dogmatism led not to utopia, as Marxists and fascists alike claimed, but to totalitarian repression" (Horgan, 1996, p.34). Utopia represents expected achievement of what we wish for by unified collective commitment to a single configuration (all undebatable) of ends and means, i.e., dogma. According to the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory, "The drive toward mastery' over nature . . . was prompted by the human fear of nature, particularly its capacity for destruction, that is, to enslave human beings to its vicissitudes" (Aronowitz, 1988, p.128).

"What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order to wholly dominate it and other men . . . however, the only kind of thinking that is sufficiently hard to shatter myths is ultimately self-destructive." [Horkheimer/Adorno quote] (Aronowitz, p.128) Instead of regarding science and technology and its rules as one mode of thinking among others, the Enlightenment and its aftermath imposed the rigors of scientific thought upon the whole of society. Instrumental reason became the only possible mode of thinking and all other modes were relegated to the realm of myth. In the wake of the triumphs of science on the basis of the criteria of utility and its capacity to subordinate nature to human will, it became reified. The key concepts of technological rationality were: subjection of individuals to the productive apparatus, the elevation of the productive apparatus to the status of the source of values and authority, and the collapse of all distance between thought and technical means. The logic of industrial production, that is, the division of labor organized hierarchically and by means of coercion, was now an unquestioned aspect of the natural order. (p.129)

Thus, the collective ideal of Western industrial culture matches the criteria for fascist organization. In this context the imperatives are:

1) Absolutism: only science is competent and capable of providing the answers required by modern society,

2) Organicism: once science has decided what to do, the rest of the collective is responsible for doing it, and

3) Irrationalism: ordinary people do not produce science and have no right to criticize it.

It is the supreme irony that the rationalism of Western science precisely meets the fascist requirement for deliberate irrationalism. The scientist becomes the Superman, and ordinary people are, by comparison, subhuman and part of nature that must be dominated, where nature is an alien "otherness." Alien nature also includes that portion of each individual that resists control and efficiency. We have met the enemy and it is us. Utopia consists of eliminating the influence of alien nature on our lives.

The Enemy's Perspective

When collective "rationality" becomes imperatively linked to the purposeful subjugation or extinction of other worldviews, it may be expected that those who represent other views, even if outnumbered, would take steps to protect themselves and their perspectives. The entire phenomena of postmodernism may be seen as a multifaceted protest by a minority against a tyranny that may not be named, or if it is named, may not be recognized, much less openly debated. Imperatives are imperatives, after all, because the power to determine reality lies with the collective.

The anomalies that have caused postmodern Angst have been mainly of the intellectual variety. Few, if any, crises in survival or prosperity can be directly associated with the conduct of science. So what if hypostatization of current configurations of power and privilege are again resulting in the formation of permanent social classes? So what if we are slaves to powerful and arbitrary social forces, if our standard of living continues to improve? Even with rampant political corruption and intrigue, are we not still better off than we were four years ago? Debate over the possibility of absolute truth will not be the catalyst for revolutionary social change. Nor will be the revelation of Western scientific industrialism as identical in form to "despicable" fascism. Both are effectively isolated from the possiblity of becoming part of significant debate.

Craving for Crisis Explained

Richard Tarnas's historical assessment of the Western worldview ends, "As the twentieth century draws to a close, a widespread sense of urgency is tangible on many levels, as if the end of an aeon is indeed approaching. It is a time of intense expectation, of striving, of hope and uncertainty. Many sense that the great determining force of our reality is the mysterious process of history itself, which in our century has appeared to be hurtling toward a massive disintegration of all structures and foundations . . ." (Tarnas, 1991, p.411). I suggest that ours is a time of great psychic anxiety, as contrasted with its high general standards of physical and economic well-being. Some would claim that we have actually achieved utopia, while others have grave doubts about the value of what we have achieved. I believe most would agree that nothing about the current system is going to change, unless things get a lot worse. This is why the most anxious among us seem to crave a crisis. Is it then possible that our condition is so volatile that some event or issue will catapult us into an apocalypse from which will emerge drastically revised social imperatives? Or are the imperatives already changing and the brave new world already manifest about us?


One imperative that recurs frequently in postmodern discourse is the necessity to understand the human predicament in historical terms. The necessity to consider history is in itself problematic considering the illusory nature of history as captured in discourse. Yet our ability to reflect ever more abstractly on this process must continually improve our perspective, unless we succeed in destroying ourselves completely, freeing ourselves from the project of creating successors to the modern imperatives.

I believe my proponents in this debate, the advocates for the conservative position, scientists (in the sense of representing scientism) Gross and Levitt, adequately reveal the active imperatives in their, the modern, world. These are the same imperatives recognized, and hated, by my chosen opponent liberal representative, the provocative Unabomber. I believe these imperatives are an approximate match for those principles that embody the political organization historically called fascism: absolutism, organicism, and irrationalism.

Now, I admit these two voices cannot be held to represent the whole of Western society, or even the United States population. However, these voices are such clear and present articulations of their worlds that I can build an argument on them. Although time may eventually prove my argument to be made of straw, I believe it is important to this debate to act as if these voices speak for most of us. Also, I believe the debate itself is generally important because it is important to me personally. This is the ground on which my argument stands.

I have condensed the material issues presented by the adversaries in this debate to two:

1) the constitution of a model of the world according to which human resources are applied to produce reality, and

2) the selection of individuals who are allowed to contribute to that model.

A couple of statements may help to substantiate the existence of general interest in these issues. "[T]he proper role of scientists and technologists is to help draw the maps which society needs in order to steer its future course, but it is not their job to do the steering" (Pacey, 1983, p.153). "To engage in a genuinely open dialog is inevitably to share power over the final decision" (p.157).

Pacey refers to a study commissioned by the European Economic Commission in 1982 that puts forth "a liberal vision firmly rejecting all determinist concepts and emphasizing technology as a social process, just as open to democratic control as any other social process if people will appreciate it in this way" (p.161). Pacey warns that "too much is claimed for the more open decision-making procedures as they so far exist, and the intellectual issues concerning differing worldviews and values remain largely untouched" (p.161). He questions whether such changes are possible where "professionals are forced to abandon the esoteric and sacred land of scientific facts for the real world, where facts and values are mixed" (p.161).

[A]ny knowledge at all presupposes a worldview [and] where worldviews are in conflict, there will be little agreement about what kinds of knowledge are relevant and valid. [W]hen technologists submit information to parliamentary committees or public inquiries, they have been known to suggest that their particular proposals are the only rational answer to the problem in hand, and that any other would be irrational' or even illegitimate.' [A]vailable information is simply not perceived and is effectively destroyed in order to achieve a coherent view. [P]eople who perceive different kinds of reality . . . have no way of discovering how they interconnect. (p.162)

I am not the only one who has noticed that the historically preferred solution for making decisions under such conditions has been totalitarian organization. In 1941, during the war against fascism, US proponents of "rational planning" were concerned about totalitarian systems getting a bad name because totalitarian organization was an inevitable and desirable part of technical development (Pacey, p.129-130). What is hard for me to understand is why this is not common knowledge today, and why our culture insists that we live in a democracy. Am I the only one who considers this a revelation?

Of course, the political and economic leaders in a fascist dictatorship have no obligation to inform their followers of this. That would be asking for trouble. Also, their status makes it possible for them to label any undesirable commentary as "irrational" or "illegitimate." With every individual responsible for their own fortunes, if we can't figure this out for ourselves, doesn't this give others who are less naive the right to dominate us? Our Constitution did not originally preclude enslaving other races politically. Does it now preclude psychic, epistemic, economic, or even technological, slavery?

The issues here are whether we are being manipulated by a fictional and exploitative "absolute truth" into a future over which we have no control and which we have no part in designing. If the powerful in our society are given the right by our government to do this to us, to what authority can we appeal for relief and representation? Unabomber prescribes one response to this situation. What are the other alternatives? Is the situation as hopeless as it seems? The questions deserve much more "genuinely open dialog."

A Model for Non-Totalitarian Society

The most common justification I hear for closure of debate is that, after a certain point, debate becomes uneconomical, i.e., inefficient. This justification is used whenever action oriented imperatives will still allow debate but powerful interests perceive debate as entirely at their expense. At this point they use their power to arbitrarily close debate because, they claim, what is good for the powerful is good for everyone.

To a certain extent I sympathize with these motivations to limit debate. Two reasons make limits undeniably desirable: 1) "to the winner go the spoils" mentality creates great fear over the loss of power and privilege, and 2) eventually we have to agree on something or we can never act as a group. Both reasons arise from a belief that one description of reality must universally prevail and that all other descriptions have "failed" and been proven forever "wrong."

I believe that, today, insistence on a single reality must be seen as equally naive as insistence on an Earth-centered universe. We cannot afford to invest all our resources in a single reality, because no matter how democratically that reality may be chosen, universal imposition of such a reality is the very nature of totalitarianism, and there is no excuse for totalitarianism on the basis of its being voluntary. Also, we have wide evidence of how debate may be closed in order to take local action while global debate still rages. Legislature and law are the prime example.

I have a simple but, I am sure, incredible cultural solution. It is based on the comment made by Shakespeare's revolutionary follower in Henry VI Part II to his aspiring king, Jack Cade, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." My solution, not nearly so bloody, is founded on the logic that if everyone is a lawyer, no one is a lawyer. We have to admit the failure of recent experiments at articulating the purposes of education. "Education" is presently designed to render one employable, which strategy, since the elite part of human society is engaged as employers rather than employees, serves to emphasize the rift between powerful and powerless. My strategy would disengage completely the process of education from the process of employment. Work skills would be entirely the responsibility of potential employers. I would prepare all children from the very first moment for the power and responsibility of debate, so that when they mature they may voluntarily choose, from the entire range of human discourse, an arena in which to exercise their skills.

Debate is an activity in which one can engage from the moment one can sit at a dinner table. One is guaranteed by the US Constitution the right to practice the skills it produces, which is something you cannot say for employment skills. It is true that our present culture would exclude certain debaters from certain venues on the basis of class standing, but if children were raised to debate I believe this barrier would be quickly overcome. You say you don't want your child raised as a politician? Engineers, artists, administrators, doctors, musicians, scientists, scholars, politicians, all are debaters because the business of each of them takes place in a discursive forum of one kind or another. What about reading, writing and arithmetic? These are the fundamental tools of debate.

We must avoid the perception by any intelligent member of our society that debate has been closed leaving them on the outside. I personally get this impression from the arguments presented by Gross and Levitt. When a sufficient number of motivated people are locked out of the significant discourse in a society, a few are sure to become pathological, hence Unabomber. When I began this series of papers, I was merely speculating that certain misunderstood imperatives of our culture were evident in the debate between militant anti-liberalism and the Unabomber. I suppose it is still debatable that these imperatives reveal US society as fascist totalitarianism, but I hope we can talk about it.


Anonymous. (1995). The Unabomber manifesto. [On-line]. Internet.

Aronowitz, S. (1988). Science as power: Discourse and ideology in modern society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cohen, C. (1972). Communism, fascism, and democracy: the theoretical foundations. New York: Random House.

Gross, P.R. & Levitt, N. (1994). Higher superstition: The academic left and its quarrels with science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Horgan, J. (1996). The end of science: Facing the limits of knowledge in the twilight of the scientific age. Reading, Massachusetts: Helix Books.

Kuhn, T.S. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pacey, A. (1983). The culture of technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Tarnas, R. (1991). The passion of the western mind. New York: Ballantine Books.

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