Books A vi­tal les­son from his­tory

Amid the rise in pop­ulism and the re­jec­tion of ‘politics as usual’ abroad, there has been an­other twist as po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy books climb the best­seller lists, writes Muham­mad Idrees Ah­mad

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Muham­mad Idrees Ah­mad is a lec­turer in dig­i­tal jour­nal­ism at the Univer­sity of Stir­ling.

Amid the de­spair over the pres­i­dency of the United States fall­ing into the hands of an un­let­tered re­al­ity TV star, Amer­i­cans are read­ing bet­ter. In re­cent months, Ge­orge Or­well’s 1984 has topped the best­seller list, Sin­clair Lewis’s It Can’t Hap­pen Here has re-en­tered the top 10, and Mar­garet At­wood’s The Hand­maid’s Tale has re­ceived its sec­ond Hol­ly­wood adap­ta­tion. But on a chart usu­ally dom­i­nated by celebrity tell-alls, self-im­prove­ment man­u­als, fad di­ets, and raunchy ro­mances, po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy is also mak­ing a foray. That Ti­mothy Sny­der’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury (2017) should top best­seller lists is not en­tirely sur­pris­ing. The book, which grew out of a vi­ral Face­book post, is a di­rect re­sponse to the Don­ald Trump pres­i­dency. In an eru­dite yet ac­ces­si­ble man­ner, with brevity and pre­ci­sion, Sny­der draws on his prodi­gious knowl­edge of 20th cen­tury despo­tism to present 20 sober­ing lessons for deal­ing with the Trump phe­nom­e­non. One of these, aptly, is: “Make an ef­fort to sep­a­rate your­self from the in­ter­net. Read books.” The book whose suc­cess is a sur­prise, how­ever, is Han­nah Arendt’s The Ori­gins of To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism (1951). At 752 pages, Arendt’s mag­num opus is not brief, and with its panoramic ex­plo­ration of his­tory, phi­los­o­phy, politics and psy­chol­ogy, the book can ex­er­cise a reader’s mind. But re­cently it sold out on Ama­zon; and, in a likely re­sponse to the surge in de­mand, Pen­guin has reis­sued it in a hand­some new edi­tion.

This could not be time­lier. Though the book’s res­o­nant ti­tle has some­times lent it­self to clichéd read­ings and facile com­par­isons, its un­canny in­sights into hu­man na­ture and po­lit­i­cal so­ci­ol­ogy have lost none of their acu­ity. Arendt is rel­e­vant not be­cause she helps us to un­der­stand how US democ­racy might de­volve into to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism (there is lit­tle chance of that), but be­cause she has mapped the po­lit­i­cal ter­rain that al­lows the rise of tyranny.

To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism, Arendt notes, is an ex­cep­tional phe­nom­e­non. His­tory has given us only two truly to­tal­i­tar­ian states: Hitler’s Ger­many and Stalin’s USSR. But the con­di­tions that led to to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism and the tools it de­ployed are more uni­ver­sal, and they can lead to tyranny any­where.

Arendt ex­plores these con­di­tions in the book’s first two sec­tions. The racist and ex­pan­sion­ist prin­ci­ples of anti-Semitism and im­pe­ri­al­ism were crit­i­cal in lay­ing the grounds for to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism. If Bri­tain and France had built their em­pires over­seas, Nazis and Bol­she­viks were go­ing to build theirs on land; and if the mar­itime em­pires were mo­ti­vated by ideas of ex­pan­sion and eco­nomic ne­ces­sity, then the con­ti­nen­tal em­pires would be jus­ti­fied through calls to pan-Ger­manic and pan-Slavic sol­i­dar­ity.

For all its mis­sion­ary pre­tences, im­pe­ri­al­ism in­evitably cre­ated racial hi­er­ar­chies to jus­tify the sub­ju­ga­tion – even elim­i­na­tion – of what it con­sid­ered in­fe­rior races. The Nazis would take this to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion in the seg­re­ga­tion and even­tual ex­ter­mi­na­tion of Jews.

Late to the game of em­pire, Nazis and the Bol­she­viks used the post-First World War break­down of na­tion states as an op­por­tu­nity to es­tab­lish their to­tal­i­tar­ian rule. They used dif­fer­ent ide­olo­gies to­ward the same end: to­tal dom­i­na­tion. And though Stalin in­stru­men­talised a ma­te­ri­al­ist doc­trine (Marx­ism) and Hitler a racist one (anti-Semitism), they re­lied on com­mon tools.

Ter­ror, Arendt ar­gues, is the essence of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism. Pro­pa­ganda is its ad­junct. The true goal of to­tal­i­tar­ian pro­pa­ganda how­ever, is not per­sua­sion but or­gan­i­sa­tion. It adds ma­te­rial forces to what would oth­er­wise be mere ar­gu­ment. Its per­sua­sive pow­ers are di­rected mainly at the non-to­tal­i­tar­ian world. At home it has larger am­bi­tions than con­ven­tional po­lit­i­cal ter­ror.

To­tal­i­tar­ian move­ments don’t merely want to co­erce; they aim to in­stil obe­di­ence. They “do not ac­tu­ally prop­a­gate but in­doc­tri­nate”. They use vi­o­lence “not so much to frighten peo­ple (this is done only in the ini­tial stages when po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion still ex­ists) as to re­alise con­stantly its ide­o­log­i­cal doc­trines and its prac­ti­cal lies”.

The lies are pur­pose­ful and part of the con­di­tion­ing. Be­cause “the ideal sub­ject of to­tal­i­tar­ian rule is not the con­vinced Nazi or the con­vinced Com­mu­nist,” writes Arendt, “but peo­ple for whom the distinc­tion be­tween fact and fic­tion (ie, the re­al­ity of ex­pe­ri­ence) and the distinc­tion be­tween true and false (ie, the stan­dards of thought) no longer ex­ist”. To­tal­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment, Arendt notes, rests on mass sup­port that comes “nei­ther from ig­no­rance nor from brain­wash­ing”. Many sub­mit will­ingly. A chief char­ac­ter­is­tic of mod­ern masses, Arendt writes, is that they do not be­lieve “in the re­al­ity of their own ex­pe­ri­ence; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imag­i­na­tions, which may be caught by any­thing that is at once uni­ver­sal and con­sis­tent in it­self. What con­vinces masses are not facts, and not even in­vented facts, but only the con­sis­tency of the sys­tem of which they are pre­sum­ably part”. Pop­ulists and dem­a­gogues recog­nise this. Hence the rise of con­spir­acism that has char­ac­terised our re­cent politics. In this “post-truth” re­al­ity, noth­ing is con­tin­gent. Ev­ery­thing is part of a plan and there is al­ways a re­al­ity be­hind the re­al­ity, in­evitably re­vealed on “al­ter­na­tive me­dia” like Rus­sia Today (RT) or In­fowars. A re­al­ity ac­cord­ing to which Ge­orge W Bush knocked down the Twin Tow­ers, Barack Obama cre­ated ISIL and Syr­i­ans gassed their own chil­dren to give Bashar Al As­sad a bad name.

“What the masses refuse to rec­og­nize,” writes Arendt, “is the for­tu­itous­ness that per­vades re­al­ity.” In­stead they “es­cape from re­al­ity into fic­tion, from co­in­ci­dence into con­sis­tency”. In times of cri­sis, the sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to these fic­tions in­creases. There is a “de­sire to es­cape from re­al­ity” be­cause “they can no longer bear its ac­ci­den­tal, in­com­pre­hen­si­ble as­pects”; it is “a ver­dict against the world in which they are forced to live and in which they can­not ex­ist, since co­in­ci­dence has be­come its supreme master and hu­man be­ings need the con­stant trans­for­ma­tion of chaotic and ac­ci­den­tal con­di­tions into a man-made pat­tern of rel­a­tive con­sis­tency”.

It is a re­sult of their “at­om­iza­tion, of their loss of so­cial sta­tus along with which they lost the whole sec­tor of com­mu­nal re­la­tion­ships in whose frame­work com­mon sense makes sense”.

Politics con­se­quently be­comes ex­is­ten­tial. Peo­ple be­lieve the fic­tions “not be­cause they are stupid or wicked, but be­cause in the gen­eral dis­as­ter this es­cape grants them a min­i­mum of self-re­spect”. They as­sim­i­late any ide­ol­ogy – left-wing or far-right – that pro­vides them with an op­por­tu­nity to strike back at the es­tab­lish­ment. The mob con­se­quently be­comes the tyrant and democ­racy col­lapses into dic­ta­tor­ship.

Riding a wave of ressen­ti­ment and pro­pelled by forces of un­rea­son, Bri­tain is self-de­struc­tively march­ing to­wards Brexit. But Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions have so far proved more re­silient. Trump lacks the sin­gu­lar pur­pose, co­her­ent ide­ol­ogy or para­mil­i­tary or­gan­i­sa­tion to pose a se­ri­ous threat to the repub­lic. But through op­por­tunis­tic ap­peals to the forces of re­ac­tion, he has em­pow­ered some of the worst el­e­ments in so­ci­ety.

Trump, how­ever, is not a dan­ger to the state. His real dan­ger is in re­vers­ing so­cial progress and cor­rupt­ing pub­lic dis­course. This cor­rup­tion is not con­fined to his fol­low­ers; it also in­fects his crit­ics. If Trump has de­lib­er­ately blurred the distinc­tion be­tween fact and fic­tion, his op­po­nents too have shown lit­tle re­gard for truth in what they are will­ing to be­lieve about him (or, even more so, about his erst­while op­po­nent Hil­lary Clin­ton). Feel­ings, in most in­stances, have trumped facts. The pub­lic may be com­pro­mised but there is hope in in­sti­tu­tions. And as long as in­sti­tu­tions re­tain their in­tegrity, tyran­ni­cal im­pulses can be fore­stalled. This is one of Sny­der’s key lessons; it is also one of Arendt’s im­plied warn­ings. To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism tri­umphed be­cause its in­sti­tu­tions en­forced a moral in­ver­sion that turned evil into the norm. Not ev­ery­one who sub­mit­ted was evil; in­deed, even the Nazi lead­er­ship un­der­stood that the masses were “first and fore­most job hold­ers and good fam­ily men”. This for Arendt was the most un­set­tling re­al­i­sa­tion. That the rad­i­cal evil of a sys­tem can make or­di­nary peo­ple com­mit pro­found evil from the most ba­nal of mo­tives.

To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism suc­ceeded be­cause it could rely on – or, in the Soviet case, cre­ate – a mass of atom­ised, iso­lated and lonely in­di­vid­u­als to sub­mit to its dik­tats. The ex­tent to which we can re­sist both will de­pend on our ca­pac­ity for think­ing crit­i­cally with­out los­ing the distinc­tion be­tween scep­ti­cism and cyn­i­cism. Read­ers everywhere will need to heed Arendt and avoid “the dan­ger in ex­chang­ing the nec­es­sary in­se­cu­rity of philo­soph­i­cal thought for the to­tal ex­pla­na­tion of an ide­ol­ogy”.

Jes­sica Kourk­ou­nis / Getty Im­ages

Op­po­nents of US president Don­ald Trump have ac­cused his ad­min­is­tra­tion of be­ing un­der Rus­sia’s in­flu­ence while demon­stra­tors at pub­lic protests like this one at Philadel­phia In­ter­na­tional Air­port are quick to level charges of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism.

The Ori­gins of To­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism Han­nah Arendt Pen­guin Clas­sics, Dh38

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Ti­mothy Sny­der Bod­ley Head, Dh38

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