Those of you who follow me on Instagram are probably tired of seeing me post about Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism – and yet here I am writing about it in ever MORE depth. I thought I would take a moment to not only update this poor neglected blog, but also to explain in a little more detail why I have been absolutely enthralled by this book. In other words, I wanted to explain my love for Hannah Arendt.
I have come across Arendt’s work in the past through my interest in critical theory, as well as my interest in her time period, which was during and around WWII. I have read some of her writing in a few of my classes, but I have never sat down and worked through an entire text. Since I was delving more deeply into postcolonialism, I kept seeing her name come up in conversations about imperialism and the negative impact that imperialism had on the colonies, as well as Europe itself. This is an argument that is quite common in postcolonial studies, but I wanted to see how Arendt constructed her argument, so I picked up this book and started reading. Not only has this been a phenomenal way to reconsider imperialism from the position of the Occident, what has struck me the most about Arendt’s writing is how applicable her ideas are to what is happening in the United States today.
I will include a few quotes below to help illustrate what I mean:
We can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition. This is the reality in which we live. And this is why all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain. (ix)
When, in the era of imperialism, businessmen became politicians and were acclaimed as statesmen, while statesmen were taken seriously only if they talked the language of successful businessmen…(138)
Racism may indeed carry out the doom of the Western world and, for that matter, of the whole of human civilization. When Russians have become Slavs, when Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into “white men,” as already for a disastrous spell all Germans became Aryans, then this change will itself signify the end of Western man. For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death. (157)
Race-thinking, rather than class-thinking, was the ever-present shadow accompanying the development of the comity of European nations, until it finally grew to be the powerful weapon for the destruction of those nations. Historically speaking, racists have a worse record of patriotism than the representatives of all other international ideologies together…(161, emphasis mine)
There are many more quotations I could have pulled out of the text, but these are a few that resonated with me. What strikes me the most are the similarities between what Arendt was discussing post-WWII and what we are seeing in the United States. For instance, the last quotation above stood out to me because it articulates, in many ways, the bizarre contradiction in the pro-Trump camp. The focus of a lot of Trump’s campaigning was a very vague sense of “nationalism” through his catch-phrase
You’re Fired, I mean “Make America Great Again”. Furthermore, a lot of the campaign was built on a kind of xenophobia – like the refugee crisis, the Muslim registry, and his Great Wall of Mexico.
Yet when there is clear evidence that there was an outside government tampering with America, as with the Russian hacking, there is no outcry. What I found astounding here is that many of the pro-Trump camp don’t even want to look into possible outside influence. If you truly are as “American” as you claim to be, why would you be against America investigating this possibility? Even if you believe it may not be true, it is surprising that these “Make America Great Again” voters are so quick to dismiss something that threatens something that is deeply rooted in American culture, which are the elections. What is the harm in investigating, when you were happy to spend a lot of energy investigating Hillary Clinton, who is (even if you do not like her) an American citizen.
In many ways, Arendt is a breath of fresh air for me, because her writing helps me to articulate the odd connections and contradictions that are swirling in the air. However, I will be honest and say that I also find myself feeling quite discouraged. As I read her work, it becomes increasingly surprising how contemporary all of this is. The text was published in 1966, yet this could be a think piece in The New Yorker with very minimal changes. It’s discouraging that we don’t learn from history and that we continue to make the same mistakes as human beings. On the flip side, I find a glimmer of hope in Arendt as well since the same issues I see now actually are much, much older. The world did not end in WWII and the world did not end in 1966 when Arendt was writing – although there is a lot of doom and gloom in the air, there is still hope that we will eventually learn from our mistakes.
Until then, I encourage anyone, regardless of your political leanings, to read Hannah Arendt. I think she creates a very compelling argument of how Anti-Semitism is connected with Imperialism, which in turn connects to Totalitarianism. I am also a fan of her genealogical approach, which you will see in Edward Said, Michel Foucault, Friedrich Nietzsche, etc., so I am biased towards this particular argumentative structure. I also enjoy the connections Arendt makes between culture, economics, and politics, all of which she presents in a really understandable manner.
This has quickly moved up the ranks as one of my favorite books, so hopefully everyone can forgive me for writing about it so much 😉