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PHIL 219 Arendt and The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 in Hanover, spent her childhood in Königsberg (Kant’s hometown), and died in New York in 1975. She grew up in a Europe racked by nationalism and the world wars. She was a precocious child, and eventually matriculated in the German university system where she studied with the most prominent German philosophers of the day. With the rise of Nazism, she moved with her family to Paris in 1933. In 1941 she was forced to leave France and moved to New York. She taught at Princeton, Berkeley and Chicago, but was most closely associated with the New School for Social Research, where she was a professor of political philosophy until her death in 1975. A World Aflame Though she studied with some of the most prominent philosophical theorists of the 20th century, her own work had a distinctly practical bent from the start. We don’t have to look to far for an explanation. She grew up in a Europe suffering from an extended political, economic, social, and moral collapse. Though it’s strange to look back and realize this, right up to the First World War, most if not all Europeans believed that they were the most advanced, civilized, and progressive people in human history. 30 years later, with millions of dead, the great cities in ruin, and the smell of the death camps permeating the continent, it would be hard to avoid a much different conclusion. A Political Crisis When Arendt begins to take stock of these events, she comes to the conclusion that the root of the calamities was a political failure. She identifies 4 elements of this failure. 1. Cultural Crisis: the alienation of modernity encouraged a culture inconsistent with democracy and prone to ideological manipulation; 2. Theoretical Crisis: the political theory we’ve inherited has made us incapable of perceiving and criticizing this culture—politics has come to be understood solely as means for supporting economic activity; 3. Institutional Crisis: the dominance of economic motives has transformed the public sphere into a sphere of necessity, and freedom had become largely constrained to the private sphere; 4. Normative Crisis: citizens can no longer discern what they should be requiring of themselves and their leaders, or what norms should be governing public discourse. An Opening Salvo Arendt begins the project of analyzing, assessing, and thinking beyond the failure of western culture in The Origins of Totalitarianism. Its aim is to explain why Europe was such fertile ground for totalitarianism in the twentieth century and to analyze the forms totalitarianism takes. She answers the first question by identifying three factors: racism, anti-Semitism, and the rise of imperialism. The Analysis Addressing the second issue, she focuses her attention on the two most prominent totalitarian regimes of the 20th century: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Despite being apparently ideologically opposite, she concludes that they shared features central to totalitarian regimes. What characterizes both regimes is their replacement of all prior traditions and political institutions with new ones that are explicitly subordinated to the state, their aspirations for global rule, and their successful organization of the masses. Most distinctive is their use of terror, both as a means of political control and as an ideological justification. Terror becomes an end in itself. Mass vs. Class We can see the first element of this analysis (the replacement of tradition and institution) in her discussion of “A Classless Society.” One key to the rise of totalitarian regimes is the emergence of ‘masses.’ A ‘mass’ is a group of people identified precisely by their lack of shared interests and class identity. In the absence of these traditional avenues of social cohesion and political expression, a mass is susceptible to manipulation through what they do have in common: social alienation and emotions. “Totalitarian movement are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals” (846c1). Exposing a political illusion Such movements stand in clear opposition to many firmly held beliefs of traditional democratic political theorists. The first is that democracy requires engagement and participation, “…the movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, and therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized by only a minority” (845c2). The second is that the masses were no necessary part of the political calculus. In fact, it was the ability of totalitarian movements to mobilize the support of these supposedly indifferent masses that accounts for their rise to power. Mass Mobilization When we consider the rise of Hitler, or Stalin’s consolidation of power after the Russian revolution, we see that this mobilization of the masses is not fundamentally nationalistic, but rather is completely at the service of the party. It is not loyalty to the “fatherland” that is ultimately demanded, but loyalty to the Führer. According to Arendt, such loyalty could only be commanded in the failure of traditional political and social institutions, and would be particularly attractive to those who felt cut off, isolated and desperate to belong. From Mass to Movement The preeminent tool of totalitarian movements is propaganda. The isolated character of the masses make them particularly susceptible to the combination of gullibility and cynicism that seems so evident in propaganda. “Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow” (848c1). The key to the success of mass propaganda is the figure of the leader. The ‘infallibility’ of the leader, who is the ‘truth-teller’ serves to resolve the evident contradictoriness of the message. Institutional Dissonance One of the most surprising developments to conventional political theorists is the ability of totalitarian regimes to survive contact with existing political forms and institutions. The conventional wisdom was that these movements would lack the capacity to work the machinery of governance, that contact with the real world would either force their collapse or moderate their ideologies. On the contrary, the isolated and unprecedented character of regimes like the Reich limited their vulnerability to typical institutional pressures, and even exacerbated their violent impulses (849c2). A New Theory of Power Arendt explains this by observing that, “…behind their politics is hidden an entirely new and unprecedented concept of power” (849c2). She specifies this concept by reference to more traditional accounts. It exhibits: Disregard for consequences (not ruthlessness); Neglect of national interests (not nationalism); Contempt for utilitarian interests (not self-interest); Adherence to ideology (not lust for power). The Face of Totalitarian Power This shift is in large part explained by the very factors that explain the mobilization of the masses in the first place. The party, in the person of the leader, is the only good. As a result, the paradigmatic form of totalitarian power is domination. This is, for Arendt, the lesson of the concentration camps. She calls them the laboratory of totalitarianism (850c2). They express the subordination of all other interests to the ideology of the regime and are essential to its survival. “Without concentration camps, without the undefined fear they inspire an the very well-defined training they offer in totalitarian domination…a totalitarian state can neither inspire it nuclear troops with fanaticism nor maintain a whole people in complete apathy” (851c1). Accident or Essence Given the analysis Arendt has offered, the question remains, was the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century merely a historical accident, or was it a response to something essential in the political self-understanding of the West? From the perspective of traditional political theory, totalitarianism seems clearly contradictory. As we’ve seen, the prevailing question of political philosophy has been the question of authority. Totalitarianism, with its rejection of traditional models of authority, seems an aberration. A Profound Transformation But what appears as a rejection of traditional political forms is really, according to Arendt, a transformation (or better, a radicalization) of these forms. “It is the monstrous, yet seemingly unanswerable claim of totalitarian rule that, far from being ‘lawless,’ it goes to the sources of authority…that far from being arbitrary it is more obedient…that far from wielding its power in the interest of one man…[it is obedient to] the law of History or the law of Nature” (853c1). Thus, even terror is ‘lawful’ (854-5). Essence? Thus, Arendt concludes that totalitarianism is expressive of a certain truth of traditional political theories. That’s not to say that the various political philosophies that we’ve examined are empty or useless. Ultimately, Arendt is going to argue for a revitalization of a number of the classical themes and concerns that we’ve focused on as a remedy for totalitarianism. However, particularly the modern theories (e.g., social contract theory) exhibit a blindness, a careless confidence, and a one-sidedness that has made us vulnerable to the new theory of power and authority that totalitarianism embodies.