September 21, 2019


Understanding the Roots of Totalitarianism (Matt McManus, 09/21/2019, Merion West)

One of the great commentators on the attractions of tyranny was Hannah Arendt (well described by Henry George here). In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt discusses the foundations of totalitarian practices in the violence of worldwide European colonialism and anti-Semitism. But the most innovative chapters come at the end when she tries to understand why such a sinister form of government would emerge in the 20th century. After all, colonial violence, racism, and anti-Semitism had persisted for centuries or millennia (defending on how one defines the issues). Arendt's conclusions were that it took a unique combination of modern technology and systems of governance, combined with the emergence of new kinds of ideologies and personalities for it to come to a head like it did in the 20th century. In particular, totalitarianism was able to institute a regime of total terror because modern individuals had lost the ability to trust their very selves because they had abandoned any sense of relation to one another. This is a complex point that speaks to the brilliance of her work. Arendt makes the argument that our capacity to know things for ourselves and think, even in isolation, depends, in part, by making meaningful connections with others. The common ties that bound communities had become uprooted, destroying the "common sense" we shared with one another and which was a prerequisite both to know who we are and to be criticize and become more. The result was a society where people were fundamentally lonely. Arendt, as the philosopher of loneliness, spoke of this with great poignancy:

"What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one's own self which can be realized only in solitude, but confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of equals. In this situation, many loses trust in himself as the partner of his thoughts and that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experience at all. Self and world, capacity for thought and experience are lost at the same time....A lonely man, says Luther 'always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst.' The famous extremism of totalitarian movements, far from having anything to do with true radicalism, consists in this 'thinking everything to the worst,' in this deducing process which always arrives at the worst possible conclusions." 

For Arendt, the loneliness of modern society creates the ideal conditions of the emergence of totalitarianism, as individuals left by themselves and increasingly not knowing who they are (or how to think) are yearning to submit themselves to anything which can provide a sense of fullness. The totalitarian movements offered the promise of not just belonging, but total belonging. The individual would be swallowed into the movement, becoming a single homogenous mass with one's fellows. 

It's not as sad that the Trumpbots are so lonely as it is that Donald fills them.

Posted by at September 21, 2019 6:32 PM