Arendt: Hobbes, Capitalism, Nazis

Well, we’ve hit the final leg of The Origins of Totalitarianism, and we’re actually starting to talk about totalitarianism, which is exciting. But before we do that, we have to dip back to an early chapter on Imperialism, which discusses Hobbes, the bourgeoisie, and how society was organised. Fun times ahead!

One of Hobbes’ big ideas is the social contract, which basically says that everybody’s a self-interested little shit, and we only work together because we all agree that by working together, our individual interests (which are the only important things) are multiplied. I couldn’t invent electricity on my own, but I’m working with a society, so I’ve got access to it and now I’m in a better position for me. Arendt argues that this social contract idea is essentially bourgeois, based on the idea that everybody’s out to make money – and not just to make money, but to make more money. She writes that the bourgeoisie are those who “[conceive] of life as a process of perpetually becoming wealthier”. Perpetual increase in wealth arguably depends on perpetual increase in power, and, as I’ve mentioned earlier, when you hit the limits of wealth accumulation nationally, you go international – and suddenly imperialism.

By the by, I’d argue this social contract thing is one of the reasons why nobody’s doing fucking anything about global warming. As long as the (wealthy) individual is able to keep themselves safe, they don’t care what happens to some tiny islands in the Pacific. Under bourgeois capitalist society, we’re only socially-minded so far as it benefits us. In the same way, Hobbes argues, if you’re doing the social contract thing, and it’s not working, and you’re at the bottom of society, then there’s really no advantage to keeping up with the social contract. At that stage, Hobbes argues, just ditch it: “They… are told to take advantage of their elemental ability to kill, thus restoring that natural equality which society conceals only for the sake of expediency.” If society’s not working for you, you’ve got no reason to work for society, because society only exists to put you in a better position – so if it’s not working, drop it, and go back to looking out for yourself. Arendt writes that “Hobbes foresees and justifies the social outcasts’ organization into a gang of murderers as a logical outcome of the bourgeoisie’s moral philosophy.”

So this bourgeois society, founded on competition, is broken. More than that, it’s hypocritical: we pretend to be civic-minded, but only insofar as it benefits us. We also can’t continue to infinitely acquire power and capital: there are global limits. This is why we end up with the boom/bust cycle – Arendt writes that “If the last victorious Commonwealth cannot proceed to ‘annex the planets,’ it can only proceed to destroy itself in order to begin anew the never-ending process of power generation.” It seems kind of hard to understate this argument: Arendt is essentially arguing that capitalism is implicated in the entire imperial enterprise, the Nazis, and also the upcoming global warming crisis.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s go to the War. Arendt writes that, going into the First World War, the socially marginalised were excited, because they knew that there was an opportunity to see society torn down. They were “completely absorbed by their desire to see the ruin of this whole world of fake security, fake culture, and fake life.” War was an equalizer, because it killed arbitrarily. It was “the true father of a new world order.” A premium was placed on anything outside normal social boundaries, because those were the things which pointed to the demolition of the old ways.

Today, transgressive or un-social events are held as important in certain parts, largely (again) because the old ways are hypocritical. The reformation of culture depends on tearing down what was previously in its place. In many cases, this is a good thing. Our history has repeatedly marginalised the role of people who aren’t straight white men, and there’s a great deal of work going into the attempted recovery of some of that history. For example, it was recently announced that a black slave was the man behind Jack Daniels whisky. The old story went that a (straight white male) reverend named Dan Call taught (straight white male) Jack Daniels how to make whisky. However, with some more digging, the company’s rediscovered the fact that actually, it was Dan Call’s slave who had the know-how. That’s a history that had been lost for 150 years – it’s one reason why tearing down the old history is important.

On the other hand, Arendt points out, this negative attitude towards traditional historiography led to certain problems. As far as the social elite were concerned, traditional historiography was largely false, “since it had excluded the underprivileged and oppressed from the memory of mankind.” Anything that wasn’t traditional was celebrated – to the point where blatantly false anti-Semitic propaganda was being celebrated as a historical recovery. This attitude that attempted to “reveal official history as a joke” also tried to “demonstrate a sphere of secret influences of which the visible, traceable, and known historical reality was only the outward facade erected explicitly to fool the people.” This is what happened – the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a propaganda piece made up by the Russians about how the Jews are trying to take over the world. It was obviously false, and people knew that it was false, but people also wanted to see the end of the status quo, and they were more interested in the anti-traditional than the accurate.

There’s a similar example in France with a 1937 book called Trifles for a Massacre. In this book, author Louis-Ferdinand Celine advocated for the extermination of all the Jews. Poor timing, historically speaking. Arendt notes that a review of the book found it delightful, not because it advocated mass murder, of course, but because it was a blunt admission made in a culture of “hypocritical politeness”. Food for thought.

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