Hannah Arendt thread

Chuck Grimes cgrimes at tsoft.com
Mon Aug 21 02:11:04 PDT 2000

Beyond the Conceivable These two new books from UC Press, look like good reads. (Michael Pugliese)

``Dan Diner Beyond the Conceivable Studies on Germany, Nazism, and the Holocaust Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism, 20

...The major essays of Dan Diner, who is widely read and quoted in Germany and Israel, are finally collected in an English edition. They reflect the author's belief that the Holocaust transcends traditional patterns of historical understanding and requires an epistemologically distinct approach. One can no longer assume that actors as well as historians are operating in the same conceptual universe, sharing the same criteria of rational discourse.... ''


One of the things that interests me is how in the course of preparing for WWII, fighting it, and then dividing up Europe and Asia, the US was transformed from one kind of state into another. The much longer cold war was a prolongation of this transformation process.

Among the aspects of state and daily life that were transformed was something like the assumption that ``...actors as well as historians are operating in the same conceptual universe, sharing the same criteria of rational discourse...''. So, my interest in Germany and the evolution of the industrialized death camps is more directed at understanding something different than specifically those ends.

I think the officials of modern states were profoundly effected by the war examples. What they saw, was that anything was possible, in a way not at all unlike a sort of giddy possibility. So, in this particular and narrow sense, we have become something like a totalitarian society, not unlike those described in Arendt's view.

Here is a sample of what I mean. This is from `On the Nature of Totalitarianism', Essays in Understanding 1930-1954, Arendt:

``In modern political thought---insofar as its central predictaments are dictated by Machiavelli's discovery of power as the center of all political life, and of power-relations as the supreme laws of political action---the problem of the individual and the citizen has been complicated and overshadowed by the dilemma between legality as the center of domestic constitutional government and arbitrary sovereignty as the natural condition in the field of international relations. It seems, then, that we are confronted with two sets of duplicity in judging right or wrong in actions---the double standard originating in the simultaneous status of man as both citizen and individual, and the double standard originating in the differentiation between foreign and domestic politics. Both problems are pertinent to our effort to understand the nature of totalitarianism, since totalitarian governments claim to have solved them both. The distinction between and the dilemma of foreign and domestic politics are solved by the claim to global rule. This claim is then substantiated by treating each conquered country, in complete disregard of its own law, as an erstwhile transgressor of totalitarian law and by punishing its inhabitants according to laws administered retroactively. In other words, the claim to global rule is identical to the claim of establishing a new and universally valid law on earth. In consequence, all foreign politics are, to the totalitarian mind, disguised domestic politics, and all foreign wars are, in fact, civil wars. The distinction between and the dilemma of citizen and individual, meanwhile, with the concomitant perplexities of the dichotomy between public and personal life, are eliminated by the totalitarian claim to the total domination of man.'' (333p)

While Arendt considered these features the pretensions of nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, I don't think she realized she was in fact speaking directly about the US. These are our pretensions, and they became clearly manifested in Vietnam when it was no longer possible to distinguish between our own potential civil war, and theirs. When military intelligence and domestic police forces were comparing notes and domestic and foreign politics turned into a seamless blur.

The relevance now, of these passages seems clear to me in the current evolving battles. The announcement of Clinton's AIDS/HIV fund proposal for the World Bank is an obvious example of the same kind of blurring between foreign and domestic policies and pretensions of imperial power. Certainly the concept that there is no other alternative, the neoliberal capital victory song, is a completely totalitarian tune. It is the foundation of all totalitarian societies.

What doesn't seem well understood is the total subjugation of our social and political needs to capital and empire is essential to the machinery of both.

In the passage above Arendt talks about the distinction between constitutional legality and arbitrary sovereignty. Through domestic economic policies and the laws that determine and define work and the workplace and hence the means to living the other few hours of the day composed mostly of twilight and darkness, corporate and management interest have been given the arbitrary power of free sovereigns to suspend all rights in the manner of feudal aristocrats. So that the pitched battle in political life has become a battle to re-establish constraints on the arbitrary power given to capital.

The problem isn't just the money which underwrites the political establishment. There is the fact that the very governmental means to global empire is through the same capital interest that underwrites the government. Under neoliberalism they have become one. It is closed a circle and is totalitarian in everything but name.

``These three forms of government---monarchy, republicanism, and tyranny---are authentic because the grounds on which their structures are built (the distinction of each, equality of all, and impotence) and from which their principles of motion spring are authentic elements of the human condition and are reflected in primary human experiences. The question with which we shall approach totalitarianism is whether or not this unprecedented form of government can lay claim to an equally authentic, albeit until now hidden, ground of the human condition on earth, a ground which may reveal itself only under circumstances of a global unity of humanity---circumstances certainly as unprecedented as totalitarianism itself.'' (338p)

The question, on what is totalitarian structure built is answered in other passages. The answer is logic. Some hint at how this can be applied to our current condition is that Arendt distinguishes a totalitarian state of mind as one dominated by logical processes that derive conclusions from some other world abstraction. This is as opposed to a state of mind engaged in practical assessments, political judgments and social understandings, all very much grounded in the world of human affairs. Arendt used as examples of the totalitarian mind, the logical process of Nature, interpreted as race in the case of the nazis and the logic of History interpreted as class in the case of the bolsheviks. Whatever the arguments over this identification between the two, the same general principle of an ideal and logical totality such as Nature or History can be seen to equally apply to the neoliberal ideal totality of the Market.

The connection is that we are now dominated by the so-called logic of the free market in which our political judgment, practical assessments, and social understandings have been removed, and into the resultant vacuum has been substituted the derived conclusions of neoliberal policies which seek to fulfill the logic of markets. Thus we are told that such and such a social, political or economic reform, might be a good idea in and of itself, but it would violate some logical precept of a free market society and therefore must be tossed out. And, this is announced as truth despite the common sense understanding that in pragmatic terms there might little or no constrain on the Market, merely some vanishingly small slack in its ever upward spiral to total dominion.

``...What appears lawless to the non-totalitarian world would, on the strength of being inspired by the sources themselves, constitute a higher form of legitimacy, one that can do away with the petty legality of positive laws which can never produce justice in any single, concrete, and therefore unpredictable case, but can only prevent injustice. Totalitarian lawfulness, executing the laws of Nature or History [or Markets], does not bother to translate them into standards of right of and wrong for individual human beings, but applies them directly to the `species' of mankind. The laws of Nature or History [or Markets], if properly executed, are expected to produce as their end a single `Mankind,' and it is this expectation that lies behind the claim to global rule of all totalitarian governments. Humanity, or, rather, the human species, is regarded as the active carrier of these laws while the rest of the universe is only passively determined by them.'' (340p)

Arendt continues ``...Just as positive laws in constitutional government are needed to translate and realize the immutable ius naturale or the eternal Commandments of God or sempiternal customs and traditions of history, so terror is needed to realize, to translate into living reality, the laws of movement of History or Nature [or Markets]..''(341).

To which I would add the form of terror in the case of a dominion of Market and its unfolding logic as truth, is of course the terror of starving to death in exile from any social context outside a refugee camp or in any urban street in the world. These are the extreme ends, but there are other forms of mass terror just as compelling which are the bedlam, noise, and chaos of homeless shelters and temporary permanent housing of families reduced to a single parent and children living in the no-mans-land of urban blight where none of the customary municipal bureaucracies function to enforce routine health, fire, or building codes, but where none the less the police state apparatus is free to exercise all manner of arbitrary power.

What Arendt found in other essays on totalitarianism (Mankind and Terror) was the key to the effectiveness of mass terror was that the recipients be absolutely innocent of any objective crime. Thus even this concept applies perfectly to the totalitarian logic of Markets, in that most people in the throws of its terror in poverty or subsisting at the margins are perfectly innocent in the same objective sense.

This is getting too long.

Chuck Grimes

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list