What Is Totalitarianism? - Part I

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If the United States came under the control of a totalitarian regime, would we recognize it? This question is of utmost importance today, when many of us harbor fears that some time in the near future ideas such as freedom, liberty, and privacy will be alien to our society. But as we witness the regular passage of legislation designed to restrict and regulate, and the tendency of the Federal government to increase rather than decrease its power (with a handful of exceptions), we are struck by the uninterrupted routine of life in the USA . As the central government brings more and more of private society under its control, we continue to watch cable TV, shop at supermarkets overflowing with products, and eat at our favorite restaurants. Could it be that we have already passed that dreaded threshold and missed it?

The trouble with diagnosing our condition is that most people are unaware of what totalitarianism actually is. Among even the most politically astute, there is little mental room for the possibility that a state in the process of becoming totalitarian might lack the most brutal and outward signs of oppressive regimes portrayed in popular culture. Because of our rather simplistic frame of reference'picture black and white images of National Socialist Germany or the Soviet Union 'we recognize a country as either being in the advanced stages of totalitarianism or not at all. But just because a state maintains the structures and language of democracy and continues to have elections, for instance, that does not preclude it from being totalitarian.

In fact, North Korea has a constitution and holds regular elections with three competing political parties'the Workers' Party of Korea , the Korean Social Democratic Party, and the Chondoist Chongu Party'all united under an organization called the Democratic Front for the Reunification of the Fatherland. In April 2009, North Korea revised its constitution to include Article 8, which reads, 'The State respects and protects the human rights of the workers, peasants and working intellectuals who have been previously freed from exploitation and oppression and have become masters of the State and society.' Yet North Korea is recognized as being one of the most oppressive totalitarian states in the world.

Totalitarianism and authoritarianism do not necessarily go hand in hand. Throughout human history, most governments have been authoritarian, but totalitarianism didn't appear until the 20th Century. That is because until the birth of mass society, governments lacked the means to exercise total control over a large population. Tribes and municipalities may have sworn fealty to an overlord or emperor, for example, but beyond collecting taxes or levying armies, the monarch took very little interest in the personal lives of his or her subjects. Personal behavior was left to be governed by custom or religion. Totalitarianism is therefore not specifically a system of government, but a way of organizing society by means of a powerful, centralized modern state. It requires a mass media, education, and political culture in which the state'that is to say a class of bureaucrats and officials governing a large geographic area'takes over every aspect of civil society.

Totalitarianism, as succinctly defined by former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, is 'Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.' The totalitarian mind views individuals not as citizens with their own interests, but as dependents with only one interest, and as such, it attempts to organize these masses around a particular ideology. Any thoughts, words, or actions that do not conform to this dominant ideology are made criminal or driven underground. In short, the state seeks total control over the people living within its jurisdiction. Totalitarian regimes attempt to achieve this control through personality cults, by mobilizing the population into national organizations, by censoring the media, through mass surveillance, and through various levels of state ownership of commerce and the means of production.

Traditionally, though with some exceptions, governments have recognized a distinction between public and private life. The earliest civil laws governed interactions between individuals that could result in material or physical harm. The totalitarian state, on the other hand, seeks to extend its authority not just over the public actions of a person, but to his or her own private associations, family life, and possessions as well. The individual interest thereby dissolves into the public interest, or in the words of radical leftist Carol Hanisch, 'the personal is political.' Ultimately, the totalitarian goal is not just legal control over our actions, but our thoughts as well.

Finally, totalitarianism is a teleological worldview, meaning that the totalitarian mind sees all of history as unfolding toward an inevitable end'whether it be a communist state, a world government, or some other utopia. This end result, though never really achieved (thus the need for a 'perpetual revolution'), is held up as a justification for every possible abuse, including mass murder. After all, opponents of the regime are simply getting in the way of historical progress.

Therefore, totalitarianism requires not only a belief in the power of the centralized state to eliminate all of humanity's woes, but a belief in the inevitable victory of that state over private interests. As Mussolini inferred, there is nothing the totalitarian fears more than an individual acting outside the state. It is vitally important to understand that totalitarianism is not an exotic or abstract idea, but a reality of the contemporary world. It is something that we do not often recognize in our society, but is nevertheless an ever-present and growing danger.

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Michael Kleen's picture
Columns on STR: 36

Michael Kleen is the Editor-in-Chief of Untimely Meditations, publisher of Black Oak Presents, and proprietor of Black Oak Media. He holds a M.A. in History and a M.S. in Education, and is the author of Statism and its Discontents, a collection of columns on the topics of Statism, liberty, and their conflict. His columns have appeared in a variety of publications and websites, including Strike-the-Root.