TCS Daily

Why Perfect Totalitarianism Is Impossible

By Alvaro Vargas Llosa - March 28, 2007 12:00 AM

As I was watching "The Lives of Others,'' Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's masterful Oscar-winning film, I couldn't help thinking how many Cubans, North Koreans, Iranians or Zimbabweans must have been performing little bits of moral heroism in the face of oppression at that very moment. Even their fellow countrymen will never know how many acts of defiance are being perpetrated today by ordinary people against totalitarian regimes -- ensuring that the human spirit continues to exist when everything seems bent on crushing it.

The German film focuses on Gerd Wiesler, a captain in the Stasi, East Germany's feared secret police, five years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He is ordered to spy on a playwright and his actress girlfriend simply because the minister in charge of culture lusts for the lady and needs an excuse to put the writer away in order to clear the path. Through a tantalizing series of small twists and turns in which what is not said is more important than what is, the plot leads us toward the moral awakening of Wiesler. As he records the details of the playwright's and his girlfriend's lives, the gray, obedient bureaucrat discovers in himself a humane depth to which nothing in his ideological rigidity or in the chilling machinery he efficiently serves seemed to predispose him. This moral awakening is intimate and unassuming, and it leads Wiesler to an act of quiet heroism that will save his intended victim from the fate that the minister wishes for him without leaving traces or claiming credit for his actions later on.

What "The Lives of Others'' reminds us of -- and the reason it is such a timeless work of art -- is that man is capable of totalitarianism, but not perfect totalitarianism. Even when all the pegs are in place, something will alter the clockwork mechanism of the regime. That ``something'' is human nature, pure and simple. Nobody in the film is a perfect totalitarian in the sense that no one -- not the bosses, not the servants, not the victims -- acts in the way that the logic of the system dictates they should act in any given circumstance. There will be moments of weakness in the least humane of despots and moments of fortitude in the most hopeless victims that will shatter the perfect order of the totalitarian system.

The minister who uses the power of the Stasi to satisfy his libido rather than to preserve the German Democratic Republic's ideological purity, and who blacklists a theater director for reasons that have little to do with cultural orthodoxy, ensures that the system is less than perfect: His actions have consequences that in small ways subvert the order he is supposed to preserve by triggering the gradual disobedience of a subordinate, the moral awakening of an artist who has shown no prior penchant for rebellion, or the self-doubt of a woman torn between her career and her heart. Emotions, intuitions, and free expressions of will begin to erode the edifice of oppression in the most unpredictable circumstances.

Those cracks that open up in the system seem insignificant when they occur, but we now know what East Germans did not know in 1984: that five years later the Berlin Wall would crumble to bits. A few weeks ago, Cuban poet Cesar Lopez, a darling of the Castro regime, used the podium at an international book fair on the island to acknowledge a long list of Cuban writers who have been banned for years. He did not attack the government; he simply read aloud the blacklisted names with a tone of recognition.

The lesson of our time, a decade and a half after the fall of communism in Europe, is that the slow, almost geological, accumulation of little bits of heroism throughout society can bring down a totalitarian giant over time. These acts of heroism, both inside and outside the structure of power, constitute the best hope for countries in which governments continue to enslave millions of people today.

But even if these acts of silent heroism are not enough to cause all despots to come tumbling down, they are at least enough to keep the human spirit alive. That is a comforting thought.



human spirt
Good article about how the human spirit for freedom keeps going in spite of predators trying to stiffle it, almost everywhere, most of the time. I like the example of the Stasi guy who abused his power to 'get the girl'. You all will remember that Napoleon did the same thing after he conquered Egypt; sent away one officer so he could boom-boom the guys wife. It's a great example of 'Public Choice' theory, with its insight that politicians, beaurocarats and other people with the power of the state are not just well wishing public servants for the good of all, etc. but just another self-serving, specicial interests group that momentarily has the corrupt power of the governmet to preserve it. This is why libertarins say the there should be less power in the hands of the state; to avoid chances of such corruptionj.

Perfect Totalitarianism
I read your argument that every totalitarian state contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and I have a momentary sense of hope for those dark corners of the world still suffering under tyrants. Then I think of North Korea and Iran and I dispair.

Tyranny: The Good and The Ugly
"...hope for countries in which governments continue to enslave millions of people today."

Tyranny is endemic in the fundemental units of societies...including the family, the church, the corporation and the police department. Top down structure has many drawbacks, but generally works well in relationships such as parent-child or manager-employee. Since the basic organizational units of society preceded formal government entities, it is not surprising that what seemed to work on the micro level was assumed to work just as well on the government level. The result is the 5,000 year legacy of Kings and Tyrannants...war, slavery, suppressed economic advancement and less than optimal intellectual development. Tyranny has retarded the advancement of the human race.

What works well in a family or corporate environment is on-balance dysfunctional for a government entity. Excessive concentration of power has, and probably always will, end badly. The exclusive power necessary for effective central government is optimally effective only when it is dispersed. The US founding fathers understood this and attempted to craft a constitutional government accordingly. The US "experiment" catalyzed a world wide trend away from tyranny and towards individual liberty and decentralized government.

But it is almost as if tyranny is encoded in our genes. Many are apparently willing to ignore the painfull lessons of history and to trade their liberty and their dignity for a "pocketfull of promises" called security. There may never be a shortage of individuals or groups who know what is "BEST" for others. These annoited must be eternally prevented from acquiring the power they covet, cannot control and will wield to the destruction of others.

Keeping the power junkies safely separated from the throne room is the only thing that keeps us all from the slavemasters yoke.

One man said no and all of Rome trembled.
I often think of Spartacus. He came so very close to defeating Rome but in the end, he lost.

Mao stated; "all political power emenates from the barrel of a gun".

I agree that they tyrannies sow their own defeat but how many decades or centuries can they endure?

Odd isn't it that the US is moving towards a leftist all powerful state, willingly I might add, and China is slowly moving the other way?

I have never understod why Americans of late so willingly give up their freedoms. Each minute lawmakers are chipping away at our freedoms.

Paper or plastic in SF?

The harder you squeeze a handfull of sand, the more it leaks through your fingers.

Good Post
It struck me whilst reading this article that the citizens of Cuba would find little solace in author's conclusions.
In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson pointed out that evils are sufferable, unfortunately there is still plenty of suffering to go around.
So I'm not as confident as the author that totalitarianism won't work. It does work in the short term and in the long term we are all dead.
There were plenty of acts of defiance every day in the old Soviet Union but it still lasted for decades.

I too am shocked but Americans willingness to give up their birth rights for a "free" bowl of government soup. Have you ever heard anyone in the media describing a problem (a thinly veiled call for a govenerment solution) or a government program to solve this or that problem postulating about any of the unintended consequences of said solution/program?

An interesting corner of history, hardly known even to historians, is that in medieval Romania there was a democratic movement that, like Spartacus, for a moment stood a chance of winning an establishing a government maybe five centuries before the American colonies broke with England.

They were just ordinary, untutored village folk. But the barons were so oppressive they got together and said we can do better than that. Why don't we just kill the barons, and then decide how we want to govern ourselves by popular acclaim. It was a very original idea for those days.

Well, the barons got wind of the plan. And remember, they had a lot more depth of experience being bad than the peasant yeomanry had being good. So before the revolution got very far along, all the principals in the plot found themselves being grilled alive, over slow fires.

Things got a lot worse in Romania as a result. They've had a sad and terrible history since.

A penny for your thoughts. George Bush is moving us toward a leftist all powerful state? That's excellent news! When did he start that?

Bush and conservatives are not stopping or slowing socialist trends.
The forces pushing socialism are far and wide.

Roy, you are doing your share to push.

Convergent evolution...
Certainly all political power does originate at the point of a sword. The Sovereign was born of bloodshed and military imperialism. In that financial capitalism replaces military economics in the Post Industrial Society there may be alternatives to totalitarian political control of private citizens.

The United States government continues to tighten its fist around our civilian population and to intrude deeper into our personal affairs (with promises that their social programs are better, faster and cheaper than we might do for ourselves). Meanwhile the government of China is backing off their "leave everything to the State" brand of socialism and evolving toward the American style of economic self-determination. In the past and without a robust GDP of their own the Chinese could do little to live up to the Communist promise of Utopia. They were compelled to change.

Both paradigms are evolving toward a similar balance of financial economics, broad based entitlements and total government control of society. However, if there was a alternative (small government) capitalistic model that created wealth competitively but that did not need to tax its GDP excessively to maintain an intrusive bureaucracy then citizens might be able to provide state-of-the-art social services for themselves without carrying all the overhead of large government.

As for the human spirit resisting totalitarianism...criminals in prison manage to free their own spirits enough to rebel.

William Wallace
I don't know how much of Braveheart is fiction, but I cannot watch the movie anymore because of how he was betrayed by the 'nobles'.

Fortunately the Scots have persevered and continue to contribute to the liberty of the world.

The perfect totalitarians
In Martin Amis' sometimes-striking "Koba the Dread," there is a short section on finding the purest Soviet citizens, those who embodied the Soviet ethos better than anyone else did. He found it in the dokhodyaga, the concentration camp prisoner who would eat anything at all, including, and most especially, the garbage that had been discarded by the other prisoners. Even beatings by the guards could not keep them from the trash. They came closest to being the ultimate totalitarians.

Bush is no conservative.
Regardless of Bush, even Reagan the left is relentless. Look at SF now. They ban plastic bags, light bulbs are mandated. We live in the era of the nanny state. Ever whim is coddle by the state but at a price. The price? Freedom.

Health care, retirement, all shared thru the collectivist ideal of equality of misery. Each according to his means?

Those who would achieve greatness outside the state are to be punished and condemned. Those who are successful won life's lottery right? Fair that those who risk all and spend 16 hours a day 7 days a week and profit more than someone who works 5/8? At what price security? Why are people so weak today?

Will Atlas shrugg?

They became the perfect subjects. To grovel for existance is to empower kings.

The left desires such power. Nancy and company want us to grovel for existance.

I say no, never. Better dead than red and I serve no man lest he become my master.

I accept the responsibility of Freedom, why do so few?

I relish the right to fail and succeed. Are we the nation we were or are we a nation of sheep?

The sheep go marching on.
I suspect even China has less control than we think. Ever aspect of our lives now are goverened by some useless person. Ever facet of our lives under scrutiny. It is appaling. This nation, once so great in Freedom, is now the ultimate nanny state.

The left would sell their souls to satan for power and power they have.

news flash for Roy
The move to a leftist totalitariansim started before Bush. He did not put in all the left wing journalists, nor all those majority of left wing professors, nor all the mostly left wing teachers in the government propaganda schools. Bush is only one more little actor in a long term trend. Remeber too how Reagan said he wanted to get rid of the dept of education, and even he couldn't pull it off? Also, even in the UK Margaret Thatcher couldn't dismantle the socialist welfare nanny state as she wanted to. It's the trend in all western countries to go more to left wing
big government. And weak, lazy, decadent people succumb to the temptations of bread and circuses and not having to look after yourself, but return to the womb of the comfortable nanny state.

Imperfect Totalitarianism, Bad and Common - The New Economic Feudalism
Perhaps perfect totalitarianism is impossible and small acts of rebellion are cause for joy, but it seems tyants have learned a new method: ballots, not bullets. The firecion of government is administrative sclerosis administered by small armies of carefully divided bureacrats, whose small fiefdom is too small in scale and constrained in scope to ignite the pitchfork rebellion. No longer are the implements of tyranny the crude tools of imprisonment and execution, but taxes, subsidies and ponderous tomes of impenetrable regulation.

Western governments have been engaging in economic interruptions in increasing scale and scope for decades.
It is difficult to see where this inteference has produced improvements in markets with substantial imperfections. The interference in healthcare gave us escalating costs, which is met for calls for, more interference. Ditto for education, agriculture, etc.

What has been produced are cohesive constituencies that live in fear of losing a conspicuous or seemingly indispensible "benefit". The elderly (once prevented from being employed, to better keep them attentive to the master's wishes) are whipped into a frenzy by politicians who assure them their opponent will reduce or eliminate their monthly check. Ditto for college students, who are reminded that their life will be miserable unless they get a four-year degree, so they eagerly mortgage themselves and their parents to obtain a degree, in order to insulate the academy from anyting like competion. Naturally both ends will sell their vote to the highest bidder.

Of course the politicians get to sell their protection from the barbaric forces of life with somebody else's money-in many cases selling protection paid for by the protectees. Protecting scared peasants was the social mechanism that gave rise to feudal lords-but in this case the lord relies not on outside hordes, but their own manipulations to exact taxes from the masses for "protection".

The nature of the world is that there will always be a few people who are vested with ability and ambition. The tools of dominance may be different, but the results are the same, unless the politicians are kept in check by an informed and vigilant public. Unfortunately as we can see from the usual cadre of "fellow traveller" TCS posters-there will always be a group eager to believe the piper.

Maybe you could move to Switzerland
One thing about your philosophy that doesn't recommend it is that you have made yourself miserable over a city banning plastic grocery bags. Really, is that the worst thing happening in the world now?

I'll tell you something much worse. Back in the 1960s, when I was there, they even banned the feeding of pigeons.

Despicable, these... these... liberals!!

Just terrible
So where are you living now? Someplace where these things directly affect you?

City dwellers. I live in fly over country. Folly is inconsequential to me.

No, not the worst thing. It is losing freedoms one microscopic thing at a time. It is the principal. By itself is is meaningless. However, the rate at which these stupid laws are passed increases exponentially.

At what point does my day begin with the state?

What to do, where to do it. What to drive, how many kids, my health care.

At what point do we wake up and say enough?

Or are we sheep?

Yes, the left is dispicable. I read leftist blogs hailing Tony Snow, the press secratary, having likely terminal cancer.

I never wish harm upon people I disagree with.

The left claims the mantle of compassion. They are in fact are the arbitrators of hatred.

Paper is bad, trees. Plastic is bad, petrolium. Cloth is bad, cotton (requires fertilizer). Incandescent waste energy, CF bulbs have mercury. Fires cause cancer.

One solution? We are doomed, there is no solution. We are doomed.

Hail Ceasar!

I live in asia where I've been in retirment for some years. And all that stuff affects me only indirectly since I'm freer here. But it's a shame to see western countries go downhill since I am a western man. Especially the States, the best experiment in history, giving up the ghost to go collectivist. Asia is getting freer though, especially starting with economics. You can invest here with no capitol gains taxes and no dividend taxes too, even guys who still work as expats, pay way less in income taxes too, same with business taxes. People around here just laugh at the States saying it's like an old washed lady after menopause and struggling aginst being an old maid. Even my brother who got to the US after the war, is thinking of moving away.

Infringing our freedoms
Let me ask you this. Do you actually experience these injustices that upset you so? Or do you just read about them on the web, and this makes you angry?

I would suggest leaving your small town for a moment and spending some time in another country, so you could see how others live their lives. You might come back with a greater appreciation for the way we do things around here.

Travel might also show you another reason for the increasing pace of regumentation in society-- it's getting more crowded. Not just in America, but everywhere on earth. People are being forced to live cheek by jowl with people they don't like. This increases friction. It also requires that more limits be placed on each individual's freedoms.

Live in a suburban community and you can't raise chickens. Someone might complain. Next (and for this to take place in North Carolina is unthinkable) our state assembly is considering a ban on all smoking in public places. The person standing next to you might cough. Shoot off your guns inside city limits and you're disturbing the peace. And so forth and so on.

You don't have to put up with it. Move to Greenland. They still have some wide open spaces there, where a man can hang his laundry naked and no one complains.

And besides, it's getting warmer all the time up there.

I call. Let's see what you're holding
"Yes, the left is dispicable. I read leftist blogs hailing Tony Snow, the press secratary, having likely terminal cancer."

I don't believe you. Show me someone who's happy about Tony Snow's metastatic cancer.

Asian freedoms
We'll miss you.

Is there a point?

I have traveled widely. Free societies don't need to ban everything just because of friction. We are now in the midst of the brat 60's generation leftovers. This spoiled generation has left us such wonderful legacies as widespread drug abuse and utter disregard for moral values and super geniuses like Nancy Pelosi. This generation that professed "freedom" and down with the establishment now is the establishment that seeks to impose omnipotent control over every aspect of our lives.

Hey, what do I know? No one told me I was supposed to accept servitude with a smile.

Apparently you have no issue with the loss of freedom and take it in stride.

Sorry, it bothers me to see the masses placated into total submission.

Making lemonade of a lemony situation
"We are now in the midst of the brat 60's generation leftovers. This spoiled generation has left us such wonderful legacies as widespread drug abuse and utter disregard for moral values and super geniuses like Nancy Pelosi."

Priceless! With the attitude you display you make the perfect Old Fart.

We are a democracy-- or despite the redefinitions imposed by the libertarians, we fancy ourselves to be a democracy. And if "the masses" decide they would like to be placated into submission? Then, that is what they'll have!

Look at this as an investment opportunity. You can stockpile huge numbers of incandescent bulbs now, while they're still available. Then when they've been outlawed, you can sell them to your fellow revolutionaries on the web.

Here is the problem:

Incandescent bulbs, 5% light, 95% heat.
Compact Florescent Mercury-BAD!
Candles, opps petroleum, nope. Combustion=evil.
Fires, nope, evil. State reminds us all the time about how smoke from fires causes cancer despite 100000000 years of man burning wood.

Guess we fumble around in the dark like beofre cave men did?

Chemolamps, nope chemicals.
LED's? High cost and plastic = petroleum.

Paper bags, trees. Nope bad to use trees for anything except to live in like that butterfly chic did. Save the forrest!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Plastic bags, ohhhhhh bad.
Cotton bags, fertilizer, bad (unless organic cotton grown with union wage illegal aliens).
Bioplastic expensive, made from corn. Opps corn is used for gas now despite all the reasons it sucks as a fuel.

Oh those poor Mexicans, I forgot about the tortilla prices.

The problem is there are no solutions becasue everyone has a beef with every possible solution and nobody has the guts to make a decision because when they do it gets thrown to the courts.

Energy? Nuclear is the only viable long term solution for electricity. Ohhhh, no not in my back yard.

We are nation paralyzed by our own fears and petty grievances.

Mercury in retrograde
Buddy, you've got some problems.

Here's what Treehugger has to say about that mercury:

"Many people, when they learn that compact fluorescent bulbs contain mercury vapor, get skeptical about the much talked-about benefits of these and assume that traditional incandescent light bulbs are less damaging to the environment despite requiring more power and having shorter lives. After all, mercury is really bad stuff, right? "A toxic metal known to cause brain, spinal cord, kidney and liver damage in humans—does not break down easily and, once airborne, often finds its way into groundwater, rivers and the sea, where it can cause a host of contamination issues for wildlife and people alike." But as often is the case, the truth can be a bit counter-intuitive.

"Ironically, compact fluorescent bulbs are responsible for less mercury contamination than the incandescent bulbs they replaced, even though incandescents don't contain any mercury. The highest source of mercury in America’s air and water results from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, at utilities that supply electricity. Since a compact fluorescent bulb uses 75 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb, and lasts at least six times longer, it is responsible for far less mercury pollution in the long run. A coal-burning power plant will emit four times more mercury to produce the electricity for an incandescent bulb than for a compact fluorescent."

So you see? We tree huggers know what's best for you, even when you don't know yourself. Even while you're sleeping we're out here, thinking up healthier ways for you to live. And all you have to do when you wake up in the morning is to go online, and read about what we've found.

Lie back and smile. It feels good. :)

The people bowed and prayed...
"Even while you're sleeping we're out here, thinking up healthier ways for you to live."

What if I don't want your help? Oh I forgot, your going to force me to do whats best.

Full circle we come? What to eat, where to live, what to drive, all decided for me by the omnipotent benevolent state in my best interest. (You made my point.)

Next, my carbon footprint will be determined by some formula that applies to the masses (but not the ruling class) and my allocation of resources determined by the state. Each according to his needs.. So I get some minimal level of square footage, a certain car to drive, based upon the states determination of my needs, not my own. I get a energy allocation. Oh yes, violations are taxed at a confiscatory rate to further empower the state to enact further controls deemed sensable by people whom while I am sleeping are out there, thinking up healthier ways for me to live.

My activities are limited hence I impact the state run health care system. Drinking, smoking, racing, skydiving, all banned or heavily taxed in the name of the healthy state.

Of course wrong thinking cannot be allowed. Global Warming groups are calling for the silencing of "deniers". The religion of the left. The debate is over, we must act now.

Shall I pontificate on the use of crisis mentality to achieve political gain? Nahh, another muse for that one.

Who are men that make Gods of themselves to rule over others?

"They came first for the communists, but I wasn't a communist."

Phase Two
...Sir, I understand you've been exhaling carbon dioxide. We're going to have to take a look at your permit.

obedient serfs
Wasn't roy telling us a couple of days ago that there couldn't have been any capitalists in China, because the govt passed a law against it?

Nice Post

Totalitarian Communist China operates with substantial local corruption and personal relationships. Their central government was so inclined to meddle that people simply avoided dealing with the state.

If Americans lose their fundamental trust in our government "of the people, by the people and for the people" then Washington will start to enjoy less control of us at a time when they are attempting to impose themselves more.

An adversarial relationship, in this regard, is entirely their choice. American citizens sincerely want to trust our political process (as money well spent). At some point cynicism turns to despair and we must move on without Big Brother.

missing me
No need to miss me, I'll still be around to mock liberals as long as I can still type. In fact, you can go to any crappy kampong shitthole place all over asia and still find an internet cafe. In fact in cities, most places have a bunch of wi-fi, wireless places, first it started in McDonalds and Starbucks and is spreading all over the place, I guess soon all hk and sinapore will be wi-max. In fact asia is usually more up to date on all that new electronic stuff and g3 etc than the States

Only one word for it...
Extortion. Nice post.

A little Orwell suffices
to show how the author(s) of this article are wrong. There is a dialog in 1984 between Winston (on the brainwashing table) and his interrogator on this very question.

What brought the East German STASI down was the uncontrolled growth of information, which is why China and other would-be totalitarian groups are turning to helpful corporations like Google and Cisco for their information management.

Orwell's answer was awesome and frighteningly brilliant: the Inner Party would simply edit the language and history to the minimum necessary to perpetuate power. By reducing language, they would make unpatriotic thought increasingly difficult, forestalling the entropy which has brought down every previous empire.

Robots will change all that.
They claim that robots that look and function like humans will be mainstream in 40 yrs. There have already been questions about robot's rights.....LOL as they will have human quality's close to ours.

The robots won't completely do away with the glitch in total human control, but will certainly add much power to the clenched fist.

As for the's almost to late. VOTE them OUT today. As tomorrow will be to late. Demand leadership rather than corruption. Demand Statesmen rather than Pimps.

It starts at the bottom and works up. Your town is divided into wards or political subdivisions. Each ward has committee people, they have a ward chairman and up.....these people control the Gov.
They are today chosen for their weaknesses rather than their strengths. No corrupt elected officials are ever elected except due to the lack of vigilance by the rank and file, or the total corruption of the masses.
Ignoring them will not work....soon you will have no right to ignore them.

Vote them out.....examine their lives....examine their friends and associates.
Determine in who's hands, you place the power to control you. Stop giving the job to idiots and weak mobsters.

That's it.
VOTE THEM OUT. If you fail you will experience the wonders of Stalin for China.....which seems to be adopting They have factory's and the people are imprisoned there. Those that rebel are shot on a daily basis. Google the daily execution list.
So let's not look forward to how we can be secretly rebellious sheep, while simple thug type humans rule our land. Today....while you can VOTE THEM OUT.

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