May 28, 2018

Reflections on Totalitariansm

I'm still working on Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism.  It's dense and a great read and I'd also very much like to be finished with it soon, mostly so I can move on to the other books that are piling up.

It's slow going because of how incredibly dense it is. I'm pretty sure that what would be 100 pages in most sci fi books of the day are crammed into 20 pages in this particular copy.

I'm not firmly into the last section, Totalitarianism. I finished up chapter 10 today (The Temporary Alliance between the Mob and the Elite) and got through the first half of chapter 11 (Totalitarian Propaganda).

Generally speaking, while it's obvious that Arendt has read thousands of pages of source material and has a very good understanding of the order of events and internal machinations of the Bolshevik and Nazi movements, she doesn't do a great job of laying out the historical events. As a reader coming almost 80 years later, with little to no knowledge of the series of events or speeches or rallies of either the Nazis or the Bolshevic movement, it's sometimes hard to follow the series of events that she describes.  I understand that her aim isn't to provide an account of events, but rather to provide analysis, the situate the happenings in a broader framework and provide a commentary overlay that organizes the various aspects of the phenomenon into categories and tendencies, like "A Classless Society" and 'Race Thinking" and "The Decline of the Nation-State". She does this brilliantly, but I am feeling a bit as though I'm going to need to do a lot more reading in order to fully understand the underlying events that her analysis sits on top of. Luckily, her footnotes and bibliography provide a great starting place. Unluckily, I don't really think I have the time to read them now.  There's too many other things that I'm interested in reading after this.  Namely, de Toqueville's Democracy in America feels incredibly urgent. And then for work, I feel some amount of urgency to really dig into Benjamin Graham's The Intelligent Investor. Finally, Debt, the First 5,000 Years looks amazing.

Notes from the section on the elites alliance with the masses:
- Arendt's analysis points towards a certain vengeance of the "elite" to punish the society that wouldn't accept them, or take them seriously.  Thus, the rich and powerful align themselves with the masses with the goal of forcing society to listen to them, and finally take them seriously, if not by just completely wiping them out then at least elevating their own platform and sycophants to the level of culture previously occupied by a 'high society' that has largely been barred to them.  It's notable that Arendt's use of the word 'elite' wouldn't be recognizable today. There has definitely been a categorization of a cultural elite that certain want to be rich and powerful people (cough Trump) have thrust themselves upon, using the anger of the mob to propel themselves there.  We don't call Trump's well-to-do friends the elite, but we do recognize them as a portion of society that is wealthy and not the hoi polloi, and yet, they aren't part of high society or society in general in any recognizable way. We don't really have a word or cultural signifier for the Trumps, or at least didn't used to. "Elites" has been co-opted to mean something else.
- "I am the movement, and the movement is me". It's fascinating how closely the Trump movement is tied to the cult of personality. I didn't realize how incredibly 'Fuhrer' based the Nazi movement was; it's interesting to see the parallels between 'Trumpites', who ostensibly wouldn't have a movement at all without Trump. Trump does an ok job of recognizing his followers (the red states map, the call outs to 'my people', trying to get help to people that voted for him), yet doesn't seem to have near the grasp of loyalty.

Notes on propaganda:
- I hadn't realized how much of Nazi propaganda was centered on secrecy. There were things that those not in the movement weren't allowed to know, and the organization on a whole was entirely geared toward keeping a knowledge gap between those considered insiders of the party and those that were mere sympathizers or external audiences.  The Nazis would say one thing to the external audience, things that were lighter versions of what their actual intentions were.
- At the same time, they got credit for being 'forthright' in a way that no 'established' or self-respecting politician would. The Nazis campaigned on antisemitism and were open about checking potential party members' birth charts. Trump has been anything but quiet about the things he wants to do with regards to throwing out immigrants and building a wall. But the people of the Right have been wanting a wall and complaining loudly about immigrants for decades.
- A large amount of persuasive totalitarianism begins by pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of a system, and boldly claiming the immorality that the establishment deludes itself into saying it doesn't do, but that it actually does. This is why the current political candidates that don't accept corporate money are the most powerfully poised as an anti-dote to our current political malaise.

General thoughts:
- The Bolsheviks and the Nazis were a lot smarter than I feel I've been conditioned to give them credit for.
- I didn't realize that Stalin's doublespeak was a nod to a deep internalization of the Hegelian dialectic.

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