On a hot day in the 1960s Philip Rieff was out walking in his trademark threepiece suit, watch chain and bowler hat. An open- topped sports car pulled up with a young woman in the passenger seat. The driver, in T- shirt and shorts, was Erving Goffman, Rieff's departmental colleague at Pennsylvania. When he suggested to Rieff that he must be stifling in ‘that suit’, the latter looked at the woman and said: ‘Professor Goffman is a rich man who dresses like a poor man. I am poor man who dresses like a rich man’. A commentary of sorts on the presentation of self in everyday life, it was also itself a form of self- presentation, the retort to the colleague's joshing directed not at him but at the third party, and expressed through a conversation- stopping, conversation- preventing bon mot. Goffman himself would more likely analyze than use such a form of talk: though he did pepper his own texts with aphoristic expressions, they never stand alone but rather sum up passages of analysis. They also suggest an opening into further thoughts, as when, following discussion the ways in which people avoid embarrassment in the presence of nudity, he tells us that, ‘when bodies are naked, glances are clothed’. As writers, Rieff and Goffman can seem so different from one another that this alone might account for their differing levels of fame and influence. Where Goffman is dialogic and open, so ‘democratic’ that beginning students often take him to be saying something so obvious that they wonder what the fuss is about, Rieff, who should have found a place on ex- wife Susan Sontag's long list of all things camp, once said that there were only 17 people in the world who understood him. While neither characterization is quite right – Rieff's first two books are a reader's pleasure regardless of content, Goffman's essays are far more technical than they first appear, and he often introduced them as ‘reports’ – Goffman remains required reading for us all, while Rieff is a taste that few today acquire. It was not always so: Rieff was influential beyond sociology in the late 1950s and 1960s, then forgotten about by the 1980s, and picked up again around the time of his death in 2006.
The term “totalitarianism” is an awkward one. First, while the suffix “- ism” suggests an ideology, like liberalism or socialism, few have said “I am a totalitarian” in the way they have said “I am a liberal” or “I am a socialist.” Second, while “totalitarianism” is sometimes treated as the name of an object of inquiry, the adjective “totalitarian” is often used beyond the historical context in which it first arose. Ambiguity surrounds the scope of the term, too: Does it refer to forms of government, to types of state or to whole societies? Do we need it at all? Can we say what needs to be said by making use of other terms such as “tyranny” or “dictatorship”?
Totalitarianism between the Political and the Social
A popular misconception has it that “totalitarianism” is a product of the Cold War. To be sure, for some scholars and politicians it has served as a “counter concept” to “liberalism” or “democracy.” Yet when Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, the word “totalitarian” was already more than 25 years old (Gleason 1995). It first appeared in Italy in 1923. Early that year, Mussolini had proposed a change in the Italian electoral law to allow the party with the largest share of the vote, as long as that was more than 25 per cent, to receive two- thirds of the seats in the parliament, and thus be able to change the constitution. On 12 May, the leftist journalist and politician Giovanni Amendola published an article in Il Mundo in which he described this as a recipe for “a totalitarian system” of rule; this he contrasted with two others: “majoritarian” and “minoritarian.” As can often happen in political life, Amendola's term for what he disapproved of was quickly adopted by those it was directed against. Mussolini himself referred to “our radical totalitarian will” and “the totalitarian state,” and in 1925 the Fascist theorist Giovanni Gentile went further and proposed a “total conception of life.” By this he meant that “it is impossible to be fascists in politics and non- fascists in schools, non- fascists in our families, non- fascists in our daily occupations.”
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