Archive for the ‘Political Theory’ Category

Some Thoughts on Reading ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’

December 28, 2014

Hannah Arendt

Lately, I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. This book is dense with ideas, so I have decided to write some blog posts about it, in which I will discuss some of the issues that the book raises.

The Origins of Totalitarianism is divided into three sections, the first of which is titled’Antisemitism’. Arendt devotes a lengthy discussion to this topic because she sees anti-Semitism as being at the center of Nazi ideology (unlike some historians who treat it as a side issue for the Nazis). Arendt begins by making a distinction between antisemitism (Arendt’s spelling), which she sees as a modern phenomenon, and the Medieval religious prejudice against Jews (which Arendt calls “Jew-hatred”). The former sometimes borrowed language and imagery from the latter, but it was nonetheless a distinct historical development.

Arendt is contemptuous of the ‘scapegoat” theory of anti-Semitism – the idea that Jews are made into scapegoats to distract people from the real sources of their problems. Arendt argues that this idea fails to explain the genocidal fury of anti-Semitism, while it ignores the historical roots of anti-Semitism.

According to Arendt, Jewish financiers played an essential role in the creation of the powerful monarchies of the eighteenth century, particularly in France and in Prussia. (The Rothschilds were the most famous and influential of these financiers.) Indeed, Arendt claims that the development of modern Europe would have been impossible without these people. (She quotes Diderot: “Thus dispersed in our time… [the Jews] have become instruments of communication between the most distant countries. They are like the cogs and nails needed in a great building in order to join and hold together all other parts.”) With the development of the modern nation state, which began with the French Revolution (which gave equal political rights to Jews), these financiers became an essential support for these new powerful states. (Arendt notes that the financial provisions of the peace treaty that ended the Franco-Prussian War were negotiated by two Jewish financiers: Gerson Bleichroeder representing Germany, and a Rothschild representing France.)

As a result of this, people began to associate Jews with the state. This made them an object of resentment for two groups. The first was the aristocracy, who bemoaned the loss of their feudal rights under the new nation-states. The second was the lower middle class (small landowners, guild artisans, small tradesmen), who saw their economic positions threatened by the developing capitalism that the nation-states enabled. Among these groups, the notion of a “Jewish conspiracy” began to make sense. Of course, they were aware that there were Jews who were poor, but that only made the success of some Jews seem sinister to them.

Arendt notes that the antisemitic parties that appeared in Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century all claimed to a “party above all parties”. Their aim was “… to become the representative of the whole nation, to get exclusive power, to take possession of the state machinery, to substitute themselves for the state.” From early on, the whole trend of antisemitism was towards totalitarianism.

Arendt ends this section with a discussion of the Dreyfus Affair, which foreshadowed Nazi Germany in some ways. “Kill the Jews” became a political slogan. Mobs attacked Jews on the streets and looted Jewish-owned stores.

Some have tried to draw an analogy between nineteenth century antisemitism and twenty-first century Islamophobia. The two things are similar in that each posits the existence of an inexplicable Other that poses a possibly existential threat. That’s about as far as the similarity goes, however. Antisemitism has anti-state and anti-capitalist overtones that are absent in Islamophobia. Indeed, Islamophobes tend to be strong supporters of the government, especially its military wing, which they see as a necessary bulwark against an expansive Islam. (This pro-government stance was particularly striking in the late Christopher Hitchens, who, before his religious conversion, was actually something of a radical.) Hitchens and Sam Harris endorsed the invasion of Iraq, which they (wrongly) believed was part of some sort of war on Islam. (Richard Dawkins, the most intelligent of the Islamophobes, opposed the invasion, correctly arguing that it was exactly what bin Laden wanted the US and Britain to do.)

The second section of Arend’s book is titled “Imperialism”. I plan to write about that soon.

Against the “Don’t Vote” Argument

November 8, 2014


Over the past few days, I have read a number of articles that have posited various reasons for why the last election turned out the way it did: low turnout, Republican gerrymandering, the weak economy, the stupidity of the Democrats, etc. I think there is some truth to all of these arguments. What I would like to address here, though, is an argument that some of my leftist friends made, which is that we shouldn’t vote. I can understand why people would feel this way, since our political system is such a scam. Yet I think the argument is seriously lacking in some ways.

In the last election, Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. all voted to legalize marijuana. Massachusetts passed a paid sick days law. Denton, Texas, outlawed fracking. Here in California, voters passed Proposition 47, which reduces many non-violent crimes, including drug possession, from felonies to misdemeanors. This is a major blow against what the late Alexander Cockburn called “the prosecutorial state” – in other words the warehousing of human beings who committed petty crimes. This vote indicates there has been a huge shift in consciousness since the 1990’s, when Californians passed the god-awful “Three Strikes” law, which resulted in people being sentenced for life for such trivial offenses as stealing a slice of pizza. People are beginning to realize that mass incarceration is not only not the solution to our society’s problems, but it actually makes them worse.

Should you vote? I would argue it depends on the circumstances and what’s on the ballot. Yes, we have a terrible political system, but we should take advantage of what little room to maneuver that we have.

Hannah Arendt

March 1, 2014


Margarethe von Trotta’s 2012 film, Hannah Arendt, deals with the writing of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem and the ensuing controversy that it caused. The film is fictional, but it includes actual film footage of Eichmann’s trial. Arendt’s book was controversial because of its notion of the “banality of evil”, which many historians objected to (and still object to). This idea has remained in currency, however, perhaps because it doesn’t seem far-fetched to a generation that grew up under the cloud of a nuclear arms race. The book also angered people because of its criticism of Jewish Leaders in Eastern Europe during World War II.

This film is mostly sympathetic in its portrayal of Arendt (played by Barbara Sukowa), but it does not portray her as flawless. She ignored pleadings that her comments about the Jewish leaders were insensitive and should be left out. (She felt she had to discuss it, because the issue came up during Eichmann’s trial.) Some of the characters accuse her of being arrogant, and the film subtly implies that there was some truth in this.

There is also a sub-plot about Arendt’s relationship with the philosopher, Heidegger, who was once her lover. This part of the film was unsatisfying because Trotta doesn’t seem to know what to say about this aspect of Arendt’s life.

Hannah Arendt is that rare type of film that deals with the life of the mind. It is also interesting portrayal of the German-Jewish emigre community in the U.S. following World War II.