Understanding the Difference Between Authoritarianism and Totalitarianism

Who says universities don't teach anything useful?

The difference between mere authoritarianism and totalitarianism is often hard to explain to people, and some want to use the terms interchangeably.  But I think this distinction is particularly important today, as we see the American Progressive Left tilting over from authoritarianism to totalitarianism.  The University of Chicago is actually helping us to learn the difference.

For the long answer on this distinction, I recommend the work of Hannah Arendt.  She has done more than anyone in really defining the terms and nature of totalitarianism.  The history of her reception in this country is an interesting one.  During the 1950s, in the midst of the Cold War and with the Nazi plague still fresh in everyone's mind, her work resonated with a lot of people.  But as we moved into the 60's and Marxists began gaining power in many universities, academia turned against her in large part because they didn't like how she equated Nazism and communism.  Out of favor by the 1980s in colleges that still wanted to whitewash Stalin, something interesting happened.  As the Berlin Wall fell and eastern European intellectuals began looking for a framework to describe their experience under communism, they rediscovered Hannah Arendt as someone whose work resonated with their own observations.

Anyway, shortcutting a lot of complexity, the way I describe the difference simply is that authoritarians just want compliance, while totalitarians want enthusiastic belief -- belief that is ramified down from politics to the smallest elements of daily life.

So in the current context of COVID, authoritarians don't give a crap if you believe in masks or not, they are happy if you wear them when they demand.  But totalitarians....

For the second year in a row, the University of Chicago forced students to sign a “Required COVID-19 Attestation,” a lengthy document that demands students click “I agree” to a number of statements and rules regarding COVID-19.

UChicago, which last year was named America’s “No. 1 free speech campus,” is openly defying its commitment to academic freedom because the attestation goes far beyond forced compliance to inane COVID mandates — it actually thought-polices students.

Failure to sign my university’s attestation by last Monday meant your student ID was deactivated and you were banned from all university facilities, barring you from attending class.

In order to attend class, students are forced to “agree” in writing to the assertion that “COVID-19 poses a serious public health risk.” Students like me must also “agree” to the claim that “my failure to follow the [COVID-19] requirements,” like wearing a cloth over my mouth, “may endanger myself and/or others.”

Similarly, students who receive a religious exemption from UChicago’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate are forced to sign their names below a statement reading, “I acknowledge that I may be placing myself and others at risk of serious illness should I contract a disease that could have been prevented through proper vaccination.”

Authoritarians demand you wear the mask.  Totalitarians demand that you love the mask.