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Tuesday, March 31, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

It is bad enough that people keep tossing around the term “socialism” without knowing what it means,1 I increasingly keep noticing the careless usage of the word “totalitarianism” as well.2


The latest example to come to my attention comes from the blog American Power:

I’ve long refrained from attacking Barack Obama for his totalitaraian inclinations, and I recently praised President Obama on his “pragmatism” in foreign policy; but this administration’s recent moves on the economy are simply breathtaking in the centralization of power in the bureaucratic state. It’s no wonder those tea parties keep growing

This particular example is especially problematic for two reason.

First, it is the context of the GM/Chrysler business. The problem here is that it is GM and Chrysler that is asking for government help and money-it isn’t like the administration (or the previous one) went knocking on their door and said “we’re taking over.” The sequencing here, in fact, seems lost on a lot of those who are commenting on this situation.

Indeed, it isn’t even the current financial crisis that is at the root of these companies’ problems. David Brooks aptly notes in today’s NYT (Car Dealer in Chief)

For 30 years, G.M. has been restructuring itself toward long-term viability.

And need we be reminded that Chrysler was already rescued once by the federal government, and in recent history not even Daimler-Benz could make the company work properly.

I am fundamentally a free-marketeer and still wonder if the best course of action from the get-go wouldn’t have been to let the market do its thing with these companies, and allow them to fail. However, I can understand how the dramatic nature of the current economic situation led Bush and Obama both to not go that route.

However, once these companies started looking to the federal government for refuge, they stopped having the same rights and privileges of companies not asking for hand-outs. It changes the nature of the game. If the administration were truly engaged in an authoritarian power-grab of the auto industry, they would be going after Ford, Toyota, Mercedes, Honda, Hyundai, et al. To put it is simple terms: the administration is bossing around GM and Chrysler because GM and Chrysler wants something, and have to be bossed around in order to get it.

Second, the author of the sentence above from is a political science professor who should know better.3

Defining the Term
As is the case with most social science concepts, there is some debate on the exact definition of “totalitarianism” or, at least, as to which states it ought to be ascribed. If anything, authoritarianism4 is the broad category, while totalitarianism is typically construed to be the most extreme form of that type of governance. As the name suggests, it is a regime that seeks to use the state to totally control the society. It is a thoroughly modern type of states, as it requires a certain level of development and technology.
A particularly useful definition can be derived from the work of Friedrich and Brzezinski5 as adapted by Wiarda 6

A totalitarian regime has the following characteristics:7

1. An official, all-encompassing ideology covering all aspects of existence and to which everyone living in the society must adhere.
2. A single mass party, typically led by one person, combined with and inseparable from the governmental apparatus, and monopolizing all political activities.
3. A system of terroristic police control employing modern torture and surveillance techniques.
4. A technological monopoly in the hands of the party or dictator controlling all means of mass communication, such as the press, radio, television, and motion pictures.
5. A system of terroristic police control employing modern torture and surveillance techniques.
6.A technological monopoly in the hands of the party or dictator controlling all means of mass communication, such as the press, radio, television, and motion pictures.

Anyone who wants to say that any of the above is happening in contemporary America (or is at all indicated as a real possibility by the current administration), have at it in the comments section.8

Another classic work on this topic is the following:

Linz, Juan J.  2000.  Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. Boulder, CO:  Lynne Rienner Publishers. 

  1. And, at least, given the fact that the issues at hand are the convergence of government and the economy, one can at least understand the confusion, even if the term is almost always used incorrectly. []
  2. For example, I noted Glenn Beck’s usage and WND‘s in a footnote in a post the other day. []
  3. He teaches at Long beach City College. []
  4. Understand: not all authoritarian states are equal, e.g., living in Mexico under the PRI sure beat living in Cambodia under Pol Pot. []
  5. Friedrich, Carl J., and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski (1965). Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. New York: Praeger. []
  6. Wiarda, Howard J. (2000) Introduction to Comparative Politics., 2nd Edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, pp. 121-122. []
  7. Adapted from my own POL 4433: Comparative Government class notes. []
  8. And let the hilarity ensue. []
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3 Responses to “Politics 101: Totalitarianism”

  1. PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Take the Totalitarian Challenge! Says:

    [...] a far briefer follow-on to the previous post, I propose the following test: if one can rant about how totalitarian one’s government is (or [...]

  2. repsac3 Says:

    Though chances are slim my professor friend will ever actually reply, I suspect the response would include the phrase “rhetorical flourish” (or somethin’ like it), and the notion that, while we’re not a totalitarian state yet, we’re getting closer to it, in much the same way a person who drives from Long Beach City College to Lucille’s Smokehouse Bar B Que, 2.9 miles due east, is “closer” to swimming in the Atlantic ocean. (Had he said “socialist,” I might even see his point, but I’m not so certain that Obama is even “2.9 miles” closer to totalitarianism than was any previous White House occupant, if ya know what I mean…)

    Thanks for the much needed dose of reality.

  3. Polimom Says:

    Rhetorical flourish. I like that. Great euphemism for hyperbole.


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