“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”
—Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Hannah Arendt’s words jump off the page. Passages that 10-20 years ago might have been read as insights into an increasingly distant and historic mass psychosis that gripped Central Europe for a few decades in the first half of the last century now seem perfectly apt to describe our present time of alternative facts and information overload.
The Origins of Totalitarianism joins 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here on the list of books readers are turning to for insights into what’s happening in America, and whether the new president is a brash populist who can “get things done” within the general framework of American democratic institutions or if he represents a genuine threat to them.
Interest in Arendt’s work is evident in the Hudson Valley as well. Earlier this year, the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College hosted a 12-week virtual reading group on Origins. While previous groups have averaged around 25-35 participants per session, double that amount joined the first session on January 20, according to Roger Berkowitz, founder and academic director of the center. More than 100 had signed up by the next week when we spoke, and the group was nearing the capacity of its video-conferencing software.
Written in 1951, the book traces the roots of totalitarianism in Europe, particularly in Germany and Russia, to the decay of the nation-state brought on by imperialism and the attendant rise of racism that allowed civilized Europeans to rationalize treating colonial peoples unjustly. Imperialism abroad and pan movements across continental Europe pitted the interests of investors and business, who needed to keep expanding to be viable, against the nationalists, who believed in the nation-state as a self-contained political unit based on a common culture and language. As the imperialists triumphed and the nation-state was weakened, the class system also began to unravel, as well as the interest-based political parties that represented those classes. The result was the birth of the “masses”— a sea of individuals with no strong political associations whose sense of identity had been shaken. This is the group from which the early totalitarian leaders drew support.
Berkowitz sees a parallel in the disruptive effects of imperialism then and globalization now.
“To not take seriously the fact that the entire working-class structure of this country is being threatened not only in their economic livelihood but in their sense of purpose and meaning is to ignore what’s going on,” he says.
During the fake news wave of 2016, topics the mainstream media didn’t cover were, for some readers deeply cynical about the objectivity or corruption of existing institutions, more likely to be believed. Arendt writes:
“Like the earlier mob leaders, the spokesmen for totalitarian movements possessed an unerring instinct for anything that ordinary party propaganda or public opinion did not care to touch. Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered with corruption.”
Trump’s constant campaign refrain was “our leaders are stupid.” Arendt writes that the failure of traditional political parties to solve their problems left the masses with the “vague apprehension that…the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent.”
Meanwhile, studies in recent years have found that despite (or possibly because) so much of our communication has moved online, where we are constantly connected but less often present, people report having fewer friends and greater feelings of isolation than in the past. Arendt again: “The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal relationships.”
We could go on. And yet, Arendt said totalitarianism as it existed in the 1920s and 1930s was unlikely to recur in the same form again. She praised America in particular for its constitutional rather than ethnic foundations and decentralization of power. Berkowitz, for his part, says Trump and his right-wing populist ilk are “clearly not totalitarian.” Actually, he says, in a way they represent the inverse of the dynamic Arendt described, because while the totalitarians had to vanquish a nationalist opposition before commencing with their expansionist plans, today’s populists are “nationalist demagogues rebelling against an internationalist system that made the claim of national identity suspect and considered to be xenophobic or racist… I don’t see this as a racist movement, I think that’s one of the major things that has been misunderstood about people like Trump and others; it’s nationalist, it’s about speaking to a sense of identity at a time when people feel like they have no identity left.”
If that’s the case, what insights can Origins offer for the present moment? A clue can be found in the book’s original title, The Burden of Our Time. The titular burden was to understand how the horrors of totalitarianism were possible. Part of this involves the particular conditions and circumstances in the countries the book examines, another part, the condition of modern man (without God, adrift in an indifferent cosmos). Every chapter contains a concrete argument using history and events, and an argument drawing on the history of ideas. “There’s really no other philosopher who writes like this,” says Berkowitz. The result, he says, strikes many readers as “seductive,” a compelling association of metaphysical and concrete trends, “which strikes so many of us as real and meaningful and right, and yet, in the end are unproven and unprovable.”
Some of Arendt’s conclusions are surprising. For instance, she argues that for all the horrors that resulted from totalitarianism, things may have actually been worse if it had never existed. If these regimes hadn’t been so brutal, humanity might have gone down a less immediately cruel but ultimately more destructive road.
“In a certain way, totalitarianism allowed us to be aware of this deeply horrific strain of modern human development in a way that we could at least resist it, whereas without totalitarianism we may never have faced it,” says Berkowitz.
The lesson was to be wary of leaders offering ideologies that claim to provide an all-encompassing answer to the predicaments of our time. Without the negative example of Germany and Russia, “we could have all become ideologues and in a sense lost our humanity and our dignity without seeing it if it had never become so cruel,” says Berkowitz.
The opposite of an ideologue, then, is a free-thinker, skeptical of all-encompassing simple solutions offered for complex problems (as most any problem involving human beings is sure to be), particularly those that scapegoat a particular group and promise a meaning and identity to adherents (rather than mere political representation).
Arendt’s work won’t tell us what form the dark and intoxicating elements that comprised totalitarianism the first time around will take in their next incarnation, but it has much to offer to those seeking insights into that question.