Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Fascism, totalitarianism and theocracy

The late Isaiah Berlin, in his Two Concepts of Liberty, made the point that “liberty” is a concept that has become so “porous” that it seemed there was no meaning that it couldn’t bear. This was due to the positive connotations of the word; regardless of how actually illiberal a measure advocated by theorists, politicians and activists – it is presented as representing “real” liberty. (Nowadays, New Labour prefers to call its various illiberal measures “progressive”.)

The use of the above three terms is, I think, exactly like this – in reverse. For the polemicist, they are perennially attractive as a means of discrediting your opponent without having to engage fully with the arguments.

There has, as everyone knows, a long and ignoble tradition on the left of using the epithet “fascist” in this context. Having spread like a semantic virus, the inflation of this concept apparently knows no bounds: sometimes it would be used accurately, sometimes used to describe any undemocratic regime that was capitalist and sometimes simply used as a synonym for anyone or any regime even marginally to the right of Mao.

Regrettably, a new strain of the virus has appeared amongst those on the left who supported regime-change in Iraq. Regrettable because while I do think the Ba’athist regime was accurately described as fascist, it shouldn’t, in my view, be used to describe those who opposed the war; that didn’t make them “objectively pro-fascist” any more than supporting it makes me an “objectively pro-neocon, Republican oil-driller for Jesus”. You’re entitled to disagree but if so, do try to be consistent.

A contemporary example of concept inflation can also be found in the use of “totalitarian”, which in some cases seems to have become a synonym for regimes and movements that are merely authoritarian. Properly understood, this concept – developed by, amongst others – Hannah Arendt, holds that fascism and communism, rather than representing authoritarian regimes at the polar opposites of the political spectrum, have in reality more in common than separates them.

There are a number of reasons to be suspicious of the idea as it was originally presented: it was a Cold War concept designed partly to identify Soviet Communism as belonging to the same species as German National Socialism – the appeal of this to those on the American right being fairly obvious. Other criticisms include the notion that it is too static - practically useless, for instance, for the analysing the Breshnev-era stagnation.

There is some merit in this first point: being old-fashioned, I would argue that fascism is and was worse both qualitatively and quantitatively than communism. Historical examples, I think, show fascism to be intrinsically more unstable and is, therefore, much more likely to be territorially expansionist. Every believer in the totalitarian thesis knows – ironically in a Chomsky-esque fashion – that more souls died under Stalinism than German National Socialism. Well, yes – but Stalin was at it for that much longer, and the “body-count” approach usually fails to factor in the obvious point that, unlike WW1, who was responsible for the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 isn’t questioned by any serious historian. Fascism is also qualitatively more wicked; surely everyone agrees that the fascist utopia – in the German case, a world free from Jewry – is intrinsically more repulsive than the objectives conceived by Stalin in the first five-year plans?

However, while resisting the complete conflation of the two, the concept is not without its uses - for communism and fascism do indeed share a number of features and describing these as “totalitarian” is as good a word as any. In any event, it was never solely a right-wing concept: although I’m not sure if he ever used the actual term, George Orwell developed the idea most famously in 1984 in which he identifies some of the most crucial features of totalitarian regimes. We have the party, a feature of totalitarianism everywhere, which is above all institution of the state and whose task it is to mobilise the population – rather than ensure their passivity, as in traditional authoritarian regimes. It’s not enough to obey Big Brother, O’Brien tells Winston; you have to love him. For the totalitarian, the citizen must believe – and it’s here that the relationship with religion is interesting. Everyone knows Orwell’s targets were Nazism and Stalinism; less that the Catholic Church was for him the third great totalitarian institution of world history.

Which brings us to theocracy. Like the first two, this concept has suffered from a great deal of inflation recently and tends to be used to describe any situation where organised religion has any significant input into the political life of a state. But properly understood (as the rulership of priests), there is something intrinsically totalitarian about theocracy because just like 1984, in these states one is required to believe.

I’m not sure if I entirely agree with Orwell’s use of the Catholic Church. Its rule, while obviously stifling and reactionary, has often been characterised by the compromise and passivity that one normally associates with traditional authoritarian regimes. Although perhaps risky to say so in this part of the country, a much better candidate would be the rule of the Calvinists, as experienced in Geneva and, I regret to say, Scotland – at one time the most Calvinist country on the face of the planet bar none.

The rule of the Church of Scotland was proto-totalitarian in the way that the attempt to build the Holy Community was similar to other totalitarian experiments in that it atomised individuals and then reformed them into a community of believers, whose fidelity to the Faith is monitored as closely as possible with the best technology available. As T.C. Smout said, the innovation of the Reformation in Scotland was the novel idea that everyone was to be a religious virtuoso.

The history of the Church of Scotland is a good example of the ways in which religion, and politicised religion can be misunderstood. A number of features of the Calvinist tradition can be seen as “progressive”: the Church of Scotland was, for example, impressively democratic sometime before the British Parliament was elected by universal suffrage and it is very egalitarian in its government. It has no bishops or cardinals and it has had women ministers for many years.

But while I’d agree with the redoubtable Lenin that one shouldn’t consider all religion reactionary, I’d argue that when it expresses itself theocratically, it always is. And I’d argue further that this is always a danger because religion expresses itself this way as one of the three ways that salvation religions adjust to the fact that the world is evil: from Max Weber we have the idea that religion can either retreat from the world in a monastic, quietist sort of way; engage with it ascetically; or try and take it over theocratically. In the case of the Calvinists – option 1 was impossible because the Reformation abolished it; option 2 was attempted but failed - leaving only option 3, which it did, although was by that time succumbing to the forces of secularisation anyway. In all its historical incarnations, the Church of Scotland may have been relatively egalitarian but liberal it has never been and life in 17th century Scotland must have been absolutely intolerable. (I like the phrase I read somewhere that said "one could be forgiven for thinking that the purpose of the Reformation in Scotland was to eliminate purgatory by getting it over while they were still alive".)

Theocracy and religion need to be kept separate; the relationship with power is the crucial one and it should be understood from history how often religion has appealed to the powerless. Critics of religion and religious political movements like to dredge up blood-curdling verses from the Old Testament and the Koran in an attempt to expose the inner, oppressive nature of religion. But while differences in religious doctrine can be significant, I think this approach misses the point of theocracy for here power lies not with the oracle but with the priesthood and the scholars – who are the custodians of orthodoxy. The significance of theocracy lies in the social and political reality of being governed by those who make a claim to cognitive infallibility, rather – as some suppose – what the texts actually say.

And the crucial point which I think needs to be understood is that the basis on which people make this claim is not necessarily decisive. Whether your ruler does so because he thinks he’s in mystical communication with God, or the Volk, or the proletariat; or whether he thinks he has a unique understanding of Marx, or the Bible, or the Koran – the net result is much the same: tyranny, oppression, and a pile of corpses that stand as a monument to the attempt to build paradise with human material.

No comments:

Blog Archive