Surgical Totalitarianism

You don’t have to control everything to be in total control.

In the modern world this seeming paradox is a systemic reality.

In the past, classic totalitarian governments sought to literally control every aspect of biopower.

As it turned out, this was a very inefficient and self-defeating way to maintain and increase scientific knowledge and technology, capital accumulation, and total effective power over the long term.

Modern totalitarian arrangements are far more culturally efficacious, superficially unobtrusive, stylistically democratic, and, most importantly, surgically precise.

In addition, modern totalitarian elites not only demand de facto control over society as such, but they also desire, as part of their inner ideological ethos, the exercise of that power to reproduce itself under maximum conditions of ease, pleasure, and comfort. Thus, the creation and maintenance of a consumerist society both materially and ideologically aids in the reproduction of neo-totalitarian power.

A consumerist society is to a large extent a self regulating mechanism for the constant pursuit of public spectacle and private stimulation. The senses and general life instincts are caught in a web of the pursuance of small pleasures. In this way, pleasure itself becomes an insidiously saccharine form of domination. Yet, from time to time, consumerist relations must be guided, reinforced, and given new goals and reflationary impetus from above.

The political structure in modern, surgical totalitarianism is set up in such a way as to give the appearance of active participation, psychological inclusion, and periodic mass mobilization. However, all consequential decision-making takes place behind this fraudulent structure and represents the true “commanding heights” of power. The political superstructure serves, at best, as perennial decoy and public delusion.

The modern “commanding heights” of power require massive amounts of data. It is through the acquisition, manipulation, and active forward interpretation of information that surgical totalitarianism is able to pick and choose its battles. At its most extreme, new “realities” are creatively and cynically constructed from its daily catch of strategic knowledge. The goal is always the same: distract, delude, deflate any possible challenge to the system through active suppression, co-optation (the preferred method), and, or, complete elimination.

In this way, any possible threats can be foreseen relatively far in advance and organizational strategies can be conceived for either their containment and/or elimination. The surgical nature of these methods allows for the relative negative freedom of civil society to generally evolve and reproduce itself in partial self-awareness in so far as it continues to demonstrate no substantive subversive tendencies to liquidate either the material reality and/or ideological superstructure of its own dependency on neo-totalitarian forms of power.

In the end, the system presents itself as perversely elegant, efficient, self-perpetuating, and, even, on a physical level, pleasant.

All bodily pleasures are on offer. Entertainment becomes incarceration. All is seemingly permitted while nothing is truly allowed. Power is diaphanous as it is all consuming. Critical dissent is tolerated because the mechanisms of mass blindness are secure.

It would be and has been a crucial mistake for Marxists of all kinds to think that capitalism is the root cause of the modern day pursuit of total power. On the contrary, surgical totalitarianism utilizes capitalism as just another source of power but not its ultimate ground. Power precedes capitalism. Hierarchy encodes the means and forces of production no matter what they are just as hierarchy projects a self-sustaining superstructure to deceive and deflect its potential challengers. Capitalism is but a modern day tool of hierarchical power. The real enemy is not capital but surreptitious hierarchy.

The true source of this state of affairs is the lust for control under any societal forms. Its origins are without doubt evolutionary. Aristotle famously defined human beings as “Zoon Politikon” or “social animal”. Yes, we are indeed social. But the “Zoon” or animal part of that equation warps that sociality into the insatiable desire to control and to dominate others. Ultimately, the Hobbesian origins of mankind from an age long state of “nastiness and brutishness” is, in part, to blame that man persists in being as a wolf to other men: Homo homini lupus est.

Dan Corjescu teaches at the University of Tübingen's "Studium Professionale" program. Read other articles by Dan.