Ideas in literature

Ten things Hannah Arendt said that are eerily relevant in today’s political times

One of the sharpest political thinkers of the twentieth century died on this day, December 4, 42 years ago.

A few weeks after Donald Trump was elected as the president of the United States, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four raced to the top of the best-seller charts. Another book also found its sales jumping manifold in the wake of the elections, one that had never before enjoyed the mass popularity of Orwell’s dystopian classic, despite being heralded by scholars as one of the finest works of non-fiction of the twentieth century. The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, looks at the rise of Nazism and Stalinism to analyse the workings of totalitarian governments.

The book is one of many written by Hannah Arendt, one of the most influential political theorists of the previous century. Arendt, born into a family of Jews in Germany in 1906, escaped to the United States during the Holocaust and went on to write 18 books and numerous essays on power, politics, totalitarianism and human nature. Forty-two years after her death, her words remain just as – and maybe more – relevant, providing a framework to think about everything from “fake news” to mob violence. Here are some of the most enduring things that Ardent said over the years.

On progress

“The law of progress holds that everything now must be better than what was there before. Don’t you see if you want something better, and better, and better, you lose the good. The good is no longer even being measured.”

(Interview with French writer Roger Errera, 1974. New York Review of Books)

On the ideal subjects for a totalitarian authority

“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 (ie, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie, the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

(The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951)

On freedom of press

“The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history.

On the receiving end you get not only one lie – a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days – but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

(Interview with French writer Roger Errera, 1974. New York Review of Books)

On bureaucracy as a means of totalitarianism

“The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanise them.”

(Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963)

On violence and power

“In a head-on clash between violence and power, the outcome is hardly in doubt. Nowhere is the self-defeating factor in the victory of violence over power more evident than in the use of terror to maintain domination, about whose weird successes and eventual failures we know perhaps more than any generation before us. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it.”

(On Violence, published in 1970)

On lies and mass propaganda

“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 based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust if the next day 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 the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

(The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951)

On the banal normality of villains

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”

(Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, published in 1963)

On “alternate facts”

“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 man who can fabricate it.”

(The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951)

On scientific discovery

“It is, I think, safe to say that nothing was more alien to the minds of the scientists, who brought about the most radical and most rapid revolutionary process the world has ever seen, than any will to power. Nothing was more remote than any wish to ‘conquer space’ and to go to the moon.

It was indeed their search for ‘true reality’ that led them to lose confidence in appearances, in the phenomena as they reveal themselves of their own accord to human sense and reason. They were inspired by an extraordinary love of harmony and lawfulness which taught them that they would have to step outside any merely given sequence or series of occurrences if they wanted to discover the overall beauty and order of the whole, that is, the universe.

(Between Past and Future, published in 1961)

On the evil of hypocrisy

“What makes it so plausible to assume that hypocrisy is the vice of vices is that integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this one. Only crime and the criminal, it is true, confront us with the perplexity of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core.”

(On Revolution, published in 1963)

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