Picture credit: John Sangsorn/Getty
Artillery Row Books

Skin-walkers of the state

How absolute power lurks within liberalism

The Total State, Auron MacIntyre, Regnery Publishing, £22.57

Does voting matter where the direction that power takes is concerned? In his book on political crises and regime change, Peter Turchin reported on a study by political scientist Martin Gilens. This surveyed the years 1981-2002, and looked at whether the political preferences of the average voter had any effect on what was passed by the American Congress. Gilens found that across 1,779 policy issues where there was disagreement between the median voter and the corporate and administrative elite, the median voter had no effect on policy outcomes whatsoever. This points to the reality that elites are a fact of complex societies, have the power and the will and coordination to use that power, and that who comprises the elite and what they believe is key to seeing how and why a society evolves and acts as it does. 

Auron MacIntyre, in The Total State: How Liberal Democracies Become Tyrannies, has provided a compelling and convincing argument for who America’s current elite are, how they came to power, what they believe, and why they have turned American democracy into a form of “soft totalitarianism” that wears liberal democracy as a “skin suit” to maintain and expand their power. 

The total state that is enclosing the U.S. is one that has its roots in a particularly American context, but from which we in Britain can draw our own lessons for our own state Leviathan. What some on the British right have called “the Blob” is really the British vassal state’s own version of the total state of American empire, constructed in service of entrenching and expanding the power of the imperial metropole. The framework MacIntyre provides can be used in reckoning with our own situation.

MacIntyre’s talent for cutting padding without losing depth on Twitter is also on full display in this book. It comes in at just over 170 pages of eloquently expressed political theory written in clear, unadorned prose. Despite references to contemporary events that serve to underline the deeper arguments he makes, MacIntyre’s writing will stand the test of time because it serves as a historical document of how he sees America arriving where it is today. 

And where is that? MacIntyre employs a variety of political theorists to illustrate his thesis. All of the thinkers referenced are in some way connected to the elite school of political theory, all of which descend from the realist school of political philosophy founded by Machiavelli. These include Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto and Robert Michels, as well as Joseph de Maistre, Carl Schmitt, Bertrand de Jouvenal, James Burnham, Samuel T. Francis, Alasdair MacIntyre, Paul Gottfried, and Curtis Yarvin. Yarvin, under his pseudonym Mencius Moldbug, has been the gateway for many to the other thinkers here. 

MacIntyre’s central question that he found an answer to in these thinkers was: “If we have been told all our lives that we live in an age of unprecedented liberty protected by constitutional limits on government and individual rights but find a government that is ever-expanding, extending its tentacles into areas previously never thought imaginable, then we must be willing to concede that we were sold a falsehood.” This book and these thinkers constitute MacIntyre’s effort to shape this apocalyptic insight — in the literal sense of an unveiling — engendered by the events during the Covid pandemic and the fever dream of the summer of 2020 into an explanatory framework.

Carl Schmitt originally coined “the total state”, but MacIntyre quotes Yarvin as to what living in the total state actually entails: “In a total state, everyone and everything is infused with power. Everyone matters. Everything is important. Everyone has to care. Everyone wants to change the world. Everyone must be engaged. Everyone is pushing power forward, or pushing back against it. Everyone is either a collaborator or a dissident. Power has turned the whole country into a political cult.” 

The total state comprises enmeshed entities networked together through and beyond electorally affected political institutions. Political bodies commingle with the administrative state, mass media, Big Tech, the school and university system, and the corporate oligarchy. Michael Lind, influenced by some of the same intellectual figures, has called this the overclass. Joel Kotkin differentiates between the political/corporate order and those in the cultural class who legitimate this order, who he calls the Clerisy. According to MacIntyre, by making a “nameless, faceless, ever-shifting process the agent of totalitarian oppression,” “rulers can obfuscate the source of power and how it is actually applied.”

In MacIntyre’s telling, this state of affairs has both long and short-term causes. Short term, the rise of the digital realm has given states access to surveillance powers over their populations that Stalin could only imagine. The interplay between the social media companies and America’s administrative state was seen in the Twitter and Facebook files, whereby security and law enforcement agencies employed social media as their private censorship apparatus, enabled by the revolving door between the worlds of corporate and political administrative governance. 

Longer term, the total state grew out of a material and political revolution that stretches back to the early 20th century, when a “revolution in mass and scale” enabled the growth of mass economies, societies, culture, and politics. This increase in mass and scale inevitably led to a surge in economic and social complexity, requiring a new political order to coordinate and manage it. In the economic sphere, this led to what Burnham called a “separation of ownership and control” between the big bourgeoisie who had created the new corporate order and the managers they created to control their creations. Before long the managers gained control and effective ownership of corporations. 

The same process occurred in the structures of government, where political bureaucrats gradually gained increasing control from elected representatives in the legislature and accrued power and sovereignty. This process began after WW1, was embedded by the Great Depression, and was hugely expanded and entrenched by WW2 and the postwar order. The managerial revolution saw a rationalisation of distinct political and economic orders under its own ambit; the progressive atomisation of thicker communities and regional cultures; and homogenisation of the resultant mass of individuals into a pliable means for its own entrenchment and expansion. 

Referencing Scmitt’s writing regarding liberalism’s denial of the inherently theological nature of politics, MacIntyre argues that the managerial state held out the promise of using liberalism to remove the “friend/enemy” distinction and thus the agonistic, conflictual nature of politics. Any metaphysical questions that shape the lives of a people would be removed in favour of government in service to predictability and efficiency. 

Therefore, as MacIntyre writes, “The state must actively seek to shape the private and public lives of its citizens in order to homogenize influences that could introduce variance and instability.” Bertrand de Jouvenal saw the dissolution of competing social and cultural spheres to increase predictability and ease of administration was central: “The diminution or disappearance of [the individual’s] obligations to a social authority may affect his life and stir his interest more than the aggravation of his obligations to the political authority.” As MacIntyre puts it, “by dissolving the bonds and obligations of family, tribe, and religion the ruler can make his subjects entirely loyal to and dependent on the state.” 

This points to the role elites play, as this revolution in our political, economic and social order wasn’t brought about by majoritarian democracy. For sociologist James Davison Hunter, “The key actor in history is not individual genius but rather a network of associations and the new institutions that are created out of those networks. And the ‘denser’ the network — that is, the more active and interactive the network—the more influential it becomes. This is where the stuff of culture and cultural change is produced.” 

The kind of cultural revolution that MacIntyre analyses comes from above because, as Hunter argues, “the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life. Even where the impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites.” There is no grand conspiracy where the total state is concerned. This is how society has always been structured, and how it changes. 

The managerial revolution brought to prominence what MacIntyre calls an elite of foxes over one of lions. The framework is supplied by Pareto, but MacIntyre uses Machiavelli’s terms for clarity. Lions are courageous and patriotic, members of the martial class, and invested in fighting to maintain a traditional order. They deal in the concrete. Foxes are cunning, deft, and devious. They excel at the manipulation of ideas and thrive in disaggregating and recombining. They deal in the abstract. They are the symbolic analysts who have thrived in the post-Cold War world of data and dematerialisation. 

So, do ideas have consequences? Francis thought that the ideas that the elite espoused were purely employed for cynical gain, as a fig-leaf for their own interests. Contrary to this, MacIntyre agrees with paleoconservative philosopher Paul Gottfried that ideas are a motivating factor in human existence, and matter to those in power. While some will indeed use various ideologies for personal gain, most do in fact believe what they espouse. We are not completely amoral, rational beings but are driven by desires and ideals even if we fail to attain them or honour them only in the breach. We cannot remove the political from politics, and theology returns through the back door. 

MacIntyre diagnoses what I call the woke New Moral Order as a kind of “atheistic theocracy” from which those in the ruling class and their cultural enforcers gain meaning and purpose, a cause to work for and a goal to aim at. This New Moral Order centres on what Eric Kaufmann describes as “the sacralization of historically disadvantaged race, gender and sexual identity groups.” Race sits at the pinnacle, with sex and gender comprising the lower sections of the pyramid. This ideology is expressed in therapeutic terms of harm and safety, those who transgress its moral boundaries pathologized as morally sick, suffering from irrational hatreds and bigotries. 

As MacIntyre writes, none of this is surprising. Here he relies on the work of Gaetano Mosca, who wrote that every ruling class needs a “political formula” to justify its rule in its own eyes and in the eyes of the populace. As Mosca wrote in The Ruling Class, “Ruling classes do not justify their power exclusively by de facto possession of it, but try to find a moral and legal basis for it, representing it as the logical and necessary consequence of doctrines and beliefs that are generally recognized and accepted.” 

The interplay of material and moral factors described here drives a change in the character of a people. MacIntyre relies on de Maistre’s arguments concerning the reality of constitutions. For de Maistre, any written constitution was an imperfect expression of the constitution written on the soul of a people: its way of life, embodied by traditions, folkways, norms and mores that give texture and meaning to our collective existence. Once this is codified on paper it serves to freeze such a living thing in aspic and fails as a prevention against the malign results of the descent of a people’s moral state. As MacIntyre writes, conventional American conservatives who rely on the written American constitution as a guard against total state tyranny have been repeatedly bewildered that it has failed to do so. They miss the fact that while the paper remains, the people have changed. The de-moralisation of American life combined with the deracination of mass immigration comes together in the depersonalisation of the populace by the total state.

It should be obvious therefore that ideas do have consequences. But some ideas are more consequential than others in shaping the lifeworld of a people. Those with power have the ability to implement and enforce their beliefs through their control of the institutions and networks that make up the political and corporate ruling class. In MacIntyre’s view, it is delusional to try and gain control of the total state for right-wing ends. It will inevitably fulfil each of Robert Conquest’s Three Laws. Cthulhu always swims left, as the nature, structure, and end-point of the total state favours foxes over lions, and therefore the left over the right.

Indeed, the managerial state’s drive to fulfil its moral vision is actually the main reason why it will fail, according to MacIntyre. The need to impose the New Moral Order’s worldview on more and more of not only the American population, but also on the world at large is pushing the total state towards crack-up. The global supply chains, global infrastructure, interconnected trade, and interlinked economies that comprise the managerial order underwritten by American power have been put under unprecedented strain. 

we plant trees that will shade our descendants, the meaning of our lives continuing past our deaths in the children we bear and the culture we build

MacIntyre writes that “A wise ruling class will strike a balance between protecting its own power and allowing for the circulation of new elites.” America currently has the opposite of this. The need to enforce a kind of moral and cultural imperialism alongside the total state’s continuing drive to expand the revolution in mass and scale worldwide has led America to dump prudent foreign policy in the bin, set fire to its record for economic stability and probity, and jettison its reputation as a force for stability. 

All empires fall, America is not eternal, and at some point will be much diminished. This is something to reckon with for America’s people, something for us in the imperial periphery to fear, and a fact we must all come to terms with as we move into the future. Here MacIntyre sounds a hopeful note, one rooted in commitment to faith, family, community, and ultimately the continuation of a people. 

This, after all, is what a conservative politics is at its most fundamental. As he writes, we plant trees that will shade our descendants, the meaning of our lives continuing past our deaths in the children we bear and the culture we build. This rebinding of our lives into the tapestry of time revitalises Edmund Burke’s contract between the living, the dead, and the unborn. Our lives echo on in theirs, as our ancestors’ legacy lives on in the words we speak, the songs we sing, and the buildings in which we dwell. The total state seeks to dissolve and erase that which makes life meaningful and gives us a reason to live. MacIntyre shows that far from a time of despair, it is a time to restore the traditions and folkways that enable us to build a life in common. It is therefore a time to hope.

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