News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Arendt on Totalitarianism

Friday, October 06, 2006

Arendt on Totalitarianism

In a time when people throw big terms, and perhaps meaningless terms, like fascism and authoritarianism around, it's often important to be reminded of the work by important researchers about what these words and concepts mean. One of the more prescient thinkers of the 40s, 50s and 60s, was Hannah Arendt. Her work in political philosophy can still be read today and not sound hollow. ...

A piece in Forward magazine provides some perspective on Arendt's writing on authoritarianism and how it fills in some of the misconceptions informing the current debate about Islamic extremists and their so-called authoritarian proclivities.Benjamin Balint writes:

Still, Arendt predicted that totalitarian tendencies will survive the death of the era of totalitarian states. Arendt’s lens thus helps us see more clearly how the new jihadism bears the mark of those tendencies by bringing some of the telltale signs into sharper focus: the totalistic Islamic worldview that reaches into every facet of life, demanding from the individual total loyalty and achieving over him total domination; the retreat from the anxieties of modernity into an idealized, heroic past; the masses who feel themselves the outcasts of globalization; the contempt for the “decadence” of the West; the obsessive antisemitism that was also intrinsic to both Nazism and communism (hence the widespread dissemination in the Arab world of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”); the fetishized violence spread by the shahids; the pan-Arabist echoes of the pan-German and pan-Slav movements that Arendt saw as preludes to full-blown totalitarianism; the antidemocratic denial of human plurality; the desire for limitless expansion and global domination; and the notion of a united, supranational umma where once there was a racial volk or worldwide proletariat. Each of these is what Arendt called a “catalytic agent” for totalitarianism. Yet the most important element of the totalitarian impulse past and present is the will to annihilate human freedom, to surrender it to the march of historically irresistible forces. This takes us to perhaps the deepest lesson to be gleaned from the investigations that Arendt conducted into “the grammar of political action.” She insisted that the possibility of political freedom — not the same thing as an individual’s freedom from politics — is universal. Quoting Sophocles’s suggestion that freedom can “endow life with splendor,” Arendt called freedom the raison d’ĂȘtre of politics. The highest political action, she thought, is free speech in public about public affairs.
While the emphasis here is on jihadism, the author of this article ends with some important remarks about Arednt's other work, On Revoltion, where she investigates the meanings of the American and French revolutions.

Balint writes:
Hence Arendt’s lofty regard for the wisdom of the American Revolution — and her fear that contemporary Americans are in danger of forgetting it. For such people as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, she wrote, “life in Congress, the joys of discourse, of legislation, of transacting business, of persuading and being persuaded, were… a foretaste of eternal bliss.” A sophisticated indulgence of those joys and freedoms — together with an awareness of the urgent necessity to protect them where they are threatened — may be just the thing to counter the bleak vision of eternal bliss that animates today’s would-be totalitarians.
While this sounds as though Arendt was a sentimental idealizer of the American Revolution in much of her analysis of revolution, she notes the American revolution's disregard for the larger perspective of human inequality and injustice.

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