Rolling Out the Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Totalitarianism: Hannah Arendt’s Atomized Humans
Hey, remember that time a lot of us thought it’d be a really great idea to try out totalitarianism? It looked good on paper—dashing uniforms, romantic nights by a crackling bonfire of decadent literature, sentimental racist ballads, and that certain zest for life that only comes when you believe that at literally any moment the secret police will arrive at your door and take you away forever.
How did it come to pass that nations gifted with all the benefits of modern society gave themselves over so completely to governmental systems so thoroughly horrid? How did advanced societies like Germany and Russia (sorry Italy, you were, like, barely even Fascist) allow themselves what they did, and what must we think of humanity in light of their grim actions?
For years, we were too stunned by our resurfaced savagery to wrap our heads around the greatest problem humanism ever faced: the gulags of Soviet Russia and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Commentators stammered about Absolute Evil, partly because it was easy but mostly because it kept us from having to understand what had happened. It was a verbal totem that relieved us from having To Know, and for years after the fall of Germany, it was all we had or wanted.
Evil was a good answer if you wanted to sleep at night, safe in the knowledge that the concentration camps were metaphysically Other than the comfortable world about you, but it explained nothing and certainly didn’t help anyone recognize the vines of civilization that were creeping totalitarian-wards. We needed somebody to do the hard work of understanding evil—as a social phenomenon, as a political creation—and of explaining it to us in the cold true language of modern statecraft. And we got her— philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975).
The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt’s 1951 book attempting to explain the roots of World War II’s most grotesque flowerings, is one of humanity’s few evergreen works of political theory and one which we ignore at terrible peril. Arendt is the chronicler of the critical border between mere autocracy and pure totalitarianism, and as much as work has been done in the field since, it’s profoundly unwise and perhaps impossible to thoroughly consider and prepare against the latter without her insights.
We’ve had autocrats before, in a delightfully manic spectrum of hues. Absolute monarchs like Louis XIV, enlightened despots like Frederick the Great, and hunky war kings like Charles XII. They were good at gathering the reigns of power and bending the government of the land to their personal will. But it doesn’t feel remotely right to call them totalitarian, and Arendt explains why. Totalitarianism needs that particularly modern space where community ties have broken down, the middle class is aggressively pushing a new vision of society, and the elites are backed against a wall, facing irrelevance for all their traditional power. Meanwhile, the people have lost their ties to each other and become The Masses, without community identity or mutual support, foundering of purpose and sure of nothing except that whatever is thriving is the source of their curtailed existence. At that moment, the intellectual, governmental, and economic elites are overcome with nostalgia for a time when they weren’t as threatened, and even very intelligent people begin to succumb to the call to take the country back from the middle classes and make their nation great again.
Mass and elite unite in their structurally created rage against the bourgeoisie and its values, and form a mutual pact based on fear. This is where Arendt sees racism and the police state as essential to the formation of a totalitarian regime. Terrifying “others” must be constructed—socioeconomic others in the case of the bourgeoisie or racial others in the case of the Jewish people. In the face of those others, at whose feet is laid the blame for the isolation each individual feels, there is a drive to stop up their dark powers, a drive to deprive them of all personal agency. The concentration camp is born, a place that removes their ability to speak and act, and even the basic physical space a human needs to feel human.
The horrible irony is, of course, that to circumscribe the enemy’s life so thoroughly, to attack them at every aspect of their humanity, you have to create institutions that rob the citizenry of their humanity as well. These institutions must regulate an incredibly cumbersome and intensely purposeless processing of fellow humans to no other end but to keep an absurd alliance of elites and mob satisfied that Something Is Being Done to protect them. They are “superfluous” institutions that multiply rapidly in the rich broth of emerging totalitarian structures, and those who work for them must suffer the same fate. “Totalitarianism,” Arendt offered in a famous summation, “strives not toward despotic rule over men, but toward a system in which men are superfluous.”
The state grows, multiplying agencies and ideologies to replace people and thought, and the people, already atomized by the progress of civilization, allow it. All that is left to an atomized individual is security, of their bodies and their possessions, and they will surrender anything to shore up that security against the imagined horde conjured daily before them by the media ministries of the totalitarian state.
This structure, of upper and lower strata combining forces in a fear-driven assault on the liberties and plurality cherished by the culturally dominant middle class, is keenly familiar to anybody who lived through the darkest days of the Patriot Act era or who has turned on the television anytime in the past year. But at the time it was a sobering revelation. Nazism wasn’t a uniquely German disease but rather a structural disease of unreflective modernity with German bunting and a Wagnerian soundtrack. And it could happen here.
When Origins of Totalitarianism thrust Arendt into fame, she had already been living in America in exile for a decade, having fled to France in 1933, and then to America in 1941 after some time in a French internment camp. She was, up to that time, known to a circle of philosophers for some promising forays into Heideggerian analysis and to the Jewish publishing community for her uncompromising and increasingly Zionist views on the need for organized political action by the Jewish people. She had a reputation for intellectual fearlessness, for rattling the cages of a movement’s heroes if she felt they weren’t translating their fame into positive action, and it was precisely that tendency that made her so loved and so very hated in the years after Origins.
She lived with the constant fear that her adopted country, the United States, would let itself be overcome by the same structural logic that pushed Germany into Nazism. Through McCarthyism and Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John F. Kennedy, she saw keener than most the signposts of a nascent yearning for the smothering comforts of totalitarianism. But just as that analysis ought to have won her friends amongst America’s progressive thinkers, she attended Adolf Eichmann’s trial for crimes against humanity in Jerusalem and wrote a book about it: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1968).
The book, as well as the New Yorker articles it was based on, was harshly criticized for its critical evaluation of the Jewish councils that had collaborated with the Nazis early in the regime in drawing up property lists and organizing resettlement. Wildly misinterpreted as an attempt to blame the Jews for what befell them, the controversy over the councils overrode Arendt’s fine analysis of how an utterly banal human like Eichmann could oversee something as abhorrent as the Final Solution. What must be done to a human being to shut down their ability to consider equitably what is right and what is wrong?
Towards the end of her life, Arendt returned to the field of philosophy to answer that question. She had always considered herself a political theorist, somebody more interested in the theory about how revolutions drive the progress of freedom and how people can be cajoled into giving over that freedom, than about the abstract questions of self-knowledge that had led her old teacher and lover Martin Heidegger down his own uniquely dark path. But facing Eichmann in Jerusalem, an ordinary man doing his job, she saw the need to reconsider the nature of thinking, willing, and judging.
It was a job for philosophy, and her last work, the uncompleted Life of the Mind, was an attempt to analyze the interplay between those faculties and how the dominance of one over the other bred imbalances that could result in a man like Eichmann. As much as it seemed a departure from her days of political engagement, however, it was really their logical conclusion. As far back as Origins, she had been concerned with the prerequisites for thought and action to understand how totalitarianism organized itself to assault them. Life allowed her the chance to investigate those prerequisites more closely, using all her philosophical knowledge wed to her political insight, to produce a final picture of what humans need to be revolutionary and how governments might work to stop them being so.
Arendt made many people angry in her life. Jewish thinkers never really forgave her for Eichmann in Jerusalem. Liberals were perplexed by her criticism of the African-American community’s focus on school integration. Conservatives hated the light she shone on the darker motivations behind their overbearing nationalism. And humanists? She knocked us for a profound loop—we had to do some deep thinking about what material and scientific progress might bring to a society that hadn’t worked out new structures to ground its suddenly atomized individuals with, and the petty but easy thing to do was to blame the messenger and cite Special Conditions. Ultimately, however, we must be grateful, for her insights into the spaces, both mental and physical, that free and challenging thought requires and into the mechanisms and alliances that a society at the crossroads of ideology and modernity will breed in spite of all our best instincts.
If we ever needed more Arendt in our analysis of our political landscape, it is surely now.
Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World (1982) by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl is a perplexing necessity for the bookshelf. On the one hand, nobody knows Arendt and her world like Young-Bruehl. The detail about all of the secondary and tertiary characters in Arendt’s various intellectual circles is stunning, as is the depth of analysis about Jewish theory approaching and emerging from the maelstrom of the Final Solution. But the organization is all over the place. Themes are picked up and dropped and re-picked and re-dropped, and in the chaos you get a number of things repeated that needn’t be, while other things get nowhere near the space they deserve (a 500-page book about Arendt should, for example, have more than a few pages of analysis, scattered here and there, of Origin‘s primary arguments). Still, until the Remix comes out (it isn’t) it’s a must.
A Note on the Comic
Originally, this comic was going to be Just Heidegger Slams. It didn’t turn out that way, but here are some of the ones I didn’t get to use. Also, I should say that while Arendt was privately highly critical of her former mentor, she eventually made peace with him and kept her criticisms largely private. Now, SUH-LAMS!
Heidegger – for people who find Hegel too lucid and wish Kant used more jargon.
If you’re more afraid of typewriters than Hitler – you might be Martin Heidegger!
Like Nietzsche, but hate graceful prose? Try Heidegger!
No, Dasein why, which Being and Time takes four hundred frickin’ pages to not figure out, incidentally…