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The banality of evil

The phrase “the banality of evil” has become a cliché, and this is entirely ironic because the term was coined by Hannah Arendt in her articles that reported the Adolf Eichmann trial—later published as Eichmann in Jerusalem—in which she described cliched language as a constituent element in the “banality of evil” itself. Indeed, the entire concept of “the banality of evil” has come to be completely misunderstood; it is generally taken to mean that evil is commonplace and not particularly extraordinary, whereas perhaps, per a figure such as Charles Manson, there is often taken to be a theatrical element to evil—even the Devil himself seems quite melodramatic, if not campy.

Yet Arendt did not mean that evil is simply unremarkable or commonplace; indeed, her own statement has become a banal cliché that people repeat without any understanding as to what lies behind it. What she had in mind was a particular relation to language and thought—specifically, the absence of thought—that she claimed to see in Eichmann. Eichmann, who was the logistical coordinator for the National Socialist holocaust of the Jews, used language in a convoluted way. In Arendt’s view he had pretty much been inculcated with various banal slogans and catchphrases that made it possible for him to coordinate the holocaust; the language itself made it impossible for him to see what he did. Eichmann was not a man at the cutting edge; he never personally killed anyone—and, indeed, he was somewhat squeamish when confronted with actual artefacts from the holocaust, such as a burial pit that contained so many bodies that when covered with earth the pressure was such that it maintained a constant blood fountain.

To understand how Eichmann used language you must imagine a contemporary office assigned to supervise the holocaust: “Yeah, Paul, I’ll need you to action that docket for the Łódź ghetto by Monday pm, okay? Now, remember, we’re going to Wannsee next weekend to discuss ‘Pathways for the Jewish community’. There’ll be separate masterclasses on management and disposal options, those are for everyone above Grade 4. Then we’ll have break-outs on community relations and best practice in the ghettos. Then we’ll reconvene for the main conference. Yeah, yeah Simon can we just park Auschwitz until after this conference, okaaay? I promise I’ll get right back to you after this away day…” This is what Arendt specifically meant by “the banality of evil”; she meant that Eichmann communicated and “thought” in a manner that was banal and inherently concealed the actions he undertook. Eichmann did not use the jargon found in a modern office, but he might as well have done so—he had his own National Socialist equivalent to help him navigate the world; and Arendt drew attention to Eichmann’s convoluted and unsophisticated German quite frequently. Eichmann was akin to the office executive who speaks—never sincerely—about the “quality time” he spends with his children, when his ex-wife respects visitation rights.

As such, this language is not exactly ordinary; it is actually unnatural and frequently mocked in comedy shows and sitcoms—and, indeed, at least some people who have to speak this way all day do so in an ironic or sarcastic way; although, terrifyingly, there are people for whom this language is the norm. There are people—and Eichmann, Arendt would say, was one such person—for whom these banal formulations are just how they think and constitute almost their entire thought horizon so far as it goes. Outside work, their mind does not go far beyond, “Let’s action it. Time to shine on my next quarterly review, better think up something good for the ‘personal development’ category this quarter.” Hence Eichmann, when first interrogated by Israeli police, went on and on about how he failed to rise above a certain rank in the SS—and how this related to his various personal problems; in other words, as with a typical office executive, his main preoccupation was with his “progression” within the organisation and not anti-Semitism as such.

For Arendt, to use language in this way makes “thought” impossible; now, obviously, Eichmann did think—he carried out complex logistical operations, along with negotiations with representatives from the Jewish communities in various occupied countries. Although he was not a bright man, having washed out of school to become a salesman whereas his siblings excelled, his intellectual capacity as such had little to do with what Arendt means by “thought” in this sense. For Arendt, “to think” is to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time; for example, if I said, “So far as politics goes I feel an emotional connection to the drama and dashing warlike aspect in Hitler’s Germany; however, my reasonable side prefers Switzerland—a country Hitler hated—a country that is lawful, peaceful, and tolerant towards all.” For Arendt, such a statement constitutes genuine thought, since it allows a person to hold two contradictory ideas in tension: you cannot be “for” Hitler’s Germany and Switzerland at the same time in practical politics—yet to acknowledge the appeal in both achieves a harmonious balance, a tension of opposites. The idea is not dissimilar to Jungian psychotherapy, where a person is expected to acknowledge the repressed unacceptable desire or thought so as not to be secretly dominated by it.

The contrast to “true thought” is what most people think thought is today: ratiocination or linear thought—“Cartesian” thought—that merely seeks ends and effects. So, in this sense, Eichmann, in his logistical and transport role in the holocaust, certainly “thought” a great deal: he thought about trains, capacities, passports for people, the ways in which to split up families, his relations with various Jewish local representatives, and so on. The way Eichmann thought, Arendt would say, represents how most people “think” in the West today; exactly, as in my imaginary contemporary office above, in such a way that their minds become colonised by banal slogans—such as, for example, Build Back Better. Arendt would say that these slogans, designed to achieve instrumental objectives, actually conceal thought—they make real thought impossible; although, in the calculative sense, these slogans are designed to achieve rational aims and do in fact work; and this is what “thought” means for most people.

Arendt’s ideas in this regards really derive from her former lover, Heidegger. For Heidegger, the contemporary world is “thoughtless” and dominated by “the they”—the banal slogan-world that seeks to control human interactions and achieve rational ends. Language is mostly used in such a way as to conceal, so that existence becomes desaturated; the very banality inherent in techno-industrial civilisation blurs our vision—as with a cataract, a linguistic cataract—so that we no longer feel astonishment at what is. Instead, we have various grey stock phrases: “hustle”, “YOLO”, “I’m jogging along, jogging along”.

Heidegger was briefly in the NSDAP, for about two years before the war—although he eventually quit. This has led to a shadow across his thought, particularly because he never indulged in apologies for the holocaust or the war or the regime in general—although he had quit the party long before it became openly exterminatory and before the war began, and was, in fact, observed by Hitler’s security police in his lectures. Heidegger’s only comment on the holocaust was to compare it in a non-moralised way to the way in which factory farms operate; and this statement still scandalises people.

However, this statement is entirely in keeping with his philosophy—the same philosophy Arendt used to analyse Eichmann. The point is that for Heidegger—a bit like Evola and Kaczynski—National Socialism was still too “modern”, too progressive and technological; it was a “they” movement, complete with slogans that mangled German and served to conceal what the regime was in reality. Heidegger’s point was that techno-industrial civilisation itself made events like the holocaust possible: banal slogans, developed by ad men (Eichmann himself was a salesman before he was in the SS), concealed the bureaucratic and techno-industrial thrust behind such “thought”. When you buy “farm-fresh eggs” with a carefully focus-grouped cartoon chick on them, what do you really “think” goes on in an industrial chicken farm? You do not really know, just like Germans did not really “know” about the holocaust, because the actuality is concealed through non-language.

Indeed, just like someone who defends factory farms today the SS intervened against Romanians who launched their own pogroms against the Jews, because the Romanians were “too barbaric” and “too primitive” in the way they persecuted the Jews—just as organic farming is sometimes characterised as “too barbaric”, the smallholder who strangles his own chickens being seen as “a psychopath” by people who eat factory-farmed food. Just as a contemporary “practical” man will say, “Yes, yes but the animals in these farms are killed by the most up-to-date methods, a quick electric shock to the CNS—they don’t feel anything. Please, enough pre-scientific nonsense,” so too the SS men thought, compared to their medieval Romanian allies, that they dispatched Jews with the utmost humanity and some dignity—i.e. with painless gas as opposed to a Romanian peasant bashing your skull to pieces with a rifle, or smacking your baby’s head against a wall.

Yet the “humane technological alternative” also conceals its own barbarity—though it is not a medieval barbarity. We can imagine an SS man, just like the practical man who sneers at people who express doubts about factory farms, who stands up and says, “Oh, a reactionary. Well, the Führer doesn’t stand for that. We’re not savages, we’re not Romanians. The Jewish Question will be dealt with in the most scientific manner possible—completely humane.”

Hence Heidegger spoke about a German camp system that “fabricated bodies”—mendacious people who want to say the holocaust never happened suggest that Heidegger meant “fabricated” in the sense “confected”, as in a propaganda stunt. They are quite wrong. What he meant is that “the death factory”—as opposed to a medieval pogrom—very definitely has an end goal and seeks to fabricate bodies, just like a perfume factory fabricates perfume; and indeed, crematoria have their own sickly sweet scent.

The medieval peasant goes on a rampage, burns a Jewish village, and steals their property—he expels anyone left over. The techno-industrial bureaucrat has his objectives for a target group, he tags everyone as appropriate, hires an Eichmann to run the transport end, constructs factories to “fabricates corpses”, and then coordinates the whole enterprise through banal slogans—probably workshopped by ad men. The entire process is slick, discreet, relatively humane, and yet the entire efficiency and linearity within it conceals its barbaric nature; and Heidegger would say it is not just the Hitlerites who were like that—the Western Allies and the USSR “thought” in exactly the same way, and this is the real problem before us.

The entire process is overseen by men like Eichmann—a man who almost joined an after-dinner Freemasonry society devoted to comic speeches and pranks but bungled it and ended up in the SS instead, not even aware that the National Socialists opposed Freemasonry. He then set about building a career as he had never had before, dutifully climbing the hierarchy and revelling in the sense that he “belonged” and had someone to give him orders. It has long been claimed that Arendt downplayed Eichmann’s sincere anti-Semitism—something he is said have lied about himself—but even this being so, this somewhat mindless desire to “belong” and climb a hierarchy seems to have been important to him; and it is not too far a stretch to imagine a man who was a significant bureaucrat in the holocaust instead ensconced in a harmless after-dinner club for doctors and lawyers.

So Heidegger could see a continuity between a factory farm and Auschwitz, not from the point of view of suffering or pain but rather because each instantiated a certain way in which we negotiate with the world. This will only change when we use language to reveal, not to conceal—when the world is repoeticised and people once again really think, really enjoy a tension of opposites and not just set out to solve questions; in Eichmann’s case, “the Jewish Question”.

In a final ironic twist, Samantha Power, a senior official in the Obama Administration, has also completed research into Arendt’s work—indeed, she even produced a preface to Arendt’s Totalitarianism; and yet she was responsible for popularising the banal cliché “humanitarian intervention”. The term “humanitarian intervention”, a term that Power underpinned with reference to Arendt, represents exactly the cliched thoughtlessness that Arendt warned against in Eichmann in Jerusalem. It is a stock phrase coined for and used by journalists and bureaucrats that conceals the actuality that lies beneath conflicts such as the recently ended war in Afghanistan—a war that finally concluded with a drone strike that killed not a suspected terrorism coordinator but an ordinary Afghan family. “Humanitarian intervention” is a shattered Syrian city, just as surely as Eichmann’s bureaucratic language meant piles of shoes at Auschwitz. Obviously, the scale is different—Obama was not Hitler—and yet the principle is exactly the same; such non-scholars as Power do not even see the irony, as they traduce Arendt’s concepts they use Arendt’s name to do so—cite her work on totalitarianism in a propaganda war for total “humanitarian intervention”.

The drone operator who sits with a coffee from Starbucks in their cozy pilot’s chair outside Las Vegas and strikes unknown targets will, confidently as Eichmann, say it is done for “humanitarian intervention”; and, as with Eichmann, they too dutifully look forward to promotion and more good things to come—along with the latest catchphrase. Just as Eichmann made only brief visits to the death sites, so the drone operator is insulated from the people he kills—or, perhaps, “they” kill; and the planners above them, right up to Power, even more so.

Further, as is often noted, people who actually work at the CIA and the other various letter agencies are acutely dull, often timeservers with very little imagination—in other words, banal people with the latest slogans from The New York Times on their lips. Again, the point is not an asinine student-fist-in-the-air, “Amerikkka is just like the Nazis, man. Screw ‘em all.” The point is that exactly the same sensibility and perspective—identified by Heidegger and Arendt—exists in America as in the USSR and National Socialist Germany; and this is not simply a political thought, it is to do with an entire mode of engagement with reality that conceals actuality and brings us into a certain relation with what is.

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