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On “On the Nature of Totalitarianism” (1953) and On the Origins of Totalitarianism, ch. 13 (added in 1953), featuring Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth.
Totalitarianism was epitomized in fiction by 1984 but enacted in the real world in Russia under Stalin and what would have likely been the end-point of Germany under Hitler had he been allowed to stay in power. Is this form of government just a particularly acute kind of tyranny as theorized about by political philosophy at least as far back as Aristotle?
Arendt said no: Totalitarianism represents a fundamentally new form, unique to the modern age, and a new and pressing danger given economic and technological forces that isolate people while making it possible for a government to intrude into their lives to an unprecedented degree.
Arendt's essays (the two that we read cover largely the same ground, with a few different points of emphasis) draw on the analytical framework of Montesquieu, who identifies a psychological state as the underlying ground of each type of government: Citizens and leaders in a democracy need to be motivated by political virtue, i.e. the love of laws and country. Participants in a monarchy are ruled by honor, and in a tyranny the ruled and ruler alike are driven by fear. (It's fear that drives the tyrant to remove all opposition.)
While a totalitarian state will use fear as a means to get going, its internal logic is not dependent on fear or even on a cult of personality. Rather, it is built around a single principle, which can be any number of principles from anywhere on the political spectrum, but it importantly must be a totalizing principle that interprets all of history as progress toward its desired end. For the Nazis, that end was racial purity, whereas for Stalinists, it was a classless society. These ends can be and are held in non-totalitarian political contexts, but if taken with deadly seriousness, they become the animating force for a society, with all individuals and their actions subordinated to that end. There can be no psychological motivating force to this type of government, because it necessarily squashes individual human motivations. The society thinks for you, and so you are just moved without motivation at all.
Is Arendt being overly dramatic here? In 1984, for instance, we see that total cooption of the individual's mind is the goal, but even in that work of fiction, is this goal ever fully achieved? Can there really be true totalitarianism of the sort described, or is such a project inevitably doomed because it goes against human nature? Perhaps we can identify and counter totalitarian tendencies, but it's not necessary that we grant that the individual human will can actually be extinguished.
The question is whether there is a particularly totalitarian teleology that actually undermines the principle and its stated goals. A committed communist or racist will want the goals of their ideology to be achieved with as little fuss as possible. If all the objectionable individuals would simply ship off to some other country, then the objective would be attained. According to Arendt, though, the means become the end: A totalitarian regime uses terror and murder not to achieve the end, but to keep itself in power by taking over the minds of the populace. New enemies must always be found; the goal must never be actually achieved. The world must necessarily be conquered so that the principle can reign in its every corner. Because the regime does not always know exactly who its opponents are, it must choose arbitrarily those who will this week be made an example of. This means that fealty to the regime is not enough to ensure safety. Unlike in a tyranny where fear keeps the populace in line, there is no being "in line" with a totalitarian regime; the concepts of guilt and innocence lose their meaning. Terror is not a motivator but a stabilizer; someone in terror cannot make choices at all, cannot even think.
Is Arendt right that such a cycle can get going and includes the mechanisms to exist stably? Or is what she's describing just something that's gotten seriously out of control so as to start to eat itself? Fascism is an us-them mentality that draws upon and strengthens familiar tribal ties. If a fascist state starts killing off members of its tribe randomly, does that actually hold the tribe together more tightly, or is it corrosive of these bonds?
Whatever the ontological status of this phenomenon of totalitarianism might be, Arendt's comments about its attempted affects on the public and private spheres provide an interesting supplement to what we learned about them in considering The Human Condition in our episode 125. Our human needs include both a sphere for public engagement and one for deep, private contemplation. These two spheres require each other, and they require freedom of thought and speech, which are what the regime seeks to foreclose.
In a government of laws, these laws circumscribe the realm of the public and thereby leave the rest (the private sphere) for individuals to work out and grow in. A totalitarian state doesn't have steady laws, but only the law of history as dictated by the ideology. It sets and end and says that anything that the rulers deem needed in pursuit of that end is justified, and any efforts that are irrelevant to that end are blasphemous. The division between public and private is thus erased.
Arendt distinguished between isolation, loneliness, and solitude. If you're isolated, then you can't act because no one will act with you; you're politically impotent. Loneliness is feeling like you've been deserted by all human companionship. You can be with people (cowering together from a tyrant) and so not be lonely even though you're isolated in this sense, and you can be acting politically in concert with people (the members of your tribe) and yet feel lonely. Isolation, however, is good in limited doses, in that you can't really get much done if people are constantly with you. We leave the political realm to create something, whether material or an idea. That good kind of isolation is solitude, and for it to be healthy, you need to be able to come back together with other people to see if that idea makes sense or the creation is good and useful. When solitude turns to loneliness, that's when a person's thoughts proceed unchecked by other people. Specifically, this is when an ideological thought can become so dominant its own internal logic can seem inevitable and all-encompassing. You might, in solitude, read some Marx and think that it expresses something important, but in discussing it critically with others, you will at least see powerful logistic (and philosophical) hurdles that will bring into question whether and how it should be enacted. In loneliness, no one provides this perspective and so the logic of communism's historic inevitability dictates (according to Arendt) that instead of waiting for history to cause the bourgeoise to naturally lose their power, it seems rational to help history along by killing them. Philosophers, who need solitude to do their work, always run the risk of turning lonely, and for their thoughts to become radicalized in this sort of way.
Arendt diagnosed the modern age as lonely to an unprecedented degree, and so people who want to belong will be attracted to such ideologies, and so to a false sense of solidarity to others who believe in the same cause. A totalitarian regime seeks to bind us together so closely, as instruments of the ideology working in the world, that we're not exhibiting genuine agency at all, so we're isolated even though it looks like we're working together, lonely because the private sphere in which our loneliness could be relieved has been obliterated and replaced by the ideology, incapable of solitude in any sense. Still, every new birth counts as a potential threat to keeping humanity in lockstep like this. This not only gives ever-fresh potential enemies for the regime to rail against, but represents a perpetual instability in such regimes.
You can buy "On the Nature of Totalitarianism" as part of Essays in Understanding, 1930-1954. or read the essay online. Buy The Origins of Totalitarianism or try this online version (p. 460-479).
Image by Shane Wood. Audio editing by Tyler Hislop.
Part two will be released soon.
if folks were wanting more along these lines for our times they should check out Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s
Albi Bilali says
Great episode as always. I was wondering if perhaps North Korea is the best example of a tyranny-totalitarian hybrid regime. There it seems that the whims of the tyrant have been transformed into the ideology the state follows. They also display that weird cult of personality, that involves propagating lies about the capabilities of the leader (various examples here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Korean_cult_of_personality ).
Martin Zehr says
This is all good, but the contemporary debate needs to be developed and more rigorous. We still put Stalin and Hitler in the same category. We still need to look Deeper. The administrative state empowers a new power elite of bureaucrats that are rarely on stage for public review. The Empire moves and is inherently expansive and intrusive in its authority. From buying votes at a cost of a beer to buying votes and calling it stimulus for $1400 there is less popular power than ever. The ability to circumvent delegated powers, the perpetual warfare state and the scripting of political debate have cast a long shadow,
.The banality of Evil rests in the administrative functions outside of the public arena. The movie THE COMMAND illustrates the coldness and the dismissal of the needs and concerns of those impacted by the elite’s decisions. Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down, so says the Emperor.
Sebastian Orlander says
On why religion is absent from the analysis:
One reason might be that we need a particular form of religiosity that can lend itself to the kind of statebuilding that a fascist or stalinist state would engage in, viz. fundamentalism. As counterintuitive as it sounds, fundamentalism is only really possible as a reaction to the kind of institution that scientific inquiry became in the early 19th century. Thus, the only examples of religion turning into totalitarianism is Gilead in ‘the Handmaid’s Tale’ or Islamic State. Fortunately this hasn’t grabbed hold of religious communities in the US, except for some corners of Christianity (the watchword is Dominionism). It’s not particularly prevalent otherwise, since there’s a strong tendency in fundamentalist religion to withdraw from political life, so it’s not quite fertile breeding ground for totalitarianism as with the other ideologies that have a different outlook on the teleology of history.
Mark Linsenmayer says
Interesting… in the PMP discussion of Handmaid’s, I don’t know that any of us registered that what was happening would be unique to a post-industrial society. There are elements of what’s going on that rely on current technology, but part of the fantasy of this sort of sci fi seems to be a projection of totalitarianism or something like it into the “dark ages.” I don’t know that I have the historical chops to say whether in certain past ages the church (which could be, e.g. Protestant fanatics rejecting the laxity of Catholicism) tried to make it “impossible to think.”
Jennifer Tejada says
This is an awesome episode. Thanks for doing it. I vote for the Kant episode Mark referenced. Also – any idea who might be an argument against these ideas?
Jennifer Tejada says
To be more clear – there is a lot of assertion about the psychology behind this thinking which I find I often have to defend. Many ppl I talk to are anti-psychology. Also – I’m thinking of things like Marxism where there seems to be a belief about what the right thing to do is and ends up not really working out in real life.
Matthew Brophy says
Really enjoyed this episode. Reminded me of a recent New Yorker article about China’s crackdown in Xinjiang — long article, but worth reading for some insight into how many elements of totalitarianism are still alive in the world today: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/12/surviving-the-crackdown-in-xinjiang
Kenneth Laurora says
That is an interesting article. I have been interested in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s for several years now and have read many accounts of gulag survivors. It is scary how much of what Sabat recounts sounds like their stories. The sad thing is that I have read accounts of the Soviet orphanages so I have a fair idea about what is going to happen to those children as they grow up with the stigma of being a child of the enemy of the people.
For an interesting fictional account of the mindset of a believer incarcerated by their own political party try Arthur Koestler’s ‘Darkness at Noon’.
For non fiction you can try to track down some of Tania Miagkova’s letters especially from her early days in the political isolator. Even years later, before her execution, she was still saying that she “can not live only for myself and through my emotions”.