Totalitarianism then and now
Is it possible to perceive a deeper totalitarianism or ideology behind the current political alignment – especially concerning the escalating war in Ukraine?
Let me try – both based on Hannah Arendt’s major work, The Origin of Totalitarianism, from 1951 and also with reference to the book The Psychology of Totalitarianism by Mattias Desmet, published by Chelsea Green Publishing in London in 2022.
The year before her death in 1975, Arendt comments on her book on totalitarianism that she wrote about 25 years earlier. In an interview with The New York Review, she emphasizes that totalitarianism can arise where people have contempt for their situation, indifference, great frustration, or no longer know what to believe in – where almost anything would be considered better. They desire change. Totalitarian leaders take advantage of this by organising the frustrated and articulating an ideology, a «fiction» that promises change towards something «better».
Similarly, in 1951, Arendt wrote about how Hitler made people believe in the fiction that «the Jewish elite conspiracy» was to blame, and also an ideologi (the nature) that anyone who was not «fit to live» had to be eliminated. Further east, Stalin convinced people they needed to eliminate the oppressive bourgeois class, which he regarded as a «dying class» based on historical necessity.
But in 1974, Arendt also comments on how preoccupied we actually are with such totalitarian leaders like Hitler and Stalin. (Ask yourself along the way why the world is so focused on individuals like Putin, Biden, or Zelensky. In the meantime, Arendt had written the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). This new book is intended to dissolve this significance as evil or demonic legends – as well as this reverence for «great» men.
Interestingly, she refers to Bertolt Brecht in this interview, who said that major political criminals should be stripped of their significance and confronted with laughter. Hitler was actually initially referred to as an idiot in Germany, but when he came to power, big books were written about him. Brecht mentions that despite Hitler’s extensive activities, he was not a great personality – the evil lay more in the consequences he opened up for. According to Arendt, «greatness» should seldom be applied.
But then comes the most interesting part, where she again quotes Brecht, who wrote: «If the ruling classes permit a small criminal to become a big criminal, it does not give him the right to a privileged position in history… that what he has done has great consequences, but does not make him significant.» And Brecht further said, «One can say that tragedy deals with human suffering in a less serious way than comedy» (emphasis added). Arendt believes he is right and adds, «No matter what he does, even if he has killed 10 million, he is still a clown.»
«No matter what he does, even if he has killed 10 million, he is still a clown.»
Anxiety and the public
But what makes people susceptible to being seduced by such leaders to commit atrocious acts?
The philosopher Baruch Spinoza wondered as early as 1670 what could lead the masses to embrace unveiled tyranns. Who really cared that Hitler himself actually wrote in Mein Kampf that the lie just needed to be big enough… He probably understood what Spinoza called the masses’ «passive affects» – such as fear, hatred, anxiety, and revengefulness. Fear is what the media thrive on. Hatred towards others is what politicians exploit when they create enemy images. Revengefulness can span generations. But what about anxiety?
Mattias Desmet describes in The Psychology of Totalitarianism how prevalent anxiety is today; where he refers to the World Health Organisation (WHO), which, according to him, has reported that one in five people today suffer from anxiety disorders. He supports this by pointing to the extensive drug abuse today, and the example of Belgium’s 11 million inhabitants using 300 million doses of antidepressant medication annually. Desmet adds that «people are troubled by loneliness, loss of meaning, undefined anxiety and worries, and generally feel irritable, frustrated, and/or aggressive, and seek something to vent these emotions on.» He also refers to a tripling of racist and threatening language on social media between 2015 and 2020.
By agreeing on a suitable ‘enemy,’ a disintegrated society finds coherence, energy, and meaning. The fight against an enemy, which then the anxiety is directed towards, becomes a mission or task charged with pathos and heroes. Today, this enemy could be ‘USA’ or ‘Putin.’
Arendt simultaneously describes something more profound: totalitarian movements make ordinary people lose their identity – their individuality, their selves – and are often referred to and treated as ‘superfluous’ and identity-less by such totalitarian movements. For example, just as the concentration camp once diminished everyone’s ability to think, experience, and judge. She mentions all the people who just walked willingly into the gas chambers and that suicides mostly occurred before arrival at the camp.
The leaders who know how to exploit the people’s frustrations – even if such ‘leaders’ could be seen as ‘comical’ figures – create the ideology that most people can be driven by, as a new ‘zeitgeist’ or myth. As Arendt wrote back in 1951, they can thus no longer distinguish between what is fact or fiction, true or false – just think about how fake news today contributes to this confusion.
Within a totalitarian ideology, other conflicting facts are not accepted – ‘dissidents’ are quickly eliminated. Like in present-day China, where a stand-up comedian’s mild ridicule of the ‘honourable’ military was not tolerated, he was promptly fired, and the state sued the company for around 20 million kroner.
With ideology, all the lonely and possibly ‘selfless’ individuals in our modern ‘atomised’ societies will by totalitarianism be given an ‘identity’. Thus, the illusion becomes more important than reality for most people. And ideology possesses the logic that once you’ve said A, you must say B, and so on – an induced conformity that does not accept compromises or diplomacy. According to Arendt, the followers are obsessed with winning.
Similarly, why do the West with Zelensky aim to ‘defeat’ Russia, a nuclear power with a population four to five times larger than present-day Ukraine? Yes, no matter the cost – even if escalation leads to a nuclear war where an estimated 3 billion people die? We are then talking about larger numbers than the horror regimes of the past. For example, in Stalin’s war against Ukraine in the early 1930s, where between 12 and 21 million people died, according to Arendt, it was assumed that 8 million were exterminated in just one year. But what about before Stalin? And according to Desmet’s book, Tsarist Russia executed about 17 people annually, which the Russian revolutionaries considered scandalous – they attempted to abolish the death penalty. But what happened after the revolution in 1917? It was then recorded 540 annual executions, which increased, for example, in 1937, when 600,000 were executed. The revolutionaries’ new totalitarian regime proved to be more efficient at that time…
Totalitarian ideology is also employed by Putin’s Russia – although Stalin’s brutality towards his own citizens had a different character. Nevertheless, one can agree here with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) (seminar June 16), which mentions the Kremlin’s «ideological ecosystems» and how the military sphere has exploded with the «formation of the new state ideology.» But we should know that it’s not only Russia that imprisons its critics, so-called «foreign agents» and utilises totalitarian propaganda. Ukraine also uses ideology as a weapon, excluding or even killing dissenting persons, expelling more russian-positive parties from the parliament, and seducing the West with its new president or «actor», and as has been shown, promoting a fascist ideology with names like Azov and Bandera.
Propaganda and prophecy
Arendt mentions in her 703-page book how totalitarianism uses terror and propaganda to establish the «movement» in people’s minds. In the chapter «Totalitarian Propaganda», she describes how terror without propaganda would lose its psychological effect, and propaganda without terror would lose some of its power. She mentions that the masses must be won over through propaganda since only the mob and the elites are initially convinced.
Totalitarian propaganda also includes the leader’s «infallibility», as Hitler could never admit a mistake. And as Arendt writes, «totalitarian dictators have the habit of declaring their political intentions in a prophetic form.» Like when Hitler spoke in the Reichstag in 1939: «Today, I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers […] succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be […] the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.» According to Arendt, totalitarian leaders entice with «a victory that is independent of ‘temporary’ defeats […] because the masses, in contrast to the classes, will have victory and success as such.»
As she adds in the propaganda chapter, people under ongoing ideology cannot be convinced by facts, «not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system they presumably are a part of. […] Totalitarian propaganda is based on the escape from reality into fiction, from contingenies into consistency.» Many prefer simple and «lasting» solutions over a world with its contingencies.
Well, the increasing militarism that NATO and the USA are stirring up together with Russia and Ukraine has today confirmed a couple of ideologies that ‘everyone’ must adhere to until they ‘win,’ even though this can now become tremendously destructive.
Leaders like old Biden, old Putin, or the somewhat younger Stoltenberg and Zelensky, should be met with laughter and seen in the comedy they are staging – a comedy that millions are now participating in. But the consequences are only too serious. Unfortunately, this laughter thus gets stuck in one’s throat. Sadly.