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The Total State Warns Tyranny Has Already Triumphed

Auron MacIntyre makes the case that our liberal democracies have been irredeemably co-opted by the deep state and other powerful interests.

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There’s a wonderful scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo tells Gandalf that he wishes the Ring had never come to him. Gandalf replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” After reading Auron MacIntyre’s recent release, The Total State, I found myself feeling a bit like Frodo.

MacIntyre, who is a BlazeTV host and entertaining tweeter, makes an extended case that our liberal democracies — which we are constantly told are the freest societies in human history — are in fact forms of soft totalitarianism, a “total state.” Like so many, Covid was MacIntyre’s “red pill” moment. He watched as constitutional protections were swept aside under the pretext of “public safety.” This “state of emergency” lasted three years, notwithstanding mounting evidence that Covid was not nearly as dangerous as it initially seemed. After all the lies and excesses, there were no apologies, fines, or charges. Just a desperate attempt by elites to memory-hole it all.

A Different Political Lineage

The Total State makes some familiar, almost indisputable arguments. Our administrative state has become bloated, unaccountable, and self-interested. The revolving door between public and private service can lead to moral hazards and corruption. Tastemakers at elite institutions — Hollywood, Harvard, Yale, The Washington Post, The New York Times — do not engage in Darwinian competition where only the best art and ideas survive.

Instead, they march in lockstep, promoting identical messages and policies. The moral and social fabric is in tatters, the deep state is entrenched, but society’s supposed infinite progress and growth are sputtering.

This idea that liberalism is unraveling is well-trodden territory (see Patrick Deneen and others), and Rod Dreher’s 2020 book, Live Not By Lies, drew explicit parallels between the Soviet Union and our modern “soft totalitarianism” in the West. But MacIntyre sets himself apart in how far his critique goes. Many felt intuitive discomfort at government expansion during the Covid lockdowns, but MacIntyre makes the case that Covid vindicated political theorists who were previously viewed as fringe or distasteful.

This includes contemporary neo-reactionary theorists like Curtis Yarvin and Nick Land but also Carl Schmitt, a member of the Nazi Party. MacIntyre acknowledges that Schmitt had “very serious faults,” but sees Schmitt’s outsider status as helpful to his critique of the liberal understanding of politics. Whether you find these thinkers convincing or not, MacIntyre is willing to move past the typical talking points. One of Yarvin’s slogans is RAGE — Retire All Government Employees.

Another foundation of neo-reactionary thought is Curtis Yarvin’s concept of “the cathedral,” which is “a decentralized network of organizations and individuals responsible for manufacturing a cultural consensus.” The media, the deep state, and the universities all share a belief in progressive liberalism, forming a sort of “atheistic theocracy.”

So there’s no secret cabal making decisions — because there doesn’t have to be. When anyone steps out of line, they are made an example of, and those in power continue to act in their own interests. As George Carlin says in that famous clip, “You don’t need a formal conspiracy when interests converge.”

To MacIntyre, this rot at the heart of American society is irremediable. Unlike some post-liberal critics, MacIntyre does not advocate for a constitutional revival or for conservatives to seize power and right the ship. Instead, he argues that we are living at the end of an empire, and most likely that will mean the slow ceding of power to competent regional authorities and a reduction in our standard of living.

Hanlon’s Razor

There’s a saying attributed to Robert Hanlon: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” While many would nod along as MacIntyre describes government overreach and America’s cultural decay, his attributions of motive will lose some readers. Because “the cathedral” is a “decentralized” network operating without coordination, there can be no smoking gun. But by the same token, some of MacIntyre’s claims are unfalsifiable.

For instance, MacIntyre notes that “every organ of power in the United States seems obsessed with introducing sexual and gender identity to children.” He goes on to argue that this is because the state wants to dissolve the authority of the parent, which competes with the authority of the state. Arguments for “the autonomy of the child” are “an incredibly useful tool for the regime because it can serve as a reliable wedge between kids and their parents.” Here, one might ask whether trans activists are state actors or merely the misguided descendants of a morally hollow society.

MacIntyre frames the elites as waging war on all competing social spheres — church, family, middle-class property ownership — for the sake of accruing greater power. And here one too might resort to Hanlon’s razor as well. How much of America’s breakdown is the result of elite scheming compared to the moral vacuum left by Christianity’s decline?

What Then Shall We Do?

Indeed, one of MacIntyre’s most intriguing threads is viewing America’s decline through a spiritual lens, as an almost demonic plot:

With the metaphysical underpinnings of the nation now dependent on a dry and dusty document instead of a living and vibrant tradition, a new animating spirit rushed in and filled the void. This was the progressive spirit many call “wokeness.”

Conservatives love to quote John Adams: “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” This can be used to argue we need to restore proper constitutional government, but MacIntyre says that such an argument gets the causality backward. It is our lack of moral and religious life, not our lack of constitutional fidelity, that is the problem. Our governmental dysfunction is merely a symptom.

If you find “the cathedral” far-fetched, there are some who would argue the breakdown of society is more easily attributed to spiritual forces. We have created a society of incredible comfort that simultaneously seems in permanent crisis. Nuclear war, AI extinction, civil war — we seem to have quite a few credible existential threats, and that’s not even mentioning the national debt, birth dearth, and other quotidian crises.

The good news is, whether you believe MacIntyre is hysterical or dead-on, the answer is much the same. For most of us, rebuilding our local community, church, and family as a counterweight to the atomizing forces of modernity will be the most important work we do. In the end, MacIntyre believes the total state is doomed to fail because its premises of endless expansion and replacing all natural bonds with state dependence are inherently flawed.

To return to Gandalf, he offered some other wise words that are worth pondering in our age of seemingly intractable problems:

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

The cover of The Total State looks like a mechanized Eye of Sauron. For those who feel stifled or saddened by America today, we should remember Gandalf’s counsel, lest we succumb to despair. Tolkien’s term for a decisive, unexpected break toward the good was a “eucatastrophe.” We could use one of those. Until then, we must endure.


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