October 30, 2020

In the Soviet Union, not even the home was a refuge from the ears of the totalitarian state. Historian Orlando Figes, in his 2007 book The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, quotes one Soviet woman’s memory of her childhood: 

“We were brought up to keep our mouths shut. ‘You’ll get into trouble for your tongue’ — that’s what people said to us children all the time. We went through life afraid to talk. Mama used to say that every other person was an informer. We were afraid of our neighbours, and especially of the police … Even today, if I see a policeman, I begin to shake with fear.”

Decades from now, will a Scotsman brought up in Edinburgh or Glasgow offer a similar testimony to historians documenting our era? The question is by no means absurd, not in light of the Hate Crimes and Public Order Bill brought forth by the ruling Scottish National Party. In testimony before a parliamentary committee this week, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said that he believes the reach of the proposed law should cover words spoken in the privacy of people’s homes.

If this were to become law, parents would learn to fear their children, trained in schools in the rigid catechism of “social justice” orthodoxies. And not only reading the Bible or the Koran to one’s children, but simply owning one could land a Scotsman in the dock on charges of “possessing inflammatory materials”. J.K. Rowling would in principle stand to be imprisoned simply for having stood up for biological women in the face of transgender militants — and her Left-wing political convictions would not spare her.

The proposed bill has drawn harsh criticism from across the Scots political spectrum, such that it is all but unthinkable that it would become law. A poll this past summer found that over two-thirds of Scots voters oppose the law  — yet the Scots Parliament last month voted down a Conservative attempt to table the legislation entirely. Clearly this legislation matters to the government, and those who oppose it risk being tarred as bigots.

Even if the hate crimes bill does not become law, the fact that legislation so shockingly illiberal has come this far is a very dark sign of the times. The bill is yet another instance of “soft totalitarianism” marching through the institutions of Western liberal democracies, rewriting  laws, regulations and social codes according to a therapeutic rationale: to make life “safer” for racial, sexual and religious minorities.

What is soft totalitarianism? Five years ago, émigrés from the Soviet bloc began telling me that they were seeing emerge in the West the same kinds of things they once fled from in the communist East. This initially struck me as alarmist, but the more I talked with them, the more I came to understand they were right.

What are they seeing? Broadly speaking, the rise of ideological Left-wing hegemony within institutions — especially academia, where many of them work — and the stifling of free speech and free thought by a punitive regime of censorship.

For example, a Cambridge don told me that the eagerness by many on the political and cultural Left to police expression, and to stop at nothing — even telling lies — to ruin the reputations of those they identify as enemies of the people is one primary manifestation. The 2019 scandal in which a journalist from the New Statesman twisted quotes from Sir Roger Scruton in a briefly successful effort to ruin him is but one example.

They also see the Left’s categorisation of people according to the standards of identity politics, and judging them based on those categories, as a replay of Marxist totalitarianism. In the Soviet bloc, your social class determined your status and your fate. You were not judged on the basis of your individual character and actions, but rather as a representative of your class. In our time, social class has given way to racial, sexual and other forms of identity.

There are other facets, but the core of it is the total politicisation of all aspects of life — even, as we now see in the Scots case, life inside the home. This is the essence of totalitarianism. Authoritarianism is a condition in which political life is controlled by a single leader or party, but people are more or less free otherwise. Totalitarianism is an extreme form of authoritarianism, in which all of life is considered to be political. The authoritarian only wants your political obedience — but the totalitarian wants your soul.

A society in which family members have to fear each other, and in which people are not free to say what they think even inside their own homes, is totalitarian, even if it does not have secret police and gulags. I have called this new totalitarianism “soft” primarily because it presents itself in therapeutic terms — as motivated by caring for victims of society’s prejudices. The cultural critic James Poulos predicts the coming of the “Pink Police State”: a polity in which people will willingly trade political liberties for guarantees of personal pleasure and security.

First, unlike the hard totalitarianism of the Cold War, and of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, this new threat to liberty does not depend on inflicting pain and terror, but rather, as in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the managing of comfort, pleasure and entertainment. The fact that this soft totalitarianism doesn’t look like Orwell’s dystopia makes it hard for us to see it for what it is. In fact, a college literature professor told me that when he teaches Brave New World, few of his students recognise it as a dystopia at all.

Second, in the United States, soft totalitarianism is not chiefly manifesting through actions of the state, but through policies of civil society institutions: universities, corporations, news and entertainment media, and others. This is another reason to think of it as soft, though after I posted something about the Scots hate crimes bill on my blog, a Czech émigré friend emailed to ask, “Would you still define this — prosecuting people for private speech — as ‘soft,’ or is it firming up a bit?”

True, the velvet glove over the iron fist is bound to wear thin, especially in Britain, which does not have the constitutional protections afforded by the American First Amendment. But the ethos of soft totalitarianism is growing ever more powerful within the private sector. If a society internalises the ruling ideology, whether out of fear of prosecution or persecution, or because people come to understand that dissenters will remain economically and socially marginalised, the controllers have less need to criminalise dissent.

Those who lived under Soviet-bloc communism are convinced that we in the West are going to surrender to soft totalitarianism, because we lack natural defences against it. The Scots hate crimes bill is a bright red line. When I was in the former Soviet bloc interviewing ex-dissidents about how we in the West should prepare to resist, Kamila Bendova, who worked with her late husband Vaclav Benda in the Charter 77 leadership, strongly warned against surrendering privacy, especially inside one’s home.

In her Prague apartment, where she and her husband held dissident meetings, and counseled people on their way to the secret police headquarters down the street for questioning, Bendova said she could not understand why so many people today are willing to surrender their privacy for consumer convenience (via smartphones, Alexa smart speakers and the like). She pointed to the scars on the walls where, after communism’s fall, she and her husband had ripped out the wires the secret police had installed to bug their flat.

To stay free to speak the truth, she said, you have to create for yourself a zone of privacy that is inviolate. “Information means power,” Bendova told me. “We know from our life under the totalitarian regime that if you know something about someone, you can manipulate him or her. You can use it against them. The secret police have evidence of everything like that. They could use it all against you. Anything!”

The Scots Parliament has the power to prevent Hamza Yousaf from becoming a commissar whose Pink Police State writ extends even into the intimacy of homes and families. Will it? One could not have imagined that such a question would ever be asked in Britain. But then, 2020 has revealed much about who and what we have become.

Rod Dreher’s Live Not By Lies is published by Penguin Random House