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World Association of International Studies

Post What is a Totalitarian State?
Created by John Eipper on 02/05/15 10:07 AM

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What is a Totalitarian State? (Bienvenido Macario, USA, 02/05/15 10:07 am)

In answer to JE's question (see Cameron Sawyer, 4 February), I would define a totalitarian system as one where the individual citizen does not have a viable choice. In China, for example, you are a member of the Communist Party or you are not. Comparing the benefits that accrue to a party member to those of a non-party member, and there isn't really any other option.

The economy of a totalitarian state is usually a command economy. It has its advantages but there is no competition among the businesses.

The US is a good example of a democracy with a free market-based economy. But from experience I'd rather have a realm country like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. I have grown weary of the political bickering of the Democrats and Republicans.

JE comments: Totalitarianism is another "I know it when I see it" concept, but the precise definition is problematic. I would stress that totalitarianism seeks to restrict dissent, not just of behavior (this is common to all political systems), but also in speech and even thought.  Systematic surveillance is also a trait of totalitarianism, but once again, this is now common to all political systems.  (I'm presently listening to Nineteen Eight-Four on my commute--now that's totalitarianism.)

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  • Totalitarian and Authoritarian States (Timothy Brown, USA 02/05/15 4:24 PM)
    Over the years I worked in or on a number of countries I considered totalitarian, authoritarian or democratic. All had flaws, but some were essentially democratic (Israel, France, the Netherlands), several were authoritarian, and a couple were wanna-be totalitarian but hadn't quite made it. Only one was a consolidated totalitarian state. Here's how I classified them.

    As a Marine:

    1956-59 Nicaragua under Somoza 2.5 years--authoritarian

    1960-64 Thailand under a bifurcated Royal/military system--authoritarian

    As a diplomat:

    1966-67 Israel

    1967-69 Spain under Franco--authoritarian

    1970-71 Vietnam--wartime authoritarian, now totalitarian

    1971-72 Mexico under the PRI--mildly authoritarian

    1973-75 Paraguay under Stroessner--authoritarian

    1976-77 El Salvador

    1978-80 Paraguay and Uruguay--Paraguay, still under Stroessner; Uruguay under a military junta--authoritarian

    1981-83 Cuba--totalitarian

    1987-90 Nicaragua under the Sandinistas was quasi-totalitarian but has since become quasi-authoritarian

    None was perfectly democratic, authoritarian or totalitarian. But basically I considered authoritarian a government that more or less tolerated opposition as long as its power was not challenged, while I considered it totalitarian if it did not tolerate opposition and demanded that people support its ideology. (I didn't serve in the Vatican.)

    Do my fellow WAISers agree with this taxonomy? And if not, why not?

    JE comments: Once again I'm under the influence of my current "reading" (on CD) of Orwell's 1984, but ubiquitous surveillance and a ruthless secret police are the hallmarks of totalitarianism.  Authoritarian regimes might just be a bit more incompetent about keeping an eye on their citizens.

    Another classic trait of totalitarianism is a leader surrounded by a cult of personality.

    What's the most totalitarian state in the world today?  Does North Korea have any remote rivals?

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    • Totalitarian and Authoritarian States (Harry Papasotiriou, Greece 02/08/15 7:12 AM)
      One significant difference between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes is that authoritarian regimes (especially of the traditionalist variety) want the population to be relatively apolitical and minding its private business. Totalitarian regimes in contrast want to mobilize the population, increase its political participation, but only within the party's confines. Totalitarian regimes therefore challenge traditional structures (churches, clans), whereas authoritarian regimes support or at least tolerate them.

      JE comments: Well said. Totalitarian regimes love the mass rallies, with banners and posters. Part of the mobilization process is the indoctrination of children--Hitler Youth, Pioneers, etc. In Orwell's 1984 they are the Spies, whose primary duty is to inform on their parents.

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