FASCISM OR FREEDOM?
- When most people think of an authoritarian state, it brings to mind scenes like the ecstatic battalions of Sturmabteilung and Schultzstaffel in the swastika-bedecked Luitpoldarena of the Nuremberg rallies (consider the Fuhrer’s exhortations of Nazi folk nationalism) or the pale Russian crowds lining the streets of Moscow somberly watching divisions of soldiers and trucks hauling intercontinental ballistic missiles pass under the gaze of the Communist Party politburo (think Stalin or Kruschchev watching the anniversary parade from the top of Lenin’s mausoleum). But these are 20th-century versions of fascist and communist totalitarianism. It’s a mistake to think state power would look like that today. It wouldn’t. It doesn’t. It’s also a mistake to think authoritarianism – in reality – imposes its power through a set of rigid, ideologically consistent commandments. The slogans may be concise and clear, but the enforcement of absolute government is anything but.
- Totalitarian governments take away citizen freedom using two key ingredients: a yin-yang of absolute power and unpredictable fear. The power part is straightforward. State-controlled violence is irresistible when activated against the citizen. Physical force, weight of numbers, arsenal of weapons, control of the law, command of institutional enforcement and the authority to define what’s legitimate, what’s criminal: the State holds every card. Whereas absolute power is the totalitarian end-zone, its practical methodology is the use of fear. Above and beyond simple recognition of the State’s monopoly on lawful power, the ruled must fear the ruler.
- Essential to the subjugation of the individual to absolute State authority is the citizen’s constant fear of breaking a law, of being suspected of breaching a convention, of incurring the wrath of State power. The propaganda of totalitarianism is idealistic and rigid, e.g. the thousand-year Reich. The everyday reality, however, is capricious. By design. To make fear the default state, for individuals, he or she must exist in a state of uncertainty about his or her position vis-à-vis having broken the law. To achieve this, law and convention will be complex and extensive. Enforcement gets delegated to arbitrary enforcers by the ruling class, so not only is fear of breaking the law a constant, but fear is heightened by unknowable consequences for being singled out – violence included. In this dynamic, fear itself becomes the most powerful enforcer of conformity. The citizens should never know where they stand, so the threat of censure is ubiquitous.
- Nazi Germany and contemporary identity politics share the methodologies of uncertainty and unpredictability. The pretense is of laws and conventions being simple and fundamental, but their application is wholly arbitrary. Rules and conventions become impossible to pinpoint; or impossibly vague; or impossible not to contravene. Across America, for example, they enshrine ridiculously low-speed limits in local law. By design, these limits are a license for local police to pull over any demographic they want to prosecute. At its most benign, small towns use it to rinse money from tourists but more often law enforcement uses subjective imposition (profiling) to perpetuate lines of demarcation between neighborhoods e.g. along racial or wealth lines.
- Conventions of orthodox behavior serve a similar function, with the added feature of being subject to change over time to fit evolving use cases without having to pass new laws. Convention conformity is the primary vehicle of influence for social movements. The norms become a high-fidelity marker for in-group versus Untermensch and non-conformists, circumventing the need (and drawbacks) for written legislation to highlight individual targets for the organs of power. Totalitarian governments apply these principles to impose fear-conformity on the population; control of the public at the macroscale.
- Google terms of service fit into the fear-conformity model. Nobody can follow them, nor would it be possible never inadvertently to breach one of the myriad clauses. Once again, this is a feature, not a bug. It’s a license to enforce power against anyone big tech wants to target.
- Cancel culture is a fear-conformity paradigm. The morality recommends itself as simple universal decency standards, but the reality is arbitrary standards, unknowable rules and subjective application, allowing the arbiters of identity to direct the power of the movement against the most useful rather than most guilty targets. Witness the fall of Senator Al Franken, for not very much, versus the continuity of singer Chris Brown, openly admitting domestic battery; or the extirpation from the mainstream of influential irreverent Louis CK, for a few incidents decades ago, versus the durability of Mike Tyson, convicted for rape but spared the crosshairs of cancelation, irrelevant to the greater contest for power.
- Cancel culture is currently a phenomenon associated with the woke identarian Left, but this wasn’t always so. Before the Obama Presidency, it was the Right who called for censorship, de-platforming and cancelation defined the list of targets. Same methods, same selective standards for who gets hit, who gets a pass, same dynamics: the pursuit of absolute extrajudicial power over Untermensch, to weaken the opponent group and strengthen the in-group. Nothing to do with fairness or morality or respect for the law. Everything to do with the principles of authoritarianism and fear-conformity.
- Hence one of the key differences between free and fascist governance. It’s not about the specific ideology. It’s all about the ideology’s raison d’être.
“Freedom is ideology as a blueprint for society. Power is a means to that end. Fascism is a blueprint for power. Ideology is a means to that end.”
- Fear-conformity power dynamics are being played out today, on content platforms like YouTube and Facebook in censorship, suspension, and exclusion of individual creators. Access to the online audience is being shown to exist only at the pleasure of big tech corporate monoculture. In effect, this subordinates the rights of the citizen to the dictates of authoritarian supervision. Incur the displeasure of Google and YouTube demonetizes, censors, suspends and ultimately excludes. In a real-life sense, big tech is holding creators’ livelihood to ransom, disempowering them in every transaction with the powers-that-be – often unaccountable, uncontactable, unknowable, sometimes entirely algorithmic (automated). Recent takedown of content deemed to intrude on the prescribed orthodoxy (ideology) on COVID-19 has revealed Big Tech, moreover, to be directly under the thumb of Big Government. It is 2020 and techno-fascism, a very modern expression of authoritarianism, may be in the mail.
- We’re in the early stages of the unholy convergence of government and corporate oligarchy, but the mechanisms of public control are evolving quickly, ramping up mass capacity to impose power. It’s a form of authoritarian plurality. It’s also a nightmare prospect, not least because plurality is by definition a more solid consensus than atomized democracy, but if it’s attached to authoritarianism, it becomes an evil with greater reach and deeper roots. Algorithms are ultimately more efficient than any demagogue’s conformity policing.
- If it can be set in motion, consensus enforcement leads to the same loss of freedom as any vile dictate by a totalitarian politburo. The whims of a dictator are supplanted by a more universal, better-aimed proliferation of enforcement with none of the term limits inherent in election cycles (or dictator lifespan). At the very minimum, the four or five-year elections offer the potential to shake up aspects of our 20th-century legacy power structures. It’s better than nothing. The algorithm, if it becomes pro-active and exclusively a tool of authority – regulated only by consensus, like an election – will bring the high granularity of artificial intelligence at scale to the everyday policing of conformity. The calculus of ruler-ruled relationships will change forever; and be transformed into an inevitable, implacable, potentially undefendable attack on the freedom of every single citizen.
- Concepts like the individual and, indeed, the existence of individuality itself must face this existential threat of extinction. If history is any guide, the odds are stacked against the citizen. Not an encouraging prospect.
“… what or who will save us from technocracy fascism – freedom and censorship algorithms coming to define our day to day lived experience; authoritarian power wielded by artificial intelligence in every home and office to ensure everyone conforms, absolutely?”
The Question We All Need To Ask
- Heed this excellent advice: evade the algorithm at all costs. Disconnect your online footprint from your offline identity. Work up a dozen online identities for social media and social media integrated apps and services. Make these identities complete with ‘demonstrable’ social media to real-world connections (but not to you).
- “By and large, Americans refuse to believe that humanity or society can be ameliorated by collective or political action. But they cannot do without the belief in amelioration, which is accordingly manifested in so many versions of ‘personal growth’ and ‘individual fulfillment.’ This supplies the energy and daring of the Utopian enterprise, and also commonly condemns it to defeat or disappointment.”
“Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”
Christopher Hitchens (Letters to a Young Contrarian)