When people think of totalitarianism they think of an all-controlling leader who dictates their wishes to bureaucrats and prefects, which are then carried out with ruthless efficiency. One thinks of the Nazis, the Stalinist Soviets, or many representations in popular culture like the Star Wars Empire. Certainly, this model is what we have understood as totalitarianism, but maybe those forms of totalitarianism are quite weak and unsustainable because they require increasing pressure on unruly populations. Maybe the United States of America is a totalitarian state but in a far more stable and sustainable form – process totalitarianism.
Instead of rule from above, process totalitarianism rules through bureaucratic process, the outcome of which is more or less determined. The state sets up processes which can only result in a small range of outcomes. It doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with these processes or outcomes; the point is that the state, and not democratic governance, control these processes and are thus able to achieve certain predictable ends, ends which reinforce state power. The state, like any capitalist organization, is concerned primarily with its own reproduction, and the idea that any state-controlled processes do anything other than reinforce its legitimacy is fallacious.
Much of this is quite mundane. You go to the DMV to get a drivers’ license, you pass a fairly simple test, register with the government, and you can legally drive. For the most part, the outcome of this process is more or less determined – you will get a drivers’ license, but you have to jump through the hoops, which serves to legitimize the authority of the state. You are now allowed to drive.
Other parts of this process totalitarianism are more insidious. Consider the process of setting up a jury trial. There’s discovery, discussion of the rules of the trial, jury selection, and the trial. This is a process for determining truth, but by the state setting up the trial in a certain way, the outcome can be more or less determined from the outset.
Consider, for example, the Rittenhouse trial. Rittenhouse was acquitted of murdering protestors. First of all, all the officers of the court should know exactly what will be said in court because it should all come out in discovery, so there’s rarely any surprises prior to the actual trial. Both the defense and the prosecution know how strong their cases are before the proceedings take place. Second, the rules can be set up to favor the defense or prosecution, e.g. the people killed by Rittenhouse were not allowed by the judge to be called victims though they were allowed to be called rioters. Finally, juries are routinely stacked to privilege a white worldview through the doctrine of “reasonable person” (See Milton 2021, Bloomberg Law Review Here).
Other types of juridical processes are set up to favor the prosecution. Plea bargaining is routinely used to push poor people into prison sentences even with weak cases under the threat of longer sentences. Again, the state sets up processes that achieve predictable ends, processes which are by no means under democratic control. In the Rittenhouse trial, the process was set up in favor of the defendant, but the point here is that the state controls it – not the people.
Thus, the outcome of the process of staging a jury trial – and it is staging – is more or less determined beforehand. This is process totalitarianism – the complete and total control by the state of society by controlling the processes by which society operates.
This exists everywhere. Elections for instance – the rules for voting are constantly manipulated to achieve a certain outcome and all the while geographic districts are locked in to privilege certain parties over another. Incumbent re-election is at about 95%. Add to this the amount of money and fundraising necessary to compete in electoral races, and the notion that we live in a democracy is actually quite foolhardy. Here again, the state sets up processes to achieve predictable ends.
Finally, by setting up these processes, the state creates a veil of legitimacy. Everyone votes, lawyers make arguments, judges rule, the jury decides and what appears as a democratic process is essentially a chimera for state control.
As a thought experiment, I want to talk about what a democratic criminal trial would look like. To me, jurors would be chosen at random from a particular geocultural area, the judge would be a community leader, elected and part-time, a delegate, defendants would defend themselves, and the plaintiff or victim or one of their family would be the prosecutor. Instead of a criminal trial being controlled and manipulated by state agents, the process would be a community affair, among peers in more than name. Maybe this is what a stateless juridical process looks like, maybe it is not, but it is important to imagine such stateless processes so that we can see the processes that govern us for what they are – process totalitarianism.
If we really look at our lives, we will see ourselves inundated with these processes and we have almost no control over them.