Jordan Peterson on the totalitarian temptation

One of Jordan Peterson’s core ideas is the human capacity for evil, and his great examples are the crimes of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China.

What’s notable about all three, he wrote, is not just the atrocities committed by the ruling party, but that the regimes were sustained by the consent of ordinary people.

Under certain circumstances, Peterson believes, almost all of us are potential secret police informers and concentration camp guards.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

His heroes are people such as Viktor Frankl, the Viennese psychiatrist who found a meaning in life to sustain him in a Nazi death camp; Vaclav Havel, who lived in truth despite his frequent imprisonments in Communist Czechoslovakia; and, above all, the great Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who survived Soviet forced-labor camps and found a way to tell the world about them.

Havel condemned those who went along with the regime, such as the greengrocer who put up a sign saying “workers of the world, unite” because doing so is a path of least resistance.  Solzhenitsyn went so far as to blame himself for helping make the Gulag possible by failing to contract the Soviet regime’s lying propaganda.

So the choice is stark.  Either be willing to say “no,” no matter what the cost, or be a potential cog in a killing machine.

What is it today to which we need to say “no”?

It is whether to go along with unprovoked military aggression, assassinations, preventive detention, torture of suspects, warrantless surveillance and all the other practices of police states—all of which have come to be accepted as normal.

Ordinary Americans let themselves be led, step-by-step, to committing atrocities such as the My Lai massacre or the Abu Ghraib tortures.  Until more of us learn to say “no”, we will be just like ordinary Germans in the book Peterson discusses in the video above.


Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China were alike in being ruled by a leader who claimed infallibility, supported by a single political party based on an ideology that couldn’t be questioned and was willing to kill people by the millions.

In certain important ways, though, Nazi Germany was different from the others.  I think that if the United States ever becomes totalitarian, it will resemble Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy much more than any of the Communist countries.

The Soviet Union and Chinese People’s Republic were revolutionary.  Their rulers tore down the old social structures and tried to replace them with something new.

Nazi Germany preserved the old social structure in form.  There were businesses, which continued to pay dividends.  There were churches, which continued to conduct religious services.  Outwardly, little changed.  Most Germans lived their lives as they did before 1933.  But they were controlled by an invisible parallel structure, the Nazi Party.

The atrocities of Stalin and Mao were committed inwardly, against the their people, in order to strengthen their power and to implement economic theories that did not work.   Mao surely did not intend that millions of Chinese should die as a result of his agricultural policies; they died because he was unwilling to accept criticism or face facts.

Adolf Hitler

The atrocities of Hitler were committed outwardly and intentionally.   His victims were Jews, Slavs, gypsies, Communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals, among others.

But Hitler’s government did its best to look after obedient conformist Germans of good family.  It was willing to starve Ukrainians, Dutch and others in order that Germans might be fed.

What this means is that it was possible for Germans, right up until the final months of the war, to blind themselves to the nature of the regime and pretend that life was more or less normal.

In the same way, it may be possible for us Americans, right up until the final months of American global power, to ignore everything our government is doing in our name.

I am no better than anybody else in this respect.  Whether or not I was capable of being a concentration camp guard, I know I have been the equivalent of a “good German”.  For decades I ignored how the CIA helped torturers and death squads in South America.  I went along with the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Even though I knew it was based on lies, I thought it was advantageous to the USA.  Even now my “no” is confined to a few friends and this blog.


None of Us Is Free If One of Us Is Chained by Paul Street for Counterpunch.

This Is Actually Happening in the United States by Jack Perry for The Ghion Journal.

U.S. Court Documents Reveal Immigrant Children Tied Down, Hooded, Beaten, Stripped and Drugged by Partick Martin for the World Socialist Web Site.

The Unofficial Gag Order of Jamil al-Amin: 16 Years in Prison and Not Allowed to Speak by Obaid H. Siddiqui for The Root.

The Yemeni Holocaust by Ian Welsh.

It’s Time to Start Getting Enraged at What Western Imperialists Have Done to Syria by Caitlin Johnstone.

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