Totalitarianism's back in business Credit: Georges DeKeerle/Sygma via Getty Images

November 12, 2020   6 mins

In late 2018, a woman called Kristie Higgs was sacked from her job at a school in Gloucestershire because of comments made on her private Facebook page, in her own time, concerning sex education in schools. Last month, an Employment Tribunal upheld her dismissal, on the grounds that her employer believed that her posts “might reasonably lead people…to conclude that she was homophobic and transphobic”. The Tribunal flatly denied any link between her Christian convictions and the school’s decision to sack her, a remarkable piece of sophistry clearly intended to avoid the finding that Ms Higgs had been dismissed because of her religious beliefs — which she quite plainly had been.

Days later, it was reported that the Metropolitan Police were investigating Darren Grimes, the Conservative activist, because of a racially insensitive remark made by Professor David Starkey during an interview on Mr Grimes’ YouTube channel at the end of June.

In the United States, meanwhile, the company Yelp, whose website features crowd-sourced reviews of millions of businesses, announced that they were introducing a new feature on their website: a “Business Accused of Racist Behavior Alert,” which will be accompanied by “a link to a news article where they can learn more about the incident.”

All of these stories broke while I was reading Rod Dreher’s new book, Live Not By Lies: A Manual For Christian Dissidents. These were immediately followed by two further developments from the other side of the Atlantic. First, Webster’s online dictionary responded to a manufactured row over Amy Coney Barrett’s use of the phrase “sexual preference” by changing the entry for the word “preference” to state that it was an “offensive” term when used in connection with sexual orientation.

On the very same day it became clear that Twitter was refusing to publish any Tweet linking to a story in the New York Post concerning corruption allegations against Hunter Biden, son of the US Presidential candidate Joe Biden.

All of these occurrences illustrate Dreher’s central thesis: that inhabitants of Western countries are seeing the development of a new soft totalitarianism. Under this dispensation, interpersonal freedoms — those related to sexual expression and sexual self-definition, to the actualisation of a Self created by an individual for themselves — are sacrosanct, whereas old-fashioned concrete liberties of speech and thought and assembly and debate, are up for grabs. This is Philip Rieff’s “triumph of the therapeutic”, where the state will protect us from disapproval, challenge and criticism — even if that requires the destruction of proper freedoms.

Dreher quotes Hannah Arendt’s definition of a totalitarian society as “one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under the control of that ideology”. This can be distinguished from authoritarianism, where a state aims to monopolise political control but does not seek a more thoroughgoing and intrusive transformation in its citizens’ worldviews and habits of mind.

Many people will raise a sceptical eyebrow at this. As with Dreher’s last book The Benedict Option — to which Live Not By Lies is a sequel, or companion piece, of sorts — there have already been accusations of paranoia and alarmism. However, the evidence he marshals is compelling and hard to rebut, and any intelligent and honest observer of current affairs will find it hard to deny that in Western countries the list of things that simply cannot be said without provoking a possibly career-ending storm of controversy and denunciation is growing by the day.

A problem for people like Dreher who wish to sound the alarm about soft totalitarianism — and a useful rhetorical tool for their critics — is that the phenomenon is not always clearly defined. There is no party whose programme explicitly outlines their support for it (although of course it has the implicit support of most mainstream parties in Western countries). It has never been put to any electorate. There is no Mein Kampf or Little Red Book for this movement, if indeed it can be described as a movement at all. It is hard to define and hard to pin down, despite its vast power.

Various attempts have been made at description. “Political correctness” was popular for a while, but suffered the terrible fate of many terms coined to describe Left-wing censoriousness: it quickly became low-status, endlessly mocked by cultural gatekeepers. Nowadays we have “cancel culture”, which is a useful term without quite capturing the way in which soft totalitarianism works. The writer Dan Hitchens calls it The Thing; the US intellectual James Poulos calls it “the pink police state”. In some internet circles the loose and informal but extremely powerful alliance between the media, academia, the public sector and the political Left — which polices and dictates the parameters of acceptable opinion — is known as The Cathedral.

Terminology per se is perhaps less important than a clear understanding of what exactly “soft totalitarianism” means. It can be best defined, I think, as a legal and cultural regime in which the expression of morally and socially conservative ideas and opinions is aggressively policed and punished by a combination of legal and social sanctions, backed up by corporate power.

The deepest animating impulse of what writer Wesley Yang calls the Successor Ideology is a ferocious egalitarianism, based on what has been called the “blank slate” view of human nature. This results in a furious hostility to hierarchy, natural distinction, traditional Western cultural norms, or any concept of limits on the perfectibility of human societies. Its most precious taboos are those around ethnic characteristics, sexual expression, relations between the sexes, and comparisons between cultures. The ruling presumption is that differences in outcome are ipso facto evidence of structural injustices.

It has become a cliché of conservative rhetoric to point out that modern progressive belief and activism has many of the characteristics of religious doctrine and ritual. Nevertheless, I do think this is a useful insight, because it helps us to understand what exactly it is that we are dealing with. Contemporary progressive activism resembles religious belief insofar as it provides an all-encompassing epistemological and moral framework into which everything else must be incorporated, and a set of moral standards against which people and their actions and thoughts must be judged.

This means that it is extremely hostile to the normal business of politics: the consideration of empirical findings about what the world is really like, the recognition of trade-offs, and the necessity of compromise between competing interests. To approach politics with a religious sensibility is dangerous, because it leaves no room for the obvious reality that in political deliberation we must pay attention to people’s differing conceptions of what is good and important in life. The ideologue, of course, will find it hard to admit this fact, because to reckon with it honestly is to reject the totalising, moralistic fervour which is so central to a great deal of progressive politics and activism.

Dreher approaches the problem of the totalising ideology under which we increasingly live from an unexpected angle, in light of the experiences and concerns of people who lived under Communist dictatorship in the Eastern Bloc in the years before 1990. Live Not By Lies features testimony from many such individuals, including some who fled to the United States many years ago and now say they are concerned by the resemblances between the cultural-political atmosphere in the USA and the stifling control they thought they had left behind.

The title of the book refers to a message published by the Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the day of his arrest by Soviet authorities in 1974. He had come to realise that one of the most powerful supports for Communist dictatorship came from the willingness of people to passively co-operate with the official lies published by the regime. The propaganda put out by tyrannies is very often not meant to convince people, so much as to humiliate and demoralise them by surrounding them with obvious nonsense that they dare not contradict.

Solzhenitsyn said that you can stand up to this by refusing to co-operate with official dishonesty and deception. He knew that most people cannot be heroic public dissidents, but he did challenge them to live in truth in a small-scale way as far as they were able. He gave several examples of how his readers might do this: avoid speaking lies themselves; leave or boycott meetings where lies are told; refuse to support demonstrations that they do not genuinely believe in.

This way, he argues, you can begin to live with integrity against a regime that tries to make this impossible, and you can strengthen others by your example.

The relevance of the imperative to live in truth to our current plight is not hard to see. We too are asked to swallow many lies — not just Christians, to whom Dreher’s book is principally addressed, but cultural and social conservatives of all kinds. In resisting the spread of such lies, we face what game theorists call a co-ordination problem: a situation where lots of people are trying to make decisions about the best way to act based on incomplete information.

Perhaps other people in the meeting also think privilege theory is mostly nonsense, or have read the papers debunking the science behind implicit bias training, or believe that ethnic minorities don’t need to be patronised with special treatment. Maybe all the parents at the school think that six-year-olds shouldn’t be learning about gay marriage and transgenderism. But who is going to dare to say that? Who will speak first? Solzhenitsyn has the antidote; we must speak up, we must be willing to take the risk and bear the cost.

This is easy in theory, and much harder in practice. For many of us resistance in these areas is liable to affect professional advancement and prestige, even our ability to earn a living altogether. It may lead to social ostracism and rifts with family and friends. Equally, we must ask ourselves whether we can live with the alternative, of compliance and endless white lies and ultimately the surrender of all public space to fanatics and those willing to bend to them.

There is a certain bracing comfort in having the choice presented so starkly. Dreher’s book is sobering, and clarifying. As I put it down, some words from Evelyn Waugh’s Sword Of Honour trilogy came to mind: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.”

Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.