Thought leaders – Hannah Arendt
At the Delphi Network, we are always looking to engage with interesting people. Sometimes, those people are dead, unfortunately! This leaves only a discussion of their books. The following article consists of talking points from a chapter of the great Hannah Arendt’s book “The Origins of Totalitarianism”.
Donald Trump’s support from wealthy, educated, cultured and intelligent people is notable. Trump’s supporters are not just rustbelt refugees, rednecks and Fox News watchers.
Arendt would not be surprised. She saw the same phenomenon under the Nazis. Her opening comment about the seduction of the elite by the Nazis begins as follows.
“It would be rash to discount…the terrifying roster of distinguished men (which Nazi and Communist) totalitarianism can count among its sympathizers, fellow-travelers and party members”.
Arendt states that Nazism tapped into pre-war discontent with “bourgeois” society, and quotes World War 1 German war hero and author Ernst Juenger: “The elite went to war with an exultant hope that everything they knew, the whole culture and texture of life, might go down in a “storm of steel”. She also quotes Thomas Mann:” War was purification”.
Why were these “elites” discontented? Arendt explores the disgust the elites felt at “a society wholly permeated with the ideological standards and outlook of the bourgeoisie”.
What made elites in the 1920s and 1930s different to their predecessors was that following World War 1 they were “completely absorbed by their desire to see the ruin of this whole world of fake security, fake culture and fake life…destruction, chaos and ruin assumed the dignity of supreme values”.
They preferred the ethics of war to the ethics of peace. The war’s randomness made it an “equalizer”, killing rich and poor alike, and bonding men together. And strangely to us today, many survivors looked back on the war years with pride and fulfillment. They found meaning in uniformity, patriotism, anonymity, self-sacrifice and discipline. They found identity in the Group.
Such was their hatred of the atomized and greedy society they returned to “that they were satisfied with blind partisanship for anything that respectable society banned…they elevated cruelty to a major virtue because it contradicted society’s humanitarian and liberal hypocrisy”.
Note the word “hypocrisy”. Arendt believes that the war brought the issue of bourgeois hypocrisy to boiling point, with its empty slogans, lies and profiteering. Even more so in the wake of Germany’s defeat.
She also emphasizes the “utter banality” of Germany’s “fake culture of educated talk” in contrast to the “primacy of sheer action” which characterized the War and which was copied by the Nazis and the Communists.
“The point was to do something “heroic or criminal” and to break out of the rut of peacetime bourgeois society,” she writes.
To elites returning from the war, the institutions of society had failed to keep pace with their own experiences. As a result, “they were not outraged at the monstrous forgeries of which all totalitarian regimes are guilty. They had convinced themselves that tradition was a forgery anyway.”
This is an important point. People can go from blindly believing everything they are told, to equally blinding believing nothing they are told. We have the same cynicism today reflected in suspicion of “mainstream media” and the accusations of “fake news”. The change usually comes after a trust-shattering crisis – WW1 in Germany’s case, the great financial crisis in the modern case.
The elites, then and now, felt “genuine delight at watching the mob destroy respectability…forcing steel barons to deal with Hitler as well as the crude and vulgar forgeries perpetrated in all fields of intellectual life.”
Further ,“in an atmosphere in which all traditional values and propositions had evaporated…it was easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which had become pious banalities – precisely because nobody could be expected to take the absurdities seriously”.
These comments could be inserted into a commentary of Donald Trump’s communication method and intellectual apparatus at any point since he started his political campaign.
It is awareness of this hypocrisy which leads the elites to “look forward not to change in social or political conditions, but to the radical destruction of every creed, value and institution.”
Indeed, “since the bourgeoisie claimed to be the guardian of western traditions and confounded all moral issues by parading publicly virtues which it not only did not possess but actually held in contempt, it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard human values and applaud general amorality, because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which existing society seemed to rest. What temptation to flaunt extreme attitudes in the hypocritical twilight of double moral standards!”
At this point, Arendt goes beyond most contemporary commentators, who fight Trump by generally upholding bourgeois moral values, but thus (ironically and unhappily) can make their hypocrisy even more apparent.
Yet hypocrisy is better than its absence. Arendt argues (like Oscar Wilde’s famous comment that “hypocrisy is the tribute paid by vice to virtue”) that hypocrisy acted as a brake on capitalist activity. When the bourgeoisie tires of hypocrisy, the effect is catastrophic.
Yet this happened in the 1930s and remains a danger today, since “the bourgeoisie’s philosophy (is at bottom) always totalitarian, as it assumed an identity of politics, economy and society in which the political institutions served only as the facade for private interests.”
Thus, Adam Smith’s theory that “individual interests add up to the miracle of the common good appeared to be only a realization of the recklessness with which private interests were pressed regardless of the common good”. This line could appear unchanged in any newspaper discussing the the recent Grenfell fire disaster in London, where poor regulation contributed to 80 deaths.
Another passage argues that it was the “bourgeois” who was Hitler’s perfect henchman, not the criminal or uneducated “thug”:” (the bourgeois) worries about nothing so much as his private security, ready to sacrifice everything – belief, honour, decency – on the slightest provocation. Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives”.
Arendt closes by warning the elite that their “frank admission of the worst”, their admiration of the new “vulgarity”, even though it can be mistaken for “courage and a new style of life”, is wrong. Their admiration of “the lack of hypocrisy and respectability” must not blind them to the “content itself” of the Nazis’ (or Trump’s) programmes.
This final paragraph serves as a warning to those idealists who have lost faith in the global system after the Great Financial Crisis or Great Depression of 2008.