Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt


 

It's winter break at Benedictine University, and I chose to peruse a book I haven't read since grad school to pass some time. I believe I have a different perspective of the book's analyses today in light of the recent American presidential election. The following short excerpts are from the chapters entitled: "A Classless Society," "The Totalitarian Movement," "Totalitarianism in Power," and "Ideology and Terror."

“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society, with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, this tendency is strengthened, so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not so easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong…

“[E]perience has proved time and again that the propaganda value of evil deeds and general contempt for moral standards is independent of mere self-interest, supposedly the most powerful psychological factor in politics…

“[Totalitarian movements] found a membership that had never been reached, never been ‘spoiled’ by the party system. Therefore, they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which… spelled terror rather than conviction… Now they made apparent what no other organ of public opinion had ever been able to show, namely, that democratic government had rested as much on the silent approbation and tolerance of the indifferent and inarticulate sections of the people as on the articulate and visible institutions and organizations of the country.

“Thus, when the totalitarian movements invaded Parliament with their contempt for parliamentary government, they merely appeared inconsistent: actually, they succeeded in convincing the people at large that parliamentary majorities were spurious and did not necessarily correspond to the realities of the country, thereby undermining the self-respect and the confidence of governments which also believed in majority rule rather than in their constitutions…

“A whole literature on mass behavior and mass psychology had demonstrated and popularized the wisdom, so familiar to the ancients, of the affinity between democracy and dictatorship, between mob rule and tyranny. They had prepared certain politically conscious and over conscious sections of the Western educated world for the emergence of demagogues, for gullibility, superstition, and brutality…

“The object of the most varied and variable constructions was always to reveal official history as a joke, to demonstrate a sphere of secret influences of which the visible, traceable, and known historical reality was only the outward facade erected to explicitly to fool the people.

“To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground for crackpots, must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination in the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition... [A leader’s] skill in a collective unit to back up the lies with impressive magnificence, exerted the fascination…

“Totalitarianism propaganda raised ideological scientificality and its technique of making statements in the form of predictions to a height of efficiency of method and absurdity of content because, demagogically speaking, there is hardly a better way to avoid discussion [of the significant issues] than by releasing an argument from the control of the present and by saying that only the future can reveal its merits…

“A mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of the mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of the masses. In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.

“The mixture in itself was remarkable enough because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls, and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.

“The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statements were lies and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness… A mixture of gullibility and cynicism is prevalent in all ranks of totalitarian movements, and the higher the rank the more cynicism weighs down gullibility…

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi… but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist…”


Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.



1 comment:

  1. Thank you Glen. This is scary stuff, and it could have been written yesterday!

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