A Definition of Totalitarianism

Here is a great definition of totalitarianism from Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History:

“Totalitarianism establishes its own social contract, in which most people will be safe from violence most of the time, provided they stay within certain boundaries and shoulder some of the impressibility for keeping other citizens within the same boundaries. The boundaries are ever shifting and this requires the population to be ever-vigilant in order to stay abreast of the shifts. A hypersensitivity to signals is essential for survival.”

There is no need, of course, to reduce the concept of violence to the purely physical. The “softer” totalitarian regimes don’t eliminate people physically. They erase them from public life, deplatform them, and deprive them of employment. Obviously, it’s a much better fate than being shipped off to the concentration camps. But the nature of this social contract remains totalitarian.

My friend Basia practically forced me to read this book, and I’m now grateful to her.


12 thoughts on “A Definition of Totalitarianism”

      1. But I think CC means society by “social organization.” I have the same question.

        The quotation of her reminds me of my very authoritarian university, which yes, one can leave. But your comment describes the Jim Crow south. People who could moved to Chicago, California and Seattle, among other places.

        So are you thinking of a global totalitarian culture?


            1. P.S. Have you seen the Haredi Jewish series on Netflix, Shtisel? You should, it’s great. It’s supposed to be a terribly conservative society but really it just reminded me of this part of the U.S. and of Latin America. Not my values but I could totally move in with these people and get along, everything is so familiar.


  1. I am in middle of The Future is History. I was thinking of asking you about it as to whether the book matched with your experience growing up during the end of the Soviet Union.


    1. For now, all of her characters are a lot wealthier than we were, but yes, it’s all true. I’m at the beginning, so maybe a few regular folks will appear. :-))


  2. Thank your friend Basia from me too, please! I find the sociological studies described in Gessen’s book fascinating – the definition of national identity in opposition with the West, the way intolerance towards difference functions, all this reminds me partially of how Romania functioned.


    1. Everything in the book that is analysis is superb. But the stories of the people she interviewed have been making us laugh for a week here. These are not regular Soviet people. This isn’t how we lived. They are as representative of the typical Soviet experience as Ivanka Trump is of the typical American experience.


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