The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on the Tea Party

As I noted in this post, Arendt says that the great frauds and swindles of the 1870s led to the rise of Antisemitic political parties in Germany, Austria and France. The Grimdungsschwindel in Germany and Austria involved public offerings of investments in what we would call start-ups corporations in railroads, mining, steamships, docks, and so on. The perpetrators were capitalists and aristocrats. Jews were implicated only as financial facilitators. The big losers in these scams was the lower middle class, according to Arendt.

However, another group of people besides noblemen, government officials, and Jews were seriously involved in these fantastic investments whose promised profits were matched by incredible losses. This group consisted mainly of the lower middle classes, which now suddenly turned antisemitic [sic]. They had been more seriously hurt than any of the other groups: they had risked small savings and had been permanently ruined. There were important reasons for their gullibility. Capitalist expansion on the domestic scene tended more and more to liquidate small property-holders, to whom it had become a question of life or death to increase quickly the little they had, since they were only too likely to lose all. They were becoming aware that if they did not succeed in climbing upward into the bourgeoisie, they might sink down into the proletariat. Decades of general prosperity slowed down this development so considerably (though it did not change its trend) that their panic appears rather premature. For the time being, however, the anxiety of the lower middle classes corresponded exactly to Marx’s prediction of their rapid dissolution.

The lower middle classes, or petty bourgeoisie, were the descendants of the guilds of artisans and tradesmen who for centuries had been protected against the hazards of life by a closed system which outlawed competition and was in the last instance under the protection of the state. They consequently blamed their misfortune upon the Manchester system, which had exposed them to the hardships of a competitive society and deprived them of all special protection and privileges granted by public authorities. They were, there/ore, the first to clamor for the “welfare state,” which they expected not only to shield them against emergencies but to keep them in the professions and callings they had inherited from their families. Since an outstanding characteristic of the century of free trade was the access of the Jews to all professions, it was almost a matter of course to think of the Jews as the representatives of the “applied system of Manchester carried out to the extreme,” even though nothing was farther from the truth.

This rather derivative resentment, which we find first in certain conservative writers who occasionally combined an attack on the bourgeoisie with an attack on Jews, received a great stimulus when those who had hoped for help from the government or gambled on miracles had to accept rather dubious help of bankers. P 36-7, fn omitted.

The Marxist class analysis doesn’t fit our social structure today, but translate the lower middle class to the mid- to upper middle class, and the parallel couldn’t be more clear. The big losers in the Great Crash of 2008 were the top part of the middle class, who were losers in the stock markets, and perhaps even lost their homes, and many of whom, particularly those over 50, lost jobs. The rest of the middle class saw their pensions pounded down by Wall Street. Then the rich led an attack on public pensions, and other pensions, further wounding the middle class. There’s one scene in The Big Short where one of the characters points this out. Many people I knew referred to their 201K plans, and others talked about the number of years they would have to work to make up for their losses. As a bankruptcy lawyer, I also saw a number of people who had to file to protect whatever they had left. Not all but many people in similar situations were ready to blame someone besides themselves for trusting the stock market and the economy.

The Tea Party manipulators found a scapegoat: the people who took out mortgages from Countrywide, New Century, WaMu, Taylor Whitaker and Bean, and all the rest of the scumballs. They successfully deflected attention from the people who actually caused the Great Crash: the packagers, the rating agencies, the brokers who sold the garbage, the fiduciaries who stuffed the garbage into mutual funds and pension plans, the bankers who loaded up on it. The banks and their servants blamed the poor slobs who bought houses they couldn’t afford, the strippers in Las Vegas who had 5 houses and a condo (per The Big Short), the families with two jobs and good credit who borrowed to renovate their homes and then lost one or both jobs. You know them, they’re your neighbors. The bankers even got one of their own on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Peter Wallison, whose dissent became the defense of the cheats and frauds. And Obama and his Treasury Secretary Geithner and his Attorney General Holder and the odious Lanny Breuer foamed the runways for the banks with the lives of millions of formerly middle class people, and excused the bankers with their false explanation of the difference between fraud and greed.

In the DotCom Bubble, the damage fell mostly on upper middle class people who thought they needed to bolster their retirements, or who were sold garbage by sleazy brokers, or for whatever reason. Then they got hammered again by the same people in the Great Crash. Today, their funds are being stuffed with unicorns and other fictional creatures.

On January 2, 2011, I wrote a post titled “What We Lost Because Obama Didn’t Prosecute Banksters”. I argued that people who didn’t know better would believe those lies from the financial empire, and that perp walks and trials would enlighten those who could be enlightened. Obviously that isn’t everyone. But there is no doubt the Tea Party would have had a much harder time getting started if the bankers were being carried off on tumbrils.

Just as the financial scandals of the 1870s started political parties aimed at someone besides the perpetrators, the financial scandals of the 2000s led to the Tea Party, which aims its rancor at people who weren’t the cause of the crisis. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure seems self-similar.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 2: Antisemitism

Previous posts in this series:

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction.

In section 1 of The Origins of Totalitarianism, titled Antisemitism, Arendt describes the history of the Jews in Europe. Beginning with the rise of the nation-state in the late 18th and early 19th centuries most, Jews who were long-term residents of nation-states were given the status of citizen, although they never achieved social status, and were always suspected of allegiances outside the nation-state.

Wealthy Jewish bankers historically were treated more or less civilly, because of their utility in providing loans to governments. This group received various privileges, but generally was not admitted to society. They were more interested in remaining part of the Jewish Community, Arendt says, and did not seek assimilation. Many of the sons of the middle class Jews were highly educated. This group, the intellectual Jews, saw themselves as heirs to the traditions of educated Europeans, and sought assimilation. The great masses of poor Jews were isolated in most nations, by choice to enable them to maintain their religious practice, or by custom or by force.

Antisemitic parties grew in Germany, France and Austria beginning around 1880. Arendt attributes the rise of these parties in Germany in part to the creation of the German state by Bismarck who had always maintained working relations with the Jews. The aristocracy hated him because he ended their remaining feudal privileges, and they found it easy to attack him on Antisemitic grounds. Arendt says French Antisemitism is deeply rooted, and even though there was support for citizenship, there was always a great deal of suspicion throughout French society.

Arendt thinks a more important factor in the rise of Antisemitic parties was the massive corruption and fraud that came with the rise of capitalist systems, and which led to a financial crash in 1873 that lingered for years. The frauds were not perpetrated by Jews or by Jewish banks, but were enabled by the financial sector which was dominated by a few Jews. Arendt says that much of the loss fell on the lower middle class, small merchants and artisans. P. 37. The Jews who made loans to individuals among the lower middle classes were not the wealthy Jews who dealt with the nation-state, but small lenders who lived in local communities. They were thought to have political ambitions, seeking to rise to power on the backs of small, non-Jewish, borrowers. Antisemitic parties were a response to these perceived ambitions.

The essence of the first section may be the title of the second part: “Between Pariah and Parvenu”. As noted, some Jews were admitted to society and to roles in the State and intellectual life, but the Jewish people as a whole were excluded. Even social classes prepared to accord those masses a degree of legal, economic and even political equality would not accept Jews into social equality. Most Jewish people of Europe were never fully integrated, and were always on the edge of attack, as the Dreyfus Affair reveals. For those not familiar with this matter, there is a short description of the main facts beginning at P. 89. Arendt doesn’t say so, but Dreyfus’ granddaughter Madeleine fought in the French Resistance, was captured by the Nazis, and murdered in the Holocaust. Her name is on the family’s tombstone in a crowed corner of the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. I’ve seen it.

The Dreyfus Affair split French society between the Anti-Dreyfusards who supported the Army in its quest to punish Dreyfus even after it was established he was framed; and the Dreyfusards, who stood for the rule of law fairly applied. Here’s an absolutely fascinating discussion from the New York Times in 1904 of one well-known Anti-Dreyfusard, Madame de Loynes, whose portrait by Amaury-Duval hangs in the d’Orsay in Paris, and is one of my favorites. After Zola produced his J’accuse, people were in the streets on both sides. Leading Anti-Drefusards organized the Butcher Brigades, largely groups of Parisian butchers, to attack the Dreyfusards wherever they gathered, ostensibly on the grounds that they were opposed to the Army, and thus to the nation. See P. 111. This group is a precursor to the Brownshirts, who used violence to attack forces arrayed against the economic establishment in Germany, or the Blackshirts in Italy in the early 20s.

Arendt’s history is much more complex, and even a bit troubling in its emphasis on the role played by Jewish bankers. This brief discussion is intended to point out two of the ideas that resonate throughout The Origins of Totalitarianism. First, it demonstrates the importance of economic issues in creating political movements. The main cause of the financial crash was the unrestrained market organization of the economy, led by the Aristos and the rich Capitalists. The lower middle class supporters of the Antisemitic parties were deflected from identifying the actual cause, in large part because of centuries-old distrust and hatred of the Jews. Thus, the position of the capitalists and the Aristos was never seriously threatened.

It also highlights a crucial point about assimilation. European Jews were always available as a scapegoat in times of crisis. The status of French citizen didn’t protect French Jews, even the famous, like the family of Nissim-Camondo, from being deported to Auschwitz by the Vichy Government.

The Butcher Brigades offer a parallel to the Klan and others who attacked and murdered Black people for decades. They’re like the Pinkertons and the militias attacking union workers across the US for decades. The dead African-Americans, these dead union members and their families, found that they had no political rights despite their putative status as US citizens. We might even see echoes of the attacks on the antiwar protesters in the 60s and Black Lives Matter today, or gun-toting anti-Muslim morons.

Here’s a good example of fear of immigrants from President Wilson’s Third Annual Message to Congress in 1915:

I am sorry to say that the gravest threats against our national peace and safety have been uttered within our own borders. There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt, to destroy our industries wherever they thought it effective for their vindictive purposes to strike at them, and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue. … Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out. They are not many, but they are infinitely malignant, and the hand of our power should close over them at once. They have formed plots to destroy property, they have entered into conspiracies against the neutrality of the Government, they have sought to pry into every confidential transaction of the Government in order to serve interests alien to our own.

According to Wilson, the crime of participating in politics is at the heart of the damage done by these immigrants. They have no right to object to government policies or to argue for one side or the other in WWI. They have no right to organize as unions and take on the capitalists. These are equally grave crimes to Wilson. And his 1915 speech could easily have been given by any of today’s Republican presidential candidate about all immigrants.

And it goes without saying that there is one group of US citizens who have never been assimilated.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction

The Origins of Totalitarianism is Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the rise of totalitarian governments, the Nazis under Hitler in Germany and the Communists under Stalin in Russia. It was published in 1951, though it was largely completed in 1945. In its original form it focused primarily on Nazism, and as more detail emerged about Stalinist Russia, the book was revised. There are three sections, Antisemitism, Imperialism and Totalitarianism. The book can be read here. Page numbers at this link correspond to the page cites I’ll be using.


Why this book? Anyone following current US politics has seen references to a fascist turn in Republican politics, and in the crowds surrounding at least one of the candidates. Similar but much smaller outbreaks occurred at campaign appearances of Sarah Palin in 2008 and at other Republican and conservative gatherings. One early user of the term fascism was @billmon1 on the Twitter, also here. Arendt’s detailed exploration of the rise of fascism, particularly in Germany, is a tool to help us understand its genesis, and perhaps see certain parallels to today.

In Modernity on Endless Trial, Leszek Kolakowski says:

If we are to believe Hegel – or Collingwood – no age, no civilization, is capable of conceptually identifying itself. This can only be done after its demise, and even then, as we know too well, such an identification is never certain or universally accepted. Both the general morphology of civilizations and the descriptions of their constitutive characteristics are notoriously controversial and heavily loaded with ideological biases, whether they express a need for self-assertion by comparison with the past or a malaise in one’s own cultural environment and the resulting nostalgia for the good times of old. Collingwood suggests that each historical period has a number of basic (“absolute”) presuppositions which it is unable clearly to articulate and which provide a latent inspiration for its explicit values and beliefs, its typical reactions and aspirations. If so, we might try to uncover those presuppositions in the lives of our ancient or medieval ancestors and perhaps build on this basis a ” history of mentalities” (as opposed to the “history of ideas”); but we are in principle prevented from revealing them in our own age, unless, of course, … we are living in the twilight, at the very end of an epoch. P. 3.

Maybe so, but I think most ages are blessed with a few people capable of identifying at least the central points of a civilization, as they write the first drafts of history from the perspective of those who lived through it. They give us signposts for thinking about the best way to proceed into the future, and ways of understanding aspects of we humans and our societies that seem ineradicable. I’m also dubious about the term “historical period”, because there are few ideas that ever really disappear once installed in human minds. Instead they hide in the corners of society until conditions are ripe for another outbreak.

Arendt and Polanyi both wrote near the end of WWII. Both were Jews, educated in Europe after WWI, and both left Europe as Antisemitism struck at their ability to work and to live. Arendt left Germany in 1933, first to Czechoslovakia and then Geneva, then Paris. She was picked up by the Vichy regime in France, and interned in a camp. She was permitted to leave France in 1941 and moved to the US using an illegal visa issued by a US diplomat, Hiram Bingham, and with the aid of a noted rescue worker, Varian Fry. Polanyi left Vienna in 1933, and moved first to London, and then to the US. After WWII, he was unable to obtain a visa because his wife was a former Communist, so they moved to Canada and Polanyi commuted to New York where he taught at Columbia.

The technique adopted by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation was to look far back into history to show the wave that swept over European nations with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism as the dominant form of economic organization. Foucault uses the same technique, for example in Discipline and Punish, which describes the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the working people of France. Arendt uses the same technique. She gives a broad historical perspective to the rise of fascism and communism and their transformation of Germany and Russia into totalitarian states. This technique offers a way to begin to identify a civilization, or a social structure, to get at its roots. Thus, all three follow Kolakowski’s model.

In this post, I described Polanyi’s discussion of the rise of fascism in Germany. It is similar to Arendt’s analysis in The Origins of Totalitarianism. They both see the destruction of social roles of huge numbers of people, primarily from the lower and middle classes, as a crucial element of that change, though they use different sources and different language. Polanyi points to the large numbers of people who lost status and social position and roles in the sweeping changes of the Industrial Revolution, and in the wake of the Great Depression. As we will see, Arendt points to the dislocation of millions as the Industrial Revolution progressed, and to the dislocation of the lives of many Germans in the wake of defeat in WWI, exacerbated by hyperinflation in the early 20s and then worsened by the Great Depression.

It seems to me that the wave of neoliberalism that rose to new heights under the Reagan and Thatcher administrations and has wedged itself in our minds since, is a cultural change, not of the magnitude of the rise of totalitarian states or the Industrial Revolution, but still with an enormous impact on the lives of individuals. For many in the upper class, the neoliberal turn has removed any sense of responsibility to society or to the planet. For others in the upper class, there is increasing fear for the future because of global warming and the rise of oligarchy.

In the case of the lower and middle classes, that impact has been much more concrete. After years of stagnating wages and pointless wars followed by a frightening financial crash, and more wars and political deadlock, the middle class is disappearing. People experience dropping from the middle class as a loss of status, of a place in society, a role, and even a purpose. There is nothing in US society to replace that status, or to provide a new sense of belonging. These dislocated people are not in any way organized. The neoliberal system dismisses them as moochers and leeches seeking handouts while taking no responsibility for themselves. People who are nominally still middle class are feeling similar pain as their future prospects and those of their children dwindle.

The parallels to today are uncertain. But I think it’s worth examining this argument in detail to see if we can learn something useful.

General Plan

The Origins of Totalitarianism is divided into three sections: Antisemitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism. I intend to focus on Totalitarianism. I see the first two sections as setting up the third. One of the central ideas in the section on Antisemitism is that the Jews in Europe were never assimilated. There are several forces described in the section on Imperialism that reach full flower in Totalitarianism. Among others, these include the idea of superfluous humans and superfluous capital, which are associated with Arendt’s categories of the mob and the masses, and the whirlwind of capitalism. I’ll take those up briefly, and quite incompletely, before turning to the main discussion.