The Origins of Totalitarianism revisited
Updated: Dec 30, 2021
At least one major source for contemporary progressive liberal views—for “wokeness”—can be found in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951); and this is quite ironic, since by Arendt’s own criteria, as outlined in this work, contemporary woke views should be regarded as totalitarian—a totalitarian movement that is characterised by its opposition to elements that Arendt identified as characteristic of totalitarian thought.
For Arendt, totalitarianism was an entirely new category of political rule to be added to the long-standing forms of government identified by Aristotle: monarchy, aristocracy, republic, tyranny—and, now, totalitarianism. The term “totalitarianism” has been widely abused so as to be meaningless, somewhat as with the term “fascism”; for example, the New Atheists, Hitchens and Dawkins, would often refer to Catholicism as “totalitarian”, and yet, for Arendt, this was not so—she did not even consider Mussolini to be totalitarian. For Arendt, what constitutes totalitarianism is its complete collapse of the private sphere, so that there is no such thing as family or private life: there is only the leader and the movement—and this process is achieved through terror, a terror so profound that it destroys human spontaneity and reduces people to a state akin to Pavlov’s dogs; i.e. perverted dogs, dogs that salivate even when they are not hungry.
Even when the Catholic Church was at her height, there was nothing quite like this in Europe—you could have a social gathering that was not about the pope and Catholicism, whereas in Soviet Russia every mountaineering club was a Communist club and in Hitler’s Germany every automobile club was a National Socialist automobile club. Catholic children in medieval Europe were not expected to snitch on their parents for suspect remarks about the pope or for failure to attend confession—yet such behaviour was praiseworthy in the totalitarian states, actively encouraged. There was no family life or friendship. A tyrant will use his subordinates and abandon them or scapegoat them as required—the totalitarian liquidates people who fail him; people who cannot, in Hitler’s words, “Jump over their own shadow.” Everything totalitarian is protean and liquid, frequently actively irrational—failures are those who cannot keep up with the movement’s dynamic nature. Yet as the subordinate is liquidated he is glad it is so: as in Stalin’s show trials he will willingly incriminate himself for the movement; and such behaviour is not seen in tyrannies, where the relationship between subordinate and leader is purely instrumental and, in a sense, rational.
For Arendt, the criteria for totalitarianism are as follows:
1. Dynamic movement: this is the most constitutive element in totalitarian thought. Totalitarian movements are about a historical process; they historicise phenomena such as race and class. So, for the National Socialists, we were in a dynamic movement towards the master race—and for the Bolsheviks we were in a dynamic movement, through class struggle, to Communism. It so happens that Bolshevism and National Socialism picked on race and class, but any factual element could become fodder for this outlook; yet totalitarians never treat their facts as facts as such—i.e. there happen to be races or classes—these facts are always on the way to something. In philosophical terms, totalitarian movements are about Becoming not Being—as with Nietzsche, who preferred dynamic Becoming, rooted in nature, to the eternal Being related to religious thought. Hence, for totalitarian movements, everything is protean and in flux; and the totalitarian will always appeal to scientificality, science being provisional and concerned with nature—although, in practice, his beliefs will defy actual scientific investigation. Totalitarian dynamism means it has a low preference for established traditions, customs, states, nations, and laws—everything can be revised, possibly on a dime, for the movement.
2. Disdain for the stateless: Arendt expressly links totalitarianism to statelessness—to refugees and people without papers; and this is because documentation matters, especially in Germany; and Arendt, as a German-Jew, could well appreciate this fact. In the inter-war period, there was a great upsurge in paperless people without nationality, particularly in Central Europe. The post-war system, instigated by Wilson, collapsed the polyglot and multiracial Austro-Hungarian Empire; as a result, millions of people tried to sort themselves into nations—stateless Jews, Germans, Hungarians, and more milled about; enclaves and exclaves abounded and the first modern “refugee crises” occurred. Officials in France had to deal with paperless exiles from the Bolshevik Revolution and the Spanish Civil War. For Arendt, totalitarianism is an attempt to integrate “your” stateless people, and an opportunity to make other people stateless—Hitler wanted to gather the stateless Germans together into a Greater Reich, and at the same time disdained the stateless Jews. Totalitarians are hostile to stateless persons—to refugees—and ultimately liquidate the “unperson”; during Hitler’s holocaust the preliminary to extermination was to make the Jews stateless, deprive them of documentation—if a Jew could find suitable documentation he would be passed over by the bureaucratic death machine. Totalitarians both disdain people without documents and simultaneously create the undocumented—remove their juridical personality—as a prelude to extermination.
3. Police and secret police power: unlike states such as Franco’s Spain and Pinochet’s Chile where the military played the central role, totalitarian states are dominated by the police and the secret police—the personifications of totalitarian power are Himmler and Beria, the secret police chiefs in their respective totalitarian states. The role played by the police is linked to statelessness; the refugees and the stateless are mainly a police matter—and Arendt notes that the Soviet, British, French, and National Socialist police forces all readily cooperated with each other before the war; she points to policemen as seeing a common interest, with the police in the democracies well aware as to how totalitarianism would benefit their position. The secret police are also central to totalitarian regimes because totalitarians think they are a counter-conspiracy; hence the National Socialists saw themselves as a counter-conspiracy against a world Jewish conspiracy, and the Bolsheviks were a counter-conspiracy against the capitalist class and latterly, in Stalin’s time, the CIA and the “rootless cosmopolitans”. To counter a conspiracy it stands to reason that you must be conspiratorial; hence totalitarian states are permeated by the security police, midnight “disappearances” of regime enemies, and informers—the secret police is always a state within a state, and totalitarian regimes produce multiple agencies within security agencies to “watch the watchmen”.
Although Arendt has other criteria for totalitarianism—particularly imperialism, the desire for unlimited expansion for its own sake—the three points above are absolutely cardinal to what she means by totalitarianism and what makes it different from other regimes; after all, there have been many empires and imperialists and yet not all of these have been totalitarian. Arendt also associates totalitarianism with the mob—with the mobilisation of the undifferentiated and atomised mass—and yet every demagogue in history has mobilised the mob, so this is not intrinsic to totalitarianism either.
We could summarise Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism as follows: a dynamic movement headed by an absolute leader that historicises particular facts of nature (such as race or class), often with a scientific veneer, and which holds a particular hostility towards stateless, undocumented, or “homeless” people; its mode of rule relies on the police and secret police over all other state instruments, and this is because the police are most concerned with the stateless and because totalitarians conceptualise themselves as a counter-conspiratorial movement (e.g. against the Jewish world conspiracy) and so must use conspiratorial methods to counter the conspiracy; in the process, the totalitarians turn their countries into security states where “the movement” penetrates into all areas of life, even down to friendships and family life—in fact, these collapse completely. Since the movement is dynamic, rigid legal structures and traditions are abrogated in favour of flexible word-of-mouth commands from the leader, from whose words subordinates derive their authority—since the movement is dynamic, its direction is subject to sudden turns and has a tendency to escalate in extremity as followers compete for the leader’s favour.
The movement replaces the state and civil society, and is characterised by duplicated offices and bureaucracies that contradict each other—and compete for the leader’s favour through ideological jockeying. Hence totalitarian rule, though superficially about “order” and with a veneer of authoritarianism, actually operates in confusion and contradiction; the leader often escapes blame because he rules verbally and without accountability. If his subordinates fail it is because “they failed to understand” or “betrayed the leader”—the leader cannot fail; hence the typical post-war National Socialist adherent who would say, “It wasn’t Hitler. He was a kind man who played with deer and children, he wanted the best for everyone—it was those swine around him, they didn’t understand him and his pure vision. They betrayed him.”
This is always possible because the leader leads the movement absolutely and yet is above the movement itself—hence today Hitler apologists will say, “There’s no order from Hitler for the holocaust. Nothing in writing. No evidence; a fair court couldn’t convict him.” Of course, it is characteristic that under totalitarian regimes that there is no written order—far too rigid, not dynamic; rather, Hitler could verbally command it or perhaps even hint that he wanted a “final solution” and his subordinates would take the hint and implement it; however, even now, since totalitarianism encourages irresponsibility, it is impossible to link him through solid evidence to an order to kill all the Jews in his territory—although we can infer an order was given, or a strong hint was made.
The mode of command is not dissimilar to the mafia and other underworld organisations, from which totalitarian movements often draw support in their early stages: “Giuseppe the Fish has become, how you say, a bit too ‘forward’ in his business dealings. It would be to our advantage if he could be put out of business.” Later, when the journalist asks, “Did you order the murder of Giuseppe Alfonso?” The mob boss can say, “FBI andare a puttane, you gotta nothin’; nothin. I said nothin’ ‘bout no murder—put ‘im outta business, I said. Look how many people did Trump put outta business? Eh? Eh? Has Trump gotta the anti-mob squad uppa his ass? I’m a legitimate businessman. I don’t know nothin’ about this ‘hit job’. That’s propaganda from the FBI—they gotta too much time on their hands. FBI they’a real murderers I tell you. They’a the real mob.”
I think we can see a direct link to the ideas Arendt puts forward in The Origins of Totalitarianism and contemporary left-wing politics, particularly woke politics. Firstly, the fascination with open borders, mass migration, and refugees seems to derive from Arendt’s contention that opposition to the stateless—to refugees—represents the most characteristic element in totalitarianism; she puts this above all as far as practical totalitarianism goes, and from it derives the central place played by the police and secret police. I am pretty sure the reason why people who call for immigration restrictions are immediately characterised as “Nazis” is because Arendt’s idea that to reject the stateless and refugees is the act most characteristic of totalitarianism has throughly permeated Western intellectual life since the book was written; and has, in turn, gone through the education system and media—oppose migrants, you must be totalitarian. Notably, Arendt specifically rejects the idea that there is such a thing as an economic migrant, she even puts “economic migrant” in inverted commas when she discusses migrant workers from Spain and Italy who entered France in the 1930s for non-political reasons.
I think this is fairly asinine from Arendt, and as silly as her assertion elsewhere in this book that gold has no inherent value—people just happen to impose value upon it for no reason, apparently; after all, Arendt started as a mild socialist Zionist and then became, like her husband, a Social Democrat—in the German sense, i.e. a non-Bolshevik Marxist. The frame for Origins is Marxist, and when Arendt discusses imperialism she accepts the same explanation used by Lenin; an explanation derived from the English Marxist economist JA Hobson—a man, who, ironically, has recently been “unpersoned” because the former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made complimentary comments about him and it was then discovered that Hobson, as indeed does Arendt, talked about Jewish bankers and Jewish capital. More than this, as we shall see, Arendt had a strong sympathy for the Jacobins and the French Revolution—and she saw Jacobinism and the French Revolution’s legacy as the antidote, in part, to totalitarianism; particularly in its advocacy for the Rights of Man—or Human Rights, as we say today. In a sense, Origins is a reminder that nothing changes in politics; even the 20th century—even the 21st century—rehashes the French Revolution. Zhou Enlai’s observation, when asked on the revolution’s 200th anniversary as to its impact, that, “It’s too soon to tell,” remains entirely relevant and wise.
For Arendt, there are stateless people, refugees, and undocumented people; if you are against them then you have taken the first step to totalitarianism. Indeed, I wonder if the politically correct term “undocumented migrant” owes something to Arendt’s ideas; the migrant must be conceptualised, not as a possible criminal threat or a person drawn to move for economic reasons, but as an “undocumented person”—and, as we know, the central lesson from Hitler’s holocaust is that to be undocumented is the first step on the road to extermination; ergo, we must document these people as soon as possible, lest we become “literally Hitler”. Arendt’s formulation ends in the proposition that we must have “open borders” and grant citizenship to anyone who turns up. Hence we live in societies where you can ask a Pakistani on a London street what it means to be British and he will cheerfully reply, “It’s just a piece of paper, boss.”
Arendt’s influence explains why the opposition to Trump and Brexit was so fierce; both these events hinged on migration—and yet, for people inculcated with Arendtian ideas, opposition to migrants and stateless people is the sine qua non of totalitarianism; hence, when Trump was elected, progressive mass media demanded that everyone read The Origins of Totalitarianism to “understand Trump”.
Secondarily, the popular progressive slogan “defund the police” obviously owes a debt to Arendt’s contention that the police and secret police represent the real powerhouses for totalitarianism—“defund the Pentagon” is not a current slogan, but the demand to defund the police and, in America, ICE is absolutely a current slogan; and it is obviously tied up with the immigration issue, since it is, as Arendt correctly notes, the police and the border police who have to deal with the migration issue; and they have to set up internment camps to manage the migrant flow.
Hence any non-totalitarian in good faith will want the police to be stripped back to the bare minimum, or, alternatively, for the police to not really enforce existing laws as regards migration; and this is what we find on the contemporary left—Trump, in part, simply demanded that existing rules be enforced; similarly, Farage demands the same as regards illegal Channel crossings, though nothing is done. Now, perhaps the desire not to enforce rules on migration does stem from self-interest: more voters for Labour and the Democrats, more clients for the welfare state bureaucracy—yet whatever the dysfunctional reasons for this situation, I think it is Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism that provides the moral outlook and justification for this view; and it is probably, for intellectuals and journalists, the main motivator in advocacy for restrictions on the police and for open borders.
Finally, it should be noted that the form of government Arendt prefers is the autonomous workers’ or people’s council—the “true soviet”, as sprang up in Paris in 1848 and Hungary in 1956. Arendt really is an old-school Marxist in this respect, she pines for the Paris Commune—and as she correctly notes, the Bolsheviks squashed the genuine soviets because these contradicted the Party’s power. Arendt sees these spontaneous “people’s assemblies” as somewhat akin to the old assembly in Athens, a place where trusted, frank, and vigorous men—virtuous men, really—came to speak in such a way as to reveal; and this contrasts to the totalitarian mass movements and the bureaucratic bourgeois party structures. For Arendt, revelatory speech is key to genuine politics—we all hope for a man like Pericles.
What does this remind me of? It reminds me of the “quasi-autonomous zones”, such as Seattle’s CHAZ, that sprang up during the George Floyd riots; now, the term “quasi-autonomous zone” owes more to contemporary anarchism—as filtered through the pederast Hakim Bey and the Zapatistas—than to Arendt; yet the idea that the antidote to “Trumpian totalitarianism”, as in Hungary in 1956, was “spontaneous people’s assemblies and workers’ councils” actually seems very Arendtian. So again, as with “open borders” and “defund the police”, I see Arendt’s influence in the way the George Floyd riots were conceptualised—except, unlike Hungary in 1956, there was nothing spontaneous about these “people’s assemblies”, nor were they run by virtuous, frank, and trusted men.
So, for the left, when they oppose immigration restrictions and the police and set up autonomous zones they very much work in Arendt’s framework for what totalitarianism is and what should be done about it—and this explains their fervency on the issue, to oppose immigration restrictions is to oppose Hitlerism and Stalinism; no wonder they feel so strongly about it. As many people have pointed out, immigration was not an issue that Marx particularly cared about—nor did liberals or progressives, historically; and yet the left generates new ideas in response to changes in the world. Arendt’s concept of totalitarianism represents how the “democratic left”—as opposed to the Soviet-aligned Communists—came to understand Hitler and Stalin. It is no surprise that our regime, a kind of non-Marxist leftism, would absorb her ideas and implement them.
Further, I think Arendt’s influence can be detected in the way Trump was dealt with by the establishment from the first hint he might take power. For example, although I cannot prove this is so, I highly suspect that Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” speech was derived by her speechwriter from a remark in Arendt’s Origins that the support base for totalitarianism came from “deplorable” elements in society; and by this she meant the quasi-criminal underworld, the adventurers, the bohemians, the artists, the mercenary soldiers, and the lumpenproles—i.e. the combination of archetypal “redneck” Trump supporters and degenerate attention-seekers, such as Milo Yiannopoulos.
Further to this, throughout Origins Arendt returns again and again to the idea that totalitarian regimes ignore “facts” and “factuality”; frankly, at certain moments I expected her to say, anachronistically, that Hitler could have been stopped by “fact-checkers”. Again, I am pretty sure that the idea that Trump needed to be “fact-checked” constantly was an idea derived from Origins—especially as the work was promoted as the approved means for educated people to understand the Trump phenomenon. Admittedly, the idea that an opponent’s claims could be instantly checked for veracity is not new in American politics, Gore Vidal records a similar initiative in the 1950s to “truth track” claims made by presidential candidates; however, the accent on factuality as opposed to truth is distinctly Arendtian.
Aside from the superficial Arendtianisms that bubbled around Trump and continue to bubble around Orbán’s Hungary and Putin’s Russia, I think Arendt’s influence can be felt in areas that are frequently attributed to postmodernism’s baleful influence: namely, the way in which race and sex have disappeared from Western politics—and, indeed, to assert that either exists or is salient for politics is considered prima facie evidence that a person has totalitarian tendencies and needs to be excluded from political discussion. This is often attributed, especially with regard to sex differences, to postmodernism and its disdain for “objective Western science”—there is some truth to this, and yet long before sex was “disappeared”, whisked off to the Gulag at the dead of night, race was disappeared; and it was disappeared without help from the then non-existent postmodernism.
Arendt’s statements about race in Origins are contradictory. At one point, she asserts that race does not really exist and people only came to think it existed because the scientists who put it forward as an idea were infected with pre-totalitarian ideas—imperialist ideas—and so made it up. I still hear people put this argument forward today, although it is now considered politically incorrect because it does not explicitly foreground the oppression suffered by People of Color and suggests that a person is “colourblind”—itself supposedly a white supremacist assertion. Nevertheless, the type of person who wears a t-shirt that says “All Lives Matter” might say: “So-called race science was made up by racist white scientists to justify imperialism. People have different skin colours, sure—underneath they’re exactly the same. One race the human race!”
However, at other points in Origins Arendt seems to acknowledge that race is real from a scientific perspective, but it is just a fact that has no salience for politics; it is okay, provided it is inert and does not become historicised—i.e. so long as it does not become a process; the process, say, whereby races compete and a superior race emerges. So she flips between “it doesn’t exist, it’s unscientific” and “it exists, but it must absolutely be excluded from politics”. Similarly, when Arendt discusses Marx and Disraeli—even though both men came from thoroughly assimilated families, long-converted to Christianity and integrated into Gentile societies—she deals with them as Jews, and as men who understood and orientated themselves as Jews; indeed, Disraeli certainly did so on an explicit racial basis—it was part of his appeal, his legendary “Eastern mystery”. In other words, Arendt contradicts herself; if race is not real, why speak about Marx and Disraeli as Jews—one was a German, the other English, if “race” is fiction? Further, if race cannot be admitted into politics, why discuss Disraeli and Marx in terms of how they understood and orientated themselves in the world as Jews—and not just in the cultural sense?
So Arendt exhibits a typical confusion on this issue, a confusion that remains recognisable even today. To caricature Arendt’s view, and the common view heard today: “Race has been made up by biased scientists, mostly in the 19th century, and even if it is real—I mean, I kind of act as if it is real—then we shouldn’t ever admit it to politics; except, that is, when I want to talk about it in a particular way to further my political points—anything else is racism and totalitarian.”
I think that Arendt—as with all Marxists, progressives, and Jacobins—knows deep down that race is real; except that to admit that cancels their belief in human equality, in a unified humanity even—in Arendt’s case it cancels her belief in a Jacobin-inspired “Rights of Man” and “Human Rights” and a nation which is a “nation of rights”. As Burke observed—and even Arendt admits this—“the Rights of Man” and “Human Rights” amount to the rights of the savage, because they can only be rights to what is elementarily common to all humans; and what is common in all men turns out to be very basic and savage needs. The “rights of Englishmen”, as Burke defended and Arendt disdains, however, allow for something much more sophisticated than mere commonality based on “savage rights”—i.e. “Human Rights” amount to the right to shop, eat, and fuck and if anyone interferes with your lifestyle then, “OMG, it’s totally Hitler”. Human rights can be no more than this because these elementary needs are where we are all the same, but that is no civilisation—a Human Rights regime is an existence.
By the end of Origins, Arendt comes down for the view that race might be real, but it must never be admitted into politics; it is a non-political category, in politics we should act as if the Judeo-Christian—a then-new term that took off around 1940—origin story as regards our common mother and father, Adam and Eve, is real. Occasionally, you will see popular science articles that announce—smelling very much of piety—“The African Eden: the first modern humans emerged in Africa”. The basic sentiment the articles wish to convey: “Africa was our common cradle; we are all, in the deepest sense, black.” Articles such as this—probably with little to do with science—are the secular version of what Arendt asserts in Origins; it is an attempt to preserve the biblical story of a common ancestry, in this case suitably altered so that Adam and Eve were black; everyone’s first parents were black Africans and racism is a sin. The prohibited version is that, wherever mankind originated, he has undergone considerable variations in evolutionary pressures—much in the same way that a wolf and a Chihuahua share a canine “Adam and Eve”, yet only an idiot would claim that wolves and Chihuahuas are “one race” to be governed according to common “Canine Rights”.
Essentially, Arendt identifies a struggle between races—with their leaders, kings or otherwise—and nations underpinned by Human Rights for all; the priority is to defend “the nation” against “the race”—and this all goes back to the Jacobins, who for Arendt were not godless blood-thirsty monsters but rather the first people to defend all mankind; and, indeed, provide a home for the stateless. Other elements in Arendt’s views on race seem to have bled down into popular political knowledge—or else she repeated and amplified what was already in the air. For example, Arendt sees the Boers as ur-Nazis; and she speaks about them and their racial relations in the most uncomplimentary terms—the Boers are lazy, brutal, and gold-grubbing. Quite how this lazy people ever built an advanced industrial economy, complete with nuclear power, Arendt would be at a loss to explain. However, this very negative view towards the Boers has become almost a cliché—certainly in the Anglo-Saxon world; and I think Arendt contributed to it.
Similarly, she characterises the migratory Germans in Central Europe as tribal and aimless wanderers; indeed, the way she characterises the Germans and the Boers is redolent of how people caricature the Jews—lazy, money-grubbing, tribal wanderers. I think what was at play here was simply this: Arendt was a Jew, she was writing a few years after the holocaust; she was, understandably, angry and so she indulged in “everything you say we are, you are—Nah, nah, losers!” And fair enough; but I do not think her treatment as regards the Boers and the stateless Germans is balanced or fair. Indeed, it is quite, as they say, racialised—contrary to the mode of analysis Arendt herself claims to be fit for politics.
Arendt establishes true politics—healthy politics—as a domain of action in the classical sense; it is a place where people reveal themselves through language so as to establish a distinct individuality, an individuality that is an important part of the Judeo-Christian tradition. She contrasts this life, the full and active life, with pure labour and material life; for Arendt, the totalitarian regimes reduce everything to material labour—to the workers toiling for their bread in the USSR, and to racial superiority in Hitler’s Germany; everything becomes biological or technological. Politics, meanwhile, should be above these mundane concerns; it should be insulated from these issues, really from scientific and technological concerns—although Arendt would say that totalitarianism is not truly scientific, it merely parodies science.
Arendt’s political outlook really puts together two slightly contradictory tendencies: Jacobinism and people’s councils merged with a classical conception of a virtuous man who speaks well in the assembly—and whose speech reveals his ability to “begin again”, to be the start of something; a quasi-Christian idea that comes from Arendt’s admiration for St. Augustine and Heidegger. Personally, I think the idea that this type of man—historically an aristocratic man, rooted in his ethnos—would appear in a “people’s assembly” or soviet is delusional.
Anyway, this idea that politics should be compartmentalised from, for example, race—even if it proves to be true, it should be a non-issue for politics—pretty much guides us today, except the principle has also been extended to sex as well. It was once commonly agreed—especially in 19th-century science (boo, hiss!)—that sex exists; now we are not so sure, except even if it does it should definitely not be relevant for politics—the political realm is a realm where speech reveals and the individual is recognised, mere biological and material concerns are non-issues for politics. In this sense, Arendt is hostile to science—perhaps being a woman she is threatened by it—and would like it to disappear; elsewhere, she expresses doubts that space explorers could ever be fully human, living as they do in environments fully dependent on technology—here, as always, we see her debt to Heidegger and his doubts about technology. Thus, for Arendt, if artefacts of race and sex appear in the economic and political realm, we should make them disappear through political action—for they should not be there, they do not exist in this realm; and they cannot be allowed to—otherwise, totalitarianism.
The problem with this compartmentalisation is that it is not real; and if you govern a state as if race and sex do not exist then you are doomed to disaster. Ironically, Arendt castigates totalitarians for living in a delusional bubble where facts cannot penetrate: totalitarians tell a totally logical and consistent story that is periodically updated; facts, more inert than logic, cannot penetrate the bubble—and neither can common sense. Of course, Arendt does just the same with race, because she cannot abandon her Marxism-Jacobinism and the equality of all mankind. So she makes contradictory statements and finally argues that even if this thing “race” is real it must, must be excluded from politics; in the political realm, we act as if it does not exist.
Yet how can you govern effectively and in accordance with reality if you exclude a primal category that allows you to understand what people are and the nature of reality itself? Are you not just the same as the totalitarian who excludes “facts” that do not fit with his story—in Arendt’s case, the story that all people are fundamentally equal? Are you not, in fact, delusional? And what happens when, for example, this principle is extended to an even more elementary category, such as sex, so that it is not even possible to assert that men and women are different because that is a “totalitarian” statement? In what sense is a country governed on these principles ruled well?
Indeed, it is telling that Arendt associates “reality” with totalitarianism. She says that totalitarians speak of their ever-changing “reality”; yet engagement with reality, as Nietzsche would have observed, requires a certain flux to it. Reality is complicated and if you follow reality you will find yourself quite a changeable person. To take Mussolini—for Arendt, a non-totalitarian figure—he was a man who was very flexible and changed directions quite often, quite radically, and yet this could be seen as an attempt to engage with reality (in his case, the political reality). The person who engages with reality will be quite provisional—quite dynamic, a quality Arendt fears—and so will be changeable. Arendt sees dynamism as a source of problems in politics; and perhaps this is because she is a woman and fundamentally wants security, whereas men want adventure; further, as a woman—a Jewish woman to boot—she is above all worried that everyone should be accepted (the undocumented admitted without question) and nobody singled out as better or worse than anybody else by any inherent standard (such as, for example, personal appearance).
I think that this idea put forward by Arendt that we need to “compartmentalise” political life to protect it from totalitarian contamination and, more broadly, dynamic scientific thought, lies behind our current situation where race and sex have become taboo political issues. At the moment, the questions over transgenderism are essentially negotiations over whether or not Western states will do to sex what we did to race: pretend it does not exist, as official policy. This pretence originates not in postmodernism—although it has helped—but rather in Arendt’s original analysis as to what causes totalitarianism.
The greatest irony in Arendt’s success is that the movement that has most taken to heart her cautions against what constitutes totalitarianism—persecution of the undocumented and the power of the police—also instantiates the primary element that she said characterises totalitarianism as an idea. The progressive liberals, the woke, who demand open borders and protest the police all claim to believe that “the arc of history bends towards social justice”; further, there is a demonic group involved in an international conspiracy to stop this from happening, straight white men. In other words, the woke have, in Arendtian terminology, historicised certain facts—the historical position of straight white men in America—and fitted those facts into a dynamic process-driven belief system that claims social justice, an inevitable historical process, will be achieved when this group, straight white men, has been liquidated.
However, this movement, despite in essence being totalitarian, claims to be anti-totalitarian and believes, in its opposition towards the police and demands that “no humans are illegal”, itself to be in the vanguard against totalitarianism—after all, when The New York Times summarised The Origins of Totalitarianism for you (you bought it on Amazon, never got round to reading it) did you not learn that an obsession with migrants, policing, and the mob constitutes totalitarianism? Ergo, Trump was totalitarian—thank heavens our vigilant security services forestalled Trump in his totalitarian efforts; for truly, are we all not on the watch for dangerous white supremacists and assorted extremists who want to lynch all black people and spread foul racial libels, just as Jussie Smollett was almost lynched? We are fortunate that we will never have a Kristallnacht here, instead we have peaceful protests about George Floyd—we could never have a case such as Kristallnacht, where the assassination of a German diplomat by a mentally disturbed Jew was used as a pretext for paramilitary mobs to burn, loot, and destroy.
I have succumbed to irony, and that is a vice. You get the picture: the George Floyd riots were exactly the same as Kristallnacht, a random incident was pumped up as a pretext to unleash paramilitaries to loot and burn; America and the West are already dominated by a total security police state, the CIA and the FBI and on and on—as Arendt notes, totalitarian states replicate functions extensively, so there are endless American secret intelligence organisations to watch us and watch each other; the media invents stories, just like Pravda and Der Stürmer—such as Smollett’s “lynching”—and the state minimises the impact if “the movement’s” hoaxers are found out; just as right-wing judges went soft on SA men in Weimar, so judges initially went soft on Smollett until public outcry caused “the Party” to rap their man’s knuckles a little harder; and, least we forget, all this is underpinned by scientificality: we all love science, and the science shows immigrants are good for the economy and we need more women in boardrooms and racial quotas for boardrooms—and if you say that this is nothing to do with the scientific method, you must be a white supremacist.
And, just as with the totalitarian movements, our movement in the West competes to see who can come up with most extreme formulations; the National Socialists did not start out with an exterminatory policy towards the Jews, they egged each other into it through constant competition. Indeed, as Arendt notes, it was NSDAP members who were the first and pretty much only people to overtly object to an exterminatory policy towards the Jews—just as today it is conservative progressives, always keen to state that they have no race or sex prejudice, who suggest that the line towards straight white men should be softened: “If you want genuine progress, we need real diversity…” Yet, if you look at official propaganda in the media, the language towards white men is openly exterminatory—adverts where white women are paired with black men are designed to destroy white people as a racial group as surely as an article in Der Stürmer was designed to destroy the Jews as a racial group; and these adverts exist due to official state policies—soft at the moment, but the NSDAP was soft at first too…
Yet still, conservatives—just like those moderate NSDAP men and the Jews themselves—cannot quite believe it, “No, no, Avram, I read Hitler’s program very carefully; it will be no worse than the usual ghettos and a few shop windows broken—I’m staying in Germany, just going to get on with my business. Bribe a few people here and there; people always take bribes, it never changes. The Germans will settle down, they’re civilised people—my uncle was in the Great War! A hero!” Similarly, “White men are basically in charge, right? And I guess we did kind of oppress people so fair enough that we can’t hold senior jobs anymore…We’re just giving women and POCs a fair crack of the whip…We’re completely safe, just look at the Constitution.” The road to Auschwitz is paved with self-delusion; it is obvious that the American regime wants to racially exterminate white people, obvious from the propaganda and the open borders policy—albeit, currently, in a “soft” way—and yet conservatives continue to pretend that we live in 1890 and everything is fine, fine…the gas is so peaceful, so gentle. Why did nobody fight back, there were more of you than there were guards? (They ask that much later, but if you were there…we never imagined…).
Similarly, when people ask why the Jews did not object more volubly to their demonisation in the lead up to Hitler’s ascension to power and as his regime consolidated itself, the answer is exactly the same as why people do not complain that “white men” as such are demonised now—“It will only make it worse.” That is to say, if the Jews protested the NSDAP organs would say, “There they are again, moaning as usual—undermining the Reich as usual—asking for special favours, begging foreigners to help them. The typical traitorous Jew shows his true colours.” Similarly, if you say, “I think white people are demonised in this system and the system itself works for their slow extermination.” People will turn round and say, “White nationalist! White supremacist! Hitler! Genocide. Stop your moaning, racist! Get on with your work! Anyway, white people deserve it for all the suffering they caused!” The latter, a disturbingly common sentiment, is by far the most sinister. So the net result is that people keep their mouths shut and hope for the best.
Ours might be a softer totalitarianism, one still in progress towards the whirlwind, but it is recognisably totalitarian nonetheless. You might object that many progressives are straight white men; how will they persecute themselves? The answer is that progressivism, as with all totalitarian movements, is not about reality; it has a consistent story that claims to be underpinned by science but is not. Thus, if our totalitarianism turned exterminatory, the extermination would, for the most part, be carried out by men who are from a biological perspective European—the regime construes race in a cultural way, so that people who are demonstrably biologically European can declare themselves “Native American”; similarly, Hitler was happy to make various groups—even individual Jews—“honourary Aryans”, yet that way of thinking and acting is not scientific or rational; just as one of the most anti-Semitic and exterminatory Axis regimes, Croatia, had a senior leadership mostly married to Jewish women—it makes no sense (except psychoanalytically); but with humans little of it does, anymore than Elizabeth Warren’s claim to be a Red Indian makes sense.
Similarly, any prospective exterminatory movement in America would be led mostly by biologically European people who considered themselves “allies” of the POC—their primary target would probably be “the mob” of Trump supporters who would be conceptualised as a “totalitarian threat” to the system; and would be, as banal progressive jargon has it, “coded” as white.
If this seems implausible to you, remember that the American state, long ago, with Guantanamo Bay and Bagram, established that it can work in an extra-legal way—a totalitarian way—with little to no judicial or external oversight; just as happened in the invisible concentration camps in the USSR and Hitler’s Germany, people were disappeared from their homes at night, often for years, to be tortured by the American secret police. It is only a question of when and not if the regime finally gains approval to use these methods in the continental United States, and January 6th was seen as a definite pretext to extend the security state internally to liquidate “threats to democracy”.
As Arendt observed, for Hitler the war was a pretext to start his liquidation of the mentally retarded at home—itself a preparation for the holocaust of the Jews and other groups; it was not a rational war with aims at conquest as such, it was a step in the creation of the master race. Similarly, in America, “the movement” searches for a pretext to unleash the apparatus that for twenty years it has refined by torturing various Muslims—or blowing them up with drones—on people at home; to implement the “final solution to the white man problem”. Of course, put that way it sounds hysterical—and you may well squirm, because it is a little impious as regards our state cult around Hitler’s holocaust to use “final solution” that way, perhaps you are not so faithful…White men cannot really by victimised, can they? Yet that assertion is itself a facet from the totalitarian belief system you have imbibed—and what is a “white man”, anyway? I myself am 1/20th of the Cree Nation…
Possibly the only thing that holds this back is that the American regime—unlike Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia—is highly feminised; it would like to have concentration camps, but its cadre is too milky to actually push in that direction very hard; however, it does work in that general direction—and it works in that direction because we basically live under a soft totalitarianism that occasionally jerks forward into ever-higher delusions via its purity spiral. It certainly has the apparatus to be every bit as repressive as Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia if it wants to be on home territory—the question is when will it have sufficient pretext to do so?
Another huge irony behind all this is that Trump was not totalitarian in Arendt’s sense; he was, perhaps, vaguely like Mussolini in that he is a charismatic man with an authoritarian streak; however, his movement never historicised phenomena—Trumpism or MAGAism is not dynamic; it does not have an arc of history, as the progressives do.
If Trump had made speeches where he said: “It is the destiny of the American people, the white man, to subdue not only this continent but South America; and then, as certain philosophers who understood history foresaw, to conquer China—our final frontier,” then Trump’s movement would have been totalitarian. He said no such thing: he demanded that laws that had long been on the books as regards immigration be enforced; he asked for America’s industries to be protected against Chinese predation; and he called for corruption, in the spiritual sense, to be dealt with in Washington—drain the swamp. He said he would Make America Great Again; i.e. he looked back to restore what had been lost. Totalitarian movements never work that way: they look forward to the future Jerusalem—they live for the future, whether that future is full Communism or the advent of Aryan man. Hitler had no nostalgia for the old Germany, an entity he saw as corrupt and foolish—Stalin had no desire to go back to the old Russia.
Further, unlike totalitarian movements, Trump had no “enemy”—no diabolical foe whose international conspiratorial activities stood behind everything: not the immigrants, not “the swamp”, not even “the deep state” really fitted the bill—vaguely the deep state was such a foe, though it is local not international; yet he never managed to personify it, whereas we all know that National Socialists hate the “hand-rubbing scheming Jew” and Communists hate “Mr. Monopoly capitalist with his top hat and moneybags”—and we all know progressives hate “straight white men”, usually personified as an “uneducated racist homophobic redneck with a Confederate tattoo”. What did Trump’s “eternal enemy” look like? You cannot tell me because there was none—again, this is low-energy totalitarianism, because it was not totalitarianism at all; and not least because Trump was actually hostile to the security state, to the secret police and its wars.
In conclusion, I offer two cheers for Arendt. I think she was right to identify totalitarianism as a novel form of political rule, a form that emerged from atomised societies—yes, even by 1920 we were atomised—where people lived as an amorphous mass; lonely though always in company. Always at the football stadium and down the pub yet never comfortable in solitude, in the condition where a person can begin a dialogue with themselves—where a person can really begin to think. The solution for the person who is alone even when surrounded by so many “friends” and companions is the mass movement, the charismatic leader and the whirl of constant activity that keeps you busy as you work for the new utopia to come—simultaneously, the leader takes it all on his shoulders and you are relieved from any responsibility whatsoever. The termination point is a situation where elements in the population are unpersoned, reduced to Pavlovian dogs in the camps—broken down to mere biological life.
However, Arendt was wrong to identify totalitarianism as being particularly about stateless people; indeed, this part of her thesis does not really fit with her contention that Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia were two totalitarian twins; if they were, the Russians were not very interested in stateless persons. I think Arendt added this point for several reasons: primarily, she was a Jew and saw that the main reason the Jews died in Hitler’s holocaust was because they had no papers—and nobody to give them papers, hence to be stateless was for Arendt herself an existential concern and a nightmare; secondly, she was a Marxist-Jacobin and believed in Human Rights above all—and Human Rights mean you cannot differentiate between a Frenchman and a Somali and must only work with what is the lowest common denominator between them; thirdly, Arendt was a woman and women naturally want everyone to be accepted everywhere and prefer people not to distinguish between appearances (lest they lose out in intra-sexual competition). So I think the migrant question is a red herring. Similarly, I think Arendt was flat wrong about race—contradicts herself on the issue—and that she only centred this in her analysis because racial thought was so important to the National Socialists, although it played no part in Soviet Communism.
So I think Arendt has a point about totalitarianism as a dynamic movement that historicises phenomena and seeks to supplant the state—to become an ever-changing cataract at the centre of all human existence, a storm that eventually consumes everything within a country so that there is no space, even in your own mind, to deviate from the movement’s latest demands.
As Arendt rightly notes, National Socialism was not nationalistic—although it is frequently described as ultra-nationalistic and conflated with movements such as MAGA. National Socialism mirrored what it thought the Jews to be: an international conspiracy to rule the world as a master race—it was a copy of Judaism, as Hitler saw it, for Gentiles. As such, it was not for Germans per se; the Germans were a stepping stone to the Aryan overman, who arguably did not yet exist—at least, not at scale—just as Soviet Communism was a distant prospect; hence Hitler happily said that the Germans should all be gassed to death at the war’s end for their failure; they were not integral to his vision, and he always intended to step over their customs, traditions, and even the German nation herself. National Socialism was international—imperialist—and happily incorporated other Europeans (other races) into its project, the nations would fade way and only Europe would remain. A novel political entity without traditions, customs, or history needs to be bound together somehow; how? Enmity towards the eternal enemy, the Jew. So National Socialism was—and insofar as it remains operative in various iterations remains—an international conspiracy to create the overman; and to create and unite a new Europe, not Europe as we know it, on the basis of hostility towards the Jews.
As you can see, this is laughably not like anything Trump envisages; so to describe Trump as “a Nazi” was always beyond ridiculous. However, it is very like what the Communists intended—albeit in a different way, with their globe-bestriding “New Socialist Man”; and the methods to achieve both were the same—as are the methods that will be used to “complete the arc of history that bends towards social justice”. National Socialism was rather like the character Tom Ripley from Patricia Highsmith’s novels: the Ripley character perfectly imitates people and then murders them—the imitation is a prelude to murder. Similarly, Hitler sought to perfectly imitate the Jews—their ethnocentrism and international nature—and that which you perfectly imitate you must destroy, the original must be effaced; in progressive liberalism, all people are correctly coded as “white men” behaviourally—ergo, the project will be completed when the imitated subject is liquidated. The sensibility is artistic, and Hitler—the only man Stalin trusted, so much so he refused to believe the Germans had invaded for days—was an artist; as was Stalin, a man who was originally a poet in his native Georgian—and this is why they liked each other so well.
Further, all this is particularly underwritten by secret police organisations; notably, the German Army and the Soviet Marshal Zhukov were not particularly keen on their respective regimes, especially the SS and the NKVD—yet the army was always subordinated to the politicised secret service run by civilians with a fanatical commitment to the movement. In the West, I do not believe that for the most part militaries, aside from timeservers in the higher ranks, really believe or respect woke ideas; and yet I think the intelligence services, the “secret police”, whether the CIA or the NSA or MI6, are very keen on progressive liberalism—they are politicised and woke. As Arendt observes, the security services replicate organisations and structures as a standard procedure to prevent infiltration and subversion; so the security services function in an inherently totalitarian way, with many redundant bureaucracies; and so the security services also eliminate responsibility, with orders given verbally and deniably for security purposes—often from particular leaders. The less responsibility, the more likely people are to favour left-wing ideas.
The security services have also, for many centuries, self-funded through black budgets—they become states within states accountable to no one; traditionally this was done through brothels occasionally used for entrapment, later, as with the CIA, it was drug-running operations—or, in the USSR and Hitler’s Germany, through private slave camps. As with totalitarians, security services exist at the intersection between the criminal underworld and normal business—and was not Hitler originally hired and given his start as an orator as a political spy for the state?
Indeed, I once sat in a café and listened to someone who worked for MI6 boast about how her lesbian boss, her lover, gained her a post and how much the organisation does for “diversity”. In other words, MI6 is a politicised secret police—albeit nominally concerned with foreign affairs. As Arendt notes, totalitarian movements—and the security police—usually recruit outsiders, bohemians, perverts, and quasi-criminal groups; and this tendency is directly visible in wokeness, where groups that have been regarded as marginal or perverted for centuries are held to have the highest status and even have special legal protection to make them into a “Party elite” that is entirely biddable.
There is a definite similarity to the way the woke celebrate transgenderism and homosexuality—sometimes even people who want sex with young children—and the way the Soviet and National Socialist camp systems gave the most power to the criminal inmates, often employing them as overseers; the criminal inmates tortured and abused innocent prisoners, political prisoners or people who were simply accused to fill quotas. Similarly, Western societies give highest status and authority to people generally held to be untrustworthy and perverted; we live in an operational Gulag—a very pleasant one from a material perspective, though the power dynamics are very similar to a camp; i.e. the criminals are rewarded, the innocent are punished.
Arendt’s real weakness was her refusal to give up her Jacobin-Marxist ideas, so far as she refuses to do so the book is not very useful and contains many untruths. It is notable that the left has taken up what is untrue in this book and abandoned what is true; so it is concerned about migrants and it is concerned about the police and border police—though not the security police, it is left to the libertarians and classical liberals to worry about them; although it really is the secret police above all Arendt sees as being constitutive of totalitarianism.
Arendt’s idea that race should be strictly segregated from politics has been taken up—and the principle has even been applied to sex as well. Ironically, in the first half of Origins Arendt frankly discusses the power dynamics found in the leading Jewish families in Europe—their role as financiers to aristocracy and of wars—and, basically, their central role in European politics for centuries; including Disraeli’s idea that there needed to be an elite Jewish secret society to govern the world. Although this is purely factual and not written with malice—given Arendt’s own race—and Arendt writes to dispel any idea that there was or is such a thing as an international Jewish conspiracy to rule the world, I cannot imagine the first half of Origins being written in the West today. The legacy of Arendt’s desire to insulate race from politics is such that frank, basically factual, discussion on such topics cannot be permitted—it would be characterised, as with JA Hobson’s work that inspired Arendt’s views on imperialism, as “anti-Semitic” and the person who produced such a work would be blackballed.
So we have a spectacle where the ruling belief system, a soft totalitarianism, uses Arendt’s ideas to proclaim its opposition to totalitarianism. Other totalitarianisms occasionally oppose it: only a few short years ago, Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader, led an insurgent Marxist faction literally called Momentum (i.e “the movement”) from within the Labour Party against our soft totalitarianism—an event that was, in a way, a Röhm-type insurgency from the outer left against the left centre.
The movement that governs us is also imperialist—as Arendt holds all totalitarian movements are; the reason why The New York Times worries about LGBT rights in Russia or the women’s pay gap in China or Orbán’s policies in Hungary is for precisely the same reason as Pravda had an interest in Bolivian mines or Der Stürmer had an interest in German minorities in Argentina—the totalitarian goal is global, it is imperialist; it seeks to absorb everything and make it homogenous with what exists at the centre. Conservatives often weakly say, “What about real diversity? Diversity of opinion!” Yet this is like a Yugoslav Communist saying to Stalin, “We have our socialism here already, thank you very much!” “No, comrade. You have a delusion. We have socialism, and you need our socialism—it will put you on the road to Communism.”
You might think Bolivia is a diverse place right now; yet diversity, as “the Party” means it, is one black man and a transgender person and a woman—and so on; and this itself is just a moralised story based on certain aspects of American history that will be imposed on other countries regardless. “But we’re diverse already!” “No, you totally don’t get diversity.” The word has no relation to its actual usage, it is a slogan—what in-group people say—just like every Soviet Party hack in Afghanistan was there to spread “peace, socialism, and brotherhood”.
Arendt herself was rather weak on this, precisely because she was still a Marxist; although she says it may have drawbacks, she tentatively welcomes a world government—something that was very much still in the air in the early 1950s, when the UN was new and many people convinced themselves it was more than a glorified talking shop. A world government would have the most dire totalitarian possibilities imaginable; fortunately, it is impossible—and what we actually need are many more breakaway states, many more Confederates, to splinter away from the American empire; an empire which I sincerely hope, for all our sakes, dies as quickly as possible—before it takes what remains of advanced civilisation with it into the maw.
So totalitarianism is real—we live under a soft feminised version—and our totalitarians have absorbed Arendt’s thesis and turned it to their own purposes; frankly, quite a totalitarian thing to do—though it was only possible because Arendt was too far to the left in the first place; and being too far to the left there were certain things she could not know about totalitarianism—not least because, though she admired St. Augustine, she was ultimately godless.
Here is a final observation on these regimes: Solzhenitsyn was right when he recounted the words of an old peasant who said, “All this has happened because men have forgotten God.” Solzhenitsyn said that was, despite all his researches and writings, as good an explanation as any he could ever produce. It should not escape your notice that the acronym for the ubiquitous concept Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion spells DEI—it spells “God” in Latin. This is intentional; it is a taunt by the true believers: “Nah! Nah! Your God is dead. This is God now. Trannies and gays and blacks and women. There’s nothing you can do or say because we run the state, and if you object you’ll lose your job—or worse; we hope worse eventually, you fuckin’ bigot.”
Stalin undertook a similar action as regards religion. Hitler was a little more Machiavellian and sympathetic to religion, but at core the SS had only the vaguest Deistic sense there was a higher power. Now, for the most part, people who are overtly religious in the West follow the state religion—just like there was a “coordinated” National Socialist Church and a tame Russian Orthodox Church. I am not here to tell you to become a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or a Buddhist—but Solzhenitsyn and his peasant were right, “All this has happened because men have forgotten God.” The American empire began to die on 9/11, when 19 God-fearing men struck a blow against the empire; today, it openly erects a false God, DEI, for the people to worship—tomorrow it will be, like Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany, ashes.