Foretelling America’s Descent into Totalitarianism
By: Jeffrey Folks
Michael Polanyi was born at a particularly inauspicious place and time: in Budapest, Hungary, in March of 1891, just as central Europe was heading toward two devastating world wars, economic collapse, and a half-century of communist totalitarianism. On top of this, Polanyi was a Jew who most certainly would have been killed had he not fled to England in 1933.
If he had been murdered by the Nazis, the world would have lost one of its great modern polymaths: a scholar who conducted research in chemistry, economics, and ethics and who understood the rise of tyranny better than almost anyone. Among his fourteen books, The Logic of Liberty is one of several that focus on totalitarianism.
Polanyi’s defense of freedom and opposition to centralized government were based on close observation of what was happening during his lifetime. Even after he fled Germany, where he was teaching, Polanyi was one of 2,300 persons on the Nazi “kill list” had they been able to conquer Britain. Communism was equally dangerous, as Polanyi realized during a 1936 lectureship in the Soviet Union.
Polanyi spent his life defending free markets and individual choice at a time when centralized planning was spreading across the globe, even in the still democratic countries of Europe and North America. Were he alive today (he died in 1976 at age 84), he would certainly be alarmed at the expansion of government control in the United States under the Obama and Biden administrations.
Polanyi’s insights into progressivism (really just a polite word for communism) are striking. He was, in effect, describing woke politics when he wrote of totalitarianism in his day: “A new destructive skepticism is linked here to a new passionate social conscience; an utter disbelief in the spirit of man is coupled with extravagant moral demands” (Liberty 5). What Polanyi had witnessed in Europe was not just an unfortunate “coincidence” of communism and fascism coming about at the same time; it was “a single coherent process” involving both patriotic and humanitarian emotions fueling ruthless and extraordinarily brutal regimes across Europe and across the globe. It was the very promises of equality and free will that seemed to justify the murderous actions of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and so many others in the 20th century, but that sleight of hand is still with us; those same promises are the basis of progressive politics in the 21st century, and no place more so than in America. Just before the debt ceiling agreement was reached, progressives like Biden and Sen. Schumer were suggesting that any cuts in federal spending would kill thousands of children, just as they have in the past.
Much of Polanyi’s research focused on the importance of what he called “tacit knowledge” — the shared body of unwritten beliefs, ideas, and understandings that operate within every worthy civilization, including conceptions of fairness and ideas of merit, religious and cultural beliefs, and moral restraints. These forms of tacit knowledge always come under attack within totalitarian societies, particularly among university students deceived by the false promises of free will and equality. But it is crucial to understand that those who disregard existing values intend to replace them with their own and that they plan on enforcing those changes with an iron hand. As Polanyi put it, “[a] nihilistic regime will have to undertake the day-to-day direction of all activities which are otherwise guided by the intellectual and moral principles that nihilism declares empty and void” (Liberty 133).
Polanyi is especially useful in his analysis of the obligations and responsibilities without which liberty ceases to exist. Libertarians would do well to pay particular attention to Polanyi’s brilliant dissection of society’s tacit acknowledgment, and enforcement, of the large network of obligations that maintain social order so that liberty can continue to function. Once the general acknowledgment of self-responsibility and restraint is lost sight of, society devolves into anarchy, with the more ruthless and violent elements tyrannizing the weak and vulnerable.
Tacit knowledge of shared values is all that stands in the way of this happening in any society. The virtual Cold War that now prevails in our nation between liberals and conservatives would not exist if liberals had not abandoned fundamental norms concerning justice, social order, and merit. In the absence of a detailed set of shared values inherited from the past, each person decides what is best for his own interest without regard for others. This condition is the seedbed for the sort of social conflict we are now witnessing.
Polanyi realized that traditional institutions had been undermined by decades of progressive skepticism and that the most important task was to restore belief in liberty and the dignity of man. As he wrote: “We are living in the midst of a period requiring great readjustments. One of these is to learn to hold once more beliefs, our own beliefs” (Liberty 38). Polanyi’s diagnosis of totalitarian tendencies is remarkably astute. It’s imperative that the American people, and especially the young, come to see the deathly nature of moral skepticism and of centralized planning, two of the essential elements of progressive thinking.
Polanyi understood the process by which true freedom is subverted and ends in terror because he lived through the twofold destruction of his native Poland, first at the hands of the Nazis and then the Soviets. We in America are entering another age of terror today. The progressive idea, so central to Biden’s view of the future, that all prejudice — based on race, sex, sexual orientation, class, and a host of other varieties (an infinite number, in fact) — can be eliminated and replaced with equity is not just unrealistic; it is the excuse for government control of our lives. As Polanyi wrote, “presently illusions of grandeur turn into illusions of persecution, and convert the planning of history into a reign of terror” (Liberty 245). We are now living in a cultural fun house in which illusions of persecution are popping up everywhere, like distorted images in a convex mirror.
There is nothing to prevent America from becoming another murderous society like Nazi Germany or communist Russia in the 20th century. The Biden administration has already begun the march toward totalitarianism with its proposals to arm even larger numbers of federal agency employees, including some 60,000 new IRS agents, and with its political militarization of the DOJ, FBI, and CIA. As a nation, we are on a path to destruction. Only a clear understanding of the danger can save us.
It is chilling to hear Biden speak of his “defense of democracy,” as he does almost daily, when it is his administration’s actions that pose the greatest threat to democratic capitalism. Those of us who care about liberty must stiffen our resolve and take all peaceful actions to defend liberty, free markets, and classical liberalism. The alternative is a dark era of repression and death such as Michael Polanyi witnessed in 20th-century Europe.
The above article (Foretelling America’s Descent into Totalitarianism) was created and published by American Thinker and is republished here under “Fair Use” (see disclaimer below) with attribution to the articles author Jeffrey Folks and americanthinker.com.
TLB recommends you visit American Thinker for more great articles.
About This articles Author: Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).
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