The threat of totalitarianism is ubiquitous in modern political rhetoric. The term has almost become a banality. With everything from Tucker Carlson and his guests discussing the squad to the TPUSA mantra that college campuses are islands of totalitarianism, it’s shocking anyone still regards the term with any seriousness.
Most conservatives denounce totalitarian regimes without hesitation—as they ought to. However, most conservative critiques use left-leaning, communist regimes as their point of departure and disregard others that do not fit their narrative. Perhaps most disastrously, conservative pundits and intellectuals within the US seem to rarely engage in serious criticism of the totalitarian tendencies ascribed to the socio-economic system within which we live: capitalism.
In his 1964 work One-Dimensional Man, German-born American philosopher Herbert Marcuse presents his observations of post-Enlightenment industrial society and discusses the compatibility of capitalism and totalitarianism—a topic completely missing from contemporary political discussion.
A member of the Frankfurt School, Marcuse had the ability to anger both orthodox Marxists—who could not conceive of room for improvement on their doctrine—and those who supported the capital-centric economy.
Although he did not live through three decades of neoliberalism and the emergence of Big Tech, Marcuse gestures at the multi-faceted use of the idea of natural economic order by liberal theorists. He asks us to consider how this natural order is used to establish the notion of a free market—a notion shared, but differently interpreted, by fascist doctrines and state order.
Fascism provides an order dictated by the masses; while state order, according to Marcuse, offers an appearance of freedom from oppression through capitalism. The fascist tendency towards technological rationality (the idea that the use of rationality to incorporate technological advances into a society changes or can change what is considered rational by that society) was, for Marcuse, producing a controlling, totalitarian society.
Like many in the Frankfurt circle, he saw reason as always directed at demystifying and obtaining control over nature—including human nature—for the benefit of the individual. Thus, technological rationality helps to make things better than they were in the sixteenth century, but often overreaches and exercises a veiled control over individuals. This was a popular explanation for the rise of fascism in the twentieth century.
How, exactly, does this play out in an industrialized capitalist society like the United States, which is seemingly free from totalitarian control? In the main, by determining both societal and individual needs. Marcuse writes:
By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For “totalitarian” is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests.
A society like that of the US is an example of non-terroristic economic technical coordination, which manipulates people through notions of socially ‘necessary’ occupations, individually ‘necessary’ attitudes, aspirations and skillsets. The vested interests include the wealthy and those whom they fund into political office.
Mass media and technological advancement create false needs and instruct us as to how to attain them. Our political system provides us with two terrible options: both of whose representatives agree on basic principles about the system, while disagreeing on distracting superficialities.
For Marcuse, life in the US is conditioned by this system. That is, one is conditioned to be a worker and a consumer. From one’s youth onwards, people ask, what are you going to be when you grow up? That is, what work are you going to do to contribute to the economy, for others to consume? There is no choice in this matter.
This system of technology, then, is not a neutral entity nor isolated from its users, but a smooth facilitator of oppression by way of concept, structure and need creation. Marcuse claims that, when one examines the United States, one discovers only an illusion of freedom.
Modern conservatives lack a proper response to these claims of the soft totalitarian tendencies of the capitalist society in which we live—tendencies that satiate us, while providing a mere mirage of freedom, though they do not employ outright force. Marcuse is likely wrong in some of his assertions. Yet it seems suspicious that there has been seemingly no consideration (or even acknowledgement) of the ways in which capitalism is compatible with totalitarianism.
What if the creation of a free market and political pluralism all operated within a system that makes one’s operating in that system mere subservience to a political state or way of being? What if we are filled with false needs, due to the technological dependencies we have created, such that we cannot distinguish them from true ones? What if we live in a socioeconomic political system that has many if not all of the qualities of a transparently coercive state?
Consider a recent speech Tucker Carlson gave at the National Conservatism Convention, a three-day attempt to wrestle a coherent philosophy out of Trump’s time in office. Carlson complained in terms not so unlike those used by many left-leaning workers’ parties: “The main threat to your ability to live your life as you choose, does not come from the government, it comes from the private sector.”
Carlson heavily criticized big business and celebrated Elizabeth Warren’s 2004 book, The Two-Income Trap. Carlson, and the cheering crowd of new conservatives (most of whom are staunch supporters of Trump), hold views that are not too divergent from those of the modern mainstream left.
In other words, there seem to be no real choices for the average citizen or political centrist, especially at the ballot box.
Tariffs, government intervention (whether in big tech or Wall Street), and significant overlaps in economic policy proposals to deal with the middle class—all these policies are shared between the mainstream right and left. Against this background, the Marcusian analysis seems pretty prescient.
The question for liberty-seekers, then, is two-pronged. Do we live in a society that is totalitarian in the way Marcuse describes (if so, we should acknowledge this)? And, if so, does that mean that we are only opposed to specific types of totalitarian regimes that do not tickle our partisan fancy?
Even if we do not live in a totalitarian regime and the Marcusian analysis is flawed, it is disappointing to see so little literature in response to these observations and argument. At the very least, conservatives and anti-totalitarians alike ought to contend with Marcuse’s observations, lest they risk living in a state of cognitive dissonance.