The Origins Of Totalitarianism

I have just finished listening to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins Of Totalitarianism on Audible. All 23 hours of it. Fascinating insights into the political and philosophical shifts through the end of the 19th century and into the 20th. The growth of “the masses”, the birth and distortions of the idea of nation states, mass unemployment and statelessness, the differences between parties and movements, and the parallels between Hitler and Stalin, the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.

This latter point about movements was the most telling given our current political climate. The idea that in order to establish a totalitarian state those in power had to keep everything moving, to be in constant flux, to be perpetually unpredictable. Even those in the Nazi and Communist state systems were at perpetual risk of being restructured out of power and even existence. The dehumanising intent of all of this, the central place of the concentration camps as the epitome of systematically abusing large chunks of the population to meet the self fulfilling prophecy of some groups being less than human. It was all too modern.

But in its own way Arendt’s book was reassuring. We are not living in the 30s. We are less gullible and more sceptical about the mechanisms of state power. We are less trusting. In the long run this is a good thing. Sure there is a downside which manifests in all the current angst about “post truth” and “fake news”, but as I have said so often it is forcing us to assume a responsibility that was always potentially ours. Despots and totalitarianism rely on infantilising the population, on people’s willingness to leave things to the grown ups, on our inclination to be too lazy to think for ourselves.

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