Friday, February 25, 2011

Hitler, totalitarianism, and the need for community building in tough times

Something that usually gets missed in popular accounts of Hitler is the transformation that being in the army brought him. The aimless racist and anti-semite suddenly found order and structure in military discipline, was impressed by it, and joined other either formerly or now aimless people after the war for whom the experience of total mobilization was remembered fondly as a time when everything made sense. They formed paramilitaries, terrorized the country, fought with the Communists for power, and eventually won. People going through hard times, in this case Germany both in the Depression and in the years of austerity brought on by the Treaty of Versailles, where everything is seeming to collapse, are vulnerable to calls by groups promising to give a structure of order and stability to society.

Church, family, military, party, all can be used to push totalitarian alternatives, and people in general can want that very totalitarianism because they believe it will at least make life better or more comprehensible. The challenge, or a challenge, for progressives is how to provide structure and community in people's lives during times of hardship and stress so that they don't turn towards authoritarian and totalitarian parties and groups to find answers to their problems.

I think that the connective tissue of life, human relationships, mutual aid, and help, are torn down by economic dislocation and encouraged by industrial alienation, the alienation of a society constructed in its outward and inward form by the profit motive and designed to serve individual consumers in their individual spheres....suburbs, strip malls....big box stores. All of this, the "bowling alone" of American life, can encourage a turn towards the totalistic, towards people willing to provide an overarching and all encompassing meaning to society, that goes beyond just partial explanation and becomes an ideological force unto itself.

If people create or re-create community and mutual aid, get to know their neighbors, break down the alienation and the hardship that exists both individually and collectively, the appeal of totalistic solutions to problems can be defused.

Such defusing does not imply a centrist, non partisan, doctrine necessarily. All it implies is that whatever version or story is presented does not represent itself as "the" solution, as "the" savior to everyone's problems, in the way that the Communist movement in the first half of the 20th century often proclaimed itself. You want to know the truth? We have a manual of "Marxism-Leninism" to give you that will explain it all. That's not how it works, even if you're a Marxist, and sometimes even if you're sympathetic to parts of the Bolshevik program...

The best advertisement the Left can give for itself is to help people without giving them a hard sell about doctrine, and not having the beliefs that are held, even if they're held dearly, be regarded as immutable doctrine that's been sent down from on high.

*on edit: ignoring political partisanship in the sake of being anti-totalitarian would ignore factors that lead to economic crisis, which progressive folks generally think is because of capitalism itself.

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