The New Totalitarianism
The word "totalitarian" while politically loaded, is still a useful concept. As brutal and authoritarian as 18th and 19th Century England was it could not be considered a totalitarian state. Plain old authoritarianism is separated from totalitarianism by the high level of invasiveness of the latter. Also, the old authoritarian states were so inefficient and the techniques and technologies of domination so crude, they were highly ineffective. Even if they wanted to totally dominate the lives of the people they could not do so. The kings and tyrants of old wanted you to work for them obediently, fight in their wars and pretend to love them. Other than that, you could more or less do what you wanted.
Except, of course, for the Church. This was the real ancestor of totalitarianism. The first powerful institutions seriously interested in what you thought, what you ate, your sex life, what you read and talked about. And through their indoctrination, hierarchies of priests and their assistants, confession booths, Inquisitions, schools and media, they actually had the ability to dominate in a totalistic way. Indeed, the authoritarian churches are one of the roots of totalitarianism, both in the origins of fascism and the liberal tendencies to "benevolently" control the thought and actions of the general populace.
As everyone knows ,"classic" totalitarian systems are facism, nazi-fascism and Stalinism. The idea was to mold humanity in the image presented by the state ideology. This was achieved through terror, but also mass media, the education system, a party hierarchy that one had to join to get ahead, the creation of scape goats and demonic figures and an economic system geared to the needs of the state.
But classical totalitarianism suffered from a number of serious flaws. For the ruling classes, the the dictators they backed were unwilling to remain as puppets and had ideas of their own. Having the police and the army in their control they were able to attempt those plans. The second was the problem of succession, always a problem in a dictatorship. The third was inefficiency. Attempting to control everyone and anything proved an impossible task and the regimes bogged down in bureaucracy, corruption and gross inefficiency. People soon tired of their strutting tyrants and resented being directly told what to do and think, day in and day out. While overt unrest was impossible, the sullenness of the masses contributed greatly to inefficiency.
Due to the immense cruelty as well as the aforementioned flaws, serious revolutionaries have rejected the totalitarian (Stalinist) model of revolutionary governance. The ruling classses, in turn, have rejected classical fascism as an alternative. Consider the new form of "soft tyranny" as the ruling class version of EuroCommunism. (Do away with the really nasty stuff, but still have the same goal in mind.) Where old style fascism is still used, is as thugs against the popular movements, pseudo-gangs and scary puppets. They are handy for murdering trade union leaders and form the core of the Latin American Death Squads. The swastika flag popped up during the recent attempts by the far-right to break up Bolivia. P2 and Operation Gladio attempted to destabilize Italy on the CIA's orders in the 1970's. Otherwise, "old style" totalitarianism as a serious alternative to liberalism or democracy is in history's overflowing ash can.
Beginning with the Tri-lateral Commission's 1973 observation that there was "too much democracy" , the rulers have concocted a new form of totalitarianism that lacks the obvious faults of the earlier variety. Politically "democracy", still exists with multi-party elections. But the differences between parties has been narrowed to the cosmetic and any group that seriously tries to criticize the system is marginalized and demonized. The political spectrum has been moved sharply to the right. Yesterdays conservatives would be reviled as dangerous "socialists." Newspapers and the media all spew the same line, once again with cosmetic differences. Protest is disarmed by tactics such as no-protest areas, massive police presence, "kettling" and campaigns of slander and demonization. With "terrorism" as an excuse, our ability to travel has been restricted, and people are forced to "show their papers." just like in the old movies.
Public space and the freedom that used to go with it, has been sharply reduced by replacing streets full of shops with shopping malls. These, under a bizarre legal interpretation, are considered "private" spaces and so patrons are subject to the whims of the owners. By-laws have been enacted to prevent people from building their own homes, building small dwellings, using composting toilets instead of the sewage hook up. etc. Home owner associations and condo regulations infringe upon democratic rights (no election posters in the window) and all sorts of other invasive regulations apply. Indeed, in a supposed "age of individualism", the individual in North America has rarely had less freedom than now, with all the petty authoritarianism of city by-laws and strata councils.
Corporations have taken over virtually every aspect of life. Not only have businesses which were once local – hamburger joints, convenience stores, hotels etc. been swallowed by multi-nationals, but their advertising is everywhere, in schools, on people's clothing. Children are indoctrinated from birth to identify with corporate advertising. The spread of US style suburbs with shopping malls means the loss of the uniqueness of towns and a sameness everywhere. The notion of service is gone, every government institution must now make a profit and act like a corporation. Public-private institutions have amalgamated the corporation and the state, creating the corporate state of Mussolini's dreams. Massive corporatization of public services and agreements like NAFTA, which protect corporations from being nationalized, or in any way impinged upon, have stripped democracy of any meaning. The corporations are now a law unto themselves.
However, this "soft totalitarianism's" destruction of democracy and gagging of protest will backfire. By making improvement impossible, by eradicating the possibility of reform, by making us total slaves of corporate capitalism, they leave the people only one alternative. That is to cast aside the dream of petty reform and to overthrow the entire system.