The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 3:51:41

What is “Totalitarian” and Totalitarianism? Is the USA really moving to become a totalitarian state?

Josef Seifert, Mar 04, 2012

The comments and questions posed on my post on the danger of the USA moving to become a totalitarian state have prompted me to ask the underlying question what a “totalitarian state” is.

By this term we can of course refer to kinds of states and regimes which are very different from the USA. Let us briefly survey the characteristics through which totalitarian states or regimes can be characterized and then ask which of these are present and which are absent in the USA:

  1. A total state control of public and private life that eliminates as far as possible opposition, other parties, private education, Church schools (up to persecuting critics and, if we speak of an atheist totalitarian state, religion). This corresponds to the Wikipedia definition of totalitarianism: “Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) is a political system where the state recognizes no limits to its authority and strives to regulate every aspect of public and private life wherever feasible. Totalitarian regimes stay in political power through an all-encompassing propaganda campaign, which is disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, a single party that is often marked by political repression, personality cultism, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of speech, mass surveillance, and widespread use of terror.” In this sense of course totalitarianism is also different from authoritarian governments, juntas, or dictatorships which lack these elements, and in this regard the United States is far from being a totalitarian state.

Let us also mention some single and more partial traits of totalitarian states:

  1. A one-party rule and an absence of any significant political freedom (of free elections, forming new political parties, vital opposition, etc.). In this sense of course the USA is not a totalitarian state at all.
  2. A guiding unified ideology (such as Nazi ideology or communist Russian ideology) which nobody is allowed seriously to question in public or even in private without going to suffer serious consequences in daily and professional life, eventually going to jail, or even being killed.  In this sense of course the USA is not a totalitarian state.
  3. A lack of or grave interference with private life and a system of espionage that pries into private meetings, conversations, letters, telephone calls and persecutes those who are enemies of a ruling political party or regime or even who just criticize the underlying ideology theoretically.  Also in this sense the United States is certainly not a totalitarian state.
  4. The lack of not only actual political but also of (in principle) legal protection of inhabitants of a country against attacks on their fundamental human rights, especially their right to life, to self-determination and to liberty, imprisoning and killing people arbitrarily. In this respect, most of all regarding the right to life, one notes marked features of totalitarianism in the United States by failing in the task which the Declaration of Independence calls the very reason why States exist - to secure these fundamental rights such as the right to life. Someone might object and say that an extreme “liberalism” that allows every other person to attack our, or at least the unborn’s, right to life is not totalitarianism which would consist in the State itself attacking the right to life. Even granted this point from the angle of a stricter application of the term “totalitarianism,” one may say that in this respect the USA resembles totalitarian States in their most terrible aspect (the murder of the innocent and its permission without pursuing such crimes).
  5. A state in which the freedom of conscience and the freedom of religion are not respected but people are forced by laws, by the state or by government orders to choose between following their moral conscience and religious beliefs or suffering harm (loss of job, loss of financial support, financially or otherwise caused closing of private institutions, etc.). In this regard there are of course huge differences of degree of the absence of freedom of conscience and religion, and no doubt the USA is in no way one of the worst cases of this, compared, for example, to Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia, which forced countless people to torture and kill others and where known dissenters have been jailed without due process for years, or communist China which imprisons critics and forces millions of mothers and doctors as well as nurses to kill babies. Nonetheless, the recent developments show that the United States government begins to move in the direction of a totalitarian attack on the dignity and freedom of conscience and religion. And this is alarming enough to speak of totalitarian tendencies, because here we are dealing with the very nucleus and core of a free country and a free state: that it respects this sanctuary of conscience and religious beliefs in a person; therefore, as soon as moral and religious freedom is under attack and dissent from generally accepted moral standards in a pluralist relativist society is not allowed, a kind of “moral-religious” totalitarianism, which is the worst aspect of totalitarianism, is close at hand or even already present. And it is mostly this most ugly face of totalitarianism: the oppression of the freedom of conscience and religion, that raises its ugly head in the US where it has been unimaginable still a couple of years ago and that begins to affect many other countries as well to an alarming degree. One might invoke here also Solshenizyn’s view that totalitarian Russian communism has infected the whole world with a profound relativism regarding good and evil, right and wrong, which Solshenizyn and also Havel and other prominent thinkers regarded as the core of the evil of communism. This rule of relativism has led to a “tyranny” or dictatorship of relativism, as Pope John Paul treated it in Centesimus Annus and as Benedict XVI calls it, which permeates the free democratic world and makes the liberal pluralist democracies that seem the radical opposite of totalitarianism much closer to it than they think. Relativism is not the basis of democracy: On the contrary: The resistance to totalitarian systems, to the oppression of freedom, and to totalitarian or racist crimes is impossible without objective truth.  Therefore if relativism reigns and becomes almost a condition of being socially and politically accepted, the danger of arbitrary and lawless state rule or of totalitarian oppression of justice and liberty lurks.

Many authors have pointed out this profound connection between truth and democracy and between relativism and totalitarianism, such as Rocco Buttiglione, in his Augusto del Noce. Biografia di un pensiero (Ca­sa­le Monserrato: Piemme, 1991), Dietrich von Hildebrand in his Memoiren und Aufsätze gegen den Nationalsozialismus 1933-1938. Veröffentlichungen der Kommission für Zeitgeschichte, mit Alice von Hildebrand und Rudolf Ebneth hrsg. v. Ernst Wenisch (Mainz: Matthias Grünewald Verlag, 1994); Josef Seifert, (Hg.), Dietrich von Hildebrands Kampf gegen den Nationalsozialismus (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Carl Winter, 1998); Alexander Solschenizyn, Macht und Moral zu Ende des Zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts, hrsg. v. Rocco Buttiglione und Josef Seifert, Internationale Akademie für Philosophie im Fürstentum Liechtenstein, Akademie-Reden (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1994), Václav Havel, Versuch, in der Wahrheit zu leben (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1990).