Lecture on Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism


[Part II (Imperialism), pp. 123-157]

At the end of “On the Nature of Totalitarianism,” as we noted last time, Arendt writes, “[T]he experience of the materially and sensually given world depends, in the last analysis, upon the fact that not one man, but men in the plural inhabit the earth” (EU, 360). We touched upon, I think, a key theme that will return to us, namely the responsibility that singularizes each of us in the face of human plurality, a vexing problem given Arendt’s analyses concerning one’s responsibility under conditions of the worst. Not just the responsibility of those who are history’s perpetrators, but also those who are its “victims,” which throws us an aporia: (1) we describe the victims of the Nazis in such a way as to render them “wholly innocent”—to borrow Arendt’s phrase—and thus render then as passive, inert, as mere reacting bundles, which frighteningly mirrors the aim of totalitarian regimes in the Gulags and death camps. It would also mirrors their complete “naturalization” of their victims. The death camps were to a be a real world proof of what the Nazis always held about the Jews, but which we can see in all forms of racism and misogyny, where the marginalized is made but a body, a ‘pratico-inert’, to borrow a Sartrean phrase, unable to be an agent in and of history. (2) We recognize a given agency on the part of the oppressed, on the part of the victims and hence—definitionally, since there is no freedom without responsibility and vice-versa—play into the hands, it would seem, of those who would blame the victim. How many victims of various forms of assault, or how many Germans after the second world war, would blame the victims in order to exonerate those privileged by a given social or political regime? In “Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship” (collected in the volume Responsibility and Judgment) Arendt gives us a stark example:

I had somehow [she is here describing her Eichmann book] taken it for granted that we all still believe with Socrates that it is better to suffer than to do wrong. This belief turned out to be a mistake. There was a widespread conviction that it is impossible to withstand temptation of any kind, that none of us could be trusted when the chips are down, that to be tempted and to be forced are almost the same, whereas in the words of Mary McCarthy [an important writer and friend of Arendt’s], who first spotted this fallacy: “If someone points a gun at you and say ‘Kill your friend or I will kill you,’ he is tempting you, that is all.” And while a temptation where one’s life is at stake may be a legal excuse for a crime, it is certainly not a moral justification. (p. 18)

I would wish to juxtapose this with Arendt’s claims in On Violence and elsewhere concerning the distinction between “violence,” which is instrumental and coercive, and power, which relies on persuasion. Violence, she argues, is mute, and, as she puts it in The Human Condition, “To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence” (HC, 26).

No man-exerted violence, except the violence used in torture, can match the natural force with which necessity itself compels. It is for this reason that the Greeks derived their word for torture from necessity, calling it anagkai, and not from bia, used for violence as exerted by man over man, just as this is the reason for the historical fact that throughout occidental antiquity torture, the “necessity no man can withstand,” could be applied only to slaves, who were subject to necessity anyhow. (HC, 46)

In other words, with violence of at least one kind (torture) comes necessity, which would seem to go against her discussion above, where it is a temptation and not a necessity. But perhaps its the case that there is all the world of difference between torture and one’s obedience in the face of a fear of that torture or violence. Before turning to the chapters in Origins for today, namely those that open its “Imperialism” section concerning “The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie” and, at least to begin, some thoughts on “Race-Thinking Before Racism,” I want to pursue this line of thought for a moment, though we will need a full accounting of Arendt’s arguments on responsibility when we read about Eichmann and some of her later works on judgment. The task Arendt takes up in that essay is to wave away supposedly dominant modes in the early 1960s (the essay is from 1964) of lessening the responsibility of those who acted under the “moral collapse” of the Nazi regime: under such a regime, one is a mere cog in a machine; following orders is itself expected under all previous states that we have known of, so following orders is just a matter of course; a given culture or history or Plato or whatever is a proximate cause of Nazism; and most pointedly, one is merely obeying what is a horrifyingly totalizing and totalitarian regime, where the political and the private have no meaning anymore. As she says, in light of that, we are often faced with the question, “Who is to judge?” a phrase that is all the more popular in the 50 years since: who but the morally conservative sits in judgment of others? Who but a moral saint could look to another’s actions to find them morally dubious? Isn’t judging others but a dubious way in which one forces one’s cultural values onto another? I don’t doubt it for second that it’s an affirmative on each of these counts. And yet, despite Arendt’s claim that we are in an era of “thinking without banisters”—that is, without the aid of cultural mores and traditions given the “death of God”—judgment is precisely an act of understanding (in her meaning of that term, which we have explored) and coming to terms with our present—or indeed, our past. Let me quote from her a bit at length from “Responsibility under a Dictatorship,” where she takes up those who resisted “obey[ing] the laws of the land,” which is but “support” for “its constitution” (p. 47). Obedience for Arendt is support:

[T]he nonparticipators [those who find ways not to obey] in public life under a dictatorship are those who have refused their support by shunning those places of “responsibility” where such support, under the name of obedience, is required. And we have only for a moment to imagine what would happen to any of these forms of government if enough people would act “irresponsibly” [i.e., actually responsible] and refuse support, even without active resistance and rebellion, to see how effective a weapon this could be. It is in fact one of the many variations of nonviolent action and resistance—for instance the power [this will become a key term in her writings] that is potential in civil disobedience—which are being discovered in our century [that is, given the widespread actions that fall under the proper names of Gandhi or King, Jr.]. …[T]here is no such thing as obedience in political and moral matters…..Hence the question addressed to those who participated and obeyed orders never should be, “Why did you obey?” but “Why did you support?” …Much would be gained if we could eliminate this pernicious word “obedience” from our vocabulary of moral and political thought. (p. 48)

This would seem to take us somewhat afield from discussions of a certain “responsibility” of those that Arendt “judges” in both Origins and Eichmann, namely the victims of the regime, not just its all-too-willing executioners. But it is axiomatic for Arendt that where there is power—that is, humans in the plural acting together—there is the ability to resist, that is, not to obey. Let’s read from Origins in the section read for today, where she takes up Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651). In that text, Hobbes had argued famously that life in the state of nature was “nasty, brutish, and short,” given that man by nature was competitive, acquisitive, and always after an increase in its power. The solution to this problem is the social contract, whereby the state has a monopoly over violence, instead of the violence open to one and all in the state of nature. This politics, then, is based on security, which is to say, life and nothing more, where the relation between states remains on the rapacious model of the state of nature—a war of all against all. In sum, Arendt identifies in Hobbes—we can debate another time the accuracy of her reading—what will become the dual nature of the modern nation-state: rule by decree by an omnipotent state in order to guard the endless process of accumulation that would become capitalist imperialism—neither one without the other. Return to the question of obedience, Arendt writes about Hobbes’s Leviathan:

[The Leviathan or state] acquires a monopoly on killing and provides in exchange a conditional guarantee against being killed [very conditional, I would add]. Security is provided by the law [in fact, it’s the state’s raison d’être]…And as this law flows directly from absolute power, it represents [this word is crucial in this sentence for our discussion: is it a simulacra of what it represents, or is it that it succeeds in brings into the world…] absolute necessity in the eyes of the individual who lives under it. In regard to the law of the state…there is no right or wrong, but only absolute obedience, the blind conformism of bourgeois society. (OT, 141)

That is, there is actually something politically reactionary when those who oppose x, y, or z build it into an omnipotent entity, one that cannot be resisted. There are mass effects of such things as capitalism, or patriarchy, or racialisms that no doubt found even or especially in those who would declare themselves clean or innocent of implication in them: I am not a racist, I don’t participate in patriarchy, I do the best I can not to benefit from my place in a given economic class. And yet, while one cannot simply choose for or against capitalism, for or against partriarchy, for or against racialisms—that is, one person’s choice cannot wish them away nor one’s historicity as overdetermined by them—one should not, for Arendt, I think, make these into omnipotent entities not in fact supported by the micro-politics of individual decisions. Where all are responsible, none are, Arendt often repeated; this has the upshot that if we recognize some x’s power, that is, the seeming infinity of alliances that support capitalism or patriarchy or systemic racism, those who resist should see how this opens many more places for resistance, neither being naive about what those wanting systemic or structural change face but not rendering these implacable, all-powerful entities against which all resistance is null and void a priori. In short, perhaps one modus operandi for a certain reactionary bent–if under the cover of critique and progressive good conscience–is precisely to build what one opposed into a One-All in order to dispense with any responsibility for changing it. For now, let’s leave for now a promissory note to keep returning to this conversation, given the need for responsibility and judgment here, there, and everywhere that humans in the plural, and not just a human being, inhabit a given world.


“Expansion for Expansion’s Sake”

Let’s now dive into that wide instrument of violence that is and was imperialism, under which, Arendt leaves no doubt, Europe perfected the horrifying techniques of domination, including the first uses of concentration camps, that would be imported back into Europe as one of the elements in the crystallization of totalitarianism. Here is a summary of Arendt’s claims here:

(1) The “central inner-European event of the imperialist period was the political emancipation of bourgeoisie” (123). The bourgeoisie in Marxian terms are the owners of the means of production. As the bourgeoisie ascended as a class, it broke up the old laws and rules that protected the pre-capitalist order. At first, the bourgeoisie practiced what Michel Foucault calls a vast series of “illegalisms,” that is, they were corrupt from the start and could only get underway by by-passing the petty rules and laws that hitherto protected the more or less “feudal” schemes of guilds and so on. As they ascended, however, industrialization forced out of the economic order all manner of competitors (think of the Wal-Mart that comes to town that then puts out of business all manner of small business owners), producing a superfluous army of human beings whose former political order provided something of the glue between one and another. In short, we get the beginnings of political atomization that Arendt argues is in a principle of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (a bit more below).

(2) In this way, as the bourgeoisie grew with the nation-state, which “almost by definition ruled over and beyond a class-divided society,” since the bourgeoisie was matched by the proletariat, or rather those vagabonds and criminals—they were forced into such because of the radical changes in political economy—that would become the workers in the factories and, later, the desperate workers seeking out hope abroad (123). [Discuss.]

(3) Imperialism is not colonialism and it is not conquest. We are starting to get a feel for Arendt’s thinking through an understanding of the “unprecedented,” that is, what is wholly new (imperialism) and irreducible to previous steps by states and such to secure holdings away from the home country. Most markedly, she argues, in pre-capitalist colonialism, government is based “primarily on law” and as such “conquest could be followed by integration of the most heterogeneous peoples by imposing upon them a common law” (125). At least that is her claim for Republican Rome, for example. But the completely different form of governance that is the nation-state is different from this rule of law over disparate peoples: “[T]he nation-state…is based on a homogenous population’s active consent to its government…and would, in the case of conquest, have to assimilate rather than to integrate, to enforce consent rather than justice, that is, to degenerate into tyranny” (125). But if the colonies were not ruled by law, what in fact where they ruled by? For the bourgeoisie, “the state had always been only a well-organized police force” (138)—there simply for the protection of its property, a point she says can also be found in Hobbes. That is, they “always consider[ed] political institutions exclusively as an instrument for the protection of individual property” (149). As such, when the bourgeoisie ran into the problem of superfluous funds—that is, the new industries impoverished so many even as they produced unquestionable profits—that needed to be invested somewhere. After all, if expansion is an end in itself, money merely sitting in a bank or under a gilded mattress is not out earning even more money; the bourgeoisie, as investors, may not labor like the masses, but their money certainly should. There was superfluous capital that needed to find someplace for “productive investment” (135). In any event, we have two consequences: in the nation-state, there was some modicum of the rule of law—especially as the laws protected bourgeois interests (it helps to have the police around to make sure there aren’t thefts in factories or off of one’s ships.) But in the colonies, the colonial administrators ruled by decree. This kind of rule, she argues, would provide a practice run for the administrative rule by decree that would become the modus operandi of European governance in the interwar period, especially for the stateless. The colonies were police states—“ruthless imperialist rule by decree”–given that “national institutions remain[ed] separate from colonial administration” (131). And since the bourgeoisie only wanted security, it cared little about the institutions of the political: “What imperialists wanted was the expansion of political power without the foundation of a body politic,” she writes (135). Wanting the wealth provided by imperlialism but, as politicians, uncomfortable (though about this I’m doubtful) with non-political means of governance, states in the 19th century faced a quandary:

The various national governments looked with misgiving upon the growing tendency to transform business into a political issue and to identify the economic interests of a relatively small group with national interests as such. But it seemed that the only alternative to the export of power was the deliberate sacrifice of a great part of the national wealth. Only through the expansion of the national instruments of violence could the foreign-investment movement be rationalized, and the wild speculations with superfluous capital, which had provoked gambling of all savings, be reintegrated into the economic system of the nation. The state expanded its power because, given the choice between greater losses than the economic body of any country could sustain and greater gains than any people left to its own devices would have dreamed of, it could only choose the latter. The first consequence of power export was that the state’s instruments of violence, the police and the army, which in the framework of the nation existed beside, and were controlled by, other national institutions, were separated from this body and promoted to the position of national representatives in uncivilized or weak countries. (136)

(4) As she notes in a quote from the South African imperialist Cecil Rhodes—one of the truly horrific characters of history—imperialism has at its heart the view that “expansion” was an end in itself. “Expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics is the central political idea of imperialism,” she writes. It is “an entirely new concept in the history of politics”—neither looting nor a more “lasting assimilation of conquest,” since it is not a political concept at all has “its origin in the realm of business speculation” (125). Yet, there is a natural limit within the nation-state (e.g. French territory on the continent). “Imperialism was born,” she argues, “when the ruling class in capitalist production came up against the national limitation to its economic expansion” (126). Here she makes a distinction that will become crucial between economics and politics for such works as The Human Condition: “In contrast to the economic structure, the political structure cannot be expanded indefinitely, because it is not based upon the productivity of man, which is, indeed, unlimited. Of all forms of government and organizations of people, the nation-state is least suited for unlimited growth because the genuine consent at its base cannot be stretched indefinitely, and is only rarely, and with difficulty, won from conquered peoples.” (126) In fact, ironically, wherever the nation-state did conquer areas, it spread the ideals on which it stood, namely a desire for self-determination based on a similarity of those colonized.

(5) But of course, it was not just for economic reasons that it would take two world wars, widespread insurgencies, and the redrawing of the political map under the banner of the Cold War (which itself was another guise of imperialism) for Europe to cut back its imperial ambitions. Arendt’s critique of Marx in this chapter is to see imperialism wholly in terms of political economy, which she says doesn’t account for the odd alliance of the mobs and bourgeoisie. But she argues “race” is the key to explaining this: the new nationalisms and pseud-scientific racisms allowed for a commonality among those who formed the mobs and those who were the owners of the colonial enterprises (152). In capitalism one loses all connection to fellow-men, she argues, and race became the glue that replaced a previous sense of political community.

As such, contra Marxian type of analyses, Arendt thinks the problems of modernity are disparate if interconnected elements that are political and economic: the rise and “perfection” of police state apparatuses; the creation of superfluous capital; economic cyclical collapses that produced a “mob” of those who could serve oversees; the increased replacement of political communities with notions of race, which provided for the raison d’être of imperialism—ruling those who couldn’t rule themselves, manned by those who previously were the “scum of the earth” in their own states. Next time, we turn to Arendt’s account of the rise of racism in modernity out of early kinds of “race thinking,” which in turn would be a key element in the rise of totalitarianism—and a mode of political thinking that, along with imperialistic uses of the state for bourgeois expansion—is very much still with us.