The Relevance of Hannah Arendt

If you happen to own Arendt’s books and read them a long time ago, it’s time to dust them off your bookshelves and read her all over again. I regret I did not read her earlier, but I am glad I have discovered her wonderfully sharp intellect and detailed expositions of totalitarian regimes now.

Why now, especially? Well, because we seem to be surrounded increasingly by populist, nativist and authoritarian governments almost everywhere we look. It would do us a lot of good, I think, to know what tactics and strategies totalitarian leaders employ to gain unassailable power to establish themselves as unchallenged despots.

Writing as she did in the period immediately after World War II, Hannah Arendt, devoted the greatest part of her writing and teaching career to understanding the rise of totalitarian regimes and in that context, to understand the human condition a little better. Need I mention that she was the first woman lecturer at Princeton University? Her best-known books are indeed, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. As she writes in the preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“This book has been written against a background of both reckless optimism and reckless despair. It holds that Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition, not of faith. It was written out of the conviction that it should be possible to discover the hidden mechanics by why which all traditional elements of our political and spiritual world were dissolved into a conglomeration where everything seems to have lost specific value, and has become unrecognisable for human comprehension, unusable for human purpose.”

A good time to re-read and discover Hannah Arendt’s thoughts

What makes some regimes totalitarian and what should we beware today? As Hannah Arendt painstakingly points out, the difference lies in the way certain political leaders go about mobilizing mass support and power. More specifically, she writes, their aim is to appeal to people’s nativist tendencies, to create a myth of “people power”, as the Nazi concept of “Volksgemainschaft” did almost a century ago. More importantly, she draws our attention to the subtle, but important differences, between totalitarian movements and totalitarian governments, once they are in power. While building their movements, leaders typically tend to tap into people power by creating the vision of a promised land which the so-called people power will help create; the sense that it is the people who “transfer” their power to the leader is strongly evoked in the masses.

Propaganda is a critical tool in totalitarian movements. The masses in their euphoric frenzy and belief that they can overthrow class and race barriers, quickly turn into the “mob”, as Hannah Arendt terms it. The most extreme example of how the mob asserts itself was the infamous “Dreyfus Affair”, in which a French Jewish official, Alfred Dreyfus, was wrongly accused and implicated for conspiring with the Germans. He was hounded by the establishment, the media and the mob. In this case, anti-Semitism mixed with nationalistic fervor to create the toxic cocktail of jingoistic nationalism that actually tore the nation apart.

The mob is a key element in the rise of totalitarian movements. As Hannah Arendt writes:

“The mob is primarily a group in which the residue of all classes are represented. This makes it so easy to mistake the mob for the people, which also comprises all strata of society. While the people in all great revolutions fight for true representation, the mob will always shout for the “strong man”, the “great leader”. For the mob hates society from which it is excluded, as well as Parliament where it is not represented. Plebiscites, therefore, with which modern mob leaders have obtained such excellent results, are an old concept of politicians who rely upon the mob.”  

Once elected to power, it is a rather different story. The leaders shift focus to how to maintain authority and assert it and several tactics are employed in achieving this. The most important feature of both the Nazi and Stalin regimes were the power centres established within the bureaucratic and political ranks and how the leaders maintained their authority through the delegation of decision-making powers as well as regular purges of the system. There is also complete disregard for facts and the tendency to conceal facts. What’s more, the political and bureaucratic systems had to be kept on tenterhooks at all times, and the deliberate need to create and maintain chaos was part of the leaders’ strategy in asserting their supreme authority.

The other significant difference is the leader’s dependence shifting from the masses to the elites, keeping the latter in check all the time. Meanwhile, an important aspect of most totalitarian movements is the temporary alliance between the elite and the mob. Having elected their “great leader” to power, however, they find themselves not so useful anymore. The strange thing that Hannah Arendt notes is that the idea of the nation state itself comes under threat, once totalitarian leaders are in control. Their single-minded focus on conquering other peoples and countries blinds them to the needs of their own people; they almost always display an inability to see their own people as more deserving of certain rights and privileges. The consequence of this is usually the strengthening of the security establishment. Both the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin built up huge secret police services and military establishments. These were often tools that the leaders relied upon, not just for intelligence purposes, but to further their totalitarian agenda of complete control.

As Hannah Arendt says, even in the dying days of World War II Hitler did not consider the war lost when German cities were lying in rubble and industrial capacity was destroyed; it was only when he realized that SS troops were unreliable that he decided to call it quits and committed suicide. The same goes for Stalin, who built up multiple secret police organisations within the government apparatus and according to Isaac Deutscher – who, Hannah Arendt calls Stalin’s most benevolent non-Communist biographer – vulgar eugenic slogans in one case, high-sounding economic phrases in the other were the prelude to “a piece of prodigious insanity, in which all rules of logic and principles of economics were turned upside down.”

All the wisdom that comes from years of study and lived experience

The comparisons with several countries and their authoritarian regimes today – including India’s – are hard to avoid. In fact, Hannah Arendt talks of the need for large populations and mass “following” as a key requirement for totalitarian movements to succeed. And strangely enough, she brings up China and India as examples of countries where totalitarian regimes might prosper. More specifically, she writes:

“… Conversely, the chances for totalitarian rule are frighteningly good in the lands of traditional Oriental despotism, in India and China, where there is almost inexhaustible material to feed the power-accumulating and man-destroying machinery of total domination, and where, moreover, the mass man’s typical feeling of superfluousness – an entirely new phenomenon in Europe, the concomitant of mass unemployment and the population growth of the last 150 years – has been prevalent for centuries in the contempt for the value of human life.”

The last chapter of the book, Ideology and Terror: A New Form of Government, offers a chilling summation of how the totalitarian government manifests itself in the life of man. Here, Hannah Arendt turns her attention from the general to the particular, and describes how the totalitarian ideology (an ideology in that it takes an idea, constructs a logic around it, to give it the solidity of a science) affects man’s thought process, how it begins to slowly destroy pluralism and man’s confidence and faith in his fellow beings, all the while turning him into a lonely individual because he starts believing in the “conspiracy”.

It is in this context, that I would like to briefly refer now to The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt’s next book, written seven years after The Origins of Totalitarianism. I happened to read this before reading The Origins…. and in many ways, I am glad I read this first. Here, she deals with the subjects of work, labour and activity, all, the preoccupations of man. As is typical of her – which I discovered later – she manages to delineate the separate strands of human activity and draws comparisons with Greek philosophic traditions. Most importantly, she discusses the concepts of vita contempliva and vita activa, contemplation before action that defines so much of human activity.

One of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century on what plagues our world

Most of all I think Hannah Arendt is relevant even today because her thinking is deep, her study serious and comprehensive, and her world view of liberal democratic values continues to resonate even as we witness the space for it shrinking, from the United States to Europe and Asia. Putin asserting that “liberalism is obsolete” in a recent interview to Financial Times, that I refer to in my previous post, is just one extreme example of what has gone so terribly wrong with the world. Our very moral compass is being recalibrated. Reading Hannah Arendt, on the other hand, was life-affirming and reassuring. It made me realise even more acutely and urgently how our very existence depends on exercising our individual and collective rights in asserting our liberal, humane values.

I cannot agree with Paul Mason, who writing an article in the New York Review of Books, faults her for not being as tough on Stalinism as she is on Nazism. In the first place, I find that to be not true at all; on the contrary, in The Origins of Totalitarianism she offers enough examples of excesses committed by both regimes, as she details out their strategies for achieving total control. He also says that reading Hannah Arendt is not enough because she fails to explain what went wrong with the European social and political system and that she was not the first to explain totalitarianism anyway. I think why Europe was fertile ground for totalitarian movements is quite clear in The Origins of Totalitarianism and she does deal with the class question. I also think comparisons with other writers of her era don’t in any way diminish the depth of her study of the subject and the quality of her commentary. And as for not following her book as a guide in today’s world, I would say it is a good place to start for most people who are politically and economically aware and are peace-loving, concerned citizens. Her book in no way, claims to be prescriptive.

Being aware of what we are up against offers some clues as to what remedies we might want to employ to guard our space and our way of life. Hannah Arendt herself offers some prescient warnings at the start of the book in a preface and it might be a good way to end my post:

“Two World Wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining world powers.”

I am not sure who the remaining two world powers would be, but I am hoping they are not India or China. Fingers crossed.

All images of Hannah Arendt except the one in the centre of the photo collage, are attributed to American Memory, courtesy Hannah Arendt Trust, on Wikimedia Commons. The centre image of Hannah Arendt standing, also featured in the header image, is attributed to Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Yale University Press, on Wikimedia Commons.

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