What kind of tyranny?

We are getting a system that—like the early Roman Empire—maintains the accustomed forms and symbols of free government, but has a spirit and substance very different from that of the past.

(Image: Joshua Rawson-Harris/Unsplash.com)

Reciprocity, the idea that relationships go both ways, is a bedrock social principle.

Reciprocity doesn’t require equality—I’m not equal to John Roberts or the cop who tickets me for double parking—but it does require mutual obligation. Roberts and the cop have powers I don’t have, but the system that gives them those powers and expects me to submit should apply to them as well, involve consent in some way, and be guided by some reasonable understanding of the common good. They shouldn’t simply have power that they use however they want.

Chattel slavery and the Leninist principle of “who-whom” deny reciprocity pretty much completely: no consent, no common good, no rules that bind the favored side. They do what they want, and you have to swallow it. That makes them radically unjust.

A government that lacks reciprocity in its dealings with its people can be referred to in a variety of ways, for example as dictatorial, authoritarian, or totalitarian.

The broadest is the first, which can apply to anything from a military junta to the Khmer Rouge. It refers to a situation in which one man or group, usually one that has seized power illegally and without popular consent, simply dictates law and policy.

The next two are more specific. “Totalitarian” is the more radical, and refers to a dictatorial attempt to transform all aspects of human life. “Authoritarian” usually refers to a much more limited dictatorship that tries to protect the accustomed course of life in unstable times by getting rid of procedural complications like free elections, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law.

Both try to claim the legitimacy that comes with reciprocity. They may not feel bound by the law, but they claim to have popular support and stand for the common good, or at least the interests of the great majority.

Both terms arose in connection with changes in European political life after the First World War. Traditional monarchical government disappeared because of a general loss of faith in the old order. People wanted democracy and self-determination, so throne and altar gave way to parliaments, and Central Europe was partitioned into nation states on ethnic and linguistic grounds.

The new system often didn’t work well. Parliaments weren’t effective, nation states weren’t satisfied with their borders, and national minorities didn’t like their situations. In some places authoritarians stepped in to keep what remained of the inherited order going, while in others totalitarians took over and tried to establish an entirely new order of things. As time went by such tendencies spread elsewhere, for example to Latin America.

That was then, and this is now. People still talk about authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, but in Western countries the terms don’t really fit. There is no longer enough of an inherited order to preserve or rebel against for classical authoritarianism and totalitarianism to make sense. What would the point be if the Joint Chiefs of Staff seized power? And why impose a violent dictatorship of progressive forces when those forces already control all major institutions?

Even so, a public order is now growing up that lacks reciprocity. The people who run things don’t think the Wilsonian principle of democracy within national borders makes sense in an increasingly global world, so they refuse to live by it. But transnational democracy is a non-starter: democracy is rule by the people, and there are no transnational peoples. So we are getting a system that—like the early Roman Empire—maintains the accustomed forms and symbols of free government, but has a spirit and substance very different from that of the past.

In particular, the consensual aspects of the system are becoming increasingly fictional. That’s happening through transfer of power from elected officials to courts, bureaucracies, and transnational organizations. In addition, our governing classes are finding ways to guide democratic processes, for example by controlling information and discussion, and also by defeating or at least dampening—in one way or another—the results of popular votes that go the wrong way.

With regard to the recent U.S. election the last point is extremely contentious. It should be less debatable in other connections, for example with respect to pre-Brexit referenda that went against the EU project, which were repeated or worked around, and Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016, which was followed by a string of attempts to get rid of him that continues even now that he is out of office.

Nor does the rule of law have the force it once did. Courts and officials grow increasingly goal-oriented, and the practical application of the law grows ever more different for the governing classes and their favorites and for others. If you perjure yourself or vandalize a public building what happens depends on whose side you’re on.

There is also no reasonable understanding of the common good. Safety, stability, widely-diffused economic prosperity, and abolition of traditional distinctions such as sex in favor of a purely bureaucratic, commercial, and consumerist social order is grossly insufficient as an understanding of the human good. That’s especially true for a political order that increasingly claims the right to remodel the whole of human life. Those who want to run everything should recognize all human goods.

And that raises the most fundamental problem: our governing classes claim the right to remake the world. That is the meaning implicit in political slogans such as “Equity” and “Hope and Change.” We are going to have a new man in a new social order. Given the increasingly one-sided nature of governance, public life is thus taking on a totalitarian quality.

But it is an odd sort of totalitarianism that depends on the radical weakness of the people rather than state terror. We are increasingly a nation of careerists and consumers, of declining faith, disappearing borders, pop culture addicts, weak and broken families, children brought up by professional caregivers, and internally fractured cultural communities with not much in common that come together as a people only through the structure of government.

If we want to discuss things among ourselves we can’t do it at the local bar because it’s closed. If the discussion’s on social media the forum is either controlled or it’s suppressed. And between organized propaganda and free-lance battiness it’s a lot of work to get reliable information. Who has the time, knowledge, and cool judgment to do what’s needed?

Also, where does a leader come from who’s sane, experienced, competent, and well-informed as well as independent? In a credential-crazed and hyper-organized world someone who goes through the process needed to acquire the former qualities is not likely to retain the last. And if someone like that did appear, where among all the careerists would he find the colleagues he would need to govern?

Poorly informed people with no plan, power, or effective leadership can’t do much. They can riot, but so what? If they are the January 6th rioters, they’ll be pursued and crushed, and everything they’re connected to will be discredited. If they are the rioters from last summer or the 2016 presidential inauguration, not much will happen to them, but what they do will not have much effect. Why should it? No one with real power is worried if DC storefronts or downtown Minneapolis get destroyed, especially when the rioters support what the governing classes would like to do anyway. Do such events put the interests of federal officeholders or Jeff Bezos at risk?

So politics is a mess, with no obvious answers. Catholics and others who believe something better is possible need to rebuild from the beginning. If government lacks reciprocity and wants to control everything we need to work very hard to build our own autonomous zones. That will be difficult when our leaders sound an uncertain trumpet and we ourselves lack devotion and unity. But we can only start where we are, and the first step is to understand where that is. After that, the question is whether we want to do better. Vision and determination, if they are present, can do wonders in a fundamentally chaotic setting.

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About James Kalb 149 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008), Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013), and, most recently, The Decomposition of Man: Identity, Technocracy, and the Church (Angelico Press, 2023).


  1. WOW! What a tour de force piece! How prophetic! I always knew James Kalb got it right 99% of the time but this tops them all.

    If you’re a senior, send this to your kids and grandkids. They’ll need to be armed with the wisdom of the older generation if they’re going to be prepared for what awaits them.

  2. Kalb writes: ” But we can only start where we are, and the first step is to understand where that is.”

    Foreseeing our current, chaotic moment, Romano Guardini saw any rebuilding as rooted in the virtues of earnestness, gravity, and asceticism. Neither restorationist alone against the tyranny of history, nor deluded by any ideology of the benignity of human history on the move, instead, of “gravity” (and hope) he wrote:

    “The virtue of gravity will be spiritual, a personal courage devoid of the pathetic, a courage opposed to the looming chaos. The gravity or courage must be purer and stronger even that the courage man needs to face either atom bombs or bacteriological warfare, because it must restrain the chaos rising out of the very works of man. Finally it will find itself–as true courage always does–opposed by an enemy, the mass, ranged against it in public organizations clotted with catchwords [….]

    “Here too we dare to hope…It is based in God Who really is, Who alone is efficacious in His Action. It is based in this simple trust: that God is a God Who acts and Who everywhere prevails” (The End of the Modern World, 1956 [!]; a compact and readable 133 pages).

    Frederick D. Wilhelmsen summarizes his Introduction with this: “Guardini has dispelled the fog of secularization; he has cleared the air; he has shown us rising within our very midst the world which is to come. He offers us Faith, neither in man nor in history, but in God alone and in His Providence.”

  3. Consensual aspects of the system are becoming increasingly fictional. Our governing classes are finding ways to guide democratic processes, popular votes that go the wrong way (Kalb). When we turn from God we find idols to worship. Most common is political ideology that acquires a religiosity granting absolution to bypass due process because the opposition all opposition doesn’t deserve justice. So Trump is justifiably censured prior to during and after his presidency. Brilliantly clumsy Trump presented the greatest danger to the new order of socialist liberty. After all The Party appropriated Sandals’ aphorism, Do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it! How simple. How insanely delicious. How free! Reciprocity is more than dead in the new political liturgy, compliance with evil. Just watch the high priestess of America’s House of Commons attired in regal black pronounce epitaphs on the living tiniest. Dare those on the opposite side of the aisle touch sacred ground. Dare they yell foul play for impeachment of a no longer impeachable colleague. Killem dead!. James Kalb advises we need know where we’re at before responding. Where else? We’re leaning upon a wall for respite. A wall that seems irrepressible. Christ.

  4. Totalitarian, yes, seeking absolute personal power. The US has never seen a govt like Biden’s, morally chaotic but devoted to intimidation, to character assassination rather than reasoning. Poorly informed public is required to maintain them in power and reduce a challenge to the present egomaniacs.Trump was NOT the egoist. Biden and Kamal Harris qualify.Bullying is their method, everything on a personal note rather than discussion, and definitely not debate. These traits are wokedom everywhere but the US is both the most influential and the most shocking example. Politics is no proper way to guide one’s life since major parties dissent about what consitutes the common good. A consistent theology is necessary to lead a good life with some hope of wisdom. Since politics is meant nevertheless to reflect a moral standard, God help America now.

  5. And tyranny that could not have come about without the most fingers crossed pro-life president ever. Trump wanted to impose his own rape incest exceptions on the Republican party platform and yet he manipulates Catholic symbols to act as if he is prolife. These exceptions would intellectually eviscerate the party whose promise was to abolish abortion as well as slavery.
    Trump platforming of fauci, “national emergency”, and warp speed vaccine fed *directly* into biden nwo. Catholics have to let go of trump or face ongoing schizophrenia.

    Created equal 2026

  6. I thank Our Lord Jesus, who is Truth and Life, for the abundant gifts showered down upon me, and among these are forum at The Catholic World Report, and James Kalb, and the frequent commenter Father Peter Morello.

    Thank you James Kalb, and God magnify himself in you, and writers like you, and in Father Morello, and priests like Father Morello, and in The Catholic World Report, and all such forums that revere The Only God, and defend the freedom promised by Our Lord, the Way of Truth, that leads us on, to the Creator who made us, out of Divine Love.

  7. This brilliantly insightful discussion about the seminal causes of today’s insane political landscape is one of the many reasons I treasure CWR.

    Thank you, Mr. Kalb!

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