The Origins of Totalitarianism: Conclusion

The point of this series was to examine the conditions which led to the rise of Fascism in the 1930s to see if there are useful insights that might guide our understanding of conditions in the US today. In introduction to this series, I suggested several points of convergence, and over the last three months I have tried to flesh out those ideas.

The book has problems. The history focuses on Europe, so it isn’t helpful in understanding the rise of totalitarianism in Russia. There is much less focus on the economic situation in post-WWI Germany and Austria than I would expect. Arendt talks about the the large number of superfluous people, the mob and the masses, but there is little discussion of how or why that happened. Fortunately we already read The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, so we have some idea about that. The reasons for the displacement don’t seem important to Arendt’s thesis, but the absence is jarring.

It seems to me that the most significant condition that led to the rise of fascism in Germany was the large number of displaced and unsettled people, which I think is the result of economic upheaval due to the costs of WWI and the reparations imposed on Germany. That mob was egged on by politicians and media pushing propaganda about the ideology of the Nazis and setting up scapegoats, especially the Jews. Another important factor was the lack of resistance from elites. But the Nazis would have been limited to the margins if not for the large number of people with no place in society. These are the superfluous people. They have no role in the productive sector of society, and no place or position to hold them reasonably close to the bounds of society. Here’s how Arendt explains it:

The totalitarian attempt to make men superfluous reflects the 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. … P. 457.

That is true in the US and elsewhere today. People aren’t stupid. They know that they are superfluous. They know they have no power, no security and no real hope of either. They hate it. When they see people fired from long-term jobs and told they only get severance if they train foreign replacements to do their jobs, it makes them sick inside. When they are told that their jobs are going to Mexico, and it’s “strictly a business decision” but 1400 people are going to be fired, they are angry and hostile. They know that they mean nothing to their employers, and nothing to politicians. And mostly they know they mean nothing to the elites who dominate the political process and the economy, and who set the system up to screw everyone else. They know the elites despise them as the the NRO’s Kevin Williamson and David French loudly say. They know the elites and specifically the tribe of economists, knew that they would be screwed by NAFTA and other trade deals, and didn’t lift a finger to stop that from happening on the grounds that it all works out for the beset on average. So what if the rich elites took all the gains? The liberal elites will come up with incremental tweaks to fix everything, and the conservatives will resist and nothing will change, and they don’t worry because it isn’t them or their families.

Other factors work into this poisonous stew. There is an ideology: the neoliberal myth of the almighty market, the supercomputer that works out all the details as long as mere humans do not interfere with its mysterious workings. This ideology permeates every aspect of our society, from claims that markets pay what you are worth to the strange idea that businesses should operate public schools.

Liberals deny that they share the ideology, but since 1992, the liberal elites have pushed “market-oriented” solutions to every problem. We can’t use a Pigovian tax system to solve problems, especially a tax on fossil fuels or securities transactions. We need a market solution: cap and trade. Schools are a problem, but we can’t throw money at them like they do in socialist hells like Finland. We need the market solution of charter schools competing with public schools, with the public schools funded primarily by local property taxes, so rich areas get good schools and screw the poor. We can’t have single payer health insurance. We put the insurance companies and big Pharma firmly in control of which working age people get health care and cost of health care for all of us. Liberal elite theory results in the creation of new government sponsored “markets” which create opportunities for rich people and corporations to screw over consumers, like Enron did for electricity.

Then there are scapegoats. The primary targets are minorities, especially African-Americans, but recently the unemployed and the working poor. The neoliberal ideology justifies scape-goating. It tells people that if you don’t succeed, it’s your own fault because this is the best of all possible systems. The losers are labeled as leeches and takers by the winners. The ideology justifies their smugness and their sociopathic demands to cut the social safety net.

Neoliberalism is also an excuse for hating immigrants and Muslims, who are coming here to take the jobs of deserving people, so it actually works to deflect the anger of the first group of scapegoats, at least for those who take the bait.

The conservative elites, such as they are, support this neoliberal ideology, and in pursuit of winning elections add the rejection of science and the imposition of ancient religious prohibitions and standards. The liberal elites are fine with the ideology, though they continue to support Enlightenment values, and occasionally offer a patch to salvage one or two lives. But when the crunch comes, they always side with the ideology and the establishment candidate.


As I reread the posts in this series, I realized how angry I am about the way politics operates here. I am repulsed by the elites who act as if there were no alternative. I am nauseated by liberal wonks whose views of what is possible are claustrophobic. They are the descendants of the liberals who told me and my generation that nothing could be done about the murderous war in Viet Nam. I cannot stomach the conservative elites. They are the scum who think their mission on earth is to undo the New Deal; the direct spawn of the John Birchers and the McCarthyites and the rest of the fear-mongers. They are the wreckers.

Polanyi says that when a social structure imposes too much stress on too many people it has to change. We don’t know how many disaffected people there are In the US, but it is clear that there is an enormous number, in both parties and among the unaffiliated, and that change will come. The US has always prided itself on its openness to change. We believe that everything will work out for the best, because we are the exceptional people, the City on the Hill. We assume that change will be for the best. Arendt points out the sickening reality: some changes are deadly.

Index to all posts in this series

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

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

In Part 2 of The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt discusses the history of European Imperialism, primarily focused on England, France and Germany.

“Expansion is everything,” said Cecil Rhodes, and fell into despair, for every night he saw overhead “these stars … these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could.” He had discovered the moving principle of the new, the imperialist …); and yet in a flash of wisdom Rhodes recognized at the same moment its inherent insanity and its contradiction to the human condition. Naturally, neither insight nor sadness changed his policies. P. 124, fn omitted.

The driving force of imperialism the search for profits, The people pushing it were the bourgeoisie, the principal capitalists. Until the 1870s, the bourgeoisie were content to leave politics to others, and focus on manufacturing and infrastructure in the home country. Politicians were generally wary of the push into foreign countries.

Beginning in the 1870s as the money invested in foreign lands increased, the risks to the bourgeoisie and their money increased, as nations expropriated their assets or refused to cooperate, or threw them out. The bourgeoisie liked the enormous profits of these investments, but were not interested in taking the risks. They demanded that the nation-state provide the armed forces necessary to protect their profits, and the nation-states complied. Arendt says that this demand for intervention was its assertion of control of the government. She dates the Imperialist period to 1889-1914.

The goal of imperialism was neither assimilation nor integration.

Expansion as a permanent and supreme aim of politics is the central political idea of imperialism. Since it implies neither temporary looting nor the more lasting assimilation of conquest, it is an entirely new concept …. [T]his concept is not really political at all, but has its origin in the realm of business speculation, where expansion meant the permanent broadening of industrial production and economic transactions characteristic of the nineteenth century. production of goods to be used and consumed. P. 125-6.

The goal was to impose a system of capitalist production on the conquered territories for the enrichment of the capitalists. The power behind this drive for expansion was superfluous capital.

Imperialist expansion had been touched off by a curious kind of economic crisis, the overproduction of capital and the emergence of “superfluous” money, the result of oversaving, which could no longer find productive investment within the national borders.

The money was superfluous in the sense that it had no utility within the nation-states. There were no profitable investments that could absorb it, and there was little to purchase with it. The newly rich wanted income from their wealth even though neither the money nor the investments would provide anything of value to the nation-state or its citizens. They invested their money abroad and the nation-state protected their investments at enormous cost to the rest of their citizens. Arendt calls the bourgeoisie parasites.

Superfluous capital is not the only problem with unrestrained capitalism.

Older than the superfluous wealth was another by-product of capitalist production: the human debris that every crisis, following invariably upon each period of industrial growth, eliminated permanently from producing society. Men who had become permanently idle were as superfluous to the community as the owners of superfluous wealth. That they were an actual menace to society had been recognized throughout the nineteenth century and their export had helped to populate the dominions of Canada and Australia as well as the United States. P. 150.

Arendt calls these superfluous people the mob. They are not the same as the nascent working class, but were the people who could not find work at all, whether because of disability or some personal defect or just plain bad luck. The mob included refuse from all social classes. Polanyi refers to this as well. There were the working people, and everyone else. The impoverished and the unemployed able-bodied people were both in this group.

Imperialism provided a partial solution to the problem of superfluous men. They could be pushed into the armies and navies needed to protect the wealth of the rich, and they could be used as supervisors and workers in the mines and factories and on the transport ships carrying the investments of the capitalists and the products of those investments.

The mob of the mid to late 1800s is similar to the “masses” that emerged after WWI.

The relationship between the bourgeois-dominated class society and the masses which emerged from its breakdown is not the same as the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the mob which was a by-product of capitalist production. The masses share with the mob only one characteristic, namely, that both stand outside all social ramifications and normal political representation. The masses do not inherit, as the mob does (albeit in a perverted form) the standards and attitudes of the dominating class, but reflect and somehow pervert the standards and attitudes toward public affairs of all classes. The standards of the mass man were determined not only and not even primarily by the specific class to which he had once belonged, but rather by all-pervasive influences and convictions which were tacitly and inarticulately shared by all classes of society alike. P. 314.

The rich, with their superfluous and restless capital, demand profits with no responsibility to the society from which the wealth sprang. The constant movement of capitalism, generated by that demand, destroys the lives of superfluous people, who have no place in that society, and feel no obligation to it. The nihilism that infected the mob and the masses eventually infected the bourgeoisie, destroying any remaining social values. This destructive combination was fertile ground for the rise of the Nazis.