Posts

Trumpian Motion

Posts in this series; some of the terms I use are described more fully in these posts.
Trumpian Motion
Negative Responses to Trumpian Motion
Economic Elites Drive Trumpian Motion
Beneficiaries of Trumpian Motion
Notes on Trumpian Motion Series

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The press has taken to bemoaning the speed of the news cycle, as in this Washington Post story. Harpers Magazine sends a weekly email listing some of the previous week’s craziness before it falls down the memory hole. The constant uproar in our media environment over every little thing reminds me of Brownian Motion. This is from the Wikipedia entry:

Brownian motion … is the random motion of particles suspended in a fluid (a liquid or a gas) resulting from their collision with the fast-moving molecules in the fluid. Fn. omitted.

Think of a grain of pollen in a drop of water on a microscope slide. When you look through the lenses, you can see it move around randomly as the molecules of water bang into it; at least that’s what Einstein said. If there is an external force, the particle moves gradually in accordance with that force. Imagine that the particle is iron and that there is a magnet near one end of the drop of water.

The analogy I see is that we swim in a pool of media water, being bounced around randomly by whatever we click on or see in our news feed, crashing from one stupid to another outrage. The water particles aren’t organized either. Each one acts under forces it can’t completely understand, and often with no purpose other than to slam into us pollens. Then there are the people aggresssively trying to influence us. Think of them as the magnets. The forces are all unseen and to the pollen undetectable. The clamor is deafening. Thought is inconceivable. Understanding is impossible.

That’s part of the reason I’ve been reading and writing here about old books by French and German writers. They were trained in a different time, under different scholarly imperatives. Unlike so many of us, they weren’t trained to get a job; their training was specifically directed at creating at least a few people to study society as objectively as possible. They were all raised in intellectual traditions, including Marxism, but they proved capable of seeing the problems of their own training as clearly as any other problem, and of advancing human understanding. And since Arendt and the members of the Frankfurt School were directly affected by the rise of totalitarianism, they too faced horrifying societal conditions. Foucault and Bourdieu came later but were raised in a similar tradition, in which the intellectual life was valued, and the effort to understand society and history were valued.

I personally feel battered by the media environment. I don’t watch cable news or tv news at all, but even the Twitter is so confounding that some days it’s hard to concentrate on my reading. So, I’m going to write a short series trying to use the ideas I’ve picked up from my reading to provide a sort of grounding, a context, a historical analogy, a comparison to the times observed by some smart people. I’ve tried to do a bit of this in my posts on these old books, so this isn’t new, it’s just a bit more direct. I will start with Hannah Arendt, from The Origins of Totalitarianism, Part 3 on Totalitarianism.

We are told that the Republicans are a movement, and we know they are ideologically driven. The ideology is neoliberalism. The most important principle of neoliberalism is that markets know best, and if let alone that Invisible Hand will drive the human race to perfection. Any interference in the workings of the market will only make things worse. The market is the most marvelous information processor imaginable. No human or group of humans can hope to match its deliberations. Therefore, no human interference with the workings of the markets is permissible, including especially concerted action through government. The market will always work for the best interests of all of us.

Arendt doesn’t think much of ideologies.

Ideologies [are] -isms which to the satisfaction of their adherents can explain everything and every occurence by deducing it from a single premise….

… The ideology treats the course of events as though it followed the same “law” as the logical exposition of its “idea.” Ideologies pretend to know the mysteries of the whole historical process—the secrets of the past, the intricacies of the present, the uncertainties of the future—because of the logic inherent in their respective ideas. P. 468-9.

Ideologies work by the process of logic, the deductive working out of the idea behind the ideology. The ideologies Arendt is discussing, the Marxist idea of the progress of history, and the Nazi idea of racial purity, both have an inherent motion, from the past to the present and on into the future, all driven by a deductive logic. The same is true of neoliberalism. The state of the market at one point in time and the actions taken at that moment create the next state of the market, and on and on like a clock stepping forward.

In Arendt’s description of the rise of totalitarianism, the primary tool of the leaders is terror, a gradually increasing level of fear of armed force, first under the guise of law, and then without any pretense of legal justification. The analogy in the case of neoliberalism is also fear, not of armed force, but of immigrants, or of losing jobs, or that lack of cash will mean death from the money-centric health care system or outright starvation, or of a loss of status that might lead to those terrifying outcomes.

That kind of fear doesn’t work on everyone, but it works on enough people to set a swarm in motion. Suddenly a large group of people are moving almost in lockstep. The racket, the noise, the movement, all draw the attention of the media, and of everyone else through their ceaseless yammering. and the weak-minded hangers-on join in. The goal of the leaders, the Republicans, is to get that mindless crowd in motion. It is the movement itself that they seek, because once in motion, the masses can be led wherever the leaders want them to go. The constant injection of new and more terrifying fears increases the movement; faster and faster, until the very notion of thought disappears in a whirlwind of brainless and frightening activity.

Even if you don’t want to pay attention, the threatening noise and action are everywhere. They’re driving people nuts. That’s what the Republicans want.

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.

Conclusion

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 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

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 6: Totalitarian Propaganda

Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself; the masses have to be won by propaganda. P. 341.

As we saw in Part 5, the elites were neutralized by violence against the Marxists and Communists. That removed a major obstacle to the growth of the totalitarian movement in Germany between the two World Wars. It opened the door to all kinds of crackpot theorizing and ridiculous conspiracy theories. But terror is only available when the totalitarian movement has taken over the state. Before that time, the state monopolizes the instruments of force, and presumably will not use them to assist a totalitarian movement to replace the existing power structure. Therefore, the connivance of the Social Democratic party was the chief driving force in the crushing of the Marxists and communists. Once that was done, the totalitarian movement began its propaganda assault.

Arendt says that both Nazi and Russian Communist propaganda claim to be rooted in scientific theories that explain the hidden mysteries of human society:

People are threatened by Communist propaganda with missing the train of history, with remaining hopelessly behind their time, with spending their lives uselessly, just as they were threatened by the Nazis with living against the eternal laws of nature and life, with an irreparable and mysterious deterioration of their blood. P. 345,

Propaganda was focused on the mob, the displaced and rootless people with little or no understanding of the actual state of society. The primary criterion for the subjects of propaganda was mysteriousness. The creators used all those subjects that were not part of public discourse. That included the Jews, the Jesuits, the Freemasons, and other secret societies, in general anything that was kept secret for whatever reason. The mob was disposed to believe anything that revealed the workings of secret groups exercising power in ways that made their lives miserable. And there are plenty of events that seem unlikely in life, so the propagandists were able to offer explanations for lots of seemingly random events.

The following paragraph deserves special attention:

In other words, while it is true that the masses are obsessed by a desire to escape from reality because in their essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects, it is also true that their longing for fiction has some connection with those capacities of the human mind whose structural consistency is superior to mere occurrence. The masses’ escape from reality is a verdict against the world in which they are forced to live and in which they cannot exist, since coincidence has become its supreme master and human beings need the constant transformation of chaotic and accidental conditions into a man-made pattern of relative consistency. The revolt of the masses against “realism,” common sense, … was the result of their atomization, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationships in whose framework common sense makes sense. In their situation of spiritual and social homelessness, a measured insight into the interdependence of the arbitrary and the planned, the accidental and the necessary, could no longer operate. Totalitarian propaganda can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity. Before the alternative of facing the anarchic growth and total arbitrariness of decay or bowing down before the most rigid, fantastically fictitious consistency of an ideology, the masses probably will always choose the latter and be ready to pay for it with individual sacrifices — and this not because they are stupid or wicked, but because in the general disaster this escape grants them a minimum of self-respect. P. 352, emphasis added.

Our minds seek order. We need a coherent story to explain the way things are. In a functional society, people have social and economic certainties that form the structure in which common sense can operate, and that structure is closely tied to reality. When those structures break down, as in post-WWI Germany and Austria, people want and accept stories that provide them with a sense of order, and a place in which they can find dignity and self-respect, no matter that these stories are totally bizarre and disconnected from reality.

Totalitarian propagandists provided such stories premised on pseudo-scientific certainties about society, certainties that explained the random events and the damaging experiences that made their lives unbearable. They blame secret forces, mysterious groups that control everything. A modern day equivalent would be the UN’s Black Helicopters, the Army’s Jade Helm, and the claim that Obama is going to seize your guns. Older examples include the New World Order or the Trilateral Commission, or the fantastical claims of the Communist menace of fluoride. These stories are always present in the minds of a few, and they spread like cancer when the economic and social structure is in disarray. In the case of Hitler, Arendt gives us as a concrete example, his use of the silly Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This nonsense works because the totalitarian movement is able to shut the targets of propaganda off from the real world. In that setting, propagandists

… conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations. P. 353.

The elites, as we have seen, did not provide an alternative, but instead participated in these fictions, cheering them on, and through their art and music, provided even more disruption. Today we have conservative elites who deny science and bow down to the chimeras of religious fanatics.

Of course, today we don’t have anything as ham-handed as propaganda. We have endless advertising, whether in the form of paid spots on your TV, or “earned media”, as when the four former heads of the Council of Economic Advisers make up stories about a paper they haven’t read. We get bombarded with the most awful images and words, using techniques formulated to sell soap:

.…there is a certain element of violence in the imaginative exaggerations of publicity men, that behind the assertion that girls who do not use this particular brand of soap may go through life with pimples and without a husband, lies the wild dream of monopoly, the dream that one day the manufacturer of the “only soap that prevents pimples” may have the power to deprive of husbands all girls who do not use his soap. P. 345.

We see this working in the Orwellian language of Frank Luntz. We see it in the crackpot worldview of Trump, who adopted the Fox-supported fantasy that immigrants caused job losses in the US, and not the CEOs of Apple and Intel who built factories in other nations, supplying US built design and capital extracted from US citizens and giving jobs to Taiwanese instead of US citizens. This false view of the world is useful for selling the Trump brand over the Cruz or Rubio brand, and so off it goes to work on the minds of the poorly educated people that Trump loves so much.

There is a huge number of people whose lives are so disrupted that the stories pumped out by Republican presidential candidates sound good. There are millions thrown out of jobs who aren’t ever going to have the life they were promised if they worked hard and played by the rules. There are millions who lost everything in the Great Crash, and who now watch as their children shoulder mountains of education debt because they refused to pay taxes or to tax the rich. There are millions of racists, homophobes and misogynists who found a religious basis and government support for their biases, and who lost that support. There are millions of people whose parents are immigrants who somehow think that today’s immigrants are making their lives miserable. There are millions of religious people whose faith has been shaken to its roots by grasping preachers, pedophiles and a hierarchy that covered it up. The WaPo has the evidence. Barrons offers the spectacle of a deeply conservative Thomas Donlan calling the Republican base “losers”.

These so-called losers are not stupid people. In their despair, the advertising of the haters offers a bit of self-respect, and a story about the world that doesn’t require them to make radical changes.

Index to posts in this series.

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Index to All Posts

This post will be updated with all posts on The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. Here’s a copy of this book. All page numbers correspond to that version

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

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons (published at Naked Capitalism; discusses privatization using Rosa Luxemburg theory)

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on Right-Wing Authoritarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 5: Artistic and Intellectual Elites and the Rise of Fascism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude Defining Elites

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude On the Twilight of Conservative Elite Pundits

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 6: Totalitarian Propaganda

The Problem of the Liberal Elites Part 1

The Problem of Liberal Elites Part 2 On Trade

The Problem of the Liberal Elites Part 3 on Trade

The Problem of the Liberal Elites Part 4 Conclusion

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 7: Superfluous People

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Conclusion

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude On the Twilight of Conservative Elite Pundits

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude On the Twilight of Conservative Elites

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

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons (published at Naked Capitalism; discusses privatization using Rosa Luxemburg theory)

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on Right-Wing Authoritarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 5: Artistic and Intellectual Elites and the Rise of Fascism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude Defining Elites

After defining the term elites (see previous post), Arendt says that the elites did not actively oppose the rise of fascism in Germany and Austria, and in some respects were supportive. One problem I have (and I have several) is the lack of a direct explanation for the failure of the elites to confront the rise of fascism. The text raises one possibility. I suspect that immediately after WWI, most of the elites were sympathetic to the ideas of the Marxist left, and that many were actively interested. Then they saw that the Social Democrats directed the right-wing violence that killed and imprisoned the revolutionaries. That was enough to keep the fellow-travelers and the sympathizers away from left activism. They retreated to their writing rooms and their ateliers, and left the space of massive change to the right wing. They wanted “to see the ruin of this whole world of fake security, fake culture, and fake life.” (P. 328) The elites weren’t going to do anything about it, they just pointed and laughed as the mob solidified into the fascist movement.

Among the sins of these elites was their refusal to attack crackpot ideas.

To this aversion of the intellectual elite for official historiography, to its conviction that history, which was a forgery anyway, might as well be the playground of crackpots, must be added the terrible, demoralizing fascination in the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition. P. 333

That’s uncomfortably close to Karl Rove’s “we create new reality”.

At the same time the elites were disengaging from the political world, they were pursuing their own esoteric ideas, ideas which further distanced them from the mob. This ended badly for the intellectual elites. Some were driven out, some fled, and the rest found a way to accommodate themselves to the fascist states.

As I wrote in my previous post, the US has plenty of elites who are conservative, but if we limit ourselves to writers and philosophers, there has never been a serious conservative intellectual class in this country. There have been a few intellectual conservatives, although none spring to mind who would pass Hofstadter’s test, including specifically William Buckley. If you disagree, perhaps you could read down Richard Posner’s list of 600f or so public intellectuals and identify all the US people listed, living or dead. It is astonishing to think that the likes of Ann Coulter and Erik Erikson are included on Posner’s list. And I confess I’ve never understood why bookstores shelve Ayn Rand among the philosophy books. There is certainly a class of highly conservative economists, but to me they lack any pretense of being intellectuals in Hofstadter’s sense. Further, they do not self-criticize, they do not change their minds in the face of contrary evidence. This means they are ideologues, not intellectuals.

Using my definition from the previous post, Buckley and a number of writers and pundits and economists would certainly qualify as a member of the conservative elite. Let’s focus on the pundits. Does anyone take them seriously? When was the last time any serious thinker took up an political issue raised by David Brooks in his NYT column, or the conventional nonsense he spouts on PBS? Just take a look, if you can, at this absurd column. It begins with a paean to the US system of capitalism and social welfare, and, of course, our crony capitalism: “nurturing disruptive dynamos like Bell Labs, Walmart, Whole Foods, Google and Apple”. Then this:

It’s amazing that a large part of the millennial generation has rejected this consensus. In supporting Bernie Sanders they are not just supporting a guy who is mad at Wall Street. They are supporting a guy who fundamentally wants to reshape the American economic system, and thus reshape American culture and values. As he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, he wants to make us more like northern Europe.

Why those Millenials are just downright unreasonable in questioning a system that promises that their lives will be much worse than their parents. They should all start businesses and get rich, just like Brooks did, and just like their parents did, or something. Brooks says nothing about the lived reality of Millenials. He refuses to face the fact that his favored Republican policies, tax-cutting, deregulating, war-mongering, and refusal to govern, have saddled them with massive personal debts and a stagnating economy that shipped all the decent jobs out to other countries. In his latest, Brooks has clearly lost it. It’s an explainer of this op-ed in the New York Times from two years ago offering three views of marriage. And here I though glorifying marriage was Ross Douthat’s job description.

Douthat is a deeply silly man, mooning on about conservative values and governance in the face of the actual behavior of the Republicans in government. Here he explains how similar Donald Trump and Pope Francis are. Apparently if you want to change something Douthat likes, you are either a vulgar materialist or an intellectual ascetic. I’m waiting for Douthat to explain how Donald Trump has a classy marriage this time, and is therefore fit to be President.

The bizarre Thomas Friedman is shocked that Bernie Sanders said that the business model of Wall Street is fraud, which became obvious after those scumballs wrecked the economy and destroyed our retirement plans. Since the downturn also cost his wife’s family a staggeringly large amount of wealth, he might have wondered how that happened.

Not one conservative pundit has called out the crackpot stupidity of national politicians on climate denial, denial of evolution, tearing down the separation of church and state, denial of pretty much any fact or lesson from science, or their truly insane theory of government, that if you ruin it things will be great. Instead, they embrace every stupid idea, or simply keep quiet. They cannot tell fact from chain emails. Why do these conservative pundits, and by extension the rest of the conservative elites, think this will turn out better for them in the long run than it did for the German elites of the 1920s?

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude Defining Elites

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

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons (published at Naked Capitalism; discusses privatization using Rosa Luxemburg theory)

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on Right-Wing Authoritarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 5: Artistic and Intellectual Elites and the Rise of Fascism

In Part 5 I discussed Hannah Arendt’s view of the role of the elites in the rise of fascism. She defines the term elites as the artists, composers and intellectuals in Germany and Austria in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. We use the term “elites” more broadly today. Depending on the context, it might mean some or all of the following:

1) a few very rich people. This group is described by Robert Reich as

…the major corporations, their top executives, and Washington lobbyists and trade associations; the biggest Wall Street banks, their top officers, traders, hedge-fund and private-equity managers, and their lackeys in Washington; the billionaires who invest directly in politics; and the political leaders of both parties, their political operatives, and fundraisers.

2) the people whose views are most respected in some scientific field or some academic area;

3) pundits, writers, media people, and the talking heads and experts who appear in their outlets. The experts themselves fall into two categories. One group comes from academia, and generally are actual experts. The other comes from think tanks, national issue-oriented organizations and other holding pens where they try to influence policy and wait for an opportunity to move into government.

4) top government people, including those in the legislature and their top staffers, top administration officials and of course, the President. This group also includes members of the deep state, the permanent group of military and security officials and bureaucrats who stay on election to election.

Taking these groups together, we have a working definition of the Establishment, and by separating them along the lines of their political party identifications, we have the Republican and Democratic Establishments.

You’ll note there is no mention in my list of artists or composers, and no mention of “intellectuals”. We have a complicated relationship with any kind of intellectualism, as Richard Hofstadter explains in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, a book I read in college, reread later, and kept, I thought, until I went to look for it. Nicholas Lemann discussed it in an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, from which the following is taken.

It helps in understanding Hofstadter to know what [Hofstadter] takes intellectualism to mean. Here is a passage that comes as close as any in the book to a definition:

It accepts conflict as a central and enduring reality and understands human society as a form of equipoise based upon the continuing process of compromise. It shuns ultimate showdowns and looks upon the ideal of total partisan victory as unattainable, as merely another variety of threat to the kind of balance with which it is familiar. It is sensitive to nuances and sees things in degrees. It is essentially relativist and skeptical, but at the same time circumspect and humane.

I’m not sure how well that definition works with Arendt’s general description, but there certainly was a group of intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th Century, and I think there would be general agreement on its members. Today, we don’t actually have many intellectuals in that sense. Instead, we have experts, people wired into the economic and social structure who are thought to have special expertise in some area of study. Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit wrote a book about this issue, Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline. This is from a review in the Economist:

He starts off by ruling out what most of us would take as archetypal intellectuals: scientists who explain science to lay people (eg, Steven Weinberg), philosophers with an influential vision of society (eg, John Rawls or Robert Nozick) and literary intellectuals of high Bohemia (eg, Susan Sontag). No, his public intellectuals are really pundits: people who opine about issues of the day on television or in newspaper columns. On the theory that if it’s real it must be countable, he ranks what he calls the top 100 on the basis of scholarly citations, media mentions and web hits.

Here’s Posner’s expanded list of over 600 public intellectuals. Arendt made the list, and it’s fun to see the people who are quoted or sought on the internet 15 years ago; for example, David Brooks and David Broder are there, next to each other. Posner says the problem is that the then current crop of pundits (who are a subset of that list) is really bad at opining. As you would expect from the founder of the Law and Economics movement, he explains this with simplistic ideas about supply and demand. He says there are too many commentators, and that they are not held accountable for their errors, which is obviously true.

There have been a number of studies of the ability of experts to predict the future. In this review in the New Yorker Louis Menand (also on the list, and deservedly) discusses Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? by Philip Tetlock, a Berkeley psychologist and researcher. It turns out experts aren’t good at predicting the future either in their own fields or in other areas.

Posner is quite right that those who spout what Paul Krugman (on the list) calls zombie ideas are never held accountable for being totally wrong. Instead, their views are considered highly valuable by policy makers. This, of course, shows how badly Posner has missed the real problem. Pundits and experts who shriek about deficits and inflation in today’s economy are prized by those who serve the interests of the rich, and who provide their PR.

Until the last few years, the elites have generally agreed on policies on most issues. You can see a good example in the way the New York Times discusses the refusal of the Republicans to govern, as in this astonishing piece by Jennifer Steinhauer. The destruction of institutional norms that once made government work under our ancient Constitution is now perfectly normal for our elites. For another, and more dangerous example, there is nearly universal agreement among the elites that prosecuting bank executives for their crimes that crashed the economy would not be possible. In fact, the elites generally agree that none of them can be held accountable for any of their actions, regardless of the damage done . We can no more punish Rick Snyder for poisoning Flint families than we could punish anyone for Iran-Contra or the top executives of American Water for failing to notice that the water they had privatized and sold to the people of Charleston WV was sickening. It mustn’t be done.

That kind of consensus indicates that the large bulk of our public intellectuals are completely indifferent to and unaware of the level of anger at the corruption that affects every aspect of our public lives. Zephyr Teachout explains corruption succinctly: the use of public office for private gain. Our elites refuse to accept this definition. There is no better proof that we need new elites.

Note: this post was updated by expanding paragraph 1) above.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 5: Artistic and Intellectual Elites and the Rise of Fascism

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

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons (published at Naked Capitalism; discusses privatization using Rosa Luxemburg theory)

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on Right-Wing Authoritarianism

Arendt uses the term “elites” to mean the highly trained and educated intellectuals in Germany and Austria, and artists and composers and writers who together make up the intelligentsia. She begins by describing the breakdown of the class structure in those countries, “…when the smugness of spurious respectability gave way to anarchic despair….” The elites hated the pretensions of the bourgeoisie, hated the class structures they imposed to support their positions and oppress the rest of the people, and hated the bogus morality they proclaimed in public and ignored in private. For decades, they assaulted the bourgeoisie, sometimes with satire, sometimes more directly, with attacks against their conventional religion and philosophy. They welcomed the First World War, hoping that it would wipe out the existing culture. After the war they hrejected restoration of the prior structures.

Arendt attributes two desires to individual members of the post-war elites: the desire for anonymity, for losing themselves in the midst of the people; and a yearning for violence to wipe out any remaining influences of the old bourgeoisie morality and respectability.

These people felt attracted to the pronounced activism of totalitarian movements, to their curious and only seemingly contradictory insistence on both the primacy of sheer action and the overwhelming force of sheer necessity. This mixture corresponded precisely to the war experience of the “front generation,” to the experience of constant activity within the framework of overwhelming fatality. P. 331.

The violence of the totalitarian movements was attractive to these elites precisely because it seemed to be a “ …kind of philosophy through which to express frustration, resentment, and blind hatred, a kind of political expressionism which used bombs to express oneself, which watched delightedly the publicity given to resounding deeds and was absolutely willing to pay the price of life for having succeeded in forcing the recognition of one’s existence on the normal strata of society.” P. 332 Arendt refers to this as a temporary alliance between the mob and the elites. In Part 3, we saw the distinction between the mob and the masses. The former are the unemployable, who at least shared some of the morality and attitudes of the class to which they once belonged or aspired to. The elites were thrilled to see the mob attack respectability, for example, when the steel barons were forced to accept the housepainter Hitler.

Arendt claims that the elites believed that all of the theories they were raised to accept had failed utterly and spectacularly and had caused enormous damage. Even the bourgeoisie had only the public appearance of morality. In private their morals were those of the mob. It thrilled the elites to see the academic theories that had nurtured them, theories like dialectical materialism, replaced with crackpot ideas and conspiracy theories. In this atmosphere it was wonderful to shove the faces of the bourgeoisie in their hypocrisy, and to express the anger and cruelty hidden behind their public faces. There were no limits to this decadent idea, as the French writer Celine showed in his Notes for a Massacre, in which he proposed to kill all the Jews.

Andre Gide was publicly delighted in the pages of the Nouvelle Revue Frangaise, not of course because he wanted to kill the Jews of France, but because he rejoiced in the blunt admission of such a desire and in the fascinating contradiction between Celine’s bluntness and the hypocritical politeness which surrounded the Jewish question in all respectable quarters. How irresistible the desire for the unmasking of hypocrisy was among the elite can be gauged by the fact that such delight could not even be spoiled by Hitler’s very real persecution of the Jews, which at the time of Celine’s writing was already in full swing. P. 335.

The current form of this idiocy is the ranting from the Republicans about political correctness. We don’t have time for political correctness, says Trump, merely speaking more frankly than his dog-whistle competition, and handing out a license to his followers to express their misogynist, homophobic, racist and other irrational hatreds.

Arendt also tells us that the elites recognized that the bourgeoisie were deeply cynical about the government. They operated it for their benefit in secret, and publicly claimed that all of their policies would benefit the rest of society. This blatant hypocrisy added to the hatred of the elites for the rich. Once they were content with the teachings of Karl Marx, who thought that the state would wither away. After WWI, that wasn’t radical enough for the elites. They wanted action at the price of anarchy and violence. But when the leftists tried to overthrow the bourgeoisie and the post-WWI government, the Social Democrats sicced the right-wing Freikorps on them and killed them and their intellectual leaders, including Rosa Luxemburg.

Of course the project of dismantling the 19th Century morality and certainty of the middle classes continues today among some of our elites. Just look at the ideas about truth espoused by Richard Rorty (a follower of John Dewey), or the attacks on fundamentalist religion from Sam Harris and others, or this from the New York Times Magazine:

In person, [Rachel] Bloom comes across as someone who takes honesty to its natural conclusion. “I like deconstructing things, ….. I like cutting the legs out from under something that feels secret. Something that’s like — ‘Oh, breasts are sexy.’ They’re floppy, Jell-O-filled sacks! In high school, I was once watching the surgery channel and ended up watching a breast reduction. The inside of a breast is disgusting. It looks like the inside of a couch.”

Arendt’s elites have been playing this game of epater le bourgeoisie, shock the middle class, for decades, and there is no end in sight. It’s a fun game, with no physical violence, and no real effect on politics or public life. Today, it’s pretty much self-neutering. Elite discussions of performance art or post-structuralism are irrelevant to the lives of practically everyone.

There are many lessons in Arendt’s story for the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party and for Trump Republicans. Among them is the simple fact that the rich and powerful people will use every tool to preserve their power and wealth.

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on Right-Wing Authoritarianism

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

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons (published at Naked Capitalism; discusses privatization using Rosa Luxemburg theory)

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

The concept of authoritarian personality was introduced in 1950 in a book by Theodore Adorno, Else Frenkel-Brusnwik, Daniel Levinson and Nevitt Sanford, The Authoritarian Personality. They were looking into the question whether there was something about Germans that made them unusually susceptible to Nazism, which an important concern in the wake of WWII. Their theory is based on Freudian ideas about the personality, and was heavily criticized for this and other reasons.

Hannah Arendt makes one oblique reference to this work in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

The Leader principle does not establish a hierarchy in the totalitarian state any more than it does in the totalitarian movement; authority is not filtered down from the top through all intervening layers to the bottom of the body politic as is the case in authoritarian regimes. The factual reason is that there is no hierarchy without authority and that, in spite of the numerous misunderstandings concerning the so-called “authoritarian personality,” the principle of authority is in all important respects diametrically opposed to that of totalitarian domination. Quite apart from its origin in Roman history, authority, no matter in what form, always is meant to restrict or limit freedom, but never to abolish it. Totalitarian domination, however, aims at abolishing freedom, even at eliminating human spontaneity in general, and by no means at a restriction of freedom no matter how tyrannical. P. 404-5.

This marks the difference between a totalitarian movement and a totalitarian regime: in the latter, all semblance of human nature is subordinated to the will of the leader.

Bob Altemeyer began researching authoritarian personalities in 1965 and worked out a somewhat different approach which he published in a 1981 book Right-Wing Authoritarianism. In 2006, he wrote a layman’s version The Authoritarians, and made it available on the internet for free. Here’s a link. He says there are authoritarian followers and authoritarian leaders.

Authoritarian followers usually support the established authorities in their society, such as government officials and traditional religious leaders. Such people have historically been the “proper” authorities in life, the time-honored, entitled, customary leaders, and that means a lot to most authoritarians. Psychologically these followers have personalitiesfeaturing:

1) a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society;
2) high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities; and
3) a high level of conventionalism.

This idea has taken hold among liberals and leftists, perhaps in part because of John Dean and his book Conservatives without Conscience, which is based in part on Altemeyer’s work. A common explanation of the rise of Trumpism is that his biggest supporters are right-wing authoritarians. A recent poll conducted by Matthew MacWilliams for UMass Amherst included a few questions designed to test for authoritarianism. The results were plain to him:

I’ve found a single statistically significant variable predicts whether a voter supports Trump—and it’s not race, income or education levels: It’s authoritarianism.

That’s right, Trump’s electoral strength—and his staying power—have been buoyed, above all, by Americans with authoritarian inclinations. And because of the prevalence of authoritarians in the American electorate, among Democrats as well as Republicans, it’s very possible that Trump’s fan base will continue to grow.

MacWilliams probably meant right-wing authoritarianism which is Altemeyer’s term, and which is well-defined. For a thorough description, see this post by the excellent Paul Rosenberg or this one by John Dean.

Like most personality traits, everyone has some share of it, and some a lot more than others. Here’s an on-line version of an instrument for measuring one aspect of this trait. Even if you don’t want to answer, it’s interesting to read the questions and think about the issues they raise. Here’s a description of the questions on MacWilliams’ poll:

These questions pertain to child-rearing: whether it is more important for the voter to have a child who is respectful or independent; obedient or self-reliant; well-behaved or considerate; and well-mannered or curious. Respondents who pick the first option in each of these questions are strongly authoritarian.

I think it’s important to avoid treating personality as permanently fixed, for example, to say simply that some people are just authoritarian and other aren’t. I think personalities can change, and that at different times and in different circumstances, personality traits vary in their influence over our behavior. Take another look at the poll questions, and ask yourself whether your views on on those questions have changed over time. Before I had children, I would have answered the poll questions unequivocally, but now I see the value of both sides of the choice. If I were answering them on a scale, I’d be closer to the middle than I would have been before I had kids. This accords with Altemeyer’s findings. P. 67 et seq. It’s also worth noting that the questions Altemeyer and other researchers use are more nuanced, cover more ground, and use a sliding scale, as in the online version I linked above.

There are other reasons people might differ on those questions. Perhaps people think they are doing their children a favor by choosing to raise them to be respectful, obedient, well-behaved and well-mannered. If you are trying to find a job in this lousy economy, those might seem like pretty good goals to set for your kids. Of course, they’d miss all the creative jobs, but think of all the wonderful and high-paying jobs there are in hospital administration right now.

Adorno et al. suggest that the social environment plays a large role in the expression of this personality trait. I can’t find anything like that in Altemeyer’s online book, but it seems right to me. There have always been authoritarian people, and there isn’t any reason to think there are more or fewer today than in prior times. I’ve known plenty, but their authoritarianism operated only on a small scale, aggravating their employees with nit-picking comments and derogatory language, or being brown-nosers, exercising exaggerated control over petty matters, lording it over their kids, and generally getting in the way of smooth cooperation.

Most people probably have mild cases of authoritarianism, or are mildly unauthoritarian, and generally that seems to work pretty well. Suddenly it seems as though the constraints are gone, and people sound more and more aggressive about their authoritarian issues. People say this is a Republican problem, but as MacWilliams notes a significant number of Democrats apparently support Trump as well. Presumably these are Democrats with authoritarian leanings. In the post WWI period across Europe there was a breakdown in the social and institutional structures that contained authoritarianism, which turned out very badly. Altemeyer is worried that the authoritarians are a grave danger to democracy. P. 2.

I think the important question is not whether many Trump supporters are authoritarians, it’s whether the circumstances facing a many people encourage acting out authoritarian impulses at a national political level. That’s a good reason to look at Arendt’s description of the rise of the Nazis as I did in Part 4. And take a look at this interview with Rick Perlstein. Perhaps we can learn something useful.

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 4: Humanity under Totalitarianism

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

The Origins of Totalitarianism: Interlude on The Commons

Capitalism Versus The Social Commons
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Please note: the last post in this series was published at Naked Capitalism. It tries to explain privatization in terms of the forces that produced imperialism, and discusses Rosa Luxemburg’s ideas.
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In Part 3 of The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt takes up Totalitarianism. She starts with the nature of people who succumb to a totalitarian movement. She distinguishes a totalitarian movement from a totalitarian state; the latter is a nation in which the totalitarian movement has taken over a nation and is functioning as the state. The leaders of totalitarian movements have enormous popular support in large part because they are charismatic people.

Totalitarian movements recruit support among the masses, a concept I take up in Part 3 of this series. The masses are superfluous people. They come from all classes, from the lowest to the highest. They have one thing in common: they stand outside the society, because they are not needed for any productive purpose, and do not participate in government or any other social institution. They have no identifiable common interests, in particular, no common economic interests.

Arendt says that democracies stand on two assumptions. First, people are involved with policy issues and participate in government. If they do not participate, it’s because they believe that there is an organized party or an institution that represents their views in the decision-making process. Second, the people who do not participate for some other reason are an irrelevant minority. Organized parties do not reach out to the non-participants, or try to recruit them. In the 1920s the number of non-participants grew rapidly, partly because a number of people were not needed for production and lost their sense of belonging, which is a precondition to participation; and partly because many ended their participation when they realized that their views were not in fact represented by the existing parties.

Totalitarian movements recruit among non-participants. Because they are not organized by economic or other interests, it isn’t necessary to use reasoned arguments to recruit them. A leader can emerge who expresses their fleeting passions and any prejudices or foolish ideas they share, or state some new idea with such fervor that it becomes a firm belief, without regard to reality. Suddenly that leader emerges at the head of a very large, very loud and often violent group, suddenly organized seemingly from nowhere.

Though they came from all classes, the masses shared the belief that

… the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent. P. 315.

The number of non-participants in Germany and Austria increased enormously in the wake of the defeat in WWI and the hyperinflation of Weimar, and the breakdowns in production that gave rise to high unemployment. The fact that this displacement from their role in society happened to many people at the same time did not stop individuals from judging themselves harshly, from blaming themselves. Arendt says that gradually these people lost interest in their own well-being, their sense of self-preservation. They put a bunch of abstract ideas ahead of their own well-being, their own interests.

Himmler, who knew so well the mentality of those whom he organized, described not only his SS-men, but the large strata from which he recruited them, when he said they were not interested in “everyday problems” but only “in ideological questions of importance for decades and centuries, so that the man … knows he is working for a great task which occurs but once in 2,000 years.” The gigantic massing of individuals produced a mentality which, like Cecil Rhodes some forty years before, thought in continents and felt in centuries. Page 316, fn omitted.

The key to understanding the role of the individual in a totalitarian movements is this:

Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals. Compared with all other parties and movements, their most conspicuous external characteristic is their demand for total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable loyalty of the individual member. This demand is made by the leaders of totalitarian movements even before they seize power. It usually precedes the total organization of the country under their actual rule and it follows from the claim of their ideologies that their organization will encompass, in due course, the entire human race.

The totalitarian movement demands absolute loyalty, and cannot bear any ties other than to the movement. It cannot abide any other claims on the loyalty or the feelings of people under its control, whether to institutions or to other people, even families.

The characteristics of people caught up in a totalitarian movement fit the needs of the movement.

1. They are separated from their society and have no close social relations outside their families.

2. They are not members of any organized party, and frequently have never participated actively in any political action.

3. They are alienated from the political structures of their society, and specifically, they believe that the politicians and other authority figures in power are frauds and incompetents, and that these leaders are the cause of their situation.

4. They respond to the charisma of the leader of the totalitarian movement.

5. They have lost their sense of self-preservation, and their sense of their own interests, substituting abstract issues and intense loyalty to the charismatic leader.

The usual explanation of the rise of Trump and Cruz given by the center-left is that a large number of US citizens have strong authoritarian streaks, that they like the idea of a strong man willing to take on the burden of governance and lead the US back to greatness, whatever that means to them. I think a lot of people leap from this idea to the idea that authoritarianism is a short step from fascism, and then they conclude that Trump represents a sort of proto-fascist smovement. Arendt gives us a broader way of thinking about our right wing problems.