The Doom of the Total State

The Doom of the Total State
Image from the cover of Auron MacIntyre’s new book “The Total State: How Liberal Democracies Become Tyrannies” (2024).
Jeffrey A. Tucker

We’ve been waiting for the big thoughts on the meaning of it all. Where does the crisis of our times fit into the historical trajectory? What does it all imply for how we should think about politics, culture, society, our lives, and our futures? A frustrating part of current intellectual life is that too few dare even to think much less write such big thoughts.

I truly crave them. My own work, particularly my latest book “Life After Lockdown,” is fine, but I’m not up to the task I hope for from others.
That’s why I’m absolutely thrilled by Auron MacIntyre’s wonderful new book “The Total State.” The author fully understands the essential dynamics of our time, including the calamitous failure of the great war on the virus. It’s not a book of epidemiology, thank goodness, but of sociology, history, and political theory. Therefore, he doesn’t miss the essential class element behind the disaster.

As he clearly states, the COVID experience was all about the rights and privileges of the professional-managerial class in government, media, and large corporations. They rigged the response to the virus in a way that maximized their safety and income while exploiting those without power to serve their every need.

The slogan was “We are all in this together,” but the reality was of the working class stepping up to deliver goods and services to the elite classes until the vaccine could arrive. Then, the new shot was forced on all those who had bravely faced the pathogen in order to get them biologically clean before being integrated back into society.

The author gets this entirely correct, and I’m thrilled about it because so few authors do. But it is just a piece of his larger analysis, which is quite challenging. The essence of the thesis is in the subtitle: “How Liberal Democracies Become Tyrannies.” His view is not that they might, can, or are in danger of becoming so with the wrong policy decisions. The thesis here is more bold than that. He says they will and they must.

Wow. Intrigued? I certainly was when I began the journey of this book.

I read as someone with a classical liberal heart, a person with warm feelings for all the great Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, a partisan fan of Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, a person with tremendous affection for the achievements of the freedom project of the past several centuries but also a person deeply saddened by what has become of it.

does not hold that view. Not at all. He believes that the liberal project of the 17th and 18th centuries were the product of rationalistic arrogance, the belief that whole societies and cultures could be cajoled into a single model of organization by virtue of pieces of parchment, governmental architectures, slogans about human rights, and strict models of what defines the very notion of freedom and progress.

He attempts to map out how the freedom of past centuries gradually mutated into the total state of today, a political order in which the entrenched and global bureaucratic elite face no limits to their power and ambition. He is not even slightly shocked that the center of the empire is the United States, simply because the United States was the most successful deployment of the liberal democracy in history and hence the one most vulnerable to the trajectory of arrogance, corruption, decadence, bloat, and hegemonic imposition without limit.

Still intrigued? Read on.

The journey begins with the neglected genius of Bertrand de Jouvenel, who traced the origins of freedom not with big declarations of human rights and democracy for all but with the insistence on the part of cultural centers for independence from state power. In European history, it was the minor royals, the landed gentry, the multigenerational centers of wealth and enterprise, and the keepers of faith that formed the real resistance to state power.

De Jouvenel further argued that it’s precisely these robust institutions of cultural and social power that keep state power at bay in a way that individuals on their own never could. When they die out, everyone becomes vulnerable to pillaging but higher powers. In his view, the sloganizing around individual rights and infinite choice and progress is but a masquerade that hides a power grab. When these mediating institutions are weakened, state power only grows.

You might recognize this outlook as conventional old-world Tory theory, one that is anti-liberal at its core. That seems true in some respects, but the journey has only begun as our author takes us through a highly competent tour of thinkers that I doubt most students have encountered in generations, simply because they have been smeared as reflexively right-wing: Joseph de Maistre, Gaetano Mosca, Carl Schmitt, Vilfredo Pareto, James Burnham, and Samuel Francis.

I will just say plainly that these thinkers are not my cup of tea. I’ve been severely critical of all of them for reasons I don’t need to explain here. That said, we must admit the following: Together they have provided the single most powerful attack on liberalism classically understood that has ever been marshaled. It’s not even obvious to me that it has been sufficiently answered by anyone, unless I’m missing something.

The critique is this. Liberalism is a form of rationalism, one born of intellectuals rather than real human experience, a construct involving definitive propositions about how life should be conducted that is necessarily imperial in that it overrides the aims, ethos, and operations of all other organic institutions in society. It states, in essence, that you must think this way or hit the highway. In so doing, it tramples on religious traditions, familial aspirations, local folkways, tacit knowledge born of long experience, norms, and manners of local communities and diminishes the role of mediating structures in the social order.

Liberalism, in this view, is a managerial project—like an architectural blueprint drawn up by someone who has only studied but never built anything—one requiring expertise to administer and hence experts and bureaucrats at all levels of society. But the people who inhabit these positions are relatively detached from the social order they presume to manage, and hence their decision-making and interests are necessarily less knowledgeable and humane than they otherwise would be if people were truly left to their own devices.

The critique is deepened by the observation that liberalism as a philosophy is necessarily devoid of the genuine meaning of the sort that traditional religion seeks to provide. It extols the inherent glory of material achievement and progress but offers no real solace when it turns out—as it always does—that success alone does not fulfill deep human longings.

In that sense, his view is that democratic liberalism is a false god that always fails. Having robbed people of a moral and faith-based center, liberalism is well-positioned to invade lives and communities with bureaucratic management while promoting dependency and arbitrary power.

The author uses all the modern crises to illustrate his point: the COVID disaster, the U.S. proxy war with Russia, the imperialism of world bureaucracies, the hegemony of the administrative state, the impotence of the judiciary to control it, and so on.

If all of this sounds dreadful—and it does indeed—there is some light on the other side: He predicts that the total state of the 21st century is destined to fail.

“Liberal democracy made assumptions about human nature that were false,” Mr. MacIntyre wrote. “It outran the consequences for a long time because it was able to amass an unprecedented amount of wealth and power, but eventually, the bill always comes due. Constitutions are not eternal guardians of the political will and states do not become objective and self-governing machines simply because rules get written down on a piece of paper. Man has not moved beyond either religion or politics. Questions of faith and sovereignty will continue to sit at the core of the human experience, just as they always have. Matters of meaning, identity, and existential conflict cannot be removed by the promise of cold objective reason and credentialed experts.”

In this prediction, I sense that he’s correct. The world state cannot work. The total state cannot work. The resistance of administrative totalitarianism is growing, as the population grows ever more impoverished, subjected, and inflamed in fury against the overlords who are not in hiding any longer. We know who they are. They are parading on TV every night, like a scene from District One in “The Hunger Games.” This is truly unsustainable.

Mr. MacIntyre ends his book with some speculations about how all of this will unfold. His speculations are well thought out.

Having mapped all of this out, I feel the need to register fundamental disagreement. I simply cannot accept his big theory. In fact, I see the whole apparatus as an unnecessary overreach. Liberalism is wholly defensible, not as an imperial and rationalistic product of intellectuals but as a simple aspiration for a society that can manage itself complete with mediating institutions, traditions, familial dynasties, and a state that is nearly invisible to daily life, something like what the United States experienced under the Articles of Confederation.

I’m not nearly as pessimistic as he is about the whole liberal project. As an answer, I might propose the writings of Benjamin Constant, Adam Smith, and Lord Acton, while admitting that I do long for a longer and more pointed refutation of the tradition of thought that has so heavily informed this book. That said, I truly hope everyone will read this and ironically hope that you can learn from it while rejecting the darker features of the work.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Jeffrey A. Tucker is the founder and president of the Brownstone Institute and the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press, as well as 10 books in five languages, most recently “Liberty or Lockdown.” He is also the editor of “The Best of Ludwig von Mises.” He writes a daily column on economics for The Epoch Times and speaks widely on the topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.