Category Archives: Totalitarianism

21st century totalitarianism & Hannah Arendt

I have just finished reading an excellent graphic novel biography of Hannah Arendt, and on p. 165 (below) is the core of her thinking, reflecting on how hell (as exemplified by the Nazi genocide of Jews) happens. Contempt for facts leads to concentration camps. I never realised though she thought both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia were totalitarian – although my own modern take on it is similar (woke left and alt-right = the same underlying thing).

But yeah, check out p. 165 below (‘Benjamin’ is philosopher Walter Benjamin):

hannah arendt origins of totalitarianism.

My key takeaway is that untruth is a good intentional tactic for political leaders who want totalitarian power. She also says:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced 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. (Arendt, 1968: 474)

So the current post-truth world is perfect environment for totalitarianism both from the left and the right. It works both through external and internal coercion:

Totalitarianism is never content to rule by external means, namely, through the state and a machinery of violence; thanks to its peculiar ideology and the role assigned to it in this apparatus of coercion, totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within.

Another similarity between now and Nazi Germany (through an Arendt lens) is the removal of distinction between private and public, and the elevation of subjective experience. Arendt thought emotions should stay in the private sphere as they are intensely subjective, and thus would impose their singular perspective on politics. The result of this in the case of Nazi Germany according to her was an insensitivity to reality (and thus the atrocities of genocide).

The graphic novel (which I got out of the library BTW) is The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth.

Truth and Politics

I only realised after reading Arendt’s later article Truth and Politics that actually ‘not telling the truth’ is an ‘expected’ / acceptable part of politics (it used to be called rhetoric – the art of persuasion). In the article, she also explores different types of truths (e.g., factual truth and philosophical truth) and explains why citizens must stand up for a factual account of reality (difficult in these ideological days!!).

A good overview (under 8 mins) of Truth and Politics in below video.

2022 and Beyond: The Rise of Totalitarianism in the West

I have to write a couple of lines today (1st January ’22) to wrap up the weird experiment of my Year without News that was 2021, and to decide what (if anything) to loosely focus on for 2022. The main outcome of my Year without News has been a realisation that we are kinda fucked here in the West, and increasingly sliding towards totalitarianism. It’s already started, and this time, the main culprit seems to be those considering themselves politically left, who have taken it upon themselves to annihilate and destroy anyone who doesn’t conform to their one exclusive version of reality (left fascism).

I’m interested in the rise of totalitarianism in the West because in the last 5 years or so, I’ve been experiencing an increasingly structural totalising ideology in my civic, public, and professional life and wider society, in a political and social climate where distrust is ubiquitous and polarisation is high. This current phase of history is starkly reminiscent of the period leading to Nazi Germany, and I’m curious how this will play out from the perspective of someone (myself) who is rooted in the late 20th century and who has lived through the golden years of liberal democracies.

Say you’re a regular decent citizen in the West in 2022, contributing to society (working, paying taxes) and living in accordance with the law, and you want to live peacefully and in harmony with your family in your home country – you are now seen by some as:

The weirdest part of it all is that both the left and the right are extremely binary in their thinking, and black and white (but then again, they ARE at the extreme end, so we shouldn’t be surprised as to their binary worldview). It’s full on biblical, orthodox and illiberal to have such a hard-on for feelings and to be so vengeful like both the woke left and the alt-right are. It’s fervent and religious at its core; for example, the other day, a transgender activist on a documentary said that those who are cancelled ‘deserve it’ and need to face the consequences, to feel the pain that the oppressed suffer.

You say ‘an eye for an eye’ or ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ to refer to the idea that people should be punished according to the way in which they offended, for example if they hurt someone, they should be hurt equally badly in return.

Synonyms: retaliation, justice, revenge, vengeance

an Eye for an Eye, Collins dictionary

I even drew a picture of this last summer that I now think captures the underlying biblical, irrational, violent, and illiberal nature of it all:

I’m not sure where it’s all going to land, but for the purpose of this blog and 2022, all the above is why my loose focus will be on the topic of totalitarianism. Whether that’s reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism or observing my own self-censorship and other adaptation strategies to the totalising ideological pressures many of us ordinary citizens are now facing, I’m sure it’ll be an interesting – albeit infrequent – journey!