Not Quite the Essence of Totalitarianism II: Death Drives, Research Time, 10/03/2015

Continued from last post . . . Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom has some interesting comments about the role of ideology in totalitarian regimes. They’re utterly mistaken about the nature of ideology itself, but it’s nonetheless interesting. I think this is why doctrinaire libertarians* continually parrot the common Tea Party message that Barack Obama’s policies put the United States on a track to a Hitlerian or Stalinist state.

* Such as the former friends of mine who have supplied, for better and worse, my primary examples of doctrinaire popular libertarianism. I’ve been exploring libertarian political forums lately to discover how representative they were, and that’s certainly been confirmed. There are many nuanced people on libertarian forums, but quite a number of people who parrot empty messages like “Government Regulation Bad! Private Control Good!”

Actual socialists find it hard to understand what precisely
is so socialist about Obama's policies.
I always found the idea that Obama was a Nazi (at best a Nazi who didn’t know it) unsettling, kind of racist, and a completely weird thing to say. But finally reading Hayek has shown me the rational and quite profound (if terribly mistaken) argument that lies behind this insane-sounding rhetoric. 

Hayek directs the philosophical critique of The Road to Serfdom at the bureaucratic institutions of the state, particularly the totalitarian state. He begins the book with a scathing criticism of mainstream ideas in political life of Europe, even in proudly democratic countries, that a complex technological economy could only function properly under the directed management of a bureaucracy whose power covered all activities and territory of the nation.

The politics of the time when he was composing The Road to Serfdom was the violent confrontation of democratic countries and authoritarian regimes. Hayek saw the spectre of tyranny in the politics of economic nationalization and state industrial planning. This was a political program whose goal was the elimination of all restraints on the government’s bureaucratic power over people’s lives. This is a feature of totalitarian politics.

But it isn’t the only facet, because totalitarianism includes an element of racism that Hayek thinks is insignificant. He devotes a long chapter of The Road to Serfdom to the role of ideology in totalitarian governments. And he’s unique among the philosophers I’ve read so far in that he doesn’t think it’s very important. 

Understanding disciplinary modes of governance
and population control is why libertarians and the
modern liberal right wing should read Michel
Foucault and take him seriously.
Hayek analyzes how people with the personalities of brutish thugs are drawn to positions of power in regimes that bureaucratically manage nationalized industries. It requires disciplining an entire population to follow the orders of a hierarchical authority, the government. The population of the whole country must follow orders without question, and people who are accustomed to giving and following orders without question are best suited to this.

Such thuggish people aren’t typically very intelligent people. Once they’re in positions of power, says Hayek, they would act through their petty motivations. But as the dictators of a nation, they have to justify their actions as grounded in a philosophically nuanced set of moral and political concepts. 

So they commit some violent act against their country’s population or a segment of it, and create a post hoc justification by appeal to the common prejudices that thuggish brutes understand well. Add a bunch of these cobbled together justifications of empty brutality together, and you have the ideology of a totalitarian regime.

I don’t know for sure why Hayek was blind to what was obvious to Arendt. Arendt was a Jew who lived in Germany itself as the Nazi movement grew in that culture. She saw friends, acquaintances, and even her lover Martin Heidegger fall into the most virulent anti-Semitism. 

Heidegger, one of Arendt’s most intimate friends throughout her life, developed a profound and difficult philosophy that venerated German volk as having the potential for near divinity, and Jewish existence as irredeemably inadequate to being, capable only of “empty rationality and calculability,” as he wrote in his Black Notebooks. 

Heidegger demonstrated the immense power of
philosophy by articulating ideas that, most of the time,
are the most brutal and stupid racisms as profound ideas
that enrapture thousands of readers.
Arendt saw the power of philosophy to make what at a cursory glance appears to be a crude racism into a profound conception of existence itself. Such power, to make the thoughts of one person mythic and mystic, is philosophy. Heidegger’s was a philosophy for a totalitarian time, one that wrote racism into the fabric of being itself.

Philosophy is irreducible to biography, of course, for the same reason that it’s irreducible to historical context alone. But your life experience shapes how you see the world, what you notice more easily than other things. 

Hayek was the cousin of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but was himself Austrian nobility. He moved to Britain to work at the London School of Economics in 1931. He still had family and friends in Austria, but his daily life was in Britain, where he watched the rise of Hitler from afar. With his eye only on the relation of state institutions to individual people, he couldn’t see how the ideas themselves gave life to the Nazi movement, the most horrifying death drive in human history.

Arendt saw totalitarianism as a social movement that permeated every interaction of individuals. It was not a matter of state bureaucracy having such a power, but the power of the death drive itself percolating from every human interaction and institution. Nazi ideology was a movement to destroy individuality in the collective movement of the volk, and to purify the volk through destroying all that was different.

Hayek saw profundity as the empty justifications of petty idiocy, dull wits like Hitler and Göring justifying their brutishness and prejudice. Arendt saw profundity as the power of an idea to make people its puppets in a process that overcame the will of any individual. Totalitarianism was the formation of the mass man, the nation as a unity expressed in the will of the Leader driving Germany (Germanity?) to suicide, extermination. To be continued . . .

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