Book review: What Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism signifies in the age of Donald Trump
Amid the despair over the presidency of the United States falling into the hands of an unlettered reality TV star, Americans are reading better. In recent months, George Orwell’s 1984 has topped the bestseller list, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here has re-entered the top 10, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has received its second Hollywood adaptation. But on a chart usually dominated by celebrity tell-alls, self-improvement manuals, fad diets, and raunchy romances, political philosophy is also making a foray.
That Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) should top bestseller lists is not entirely surprising. The book, which grew out of a viral Facebook post, is a direct response to the Donald Trump presidency. In an erudite yet accessible manner, with brevity and precision, Snyder draws on his prodigious knowledge of 20th century despotism to present 20 sobering lessons for dealing with the Trump phenomenon. One of these, aptly, is: “Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.”
The book whose success is a surprise, however, is Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). At 752 pages, Arendt’s magnum opus is not brief, and with its panoramic exploration of history, philosophy, politics and psychology, the book can exercise a reader’s mind. But recently it sold out on Amazon; and, in a likely response to the surge in demand, Penguin has reissued it in a handsome new edition.
This could not be timelier. Though the book’s resonant title has sometimes lent itself to clichéd readings and facile comparisons, its uncanny insights into human nature and political sociology have lost none of their acuity. Arendt is relevant not because she helps us to understand how US democracy might devolve into totalitarianism (there is little chance of that), but because she has mapped the political terrain that allows the rise of tyranny.
Totalitarianism, Arendt notes, is an exceptional phenomenon. History has given us only two truly totalitarian states: Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR. But the conditions that led to totalitarianism and the tools it deployed are more universal, and they can lead to tyranny anywhere.
Arendt explores these conditions in the book’s first two sections. The racist and expansionist principles of anti-Semitism and imperialism were critical in laying the grounds for totalitarianism. If Britain and France had built their empires overseas, Nazis and Bolsheviks were going to build theirs on land; and if the maritime empires were motivated by ideas of expansion and economic necessity, then the continental empires would be justified through calls to pan-Germanic and pan-Slavic solidarity.
For all its missionary pretences, imperialism inevitably created racial hierarchies to justify the subjugation – even elimination – of what it considered inferior races. The Nazis would take this to its logical conclusion in the segregation and eventual extermination of Jews.
Late to the game of empire, Nazis and the Bolsheviks used the post-First World War breakdown of nation states as an opportunity to establish their totalitarian rule. They used different ideologies toward the same end: total domination. And though Stalin instrumentalised a materialist doctrine (Marxism) and Hitler a racist one (anti-Semitism), they relied on common tools.
Terror, Arendt argues, is the essence of totalitarianism. Propaganda is its adjunct. The true goal of totalitarian propaganda however, is not persuasion but organisation. It adds material forces to what would otherwise be mere argument. Its persuasive powers are directed mainly at the non-totalitarian world. At home it has larger ambitions than conventional political terror.
Totalitarian movements don’t merely want to coerce; they aim to instil obedience. They “do not actually propagate but indoctrinate”. They use violence “not so much to frighten people (this is done only in the initial stages when political opposition still exists) as to realise constantly its ideological doctrines and its practical lies”.
The lies are purposeful and part of the conditioning. Because “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist,” writes Arendt, “but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie, the standards of thought) no longer exist”. Totalitarian government, Arendt notes, rests on mass support that comes “neither from ignorance nor from brainwashing”. Many submit willingly. A chief characteristic of modern masses, Arendt writes, is that they do not believe “in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part”.
Populists and demagogues recognise this. Hence the rise of conspiracism that has characterised our recent politics. In this “post-truth” reality, nothing is contingent. Everything is part of a plan and there is always a reality behind the reality, inevitably revealed on “alternative media” like Russia Today (RT) or Infowars. A reality according to which George W Bush knocked down the Twin Towers, Barack Obama created ISIL and Syrians gassed their own children to give Bashar Al Assad a bad name.
“What the masses refuse to recognize,” writes Arendt, “is the fortuitousness that pervades reality.” Instead they “escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency”. In times of crisis, the susceptibility to these fictions increases. There is a “desire to escape from reality” because “they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects”; it is “a verdict against the world in which they are forced to live and in which they cannot exist, since coincidence has become its supreme master and human beings need the constant transformation of chaotic and accidental conditions into a man-made pattern of relative consistency”.
It is a result of their “atomization, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationships in whose framework common sense makes sense”.
Politics consequently becomes existential. People believe the fictions “not because they are stupid or wicked, but because in the general disaster this escape grants them a minimum of self-respect”. They assimilate any ideology – left-wing or far-right – that provides them with an opportunity to strike back at the establishment. The mob consequently becomes the tyrant and democracy collapses into dictatorship.
Riding a wave of ressentiment and propelled by forces of unreason, Britain is self-destructively marching towards Brexit. But American institutions have so far proved more resilient. Trump lacks the singular purpose, coherent ideology or paramilitary organisation to pose a serious threat to the republic. But through opportunistic appeals to the forces of reaction, he has empowered some of the worst elements in society.
Trump, however, is not a danger to the state. His real danger is in reversing social progress and corrupting public discourse. This corruption is not confined to his followers; it also infects his critics. If Trump has deliberately blurred the distinction between fact and fiction, his opponents too have shown little regard for truth in what they are willing to believe about him (or, even more so, about his erstwhile opponent Hillary Clinton). Feelings, in most instances, have trumped facts.
The public may be compromised but there is hope in institutions. And as long as institutions retain their integrity, tyrannical impulses can be forestalled. This is one of Snyder’s key lessons; it is also one of Arendt’s implied warnings. Totalitarianism triumphed because its institutions enforced a moral inversion that turned evil into the norm. Not everyone who submitted was evil; indeed, even the Nazi leadership understood that the masses were “first and foremost job holders and good family men”. This for Arendt was the most unsettling realisation. That the radical evil of a system can make ordinary people commit profound evil from the most banal of motives.
Totalitarianism succeeded because it could rely on – or, in the Soviet case, create – a mass of atomised, isolated and lonely individuals to submit to its diktats. The extent to which we can resist both will depend on our capacity for thinking critically without losing the distinction between scepticism and cynicism. Readers everywhere will need to heed Arendt and avoid “the danger in exchanging the necessary insecurity of philosophical thought for the total explanation of an ideology”.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a lecturer in digital journalism at the University of Stirling.
Updated: April 27, 2017 04:00 AM