Totalitarianism is any political system in which a citizen is totally subject to state authority in all aspects of day-to-day life. It goes well beyond dictatorship or typical police state measures, and even beyond those measures required to sustain total war with other states. It involves constant brainwashing achieved by propaganda to erase any potential for dissent, by anyone, including most especially the state's agents.

The term was originally coined by Benito Mussolini to describe his regime in Italy, although it is arguable that Italian fascism was not truly totalitarian until 1940. It was popularized by Hannah Arendt in order to illustrate the commonalities between Nazism and Stalinism as theories of civics. It has also been used to include all fascist and communist regimes — though some fascist regimes, such as Franco's Spain, and Mussolini's Italy before World War II, and some communist regimes, such as Yugoslavia under Tito and the People's Republic of China under Deng Xiaoping, could be characterized as more authoritarian than totalitarian.

Totalitarian regimes

Totalitarian regimes have generally been far rarer than authoritarian ones. There is no theory of ethics that holds that they are desirable.

Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler's Germany are widely considered to be the two quintessential examples of totalitarian regimes in history. Both held power for long periods despite substantial pressure.

The Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot are widely considered to be the very worst government in human history - that regime transcends all concept of even totalitarian definitions in terms of the sheer horror it unleashed on the citizens of Cambodia. It is certainly totalitarian, but also genocidal - even self-consuming. It eventually collapsed completely.

A contemporary example often cited, e.g. in George W. Bush's Axis of Evil, is North Korea; certain Islamist regimes, such as that found in Iran, are also sometimes described as totalitarian. In fiction, the Big Brother regime described in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is considered to be a quintessential example of totalitarianism.

Most political scientists believe totalitarian regimes were rare before the 20th century because neither technological means nor ideological justifications existed for controlling large numbers of people. The Qin Dynasty is perhaps a rare example of a possible pre-modern totalitarian state.

Today, however, television, radio, and other mass media make it relatively easy for totalitarian regimes to make their presence felt, often through campaigns of propaganda or the creation of a vast personality cult.

The terms totalitarian democracy and totalitarian republic have also been used to classify a different style of totalitarian rule. In these regimes, the government is generally popular (at least at the beginning), and the ideological justification of the state comes on behalf of the people. Hitler's initially-democratically-elected regime of Nazi totalitarianism is often used as an example of a totalitarian democracy.

Theories of totalitarianism

The relationship between totalitarianism and authoritarianism is controversial: some see totalitarianism as an extreme form of authoritarianism, while others argue that they are completely different.

Some political analysts, notably neo-conservatives such as Jeane Kirkpatrick, have studied the various distinctions between totalitarianism and authoritarianism. They argue that while both types of governments can be extremely brutal to political opponents, in an authoritarian government the government's efforts are directed mostly at those who are considered political opponents, and the government has neither the will or often the means to control every aspect of an individual's life. In a totalitarian system, the ruling ideology requires that every aspect of an individual's life be subordinate to the state, including occupation, income, and religion. Personal survival is tied to the regime's survival, and thus the concept of the state and the people are merged. This is also called the carceral state - like a prison.

In political theories such as libertarianism, totalitarianism is regarded as the most extreme form of statism. However, other political philosophers disagree with this analysis as it implies that totalitarianism can come into being through a slow and gradual increase from an operational government, while totalitarian regimes almost uniformly come into being as a result of a revolution which replaces what is generally regarded as an ineffective government.

It has been argued that totalitarianism requires a cult of personality around a charismatic "great leader" who is glorified as the legitimator of the regime. Many totalitarian societies fit this model - for example, those of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Pol Pot, and Kim Il-Sung. This is one of the reasons some scholars were reluctant to consider the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union and most of the Warsaw Pact nations totalitarian. When those governments fell, however, the majority of the populations and intellectuals of the countries argued that what they had experienced was indeed totalitarianism. This has made more popular the belief that a charismatic leader is a frequent but not a necessary characteristic of totalitarianism.

Michael Ledeen has advanced the theory that the role of the United States should be to impose by war the institutions it associates with democracy - waging what he calls total war to eradicate the prior society. This would imply at least a brief period of totalitarian style control in order to erase that society, and teach the next generation the democratic civics.

See also: Gleichschaltung, Stalinism, single-party state