Arendt, Aristotle and the Roots of Totalitarianism

Hani Warith, University of Pennsylvania 

Aristotle echoes throughout Hannah Arendt’s the Origins of Totalitarianism.  Both viewed the beginnings of political breakdown in the dissolution of social bonds and a degradation in the means humans in a political community had to unite, engage in debate and live virtuously, together.   Reading their analysis today is tremendously eerie; Arendt’s analysis, closer to contemporary politics seems prescient amidst the backdrop of the rise of far-right political entities across Europe and in the USA. To read Arendt today, vindicates the importance of political theory and philosophy in even the most pragmatic aspects of political life. Specifically, Arendt and Aristotle can tell us exactly what to be vigilant for in a society encountering threats to its political axioms.

Arendt tells us that capitalist society is particularly conducive to the breakdown of the social relationships that undergird politics; ultimately such breakdown creates space which totalitarian actors can exploit. Arendt holds that the mechanism that connects capitalist economies and totalitarianism is ‘social atomization’. Individuals no longer attend town halls, communicate together, have discourse across ideological lines and instead retreat inward; they do not have outlets to express their political opinions and discourse occurs within narrow paradigms. We have retreated to the visceral, ephemeral world of social media and imprisoned ourselves within echo chambers. In the midst of great disillusionment people, as Arendt expected, have begun to found nationalist myths attractive. A ‘mob’ has emerged in which the world’s disillusioned people can substitute genuine community for hateful discourses that assert their own superiority (national, racial).

With strong mechanisms to preserve social bonds we create conditions which are resistant to the emergence of hateful politics. Our need to empathize and act in unison checks us and ensures that we are able to proceed healthily as a community. Such an observation is crucial because it is counter-intuitive. In the positivistic frame that is so prevalent in our current political paradigms we are want to locate political problems within specific policy questions or issues. Rarely, do we think about how community affects such policy issues and how those debates proceed. If Arendt is correct, and there are some striking signs right now that she is, our current approach has been gravely dangerous. Moreover, her analysis suggests we will only be able to solve such questions if we start attempting to reorient our paradigms of analyses.

Aristotle describes tyranny as “a compound of oligarchy and democracy in their most extreme forms”. Such an analysis would suggest that paradoxically tyranny is driven by elite control but is also contingent upon being legitimated by a (perhaps corrupted) notion of public approvalArendt echoes Aristotle, saying that the decay of traditional social bonds, destroys the check on popular passions vital to the prevention of totalitarianism. It is not solely the leader and the masses who is instrumental in the progress of far-right wing politics. Arendt’s analysis leaves an important role for ‘bourgeois’ individuals who deem populist right wing politics as more redeemable than left-wing politics. They believe, naively, that they can control the opinions of ‘the mob’. There are likely dozens of contemporary political figures that come to mind when Arendt comes upon this aspect of Arendt’s analysis.

Strikingly Arendt reminds us that “idealism, foolish or heroic, always springs from some individual decision and conviction and is subject to experience and argument.” In totalitarian society passion is privileged over reason; when rigorous checks on evidence are dismissed truth no longer matters and totalitarian elites can more convincingly justify their actions. ‘Alternative facts’ becomes accepted political vernacular. The abandonment of empiricism allows for the passionate attachment of the elite and the mob. Understandably and for these reasons Arendt sees the abandonment of truth as a phenomenon that poses a grave and immediate threat to politics.

Arendt goes into great detail discussing the importance of the leader in a totalitarian relationship: “the ‘first commandment’ of the movement: “The Fuehrer is always right.” Such a leader can create support for any claim in those they have convinced just by saying them, they can create fact by decree; much differently to a monarch in a virtuous Aristotelian government, the totalitarian leader can legislate on what is considered to constitute truth within the state.

This analysis reveal that Arendt’s analysis on totalitarianism is driven by two phenomena: the replacement of conventional social bonds with ‘the mob’ and the denial of public reason in favor of public passions. These two phenomena are what enable totalitarianism to emerge a regime which bears similarities to Aristotle’s tyranny. While comparing the two authors views is a useful exercise in deducing how Arendt conceives of totalitarianism, such an exercise can more powerfully be used to come to a more nuanced understanding of our current political context.

Drawing parallels between dissimilar historical eras does not imply a drawing of equivalence between the two. The emergence of totalitarianism in the 20th century is very different to the rise of the far-right wing political entities we see today. Nonetheless, we can draw important political parallels without equating and this is precisely how we must view political philosophy today. Aristotle and Arendt were both writing within historical circumstances radically different to their own and yet we can, and ought to draw lessons from both. Such a truth reveals not only the recurrent nature of political history but more importantly the urgency of philosophical inquiry. Political theory is not an esoteric exercise, reserved for those with the privilege to attend bucolic college campuses, it ought to be deeply and fundamentally pragmatic.