AfricaSocial Affairs

The ABCs of totalitarianism

Our columnist Taye Negussie (PhD) answers some of the

perplexing questions many of us ponder: what is totalitarianism? What are the features most commonly attributed to authoritarian regimes? And, most importantly, how is it possible for totalitarian regimes to subjugate so large a mass of citizens depriving them of their independent individual thought? 

The 2009 edition of Encarta premium defines totalitarianism as a system of government and ideology in which all social, political, economic, intellectual, cultural, and spiritual activities are subordinated to the purposes of the rulers of a state.

The invariable mark of all totalitarian regimes turns out to be rule by fraud and force. Apparently, this falls in line with the advice of the Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli who argued that the qualities of a great ruler were those of “a very savage lion and a very tricky fox” as a result of which he would be “feared and respected by everybody”. According to Machiavelli, the ultimate aim of such a ruler is to rise to the heights of “princely fame and glory for himself and security for his government”.

Governments which have been characterized as totalitarian in recent history include the fascist regimes in Europe before World War II and the former and contemporary communist and other dictatorial regimes around the world. Surprisingly, despite the variation in geographical, historical, ideological and cultural backgrounds, many totalitarian regimes share a striking similarity in their strategies and practices of repressive rule.

 State structuring

Under a totalitarian regime the state often relates with individual citizens via government-engineered hierarchical collectives that deny a place for free and sovereign individuals; most independent civic associations and organizations are destroyed, coaxed or newly molded to serve the purpose of the regime.

The rationale underlying these measures seems to be grounded in the idea that a government could effectively control the lives of its subjects only when they are assembled in some form of stupefying collectives and herds that would significantly curtail their individual capacity for reasoning and moral choice. Hitler fervently used to maintain that when individuals function in collectives they become incapable of abstract thinking; minding only their immediate experiences, they are bound to–instinctually and mindlessly–identify with the presumed ideals of their herds.

 Reign of dogmatic doctrines

In totalitarian rule, some dogmatic political ideologies are often upheld like theological doctrines. These doctrines come packaged in few vague phrases and concepts that should constantly be repeated so as to implant them upon the mind of the masses. In these dogmatic doctrines, there are no grays in the picture of the world. Everything is either diabolically black or celestially white. And every problem has to be interpreted solely in the framework of the reigning dogmas. Stereotyped categorization and labeling emanating from these dogmas serve as a convenient means to humiliate, weaken and ultimately annihilate every presumed opponent, competing institutions and establishments.

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 Deception and persuasion

Evidently, propagandists of totalitarian regimes–like commercial advertisers–know it well as how to sell their prejudices and dogmas to the larger mass. Insights from fields of social psychology and neurology have revealed that the unconscious drives constitute human’s instinctual emotions of hope, fear, anxiety, and prejudices. With effective manipulation of these derives, one can easily activate a state of hypnosis–an illusory mental state (incapability of distinguishing the real from the myth) and heightened suggestibility that induces people to perform–like a programmed machine–whatever they are called upon to.

There are apparently several mass hypnotizing methods most often employed, wittingly or unwittingly, by totalitarian regimes with a view to normalize and popularize their fanatical ideologies. Among these: public ceremonies and rituals; orchestrated mass demonstrations; brain-washing seminars and slogans; relentless narration of self-congratulatory stories; collective evaluations; psychological symbols (flags, emblems etc.); material symbols (monuments, parks and stadiums) and various artistic works (literature, music, drama).

Furthermore, propaganda messages composed–with the aid of technological devices–in highly sensational, exciting, or frightening images, texts and sounds get frequently broadcasted via electronic or press media to deceive and persuade the uncritical mass.

 Disdain for intellectuals

As a rule of thumb, nearly all totalitarian regimes harbor marked cynicism and hostility towards intellectuals–probably owing to their critical habit which makes them resistant to the kind of propaganda that works so well on the majority. Obviously, intellectuals are the kind of people who demand evidence and reject logical inconsistencies and fallacies. As Aldous Husley, a reputed political thinker has aptly put it, “Intellectuals regard over-simplification as the original sin of the mind and have no use for slogans, the unqualified assertions and sweeping generalizations which are a totalitarian regime propagandist’s stock in trade”.

Overall, totalitarian regimes–led by a dictatorial leader or party–could have prevailed only by subjugating their citizens through repressive and dehumanizing legal, institutional and communal frameworks, all the while maintaining a firm grip over the economy, media and mass communications.

 The Ethiopian case scenario

A glimpse at a series of policies, laws, strategies and practices adopted and carried out by the present Ethiopian government demonstrate a great deal of affinity with most of the features listed above.

These involve, among others, stratification of state-citizen relationship through ethnic-based regional structuring and subsequent ethnicization practices guided by the dogma of ‘nation, nationalities and people’; liquidation and substitution of autonomous civic institutions with para-governmental varieties; maintaining effectively a single dominant party-rule; promulgating various repressive laws; categorizing and demeaning alleged opponents; largely denying people access to independent media; subjecting citizens to relentless manipulative media propaganda, brain-washing seminars, follow-ups and evaluations (the notorious gimmgemma); bolstering the security forces ever than before; and, above all the remarkable absence of genuinely free and democratic election process and non-partisan law enforcement agencies.

All these and other accounts are reason enough to close the rank of the current Ethiopian regime with the classical totalitarian regimes – a morally and intellectually bankrupt system of government that deeply distresses people.


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