The Essence of Totalitarianism, Research Time, 22/11/2013

The last chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism is about the death camps. Needless to say, it’s also the most absolutely harrowing chapter to read. Aside from the terror, it also indicates precisely what Hannah Arendt is doing with this book. I’ve mentioned before my conversations with some folks who aren’t even sure that it’s proper for Arendt to be taught in a philosophy program, as she’s more of a historian and public intellectual than a philosopher strictly within the tradition. 

I, of course, completely disagree. To me, the chapter on the death camps, entitled “Total Domination,” solidifies that The Origins of Totalitarianism is a book of philosophy. It is philosophy whose source material is the analysis of a historical event and political movement that occurred in her recent history, of which she barely escaped being a victim herself. If the book was simply about the history of the totalitarian movements in Germany and Russia, she would stop at the facts of the death camps, describing their central location in the economy of Nazi Germany, the otherworldly exceptions to human life and humanity, which is how most authors of history treat them. 

After all, while the majority of German people may have had a suspicion that something terrible was happening on the Eastern Front, they knew nothing. The camps were a secret to everyone but the elite of the Nazi Party and the SS Death’s Head units who were assigned to them. As far as German society under the Nazis was concerned, the camps existed in a marginal corner where no light was allowed. Instead, she describes the death camps as the essential expression of totalitarianism itself, the drive to reduce all individuality away from people, rendering them as literally bare life. The death camps, the destruction of the human personality and soul through the literal creation of hell on Earth, are essential to the purest form of totalitarianism.

An artist's rendering of daily life at Auschwitz.

The subject of her work is the philosophy of totalitarianism, identifying, describing, and understanding the concepts that are central to its essence, without which a political system would not be totalitarian. This is ultimately the same goal as my own utopias project, an attempt to understand a political philosophy that makes individual people literally superfluous, removing them from the human community. The sacrificial murders of revolutionaries, the sacrifice of people for the realization of a larger political goal whether or not those people are aware of that sacrifice: that’s the philosophy I want to explore in the utopias project. 

I always begin a new project looking for basic figures among those who have written already. They’re my shoulders to stand upon. In my ecophilosophy project, those figures are Arne Næss, Francisco Varela, Félix Guattari, and Gilles Deleuze. They provided central ideas from which I worked forward in environmentalist morality, the material definition of an individual, and the ontology of assembly from a plurality of forces. Combining all their ideas led me to an account of what constitutes an individual in a world that is assembled from relations that grow exponentially in complexity as they compound each other, and of the moralities that such individuals tend to adopt once they understand themselves in this way.

At this early stage of research for the utopias project, I’m still looking for my giants whose shoulders I’ll stand on. I can say right now that Hannah Arendt is one of those giants. 

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