Totalitarian democracy

From Academic Kids

"Totalitarian democracy" is a term coined by Israeli historian J. L. Talmon to refer to a system of government in which lawfully elected representatives maintain the integrity of a nation state whose citizens, while granted the right to vote, have little or no participation in the decision-making process of the government.

Talmon's 1952 book The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, which discusses the transformation of a state in which traditional values and articles of faith shape the role of government into one in which social utility takes absolute precedence. His work is a criticism of the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French philosopher whose ideas influenced the French Revolution. In The Social Contract, Rousseau contends that the interests of the individual and the state are one and the same, and it is the state's responsibility to implement the general will.

The political neologism messianic democracy also derives from Talmon's introduction to this work:

Indeed, from the vantage point of the mid twentieth century the history of the last hundred and fifty years looks like a systematic preparation for the headlong collision between empirical and liberal democracy on the one hand, and totalitarian Messianic democracy on the other, in which the world crisis of to-day consists. [1] (

In a similar vein, Herbert Marcuse, in his 1964 book One Dimensional Man, describes a society in which, in his words, "…liberty can be made into a powerful instrument of domination. … Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves."


Differences in democratic philosophy

The philosophy of totalitarian democracy, according to Talmon, is based on a top-down view of society, which sees an absolute and perfect political truth to which all reasonable humans are driven. It is contended that not only is it beyond the individual to arrive at this truth independently, it is his duty and responsibility to aid his compatriots in realizing it. Moreover, any public or private activities which do not forward this goal have no useful purpose, sap time and energy from those which do, and must be eliminated. Thus economic and social endeavors, which tend to strengthen the collective, are seen as valuable, whereas education and religion, which tend to strengthen the individual, are seen as counterproductive. "You cannot be a citizen and a Christian at the same time," says Talmon, referring to Rousseau's arguments, "for the loyalties clash."

In his paper Advances in Chinese Social Sciences (2001), Mao Shoulong, a professor of Public Policy at Beijing University, takes a different position. He posits that "totalitarian democracy", or what he terms equality-oriented democracy, is founded on the idea that it is possible, and necessary, that the complete rights and freedoms of people ought not be held hostage to traditions and social arrangements. Shoulong recognises that the term "totalitarian" has a connotation attached to it, coined as it was by Benito Mussolini, the Second World War Italian dictator, to describe his own fascist government. He sees the proponents of liberal democracy (or "Western" democracy) as holding a negative attitude to the world and believing that force is not an appropriate way to achieve a goal no matter the value of that goal. He prefers the term freedom-oriented democracy to describe such a political entity.

Fundamental requirements

A totalitarian democracy, says Talmon, accepts exclusive territorial sovereignty as its right. It retains full power of expropriation and full power of imposition, i.e., the right of control over everything and everyone. Maintenance of such power, in the absence of full support of the citizenry, requires the forceful suppression of any dissenting element except that which the government purposefully permits or organizes. Liberal democrats, who see political strength as growing from the bottom up (cf: "grass roots"), reject in principle the idea of coercion in shaping political will, but the totalitarian democratic state holds it as an ongoing imperative.

A totalitarian democratic state is said to maximize its control over the lives of its citizens, using the dual rationale of general will (i.e., "public good") and majority rule. An argument can be made that in some circumstances it is actually the political, economic, and military Úlite who interpret the general will to suit their own interests. Again, however, it is the imperative of achieving the overarching goal of a political nirvana that shapes the vision of the process, and the citizen is expected to contribute to the best of his abilities; the general is not asked to guide the plow, nor is the farmer asked to lead the troops.

t can approach the condition of totalitarianism; totalitarian states can also approach the condition of democracy, or at least majoritarianism. Citizens of a totalitarian democratic state, even when aware of their true powerlessness, may support their government. The Nazi government that led Germany into World War II appears to have had the support of the majority of Germans, and this view holds that it was not until much later, after Germany's losses began to mount, that support for Hitler began to fade. Josef Stalin was practically worshipped by hundreds of millions of Soviet citizens, many of whom have not changed their opinion even today, and his status ensured his economic and political reforms would be carried out.

Cold War and socio-economic illustrations

The period of the Cold War following WWII saw great ideological polarization between the so-called "Free World" and the Communist states. Yet the irony was, and is, that both Eastern and Western governments were faced with the same barriers in achieving their objectives - the objections of their own citizens. In the East, religious and intellectual repression was met with increasing resistance, and the Hungarian revolt of 1956 and Alexander Dubček's Prague Spring in 1968 are two well-known acts of defiance. In the West, in the meantime, Americans were under siege by Senator Joseph McCarthy and others who had made it their mission to rid the United States of Communists and Communist sympathizers. Shortly after the time of Talmon's book, the Vietnam War would bring active hostility between the American government and many of its citizens.

One concept fundamental to both "liberal" and "totalitarian" democracy is that of liberty. According to Talmon, totalitarian democracy sees freedom as something which can be achieved only in the long term, and only through collective effort; the political goal of ultimate order and ultimate harmony will bring ultimate freedom. In addressing every aspect of the lives of its citizens, the totalitarian democratic state has the power to ensure that all material needs are met from cradle to grave, and all that is required of the citizen is to carry out his role, whatever it may be, to the best of his ability. Liberal democracy, on the other hand, posits freedom as something which can and should be achieved by the individual in the short term, even at the expense of things such as material well-being, and sees as an element of this freedom a "freedom from government" wherein the individual is able to exercise "freedom" in his own terms to the extent that they do not contravene the law. Proponents of both kinds of democracy argue that their particular approach is the best one for the citizens of their respective countries.

It is Mao Shoulong's contention that "equality-oriented democracy recognises the value of freedom but holds that (it) can't be attained by individual efforts," but rather, by collective efforts. He argues that while equality-oriented democracy stresses the value of equality over individual freedoms, the reverse is true for freedom-oriented democracy, and in each case, the state will move either to ensure equality by limiting individual freedom, or to ensure individual freedom by giving up equality. Some critics of this view may argue that equality and individual freedoms are inseparable, and that one cannot exist (or be sustained) without the other. Other critics argue that equality can only be ensured by continuous coercion, while ensuring individual freedom only requires force against coercive individuals and external states.

Shoulong also holds that a law is not valid if it does not have the approval of the public. Laws passed by the state do not require approval by the citizen on a case-by-case basis, and it can be easily argued that some laws currently in place in some countries purporting to be liberal democracies do not have the approval of the majority of citizens. Cynics frequently note that in many so-called democracies, individuals are politically free only once every two or four years, when they vote for their representatives.

Modern contexts and Western powers

It would be unproductive to permanently consign modern governments to boxes labelled either "liberal" or "totalitarian," for most governments can be found someplace between, and most, moreover, have either subtly or dramatically shifted positions over the decades. Instead governments should be placed on a continuous spectrum from liberal to totalitarian, with careful documentation of the point in time for any particular consignment. For example, at the beginning of the 20th Century, most Western nations did not have universal suffrage. One needs only to examine who was allowed to vote. In the U.K., for example, fully half the population was disenfranchised until 1930, when women were finally able to vote. In many parts of the United States, it was not until 1920 that white women were granted the right to cast a ballot, and while the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution had nominally granted the vote regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude", the Jim Crow laws effectively denied the vote to African Americans in the U.S. South and it was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that they had an effective means to exercise their franchise.

Moreover, a different aspect of 'totalitarian democracy' is portrayed by powerful states that function by democratic principles internally, but act with force and hegemony outside their borders. Both the former Soviet Union and the United States have enjoyed so-called "superpower" status and both have had a long, well-documented history of acting both overtly and covertly outside of their borders to "protect the national interest". The United States espouses and prescribes the adoption of its own internal democratic principles by other nations. But even should all nations develop and embrace standardized democratic principles and practices, some academics think that because whatever nation has the military or economic capacity to set expectations for the behaviors of other nations has historically chosen to do so, modern democracies will continue to do so in the future. This is a rather common external interpretation of American policy, a view which holds that America's Dulles-Kennan-influenced social, military, and economic foreign policies are equivalent to hegemony, and bear no relationship to the internal democratic processes by which the US elects its representatives.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, few Western governments would deny the label of liberal democracy, and in many respects, it is a fair analysis. Governments are more open and responsive to the concerns of their citizenry than has traditionally been the case.

At the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, the ubiquity of the mass media, and in particular, its immediacy and visual power, have been influential in shaping political policy in nations around the world. Modern nations, whether they like it or not, have become more accountable, not just to the rest of the world, but to their own citizens for their actions, and it has become increasingly difficult to get away with objectionable behavior such as the 1991 Kurdish massacre in Iraq.

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