California’s Post-Totalitarian Moment

J. S. ScifoUndesignated 1 Comment


California has become world renowned for its epic failures.  And yet there are somehow never any repercussions, political or otherwise for these fiascos.  Or to quoteth myself in commenting on the same phenomenon within the broader context of American politics:

“We are left with a state of affairs [in California] where no matter how burdensome and idiotic the regulation, no matter how much living costs go up and the standard of living is diminished, despite a homeless crisis that has become the shame of the Western World, the ruling party not only gets reelected by overwhelming margins but is able to resist all efforts of correction.” (“Nightmares of Californication,”, November 11, 2023).

So why does failure persist in the Golden State?  Even more perplexing, why is failure rewarded?

“Which one?” you may ask, as our State has no shortage of epic failures:  the bullet train, the housing crisis and the homelessness that goes with it, the education system, the public disorder that pervades every community.  All good candidates, but as Dan Walters at CalMatters argues, “the poster child for governmental dysfunction has to be the [Covid-era meltdown of the] Employment Development Department (EDD)”:

“EDD managed to simultaneously deny countless unemployed workers of the life-sustaining benefits to which they were entitled and parcel out countless billions of dollars in benefits to clever fraudsters.”

That damning statement doesn’t quite capture the magnitude of the failure.  The state lost $20-30 billion due to fraud (since recovering only about $2 billion) as inmates, foreigners, run of the mill conmen, and opportunists cashed in on the State’s biggest bonanza since the Gold Rush.  For some perspective, the State spends about $20 billion a year on higher education.

Furthermore, aside from the Covid-unemployment insurance fraud fiasco, the State is on the hook to the Feds for a $20 billion hole in its unemployment insurance fund.  As unemployment benefits are an employer-funded system (excepting the billions infused by the Federal government during the pandemic), the State’s already overburdened businesses are now facing increased unemployment contributions, which of course will lead to higher costs and lower employment.

Jerry Brown reportedly said something like, “the government is really good at cutting checks, but when it gets any more complicated than that—watch out!”  Well, California’s government can’t now meet even this low bar for basic competency.  (Although, to be fair, the EDD debacle was made even worse by its reliance on debit cards, not paper checks.)

Of course, this monumental disaster was met with political repercussions of the utmost seriousness.  Well, not quite.  For this and other transgressions, Gov Newsom was in fact challenged with a recall effort—which he won by a margin of nearly 2-to-1.

Writing in the Eastern Bloc in the late-1970s, Czechoslovakian playwright Vaclav Havel found himself at the forefront of the Charter 77 movement defending the right of culture to exist independent of the government.  The result was a book on dissent titled “Power of the Powerless.”  One of Havel’s insights is that in free societies, where there is competition for power, there are “certain correctives that effectively prevent ideology from becoming more and more removed from reality”.  In a totalitarian system, however, the correctives disappear eventually creating a “post-totalitarian system:  a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality”.

Paradoxically, ideology “becomes an increasingly important component of power…as it gradually loses touch with reality, it acquires a peculiar but very real strength.  It becomes reality itself”.  “Rather than serving power, power begins to serve ideology,” thereby ensuring its own continuity.  The system becomes self-perpetuating, with its operators “the flunkies of rituals and routines of power” acting as “blind executors.”

This exactly describes the state of affairs in our State.  Democracy in California has become a mere ritual:  Election outcomes are forgone; the resulting laws and policies predictable; the resulting failures unremarkable, literally.  (Californians can no longer be shocked by the ineptitudes and follies of the state’s government.)  Yet, we are all supposed to pretend that California is a functioning democracy, and that—well—if nothing really works like it used to, and there is no viable political option aside from the permanent majority, and living a normal, middle-class life is increasingly impossible, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

So to return to my initial questions, why is failure without repercussions allowed to continue, even encouraged?  In his classic work, “The Managerial Revolution,” James Burnham makes the point that there are many ways to distribute a society’s material and societal rewards other than the profit-motive.  Whereas in a capitalist system rewards are distributed according to individual accomplishment and merit, other systems (in his era, the Soviet or Nazi regimes) give “preferential treatment in distribution” based on a person’s “status in the political-economic structure.”  This treatment is based on “services to the state” and “need not take an exclusively monetary form…it is the fact of preferential distribution that matters”.[1]  Thus, in the Soviet Union, rewards took the form of private cars, foreign travel, access to stores with western goods, and dachas.

The currency of California’s, and increasingly the country’s, post-totalitarian (and equally post-reality) system is self-satisfaction, collective affirmation, moral smugness, and worn out platitudes.  The world is an open road to those who master the fine arts of this “formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality.”  That alone explains the success of the state’s failing politicians and other managerial mediocrities—the flunkies and blind executors mentioned by Havel—who are given sinecures in government and non-profits with immense power over the daily lives and futures of Californians or worse, reelected without any real competition (except from the other flunkies).

And, unlike the former Soviet Union, California is still capitalist enough (the fifth largest economy in the world as we are constantly told) that, unlike the apparatchiks in the Soviet system, these parasites get not only the psychic rewards (influence, deference, recognition) in exchange for their fealty but the monetary rewards as well, in the form of ample (albeit not extravagant) salaries, pensions, and (with time) big salaries and perhaps even stock options when they inevitably trade in on their connections and “experience” for another sinecure in the corporate world (public relations/affairs, lobbying, DEI promoters, etc.) post-retirement.

Or, hope of hope and dream of dreams, they advance to national office.  Such is how we end up with non-entities like Alex Padilla in the U.S. Senate and Kamala Harris a heartbeat away from the presidency.

The simple truth is, results don’t matter.  All that matters are good intentions, doctrinal purity, and being on the “Right Side of History.”  You know who else was on the right side of history?  The Marxist-Leninists.

The good news is that, as we saw in the Eastern Bloc nations, which collapsed just 13 years after Havel wrote, post-totalitarianism is the final stage before liberation.  The system will eventually collapse.  Reality will prevail.  As Havel assured, “It [the ideology] is built on lies.  It works only as long as people are willing to live within the lie.”

How much longer Californians are willing to live within the lie is an open question.  The State’s capacity for self-delusion seems bottomless.  In this, it is abetted by the wealth of its most productive citizens, who are also the most stalwart supporters of the Ideology.  If the state’s budget deficit, population exodus, and looming energy crisis are any indication, it may not be long now.

J.S. Scifo is a North County resident who has worked in national and state politics.  You can also follow him at J.S. Scifo on Substack | Substack.

[1] Burnham, James.  “The Managerial Revolution:  What is Happening in the World.”  Greenwood Press.  Westport, Connecticut:  1975.


Comments 1

  1. This is a remarkable piece of writing. Well thought out, thoroughly researched and laser guided accurate. Thanks for he wonderfully written, if totally depressive, picture of the Kafkaesque world we Californians live in.

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