Hannah Arendt: Darwin and the Fascists

I’m chomping away through Arendt’s discussion of imperialism – we’re working our way towards the final section on totalitarianism itself. In this part, Arendt’s talking about race-thinking, which she argues is similar to but not identical with racism itself. Basically the argument is that race-thinking is thinking along racial lines, while racism is a form of discrimination arising from that type of thinking. One might suggest that there’s no substantial difference between racism and race-thinking – I’m not totally sure where I stand on that front. Anyway. 

Arendt argues that one of the key ideas preceeding race-thinking was brought up by German intellectuals. These figures, fighting for social status, came up with the idea of ‘innate personality’, or a sort of inherent nobility. Apparently, “liberal writers… boasted of ‘true nobility’ as opposed to the shabby titles of Baron or others which could be given and taken away… their natural privileges, like ‘force or genius’, could not be retraced to any human deed.” So these intellectuals are boasting that they’re just naturally awesome. It’s similar to the romantic genius of Coleridge or Wordsworth, and it evolves, ultimately, into the “grotesque homunculus” of the Aryan ubermensch.

So we’ve got the idea of innate personality, and then we hit Darwinism. As a scientific theory, Darwinism was politically neutral, in the sense that it wasn’t a political thesis on how to organise a society. However, it was appropriated for various political purposes by both sides – Arendt notes that it’s used to justify types of pacifism and cosmopolitanism as well as “the sharpest forms of imperialist ideologies.” The political sphere pinched two big ideas from Darwin: first, the survival of the fittest; and second, the theory of evolution. The survival of the fittest might seem to reinforce the segregation of society into classes, and it may have done so – if the middle class weren’t having a massive surge in power and wealth thanks to their colonial exploits. ‘The fittest’, as a category, became uncertain. It wasn’t the aristocracy any more, because they were losing their power. This is where the idea of innate personality steps back into the picture – the people who’re really the fittest are the middle class, those born with the inherent nobility needed to succeed in the colonial enterprise. Of course, later on the colonies would chuck the Brits out, destabilising the category all over again.

Arendt argues that the second category, evolution, is used as an ideological bulwark against the uncertainty of ‘fitness’. Because humans evolved, and are still evolving, people reasoned that you could help evolution along – purify and strengthen the bloodline, as it were. Again, because we’re talking about evolution, it’s not about social titles like Baron or Lord. It’s about an innate nobility – a biological genetic inheritance that justifies your social superiority. And now we’re talking about eugenics, the Nazis, and – yup, there’s the Holocaust. We’re still working in the late 19th century here, but the Nazis are just around the corner.

So everybody was looking to improve the breeding stock of the country: to bulk up the natural nobility of the middle class, improve their gene pool, and cultivate a series of clever people who deserved to rule – a true, proper elite substituted for the outdated aristocracy. This is pretty funny, actually: the link between biology and society became so strong that you had people publishing books like “A Biological View of Our Foreign Policy”, and “The Biology of British Politics”.

Now, this is where it gets interesting. Arendt writes that “the most dangerous aspect of these evolutionist doctrines is that they combined the inheritance concept with the insistence on personal achievement and individual character which had been so important for the self-respect of the nineteenth-century middle class.” Let’s talk about that for a minute. We’ve got a growing power-base among the middle class, and they’re interested in innate nobility and its natural form of expression – great personal achievement. Because we’re talking about the middle class, they’re all busy working for a living – so the great personal achievers are the ones who’re making the most money. I wonder to what extent this kind of individualistic competitive environment informs, for example, American culture. If you’re on the dole, you’re a leech, a parasite riding on the coat-tails of the successful. Not only are you the type of human being who’s incapable of earning money (therefore proving yourself inferior, totally bereft of innate nobility), but you’re dragging down other, more superior humans who have to financially support your sorry ass with their taxes.

Similarly, I wonder how much of this attitude informs the whole ‘ragging on humanities’ thing that goes on in universities. I’m going to go right ahead and assume your university (if you went) was like mine, in the sense that the Science majors spent half their time joking about how Humanities students are all going to end up flipping burgers. We can’t directly make money off the things we’re learning, apparently, so we’re going to have to get an unsatisfying bitch-job. True, part of it probably comes down to a perceived binary between truth (science) and opinion (the humanities), but I wonder how much of it also revolves around this concept of marketability. If things only have value when you can sell them (thus bolstering your middle-class sense of self-respect), then culture is secondary to commodity. The division is clear: STEM research is hugely commodifiable, and culture is a niche market.

There’s an interesting point to be made here. When you think about culture in terms of commerce, which is perhaps one of the dominant frames today, culture seems rather superfluous. Its value lies in its market price, and its market price, rather than being dependant on any internal merit, lies entirely in the amount people will pay for it. It’s like gold, or diamonds – they’re expensive because people will pay lots for them, not because they’re actually inherently valuable. To justify itself on its own terms, culture (and the Humanities) need to make a case as to how its value exists outside of the commercial realm.


  1. Hey, interesting article. I think a lot of this has to do with cultural hegemony — how the ruling classes establishes its values throughout society. I think we therefore internalise thing like – being poverty is internal/our own fault, or that blackness is criminal, or that critical thinking (through the humanities) is a waste of time etc. This is the way in which radicalism and the working class are suppressed and divided along racial lines.

    Feel free to check out my blog, tackling similar ideas/issues.


  2. […] Curiously enough, actually, we’ve even seen this post-modern train of thought turn against the scientific community. People argue that science is prescriptive and totalising, that it’s telling us all about how the world works (but only in the light of its own biases and prejudices). The argument in short is that even science is over-writing reality with its own ideology. The entirely reasonable reply from the scientific community is that it tries to be purely descriptive about the world, rather than prescriptively defining how it works based on some biases or ideology. Stepping back from the immediate debate, we can note that Darwinism was used to justify things like racial segregation and fascism – we’ve talked about that in a previous post. […]


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