Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1985
Since the rise of international fascism has become more unequivocal than it already was, I figured it was a good time to revisit Arendt’s TOTALITARIANISM, or just the first chapter anyway. Anti-Semitism is as relevant now as then, but she devotes volume one of her ORIGINS trilogy to that concept. Most importantly I wanted to look at the role aesthetics and culture play in her political theory. In times like these, what is a writer to do?
She argues that the crisis opening the 20th century entailed the dissolution of class society into the mass society, which was then mobilized by demagogues into totalitarian movements, which are distinct from fascist movements but not in the least incompatible. Obviously economic classes still exist, but there is a new sense that the people are not bound together by overarching socioeconomic interests or even national identity. What does bind the masses together? That involves a lot of concepts that are hard for me to keep together, being the product of an American education — ideology grew up differently (more overtly) over here than in the old world, where class was more salient.
The success of totalitarian movements among the masses meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled in general and of European nation-states and their party system in particular. The first was that the people in its majority had taken an active part in government and that each individual was in sympathy with one’s own or somebody else’s party… The second democratic illusion exploded by the totalitarian movements was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation. (10)
The dissolution of class solidarity means the middle classes (who are especially squished in underdeveloped places like Germany, Russia, and China relative to Western capitalist democracies) are atomized, isolated, and fraught with existential loneliness. They are indifferent to the sham of bourgeois electoral politics. Atomized populations serve totalitarians because anybody’s willing to snitch on anybody. Fuck You Got Mine is their anthem.
But if atomized citizens care about nothing besides covering their own ass, there is also a desire to abandon this private existence. A desire to abandon the self into a greater purpose, or for a Dear Leader, extraordinary but also an unpretentious everyman. T.E. Lawrence abandoned himself by identifying with the Arab revolt and wearing a fabulous white costume. Self-abandonment was an escape from a stultifying, complacent bourgeois order.
We can see how the concepts that define the mass society, atomization/apathy and radical selflessness, lead into its aesthetic project: the all-out attack against bourgeois liberal hypocrisy. “You are a special, unique, self-contained individual human being, and you can make your human nature into anything you want it to be.” Where else would such lies come from other than the liberals?
Such an attack pleased both “the mob” which for Arendt is like the underbelly of the bourgeois, and the “elites”, the ruling class. The latter took “genuine delight” in how the former “destroyed respectability” (31). People knew what these European empires were doing in the African colonies, and the opium wars in China, and the brutal sugar plantations in Latin America; they knew what level of systemic barbarism sustained civilization in its extreme boredom. Who could really know the troubles seen by black and PoC who bear the weight of this history? If you’re a liberal, you duly feel pity. If you’re a fascist, or at least mobilized into a totalitarian movement, then you resent pity and its “very boundlessness, which seems to kill human dignity with a more deadly certainty than misery itself” (27).
It is more refreshing to explicitly embrace “violence, power, cruelty,” as “the supreme capacities of men” (28). That a theory of individualism could flourish under an economic system that turns people into cogs in mechanized slaughter and leave its beneficiaries isolated was an aporia to be rid of. Civilized language and behavior was unmanly. Official history and intellectual doctrines were lies. Terrorism was a beautiful expression of one’s existence frustrated by the powers that be. Fascism then undoes the liberal humanist screen that covers up the violence of the economic system, so that these forces can be fully unleashed. It shreds the form of capitalism to free its content. Liberals who equate militants with the fascists they oppose in public are confusing form with content.
Anyway, to the question of art. Arendt discusses avant-garde theories in light of totalitarianism. (This doesn’t necessarily mean people like Brecht were totalitarians, art and philosophy often has a bit of autonomy from politics.) Such theories were opposed to the romantic notion of great individual artists. The “elites” were in favor of anonymity as the “mob/masses” were into self-abandonment. Excellence in art was “a product of skill, craftsmanship, logic, and the realization of the potentialities of the material” (30).
Brecht sought to make work that was properly subversive and radical, to force the hypocritical bourgeois to look in the mirror. He did not anticipate the allegiance between the mob and the ruling class that is possible in a totalitarian age.
The avant-garde did not know they were running their heads not against walls but against open doors, that a unanimous success would belie their claim to being a revolutionary minority, and would prove that they were about to express a new mass spirit or the spirit of the time. (33)
The Threepenny Opera was a success — or at least a sleeper hit. “The bourgeoisie could no longer be shocked; it welcomed the exposure of its hidden philosophy, whose popularity proved they had been right all along, so that the only political result of Brecht’s ‘revolution’ was to encourage everyone to discard the uncomfortable mask of hypocrisy and to accept openly the standards of the mob” (33).
See also: Tom Wolfe on “Radical Chic.”
The days of truly shocking the Moral Majority are over. Consumer capitalism can incorporate everything, can turn culture and art into commodity and any intellectual force into the next hip lifestyle.
Where this leaves us, I’m not too sure.