Arendt: The Origins of Totalitarianism

We’re clipping through Arendt at a lively pace: the most recent work I’m reading is The Origins of Totalitarianism, which is a study on – yeah, that. Again, this isn’t theology, and it’s not even really philosophy – it’s actually politics. I swear there will be some philosophy sooner or later – we’re going to do The Human Condition and maybe On Violence as well. Anyway: I’m enjoying Arendt very much, but because her work is largely politics, it’s a bit harder for me to figure out what to write about, because I don’t have any background in any of it. For that reason, everything’s a little more grasping and desperate than usual. Let’s talk about the mob.

Arendt’s describing the Dreyfus Affair, which was a political scandal at the beginning of the 20th century. Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer (of Jewish descent) was arrested and charged with treason in 1894 for supposedly selling secrets to the Germans. Thing is, they discovered who the real culprit was in 1896, and covered it all up. Part of the reason was simple stupid anti-semitism. There were a few brave souls who stood up to this bullshit, but by and large people were either apathetic about the miscarriage of justice, or too busy being anti-semitic to notice. There’s lots of other political things going on – various power struggles between the clergy, the military, and the government – but we’ll pass over most of the facts of the issue in order to attend to the mob.

Throughout the scandal (keeping in mind that Dreyfus wasn’t released until 1906, twelve years after his wrongful imprisonment), anti-semites and other scum set about wreaking havoc on those who supported Dreyfus. Arendt records a series of examples:

The faculty rooms of Rennes University were wrecked after five professors had declared themselves in favour of a retrial. After the appearance of Zola’s [pro-Dreyfus] first article Royalist students demonstrated outside the offices of Figaro, after which the paper desisted from further articles of the same type. The publisher of the pro-Dreyfus La Bataille was beaten up on the street.

Even judges were getting threatened:

The judges of the Court of Cassation, which finally set aside the verdict of 1894, reported unanimously that they had been threatened with ‘unlawful assault’.

We’re talking anti-semitic riots in the streets, destruction of Jewish shops, anti-semitic militia storming pro-Dreyfus meetings and causing bloodshed – if this is sounding a little like Nazi Germany, Arendt argues, there’s a damn good reason.

In her definition of the mob, Arendt invokes terms which have a great deal of relevance today. It was her definition that prompted this article. Arendt writes that:

The mob is primarily a group in which the residue of all classes are represented. This makes it so easy to mistake the mob for the people, which also comprises all strata of society. While the people in all great revolutions fight for true representation, the mob will always shout for the ‘strong man’, the ‘great leader’. For the mob hates society from which it is excluded, as well as Parliament where it is not represented. Plebiscites, therefore, with which modern mob leaders have obtained such excellent results, are an old concept of politicians who rely upon the mob.”

If this is sounding like Donald Trump, that’s because Trump is a textbook example of this kind of bullshit. He rails against both ‘political correctness’, which excludes him and his obnoxious views from society, and the ‘the institution’, which privileges a small, elite group who lead the country. His point is supported by the unfortunate reality that Hillary Clinton is the wife of a previous president – this is where you start hearing cries like “No more Clintons, no more Bushes.” Trump’s success in the final election, I imagine, will largely depend on the size of the American mob.

I feel like the mob is a concept that applies strongly to the internet age. The democratic nature of the internet refuses to privilege any one voice over any other: arguably, online authority is a matter of mob rule. Take the success of Food Babe, or other such insidious creatures – no matter how much real science is thrown at them, the ‘great leader’ will soldier on, supported by their community, who will only become more and more entrenched the more they are rightfully (although perhaps not helpfully) vilified. This process of entrenchment leads to greater radicalisation, as each tie to the wider population (and reality itself) is severed over time. This in turn inhibits the discussion, as the mob sees any disagreement with the ‘great leader’ as an ad hominem attackrather than as an attempt to foster legitimate discussion.

I’m not sure whether it’s due to our Western culture of individualism, or something more specifically within that stemming from the technology of the internet, but there also seems to be a remarkable strain of self-righteousness in online forums (something I’m certainly guilty of, at times). My suspicion is that it’s linked to the combination of intimacy and anonymity that characterises the internet. The internet is, in that sense, a coward’s paradise.

Of course, given that sentiment, there is a clear question as to what my own motives are in writing here. For me this is very much a sounding board, a place for me to throw things at the wall and see what sticks. If I simply read The Origins of Totalitarianism and then moved on to the next one,  I wouldn’t remember 90% of what I’d read. Putting pen to paper, so to speak, is a way for me to digest and come to terms with some of the ideas. It’s one of the reasons these pieces are so utterly unpolished – it’s more about digging through the ideas than anything else. Subsequently, I’m flattered whenever anybody stops by to read what I’ve written – given the sheer volume of content online, it’s quite humbling that you’re choosing to spend time here.

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