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To grasp the threat of totalitarianism, it’s important to understand the difference between it and simple authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is what you have when the state monopolizes political control. That is mere dictatorship – bad, certainly, but totalitarianism is much worse. According to Hannah Arendt… a totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is. As Arendt has written, wherever totalitarianism has ruled, “[I]t has begun to destroy the essence of man.” (pages 8-9)
Many have fought and endured Hard Totalitarianism – repression at the end of a rifle – and while we may have (for now) seen the back of such regimes, Rod Dreher warns, in his new book Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, that we are facing a new form of totalitarian repression. This new form, he warns, will not (for now) come at the ends of rifle barrels and the points of bayonets, nor will it come all at once. It will come gradually, and it will attempt to corral us not with overt force, nor even fully from our government, but through the mounting pressures, nudges, and unseen pushes and constraints of the very technologies we rely on and willingly install in everything in our lives. Dreher predicts the emergence of a Soft Totalitarianism which will resemble the Social Credit System of the People’s Republic of China, created by an alliance of ideological interests from the technology, information, and banking industries. This new totalitarianism will be radically hostile to any religion, creed, or understanding of the world that conflicts with its own, and especially towards Christianity, which it slanders as repressive and “hateful”, especially on matters of sex and race. How can we recognize it? Can we fight it? How do we survive and endure it without compromising? Rod has much to say.
Rod Dreher is, by his own frequent admission, something of an odd duck in American conservatism. His first book, Crunchy Cons, was about people very like himself – the heterodox conservatives who find themselves on the political right, usually for deep-seated social concerns (religion, family, tradition, anti-corporatism), but who also find that these core values are ignored, or else clash with other conservative orthodoxies on matters like free markets or foreign policy. Dreher is also especially known for being one the leading reporters to blow open the sexual abuse scandals of the Roman Catholic Church, and unearth how deeply that rot actually ran – the integrity of the Christian faith is important to Dreher. His prior book, The Benedict Option, was a statement to Christians that they have lost the culture war and need to rebuild the foundations of faith and society, with instructions on how to begin this process through intentional community formation – as such it is like a book warning on how to prepare for a cultural tornado, and clean up afterward. Live Not By Lies can be therefore likened to a warning on what cultural tornado will do, how it will act, what it will try to destroy, and how to survive during it with one’s soul intact.
Live Not By Lies has two parts. The first part attempts to define totalitarianism, its preconditions, early warning signs, and enforcement mechanisms. His goal is to demonstrate not only that our society amply exhibits the preconditions of an emergent totalitarianism, but that we are already well advanced towards it. One of his chief arguments is that we often fail to see what is coming because we are looking for it in the wrong places, and thus not seeing it. The second half of Live Not By Lies is Dreher’s look at those who resisted the Soviet oppression in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and how we can learn to resist as they did. It is from these people that Dreher draws his title. “Live Not By Lies” was originally the title of an essay by Alexander Solzhenitsyn on how to live in Truth in the USSR. These survivors today see quite clearly many of the same dangers and tactics they once fought, and have much to say about how to resist, and why it is vital that we do so.
One of contemporary progressivism’s commonly used phrases – the personal is political – captures the totalitarian spirit, which seeks to infuse all aspects of life with political consciousness. Indeed, the Left pushes its ideology ever deeper into the personal realm, leaving fewer and fewer areas of daily life uncontested. This, warned [Hannah] Arendt, is a sign that a society is ripening for totalitarianism, because that is what totalitarianism essentially is: the politicization of everything. (page 39)
One cannot watch any professional sport anymore without having political ideology thrust in. Video games are not immune, as EA Sports has shoved race-hustler Colin Kapernick onto the box cover and ranked him more highly than many active players. Gilette imbues commercials for razors with trans-humanist messaging. Many businesses and schools now have mandatory Pride events from which employees are not permitted to abstain. Again and again, we find that even purchasing daily necessities is somehow or other making an ideological statement. The signs are abundant, and Dreher warns of other crucial signs besides. In a totalitarian society, nothing one says or does is without political consequences – even a failure to act (“silence is violence”) becomes a political act that is either in line with the totalitarian demand, or opposed to it. One cannot simply be non-racist, one is either actively anti-racist, or an actual racist – there is never any ideological middle ground. Inevitably we are all drawn into this at some level, choosing or boycotting things based on their declared or implied ideologies.
Infusing every aspect of life with ideology was a standard aspect of Soviet totalitarianism. Early in the Stalin era, N. V. Krylenko, a Soviet commissar…, steamrolled over chess players who wanted to keep politics out of the game.
“We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess,” he said. “We must condemn once and for all the formula ‘chess for the sake of chess,’ like the formula ‘art for art’s sake.’ We must organize shockbrigades of chess-players, and begin immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess.” (Ibid.)
Part 1 begins with an intensive study of totalitarianism’s features, including what readies a society to veer into it. Dreher here relies heavily on Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, as well as accounts from the survivors of the Bolshevik Revolution, and compares those studies to our own national situation. Widespread loneliness and feelings of isolation, putting group loyalties (and signals thereof) foremost in relationships, and a religious-type faith in “Progress!” (which is most often touted as a rejection of a supposedly repressive past coupled to an embrace of technocracy) all are necessary preconditions, for they typify a society dividing against itself, and the cult of “Progress!” offers a sort of surety to the disaffected that whatever “wrongs” they feel have been brought against themselves will be righted, while the old order is destroyed. The parallels Dreher draws between the sentiments of 1920s Germany, late Tsarist Russia, and today’s America are striking, even if other material conditions are different, and the dangers should give us pause.
What Dreher suggests will ultimately tip the balance is that the private sector, especially in the technology, information, and finance sectors, is increasingly dominated by radical progressives who see it as part of their corporate duty to dedicate their companies both internally and externally to championing progressive ideologies, even if it diminishes their profits in the short term to do so. Moreover, as we willingly trade our privacy for access to conveniences, jobs, and financial opportunities, we are giving these “woke” companies the very tools and data they need to manipulate us in turn.
Free-market purists will certainly argue here that Dreher is overly pessimistic, and that, over a long enough time horizon, “the market” will somehow sort this out to protect our privacy, and the government should largely stay out of it. This, however, discounts that with the money and power available to Big Tech, the government may be manipulated out of exercising any oversight at all, while the markets are kept unfree. Moreover, businesses often thrive on creating demand in the first place, then offering a “solution” for a price – in this light, the continuous denigration of Christians, Jews, and other heterodox thinkers as “haters” or “Nazis” creates a fear of such people and their “dangerous” thoughts, which drives a demand to censor and punish, something the woke ideologues in tech companies are only too willing to do. In short, the very libertarian faith in the “free market” is, Dreher argues, misplaced.
The technology to manipulate and suppress “wrong” thinking already exists, as the Chinese Social Credit system amply demonstrates, and it is only a combined lack of will, and still latent fear of government reprisal that keeps these corporations from going as far as the radicals insist they should. As many college surveys report, younger generations utterly reject the notion that “hate” speech should have any protections at all – we should not expect them to show restraint as they achieve power. If this happens, we will indeed find ourselves living in a totalitarian society, but those controlling it will not be in the government, but in corporations answerable only to each other.
Time will tell if Dreher is correct in his prediction. I wish I myself could say, but it has long been my observation that the sad truth of humanity is we desire to fit in with what it popular, or at least be perceived as doing so. We see this in clothing fashions, of course, but also in ideological fashions, especially if adherence to said fashions give access to power and popularity while being out of line gets one ostracized. The communists knew this – as Dreher shows, they understood perfectly well that out of fear of standing out, most people would simply go along with whatever the Party demanded if it made life easier. In any new totalitarian system, we should therefore expect the same: most people will not be willing to risk their jobs, their social lives, their finances, or prospects for their children if they should fail to conform. We see this pressure already in play as increasing numbers of the heterodox report self-censoring at work, and even at casual social functions, out of fear of reprisal.
In Part 2, Dreher pivots to the dissidents against the communists in Europe. Here we meet many familiar names. Solzhenitsyn warns that the act of double-think, mouthing platitudes and slogans to get by while secretly disbelieving them, breaks us down by inducing a sort of schizophrenia. Vaclav Havel tells us that by refusing to display slogans we know to be lies shows that we see through them, and makes it possible for others to see through them as well. The Solidarity champions in Poland show the necessity of standing firm with allies. Dreher takes us through other lesser-known families and figures too, to tell the stories of how they resisted and managed to live and work in a society deeply hostile to them. The costs were often quite high – imprisonment and execution were always looming possibilities, as were visits from the secret police. Yet what kept them going was knowing that they were never alone. Within the bounds of their police states, they managed to create small and secret safe spaces to meet and to work, and to worship and to teach. The most consistent message from all the old dissidents, however, is that to defy the order and live in Truth means to willingly suffer. This is perhaps the hardest advice of all.
Live Not By Lies is not a long book, but it is an intense book. Dreher is impassioned on this subject, and the nearly continuous drumbeat of stories about people losing jobs, losing social media accounts, and losing livelihoods bears out the real possibility that he is right about what is coming next. Still, the future Dreher predicts is not necessarily inevitable, things could be better, or they could be very much worse. Dreher wrote his book before the 2020 summer of riots and race ideologies – before many big-city mayors showed that they were willing to let their cities burn if doing so was (somehow) standing against “hate”, and before many businesses jumped to mandate even more radical “Diversity” requirements that amount to open denigration of anything “white”, complete with struggle sessions that would not have been out of place in the USSR or Mao’s China. In light of recent events, Hard Totalitarianism may well threaten instead.
Though the sub-title of Live Not By Lies is “a manual for Christian dissidents,” the book has solid advice for anyone who finds the prospect of a Woke World Order to be a threat. If the totalitarianism Dreher predicts does come to pass, while it will certainly be hostile to Christianity, Christians will hardly be its only undesirables. Anyone who engages in “wrong think” on any issue then held as the “truth” by the ideologues in power would, necessarily, find themselves denied access to society and respectable work. In this possible future dystopia all dissidents will need to work together for support.
1 Dreher, Rod. Live Not By Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents. Sentinal, New York, NY, 2020.