Hannah Arendt’s seminal work The Origins of Totalitarianism (1948) makes for sobering reading in the world we see developing around us in the year 2021. Indeed, we find ourselves in an impasse of epic proportions where the essence of what it means to be human is at stake.
“The totalitarian attempt at global conquest and total domination has been the destructive way out of all impasses. Its victory may coincide with the destruction of humanity; wherever it has ruled, it has begun to destroy the essence of man.” – Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published 1948
Although it is hard to claim that – at least in the West – we find ourselves once again under the yoke of totalitarian regimes comparable to those we know so well from the 20th century, there is no doubt that we are faced with a global paradigm that brings forth steadily expanding totalitarian tendencies, and these need not even be planned intentionally or maliciously.
As we will come to discuss later, the modern-day drivers of such totalitarian tendencies are for the most part convinced – with the support of the masses – that they are doing the right thing because they claim to know what is best for the people in a time of existential crisis. Totalitarianism is a political ideology that can easily spread in society without much of the population at first noticing it and before it is too late. In her book, Hannah Arendt meticulously describes the genesis of the totalitarian movements that ultimately grew into the totalitarian regimes of 20th century Europe and Asia, and the unspeakable acts of genocide and crimes against humanity this ultimately resulted in.
As Arendt would certainly warn us against, we should not be misled by the fact that we do not see in the West today any of the atrocities that were the hallmark of the totalitarian regimes of Communism under Stalin or Mao and Nazism under Hitler. These events were all preceded by a gradually spreading mass ideology and subsequent state-imposed ideological campaigns and measures promoting apparently “justifiable” and “scientifically proven” control measures and actions aimed at permanent surveillance and ultimately a step-by-step exclusion of certain people from (parts of) society because they posed “a risk” to others or dared to think outside of what was considered acceptable thought.
In his book The Demon in Democracy – Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, the Polish lawyer and Member of the European Parliament Ryszard Legutko leaves no doubt that there are worrying similarities between many of the dynamics in Communist totalitarian regimes and modern-day liberal democracies, when he observes: “Communism and liberal democracy proved to be all-unifying entities compelling their followers how to think, what to do, how to evaluate events, what to dream, and what language to use.”
This is also the dynamics we see at work on many levels of globalized society today. Every reader, but especially politicians and journalists, interested in human freedom, democracy and the rule of law, should carefully read Chapter 11 on “The Totalitarian Movement” in Hannah Arendt’s much-acclaimed book. She explains how long before totalitarian regimes take actual power and establish complete control, their architects and enablers have already been patiently preparing society – not necessarily in a coordinated way or with that end-goal in mind – for the takeover. The totalitarian movement itself is driven by the aggressive and at times violent promotion of a certain dominant ideology, through relentless propaganda, censorship, and groupthink. It also always includes major economic and financial interests. Such a process then results in an ever more omnipotent state, assisted by a host of unaccountable groups, (international) institutions and corporations, that claims to have a patent on truth and language and on knowing what is good for its citizens and society as a whole.
Although there is of course a vast difference between Communist totalitarian regimes of the 21st century that we see in China and North Korea, and Western liberal democracies with their growing totalitarian tendencies, what seems to be the unifying element between the two systems today is thought control and behavioral management of its populations. This development has been greatly enhanced through what was coined by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff as “surveillance capitalism.” Surveillance capitalism, Zuboff writes, is “[a] movement that aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty.” It is also – and here she does not mince her words – “[a]n expropriation of critical human rights that is best understood as a coup from above: an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty.” The modern state and its allies, whether communist, liberal or otherwise, have – for the above and other reasons – an insatiable desire to collect massive amounts of data on citizens and customers and to use this data extensively for control and influence.
On the commercial side, we have all the aspects of tracking people’s behavior and preferences online, brilliantly explained in the documentary The Social Dilemma, confronting us with the reality that “Never before have a handful of tech designers had such control over the way billions of us think, act, and live our lives.” At the same time we see in operation the “social credit” system rolled out by the Chinese Communist Party that uses big data and permanent CCTV live footage to manage people’s behavior in public areas through a system of awards and punishments.
The mandatory QR code first introduced in China in 2020 and subsequently in liberal democratic states around the world in 2021, to keep permanent track of people’s health status and as a prerequisite for participating in society, is the latest and deeply troubling phenomenon of this same surveillance capitalism. Here the dividing line between mere technocracy and totalitarianism becomes almost extinct under the guise of “protecting public health.” The currently attempted colonization of the human body by the state and its commercial partners, claiming to have our best interests in mind, is part of this troubling dynamic. Where did the progressive mantra “My body, my choice” suddenly go?
So, what then, is totalitarianism? It is a system of government (a totalitarian regime), or a system of increasing control otherwise implemented (a totalitarian movement) – presenting itself in different forms and at different levels of society – that tolerates no individual freedom or independent thought and that ultimately seeks to totally subordinate and direct all aspects of the individual human life. In the words of Dreher, totalitarianism “is a state in which nothing can be permitted to exist that contradicts a society’s ruling ideology.”
In modern society, where we see this dynamic very much at work, the use of science and technology play a decisive role in enabling totalitarian tendencies to take hold in ways that 20th century ideologues could only have dreamed of. Furthermore, accompanying totalitarianism in whatever stage, institutionalized dehumanization occurs and is the process by which the whole or part of the population is subjected to policies and practices that consistently violate the dignity and fundamental rights of the human being and that may ultimately lead to exclusion and social or, in the worst case, physical extermination.
In the following, we will look more closely at some of the basic tenets of the totalitarian movement as described by Hannah Arendt and how this enables the dynamics of institutionalized dehumanization that we observe today. In the conclusion, we will briefly look at what history and human experience can tell us about freeing society from the yoke of totalitarianism and its dehumanizing policies.
The reader must understand that I am in no way comparing or equating the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century and their atrocities to what I see as the increasing totalitarian tendencies and resulting policies today. Instead, as is the role of a robust academic discourse, we will take a critical look at what we see happening in society today and analyze relevant historical and political phenomena that might instruct us on how we can deal better with the present course of events that, if not corrected, does not bode well for a future of freedom and the rule of law.
I. The workings of totalitarianism
When we speak about “totalitarianism,” the word is being used in this context to describe the whole of a political ideology that can present itself in different forms and stages, but that always has the ultimate goal of total control over people and society. As described above, Hannah Arendt distinguishes within totalitarianism between the totalitarian movement and the totalitarian regime. I add to this categorizing what I believe to be an early stage of the totalitarian movement, called “totalitarian tendencies” by Legutko, and that I call ideological totalitarianism in relation to current developments. For totalitarianism to have a chance of succeeding, Hannah Arendt tells us, three main and closely intertwined phenomena are needed: the mass movement, the elite’s leading role in steering those masses and the employment of relentless propaganda.
The lonely masses
For its establishment and durability totalitarianism depends as a first step on mass support obtained through playing into a sense of permanent crisis and fear in society. This then feeds the urge of the masses to have those in charge constantly take “measures” and show leadership to ward off the threat that has been identified as endangering the whole of society. Those in charge can “remain in power only so long as they keep moving and set everything around them in motion.” The reason for this is that totalitarian movements build on the classical failure of societies throughout human history to create and uphold a sense of community and purpose, instead breeding isolated, self-centered human beings without a clear overarching purpose in life.
The masses following the totalitarian movement are lost themselves and as a result in search of a clear identity and a purpose in life that they do not find in their current circumstances: “Social atomization and extreme individualization preceded the mass movement (..). The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”
How familiar this sounds to any person observing modern society. In an age where social media and whatever else is presented on screens set the tone above all else and where teenage girls fall into depression and increased suicide attempts because of the lack of “likes” on their Instagram account, we indeed see a disconcerting example of this lack of normal relationships that were instead meant to involve in-person encounters leading to profound exchanges. In Communist societies it is the Party that sets out to destroy religious, social and family ties to make place for a citizen that can be completely subjected by the State and the dictates of the Party, like we see happening in China and North Korea. In hedonistic and materialistic Western societies this same destruction happens through different means and under the neo-Marxist guise of unstoppable “progress,” where technology and a false definition of the purpose of science erodes the understanding of what it means to be human: “In fact,” writes Dreher, “this technology and the culture that has emerged from it is reproducing the atomization and radical loneliness that totalitarian communist governments used to impose on their captive peoples to make them easier to control.” Not only have the smartphone and social media drastically reduced genuine human interaction, as any teacher or parent of schoolchildren can attest to, but the social framework has in recent times further dramatically deteriorated through other major shifts in society.
The ever-growing Big-Tech and government policing of language, opinions, and scientific information in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, accompanied by a level of censorship not seen since World War II, has greatly reduced and impoverished the public discourse and seriously undermined trust in science, politics and the community.
In 2020 and 2021, mostly well-meant yet often ill-advised government-imposed Corona measures such as lockdowns, mask-mandates, entry-requirements to public facilities and Corona vaccine mandates have further massively limited the unimpeded human interaction that any society needs to retain and strengthen its social fabric. All these externally imposed developments contribute from different directions to human beings, especially the young, increasingly and ever more lastingly being deprived of those ‘normal social relationships’ Hannah Arendt speaks of. Seemingly lacking alternatives, this in turn leads large groups of the population – most of them not even realizing it – into the arms of totalitarian ideologies. These movements, however, in the words of Arendt, “demand for total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable loyalty of the individual member (..) [since] their organization will encompass, in due course, the entire human race.”
The final goal of totalitarianism, she explains, is the permanent domination of human beings from within, thus involving each and every aspect of life, whereby the masses have to be kept constantly in motion since “a political goal that would constitute the end of the movement simply does not exist.” Without in any way wishing to downplay the gravity and urgency of these issues in and of themselves, or the need as a society to devise ways to deal with existential threats arising from them, Corona political and media narratives are examples of such an ideological totalitarianism that wants to completely control how human beings think, speak and act in that area of life, whist keeping them in perpetual anxiety through well-planned regular dramatic news updates (One tool being used for this successfully throughout the world is the constant well-rehearsed press conferences by grave-looking ministers in suits behind Plexiglas and flanked by experts and state flags), instrumentalized heartbreaking stories and calls to immediate action (“measures”), dealing with (perceived or real) new threats to their person, to their cause and to society as a whole. Fear is the main driving force behind keeping this perpetual anxiety and activism going.
The role of the elite
Hannah Arendt then goes on to explain what is a disturbing phenomenon of totalitarian movements, it being the enormous attraction it exerts on the elites, the “terrifying roster of distinguished men whom totalitarianism can count amongst its sympathizers, fellow-travelers, and inscribed party members. This elite believes that what is required for solving the acute problems society is currently faced with is the total destruction, or at least the total redesign, of all that was considered common sense, logic and established wisdom until this point.
When it comes to the Corona crisis, the well-known capacity of the human body to build natural immunity against most viruses it has already encountered is no longer deemed relevant in any way by those imposing vaccination mandates, rejecting foundational principles of human biology and established medical wisdom.
To achieve this total overhaul for the sake of complete control, the elites are willing to work with any people or organization, including those people, called “the mob” by Arendt, whose features are “failure in professional and social life, perversion and disaster in private life.” A good example of this is the West’s dealings with the Chinese Communist Party. Although the flagrant corruption and human rights abuses – including the genocidal campaign against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang – perpetrated by this institution of repression throughout history until today are well-documented, as is its role in covering up the 2019 outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Wuhan perhaps resulting from a lab leak, most countries in the world have become so dependent on China that they are willing to look the other way and cooperate with a regime that is willing to trample on all that liberal democracy stands for.
Hannah Arendt describes another disturbing element that is part of what she calls the “temporary alliance between the mob and the elite” and that is the willingness of these elites to lie their way into obtaining and retaining power through “the possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts.” At this point it is not a proven fact that governments and their allies are lying about statistics and scientific data surrounding Covid-19; however, it is clear that there exist many serious inconsistencies that are not or not sufficiently being dealt with.
Throughout the history of totalitarian movements and regimes the offenders have been able to get away with much because they understood very well what is the primary concern of the simple man or woman going about their daily business of making life work for their families and other dependents, as masterfully expressed by Arendt: “He [Göring] proved his supreme ability for organizing the masses into total domination by assuming that most people are neither bohemians, fanatics, adventurers, sex maniacs, crackpots, nor social failures, but first and foremost job holders and good family men.” And: “[n]othing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives.”
We all long for security and predictability and hence a crisis makes us look for ways to obtain or retain security and safety, and when necessary, most are willing to pay a high price for this, including relinquishing their freedoms and living with the notion that they might not be told the whole truth about the crisis at hand. It should be no surprise then that considering the potential lethal effect the Coronavirus can have on human beings, our very human fear of death has led most of us to part without much of a fight with the rights and freedoms that our fathers and grandfathers fought so hard for.
Also, as vaccine mandates are introduced around the globe for workers in many industries and settings, the majority is complying not because they themselves necessarily believe they need the Corona vaccine, but only because they want to reclaim their freedoms and keep their jobs so they can feed their families. The political elites imposing these mandates know this of course and make smart use of it, often even with the best of intentions believing that this is necessary to deal with the crisis at hand.