July 2016

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From the July Issue:


German culture has always been a light unto the world, sometimes brightness, dazzling, sometimes darkness, visible. The 1930s and the subsequent war years are particularly illuminating about what it means to be human.

Hitler and his devastations are so extreme that to speak about them with reference to today becomes immediately, and often contemptuously, dismissable. Yet some of the political patterns put into place in Nazi Germany seem not so much despicable, or even odd, as rather familiar to current intent.

Gleichschaltung is one of them.

Gleichschaltung is one of those terrific German compounding of words smashed together to create new meaning. “Gleich” means “equal,”and “Schaltung” is an electrical or mechanical switch. Put them together and you have something like “putting everything on the same track, or in the same circuit,” aligning different things, coordinating between them. Unless you object to conventional conformity, mindless commodification, and loss of imaginative vision, you might even think it a good plan (if you don’t look at how Hitler used it).

Without going into the kind of gruesome detail which renders comparison with our current situation silly, let me just mention that after 1933 in Germany, there was only one political party allowed (guess which), the military and police were expanded domestically to enforce compliance; the security state became prominent, overwhelming; civil servants and diplomats carried out national policy exclusively; there was a strong push toward a national civil religion; racism was elevated from private belief to state policy; the legal system was peopled with judges and lawyers who would conform to doctrine; all media was collapsed into a governmental support and propaganda system; national enemies were named and dealt with; all education was directed toward instilling Nazi ideology; business and industry were encouraged to serve national ideals; trade unions were outlawed; and language twisted into innocent concepts like “the final solution.” In other words, Gleichschaltung.

The word brings up black & white images of arm-raised salutes, marching troops, and rolling tanks. But is the concept of Gleichschaltung so different from what we have now, or are aiming for, in Burlington and beyond?

The concept has been evoked before in different words—Margaret Thatcher’s T.I.N.A. (“There Is No Alternative”), and Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History”—the entire world aiming towards, and now culminating in the triumph of “liberal” capitalism. Similar styles the world over, creative architecture collapsing into form-based code, all aspects of life surveyed and polled, a legal system and trade pacts designed to promote what is dominant, education trimmed and geared to jobs serving the system, the media coalescing around acceptable messaging for the masses. Orwell nailed it in 1948 with 1984.

We routinely pledge allegiance to a system of Gleichschaltung, both verbally at grange halls and ballgames and in the way we conduct our lives and elect our leaders. “Trump! Trump! Trump!,”a chant to disable dissenters, was long preceded by “USA! USA! USA!,” an evocation of our national religion.

It is no accident that old-style shopping in mom & pop stores has yielded to the Gleichschaltung of supermarkets, superdupermarkets, and national chains of big box stores with everything under one roof.

When that roof became too heavy to support, the concept metastasized into that of the mall. And now, even the mall has become too small to support our megastructures of consumption. Malls are failing, I hear, and have to be turned inside out, shops facing out into the world, the better to invade you, my dear.

This seems small compared to the consequences of German Gleichschaltung under Hitler. But it’s actually big stuff, leading directly to the failure of small business, the loss of jobs, the decline of unions, the vast separation between rich and poor with its resulting misery, and the fanatical need of those in power to stamp out any possible alternatives people cry out for. You only get to vote for one party—the party of the rich and potentially violent.

Things in Burlington are a little more low key. But not if you’re homeless, of course, or don’t want to vote for the lesser of two evils, or want to shop for your low-income family without getting on an infrequent bus to get out to Wal-Mart. And back.

They are even problematical if you don’t want decisions made for you by less-than-visible committees run by less-than-visible chairs. Or if you don’t like losing open space or views, or parking places, or the ability to buy a hammer on Church St. Gleichschaltung reigns here, too, if you are concerned with your rents going up, or the police shooting you.

There is here, as elsewhere, a larger, agreed-upon pattern of “progress” moving our life-train along pre-planned, coordinated tracks. Why complain? After all, there is no alternative.

-Marc Estrin

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