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The term police state describes a state in which the government exercises rigid and repressive controls over the social, economic and political life of the population. 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.

The inhabitants of a police state experience restrictions on their mobility, and on their freedom to express or communicate political or other views, which are subject to police monitoring or enforcement. Political control may be exerted by means of a secret police force which operates outside the boundaries normally imposed by a constitutional state.


The term "police state" was first used in 1865, in reference to the use of a national police force to maintain order, in Austriamarker.

In fact, even on a local level, the use of a police force to actively maintain order, outside of emergencies, was nearly unknown before this time.

The first use of a state police force in the US, for example, was the very same year, 1865, where such a force was established in Massachusettsmarker.

Up to this time, order in most societies was maintained spontaneously, on a local level, with some weak constabulary like a sheriff (shire reeve) being called into action for specific incidents. As the maintenance of a standing police force became common in the late 19th and early 20th century, the term "police state" came to be used more commonly to refer only to when a police force was used "too" strenuously, in a "rigid and repressive" way, as with Fascism, Communism , and in retroactive application to oppressive/repressive historic incidents like the French Revolution and the Roman Empire.

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 civil libertarianism and totalitarianism.

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 balance or scale, where any law focused on removing liberty is seen as moving towards a police state, and any law which limits government oversight is seen as moving towards 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 Fictional police states below).

An Electronic Police State is one in which the government aggressively uses electronic technologies to record, organize, search and distribute forensic evidence against its citizens.

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").

Examples of police state-like attributes

As previously discussed, it is not possible to objectively determine whether a nation has become or is becoming a police state. As a consequence, to draw up an exhaustive list of police states would be inherently flawed. However, there are a few highly debated examples which serve to illustrate partial characteristics of a police state's structure. These examples are listed below.

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, yet exerted repressive controls over its people.

In Cubamarker, 22 journalists who attempted to publicise non-government authorised news remain imprisoned. Arrested in March 2003, the journalists are serving prison terms of up to 27 years. It is also reported that journalists not in prison are frequently threatened with the same fate.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked North Koreamarker second last out of 168 countries in a test of press freedom. It has been reported that the only TV channel in North Korea predominately eulogises the country's present leader Kim Jong Il and his father (and previous leader) Kim Il Sung. As a result, some locals in Pyongyangmarker have been quoted as stating that their leaders are gods.

The United Kingdommarker is felt by some to be moving in the direction of a police state, with biometric identity cards, mass surveillance and detention without trial all having been introduced by the government. The UK has been described as "the most surveilled country" in the world. Protests within a half-mile radius of the Houses of Parliamentmarker are illegal in the UK unless authorised by the Metropolitan Police. Leading politicians have been arrested under conditions of secrecy. Claims of police state behaviour have been dismissed by the UK government.

The United Statesmarker has also been characterized as moving towards a police state. On June 27, 2002 U.S. Congressman Ron Paul said in the House of Representatives:
"...'Is America a Police State?'
My answer is: 'Maybe not yet, but it is fast approaching.'"
There has also been criticism of the US over the use of mass surveillance. 'Compulsory' vaccinations (not required by law but enforced as such) are also in use and it has been argued that this constitutes an infringement of individual liberties.

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.

Metropolis is a 1927 silent science fiction film directed by Fritz Lang and written by Lang and Thea von Harbou.Metropolis is set in a futuristic urban dystopia and examines a common science fiction theme of the day: the social crisis between workers and owners in capitalism.

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.

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 anarchist's efforts to subvert the fascist Norsefire Party that has gained control of the United Kingdommarker. (See also the film of the same name.)

Sleeper (1973) is a futuristic science fiction comedy film, written by, directed by, and starring Woody Allen. It is loosely based on the H. G. Wells novel The Sleeper Awakes. Miles Monroe, a jazz musician and health-food store owner living in Manhattan in 1973, is cryogenically frozen without his consent, and not revived for 200 years. The scientists who revive him are members of an underground movement: 22nd-century America seems to be a police state ruled by a dictator, about to implement a secret plan known as the "Aries Project." The underground movement hopes to use Miles as a spy to infiltrate the Aries Project, because he is the only member of this society without a known biometric identity.

Zardoz (1974) is a 1974 science fiction film written, produced, and directed by John Boorman. In the year AD 2293, a post-apocalypse Earth is inhabited mostly by the "Brutals", who are ruled by the "Eternals" who use other "Brutals" called "Exterminators", "the Chosen" warrior class. The Exterminators worship the god Zardoz, a huge, flying, hollow stone head. Zardoz teaches:

Enigma Babylon One World Faith is the state religion of the totalitarian world government in the Left Behind series that ostensibly seeks to harmonise the remaining faiths on earth after the Rapture as portrayed in the novel.

Brazil (1985) film directed by Terry Gilliam. It was written by Gilliam, Charles McKeown, and Tom Stoppard and stars Jonathan Pryce. The film also features Robert De Niro, Kim Greist, Michael Palin, Katherine Helmond, Bob Hoskins, and Ian Holm. John Scalzi's Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies describes the film as a "dystopian satire".

Battle Royale, a Japanese novel by Koushun Takami, describes an alternate timeline Japanmarker as being in a police state. This Japan is known as the Republic of Greater East Asia (大東亜共和国 Dai Tōa Kyōwakoku).

Colossus: The Forbin Project, (1970) is a science fiction film based upon the 1966 novel Colossus, by Dennis Feltham Jones, about a massive, eponymous American defense computer becoming sentient and deciding to assume control of the world.

Rollerball (1975), Rollerball is a 1975 dystopian fiction film directed by Norman Jewison from In the film, the world of 2018 is a global corporate state, containing entities such as the Energy Corporation, a global energy monopoly based in Houston which deals with nominally-peer corporations controlling access to all Transport, Luxury, Housing, Communication, and Food on a global basis.

In 1988, Queensrÿche released Operation: Mindcrime, a narrative concept album that proved a massive critical and commercial success. The album's story revolved around a junkie who is brainwashed into performing assassinations for an underground movement; the junkie ("Nikki") is torn over his misplaced loyalty to the cause and his love of a reformed hooker-turned-nun ("Mary," vocals by Pamela Moore) who gets in the way. "Mindcrime" has often been mentioned by critics alongside other notable concept albums like Pink Floyd's The Wall and The Who's Tommy. The band toured through much of 1988 and 1989 with several bands, including Def Leppard, Guns N' Roses and Metallica.

Equilibrium (2002) is a science fiction/action film Equilibrium is set in the futuristic, and dystopian city-state of Libria. In the year 2072. the leaders of the world sought to create a society free of conflict. It was determined that human emotion was the primary cause of conflict, and thus any and all emotionally stimulating material was banned. These materials are rated "EC-10" for "emotional content" (a reference to the MPAA film rating system[3]), and are typically destroyed by immediate incineration. Furthermore, all citizens of Libria are required to take regular injections, called "intervals," of an emotion-suppressing drug called Prozium, collected at the distribution centers known as "Equilibrium".Libria is governed by the Tetragrammaton Council, which is led by a reclusive figurehead known as "Father".

Minority Report (2002), is a science fiction short story by Philip K. Dick first published in Fantastic Universe January 1956. It is about a future society where murders are prevented through the efforts of three mutants who can see the future. It was made into a film during 2002

In the Honorverse series of novels, the People's Republic of Haven is a classic (quasi-Communist) police state until the end of the ninth novel of the series, titled Ashes of Victory. Also, in more recent novels and stories of the series (and its spinoffs), the Solarian League, despite being outwardly a democracy, manifests many typical traits of a police state, especially in its outer territories (which are administered by the Office of Frontier Security).

See also


  1. A Dictionary of World History, Market House Books, Oxford University Press, 2000.
  6. Police State (Key Concepts in Political Science), Brian Chapman, Macmillan, 1971.
  7. The Police State, Chapman, B., Government and Opposition, Vol.3:4, 428-440, (2007). Accessible online at, retrieved 15th August 2008.
  8. "Public health strategy and the police powers of the state.", Galva, J. E., Atchison, C., Levey, S., Public Health Rep. 2005;120 Suppl 1:20-7.
  9. "Bioterrorism Defense: Are State Mandated Compulsory Vaccination Programs an Infringement upon a Citizen's Constitutional Rights?", Kohrs, B., Journal of Law and Health, Vol. 17, (2002).

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