| How the sausage is made|
“”Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The State is all in all. Everything is referred to the production of force; afterwards, everything is trusted to the use of it. It is military in its principle, in its maxims, in its spirit, and in all its movements. The State has dominion and conquest for its sole objects — dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms.
|—Edmund Burke, on revolutionary France|
“”If you are confronted with two evils, thus the argument runs, it is your duty to opt for the lesser one, whereas it is irresponsible to refuse to choose altogether. Those who denounce the moral fallacy of this argument are usually accused of a germ-proof moralism which is alien to political circumstances, of being unwilling to dirty their hands. …
Politically, the weakness of the argument has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil. Since the evil of the Third Reich finally was so monstrous that by no stretch of the imagination could it be called a "lesser evil," one might have assumed that this time the argument would have collapsed once and for all, which surprisingly is not the case. Moreover, if we look at the techniques of totalitarian government, it is obvious that the argument of "the lesser evil"— far from being raised only from the outside by those who do not belong to the ruling elite—is one of the mechanisms built into the machinery of terror and criminality. Acceptance of lesser evils is consciously used in conditioning the government officials as well as the population at large to the acceptance of evil as such.
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 them. Dictatorships 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. Totalitarians are notably intolerant of all who disagree with them.
The term "totalitarianism" was coined in 1923 by Italian liberal antifascist Giovanni Amendola to describe the then-new Italian fascist regime of Benito Mussolini (who would have Amendola assassinated in 1926 in Cannes), soon appropriated by major Fascist ideologue Giovanni Gentile as a self-description, and later during the Cold War popularized to designate regimes deemed most threatening: most 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 such as Pinochet's Chile and Pahlavi's Iran were labeled as merely authoritarian.
Consistent with the Cold War construction of the term is the following: 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; Russian Communism in the case of the Soviet Union; and a puritanical 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. Ba'athist regimes in Syria and Iraq have also been termed totalitarian. Under a totalitarian system it's often not enough for the people to not question the dictator in question but they are also expected to go a step further and openly endorse and espouse the regime's ideology. (Totalitarianism is sometimes described as "theocracy without a god", and many writers have remarked on the tendency of Communist ideology in particular to look, walk,and quack like religious faith.)
Such states are characterized 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 extrajudicial executions are common. Virtually all totalitarian regimes have scapegoats on which they blame all their problems, and any members of said scapegoated group can expect to face extremely intense repression on behalf of the state. 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.
In an abstract sense, totalitarianism can be distinguished from authoritarianism by its ideological scope; generally the 'authority' in an authoritarian system is primarily concerned with having and keeping absolute political and military power over a group or groups of people, while a more totalitarian approach would be seen from an authority who is primarily concerned with extending the reach of their power to control each individual citizen.
Hannah Arendt, among others, offers the concept of totalitarianism attempting to maintain a "fictitious world" in which the totalitarian ideology dominates perceptions of reality, with actual reality being irrelevant. (On this view, contempt for reality becomes a defining feature of totalitarianism, if not its basis; and the term post-truth thereby acquires extremely ominous implications.)
As a result, totalitarianism tends to be marked by heavy scapegoating of an imagined external enemy (in Communist terms, 'the international bourgeoisie') accompanied by violent hostility specifically targeting adherents of the ideology who deviate even in small ways, these to be identified as being as one with the imagined enemy (Mensheviks and non-Communist socialists being termed 'fascist' or 'fascist hirelings').
- Afghanistan under the Taliban. (Ended but making a comeback)
- The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. (Current)
- Al-Qaeda in Yemen, Syria, and Somalia. (Current)
- The Soviet Union, under Joseph Stalin; as famines, and purges to the extent of genocide petered out after Stalin died. (Ended)
- Maoist China (possibly extending into the short reign of Mao's immediate successor Hua Guofeng). (Ended but later replaced)
- Romania under Gheroghe Gheorghiu-Dej and Nicolae Ceaușescu. (Ended)
- the German Democratic Republic. (Ended)
- Albania under Enver Hoxha, apparently admired by that well-known
commie sadistsaint, Mother Teresa. (Ended)
- Cambodia under Pol Pot. (Ended)
- The Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. (Ended)
- Eritrea under the People's Front for Democracy and Justice, follows a blend of ultranationalism, authoritarian socialism, and extreme anti-Ethiopia sentiments, to the point that it is nicknamed "Africa's North Korea". (Current)
- North Korea under the Kim family, as Juche is a syncretic communist hodge-podge distilled from disparate ideologies, including Korean nationalism, Stalinism, Confucianism, and even an imperial cult. (Current)
- Turkmenistan under Saparmurat Niyazov and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. (Current)
- China under Xi Jinping. (Current)
- Baathist régimes under Hafez Assad (deceased) and Bashir Assad (current) in Syria or Saddam Hussein in Iraq (Ended)
Came and/or coming close
- the Inca Empire. (Ended)
- Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini, who wanted to make Italy a totalitarian state, but couldn't do so, as some other organizations like the catholic church still had a bit of power. (Ended)
- One of the few pre-20th century cases where a regime came close to totalitarianism examples is France under the Jacobins, who followed a form of "Radical egalitarianism", i.e. a vague form of extremely authoritarian proto-socialism. It's features included both nationalism and egalitarian appeals, as well as claims to embody true liberty and the people. (Ended)
- Militarist Japan under Hideki Tojo. (Ended)
- Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang arguably tried to apply elements of totalitarianism by suppressing regional differences in everything from cultural practices to weights and measures, ordering all earlier histories to be burned, tightly controlling the economy, and encouraging total loyalty to the state (including censorship and reward for denunciation). Some historians have called him history's first totalitarian dictator. (Ended)
- Saudi Arabia under the House of Saud. (Current)
- Ancient Sparta. (Ended)
- Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia from George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Their ideologies vary on the surface, with Oceania following English Socialism (or "Ingsoc"), Eurasia following neo-Bolshevism, and Eastasia following Obliteration of the Self (or "Death Worship"), but in practice, they are virtually indistinguishable. This fact is not lost on their rulers, who use doublethink to get the masses to believe that the other guys are their total antithesis. They are also notable for transcending Fascism and Communism, occupying such an eldritch, non-Euclidian area between the horsehoe's prongs that they can only be described as non-specifically totalitarian. They even go so far as to demean the fascisms and communisms of the past, claiming that they fell precisely because they cared about things like racial purity, communal ownership, or really anything besides remaining in power.
- The Nazi-dominated, puppet United States of America in the east and the Japanese-dominated Pacific States of America in the wake of an Axis victory in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle
- The Republic of Gilead from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.
- The World State from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.
- The One State from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We.
- Norsefire from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta.
- Animal Farm/Manor Farm from George Orwell's Animal Farm.