It has always puzzled me that some people can look at something like public provision of health insurance and see a fateful step toward tyranny and oppression. What this requires is a suspicion of “the state” simply as such, and it seems to me that Foucault was right to say that the greatest achievement of the early neoliberal theorists was to convince seemingly everyone in the world that the lesson to be drawn from the experience of “totalitarianism” is the dangers stemming from excessive state power.
In fact, if there is anything to be gained by placing the Nazi and Soviet experiences under the same conceptual heading, it cannot be a lesson about the dangers of state power — indeed, it has to be just the opposite: the dangers of a weak and impotent state that cannot restrain the power of a para-state movement. Both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks ran roughshod over the state, so that the official state organs were largely subservient or irrelevant, respectively. Hitler’s power as “Führer” did not stem from his official position as German Chancellor, and indeed the entire strategy of his movement was to suspend the official political order as much as possible to create a space to exercise power without restraint. The pre-existing state in Russia was even weaker than the Weimar Republic, and Stalin was able to elevate what was originally the purely functional position of “party secretary” (i.e., the person who takes notes, just like I currently take notes in my capacity as “faculty secretary” at Shimer college) into a position of absolute power — and what ultimately broke the power of the Communist Party was Gorbachev’s decision to treat the “official” Soviet political institutions as more than empty formalities. (The contrast between the “lawless legalism” of right-wing strategy and the left-wing tendency to simply ignore “official” power structures and begin exercising power “directly” is an interesting one.)
So if we’re to be on the watch for looming totalitarianism, it seems that we should be looking to movements that deride the official state apparatus and seek to “weaponize” every possible loophole and formality in order to advance their own goals. In American history, I’d say the closest thing to that model we have is the Jim Crow order that emerged in the South after the failure of Reconstruction — exploiting the weaknesses and gaps in federal power in order to clear out the space to effectively disenfranchise the black population and then control them through the continual threat of extra-legal terrorist violence and using any procedural means at their disposal to hamstring efforts to remedy the situation. (On the left, it seems like the only example you could even make an argument for is FDR.)
In contemporary politics, the only real examples are from the right — the neoconservative “putsch” under Bush and then the pathetic spectacle of the Tea Party. Perhaps an exceptionally paranoid person could have been worried about a kind of “cult of personality” forming around Obama, but it should be clear by now that there could be no more fervent believer in the status quo (indeed, one could even say that he has been very concerned to “save appearances” by maintaining continuity with Bush policies, retroactively obscuring how radical they were). Perhaps the Republicans will be chastened in some way, but it seems fair to say that at this point American politics is shaking out into one party that’s in favor of having an official state apparatus and another that is increasingly dominated by people who are impatient to destroy and undermine it in every way possible.
I’m sure it’ll turn out fine, though. Presumably the free market will make sure things don’t get too out of hand if the proto-totalitarians in our midst get their way.