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The New Totalitarians

The New Totalitarians

7 Mins
December 1, 2001

What President Bush has called the first war of the twenty-first century has much in common with the great wars of the century just past. Now, as then, the root of the carnage lies in radical discontent with modern industrial society, a hydra-headed historical phenomenon that is well described as the Industrial Counterrevolution.

At first glance, shadowy Islamist terrorists look very different from any enemy we have ever faced. And indeed, the tactics they employ are novel, as are the tactics that must be used to defeat them. But the fundamental nature of our present adversaries, once seen plainly, is all too familiar. The evil we confront today is the evil of totalitarianism: Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and their co-conspirators are the modern-day successors of Lenin and Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot.

The atrocities of today's terrorists are the last shudder of a historical convulsion of unprecedented fury and destructive power. It was spawned by the spiritual confusion that accompanied the coming of the modern age, and consists of a profound hostility toward the disciplines and opportunities of human freedom. With the collapse of the Soviet empire we thought we were done with totalitarianism, but it lives still — and lives to do harm. As we prepare once more to face this old and dangerous adversary, we need to reacquaint ourselves with its origins and nature.


To understand what gave rise to the totalitarian plague, you have to appreciate the radical historical discontinuity represented by the technological dynamism of the past 150 years. In the second half of the nineteenth century, various strands of economic development — new energy sources, new production techniques, breakthroughs in transportation and communication — were woven into a wealth-creating capacity of unprecedented scale, complexity, and power. It was during this great confluence that the scientific method was first systematically integrated into economic life; technological and organizational innovation became normal, routine, and ubiquitous. Nobel Prize-winning economist Douglass North refers to the "wedding of science and technology" as the "Second Economic Revolution," the first being the advent of agriculture ten millennia ago.

The Industrial Revolution was the economic expression of a much more general transformation, a radical new form of social order whose defining feature was the embrace of open-ended discovery: open-endedness in the pursuit of knowledge (provisional and refutable hypotheses supplanting revelation and authority), open-endedness in economic life (innovation and free-floating market transactions replacing tradition and the "just price"), open-endedness in politics (power emerging from the people rather than from the divine right of kings and hereditary aristocracies), and open-endedness in life paths (following your dreams instead of knowing your place). In short, industrialization both advanced and reflected a larger dynamic of liberalization — a dramatic and qualitative shift in the dimensions of social freedom.

The emergence of this new liberal order in the North Atlantic world came as a series of jolting shocks. Kings were knocked from their thrones or made subservient to parliaments, and nobles were stripped of rank and power. Science displaced the earth from the center of the universe, dragged humanity into the animal kingdom, and cast a pall of doubt over the most cherished religious beliefs. As if these assaults on age-old verities were not enough, the coup de grace was then applied with the eruption of mechanized, urbanized society. The natural, easy rhythms of country life gave way to the clanging, clock-driven tempo of the city and the factory, and new technologies of miraculous power and demonic destructiveness burst forth. Vast riches were heaped up in the midst of brutal hardship and want as new social classes erupted and struggled for position.

In countries outside of the North Atlantic world, the experience of modernization was, if anything, even more vertiginous. Social changes were often accelerated by the confrontation with Western innovations that had taken decades or centuries to develop. Moreover, these changes arose not as homegrown developments but as real or figurative conquests by foreign powers. Modernity thus came as a humiliation, a shocking realization that the local culture was hopelessly backward compared with that of the new foreign masters.

It is unsurprising that, in all the wrenching social tumult, many people felt adrift in a surging flux without landmarks or firm ground. The deepest thinkers of the nineteenth century identified this anomie as the spiritual crisis of the age: Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed the death of God, while Max Weber wrote of society's "disenchantment." But it was Karl Marx who traced most clearly the connection between this spiritual crisis and the economic upheavals of his day. As he and Friedrich Engels wrote in this breathtaking passage from the Communist Manifesto:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions,everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.  All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned….


Thus did industrialization beget a massive backlash against the dizzying plenitude of open-endedness, a lurch toward some antidote to the jarring, jangling uncertainty of a world where "all that is solid melts into air." The Industrial Counterrevolution was protean and, in its many guises, captured minds of almost every persuasion. But in all its forms, it held out this promise: that political power, whether at the national or global level, could recreate the simplicity, certainty, and solidarity of preindustrial life. The appeal of that promise powered a disastrous century of collectivist experimentation.

The promise of redemption through politics and reintegration into some larger whole was present even in the milder incarnations of the collectivist impulse. Against the "chaos" and "anarchy" of the market order, a central state with expanded fiscal and regulatory powers offered the reassurance that somebody was "in charge." In particular, the nationalization or regulation of previously autonomous private enterprises reasserted the primacy of the group, which had always held sway in earlier times. In all the permutations of incremental collectivism — social democracy, the welfare and regulatory state, Keynesian "fine tuning," development planning — the emotional appeal of group cohesion buttressed the intellectual arguments for greater government involvement in economic life.

But it was in the radical centralizing movements of totalitarianism that the rebellion against open-endedness overwhelmed all other considerations. Robert Nisbet, in his seminal Quest for Community, identified the rise of totalitarianism in modern times as an effort to recreate, through the state, the lost sense of community that had obtained in the premodern world. "The greatest appeal of the totalitarian party, Marxist or other," wrote Nisbet, "lies in its capacity to provide a sense of moral coherence and communal membership to those who have become, to one degree or another, victims of the sense of exclusion from the ordinary channels of belonging in society."

And in his great but too little remembered 1936 book, The Good Society, Walter Lippmann diagnosed the totalitarian threat as a "collectivist counter-revolution" against industrial society's complex division of labor. "[T]he industrial revolution," he wrote, "has instituted a way of life organized on a very large scale, with men and communities no longer autonomous but elaborately interdependent, with change no longer so gradual as to be imperceptible, but highly dynamic within the span of each man's experience. No more profound or pervasive transformation of habits and values and ideas was ever imposed so suddenly on the great mass of mankind." Opposition to that transformation, he continued, had hatched the monstrous tyrannies that at that time menaced the world:

[A]s the revolutionary transformation proceeds, it must evoke resistance and rebellion at every stage. It evokes resistance and rebellion on the right and on the left — that is to say, among those who possess power and wealth, and among those who do not…. Though these two movements wage a desperate class struggle, they are, with reference to the great industrial revolution of the modern age, two forms of reaction and counter-revolution. For, in the last analysis, these two collectivist movements are efforts to resist, by various kinds of coercion, the consequences of the increasing division of labor.

The misbegotten secular religions of totalitarianism won their devoted and ruthless followings by offering an escape from the stresses of modernity — specifically, from the agoraphobic panic that liberal open-endedness roused. They aspired to "re-enchant" the world with grand dreams of class or racial destiny that integrated their adherents into communities of true believers and elevated them from lost souls to agents of great and inexorable forces. With their insidiously appealing lies, the false faiths of communism and fascism launched their mad rebellion against the liberal rigors of questioning and self-doubt, and so against tolerance and pluralism and peaceable persuasion. They inflicted upon a century their awful, evil perversion of modernity: the instrumentalities of mass production and mass prosperity twisted into engines of mass destruction and mass murder.


The liberal revolution survived the reactionary challenge. Fascism was put to rout, at horrible cost, in the great struggle of World War II. Communism was contained and waited out until it imploded, just a decade ago. And coincident with communism's demise has come a global rediscovery of liberal ideas and institutions. Free markets and democracy have registered impressive gains around the world. However, the dead hand of the collectivist past still exerts a powerful influence: The inertia of old mindsets and vested interests blocks progress at every turn, and so our new era of globalization is a messy and sometimes volatile one. But it is also an era of hope and possibility.

As the horrible events of September 11 made clear, we are not yet finished with the totalitarian threat. In the tragic, broken societies of much of the Islamic world — where free markets have gained little foothold, and democracy even less — radical hostility to modernity still festers on a large scale. And it has given rise to a distinctive form of totalitarianism: one that uses a perverted form of religious faith, rather than any purely secular ideology, as its reactionary mythos. For the past quarter-century, radical Islamist fundamentalism has roiled the nations in which it arose. Now it has reached out to wage a direct, frontal assault on its antithesis, its "Great Satan": the United States.

Despite the trappings of religious fervor, Islamist totalitarianism is strikingly similar to its defunct secular cousins. It is an expression not of spirituality but of anomie — in particular, a seething resentment of Western prosperity and strength. Consider the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928 to resist the British presence in Egypt, the Brotherhood was the original radical Islamist terror network. As detailed in David Pryce-Jones's powerful The Closed Circle, the official account of its formation records this statement at the group's initial meeting: "We know not the practical way to reach the glory of Islam and serve the welfare of Muslims. We are weary of this life of humiliation and restriction. Lo, we see that the Arabs and the Muslims have no status and dignity."

And, just like its communist and fascist predecessors, Islamist totalitarianism seeks redemption through politics. It is animated by the pursuit of temporal power: the destruction of the "decadent" (that is, liberal) West and creation of a pan-Islamic utopian state featuring unrestrained centralization of authority. Whether the utopian blueprint calls for mullahs, commissars, or Gauleiters to wield absolute power is of secondary importance. It is the utopian idea itself — the millennial fantasy of a totalitarian state — that unites all the radical movements of the Industrial Counterrevolution.

The point bears emphasis. Radical Islamist fundamentalism does not content itself with mere repudiation of the West's alleged vices. If that were all there was to it, its program might be to stage a retreat from modernity's wickedness; to do, in other words, what the Amish have done. But Islamist totalitarianism, though it claims otherworldly inspiration, is obsessed with worldly power and influence. It does not simply reject the West — it wants to beat the West at its own game of worldly success. Osama bin Laden has consistently claimed that the United States is weak and can be defeated. Clearly, he and his colleagues lust for power and believe they can attain it. And so, although it attempts to appropriate a particular religious tradition, Islamist totalitarianism is not, at bottom, a religious movement. It is a political movement, a quest for political power.

Indeed, Islamist fundamentalism shares with other totalitarian movements a commitment to centralization, not just of political power, but of economic control as well. Consider Iran, where the first and greatest victory for Islamist totalitarianism was won. As Shaul Bakhash describes in his Reign of the Ayatollahs:

[T]he government took over large sectors of the economy through nationalization and expropriation, including banking, insurance, major industry, large-scale agriculture and construction, and an important part of foreign trade. It also involved itself in the domestic distribution of goods. As a result, the economic role of the state was greatly swollen and that of the private sector greatly diminished by the revolution.

Today, the sectaries of radical Islamism continue to uphold various collectivist strains of "Islamic economics," trumpeting them as righteous alternatives to the secular and individualist corruption of "Eurocentric" globalization.

Before the September 11 attacks, it appeared that Islamist totalitarianism was a movement in decline. In the decades since the Iranian revolution, formidable Islamist opposition movements have arisen around the Islamic world, but totalitarian regimes have come to power only in the Sudan and Afghanistan, backwaters even by regional standards. Elsewhere, insurgencies have been crushed (in Syria) or at least brutally repressed (in Algeria, Egypt, and Chechnya). In Iran, revolutionary fervor steadily gave way to disillusionment and cynicism, and the reformist government of Mohammed Khatami has moved gingerly toward a more moderate course.


In the wake of September 11, it is unclear whether the U.S. military response will precipitate a new wave of radicalization in the Islamic world — one that might topple existing regimes and bring totalitarians to power. It is unclear whether terrorists will be able to outmaneuver the escalation of security and intelligence activity now under way and carry out more successful attacks in the United States or elsewhere. In short, it is unclear what further horrors must be endured, at home and around the world, because of Islamist totalitarianism.

But this much is clear: The United States is now at war with the totalitarians of radical Islamism. And in prior conflicts with the totalitarian impulse of the Industrial Counterrevolution, the United States has been undefeated. Americans triumphed first over fascism, then over communism, movements with ideologies of potentially global appeal and political bases in militarily formidable powers. Americans will rise again to meet this latest challenge. Unlike its predecessors, radical Islamism speaks only to the disaffected minority of a particular region, and none of the governments of that region holds any hope of prevailing against the resolute exercise of U.S. power. However long the present war must last, and however costly it must be, the final outcome cannot be doubted: interment of Islamist totalitarianism in what President Bush so stirringly referred to as "history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."

Brink Lindsey  is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of Against the Dead Hand: The Uncertain Struggle for Global Capitalism (John Wiley & Sons, December 2001).

This article was originally published in the December 2001 issue of Navigator magazine. It was re-published, with permission, from National Review Online.

Brink Lindsey
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Brink Lindsey
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