Uncommon Sense: Totalitarianism

Hanna Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism has been widely quoted, lately. To say it’s interesting is an understatement, but I have long felt that she’s over-generalizing the commonalities between Stalinism and Hitlerism.

Imagine being Hannah Arendt and going through life being sick of humanity’s shit.

On the other hand, sometimes what she writes seems like a future anthropologist reaching back to those of us stuck in the present:

So long as the movement exists, its peculiar form of organization makes sure that at least the elite formations can no longer conceive of a life outside of the closely-knit band of men, who even if they are condemned, still feel superior to the rest of the uninitiated world. And, since this organization’s exclusive aim has always been to deceive and fight and ultimately conquer the outside world, its members are satisfied to pay with their lives, if only this helps, again, to fool the world.

The chief value, however, of the secret or conspiratory society’s organizational structure and moral standards for purposes of mass organization does not even lie in the inherent guarantee of unconditional belonging and loyalty – an organizational manifestation of unquestioning hostility to the outside world – but in their unsurpassed capacity to establish and safeguard the fictitious world through consistent lying.

The whole hierarchical structure of totalitarian movements, from naive fellow travelers to party members, elite formations, the intimate circle around the leader, and the leader himself, could be described in terms of a curiously varying mixture of gullibility and cynicism, in which each member, depending on his rank and standing in the movement, is expected to react to the changing, lying, statements of the leaders and the central unchanging ideological fiction of the movement.

The mixture of gullibility and cynicism had been an outstanding characteristic of mob mentality before it became an everyday phenomenon of masses. In an ever-changing and incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible, and that nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting, primitive, souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready, at all times, to believe the worst – no matter how absurd – and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.

The totalitarian mass leaders base their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that, the next day if they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism. Instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

What had been a demonstrable reaction of mass audiences became an important hierarchical principle for mass organization. A mixture of gullibility and cynicism is prevalent in all ranks of totalitarian movements, and the higher the rank the more cynicism weighs down gullibility. The essential conviction shared by all ranks, from fellow traveler to leader, is that politics is a game of cheating, and that the first commandment of the movement is “The fuhrer is always right” is as necessary for the purposes of world politics – that is, world-wide cheating – as the rules of military discipline are for the purposes of war.

The machine that generates, organizes, and spreads the monstrous falsehoods of totalitarian movements depends again on the position of the leader. To the propaganda assertion that all happenings are scientifically predictable, according to the laws of nature or economics, totalitarian organization adds the position of one man, who has monopolized this knowledge, and whose principal quality is that he was always right and will always be right.

To a member of a totalitarian movement, this knowledge has nothing to do with truth, and this being right, nothing to do with the objective truthfulness of the leader’s statements, which cannot be disproved by facts but only by future success or failure. The leader is always right in his actions and, since these are planned for centuries to come, the ultimate test of what he does has been removed beyond the experience of his contemporaries.

The only group supposed to believe loyally and textually in the leader’s words are the sympathizers, whose confidence surrounds the movement with an atmosphere of honesty and simple-mindedness, and helps the leader to fulfill half his task, that is to inspire confidence in the movement. The party members never believe public statements and are not supposed to, but are complimented by party propaganda on that superior intelligence which supposedly distinguishes them from the numb, totalitarian, outside world which, in turn, they know only from the abnormal gullibility of sympathizers.

Only nazi sympathizers believed Hitler when he swore his famous legality oath before the supreme court of the Wiemar Republic. Members of the movement knew very well that he lied, and trusted him more than ever because he apparently was able to fool public opinion and the authorities. When, in later years, Hitler repeated the performance for the whole world, when he swore to his good intentions and, at the same time, most openly prepared his crimes, the admiration of the nazi membership naturally was boundless.

I often feel that books like this, or James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time are a sort of mirror; their authors have not seen the future, but rather they see their own present so clearly that when we read them, we ourselves do the hard work of aligning the past with the present.

To the degree to which Arendt is correct in her analysis, all of the media’s attempts to debunk Trump by counting and pointing out his lies, are a fruitless effort because the achievement of the lie has already been accomplished. Just the fact that he can spew such utter bullshit is what excites his base.

We can read Arendt’s thoughts in terms of Trump, obviously, but they apply as well to “Baghdad Bob” – nobody who heard him believed him, but he had already scored a victory simply by being willing to go out there and show that he could say dumb things with impunity; that was a success in and of itself. If this is accurate then, yes, what the republicans are doing right now with their weird “coup de stupide” is pure cynicism – they’re not actually expecting any of it to work, but the fact that they’re able to get in front of the mic and say nonsense means that they’ve learned that they can do that, and they’ll do it again. If Arendt is right, the republicans will never stop doing this, now. The only way Trump and his followers will shut up is if they are silenced with great force. Put another way, Mao, Stalin, or Hitler would have shot the lot of them long before now.


  1. cvoinescu says

    From my experience with living in a communist country, I think she overestimates the gullibility. The mixture was pretty much 0% gullibility and 100% cynicism at all levels within the hierarchy. Even in the population at large, almost everyone knew not to believe the day-to-day lies*. None of the “important” people did. The main difference was between “I’m going along with it to the minimum required extent because I want to keep myself and my family out of trouble: I want to keep my job, keep my children in education, and stay out of prison and/or psychiatric hospital”, and “I’m not only playing along with it, but contributing cheerfully and enthusiastically, compounding the lies, being an asshole to people below me and showing abject servility to those above me, because it’s the way to be noticed and gain power and privilege”. Plus ça change.

    Maybe this is late totalitarianism (I caught only the tail end), or maybe the particular flavour I witnessed was especially cynical. Maybe there were some honest gullible souls in important positions in the beginning. I’m certain none were left after the four and a half decades (that’s nine Five Year Plans, to use their favorite time unit).

    * They did get in with more subtle propaganda, such as the glorified version of history, and our own brand of manifest destiny and toxic nationalism.

  2. Ketil Tveiten says

    About the gullibility/cynicism ratio over time, I have to quote Dmitry Glukhovsky’s foreword from my copy of The Doomed City by the Strugatsky brothers (which is a somewhat thinly veiled allegory over the failing Soviet Union, which amazingly made it past the censors), the foreword talks about the role of science fiction in the USSR and how it was very mainstream in a way it wasn’t in the West:

    In the USSR the present day was always hard, but the deprivations seemed justified: all of us, as a country, were simply standing in line for a happy tomorrow. And science fiction writers showed us what was waiting for us there, at the radiant shop counter of destiny, in the communist paradise. They were obliged to show it: if you went up on tip-toe, you could see the front end of the queue. In the early 1960’s, Khrushchev promised the advent of communism by 1980. Five years for a car, ten years for an apartment, twenty years for paradise… It turned out we could get there simply by staying alive. In paradise, rationality and humanism would be triumphant. Everything there would be honest and just. In paradise, it was explained to us, absolutely everything would be free; society would take from each according to his abilities and give to each according to his needs. This was a plan that we were eager to believe in. And we tried to believe in it as much as we could.


    Time passed, the country was still dawdling in the queue, and the shop counter selling happiness and justice was fading into the hazy future. Krushchev, who had promised everyone communism within a lifetime, was toppled, and those who replaced him limited themselves to granting people the ownership of land, each six hundred square meters, so that they could build dachas on them. Tomorrow refused to arrive; it kept being postponed to the day after tomorrow, owing to technical difficulties. People started whispering uneasily in the queue. And as the leaders of the country grew old and relapsed into senility, the whispering grew louder. It was becoming clear that we were standing in the wrong queue. And the most frightening thing was that we might always have been standing in the wrong queue.

    I think this passage really well captures the gradient from gullibility to cynicism.

    Also this line, from the last paragraph of the foreword seems to parallel what Arendt is saying, and also explains why SF was so big in the USSR: But in a country where the main newspaper is called Truth precisely because it is crammed to overflowing with lies, there comes a point where science fiction is transformed into a means for at least hinting at the true state of affairs.

  3. says

    @Ketil Tveiten #2:
    One of my favorite artists is Enki Bilal, and I used to wonder why his art was so dark – until I learned that he’s from Serbia/Yugoslavia, and his parents escaped to France when he was a kid.

    Oddly, just as I read your comment, I was watching the movie version of Tales of Pirx the Pilot. Lem’s Polish/Ukrainian and grew up under the USSR. And wow, is he cynical.

  4. Just an Organic Regular Expression says

    Wow. You could make a whole post around this one paragraph:

    In an ever-changing and incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible, and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready, at all times, to believe the worst – no matter how absurd – and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.

    That is a perfect description of the frame of mind of QAnon, Antivax, Flat Earth, 5G paranoia, and Trump’s “big steal”. It is the frame of mind that FB’s algorithms unintentionally(?) work to intensify.

  5. springa73 says

    @ 5

    The part about a mixture of gullibility and cynicism also applies very well to conspiracy theory thinking. It’s probably not an accident that there seems to be a lot of overlap between people who embrace baseless conspiracy theories and people who support authoritarian and totalitarian political movements.

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