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Liberalism and the Spectre of Inverted Totalitarianism

What is paradoxical is that U.S. imperial ideology happens to be not fascism but an all-encompassing and intolerant liberalism refitted for rationalizing military and political expansion.

Pablo Picasso, “Massacre in Korea,” 1951. The painting was considered to be a condemnation of US intervention in the Korean War, (image courtesy Musée Picasso/Wikimedia Commons)

The conflict now raging between the West and Russia and China is a struggle for global power. At the end of the Second World War the economic weight and influence of the United States allowed it to dominate world trade and manufacturing but also to control financial markets as well as build a system of global political and military alliances and bases which reinforced its control. Today its imperial dominance is under threat. The US is trying to prevent the emergence of rivals for world hegemony and block the development of a multipolar world. But it still maintains a residual power based on the role of the dollar as well as its military forces and political pacts. Nonetheless, the growing unease of the American state in the face of its declining international power lies behind its increasing militarism and aggressive imperialism, particularly notable against its two main rivals. It is using what remains of its strength to try to restore its global position. This aggressive drive is fueled by its long history of wars which helped not only to create its empire but also to recast American society into one managed by corporations and the state. What is paradoxical is that its imperial ideology happens to be not fascism but an all-encompassing and intolerant liberalism refitted for rationalizing military and political expansion.

There is a direct continuity between previous great power struggles and this current conflict. The past can also illuminate the present state of affairs. In particular, one can learn from the global rivalries of the period 1939-1941. The diplomatic manoeuvres and alliances of those years can throw light on the present. I would especially point to the close parallel between the foreign policy of the US now and Nazi Germany then. Then as now the idea was to seize control of the oil resources of the Middle East. More significantly the goal was, then as now, to dismember Russia and pillage its resources. Finally, the Nazi ambition to undermine Russia was a means of uniting the rest of Europe behind Germany. But these imperialist policies are more or less the same as those of the US today. Moreover—and this is the main point—these policies are in both cases products of authoritarian political systems whose foreign policies were or are predatory imperialisms.

At the beginning of the Second World War the world was divided into three camps: the fascist Axis led by Nazi Germany, the Anglo-American allies (champions of liberalism) and the communist Soviet Union. Both of the former were imperialist but the first two were not only bitter international rivals but ideological enemies—the Anglo-Americans still committed to bourgeois liberalism and representative democracy whereas Germany was autocratic, authoritarian, racist and militarist.

Today the cards are differently distributed. The socialist Soviet Union is no more-replaced by Russia, an illiberal capitalist state or so-called managed democracy. Its place ideologically has been assumed by a gigantic socialist country, the Peoples Republic of China. The fascist states of the past are gone, too. But I would argue their role has been filled by what Sheldon Wolin has called inverted totalitarianism. The best example of such a state is the US.

Everyone is by now familiar with the economic doctrines of neoliberalism which literally are a throwback to classical liberalism, the hallmark of which was reduction to a minimum of the state’s right to interfere with the economy and the personal life of the citizen. Today the liberal state has been supplanted by a neoliberal order based on an inverted totalitarianism in which the state, instead of effacing itself, massively intrudes into the economy and personal lives of citizens. Its goal is to use its powers to support private enterprise and to protect corporate power with which it acts in close partnership. Unlike the laissez-faire liberalism of the past this new version of the state unashamedly intervenes to foster the interests of capital.

Liberalism in its nineteenth century form had a number of fundamental teachings. Supreme among them are the rights of individuals conceived of as rational beings. The full development of the capacities of individuals are only possible if the constraints on them by society and the state are reduced to a minimum.

Liberals pride themselves on their rationality, sense of nuance and abhorrence of dogmas and political extremes. Among the rights conceded to the individual are the right to assembly, freedom from arbitrary arrest, and the right to personal privacy. Sacrosanct is the right to private property exalted to the level of a fundamental human right. Lip service continues to be paid to these rights. However, the number of people who actually control property and particularly productive property is today very few. Moreover only a minority have the financial means to protect their right to privacy or their freedom from arbitrary arrest. Indeed, the development of the surveillance state has rendered these latter rights worthless. Extreme social and economic polarization has made the idea of legal and political equality into a shibboleth at best. Likewise the freedom of the press and the media has been thoroughly compromised by censorship by the state and the dominance of private media owned by the rich.

Liberalism originally rejected political democracy, insisting that only men of substance and education should have rights to participate in politics. But class struggle from below and the discovery that representative democracy could actually help to stabilize capitalism led to democratic enfranchisement in the second half of the nineteenth century. But as a result of the growth of corporate power, state authoritarianism and extreme inequality have been reduced democratic political processes to a sham. Whereas in the past the US stood for the principle of national self-determination, today that ideal depends on a state’s conformity to a rules-based order as determined by the US.

The debased liberalism of today—purveyed like other commodities through a totalizing media—is a hollowed out and reified ideology. It is defined by super-patriotism, religious piety, human rights, so-called free choices including elections (and the choice of shampoos), and the rule of law, of which the population has become a virtual audience of passive consumers rather than real and active protagonists. Liberal principles have been emptied of real meaning but are invoked as a set of dogmas to which citizens are more or less forced to salute.

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Militarism, print and electronic media and increasingly pervasive surveillance have played a totalizing ideological role, not as in Nazi Germany to mobilize the population, but to render it psychologically passive. The impact of this thick but not particularly nourishing mess of liberal symbols and codes is to render the mass of the population helpless in the face of overwhelming oligarchic power and the growth of an authoritarian state. Unlike fascism which purported to provide assistance to the economically vulnerable the neoliberal order enforces increasing precarity on the population, rendering it powerless to organize itself politically to resolve its economic difficulties. Ordinary citizens are tied to this power through consumerism and sensationalism which includes the realm of politics. Politics avoids substantive issues in favour of personalities, rhetoric, and advertising. The questions of class and empire are ignored while identity politics, which keeps the population divided, are highlighted. This system of inverted totalitarian control came into place between the Second War and today. It has proved remarkably successful in undermining personal freedom while enhancing the authority of the police and military in the name of protecting the liberties of the individual.

How does the situation between 1939-41 bear upon the situation today? Back then the imperialist struggle for control of Asia reduced itself to a conflict between the US and Japan. Having been defeated, Japan became a vassal state of the US and is now part of the system of alliances offshore to China, a superpower which is the new rival of the US for dominance in Asia. But the analogy between the past and present situation is particularly evident in the US’s posture toward Russia and the Middle East.

The US today, with its debased liberalism and ultra-imperialism, plays a role similar to that of Nazi Germany. It must be remembered that back in 1941 the Germans did not act alone. By that year Hitler was in control of the whole of Europe except the Soviet Union. Crusading against communism was a common motif of fascist governments ranging from Vichy France to the dictatorship of the Iron Guard in Romania. The Nazis in fact had the support of authoritarian and fascist governments across Europe. Germany by then had reached the decision to attack the Soviet Union. Partly its aim was to dismember Russia and pillage it of its oil, food and minerals. But these designs developed into a campaign to dominate Turkey and the Middle East to undermine Britain while securing the oil of that region for Germany. If we look at the situation today we see it as strikingly analogous. The US seeks to dismember Russia and, incidentally, in doing so find a backdoor by means of which it can cripple China. Moreover, using NATO, the US aims to integrate the rest of Europe into its crusade against Russia. This crusade is a means of strengthening its grip on Europe. The attack on Russia is seen as a campaign which will help to unite Europe under American leadership.

From a political point of view, neoliberalism is different from classical liberalism in its disregard for individual liberties for the sake of state and corporate power. But, in closing, we might remind ourselves that even in its original form liberalism was not committed to democratic rights but was forced to concede them. Confronted by class struggle, fascism became its default position as in the case of France, Italy and Germany. Indeed, as Domenico Losurdo has pointed out, liberalism from the beginning not only excluded those without property but also the peoples of the Global South by justifying colonialism, racism, slavery and genocide. Today’s inverted liberalism in which imperialism plays a key role is thus not unique but rather an ongoing characteristic of this ideology.

Henry Heller is a Professor of History at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of The Birth of Capitalism: A 21st Century Perspective (Pluto Press, 2011), The Cold War and the New Imperialism: A Global History, 1945-2005 (Monthly Review Press, 2006) and The Bourgeois Revolution in France (Berghahn Books, 2006).

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