Roger’s Rules

Mass man and totalitarianism: or, déjà vu all over again

What year is it? A friend suggested that, politically, it was round about 1936. The signs are all there, the writing is on the wall, but we seem too distracted from distraction by distraction (as T.S. Eliot put it in Four Quartets) to heed the warnings.

A few do. In his latest column, “Strategic Intention and Mass Man,” J. R. Nyquist, has a thoughtful and deeply troubling piece on the culpable weakness of the masses and the resurgence of Soviet-style aggression by Russia under Putin (forget the recent election: Russia is still ruled by Vladimir Putin). The tenor of the piece is already clear from its epigraph:

“I looked into Putin’s eyes, and I saw three things, a ‘K’ a ‘G’ and a ‘B,’”
– John McCain

Mr. Nyquist draws some revealing and admonitory parallels between the mass men of the past, who proved such pliable fodder for the totalitarian ambitions of the twentieth century, and the mass men of today, that “susceptible” creature who “is fundamentally ignorant, though remarkably “well informed.” Mass man’s inertia accepts the dictates of bureaucracy. He has no “great idea” or “faith” to guard him against expedient compromise, or participation in genocide.”

The decadence of culture is part of the story. “Once upon a time,” Nyquist writes,

we had a civilization. We had standards. We had notions of objectivity. We had a culture that wasn’t low-minded. We looked back to great men as we looked forward to our posterity. Art was beautiful and meaningful. Politics was evolving away from tyranny. Economics was about liberty and responsibility. What do we have today? We have Britney Spears and Jerry Springer. Our standards are seriously eroded. Subjectivity has cynically declared that objectivity is impossible. Everything high-minded has fallen to neglect.

But more important, and even more disastrous, the emergence of “mass man” has something to do with the emergence of totalitarianism (which claimed roughly 100 million lives in the last century). And it is safe to say that totalitarianism is going to claim even more lives in the future. But people don’t want to wake up. They don’t want to acknowledge that totalitarianism is something real and ongoing. It grows in the soil of mass culture. It leads to destruction and mass murder because every totalitarian construct is based on lies, sustained by crime and driven by the politicization of personal disappointment and envy. It is normal history when one country invades another, when a cavalry commander or Indian chief commits an atrocity. Men have done terrible things to one another throughout history. But to make terror and murder into a system signifies a new type of regime.

The mass man fails to see the evils of totalitarianism; he fails to see the tendency of Mr. Hitler; he fails to see the letters “K-G-B” behind Putin; he denies the Holocaust; he doesn’t care if Iran deploys nuclear missiles; he doesn’t think Russia or China will ever start a global war. The philistinism of the mass man is found in his readiness to believe totalitarian propaganda. Such is a propaganda that blames the intended victim.

What year is yet? I said 1936. That was a moment when decisive action might still have made a difference. Do we have the wit and character to act today? I wonder. I wonder, too, if I didn’t mistake the year: perhaps it is closer to 1938.