The Spectre of Stable Totalitarianism
In the 20th century, totalitarian governments of the USSR, Germany, and China claimed the lives of more than one hundred million of their own citizens – outstripping the death toll of even WWII.
We may not have seen the worst.
Due to increasing technological power, future regimes could be more powerful, stable, and ruthless.
They may last for hundreds or thousands of years.
Totalitarianism is complete authoritarianism combined with an all-embracing ideology. People can, to some extent, live out their own lives in authoritarian states. In totalitarian states, they don’t have any such liberty. The state terrorizes it subjects or transforms them into its instruments.
Totalitarian regimes are terrible for their subjects and neighbors. Torture, toil, and terror are a part of the furniture of life. Consider Christopher Hitchens on North Korea:
My attempt to describe how terrible life is there is one of my greatest failures as a writer because I don't think it's possible to explain to a person living in free society the utter misery and pointlessness and horror and starvation and hell of just one day in the life of a North Korean.
In the totalitarian state, everything must be in the service of the party and dear leader. One’s speech, thought, and actions are not one’s own. There is only room for a single good, and likely short, life – resistance.
Long-lived totalitarianism would be catastrophic and slow human progress.
The risk is remote.
But there are several trends that make powerful and stable totalitarian states more likely in the future.
Triggers For Totalitarianism
The first is that there are good reasons to form a global state.
A global state solves many coordination problems. Currently, market forces, loose agreements, and the threat of armed conflict hold together the global community. There aren't useful mechanisms for tackling global problems like climate change, pandemics, and war. It’s essentially international anarchy and a tragedy of the commons.
A global state would come with a mechanism for better managing coordination between states. If something would be better for the world, a global government could make it happen.
However, such a state also makes mass totalitarianism more likely.
Currently, the roster of nations diversifies the risk of totalitarianism.
A global state may likely make life significantly better in many ways – except it would bring with it the serious risk of an oppressive dictatorship.
This is not a conspiratorial point. Globalism is not some trap set by elites to justify international domination.
It’s the simple idea that there’s some probability that a state turns totalitarian – a global state concentrates that risk.
Technological change drives the second trend. It’s becoming cheaper to run an authoritarian state.
Moreover, technological progress will provide justification for a surveillance state. There is some level of technological advancement at which the world will be destroyed by default.
The cost of destructive technology has fallen over time and it has become more destructive. This trend suggests that there will be some point when destructive technology will be so cheap and destructive that it will be used to cause catastrophes.
As chemical, nuclear, biological, and artificial sciences progress it becomes cheaper and more feasible to construct an existential risk in your bedroom.
An obvious solution to this problem is to institute a surveillance state. There's a short slide from mass surveillance to totalitarianism.
The third reason we may end up with an exceptionally powerful totalitarian state is that we've had several and currently are at risk of having another. China isn't a totalitarian state, but it's certainly authoritarian. However, as growth slows China is at risk of moving to a much more ordinary totalitarian state.
Factors Supporting Stability
Global coordination, dangerous technological progress, and the past totalitarian states suggest that future oppressive states aren’t that unlikely.
But whether the states will be stable is another question. No modern totalitarian state has lasted longer than a century.
There are two primary reasons we don't see stable totalitarian states: they're difficult to administer and they have a succession problem.
Technological progress makes it easier to administer a totalitarian state. Surveillance technology is becoming better. Artificial intelligence and compute power may solve traditional problems with central planning. The cost of an artificial police force may fall, while its abilities rise. The internet and other developments in bits may help the state control communication – depending on the feasibility of a firewall.
As it becomes easier to administer a totalitarian state, we should expect them to be around longer.
Totalitarianism has a succession problem. Both Maoist China and Stalinist Russia became less totalitarian as their respective tyrants perished.
A global state may solve this. If the state is global, there aren't visible alternatives to totalitarianism. It's not a lot of fun to live in a totalitarian state, visible alternatives with economic prosperity and more basic freedoms appeal to the totalitarian elites. Eventually, someone less tyrannical will replace the totalitarian.
However, if there’s no such alternative, the case for destroying the totalizing state is less persuasive.
There are more speculative developments that could solve succession problems. The first is life extension technology. There's no need for another ruler if the current one won't fall. Another is genetic engineering. There's decent evidence that genetic personality traits determine political leanings. A totalitarian elite could create a core elite that is happy to support totalitarianism for ages.
Persist and Resist
Stable totalitarianism would doom many of our descendants to misery.
What makes it a problem worth addressing is that there are several things we can do now.
Here are several that I won't defend in detail:
- Resist political movements to form a global state
- Privatize powerful technology that could enable a totalitarian state
- Work on surveillance technology that doesn't enable totalitarianism
- Promote differential technological advancement. Ie avoid creating a vulnerable world
- Promote norms against totalitarianism
Some of these options are an order of magnitude better than the others. There are likely others still.
The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy — the one that's absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head.