Note: This essay first appeared in Matichon newspaper on 25 September 2014. Nidhi Eoseewong offers a comparative analysis of totalitarianism, nationalism, and love. When I first read the essay, and once again now, I thought immediately of Che Guevara’s oft-repeated dictum, “Let me say, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” –translator.
Of course, the news was not that watching only one film had opened the eyes of Ms. Park Yeonmi, who has now fled to South Korea. She explained that there is a group of North Koreans who like to watch foreign films, even though this is a grave crime in North Korea. An Indian or Russian film results in 3 years in prison. But if is an American film, then the punishment is death. Nevertheless, people secretly buy and swap films constantly.
Ms. Park lived in a tiny space that she secretly pierced open in the striving-to-be-totalitarian dictatorship that is North Korea. Not only did she secretly watch foreign films, but her father was also imprisoned for selling steel to China. She was perhaps involved in trading on the black market as well.
On the film, Ms. Park commented that, “I felt very surprised upon watching Titanic. I saw that there was a man who was willing to sacrifice his life for a woman, as if for the nation …. at that time I felt that there was something awry with everyone who was interested in love, no matter the color of their skin, their culture, or what language they used. Whoever they were, they were different from me.”
I think that Ms. Park is saying that love is natural for humans. I think that she is saying that the fact that the North Korean government forces and trains the people to disregard to love is therefore in contravention to nature.
In Thailand, a large number of writers and poets share Ms. Park’s thinking that love is a natural feeling, like being sleepy, hungry, or afraid. Love is then therefore able to “spring up in one’s heart” without reason.
I think this is an instance of misunderstanding. Love has its own culture. Love does not arise naturally. This misunderstanding itself may not be of great importance, but it results in us failing to understand why totalitarian dictatorship must set itself up as the enemy of love.
We may have to begin by separating love and relationships from one another. That we “love” our parents is because are connected to them and have a relationship with them for our entire life. We are not simply bound to them, but bonded to them and to the accumulation of the many kinds of relationships that we have had with them. We are bound to the relationships themselves, which is more important than being bound to the individuals. Therefore, we still “love” our parents even after they pass away. The love does not lessen or unravel. Or to put it another way, we continue to remain bound up with the relationship (that is now only a memory).
Love is a feeling that one individual has for another individual. They may not have an association yet, or may not have had one for very long. Love therefore differs from a relationship because it is not [necessarily] connected to being associated together. And when this is the case, it is often not directly controlled by law, economy, tradition, etc. This causes us to unmistakably feel that love is so very natural.
But no, it’s not. Love is cultural. Love is an emotion that we build amidst social relationships in the modern world. The modern world has given us an awareness of our individuality. I do not mean that ancient people lacked this awareness. They had it is as well, but it was not an important awareness. They did not use it as the foundation of relationships with other people.
Without this awareness, we could not have love in the form with which we are familiar in the present. I would also say that we could not have a liberal consciousness either. This is because Western liberalism rests upon individualism. That is to say that of course each person has equal rights, and each person has the freedom to express her individuality, and the particularity that makes her different from other people.
Right here, this is what makes love a danger to dictatorships. Love is especially dangerous to totalitarian regimes such as the one North Korea attempts to be, or Oceania in 1984 by George Orwell.
Love, or the individuality of the hero and heroine, are at the core of 1984. They met with love in a small corner unreached by the camera of the state. Their growing awareness of individuality and love increased their negative feelings toward the state. This is because the totalitarian state provided no space for anyone to be an individual.
When the state apprehended the “crime” of the pair, the state took them to “adjust their attitude” rather than killing and eliminating them. This is because the danger they posed to the totalitarian state was not captured in this particular man-woman pair, but the danger was found in love and the consciousness of individuality itself. The state had to kill the consciousness rather than kill the individual persons.
And the state was successful. When the two met again, they were strangers to one another. They no longer met as Winston and Julia. Each was a loyal citizen of the totalitarian state in their actions, emotions, consciousness, and thoughts. They discussed their past experience as if it was one kind of information. The past had no meaning for them as individuals, and only the meaning provided by the state remained.
Totalitarian dictatorship cannot accept this kind of love because it establishes individual consciousness. Titanic is an ordinary romance novel. It is a story of love that crosses the borders of class, family, and lineage. The story ends with the sacrifice of life for a loved one. Could any romance emphasize the individuality of love more than this?
Therefore, the film can be striking for those who live in societies in which individuality is usual. But the film is alarming for people who live in dictatorial societies in which the state thwarts and forbids awareness of individuality. As Ms. Park noted, they have to sacrifice for the nation, not for one’s love or a single woman.
Another point that interests me is the blocking of the news by the North Korean government. The punishment for secretly watching foreign films is very high. This is all in order to protect the people from coming to know the truth about the outside world. What does all of this indicate to us?
It tells us that the “truth” that the state creates for the citizens is not strong enough. Therefore, the state suspects that the truth from another perspective may easily undermine the state’s “truth.”
A dictatorship anywhere will attempt to block all news and information. But this is not important for either the establishment or maintenance of dictatorial power, particularly not that of totalitarian dictatorships.
In the viewpoint of Hannah Arendt, totalitarian dictatorship is a phenomenon of the modern world. It is historically unprecedented. I want to expand upon Arendt to argue that new-era dictatorship is completely different from old-style dictatorship. The world is familiar with the kind of regime we call tyranny, which was existed for eternity. But dictatorship in this new era, whether or not it is totalitarian, is different from tyranny.
Let us use her theory of totalitarian dictatorship to think about this matter.
In Hannah Arendt’s view, totalitarian dictatorship (or new-era dictatorship for me) possesses two important instruments: ideology and the construction of awe.
Tyrants also use the construction of awe. But they do so differently from new-era dictators. Tyrants may torment or kill their enemies or those they suspect to be their enemies. But dictators use awe-inspiring measures on everyone, including those who are on their side. The objective of new-era dictators is not only to eliminate their enemies, but also to secure total domination. They want domination over the bodies, minds, imaginations, and desires of every citizen.
In North Korea, people watch foreign films simply because they want to find new, unfamiliar joy. They do not think about overthrowing the state. But they must be severely punished [for daring to search for joy] in order to propagate fear among all other people. (Ms. Park tells of opening up sports stadiums for executions so that all spectators can be accommodated.)
Therefore, we have an image of the innocent, or even those on the side of the dictatorship, who must flee the heat by ordaining or going abroad, or otherwise experiencing being framed and prosecuted in clearly false cases. Dictatorships do not take action like this in order to directly destroy the victims themselves, but to create broad-based fear. They do this in order to lead all of the people to completely and utterly bow down.
The North Korean dictatorship may not operate with the same efficiency of the totalitarian dictatorship of Hitler or Stalin. But the target of the use of fear is no different.
As we become more frightened, we lose our individuality. This is because although sameness may still be dangerous, the greater danger of difference does not need to be enumerated. The objective of the new-era dictatorship is to frighten us until we are running scared. Then we do not dare to use our intellect. We do not dare to do anything other than to feel (such as to love, as already mentioned).
I once heard a foreign dictum that even God cannot change the past. But Mao changed Chinese history the same way that Hitler and Stalin changed history. Other new-era dictatorships are trying to do so as well.
Ideology is an important instrument of totalitarian dictatorship. But it must be an ideology that is able to control the past and present and future of humankind completely. For example, the ideology of a master race that made the world possible in the past and determines the future. Class ideology or the ideology of class struggle that determines which one will be the ruling class in the future.
In this sense, it is not only that totalitarian dictatorships makes people bow down until there is nothing left of them. Totalitarian dictatorship demands people bow down in order to then create new kinds of people who differ from those in the past. People are therefore only the raw material out of which to build a new society. People are simply the raw material to produce new humans. For this reason, people have no value in themselves for totalitarian dictatorships. They can be gassed to death. They can be sent to the cold of Siberia to die. They can be made into fertilizer. They can be driven out of the country. They can be locked away and forgotten. The “body” of the people can be killed by condemning them on television.
At present, we often speak about the relatively free flow of news and information [in Thailand]. But I think that the inability to block news and information on its own is not enough to destabilize the power of totalitarian dictatorship. Ideology is more important. Both totalitarian and non-totalitarian dictatorships must succeed in making their ideology dominate the hearts and minds of people until the flow of news and information becomes less dangerous. This is because then people greet that information with a different kind of understanding. For example, Japan, France, and Germany are wealthy enough to build numerous high-speed train lines. People may hear this news and understand that the workers of those nations were very oppressed until the country amassed enough money to build a high-speed train for use by the bourgeoisie.
If we think about it comparatively –in the absence of ideology – we are unable to provide a reason for why there is no high-speed train other than we are not ready. We can prove this lack of readiness with reference to gravel roads or that there would be no passengers or that we would use it to transport cabbages, etc.
Dictatorship in the modern world that has not reached the level of totalitarianism (will they be hurt if one calls it an inferior dictatorship?) must then find an ideology to bolster the regime. It is simply that their ideology does not extend in the same broad fashion as racialist doctrine or Marxism, so they must be content with references to nationalist ideology.
But nationalism is an ideology that poses a fair degree of difficulty for dictatorship. We [the people] can love the nation in many ways. My love for the nation can be different from your love for it. To put it differently, nationalist ideology still allows people to use their intellect or individuality. In reality, class love has the same openness. But the dictatorship can more easily force class allegiance to have a single meaning -- the single meaning determined by the dictatorship itself.
Further, love of the nation engenders less obligation [than other kinds of ideology]. This is because nationalism does not aim to build a new kind of society and a new kind of people in the same way as a theory of class. Dictatorship therefore relies on nationalism to intervene in peoples’ lives in a more limited fashion. The large duty bestowed upon the people by principles of class is to build a global proletariat. This is a duty of humankind, and it reduces each person to a very small size. [With this kind of ideology], a dictatorship can make slaughter and oppression look rational. But a dictatorship operating with only nationalist ideology cannot do so, but will instead look stupid and illogical.
The North Korean dictatorship is the same. Even though the regime is communist, the central ideology is nationalism. Therefore, the dictatorship really fears the flow of information and news uncontrolled by the state.
Nationalist dictatorships that lack the efficiency of North Korea then face even more difficulty in controlling news and information. So they must use measures like those used by tyrants. But tyrants are dictators who are behind the times in the modern world. Whether you call them by the name of the “Philosopher King” like Plato or the “Dhammaraja” like Buddhists, the regime itself is a form that is behind the times. It is difficult for them to continue to exist in the modern world and state without the use of violent repression.
But the violent repression causes the image of the “Philosopher King” or the “Dhammaraja” disappear.
So then what?