To be a totalitarian leader
By Jason Lim
A totalitarian state is commonly defined as one in which the state has absolute power over all societal resources and controls all aspects of public and private life.
The repressive characteristics of a totalitarian leadership scheme are well–known and naturally begs the question of how a person can manage to obtain such an overwhelming power and authority over other human beings to such an extent as to condition the followers to subject themselves to such abuses as arbitrary arrests for real and imagined offenses, forced obedience to a single political doctrine, inhibition of religious worship and other suppressions of what we would consider natural expressions of human will.
One would suppose that the followers would spontaneously, and as a group, throw off the yoke of the totalitarian leader under such abusive conditions. However, as Hannah Arendt, a well-known political theorist admits, totalitarian states are not prone to palace coups.
Looking at the history of totalitarian states in the 20th Century, we see that such states are not toppled because of internal revolutions – as in the cases of the Soviet Union under Stalin, Germany under Hitler, and Cambodia under Pol Pot, these states usually last until the natural death of the leader or an external invasion by a greater military force.
In the case of North Korea, even the death of the paramount leader did not lead to dissolution of the totalitarian leadership scheme ― the totalitarian power was actually transferred to his son in the first ever dynastic succession of a modern totalitarian state and is about to undergo another one.
Therefore, the key issue is how a person establishes his leadership to such an extent that such repression is possible without spontaneous domestic upheaval against his leadership. How does he appeal to the masses and make them acquiesce to his leadership?
James McGregor Burns classifies human needs into lower and higher ones. Lower needs consist of survival, economic security and others that address the physical needs of a person. Higher needs have transcendent value in that they represent the need of the human spirit to have a moral meaning and purpose in one’s life, ``to participate in a collective life larger than one’s personal existence” ― in other words, to belong to and serve a community held together by identifiable, common criteria and thus impart a sense of deeper meaning to one’s existence.
Appealing to higher needs is achieved by providing the followers with a group identity, common enemy, and utopian vision of their world, reinforced by the use of visual and auditory cues that connect these higher needs to the person of the paramount leader and his teachings.
There is an obvious religious element to totalitarian appeal to higher needs, since higher needs are essentially about individuals rising above their immediate and selfish needs and deriving a deeper satisfaction out of sacrificing for the greater good of their community.
Recognizing such spiritual elements of the appeal, totalitarian leaders always position themselves in the role of a religious savior, a mythical prophet who comes down from the heavens to rescue the weak, right the wrongs, and punish the evildoers, after which he would only take the righteous and deserving with him to paradise.
While gaining power by tapping into the nobility of the human soul, the totalitarian would–be–leaders always threaten bodily harm or physical coercion when someone steps out of line. Hitler’s emphasis on the Nazi Party and the military being the two equal pillars of Germany is a stark reminder of what happens when you choose not to join the group.
In North Korea, Kim Jong-il repeatedly defines his rule as an ``Army–First System” of leadership in which the benevolent Army watches over the protection of the people and guards against the corruption of the national spirit.
The threats are not just implicit ― examples are made and graphically publicized in order to drive a sense of fear into the people of the consequences of non–compliance, making compliance that much safer option, even at the cost of some conscientious pangs. Public executions, mass purges, and orchestrated mob violence are all part of the visible examples of non–compliance.
In short, totalitarian leadership schemes exist by corrupting the innate nobility of the human soul ― it’s essentially a bait and switch. The bait is the lure of a meaningful existence in the service of a greater good for your community. The switch is that, once you join, you end up serving only the parochial need of the leadership and find that going back is not possible without some serious harm to you and your loved ones.
In such a sense, totalitarianism is not just another political system – it’s essentially a sin against the human spirit because it twists humankind’s unquenchable longing for a meaningful existence into a tool of destruction that eradicates any opportunities to imbue one’s life with the very meaning that he or she sought in the first place.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @jasonlim2000.