When Gershom Scholem once wrote to Arendt that her phrase the “banality of evil” was a cliché, her response was swift: As far as she had known, nobody had ever used it before. The banality of evil was no common formulation worn meaningless by overuse. When she coined the phrase, it was a searing and dangerous provocation to thought, a warning to all those who in the face of horrific crimes carried out by bureaucrats would seek to transform those bureaucrats into monsters. To make people like Eichmann into radically evil monsters is, Arendt argued, to mistake an even greater and more insidious fact about evil: that in the modern context of bureaucratic governance, evil depends upon banal people who allow themselves to participate in evil because they are thoughtless and lack the clarity of mind or the courage of conviction to stand up to the mechanized and bureaucratized doing of evil.
One can disagree with Arendt’s thesis, but it was hardly a cliché. Unfortunately, too often today it is used as the cliché Scholem feared it had already become. A case in point is an opinion piece in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal by James Taranto.
Taranto is discussing a current case in which Dr. Kermit Gosnell is on trial for murdering seven viable fetuses.
Three associates have pled guilty to third-degree murder and five others have pled guilty to other crimes. Gosnell faces the death penalty. According to the New York Times, whose account Taranto refers to,
Reporters heard testimony from the Philadelphia medical examiner about unsanitary, even filthy conditions at Dr. Gosnell’s clinic, from which the remains of 47 fetuses were removed, some in a water jug, a juice carton and a pet-food container.
In earlier testimony, according to several news reports, an unlicensed doctor said that Dr. Gosnell, 72, showed him how to cut the necks of babies born alive to make sure they died, and a young woman who worked at the clinic as a teenager said she assisted in abortions in which she saw at least five babies moving and breathing.
The details are grisly. The main thrust of Taranto’s article is that the liberal media is ignoring the case because it upsets their narrative that abortions are clean and easy. According to experts cited in the Times article, it seems that conservative media outlets have ignored the case as well, and that the Times actually had given it more coverage than more conservative papers, but I will leave that argument to others.
What interests me more is Taranto’s sudden invocation of Hannah Arendt and her thesis of the banality of evil. The context is the guilty pleas of the eight employees of Gosnell’s clinic. They included an unlicensed doctor and untrained aids who worked under difficult and unsanitary conditions where they were trained how to break the neck of living fetuses. An Associated Press wire story described the fate of these workers and concluded: “But for most, it was the best job they could find.” This is what leads Taranto (through the route of a reader’s comment and a 1999 essay in the New York Observer) to compare the AP’s account of eight medical technicians with Hannah Arendt’s account of Adolf Eichmann.
It is not at all clear whether Taranto has ever set eyes upon Arendt’s book, for he cites only an essay on the book. It is, of course, the height of cliché to speak about books and ideas from second or third hand sources. But that is what Taranto does. He repeats the following claims from the 1999 article, all false: first, that Arendt believed that Eichmann wasn’t anti-Semitic (she reports his claim, but dismisses it as unbelievable, a fact all-too-often forgotten); that she offered the banality of evil as an “overarching theory”; that she “took him at his word” that he was just following orders; that she was a philosopher; and that she was the “world’s worst court reporter”—as if that is what she were.
But what is truly mind-boggling is that after dismissing Arendt’s thesis based on second-hand accounts, Taranto then comes to agree with her. He writes:
And while Rosenbaum [the author of the 1999 article] seems correct in rejecting "the banality of evil" as an overarching theory, surely it has some explanatory or descriptive power. "Faceless little men following evil orders" surely is a fitting characterization of the Pennsylvania bureaucrats who, because of a mix of indifference, incompetence and politics, failed in their oversight of Gosnell's clinic and allowed it to keep operating for decades.
It's also true that banality is a tactic of evil, a method it employs to make orders easier to follow. One of Gosnell's employees might have blown the whistle on him had he expressly commanded them to slash babies to death after they were born, rather than to "snip" them after they "precipitated" to "ensure fetal demise."
All too often we see this approach to Arendt’s book and thesis. She is excoriated for getting Eichmann wrong and for having the temerity to suggest he wasn’t a monster. And then we are told that actually, she was largely right, and that there is something fundamentally true about the idea that evil is done and made possible as much by thoughtlessness as by fanaticism. In other words, she was right in general but not about Eichmann.
Such an argument has become popular in the wake of David Cesarani’s book on Eichmann, which simultaneously says that Arendt under emphasized Eichmann's anti-Semitism and then accepted her argument about the banality of evil. There is a legitimate debate about how Arendt perceived Eichmann. It is wrong to say that she accepted his claims of being a friend of Jews and it is simply inaccurate to think she thought he was not an anti-Semite. That said, there is evidence of his later anti-Semitism expressed in Argentina that Arendt had not seen. Does that evidence impact her thesis? I don't believe so, but if she had had access to it and included it, such remarks would have given a fuller appraisal of Eichmann. In any case, few who repeat Cesarani's argument have read him or for that matter Arendt herself.
To reject and embrace the banality of evil in the same essay is too simple. It is easy to repeat Arendt’s insight but then protect oneself from the unsettling implications the weight of her thought must bear. To do so, sadly, is to treat the banality of evil as a cliché. She and her work deserve better.
Germany’s Deutschlandfunk Radio program recently broadcast an interview with Margarethe von Trotta about her new film “Hannah Arendt.” The film is now set to be released on May 29 in the U.S. by Zeitgeist Films. The Hannah Arendt Center will be hosting an opening night screening at the Film Forum in NYC. More information to follow.
The radio interview is in German. We offer here in translation von Trotta’s response to Susanne Berg’s first question:
Susanne Berg: How important is it today to come to terms with Hannah Arendt?
Margarita von Trotta: I think Hannah Arendt was one of the most important people and thinkers of the last century. And we are not yet through with the last century. Particularly as Germans the century will pursue us for a long time. I say always, that Hitler wanted a 1,000 year Reich. It lasted only 12 years. But we will have to deal with it for 1,000 years. In this regard we cannot now say, yeah, it’s the 21st century, now it is all in the past. And as I saw the documentary over the Eichmann trial—there is a wonderful film called “The Specialist” by an Israeli, I thought then for the first time, this I want this man in a film. And that was still before I knew that I would describe Hannah Arendt. It was because he showed me what Germany was. Not the greats, not Hitler, not Göring, not Goebbels, all these whom we have in our memory as one can say evil. But these mediocre and middling people, they have formed history.
The reference is to Eyal Sivan’s fascinating and controversial documentary about the Eichmann trial. You can watch short excerpt here.
"Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable."
—Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education
Hannah Arendt writes that the fact that we are born into the world—the fact of natality—is the essence of education. She means that every newborn baby comes into the world both free and yet also constrained. Newcomers are free insofar as there is no way of knowing in advance what a young person will become or who she will be. The newcomer is constrained, however, because he is always born into an already-existing world, one with particular customs, limitations, and opportunities. To educate that newcomer is to respond both to the freedom and constraint into which he is thrown. As free, the child must be taught to act courageously in new and surprising ways. As constrained, the newcomer must accept the responsibility as a member of an already existing world, one he must somehow make his own.
From the Latin educare, to educate means to lead into or draw out. Education is the activity of leading a child into the world, of drawing her into the world. Parents educate their children by drawing them out of their private selves and into the world of the family, their community, and their society.
Schools educate, in turn, by drawing students out of the confines of their families and into the wider political and social world. Education is always an entry into an old world. And yet, it is always a new experience with infinite possibilities for every new initiate.
Education, Hannah Arendt tells us in the quotation above, is about the love for the world. To have children, something she did not do, and to educate young people, something she did brilliantly, is to bring new young people into an old and existing world. To make that choice is to "assume responsibility" for that world, to love it enough—in spite of all of the evil and ugliness—to welcome the innocent. Only when we decide to assume such an awesome responsibility for the world as it is and to love that world, can we begin the activity of education.
Education is also a process of saving the world from ruin—a ruin that is inevitable for all mortal and human endeavors. Made by humans acting together, the world will disappear if we do not care for it and refresh it. The world is not a physical entity but is the "in-between" that connects us all. Like a "table that is located between those who sit around it," the world is the world of things, actions, stories, and events that connect and divide all persons living together in a common world. Without newcomers who are introduced into the world and taught to love it as their own, the world will die out.
There are of course some who reject the love for the world that makes education possible. There are always reasons to do so, ranging from poverty and racism to war and famine. Rebellion is, of course, sometimes justified. There are times, as with Arendt's judgment of Adolf Eichmann, where one must say simply: A world with such people as Eichmann in it is not a world I can love. That is why Arendt argues that Eichmann must be killed. But such judgments of non-reconciliation are, for Arendt, inappropriate in the act of educating young people.
To love the world enough to lead students into it means also that we love our children enough to both bring them into the world and leave to them the chance of changing it. Arendt writes:
And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing the common world.
If we love our children, and our world enough, then we do not make the decision to expel the children from that world. We don't make the decision of rebellion or non-reconciliation for them. The point is that education of the young must leave to the young the right of "undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us."
A teacher must not cross the line and tell the student what to do about the world, for that is the right of the student himself. All the teacher can and should do is prepare students for such a decision, by leading them into an existing world and offering them examples of those who, through freedom and constraint, have throughout history worked to renew and re-inspire our common world.
While teaching is never easy, it is particularly difficult in the 21st century, at a time when the "common world," the world of things that unite us, is changing at such a pace that that teachers and students increasingly live in very different worlds. It's one thing for teachers to not be up on the latest fashions or music; but when teachers and students increasingly get their news from different media, live in different virtual realities, and communicate differently about the worlds they inhabit, the challenges grow. Teaching is of course still possible, but it takes significantly more effort and reflection to think about what that common world is into which we are leading our students. The love of the world has never been so difficult or so necessary.
The atmosphere around the Hannah Arendt Center this week has been jovial yet intense. Ten Arendt scholars have gathered to read closely Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, loosely translated as her "Book of Thoughts." We meet every day for two sessions, each 150 minutes, with no breaks.
One participant leads a discussion about a selection of the book. The sessions have been riveting. The plan is to bring out a book that collects essays based on these presentations. It will be called Reading Arendt's Denktagebuch. We hope it will appear around the time that the English translation of Arendt's Denktagebuch is published.
The Denktagebuch is a "unique artifact," as one participant put it during our opening dinner. It is comprised of two, thick, beautifully rendered, hardcover volumes that together contain over 1,200 pages. It is not really a book, but is comprised of individual entries that Arendt wrote down in 28 notebooks over 23 years from 1950-1973. The entries are chronologically arranged (except for a thematically organized final book containing Arendt's notes on Immanuel Kant's thinking about judgment). The whole, masterfully edited by Ursula Ludz and Ingeborg Nordmann, contains extensive scholarly apparatus at the back.
One question we have asked is how to read the Denktagebuch. Some participants have chosen a particular chronological period and sought relationships and associations amongst Arendt's entries. Others identified recurring themes that Arendt returns to over the years, such as the relation between truth and metaphor, Kant's theory of judgment, and the connection between action and thinking. A few of our sessions have used the Denktagebuch to elucidate passages from Arendt's published work—this is especially fruitful since a full 500 pages of the Denktagebuch reflect entries from 1950-1954, the time when Arendt was at work on The Human Condition. Some excavated ideas are largely absent from the published work but vividly present in the Denktagebuch—for example love, reconciliation, and grammar. Finally, we have tried reading the Denktagebuch as a proper book, namely as a book of short aphorisms or poems, each standing on its own and yet fitting into the totality that is Arendt's thinking.
The origin of the Denktagebuch is interesting in itself. Arendt traveled to Germany in the winter of 1949-50 as the director of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. Her mission was to search for Jewish ceremonial objects and, mainly, for Jewish books. The Commission recovered 1.5 million Jewish books under Arendt's leadership, part of what Leon Wieseltier calls "a campaign for the re-capture of a people’s dignity." During her visit, Arendt wrote "The Aftermath of Nazi-Rule. Report from Germany,“ which was published in Commentary. Also while in Germany, Arendt visited her old teacher, mentor, and lover, Martin Heidegger.
We know from Arendt's correspondence with Heidegger that they spoke at length about language, revenge, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Heidegger had joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and served for about one year as Rector of Freiburg University. He abandoned many of his Jewish friends and colleagues and promoted a philosophical version of Nazism before he resigned in 1934. The Heidegger case is complicated and controversial. Heidegger was a Nazi, but what kind of Nazi he was is not a simple question; there is no better account of the complexity of Heidegger's Nazism than Tracy Strong's powerful and nuanced retelling of the affair in his recent book Politics Without Vision.
In the 1940's Arendt was deeply critical of Heidegger. Her visit in 1950 provided an opportunity to think through her proper response to his activities. Shortly after her return to New York City in March1950, Arendt received a letter from Heidegger (along with some love poems) that read, in part:
I am happy for you that you are surrounded by your books again. The line with “the burden of the logs” is in “Ripe and dipped in Fire”—around the same time you probably wrote it [presumably a lost letter—RB], I had been thinking about the burden of logs.
The reference is to a poem “Reif Sind” by Friedrich Hölderlin. The poem is about memory, the past, and the question of whether to recall the past or to live in the present. One of the poem's central images is of the burden of logs that one carries on one's shoulders.
Shortly after Arendt receives Heidegger's letter, she begins her Denktagebuch, with the opening line:
The wrong that one has done is the burden on one’s shoulders, something that one bears because he has laden it upon himself.
That Arendt would initiate her book of thoughts with a meditation on the burden of past wrongs is not surprising. After all, she had recently finished the manuscript for The Origins of Totalitarianism—originally entitled The Burden of Our Times—which explored not simply the elements of totalitarianism, but more importantly the burden that such a past, a recent past, places on people in the present day: to comprehend and come to terms with what men had done as well as to acknowledge what any of us is capable of doing again. And, of course, she had just returned from a reunion with her past in Germany and Heidegger. The past is this burden that we bear on our shoulders, and Arendt begins her Denktagebuch with a reflection that is at once personal and yet also deeply abstract and universal.
The question of how to respond to the burden of wrongful deeds is woven through Arendt's writing. What is fascinating is that in the first pages of the Denktagebuch and then throughout the 1,200 pages, Arendt continues to think about the response to wrongs as a kind of reconciliation. This is surprising because reconciliation is not an idea prevalent in much of Arendt's published work.
In an article published last year, I explore the meaning and sense of reconciliation in Arendt's thinking. In it, I argue,
By focusing on Arendt's discussion of acts of reconciliation and also of non-reconciliation—her response to her reunion with Martin Heidegger in 1950, her judgment of the impossibility of reconciling oneself to Adolf Eichmann, her account of Jesus' forgiving and not-forgiving of petty and colossal crimes in the Gospel of Luke, and her reconciliation to life after the death of her husband, Heinrich Blücher—I show how Arendt places the judgment for or against reconciliation at the center of political action. Above all, I argue that the question—"Ought I to reconcile myself to the world?"—is, for Arendt, the pressing political question in our age.
There are not many articles published on the Denktagebuch in English. My article, focusing on the first seven pages of Arendt's notebooks, offers a glimpse into one way the Denktagebuch can help expand and enrich our reading of Arendt. You'll have to wait a bit for the book Reading Arendt's Denktagebuch, but for now you can read "Bearing Logs on Our Shoulders: Reconciliation, Non-Reconciliation, and the Building of a Common World."
You can also read this account of the Denktagebuch by Sigrid Weigel, at Telos (payment required).
You can also watch a video of Ursula Ludz discussing editing Arendt's work here, from a talk she gave in 2010 at the Hannah Arendt Center.
Acting and Thinking: Thinking is rather complete concentration or absolute waking, that through which and in which all other "faculties" concentrate themselves.
—Arendt, Denktagebuch, vol. 1, 12
In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt treats action as one of the three "most elementary articulations of the human condition"—those activities that are "within the range of every human being." But Arendt leaves out other—less elementary—articulations of human being. Most notably, she specifically says that the book will not address thinking, "the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable." If acting is the highest of the elementary ways of being human, thinking is a specific kind of action that is, by its rarity, reserved for the few. Written by one of those few, The Human Condition is, above all, an attempt to "think what we are doing."
The Human Condition traces the relation between thinking and acting that cuts through all of Arendt's writing. Her account of Adolf Eichmann emphasizes his thoughtlessness. She comes to believe that it is thoughtlessness that makes possible evil actions and that thinking is the only possible way to stop or at least dis-empower the human tendency to do evil.
Similarly, thinking what we do is the path toward a reinvigoration of politics.
But what, exactly, is the relation between thinking and acting? Near the beginning Hannah Arendt's Denktagebuch, in July 1950, Arendt sets down the first of what will become numerous entries under the title: "Acting and Thinking." While many themes run through the Denktagebuch (literally, a book-of-thoughts), no other theme is so prevalent as "Acting and Thinking." In this early line of thought, we see Arendt's attempt to establish the relation between the two activities that would come to dominate her own thinking for the next 25 years.
The full entry, which references Martin Heidegger and William Faulkner, is worth citing in its entirety:
Acting and Thinking: Heidegger can only mean that it rests upon the sameness of being and thinking, and surely then, when thinking is understood as the being of man in the sense of the being of being. Thinking would then be the being that in man is freed to be action. Thinking is here neither speculation nor contemplation nor "cogitation." It is rather the complete concentration or the absolute waking, that through which and in which all other "faculties" concentrate themselves.
"Why did I wake since waking I never shall sleep again."
The quoted line at the bottom is a slight misquotation of William Faulkner's famous line from Absalom, Abaslom (Arendt transposes "never" and "shall"). Thinking, Arendt writes, is an "absolute waking." It can be a rude awakening, insofar as it tears one from the dream world of easy living and requires concentrated attention to difficulty. In such wakefulness, there is the ecstasy of absolutely wakeful concentration.
The word Arendt uses to describe the fullness of wakeful thinking is the German vollbringen, to complete, or to bring to fullness. This is, not coincidentally, the same word Martin Heidegger uses to describe both thinking and acting in his 1946 Letter on Humanism. Heidegger begins his Letter on Humanismwith a discussion of the relation of action and thinking. The first sentence introduces the relationship: "We are still far from thinking the essence of action decisively enough."
If usually we think of action as simply something that causes or brings about effects, Heidegger writes that this is not decisive enough. Instead, "The essence of action is the bringing of something to completion, or the bringing of something to fulfillment." To act is to unfold something in the fullness of its essence, to bring it to be what it most is. It is for this reason that human action is thinking, since “Thinking brings to fullness the relation of being to the essence of man."
Arendt follows Heidegger in seeing thinking as the same as acting. What Arendt's account of thinking as fulfilling and completing wakefulness adds to Heidegger's conjunction of action and thinking is her insistence on human freedom. In the relation of action and thinking Arendt rejects all determinism and all understandings of action and thinking based in speculation, contemplation, or cognition, all of which subordinate human action to rules or reasons. Arendt's acting and thinking human being is not a shepherd of being, but a beginner.
Thinking, Arendt writes, is freed to act and to bring new things into the world. That is what Arendt means by a thinking that is absolutely awake. Thinking what we are doing must, therefore, be itself an active beginning, a surprising and spontaneous action that inserts itself into the world in act and deed. If such thinking is surprising and new, it will draw others to it who will tell stories about it. Only then, if and when thinking inspires others to act in its wake, does thinking act.
Fifty years after the conviction and subsequent hanging of Adolf Eichmann for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Holocaust, the Israeli parliament has put dozens of artifacts on display relating to the daring 1960 capture of Eichmann in Argentina.
The exhibit, which will be on display in parliament for three weeks before moving to a Tel Aviv musem, showcases items that had been classified and stashed away for decades: the cameras used by Mossad agents to track Eichmann, the briefcase in which they carried fake license plates, the keys to Eichmann's Buenos Aires apartment and the forged Israeli passport — with the alias Zeev Zichroni — his captors used to smuggle him out of Argentina.
Click here to read more.
A talk given at the German Consulate in Toronto on October 24, 2011, to celebrate the opening of an installation of “The Hannah Arendt Denkraum” brought to Toronto from Berlin.
Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,
es ist mir eine grosse Freude mit Ihnen hier bei der Eroeffnung des Hannah Arendt Denkraums zu sein und ich bin insbesondere Frau Consul Sabine Sparwasser sehr dankbar dafür, mich eingeladen zu haben. Um über Hannah Arendt zu sprechen -- erst recht in einem Denkraum! -- ist es nötig, zu denken, und deshalb werde ich jetzt aufhoeren, auf Deutsch zu Ihnen zu sprechen und in der einzigen Sprache fortfahren, in der ich denken kann: in meiner Muttersprache.
So, let me begin again, in English, by saying that Frau Sparwasser has asked me to reflect on the relevance of Arendt’s thinking for today. To do that, I must first say something about today. It is obvious to all of us, I think, that we live in a time of intense, world-wide anxiety, an anxiety that is spread through the human world like a toxic mist, like a pollution, like a global warming.
Every corner of the world is connected to every other by the various media of news reporting and the various forms of electronic networking, so whatever happens somewhere is transmitted to some degree everywhere –degrees of truth and distortion and spin being more or less equal in the process. In this atmosphere, which is over-stimulating, full of excitements both upsetting and exhilarating, it is very difficult to think at all –one can feel like one of those experimental animals wrapped in electrodes and shocked continuously until exhausted and spent. Overloaded. Even the torrential events of the Arab Spring strike us in one moment as world-transformational and in the next not. And Occupy Wall Street –a new youth revolt?
A recent issue of the rather sober establishment British journal The Economist featured a cover on which there was an ominous-looking black hole with the imperative “BE AFRAID “ in its dense center. “Until politicians actually do something about the world economy” the cover said: “BE AFRAID.” Be afraid you are going to be sucked right down into this black hole as the world that was created with a bang is destroyed with a whimpering suction noise. The whole metaphor is apocalyptic. Is it not something to wonder at that a journal with enormous world-wide circulation and influence is charging its readership to be afraid, to move from anxiety, which everyone feels to some extent, to fear?
The first thing that I would like to say about Hannah Arendt is that she was not afraid; that her anxieties simply did not go over into fear. She lived through a time which was even more frightening than our own, but which was, also, like our own, defined by a combination of economic disaster –the Great Depression—followed by a prolonged political crisis in which some regimes went in the direction of a new form of government, totalitarianism, and some in the direction of trying to save their half-formed democracies and their political freedom. She thought and wrote as the division of the world into totalitarian regimes –chiefly in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union—on the one side and struggling democracies on the other, turned into the Second World War, a war novel in its extent and in the technologies used to carry it on, including technologies used in what Arendt called “factories of death.” But she did not become fearful, or write out of fear.
I think it is chiefly this that compelled attention to her writing then and again today and that marks its relevance for today. Her courage was certainly not based on failure to grasp what was frightening in the world during and after the Second World War. Indeed, her courage came from her deep understanding of that frightfulness and her ability to describe it as unprecedented. She grasped that there were factors and forces in the world that were unprecedented in their potentiality to be lethal, for the world and for all individuals.
Courage is a virtue that actualizes in a crisis, that actualizes –or fails to actualize--when a person realizes that courage is called for, summoned by the state of the world. A courageous person is able to call forth courage from within herself, from within her inner world, where, I think she must feel the courage of others, internalized in herself by identification. A courageous person must have, in herself, both the latent virtue and the inner company and companionship of courageous individuals. If she is lucky, she will have these companions as comrades in the present as well. To say the same thing in cultural terms: a person being courageous must have the virtue of courage ready and must have examples of courage in others to draw upon as part of her culture, existing in her memory and in the legacy she has internally. Otherwise, there is only fear in a frightening situation. There is only fright or flight.
How is courage manifest in thinking and writing? First of all, I think, by independence of thought, by Selbst-denken (thinking for your self ) and in conversation with those internal others whom the independently thinking person has judged independent. The thinking is a conversation of independents. This is the very opposite of group-thinking or herd thinking –which is, really, a contradiction in terms. There is really no thinking in group-thinking or herd-thinking; there is only obedient reacting.
Reacting to imperatives like BE AFRAID, or run away, or run away from thinking.
Such imperatives –BE AFRAID or RUN AWAY—when they are widely promulgated and widely accepted become what are known as ideologies. An ideology is an elaborate formulation that carries the charge DO NOT THINK. An ideology supplies answers to questions in advance. It supplies the elementary answer to questions about history, telling which people, which political group will inevitably triumph in history and telling what direction the train of history is taking and is going to take. Or it supplies elementary answers to questions about nature and human nature, telling which racial or religious group is innately destined to be superior and exercise its natural or divine right to dominate over others or all others. The first was the ideology of Stalinists, the second of the Nazi Party of Germany. Hannah Arendt’s masterwork, The Origins of Totalitarianism, was an analysis of these ideologies and how they came to imprison the minds of those who walked into the prison of them and to determine their actions, which in both cases were actions that had the paradoxical effect of eliminating the space for political action –the space for politics. They were actions against action. In both cases, mass movements brought the ideological subscribers together and turned them, acquiescently, into citizens of totalitarian states.
Arendt wrote her book (and many shorter newspaper pieces related to it as well) while she was a stateless person, cast out of her homeland while it was turning into a totalitarian state because she was a member of one group, the Jews, deemed inferior and eventually almost completely eliminated in Germany and the German Reich. The position, Arendt understood, of the pariah is the position of the clear-sighted, the far-sighted, the illusionless; the position of those who can raise the most thoughtful alarm and warning. Later, she could show in her report on Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial in Jerusalem how persons who subscribe to an ideology –no matter how they lived before signing up to the ideology—become thoughtless persons. She wrote a biography of a state mass murderer.
Her courage in writing these books was clear in the controversies they aroused. For the ideologies she wrote about survived the defeats of both the Nazis and the Stalinists –who quite naturally became allies during the Second World War—and continued after the War, in the long period that is known as the Cold War. These ideologies survived both in the defeated countries and in the countries, the struggling democracies, that defeated them but, in the process, assimilated to some of their tenets and methods. (This was so obvious in the American McCarthy period, but secret police forces, for example, became a normal feature of democracies in the 1950s.) Ideologists of the Nature and History sorts, not surprisingly, made war on her and her writings, which were fundamental critiques of these ideologies and the anti-political movements that continued to support them.
The Cold War went on longer than Hannah Arendt lived. It was the context for all her later writings, of the 1960s and early 1970s. These writings inspired many in the generation born after the Second World War to understand as she did the world their parents had made, as they inspired the young readers to be suspicious of ideologies of all known sorts: the ones dictating how history is unfolding and the ones dictating which peoples are intrinsically superior and fitted for dominance. But she also alerted them to beware of any new ones that would be particularly compelling in the post-War world, which was so shaped by the existence of lethal technologies –nuclear weapons. In “Ideology and Terror,” an essay included in The Origins of Totalitarianism’s later editions, she wrote: “It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form –though not necessarily the cruelest—only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.”
Hannah Arendt died in 1975, just as such a new ideology was, in my estimation, forming while the post-War variants of the old ideologies of History and Nature were reforming and deforming with the break-ups of the mid-20th century imperial states. Both the totalitarian Soviet Union and its hostile imitator in China were breaking up, as were the non-totalitarian but imperial British Commonwealth and the American Empire. The liniments of that new ideology were becoming clear to her, and she spoke out about them, most pointedly in the speech she made in 1975 on the eve of the 200th anniversary of the American republic, which was in 1976.
That speech, entitled “Home To Roost,” focused on how America, with its defeat in the Vietnam War, was coming into a period of asserting itself around the world in reaction to its defeat and the loosening of its grip on its empire. People in the country were developing an ideology of self-justification for its imperialism and blindness to the aspirations for freedom of the world’s peoples struggling –as the North Vietnamese had--to overcome their histories of being subjugated by imperial powers. And the whole mindless self-assertion was being aggravated by the sudden turn toward recession, even possibly depression, that the American and the world economy had taken since the 1973 OPEC crisis.
She could see that this new, assertive ideology included elements from the mid-century ideologies of History and Nature, for it anticipated the triumph of superior peoples. But the superior peoples were not nations or nation-states in the 20th century sense. They were people living all over the earth but linked by their dedication to growing wealthy and powerful in societies no longer based on manufacturing but based on consumption, societies that, in her words, “could keep going only by changing into a huge economy of waste.” Americans took the lead in formulating this assertive Economic Progress ideology, but it appealed to capitalists everywhere and to not a few socialists and communists –particularly in China--as well.
Those benefitting from the consumer society and its waste economy were and are devote believers in Progress framed more purely in economic terms than historical or natural historical. These international or supernational ideologists invoked and served limitless growth economies that “went on at the expense of the world we live in, and of the objects with their built-in obsolescence which we no longer use but abuse, misuse and throw away.” She noted that: “The recent sudden awakening to the threats to our environment is the first ray of hope in this development, although nobody, as far as I can see, has yet found a means to stop this runaway economy without causing a really major breakdown.”
In the decades since Arendt wrote those words in 1975, the runaway economy has only run more away, because to the engines of its development have been added financial and banking means to fuel it with risky debt, with money instruments that have gotten more and more detached from the world we live in and objects of any sort. The banking and financial means –derivatives upon derivatives--are themselves consumables. And the dynamic of the runaway economy, advertised as a great good by public relations people serving the new ideologists, has worn away at the public realm in all nations and internationally. Key decision makers are no longer elected representatives of citizens in states; governments are hardly making economic decisions, economic institutions are (so the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators are demonstrating in the right place symbolically, if not politically). With a shrinking public realm--one not even receptive to the ray of hope coming from the environmental awakening, now grown to a movement—Arendt could imagine the ideologists of Economic Progress recommending and committing not just genocide but what she called, ecocide, destruction of the entire ecosystem on the earth. Untramelled economic growth might take longer, but its results could be as lethal as those that can be caused in an instant by nuclear weapons. Like their totalitarian predecessors, the ideologists of Economic Progress rationalize destroying the very habitat in which they are to be the triumphant group, that is, they rationalize destroying everything and everybody they hoped to rule over.
No one since 1975 has written The Origins of EconomicTotalitarianism, but that may be as much from lack of a pariah position in a world where it is impossible to escape being an accomplice to consumerism as it is from lack of courage. Even the wretched of the earth in a time of runaway economic inequality are deeply trapped in the system that oppresses them. The intelligentsia is easily corrupted. But this probably means that the people who understand what has happened and offer their insights, as she did, to the public, will have to be even more courageous for not having the advantage of a parish position to look out from and pariah company to keep. Sheer courage will be required.
But in such a time, her example, as one of the most courageous of her émigré generation, her diaspora generation, is nonetheless needed in order for the thoughtful to have conversation with her in their thinking minds.
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