The common feature of all totalitarian systems is neither concentration camps, secret police, nor mass surveillance – as horrifying as all these are. The common feature of all totalitarian systems is the prohibition of questions: every totalitarian regime first monopolises what counts as rationality and determines what questions you are allowed to ask.
If you don’t see that precisely this is happening on an unprecedented scale globally, you have not been paying close attention.
Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski’s described the totalitarian method of imposing unity on an entire population as perfect integration through perfect fragmentation. Mull over this phrase while you watch TV or scroll social media: perfect integration through perfect fragmentation.
In the Czech context of the 1970s and 1980s, as Professor F. Flagg Taylor writes: “[Vaclav] Benda saw that the Communist regime either sought to infiltrate and co-opt independent social structures for its own purposes or to de-legitimate and destroy them. It sought to maintain a populace of isolated individuals without any habits or desires for association.” In other words, as he put it, the Iron Curtain had not just descended between East and West, but between one individual and another, or even between an individual’s own body and his soul.
Benda was a faithful Catholic and remained grounded in his Christian convictions as he faced the challenges of his time and place. He recognised that any hopes for the regime’s fundamental reform or even moderation were futile. It was time to ignore the regime’s official structures and build new ones where human community could be rediscovered and human life could be lived decently.
Benda proposed building new small-scale institutions of civil society – in education and family, in productivity and market exchange, in media and communications, literature and the arts, entertainment and culture, and so on – what Benda called “The Parallel Polis.”
Benda acknowledged that every institution of the Parallel Polis was a David facing the Goliath of a massively powerful totalitarian state. Any one or another of these institutions could be crushed by the state machinery if the state specifically targeted it for liquidation.
The task, therefore, was to create so many of these parallel structures and institutions that the corrupt state would finally be limited in its reach: while it could crush any one institution at any time, there would eventually be too many such institutions for the state to target them all simultaneously. Elements of the Parallel Polis would always survive: as the state crushed one institution, two others would arise elsewhere.
The Parallel Polis requires a deliberate strategy: it does not develop automatically. As Benda proposed in his own day, “I am convinced,” wrote Aaron Kheriaty, “it is time to build these new parallel institutions of civil society … I suggest that today’s Parallel Polis should be grounded in three principles: Sovereignty, Solidarity, Subsidiarity.”
Aaron Kheriaty, Senior Brownstone Scholar and 2023 Brownstone Fellow, is a psychiatrist working with the Unity Project. He is a former Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California at Irvine School of Medicine, where he was the director of Medical Ethics.