Totalitarianism is a rhetorical term deployed to indicate "really repressive tyranny." By implication, some tyrannies or authoritarian regimes are more repressive than others and therefore merit a special designation. The obvious problem is that there is no obvious line to be drawn between ordinary, less repressive tyranny and really repressive tyranny. Both use the same instruments of repression: secret police surveillance, torture, and propaganda. Which liberties they repress depend on their ideologies. At best there are differences in the intensity of repression.
The term totalitarian was coined during the Cold War to designate regimes deemed most threatening: all communist regimes and the extinct fascist regime in Germany. Other fascist regimes like Franco's Spain and Salazar's Portugal, as well as a raft of other pro-Western tyrannies were given a pass as "merely" authoritarian.
Consistent with the Cold War construction of the term is the following:
- Every tyranny or authoritarianism reflects a political ethos valuing the authority of the state over the individual freedoms of its citizens. A totalitarian state usually requires a defining ideology with which to justify its appropriation of the levers of power: extreme nationalism was the driving force behind Nazism; Marxism in the case of the Soviet Union; and a puritannical form of Islam in the case of a theocracy such as Iran. China offers an interesting example of a totalitarian regime that has abandoned the practical ramifications of its ideology, whilst retaining the power structures thus derived.
- Such states are characterised by the extent of their subversion of the rule of law, with the police and judiciary acting as direct instruments of control and providing no meaningful check or balance upon the ruling elite. Media outlets are subordinated to faithful promotion of the defining ideology and, as the state matures, this tends to be reinforced with coordinated programmes of indoctrination within the education system. Dissent is often brutally repressed and extra-judicial are common. Other common features include the fostering of a cult of personality around the head of state and rampant corruption due to the arbitrary enforcement of laws and statutes.