Rewarding People for Informing on Their Neighbors isn’t Democratic, Civilized, or Sane.
by umair haque
Remember when I warned that American conservatives were on the path to totalitarianism?
It’s hard to know where to begin. Texas, it appears, already one of the most backwards places in the world, wasn’t just content with being a Covid hot zone, a supremacist haven, or the laughingstock of the entire world: now it wants to become Gilead. You know, from the Handmaid’s Tale.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but that’s only because you might not have heard yet — especially if you’re not American — about its horrific new law. This law doesn’t just make it possible for Texans to sue anyone who aids a woman choosing to terminate her pregnancy. It literally — I kid you not — offers people money to inform on their neighbours.
Not just a little bit of money, but a lot. If you’re now a Texan, you’ll get at least $10,000 if you successfully sue someone who aids a woman for having an abortion.
Let’s unpack that for a moment, in case it’s not clear how sinister, barbaric, and crazy this really is — not to mention flatly unconstitutional, not to mention how it makes a mockery of jurisprudence and democracy both. No, let’s leave all that aside for a second, and begin with the totalitarianism.
What happens when governments offer “incentives” for people to “inform” on their neighbours? That is one well-trodden path to a — and one key mechanism towards creating a — totalitarian society. Again, let me make it crystal clear how bad this really is.
It’s not just a woman in distress choosing to terminate her pregnancy who can be sued. It’s anyone who “aids and abets” her. But who is that? Doctors, obviously, for one. Healthcare practitioners of all kinds, from OB-GYNs to nurses to hospital administrators. But it goes much, much further than that. Anyone who “aids and abets” in this situation? It could be someone who drives a woman out of state. It could be someone who gives directions to a clinic. It could the driver of a taxi. Someone who does an internet search. It could be someone who has a conversation with her and agrees with it.
Do you see how deep this goes?
This is how totalitarian societies work. Real ones, literal ones, actual ones. There’s no alarmism here. This is totalitarianism. Texas is now a totalitarian state for women. If you think I exaggerate, it’s probably because you’re a man.
What happens when governments pass laws that offer incentives to inform on neighbours? How does totalitarianism really work? Think about all that “aiding and abetting.” Now, the average Texan might think twice about even talking to a woman about exercising her reproductive rights. Say, “yeah, maybe you should”? Sorry, that’s “aiding and abetting” — and now you can be sued, too. Offer to drive her out of state? Help her find a doctor? Just talk to her like a human being? Sorry — you can’t.
It’s against the law.
What’s happening here is that the state is sundering social ties, and with that goes any modicum of a chance at being a modern, open, democratic society. So this goes way, way deeper than merely being unconstitutional — though it is, and I’ll come back to that. It’s about restricting not just action, but interaction. The ways that women can interact with anyone else — including other women — is now sharply, sharply limited in Texas. It is literally against the law now to advise a woman to exercise her reproductive rights. To even say it out loud. To sit down with her. To talk to her about it.
That’s totalitarianism. When your speech, behaviour, and social interactions are controlled, by way of punishment, surveilled, monitored, policed for the smallest violations, by networks of informers. You have to whisper, behind closed doors, because you’re being listened to. There are things you can’t say, which you’re not allowed to say. If you do say them out loud — even consider them, debate them, reflect on them, something that normal human beings do all the time — then you can be severely punished.
That leads to what scholars of authoritarianism call “chilling effects.” A kind of pall settles over a society. It grows silent. Afraid. Paralyzed by fear. Everyone is trapped in their little bubble. Many of them are thinking just the same thing, but they are not allowed to even share their thoughts anymore. Their behaviour is therefore controlled. Society stops working in an organic way. It’s mind and voice and body all shut down. It is now a puppet society.
Totalitarianism exercises total social control like this. Through social networks. At a grass roots level. Americans often think of it as a top-down thing, but they are wrong. Totalitarianism can only work from the bottom up. When people are willing to inform on their neighbours for being “enemies of the people” — which is what women are now in Texas.
If all this sounds Soviet to you, if it sounds North Korean to you, that’s because it is. Totalitarian states offer people many kinds of incentives. The USSR offered them a little bit of money, and honors, privileges, medals. Maybe you could get a card that got you ahead at the breadline. Maybe you could send your kids to the nice school. Maybe you’d be a Special Comrade of the Party. North Korea uses similar methods to exert an iron grip. Inform on your neighbours, and you get better food, housing, medicine.
The twist in Texas, the viciously ironic one, is that this is Soviet totalitarianism by way of capitalism. You get a large amount of money, not a tiny, for informing on your neighbour. You sue them yourself, and for that, you’re rewarded with the one thing Americans care most about: money.
This is totalitarianism, American-style, this weird, bizarre, insane, backwards, delusional, crazy-making cocktail of misogyny, hate, money, and patriarchy. And it’s just the beginning.
Now that you get totalitarianism a little bit better, which I bet you already did, let me explain the game here.
The GOP failed at making America the fascist state of its wildest dreams — and for the rest of us, our worst nightmares — from the top down. It tried everything. Trump tried a soft coup, and when that didn’t work, he incited a hard coup. Militant extremists stormed the Capitol, hoping to massacre politicians, and stop the counting of the Presidential vote. American democracy survived by the slenderest of threads — a few brave officers, who are still dying of the trauma they suffered to this very day.
The thing about fascists is that they don’t give up. And so the GOP reasoned that if it couldn’t make America a fascist state from the top down, it could try from the bottom up. A whole new strategy began to emerge. State after state was inundated with bills which severely restricted voting rights. And now, Texas has become the first state to restrict women’s rights. But not just in any old way, and not even in a minor-league anti-democratic way. But in the worst possible way, a totalitarian way, where women are now second class citizens, policed by men, like subhumans, their rights severely curtailed, at the mercy of literally anyone else in society.
In case it’s not clear, that’s fascism — in any proper fascist society, extreme misogyny, to the point that women are only considered good for breeding a “pure” stock of children to keep the race going. For the Nazis, too, women were chattel, property, whose value was defined by their uteruses, their fertility their great and only asset to society. Yes, this is fascism, too — it’s not just about hate towards minorities, but also towards treating women like subhumans.
The GOP’s strategy — bottom-up fascism — is incredibly dangerous. Why? Because it’s found this bizarre new cocktail — American capitalism crossed with Soviet totalitarianism. We can get you a handsome sum to…what? Start a business? Go get educated? Take care of your health? Nope. To inform on your neighbours. Texans can be entrepreneurial in a new way now: they can be little authoritarians, policing their neighbours, keeping an eye on them, an ear out for thoughtcrime.
This cocktail — American capitalism meets Soviet totalitarianism — is an incredibly potent one. Why? Because roughly half of America wants it to be a fascist state. A huge, huge number of Americans voted for Trump. Tens upon tens of millions. This strategy — legalizing bottom-up authoritiarianism — hands them grass-roots power to realise their neo-fascist dreams.
Is it unconstitutional? Well, it is — and it’s not. It’s obviously unconstitutional to police women for exercising their…rights. But that is only in an academic sense now. Because if the Supreme Court doesn’t rule something’s unconstitutional…it’s not. At least not in practice. And by refusing to even hear this particular case, the Supreme Court is saying, by omission, with a shrug — this is constitutional, as far as we’re concerned, or at least we won’t say it’s not unconstitutional. But what did you expect from Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett?
This, too, is how authoritarian states work. One institution gives the green light to the other by looking the other way. It doesn’t say “go right ahead” — instead, it just shrugs, and conveniently, politely, ignores the issue, policy, law, constitution. Checks and balances break down. The government begins to act as one monolithic entity. The entire Soviet state apparatus was famous for this — whistling, walking away, instead of doing its job. It was particularly notorious for doing this vis a vis the KGB, which could get away with anything, precisely because the judiciary and legislature pretend not to see it.
America’s Supreme Court is literally looking the other way while Texas shreds the constitution and brings Soviet-style authoritarianism to America. How crazy is that? It’s crazy — and yet it’s hardly a surprise. After all, this was the point of capturing the judiciary and packing it with extremists. So that the Supreme Court would look the other way on critical issues, like Roe v Wade, pretend not to notice the constitution being shredded. That’s exactly what Soviet courts did, too. Nope, no problem here. Those people following you? Why, they’re just looking out for you!
Maybe you still don’t fully grasp why this is so dangerous. Let me spell it out. It doesn’t stop here. Once people become informers on their neighbours, do you know what societies tend to create — because now there’s a need for it? Secret police forces, like KGBs. Someone has to manage and handle and pay all those informers, after all. And once those secret polices are created, there’s no coming back. Instead, institutional momentum builds. And now what was shocking yesterday becomes completely normal today, because silence reigns.
What does that mean in America’s case? It means that now that the GOP isn’t going to stop here. Imagine a similar law, but for undocumented immigrants. Anyone “aiding and abetting” them can be sued. That means if you, I don’t know, go to a restaurant and tip a waiter — bang, you’re done. If you don’t check the papers of the guys that takes care of your lawn — wham, you’re on the hook.
Conversely, now every single Trumpist neighbour of yours can literally make a living by informing on you, by “suing” you in a show trial where you’re guaranteed to win— it’s $10K, every time, add it up — and so they’ll watch you intently.
That’s just one step further. Let’s keep going. Imagine a similar law, but targeted against, I don’t know, gay people. Against criticising politicians. Against being “anti-American.” Targeting immigrants for being “unamerican.” Now your neighbours are listening to you, poring over your words, just hoping to catch you in some mild, off the cuff comment. Bang. You say something without thinking it through five times first. You’re done. Now you’re in deep ****.
This isn’t the “road to” totalitarianism. It is totalitarianism. It is incredibly, profoundly dangerous. Today, they’re coming for women. They’ve literally taken away women’s constitutional rights to self-care and self-determination and association and expression and speech and privacy — all of them, wham — and it might not be constitutional, but it’s not unconstitutional, either, because the Supreme Court’s looking the other way. What rights will they target tomorrow? The very same ones, the most basic ones of all, speech, expression, association, privacy.
For whom? For everyone.
Did you see Chernobyl, the show? There’s a great scene where the head of the KGB says to Legasov, the physicist investigating the meltdown, “Ah, people misunderstand us. We have a bad reputation, true. But do you know what we really are? A circle of trust. Just that, nothing more. A circle of trust, where people are accountable to one another.”
I paraphrase. The KGB head walks away, smiling. Legasov? He knows he’s been beaten. He can’t fight the system. That is how totalitarianism understands itself. As a circle of trust.
In plainer English, though, what it means is this. Nobody has these basic rights anymore. Privacy, expression, speech, association. They are all gone. Everyone is to police everyone else. In the Soviet Union’s case, it was for ideological purity. In America’s case, it’s arguably worse, because the GOP wants fascism, real-deal fascism. It wants Americans to police each other for deviation from the fascist mission — women as reproductive organs carrying the bloodlines of the pure, the impure as hated subhumans, all of them beneath men of faith and purity, their chattel and property and slaves. This bill is this close — this close — to enslaving women. What else do you call it when a person has no privacy, expression, can’t speak freely, can’t interact openly, and must do what you say, or else? Or else what? Or else the entire force and fury of the state — by way of “the people” comes to bear on them. This is Gilead writ large.
This is how America becomes an authoritarian society. A fascist-authoritarian one. A place where the roughly half of American that’s die-hard Trumpists polices the other half for violations from the fascist mission of a society cleansed and purified of impurity and weakness by hate, misogyny, bigotry, and barbarism.
Only America could have taken Soviet totalitarianism, crossed it with capitalism, and come up with something even more sinister, weird, dangerous, and crazy.
They’re coming for women. In Texas, women do not have rights anymore. Some people will argue with that. Men, mostly. A right, though, is not some kind of gray area. Either you have basic, fundamental freedom of speech, expression, association, the right to privacy, the right to consent — or you don’t. Women in Texas don’t have those rights anymore.
If that doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it should.
You’re next, my friend. It’s the same as it ever was. Fascists don’t give up. This strategy is way, way smarter than the last one — a buffoon like Trump leading a coup. This one? It’s about empowering millions of little authoritarians to make their own neighbourhoods fascist, from the bottom up. And they’re itching to do just that. It’s very, very clever — and for that reason, it’s incredibly dangerous.