No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Roughly 60% of The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt

"The book is regularly listed as one of the best non-fiction books of the 20th century."

But I gave up. I couldn't take any more. (Speaking of giving up, I'm slowly figuring out what to do and where to go with the journal. I mean, just about everyone's gone already, and the new Russian TOS is not inspiring confidence.)

I really found the writing style(?) uncongenial. I think my main beef is that Arendt is primarily a political theorist and philosopher, and not a historian. So there are airy passages of theses and ideas, but I found it not tied enough to supporting factual detail. Often a reasonable story was being spun, but it all felt like a free-floating structure, moored only by tenuous lines to shore. And worse.

The book is organized in three main sections: Antisemitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism.

The most interesting idea I found in Antisemitism was that, in the feudal age, Jews could be categorized and understood as the Other. It was easy. Sure, there's an enclave of Jews in Paris. But we're Franks, and they are Jews. Or we are Teutons, and they are Jews. As the modern nation-state developed, suddenly everyone had to be categorized as citizens of some nation. What? We're all French? But they're Jews, they're not French! (I don't think Arendt mentions it, but it occurs to me that another state-less people that had maybe even more difficulty getting tied down to a world of 'nations' were the Romany.)
Many, many pages are devoted to the Dreyfus Affair, but I found it maddening that it mostly talks around the Dreyfus Affair, and not really about the Dreyfus Affair. I mean, it's a good thing I knew the basic details, because you will learn more about Zola than Dreyfus (the first foreshadowing of what ultimately made me throw the book across the... okay, okay, to snap my iPad shut quite forcefully).

The most interesting idea I found in the first 75% of Imperialism, was that one of the things that led to imperialism was there was excess capital in the major European countries, and there was nothing much to invest in. And there was some excess labor force in these countries with nothing to do. And imperialism is the outlet for this. Betraying some Marxist tendencies, Arendt sees this as an unnatural alliance of capital and mob-labor to go exploit the world.

There's a discussion of imperialism in Africa with a lot of focus on South Africa, but also long quoted passages from Joseph Conrad. As her attention turns to Asia, she delves a bit into The Great Game, and then inevitably to Kipling. And then it really started to bother me -- the discussion is light on facts, but heavy on allusions to works of fiction. However much they may reflect the zeitgeist of imperialism, I can't take this seriously any more.

Now it's time for the home game: what author is about to become inevitable? How long into the passage does it take you to identify him?

Legally, government by bureaucracy is government by decree, and this
means that power, which in constitutional government only enforces the law,
becomes the direct source of all legislation. Decrees moreover remain anony-
mous (while laws can always be traced to specific men or assemblies) , and
therefore seem to flow from some over-all ruling power that needs no justi-
fication. Pobyedonostzev’s contempt for the “snares” of the law was the
eternal contempt of the administrator for the supposed lack of freedom of
the legislator, who is hemmed in by principles, and for the inaction of the
executors of law, who are restricted by its interpretation. The bureaucrat,
who by merely administering decrees has the illusion of constant action, feels
tremendously superior to these “impractical” people who are forever en-
tangled in “legal niceties” and therefore stay outside the sphere of power
which to him is the source of everything.

The administrator considers the law to be powerless because it is by
definition separated from its application. The decree, on the other hand,
does not exist at all except if and when it is applied; it needs no justification
except applicability. It is true that decrees are used by all governments in
times of emergency, but then the emergency itself is a clear justification and
automatic limitation. In governments by bureaucracy decrees appear in their
naked purity as though they were no longer issued by powerful men, but
were the incarnation of power itself and the administrator only its accidental
agent. There are no general, principles which simple reason can understand
behind the decree, but ever-changing circumstances which only an expert
can know in detail. People ruled by decree never know what rules them be-
cause of the impossibility of understanding decrees in themselves and the
carefully organized ignorance of specific circumstances and their practical
significance in which all administrators keep their subjects.
Government by bureaucracy has to be distinguished from the mere out-
growth and deformation of civil services which frequently accompanied the
decline of the nation-state — as, notably, in France. There the administration
has survived all changes in regime since the Revolution, entrenched itself
like a parasite in the body politic, developed its own class interests, and be-
come a useless organism whose only purpose appears to be chicanery and
prevention of normal economic and political development. There are of
course many superficial similarities between the two types of bureaucracy,
especially if one pays too much attention to the striking psychological simi-
larity of petty officials. But if the French people have made the very serious
mistake of accepting their administration as a necessary evil, they have
never committed the fatal error of allowing it to rule the country — even
though the consequence has been that nobody rules it.
The French atmosphere of government has become one of inefficiency and vexations; but
it has not created an aura of pseudomysticism.

And it is this pseudomysticism that is the stamp of bureaucracy when it
becomes a form of government. Since the people it dominates never really
know why something is happening, and a rational interpretation of laws does
not exist, there remains only one thing that counts, the brutal naked event
itself. What happens to one then becomes subject to an interpretation whose
possibilities are endless, unlimited by reason and unhampered by knowl-

The passage also give you a sense of the style, devoid of concrete evidence for the theses being proposed. "The administrator considers the law to be powerless because it is by definition separated from its application."

The fuck does that mean? On what evidence is it asserted?

Some isolated quotes, often for timely Trumpiness.

the curious contradiction between the totalitarian movements’
avowed cynical “realism” and their conspicuous disdain of the whole texture
of reality.

No doubt, the fact that totalitarian government, its open criminality notwith-
standing, rests on mass support is very disquieting

According to Tocqueville, the French people hated aristocrats
about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, pre-
cisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by any
considerable decline in their fortunes. As long as the aristocracy held vast
powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected. When
noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and
oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in
the rule of the country. In other words, neither oppression nor exploita-
tion as such is ever the main cause for resentment; wealth without visible
function is much more intolerable because nobody can understand why
it should be tolerated.

The most striking dif-
ference between ancient and modern sophists is that the ancients were
satisfied with a passing victory of the argument at the expense of truth,
whereas the moderns want a more lasting victory at the expense of reality.

While the people in all great revolutions
fight for true representation, the mob always will shout for the “strong
man,” the “great leader.” For the mob hates society from which it is excluded,
as well as Parliament where it is not represented.

When the
Boers, in their fright and misery, decided to use these savages as though
they were just another form of animal life, they embarked upon a process
which could only end with their own degeneration into a white race living
beside and together with black races from whom in the end they would
differ only in the color of their skin.

And while the legend of the
British Empire has little to do with the realities of British imperialism, it
forced or deluded into its services the best sons of England. For legends at-
tract the very best in our times, just as ideologies attract the average, and the
whispered tales of gruesome secret powers behind the scenes attract the very

the Pan-German League “embodied a real attempt at popular
control in foreign affairs. It believed firmly in the efficiency of a strong na-
tionally minded public opinion . . . and initiating national policies through
force of popular demand .” 49 Except that the mob, organized in the pan-
movements and inspired by race ideologies, was not at all the same people
whose revolutionary actions had led to constitutional government and whose
true representatives at that time could be found only in the workers’ move-
ments, but with its “enlarged tribal consciousness” and its conspicuous lack
of patriotism resembled much rather a “race.”

For tribal nationalism is the precise perversion of a religion which made
God choose one nation, one’s own nation; only because this ancient myth,
together with the only people surviving from antiquity, had struck deep roots
in Western civilization could the modern mob leader, with a certain amount
of plausibility, summon up the impudence to drag God into the petty con-
flicts between peoples and to ask His consent to an election which the leader
had already happily manipulated . 62 The hatred of the racists against the
Jews sprang from a superstitious apprehension that it actually might be the
Jews, and not themselves, whom God had chosen, to whom success was
granted by divine providence. There was an element of feeble-minded re-
sentment against a people who, it was feared, had received a rationally in-
comprehensible guarantee that they would emerge eventually, and in spite of
appearances, as the final victors in world history.
Tags: anger, blog, book, law, politics, skepticism

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