Bait & Switch Leadership
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. One would suppose that the followers would spontaneously, and as a group, throw off the yoke of the totalitarian leader.
However, 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.
The repressive characteristics of a totalitarian leadership scheme are well known and naturally beg the question of how a person can manage to obtain such an overwhelming power 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.
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 belong to and serve a community held together by identifiable, common criteria and thus impart a sense of deeper meaning to one's existence.
No totalitarianism leadership scheme begins automatically. The would-be totalitarian leader has to recruit by appealing to the followers' lower and higher needs simultaneously ― he inspires followers by appealing to their higher needs while simultaneously coercing them through threats to their lower needs.
Appeal to higher needs is achieved by providing the followers with a group identity, utopian vision of their world, and a common enemy, which are reinforced by the use of visual and auditory cues that connect these higher needs to the person of the paramount leader and his teachings. In presenting this vision of such group-centered utopia, the would-be totalitarian leader always harks back to a mystic and misty past when such a utopia actually existed.
In Hitler's rise to power, he provided the demoralized German people with a strong sense of national identity and pride by giving them a unity of purpose. The common enemy was the Jews, the pernicious and cancerous existence who conspired with the outside enemies to suck the lifeblood out of the German society and prevent the German people from fulfilling their date with great destiny of the Third Reich.
Further, 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 a spiritual element, totalitarian leaders always position themselves in the role of a religious savior, a mythical prophet who comes down from heavens to rescue the weak, right the wrongs, and punish the evil-doers, after which he would only take the righteous and deserving with him to paradise. For example, the official announcements of North Korea is littered with familiar religious-sounding words such as triumph, faith, loyalty, purity, hardships, grace, savior, and so forth.
While gaining his power by tapping into the nobility of the human soul, the totalitarian leader always threatens bodily harm or physical coercion when someone steps out of line. North Korea repeatedly defines its rule as a ''military-first system" ― of leadership in which the benevolent military 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 noncompliance, making compliance that much safer an 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. Further, since the leadership has total control over the resources of the state, economic deprivation and social demotion are also effective secondary threats to bring people into line.
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 that 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 was the 2007 to 2008 fellow at Harvard Korea Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com.