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17 January, 2012

Liquid Totalitarianism

In the modern liquid era, mass surveillance and colonization of that which is private is alive and well, though it assumes different forms.

The term “soft totalitarianism” is on the lips of many commentators who are implying that the European Union is not a democracy, but, instead, a technocracy walking in disguise as a democracy. Due to mass surveillance and secret intelligence services that increasingly demand, on the grounds of the war on terror, that we should be subject to body screening at the major airports of the world or that we should provide every single detail of our banking activities, without excluding the option of exposing the most personal and intimate aspects of our life, social analysts tend to describe this sinister trend to strip us of our privacy as soft totalitarianism.

In fact, this may be close to the truth. All these aspects of modernity with its increasing obsession to control our public activities without losing the sense of high alert when it comes to our privacy allow us to safely assume that privacy today is dead. As one who grew up and was brought up in the Brezhnev era, I thought a bit naively for some time that human dignity was severely violated solely and exclusively in the former Soviet Union: after all, we were unable to even make a telephone call to a foreign country without official control and a report on our conversation, not to mention our correspondence and all other forms of human exchange.

As Zygmunt Bauman would have said, those days still belonged to the era of solid modernity when totalitarianism was clear, discernible, obvious, and manifestly evil. To use Bauman’s terms, in the modern liquid era, mass surveillance and colonization of that which is private is alive and well, though it assumes different forms. In the major dystopias of our times – Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984 – the individual is invaded, conquered, and humiliated by the omnipotent state as he or she is deprived of privacy, including its most intimate aspects. The TV screen in Orwell’s 1984 or reporting on one’s neighbour, lover or friend (if it makes sense to use these terms, as love and friendship as modern feelings and expressions of free choice are abolished there) appears as a nightmare of modernity without a human face, or modernity where the jackboot tramples the human face.

The most horrible manifestation was the aspect of this totalitarian version of modern life which suggested that we can penetrate every single aspect of human personality. A human being is therefore deprived of any sort of secret and this makes us believe we can know everything about him. And the ethos of the technological world paves the way for action: we can, therefore, we should. The idea that we can know and tell everything about another human being is the worst kind of nightmare as far as the modern world is concerned. We believed for a long time that choice defines freedom; I would hasten to add that so does the defence of the idea of the incognizibility of the human being and that idea of the untouchability of their privacy.

The beginnings of liquid totalitarianism, as opposed to solid and real totalitarianism, may be exposed in the West each time we see people craving for TV reality shows and obsessed with idea of willingly and freely losing their privacy by exposing it on the TV screen – with pride and joy. Yet there are other, far more real forms of government and politics that merit and richly deserve this term. In fact, there is a long way to go from the new forms of mass surveillance and social control in the West to an overt and explicit divorce of capitalism and freedom in China and Russia.

First and foremost, liquid totalitarianism manifests itself in the Chinese pattern of modernity, a pattern opposed to Western modernity, with its formula of capitalism without democracy or the free market without political liberty. Divorce of power and politics described by Bauman takes on a distinct face in China: financial power may exist and prosper there insofar as it dos not merge or overlap with political power. Get rich, but stay out of politics. Ideological politics is fiction in China, since Mao Zedong was betrayed a thousand times by his Party which ceased being a Communist stronghold and instead turned into a group of elite managers. It is impossible to betray Chinese Cultural Revolution and Communism more than those who modernized Chinese did under the guise of the magic touch of modernity with the help of the free market and instrumental rationality.

Another case of liquid totalitarianism is Putin’s Russia with its idea of managed democracy. Equipped with Putinism, this vague and strange amalgam of nostalgia for the grandeur of the Soviet past, gangster and crony capitalism, endemic corruption, cleptocracy, self-censorship leaves only remote islands habitable to dissenting opinions and voices on the internet. In contrast to the Chinese divorce of capitalism and political liberty, Putin's variety implies a total fusion of economic and political power combined with impunity and state terror which overtly lends itself to gangs and criminal cliques of various hues.

The noted Russian political analyst, commentator, and essayist Andrei Piontkovsky, one of the most courageous dissenting voices in Putin’s Russia, aptly described the striking historical affinity between the Soviet Union on the eve of the 1937 purge and present Russia by pointing out that Ilya Ehrenburg had best expressed the mood of the intelligentsia with his phrase “Never before have we had such a prosperous and happy life!” The irony is that the benefits that came to the intelligentsia from Stalin were merely a prelude to the horrors of the purge. “Things are shockingly similar in Russia now” – says Piontkovsky. Like Stalin, Putin simply bribed the intelligentsia. Less stick and more carrots. While Stalinism was a Shakespearean tragedy, Putinism is a farce.      

Yet there is hope that Russia will wake up.


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