The post-totalitarian method of Hannah Arendt

June 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

To grasp the global political situation at present, we should be acquainted with our direct inheritance [just as students wanting to make sense of WWI would have had to look back to the sectarian conflicts three centuries earlier]: the return to the party-system after its near-dissolution under totalitarianism. That is the great European narrative of the 20th Century that Hannah Arendt wishes to tell in The Origins of Totalitarianism. As we look into this narrative, one should keep in mind Arendt’s [dis]position: “The rise of the councils, not the restoration of parties, was the clear sign of a true upsurge of democracy against dictatorship, of freedom against tyranny”. It will be the polyvocal debate that is our confidence against future totalitarianism.

Her achievements in historical interpretation begin with her method, as inspired by long contemplation on post-horror “rootlessness” & the death of hope. She refuses to fall to nihilism, however, falling on neither side of the coin of reason that demands absolute meaning or else renders all meaningless.

Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies & generalities that the impact of reality & the shock of experiences are no longer felt. It means, rather, examining & bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us — neither denying its existence nor submitting meekly to its weight.

Abomination & human achievement are here conflated seriously for the first time in Arendt’s work, though she would do it to more acclaim still in Eichmann in Jerusalem. Both works observe how the notion that progress is necessarily constructive was popularly discarded when its destructive results were measured. Although totalitarian dictatorships had been proven powerful successors of the party system, which had dominated Europe in the 19th century, they were decided “an interval of evil” & the earlier political system was readopted [it is as Rousseau had claimed, “Modesty only begins with the knowledge of evil” (Emile, Book IV)].

Again progress is rejected in new estimations of science; “Science in the instances of both business publicity & totalitarian propaganda is obviously only a surrogate for power”. Humanism is sacrificed for humanitarianism, as scientific advancements [eugenics, new weaponry] are shown to no longer be compatible with neither progress nor truth, the pursuit of which had birthed it during the Renaissance.*

The model totalitarian states, Nazi Germany & Soviet Russia, Arendt describes as “movements” — in the direction of their ideology, in the direction of accelerated necessity [natural necessity after Darwin & historical necessity after Marx respectively], in the direction of teleological absolution. Totalitarianism wants us to say of it, It polishes natural order of social life, for it is the inevitable politics.

The spur of any totalitarian state must begin with an almost apolitical obscurity, so as not to exclude any among the contradicting masses; all a great totalitarian dictator needs to know about the subject-nation is its fears. “They are predisposed to all ideologies because they explain facts as mere examples of laws & eliminate coincidences by inventing an all-embracing omnipotence which is supposed to be at the root of every accident. Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency”.

It was no accident that literary studies became indivisible from 20th century society [narrative theory for the prolocutors of “historical necessity” & literary dialogism for the the resistance]. Arendt is cautious of “the inclination toward fiction”. Fiction is much easier to grasp than reality — which suffers for being all-too-often dissatisfactory & dispersed. Any regime that offers to make an intelligible world will be infinitely attractive; that we know as the snare of religion. In the political scene, ideology offers a key of appreciation that could solve class separation by admitting everyone into “the understanding” category, once reserved for intelligencia & the elite. There is a unifying sense of a public secret society. Like all complete systems, it is contradictory.

Of course there is an elite! It is found in those who “establish & safeguard the fictitious world through consistent lying”. This small group is the only one officially above the fiction — allowed to penetrate it — but fear & ideological comfort keep them from unmasking it. Fiction, in fact, makes it simpler for them to execute horror [in particular the fiction of routine crime, slaughter]. There is also a bureaucratic function: “In a totally fictitious world, failures need not be recorded, admitted, & remembered. Factuality itself depends for its continued existence upon the existence of the nontotalitarian world”. Education can be totalitarian, but wisdom never; it is incompatible with any pursuit of knowledge.

“The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instil convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any”. Through pedagogy, we find ourselves returned to the question of method. Arendt sees ousting totalitarian [& pre-totalitarian] indoctrination as the leading resistance. I am tempted to re-quote the inset citation at top. Our fight is against the tyranny of logicality.

Post-totalitarian intellectualism has the following features:

– sceptical of utilitarianism, yet anti-superfluous
– avoids masses, for they kill the juridical in man
– the limits of evil have been debunked
– salvation cannot be believed in, so ideology has no starting point**
– morality & the legal system alike are questioned
– sympathy with the victim
– patience with abnormality
– desire for individuality, spontaneity

[A combination of some of these elements continues to define modern intellectual practice; we remain in the post-totalitarian world we are yet to study seriously. The work of post-colonialism will make a good model for us.]


* In yet another important way, continuity was devaluated: the cause & effect linearity of life narratives & national history is discarded under totalitarian rule. Service does not always merit reward; punishment is dealt to the innocent. Arendt writes, “If crime is understood to be a kind of fatality, natural or economic, everybody will finally be suspected of some special predestination to it”. Criminality was a tool of the totalitarian states, finally with a political function — from which we find the multiple theories of Nazism borrowing from gangsterism. This was also the period of the rise of the crime & detective story. By banalising crime on the streets, they were able to normalise it also bureaucratically. “For the ruthless machines of domination & extermination, the masses of co-ordinated philistines provided much better material & were capable of even greater crimes than so-called professional criminals, provided only that these crimes were well organised & assumed the appearance of routine jobs”.

** Three totalitarian elements peculiar to all ideology:
1. a whole account for the world begins with the the explanation of history [in its movements, past & future]
2. insists on something “truer” than reality, life often not having positive values for being inconsistent or absurd
3. makes a functioning order of its “scientific facts” to be used as a way of logic, forming a consistent form of argumentation &, thereby, seeming always to find new proofs for itself


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