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Police state

Related subjects: Systems of government

Background Information

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The term police state is a term for a state in which the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic and political life of the population, especially by means of a secret police force which operates outside the boundaries normally imposed by a constitutional republic. A police state typically exhibits elements of totalitarianism and social control, and there is usually little or no distinction between the law and the exercise of political power by the executive.

Classification of a police state

The classification of a country or regime as a police state is usually contested and debated. Because of the pejorative connotation of the term, it is rare that a country will identify itself as a police state. The classification is often established by an internal whistleblower or an external critic or activist group. The use of the term is motivated as a response to the laws, policies and actions of that regime, and is often used pejoratively to describe the regime's concept of the social contract, human rights, and similar matters.

Genuine police states are fundamentally authoritarian, and are often dictatorships. However the degree of government repression varies widely among societies. Most regimes fall into some middle ground between the extremes of pure civil libertarianism and pure police statism.

The South African apartheid system is generally considered to have been a police state despite having been nominally a democracy (albeit with the native, Black African majority population excluded from the democracy). Nazi Germany, a dictatorship, was, at least initially, brought into being through a nominal democracy.

The United States and United Kingdom are felt by many to be moving quickly in the direction of a police state, with compulsory vaccinations, ID cards and long term detainment without trial having been either introduced or seriously discussed by the government.

Enlightened absolutism

Under the political model of enlightened absolutism, the ruler is the "highest servant of the state" and exercises absolute power to provide for the general welfare of the population. This model of government proposes that all the power of the state must be directed toward this end, and rejects codified, statutory constraints upon the ruler's absolute power. Thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes supported this type of absolutist government.

As the enlightened, absolute ruler is said to be charged with the public good, and implicitly infallible by right of appointment, even critical, loyal opposition to the ruler's party is a crime against the state. The concept of loyal opposition is incompatible with these politics. As public dissent is forbidden, it inevitably becomes secret, which, in turn, is countered with political repression via a secret police.

Liberal democracy, which emphasizes the rule of law, focuses on the police state's not being subject to law. Robert von Mohl, who first introduced the rule of law to German jurisprudence, contrasted the Rechtsstaat ("legal" or "constitutional" state) with the aristocratic Polizeistaat ("police state").

Idiomatic expansion of the term

In times of national emergency or war, the balance which may usually exist between freedom and national security often tips in favour of security. This shift may lead to allegations that the nation in question has become, or is becoming, a police state.

Because there are different political perspectives as to what an appropriate balance is between individual freedom and national security, there are no definitive objective standards to determine whether the term "police state" applies to a particular nation at any given point in time. Thus, it is difficult to evaluate objectively the truth of allegations that a nation is, or is becoming, a police state. One way to view the concept of the police state and the free state is through the medium of a seesaw, where any law focused on removing liberty is seen as moving toward a police state, and any law which limits government oversight is seen as moving toward a Free state.

War is often portrayed in fiction as a perfect precursor to establishing a police state, as citizens are more dependent on their government and the police for safety than usual (see below).

Fictional police states

George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four describes Britain under a socialist totalitarian régime that continuously invokes (and helps to create) a perpetual war. This perpetual war is used as a pretext for subjecting the people to mass surveillance and invasive police searches. The state destroys not only the literal freedom after action and thought meant by expressions like "freedom of thought", but also literal freedom of thought.

Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We depicts a dystopia in which the walls are made out of glass, the only means of getting information is the state newspaper, and imaginations are forcibly removed from people.

Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 portrays the United States in the future as a police state which enforces extreme censorship and suppresses critical thought.

Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here satirically details the rise of fascism in the 1930s United States.

The ten-part graphic novel V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, tells the story of a masked freedom fighter's efforts to subvert the fascist Norsefire Party that has gained control of the United Kingdom. (See also the film of the same name.)

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