American Politics and The Crystallization of Totalitarian Practices
“Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest — forces that look like sheer insanity.”
–Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
America is not a totalitarian society, but there are elements of totalitarianism in America.
When Hannah Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1949, she was attempting to understand the phenomenal appearance of totalitarianism in the world. Instead of offering an historical account of the emergence of fascism, Arendt undertook a historical, material analysis of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and Nazi practices. Drawing from Walter Benjamin’s claim in On The Concept of History that “the exception is always the rule,” Arendt turned against historicist modes of thinking. Instead of offering a timeline, she sought to highlight the “crystalized elements” of totalitarianism that forged together to make fascism possible.
With the impending American election and an onslaught of violence around the world, words like ‘totalitarianism,’ ‘fascism,’ ‘authoritarianism,’ and ‘terrorism’ have become common descriptors. But we cannot take for granted, in using these words, that fascism and authoritarianism are not going to look the way they did in the nineteen thirties and fourties. No historical moment will serve as a perfect mirror.
Arendt’s account of the rise of totalitarianism can provide a kind of guidepost, but we must do the work of unraveling this specific moment. This is precisely why Arendt undertook her study of totalitarianism in the way that she did: to describe the conditions and elements of totalitarianism in her own time, as a unique set of circumstances that lead to a unique totalitarian regime. In this way her work is historical, but it is not a work of history. It serves to guide us in thinking about and recognizing where and how totalitarian practices might emerge. Arendt’s account helps us to be historically attuned to what elements signal the emergence of totalitarianism and fascism. The appearance of totalitarianism in the world is not a singular event, signaled by one moment — it is a collection of elements that emerge together under particular historical and material circumstances.
Some elements of totalitarianism that Arendt describes include rootlessness, homelessness, loneliness, antisemitism, the breakdown of law, the instrumentalization of terror, the decline of the nation state, and the emergence of mass society. And while there is not space in this post to draw parallels between all of the elements Arendt identifies, here is a more detailed analysis of the rise of terror, the fictionalization of reality, and the political emancipation of private, corporate interests.
The rise of terror as a major weapon of government: “A fundamental difference between modern dictatorships and all other tyrannies of the past is that terror is no longer used as a means to exterminate and frighten opponents, but as an instrument to rule masses of people who are perfectly obedient.” Today we see terror — and the threat of terror — instrumentalized as a campaign strategy. Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention comprised a winding delusional comment on his perception of America as a dark and violent country. In claiming that he is “our voice,” Trump says that the world is terrifying, and that he is the only one who can save us from our country that is “sacrificing American children on the altar of open borders.” Terror is used as an instrument for carrying out a specific ideology. The scapegoat that Trump points us toward is not a singular common enemy, but rather anyone who is foreign, Muslim, female, or who doesn’t fall in line with his rhetoric. Clinton’s campaign has turned Trump into the symbol of terror itself that threatens to destroy America. One television spot depicts children sitting in a darkened room in front of a Television, watching Trump curse and disparage women. Another recycled from the 2008 election asks: Who do you want answering the red phone at 3am in the White House?
A second element of totalitarianism is the fading of reality into fiction. Arendt writes, “The most striking difference between ancient and modern sophists is that the ancients were satisfied with a passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth, whereas the moderns want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality.” Arendt reminds us that there is no truth in politics, but there is the dignity of human action, and the possibility of great speech acts. Totalitarianism and the instrumentalization of fear and terror destroy history and the world in which we live by painting false realities. Sweeping strokes of ideological rhetoric erase the boundaries and institutions we rely on to give form to daily life.
The collapse between the public and private spheres, Arendt describes, was preceded by what she called the political emancipation of the petit-bourgeoisie — The liberation of private, economic interests in the public, political sphere. She writes, “The bourgeoisie had developed within, and together with, the nation-state, which almost by definition ruled over and beyond a class-divided society. Even when the bourgeoisie had already established itself as the ruling class, it had left all political decisions to the state. Only when the nation-state proved unfit for the framework for the further growth of capitalist economy did the latent fight between state and society become openly a struggle for power.”
In her analysis of imperialism, Arendt argues that private business interests increasingly took over the functions of the state. Private business owners, managers, and developers of economy needed new markets so that they could continue to grow. In order to reach new markets they needed the support of the government to step outside the nation-state borders. As a result, businessmen slowly replaced politicians and matters of private economy became matters of state. The new element of imperialism ultimately required assimilation of foreign peoples, lest they revolt. Where once businessmen were concerned with their families and privates lives, living a life of consumption, they now entered into the public sphere, bringing their business models with them.
Instead of the political emancipation of the petit-bourgeoisie, today we have the political emancipation of the 1%, and the progressive privatization of public, political institutions. Clinton and Trump represent the infiltration of private corporate interests into the public sphere of politics. The rhetoric of the 1% and “Get Wall St. out of politics” has mobilized both Sanders’ and Trump supporters. Private economy and corporate interests have suffused together in American politics. The state we live in today is also defined by expansion and the creation of a mass-classless society. We also live in a country where the boundaries between public and private life are constantly blurred by technology. The state openly spies on its citizens and privacy is a kind of fiction we accept as reality. Expansionism and the crossing of borders takes place in spaces most people can’t see, or in ways that don’t directly effect daily life.
The merger between economics and politics in American society has the effect of shifting politics toward social questions. Instead of talking about questions of politics we talk about questions of sex, gender, religion, social welfare — those topics that Arendt excluded from the sphere of politics. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of elections in America today, in Arendtian terms, is the overwhelming discussion of social questions, and the fact that politicians like Trump actually run on the platform of being a good CEO or business leader. One frightening example we have of this is when Rick Snyder (R), Governor from Michigan ran for office in 2010 and announced: “It’s time we reinvent state government so that it runs efficiently and serves its citizens as customers.” To implement his policy agenda Gov. Snyder signed into law a series of bills that expanded the powers emergency financial managers (EMFs) have when running local government and school districts. Aside from giving EMFs the power to dissolve collective bargaining rights for unions, he granted them the power to remove elected officials of their authority and place a community under state control. The governor now has the right to declare that any community at any given time is in a state of emergency. Six years later, we see the disaster this policy has created in Flint. The “state of emergency”, which echoes Germany’s Enabling Act of 1933, is not new in American politics. President George W. Bush availed himself of this same philosophy when he declared war on Iraq and implemented a series of laws, post-9/11, to protect Americans, abridging certain Constitutional rights. Hilary Clinton’s policy agenda is not an exception to this trend. She voted for the PATRIOT Act after 9/11.
Arendt was not a liberal, a democrat, a republican, or a libertarian. There are many lessons Arendt can teach during this disaster of an election cycle. “There is no truth in politics,” is one. Another is to see when and how totalitarian practices emerge.
Samantha Rose Hill, Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and The Humanities at Bard College. Her research and teaching interests include the Frankfurt School, critical theory, aesthetic theory, and the history of political thought. Hill is currently finishing a manuscript of Hannah Arendt’s poetry, which has been edited and translated into English: Into the Dark: The Collected Poems of Hannah Arendt.