The Last Totalitarians

This article appeared on National Review Online on September 28, 2001.

What President Bush has called the first war of the 21st centuryhas much in common with the great wars of the century just past.Now, as then, the root cause of the carnage lies in radicaldiscontent with modern industrial society -- a hydra-headedhistorical phenomenon that is well described as the IndustrialCounterrevolution.

At first glance, shadowy Islamist terrorists look very differentfrom any enemy we have ever faced. And indeed, the tactics theyemploy are novel, as are the tactics that must be used to defeatthem. But the fundamental nature of our present adversaries, onceseen plainly, is all too familiar. The evil we confront today isthe evil of totalitarianism: Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and theircoconspirators are the modern-day successors of Lenin and Stalin,Mussolini and Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot.

The atrocities of today's terrorists are the last shudder of ahistorical convulsion of unprecedented fury and destructive power.It was spawned by the spiritual confusion that accompanied thecoming of the modern age, and consists of a profound hostilitytoward the disciplines and opportunities of human freedom. With thecollapse of the Soviet Empire we thought we were done withtotalitarianism. But it lives still, and lives to do harm. As weprepare once more to face this old and dangerous adversary, we needto reacquaint ourselves with its origins and nature.

To understand what gave rise to the totalitarian plague, youhave to appreciate the radical historical discontinuity representedby the technological dynamism of the past 150 years. In the secondhalf of the 19th century, various strands of economic development-- new energy sources, new production techniques, breakthroughs intransportation and communication -- were woven into neworganizational forms to produce a wealth-creating capacity ofunprecedented scale, complexity, and power. It was during thisgreat confluence that the scientific method was firstsystematically integrated into economic life; technological andorganizational innovation became normal, routine, and ubiquitous.Nobel prize-winning economist Douglass North refers to the "weddingof science and technology" as the "Second Economic Revolution" --the first being the advent of agriculture ten millennia ago.

The Industrial Revolution was the economic expression of a muchmore general transformation, a radical new form of social orderwhose defining feature was the embrace of open-ended discovery:open-endedness in the pursuit of knowledge (provisional andrefutable hypotheses supplanting revelation and authority),open-endedness in economic life (innovation and free-floatingmarket transactions in place of tradition and the "just price"),open-endedness in politics (power emerging from the people ratherthan the divine right of kings and hereditary aristocracies), andopen-endedness in life paths (following your dreams instead ofknowing your place). In short, industrialization both advanced andreflected a larger dynamic of liberalization -- a dramatic andqualitative shift in the dimensions of social freedom.

The emergence of this new liberal order in the North Atlanticworld came as a series of jolting shocks. Kings were knocked fromtheir thrones or else made subservient to parliaments; nobles werestripped of rank and power. Science displaced the earth from thecenter of the Universe, dragged humanity into the animal kingdom,and cast a pall of doubt over the most cherished religious beliefs.As if these assaults on age-old verities were not enough, the coupde grace was then applied with the eruption of mechanized,urbanized society. The natural, easy rhythms of country life gaveway to the clanging, clock-driven tempo of the city and thefactory, and new technologies of miraculous power and demonicdestructiveness burst forth. Vast riches were heaped up in themidst of brutal hardship and want; new social classes erupted andstruggled for position.

In countries outside of the North Atlantic world, the experienceof modernization was, if anything, even more vertiginous. Socialchanges were often accelerated by the confrontation, all at once,with Western innovations that had taken decades or centuries todevelop originally. Moreover, these changes were experienced not ashomegrown developments, but as real or figurative conquests byforeign powers. Modernity thus came as a humiliation -- a shockingrealization that the local culture was hopelessly backward comparedwith that of the new foreign masters.

It is unsurprising that, in all the wrenching social tumult,many people felt lost -- adrift in a surging flux without landmarksor firm ground. The deepest thinkers of the 19th century identifiedthis anomie as the spiritual crisis of the age: Friedrich Nietzscheproclaimed the death of God, while Max Weber wrote of society's"disenchantment." But it was Karl Marx who traced most clearly theconnection between this spiritual crisis and the economic upheavalsof his day. As he and Friedrich Engels wrote in this breathtakingpassage from the Communist Manifesto:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupteddisturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty andagitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of ancientand venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, allnew-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All thatis solid melts into air, all that is holy isprofaned.

Thus did industrialization beget a massive backlash -- areaction against the dizzying plenitude of open-endedness, a lurchtoward some antidote to the jarring, jangling uncertainty of aworld where "all that is solid melts into air." The IndustrialCounterrevolution was protean and, in its many guises, capturedminds of almost every persuasion. But in all its forms, it held outthis promise: that political power, whether at the national orglobal level, could recreate the simplicity, certainty, andsolidarity of preindustrial life. The appeal of that promisepowered a disastrous century of collectivist experimentation.

The promise of redemption through politics -- of reintegrationinto some larger whole -- was present even in the milderincarnations of the collectivist impulse. As against the "chaos"and "anarchy" of the market order, a central state with expandedfiscal and regulatory powers offered the reassurance that somebodywas "in charge." In particular, the nationalization or regulationof previously autonomous private enterprises reasserted the primacyof the group, which had always held sway in earlier times. In allthe various permutations of incremental collectivism -- socialdemocracy, the welfare and regulatory state, Keynesian "finetuning," development planning -- the emotional appeal of groupcohesion buttressed the intellectual arguments for greatergovernment involvement in economic life.

But it was in the radical centralizing movements oftotalitarianism that the rebellion against open-endednessoverwhelmed all other considerations. Robert Nisbet, in his seminalQuest for Community, identified the rise of totalitarianism inmodern times as an effort to recreate, through the state, the lostsense of community that had obtained in the premodern world. "Thegreatest appeal of the totalitarian party, Marxist or other," wroteNisbet, "lies in its capacity to provide a sense of moral coherenceand communal membership to those who have become, to one degree oranother, victims of the sense of exclusion from the ordinarychannels of belonging in society."

And in his great but too little remembered 1936 book, The GoodSociety, Walter Lippmann diagnosed the totalitarian threat as a"collectivist counter-revolution" against industrial society'scomplex division of labor. "[T]he industrial revolution," he wrote,"has instituted a way of life organized on a very large scale, withmen and communities no longer autonomous but elaboratelyinterdependent, with change no longer so gradual as to beimperceptible, but highly dynamic within the span of each man'sexperience. No more profound or pervasive transformation of habitsand values and ideas was ever imposed so suddenly on the great massof mankind." Opposition to that transformation, he continued, hadhatched the monstrous tyrannies that at that time menaced theworld:

[A]s the revolutionary transformation proceeds, it must evokeresistance and rebellion at every stage. It evokes resistance andrebellion on the right and on the left -- that is to say, amongthose who possess power and wealth, and among those who donot.Though these two movements wage a desperate class struggle, theyare, with reference to the great industrial revolution of themodern age, two forms of reaction and counter-revolution. For, inthe last analysis, these two collectivist movements are efforts toresist, by various kinds of coercion, the consequences of theincreasing division of labor.

The misbegotten secular religions of totalitarianism won theirdevoted and ruthless followings by offering an escape from thestresses of modernity -- specifically, from the agoraphobic panicthat liberal open-endedness roused. They aspired to "re-enchant"the world with grand dreams of class or racial destiny -- dreamsthat integrated their adherents into communities of true believers,and elevated them from lost souls to agents of great and inexorableforces. With their insidiously appealing lies, the false faiths ofcommunism and fascism launched their mad rebellion against theliberal rigors of questioning and self-doubt -- and so againsttolerance and pluralism and peaceable persuasion. They inflictedupon a century their awful, evil perversion of modernity: theinstrumentalities of mass production and mass prosperity twistedinto engines of mass destruction and mass murder.

The liberal revolution survived the reactionary challenge.Fascism was put to rout, at horrible cost, in the great struggle ofWorld War II; Communism was contained and waited out until itimploded, just a decade ago. And coincident with Communism's demisehas come a global rediscovery of liberal ideas and institutions.Free markets and democracy have registered impressive gains aroundthe world. However, the dead hand of the collectivist past stillexerts a powerful influence: The inertia of old mindsets and vestedinterests blocks progress at every turn, and so our new era ofglobalization is a messy and sometimes volatile one. But it is anera of hope, and of possibility.

As the horrible events of September 11 made clear, we are notyet finished with the totalitarian threat. In the tragic, brokensocieties of the Islamic world -- where free markets have gainedlittle foothold, and democracy even less -- radical hostility tomodernity still festers on a large scale. And it has given rise toa distinctive form of totalitarianism: one that uses a pervertedform of religious faith, rather than any purely secular ideology,as its reactionary mythos. For the past quarter-century, radicalIslamist fundamentalism has roiled the nations in which it arose.Now it has reached out to wage a direct, frontal assault on itsantithesis -- its "Great Satan": the United States.

Despite the trappings of religious fervor, Islamisttotalitarianism is strikingly similar to its defunct, secularcousins. It is an expression, not of spirituality, but of anomie:in particular, a seething resentment of Western prosperity andstrength. Consider the origins of the Muslim Brotherhood. Foundedin 1928 to resist the British presence in Egypt, the Brotherhoodwas the original radical Islamist terror network. As detailed inDavid Pryce-Jones' powerful The Closed Circle, the official accountof its formation records this statement at the group's initialmeeting: "We know not the practical way to reach the glory of Islamand serve the welfare of Muslims. We are weary of this life ofhumiliation and restriction. Lo, we see that the Arabs and theMuslims have no status and dignity."

And -- just like its Communist and fascist predecessors --Islamist totalitarianism seeks redemption through politics. It isanimated by the pursuit of temporal power: the destruction of the"decadent" (i.e., liberal) West and creation of a pan-Islamicutopian state featuring unrestrained centralization of authority.Whether the utopian blueprint calls for mullahs, commissars, orGauleiters to wield absolute power is of secondary importance: Itis the utopian idea itself -- the millennial fantasy of atotalitarian state -- that unites all the radical movements of theIndustrial Counterrevolution.

The point bears emphasis. Radical Islamist fundamentalism notdoes content itself with mere rejection of the West's allegedvices. If that were all there was to it, its program might besimply to stage a retreat from modernity's wickedness -- to do, inother words, what the Amish have done. But Islamisttotalitarianism, though it claims otherworldly inspiration, isobsessed with worldly power and influence. It does not merelyreject the West; it wants to beat the West at its own game ofworldly success. Osama bin Laden is constantly claiming that theUnited States is weak and can be defeated; he and his colleagueslust for power and believe they can attain it. And so, although itattempts to appropriate a particular religious tradition, Islamisttotalitarianism is not, at bottom, a religious movement. It is apolitical movement -- a quest for political power.

Indeed, Islamist fundamentalism shares with other totalitarianmovements a commitment to centralization not just of politicalpower, but of economic control as well. Consider Iran, where thefirst and greatest victory for Islamist totalitarianism was won. AsShaul Bakhash describes in his Reign of the Ayatollahs:

[T]he government took over large sectors of the economy throughnationalization and expropriation, including banking, insurance,major industry, large-scale agriculture and construction, and animportant part of foreign trade. It also involved itself in thedomestic distribution of goods. As a result, the economic role ofthe state was greatly swollen and that of the private sectorgreatly diminished by the revolution.

Today, the sectaries of radical Islamism continue to upholdvarious collectivist strains of "Islamic economics" -- trumpeted asrighteous alternatives to the secular and individualist corruptionof "Eurocentric" globalization.

Before the September 11 attacks, it appeared that Islamisttotalitarianism was a movement in decline. In the decades since theIranian revolution, formidable Islamist opposition movements havebuilt up around the Islamic world, but totalitarian regimes havecome to power only in the Sudan and Afghanistan -- backwaters evenby regional standards. Elsewhere, insurgencies have been crushed(in Syria) or at least brutally repressed (in Algeria, Egypt, andChechnya). In Iran, revolutionary fervor steadily gave way todisillusionment and cynicism; the reformist government of MohammedKhatami has moved gingerly toward a more moderate course.

In the wake of September 11, it is unclear whether the U.S.military response will precipitate a new wave of radicalization inthe Islamic world -- one which might topple existing regimes andbring totalitarians to power. It is unclear whether terrorists willbe able to outmaneuver the escalation of security and intelligenceactivity now underway, and bring off further successful attacks inthe United States or elsewhere. It is, in short, unclear whatfurther horrors must be endured, at home and around the world,because of Islamist totalitarianism.

But this much is clear: The United States is now at war with thetotalitarians of radical Islamism. And in prior conflicts with thetotalitarian impulse of the Industrial Counterrevolution, theUnited States has been undefeated. Americans triumphed first overfascism, then over Communism -- movements with ideologies ofpotentially global appeal, and with political bases in militarilyformidable great powers. Americans will rise again to this latestchallenge. Unlike its predecessors, radical Islamism speaks only tothe disaffected minority of a particular region, and none of thegovernments of that region holds any hope of prevailing against theresolute exercise of U.S. power. However long the present war mustlast, and however costly it must be, the final outcome cannot bedoubted: interment of Islamist totalitarianism in what PresidentBush so stirringly referred to as "history's unmarked grave ofdiscarded lies."