Who invented the totalitarian state?

The world has known ruthless, violent, and murderous rulers for centuries.  Queen Elizabeth ran a secret service that ruthlessly pursued her enemies in the Catholic underground.  Isabella and Ferdinand persecuted and expelled the Jews of Spain.  And the French government was perfectly ready to use deadly force against workers and rebels in Paris in 1848 and 1871.  But the totalitarian state was a creation of the twentieth century.  The fascist states of Italy, Spain, and Germany as well as the Soviet state seem to have been qualitatively different from even the most repressive of their nineteenth century predecessors. By comparison, Bismarck’s Prussia, Napoleon III’s France, Czar Alexander’s Russia, and Victor Emmanuel’s Italy were quaint amateur affairs when it came to organized coercion and mass politics.

The differences are striking — the apparatus of political prisons, the extensive secret police networks, the purposive use of violent organizations, the ideologies of national and ethnic purity.  Most fundamental, though, is the degree and depth of bureaucratic control that the modern totalitarian state achieved.  This is what made the modern fascist or soviet state “total” — an ability to monitor and intimidate civil society down to the street level.

The distinction between the realm of the state and the realm of civil society has been fundamental to political theory.  Civil society encompasses the private activities of individuals and their associations, and the realm of the state involves the political apparatus of law, enforcement, and coercion.  We can roughly estimate the degree to which the apparatus of the state is able to penetrate down into civil society.  And European states prior to the twentieth century were objectively limited in their capacity to rule civil society.  This is true for the imperial Chinese state in the nineteenth century as well; it was commonly said that the power of the Emperor ended at the yamen wall (or at the county level).  As Mark Allee puts it in Law and Local Society in Late Imperial China: Northern Taiwan in the Nineteenth Century,

The limited effectiveness of yamen runners as police prompted local administrators in Danshui and Xinzhu to search for ways to augment and supplement their runner cadre. In so doing, sub-prefecture and county heads aimed to create more intimate linkages to the people in their jurisdiction and to extend the reach of local government beyond the yamen wall into the countryside. (197)

Weak states have only a limited ability to enforce their will against the mass populations of city and countryside; mechanisms such as tax farming and collective tax liability are therefore called upon in order to secure the resources needed by the central authorities.  And the scope of law and the effective enforcement of laws and decrees is limited as well in a weak state.  European polities of the nineteenth century were generally weak states; Britain, France, Germany, and Italy had central governments with only limited administrative capacity and limited ability to impose their authority at the local level.  But there was a dramatic increase in the beginning of the twentieth century in the administrative capacity of the state and its ability to govern local society.  The scope of the political grew much broader, and the domain of civil society — the relatively safe and insulated zone of individual activity and choice — grew more limited.  The creation of the totalitarian state depended on this radical increase in state power and state coercive capacity.

A striking feature of the totalitarian states of the twentieth century is their aggressiveness and brutality towards all opposition.  These fascist states were ruthless and effective in their ability to attack and dismantle oppositional groups — including communists, labor unions, radical peasants, rent resistance organizations, liberals, and anarchists.  Chuck Tilly’s discussion of “trust networks” is relevant here; the balance of power between the trust networks of civil society and the central power of the state apparatus shifted profoundly with the advent of the modern dictatorship; Trust and Rule.

One index of the administrative and coercive capacity of the state is the degree to which it is successful in exacting a greater percentage of the national wealth in taxes.  Weak states are relatively inefficient at collecting taxes.  So careful historical study of systems of taxation is an important contribution to the topic of the power of the state.  Isaac Martin, Ajay Mehrotra, and Monica Prasad’s The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective provides a good exposure to the field of comparative fiscal sociology. With a foreword and article by Charles Tilly, it examines the ways in which states since the early modern period have intensified their ability to collect tax revenues.

One piece of this new capacity was organizational.  Fascist states in the 1930s created bureaucracies of surveillance, enforcement, punishment, and killing that went vastly beyond the capacity of nineteenth century state organizations.  The organizations of police and army in Italy, Spain, and Germany took major steps forward in size and complexity in the twentieth century.  The personnel of the forces of coercion — police and other armed state forces such as militias — were few in the early nineteenth century; but by the middle of the twentieth century these numbers had grown exponentially.

Improved communication and transportation were also key to the possibility of the totalitarian state.  The telephone and the railroad allowed fascist states to collect information quickly and to move their forces around the cities and countryside efficiently; functionally, this meant that rural groups and ordinary people were no longer buffered from the state by poor roads and rudimentary communication.

Another technological advance that was crucial for the totalitarian state was a substantial improvement in the technology of record keeping and retrieval.  James Scott argues that the modern state’s imperative to regiment and record its population is fundamental to its capacity to collect taxes and conscript soldiers  — and therefore fundamental to the nature of modern political power (Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed).  The technology of organized record keeping improved dramatically in the first several decades of the twentieth century — thus making the state’s goal of closely monitoring its subjects more attainable.  (Edwin Black describes the use of IBM punch card systems to manage National Socialist records of Jews and other enemies in IBM and the Holocaust.)  So communication, transportation, and record-keeping were crucial to the creation of the totalitarian state.

Of course greater state capacity is not synonymous with totalitarianism.  Liberal democratic states too increased their capacity to impose their will at the local level.  What distinguished totalitarian regimes was the set of ideological and political goals that fascist states sought to accomplish on the basis of their greater repressive capacity and the cult of violence that each embodied.  Other states took some of these sorts of steps forward in the twentieth century; the “reach of the state” increased dramatically in the United States, France, and Britain as well.  The administrative functions of the state and the ability to extract revenues through taxation increased exponentially.  It would be interesting to compare the total tax percentages in 1860 and 1930 for the United States and France; surely the increase is dramatic.  And likewise, the personnel of these states increased dramatically during the same time period as a percentage of population.  But this broad increase in state capacity did not lead to repression and dictatorship in these countries.

This topic is historically interesting; much turns on how we explain the power and human tragedies associated with Franco’s Spain or Mussolini’s Italy.  But it is also interesting today when we consider the undisguised efforts of the Iranian state, and its Republican Guard military organization, to dominate the whole of Iranian civil society.  Here too we see the use of surveillance, intimidation, mass arrests, forced confessions, and political murder as tactics in the effort to control civil society.

(There is quite a bit of scope for new comparative historical research on this topic.  Chuck Tilly has always emphasized these issues in his analysis of the development of the modern state.  Michael Mann’s findings in The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation States, 1760-1914 are certainly relevant as well to this line of thought.  But there isn’t much empirical detail available at present.  Simply attempting to measure the dimensions highlighted here for a number of countries — scale of tax collections, size of state apparatus, size and complexity of police organizations, and overall state capacity to regulate local society — requires research that doesn’t appear to exist at present. )


7 responses

  1. To know more about totalitarian modern state visit Italy now and read:Cognitive dissonance: the case of Italy athttp://mgiannini.blogspot.com/2009/12/cognitive-dissonance-case-of-italy.htmlI believe that totalitarianism find somehow origin and justification in people cognitive dissonance. Of course you need also a certain degree of banditism in power, stupid and helpless people.

  2. Your examples are all of relatively large polities. What about earlier, smaller states, such as Geneva under Calvin, Haiti under Henri Christophe, Paraguay under Francia? I would not myself use the term "totalitarian" to describe them, but they did exhibit substantial penetration of civil society by the state.

  3. Isn't there a difference between fascism and totalitarianism? The former harnesses "street level" populism while the latter seeks to keep its subjects passive.

  4. I find it puzzling that liberal England gets off the hook for a good hundred years of the worst famine in 19th century Europe (Ireland) that killed at least a million people and a series of famines in India that killed upwards of 11 million people between 1874-1910, clearly aggravated by British policy and treated by the British administration, due to its ideology, with no real attempt to cope with it – and yet I am suppose to label these accidents. Then I am supposed to label Stalin's Ukraine famine a terror famine. Why? Because – like the British – he was ideologically committed to preserving the circumstances causing the famine, and aggravated it by collectivizing – just as the British aggravated the Irish famine by using soldiers to guard imports of grain to England whilst the Irish peasantry starved. I know – the trail of corpses left behind by the good classical liberal rule was just one of those things, while Stalin was the devil. But please, explain again why totalitarianism was so very bad for Ukrainian peasants, while capitalism was so very good for Irish ones. I really like the equivocation. Oh, there's a wonderful series of pictures of the labor camps set up for the Indians in Mike Davis's book, Victorian holocaust.

  5. 10 seconds of Google and two minutes of reading Wiki on "Palmer Raids" will show bow history gets written by the winners. J Edgar Hoover established his own version of fascism in 1919 and was only partially restrained over the next 60 years or so. We had a parallel government going on all those years challenged only by the establishment of the OSS/CIA which set up a tripatite system in the 40s. The FBI has been brought under control of Constitutional government in the last couple of decades but the CIA is still dangeroulsly independent and there is a push to put the military into a similar position "military policy controlled by battlefield commanders like Petraeus/McChrystal". We are not out of the line of fire here.

  6. I think it is arguable, at least, the Napoleon I created a kind of proto-totalitarian state, or at least a new kind of authoritarian state, with an extensive and well-organized beaurocracy and secret service, with impacts on civil society, not to mention the huge military service he organized.

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