Disappearing From Life and History, Research Time, 25/11/2013

My entry last Friday about my reading of The Origins of Totalitarianism had an air of finality to it, seeing as it was about Hannah Arendt’s account of where the death camps fit into the essential structure of totalitarian political philosophy. They really were an essence, the purest expression of a system that exists to strip a person of everything that’s remarkable about them, both for the victims and the perpetrators. It was a world without singularity or individuality, where your only nature was the external determination of the orders you were giving. On its own, it was a wonderful transition to reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, which I started Sunday night.

But there’s one more Arendtian idea from the earlier book that I want to discuss, because I don’t do smooth transitions. That’s too easy.

One of the concepts underlying the utopias project is the human relationship with time. My central idea is that political philosophies that are threats to human freedom privilege an imagined ideal past or a hoped-for ideal or perfect future over the messy singularity of the present. An idea of Arendt’s about a peculiar relation of totalitarian secret police to the past of their regimes throws a wrinkle in this hypothesis, but I think it’s a productive complication rather than a problem.

The secret police have many important functions in a totalitarian regime. A key feature that distinguishes totalitarian regimes from more ordinary dictatorships is that the secret police now becomes an open secret. They’re no longer the subject of whispers and kept from official reports and ceremonies. The secret police now make their central position in the government hierarchy widely known to the general population: they’re present at official functions, give press conferences, appear blatantly in their role as important government functionaries. Nonetheless, the secret police remains an organization bent on making people disappear.

Disappearing people is the essential function of the secret police. Regular police send riot police to destroy your political associations and your homes, and lock you in prison. But everyone still knows where you are when the regular police are done with you: You’re lying on the ground trying to cry the pepper spray out of your eyes, or you’re in a jail cell. You can be seen. If you’re dealing with a secret police, once they have you, you’re never seen again. The peculiar danger of this secret power is that this kind of police doesn’t even need to have a reason to take you beyond the act of taking you.

The temporal element appears when Arendt examines one of the curious attributes of Stalin’s purges. Not only did he make various officials in the government and party disappear, he also had the secret police erase them from government records. They’d be airbrushed out of photos, their names blacked out of records and legislation or else all the written record of your existence is outright destroyed. Not only do you no longer exist, you have now never existed. History has been rewritten. The secret police is the closest humanity has come to time travel: the ability to wipe people from history.

Philosophy can be considered a discipline working in pure
concepts. But sometimes the experiments of science-fiction
can create a more pure concept than philosophers. We have
to step our game up, people.
[One of the frustrating things about writing philosophy is that philosophers lately seem, in some circumstances, to be in competition with science-fiction writers for explaining some of these concepts. Appropriately for its 50th anniversary week, I remembered an old Doctor Who story, a Paul McGann audio called Neverland, which featured a terrible Time Lord weapon that had never been used. It was able to wipe, literally and completely, anyone it was used on from history. But the only reason it had never been used was because the machine erased the event of its use from history along with all the other events that constituted its victim’s life. 

This is a fascinating idea, but it essentially turned a key figure among Doctor Who’s heroes, Romana, into a totalitarian murderer. As President of the Time Lords, she authorized using the erasing machine a VERY LARGE number of times, but because her previous uses were erased from history, she had no idea she had erased hundreds of people, despite agonizing over each decision as, literally, the first time she would ever use it. Previous presidents were much worse.]

So the temporal relationship of, specifically, totalitarian secret police to history was their ability to rewrite it. Totalitarian movements want to push society toward a future state that they take to be perfect, the absolute triumph of their ideology over the world. So their eyes are on the future, at the expense of the present. But they also do violence to the past through totalitarian secret police having the power to erase people from history. Where there was once a person with accessible concrete facts about her life, there is now only a rumour at best. 

They may not have been able to change history in a literal sense, though our friends in the sci-fi world have explored already how having such a power would make even the most liberal regimes horrifyingly corrupt. A liberal regime could be as fascistic as it wants, as long as they know that their crimes will be erased not only from official records of history, but from causality itself. But this is the corrupting force of the secret police, the ability rewrite history at the expense of humanity.
One last point about the secret police, a curious historical footnote for me. Arendt describes a historical detail, the types of files that the secret police of Russia before 1917, the Okhrana, used to keep on people. These files included cards with graphical diagrams tracing all the associations of suspicious persons: co-workers, family, friends, anyone who might be corrupted by the anti-Czarist thoughts of the central suspect. This was how the Okhrana enforced guilt by association. The only problem was that their cards were only so large, and could only trace so many connections.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those Facebook apps that create a graphic image of all your connections in the network, but this is basically what a modern Okhrana would use to keep track of you and all your possible associations. And we’ve done it for them already in private industry. I won’t go so far as to say the NSA operates on secret police principles: after all, they may collect terabytes of information about the citizenry of the United States and the wider world every hour, but they don’t use that information to make people literally disappear. But if some NSA-like organization were ever to go full NKVD (and I honestly DO NOT AT ALL think they EVER WOULD), it would be very easy for them simply to requisition or steal all the files from Facebook or LinkedIn and have a complete map of the associations of almost everyone in their country. 

"Hannah likes German Philosophy and The
Right to Dissent."
This is why I always sort of chuckle at people who think they’re somehow anonymizing themselves when they use a fake name (like when Steve Smith’s Facebook name is Scotsman Flibby-Magoo) for their profile, but otherwise connect to all their friends and associates, and allow themselves to be tagged in photos and statuses. People who actually understand security on the internet and don’t want to be found aren’t on Facebook. I understand security on the internet, but I don’t actually do anything threatening to any military or government powers around the world. I’m trying to start a career as a university professor and public intellectual, so I need visible social connections to promote myself and my work, like this blog. 

Public intellectuals aren’t threatening to modern anti-democratic politics. At most, our products act as a release valve for people’s frustrations with the modern world so that they feel better about their mediocre lives and don’t become so enraged that they act violently to change them. If anything, that’s the lesson that the architects of the modern surveillance state have learned, at least to some degree. 

People like Aaron Swartz are still persecuted until they’re financially ruined suicides. But this is really the crude reaction of state prosecutors and other officials who don’t fully understand. Total domination, the persecution and destruction of all dissent and dissenters against our laws and our social/political structures is overkill. Violent resistance becomes inevitable in such circumstances, if not from within then from without as neighbouring countries became shitlessly scared of you. Swartz was ultimately harmless to the surveillance state and the police. 

The secret is that it doesn’t matter practically how much government and private intelligence agencies know about us. What only matters is that we know that they know and what they know, and that they don’t use this knowledge to destroy and manage the populace.

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