Horizontal Totalitarianism in Life and Literature

by Mariano Martín Rodríguez

There once was a society in which horizontal totalitarianism was so successful that, without any need for a State or institutions, simple social pressure from friends and neighbours was sufficient to conserve a culture and its customs, perhaps for over forty thousand years. One could even speculate that if Captain James Cook had not disembarked in Australia it may have lasted even longer. The indigenous people of this island-continent are suggestive of the power of horizontal totalitarianism as a form of organisation capable of formatting people so that practically any individual initiative that may alter traditional world-views and customs virtually disappears. Aboriginal Australians did not need to burn at the stake those who broke taboos or refused to respect and follow traditional rites. It was enough that their peers would exclude them from the community, and that they would then perish in the desert (see, for instance, Philip Clarke’s comprehensive anthropological history Where the Ancestors Walked, 2003).

In other societies, more technologically advanced and on the whole ideologically less monolithic, institutional repression has been necessary to eliminate ideologies and behaviours that diverge from horizontal totalitarian norms. In many places, professionalised clergy quickly assumed responsibility for fixing community laws and seeing that they were obeyed, using prosecution analogous to criminal trials against what was considered sinful conduct. These sins were widely understood as crimes against society, or rather, against the maintenance of totalitarian control over individual minds. This is the case, for example, of the ancient Hebrew priesthood, whose sentences were carried out collectively by the people through stoning, a fact that indicated that the punishment was not purely the responsibility of an authority that enforced its will from top to bottom, but also that of the neighbours and acquaintances of the sinner/offender. It was the community that took on and carried out the right to punish. Over time, the State increasingly assumed this power for itself, substituting a vertical order for the earlier horizontal one, which ultimately culminated in modern forms such as fascism and communism. Nowadays, aside from its use by the Cuban dictatorship for its own interests, as well as those who aspire to imitate it in other parts of Spanish-speaking Latin America, horizontal totalitarianism has lost its institutional power in almost all geographical locations and civilizations. This includes Australia, where the aboriginal people, like those of New Guinea, have had to accept modern respect for the individual and the separation, at least in theory, of church, State and ethnicity. However, this does not mean that horizontal totalitarianism is a thing of the ancient past. Even without an established institutional power, its social manifestations continue to oppress people in all too many places, and the modern Western world is no exception. In contrast to the vertical kind, horizontal totalitarianism does not by any means need to dominate public institutions in order to come into being, or to crush the individual, because it pre-dates and exists independently from these institutions.

 In fact, horizontal totalitarianism may also arise without availing itself of institutional agency, since it does not require any institutions in order to repress or eliminate dissidents. It is difficult to fight against this type of totalitarianism because anyone could be one of its agents and its workings can remain opaque even to those who enthusiastically practice it in their daily lives. Horizontal totalitarianism represents a totalitarianism exercised by the majority (or a dominant minority able to sway and manipulate a majority) of a given community by oppressing other members of that community who do not adhere to its unwritten rules. It oppresses minorities as well as those who are seen as disturbing or threatening the homogeneity of the community as a unique and complete entity. In horizontal totalitarianism, there is no need for external authorities to impose their will, against whom the community of the oppressed can, in turn, rebel. Since the majority, made up of oppressors and their conformist followers, and the minority of oppressed people live on the same social plane, the persecuted can hardly rely on the solidarity of their fellow dissidents because they find themselves isolated and disempowered among the mass of individuals who apply the unwritten laws of uniformity, and of the totalitarian unity of the community.

It may seem excessive to some to term this horizontal oppression ‘totalitarian’. However, its consequences for people and societies are even more serious than those of vertical totalitarianism. An incalculable number of people have died at the hands of their neighbours and countrymen since the beginning of time. How many Muslim women have been stoned to death by their neighbours for not adhering to their society’s sexual mores? How many Hindu men and women have been murdered by their relatives for daring to marry outside their caste? How many individuals have died for not believing in their tribe’s chosen god? How many have died for daring to question the beliefs and prejudices held by the majority of people in their community? And we are not talking about primitive societies here, nor solely those of the past. Today, homosexual people still commit suicide in communities where widespread homophobia turns their existence into a living hell. We still see people exiled or forced to seek asylum because they refused to partake in the religious or political ideas of their people, or because they do not belong to the predominant ethnicity or ideological affiliation of their region. Criticism, whether more or less open; social vacuums; and the impossibility of leading a life of one’s own, continue to hound all those who, for whatever reason, are seen as being abnormal.

Even our private lives are threatened, and not only by corrupt and opportunistic politicians who take advantage of people’s prejudices to limit minority rights and secure their own power. This power, built on populism, is but the political face of horizontal totalitarianism. Thanks to the development of the surveillance methods and mutual control structures offered by information technologies, before long we might begin to receive scores (c.f. China’s social credit system) and, consequently, punishments and rewards, based on our neighbours’ or communities’ opinions of us. No longer will anyone wish to be original, extravagant or creative, nor outspokenly contrarian, because this may cause that group of people who judge us with each passing moment to turn against us. This phenomenon can be observed in the actions of existing successful public silencing initiatives, which confront questions and divergent opinions with insults, as seen in the unfortunate social media lynchings perpetrated in recent years by fanaticised supporters of MeToo or Black Lives Matter, or by similar movements with equally extreme ideologies. While it is true that these phenomena are not new, in the past they were only dangerous once they crossed into the physical realm, when people became a policing mass, as explained by Gustave Le Bon in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (Psychologie des foules 1895). Thanks to current technologies and the eternal social instincts of the human being, the ‘mechanical solidarity’ of closed, traditional communities, as described by Émile Durkheim in The Division of Labour in Society (De la division du travail social 1893), may even accumulate more repressive force today than it has already enjoyed for millennia.

The Internet has been and continues to be a powerful tool for unleashing self-expression and individual creativity. In theory, anyone can propose anything online, and by the same token, can oppose anything. Then again, it is important to ask oneself how many people might maintain their silence, or hide their convictions for fear of the aforementioned media lynchings. We are also aware of numerous children and adolescents who have committed suicide to escape cyberbullying perpetrated by their neighbours and classmates, for their apparent lack of conformity to some ideal or principle of normalcy prevalent at the time. For horizontal totalitarianism, social harassment is a powerful weapon that the Internet has not deactivated; one could even argue that its power has intensified, since the Internet makes it easy for the number of bullies to increase exponentially.

The danger appears even greater when taking into account that neither writers nor intellectuals wish to denounce it. On the contrary, the modern and postmodern idealisation of all manner of closed societies, from primitive tribes to rural villages, has inspired numerous texts precisely condemning that one place where the individual may, to an extent, escape horizontal totalitarianism. That is, the great modern city in which economic and political freedom prevail, as well as freedom to practice traditional customs. In the city, it is not possible for everyone to know and control you. Unlike the village or tribe, in which everyone knows everyone else, no one has any reason to know anything about you and thus you can carry on your life without fear of criticism or attacks from other members of the community. No one will disapprove of you because you do not attend mass or believe in the God or gods that the village or tribe dictates you should, make love in a way that is condemned by the ruling community’s morality, or fail to profess belief in your nationality being superior to that of foreigners. Aside from mandatory compliance with laws and the reciprocal respect essential to a peaceful coexistence, the individual is sovereign and is no longer a mere component of a mechanical social body that nullifies free will, creativity or, indeed, individuality. Nonetheless, nowadays those who should be the most interested in preserving their individuality, since their writing depends on it, are publishing a steady stream of dystopias instead. These works no longer describe the workings of vertical totalitarianism (imposed from above, by a ruling government, party or all-powerful person), as was the case in the modern classic dystopias against fascist or communist regimes, despite the fact that these still exist today, albeit in marginal countries such as North Korea.

Conversely, it seems very few writers have addressed the oppression of dissident individuals by horizontal totalitarianism either in ‘primitive’, traditional communities or in complex, modern societies. In dystopian literature, following a strict definition of the genre, there are hardly any examples of complex descriptions of this type of totalitarianism. In the context of anarchist movements that aim to eliminate all vertical institutions so that horizontal organisation becomes all-inclusive and, as a result, total(itarian), one can call to mind dedicated anarchists who have warned, through their fiction, against the danger to the individual, as well as to technological and cultural development, posed by conformism horizontally imposed by a libertarian community. One supreme example is the destiny of the scientist who discovers a device for interstellar communication in the novel The Dispossessed (1974), by Ursula K. Le Guin. The reaction of the utopic anarchist society in which he lives is so negative that he is forced to go into exile on another planet, just like countless peers who have had to escape their closed-minded villages in order to avoid being stoned to death.

In Western literature horizontal totalitarianism has mostly been described in a single setting: the countryside, despite the frequent idealisation of rural life from Ancient times until our contemporary intellectuals who seem to be incapable of getting past the noble savage stereotype, or rather the stereotype of the virtuous peasant, which mainly originated in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s widely read and imitated novel Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse [Julie, or the New Heloise] (1761). The traditional European village and its oppressive mechanical solidarity feature primarily, and almost solely, in realist narratives written mainly between 1850 and 1960. At this time, both progressive positivists and Marxists were aware that modernisation and development would be impossible if there were to be no break with the inertia and resistance to change that dominated the most traditionalist areas of countryside. In this way, these writers entered into conflict with the defenders of traditional closed societies, those in which one did not question ritual, archaic religiosity as a collective phenomenon closely tied in with the consciousness of each individual, nor the patriarchal nature of customs, nor the ethnic purity of a group of peasants as the repository of national spirit, unlike the ungrateful strangers of the city. In a context in which the actions of the modern State and its laws penetrated further and further into the countryside, in which urban influence was making itself known in progressive freedom and diversity of ideas and customs, the authors of rural dystopias knew how to narrate, using expressive realism, the way in which villagers could resort to collective repression against those they perceived as contrary to a mechanical solidarity threatened by liberal individualism and the latest capitalist organisation.

It is worth mentioning the French novel Les Paysans [The Peasantry] (1855), by Honoré de Balzac, the story of a wealthy outsider who buys and moves into a mansion and the corresponding agricultural estate, before ultimately having to leave due to the opposition to, and even criminal action taken against, his presence and productive activities by both wealthy and poor locals. A similar collective reaction is narrated in La barraca [The Cabin] (1898), by Spanish author Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, in which, in order to survive, a very poor family moves into a small farm that has been declared off-limits by the people of the village. They are eventually forced to leave after their neighbours burn down the farmhouse. In Switzerland, Gian Fontana also shows, in “Il President da Valdei” [The Mayor of Valdei] (1935), the way in which village peoples’ xenophobia violently defends the homogeneity of the community with such fanaticism that they would rather destroy their home than open it up to the world: in this Romansh novella the arson of the house rented by Gypsy families spreads and ends up burning down the whole village. In Italy and Romania, Giovanni Verga’s story, with the title “Libertà” [Liberty] (1882) and the novel Răscoala [The Uprising] (1932), by Liviu Rebreanu, are more than just two examples of tales of peasant revolt. In both, the blind violence of the masses illustrates the instinctive character of a village’s mechanical solidarity which reveals itself in an irrational (and counterproductive) collective violence directed against landlords and their administrators, who in the community are perceived as outsider elements. Being outsiders, they must be removed from the community with a fury akin to that reserved for the poor individuals who, due to their physical appearance, are removed from the bosom of society. This is the case, for instance, of the dwarf in the Portuguese short story “O anão” [‘The Dwarf’] (1893), by Fialho de Almeida. In other examples they may become outsiders because of their behaviour, like the elderly characters of Victor Català’s “Idil·li Xorc” [‘Barren Romance’] (1902) who are stoned to death in a Catalonian village for having married at such an advanced age. To these realist examples one could add Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play Der Besuch der alten Dame [The Visit] (1956), which demonstrates how within a given community horizontal totalitarianism can be stoked and exploited by external elements in order to eliminate certain individuals. In English, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (1948; collected in The Lottery, or, The Adventures of James Harris, 1949), is worth mentioning, as well as Dorothy K. Haynes’ “Fully Integrated,” a horror story written around 1949 and published in 1976. The former is a masterful gothic parable dealing with the sacrificial nature of collective justice in societies subjected to mechanical solidarity. The latter is also a parable, this time of the rejection of outsiders by a rural community so closed and mutually bound that outsiders can only be integrated into it in the form of cannibalistic food for locals.

These classic works of modern fiction have never been studied as a thematic whole, a sub-genre capable of examining the mechanisms of horizontal totalitarianism with the same penetration and mastery of dystopias such as those of Yevgeni Zamiatin and George Orwell, which investigated vertical totalitarianism. But, how could those studies have been carried out if the very concept of horizontal totalitarianism is practically unknown beyond studies in crowd psychology, which are generally limited to those rare moments of paroxysm in which the masses become collective agents (violent protests, lynchings, etc.)? Perhaps the answer lies in that our herd instinct is so strong that we do not even notice its terrible effects. Sometimes, in the name of integration and equality/uniformity, we do not hesitate in treating misfits or abnormal peoplewith cruelty. Millennia of discriminatory religiosity, centuries of equally exclusive and discriminatory nationalism and an eternity of collective prejudices have desensitised us to horizontal totalitarianism, especially when one considers the all-pervading influence of its latest manifestation: peer-enforced political correctness.

In our postmodern times, it is fashionable to critique Popperian open societies and liberal economic and political systems, which are precisely the only ones having proven that mechanical solidarity and the ensuing communalism and horizontal totalitarianism can actually be curbed. But postmodern intellectuals usually prefer to imagine the downfall and disintegration of those classical liberal societies as demonstrated by the staggering amount of contemporary anti-capitalist dystopias from early cyberpunk fiction to the ones written, for example, in Spain in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession (see Diana Palardy, The Dystopian Imagination in Contemporary Spanish Literature and Film, 2018). There are even intellectuals who have condemned tourism (see, for instance, Andrea Víctrix, a 1974 dystopian novel written in Catalan by Llorenç Villalonga targeting mass tourism in his native Majorca), followed by influential left-wing activists and politicians (most notably in Barcelona), for whom tourists represent a threat to ethnic integrity and economic self-sufficiency, in other words, two underlying ideals of traditional society, which are contrary to the globalisation and cosmopolitanism that tourism implies.

Currently, instead of humanist cosmopolitanism, it is multiculturalism that seems to predominate among hegemonic intellectuals in the academic sphere and the mainstream press. Underpinning this mode of observation is a form of cultural relativism that regards cultures as discreetly delineated, separate realities; their blending or co-experience thus often draws accusations of ‘cultural appropriation.’ Following this logic, the practice of horizontal totalitarianism becomes acceptable if it is part of ‘their culture,’ as an internal reflection and quasi justification of the superimposed civic community enforcing its overarching diversitarian narrative in an analogous process of higher-order horizontal totalitarianism. What is important is the group and, for multiculturalists, there is nothing wrong with formatting the mind of its members to such a point that they will accept, for example, that it is fine to riot, stone to death adulterous women, enslave members of neighbouring communities or sacrifice and eat prisoners of war, as long as it is or was done by ‘minority’ groups or communities subjected to mechanical solidarity, especially if these are believed to be ‘indigenous.’ Anything would seem to be better than individualism and liberal humanism, terms that today have become words with negative connotations for the postmodernists who dictate what is politically correct from their cosy North American university campuses or for the opinion-makers who reside in regions culturally dependent on the Anglosphere. Now perhaps it is time for humanist and universal reason and conscience to once again shine their lights upon society, in life and in literature, against the communitarian ‘politically correct’ obscurantism of a totalitarian nature that seems to continue to dictate much of our current way of thinking, as well as our behaviour, in the regions of Western culture and throughout the globalised world, including on the Internet.

Translated from Spanish by Josephine Swarbrick


English translations of quoted works

Balzac, Honoré de: The Peasantry, translated by Ellen Marriage, introduction by George Sainstbury. London: Dent, J. M. Dent and Co., 1896.

Blasco Ibáñez, Vicente. The Cabin, translated by Francine Haffkine Snow and Beatrice M. Mekota, introduction by John Garrett Underhill. New York (NY): Alfred A. Knopf, 1919.

Dürrenmatt, Friedrich: The Visit, translated by Patrick Bowles. London: Jonathan Cape, 1962.

Durkheim, Émile: The Division of Labour in Society, translated by W. D. Halls, introduction by Lewis A. Coser. New York (NY): Free Press, 1997.

Fontana, Gian: “The Mayor of Valdei,” in The Curly-Horned Cow: An Anthology of Swiss-Romansh Poems and Stories, edited by Reto R. Bezzola, translated by W. W. Kibler. London: Peter Owen, 1971, p. 70-116.

Le Bon, Gustave: The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: T Fisher Unwin Ltd, 1896.

Rebreanu, Liviu: The Uprising, translated by P. Crandjean and S. Hartauer. London: Peter Owen, 1965.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques : Julie; or, The New Heloise, annotated and translated by Philip Stewart and Jean Vache. Hanover (NH): Dartmouth College Press, 1997.

Verga, Giovanni. “Liberty,” in Little Novels of Sicily, translated by D. H. Lawrence. South Royalton (VT): Steerforth Press, 2000, p. 125-134.


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