… a book review, obviously.
In the West today, we are living under decadent, pre-totalitarian conditions. Social atomization, widespread loneliness, the rise of ideology, widespread loss of faith in institutions, and other factors leave society vulnerable to the totalitarian temptation to which both Russia and Germany succumbed in the previous century.
Furthermore, intellectual, cultural, academic, and corporate elites are under the sway of a left-wing political cult built around social justice. It is a militantly illiberal ideology that shares alarming commonalities with Bolshevism, including dividing humanity between the Good and the Evil. This pseudoreligion appears to meet a need for meaning and moral purpose in a post-Christian society and seeks to build a just society by demonizing, excluding, and even persecuting all who resist its harsh dogmas.
Finally, Big Business’s embrace and promotion of progressive social values and the emergence of “surveillance capitalism” — the sales-directed mining of individual data gathered by electronic devices — is preparing the West to accept a version of China’s social credit system. We are being conditioned to surrender privacy and liberties for the sake of comfort, convenience, and an artificially imposed social harmony.
This is the brave new world of the twenty-first century. It is coming, and it is coming fast. How should we resist it?Live Not by Lies, by Rod Dreher (2020), pp. 93 – 94
A Scary Book for October
I saved this book review for October, because over here at Out of Babel we have a tradition of talking about scary things all month. Of course, this isn’t the spooky sort of scary that you might expect around Halloween. (We will get to that later, and plenty of it.) This is more realistic-scary.
The main thing that scared me was the first part of Dreher’s book, titled “Soft Totalitarianism.” Dreher explains that the impetus for the book was his interviews of older folks, now living in America, who survived the Communist states in Eastern Europe. They are very concerned about the social trends they see in America, because things look familiar. They are also, of course, madly frustrated with Americans for not wanting to listen to their warnings. Nobody likes to be Cassandra. Dreher wrote the book because he thinks there is a lot we can learn from them, and from others who engaged in resistance in these countries (Dreher also traveled to Hungary, Russia, and some other former Soviet republics while doing research for this book). There are valuable lessons these folks have learned, but the learning curve is steep, and we have a limited amount of time to start putting their advice into practice.
In Chapter Two, “Our Pre-Totalitarian Culture,” Dreher gives a brief history of social conditions in Russia right before the Revolution. This includes not just former peasants who had come to the cities and were now isolated from their churches and communities, but also the idealistic, utopian thinking that was popular among intellectuals. “It was only toward the middle of the twentieth century that the inhabitants of many European countries came, in general unpleasantly, to the realization that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy” (pp. 41 – 42).
Chapter 3 is called “Progressivism as Religion” and Chapter 4 is about the surveillance state.
I didn’t find all this scary because it was a new thought. I have read quite a bit of socialist, utopian, and progressive literature (it’s hard to avoid), either directly myself or indirectly by hearing such people as James Lindsay read it out loud and analyze it in podcasts. And I’ve read Animal Farm and The Gulag Archipelago (abridged), and Brave New World and The Giver and The Hiding Place. I know that attempts at utopia never go well, because they run contrary to human nature. This is not my first rodeo.
Except that, in a way, it is, because I’ve never actually had to live under totalitarianism, whether the hard kind or the soft kind, until quite recently. My country is sliding rapidly into soft totalitarianism, and knowing all the things I boasted of knowing in the previous paragraph is not helping one little bit to stop it. That is what is depressing (or scary, if you like), and that is what the first part of Dreher’s book forces you to look at in some detail.
It is even scarier if you have read, say in The Gulag Archipelago, about some of the extremely creative tortures that the Soviets would subject prisoners to in order to break their minds. That’s why Part 2 of Dreher’s book, “How to Live in the Truth,” ends with Chapter 10, “The Gift of Suffering.”
I Do Have One Critique
This critique should not be understood to detract from the value of Dreher’s book. I mean, five stars, absolutely. But I think it is important enough to mention because Dreher seems to confuse the meaning of a key word, which is not a good mistake to make when you are fighting propagandists.
Tamas Salyi, the Budapest teacher, says that Hungarians survived German occupation and a Soviet puppet regime, but thirty years of freedom has destroyed more cultural memory than the previous eras. “What neither Nazism or Communism could do, victorious liberal capitalism has done,” he muses.
The idea that the past and its traditions, including religion, is an intolerable burden on individual liberty has been poison for Hungarians, he believes. About progressives today, Salyi says, “I think they really believe that if they erase all memory of the past … they can write whatever they want on the blank slate. It’s not so easy to manipulate people who know who they are, rooted in tradition.”pp. 116 – 177
See what Dreher did there? “Capitalism” is identified as “the idea that the past and its traditions, including religion, is an intolerable burden on individual liberty.”
That is not what capitalism is. Capitalism is the idea that every person ought to be able to own private property, charge for their own products or labor, and buy and sell freely. How do I know this? Because according to Marx, “Communism can be summed up in one sentence: the abolition of private property.”
I have written before about how belief in private property and free markets does not imply belief in a vast, radically individualistic, consumerist culture. In fact, if you want to have a humble, grounded life, one that remembers the past, honors traditions, works the land, etc., then private property is absolutely essential.
Of course, we live in a fallen world, so no matter what legal and economic system is in place, there will arise corruption and abuses within it. That does not (necessarily) mean that it is an evil totalitarian system, nor that its laws are inherently unjust. However, what I’ve noticed is that when the average person, speaking or writing casually, says “capitalism,” it usually carries negative connotations, meaning either:
- unjust practices
- … or, in this case, radical individualism
In fact, “capitalism” is used in exactly this equivocal way by people who want to abolish private property. They use it to imply that all the human ills don’t just occur in a system with private property, but are actually the result of it, and that getting rid of private property would also get rid of corruption, consumerism, etc.
When you conflate capitalism with something else, like radical individualism, it leads to sloppy thinking, as in Dreher’s paragraph above, where one second, he is blaming capitalism for causing Hungarians to forget their traditions, and a few sentences later it’s “progressives today,” who are in fact all the sworn enemies of capitalism.
This is too important a word to give up, and I’m disappointed that Dreher hasn’t taken the time to define his terms more carefully. However, despite that minor-yet-important complaint, this is a helpful book. Researching it cannot have been enjoyable, and it contains vital information about what previous generations have learned from living under totalitarian regimes … information that it might be just as well to have a hard copy of, so that it doesn’t go down the memory hole.