Resisting "soft-totalitarianism" in Canada? (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
(This essay is based on the draft of a presentation read at the First Sir Thomas More Colloquium: Diplomacy, Literature, Politics, at the Akademia Polonijna (Polonia University) in Czestochowa, Poland, held on March 11-12, 2010.)
The idea of so-called "soft totalitarianism" has emerged from various dystopian novels and political writings of the Twentieth Century. In his dystopian novel Brave New World (1932), and a preface to it, Brave New World Re-visited (written after World War II), Aldous Huxley suggested a possible future society that would be mostly non-coercive, but at the same time embrace a thoroughgoing, totalitarian exclusion of traditional notions of religion, history, and family. While George Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty Four (1949), portrayed a highly coercive society, in his "Appendix" Orwell pointed out that semantic control (the control of vocabulary and language) was the key to the maintenance of the system – "Newspeak is Ingsoc, and Ingsoc is Newspeak". This may suggest that if semantic control could somehow be maintained through non-coercive means, an apparatus of coercion might become secondary for controlling people. In 1941, James Burham's The Managerial Revolution raised the notion that a new caste of managers would control society regardless of whether a given society was ostensibly democratic or not. Philip Rieff, in his seminal work, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), pointed out how a regime characterized by the so-called therapeutic mode could work to exclude traditional understandings of the world. Jacques Ellul, in his critiques of the technological society, pointed to the technological system as an inhuman framework from which all more traditional notions were increasingly excluded.
Canadian traditionalist philosopher George Parkin Grant enunciated a similar critique of technology. Roland Huntford, in his classic work, The New Totalitarians, drew attention to contemporary Sweden as a society that, while ostensibly a democracy, could be characterized as socially totalitarian. Christopher Lasch, in a series of books including The Culture of Narcissism; The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics; and The Revolt of the Elites: and the Betrayal of Democracy pointed to an all pervasive current-day system that undermined traditional verities and meaningful democracy. Paul Edward Gottfried, in a series of books including After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State, and Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt: Toward a Secular Theocracy, has amplified and updated the insights of Burnham into our contemporary times. On the other hand, some on the Left have tried to characterize current-day society as "totalitarian" because of its all-pervasive, brand- and advertising-driven consumerism. Pope John Paul II had himself referred to a "thinly disguised totalitarianism" in the current-day West.
It has become almost universally accepted that so-called "hard totalitarianism" – typified by regimes such as those of Hitler and Stalin – is something very bad. At the same time, however, the notion of a "soft totalitarianism" – that may in fact arise in the most ostensibly free and democratic systems – has been given far less attention.
The ideas presented here may perhaps be surprising to a Polish audience. The author will attempt to delineate how current-day Canada – often considered a paragon of freedom and democracy – may be moving in directions that could be termed "soft totalitarian." The author was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and has lived there for close to fifty years. He has seen monumental, massive change rolling over the Canadian social and cultural landscape, much of which he has perceived with increasing ambiguity. He will attempt to sketch out how, in current-day Canada, it is increasingly difficult for sincerely-believing Christians to live in accord with their faith.
Indeed, some analogies may be seen between the dilemmas faced by Thomas More in his refusal to submit to the dictates of a powerful State, and the problems faced by all sincerely-believing Christians in current-day Canada. Interestingly enough, it may be recalled that the eminent historian Norman Davies has pointed out that Henry VIII may have had more in common with his contemporary Ivan the Terrible of Muscovy, than most English historians have usually realized.
It may be recalled that Protestant England, although typically considered as the bastion of freedom and rights among the European countries, actually extended a harsh and punitive regime towards its Roman Catholics over many centuries – and especially in Scotland and Ireland which England had conquered. Despite England's traditions of "the rights of Englishmen" -- legal and social instruments were put into place to harry Roman Catholics, such as the Test Acts. Perhaps one could draw a certain analogy to current-day Canada which – although it prides itself on being the "most free" and "most democratic" society on the planet – has put into place a variety of legal and social instruments that – it could be argued – create difficulties for the real flourishing of those of its citizens who are sincerely-believing Christians.
By the term "sincerely-believing Christians" the author would like to mean those members of the various Christian churches who try to take their faith seriously, and try to look to it as a source for day-to-day living. If they are Roman Catholics, for example, they would be those persons paying at least some attention to the various official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. These are also persons who would wish for a considerable level of respect for their respective denominations across the society at large.
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.