[In the 1930s] Large numbers of people felt dispossessed, disenfranchised, disconnected from dominant social institutions. The political party system, and parliamentary government more generally, were regarded as corrupt and oligarchic. Such an environment was fertile ground for a “mob mentality,” in which outsiders — Jews, Roma, Slavs, gays, “cosmopolitan intellectuals” — could be scapegoated and a savior could be craved: ---- How Hannah Arendt’s classic work on totalitarianism illuminates today’s AmericaAn interesting piece on Hannah Arendt and the roots of totalitarianism. [Read about her life on wiki]. I've enjoyed reading some of the Washington Post Monkey Cage pieces. I've been tracking issues related to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe between the wars since many people think we are on the verge, not only here in the US, but around the world, especially in Europe. It doesn't all happen at once - look at Germany around 1928 and what happens 5 years later.
The day after the election my wife and I started looking at safe places to stash some money. Call it hysteria but as a student of history you look for early warning signs. Read these excerpts and then go read the entire piece and tell me there are no signs right here, right now. And truly, is there really going to be a safe place?
I'm binge watching "The Man in the High Castle" on Amazon - a perfect piece for the paranoid.
Alienation and political extremism
A subtheme of “Origins” is that by the 1930s, there was throughout Europe a generalized crisis of legitimacy. Large numbers of people felt dispossessed, disenfranchised, disconnected from dominant social institutions. The political party system, and parliamentary government more generally, were regarded as corrupt and oligarchic. Such an environment was fertile ground for a “mob mentality,” in which outsiders — Jews, Roma, Slavs, gays, “cosmopolitan intellectuals” — could be scapegoated and a savior could be craved: “The mob always will shout for ‘the strong man,’ the ‘great leader.’ For the mob hates the society from which it is excluded, as well as Parliament where it is not represented.”
And a society suffused with resentment, according to Arendt, is ripe for manipulation by the propaganda of sensationalist demagogues: “What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part . . . Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction . . . [and] can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity.” Cynicism. Contempt for truth. Appeal to the craving of the masses for simple stories of malevolent conspiracy. Stephen K. Bannon of Breitbart News may not have read “Origins,” but it is clear he has taken a page from the movements Arendt analyzes.
A crisis of political representation
In modern mass democracies, political parties serve an essential role in structuring competitive elections and linking citizens to government. According to Arendt, a central condition of the rise of totalitarianism was a crisis in the functioning and the legitimacy of party politics and of parliamentary government:
“The success of totalitarian movements among the masses meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries in general and of European nation-states and their party system in particular. The first was that the people in its majority had taken an active part in government, and that each individual was in sympathy with one’s own or somebody else’s party . . . The second . . . was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation.”
In short, voters freed from conventional partisan attachments were swayed by anti-system movements, parties and leaders, who promised something new and different and whose appeal lay mainly in the very fact that they were new and different. Such appeals can be politically energizing. But by propelling such anti-system movements to political power, these appeals to novelty for its own sake can justify a kind of dictatorial exercise of power unrestrained by legal precedents, parliamentary procedures, or constitutional limits.
“The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”
One the most brilliant features of “Origins” is the way it charts the interconnection of “domestic” and “global” origins of totalitarianism, in particular the role of World War I in exposing the limits of national sovereignty, creating a refugee crisis of epic proportions and putting the lie to established norms of “the rights of man.”
“Before totalitarian politics consciously attacked and partially destroyed the very structure of European civilization, the explosion of 1914 and its severe consequences of instability had sufficiently shattered the facade of Europe’s political system to lay bare its hidden frame. Such visible exposures were the sufferings of more and more groups of people to whom suddenly the rules of the world around them had ceased to apply.”
Among these groups were not only “the dispossessed middle classes, the unemployed, the small rentiers, the pensioners,” but also stateless refugees (“displaced persons”) and ethnic minorities, who became isolated, scapegoated, and deprived of legal recognition except as “problems” to be regulated, interned or expelled.
The more powerless the individual nation-states were to deal with the challenges before them, the greater the temptation was to close ranks and to close borders. Peoples made superfluous by the consequences of the war were rendered superfluous in a legal and political sense; an atmosphere of suspicion and lawlessness spread; and “the very phrase ‘human rights’ became for all concerned — victims, persecutors, onlookers alike — the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feebleminded hypocrisy.” Thus was laid the foundation for the concentration camps and death camps to follow.