Limitations of Leftist Thinking, Research Time, 05/11/2013

Now that we have the controversial and eye-catching title out of the way, I can write some more thoughts about Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism that reflect the chapters I read Monday evening. One point that my libertarian friends stress frequently in our conversations is that business would never create any large-scale destructive forces without being enabled or otherwise encouraged by the state. While I maintain skepticism about that claim, I think they’d very much enjoy reading Arendt’s account of imperialism.

Arendt’s analysis of imperialism concentrates on its most intense period of the 1880s to the First World War. The phenomenon is massively complicated, of course. That her account takes over 200 pages of a book still feels fast. But her basic themes and her reasons for asserting them are clear. A necessary condition for imperialism is the union of commercial concerns and the massive military forces of a state. The state’s global military powers become a tool for businessmen to expand their interests when the domestic market is saturated and can grow no longer. Petty-minded businessmen love the strong hand of the state when they control it and it makes them money.

Now, the industrialized powers of Europe had fairly large populations who could be a market for the businesses of the new capital elite of the 19th century. Or at least they would have been if any of them had any money. Europe was filled with what Arendt calls “superfluous” people. These were people whose community and familial connections had been broken through industrial development, but who had lost out on the gains of industrialization. There was a significant political movement in Europe to advocate for these people: socialism. But in the 19th century, it wasn’t doing that well.

By the mid-war period in Europe, Antonio Gramsci had crafted his theory of hegemony, the social and cultural mechanisms through which the ruling classes of capitalism justify and legitimate their power. Understanding mechanisms of hegemony was Gramsci’s theory as to why socialist revolutions rarely succeeded, and why the one that did when he was writing produced totalitarian nightmares. 

Arendt was made superfluous in Europe because of
her race. But she was a member of the middle-class
intelligentsia. If not for anti-Semitism, she would
have been a figure that the extreme communist left
But Arendt has a different take on the issue. Part of her account of imperialism as a social phenomenon is that it put the attention of the downtrodden, forgotten, underemployed, superfluous people on overseas adventuring instead of changing the political order of their own countries. Yet there’s a commonality with Gramsci’s idea as well. Imperialism was justified as solving the social upheavals of communist revolutionary movements by giving their target populations capitalist dreams of their own. Someone who had lost out at home could have a chance to succeed in the colonies. If you had no place where you had grown up, there could still be a home for you in the naked pursuit of wealth stolen from indigenous people around the world. Imperialism effectively defuses communism in the West by promising would-be communists that they could be profiteers on the backs of the colonized. More important than the appeal to the common humanity of all people was the appeal to personal greed.

This gets to an idea that would make a traditional leftist very suspicious of Arendt. Indeed, it did make traditional leftists of the 1940s very suspicious of Arendt. That idea is the mob. The traditional leftist idea was that the common people were noble labourers who fostered a universalist love of humanity as working people who honestly toiled for their daily bread. Disenfranchised by the capitalist system, such people would agitate and sacrifice to establish a progressive utopia in which all could share what was needed and live to the fullest possible. 

After witnessing the popular embrace of fascism, Arendt couldn’t believe this anymore, instead seeing it for the idealized lie that it was, and still is. Here’s her definition of the mob: society’s refuse, the underemployed, poor, disenfranchised people who constituted the sectors of society who are rejected from any place in industrialized society. Traditional Marxist thought of the 19th century saw these people as noble labourers. Arendt understood them to be ignorant and inarticulate, able to do nothing with their energy but rage, steal, and destroy. To empower these people is to enable society to develop into a brutal regime of violence from neighbour to neighbour. 

Looking at the attitudes of disenfranchised people who embraced the violent racism of imperialist expansion in Africa and fascism in Europe, I don’t blame Arendt for thinking so. And I largely agree with her. If one has nothing to do, no place in society, and the boundless energy of relative youth, then you’re not going to build a utopia where no one will suffer your fate again. You’ll instead be a selfish outcast whose only satisfaction will be in the suffering of others, and being able to profit materially through that mass suffering. 

Arendt was honest, and refused to idealize poverty as ennobling people. Poverty does not make a person better, but instead makes him a petty brute who would steal from his own children for the sake of a few hundred dollars. Or send 100 Xhosa to die in a gold mine for a few hundred thousand. Same attitude; the only difference is that the gold mine overseer is a more shrewd investor.

No comments:

Post a Comment