It is not just the origin or basis, or even the degree of political power that defines totalitarianism. A despotism can be ruthless, freely willing to use deadly force against even the slightest dissent, but that by itself doesn’t make it totalitarian.
What makes something totalitarian is the all-encompassing scope over what the state dictates about people’s lives. A dictator may may be ruthless, ordering deaths on a whim, but care little about how people raise their children or whether they are religious or, if they are what religion they follow.
It is the coverage of the vast range of human activities, from personal relations of the most intimate nature to philosophical beliefs, and everything in between that constitutes totalitarianism. The originator of the term “Totalitarian” (in Italian “Totalitario”), Benito Mussolini, put it thus:
All through the state, all for the state, nothing against the state, and nothing outside the state.
Before the twentieth century the closest societies got to totalitarianism was certain religious communities where religious and political power were combined such that religious doctrines regarding peoples personal lives such as raising of children, love and marriage, and what religion one is permitted to practice were matters of law. Indeed, to a large extent that was the only way that totalitarianism could occur because the very scope of authority which totalitarianism encompasses requires some kind of unifying ideology to pull it together.
It was in the 20th century that totalitarianism really came into its own with the Conjoined Twin ideologies of Fascism and Communism. People attempt to paint these two as opposites but the truth remains that they resemble each other far far more than they differ. Fascism talks about the state. Communism talks about the people or the proletariat, but in the end that ends up functionally meaning the state. Both use similar means to similar ends–the concentration of power to use for the “common good” which invariably means for the benefit of those in power. The Mussolini quote could just as easily have been said by Lenin, Stalin, or Mao. They were all totalitarians.
It is the exclusion and suppression of sources of direction outside the state that defines totalitarianism. Everything must fit within the overriding ideology. Anything that doesn’t is to be suppressed (“nothing against the state”) and anything that does must be co-opted by the state to ensure that it continues to do so (“nothing outside the state”). Everything. Children are indoctrinated with the official ideology. They are taught to betray even their own parents for “badthink.” And as adults, even friends and lovers must conform to official ideology–because if they don’t and are caught, you can be punished right along with them unless you denounce them first.
History. Science. The Arts. All must be made to fit this official ideology. Consider Hitler’s “authoritative” pronouncements on everything under the sun or Stalin’s dictating even what would be officially accepted scientific theories (including the disaster of Lysenkoism applied to agriculture) or the many sayings, on every conceivable topic by which good party members were supposed to live, included in the Little Red Book of Mao’s.
Totalitarian ideology typically features
- The localization and compartmentalization of “evil” whether that be in Jews, Capitalists, The 1%, Infidels, or any of a number of “Those people.” This creates the illusion that solutions to age-old human problems can seem feasible in a reasonable timeframe. “If we just get rid of ‘those people’, or properly punish them, then all our problems will go away.”
- The localization and compartmentalization of “wisdom.” The need to define some uniquely informed and wise group who alone can see the solution to these problems that have beset humanity since time immemorial. And, of course, that this means these uniquely wide and informed people must take power, despite what the uninformed masses might desire as expressed through democratic processes, is purely a coincidence. They have your best interest at heart. Trust them.
- A single scale of values that applies to everything.
- The presupposition of sufficient knowledge to achieve the claimed desired goals. Not only must the sources of wisdom be able to see the general form of solutions to these age old problem that no one had managed to discover before, they have to have the detailed knowledge at their disposal to implement the myriad details necessary in actually reaching the desired goals.
- The problem, no matter how old it is and how long mankind has lived with it is presented as so urgent that even the most extreme and, yes, ruthless, steps to take it are justified.
- Claimed association with a large body or the populace on whose behalf one is acting, but whose opinions can be disregarded and who may be sacrificed “for the greater good” not only with no guilt, but even claiming virtue from doing so. “The greater good” can encompass no end of evil, with the claimed “good” only being one more atrocity away.
- The ideology must be self-contained, excluding all other views and visions. This requires converting questions of fact into questions of motive. Facts can be stubborn things. They might challenge the core tenets of the ideology and one can’t have that. So the answer is not to address the fact but instead to challenge the motive of the ones presenting the facts. Various “-ists” are quite useful to that end. Simply assign inimical motives to the presenter of the fact and you cna dismiss it without needing to deal with the fact itself.
By reducing the complex range of social, political, and even scientific issues to a simple, self-contained platform–a few simple, easily grasped precept usually–totalitarian ideologies tend to appeal to people who, for whatever reason have limited experience of those complexities: youth, those generally inexperienced, and masses who had previously simply not paid much attention to politics.
One result of this appeal to the inexperienced is that as people gain experience, some at least will start seeing the cracks in the ideology. Discordant facts that cannot be simply dismissed by challenging motive will start creeping in. This usually leads to one of several outcomes.
- One is defections from the ideology. The increased inability of the ideology to cover the ever increasing complexity of ones knowledge of the real world leads to rejection of the ideology.
Many devoted believers in totalitarian ideologies in their youth become equally devoted opponents when older.
- Another is an attempt to adapt the ideology to the increasing understanding of the complexity of the world. This leads to ever increasing patches to the core tenets of the ideology while struggling to retain some semblance of plausibility.
These folk are generally treated exactly like the defectors by those who remain “true” to the core ideology.
- A third is simple rejection of the discordant facts. The dismissal of everything that disagrees simply becomes more and more strident as the complexity of the real world attempts to intrude on the simplified certainties.
These folk are especially harsh to the second category.
- A fourth is acceptance that the ideology is flawed but continuing to pretend belief because it is a useful for attaining ones own goals, usually some combination of wealth and power.
We call this last category “politicians.”