What Is Totalitarianism? Part II
By Michael Kleen
November 19, 2009
In the first part of this essay, we defined totalitarianism as the state-orchestrated dissolution of the private sphere, initiated by an ideologically-driven political organization with the goal of exercising total control over the population of a country. In the words of the father of Italian fascism, Giovanni Gentile, the totalitarian state seeks ‘total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals.’ While this control is most obvious and pronounced under a dictatorship, it is not entirely absent in democratic republics. A legislature may vote in favor of a totalitarian state just as easily as a dictator may impose one.
This is totalitarianism in theory, but in order to fully understand what totalitarianism is, we must recognize it in practice. In practice, totalitarianism is expressed in the mass surveillance of the public, in laws that criminalize a broad range of activities usually reserved for individual discretion, as well as in direct government interference in matters of business and religion. These laws are enacted with the purpose of organizing a country around a particular social, political, and economic ideology’such as Marxist-Leninism, Islamism, State Corporatism, etc.’and to restrict dissent against that ideology. There are several areas that have become fertile ground for the growth of totalitarianism in recent years: the Internet, electronic surveillance, and thoughtcrime.
The Internet, as the most obvious symbol of the free exchange of ideas in the contemporary world, has routinely come under attack by totalitarians of all stripes. The People’s Republic of China , for instance, maintains a force of over 30,000 ‘Internet police,’ who monitor the country’s estimated 338 million Internet users. Among other restrictions, no one in China may use the Internet to ‘incite to overthrow the government or the socialist system,’ ‘injure the reputation of state organs,’ or ‘promote feudal superstitions.’ Most of these regulations can be broadly interpreted to shut down any dissent’or even discussion to that effect’against the state or its official ideology. China ‘s Internet police monitor discussion groups and chat rooms and erase comments that are deemed unsympathetic to the government. Keywords such as ‘Falun Gong’ and ‘Red Terror’ are blocked on search engines.
China is not the only totalitarian state to target the Internet. Use of the Internet in Cuba , North Korea , and Burma requires official permission, and even then its users are heavily scrutinized.
Those are, of course, the most extreme examples of Internet censorship in the world, utilizing the least sophisticated means of regulation. By attempting to erase online privacy, many democratic governments have embraced mass surveillance’another hallmark of totalitarianism’to attack the free flow of information on the World Wide Web. At the beginning of November, the Daily Telegraph reported that the British Home Office established new rules for telecom companies and Internet Service Providers requiring them to ‘keep a record of every customer’s personal communications, showing who they are contacting, when, where, and which websites they are visiting.’ This information is now accessible to 653 public bodies, including police and the Financial Services Authority, without permission from a judge or magistrate. In June 2008, the Swedish parliament, led by the Swedish Social Democratic Party, approved a similar law that allowed a government agency called the National Defence Radio Establishment to tap its citizens’ cross-border Internet and phone communication, meaning that all digital information coming into Sweden is now carefully monitored.
The mass surveillance of communication is only one way totalitarians threaten privacy through electronic means. In recent years, closed circuit cameras have sprung up all over urban areas. While we in the West are quick to criticize the Chinese government for its surveillance programs, London , England has one of the highest number of street-corner cameras in the world; 10,524 to be exact, or roughly 16 cameras for every square mile. The United States is not far behind. Washington , DC has led the country with its network of over 5,200 cameras (or roughly 76 per square mile), recently linked together by the Video Interoperability for Public Safety program. Mayor Adrian Fenty has cheerfully noted that his video monitoring system will have an ‘all-hazards’ approach, rather than just focusing on crime. According to the Mayor’s own news release, phase two of his project will see ‘all remaining CCTV user agencies’integrated into a central facility and a new common monitoring facility will be established.’
Totalitarianism is further characterized by a government’s desire to go beyond regulating behavior into regulating thought and its expression in the form of speech and the written word. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, this was called ‘thoughtcrime.’ Thoughtcrimes were committed when an individual deviated from official state ideology. Many left-leaning governments have adopted this approach in order to criminalize unfavorable opinions toward officially protected groups or associations. The Canadian Human Rights Act, for instance, ‘forbids the posting of hateful or contemptuous messages’ on the Internet, and while expressing hatred or ‘possessing hate propaganda’ is prohibited, it is allowed if the person’s intent is to illustrate said hatred ‘for the purpose of removal.’ Hate propaganda has been defined by the Supreme Court of Canada as any expression that is ‘intended or likely to circulate extreme feelings of opprobrium and enmity against a racial or religious group.’ Laws against feelings such as hatred are a direct attack on individual opinion and imply that the only appropriate emotions are those approved of by the government.
While all of these restrictions are common under totalitarian regimes, they do not in and of themselves constitute totalitarianism. A totalitarian state requires both the tools and a political class who employs those tools in the service of a national ideology. The United States certainly possesses the infrastructure to support a totalitarian state, and various ideologues who would readily embrace totalitarianism, but it lacks a cohesive, dominant ideology. Unlike the three political parties of North Korea , political parties in the United States are not united in a common front. The danger we face in the United States today is that if a particular ideology were to ever gain predominance, a totalitarian state would not be difficult to impose.
Since we now know what totalitarianism is and how it operates, we are that much closer to defending ourselves against it. If we wish to prevent a future reminiscent of 1984, our task is threefold: to dismantle the state apparatus that consolidates power into the hands of the Federal government, to expose the agenda behind mass surveillance, censorship, and thought crimes, and to prevent the nationalization of private industry. While we cannot force the totalitarian-minded to give up their designs, we can make it difficult for them to force those designs upon us. Educating ourselves in the what and how of totalitarianism is just the first step in that battle.