Liberal Totalitarianism

The term “liberal totalitarianism” is certainly not new. However, it is typically bandied about by conservatives as a synonym for something called “cultural marxism.” I have no idea what this latter term is supposed to mean(at least what conservatives mean by it), but I can give you a good working idea of what I think “liberal totalitarianism” means. Indeed, I would suggest we have seen on it full display in the recent Cato Unbound discussion on liberalism and social justice.

The foundation of Liberal Totalitarianism can be simply stated: the unchallenged assumption that liberalism is exempt from liberalism.

The Cata Unbound discussion provides a concrete example of it in action. But just to once again define our terms, by liberalism, it is meant a methodological framework that attempts to provide a normative answer to what rational agents would consent to in terms of political obligation. The Social Contract is a type of hypothetical construct or argument that deduces said obligation from an initial state of non-obligation. The State is an artificial construct in that it secures (enforces compliance)–BUT DOES NOT PRODUCE– the ends that make it rational for agents to choose obligation over non-obligation.

The liberal social contract, to retain coherence, must include non-obligation in the possible set of decisons(the decision tree). If non-obligation, however, is not a legitimate agent state, then the agent rational calculation itself is rooted in illegitimacy. This is why liberalism, to retain coherence, must, in the end, be a political theory of justifiable revolution. The possibility of disqualification(of the State) defines the constraints on the degree of political obligation.

Methodologically speaking, classical and modern liberalism are the same thing. Rawls, for example, is more or less following the same methodology of the original liberal social contract theorists. The difference for Rawls(compared to, say, the classical liberals) is that Rawls forbids an agent’s knowledge of its own identity when making a rational calculation regarding political obligation. Per Rawls, if you don’t have knowledge of your actual identity in the political system you are hypothesizing obligation to, you will rationally consent to a type of political obligation that minimizes the worst possible outcome(from an institutional perspective. E.g., Rawls would derive a “first amendment” from his thick, risk-adverse veil of identity ignorance).

Given the methodological similarities, the only possible way to debate the ends(the primary goods) is to debate the nature and circumstance of the hypothetical initial condition of non-obligation. But this is an unresolvable debate. I should point out that within modern liberalism, Harsanyi vs Rawls was exactly this type of debate(thick vs thin versions of the “veil of ignorance”). The inability for normative resolution is partly responsible for Rawls retreat into “Public Reason,” or overlapping political consensus as the means to justify his principles of justice. Simply, if modern liberals diverged over the makeup of primary goods, then obviously there is no normative marriage between classical and modern liberals regarding a justifiable composition of our primary goods. These type of discussions are nothing but a type of academic recognition.

A loose analogy I would use is an opening gambit by player White in a game of chess that is guaranteed to devolve into a long draw if player Black plays the same move. However, there is a possible winning strategy that player Black can play that ends the game in two moves. But the obvious winning strategy is ignored as a valid strategy because it is not recognized by professional convention. So, it doesn’t count.

The analogy here should be plain: if a player is going to use liberal methodology to argue for a social justice account of primary goods(as the opening gambit), then to avoid the “draw,” the opponent should play a strategy demonstrating that the actions of the State disqualify it from being an enforcement mechanism for these primary goods. The obvious winning strategy is to demonstrate that the State has disqualified itself. Put differently, the winning strategy is to demonstrate that the opening gambit itself results in a forfeit.

Liberal Totalitarianism is a condition where the players, by mere professional convention–and not by logic/reason or methodology–reject the possibility of disqualification and exempt liberalism from liberalism. Liberal totalitarians employ a standard rebuttal against the charge of a liberal police state(whenever they are incoveniently pressed to actually have to address the charge): “Nazi Germany.” “Stalinist Russia.” Of course, from a dialectical point of view, this is a silly, middle-school rejoinder. 21st Century multi-cultural, post-industrial America is not going to follow the the ethnic Völkisch model of the early 20th century Nazi folk state or pre-industrial, agrarian Soviet model. Indeed, if these two models are the baseline for what constitutes “totalitarianism,” then liberalism(in particular, the United States) is forever exempt from totalitarianism. “Nazi Germany/Stalinist Russia” is how Matt Zwolinski dismissed my “Social Justice of a Police State” argument. Disqualification is almost an alien concept to the likes of Zwolinski. And it’s not like “liberal coherence” is off Zwolinski’s radar. He writes papers arguing that free speech protection and antidiscrimination laws are in a diametric opposition to one another. Liberal coherence within the system demands one be subjugated to the other–either way. But he is pretty reluctant to extend coherence to the methodological foundation of the system itself–disqualification is a necessary constraint in order to retain the methodological coherence of liberalism.

A more recent post at BHL regarding “May Day” elicited quite a bit of left-Libertarian outrage–outrage that was largely absent from this group in the earlier social justice debate. But that post managed to ferret out the same “vulgar dialectics” tendencies. If you use vulgar dialectics to dismiss the problems of totalitarianism in liberalism, then don’t be surprised when it pops up to dismiss things like “May Day” celebrations because of the historical spectre of Soviet Communism. When the discussion veered back toward a comparison of Communist totalitarianism vs liberal totalitarianism, the vulgar dialecticians dismissed the possibility of liberal totalitarianism. “Liberal governments cannot be police states because only non-liberal governments can be police states. Liberal governments cannot be totalitarian because only non-liberal governments can be totalitarian. Liberal governments are not guilty of the ‘Total State’ violation because only non-liberal governments can be guilty of such a thing.”

To be clear, I’m not solely picking on the Zwolinski contingent of BHL. The entire political economic system is corrupted and rife with the moral framework of liberal exemption, liberal exceptionalism. American Exceptionalism is the encompassing umbrella which envelopes all of it. To me, the problem is one of reform, and reform is only possible by directly attacking the moral framework of liberal exceptionalism. The BHL program is not about reform, but largely about recognition, which thusly puts it in the “Pink Police State” ends category as far as I am concerned.

In the end, “Liberal Totalitarianism,” is not liberal. Liberalism does not survive exempting itself from itself. What we end up with(I would argue) is a type of Hegelian communitarianism. I would point to Charles Taylor’s model of “recognition,” which is more or less the underpinning of “political correctness,” as the foundation for this. Taylor’s notion that identity is a function of group recognition–where recognition for a group is dependent on other groups’ recognition, meaning identity becomes a function of a type of recursive group recognition–has a sort of perverse implication in the rotting remains of liberal institutionalism. Identity and Group Recognition become a function of a recursive group recognition/affirmation of the institutions of a highly artificial political economy. What we end up with is a permanent communitarian war of recognition within an institutional status quo. Communitarianism has a Hegelian underpinning, but what we end up with is hardly Hegel(or marxist, for our 3rd grade partisan conservative warriors). It is Orwell(oligarchical collectivism) applied to our context: permanent war as the foundation of a de facto peace among a (multi-cultural) professional class forever perched on the (artificially preserved) capitalist event horizon. The de facto peace is the equilibrium of the “Pink Police State,” and liberal totalitarianism is this pink police state.

2 thoughts on “Liberal Totalitarianism

  1. In other words, if I understand you correctly, once you legitimize state power in some areas you don’t have much rational ground to stand on to object to its encroachment into other areas? Or, put another way, once you legitimize state power, period, don’t be surprised when it eventually grows to encompass everything?

    • thanx for the comment, man:


      (1) in liberal political theory, there are limits to political obligation. If these limits are breached, then the obligation ends. So for a breach, you must either have reform or termination(of obligation)

      (2) if you dismiss the possibility of the breach or standardize it against an impossible/inapplicable context(e.g., Nazi germany), then you have effectively legitimized the total state in liberal political theory.

      (3) revolution(by which I mean termination of obligation) is really the only normative aspect of liberalism that holds up across the liberal methodology

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