Can we understand the extensive range of draconian measures designed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic as being, in some way, totalitarian?
By any historical standard, these measures were certainly hugely repressive. Although they varied from region to region, and nation to nation, in many cases they amounted to a system of mass house arrest. People were often forbidden to leave their homes, except under the most stringent conditions. And when they were allowed out, there were often strict limits on how far they could travel, what they could do and when they had to return.
The freedom to demonstrate against such measures was also typically curtailed. And those who complained on social media against lockdowns were likely to find their posts removed or accompanied by a warning of some kind.
So, in sum, the measures taken to tackle the pandemic curbed many of the key political freedoms enjoyed in liberal democracies, from freedom of movement and freedom of assembly to, increasingly, freedom of speech. And they curtailed and perhaps even abolished many everyday personal freedoms, too.
Understandably, perhaps, some have been moved to describe the situation as ‘totalitarian’. But how useful is such a characterisation?
It’s certainly true that the measures taken to contain Covid-19 impacted on almost every aspect of human life. But is today’s situation really comparable to that of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union – the two societies to which the word totalitarian has been most often applied?
No, not exactly. There are too many important distinctions to be drawn between the locked-down world of the past 18 months and 20th-century totalitarian societies. For a start, the Covid-containment rules clearly did not involve the terrible paraphernalia of what might be called classical totalitarianism. There were no concentration camps, no one-party states, and no secret police terrorising the populace. These are fundamental differences.
However, there are parallels between then and now – not in terms of the explicit features of totalitarian societies, but in terms of the underlying conditions that helped give rise to them. I am thinking in particular of atomisation and loneliness (or social abandonment), and the decline of spontaneity.
Here, the work of the German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt, especially her Cold War classic, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), is particularly illuminating.
The return of ‘totalitarianism’
Seventy years after it was first published, The Origins has experienced a revival – especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential election victory in 2016. The Origins even made a return to the bestseller lists in the US. The implication of this revival was clear: Trump was to be compared to Hitler and Stalin.
For example, writing in the New York Review of Books, left-wing journalist Paul Mason used The Origins to argue that Trump’s victory proved how the world was moving closer to fully fledged totalitarianism.
Mason focused on Arendt’s contention that the blurring of fact and fiction was a key component of totalitarian states. He quoted a well-known passage:
‘The ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (that is, the standards of thought) no longer exist.’
Mason called this a ‘near-perfect description, 65 years in advance, of the electorate shaped by Trump’s rallies, Fox News, and the Kremlin’s secret Facebook ad’.
For Arendt, the blurring of truth and falsehood is indeed a characteristic of totalitarianism. But it was not for her its defining feature. What Mason and Trump’s numerous other critics were doing was simply cherry-picking a quote from The Origins and exploiting Arendt’s intellectual and moral authority in their effort to liken Trump to Hitler or Stalin.
Of course there were many legitimate reasons to criticise Trump. But to label him totalitarian for blurring the distinction between fact and fiction was absurd. If that really was sufficient to categorise Trump’s presidency as totalitarian, then quite a few other governments could be categorised as totalitarian, too.