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Global Catastrophic Risks$
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Nick Bostrom, Milan M. Cirkovic, and Martin J. Rees

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780198570509

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198570509.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 27 November 2021

The totalitarian threat

The totalitarian threat

(p.504) 22 The totalitarian threat
Global Catastrophic Risks

Bryan Caplan

Oxford University Press

During the twentieth century, many nations – including Russia, Germany, and China – lived under extraordinarily brutal and oppressive governments. Over 100 million civilians died at the hands of these governments, but only a small fraction of their brutality and oppression was necessary to retain power. The main function of the brutality and oppression, rather, was to radically change human behaviour, to transform normal human beings with their selfish concerns into willing servants of their rulers. The goals and methods of these governments were so extreme that they were often described – by friend and foe alike – as ‘total’ or ‘totalitarian’ (Gregor, 2000). The connection between totalitarian goals and totalitarian methods is straightforward. People do not want to radically change their behaviour. To make them change requires credible threats of harsh punishment – and the main way to make such threats credible is to carry them out on a massive scale. Furthermore, even if people believe your threats, some will resist anyway or seem likely to foment resistance later on. Indeed, some are simply unable to change. An aristocrat cannot choose to have proletarian origins, or a Jew to be an Aryan. To handle these recalcitrant problems requires special prisons to isolate dangerous elements, or mass murder to eliminate them. Totalitarian regimes have many structural characteristics in common. Richard Pipes gives a standard inventory: ‘[A]n official all-embracing ideology; a single party of the elect headed by a “leader” and dominating the state; police terror; the ruling party’s control of the means of communication and the armed forces; central command of the economy’. All of these naturally flow from the goal of remaking human nature. The official ideology is the rationale for radical change. It must be ‘all-embracing’ – that is, suppress competing ideologies and values – to prevent people from being side-tracked by conflicting goals. The leader is necessary to create and interpret the official ideology, and control of the means of communication to disseminate it. The party is comprised of the ‘early-adopters’ – the people who claim to have ‘seen the light’ and want to make it a reality.

Keywords:   authoritarianism, genetic engineering, stability, totalitarianism, totalitarianism, world government

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