Born in 1906, Hannah Arendt was a German-American theorist and seminal scholar of the rise of totalitarianism in twentieth-century Europe. It is little surprise then that, upon Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States last year, her 1951 essay The Origins of Totalitarianism suddenly sold out on Amazon alongside Orwell’s 1984.
Having fled Germany to France when Hitler rose to power in 1933 and finding herself a stateless refugee, Arendt herself escaped internment before eventually finding her way to the US. A committed pluralist in her work, her ardent objectivity and rigour would later prove controversial, especially in her commentary of the 1963 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Arendt was a straight-talker before it was in vogue (rather impressively, considering the 700 pages that make up The Origins of Totalitarianism), and what we must learn from her now is not restricted at all to understanding the rise of Trump.
Political Correctness: Saying the Unsayable
In pursuit of plurality, there are a couple of things that could appear contradictory but are nonetheless vital. The first is to refrain from hyperbole and the second from complacency. A good example of this interplay is from the 11 January edition of the BBC’s Question Time.
Here, comedian Nish Kumar responded to reports that Toby Young, who’d recently resigned as a government education adviser, had attended a conference on eugenics. He described this revelation as “some dark Nazi stuff” before being reprimanded by Piers Morgan, who said, “You can’t call him a Nazi.” There is a well-known term of the internet age, Godwin’s law, which states “invoke the Nazis and you’ve lost the argument”. But there are also times where this law doesn’t apply. As Kumar rightly responded to Morgan on this occasion, “I didn’t call him a Nazi! I described the practice of eugenics as having its history in ancestral fascism!”
As Arendt herself wrote in The Human Condition, “Thoughtlessness – the heedless recklessness or hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty – seems to be among the outstanding characteristics of our time.” Without wishing to oversimplify this notion or repeat it out of context, it is possible to apply this idea to both sides represented here in a broader sense. Throwing terms like “Nazi” and “Fascist” around inappropriately is a reckless undermining of their meaning. However, the assumption they can never be valid is dangerously complacent.
The Banality of Evil: Death by Cuts
As Griselda Pollock said, “What [Arendt] was afraid of was the tendency to devalue action, for the economic to overtake the political.” This, Zoe Williams surmises, stems from Greek philosophy. The “self” can be thought of as two parts: one purely instrumental, and one with unlimited potential for speech and thought. Totality reduces humans to the former – no more than numbers. For Arendt, once this process has taken place, it is easy to see them eradicated.
This is the origin of her term “the banality of evil”. This process is also a devastating reality for many in Britain today. From unemployment benefit sanctions to coma patients being deemed “fit for work”; from the botched rollout of universal credit to a UN investigation into human rights violations, we are witnessing a myriad of incompetence and draconian ruthlessness. Former Work and Pensions Secretary Ian Duncan Smith even fought tooth-and-nail to suppress figures that showed, as of February 2014, that 2,380 people had died soon after they had been declared capable of work. Those victim are often at the mercy of a faceless bureaucracy. As Judith Butler said, for Arendt, “if a crime against humanity had become in some sense ‘banal’ it was precisely because it was committed in a daily way, systematically, without being adequately named and opposed”.
It has just emerged that only 3 of 160 social housing towers have been re-clad since the Grenfell fire. This is largely due to disputes over who should pay. It is no abstract analogy to state that the most vulnerable in our society are increasingly being reduced to shallow units of economic worth or collateral for fiscal conservativism. It is real, dehumanising, and abhorrent.
Brexit: Beyond Winners and Losers
A rightful aversion to nationalism would have would have surely characterised part of Arendt’s attitude towards Brexit, had she been around today. Moreover, the idea of a liberal Germany at the heart of a unified Europe may have been too tempting to pass up. But I don’t intend to speculate. Much has changed since her death in 1975 and even more so since her birth.
It is appropriate though to consider at least two of her positions in this respect though. Firstly, the notion that totalitarian regimes emerge from a catch-all ideological position is an important one. For Arendt, there was commonality in the rise of Fascism and Stalinism. This was in an ideology that claimed to represent the solution to all of society’s problems. Pollock cited this, and so did Roger Berkowitz. If you were not on board with the ideology, you were part of the problem and of no instrumental value. This then begins the process of dehumanising.
This is one of the reasons many sought an Arendtian critique of Trump, who ran on an absolutist platform. But the real Arendtian critique focussed on rejecting such absolutes. Berkowitz put it thus: “The fact that the left and the right now are complicit in a complete ideological partisan, unreal fantasy game of politics is what is truly dangerous for any hope of a meaningful, common public discourse that could resurrect a democracy.”
Perhaps the greatest crime of Brexit is one that cannot be undone. That is, to force the population to take a binary stance against one another. Those that voted to leave were offered their emancipation. The rest are now likely to have their citizenship removed against their will. To have put liberty at stake in such a way is simply barbaric.
Learning From History
This week, we commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we mourn those who suffered the very worst our species could bestow. That means learning from Hannah Arendt and refusing convenience instead of truth.
Spare a thought for our Palestinian neighbours this week, for whom the symbol of Jewish emancipation is for them the opposite. This does not have to be the case. And remember, though a staunch advocate of due process, Arendt was unequivocal in her condemnation of evil.
“Just as you [Eichmann] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations—as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world—we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to want to share the earth with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.”
Shalom, friends. And let’s pray there is Shalom.
Photograph courtesy of Planet Schule. Published under a Creative Commons license.