the totalitarian state



The concentration camp is the miniature model of totalitarianism

The disastrous experience of the totalitarian State, with all its sinister train of horrors, fundamentally marked the XNUMXth century. When we look back at all these episodes, we cannot shake the question: how was it possible to reach this point of moral degradation?

However, before testing the answer, it is convenient to clarify the meaning in which the expression “totalitarian state”. and what is the specific difference of this type of State in relation to others, present and past, that seem to resemble it.

Essential features of totalitarianism

In the famous lecture he gave at the Royal Athenaeum in Paris in 1819 – The freedom of the ancients compared to the celle of moderns –, Benjamin Constant sought to show how the concept of freedom that prevailed in classical antiquity had nothing to do with modern man's feeling of individual freedom.

In the ancient city, he recalled, only citizens were considered free, that is, those who had a voice and vote in assemblies and other public bodies, to decide on peace and war, vote on laws and judge their fellow citizens. But citizenship was then nothing more than a privilege, from which not only slaves were obviously excluded, but also women, foreigners and also, in certain cities, merchants, craftsmen and peasants.

Now, those same few individuals who enjoyed full citizenship, and who therefore considered themselves free, in the sphere of their private lives rigidly submitted to ancestral customs, without even being able to dream of the slightest pretense of innovation in matters of family morals. or religion, under penalty of committing the serious crime of impiety. Furthermore, it was unthinkable in antiquity for public authorities to alter, even minimally, the norms of traditional morality and the rules of religious worship, both considered as established by the deity.

With the advent of bourgeois civilization, on the contrary, participation in public life became much less important than the quiet enjoyment of private autonomy, both in matters of morals and religion, and in matters of business. The supreme abuse does not consist, for the bourgeois mentality, in the deprivation of the right to vote and to be voted in political elections, but in the suppression, or even in the simple limitation, by the State, of the freedom of expression, of religious cult, or of initiative business. Thus, a separation was not only conceptual, but real, between the State and civil society, a separation that was totally unknown in the ancient world.

Both politeia of the Greeks as to res publica Roman times formed a unitary whole, composed of the people and the set of rulers. The private sphere, in fact, was not located in a generic “civil society”, opposed to public power, but in the family, isolated or united with other families, to form phratries or curiae. As Fustel de Coulanges rightly pointed out, from the family came all Greek and Roman institutions, both those of private law and those of political organization, with their principles, rules and uses. [1].

Now, the originality of the totalitarian experiences lived in the XNUMXth century resides in the fact that, sharply opposing the liberal State of modern constitutionalism, they did not reproduce the tyrannies or autocracies of the past. In fact, the totalitarian state came to suppress both the freedom of the ancients and the moderns.

What characterizes totalitarianism is the fact – without precedent in history – 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, mentalities and institutions new.

That is why, since the 1930s, it was no longer possible to confuse the totalitarian State with the simply authoritarian one. The distinction, as far as I know, was proposed for the first time in political theory by Karl Loewenstein, in a work dedicated precisely to the analysis of the Getulist Estado Novo [2]. Unlike authoritarian States, in which the people do not participate in political power, but where private life enjoys a certain autonomy, the totalitarian State suppresses freedom, individual or group, in all fields, precisely because, with its installation, the distinction between State and civil society, between public and private spheres disappears.

What disturbs, however, in this matter, is that the same expressions – totalitarian state and authoritarian state – were used interchangeably by Italian fascism and German nazism to characterize their respective political regimes. Mussolini and the regime's official philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, justified the totalitarian qualifier with the famous phrase: “Niente contro lo Stato, niente fuori dello Stato, tutto nello Stato”. But Fascist Italy always insisted on leaving the religious space untouched, if only to avoid reopening the political-territorial dispute with the Vatican, triggered when the Piedmontese troops occupied Rome in 1870. In this sense, therefore, the State Fascist was not totalitarian. As for Hitlerism, it preferred to euphemistically characterize the Rich as an “authoritarian state form” (authoritare Staatsform).

Now, the distinction between these two types of state is striking. In the totalitarian social environment, there is no longer any place for the subsistence of the old rules of morality, or for religious cults of any kind. In the space from which morality and religion were expelled, henceforth considered rotten remnants of a revolving age, ideology was compulsorily introduced, in the name of reason, that is, the dogmatic and all-encompassing explanation of man and the world, to serve of food for the State's permanent propaganda activity.

In place of law, that is, of the system of general rules, known and stable, made public by the competent authority, and of foreseeable application according to rational processes of interpretation, the complete submission, body and soul, of the population to the person myth of the boss transformed into a superhuman character, who is everywhere, knows everything, sees everything, decides everything.

With that, all fixed and objective criteria of morality and legality were abolished. What each individual can do or not do depends at every moment on the express or tacit orders issued by the different bodies of power, whose sphere of competence, incidentally, is never officially delimited, so as to create a general feeling of uncertainty. In this environment, it is logically impossible to know, even vaguely, when an official norm is infringed or not. Hence the fact that the only real factor of agglutination of individuals, in a totalitarian regime, is terror. For this reason, the entire state machine is set up to spread, under any circumstances, the feeling of tragic impotence in the face of official or unofficial state bodies.

As Hannah Arendt pointed out [3], by suppressing all individual autonomy, the totalitarian state has at the same time destroyed the political community in the proper sense of the noun: there is no longer a res publica, or common good of the people, and each individual is condemned, in consequence, to live in a state of complete isolation, like an atom or a monad, incapable of forming a minimal association with other individuals, an embryo that is a social cell. The individual no longer has anything left of his own — expropriated as he was of all privacy and intimacy — nor anything common to share with others. Human society is thus transformed into a mass of individuals, similar to the animal herd, that is, the agglomeration of identical beings, as component parts of a whole incapable of living and governing itself autonomously.

This is why the concentration camp – Warehouse Nazi and the soviet gulag  – constituted a kind of miniature of the totalitarian state. There, the depersonalization of the human being reached its paroxysm, with the suppression of all human contact, not only with the outside world, but even with the individuals within the camp; with the dispossession, not only of clothing and personal possessions, but also of hair and dental prostheses, in short, with the highly symbolic replacement of the name by a number, often engraved on the body, as the mark of ownership of an animal.

Considering these essential characteristics of totalitarianism, its difference in relation to ancient tyrannies or autocracies, such as, for example, the political regime of Sparta, or the Roman Empire under Diocletian, becomes evident. Here, it was never considered to destroy the customs of the ancestors or the traditional religion, in order to introduce a new way of living in society. On the contrary, the most authoritarian political regimes and governments in antiquity, both in the East and in the West, were always the most conservative and the most traditionalist in terms of beliefs and customs.

I hasten, however, to state that it is a mistake to equate these old models with the new examples of the confessional State, engendered by contemporary religious fundamentalism. 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. Repetition of past mental states is mere pathological regression.

For this very reason, the new confessional states of religious fundamentalism, like Iran after the removal of Shah Reza Pahlevi, are undeniably totalitarian. The mental and institutional structures of modernity had already penetrated Iranian society, and the attempt to destroy them, in order to introduce in their place the complete submission of public and private life to the dictates of the Koran, as interpreted by religious leaders, was indisputably totalitarian.

The gestation of totalitarianism

A question has always afflicted historians of modernity: how was it possible to engender the totalitarian state? What are the factors responsible for the creation of this monster, and why did it only happen in the XNUMXth century and not before?

In her fundamental study on the origins of totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt points to anti-Semitism and imperialism as the generating causes of the phenomenon. Without denying that such movements acquired, at the end of the XNUMXth century, characteristics different from those that marked the various anti-Semitic and imperialist episodes of the past, it does not seem to me that these are the true factors for the generation of the totalitarian State.

I would say that modern anti-Semitism and imperialism were, rather, testing grounds for the establishment of totalitarianism. The most spectacular effect of modern anti-Semitism was to demonstrate that the popular masses could be galvanized into a kind of collective trance, so that all social ills could be purged with the ritual liquidation of that collective scapegoat: the Jewish people. This resulted in the suspension of all the principles and rules of political life, since there were no longer any laws or courts. As for the capitalist imperialism of the last quarter of the XNUMXth century, it came to show the possibility of exercising social domination over the colonial peoples, also outside of any legal regulation, solely based on military and police force, without these armed corporations responding to any authority of the metropolises. That is, the replacement of political life by animal domination.

The generation of the totalitarian state, in my opinion, has a deeper historical cause. It is umbilically linked, as it seems to me, to the process of disruption of the ethical universe, which began in the so-called “autumn of the Middle Ages”, to use Huizinga's expressive image. Until then, morals, law and religion formed one and the same harmonic system for regulating human life.

In a certain passage of theaetetus of Plato, Socrates reminds his interlocutor that “what is morally beautiful or ugly, just or unjust, pious or impious, each City judges and institutes as its legal order” (172a). Between these three normative spheres, therefore, there is and cannot be any opposition. For the ancients, it was incomprehensible to distinguish between the legal and the legitimate. And, for that very reason, this global ethical order, specific to each City, could not be considered better or worse than any other: it was intimately linked to the life of the people, like a kind of social genome.

But, Socrates continues in the same passage of the dialogue, when it comes to conceiving and putting into practice useful policies for a City — the construction of a merchant fleet, or the conclusion of a peace and trade treaty with another City, for example —, it is always possible to judge whether the measures taken are right or wrong, because here we are in the field of technique or art of making and building, and not ethics or the way of being social.

Now, the first rupture in this harmonic normative system occurred at the beginning of the so-called European Renaissance, with the separation between the political sphere and that of ordinary morality, when defending the establishment of an ethics specific to rulers, different from that which would apply to the set of governed. To the former, everything would be justified in the name of “reason of state”: murder, robbery, unfaithfulness to the most solemn promises, permanent deceit. The prince, by Machiavelli, well represents the birth certificate of this new mentality that takes hold of spirits, despite the first reactions of indignation and scandal. A century later, Hobbes would defend the same thesis again, but now with different theoretical baggage.

From the last quarter of the seventeenth century, a new fracture occurs in the old edifice of Western ethics. Due to that “crisis of European conscience”, the title of the important book that Paul Hazard dedicated to the subject, religious faith is disconnected from reason. Spinoza's philosophy contributed a lot to this result. As a result, religious precepts in matters of morality lose their claim to universality and, for that very reason, cease to support the general legal system. Freedom of belief and religious worship is asserting itself little by little, despite the stubborn resistance of some clerical organizations.

In the middle of the XNUMXth century, the dismantling of traditional ethics continues, with the affirmation of the utilitarian principle by David Hume, and its application to the field of economic activities with The wealth of nations by Adam Smith. Henceforth, the bourgeois class had a rational justification for its competitive and domineering selfishness: the search, of each individual, for his own interest, in the free arena of the market, would provoke, by an effect of automatic causality, the progress of the whole society. community, national and global. This result, which that pair of Scottish thinkers assured us was certain to achieve, therefore came to supersede any abstract ethical principle.

What counts in human actions, sustained Hume, is knowing the advantage or disadvantage that comes from it, for the agent and the other components of society. As can be seen, a clear and precise morality, far removed from the uncertainties linked to the fulfillment of abstract principles. The whole problem, however, is precisely to make clear what should be understood by moral advantage or disadvantage, and, above all, who are the beneficiaries and those who are harmed by this system of social accounting.

In vain, Rousseau and Kant, each with their own style and method of thought, tried to react against this disintegrating tendency, and to support the ethical transcendence of the human person. The seeds of utilitarian individualism had already germinated, the weeds had flourished and produced abundant fruit. The world had decisively entered the capitalist era, with the undeniable hegemony of technical rules over ethical principles, and the supremacy of self-interest over the common good.

There was only one last step left to complete the dismantling of the original ethical edifice: the separation between law and morals. The theory of so-called legal positivism took charge of this. Henceforth, any norm which, issued by the competent authority at the end of a regular process, is susceptible to coercive sanction by the State, came to be considered as a component element of law. According to this formalist concept, not only the rules for suppressing citizenship for ethnic or cultural minorities, but also the regulation of concentration camps and legal measures of genocide would be perfectly legal. The distinction between legality and legitimacy, or the opposition of justice to law, would become part of the long historical list of absurd quarrels, since there would no longer be any logical or social link between the legal order and moral principles.

This, in my opinion, is the true etiology of the totalitarian plague. The septicemia of the social organism could only occur because of the state of profound weakness in which it found itself.

A preservation of liberty

The second half of the XNUMXth century unfolded into two very distinct phases. The first of these was the period marked by the Cold War, by decolonization and the development effort in the so-called Third World countries, and also by the dissemination of the principles and institutions of the welfare state in advanced countries. In the second phase, on the contrary, we witnessed the world predominance of capitalism, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, with the consequent disengagement of its European satellites, and the affirmation of the United States as a planetary hegemonic power.

How to define this threat? It looks like imperialism, but of a different kind than what we have known and analyzed in the past.

Ancient imperialism, in fact, was based on the territorial domination of other peoples and aimed at their economic exploitation, for the extraction of metals and precious stones, the expansion of the consumer market of the imperial powers, or the establishment of geopolitical security zones. . The burden of this form of imperialism was the direct administration of the colonized territories.

The new imperialism, on the contrary, is not based on territorial domination, but on the economic and financial control of other countries.

I intentionally used the term "control", opposing it to "domination". The distinction thus proposed is analogous to the one established, in the legal analysis of the large corporation, between “property" of capital andcontrol" da empresa [4]. Capitalists are content to own shares, for rent or speculation in the securities market. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, although often owning a minority of shares, or even not owning any shares at all, in fact exercise the power of governing the company and disposing of the company's assets.

In the new imperialism, similarly, two levels of government power are instituted in the controlled countries. The “inside” rulers exercise direct administration – just like the board members and directors of the corporation –, but must submit to the economic and financial guidelines and policies dictated by the controller, who governs the country from the outside. Sometimes, the controller even interferes in the direct administration of the controlled country, imposing the rulers of his trust, or dismissing those who seem dangerous to his imperial interests.

Contrary to what Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt maintain [5], the center of power of the new imperialism does not dispense with the political structures of the nation-state, for the good reason that, currently, only sovereign countries hold military power: international organizations with the power to authorize war or to direct it, such as like the UN and NATO, depend entirely on the cooperation of their member countries to build their military forces.

In the economic-financial field, world domination is also exercised by nation-states, whether directly or through the control they hold over international organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund.

The old building of the United Nations, erected on the initiative of the United States, after the Second World War, to maintain peace and correct the most disastrous effects of the misery of the populations, is now being dismantled by the same United States, because the UN has become became a clear obstacle to North American pretensions to exercise, in isolation, imperial power over the entire face of the Earth.

As I had occasion to point out [6], the accession of the United States to the condition of world hegemonic power, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, made the reorganization of international relations in a communitarian sense very difficult. The last international human rights treaty ratified by the United States was the Covenant approved by the United Nations in 1966 on civil and political rights. The Twin Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had its ratification rejected by the US Congress.

Since then, the United States has systematically refused to submit to international norms for the protection of human rights, considering that this implies a limitation of its sovereignty. This was the case with the 1977 Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the Protection of Victims of Armed Conflict, with the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, with the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea , with the 1988 Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the field of economic, social and cultural rights, with the 1989 Second Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, with the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, with the 1997 Ottawa Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines [7], treaties, all of which are already in force at the international level. The United States also refused to sign the Convention establishing an International Criminal Court, approved in Rome by a plenipotentiary conference on July 17, 1998.

The United States is thus becoming, decisively, an outlaw state on an international level. The reorganization of the world, to avoid the resurrection of the totalitarian scourge, therefore, today, clearly involves the institution of international political and economic structures to limit the sovereignty of the great powers, starting with the United States. This is the great task of the next generations. In the end, the preservation of the dignity of the human person will depend on the success of this formidable undertaking, as the only being in the world capable of loving, discovering the truth and creating beauty.

* Fabio Konder Comparato Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law of the University of São Paulo, Doctor Honoris Causa at the University of Coimbra.

Originally published on the portal IMS Artthought


[1] The ancient city. Ttranslation by Fernando de Aguiar. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1998, p. 4.

[2] Brazil under Vargas. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1942, conclusion, p. 369 and ss.

[3] The origins of totalitarianism. San Diego/New York/London: A Harvest Book, Harcourt Brace & Company, New Edition, p. 290 and ss.

[4] I dealt extensively with the subject in the monograph The power of control in the corporation. Rio de Janeiro: Forense, 1983.

[5] Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Empire. Harvard University Press, 2000,

[6] The historical affirmation of human rights. São Paulo: Saraiva, 2001, epilogue.

[7] The convention entered into force on the 1sto March 1999. According to the United Nations Human Development Report 1998, over 110 million active mines are spread across 68 countries, and an equivalent amount is stockpiled around the world. Every month, more than 2 people are killed or maimed by mine explosions.



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