Authoritarianism and totalitarianism

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By GABRIEL COHN*

Considerations from an essay by Fabio Konder Comparato

Fabio Konder Comparato published on the site the earth is round [https://aterraeredonda.com.br/o-estado-totalitario/] a notable text, “The Totalitarian State”, which is almost a summary of his political ideas (which, in his case, also means ethics) and which deserves debate.

An important preliminary in Comparato's analysis is the distinction between the totalitarian state and the authoritarian state. These terms went through numerous meanings and practices in the XNUMXth century, to the point that the first State that proclaimed itself guardian of the national totality, Mussolini's Fascist Italy, was not totalitarian in the strict sense of the term, while National Socialist Germany, aka Nazi, viscerally totalitarian, presented itself as authoritarian.

But the central issue, for Comparato, is not found in the formal character of this distinction, which is only invoked as a preliminary, to give consistency to the ideas. The basic question, not expressed in these terms, is: in the name of what is the totalitarian phenomenon, so linked to the twentieth century, able to remain as a shadow here and now, along with the explicit persistence of authoritarian regimes?

Comparato is not concerned in this text with very comprehensive answers, such as the totalitarian dimension of the contemporary form of capitalism and its expression in the so-called neoliberalism. “What characterizes totalitarianism is the fact of the destruction, by the work of public power, of the mental and institutional structures of an entire people, with the concomitant attempt to rebuild, from this devastated land, new mentalities and institutions”, he writes. .

This is a very precise and far-reaching definition, associating “mental” and “institutional” structures. From this perspective, for example, the application of “shock treatment” (a horrible term, Goebbels would appreciate it) in the former Soviet Union to promote the total reconstruction of that society serves as an exemplary case of totalitarian action (besides, a task doomed to failure, because capitalism is great at destroying and terrible at building).

The bottom line is how this is possible, what engenders such a political order and sustains it. At issue is the foundation of this phenomenon in the very way in which modern societies are organized and shape ways of thinking, feeling and, above all, experiencing the world to constitute the symbolic complexes that confer character (ethos) specific to each one with the respective evaluation criteria (ethics) and to them associate forms of sociability (mores) and the corresponding evaluation criteria (morale).

A passage from his article is fundamental in his argument. It is argued that history does not repeat itself (it is no use invoking the Roman empire, much to Mussolini's disappointment). The same argument used to refute historical repetition is valid for predicting the future state of the world or part of it (with the decisive difference that we can intervene in what is yet to come, and that is certainly what matters to Comparato). The relevant passage is as follows. “History does not repeat itself, for the good reason that collective memory, like individual memory, is not a mere reproduction of previous experiences, but an incessant accumulation of new experiences, which progressively merge into a complex whole, in perpetual evolution. The repetition of past mental states is mere pathological regression.”

Remarkable formulation, to be retained for at least three reasons. First, because it emphasizes the decisive role of EXPERIENCE (that is, from the continuous learning of incorporating the results of past actions) in place of strictly institutional considerations. Then, because, even if not exploring it, it raises the question of the possibility and ways of regression historical (that is, the exact opposite of experience). Finally, because it gives due importance to the issue of memory, collective and individual, opening space for a relationship between both. As a whole, it is relevant because it opens the way to the properly social dimension (including culture) instead of restricting attention to the political and economic aspects of the phenomenon, which are obviously important.

Totalitarianism is a singular phenomenon in what Comparato already announces in his text. It involves, not the freezing of past (and present) experience, but the compulsive explicitness of certain traits. Totalitarianism is perversely selective. Nor does it meet the conditions to produce something new, they are fragments of the past that amalgamate, without giving rise to the irruption of the new capable of breaking the continuity that it strives to establish with revolutionary pretensions.

For the greatest motive of totalitarianism, once installed, is the continuity, permanence, the reign of the thousand years of Nazism. In this we have another important difference with respect to authoritarian fascism, which seeks, in its own way, innovation. (And, by the way, also in relation to communism, from its most “utopian” versions to the most “pragmatic” like Stalin, who does not consider the integral “purification” of a society to make it permanent, but a continuous process of improvement towards remote perfection).

What, after all, is the generative condition of the totalitarian regime? Comparato seeks a first answer in Hannah Arendt, which she finds in nineteenth-century European imperialism and anti-Semitism. She does not find it satisfactory, however, as it does not go deep enough. As for him, he will find the answer in the disintegration, in the post-Renaissance period, of the cohesive ethical universe that had been sustained since Classical Antiquity. It is in this that one would find a “harmonious ethical system of regulation of human life”.

However, Comparato does not dwell on the characterization and search for the genesis of the phenomenon. As for the genesis, if Hannah Arendt's analysis is insufficient, its deepening by Comparato also leaves too many points of doubt, starting with the mismatch between the amplitude of the historical process considered and the punctual nature of the effective presence of the phenomenon, in addition to the embarrassment that can cause the emphasis on the “harmonic system”.

What is essential, however, is that this very personal approach to the subject cuts across the range of disturbing issues involved. This goes on to demonstrate how the US, as an empire in decline, systematically places itself on the edge of the law, at a time when the presence of a Trump alongside figures like his imitator in the South raises the question of how totalitarianism is being reinstalled. in new form. It allows, for example, to revise in an original way the frequent prediction of a possible new form of that regime, now replacing the great leader with the depersonalized figure of the “algorithm”. Unsettling and provocative questions, good for debate.

*Gabriel Cohn He is Professor Emeritus at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other books, of Weber, Frankfurt (Quicksilver).

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