The political theorist who wrote about the Nazis and ‘the banality of evil’ in the 60s has become a surprise bestseller. Should we heed her warning that protesting just feeds the chaos?
Wednesday 1 February 2017
In the scramble to make sense of the post-inauguration world, Amazon has been forced to restock a few key titles: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four hit No 1 at the end of last week, after Trump’s adviser Kellyanne Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” in place of “some bullshit I just made up”. But the surprise hit – being long, complex and demanding or, as the online magazine Jezebel described it, “extremely metal” – is Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published in 1951. Commentators have been referencing the work since Donald Trump’s election in November but rarely has this spurred so many people to actually buy a copy.
In it, the political theorist (she always explicitly rejected the term “philosopher”) details the trajectory: “antisemitism (not merely hatred of Jews), imperialism (not merely conquest), totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship)” are considered in their interrelation. Against the necessary background of imperialism, “antisemitism became the catalytic agent first for the rise of the Nazi movement … then for a world war of unparalleled ferocity and, finally, for the emergence of the unprecedented crime of genocide”. That much is well established; the chill is in the detail.
When she describes the rise of the dictator, which requires a mass not a mob, you could be reading a sociologist’s thesis about Trump supporters. “The term masses applies only where we deal with people who either because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organisation based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organisations or trade unions. Potentially, they exist in every country and form the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.”
She describes, quite brusquely, antisemitism at its incipience: “Whereas anti-Jewish sentiments were widespread among the educated classes of Europe throughout the 19th century, antisemitism as an ideology remained, with very few exceptions, the prerogative of crackpots in general and the lunatic fringes in particular.” Yet however you dismissed their mental capacity, this hardcore created the ideological infrastructure on which a mass movement could be built. It is strikingly reminiscent of John Naughton’s description on David Runciman’s interesting Talking Politics podcast about the “alt-right”: “People who belonged loosely to this side of the political system were essentially excluded from public discourse. But it just so happened, they didn’t go quiet. They went to the net. So, for the best part of 20 years, a network of rightwing echo chambers has been established, upon which was built the infrastructure of Trump’s campaign.”
Two points come out of that. First, that we can see from the comparison that the net isn’t responsible for everything. Antisemites found ways to keep their ideas alive and generative without any such advantage, and with all the same forces of conservatism and common sense ranged against them. Second, as Runciman asks, what happened to the leftwing networks? Why don’t we have effective echo chambers? It is a question that all of us have been asking, one way or another; there is no shortage of radicalism on the left.
Here, Arendt brings some liberating insight, described in precis by Professor Griselda Pollock, an expert in Arendt. “She talks of the creation of pan movements, these widespread ideas that overarch national, political and ethnic elements – the two big pan movements she talks about are bolshevism and nazism. There is a single explanation for everything, and before the single explanation, everything else falls away. She gives a portrait of how you produce these isolated people, who then become susceptible to pan ideologies, which give them a place in something. But the place they have is ultimately sacrificial; they don’t count for anything; all that counts is the big idea.” The left, in other words, isn’t necessarily unequal to the task of creating a pan-ideology; but anyone who believed in pluralism or complexity would have no currency on this terrain. We should be glad not to have been effective in this space, even if it feels like a failure.