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The Culture War, Part II: Social Totalitarianism

After writing this article but before publishing it, I came across this article coining a similar term, horizontal totalitarianism, espousing much of the same idea but focusing on its historical occurrence, which you may also find of interest.


Totalitarianism. In a democratic society, law ideally does not prescribe culture, but instead reflects it. Things become illegal not in an attempt to engineer society but as a reflection of the fact that society has come to find some given thing unacceptable.

Moreover, there is an essential distinction between dissent and defiance. The fundamental premise of a state is to maintain a monopoly on the use of force, and to contest the state's monopoly, or to try to prevent it from enacting its laws is an act of defiance; dissent, on the other hand, is free. Dissent is integral to democracy because people must be free to critique the state and discuss what changes should be made to it, as a precursor to bringing about those changes via elections.

What totalitarianism represents at its core is an attempt to use the state's monopoly on force to control not just the martial, physical domain, but also culture. What is so significant about this is that the instant that this becomes a goal, the distinction between dissent and defiance disappears. After all, speech is culture; if the domain which a state seeks to control is not physical but cultural, the act of dissent itself is by definition an act of defiance. To the totalitarian government, there is genuinely no distinction between dissent and trying to blow up a government building; it sees no difference between the physical and cultural domains, both of which are objects of its control. Psychoanalytically, a totalitarian government genuinely sees no difference between dissent and punching it in the gut; in fact, if the totalitarian government considers control of culture to be of greater urgency than control of the physical domain, it may even prefer that its enemies try to bomb its buildings, or assassinate its leaders; better that than to openly dissent against it.

To summarise, I define totalitarianism as a) the attempt to use the power of the state to dictate, rather than reflect, culture, and b) the loss of any distinction between dissent and defiance that necessarily and inevitably results from this.

Most interesting of all, however, is that we now see that totalitarianism need not be implemented by the state. What we see now is the rise of social totalitarianism.

Social totalitarianism seeks to control and dictate culture in an oppressive fashion, just as state totalitarianism does. However, it does not seek (or perhaps more accurately, is not able) to use the state's monopoly on force to enforce this control. Instead, it uses methods of social incentivization. It establishes and enforces an orthodoxy by terrorising people not that they will be charged, abducted or killed if they offend the ruling orthodoxy, but that instead they will be socially excommunicated; that they will be fired; that they will be unpersoned; that their name will be slandered; that they will become a pariah; even that their bank accounts will be closed.

Newchurch. Social totalitarianism is perhaps the single greatest source of Newchurch's power. It enables Newchurch to rule in every sense of the word without requiring a single elected office. Most likely if you cast around in your own mind, you can find its grip on you; something you were scared to say, because you have seen the social excommunication that have befallen those before you who offended the orthodoxy. Social totalitarianism is so remarkably effective, it looms in people's mind and drives their actions every bit as effectively as if they were under state totalitarianism. It is a system of rule by fear.

Even if an elected office opposes Newchurch, it cannot act against social totalitarianism and maintain its own democratic principles, because social totalitarianism is ironically a system of oppression enabled by and constructed within the very liberties and essential principles a liberal society exists to defend. Any person or business or employer is entirely within their rights to publicly condemn others, or disassociate with them.

Ordinarily, ostracization from a community might only occur if one upsets the majority of members of that community; but like state totalitarianism, social totalitarianism does not require a majority in order to be effective. It simply requires a highly intolerant minority whom others are scared to offend. Even the most totalitarian state could not survive if every single one of its citizens were to rise up against it simultaneously, and in this sense even the most oppressive of governments on some level requires the tacit consent of the oppressed. In practice, of course, organising and agreeing a simultaneous uprising is an intractable challenge, and no individual wants to be the first to speak out, for fear that others will not join them.

So too with social totalitarianism, which oppresses the majority whom on some level are always aware of it. If all those oppressed by it were to call time on it on a particular day, the intolerant minority, the Thought Police would lose all of their power overnight — but nobody wants to be the first to speak out. With both state and social totalitarianism there is also the opportunity for gaslighting, to prevent people from realising that they are not only not alone, they are in fact in the majority; to convince people, in short, that they are the only ones who think as they do, and if they speak out there will be nobody coming to stand with them.

In truth totalitarianism, state or social, is in itself is evidence of minority rule, because if the majority culture was already of the orthodoxy advanced by it, its methods would not be necessary in the first place.

Tactics against dissenters. There are various tactics used by social totalitarians against individual dissenters today. The most obvious ones are well-documented: firstly the destruction of reputation via defamation, generally via name-calling with the usual repertoire of pariah words; subsequently excommunication, or the so-called “cancel culture”.

There are, however, many other tactics. In the tactic of Speech-Violence Conflation, speech is explicitly described as “violence”. This is nothing less than an explicit and overtly deliberate invocation of the removal of distinction between speech and action which, as described above, forms the core of totalitarianism; it is a naked assertion of totalitarian ends.

Still another tactic is that of One-is-All Conflation. Suppose that someone says something which offends Newchurch orthodoxy, and in response Newchurch adherents accuse the offender of, say, racism. Such accusations are often or even usually false but suppose for the sake of example that it is technically true. One possible defence by the individual would be that, because it was simply a random comment, their outrage is against all proportion to the non-existent harm caused. Newchurch, however, possesses a ready-made weapon against this defence: it argues that their words, their “rhetoric” contributes, however insignificantly, to create an “environment” of “systemic” racism, or sexism, or so on, and then proceeds to hold them responsible as though they are single-handedly responsible for all of the racism in the world. Using this Butterfly Effect-esque argument, someone notionally responsible for a billionth of the racism in the world can be socially convicted and sentenced as though they are responsible for all of the racism in the world.

Emotional terrorism is a closely related technique which occurs in political debate. In this tactic, those who oppose some position held by Newchurch (say gay marriage, for the sake of example) are accused of absurd exaggerations; of thinking that some group of people don't have the right to exist, or being somehow responsible for all oppression ever visited against a group of people (again, One-is-All Conflation); of wanting people to die. Moreover this response is unleashed in an explosive fashion, precluding any actual debate, fully intended to be socially unpleasant and abusive to the recipient, and essentially seeking to accuse the recipient of being the worst person ever (and ideally, getting the recipient to believe it). It is the social equivalent of having a fire extinguisher fired at you, and this is more or less the intended effect; to extinguish a sudden threat in the form of an opposing idea. This tends to happen when one side erroneously believes that Newchurch are interested in good-faith debate, which is essentially never the case. Moreover, if the debate is public, the moment of emotional terrorism serves as a potent warning to others and allows Newchurch to demonstrate the bounds of acceptable opinion.

Historic trends. In truth, however, social totalitarianism is not new; it's been with us longer than any of us care to admit, in the form of “political correctness”. All too many of us saw its potential to suppress racism and gave it not just tacit consent, but actual consent. Though I always opposed political correctness for its other excesses — now fully evolved into Newchurch, making those excesses more patent than ever — I never doubted the desirability of the social suppression of those whom we consider beyond the pale.

It's certainly true that political correctness yielded the suppression of racism as a pervasive influence in what was relatively speaking, a very short period of time. Yet it is indisputably the methods of social totalitarianism which were used to obtain this end; and I find myself wondering if these methods are ever justified. The very definition of principle is to commit to uphold something as much on the day it cuts against others as on the day it cuts against us. First they came for the racists, and I did not speak out because I was not a racist. Now they come for us.

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