The role of the individual and its relationship to the state has been a matter of much sociological debate. Theorists in an array of varied fields such as philosophy, sociology, psychology, and politics have attempted to explain the correlation between the two. In this paper, I will concentrate on the role of individualism to an authoritarian or fascist political structure and how America’s ideals of intense individualism over the collective have led to a vulnerability to a totalitarian political regime.
Using the work of Emile Durkheim on the idea of civic morals, i.e. the relationship of the individual to the State, as well as Amitai Etzioni’s study on particularistic obligations and Milgram’s views on obedience we will come to see that the definition of self in relation to the State plays an integral role on not only the individual’s role in the mechanics of the state but their subsequent obedience to the state system.
In his work Professional Ethics and Civic Morals, Emile Durkheim explores the relationship of the individual to himself, his family, his profession, and finally his government. As he notes in his defining of the state, there has been since the beginning of civilization, as we know it a direct opposition between the political parties and their constituents.
In this lies a division of power, those who wield the authority and those who submit to it. The state is defined as a spatial territory complete with its own customs and interests to which the political party should serve in view of a public good. In the United States, where the larger territory of the country is quite literally divided into semi-autonomous states which retain some control but answer to the federal government on other issues, there is a division of power that belies a partiality.
With politics largely divided into two political categories Democrats and Republicans, there are limits and deviations from what the public good means. The American ideal of each individual voice having the power to influence policy and politics, while at the heart of the ideals of democracy, also tends to lead toward exclusionary and separatists policies that effect only a portion of a total population.
In the name of the democratic process, Americans accept the results despite the fact that certain policies while acceptable and profitable for one portion of the population can have a detrimental effect on other factions stifle our voices. Durkheim notes that individuals are at the center of the development of any state society, whether it be artistic, economic or political. Without the individuals there can be not collective, however, the United States concentration on recognizing and using an individualist centered ideal of a collective leaves it vulnerable to the control of the collectiveness of a few over the many.
Though it would seem that with the democratic structure of our election system and the multi-tiered mechanics of the law system that the United States would be immune to something such as fascism, in reality our system promotes much of the same individualist pandering seen in totalitarian societies. Americans do not always vote for the politics but rather individuals based on an array of factors including morality, religion, personal life/appearance, success with rhetoric, and the changing ethical landscape exemplified in changing attitudes towards science, religion, and race as well as other socio-political structures.
Our election campaign process involves the polarizing of certain individual figureheads and not that of ideas, the ideas and policies become secondary in a society, which concentrates so completely on external signifiers.
Aggravating the United States state of the pseudo-democratic process is a state of isolation that has been both promoted by the federal government during the Bush era and broken down into a more universalistic approach by Obama. However, at the heart of the patriotism that defines the country, there is a pride, which excludes others and promotes U.S. interests over that of a collective world society.
This policy of patriotic isolationism leaves the U.S. particularly vulnerable to a totalitarian regime in that its interests stretch only to within its own borders. As Etzioni notes, “isolated people tend to be irrational, impulsive, and open to demagogical appeals and totalitarian movements.
One could argue that these movements have risen only in societies and periods in which social integration has been greatly weakened” (590). Drawing on this concept, the lack of social cohesiveness following the September 11 attacks when the government suspended certain civil rights for certain people in the name of fighting terrorism, shows the power of a small portion of government to take effective and complete control over the lives of its people without a democratic or collective process.
The rights that were stripped from all were done so in effect to stop an unknown number and an unknown contingent of society. That these restrictions affected the whole was of little consequence to the government and at first for a large part of American citizens who obeyed these without question. This is perhaps one of the most recent and poignant examples of the risks posed to the United States by a totalitarian/fascist government.
Elsewhere in American history we can see similar instances where a minority of people (in the larger schema, though a large group themselves) having been oppressed and persecuted by a small group of government or political interests; think the Japanese Americans of World War II – the rhetoric of hate used to imprison them seemingly eerily familiar to the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini though hidden under the pretense of security.
The conformity of the American people to government decisions that actually demoralize and depress an entire portion of individual peoples, shown through the nation’s history, have been both negative and positive. Bernard Bass in discussing Miligram’s conformity paradigm defines conformity as “behavior reflecting the successful influence of other persons” (38), wherein he shows that the definition of any successful government whether it be democratic or authoritarian relies on obedience, the difference between the two lies in the structure of the society and its beliefs on the individual’s political view point.
Every state runs a risk of being overpowered and seized by an authoritarian regime; however, their overall success is contingent on the attitudes of the individuals who make up that state. In a communist controlled government such as China, where the ideals of socialist reform are extolled if not always practiced, the ground in dogma of the party would undermine the detrimental influence of a demagogic individual.
However, in the United States where the individual is seen to have control over his own individual destiny which can be and is interwoven into the social fabric, the very ideals that give importance to the idea of the individual also make the country vulnerable to the control of such individuals.
While the American government structure attempts to hedge itself against this danger by having a governing body broken into two major parts and limits on the executive branch’s control. But given the right set of circumstances such as terrorism and blind fear, the democratic power of the people can easily be superseded by the hands of only a few. Fear and intimidation work on many levels, some more subtle than others, all leading to an obedience and control, which are at the heart of a totalitarian authority.
Bass, B. (1961). “Conformity, Deviation, and a General Theory of Interpersonal Behavior.” Conformity and Deviation. Ed. I.A. Berg and B. Bass. New York: Harper and Brothers, pp. 38-101.
Durkheim, E. (1992). Professional Ethics and Civic Morals. Ed. C. Brookfield. New York: Routledge.
Etzioni, A. (Fall 2002) “Are Particularistic Obligations Justified? A Communitarian Justification.” The Review of Politics. 64 (4). pp. 573-598.