The Handmaid’s Tale: Despotism, Totalitarianism and Freedom of Choice

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale reveals one particular evil of totalitarianism that is too often overlooked within liberal democratic societies. Members of post-industrial liberal democracies too often associate the evil of totalitarianism with the state inhibiting people’s choices, and while the aforementioned inhibition of choice is problematic, the particular evil of totalitarianism that The Handmaid’s Tale reveals is the way in which totalitarianism destroys the ability of subjects to trust others and consequently prevents subjects from forming and sustaining deep relationships with others. This evil is deeply related to the inherent structure of despotism and its modern relative, totalitarianism. Similarly, for the same reasons that totalitarianism prevents people from forming deep relationships, totalitarianism gives rise to another evil as it destroys the capacity of agents to engage in cooperative action as equals. Furthermore, once we understand these evils of totalitarianism, we will begin to see the ways in which this second evil can assert itself in a liberal democratic society that does not seem to inhibit people’s choices and seems to champion freedom of the individual.

The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in Gilead, a fictional totalitarian regime within the North East United States. This regime arose violently as birth rates decreased due to environmental pollution. Offred, the protagonist, of this work is a handmaid; prior to the rise of Gilead she was an educated married woman. She is coerced into becoming a handmaid after Gilead is formed through a violent coup. The role of the handmaid in Gileadean society is to copulate with married commanders (the social elite) so that children can be produced. Each handmaid is assigned to a household of a given commander, and there is a scheduled ceremony in which sexual intercourse takes place with the wife of the commander sitting behind the handmaid.

One thing that seems most prominent in Offred’s reflections on her situation is her desire for intimacy and deep human relationships. She has no friendships in her life and while there may be others in her household who are friendlier to her than most, they are not friends and there is no significant bond between them. She is completely isolated and strongly desires any semblance of normal human relationships. The difficulty that the totalitarianism of Gilead poses is that in order to form a deep relationship with another one must feel comfortable revealing intimate details about oneself to another, but revealing these intimate details can often poses a danger for Offred, because the secret police everywhere within Gileadean society and the details that Offred might reveal could include disapproval of the regime. So Offred cannot really feel safe is she reveals details about herself to anyone because anyone could be a member of the secret police and if she reveals certain details about herself to a member of the secret police,or an informant for the secret police, her own life would be in danger, as those who disapprove of the regime, or fail to conform to the rules of the regime are dealt with harshly. It is true we always face dangers if we reveal details about ourselves as others may disapprove, but the dangers are not ones that endanger our survival, whereas within Gilead the dangers that Offred faces threaten her continued existence. Therefore, while the evil of the Gileadean regime partially lies in its limitation of freedom of choice, a large element of its evil is distinct from this and lies in the way that it makes people incapable of bonding with one another and forming deep relationships.

Before going on to an analysis of the evil I have been discussing in relation to totalitarianism I would like to give a basic explanation of totalitarianism and its relationship to despotism. According to Montesquieu each form of government has a principle. The principle of a government is not its particular structure, but what “sets it in motion.” For Montesquieu the principle of despotism is fear. What Montesquieu means by this is that despotism is sustained through using fear to combat people’s ambitions, goals, and attachments. The ideal subject for a despot, is not a reflective human being or an ambitious glory seeking warrior for that matter, but someone who will simply do what they are told because they fear punishment at the hands of despot himself, or someone he has entrusted with power. While despotism is distinct from totalitarianism, as totalitarianism is a modern phenomenon while despotism is not, the two are both exemplified by a situation in which the social fabric and the medium of rule are dominated by fear. Totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union were dominated by the fact that everyone was afraid of the regime, and doing something that might lead to punishment by the regime, and likewise afraid that their neighbour, friends or family members might be spies for the regime. The difference between despotism and totalitarianism is at least partially constituted by the fact that technological advances have allowed fear to become an even more dominant part of the social fabric. Consequently, it seems that the principle, in the Montesquieuian sense of the word, of totalitarianism is fear.

The consequence of living under a totalitarianism regime in which fear is the dominant mode of social control is a situation like Offred’s in which one is incapable of forming deep human relationships. This results because trust is essential to forming deep relationships with others, and fear destroys trust. If people are fearful that others may be connected to the secret police they will begin to distrust all others and become isolated from all others, and consequently not pursue the development of deep relationships. Consequently, it seems that The Handmaid’s Tale perceptively reveals one often overlooked evil of totalitarian regimes, and that is the way in which totalitarianism prevents people from forming deep relationships. Also, once we understand the way in which totalitarianism destroys the ability of people to form and sustain deep relationships we will be able to better understand what is so horrifying about this form of government. Certainly, any member of a liberal democracy abhors authoritarianism for its inhibition on individual freedom, but totalitarianism is even more disturbing in that it not only destroys our autonomy, it also destroys our even more basic capacity for friendship and long-lasting romantic love.

Similarly, one other evil which is peripheral to The Handmaid’s Tale yet is essential to totalitarianism is the inability for people to engage in collective action as equals. The regime’s use of fear isolates people such that they are paralyzed and feel disconnected from all others, and this means that people will no longer come together to pursue common purposes as equals. The human ability to come together as equals to pursue common purposes, whether through creating an organization, creating a book club or protesting the state are valuable forms of activity that are destroyed when fear is used as a dominant mode of social control, and people become isolated from one another, and distrustful of one another.

These two aforementioned evils may seem very distant from post-industrial liberal democratic regimes, but nonetheless the second evil can assert itself within regimes that avowedly stand for freedom of the individual. Tocqueville notes that American democracy in the 19th century had a tendency towards individualism, and what he meant by individualism was very different from the way we use the term. What Tocqueville meant was that people would become isolated from the broader society and withdraw to a small circle of friends and family. The reason why people would feel so disconnected and isolated and withdraw from the broader society, is that the equality of democracy makes us feel powerless, as no one individual seems to be able to do great things on his own. When we feel powerless in this way, we tend to stop worrying about doing great things, and focus on merely leading quietly pleasant lives. Clearly, individualism in this sense can lead to an assertion of the second evil I spoke of as people withdraw from the public sphere and become so disconnected from the broader society as to see themselves as unable to act in concert with others to do great things. There is a difference in this case as certain kinds of common action among equals are still possible where individualism dominates, but common action among equals regarding broad societal issues, rather than private issues is disabled by Tocquevillian individualism. Furthermore, Tocquevillian individualism is not a particular problem of American democracy; it is a problem for all liberal democracies, as the focus on commerce that is essential to liberal democracy tends to focus people on their own jobs, their own families and friends, as against the broader society, which would only exacerbate the problem of Tocquevillian individualism. So despite the fact that liberal democracies do not inhibit the freedom of the individual they seem to be prey to one of the same evils that defines totalitarianism.

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Some Thoughts on Political Engagement and Boredom

When I talk to people who are not particularly politically informed, or engaged, they often tell me that one of the reasons why they are not engaged or informed regarding politics is because politics is boring. Let us call this the “attitude of the consumer.” This attitude is problematic because it encourages government and societal corruption in a liberal democratic society. Likewise, this attitude is troubling because any person who possesses this attitude is saying that they can only be informed or engaged about things they find entertaining or exciting, and the preceding shows frivolity.

The attitude of the consumer encourages government corruption, because as people find politics more and more boring, they are apt to be more disengaged and less vigilant about ensuring that their representatives try to pursue the common interest. Once citizens are less engaged and vigilant, politicians will tend to use their position to pursue private interests at the expense of the common interest, as they know they can get away with it. Of course I recognize that some politicians will remain committed to the common interest even when the public is less vigilant, but these politicians are a relatively small minority. Furthermore, there is the other danger that as people become less and less engaged with politics they will allow a “clever man,” in the words of Tocqueville, to take away their right to participate in politics, if this ruler will allow them to freely pursue their private interests and ensure that economic growth is secured.

Contrastingly, the attitude of the consumer reinforces societal corruption, because as people become more disengaged with politics the media tries to make politics more entertaining to generate more revenue. To make politics more exciting the media will try to present politics as a war by other means. In such a war opponents must defeat each other without any regard for the fact they are both citizens of a common state. The point of politics in the media’s presentation of it then becomes to win, rather than to ensure that rule serves the common interest. Such a presentation of politics may be more exciting than a presentation that highlights differences in policy and possibilities of compromise, but by creating a presentation of politics as a war by other means, the media encourages people to see citizens who disagree with them as mere enemies to be destroyed, rather than as people who need to be reasoned with in order to come to mutually agreeable solutions. In other words the desire to be entertained encourages the media to present politics in a way that will encourage high degrees of partisanship among the electorate, which is a form of societal corruption as any society that is committed to the freedom and equality of its citizens must have citizens who are willing to work with their fellow citizens, rather than seeing them as mere enemies.

Apart from the dangers that the attitude of the consumer poses for liberal democracy, it also encourages a particular set of vices. Any person whose primary reason for not being engaged or informed about politics shows frivolity in that they are suggesting that if someone finds something boring, than that practise is not worth doing for that person. Frivolity is problematic in this context as many things that we find boring at first, can eventually turn into a source of fulfillment. When I first heard Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” I was bored while listening to most of it. Now I find it deeply fulfilling to listen to. Consequently, adopting the attitude of the consumer makes us more narrow-minded by preventing us from engaging with possible sources of value in our lives. Secondly, frivolity in this context is troubling as someone who only pursues activities that they find engaging or entertaining to some degree has to be self-absorbed. There are many things that we may not find engaging or exciting, but nonetheless we have to pay attention to them because they have significant consequences for our lives and the lives of others. Politics may be boring, but one has to be quite self-absorbed to not be informed about it for this reason, as no matter how boring politics may be, politics has a deep impact on one’s lives and the lives of others.

The attitude of the consumer is deeply troubling, and if this attitude continues to be further engrained it will endanger liberal democracy, and encourage the vices of frivolity, narrow-mindedness and self-absorption. There is no easy solution to overcoming the attitude of the consumer, but we must recognize this challenge so that we are conscious of the path that our civilization is going down and can confront the problem that we are facing.