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Modern Day Totalitarians, Research Paper Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1869

Research Paper

Hannah Arendt, though not the inventor of the word, is considered one of the first academics to seriously investigate the phenomenon of totalitarianism. Arendt believed that totalitarianism was a new form of domination peculiar to the twentieth century which differed from earlier forms of domination by the state. She explains totalitarianism by stating, Totalitarian governments are different from dictatorships and tyrannies. The older forms of coercive governments, despotisms and dictatorships, only seek limited, generally political control and either term is inadequate to describe a form of social organisation which attempts to dominate all aspects of a nation’s life. This newest form of government systematically uses terror in the service of its ideological project and to achieve its goal of national, and in the end, world domination (Parker and Sim 10). This essay will be examining Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism in an attempt to assess whether its threat remains with us today.

Arendt was a person of her time in that having lived through the Second World War and its aftermath, she was too well aware of the dangers posed by totalitarian regimes. She also did not believe there was necessarily an ideological basis to being totalitarian, as both Nazi Germany under Hitler and the Soviet Union under Stalin were poles apart ideologically. And yet the two things they both had in common were a desire to completely dominate their own people as well dreams of global conquest, either militarily or ideologically. It is the contention of this essay that although the desire for global conquest has faded in the age of nuclear weapons, there are still some totalitarian states that still aim to dominate their people, while at the least aiming for some form of regional hegemony. There are still evident today facets of totalitarianism that Arendt highlighted such as the preference of order to the rule of law, and a concerted effort to deprive its victims of every semblance of identity, both civil and psychological (Lechte 182).  She also draws a distinction by stating, “Totalitarianism is not, then, equivalent to despotism, where the ruler tries to force the community to conform to his own image: in that case the despot is the one who makes everyone else into a real or potential enemy. Totalitarianism does not have enemies, it has victims: totally innocent people who, like the Jews, are often perfectly integrated community members (Lechte 183).

As stated above, Arendt was clearly influenced by her own experiences during the war, and much of her analysis tries to grapple with what she terms, ‘the banality of evil.’ There are, however, grounds for questioning her distinction between despotism and totalitarianism on the grounds that despots try to make the community conform to their own image. She clearly identifies Hitler and Stalin as being totalitarian rather than merely despotic, and yet they both created and nurtured a ‘cult of personality’ in their respective societies. In the case of Hitler this was accomplished through a process of elevating himself to the status of the God-man, a theme that is often found in German literature and culture. He was the messianic Super-man sent to rescue the Aryan peoples through the “will to power”, a term made popular by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the composer Richard Wagner. Stalin initiated the same process once he came to power. Unlike his predecessor Lenin, Stalin believed that it was necessary to make Socialism work in the Soviet Union first before actively exporting it globally. He created a cult of personality around himself as the only man to drive the Soviet Union to success in a hostile world dominated by capitalism. In both cases there were millions of victims, but there were also enemies as well. In the case of Hitler it was the substantial Communist party that was very active in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, and in the case of Stalin it was those within and without the Soviet Union wedded to the principles of the old Romanov monarchy, as well as democracy and free market capitalism.

There have been examples since then of states that display at the least, vestiges of totalitarianism, as defined by Arendt. One of the most obvious examples was Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Saddam may have been missing the ambitions for global dominance that Arendt stresses, but he did have a strong ambition to rule the Middle East. To this end he built up an army that became the fifth largest in the world. He spent his oil revenues on high technology weaponry especially from the Soviet Union, the United States and Western Europe. And when he felt sufficiently strong militarily, he invaded Shiite dominated Iran and fought a decade long conflict with that nation. Part of the logic behind this action was that Saddam was part of a Sunni minority that tyrannically controlled a country with a majority population of Shiites and Kurds. Iran had long been a source of agitation against Sunni minority rule in Iraq, and Saddam’s plan was to silence this antagonistic state on his border, as well as accessing Iran’s vast oil supplies. There was also the secondary reason of fighting a proxy war for the United States, which was also going through a period of antagonism towards Iran. His totalitarian credentials were obvious from his willingness to use banned chemical weapons against the Kurds in his own country and the Iranians.

Eventually it was his expansionist invasion of Kuwait that led his former arms suppliers to move against him and oust him from Kuwait. As an example Saddam demonstrates elements of both totalitarianism and despotism. The cult of personality was very real in Iraq, with images of Saddam to be found everywhere in public, and often in private also. However he also demonstrated that totalitarian desire to employ terror in the complete subjugation of the Iraqi people. Heywood elaborates on the tools of totalitarian leaders by stating, “Totalitarian states are characterized by a pervasive system of ideological manipulation and a comprehensive process of surveillance and terroristic policing. Clearly all the mechanisms through which opposition can be expressed – competitive elections, political parties, pressure groups and free media – have to be weakened or removed” (Heywood 45).  Saddam successfully employed all these techniques in keeping himself and his minority Sunni based Baath party in power until being deposed in the Second Gulf War.

While a brief perusal of post World War II history can throw up a range of totalitarian leaders who fall squarely under the above parameters such as Pol Pot in Cambodia, Quaddaffi in Libya, Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti, Pinochet in Chile, Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, Kim Il Sung in North Korea, and the military government in Burma, there is another perspective from which totalitarianism can be viewed. This was the thinking of Herbert Marcuse, who in his seminal work of 1964, The One Dimensional Man, posited that Western societies were themselves subject to a subtle yet all pervading form of totalitarianism. Heywood sums these views up by stating, “Unlike earlier totalitarian societies, such as Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, which repressed their citizens through terror and open brutality, advanced industrial societies control them through the pervasive manipulation of needs, made possible by modern technology. This created what Marcuse called a ‘comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom.’ In such circumstances the absence of conflict in society may not attest to general contentment and a wide dispersal of power. Rather a society without opposition may be evidence of the success of an insidious process of indoctrination and psychological control” (Heywood 84).

Marcuse’s reasoning can be corroborated by the views of Antonio Gramsci who also believed that western societies maintained a stranglehold on their populations as all pervasive as any totalitarian state. Ashe et al expand on this by stating, “The crucial concept developed by Gramsci is that of hegemony….Gramsci argued that the capitalist class did not rule by means of coercion, but that it maintained hegemony through dominating ideas in such a way that capitalist society came to be regarded as entirely fair and just. The ruling class maintains power by convincing the masses that their downtrodden position is natural and unchanging” (Ashe, Finlayson, Lloyd, MacKenzie, Martin and O’Neill 141). Western societies are also just as apt at maintaining power through terrorizing the people, although their techniques are more refined. The loss of freedom or the threat of total annihilation during the Cold War were sufficiently frightening to lead western societies to acquiesce to whatever their leaders proposed. Examples can be found in the false missile gap contentions of the 1960s and 1980s whereby western leaders sought to justify huge expenditures on weaponry by falsely claiming that the Soviet Union had a huge lead over the US in nuclear missile ownership. More recent examples can be found in the terrorism threat being used to gain public acceptance for the surrendering of key rights that define western civilization.

This strand of thought also resonates with the thinking of the Postmodern theorist Michel Foucault.  His theories of how power is exercised in society is summed up by Allen, “Power is never in any one person’s hands. Instead it is something which works its way into our imaginations and serves to constrain how we act. The power of an institution does not pass from the top down; rather it circulates through their organizational practices. Compliance is not a straightforward matter, however, and turns on how far individuals internalize what is being laid down as ‘obvious’ of self evident. Institutional power works best when all parties accept it willingly or, put another way, when they are persuaded to collude in their own subjugation” (Allen 26).

Both of these perspectives are speaking of a similar domination of the thought processes and behaviour of an entire society, except in these circumstances there is a bottom up, rather than a top down approach to compliance. The normal concept of totalitarianism involves an extreme squandering of effort and resources so as to maintain compliance within society. What theorists such as Marcuse, Gramsci and Foucault are postulating is that Western societies have found a more effective means of maintaining a hold on society’s thinking and allegiance, whereby individuals believe that a leader, and government or a system that is actually subjugating them, is instead working in their own interests. The philosopher Giovanni Gentile once gave a potted definition of totalitarianism by stating, “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” The evidence presented in this essay shows that there are still vestiges of Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism as total domination. However the means by which the state reaches the summit of absolute power inherent in Gentile’s statement has evolved from the old blunt power politics of the Fascist and Stalinist past.

Works Cited

Allen, John. Power: Its Institutional Guises (and Disguises), in Hughes, G. And Fergusson, R. Ordering Lives: Family, Work and Welfare, London, The Open University 2000

Ashe, Finlayson, Lloyd, MacKenzie, Martin, Shane O’Neill, Contemporary Social and Political Theory, Buckingham and Philadelphia, Open University Press 1999

Heywood, Andrew. Political Ideas and Concepts, London, Macmillan 1994

Lechte, John. Fifty Key contemporary Thinkers: From Structuralism to Postmodernity, London and New York, Routledge 1996

Parker  and Stuart Sim, Stuart. (eds) The A to Z Guide to Modern Social and Political Theorists, London, Prentice Hall 1997

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