Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The lessons of history

Remember the creationist who nearly discovered the sun? Here we have a libertarian stumbling upon tyranny.

Via the Devil's Kitchen, this short piece by the Nameless Libertarian* on the difference between fictional dystopias and the creeping, insidisous reality offers a number of keen insights. But skip over the paragraph explaining that Pol Pot was really a victim of society and treasure instead this explanation of where Orwell, Bradbury et al. go too far:

As I’ve already mentioned, the reality of the slide towards totalitarianism is far less exciting, or obvious as it is presented in fiction. Don’t imagine that there will be terrible war before the state takes complete control; they won’t need to do that. And they are not going to utter clear statements of intent, like burning books.

I for one can't think of a single real world example of a nascent totalitarian regime using the spectacle of book-burning to advertise its intent. Nor indeed, of one which seized power in the middle of some kind of world war. Honestly, where do these hacks get their ideas?

*well, would you want your friends to know?

11 comments:

The Nameless Libertarian said...

At what point do I claim that Pol Pot was a victim of society? I simply make the point that centuries of history led to the Khymer Rouge seizing power; that doesn't excuse what they did or fail to acknowledge that Pol Pot also wanted power.

Previous regimes may have burnt books and may have seized power during wars; however, that doesn't mean that these are pre-requisites before a totalitarian regime can take power. The point is very simple; if you wait for the big, dramatic gestures as signposts of a slide towards totalitarianism, you're going to miss the little pointers; those minor erosions of freedom. Like 42 days detention.

TNL

Andrew R said...

...which we don't have.

It's one thing to be concerned about rights and liberties. A very proper and vital thing. But the rhetoric this gets wrapped up in... Actual, real-world tyrannies are easily identified. They kill people, censor ideas, substitute force for law. They burn books, whip up violence against minorities, torture dissidents.

Your government is doing precisely none of these things, and talking about it as if it is does not make you sound like a noble warrior for freedom. It makes you sound paranoid and delusional.

The Nameless Libertarian said...

Ha! I'm not claiming to be a noble warrior for freedom, thanks.

And I am not claiming that the UK government is totalitarian. What I am pointing out is that unless people stand up and fight the slow erosions of our freedom (which, as I point out in my post, often come from the best of intentions) there will be the danger of a authoritarian party exploiting the situation.

Totalitarian states aren't just born from war and cataclyms; they are also born from governments eroding freedoms and no-one knowing what has happened until it is too late.

TNL

Andrew R said...

Hmm.

China - revolution
USSR - revolution
Nazis - economic meltdown
Franco - military coup
Pol Pot - war
Iraq - coup
Iran - coup/revolution
Mugabe - civil war/coup

I am always open to correction - but it looks a lot like tyrannies are born from war and cataclysms. Do you have any counter-examples?

Tom said...

Would this be a good place to point out that you can't actually boil a frog?

Andrew R said...

I am just so thrilled that someone actually tested that. Next they'll be telling us that you can make horses drink. Although, to be fair, "agitated" horses are more damaging to lab equipment than frogs are.

John B said...

While agitated children locked in fridges are somewhere in between.

The Nameless Libertarian said...

I wouldn't agree with your defintions of how most of those regimes came into being. Yeah, it is all a question of historical debate and perspective, but your analysis of how, for example, the Stalinism regime came into being is grossly simplistic.

TNL

Andrew R said...

One word summaries tend to quite simplistic, yes. From the very beginning the Communist (not Stalinist) regime was executing dissidents or sending them to forced labour camps. There was no softly-softly approach - they had power, and they abused it from the get-go. The Nazis abolished the constitution on Day 1. This is how tyrants work.

John B said...

Yes. While Lenin was a less terrible tyrant than Stalin, he was still a mass-murderer. Odd to see a libertarian following the old hard left line of "the USSR was lovely until that bastard Stalin took over"...

The Nameless Libertarian said...

Bless you both. I am not saying that the USSR was lovely until Stalin took over. It was a brutal regime before then. And it was also a brutal regime before the Bolsheviks took over. The Tsarist regime also executed political dissidents, dontcha know. One of the people executed was actually Lenin's brother.

However, the Bolshevik regime in the initial stages was far freer than the excesses it suffered under Stalin. There was still debate, albeit stifled, and some free market principles were introduced under the New Economic Policy. The mass murder well and truly began under Stalin's absolute dictatorship, and there were opportunities - even within the restrictive Bolshevik state before Stalin became leader - to stop the slide towards totalitarianism.

Likewise, Hitler et al were no doubt gunning for absolute power from the outset. However, they only got into a position of power because the likes of Von Papen offered it to them on a plate, believing Hitler could be controlled. And even though Hitler started trying to restrict power from the first day of his regime, it was only later in his time in power that he actually accumulated the power to be a tyrant. Had he been opposed - such as after the Reichstag fire, for example, his power might have been restricted or even broken.

The totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and in Nazi Germany were not created over night, believe it or not. They represented the gradual accumulation of absolute power by authoritarian regimes. And they could have been stopped as that power was accumulated. If you look beyond the Ladybird book approach to history, you will see that these terrible regimes became brutal dictatorships over months and years, and through the erosion of freedom within those societies.

TNL