Whenever I get into a deep conversation with someone, where we’re exploring what is and isn’t in this world, as we go deeper and deeper into the subject, sooner or later we hit bedrock — the point where rational argument takes you no further, and and is replaced by appeals to emotion and to belief. ‘I just think…’ ‘I just don’t believe…’ become the refrain, and the discussion has reached the axiomatic level and gone as far as it can for now. All of us, based on experience, education, social norms, conditioning and entrainment, develop an idea of what is possible, and what is not — a horizon of possibility — and most of the time this normalcy bias is enough to steer us safely through a mundane existence; but once in a while a whole generation finds itself sleepwalking into the impossible, unable to relinquish their prejudices until it is too late.
I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, for much the same reasons that so many people have recently picked up a copy of Nineteen-Eighty Four for the first time. It’s a scintillating read, and I find myself highlighting so many paragraphs and underlining so many sentences that the activity becomes meaningless and I have to stop. As with Orwell’s masterpiece, the book has such compelling resonance with our own times that some lines and paragraphs jump out at you as if they were written yesterday. For this reader at least, there are insights into our own situation arcing from her prose on almost every page — so many that I don’t need to point them all out. The book was published in 1951 (with new editions in ’53 and ’58) and focuses on totalitarianism under the Soviet Union in Russia and the Third Reich in Germany; Fascism in Italy was a dictatorship, she argues, but not actually totalitarian.
“The true goal of Fascism,” writes Arendt, “was only to seize power and establish the Fascist ‘elite’ as uncontested ruler over the country. Totalitarianism is never content to rule by external means, namely, through the state and a machinery of violence; thanks to its peculiar ideology and the role assigned to it in this apparatus of coercion, totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within.”
One of the ways totalitarian systems achieve this is by enforcing strict adherence to a psychotic narrative, to borrow CJ Hopkins’ phrase, and this war on truth creates a situation of total humiliation and helplessness by essentially removing the individual from reality — than which there is no greater expression of power.
“Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations. The force possessed by totalitarian propaganda — before the movements have the power to drop iron curtains to prevent anyone’s disturbing, by the slightest reality, the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world — lies in its ability to shut the masses from the real world. The only signs which the real world still offers to the understanding of the unintegrated and disintegrating masses — whom every new stroke of ill luck makes more gullible — are, so to speak, its lacunae, the questions it does not care to discuss publicly, or the rumors it does not dare to contradict because they hit, although in an exaggerated and deformed way, some sore spot.”
This anticipates Baudrillard, though the latter divorces the progress towards ‘hyperreality’ — a state in which the distinction between real and simulated has disappeared — from its political (ie totalitarian) context. But the seeds of the intellectual movements of the ensuing decades seem to lie dormant within Arendt’s prose, a measure of how much she has her finger on the pulse of history. The ‘post-truth’ theming of our current intellectual climate leaves us vulnerable to the elitist totalitarian movement now negotiating its accession to global power.
“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it.”
For Arendt the fabrication of reality is not even, really, a matter of indoctrination: totalitarianism is about organisation and tactics, not ideals or ideas, and doctrine can change at a moment’s notice.
“The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any […] There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous.”
Thus, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
The totalitarian subject is not susceptible to facts; having no way of judging truth, instead they are swayed by the appearance of fact:
“The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces the masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses’ inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important only because it convinces them of consistency in time.”
Thus the importance of the masks as a consistent visual reminder of the assumed reality of the pandemic. The draconian lockdowns, social distancing and face-covering, so insistently and unscientifically imposed by authorities throughout the world, gave us a taste of the social disintegration which totalitarianism requires. Totalitarianism terrorises whole populations, not just those who oppose it; suspicion atomises the population, turning all against all.
“It is through the death of the social,” as Jean Baudrillard wrote, “that socialism will emerge.”
“The category of the suspect thus embraces under totalitarian conditions the total population; every thought that deviates from the officially prescribed and permanently changing line is already suspect, no matter in which field of human activity it occurs. Simply because of their capacity to think, human beings are suspects by definition, and thus suspicion cannot be diverted by exemplary behavior for the human capacity to think is also a capacity to change one’s mind. Since, moreover, it is impossible ever to know beyond doubt another man’s heart — torture in this context is only the desperate and eternally futile attempt to achieve what cannot be achieved — suspicion can no longer be allayed if neither a community of values nor the predictabilities of self-interest exist as social (as distinguished from merely psychological) realities. Mutual suspicion, therefore, permeates all social relationships in totalitarian countries and creates an all-pervasive atmosphere even outside the special purview of the secret police.”
A fictional pandemic induces the atomisation on which totalitarianism thrives, and merely makes literal the totalitarian attitude towards dissent: it is not that certain ideas are criminalised; it is that thinking itself is a disease.
“The chief difference between the despotic and the totalitarian secret police lies in the difference between the ‘suspect’ and the ‘objective enemy.’ The latter is defined by government policy rather than by his desire to overthrow it. He is never an individual whose ‘dangerous ideas’ must be provoked or whose past justifies suspicion, but a ‘carrier of tendencies’, like a carrier of disease.” (p 424)
Compare the ‘othering’ of the unvaccinated, the civil death with which they were explicitly threatened — a threat which we faced down but which has absolutely not gone away — with the creation of Other and Enemy images by totalitarian propaganda in the twenties and thirties. Trudeau’s comments on 29th December 2021 had distinctly Hitlerian overtones:
“There is still a part of the population fiercely against [vaccination]. They don’t believe in science or progress and are very often misogynistic and racist… They take up some space. This leads us, as a leader and as a country, to make a choice: do we tolerate these people?”
The implications of Trudeau’s words are underlined by the ongoing provision of ‘isolation centres’ or ‘quarantine facilities’ — concentration camps by any other name — not just in Canada but across the British Commonwealth and beyond. The appeal to ‘science’ to underpin the authority of the regime is also characteristic of totalitarian systems:
“Science in the instances of both business publicity and totalitarian propaganda is obviously only a surrogate for power. The obsession of totalitarian movements with ‘scientific’ proofs ceases once they are in power. The Nazis dismissed even those scholars who were willing to serve them, and the Bolsheviks use the reputation of their scientists for entirely unscientific purposes and turn them into charlatans.” (p345)
Totalitarianism, in fact, has no use for science in the philosophical sense, only for the technologies of domination that can be derived from it. The same applies to art: whether in art or science, the creative impulse cannot survive under totalitarianism.
“Intellectual, spiritual, and artistic initiative is as dangerous to totalitarianism as the gangster initiative of the mob, and both are more dangerous than mere political opposition. The consistent persecution of every higher form of intellectual activity by the new mass leaders springs from more than their natural resentment against everything they cannot understand. Total domination does not allow for free initiative in any field of life, for any activity that is not entirely predictable. Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.
The persecution of the artist is, however, merely symbolic for the jealous suppression of all direct experience and the simple joys of living.
“If totalitarianism takes its own claim seriously, it must come to the point where it has ‘to finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess,’ that is, with the autonomous existence of any activity whatsoever. The lovers of ‘chess for the sake of chess’ aptly compared by their liquidator with the lovers of ‘art for art’s sake’, are not yet absolutely atomized elements in a mass society whose completely heterogenous uniformity is one of the primary conditions for totalitarianism… Himmler quite aptly defined the SS member as the new type of man who under no circumstances will ever do ‘a thing for its own sake’.”
The new totalitarianism does not arise from the global ambitions of any particular state, though it certainly exploits and abets those of China; the attempt is to impose a hyper-centralised system globally from the outset, through multilateral organisations affiliated to the UN, under the brand-leadership of the WEF. All totalitarian systems are globalist, because they have to be.
“The struggle for the total domination of the total population of the earth, the elimination of every competing nontotalitarian reality, is inherent in the totalitarian regimes themselves; if they do not pursue global rule as their ultimate goal, they are only too likely to lose whatever power they have already seized. Even a single individual can be absolutely and reliably dominated only under global totalitarian conditions.”
“Factuality itself depends for its continued existence on the existence of the non-totalitarian world.”
Thus totalitarianism is the enemy of everything human. Its aim is to impose utter predictability on the human condition and reduce it to automatism. It’s the triumph of the mechanistic materialism of Descartes, the rule of inertia, of deadness, the apotheosis of the machine.
All of this is horrifying enough, especially when applied to our current situation. But there is something more that Arendt must broach; she must evoke the deepest horror by going inside the camps, which she portrays as a kind of inner sanctum where totalitarianism discovers its own nature. Mass extermination, both in Germany and Russia, is a grim historical fact; but what lies curled up like a hideous parasite in the bowels of the monster and emerges from the innermost reaches of the SS’s concentration camps is the grotesquerie of live human experimentation and vivisection, the Sadistic experiments of Mengele and Strughold.
“Ascendancy to power therefore means… the acquisition of a kind of laboratory in which to carry out the experiment with or rather against reality… It establishes the secret police as the executors and guardians of its domestic experiment in constantly transforming reality into fiction; and it finally erects concentration camps as special laboratories to carry through its experiment in total domination.”
Arendt is most famous for a single four-word phrase that came to her in Jerusalem, at the trial of Adolph Eichmann in 1962: ‘the banality of evil’, one of the most sinister phrases in the English language. In the final pages of Origins, another phrase, blandly neutral, emerges as a powerful metonym for the ultimate horrors of the totalitarian system:
“[Totalitarian leaders’] faith in human omnipotence, their conviction that everything can be done through organization, carries them into experiments which human imagination may have outlined but human activity certainly never realized. Their hideous discoveries in the realm of the possible are inspired by an ideological scientificality which has proved to be less controlled by reason and less willing to recognise factuality than the wildest fantasies of prescientific and prephilosophical speculation. They establish the secret society which now no longer operates in broad daylight, the society of the secret police or the political soldier or the ideologically trained fighter, in order to be able to carry out the obscene experimental inquiry into what is possible.”
It’s too horrific for most people to see. As Arendt points out, “…the normality of the normal world is the most efficient protection against disclosure of totalitarian mass crimes… They refuse to believe their eyes and ears in the face of the monstrous… The reason why the totalitarian regimes can get so far toward realising a fictitious, topsy-turvy world is that the outside non-totalitarian world, which always comprises a great part of the population of the totalitarian country itself, indulges also in wishful thinking and shirks reality in the face of real insanity just as much as the masses do in the face of the normal world. This common-sense disinclination to believe the monstrous is constantly strengthened by the totalitarian ruler himself, who makes sure that no reliable statistics, no controllable facts and figures are ever published so that there are only subjective, uncontrollable, and unreliable reports about the places of the living dead.
Because of this policy, the results of the totalitarian experiment are only partially known. Although we have enough reports from concentration camps to assess the possibilities of total domination and to catch a glimpse into the abyss of the possible, we do not know the extent of character transformation under a totalitarian regime. We know even less how many of the normal people around us would be willing to accept the totalitarian way of life.”
She quotes the concentration camp survivor David Rousset in his memoir The Other Kingdom (1947): ‘Normal men don’t know that everything is possible.’
I am not a normal man. I suppose I never was. But in the last twenty years, my horizon of possibility has been stretched so far beyond anything I could have imagined in my twenties and thirties that normal people might find it easy to explain me as someone living in an alternate reality. Maybe there’s a kind of mirror of the totalitarian personality in my pursuit of ‘the possible’. But for me the discovery of reality — in all its proportional beauty and cruelty — and the desire to go deeper into it, not shy away, is what gives human life dignity and honour in these proto-totalitarian times, and I will never renounce it or exchange it for a Baudrillardian hyperreality which severs us from our roots, world, universe, the Logos itself. Even if I must die there, parched, skeletal and delirious, I still choose the desert of the real.
Meanwhile the great experiment continues.
The new totalitarianism has evolved and differs from its predecessors in a number of respects. One of them is that the ‘obscene inquiry into what is possible’ is not something that lurks in the darkest heart of the system, only to be discovered at its demise; instead, it constitutes its leading edge, the first most of us knew of it. It is how ‘a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within’ is to be achieved: the worldwide human experiment, prototyping and dose-range-finding, rolls on at a slower pace, for now; while above the carnage Schwab, Harari, Kurzweil and the rest trill their totalitarian hymns to The Possible, always with the insistent harmonic that, like it or not, what is possible is what will be.