HANNAH Arendt’s epic book The Origins of Totalitarianism covers a huge amount from the beginnings of anti-Semitism in Central and Western Europe, through European imperialism to the operations and institutions of totalitarianism embodied in Nazism and Stalinism.
To do full justice to this book is difficult so I have decided to concentrate on just two connecting themes – ideology and isolation.
She has a particular take on ideology that, perhaps, will jar with many progressives but there are elements of it that I share.
When talking about politics I prefer to refer to political philosophy rather than ideology as such. The reason for this is that once a political theory, with all its caveats and nuances, becomes an ideology it tends to crystalize ideas and iron out nuances. From there it is a short hop to dogma. I am aware, of course, that dogma normally relates to religion rather than politics, but there is a sense in which ideology can become dogmatic, particularly when it becomes hegemonic; it’s the philosophy of praxis becoming the philosophy of stasis. Now, in the interests of nuance, I do not claim that this is always true, only that it is a tendency. But that tendency is fuelled by the desire of most ideologues for their ideologies to become dominant. Hence neoliberalism now and the post war welfare state consensus.
Of course, this doesn’t mean to say that we should always be opposed to ideologies because, given the choice, I suspect that most of us in Compass would prefer the second. But even then, the ideology tended to become ossified and, therefore, open to challenge from a bright new ideology. At its best ideology on the left of the political spectrum should see itself a temporary phase not an end in itself. Radicals should be aiming for a point at which they are no longer necessary because their aims have been accomplished. As Terry Eagleton has pointed out:
That there is a life after Marxism is the whole point of Marxism.”
Arendt, however, takes her criticism of ideology much further. She writes:
Ideologies are harmless, uncritical, and arbitrary opinions as long as they are not believed in seriously. Once their claim to total validity is taken literally they become the nuclei of logical systems in which, as in the system of paranoiacs, everything follows comprehensibly and even compulsorily once the first premise is accepted.
Now, it seems to me that what she means is more like what I would call dogma rather than ideology as such, although I guess that some ideologies are barely distinguishable from dogma right from the start.
But to continue, and with the last caveat in mind, she writes:
The ideological contempt for factuality still contains the proud assumption of human mastery of the world; it is, after all, contempt for reality which makes possible changing the world, the erection of the human artifice.
This is interesting because it exposes the Janus-faced nature of progressive politics. On the one hand we don’t only criticise the existing state-of-affairs, we also want to replace it with a new state-of-affairs or governing principle – or at least change the current state-of-affairs so that it more closely resembles the state-of-affairs that we yearn for. But that also means, almost by definition, that all progressive politics is, to some extent, wishful thinking or, as Arendt says, ‘contempt for reality’.
However, Arendt then makes a claim that totalitarianism is linked to isolation. Consider this:
It has frequently been observed that terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other and that, therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about.
Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it is always its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together… isolated men are powerless by definition.
In this extraordinary chapter towards the end of the book, Arendt observes that, at least in the case of Nazism and Stalinism, these isolated people had ‘acquired the appetite for political organisation’ but were not ‘held together by a consciousness or common interest’. As a result their ‘membership consisted of people who had never before appeared on the political scene’. Therefore, she argues, these regimes ‘did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction’.
There are, I think, eerie resonances with what we experiencing today as long as you remove the terror and death bits because, whatever you think of Trump, Johnson and Reese-Mogg none of them resemble Hitler or Stalin. Nevertheless, the isolation and loneliness, which Arendt says is the social manifestation of isolation, are aspects which blight our society. That it hasn’t led to totalitarianism (at least not yet!) is to be welcomed, but one wonders why it hasn’t. Perhaps it’s because rather than isolation be the required precursor to totalitarianism, it is the end result – it is what neoliberals want or believe to be the natural state of humanity. They are what is called methodological individualist in that they believe that all explanations about human activity and behaviour should be rejected unless they are couched in terms of facts about the individual. I think this is manifestly false because there are clearly some activities – like trade union activity, the economy and military activity – that could benefit from explanations at the macro level rather than the micro level, or at least a combination of the two. This, by the way, is one of themes I tackle in my forthcoming book Tales of the Self (quick plug there!).
The Origins of Totalitarianism is an extraordinary book that involves a range of thought to which this article has not done justice and it is well worth a read. My copy is published by Harcourt.