Method and Madness

Science is a method, or more accurately, a collection of various methods, aimed at systematically investigating observable phenomena in the natural world. Rigorous science is characterized by hypothesis, experiment, testing, interpretation, and ongoing deliberation and debate. Put a group of real scientists in a room together and they will argue endlessly about the salience, significance, and interpretation of data, about the limitations and strengths of various research methodologies, and about the big picture questions.

Science is an enormously complex human enterprise, with each scientific discipline having own refined methods of inquiry and its own competing theories. Science is not an irrefutable body of knowledge. It is always fallible, always open to revision; yet when conducted rigorously and carefully, scientific research is capable of genuine discoveries and important advances.

Scientism is the philosophical claim—which cannot be proven scientifically—that science is the only valid form of knowledge. Anyone who begins a sentence with the phrase, “Science says . . . ” is likely in the grip of scientism. Genuine scientists don’t talk like this. They begin sentences with phrases like, “The findings of this study suggest,” or “This meta-analysis concluded. . . .” Scientism, by contrast, is a religious and often a political ideology. “It has been evident for quite a while that science has become our time’s religion,” the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben observed, “the thing which people believe that they believe in.” When science becomes a religion—a closed and exclusionary belief system—we are dealing with scientism.

The characteristic feature of science is warranted uncertainty, which leads to intellectual humility.

The characteristic feature of scientism is unwarranted certainty, which leads to intellectual hubris.

Del Noce realized that scientism is intrinsically totalitarian, a profound insight of enormous importance for our time. “Many people do not realize that scientism and the technological society are totalitarian in nature,” he wrote fifty years ago. To understand why, consider that scientism and totalitarianism both claim a monopoly on knowledge. The advocate of scientism and the true believer in a totalitarian system both assert that many common-sense notions are simply irrational, unverifiable, unscientific, and therefore outside the scope of what can be said publicly. Antigone’s claim, “I have a duty, inscribed indelibly on the human heart, to bury my dead brother” is not a scientific statement; therefore, according to the ideology of scientism, it is pure nonsense. All moral or metaphysical claims are specifically excluded because they cannot be verified by the methods of science or established by the reigning pseudo-scientific totalitarian ideology.

Of course, the forced exclusion of moral, metaphysical, or religious claims is not a conclusion of science, but an unprovable philosophical premise of scientism. The assertion that science is the only valid form of knowledge is itself a metaphysical (not a scientific) claim, smuggled in quietly through the backdoor. Scientism needs to hide this self-refuting fact from itself, so it is necessarily mendacious: dishonesty is baked into the system, and various forms of irrationalism follow.

The 20th-century totalitarian ideologies all claimed to be “scientific,” but were in fact unfalsifiable by their own circular logic. Because scientism cannot establish itself through rational argument, it relies instead on three tools to advance: brute force, defamation of critics, and the promise of future happiness. These are the same tools deployed by all totalitarian systems.

To hide its own internal contradiction from view, the self-refuting premise of scientism is rarely stated explicitly. Scientism is instead implicitly assumed, its conclusions repeatedly asserted, until this ideology simply becomes the air we breathe. Careful policing of public discourse admits only evidence supposedly supported by “science,” and this atmosphere is rigorously enforced. As we will see in the next chapter, during the pandemic, qualitative (e.g., familial, spiritual) goods were repeatedly sacrificed to quantitative (e.g., biological, medical) goods, even when the former were real and the latter only theoretical. This is the fruit of scientism, which turns our scale of values and priorities upside-down.

It would be hard to find a more effective ideological tool to impose a totalitarian system than by appealing to “science” or “experts” and thereby claiming a monopoly on knowledge and rationality. Those in power can readily choose which scientific experts they endorse and which they silence. This allows politicians to defer inescapably political judgments to “experts,” thus abdicating their own responsibility. One’s ideological opponents are hamstrung, their opinions excluded as “unscientific,” and their public voice silenced—all without the trouble of maintaining a regime of brute force and physical violence.

Defamation and exclusion from public discourse works just as effectively. Those in power maintain a monopoly on what counts as Rationality (or Science); they do not bother talking to or debating the [fill-in-the-blank stigmatized group] “bourgeois,” “Jew,” “unvaccinated,” “unmasked,” “anti-science,” “Covid-denier,” etc.

Repressive social conformity is thus achieved without resorting to concentration camps, gulags, Gestapo, KGB, or openly despotic tyrants. Instead, dissenters are confined to a moral ghetto through censorship and slander. Recalcitrant individuals are placed outside the purview of polite society and excluded from enlightened conversation.

The political theorist Eric Voegelin observed the essence of totalitarianism is simply that certain questions are forbidden. The prohibition against asking questions is a deliberately and skillfully elaborated obstruction of reason in a totalitarian system. If one asks certain questions—“Do we really need to continue locking down?” or “Are school closures doing more harm than good?” or “Are we sure these vaccines are safe and effective?” or “Why has the promised utopia not yet arrived?”—one will be accused of being a pandemic denier, wanting to kill grandma, being anti-science, or of placing oneself on the “wrong side of history.”

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Technocracy And Totalitarianism: The Rise Of The Biomedical Security State

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This is an excerpt from Aaron Kheriaty’s new book, The New Abnormal: The Rise of the Biomedical Security State. It is highly recommended: “In our own day, the pseudo-scientific ideology that drives societies in a totalitarian direction is scientism, which must be clearly distinguished from science.” ⁃ TN Editor

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.

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Stage 5: Purges, Genocide, and Total Control

Using the crisis of stage 4 as an excuse, the totalitarian government now seizes absolute control over the lives of its citizens. The regime overcomes the enemies of stages 3 and 4. It begins brutally enforcing its “utopia” and ideology on the populace. This stage also sees the greatest atrocities committed against the populace because resistance to the totalitarian regime has been crushed. The people are defenseless and demoralized. Nothing stands between the regime and its victims. This stage involves mass killings as the regime liquidates any remaining enemies while seeking to control every detail of citizens’ lives.

During the latter stages of the French Revolution, the Committee of Public Safety received dictatorial powers to defeat anyone who opposed the revolutionary government. During 1793–94, the CPS eliminated rival revolutionary groups before passing a law that suspended citizens’ rights to a public trial or legal assistance and gave the jury only two options, acquittal or death. The result was horrifying: throughout France, three hundred thousand suspects were arrested, seventeen thousand were executed, and about ten thousand died in prison or without trial.

But it was nothing compared to the Red Terror and Joseph Stalin’s purges. The party used the attempted assassination of Lenin as justification for intense persecution of its enemies. Tens of thousands of people became victims, as discussed in Richard Pipes’s The Russian Revolution. But Lenin’s handiwork was only a precursor to Stalin’s “purges” of political enemies. Historians are divided on just how many people Stalin killed, but estimates reach as high as sixty million.

Estimates of the people killed by Hitler and his Nazi Party vary as well. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the figure stands at seventeen million, but only God knows for certain.

In addition to carrying out mass killings, established totalitarian regimes seek to control everyday life through measures like censorship, propaganda, gun control, and internal passports.

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Stage 2: The False Savior and the First Revolution

After identifying and appealing to the people’s discontent, the totalitarian presents himself as a savior. In stage 2, the revolutionary totalitarian enacts a dramatic change to “solve” the problems and discontent of stage 1.

To find a solution for its debt crisis, the French government called the Estates General assembly to advise the king on what to do. The Third Estate quickly claimed full governmental authority as the “National Assembly.” The National Assembly wanted to draw up a new constitution that would change the nature of the government to deal with injustices. After the storming of the Bastille, peasants in rural areas revolted against their lords. The National Assembly declared feudalism abolished and introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. With the execution of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793, the first stage of the revolution was over. The regicide left a massive power vacuum. Various groups struggled to fill this hole, but in the end, the Jacobins—the radicals—dominated the new revolutionary government.

In the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks took advantage of the food riots that began early in 1917. When the military began siding with the rioting workers, rather than restoring law and order, Tsar Nicholas knew all was lost. He abdicated on March 2, 1917 (and was later shot). The Bolshevik-run Petrograd Soviet quickly took control of post-tsarist Russia. Their slogan—Peace, Land, and Bread—attracted many frightened and angry people to them as to a savior. On November 6–7, they staged a coup that finally overturned the provisional government.

The initial rise of Nazism in Germany was less bloody but similarly based on messianic promises. Capitalizing on the resentment in Germany due to the Versailles Treaty and global economic downturn in 1929, the Nazi Party grew in size and influence. The Nazis had attempted a violent coup in November 1923 but had failed, and they turned to legal means of gaining control of the government. Due to Hitler’s skill with propaganda, the Nazi Party won more and more of the vote by the early 1930s. Eventually, it was the second-biggest political party in the country. At this point, Hitler was demanded that President Paul von Hindenburg appoint him chancellor, which Hindenburg agreed to in 1933. This was not a violent revolution, but the failed 1923 attempt shows the party’s violent tendencies.

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Stage 4: The Crisis

Stage 4 prepares the way for the totalitarian government to grasp total control over those under its rule. It consists of a crisis moment, which may be either a real threat or a false flag that seems to threaten the nation.

By 1793, the French Revolution was at a crisis point. Defenders of the old order rose up on all sides to crush the new order. Austrian and Prussian armies encircled France, while the Vendéean peasants revolted against the revolutionary government and army. And so, in the name of “public safety,” the government decided to take harsh measures against all enemies of the revolution. And so, of course, they needed more control. This was the task of the Committee of Public Safety, and it suffered from no scruple in its methods.

On August 3, 1918, Lenin was shot after giving a speech at a factory. While recovering in the hospital, he wrote to a subordinate, “It is necessary secretly—and urgently—to prepare the terror.” This initiated a campaign of mass killings and detentions by the government, known to history as the Red Terror. As always, the justification for these acts was the “emergency” indicated by the attempted assassination. The “radicals” and “counterrevolutionaries” were allegedly “at the gate,” and it was necessary to use extreme measures to deal with this imminent “threat.” So the rhetoric went. And so it always goes.

Hitler also used a “state of emergency” to justify his clampdown. On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag went up in flames. In response, Herman Gorrin, minister of the interior, ordered a raid on Communist headquarters, allegedly for evidence of sedition and a Communist plot to attack public buildings. This, in Hitler’s mind, was the signal for seizing complete control. On February 28, the cabinet abolished freedom of speech, assembly, privacy, and the press. Around four thousand people were arrested that night. This “crisis,” with the usual language about safety and countering threats, ushered in totalitarianism in Germany.

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Stage 3: Censorship, Persecution, Propaganda, and the Ending of Opposition

In stage 3, the initial upheaval of stage 2 has passed. The old order has been fundamentally changed, and now various forces begin to react. The rising totalitarian government faces many enemies, often dubbed “counterrevolutionaries” or “extremists.” Here in its infancy, the new order must struggle to gain more power and maintain that which has been acquired. For this reason, it sets about combatting its enemies through censorship and persecution.

As soon as they had gained sway over their countries, the first move of totalitarians like Hitler and Vladimir Lenin was to censor opposition and put out propaganda. Each of these totalitarian leaders also gained control of education and had secret police forces to monitor and even kill anyone designated as an enemy. Another strategy was to establish youth organizations to indoctrinate citizens in the state’s propaganda from an early age and tear their loyalties away from family or religion. Religion was almost universally persecuted once these regimes came to power.

Finally, Hitler and Lenin outlawed (either de jure or de facto) all political parties and views besides their own after coming to power.1 Totalitarians create a one-party system that often maintains a façade of democracy.

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Stage 1: Discontent and Rumblings

Every new order rises on the ruins of the old.

Those who would establish a new regime must tap into or generate dissatisfaction with the status quo. However much those desiring a reset may despise the old order, they can’t accomplish much without harnessing or fabricating a similar attitude in the public. Then the revolutionary totalitarian appears as the solution to these problems.

The Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France, for example, didn’t begin with blood but with bread. Between 1715 and 1800, the population of Europe doubled, creating food shortages among the French people. Many of the French people resented the King’s growing centralized authority. In addition, the ideas of the “Enlightenment” thinkers were stirring up revolutionary feeling. Finally, the French government was massively in debt due to the many wars of the eighteenth century, and it increased taxation even on nobles.

It was these sufferings and fears, combined with the machinations of the secret societies (admitted by the Marquis de Rosanbo at the Chamber of Deputies session of July 1, 1904) that led the to the revolution and the totalitarian Jacobin government. The Reign of Terror came after the fall of the king and the ancien régime, which the revolutionaries accomplished in part because of the problems and suffering in French society prerevolution.

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The Five Stages Of Totalitarianism

Authored by Walker Larson via The Mises Institute,

Fears of a growing totalitarian tendency in the US have swelled during 2020–22. But how close are we really to a totalitarian state? How have such regimes come about historically and what are the warning signs?

This article will answer these questions by examining totalitarian regimes in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries and the pattern by which they came to power.

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