refers to an authoritarian political system or state that regulates and controls nearly every aspect of the public and private sectors. Totalitarian regimes establish complete political, social, and cultural control over their subjects, and are usually headed by a charismatic leader. In general, Totalitarianism involves a single mass party, typically led by a dictator; an attempt to mobilize the entire population in support of the official state ideology; and an intolerance of activities which are not directed towards the goals of the state, usually entailing repression and state control of business, labour unions, churches and political parties. A totalitarian regime is essentially a modern form of authoritarian state, requiring as it does an advanced technology of social control.
Totalitarian regimes or movements tend to offer the prospect of a glorious, yet imaginary, future to a frustrated population, and to portray Western democracies and their values as decadent, with people too soft, too pleasure-loving and too selfish to sacrifice for a higher cause. They maintain themselves in political power by various means, including secret police, propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, personality cults, the regulation and restriction of free speech, single-party states, the use of mass surveillance and the widespread use of intimidation and terror tactics.
In the unpublished foreword to his famous novel “Animal Farm,” Orwell warned against the “widespread tendency to argue that one can only defend democracy by totalitarian methods.” Orwell cautioned “that if you encourage totalitarian methods, the time may come when they will be used against you instead of for you.” 1
Totalitarianism is not necessarily the same as a dictatorship or autocracy, which are primarily interested in their own survival and, as such, may allow for varying degrees of autonomy within civil society, religious institutions, the courts and the press. A totalitarian regime, on the other hand, requires that no individual or institution is autonomous from the state’s all-encompassing ideology. However, in practice, Totalitarianism and dictatorship often go hand in hand.
The term “Totalitarismo” was first employed by “the philosopher of Fascism” Giovanni Gentile (1875 – 1944) and Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945) in mid-20th century Fascist Italy. It was originally intended to convey the comforting sense of an “all-embracing, total state”, but it soon attracted critical connotations and unflattering comparisons with Liberalism and democracy.
Totalitarianism does not necessarily align itself politically with either the right or the left. Although most recogized totalitarian regimes have been Fascist and ultra-Nationalist, the degraded Communism of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China were equally totalitarian in nature, and the phrase “Totalitarian Twins” has been used to link Communism and Fascism in this respect.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt sought to provide an historical account of the forces that crystallized into totalitarianism. For Arendt, totalitarianism was a form of governance that eliminated the very possibility of political action. Totalitarian leaders attract both mobs and elites, take advantage of the unthinkability of their atrocities, target “objective enemies” (classes of people who are liquidated simply because of their group membership), use terror to create loyalty, rely on concentration camps, and are obsessive in their pursuit of global primacy.
Arendt was not interested in detailing the causes that produced totalitarianism. Nothing in the nineteenth century—indeed, nothing in human history—could have prepared us for the idea of political domination achieved by organizing the infinite plurality and differentiation of human beings as if all humanity were just one individual. Arendt believed that such a development marked a grotesque departure from all that had come before.
Here are some excerpts:
Totalitarianism is never content to rule by external means, namely, through the state and a machinery of violence; thanks to its peculiar ideology and the role assigned to it in this apparatus of coercion, totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within.
It has fequently been pointed out that totalitarian movements use and abuse democratic freedoms in order to abolish them. This is not just devilish cleverness on the part of the leaders or childish stupidity on the part of the masses. Democratic freedoms may be based on the equality of all citizens before the law; yet they acquire their meaning and function organically only where the citizens belong to and are represented by groups or form a social and political hierarchy.
Terror can rule only absolutely over men who are isolated against each other… Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insomuch as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition.
While isolation concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness oncerns human life as a whole. Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.
History of Totalitarianism
It can be argued that Totalitarianism existed millennia ago in ancient China under the political leadership of Prime Minister Li Si(280 – 208 B.C.), who helped the Qin Dynasty unify China. Under the ruling Legalism philosophy, political activities were severely restricted, all literature destroyed, and scholars who did not support Legalism were summarily put to death.
Something very similar to Totalitarianism was also in force in Sparta, a warlike state in Ancient Greece, for several centuries before the rise of Alexander the Great in 336 B.C. Its “educational system” was part of the totalitarian military society and the state machine dictated every aspect of life, down to the rearing of children.
The rigid caste-based society which Plato described in his “Republic” had many totalitarian traits, despite Plato’s stated goal (the search for justice), and it was clear that the citizens served the state and not vice versa. In his “Leviathan” of 1651, Thomas Hobbes envisioned an absolute monarchy exercising both civil and religious power, in which the citizens are willing to cede most of their rights to the state in exchange for security and safety. Niccolò Machiavelli’s “The Prince” touched on totalitarian themes, arguing that the state is merely an instrument for the benefit of the ruler, who should have no qualms at using whatever means are at his disposal to keep the citizenry suppressed.
Most commentators consider the first real totalitarian regimes to have been formed in the mid-20th Century, in the chaos following World War I, at which point the sophistication of modern weapons and communications enabled totalitarian movements to consolidate power in:
- Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1878 – 1953), from 1928 to 1953.
- Italy under Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945), from 1922 to 1943.
- Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945) from 1933 to 1945.
- Spain under Francisco Franco (1892 – 1975), from 1936 to 1975.
- Portugal under António de Oliveira Salazar (1889 – 1970), from 1932 to 1974.
Other more recent examples, to greater or lesser degrees, include: the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong, North Korea under Kim Il Sung, Cuba under Fidel Castro, Cambodia under Pol Pot, Romania under Nicolae Ceau’escu, Syria under Hafez al-Assad, Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
Indoctrinating the Masses to Accept Totalitarianism
“The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”
Diseases of the body can spread through a population and reach epidemic proportions, but so too can diseases of the mind. And of these epidemics of the latter variety, the mass psychosis is the most dangerous. During a mass psychosis madness becomes the norm in a society and delusionary beliefs spread like a contagion. But as delusions can take many forms, and as madness can manifest in countless ways, the specific manner in which a mass psychosis unfolds will differ based on the historical and cultural context of the infected society. In the past, mass psychoses have led to witch hunts, genocides and even dancing manias, but in the modern era it is the mass psychosis of totalitarianism that is the greatest threat:
“Totalitarianism is the modern phenomenon of total centralized state power coupled with the obliteration of individual human rights: in the totalized state, there are those in power, and there are the objectified masses, the victims.”
Arthur Versluis, The New Inquisitions
In a totalitarian society the population is divided into two groups, the rulers and the ruled, and both groups undergo a pathological transformation. The rulers are elevated to an almost god-like status which is diametrically opposed to our nature as imperfect beings who are easily corrupted by power. The masses, on the other hand, are transformed into the dependent subjects of these pathological rulers and take on a psychologically regressed and childlike status. Hannah Arendt, one of the 20th century’s preeminent scholars of this form of rule, called totalitarianism an attempted transformation of “human nature itself”. But this attempted transformation only turns sound minds into sick minds for as the Dutch medical doctor who studied the mental effects of living under totalitarianism wrote:
“… there is in fact much that is comparable between the strange reactions of the citizens of [totalitarianism] and their culture as a whole on the one hand and the reactions of the…sick schizophrenic on the other.”
The social transformation that unfolds under totalitarianism is built upon, and sustained by, delusions. For only deluded men and women regress to the childlike status of obedient and submissive subjects and hand over complete control of their lives to politicians and bureaucrats. Only a deluded ruling class will believe that they possess the knowledge, wisdom, and acumen to completely control society in a top-down manner. And only when under the spell of delusions would anyone believe that a society composed of power-hungry rulers, on the one hand, and a psychological regressed population, on the other, will lead to anything other than mass suffering and social ruin.
But what triggers the psychosis of totalitarianism? As was explored in the previous video of this series, the mass psychosis of totalitarianism begins in a society’s ruling class. The individuals that make up this class, be it politicians, bureaucrats, or crony capitalists, are very prone to delusions that augment their power, and no delusion is more attractive to the power-hungry, than the delusion that they can, and should, control and dominate a society. When a ruling elite becomes possessed by a political ideology of this sort, be it communism, fascism or technocracy, the next step is to induce a population into accepting their rule by infecting them with the mass psychosis of totalitarianism. This psychosis has been induced many times throughout history, and as Meerloo explains:
“It is simply a question of reorganizing and manipulating collective feelings in the proper way.”
The general method by which the members of a ruling elite can accomplish this end is called menticide, with the etymology of this word being ‘a killing of the mind’, and as Meerloo further explains:
“Menticide is an old crime against the human mind and spirit but systematized anew. It is an organized system of psychological intervention and judicial perversion through which a [ruling class] can imprint [their] own opportunistic thoughts upon the minds of those [they] plan to use and destroy.”
Priming a population for the crime of menticide begins with the sowing of fear. For as was explored in the first video of this series, when an individual is flooded with negative emotions, such as fear or anxiety, he or she is very susceptible to a descent into the delusions of madness. Threats real, imagined, or fabricated can be used to sow fear, but a particularly effective technique is to use waves of terror. Under this technique the sowing of fear is staggered with periods of calm, but each of these periods of calm is followed by the manufacturing of an even more intense spell of fear, and on and on the process goes, or as Meerloo writes:
“Each wave of terrorizing . . . creates its effects more easily – after a breathing spell – than the one that preceded it because people are still disturbed by their previous experience. Morality becomes lower and lower, and the psychological effects of each new propaganda campaign become stronger; it reaches a public already softened up.”
While fear primes a population for menticide, the use of propaganda to spread misinformation and to promote confusion with respect to the source of the threats, and the nature of the crisis, helps to break down the minds of the masses. Government officials, and their lackies in the media, can use contradictory reports, non-sensical information and even blatant lies, as the more they confuse the less capable will a population be to cope with the crisis, and diminish their fear, in a rational and adaptive manner. Confusion, in other words, heightens the susceptibility of a descent into the delusions of totalitarianism, or as Meerloo explains:
“Logic can be met with logic, while illogic cannot—it confuses those who think straight. The Big Lie and monotonously repeated nonsense have more emotional appeal … than logic and reason. While the [people are] still searching for a reasonable counter-argument to the first lie, the totalitarians can assault [them] with another.”
Never before in history have such effective means existed to manipulate a society into the psychosis of totalitarianism. Smart phones and social media, television and the internet, all in conjunction with algorithms that quickly censor the flow of unwanted information, allow those in power to easily assault the minds of the masses. What is more the addictive nature of these technologies means that many people voluntarily subject themselves to the ruling elite’s propaganda with a remarkable frequency:
“Modern technology teaches man to take for granted the world he is looking at; he takes no time to retreat and reflect. Technology lures him on, dropping him into its wheels and movements. No rest, no meditation, no reflection, no conversation – the senses are continually overloaded with stimuli. [Man] doesn’t learn to question his world anymore; the screen offers him answers-ready-made.”
But there is a further step the would-be totalitarian rulers can take to increase the chance of a totalitarian psychosis, and this is to isolate the victims and to disrupt normal social interactions. When alone and lacking normal interactions with friends, family and coworkers, an individual becomes far more susceptible to delusions for several reasons: Firstly, they lose contact with the corrective force of the positive example. For not everyone is tricked by the machinations of the ruling elite and the individuals who see through the propaganda, can help free others from the menticidal assault. If, however, isolation is enforced the power of these positive examples greatly diminishes. But another reason that isolation increases the efficacy of menticide is because like many other species, human beings, are more easily conditioned into new patterns of thought and behaviour when isolated, or as Meerloo explains with regards to the physiologist Ivan Pavlov’s work on behavioural conditioning:
“Pavlov made another significant discovery: the conditioned reflex could be developed most easily in a quiet laboratory with a minimum of disturbing stimuli. Every trainer of animals knows this from his own experience; isolation and the patient repetition of stimuli are required to tame wild animals. . . .The totalitarians have followed this rule. They know that they can condition their political victims most quickly if they are kept in isolation.”
Alone, confused and battered by waves of terror, a population under an attack of menticide descends into a hopeless and vulnerable state. The never-ending stream of propaganda turns minds once capable of rational thought into playhouses of irrational forces and with chaos swirling around them, and within them, the masses crave a return to a more ordered world. The would-be totalitarians can now take the decisive step, they can offer a way out and a return to order in a world that seems to be moving rapidly in the opposite direction. But all this come at a price: The masses must give up their freedom and cede control of all aspects of life to the ruling elite. They must relinquish their capacity to be self-reliant individuals who are responsible for their own lives, and become submissive and obedient subjects. The masses, in other words, must descend into the delusions of the totalitarian psychosis.
“Totalitarianism is man’s escape from the fearful realities of life into the virtual womb of the leaders. The individual’s actions are directed from this womb – from the inner sanctum. . .man need no longer assume responsibility for his own life. The order and logic of the prenatal world reign. There is peace and silence, the peace of utter submission.”
But the order of a totalitarian world is a pathological order. By enforcing a strict conformity, and requiring a blind obedience from the citizenry, totalitarianism rids the world of the spontaneity that produces many of life’s joys and the creativity that drives society forward. The total control of this form of rule, no matter under what name it is branded, be it rule by scientists and doctors, politicians and bureaucrats, or a dictator, breeds stagnation, destruction and death on a mass scale. And so perhaps the most important question facing the world is how can totalitarianism be prevented? And if a society has been induced into the early stages of this mass psychosis, can the effects be reversed?
While one can never be sure of the prognosis of a collective madness, there are steps that can be taken to help effectuate a cure. This task, however, necessitates many different approaches, from many different people. For just as the menticidal attack is multi-pronged, so too must be the counter-attack. According to Carl Jung, for those of us who wish to help return sanity to an insane world, the first step is to bring order to our own minds, and to live in a way that provides inspiration for others to follow:
“It is not for nothing that our age cries out for the redeemer personality, for the one who can emancipate himself from the grip of the collective [psychosis] and save at least his own soul, who lights a beacon of hope for others, proclaiming that here is at least one man who has succeeded in extricating himself from the fatal identity with the group psyche.”
But assuming one is living in a manner free of the grip of the psychosis there are further steps that can be taken: firstly, information that counters the propaganda should be spread as far, and as wide, as possible. For the truth is more powerful than the fiction and falsities peddled by the would-be totalitarian rulers and so their success is in part contingent on their ability to censor the free flow of information. Another tactic is to use humour and ridicule to delegitimize the ruling elite or as Meerloo explains:
“We must learn to treat the demagogue and aspirant dictators in our midst. . .with the weapon of ridicule. The demagogue himself is almost incapable of humor of any sort, and if we treat him with humor, he will begin to collapse.”
A tactic recommended by Vaclav Havel, a political dissident under Soviet communist rule who later became president of Czechoslovakia, is the construction of what are called “parallel structures”. A parallel structure is any form of organization, business, institution, technology, or creative pursuit that exists physically within a totalitarian society, yet morally outside of it. In communist Czechoslovakia, Havel noted that these parallel structures were more effective at combating totalitarianism than political action. Furthermore, when enough parallel structures are created, a “second culture” or “parallel society” spontaneously forms and functions as an enclave of freedom and sanity within a totalitarian world. Or as Havel explains in his book The Power of the Powerless:
“….what else are parallel structures than an area where a different life can be lived, a life that is in harmony with its own aims and which in turn structures itself in harmony with those aims? . . .What else are those initial attempts at social self-organization than the efforts of a certain part of society…to rid itself of the self-sustaining aspects of totalitarianism and, thus, to extricate itself radically from its involvement in the…totalitarian system?”
But above all else what is required to prevent a full descent into the madness of totalitarianism is action by as many people as possible. For just as the ruling elite do not sit around passively, but instead take deliberate steps to increase their power, so too an active and concerted effort must be made to move the world back in the direction of freedom. This can be an immense challenge in a world falling prey to the delusions of totalitarianism, but as Thomas Paine noted:
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict the more glorious the triumph.”
Thomas Paine, American Crisis