The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Previous posts in this series:

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 2: Antisemitism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on the Tea Party

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 3: Superfluous Capital and Superfluous People

In Part 3, I discussed two problems created by unrestrained capitalism, superfluous wealth and superfluous people. These twin problems are evidence of the damage done to people and societies by capitalism: the creation of large numbers of citizens with no role in the productive system of a nation-state, and the enormous wealth and power of the rich capitalists and the aristocracy. Arendt offers an explanation.

The decisive point about the depressions of [the 1860s and 70s], which initiated the era of imperialism, was that they forced the bourgeoisie to realize for the first time that the original sin of simple robbery, which centuries ago had made possible the “original accumulation of capital” (Marx) and had started all further accumulation, had eventually to be repeated lest the motor of accumulation suddenly die down. In the face of this danger, which threatened not only the bourgeoisie but the whole nation with a catastrophic breakdown in production, capitalist producers understood that the forms and laws of their production system “from the beginning had been calculated for the whole earth.” P. 148 fn omitted.

The motor of accumulation is a nice image for the idea that capital must move, must be constantly active, or it becomes useless and dangerous. The idea of the constant motion of money is similar to an idea we encounter later in the book, along with the idea of superfluity. The word “bourgeoisie” is slippery as commenter Bevin noted in response to Part 3, and can easily lead to confusion. For the purposes of the above quote, I think Arendt means the richest capitalists and aristocrats, and perhaps their financiers.

This is one of the footnotes I omitted:

According to Rosa Luxemburg’s brilliant insight into the political structure of imperialism {op. cit., pp. 273 ff., pp. 361 ff.), the “historical process of the accumulation of capital depends in all its aspects upon the existence of non-capitalist social strata.” so that “imperialism is the political expression of the accumulation of capital in its competition for the possession of the remainders of the non-capitalistic world.” This essential dependence of capitalism upon a non-capitalistic world lies at the basis of all other aspects of imperialism, which then may be explained as the results of oversaving and maldistribution (Hobson, op. cit.), as the result of overproduction and the consequent need for new markets (Lenin, Imperialism, the Last Stage of Capitalism, 1917), as the result of an undersupply of raw material (Hayes, op. cit.), or as capital export in order to equalize the national profit rate (Hilferding, op. cit.).

Here is the Wikipedia entry on Luxemburg. She was a revolutionary communist and a Marxist intellectual. Arendt refers to her book, The Accumulation of Capital, dated 1923, several years after Luxemburg was executed by the German Freikorps. I think Arendt might be referring to this book, and here’s a quote matching her description of Luxemburg’s thought.

Accumulation is impossible in an exclusively capitalist environment. Therefore, we find that capital has been driven since its very inception to expand into non-capitalist strata and nations, ruin artisans and peasantry, proletarianize the intermediate strata, the politics of colonialism, the politics of ‘opening-up’ and the export of capital. The development of capitalism has been possible only through constant expansion into new domains of production and new countries. But the global drive to expand leads to a collision between capital and pre-capitalist forms of society, resulting in violence, war, revolution: in brief, catastrophes from start to finish, the vital element of capitalism.

This analysis springs from Luxemburg’s reading of Marx, who, she says, was unable to show how accumulation of capital could occur in a purely capitalist system. Luxemburg says that accumulation of capital is only possible when the capitalist can find some new area to exploit. Arendt agrees.

I did not see any discussion of this issue in Jevons or in the bits and pieces of other 19th and early 20th century economists I have read, and I certainly can’t find it in the textbooks of Mankiw or Samuelson. Apparently this is not an issue of interest to economists. But the question does not disappear just because the self-described experts don’t want to talk about it. In The Great Transformation Polanyi describes the enclosure of the commons in England as a precursor to the Industrial Revolution. The enclosures were an example of the exploitation of a pre-capitalist strata made up of peasants and smallholders, to accumulate capital in the hands of the rich and vicious. One of the demands of the armed thugs in Oregon is that federal land, our joint land, be given to them for their personal exploitation and profit. They’re just more blatant than the Koch Brothers and Exxon.

One of the primary goals of neoliberals is to take over the commons. The medical system and wide swaths of the prison system have been turned over to the profiteers already. They play a huge role in the military state and the national security state. With the help of the rich and powerful, they are working to take over the education system with their charter schools and their for-profit colleges. They are all over the place, always scraping away at things we can do for ourselves cheaply and well through government, and routing taxes (which they don’t pay) and profits to themselves at the expense of the people who actually do the work.

The facts today support the views of Arendt and Luxemburg. This is no surprise. The conditions today are similar to the unrestrained capitalism of the late 1800s through the 1920s, with monopolies, oligopolies, vast disparities of income and wealth, and a government responsive only to the demands of the rich.

21 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “Imperialism” may be a late 19th century artifact, but empires have been around for much longer. Ignoring the ancient world’s empires, Spain and Portugal’s empires date from the late 15th century, Britain and France’s from a century later. Like many, Britain’s empire went through several stages, one of which ran from 16th century Caribbean and North American expansion until the American Revolution. America’s dates from the late 19th century. The underlying economic activity centers on resource extraction, enabled through the use of force. Belgium’s control over the Congo – first Leopold’s direct ownership, then the Belgian state’s, after Leopold sold it to them – is perhaps the starkest example, hands down.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      I need to amend the reference to the start of America’s empire. It’s modern form could be said to begin with the taking of Hawaii and the Spanish American War. But I’m reminded by a favorite t-shirt logo that the US was founded on empire. The logo is of Geronimo and a handful of men over the slogan, “Fighting terrorists since 1492.”

      • bevin says:

        The slogan is right: the US Empire is the original form of the “continental empire”:

        “The chief importance of continental, as distinguished from overseas, imperialism lies in the fact that its concept of cohesive expansion does not allow for any geographic distance between the methods and institutions of colony and of nation, so that it did not require boomerang effects in order to make itself and all its consequences felt in Europe…. Continental imperialism, therefore, started with a much closer affinity to race concepts, enthusiastically absorbed the tradition of race-thinking, 11 and relied very little on specific experiences. Its race concepts were completely ideological in basis and developed much more quickly into a convenient political weapon than similar theories expressed by overseas imperialists which could always claim a certain basis in authentic experience. ” (Harvest Book, Hb244) (p. 223).)

        I haven’t finished the book- I will tomorrow- but I am struck by Arendt’s reluctance to confront the reality of the US Empire. Or US racism. The truth is that what she says about the continental empire applies in spades to the US, much more than to Soviet Russia, which throughout its history never showed any signs of expanding. This includes the post WW II period in which it slowly reacted to western pressure by imposing puppet regimes in eastern europe.

        My opinion is that the NAZI programme of conquest took the expansion of the US (and Canada?) as a template. And that the US was an important source of racist ideas and practices. Curiously Arendt devotes considerable space to her analysis of the Boers in South Africa while ignoring the much more important example on this continent. (Perhaps she will right this imbalance in the remaining chapters?)

        The dating of Empire from the 1880s is really silly- no doubt the last scramble for the scraps left was important but the real business of establishing imperialism was already done. In fact it is doubtful whether capitalism and imperialism can be separated in the modern (Columbian) era.

        The enclosure movement goes back-like the empire- to the sixteenth century. It is best understood as part of a range of measures, which became laws, taken to divorce the labourer from the land. Back in 1500 the rural labourer could take wood for building and fuel from the forests, glean the fields after harvest for the considerable amounts of grain spilled in them, take about 100 more days a year in holidays, many of them feast days on which food and drink were supplied by the landowners; keep cows, pigs and sheep on common pastures, maintain a vegetable garden, poultry, bees etc, build a cottage to live in, cut turf for heating, take game for food, harvest nuts and berries from the forest and hedges… and in many other ways live independently of wages, whether in kind or money. The slow process of privatising these common resources and of instituting the modern real estate market only reached an end in the C19th when the last significant commons were taken from the people in general enclosure acts. Thus were “surplus populations” created-in many cases by taking agricultural lands and turning them into “shoots”, just as rivers and streams, fished since time immemorial, were turned into private fishing preserves, rented out to rich city dwellers.

        I too saw the influence of Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis which is much more subtle than the standard marxist analyses that Lenin used.
        I think that it was Bebel, the veteran German socialist, who remarked that Rosa -and her friend Clara Zetkin-were the only men in the leadership of the German party. She was certainly the brightest intellect in the revolutionary socialist movement in the C20th. The freikorps officers who murdered her-and became heroes in the fascist movement-did so at the behest of the Socialist government.

        • Ed Walker says:

          Arendt’s failure to grasp US racism is shown in an essay, Reflections on Little Rock, published in Dissent, Winter 1959. Peter Baehr, the editor of The Portable Hannah Arendt, where I found this essay, says in the introduction that these views sprang from a classical theoretical understanding of republicanism. That is a particularly useless way to look at segregated schools. For example, Arendt goes on and on about equality of opportunity and of legal rights, but doesn’t mention the money issues, how much was spent on white schools compared with black schools.
          I attribute her poor understanding of the US to her training. The force of intellectual life in Europe arises from theory, while in the US, pragmatism is the rule. John Dewey is our philosopher, not Socrates or Wittgenstein.
          If capitalism is truly based on the existence of noncapitalist strata and nations, as Luxemburg says, then the most important difference is that imperialism is directed at other countries, while normal capitalism is directed at devouring the non-capitalist strata of its own nation.

          • bevin says:

            “I attribute her poor understanding of the US to her training. ”

            I’m afraid that I don’t. And I’m not sure that I can blame her: she was applying for Citizenship, clearly had all manner of associations with Communists, was a marxist, albeit in retreat and very much a candidate for persecution from the HUAC and McCarthy.

            Her book is a very sad compendium of insights, anecdotes and Cold War propaganda of the crudest kind- her attempt to conflate Communism and NAZIism is all assertion and very little evidence. It amounts, in the end, to being Holocaust denial as she insists that the crimes of the NAZIs-uparalleled in history- had their mirror image in similar Soviet crimes.

            After the longest and costliest search in history the location of the Soviet equivalent of Auschwitz remains undetermined-unless, of course. you are one of those who regard Auschwitz as just another death camp (ho-hum) and the NAZIS as just another bunch of authoritarians bent on genocide.

            And the sad truth is that-in 1950 when the book was published- that was becoming the attitude of influential members of US governmental and Academic circles, of business and research institutes. Some because they were intent on recruiting German scientists and policemen, wholesale (see the Gehlen Organistation) others because they shared the NAZI hostility to the USSR (and, like Hitler, not because they saw it as Totalitarian either) and some because Jim Crow held sway in large parts of the body politic and Senator Crow realised that he had much in common with Hitler, including a deadly emnity towards commie agitators.

            Whenever the Soviet Union comes up Arendt has to reaching out for passing straws: this is particularly the case when she attempts to lump the aggressive foreign policy of Hitler with the careful and conservative way in which Stalin stuck to Yalta’s sphere of influences and showed a clear reluctance to abandon the coalitions that were initially set up in eastern Europe. He looked away and left the Greek communists to their fate and he was quite happy to watch the French and Italian parties bullied into accepting minority status and cheated of the fruits of their victories. And Tito was not just on his own but disowned by his Soviet friends.
            So much for Arendt’s assertion that the Comintern never was wound up and that Communism was bent on military conquest and world domination. World domination was in the air, alright, it still is but Stalin was intent not on expanding but protecting what he had. This must have been evident to Hannah who could hardly fail to see with the real aggressions of the “west” in places like Indo China, Korea, Syria, Iran and Indonesia, not to mention the western hemisphere where no political divergence from Washington’s way was permitted.

            The sad thing is that this dated book has not been allowed to fade away, instead, so short are the Cold warriors and their neo-con successors of anything resembling real scholarship, that it is being kept alive by recommendations to students who lack the knowledge-such is youth- to understand that Arendt’s thesis is only sustained by a few, mostly bogus, scraps of evidence, such as the notorious Holodomor. This last Arendt dutifully rolls out thus:
            “Stalin exterminated in a single year in the Ukraine alone about 8 million people (estimate). See Communism in Action. U. S. Government. Washington, 1946, House Document No. 754, pp. 140-141.”
            Her source speaks volumes.

            • earlofhuntingdon says:

              Notable portions of the US and British elite were sympathetic to Nazism before the war and after it. The Dulles brothers are a common but not unique example. John Foster was the managing partner of Wall Street’s most prominent law firm and Eisenhower’s secretary of state. Allen was Foster’s partner and a founding partner, so to speak, of the Agency. Foster’s public and professional support of Hitler’s regime, well into the thirties, finally became so obtuse that his partners virtually mutinied to get him to abandon it publicly.

              The US defined the Soviets as an existential evil bent on world domination and as a force with which we must inevitably wage nuclear war. The US was determined to rebuild Germany as a bulwark against its further European expansion. Not coincidentally, rebuilding German industry, much of it financed by American investments arranged by the Dulles brothers, also helped rebuild American fortunes. This points to a common theme among actors such as the Dulles brothers: their conflation of personal, professional and client goals with national interests. Apart from the rebuilding of Germany after WWII, examples include the 1954 coup in Guatemala (United Fruit figures prominently as investor and Dulles client) and the 1953 Iranian coup, after which the British were persuaded to share with US oil majors a large portion of Iran’s oil production.

              While rebuilding Germany was a goal, the US was not reluctant to expatriate thousands of German scientists and former Nazis and employ them on the research staffs its military and intelligence agencies (Operation Paperclip).) In Germany, “former” Nazis were viewed as the only personnel available to do the rebuilding job in the allotted time. That led, among other atrocities, to a West German security establishment run by former Nazis.

              Separately, the rapacious extraction of resources from East Asia did not slow after WWII. Others temporarily replaced the Japanese. Post-1965 coup Indonesia, for example, was quick to let favorable contracts to American firms to extract its gold, hardwoods and minerals.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Arendt would be referring to the “haute bourgeoisie”, the largest capitalists and their financiers. These sometimes but not always coincide with the ruling elite and its aristocratic, large landholders, who combined economic, social, political and judicial functions. As in Britain, the concurrence of such roles changed over time, as when judicial and then political functions shifted from the aristocrats and gentry to became embedded in a professional class, and when, with the rise of manufacturing, having landed wealth stopped being synonymous with holding dominant economic power. Many of these roles overlap. Economic power, for example, can purchase considerable political and court/prosecutorial power. A good historical example is the 19th century’s railroad magnates, such as California’s Big Four – Crocker, Hopkins, Huntington, and Stanford. Huntington especially seemed to feel that he’d never met a legislator he couldn’t buy. Their contemporaries today would be found in other corporate boardrooms and those of the lawyers and lobbyists through whom they exercise political influence.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The armed thugs in Oregon are following a well-worn economic path, albeit with less nuance than, say, the railroads, whose bottom line was created by large federal loans and immense federal land grants. Ranching and water in the West is heavily influenced by low cost access to federal grazing lands and federally subsidized water resources, just as oil, timber and mineral extraction from those lands is heavily subsidized through paltry federal royalties.

    A separate theme is the subsidists’ claim that only economic utilization of land gives it value and legitimates claims to its ownership, and that value and ownership rights should accrue exclusively to him who takes it. In various guises, often incorporating religious passion, that theme has “justified” repeated thefts and genocides since before Columbus’s peaceful, communitarian explorations in the Caribbean and Central America.

  4. orionATL says:

    in the the united states, the reason foundation, part of the kochsucker octopus, plays a subterranean role in taking private many aspects of historically public activities (the commoms viewed generally), including transportation, education, policing, prisons.

    check out its policy stands on tobbacco use and climate change.

    the reason foundation is allied with ALEC (the american legislative exchange council) which also operates in a subterranean manner, out of media eye, to influence governors and state legislators on matters such as transportation, prisons, education.
    here’s a case study of how the reason foundation wotks in the woodwork. transportation decisions is where they started out:

  5. orionATL says:

    the reason foundations view on tobbacco use :

    [… Reason Foundation and Tobacco issues

    Jacob Sullum is the senior editor of Reason,, a monthly magazine published by the Reason Foundation. Sullum’s positions on tobacco issues have consistenly been supportive of the tobacco industry. The anti-tobacco Advocacy Institute, in their November, 1994 Directory of Tobacco Industry Spokespersons, Front Groups and their Allies, says,

    The Reason Foundation received at least $10,000 from Philip Morris in 1993. He [Sullum] wrote an article for Forbes Media Critic which was later used in a week-long advertising series by Philip Morris; the report argued that the EPA findings onsecondhand smoke were one-sided and represented the “corruption of science by the political crusade against smoking.” He also wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal criticizing the EPA, claiming that the agency based its findings on ETS on “several controversial assumptions;” this op-ed was later featured in an RJR advertisement. Both of these articles cited the work of Dr.Gary Huber, a scientist funded by various tobacco companies, who had found the risks of ETS to be only minimal. The Media Critic article also cited the work of Alvan Feinstein, who received at least $700,000 from Brown &Williamson between 1985 and 1990. Sources:Extra, September/October 1994, p.18; Wall Street Journal,3- 24-94, Bates Page –4660]…]

    from the sourcewatch article above.

    the reason foundation is up in arms about restrictions on the new smoking – e-smoking:

  6. orionATL says:

    1) – the reason foundation

    2) – alec (the american legislative exchange council)


    3) the state policy network

    are the triumverate of rightwing organizations which have not only greatly influenced but actively shaped “the commons” in american state governments.

    the state policy network sets up private, sub rosa advisory councils to advise governors on policy.

    here is its autobiography.

    and here is the persona of the georgia state policy network’s chapter:


    and you wondered where all those cockamaimy laws being enacted in your state were coming from.

    check around.

  7. orionATL says:

    the reason foundation has punted on climate change, just as on tobbacco, and for the same reason – these free thinkers like the money they get from the kochs (coal and oil) and the tobbacco rich. perfectly rational behavior wouldn’t you agree?

    start here and read down the reason foundation “think” pieces:



    Since Pope Francis released the Encyclical on the Environment, the Reason Foundation has released a number of articlescritical of him. Reason magazine has said Pope Francis “doesn’t really understand capitalism,” and “hates free markets.” [16],[17], [18]

    August 6, 2015

    The Reason Foundation released a study, titled “Assessing the Social Costs and Benefits of Regulating Carbon Emissions,” byJulian Morris (the Foundation’s Vice President of Research.) [20]

    According to the Reason Foundation, the study “shows that estimates of the ‘social cost of carbon” have been falling’ — and would fall further if new scientific evidence were incorporated. The study calls into question the analyses used to underpin the Obama administration’s new Clean Power Plan and other federal regulations targeting emissions of greenhouse gases.” [21…]

  8. orionATL says:

    and so with the three organi, ations i listed in #8 you have a listvof ths principal despoilers ans appropriators of “the commons” in state government.

    all that’s missing is the charter school movement which revolves around a foundation founded by milton freedman.

  9. gmoke says:

    The sustainable, long-term management practices of common pool resources was the life’s work of Elinor Ostrom, work which won her an economic Nobel prize. Her work is essential to building an ecological present and any decent kind of future.

    Murray Bookchin’s work on the city in history and ecological anarchism may also be useful here. Bookchin is especially interesting now as one of the few successful groups fighting Daesh/ISIS/ISIL in the Rojava district of Syria has organized themselves along the lines of Bookchin’s theories of anti-hierarchy.

    • wayoutwest says:

      I have to chuckle when anyone talks about the Kurds of Rojava or anywhere else being particularly successful in fighting the Islamic State on their own. With massive Coalition air support they have had successes, without that support they were crushed in every encounter with the IS and the Kurds in Iraq haven’t fared much better on their own.

      Their one attempt to head south to al-Raqqa with their Arab allies was ambushed and decimated by the IS so they are heading west now hoping the US will shield from Turkish attacks.

      I’m not sure how horizontal or anti-hierarchy the Rojavans are but they do offer women more equality, they get to be suicide bombers too.

  10. bevin says:

    Two more brief points:
    1/ Not only does the search for the Soviet Auschwitz continue, so does that for Stalin’s Operation Barbarossa- the sudden descent into war, killing millions and devastating vast regions.

    2/ If Arendt was really serious about looking for regimes like Hitler’s, Japan was a very good candidate. It had the same record (a worse one) of agressive military adventures, civilian massacres, concentration camps, medical experimentation and large scale enslavements. No doubt she refrained from pointing out the clear similarities between these two “totalitarian” regimes because Japan was being recruited into the anti-communist cause, in particular the Korean War.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Good points about Japan. US cultural awareness of it is limited now, let alone two or three generations ago. It often begins with Pearl Harbor and ends with the signing of the surrender aboard the Missouri. It sometimes starts up again with the advent of consumer transistor applications, monster films, that they make such bloody good cameras (Group Capt. Mandrake), and little imported cars.

      The Japanese imperial war in the Pacific starts during the late 19th century Meiji Restoration, and includes the forcible occupation of Okinawa, Korea, Taiwan, and portions of NE China. It reached its climax early in WWII. Like other contemporary empires, theirs was about industrialization and massive resource extraction, enabled through the use of military force. Japanese seizures of valuable resources – tropical hardwoods, minerals, oil, gold – were Columbian in their rapacity and brutality. They empowered the empire and monarchy and, not coincidentally, helped pay for Japan’s post-WWII recovery and modernization. Gold seizures, akin to continent wide dissolution of the monasteries (a la Henry VIII), went on for decades. Much of it was unaccounted for after WWII.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Arendt was a grateful convert to the US, which explains in part her reluctance to include in her work the US record of imperialism and racism. That reluctance, still strong among the commentariat today, was also part of the 1950’s widely and forcefully imposed cultural myopia. Government loyalty oaths, their private sector analogues, and McCarthyite attacks against non-conformity at home, at work or abroad, including the professional destruction of cultural leaders who expressed it, such as Chaplin, Oppenheimer and Robeson, were not lit by a thousand points of light or colored by the blooms of a hundred flowers.

      • Ed Walker says:

        I think this is right. It would be an interesting exercise to compare the history of US expansion to the west to the history Belgian conquests in Africa, for example, or French actions in Vietnam, or British control in India. Arendt does not go into detail. I excised Arendt’s numbers in my first blockquote in Part 2; here they are:

        … within less than two decades, British colonial possessions increased by 4 1/2 million square miles and 66 million inhabitants, the French nation gained 3 1/2 million square miles and 36 milHon people, the Germans won a new empire of a million square miles and 13 million natives, and Belgium through her king acquired 900,000 square miles with 8 1/2 million population… P. 124, fn omitted.

        On the other hand, I don’t think detailed comparisons would add much to the flow of her thought in this book.

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