Arendt’s Linking of Imperialism with True Totalitarianism, Research Time, 15/11/2013

Basically, the way I conceive of the evolution of what I call fascist political philosophy (which Arendt calls totalitarian, and since I’m talking mostly about Arendt today, I’ll use that term from now on in the post) in the first half of the 20th century goes like this. The political philosophy, as embodied in the beliefs and actions of a populace, developed this way. The generation of First World War soldiers of cannon fodder ranks learns a central lesson of the war: the elite and former generations’ belief in heroic individual virtue is obsolete, and all will be crushed and rendered utterly uniform by the cleansing reduction sauce of total war. Through war, man is forged into pure mechanism, because individuality has become impossible. 

This is Arendt’s account of the point of view that the Italian Futurist philosophers expressed, to my knowledge, most clearly, with the most charisma, and (most perversely), most joyously. While she attributes it mostly to Ernst Jünger, for the Utopias project, I put the Futurists at the true vanguard of this horrifying philosophy. Historically speaking, the Italian state, though it gave birth to totalitarianism’s best philosophers, wasn’t politically capable of carrying the program through. Only Russia had the population large enough to sustain the massive losses of violently destroying all classes and associations. For Arendt, the economic disasters of Weimar Germany had done most of this work before the Nazis came to formal power. 

But the popular wave of totalitarianism, says Arendt, came from a generational rebellion against the previous generation’s more stereotypically bourgeois values of the 19th century. She refers to the romanticized values of personal heroism and adventurous valor. Yet these virtues only covered up the rapacious actions of a society that had grown rich from colonial exploitation that made business a form of international gangsterism.

I don't know why this isn't the default
photo people use of Brecht. Maybe it's
because of his dour reputation. But
I find this image hilarious.
Weimar Germany was a cauldron of instability because of increasing awareness of this hypocrisy. She illustrates her point with an illustration of the public reaction of Bertolt Brecht’s play, Dreigroschenoper, The Threepenny Opera, which depicted businessmen acting as gangsters, and gangsters operating with sincere morality. She describes the relief across all classes of German society that someone had finally told the truth. But instead of public indignation that this was the truth of imperialist industrialism, Brecht was horrified that the general audience embraced this with a sigh of relief. Now, Arendt says, the people were free to admit that they were horrible, and revel in their disgusting criminality.

That’s essentially the attitude that founds totalitarianism: The consciousness, free from hypocrisy, that all morality is a lie to prop up your unscrupulous behaviour. If all men are hypocrites, then everything is truly permitted.

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