Police state

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Politics and government

A police state is a state with authority which uses the police, especially secret police, to maintain and enforce political power, even through violent or arbitrary means if necessary. A police state typically exhibits elements of totalitarianism or other harsh means of social control. In a police state the police are not subject to the rule of law in an emergency and there is no meaningful distinction between the law and the exercise of political power by the executive.

Police states do not often refer to themselves in this manner, as the classification is often established by an internal whistle-blower or external critic. The use of 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.


Police states tend to be very strict in authority, often dictatorships, though the South African apartheid system was also seen as a police state while being notionally democratic (albeit with the majority of the population not participating in the democratic process). Nazi Germany, while a dictatorship, was at least initially brought into being by nominally democratic means.

Enlightened absolutism

Under the political model of enlightened absolutism, the ruler is the "highest servant of the state" and exercises absolute power so as to provide for the general welfare of the population. This model proposes that all the power of the state must be directed toward this end, and does not accept any codified or statutory constraints upon the ruler's absolute power. This view was supported by such thinkers as Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

As the enlightened absolutist ruler is said to be charged with the public good, and implicitly infallable by right of appointment, even critical opposition to the ruling party is deemed to be an crime against the state. The concept of loyal opposition is incompatible within this political framework. As public dissent is forbidden, it inevitably becomes secret, which is met in turn forms of political repression such as the use of secret police.

Liberal democracy, with its emphasis on the rule of law, focuses on the fact that the police state is unrestrained by law. Robert von Mohl, who first introduced the rule of law into German jurisprudence, for example, 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 the freedom of individuals and national security often tips in favour of the state. 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 a 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 police state and free state as 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. Most western nations are held as examples of a balance between the two.

Fictional examples of police states

  • The best-known literary treatment of the police state is George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which describes Britain under a totalitarian régime that continuously invokes (and feeds) a perpetual war as a pretext for subjecting the people to mass surveillance, policing, and modification of language and the way people think in order to make dissent not only swiftly punished, but also grammatically and logically impossible to conceive and express. 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.
  • In the novel We, Yevgeny Zamyatin 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.
  • The film The Running Man is set in a dystopian USA which is described as being a police state in the opening credits.
  • The graphic novel V for Vendetta and the film based on it take place in the United Kingdom, in the near future where Britain has become a fascist police state.
  • Another example is the fictional City 17 under The Combine, also known as the Universal Union, in the computer game Half-Life 2.

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