1. of or pertaining to a centralized government that does not tolerate parties of differing opinion and that exercises dictatorial control over many aspects of life.
2. exercising control over the freedom, will, or thought of others; authoritarian; autocratic.
3. an adherent of totalitarianism.
Random House Unabridged Dictionary
But are those really the best definitions of totalitarian?
When someone uses the term ‘totalitarian’, we think of Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia or Mao’s China. Those were indisputably totalitarian states. We think of gulags and killing fields. We think of secret police and surveillance.
Yet I would argue that all those things can just as satisfactorily described as ‘tyranny’ of whatever political completion. The thing that makes a place ‘totalitarian’ is not the nastiness of it or even the repressiveness of it, but the totality of state control. The real defining characteristic of totalitarian seems obvious from the word itself.
And what is a total state? It is a state in which there is no civil society, just politically derived rules by which people may interact. And I would argue the key to that is removing the right to free association and by declaring private property to be ‘public’.
Britain has no gulags, no killing fields, it has a relatively free press (though less so than it was), it has no internal passports (though they are working on that with ID cards and panoptic surveillance)… but every year we take more and more steps towards the destruction of a voluntary civil society of free interaction and its replacement with a state in which no aspect of life is not politically regulated. This is often described as making things ‘more democratic’… and in that the supporters of the total state are not being disingenuous, for democracy is just a type of politics after all.
We are headed for a different kind of totalitarianism than that of Stalin or Hitler or Mao, but a total state really is what a great many people have in mind for us all. They seek a sort of ‘smiley face fascism’ in which all interactions are regulated in the name of preventing sexism, promoting health, and defending the environment. The excuses will not invoke the Glory of the Nation or the Proletariat or the Volk or the King or the Flag or any of those old fashioned tools for tyrants, but rather it will be “for our own good”, “for the Planet”, “for the whales”, “for the children”, “for the disabled” or “for equality”.
But if they get their way it will be quite, quite totalitarian.