The term “soft totalitarianism” is on the lips of many commentators. They imply that the European Union is not a democracy, but, instead, is a technocracy which walks in disguise as a democracy. Due to mass surveillance and secret intelligence services that increasingly demand, on the grounds of the war on terror, that we should be subject to body screening at the major airports of the world or that we should provide every single detail of our banking activities, without excluding the option of exposing the most personal and intimate aspects of our life, social analysts tend to describe this sinister propensity to strip us of our privacy as soft totalitarianism.
In fact, things may be close to the way they say they are. All these aspects of modernity with its increasing obsession to control our public activities without loosing the sense of high alert when it comes to our privacy allow us to safely assume that privacy is dead in our days. As a person who grew up and was brought up in the Brezhnev era, I thought a bit naively for some time that human dignity was severely violated solely and exclusively in the former Soviet Union: after all, we were unable to give a telephone call to a foreign country without official control and reporting on our conversation, not to mention our correspondence and all other forms of human exchanges.
As Zygmunt Bauman would have it, those days still belonged to the era of solid modernity when totalitarianism was clear, discernible, obvious, and manifestly evil. To use Bauman’s terms, in the era of liquid modernity, mass surveillance and colonization of the private is alive and well, yet it assumes different forms. In the major dystopias of our times – Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and George Orwell’s 1984 – an individual is invaded, conquered, and humiliated by the omnipotent state, as he or she is deprived of privacy, including the most intimate aspects of it. The TV screen in Orwell’s 1984 or reporting on one’s neighbor, lover or friend (if it makes sense to use these terms, as love and friendship as modern feelings and expressions of free choice are abolished there) appears as a nightmare of modernity without a human face, or modernity where the jackboot is trampling on the human face.
Most horrible was an aspect of this totalitarian version of modernity which suggested that we can penetrate every single aspect of human personality. A human being is therefore deprived of any sort of secret, which makes us believe that we can know everything about him or her. And the ethos of the technological world paves the way for action: we can, therefore, we ought. The idea that we can know and tell everything about another human being is the worst kind of nightmare as far as the modern world is concerned. We believed for la long time that the choice defines freedom; I would hasten to add that so does, especially nowadays, the defense of the idea of the incognizibility of the human being and that idea of the untouchability of their privacy.
The beginnings of liquid totalitarianism, as opposed to solid and real totalitarianism, may be exposed in the West each time when we see people craving for TV reality shows and obsessed with idea of willingly and freely losing their privacy by exposing it on TV screen – with pride and joy. Yet there are other, far more real forms of government and politics that merit and richly deserve this term. In fact, there is a long way to go from the new forms of mass surveillance and social control in the West to an overt and explicit divorce of capitalism and freedom in China and Russia.
First and foremost, liquid totalitarianism manifests itself in the Chinese pattern of modernity, an opposing pattern to Western modernity, with its formula of capitalism without democracy or the free market without political liberty. Divorce of power and politics described by Bauman develops its distinctly Chinese version: the financial power may exist and prosper there insofar as it dos not merge or overlap with political power. Get rich but keep away from politics. Ideological politics is a fiction in China, since Mao Zedong was betrayed a thousand times by his Party which seized being a Communist stronghold and, instead, turned into the managerial elite group. It is impossible to betray Chinese Cultural Revolution and Communism more than the Chinese modernizers did under the guise of magic touch of modernity with the help of the free market and instrumental rationality.
Another case of liquid totalitarianism is Putin’s Russia with its idea of managed democracy, equipped with Putinism, this vague and strange amalgam of nostalgia for the grandeur Soviet past, gangster and crony capitalism, endemic corruption, cleptocracy, self-censorship, and remote islands left for dissenting opinions and voices on the internet. To the contrary of the Chinese version of the divorce of capitalism and political liberty, the Putinesque variety implies a total fusion of economic and political power combined with impunity and state terror which overtly lends itself to gangs and criminal cliques of various shades.