Are Liberal Democracies Turning Totalitarian? - First Approximations to State Power and the Introduction of Biopolitics.
Opening our eyes is not easy. Some centuries ago, the Bible spoke about the relationship between pain and knowledge, "For in much wisdom is much grief” (Ecclesiastes 1:18). So did Cioran, "Why haven't you made an eternal fool out of me under your moronic vaults, my God?" (The Twilight of Thought, 1940). It is a solid truth, like the stones that constitute cathedrals, that it’s much more comfortable to avert reason into the dark, denying the reality that surrounds us, rejecting lucidity, and believing naively that the world is surpassing itself, than confronting the truth. But the key to happiness, ignorance —as the Bible and Cioran said—, is no longer the simple method that facilitates life. Ignorance, today, more than ever, means complicity.
Liberal democracy, considered an absolute truth after the Second World War, is showing, day by day, the hidden attitude constitutive of its own being. There are many identifiable features that liberal democracy has in common —understood today as the guarantee of political and cultural plurality and respect for human rights— with totalitarianism itself, which, at least in theory, it has sought to defeat.
Although it isn’t known, extensive literature has been published on the subject. The purpose of this paper is nothing more than to present a small approximation to the dialectic between liberal-democratic States today and totalitarianism. It is worth affirming that liberal democracy itself is not only possible within the margins of the State, but that, properly speaking, it is this that has determined the most common fundamental mutations — except totalitarianisms generally recognized as such and others discussed later— of the State itself since the end of the Old Regime.
Dalmacio Negro (History of the forms of the State, 2010), typifies, after the French Revolution, several manifestations of the State. Historically speaking, after the Napoleonic State and the Romantic State, the liberal forms of the State have predominated in contemporary West with few exceptions in between: Bismarck's Social State —whose postulates would be absorbed by the Liberal State when it mutates into the Welfare State— the Soviet State, and the National Socialist State.
This, through the historical magnifying glass, can only mean one thing: that the relationship between liberal democracy and the State has ceased to be the exception, to become the rule. Commonly used terms, such as that of, “Rule of Law” —the relationship between the “Rule of Law” and the State is better understood through other languages: in german, Rechtsstaatlichkeit, in french, État de droit, or in spanish, Estado de Derecho— in the context of public opinion, means —very contrary to the truth, which is to recognize "Rule of Law" in any State with its own legal system— that the State has adopted democratic-liberal forms. This, of course, says a lot.
It could be said that the most recurrent justification found as purpose of the liberal democratic system, at least in European legal systems, is that of political pluralism.
Political pluralism, itself, as a term, could be considered an oxymoron. If we understand the natural channel of liberal democracy, which allows — within the legal context that itself has created and supported by the State structure— the plurality of political opinions, granting all of them the same validity as long as they do not break the principles of the order that tolerates them, reducing them to a mere discursive fact, which is discussed only —and according to peaceful norms— in the scenarios proposed for such, the real political dimension of said opinions is almost non-existent. As Schmitt explains very well, in his "Concept of the Political": the debate becomes —in this sense— mere technique, abandoning the "friend-foe" distinction, and subsequently —this annotation is mine— the “good-evil” distinction. Nihil Obstat, "Nothing is opposed", anything is valid. Looking a little deeper at the issue, we realize that when anything goes, nothing, in the end, matters. The State that allows, in the liberal-democratic context, political plurality, closes the doors to punish the most reprehensible —because nothing is opposed— Nazis did the same, crimes took place because they were not typified as such inside their own legal system. To the greater joy of radical positivists, the State loses any moral —evaluative— character, to become a mere bureaucratic operating machine.
Understanding this panorama, we, ordinary people, find ourselves in a terrifying scenario: a world where the only truth is that there are none. And who affirms and defends that ideal truth? The State itself, backed by its own law and a series of gigantic international entities, that may cheer or correct it according to whether or not it respects plurality. Plurality, thus, becomes the only —valid— ragione di Stato.
However, the pandemic affair offers us the possibility of re-interpreting this reality that was so present at least until a year ago with the material introduction of bio-ideologies as the other justification for State power. In the history of mankind, at least from what is known about it, science has been used to justify the power of the State on two occasions: in times of German National Socialism, with the racial question, and today, with the pandemic question.
The Totalitarian State had presented itself, until now, in two opposite profiles. For Soviet totalitarianism, the idea of the Machine-State —clarified by Althusser (Marx within its limits, 1978)— and for National Socialist totalitarianism, the Darwin-State —to be more precise, a State that makes use of a distorted biology to back up his ideological discourse—. The problem with all of this, today, is that the Democratic-liberal State, manages to consolidate, within its bosom, both totalitarian profiles.
The State, returning to Althusser to review the first question, is made up of three apparatuses: the public force, the political force and the ideological force. Each of these articulations of the Machine-State, are present in the liberal-democratic State. The public force, which is the police or the army, has the purpose of enforcing the norm elaborated by the political apparatus, and the ideological apparatus, exists to make people believe in the certainty of the norm —it has today an unprecedented force within what is known as cancel culture— The material reality of the Machine-State is undeniable. The State is no longer that organic je ne sais quoi, difficult to define. The State today is tangible, precise, mechanical, aseptic and almighty.
These days, the State has been placing itself at the service of health, like a champion defending people from an invisible, but present and apparently deadly, enemy. Health then becomes an ideology: it is brought to the public debate. Some defend sacrificing everything for it; others, branded as conspiracy theorists, ask for exceptions to the entire sanitary rule.
What is certain in all this is that a new justification fell from the sky to secure State power. Before the pandemic, excuses to impose the order of the police on everyone from the structure were already exhausted. They tried political correctness and environmentalism, but it wasn't enough. These two excuses are not terrifying enough for Westerners to bow their heads all the way to the State. The immediate fear of death, in exactly fourteen days, as it seems today, is a discursive instrument much more powerful than any other.
In the current context, the Machine-State, warden of its political truth —which is no longer socialism, but pluralism, as explained above— is then confused with the Darwin-State, which is the sole guarantor of immediate life. This is where problems begin. The three characteristic apparatuses of the liberal-democratic mutation of the Machine-State are not only there to impose plurality at all costs, but also seeks to impose health at all costs: they want us to live for hundreds of years, preserving ourselves as mummies, living an eternal life of work, but, of course without questioning the plural political debate, which is the original justification for the power of the democratic-liberal State, and much less the same idea of bodily health, which is now its second justification —later, it will be perhaps the only.
The Machine-State at the service of the nihil obstat of plurality and the Darwin-State at the service of health, have been combined into a single State. Powerful as ever, it does not admit criticism and it yields its power with a never-seen effectiveness. A State where life outside the system will simply cease to exist, and where they will, for example, request a double passport: one confirming belonging to a system —the regular passport— and one consenting to the decisions of the system —the vaccination passport.
We have the duty to resist. The duty of opening our eyes and seeing the power around us. The duty to resist with the spirit, which is also resisting materially, in the face of a total imposition that has not been agreed upon, and from which one cannot escape. It is painful, of course, to realize that the model that seemed to be able to solve everything has not only failed to do so, but has mutated into what, at least in theory, said was meant for the opposite.
Written by Jorge Luis de León Kostko
Jorge Luis de León Kostko is a columnist at DecipherGrey. He is a Law and Political Science student at Universidad Complutense de Madrid.