There are many forms of government and leadership in the world. Some systems allow the public to freely vote for presidents while others utilize hereditary wealth and power to become leading figures. Some governments require the agreement of a selected few and others that follow a military rule. Some systems forcefully instill their wills to the state and disregard the personal freedoms of the public. Such ideologies are totalitarianism and authoritarianism. These government systems utilize dictatorial methods to lead states and control the population. The two systems are similar in many ways, however, there is a distinct difference that individuals should note to better assess if a state is totalitarian or authoritarian. Totalitarian governments acquire total control over public and private life while authoritarian systems utilize forceful and illegitimate leaderships that provide limited political freedom.
A totalitarian system is a dictatorial form of government where the leader has total control over the political, social, economic, and other aspects of a state and people’s lives. In a totalitarian government, individuals do not have any form of freedom as the state dictates everything including their beliefs and morals (Longley 2020). Totalitarian governments tend to have a centralized ideology that the state will religiously follow. The system, as its name suggests, takes total control of a state and does not condone opposition to exist. A totalitarian state will possess an aggressive police force that imprisons individuals that may pose a threat to the system. The ideologies and aggressive use of force allow totalitarian systems to maintain control over a state and rally the population to its side.
To better understand the totalitarian system and differentiate it from an authoritarian model, individuals can refer to some criteria that make a state totalitarian. Totalitarian theorists Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinki (1957) established an effective criterion that acts as a checklist in assessing a totalitarian state. According to them, there are six criteria for a totalitarian state which are: centralized ideologies, single political party, aggressive police force, strict media control, total control of state weaponry, and a centralized economy (Jackson 2019). The six criteria efficiently define the totalitarian system and its operation within a state.
The first criteria for a totalitarian system is a dictatorial state that operates under a particular ideology. The ideology can refer to religious, political, social, or economic motivations that the ruler will forcefully instill in the state. A totalitarian government uses propaganda, “gaslighting”, fear, and beliefs to persuade the population to accept the ideology. Totalitarian regimes like the rise of the Nazi Party utilized political and religious issues to gain the support of various groups. Most totalitarian governments also have charismatic leaders that help in persuading the public. Since totalitarian ideologies can have different motivations, leaders use varying tactics to establish their goals and gain the support of the population.
An example of a totalitarian ideology is North Korea’s “Juche”. This ideology highlight’s the system’s focus on establishing political, military, and economic dependence. The idea of “Suryong” accompanies the main ideology and dictates that only the country’s leader can define and redefine the meaning of Juche (Chartrand et al 2017). Another good example of a totalitarian ideology is from George Orwell’s 1984 novel. In the novel, Oceania is under totalitarian rule and abides under the ideology of Ingsoc. The public blindly follows the ideology and the teaching of the state. These examples highlight the potential influence of a centralized ideology on the condition of a totalitarian state.
Single Political Party
Since a totalitarian system and its people follows a particular ideology, the state does not allow any opposition to exist. Totalitarian governments follow a dictator which a certain political party will unconditionally support. A state maintains this singular political party characteristic by utilizing police forces, endless propaganda, and disregarding personal freedom. Totalitarian governments tend to utilize unusual methods to prevent opposition which can lead to “sudden disappearances” of political figures. Since the state’s main political party fully supports the dictator, they tend to disregard unusual methods and ignore disappearances.
The singular political characteristic of a totalitarian regime often leads to the dictator becoming a historical figure that individuals will associate with the event. Dictators like Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Mao Zedong, Kim Jong-un, and Isaias Afweki are some of the popular totalitarian rulers that lead singular political parties. Some of these rulers were also charismatic which allowed them to persuade a portion of the population to support their ideologies and maintain their totalitarian rule.
Aggressive Police Force
An aggressive police force accompanies the political parties in instilling ideologies and ensuring the nonexistence of opposing groups. The police force aids in operations like population management and overseeing mandatory military service. Totalitarian governments tend to legislate population control and mandatory military service to maintain a healthy state. Population control is necessary for this type of regime since the state will need to efficiently allocate resources. An uncontrolled population can lead a totalitarian government to face several issues including disease outbreaks, starvation, and economic collapse. Mandatory military service is another common practice in totalitarian states as it allows the system to regularly receive abled bodies. The military service also helps the police force instill the state’s ideologies to the public. These strict regulations are necessary for the sustainability of a totalitarian state and require an aggressive police force to maintain.
A good example of an aggressive police force operation is the orchestrated genocides during World War II and the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The genocides occur due to religious and political persecution as the Nazi Party and the Chinese government utilized soldiers to commit the killings. George Orwell’s 1984 novel also showed a good example of an aggressive and secret police force. Orwell introduced the “Thought Police” which were individuals that observe and detain individuals that pose a threat to their ideology. This police force kidnaps and torture individuals to forcefully persuade them in accepting the Ingsoc ideology. There are more real-world examples such as the “disappearances” in China as well as strict border patrol to prevent individuals from entering or exiting a country.
Since totalitarian states utilize aggressive police forces and enforce radical ideologies, they maintain strict media censorship. They review and regulate all media outlets to avoid the release of anti-government propaganda. In most totalitarian states, individuals have limited or no access to the Internet and foreign media. Televisions and radios mostly play pro-government advertisements that help in the conditioning of the population. Totalitarian states utilize “gaslighting” to influence the mind and ideals of the people (Longley 2020). The state’s control over the media allows them to better gaslight the population through pro-government affirmations, catchphrases, and testimonies. The strict media control coincides with the state’s radical ideologies and prevents any anti-government agenda.
Total Control Over State Weaponry
The totalitarian system’s influence over police and military force enables it to acquire control over state weaponry. Totalitarian governments tend to possess the authority to use and develop nuclear, atomic, and other weapons. The control over the weaponry allows the government to maintain order within the state and have a deterrent against foreign attacks. North Korea, for example, invested in defense as well as nuclear arms development to legitimize their totalitarian system (Chartrand et al 2017). The state uses weaponry to threaten other countries as well as stop them from disrupting the system’s operations. The control over state weaponry is an essential aspect of a totalitarian system as they lead through fear and dictatorships.
Since a totalitarian government controls everything within a state, it also influences the country’s economy. Totalitarian states have centralized economies that revolve around various aspects of the country. North Korea focuses its economy on military-industrial departments instead of agriculture and manufacturing sectors (Chartrand et al 2017). China supports its economic growth through the country’s disregard of the World Trade Organization’s rules (Edwards 2020). Since totalitarian states do not follow international guidelines, they can establish unique economies to sustain the country. However, since the government controls the economy, most of these states tend to have communist ideals and threaten modern capitalism. Centralized economies sustain these countries by compromising certain sectors and international rules.
In contrast to the totalitarian system’s total control over public and private life, authoritarian states tend to limit their authority within the government. The authoritarian system offers a certain level of political and social freedom for the people while still possessing dictatorial characteristics. This type of system, however, is vulnerable to corruption and internal disputes. This is due to the plurality of political parties as well as the methods the government uses to rule the state. It is also important to note that a totalitarian system will possess most of the characteristics of an authoritarian system while the authoritarian system has limitations.
Similar to the totalitarian system, theorists have established criteria to assess an authoritarian system. Linz (1964), as cited in Longley (2021), characterized an authoritarian system as one with limited political freedom, unlawful political acts, strict political standards, and a singular leader with undefined powers. Some of these characteristics are present in totalitarian states while the others are the result of the limited freedom that the system allows.
Limited Political Freedom
An authoritarian state allows the existence of opposing parties and ideals. This allows individuals to practice personal beliefs and ideologies without the fear of the state. However, authoritarian governments that are religion-based may force certain individuals to hide their practice. This political freedom results in plurality in the political parties but can also result in infighting. Authoritarian governments tend to utilize unfair advantages and vote-buying to ensure that the leading political party will win and maintain its position. Still, the limited political freedom provides the population with the hope of changing the government’s state.
Unlawful Political Acts
Both totalitarian and authoritarian systems utilize unusual methods to deal with opposition. However, totalitarian states also enforce ideologies that allow them to gain the support of the population. For authoritarian systems, they tend to practice procedural rule-breaking and disregard accountability towards the people (Glasius 2018). These practices lead to unlawful political acts where state members avoid the consequences of the law. Authoritarian governments utilize these practices to attack opposing parties as well as exercise corruption schemes. Their disregard towards accountability enforces them to illegally disregard personal freedoms. This results in the authoritarian governments’ unlawful characteristic which is in contrast with the totalitarian system’s effort for legitimacy.
Strict Political Standards
Despite the authoritarian system allowing plurality in political parties, it often establishes strict standards that align with its agenda. These political standards can affect the operations of opposing parties. Elections within authoritarian states are mostly one-sided due to the legal standards that the government legislates (Toth 2017). These “mock elections” and biased legislation lead to the high corruption rate in authoritarian states which makes the country unstable. Iran’s authoritarian state, for example, declared Islam as the official religion which makes it hard for non-Islam politicians and groups to operate within the country. This authoritarian practice is equivalent to the totalitarian’s centralized ideology, however, this form tends to lack legitimacy.
Singular Leader with Undefined Powers
Since authoritarian states tend to lack legitimacy due to their unlawful actions and practices, their leaders tend to possess undefined powers. Authoritarian systems do not have ideologies that they strictly follow but utilize unnecessary force to further their agenda. Bureaucratic-military authoritarian parties may institutionalize leaders to act as the leading figure for the state (Toth 2017). These bureaucratic-military parties may institutionalize multiple leaders in a long period to maintain control of a state. Some authoritarian leaders may also be charismatic individuals that became de facto leaders through the efforts of their supporters. These methods of power acquisition tend to lack legitimacy which leads to one-sided elections and infighting.
The totalitarian and authoritarian systems have characteristics that make them similar to each other. Both have dictatorial leaders and restrain the freedom of the population. However, totalitarian governments utilize ideologies, single political parties, police forces, media censorship, and control over state weaponry and economy to achieve total legitimate authority over the state. Authoritarian governments, on the other hand, allows political freedom and plurality but also practices unlawful acts against oppositions and the public. A totalitarian system dictates the belief of private individuals while authoritarian models allow for a certain level of personal freedom. It is also worth noting that a totalitarian system will possess authoritarian characteristics while authoritarianism is a lesser form of totalitarianism.
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