01 February 2010

Authoritarianism, Totalitarianism, and Anti-Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows?

While much of the world is just now coming to grips with the demise of the old "superpower" system, a confluence of emerging ideologies and population-influence tactics are waiting eagerly in the wings.

Last year, the folks from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Radio Free Asia published a report titled "Undermining Democracy: 21st Century Authoritarians," which looked at new ways that totalitarian-like leaders are squelching political freedoms throughout the world through strategic use of media (including social media) and participating in the global marketplace of ideas.

In a number of countries, leaders have ascended not so much with heavy-handed military might, but by using economic, social and political mechanisms to gain international legitimacy and foreign aid. They are not fighting the game; they are playing the game. They are not struggling against democracy, but rather, redefining it to suit their own ambitions.

Undermining Democracy described changes in how authoritarians are doing business, but what about possible changes in the causes theselves - the underlying totalitarian ideologies?

This is precisely what Ernest Sternberg addresses in his latest article: Purifying the World: What the New Radical Ideology Stands For, published in Orbis.

Sternberg coins the term "world purificationism" to characterize this diverse and somewhat diffuse ethos that is more easily identified by what it opposes (imperialist capitalism) than by what it advocates. He identifies "world purificationism" as a social movement whose idealistic vision is the following:

the anticipated defeat of imperial capitalist power in favor of a global network of beneficent culture-communities, which will empower themselves through grassroots participatory democracy, and maintain consistency across movements through the rectifying power of NGOs, thereby bringing into being a new era of global social justice and sustainable development, in which the diverse communities can harmoniously share an earth that has been saved from destruction and remade pristine. (p.65)

That's right. The ideological centerpieces are global justice, environmental protection and economic sustainability. Could it be that the traditionally liberal earth-lovers and environmental evangelists (who Sternberg says "like the followers of totalitarianisms past, .. also see themselves as the vanguard for the highest humanitarian ideals... {and as} exemplars of purity, {and} as progenitors of the utmost in democracy and inter-cultural appreciation") are morphing into a totalitarian social movement? Or perhaps just that they have become willing to permit totalitarianism as a tactic in order to prevent the earth's apocalyptic self-destruction? Are the "disaffected and alienated" being targeted for mobilization against the capitalist powers?

It seems in many ways reminiscent of modern anarchist movement: cohering around common enemies, defining themselves primarily by what they oppose, lacking hierarchical organization, bristling against state-level power, pro-environment, and anti-capitalism.

Sternberg's article is worth a read and the evolving processes of this emerging movement are certainly worth our attention.

ResearchBlogging.orgSternberg, E. (2010). Purifying the World: What the New Radical Ideology Stands For Orbis, 54 (1), 61-86 DOI: 10.1016/j.orbis.2009.10.006