The Creeping and Creepy March of the Progressive Totalitarian Impulse

As a foreigner living in the United Kingdom, the first thought that occurred to me watching “The Death of Stalin” last month was how bleak and absurdist British dark humor is, compared to American humor. Of course, Jason Isaacs looks and acts more like Marshal Rokossovsky than Marshal Zhukov, but that is a nitpicking of an international relations scholar.

“The Death of Stalin,” is an absurdist comedy, like something written by Albert Camus in the middle of a university Title IX investigation. Within a week of watching it, coincidentally, Kevin Williamson was hired and fired by The Atlantic. Life imitates surreal art. Take away the veneer of civilization, the checks, and balances of the system, and there’s a survivalist and a totalitarian within every one of us. Lord Acton was dead right about power. If any university can clear ethics to replicate the Stanford prison experiment, it will be exactly the same, in any culture, across the world, in any era, at any time.

The key scene in “The Death of Stalin” is when a hapless and wailing Lavrentiy Beria—Stalin’s second most brutal henchman after Yezhov, who was responsible for sending a hundred jackboots in the middle of the night—looks confoundedly at his former comrades for their exaggerated reactions to the charges being read out against him during his show trial. It’s funny to see each comrade trying to outdo each other showing his disgust at Beria’s crimes—crimes in which, of course, they were all just as guilty or at least complicit. It was a game of situational one-upmanship, a theater of the absurd; virtue signaling on steroids if you will, in a totalitarian system. The comedy is in how surreal the reality is. And it was a reality and still is a reality in some countries across the world. Observe the synchronized crying on cue as a symbol of grief in North Korea, and one gets an idea of what life is like within this kind of system.


Alternatively, one can just look at the exaggerated virtue signaling on display at the Academy Awards, the Women’s Marches, and the #MeToo Twitter campaigns—where millionaires and billionaires from an industry notoriously loose, claim to be victims of sexual harassment, while in the same breath denigrating men who hold to higher standards of personal morality. Or we might examine the university bureaucrats, backed by the Sovietized gender and women’s studies departments, coming together to decide on who can go to the most ridiculous lengths to show how pure they are at heart, what kind of speech is tolerated, and how much more offended they can be over trivial insignificant matters.

Likewise, in media. Kevin Williamson, one of the more gifted wordsmiths of our generation, invited by The Atlantic to grace its pages with his prose and then butchered in the combined outrage of Media Matters, The New Republic’s, and Jessica Valenti’s Twitter feed.

If you think Stalin’s era was surreal, what would you call the ideologues of our time who want the government to take away guns while claiming they are against totalitarianism? Those who want the state to control your internet as they fight an all-out culture war against a legitimately elected administration, which attempted to cut down government bureaucracy and oversight to half? An administration which is still unable to fill up all the posts is anything but quasi-fascistic. But, as Beria taunts Khrushchev in the film, “It’s false narrative, Niki.”

The only things preventing “The Death of Stalin” from morphing into a prophetic documentary on the coming Western future  are the checks and balances of the Western electoral systems. Put simply, your First and Second Amendments and the Electoral College. This is why a total cultural assault is currently underway. If the modern ideologues have institutional power show trials and common talk of false narratives will become the norm. The center liberal-left/social democrat ideologues broadly in power in media, academia as well as all the major parties across the West, didn’t expect they would lose any institutional power or control of the narrative in 2016, either in Britain during Brexit, or during the election of Donald Trump, or in subsequent European countries like Austria, Poland, Italy, and Hungary. No one expected a conservative backlash across the Euro-Atlantic, as the arc of history was apparently inexorably progressive.

Once the institutional power is back in the hands of these ideologues, the great social experiment, the march toward “progress” will restart again after this temporary setback. Transgender toilets and abortion? The state knows best. Let the government decide your food consumption and calorie content and subsequent insurance and medication, (after numerous op-eds in newspapers of course). Mass relocation and forced settlement of thousands of people across continents? Europe’s no stranger to that though the American continent is likely to see it soon enough, pouring through southern U.S. border. The nanny state will be all-powerful, and borderless global government is the ultimate future goal.

What makes conservatives think that their ideas will ever be welcomed among this crowd? No matter how much you genuflect, you will never be accepted into the social Overton Window decided and guarded by the cultural Left. It doesn’t matter if you’re Bari Weiss or Viktor Orban for that matter. Right-wingers consider left-wingers as deluded. Left-wingers consider the right to be evil. Ergo, evil needs to be eradicated for true social progress. Williamson’s case demonstrates that there is straight up hysteria and a penchant for censorship even on what passes for a center-left in America. If it is something far more systemic, like the second amendment, there’s a constant pressure and movement to eliminate it. The goal remains the same. Whether it is Williamson propagating ideas to the people or a second amendment stopping the jackboots at night, they are both barriers to the progressive future. The movement is to eliminate or overcome these obstacles to power.

A conservative, we must understand, is only good when he is not a threat to the Left. So men like Mitt Romney and John McCain are now treated with some semblance of deference. Some of us, however, can remember their respective election campaigns. I started as a rookie journalist covering American elections. The problem with some on the Right is not only do they not understand that you cannot win this battle if you choose not to fight, but you can’t even choose not to fight. The fight will be thrust upon you. It is a culture war. Not just in the United States, but in Britain and Europe as well. The institutions and gatekeepers of society are controlled by a section of ideologue who are increasingly the arbiters of morality. And they don’t tolerate dissent which mean, ultimately, that they will not tolerate you.

Pessimism is a good way to snap one back into an unpleasant reality, and no one turns pessimism into an art form better than the Brits. “The Death of Stalin,” Kevin Williamson’s firing, the movement to ban guns, all of these are unnervingly similar and remind us of something which we always forget. Freedom is something we’re used to taking for granted. But it is eroding across the West. And nothing is a bigger threat to freedom than the push for a transnational managerial class, acting with superior knowledge of our “common good,” and empowered to dictate every single aspect of our lives. That it sells itself as a product of democracy and consent is the insult added to the injury.

Sitting in Europe, with the bureaucrats deciding on how many migrants settle in what city, or in London, where knife crimes are now reaching historic highs while one can go to jail for a joke, one wonders why some Americans want to get rid of the First and Second Amendments. Many in the West only consider Soviet-style Marxists a threat. The bigger threat is the radical ideologues who are deciding what is good or bad. And sooner or later, when they win the cultural revolution, the jackboots will kick in your door, too.

Photo credit:  Tara Ziemba/Getty Images

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About Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, and a member of Centre for Conflict, Security, and Terrorism. He is also a regular analyst for Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, and a regular essayist for various publications, including The National Interest, The Federalist, and Quillette Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.