Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
IS IT FASCISM YET?
Hannah Arendt with her nearly ever-present cigarette in hand. The copyright to the original of this handsome and often reproduced photograph is currenty held by picture-alliance. Unfortunately I have not yet determined the photographer and year the picture was taken.
So much rested on the berlin wall, that emblem of the so-called cold war constructed by east germany to cordon off berlin in 1961, and which eventually stretched along the entire border between east and west germany. In my high school social studies classes, my classmates and I were taught to see it as part of Churchill's iron curtain, the supposed barrier falling down between the soviets, their allies, and 'the west.' Yet the berlin wall had a strange dual aspect: it represented both the 'threat of communism' and the defense against it in 'the west.' It also served as a talisman against totalitarianism, be it stalinism or renewed nazism. If 'the west' didn't have a similar wall, then 'the west' had successfully resisted totalitarianism – at least until the germans pulled it down and the cold war declared over and won by 'the good guys' at last. Yet somehow, the cold war hasn't ended so much as changed. It didn't take long for the united states government to define new enemies, and they were set up on the ashes of the old as terrorism officially came to the settler state after a remarkable period absence. Which gave no joy to the Indigenous peoples and Black communities who had been living with settler terrorism the entire time, knowing too well that terrorism never does anything appropriate against the guilty.
UPDATE 2018-03-01 - I should add here that my use of Arendt's analysis does not mean she was the first to look more deeply into the dangers of totalitarianism and fascism. Why her great work of political and historical analysis is on the origins of totalitarianism, not fascism, is because that analysis was done in the main by Clara Zetkin. Zetkin analyzed fascism's origins and pinpointed its relationship to crises in capitalist economies and dysfunction of democratic institutions. Transcriptions and translations of a part of Zetkin's writings, including her analysis of and warning against fascism at the 1923 communist international is available on the Marxist Internet Archive, which is jam-packed full of pdf and html documents written by the gamut of marxist theorists and activists.
UPDATE 2019-01-04 - The other day I happened on the 2003 documentary The Corporation during my perambulations on the web. Oddly enough, I had managed to borrow and watch the making of and additional films included as part of the educational dvd set from the public library, but the documentary itself was still so popular ten years later that I never did manage to borrow its dvds, although I did read Joel Bakan's book. So I sat down to watch the documentary proper, and there learned about the original origins and mandate of the house unamerican activities committee. Its origins were specifically to counter the growing threat of fascism in the states, and it was later ruthlessly co-opted from that purpose by the infamous Joseph McCarthy. According to wikisource, this was the "McCormack–Dickstein Committee" – the page includes many pdfs of the testimony, although it appears the record is still incomplete. The first bombshell testimony after the committee's creation in 1938 was by retired general Smedley Darlington Butler, who testified to a plot to overthrow the FDR administration using methods based on the pattern already established by yes, Hitler and Mussolini. Remarkably, nobody has brought this up again yet even in activist media in light of the ongoing socio-political developments in the united states.
UPDATE 2019-11-25 - I have happened on another source on Smedley Butler, in case readers are feeling a bit itchy about "wiki" anything right now due to the ongoing problems on wikipedia with sock puppet editors. The article is part of arcdaia publishing's media copy for their series of books on political scandals in the united states, titled Smedley Butler and the 1930s Plot to Overthrow the President, and it is sensibly written with some perhaps not so surprising names popping up in what was known at the time as the "Business Plot." I had forgotten how many familiar names were and are tied to this episode in united states politics.
UPDATE 2020-05-04 - Here is an excellent source to help a person get more deeply into Arendt's way of thinking, including some discussion of how she uses specific important terms in her work. This is well worth taking the time to do, because whether or not you agree with her, she shares wonderful tools to think with, and that is a gift not to be sniffed at. The source is radio open source with Christopher Lydon, specifically the topic line Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil.
UPDATE 2020-07-03 - This excellent graphic essay has percolated back up to the top of my newsfeeds again, and rightfully so. About Face: Death and Surrender to Power in the Clothing of Men, dated 24 february 2019, is a deep dive and nuanced reflection by Nate Powell on the latest manipulations of toxic masculinity. These manipulations are effectively training up the newest "fascist paramilitary participants," whose insecurities are weaponized against them as Arendt noted, and who are being guided into turning wholly to authority and against any one else deemed "different." We can already see how "different" is being openly referred to again as being "feminine." This essay is hosted on the popula website, founded and owned by journalists, supported only by subscriptions. They are using blockchain to archive their articles, which is quite intriguing in and of itself.
UPDATE 2020-08-24 - A great blog post from openculture.com, Hannah Arendt Explains How Propaganda Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Morality: Insights from The Origins of Totalitarianism, that is all too powerfully relevant to these difficult times. I have also been reminded to add this link to Arendt's famous essay on lying on politics, Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers from 18 november 1971 in the new york review of books. As we know too well today, it is important to be aware of where scholars get their funding from, and it is no secret that Arendt was one of many who received support from what is euphemistically and oxymoronically referred to as the united states "intelligence community." I can see why she among so many others likely found such support flattering and maybe even an indicator of her prestige in the context of her time and conditions. We can all hope for more scholars and others to resist the temptations of such blandishments.
UPDATE 2022-11-04 - Well, here we are in ongoing interesting times, and at this point there are not many people in "western" countries unaware that the self-designated elites of those countries are now so confident in their power that they are openly supporting fascism abroad and implementing more and more of its authoritarian apparatus "at home." I put "at home" in quotes because based on their behaviour and own words, these people don't see any place or country as "home" except those they control for however long they are present. There are many recent articles reflecting on the relationships between "liberal democracy," antistatism, and fascism over the past couple of years. Two excellent introductions are Marco D'Eramo's article at New Left Review's Sidecar subsite, Rule by Target from 15 october 2021 and Erica Caines' Liberal Democracy: The Bedfellow of Fascism at Black Agenda Report via Hood Communist, 2 november 2022.
UPDATE 2023-01-11 - For what reads like a hint of resistance to today's groupthink and authoritarian trends, David Bromwich has penned a new essay reflecting on Arendt's analysis of totalitarianism. See Hannah Arendt Was Really a Prophet Against Conformity: To the question of how totalitarian methods could ever draw the compliance of free citizens, she replied: through the enchantment of success.
According to 'western' military and political leaders, "we" need more, not less, "security" than ever before, where they always conflate security with monitoring of as much of the wider population as possible, and that monitoring always of the most intrusive kind that is technically possible. Today pervasive closed circuit video cameras, racial profiling, arbitrary arrest, and charges with the accused debarred from seeing or testing the evidence against them have escaped from within the prison system. Now the first three are endemic to any fairly wealthy city's officially designated "downtown." Every bus and train car in the local transit system is full of cameras that record not only video but sound, even as passengers complain that these additions are no use when they are stuck dealing with harassment and violence, let alone drunks or the occasional misery of a fellow passenger overcome by the dreaded winter vomiting bug. Ask young Black and Indigenous men in toronto or winnipeg about racial profiling. Ask young Black and Indigenous women anywhere in the north american settler states, who know too well that their heritage mean the police consider any violence against them no crime. Ask the string of men of middle eastern origins railroaded via "extraordinary rendition" into torture chambers. Canada has its own shameful list. So far "the mainstream" has not been much subjected to these practices. But that such subjection has happened at all, that these practices are now part of daily life, not just extremely limited places such as prisons, or the former key site of continuous video and audio surveillance, the bank, has forced everyone into greater awareness of it. More and more of "us" are asking: is this what the beginning of fascism looks like? As a web article title, the default answer is "no." Which leaves a person to wonder if this example is the unasked for exception that proves the rule.
There is a great deal of skepticism about whether this question is even valid. However, most of the examples used to illustrate this skepticism seem to derive not from the earliest stages of the establishment of nazi power, but from later when nazi power was firmly in place. And make no mistake, the "fascism" the question refers to is typically the nazi version. That said, it still may be appropriate to dismiss the question, it's just that the usual reasons given to do so seem a bit weak. Not only that, since the regime led by Adolf Hitler was not actually an authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing government in the sense usually intended by the term, compared to 2013 when I first wrote this essay, it's fair to say I was originally trying to answer the wrong question. I actually sought to answer the question of whether it was totalitarianism yet, and the answer was no. Having reread Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism and several of her other works, including especially Eichmann in Jerusalem and Between Past and Future, I am going to correct and nuance my interpretation of Arendt's arguments about totalitarianism. Then I am going to face up to the original question properly.
Arendt was of course a key observer and writer on the early stages of totalitarianism, as well as a famous and controversial philosopher. She witnessed the rise of the nazi party, and was forced to flee germany by the nazi regime's anti-semitic and anti-intellectual policies. Later, Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism (Origins), which lays out her understanding of what social and political circumstances can favour the development of totalitarianism in a society. According to the "Preface to Part Three: Totalitarianism," Arendt wrote the book between 1945 to 1949, and the first edition came out in 1951. This preface is from the second paperback edition originally released in 1958, including some revisions, additions, and a bibliography. It is a justly famous book, a remarkable early effort to systematically understand how the nazi and stalinist governments could even be possible. Since she actually witnessed many of the factors she discussed, Arendt seems quite a reasonable place to start if we want to find a means to see if a given country is in the early stages of totalitarianism. Despite my earlier misreading of Arendt, this is still a reasonable start to determining if the question 'is it fascism yet?,' because she carefully disentangles "fascism" from "totalitarianism" in order to make sense of the human responses she observed to both.
According to Arendt, there are at least four major factors that support the development of totalitarianism: loss of faith in democratic political leadership, the development of the masses and the mob, the availability of a widely agreed on scapegoat, and the encouragement of extreme nationalism. These factors interact synergistically to fuel the creation of a totalitarian society. It is important however, not to be misled by the presence of "extreme nationalism" among these factors. A predisposing factor is not equivalent to a final feature of totalitarianism itself.
The first factor arises when men react to the discovery that their democratic leaders have behaved in a manner they consider hypocritical. Their response is not to hold these leaders to account. Instead, they respond with nihilism and a declaration that there are no rules but "might makes right." This suggests that such men see their relationship with their leaders as a paternalistic one. The chosen leaders are expected to act as dependable fathers. The men do not expect to have to take an active role in holding the leaders accountable as such, and may even believe that it is not possible for them to do so. All told, this suggests that this factor is better described as loss of faith in democratic leadership under conditions where paternalistic leadership is expected. Such conditions are more likely in extremely hierarchical societies. Arendt connects such passivity especially with the bourgeois class and below, due to europe's history of feudalism and the lingering existence of monarchies where leadership was expected of a king.
The second factor develops in "highly civilized" societies with established class systems. "Classes" consist of people who perceive themselves as having a common economic and political interest. By contrast, the masses are made up of isolated men, men who have no normal social relationships, and are politically neutral if not indifferent. Arendt states that men of this kind can't be integrated into organizations founded on common interests, although they can be drawn together by extreme nationalism. The masses are still part of their societies, which appear to be considered 'highly civilized' by Arendt if they have economies based on private or state capitalism.
Arendt repeatedly refers to "the mob" as the "residue," the "refuse" of the classes. Such men are outcasts from society, a society they despise. The dehumanizing terminology is not Arendt's creation, but common to the literature of the period. These men are part of the criminal underworld or at least intensely sympathetic to it. They call for a "strong leader" for them to follow and to lead society into a better state. Such men are not merely dissatisfied and outcast, they are desperate, economically marginal at best. According to Arendt, totalitarianism can come about whenever the masses defined above "gain an appetite for political organization." Totalitarian movements draw their real momentum however, from the mob. Mob leaders can use the strength of the mob to drive an atmosphere of political crisis and power vacuum into which the strong leader the mob calls for can step. The next two factors are similar in that they provide unifying concepts where others do not exist. Ordinarily economic or political shared interests would serve in this role, but cannot in the context of the masses or the mob. They also tap into the power of fear as expressed through xenophobia.
One thing that would not otherwise be obvious to those who have not read The Communist Manifesto is that Arendt did not actually identify and describe the dangers presented by men in this type of social and economic position. Marx and Engles clearly set out these out in the first part of the Manifesto, "The 'dangerous class,' [lumpenproletariat] the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue." That said, it is true that Marx and Engels do not provide as much detail about such men and their specific conditions, including their potential connections to organized crime in this document. It is also true that the actual potential of the "dangerous class" was probably never so thoroughly taken advantage of as it was in the early twentieth century by the early fascists, and it is this which Arendt had an all too close an encounter, providing the evidence backing her deeper description and analysis.
The importance of a widely agreed on scapegoat to the development and imposition of totalitarianism is so great that Arendt started her book with a history of anti-semitism. As Arendt shows, the definition of a scapegoat group is not a simple or overnight process. It depends on defining some group as outcast from not just one community, but all communities. That outcast group's status is then manipulated for the economic and social gain of the group (or groups) doing the defining. Such benefits are hard to give up, especially once they have become givens that people rarely question. Over time, a whole system of rationalizing stories are developed to help maintain the scapegoats in their assigned place. These stories typically appeal to the worst human sentiments, especially greed and xenophobia. Most importantly, the stories and social restrictions on the scapegoated group encourage fear, fear of being tainted in some way by the scapegoat's status. Fear is a well-known thought-killer, and people have been known to accept appalling acts and conditions based on the claim that those acts and conditions will neutralize the source of their fears. A key aspect of fear of scapegoats however, is that by definition they are not the real source of any threat, and it isn't actually the scapegoats that people are afraid of, it's the "guilt by association" used by those defining the outcast group.
Encouragement of extreme nationalism was a highly visible feature of german and russian society in the process of becoming totalitarian. It was freely publicized as an expression of its less loaded synonym "patriotism," which in turn is often considered appropriate and laudable for people to display in any society up to the present day. It's all good, clean fun until it becomes "extreme." Yet the definition of "extreme" used by the media and in the history books is quite slippery. Behaviour considered "extreme" for one group is acceptable in another, generally for no other reason than one group is an ally and the other is not. In this essay, "extreme" means violent behaviour that is justified by the claim that it is for the defence of the nation from outside threats by its citizens. The violence can be literal (beatings, lynchings) or legalistic (trumped up charges, imprisonment without trial, marking by identification cards or badges). "Nations" are themselves recent, ill-defined inventions. Before the second world war, a nation could be referred to as a group of racially homogeneous people associated with a specific area and bound together by a central government as well as "blood ties." Since the second world war the "racially homogeneous" and "blood tie" aspects have become a bit embarrassing, and efforts have been made to cover them over by euphemisms like "shared religion" or "shared way of life." In any case, "nations" remain fluidly defined, altered in definition to fit specific political and military uses and depending on the beliefs of the writer.
Extreme nationalism feeds and supports the creation of widely agreed on scapegoats, and since it is another evocation of xenophobia, it has all the irrational power of fear behind it. It is also possible to manipulate apparent facts in a way that makes opposing claims that a "nation" is under threat difficult to oppose on their face. Social Darwinism is one sort of manipulation; deliberately obfuscating the realities of colonialism is another. In each case a claim is made that "nations" are under threat by the very nature of human society. But who does the encouraging? In the cases Arendt considers, the encouragement comes from many sources, most prominently extremist political groups, the central government, and the military. Organized religious organizations which are usually structured in hierarchies parallelling the military, may also play a role depending on the case.
Having laid out the four factors Arendt identified as key supporters of the development of totalitarianism, it is a bit easier to try to answer the question "is it totalitarianism yet?" for specific cases. It won't be an absolute answer by any means, but a definite improvement over hand waving, not least because the factors also point to practical means of effective opposition to the establishment of totalitarianism. If nothing even remotely like these factors appears in a given case, then clearly the question itself is inapplicable. Yet the residue should reveal whether what is in fact happening is the early stages of development of a right-wing, authoritarian, nationalistic government, which would indeed be fascist.
So let's take the bull by the horns, and consider one of the most controversial potential cases, that of the united states. The u.s. has been passing through an especially difficult period economically and socially over the past twenty to thirty years that is unusual in that it has been especially long with no real prospects of a recovery in sight. Considering each factor then:
- Men have lost faith in democratic political leadership.
In light of the election debacles of 2001 and 2005 in the u.s., it would not be surprising if general confidence in the democratic process had lessened there. That isn't the same as losing faith in the whole idea of democratic political leadership, however. The intense growth of fundamentalist religion, together with the growing "tea party" movement suggests a deeper malaise, one that does express pessimism about democratic processes to varying degrees. That these could be considered fringe movements is not something that can cancel out this factor, as the nazi example shows particularly well.
The following election of Barack Obama, the first Black president in u.s. history in 2008 was built in part on a resurgence of belief in the democratic process in that country. Hopes that Obama would oversee fundamental changes in both u.s. society and the economy were high, and these carried him into office for a second term in the 2012 election. Unfortunately, far from significant change, Obama oversaw much more of the same, including accepting ongoing and increasing intrusive surveillance of u.s. citizens and other people all over the world and participation in the u.s. military's program of remote assassination by drones. The appalling 2016 campaign and subsequent election of parvenu Donald Trump to the presidency made problems with the american electoral system glaringly obvious, and did significant damage to an already shaky confidence in the responsiveness and trustworthiness of democracy in that country.
- Development of "the masses" and "the mob."
Are there isolated men, men who can't be integrated into organizations based on common interests in the united states? Or men so utterly cast out of american society that they could be considered a mob in Arendtian terms? The embedded racism in american society and "western societies" in general can deceive us into promptly pointing to young black males or young males of any "non-white" colour. We are encouraged to consider such men a violent crime waiting to happen, however ridiculous such an idea may be. In fact, the men Arendt is discussing when she defines the mob and the masses are not men who consider themselves outsiders in an essential way, nor are they defined as outsiders by mainstream society. They are not people who are expected to be inherently incapable of being full members of "society." Yet in fact they are people who are inherently capable of membership, who have fallen away from society. Mainstream culture in the united states does have two predisposing cultural memes for those prone to form Arendtian mobs or masses. One is the cult of the individual, the other the intense valuation of competition over cooperation.
Candidates for the masses and the mob could easily come from the ranks of so-called "white trash," an almost exact synonym for Arendt's own terms. They are among the groups preferentially swept up by military recruiters, as they have few means to escape their poor socio-economic conditions. Regardless of their views of education, the military may also be the only means for them to access education beyond high school due to continuously soaring tuition costs and predatory student loan institutions. In 2013, this is pretty much where I stopped. Today, lamentably, there is more to add.
Arendt discusses the problem of "rootlessness" in some detail, most prominently in her examination of "pan-movements," predicated on the assumption that shared language somehow made all those speakers of one blood and community, however far-flung and historically separate they were. She adds that they were especially popular at first among students and "the intelligentsia." "Rootless" people, as the word suggests, have no ongoing ties to any particular place, and this is a common feature of the mainstream population of settler states like the u.s. It is exacerbated by late-stage capitalism, in which people are driven to move repeatedly to find work or hold precarious jobs. The people stuck in the awful socio-economic conditions that allow the better-off to label them "white trash" find themselves barely able to keep body and soul together, and debarred by their poverty from putting down roots or pursuing the very practices necessary for social respect. They filled and fill the various rallies for Donald Trump, and he has referred repeatedly to these attendees as his "base" even as he pursues programs and makes comments that make it obvious that he views them as beyond his contempt.
- Widespread agreement on the existence and definition of a scapegoat group.
As long as racism is at large, it is difficult to prevent the designation of a particular social group as a scapegoat, and more difficult still to discourage wider buy-in to the designation. Declaring a specific scapegoat definition verboten does not quell the impulse or equip people to resist it. Since the destruction of the world trade centre towers in new york, there has been a distinct shift in both canada and the u.s. towards defining muslims as a scapegoat group. Simply being muslim is being openly used as grounds to consider that person already if not inevitably a criminal ready to destroy canadian or american society. Resistance to this process is still evident and widespread in both countries as well.
Five years later, again there is more to add. Resurgence of so-called "white nationalism" across canada and the u.s. had already begun at the time of the first version of this essay. Since the election of Trump, it has expanded again, and now the participants are completely unashamed and readily given vast media coverage. In the u.s., the kkk and related organizations are attempting and succeeding in holding rallies that often devolve into riots. Instances of police collusion in the riots are far from uncommon. Determined activists have gathered and published evidence of this, as well as making it quite clear that in the u.s. police work under the presumption that any black person is a crime waiting to happen, therefore they may be profiled, searched, and/or killed without hesitation. Blacks are not being openly scapegoated in words, but they are certainly being treated as scapegoats in action.
- Encouragement of extreme nationalism.
Citizens of the u.s. are popularly stereotyped as extremely 'patriotic' to the point of chauvinism outside of the u.s. This is far from new, as anyone can read in Frances Trollope, whose 1832 book Domestic Manners of the Americans can be read at project gutenberg. Although there is a grain of truth to the stereotype, that certainly doesn't indicate that extreme nationalism is encouraged or cultivated in the u.s. in itself. On the other hand, there is the additional question of the role of the mass media in the u.s. Mass media portrayals of "terrorists" as well as of iraq and afghanistan prior to the military attacks on them encouraged extreme nationalism expressed through important changes in law (i.e. the patriot act) and military action overseas. These media campaigns were not univocal or totally unchallenged, and they were campaigns, short to medium term exercises. Yet a longer term xenophobic narrative expressed as a desire for "security" has persisted to the point that critics are openly discussing whether they are witnessing a new McCarthyism.
A new McCarthyism does indeed seem to be developing in the u.s., and it is a more complex phenomenon than in its original incarnation. This is more dangerous than even those raising the alarm have stated. Arendt comments in a footnote in her discussion of "The Totalitarian Movement" that "...the totalitarian tendencies of McCarthyism in the United States showed most glaringly in the attempt not merely to persecute Communists, but to force every citizen to furnish proof of not being a Communist." This new McCarthyism is not generally about communism. Instead, it is focussed on driving out anyone engaged in activism that opposes structural racism, sexism, and capitalism. This has led to high profile actions to drive scholars out of the academy altogether (e.g. the disproved charges of plagiarism against Ward Churchill), or even into exile (e.g. David Graeber); incessant efforts to no-platform and physically attack perceived or actual Radical Feminists (e.g. Julie Bindel, any woman attempting to take part in a Feminist event); and the violence perpetrated against participants in occupy wall street and basically any protest or civil disobedience action of the past ten years.
All together, this suggests that for the united states, the answer to the question "is it totalitarianism yet?" is a qualified no, and the question is hair-raisingly worth asking. It's understandable that people both inside and outside the u.s. are feeling uncomfortable, because whether or not they are familiar with Arendt's ideas and analysis, they recognize the danger residing in developments of the kind she identified wherever they may occur. It seems reasonable to expect that if we constructively oppose these four types of social change, it would indeed be at the least far more difficult for a society to slip into totalitarianism.
Now let's get more explicit about what totalitarianism and fascism are, to get clear on what differentiates them from each other in Arendt's analysis. By the end of "Part Three: Totalitarianism" of Origins, it is possible to lay out a definition of this form of rule. The summary is anything but pleasant to read.
Totalitarianism: A form of rule whose leaders define it as a continuous movement or process, that seeks to reform society into one in which thought and action are synonymous, and there is no division between public and private life. There are no social groups outside of those defined and managed by the party of the government, individuals are completely atomized. The main organ of government action is the police, which carries out ongoing attacks upon an ever expanding and changing list of "objective enemies," people who by their very existence are considered an imminent threat. Concentration camps are a crucial part of the system of social control, because it is to them that the "objective enemies" must be relegated, and destroyed. Accusations of being an "objective enemy," which are the same as condemnation, are a key element of social atomization. Totalitarianism is predicated on expansion, so that such a government inevitably turns to warfare and colonialism, treating other countries as future parts of the country it already rules, and eventually its base country as if it were one of those soon to be conquered countries. In its propaganda and ideology, totalitarianism directs all action towards the glories of a distant future, glories so great and desirable that any sacrifice, any horror, any destruction in the present is to be allowed. Arendt emphasizes the importance of a central totalitarian claim: everything is possible, therefore everything is permitted. Similar to fascism, there is a single, strong leader whose control and domineering performance is considered absolutely necessary. Strict obedience to authority is expected, yet the lines of authority are unclear and multiple, due to the combination of multiple organizations established to carry out the same task, only one of which holds true authority, and the "onion structure" of the government.
With all this uncomfortably in mind, the definition of fascism seems almost lighthearted (hard as that may be to believe) in comparison.
Fascism: As noted already, a far right-wing, authoritarian and nationalistic form of government and social organization. Strict obedience to authority is expected at all times, and the lines of authority are clear and distinct. There is only one governing party permitted, headed by a dictator. The government directly controls both social services and forms of social organization such as worker's organizations, and industry. The dictator is a "strong man" leader whose control and domineering performance is considered essential. As in totalitarianism, violence is considered a means to an end, and any argument that it is morally wrong are denounced as markers of treachery or weakness. The emphasis is on action, not thought. Individuality is not valued as such, instead the state is prioritized as a unit. The canonical example of fascism to date remains that founded and led by Benito Mussolini of italy. He claimed to be restoring the "roman system," referring loosely to the combination of political structures, economic priorities, continuous expansionist warfare, and sex roles of the late roman republic. Concentration camps are not a central feature of fascist regimes, although they are certainly used.
So is it fascism yet in the u.s.? No, but it is teetering terrifyingly close to the brink. The previous president, who practically speaking was utterly incompetent for the job, was already an established celebrity before campaigning for the job. He has actively been encouraging and building a cult of his own personality through his entire public career, and has ongoing ties to extremist right wing organizations. Donald Trump built his entire campaign around such slogans as "make america great again" and broad brush lies and accusations characterizing entire populations in the country as rapists and drug users, most infamously anyone he considers "mexican." He has openly stated that he regularly assaults women and that he is allowed to do so, because he is rich and famous. This and constant demands that his main opponent in the election, Hillary Clinton, be locked up or that she was a "nasty woman" the closest he could get to calling her a whore without being censored, were repeated gleefully across the mainstream media. He refuses to denounce extremist right wing rallies or right wing attacks including murders of opposition protesters. Throughout much of 2017 he stoked both "white nationalism" and anti-russian hysteria while playing nuclear chicken with north korea. His emphasis is on obedience to authority, sex-role stereotypes, and extremist u.s. white nationalism. Trump has inherited a system of federal concentration camps from his predecessors, and journalists have revealed secret detention sites run by large cities such as chicago. It is appalling how much of this description needs to be only lightly revised to describe the current u.s. president, Joe Biden. Biden differs primarily in his more refined misogyny (no flirting with calling female politicians whores or openly celebrating being able to get away with sexual harassment for him), and his obsession with china rather than north korea. He is conspicuously silent when either version of right wing extremists hold rallies and riots – the old-style military, heavy duty masculinist version, or the newer-style femininity-exalting version whose costumes focus on so-caled "women's clothes and makeup."
The situation is far from hopeless. Americans are not push overs, even at the worst of times, and they certainly didn't and don't need analyses by writers like me to warn them about their dangerous situation. Activists from all walks of life, politicians at all levels, journalists, and writers to list just a few have been raising concerns and opposing these developments. Frightening as the Trump regime was, and now the Biden regime is, growing american opposition to its increasingly fascist direction is heartening, although it is going to be a much harder row to hoe compared to what was at hand during the Bush years. I should add that canada is by no means immune to these risks, although its situation is not currently as acute as that of the u.s., and of course canada does not have a massive military and insane collection of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Canada needs to fight against the pressure to imitate u.s. mistakes and their accompanying rationalizations such as spurious security, the so-called "reasoning" that the americans are doing it so "we" should too, and the unpleasant appeal of "white nationalism" to white settlers who can no longer assume that they can simply take what they want from whomever they deem different and therefore less than themselves.
A major factor in both fascist and totalitarian systems is hyper-polarization in all social domains. The obvious one is politics, with the infamous "left-right" division that is in reality arbitrary and at this point useless because few "mainstream" parties push for anything that isn't neoliberalism today. Perhaps less obvious is economics, never a science because so few economists pay any attention to the actual outcomes of the attempts to realize their hypotheses or otherwise check them against the real world. But according to this distorted and debased economics there are only two options, "state capitalism" mislabelled "communism" and "private capitalism" mislabelled "free trade." Almost invisible because ever-present and imposed practically before we're born, is what for lack of a better word can be called "intersocial relations" in which the supposed only options are patriarchy or death. Laid out like this it begins to seem absurd, or like some kind of gruesome parody. But the larger point is that hyper-polarization is not a tool for resisting and stopping totalitarianism or fascism. In her 1948 essay on concentration camps, Arendt suggested, I think optimistically:
An insight into the nature of totalitarian rule, directed by our fear of the concentration camp, might serve to devaluate all outmoded political shadings from right to left and, beside and above them, to introduce the most essential political criterion for judging the events of our time: will it lead to totalitarian rule, or will it not?
This is no mere political criterion. It is a powerful criterion that can and must be applied beyond politics. Or else we must face the prospect of accepting the key Feminist argument that the personal is political, that in truth, all life is politics.
- The first version of this essay was completed and posted in the summer of 2013, after my first reading of Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. It has been significantly revised based on further readings in Arendt's overall corpus to test my earlier interpretation of her use of the terms "man" and "men" as generics, and to update the assessment of the american situation in light of the 2016 debacle presidential election.
- Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Inc., New York, 1968.
- Eichmann in Jerusalem, Penguin Books, New York, 19883
- Between Past and Future, Penguin Books, New York, 2006.
- Origins, xxiii.
- The book lays out a great deal else, including aspects of Arendt's politics that I find appalling. For example, she accepts without question the racist claims that all peoples in the americas and africa were and are "savages" because within their own cultures they did or do not impose themselves upon the world in the manner that "europeans" do, and that therefore "europeans" are justified in taking over their lands and "re-educating" them. The uncanniness of Arendt's acceptance is overwhelming. However, this essay is not intended to be a critique of the book or Arendt's politics as such. Readers interested in taking a deeper dive into her politics and views may wish to read her newly digitized papers at the u.s. library of congress.
- She does not opt for a linear exposition of this type, since in the contexts of Origins, she is engaged in the task of demonstrating the origins, development, and ultimately uniqueness of totalitarianism in history.
- These factors are set out at, among other places, Origins: on the scapegoat factor, 60-62, 289-290; loss of faith in democratic leadership, 108, 312-313; on the masses and the mob, 107, 311, 314; on extreme nationalism, 222-243. In each case, these pages refer to early or key sections of Arendt's larger discussion. In reality the importance and identity of these four factors is built up over the entire body of the book.
- Throughout her text Arendt refers only to "men." This does not appear to be a pseudo-generic and is never presented as a hypothesis that she is advancing. Arendt seems to simply assume that only men are political agents, at least in the context of actualizing totalitarianism. This seems to me to still be the case in spite of the last few pages of the final section of Origins where Arendt apparently includes herself in the group designated "men." Her terminology and views seem to be more nuanced in her final published work The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1998), where her discussion of "work" versus "labour" demands a more consistent consideration of women and how they have been relegated almost exclusively to "labour" in "western societies" based on their sex.
- Again, this factor is described on pages 108 and 312-313. The explication of this factor and the next take up much of Chapter 10 of Origins,, "A Classless Society,"
- Arendt's definitions of the masses in Origins appear especially on pages 311-314, and 317.
- See page 20 of the pdf version of the Communist Manifesto at the Marxist internet archive.
- Origins pages 107-108, 155, 245, 266.
- Whether there is any place and people that actually fit this definition, drawn from the Oxford English Dictionary is another question. Herodotus refers to "the Greeks" as the same with respect to their language, culture, and religion, which in generalized form is another definition of "nation." For her part, on 231-232 of Origins, Arendt refers to something more than ethnic consciousness, a language developed enough to be "suited for literary purposes," peasantry with "deep roots in the country" and "nearness to emancipation," and the sense that being a nation was a public, wide-scale concern, not a private, individual one. She had no argument with contemporary assumptions of unilinear human socio-cultural evolution.
- For these points, see Origins pages 222-243.
- Origins, 223-224.
- Origins, bottom of page 356.
- Arendt's explanation of the "onion model" of totalitarian government begins at page 366 of Origins. In Between Past and Future, Arendt summarizes this model and its effects as follows (99-100): "In contradistinction to both tyrannical and authoritarian regimes, the proper image of totalitarian rule and organization seems to me to be the structure of the onion, in whose centre, in a kind of empty space, the leader is located; whatever he does – whether he integrates the body politic as in an authoritarian hierarchy, or oppresses his subjects like a tyrant – he does it from within, and not from without or above. All the extraordinary manifold parts of the movement – the front organizations, the various professional societies, the party membership, the party bureaucracy, the elite formations, and police groups – are related in such a way that each forms a façade in one direction and the centre in the other, that is, plays the role of normal outside world for one layer and the role of radical extremism for another."
- New Oxford American Dictionary, the third edition edited by Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg in 2010, electronic version.
- Doctrine of Fascism, 1932 from historyguide.org.
- See One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps (Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2017) by Andrea Pitzer for more information on this point.
- Arendt, Hannah. 1948 "The Concentration Camps," Partisan Review 15(7): 743-763. This essay, along with the complete archives of the Partisan Review is openly accessible at Partisan Review Online, a project of the Howard Gottlieb archival research centre in boston.
A common response now to hyperpolarization in what currently passes for debate and discussion in most of north america right now is to invoke the ever-problematic "tolerance." The trouble with "tolerance" at root is that it amounts to no more than putting up with the presence of an unlikeable something or someone, which can certainly include forcing the thing out of sight or the person into silence, out of sight, or both. This is not constructive engagement, which is what is most needed. Herbert Marcuse, in his essay "Repressive Tolerance," available online at the Herbert Marcuse Official Homepage, contributes to an early and important critique of the notion of "tolerance." In the course of his discussion, he also makes a key statement about objectivity, commonly invoked as a companion or helper to tolerance.
"But in a democracy with totalitarian organization, objectivity may fulfill a very different function, namely to foster a mental attitude which tends to obliterate the difference between true and false, information and indoctrination, right and wrong."
The intersections of the uses and abuses of objectivity and tolerance in a totalitarian organization is sharply on point in this time of reified identity politics. Note also that Marcuse was writing this essay in the mid to late 1960s, a period of intense social protest and ferment in the united states during which individuals were fighting against social atomization and the main working part of the government was the ever-ramifying police. Anti-intellectualism and demands for a short circuit of thought to action were in the air, as was mainstream invocation of a perpetual process of rule as expressed in resurgent colonialism and expanded overseas warfare.