The Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, who came of age in the 1930s and observed with horror the emergence of Mussolini’s Fascist regime in his native country, warned that “the widespread notion that the age of totalitarianisms ended with Hitlerism and Stalinism is completely mistaken.” He explained:
The essential element of totalitarianism, in brief, lies in the refusal to recognize the difference between “brute reality” and “human reality,” so that it becomes possible to describe man, non-metaphorically, as a “raw material” or as a form of “capital.” Today this view, which used to be typical of Communist totalitarianism, has been taken up by its Western alternative, the technological society.
By technological society, Del Noce did not mean a society characterized by scientific or technological progress, but a society characterized by a view of rationality as purely instrumental. Human reason, on this view, is unable to grasp ideas that go beyond brute empirical facts: we are incapable of discovering transcendent truths. Reason is merely a pragmatic tool, a useful instrument for accomplishing our purposes, but nothing more. Totalitarian ideologies deny that all human beings participate in a shared rationality. We therefore cannot really talk to one another: it is impossible to deliberate or debate civilly in a shared pursuit of truth. Reasoned persuasion has no place. Totalitarian regimes always monopolize what counts as “rational” and therefore what one is permitted to say publicly.
For example, if people in a Communist society contradict Communist doctrine, the party does not explain why they are wrong. The authorities simply dismiss dissenting opinions as instances of “bourgeois rationality” or “false consciousness.” For a Communist, if you have not embraced Marx’s theory of dialectical materialism, then you do not understand the direction of history. What you are talking about is, by definition, pure nonsense and not worth considering. You are obviously on the “wrong side of history.” Authorities assume that dissenting opinions must be motivated by class interests (or racial characteristics, or gender, or whatever), which dissidents are trying to defend.
You don’t think such-and-such because you reasoned logically to that conclusion; you think such-and-such because you are a white, heterosexual, middle-class American female, and so forth. In this way, totalitarians do not persuade or refute their interlocutors with reasoned arguments. They merely impute bad faith to their opponents and refuse to engage in meaningful debate. They forcibly cut their adversaries off from the sphere of enlightened conversation. One does not bother arguing against such dissidents; one simply steamrolls them after placing them outside the realm of acceptable opinion.
The totalitarianisms of the 20th century were grounded in pseudoscientific ideologies, e.g., the Marxist pseudoscience of economics and history, or the Nazi pseudoscience of race and eugenics. In our own day, the pseudo-scientific ideology that drives societies in a totalitarian direction is scientism, which must be clearly distinguished from science. The ideology of scientism and the practice of science should not be confused: the former is often conflated with the latter, which creates no end of muddled thinking.