Philosopher Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), photographed in Paris, 1935.
THE THREAT OF TOTALITARIANISM TODAY
(OR: WHY ARENDT STILL MATTERS)
By Eduardo Carli de Moraes @ Awestruck Wanderer
It’s an obvious fact that the books of great philosophers survive the physical existence of the philosophers themselves: their thought is alive for decades or centuries after their deaths, ideas kept safe, like a treasure in a trunk, in the books they’ve written. Even tough they are no longer among the living, we are still under their influence, and our thought and judgement can be expanded and enriched by their legacy. A dead philosopher may have a long future after the brain that used to act inside his or her skull has vanished from the world. Looked in this perspective, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask, for example: “what would Arendt have to teach us about Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror? What would Arendt say, if she was alive today, about the danger of totalitarian horror happening again in the future? And nowadays, where would Arendt recognize a totalitarian regime in action, here and now? “
Similarly, one might ask: what would Nietzsche have to say about the III Reich and the Nazi’s “Final Solution”? What opinions would Spinoza nurture about the Enlightenment thinkers or the French Revolution? Would Plato agree with Jesus Christ if they had ever met? And what about Hannah Arendt, if she was living today, would she criticize some of our societies as totalitarian regimes? This sort of questions, in which one tries to figure out what some thinker would consider about historical events or people he or she didn’t live to witness, may seem to many of us some sort of absurd anachronism. Some may argue that this line of questioning may have its value only as an intellectual exercise, but can never achieve truthfulness because it relies too much on speculation and conjectures; it’s just philosophy acting in science-fiction-mode, right?
Well, Hannah Arendt’s case is interesting to adress, in this context, because she seems to be one of the alivest of all dead philosophers. And scholars, researchers, political theorists and journalists keep invoking Hannah Arendt’s thought to explain recent stuff, such as the Abu Ghraib scandal, which brought to light the wide-spread use of torture as the U.S. Army’s “interrogation method” at the detention centers for suspects of terrorism. An excellent doc about it is Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure (2008).
In an article published by New Internationalist Magazine, for example, Sean Willcock evokes Arent’s très celèbre “the banality of evil” to explain Abu Ghraib’s mixture of terrible disrespect for basic human rights, combined with the banality of soldiers who took “selfies” with smiling faces, aparently stupidly unaware of the crushed dignity of those fellow humans they were humiliating, torturing and killing.
Also recommended: Standard Operating Procedure, a documentary by Errol Morris
In our technologically connected “global village”, philosophers can also be brought back from their graves by other means than books, of course. Recently, Hannah Arednt was summoned from the tomb to appear as protagonist of Margaret Von Trotta’s bio-pic. Even tough it’s mainly an historical and biographical film, mostly about the Eichmman case, I feel there’s a lot to be found in the film to enlighten us nowadays (see, for example, this excellent article about the film @ “MantleThought.org).
I deeply agree with Celso Lafer when he argues: “Arendt is a classic in Bobbio’s meaning of the word: an author whose concepts, even tough developed in the past, still serve us to understand the world of the present.” There’s good fruits to be gained by trying to re-think and re-actualize Arendt’s thought, instead of treating it as fixed: wouldn’t it be better to deal with her works in a dynamic way, expanding it and adapting it to serve as tools for our understanding of new occurences? Of course this sort of thinking is based on what I’d call imaginative speculation, dangerously on peril of betraying a writer when transplanting him – or his ideas – to another era. But doesn’t the merit of a certain thinker lie also in what he has to say to posterity, what can be learned in his books by those who came afterwards?
In her book Why Arendt Matters, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl mobilizes Hannah Arendt concepts and theories in order to understand events that happened after Arendt’s death in 1975. What would Arendt have to teach us, for example, about suicide bombers on a jihad against “the West” and who hope to be rewarded in Afterlife by Allmighty Allah? And what would she teach us about the “War on Terror”, the military invasion of Afheganistan, Iraq and Pakistan, which were unleashed after the September 11th attacks in 2001?
Arendt’s inspiring intellectual courage, I think, lies in her ability to go beyond simple moral outrage. She tries to understand things that most people are so horrified of that they’d rather not even try to understand them. Instead of being paralysed in horror in front of such terrible realities – Hiroshimas and Auschwitzes, gulags and atom bombs… – Arednt confronts these realities and tries to judge them, understand them, put them in historical context, portray a web of relations inside which they occur. That’s why Arendt’s procedure, whether she analyses imperialism or anti-semitism or totalitarian societies, can be used by us today in order to enhance our understanding of our current geopolitical landscape.
The Nazi concentration camps, those “factories of death”, made the most horrendous criminal acts into a day-to-day process. Trying to understand an era of genocide in industrial scale, Hannah Arendt never acts with simplistic demonization of the Nazis, for example. It would be narrow-minded and deranged to say that Hitler or Goebbels or Eichmann were “possessed by the Devil”, or have been born with innate evilness. Hannah Arendt tries to understand the emergence of “a new type of criminal, the consequence-blind bureaucrat, agent of a criminal state, so unconcerned for the world – or alienated from it – that he could help lay waste to it.” (YOUNG-BRUHEL: 5)
After carefully watching Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, Arendt was surprised to discover not a devilish man, but rather a dumb fellow, blindly obedient to his superiors in the hierarchy. Eichmann’s triking characteristic was, in Arendt’s eyes, his “thoughtlessness”, his stupidity.
“Thoughtlessness – the headless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty – seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time.” (ARENDT, The Human Condition, Prologue).
Dr. Martin Luther King reminds us, when he says “everything that the Nazis did was legal”, that Justice (as a value, as a virtue) is not necessarily the same as the Law. There are plenty of unjust laws – based on racist discrimination or ethnical cleansing, for example. Eichmann, inside Nazi society, was a lawful agent. In a land were genocide is not outlawed, a mass killer is also a law-abiding citizen. If we are really to understand how did the terribles tragedies of 20th century’s happened, includin the “World Wars”, with its Holocausts and Atom Bombs, we need to understand how much evil can arise from blind obedience, from lack of thought and atrophy of judgement. Hannah Arendt provides us a path to follow if we wish to understand how could this horrors happen. Arendt enlightens us by providing a way to understand our tragedies in which there’s no explanation of evil as a pact-with-the-devil or the result of innate-bad-genes. Stupidity can become criminal:
“After listening to Eichmann at his trial and reading the pretrial interviews with him, she concluded that he had no criminal motives but only motives – not criminal in themselves – related to his own advancement in the Nazi hierarchy. (…) He was a man who, conforming to the prevailing norms and his Führer’s will, failed altogether to grasp the meaning of what he was doing. He was not diabolical, he was thoughtless. The word “thoughtlessness” is used by Arendt for a mental condition reflecting remoteness from reality, inability to grasp a reality that stares you in the face – a failure of imagination and judgment. (…) No deep-rooted or radical evil was necessary to make the trains to Auschwitz run on time.” (YOUNG-BRUEL, p. 108)
It reminds me of that famous experiment by Stanley Milgram, in which he tested how far can people go in the art of inflicting pain unto others. Milgram came up with a test to check how people would act when asked to approve the use of electrical shocks of increasing voltage; he wanted to see how wicked could a human being act just because a certain authority ordered it. The 20th century teachs us that hierarchy (and blind obedience to it) has much more relation with tragedy of epic proportions than the principles and actions of anarchists.
Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, it seems to me, is also a reflection upon the evils that follow from conformity to unquestioned authority. The Origins of Totalitarism, I believe, can and should be read and understood with the aid of classics of social psychology such as Erich Fromm’ Fear of Freedom or Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism. The shocking fact about the III Reich is that those crimes were commited by law-abbiding citizens, who were only following the orders and honouring the Führer’s will. One of the psychological factors that made it possible for so many Germans to participate in the mega-machine of mass-murder was the notion that Hitler assumed all responsability, and those who worked in the concentration camps, those who operated the trains to the death fields, those who released the poisonous and deadly Zyklon B, could all excuse themselves by saying: “I was merely following orders.” Which reminds me of Howard Zinn’s often quoted statement, somewhat inspired by Thoreau, that civil obedience is in fact a danger far greater than civil disobedience:
Howard Zin (1922-2010)
Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war. Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. We recognize this for Nazi Germany. We know that the problem there was obedience, that the people obeyed Hitler. People obeyed; that was wrong. They should have challenged, and they should have resisted; and if we were only there, we would have showed them. Even in Stalin’s Russia we can understand that; people are obedient, all these herdlike people… (ZINN, Howard. Here.)
When Hannah Arendt writes about crimes against humanity, and relates them to an evil arising from thoughtlessness and lack of judgement, she seems to be praising the individual’s potential for autonomy. Blind obedience to leaders or to established laws, unthinking conformity to the status quo, can lead to disaster. According to Young-Bruehl, who also wrote one of the most comprehensive biographies about Hannah Arendt, “she had always written out of solidarity with the victims of such crimes, with the conviction that telling their story for the sake of the future was her life task.” (YOUNG-BRUEHL, op cit., p. 209). This, also, we can learn from Arendt: solidarity with those who are, nowadays, the victims of crimes against humanity – for example, the detainees in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, or the pakistanis killed by drone attacks. The U.S.A.’s War on Terror, even tough it justifies itself as a crusade of Freedom against Terror, utilizes “totalitarian methods”, argues Young-Bruehl, and such methods can be traced back to the Cold War era:
One of the most threatening ways that adopting totalitarian methods to fight totalitarianism helped shape the current world order was in the practise adopted by U.S. governments during the Cold War period of sponsoring Islamic fundamentalists as agents of opposition to Soviet communism. This began on a small scale during Eisenhower’s presidency with support for the Muslim Brotherhood led by the Egyptian Hassan al-Banna… In Washington it was originally hoped that the political Islamists would help prevent the Communist ideology from infecting Arab states, but the policy of support became progressively aimed more at promoting Arab supranationalism and funding middle-ground wars. U.S. support of Arab supranationalism (with its own ideology, Wahhabism) focused on the reactionary Saudi monarchy, which was encouraged to create a network of right-wing Arab states using the Muslim Brotherhood as its agent. The Saudis also built on the Brotherhood’s violent opposition to Egypt under Nasser, who was considered a revolutionary nationalist in Washington and posed a direct challenge to U.S. and British oil interests in the Gulf… The CIA, in the most portentous instance, supported the Afghan fighters in their resistance to the Soviet Union’s imperialist invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. At that time, the CIA helped Osama bin Laden build a network of ‘Afghan Arabs’, the forerunner of Al-Qaeda…(YOUNG-BRUEHL, p. 57)
It gets me wondering what Hannah Arendt would have to teach us about the 21st century. Abu Ghraibs and Guantanamo Bays would very likely seem to her as dangerously similar to nazi concentration camps or soviet gulags, places where people lose their basic human rights and become victims of dehumanizing humiliation and torture. What about State Surveillance, a current reality denounced by whistleblower Edward Snowden? Isn’t it a dangerously totalitarian method, George Orwell’s Big Brother finally realized in mass scale? I’m quite sure Orwell never meant 1984 to be an Instructions Manual! And what to say about a country whose nuclear arsenal is huge, and who goes to war against Iraq claiming that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction in his hands? As if the United States of Atom Bombs hadn’t weapons of mass destruction also! And what to say about the thousands of americans who, misled by demagogy, blinded by patriotism, bound to their “duty”, marched straight to war, dropped bombs, launched drones? Now, of course, the damage is done and the thousands of dead bodies pile up as yet another reminder of human folly and of the dangers of thoughtlessness and blind obedience.
In her thought-provoking article A Lying World Order – Political Deception and the Threat of Totalitarianism, Peg Birmingham investigates if totalitarianism is a threat today. She answers with conviction – “yes it is!” – and argues with Hannah Arendt that the danger is co-related to the problem of political lies, of ideological deception. Historians can’t cease to be amazed by the re-occurence, in Human History, of mass credulity in ideologies and leaders. Humanity may seem ludicrous and ridiculous when we take a look back and discover the scale in which lies were massively believed in, with the outcome of radical evil of colossal proportions. How not to be flabbergasted with the fact that millions could believe Hitler’s racist lies about ethnical cleansing and the Jewish Plague, or believe W. Bush’s pious lies about Saddam’s nuclear bombs? It’s a scenario to make us bemoan the fate of this planet in a time, to remember Shakespeare’s King Lear, “when madmen lead the blind.” (SHAKESPEARE, King Lear, Act 4, Scene 1)
In her essay “The Seeds of a Fascist International” (1945), Hannah Arendt wrote: “It was always a too little noted hallmark of fascist propaganda that it was not satisfied with lying, but deliberately proposed to transform lies into reality. For such a fabrication of lying reality, no one was prepared. The essential characteristic of fascist propaganda was never its lies, for this is something more or less common to propaganda everywhere, and of every time. The essential thing was that they exploited the age-old occidental prejudice which confuses reality with truth, and made that true which until then could only be stated as a lie.” (ARENDT, 146-147) For example: if Mr. X makes a statement such as “my aunt is dead”, but then Mrs. Y contradicts him with “No, this ain’t true, I saw your aunt just a moment ago at the market”, all Mr. X needs to do to mutate his statement from a lie to a truth is “to go home and murder his aunt” (BIRMINGHAM, P. 74.)
In Winter Soldier (1972), an excellent documentary about the Vietnam War, built upon statements from the soldiers who were there and witnessed it all, a man who fought with the U.S. Army gives us an example of the Political Lie in action: when civilians were killed (military leaders, then and now, call this “collateral damage”), the U.S. Army ordered that those people were to be labeled as gooks, written down in the “official reports” as if they were vietcongs. Kill first, then label the murdered person a devil, a filthy gook, an unworthy-to-live commie. That’s the strategy. Every dead Vietnamese, even tough he might have been a pacifist, is suddenly turned into a dangerous and murderous communist terrorist.
We still live in such a world where the Terrorist Menace is constantly evoked, and in its name are justified colossal measures of war, emprisonment and mass surveillance. If there’s a threat of totalitarianism in the world today, it certainly lies in the way governments are dealing with the so-called Terrorist Menace. The established powers, the status quo, the ruling elites, label as terrorists those who oppose their crushing powers. In India, the “terrorists” are the maoists who oppose Hindu nationalism and Free Trade Capitalism (check Arundhati Roy’s brilliant report Walking With The Comrades); in Mexico, the “terrorists” are the Zapatistas of Chiapas’s jungles who defend the rights of indigenous people against the pillage of big business; in the U.S., the “terrorists” are Islamic jihadists threatening to re-enact September 11th; in Brazil, “terrorists” are those citizens who take to the streets to protest against banks and corporate power, and refusing pacifism in their Black Bloc techniques or Anarchistic tendencies. And so on and so on… The “terrorist danger” is what justifies massive investments in police, it’s what governenmets use to justify the use of repression and mass incarceration. Welcome to “Democracy”, the best one that money can buy.
The danger of totalitarianism lies entangled with the threat of mass-belief in political lies:
The problem of ideology is, for Hannah Arendt, the problem of political deception. Ideology is the mutation that establishes the lying world order, by replacing reality with an ironclad fiction. In other words, ideology is the ‘most devilish version of the lie'”; these are Hannah Arendt’s words, and we should hear her claim that the banality of evil is, at its very heart, ideology. With both its hellish fantasies and its clichés, the ‘banality of evil’ is characterized by a strident logicality – a logic through which the whole of reality is thoroughly and systematically organized, according to a fiction with a view to total domination.” (BIRMINGHAM, P. 77.)
I wonder if our totalitarian threat may reside, today, also in the Market, or in what many specialists call “The Economy”. Aren’t we endangered by the “Free Trade” totalitarian ideology? In which every means are acceptable in order to enforce the holy end of “Free Markets”? Including the drone-attacks against Pakistan, the war of aggression against Iraq, the pious crusade of genocidal proportions against Afeghanistan? Who is naive enough to believe it was all made for the sake of Freedom and Democracy, when it actually resulted in a massive pile of corpses? Not to mention, in previous decades, how Free Trade capitalism, Yankee-style, forced its way all around the globe with the aid of the military dictartorships and coup d’états imposed by U.S. interest in South and Central America. We, Latin Americans, can never forget what happened in Chile in September 11th, 1973. Not to mention the military interventions in Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia, etc.), justified as Anti-Communist measures.
The political lie, the fascist twist of propaganda to be discerned here, I would argue, lies in the preposterous idea that “Free Trade = Freedom and Justice”. That’s a lying and deceiving equation: if we take a closer look at the ideology of Free Trade, of the theories so dominant in today’s capitalism and that call themselves “liberal” and “neo-liberal”, we’ll discover that they have a tendency to increase mass incarceration and police repression, for example. The U.S. currently has 25% of all the world’s prisoners. When prison become a business, that can be run for profit (with the aid, of course, of strick laws of prohibition against illicit drugs), neoliberal capitalism shows its true face: that of nasty greediness, mounting inequality, resulting in a dystopic society in which millions and millions of its citizens are behind bars, while an elite hides away, locked inside comfortable bunkers, with obscene accumulations of capital in protected by Hi-Tech Security.
To enforce capitalism, the preachers of Free Trade, with their billions – which could be invested to end global hunger or treat curable diseases in all continents! – uy themselves an immense apparatus of military repression and aggression. Remember Seattle, 1999. Remember Québec City, 2001. Remember Genoa, 2008. Remember Toronto, 2010. Remember Brazil’s World Cup, in 2014, in which neo-liberal interests where defended with military police and national Army, throughout the streets, programmed to silence and crush all dissidence and protest to FIFA’s money-making machine…
As Arundhati Roy reminds us, everytime that the world’s Capitalist Elites try to join for their summits, their G8 meetings, their WTOs and Free Trade congresses, they are only able to do it spending millions in what they call Security – another political lie, ideological fiction, that masks the fact that “Security” is based on agression, repression, and incarceration of political prisoners (it’s been done for centuries: put in prison your oponents, then justify yourself calling them “terrorists”). The so-called Liberal Democracy in the U.S. spends so much in War and Prisons that it shows to the world its true face, behind the masks and the fake twinklings of ideological propaganda. Look at Detroit, once America’s pearl, one of the wealthiest metropolis on Earth, now reduced to a wasteland; Detroit, who could be photographed nowadays in order to illustrate Mike Davis’s book Planet of Slums. Remember New Orleans when Katrina hit: the same country who spends billions with its Wars and who lets profits run wild with “free trades” such as that of Guns and Ammunitions, leaves its own citizens in abandonment while they face one of the worst climate disasters of American History…
Why, if a mandatory evacuation was issued, ordering that everybody should leave New Orleans before Katrina hit, the U.S. government didn’t provide the means for this evacuation to happen? Money, you always tell me, is not a problem in the U.S., The Land of Profit. When the poorest of people in New Orleans, who couldn’t afford a bus or plane ticket to a safe area, who couldn’t afford renting a hotel room in a Hurricane-free town, the least you’d expect from a sensible government is help. Perhaps they were too busy doing war in the Middle East, or spying on people’s private lifes in search of potencial terrorists, or torturing political prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, to ready be able to listen as New Orleans’ cried for help while drowning out in one of the crudest of the ecological turmoil’s of our “anthropocene” era. Rapper Kanye West, witnessing this, couldn’t do nothing but to speak on National TV: “George W. Bush doesn’t care for black people”. Neither he does care for Muslims. While the U.S. Army was bombing and torturing Muslims, in New Orleans it left off, unatended to, abandoned to their luck, those American Citizens who were still in town when the Hurricane came. As Naomi Klein shows in her The Shock Doctrine, after the disaster the authorities in charge of defending Free Trade capitalism took an interest in New Orleans: they saw that in Disaster there was Opportunity. What used to be Public service, in New Orleans, could now be refashioned to attend Private Interests. This is another reason why Arendt still matters: because Free Trade ideology wants to erase the notions of Public Space and of Common Good, in order to enforce its society of private interests and individualistic consumerism, protected by military force and crowded prisons.
In 1972, in a conference at the Toronto Society for the Study of Social and Political Thought (York University), Hannah Arendt said (and it remains for me inspirational stuff): “If we really believe – and I think we share this belief – that plurality rules the earth, then I think one has got to modify this notion of the unity of theory and practice to such an extent that it will be unrecognizable for those who tried their hand at it before. I really believe that you can only act in concert and I really believe that you can only think by yourself.” (pg. 305) Arendt matters because she can teach us a lot about thinking for ourselves (instead of accepting fixed truths that rain from above in the hierarchy…) and because she can teach us how to act in concert to criticize, dismantle and fight the threats of totalitarism today.
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ARENDT, Hannah. “The Seeds of a Fascist International”. Pgs. 146-147.
———————-. The Human Condition, Prologue.
BIRMINGHAM, Peg. “A Lying World Order – Political Deception and the Threat of Totalitarianism”. In: Thinking in Dark Times, New York: Fordham University press.
YOUNG-BRUEHL, Elisabeth . Why Arendt Matters. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2006.
SHAKESPEARE, William. King Lear. Act 4, Scene 1.
ZINN, Howard. Zinn Reader. Seven Stories Press, 1970.
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Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)