The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 7: Superfluous People

The last chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is devoted to discussion of the totalitarian regime, which comes when the totalitarian movement has taken power. Arendt says that totalitarian movements don’t offer a specific program for government. Instead, they propose to operate under a “scientific” program. For the Nazis, this was the law of nature with its eternal progress towards perfection, which Arendt thinks arises from a skewed form of Darwinism. For the Communists it was the laws of history as supposedly discovered by Marx. Once in power, the totalitarian regime becomes an instrument for the will of the leader, who in turn is an instrument for imposing and acting out those laws. It is here that Arendt takes up the issue of concentration camps. She says that they are instruments for studying ways to reduce individuals to oblivion, to being superfluous, which is the goal of totalitarianism.

Men insofar as they are more than animal reaction and fulfillment of functions are entirely superfluous to totalitarian regimes. Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men, but toward a system in which men are superfluous. Total power can be achieved and safeguarded only in a world of conditioned reflexes, of marionettes without the slightest trace of spontaneity. Precisely because man’s resources are so great, he can be fully dominated only when he becomes a specimen of the animal-species man.

The totalitarian attempt to make men superfluous reflects ihe experience of modern masses of their superfluity on an overcrowded earth. The world of the dying, in which men are taught they are superfluous through a way of life in which punishment is meted out without connection with crime, in which exploitation is practiced without profit, and where work is performed without product, is a place where senselessness is daily produced anew. Yet, within the framework of the totalitarian ideology, nothing could be more sensible and logical; if the inmates are vermin, it is logical that they should be killed by poison gas; if they are degenerate, they should not be allowed to contaminate the population; if they have “slave-like souls” (Himmler), no one should waste his time trying to re-educate them. … P. 457.

Why is it necessary that people become superfluous? The answer appears in the final chapter, Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government. Ideologies are “… isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurrence by deducing it from a single premise…”. P.468. They are the scientific programs offered by totalitarian movements as the organizing principles of societies. For Arendt, the Nazi ideology revolves around the idea of the laws of nature, of blood, while the Communist ideology revolves around the historical laws of Marxism. In both cases, human beings are in the way of the historical forces, and must be forcibly denied the ability to interfere with the primal force.

Terror is the realization of the law of movement; its chief aim is to make it possible for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action. As such, terror seeks to “stabilize” men in order to liberate the forces of nature or history. It is this movement which singles out the foes of mankind against whom terror is let loose, and no free action of either opposition or sympathy can be permitted to interfere with the elimination of the “objective enemy” of History or Nature, of the class or the race. Guilt and innocence become senseless notions; “guilty” is he who stands in the way of the natural or historical process which has passed judgment over “inferior races,”, over individuals “unfit to live,” over “dying classes and decadent peoples.” Terror executes these judgments, and before its court, all concerned are subjectively innocent: the murdered because they did nothing against the system, and the murderers because they do not really murder but execute a death sentence pronounced by some higher tribunal. The rulers themselves do not claim to be just or wise, but only to execute historical or natural laws; they do not apply laws, but execute a movement in accordance with its inherent law. Terror is lawfulness, if law is the law of the movement of some supra-human force, Nature or History. P. 465.

That idea, the idea of the unrestrained movement of supra-human forces, should sound familiar. That’s how Arendt described Imperialism, the early form of unrestrained capitalism. It also describes today’s world as seen by the architects of neoliberalism. They warn that everyone loses if The Market is subjected to even the slightest restraint, whether to movement of jobs and capital overseas or to prohibit dumping toxins into earth, air and water. They insist that foreign limitations on patents and copyrights are impossible restraints. They preach that the only legitimate goal of government is to enforce property rights to the utter maximum. For them, the restless movement of money in the hands of the rich and powerful operates in accordance with its own internal logic, logic which cannot be questioned by quasi-humans not gifted with the power to control vast sums of wealth. They tell us that The Market knows all and fixes everything as long as we mere humans do not interfere with its workings. Neoliberal capitalism is a form of supra-human force that Arendt warned us about.

Neoliberalism forms world view of movement conservatives. Here’s an article in the National Review on this issue by one Kevin Williamson. :

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed[mund] Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.

Williamson’s NRO colleague David French agrees:

My childhood was different from Kevin’s, but I grew up in Kentucky, live in a rural county in Tennessee, and have seen the challenges of the white working-class first-hand. Simply put, Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin. Obama isn’t walking them into the lawyer’s office to force them to file a bogus disability claim.

For generations, conservatives have rightly railed against deterministic progressive notions that put human choices at the mercy of race, class, history, or economics. Those factors can create additional challenges, but they do not relieve any human being of the moral obligation to do their best.

Williamson and French agree that the white working-class people are superfluous, and so are their communities and their way of life. Millions of them should just hire U-Hauls and move to the blessed land of plentiful jobs. They must all lose themselves and their way of life to the inexorable laws of movement, only this time, it’s the inexorable laws of neoliberalism, of rampant unrestrained capitalism. By those rules, individuals cannot act collectively, through unions or through active government. They are permitted to act collectively in their Churches, which emphasize their helplessness in this world except through the will of the Almighty, and therefore pose no real threat to the interests of the rich and powerful.

These white working-class people and their communities aren’t economically viable, and nothing can or should be done to make things different. They should surrender to the external and ungovernable force of hyper-capitalism. They are superfluous, and if they die in misery, leaving their families in poverty, it’s just the natural law of economic freedom working itself out in the passive voice, with the invisible hand of the rich and powerful hidden in a fog of words.

Index to prior posts in this series

15 replies
  1. Ed Walker says:

    Neoliberalism is an ideology in Arendt’s sense: the market is the single principle which handles every problem, at least in the simple minds of its adherents.

  2. SpaceLifeForm says:

    It’s all fascism just under various names.

    Bottom line: most people are not aware of what is going on,
    they prefer denial. The sociopath/psychopath leaders are
    genetically endowed with the ability to lie to themselves and
    everyone else. There should be no wonder why the liars can
    ‘lead’ those in denial.

    To the fascists, you are just a sheeple, that needs to be tracked.

    The FBI/Apple mess is part of that tracking. If the fascists had
    their way, a permanant cell phone would be implanted in your
    brain soon after birth.

  3. bevin says:

    The idea of superfluous people is rooted in Malthusian liberalism, the ideological bedrock of capitalism.
    The first superfluous populations were the indigenous peoples of North America, Ireland and the later colonies: they were not needed because they stood in the way of private property and commodity production by maintaining subsistence economies on common lands.
    Then there were the Commoners in Britain-in Ireland and Scotland as well as England and Wales.
    The long process of enclosure and associated innovations to make life impossible except for wage earners at times when they labour was required, was woven into the Malthusian, Ricardian theories of Political Economy which allot to the “markets” the task of deciding who shall live and whose continued existence is unprofitable.
    Enclosures and the game laws were designed not just to privatise property but to proletarianise peasant producers.
    The quotations you provide from Williamson and French are reminders that liberalism is the parent of fascism.
    A reminder too that Arendt’s attempt to include Marxism , a form of humanism which is a reaction against liberal ideology, in her theory of totalitarianism is a sleight of hand performed to distract attention from what Brecht called ‘the Bitch in heat’, capitalist society.

  4. Bay State Librul says:

    Men seeking “Utopia” see Thomas More
    What is the solution for the United States….
    Isn’t that the critical question?
    We live in an imperfect world…. why are we always seeking perfection
    Theories are good but reality trumps and change comes slowly
    The revolution is evolving, stay tuned.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I don’t think of these posts as theory; more like diagnosis. The problem, I think, is that neoliberalism as practiced by the Republicans and many Democrats is sickens society. I’ll take this up in the concluding post in this series.
      Diagnosis is the first step to cure. If neoliberalism is the problem, or perhaps part of the cause of the problem, then the solution is to tear it down, and certainly to oppose it at every step.
      I don’t believe in perfection. I’m an FDR pragmatist. Try stuff, throw out the failures and try to build on the successes. All solutions breed new problems, so part of pragmatic government is staying on top of the new problems. I try to remember that people get hurt in revolutions and rarely the right people.

      • Bay State Librul says:

        Look forward to your diagnostic solutions
        My number one suggestion: de-coin the term Neoliberalism.
        Call it “Retro-Laissez-faire economics” or have a contest from your readers to re-label that
        fucking thirteen letter word that 95% of the population is clueless with.

  5. orionATL says:

    i don’t know where this stuff is coming from but it is very far out of the mainstream of economic thinking for sure, of philisophical thinking, and of general human sentiment.

    of course, any one person can think anything at all, but the literal, as opposed to the metaphorical which arendt intends, is way out of the mainstream.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I put in links to the National Review sites where this stuff appears. Of course it’s rare that these guys actually put words to the effect of their practice, but maybe Trump emboldens them to say the taboo words. Every effort of the Republican party and its crazy right wing is devoted to taking from the poor the few benefits this society has for them, and shaming them for demanding fair treatment. These guys are just saying that out loud as if it were widely known and widely accepted.
      I had a small window on the problems facing the working poor through 25 years of being lawyer for a Bankruptcy Trustee whose area included rural Tennessee and several small towns, probably an area like the one French talks about. Drugs and alcohol seemed to be minor problems until around 2005. After that, it got bad. There is life in those communities, but it isn’t what it should be. When I left the practice six years ago, it was in part because the system had totally dumped on those people, and I didn’t want to watch the misery any more. I hope things didn’t deteriorate to the level those NRO writers describe.

  6. orionATL says:

    “… These white working-class people and their communities aren’t economically viable, and nothing can or should be done to make things different. They should surrender to the external and ungovernable force of hyper-capitalism. They are superfluous, and if they die in misery, leaving their families in poverty, it’s just the natural law of economic freedom working itself out in the passive voice, with the invisible hand of the rich and powerful hidden in a fog of words…. ”

    these rhetorically imagined ” white-working class people”, if they actually existed outside this particular egregiously lugubrious piece of rheoric, would want to take a lesson from black southerners and hispanic americans from central america and mexico about kerping self and family and community together in the face of poverty and long-standing societal neglect.

    • orionATL says:

      i should not neglect those i know best, the appalachian poor, who except for coal miners in s. w. va, eastern kentucky, and w. va., and some lumber/furniture workers and weavers, probably would never have been considered “working-class”, only peasants, until the advent of manufacturing in the ’60’s.

      somehow, they kept their families and communities together whether some ephemeral malevolent entity considered them “dispensible” or not.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I agree that neoliberalism is an ideology, not a system of economics. Like Social Darwinism, neoliberalism appropriates the jargon of a culturally prominent movement – economics, not Darwinism – and misuses its logic to further ideological ends.

    Neoliberalism loves govt when it subsidizes private corporate behavior. For example, tax breaks equivalent to the cost of construction for new Cabela’s and Wal-Mart stores. Neoliberals exult when govt immunizes business from the social and environmental costs of ruinous resource extraction, such as mountaintop removal mining. It adores govt when it protects private (but not public) property, be it through the police, courts, national guard or private mercenaries; or when it uses military and foreign policy resources to acquire foreign-based assets at below market prices, be they oil, coltan, or foreign labor (defined as a commodity, not the people who labor).

    Neoliberals know that ever since the railroads, central govt is the only social force powerful enough to counter powerful corporations, acting individually or in combination. (An irony, given how much railroad wealth was procured through public corruption.)

    Consequently, neoliberalism derides government when its acts in any capacity that does not enrich neoliberalism’s patrons. Examples abound: when govt mandates minimum wages, safer working conditions, or public disclosure of financial accounts; when it excludes public lands from artificially cheap resource extraction; when it limits the excesses of monopoly power; when it punishes systemic or individual fraud; when it uses public funds to further public education, healthcare and social supports, or when it legislates to allow people and their unions to act collectively (a privilege to be preserved exclusively for private corporations).

    Neoliberalism’s job is to make money for its adherents. It also aims to prevent its opponents from getting a piece of the publicly funded pie, especially when a piece of that pie can be used to counter neoliberals’ dominance. That’s culture war. Manipulating economics and depriving opponents of economic, political and cultural standing are weapons neoliberals use in waging it.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Neoliberalism is really an old-time religion. Its proponents want to convince us that the oracular sayings of those who sell it are not open to choice or debate. Those who disagree with them are unsound, even heretical. To defy the laws of their economics is to defy the laws of god and nature: it puts the world out of order, it makes it less “efficient”. As if arithmetic efficiency was the only end of political, social and cultural life. Tell that to the family without a job, for whom a “public” education is a ticket to the lifelong student debt ride, and for whom healthcare is out of reach.

    Neoliberals hate choice, notionally one of their favorite themes, when they can’t control the items up for selection. Choice allows us to consider who wins and who loses when we make choices, and who pays for “efficient markets” when Wall Street chooses. Choice even allows us to decide what’s on offer and to change that selection over time. That’s a win for society, but a lose-lose scenario for neoliberals. The wealthy might be chosen to help pay for the society that protects and enables them. Neoliberals want that to be a freeby for the wealthy, part of the “natural” order, just as they want businesses to be free to externalize unprofitable consequences of their business, such as the cost of environmental waste, defective products, or unsafe working environments. Little wonder that the DuPonts, with their chemical and automotive empires (a controlling interest in GM), were among neoliberalism’s first and most ardent supporters.

    Neoliberalism wants to eliminate choice. Even more, it wants to toss government from the economic playing field. That would leave the professionally trained, equipped, and coached large corporations to win by default. Everyone else would be relegated to the dog pound, overpaying for watered beer and fatty hot dogs.

    If government stayed on the playing field, say neoliberals, and were to interfere in the Olympian market, it could only lead to worse outcomes than those given us by an efficient market. Even if true within the confines of economic mathematics, it is not true in social and political life. In real life, unlike in the otherworldly assumptions of economics, one person’s inefficiency can be a benefit to countless others (affordable public higher education) and thus to society, or simply be a benefit society ought not to live without. (You choose, a bucket or a fire department). We have better choices than those allowed by neoliberalism. We should choose them.

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