Despotic rulers have been around since human history began but totalitarian tyrants only since the 20th century. Egyptian pharaohs, Persian shahs, Roman emperors and similar monarchs wielded absolute power in ancient times, but they lacked the technical means to be totalitarians in the modern sense.
They were the masters of all they surveyed, but their survey was humanly limited. It took time for their edicts and armies to reach distant regions. Communications were maddeningly slow, sometimes lost in transit or ignored upon arrival. Rebellions and invasions in distant provinces were a constant concern. Emperor Hadrian complained his predecessors left him an empire too vast to govern.
Similar conditions prevailed elsewhere for thousands of years. When French King Louis XIV (1638-1715) supposedly stated he alone was the State, he spoke a double-edged truth. Probably he meant to declare his absolute authority, but it also could be understood as an unintended admission of state limitations.
He was the monarch and his decrees were absolute, but even if he had tried, his technically anemic governmental bureaucracy would’ve been too small and inefficient to control many dimensions of French life.
The difference between the despots of earlier times and the modern totalitarians is summed up in the word totalitarianism. As soon as it became technologically possible to transmit orders, gather military intelligence and deploy armies and armaments quickly, everything — the totality — came under the expanded purview of the supreme tyrant, and personal spontaneity was correspondingly crushed.
Although technology had already altered warfare and statecraft to a certain degree in the late 19th century, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China were the first fully mature totalitarian regimes. These despots took total control of everything and everybody once they had the technical capability to do so.
Hence the invasive, mind-warping propaganda and horrific exterminations in Germany and similar indoctrination and population purges in the Soviet Union and China. In the latter, state control even included restrictions on the number of children allowed per family.
Since technology made totalitarianism possible to start with, it deserves more attention than our debates — usually between young and old — about how to accommodate its innovations and inconveniences.
Probably everyone would agree that Google and its related innovations have made it unnecessary for us to do menial math, derive square roots, compute compound interest rates or carry arcane geographical facts around in our head. But what other features of totalitarianism could this ever-expanding technology lead to? And at what personal cost?
Today it appears that the only buffers still standing between individuals protective of their privacy and governments determined to invade it are lingering legal and ethical codes of past eras. If these safeguards fail — and they’re under assault — I find no reason to think that the Western democracies will show any more respect for our personal privacy than the totalitarians.
Twentieth-century technology made totalitarian despotism a reality. Will the 21st century develop new forms of human enslavement or greater enlightenment and expanded freedom?