Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism
Wednesday 17 February, 2016
[I have been posting my lectures for Political Philosophy. Previously we had taken up parts of Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianisms, such as the prefaces and opening chapter, “The Political Emancipation of the Bourgeoisie,” “Race Thinking before Racism” and “Race and Bureaucracy” and “Decline of the Nation-State, End of the Rights of Man” in Part II, “Imperialism.”]
We take up today the last chapter of Origins, having skipped somewhat her account of totalitarianism to get to this chapter, previously written but added to the third edition of the text. If we have failed to review in class other sections of Part III, “Totalitarianism,” where her discussions of the concentration camps bare witness in a horrific canon on them dating from the end of the war. There she describes the non-utilitarian nature of the camps, since they existed for their own sake, where they were an all-too-worldly hell about which thinking retreats since “its horror can never be fully embraced by the imagination for the very reason that it stands outside of life and death” (OT, 444). It was, all in all, “Hell in the most literal sense…in which the whole of life was thoroughly and systematically organized with a view to the greatest possible torment” (OT, 445). It was also an oblivion from which no moral light could escape. First, there was attempt to act out the phantasm that Heidegger, in Being and Time, had said was impossible, namely to take the death of another away from her:
The concentration camps, by making death itself anonymous (making it impossible to find out whether a prisoner is dead or alive) robbed death of its meaning as the end of a fulfilled life. In a sense, they took away the individual’s own death, proving the henceforth nothing belonged to him and he belonged to no one. His death merely set a seal on the fact that he had never really existed. (OT, 452)
She continues in a paragraph that could return us to important discussion in recent weeks on the limits of agency. Not only did they take death away, but also any sense of the moral or rational person that could give that life any meaning beyond mere survival:
This attack on the moral person might still have been opposed by man’s conscience which tells him that it is better to die a victim than to live as the bureaucrat of murder [a line we should recognize from post-Eichmann essays defending that work]. Totalitarian terror achieved it most terrible triumph when it succeeded in cutting the moral person off from the individualist escape and in making the decisions of conscience absolutely questionable and equivocal. When a man is faced with the alternative of betraying and thus murdering his friends or of sending his wife and children, for whom he is in every sense responsible, to their death; when even suicide would mean the immediate murder of his own family–how is he to decide? The alternative is no longer between good and evil, but between murder and murder. Who could solve the moral dilemma of the Greek mother, who was allowed by the Nazis to choose which of her three children should be killed? (OT, 452)
We are thus a long way from the ancient paradigms that have guided our political thinking, taking the measure of a regime as tyrannical or kingly, aristocratic or oligarchic, democratic or not. As we have seen in the past weeks, totalitarianism is not tyrannical but required the crystallization of elements that produced something entirely new. Allow me to quote from the beginning of “Ideology and Terror,” where she both summarizes and introduces many of the theses guiding this book:
In the preceding chapters we emphasized repeatedly that the means of total domination are not only more drastic but that totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship. Wherever it rose to power, it developed entirely new political institutions and destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country. No matter what the specifically national tradition or the particular spiritual source of its ideology, totalitarian government always transformed classes into masses, supplanted the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by a mass movement, shifted the center of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination. Present totalitarian governments have developed from one-party systems; whenever these became truly totalitarian, they started to operate according to a system of values so radically different from all others, that none of our traditional legal, moral, or common sense utilitarian categories could any longer help us to come to terms with, or judge, or predict their course of action.
Arendt argues that far from being an oppressive state, totalitarianism sets off lawless processes that are “anti-state” in nature. Where many have always measured the success of a state by its resiliency, the totalitarian state upends any stable political and legal order and refuses to adhere to any traditional or rational principles in the formation of political power. Ideology and terror, then, are less a state than a “movement” or “process” putting making a fact of heretofore imagined laws (the classless future; the battle of races) that ideologies made the key to all of existence. As she puts it:
Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior. It applies the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behavior of men. The law of Nature or the law of History, if properly executed. is expected to produce mankind as its end product; and this expectation lies behind the claim to global rule of all totalitarian governments. Totalitarian policy claims to transform the human species into an active unfailing carrier of a law to which human beings otherwise would only passively and reluctantly be subjected. (OT, 462)
Terror becomes the principle of Nazi governance precisely because violence is as close as one comes to the logical necessity of history’s movement their race theories envisioned. The “guilty,” she notes, are simply those who stand in the way of some “historical process”; their very freedom from it puts the lie to the ideology in question. As we read the latter half of this essay, we will begin to pick up themes crucial to The Human Condition. Arendt’s claim is that this spontaneity got in the way of the “fabrication of mankind,” which “eliminates individuals for the sake of the species,” and “sacrifices the ‘parts’ for the sake of the ‘whole’” (OT, 465). Arendt argues that freedom, as initium, as the power to begin something, which is at the heart of her chapter on action in The Human Condition, is “identical with the fact that men are being born and therefore each of them is a new beginning, begins, in a sense, the world anew” (OT, 466). This is why totalitarianism goes beyond just the loss of “plurality” marked by lawless tyrannies, since “the fact that men are born and die can be only regarded as an annoying interference with higher forces” (OT, 466). In short, the terror is meant to create “One Man,” not “men in the plural,” which as we have seen, is how Arendt defines the world. This “One Man” is defined by ideology, which she defines most precisely in this chapter. She marks out some elements of it:
- They have the appearance of a science, of discerning reality based upon a given principle.
- They are based upon the “logic of an idea,” which allows its adherents “to pretend to know the mysteries of the whole historical process-the secrets of the past, the intricacies of the present, [and] the uncertainties of the future.”
- They are preternaturally incurious. Racism is no more interested in considering race than a rock is interested in becoming a scientist. All history is consistent movement of the one idea; anyone who suggests otherwise is to be killed as an enemy of Being itself.
- They claim total explanation, the first of three totalitarian elements to all ideologies.
- They describe not what is, “but what becomes, what is born and passes away,” and everything is about motion and inexorable processes (OT, 470).
- Ideological thinking is “emancipated from the reality that we perceive with our five senses, and insists on a ‘truer’ reality concealed behind all perceptible things” (OT, 471)
- They achieve this emancipation from reality not by inconsistency, but by a logical apparatus fully consistent–as nothing is in life–with its fundamental idea or axiom.
Once in power, then, plurality–the fundamental human trait–is a threat, and so is the common ability to form one’s own view, to be persuadable and thus to be able to persuade others. “The aim of totalitarian education,” she writes, “has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any” (OT, 468). And this note of “destroy[ing]” or destruction is quite literal. Taking up the dictum that after God, everything is possible, totalitarian regimes promise a utopia that in any case become death cults, self-destructive movements that eat its own. Moreover, where Arendt sees the law as providing a framework of stability in realms of political action without which human freedom could render the world wholly unpredictable, totalitarian regimes operate without any “action” or spontaneity, wanting only the reacting and behaving entities that terror produces. Oddly then, totalitarianism becomes, in the end, less about the idea out of which it sprung than the inexorable logicality where individuals are but an undifferentiated member of the species. After all enemies of a regime are nullified, the terror that meets those who are enemies of its progress begins again–and this is when true totalitarianism is reached, namely for Arendt, when there are no enemies left to kill. Totalitarianism thus has no other end but endless terror in an attempt to transform what Arendt titles her next book, namely the human condition. Totalitarianism is thus not another form of politics, but its end, bringing force to make that which is its necessary condition: human beings and not Human Being or a human being exist on this earth.
Arendt ends Origins with an account of what she thinks was the fertile ground out of which the deadly seeds of totalitarianism grew, namely the mass loneliness at modernity’s heart. This loneliness is not simply solitude, since the former, she argues, is perhaps best felt in the midst of others. One goes to a cabin for solitude; one logs onto facebook or takes a seat amongst a crowd at a bar downtown to be overwhelmed by loneliness. This will give rise to her account of the “rise of the social” and the loss of the political in The Human Condition. As we turn the last pages of this text over, we cannot simply turn the page on the conditions to which it bears witness. Nevertheless, as with any end, we have the promise of a new beginning, one that can “understand,” in Arendt’s meaning of that term, the past out of which we have come–and which can become, without political vigilance, a precedent to be repeated. Let’s leave for break with these last two paragraphs of this text:
[T]here remains the fact that the crisis of our time and its central experience have brought forth an entirely new form of government which as a potentiality and an ever-present danger is only too likely to stay with us from now on, just as other forms of government which came about at different historical moments and rested on different fundamental experiences have stated with mankind regardless of temporary defeats…But there remains also the truth that every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only “message” which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically it is identical with man’s freedom. Initium ut esset homo creatus est–“that a beginning be made man was created,” said Augustine [De Civitate, 12.20]. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man. (OT, 478-9)