Die Welle (The Wave), a German film released in 2008, centers around a week-long mini-course on autocracy. The following question put to the high-school students as well as the film’s viewers: Is a totalitarian regime like the National Socialists in the second quarter of the twentieth century still possible? Undergirding this question is the more basic question pertaining to human nature. Namely, does human nature crave the intensity of collective meaning through uniformity that a dictator can provide?
In his discourse on inequality, Rousseau argues that additional, distinctly artificial, economic (and political) inequalities are all but certain in the unnaturally large social arrangements requiring more social interaction with strangers than was the case when members of the homo sapiens species lived as hunter-gatherers in small groups, or bands. Living in small groups fit well with the human tolerance for interacting with less than 150 people—enough to trust without undue anxiety. Inequalities going along with this congruence were, Rousseau asserts, quite natural—not as large as, say, those between a king or emperor and “the masses.”
The Wave explores why we mere mortals put up with such inequalities of power, and thus whether autocracy is still possible in Germany, und der Welt. Are we immune, buttressed by the artificial safeguards seemingly built into our modern societies, or do we crave a larger meaning that is ostensibly possible only by subsuming a sense of individuality to blend into a larger whole led and enforced by autocratic artifice? Are we that hungry to fill the emptiness that ensues from the onslaught of post-modern deconstructivism within the shell of modernity’s fractured communities and families?
1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, Harvard Classics, Charles W. Eliot, ed., Vol. 34 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1910).