CRF Blog

Why Arendt Matters

by Bill Hayes

In Why Arendt Matters, the Los Angeles Review of Books takes a look at Hannah Arendt’s classic work The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Arendt’s understanding of the origins of totalitarianism begins with her insight that mass movements are founded upon “atomized, isolated individuals.” The lonely people whom Arendt sees as the adherents of movements are not necessarily the poor or the lower classes. They are the “neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.” They are not unintelligent and are rarely motivated by self-interest. Arendt writes that Heinrich Himmler understood these isolated individuals when he “said they were not interested in ‘everyday problems’ but only ‘in ideological questions of importance for decades and centuries, so that the man […] knows he is working for a great task which occurs but once in 2,000 years.’” The adherents of movements are not motivated by material interests; they “are obsessed by a desire to escape from reality because in their essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects.”

Movements thrive on the destruction of reality. Because the real world confronts us with challenges and obstructions, reality is uncertain, messy, and unsettling. Movements work to create alternate realities that offer adherents a stable and empowering place in the world. Amid economic dislocation and the loss of stable identities, the Nazis’ promise of Aryan superiority is stabilizing. Stalin understood that people would easily overlook lies and mass murder if it were in their interest to do so. Above all, movements promise consistency. Movements “conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself.”

Simone Weil wrote that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” The modern condition of rootlessness is a foundational experience of totalitarianism; totalitarian movements succeed when they offer rootless people what they most crave: an ideologically consistent world aiming at grand narratives that give meaning to their lives. By consistently repeating a few key ideas, a manipulative leader provides a sense of rootedness grounded upon a coherent fiction that is “consistent, comprehensible, and predictable.”

The reason fact-checking is ineffective today — at least in convincing those who are members of movements — is that the mobilized members of a movement are confounded by a world resistant to their wishes and prefer the promise of a consistent alternate world to reality. When Donald Trump says he’s going to build a wall to protect our borders, he is not making a factual statement that an actual wall will actually protect our borders; he is signaling a politically incorrect willingness to put America first. When he says that there was massive voter fraud or boasts about the size of his inauguration crowd, he is not speaking about actual facts, but is insisting that his election was legitimate. “What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.”

Leaders of these mass totalitarian movements do not need to believe in the truth of their lies and ideological clichés. The point of their fabrications is not to establish facts, but to create a coherent fictional reality. What a movement demands of its leaders is the articulation of a consistent narrative combined with the ability to abolish the capacity for distinguishing between truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction. [more]