Totalitarianism

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Demagogues may spark movements with relative independence, but their ultimate goal is usually some form of totalitarian control. Totalitarianism is an organizational form characterized by rigid centralized control of all aspects of a person's life by an autocratic leader or hierarchy. A totalitarian movement is correctly defined by its style, structure and methods, not by its stated or apparent ideology.~70

Arendt discusses how totalitarian movements are built around a central fiction of a powerful conspiracy, (in the case of the Nazis, a conspiracy of Jews which dominated the world) that requires a secretive counter-conspiracy be organized.~71 Totalitarian groups organize the counter-conspiracy in a hierarchical manner which mimics the levels of membership and rituals of social and religious secret societies.~72

The process whereby a movement's sympathizers serve as mediators for translating otherwise unacceptable messages into public discourse plays an important role in demonization. Arendt suggests most people get their first glimpse of a totalitarian movement through its front organizations:

The sympathizers, who are to all appearances still innocuous fellow-citizens in a nontotalitarian society, can hardly be called single-minded fanatics; through them, the movements make their fantastic lies more generally acceptable, can spread their propaganda in milder, more respectable forms, until the whole atmosphere is poisoned with totalitarian elements which are hardly recognizable as such but appear to be normal political reactions or opinions. ~73

The concept of the totalitarian group has been abused in several ways. First is the abuse of describing a group that is not truly totalitarian as a "cult." While there are totalitarian groups that use deceptive recruiting practices and psychologically-manipulative techniques to enforce loyalty, not every new religion or exotic spiritual or political group is a cult.~74 Some fundamentalist Christian groups that warn about cults use the term loosely, and often are stigmatizing religious views that they find unacceptable. Second, the term "front group" is often used to discredit an organization seen as subversive or dangerous by persons who are using guilt-by-association as an acceptable standard of proof. Third, labeling a group totalitarian or a front group is a convenient way to weaken or destroy a political adversary, even when the charge is known to be false. The label "front group" was widely used by anticommunists during the McCarthy period to demonize liberals and radicals as tools of Moscow-based subversion. Nevertheless, the basic concept of totalitarianism should not be discarded because of these abuses.

Under totalitarianism the end game of demonization and scapegoating is genocide. Hitler may well have been a lunatic, but the vast majority of Germans who allowed him to rule, and tolerated or espoused scapegoating conspiracist theories about Jews and other alleged parasitic subversives, were not suffering from mass psychosis. The "banality of evil", as Hannah Arendt observed, is that ordinary people are willing--even eager--participants in brutality and mass murder justified by prejudice and conspiracist scapegoating in the larger society.~75 Totalitarian movements and governments raise the stakes for these processes.

Lawrence L. Langer raises the inescapable issue regarding the Nazi genocide:

"The widespread absence of remorse among the accused in postwar trials indicates that we may need...to accept the possibility of a regimen of behavior that simply dismisses conscience as an operative moral factor. The notion of the power to kill, or to authorize killing of others, as a personally fulfilling activity is not appealing to our civilized sensibilities; even more threatening is the idea that this is not necessarily a pathological condition, but an expression of impulses as native to our selves as love and compassion."~76

So we all must face history without flinching, and take responsibility for the present, knowing that the fault lies not in the stars, but in our selves.~77

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