Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism sheds light on today’s socially isolated world
This article was first published in spiked on 2 July 2021.
Can we understand the extensive range of draconian measures designed to contain the Covid-19 pandemic as being, in some way, totalitarian?
By any historical standard, these measures were certainly hugely repressive. Although they varied from region to region, and nation to nation, in many cases they amounted to a system of mass house arrest. People were often forbidden to leave their homes, except under the most stringent conditions. And when they were allowed out, there were often strict limits on how far they could travel, what they could do and when they had to return.
The freedom to demonstrate against such measures was also typically curtailed. And those who complained on social media against lockdowns were likely to find their posts removed or accompanied by a warning of some kind.
So, in sum, the measures taken to tackle the pandemic curbed many of the key political freedoms enjoyed in liberal democracies, from freedom of movement and freedom of assembly to, increasingly, freedom of speech. And they curtailed and perhaps even abolished many everyday personal freedoms, too.
Understandably, perhaps, some have been moved to describe the situation as ‘totalitarian’. But how useful is such a characterisation?
It’s certainly true that the measures taken to contain Covid-19 impacted on almost every aspect of human life. But is today’s situation really comparable to that of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union – the two societies to which the word totalitarian has been most often applied?
No, not exactly. There are too many important distinctions to be drawn between the locked-down world of the past 18 months and 20th-century totalitarian societies. For a start, the Covid-containment rules clearly did not involve the terrible paraphernalia of what might be called classical totalitarianism. There were no concentration camps, no one-party states, and no secret police terrorising the populace. These are fundamental differences.
However, there are parallels between then and now – not in terms of the explicit features of totalitarian societies, but in terms of the underlying conditions that helped give rise to them. I am thinking in particular of atomisation and loneliness (or social abandonment), and the decline of spontaneity.
Here, the work of the German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt, especially her Cold War classic, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), is particularly illuminating.
The return of ‘totalitarianism’
Seventy years after it was first published, The Origins has experienced a revival – especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential election victory in 2016. The Origins even made a return to the bestseller lists in the US. The implication of this revival was clear: Trump was to be compared to Hitler and Stalin.
For example, writing in the New York Review of Books, left-wing journalist Paul Mason used The Origins to argue that Trump’s victory proved how the world was moving closer to fully fledged totalitarianism.
Mason focused on Arendt’s contention that the blurring of fact and fiction was a key component of totalitarian states. He quoted a well-known passage:
‘The ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (that is, the standards of thought) no longer exist.’
Mason called this a ‘near-perfect description, 65 years in advance, of the electorate shaped by Trump’s rallies, Fox News, and the Kremlin’s secret Facebook ad’.
For Arendt, the blurring of truth and falsehood is indeed a characteristic of totalitarianism. But it was not for her its defining feature. What Mason and Trump’s numerous other critics were doing was simply cherry-picking a quote from The Origins and exploiting Arendt’s intellectual and moral authority in their effort to liken Trump to Hitler or Stalin.
Of course there were many legitimate reasons to criticise Trump. But to label him totalitarian for blurring the distinction between fact and fiction was absurd. If that really was sufficient to categorise Trump’s presidency as totalitarian, then quite a few other governments could be categorised as totalitarian, too.
Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism
Nevertheless, the concept of totalitarianism – and Arendt’s in particular – can shed light on the contemporary situation.
The concept has had a varied history. It was first used in Italy in the early 1920s. Philosopher Giovanni Gentile, a supporter of Mussolini, even used the term positively, to indicate the new way of life promised by fascism. As Mussolini put it, ‘Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state’.
By the late 1920s and early 1930s, however, it was being used critically, especially in England, where the likes of George Orwell used it to bracket together fascists and communists (1). But it is Arendt’s use of the term in The Origins, written in the aftermath of the Second World War, that can shed most light on the present-day situation.
Not that this is an easy task – Arendt is not the kind of thinker to offer pithy definitions of political concepts. Instead, she shows how the key aspects of totalitarianism develop historically. This complex narrative exposition comes in three parts: an examination of the role of anti-Semitism as a catalyst for totalitarianism; the importance of imperial expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and the emergence of totalitarianism itself in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Clearly, any contemporary form of totalitarianism would not follow this precise pattern, but it is at least conceivable it would share some features with its historical ancestor.
It is important to note that Arendt insists on the specificity of totalitarianism. In the preface to The Origins, she urges readers to use the term totalitarian ‘sparingly and prudently’ (2). It is qualitatively different, she argues, to dictatorship, tyranny or despotism. Arendt even argues that fascist Italy or Spain were not totalitarian. ‘Mussolini, who was so fond of the term “totalitarian state”‘, she writes, ‘did not attempt to establish a full-fledged totalitarian rule and contented himself with dictatorship and one-party rule’ (3).
Indeed, it is easier to identify what totalitarianism does not mean for Arendt than what it does. Interestingly, she goes against many commentators, then and now, by refusing to see totalitarianism as a form of super-charged or hyper nationalism. On the contrary, totalitarianism, she argues, is rooted in the attempt to transcend the nation state.
In relation to the German-speaking world, for instance, she notes that it was pan-Germanist movements that provided the basis for the Nazi party. In fact, the Nazis, who were always expansionist, despised the nation state because it was a vehicle for democracy.
Similarly, in Arendt’s telling, the Soviet Union represented a form of pan-Slavism. As a result, Nazism and Stalinism were, in her view, forms of imperialism hostile to the nation state as an institution.
The drive for ‘total domination’ is central to Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism. Indeed, the German edition of her book, Elemente und Ursprünge Totaler Herrschaft(1955) – can be translated as ‘Elements and Origins of Total Domination’. It means that the goal of totalitarianism is not to place severe constraints on freedom, as a dictatorship, for instance, would do. It is to dominate the totality of social life, and destroy the basis for freedom and spontaneity entirely.
This drive for total domination is expressed, for example, by the prohibition of any form of political opposition. The totalitarian leader therefore has an absolute monopoly of power and authority. In this context, society is directly ruled by a single party, rather than the other institutions of state. And the secret police, as opposed to the army, ensures control.
To capture the nature of total domination, Arendt quotes a famous line from The Threepenny Opera, by Berthold Brecht: ‘Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral’ [‘first comes the eating, then come the morals’]. It is fressen that is arguably the most important word here. This particular German verb is used to refer to animals eating, as opposed to humans eating (for which essen is used). Arendt uses the line because that’s what totalitarian rulers do – they devour flesh like an animal rather than eat like a human being.
More importantly, like animals, there is no restraint. Nothing to counteract the move towards totalitarian domination. No moral veneer. And therefore no hypocrisy. Totalitarianism, then, is a form of gangsterism. Totalitarian rulers terrorise society into accepting their ways, their ‘morals’, their ‘practical lies’. Their sheer might becomes right.
But a brutal top-down imposition on the whole of society – total domination – is not the whole story of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism, Arendt argued, does not spring out of nowhere. It depends on – and accelerates – the total breakdown of society. The totalitarian world presupposes one in which classes are dissolving into masses, traditional institutions which gave people a sense of belonging are disintegrating, and political parties are ceasing to express the material interests of distinct social constituencies – it is a world, therefore, in which individuals are ceasing to be members of interest-bound groups and other informal social institutions. And, as such, they are ripe to be reorganised as the mass subject of totalitarian control.
That’s why the key institutions in totalitarian societies operate outside of traditional ones – because, unlike trade unions or traditional political parties, totalitarian institutions don’t express material interests within society. Rather, they stand outside and above society. And at their centre is the ruling party – whether Nazi or Communist, in Arendt’s time – which proceeds to dominate society. This ruling party is a bureaucratic entity that rules over the masses according to ‘temporary and changing decrees’ (4). It is arbitrary and brutal.
Alone in society
It is against this background of social breakdown – of atomisation and massification – that Arendt’s concept of loneliness should be understood – and it is a concept that has particular relevance for our situation today.
Arendt is not talking about ‘loneliness’ in the everyday sense of the term. For Arendt, it is neither a simple psychological state nor just a matter of feelings. It is an everyday experience produced by the breakdown of traditional and political bonds, and the radical atomisation afflicting the whole of society.
This is why, as Arendt argues in The Origins, loneliness develops with the destruction of the public realm and the estrangement of human beings from one another. To refer to it, she even uses the German term Verlassenheit – with its connotations of abandonment. Hence she writes that loneliness can mean being ‘deserted by others’ (5).
It is also important to recognise her distinction between loneliness and solitude. For Arendt, ‘Loneliness is not solitude. Solitude requires being alone whereas loneliness shows itself most sharply in company with others.’ Solitude, therefore, can be a positive experience. Indeed, Arendt sees it as the precondition for being able to think through difficult problems – ‘a dialogue between me and myself’ (6).
By contrast, it is possible to feel lonely while surrounded by others. It can mean living in a society in which the normal social bonds between people are destroyed, or at least severely frayed. In this society, people can only relate to each other as isolated individuals, rather than as part of broader communal institutions. A fictionalised version of this world, written in Germany during the Second World War and first published in 1947, is Hans Fallada’s Jeder Stirbt für Sich Allein – ‘Every man dies alone’, (published in Britain as Alone in Berlin).
So, for Arendt, loneliness is ‘closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness’. These, she writes, ‘have been the curse of the modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution’.
‘[Loneliness] has become acute’, she continues, ‘with the rise of imperialism at the end of the last century and the breakdown of social traditions in our own time’. For Arendt, in other words, loneliness is a precondition of totalitarian rule. It is not unique to it, but it does acquire an extreme form under totalitarian conditions.
Consequences of loneliness
For Arendt this condition of loneliness or social abandonment, and its intensification under totalitarian rule, has several disastrous consequences.
First, it makes society more susceptible to terror. She writes that loneliness is in fact ‘the common ground for terror’ (8), because it leaves one feeling helpless before an unpredictable world and intensifies one’s fear of uncertainty.
And secondly, loneliness, and total isolation, leads to the destruction of the individual. This is because the totalitarian, dominating a mass of individuals, can kill the ‘the juridical person in man’, by arbitrarily depriving individuals of legal protections.
Totalitarian domination also means ‘the murder of the moral person in man’ (9), because it deprives him, a mere object of totalitarian control, of moral agency and, ultimately, the possibility of a meaningful death. This is achieved, in Arendt’s view, by making martyrdom impossible for the first time in history – because there is no cause to die for.
The destruction of individuality also means the obliteration of human spontaneity. It is not possible to act spontaneously in a world in which individuals are so controlled and estranged from one another. Even the most useless and harmless forms of spontaneity must be destroyed according to the logic of totalitarian regimes.
Under such circumstances of total isolation, it is not even possible, according to Arendt, to think properly or to find truth. This is because people, living in conditions of absolute loneliness, are deprived of what she calls a ‘common world’ born of debate and mutual understanding. The ‘truth’ is something that is imposed on them from without. They have therefore lost the common sense needed to experience and live in a world with others.
So, to what extent does the concept of totalitarianism, and the accompanying idea of loneliness, throw any light on life under lockdown?
It should quickly be apparent that life under lockdown was a world away from totalitarianism as Arendt understood it. The differences far outweighed the similarities. It is hard to see, for example, how it can be meaningful to talk about totalitarianism without the terror that accompanied it. And there is nothing to compare to the concentration camps of totalitarian regimes, let alone their genocides. Contemporary Western Europe at least tends to be relatively peaceful.
One-party states are also few and far between. Indeed, European societies tend to be characterised by a multiplicity of ineffectual parties. Even when one or two parties are prevalent in a particular country, they are far from dominating the political scene. On the contrary, their default position seems to be hapless rather than all-powerful. Political power is also generally wielded through state institutions rather than directly, by political parties.
Nor do secret police forces play a prominent role today. Of course every country has covert police and intelligence agencies. And no doubt they do questionable things at times. But they are not part of a systematic apparatus of terror.
And although Google and other social media can collate information on individuals to a degree secret police in the past could only have dreamt of, as things stand they are not part of a system imposing fear and violence on individuals.
Nevertheless, Arendt’s take on the hugely damaging consequences of loneliness and atomisation does help shed light on the contemporary situation. Particularly since lockdown measures are deliberately designed to increase social isolation.
To be sure, European societies were already highly atomised for many years before the pandemic. But the imposition of a system of mass house arrest has, like the totalitarian societies of the mid-20th century, exacerbated this condition. Association between individuals has become strictly curtailed. And the extensive lockdown rules have only intensified our mutual estrangement from one another.
Moreover, spontaneity is virtually eliminated under lockdown conditions. The rules can make it impossible to go out on the spur of the moment, whether that’s to visit friends or family or just to go to the pub.
More than ever, we live in a world where the exercise of individual judgement is frowned upon. Challenging the rules laid down by experts – in this case, mainstream epidemiologists – is viewed as putting everyone at risk of death. The only responsible thing to do, so the argument goes, is to be obedient and conform. This message is constantly repeated both in the mainstream media and on social media.
So lockdowns, regardless of their intended purpose, increase social isolation and intensify pre-existing loneliness. Working out how to tackle these related social problems is an urgent task.
Arendt observes that ‘it may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form – though not necessarily the cruelest – only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past’ (10).
So perhaps only when we have finally shaken off the locked-down world, will we be able to see our ‘true predicaments’ — namely, social breakdown, loneliness and vanishing spontaneity.
One thing is for sure. Lockdown, like totalitarianism, has made these predicaments a whole lot worse. The sooner we emerge from our hyper-regulated condition, the better.