Last year marked the centenary of Hannah Arendt’s birth. From Slovenia to Waco, conferences, readings and exhibitions were convened in her honour. This month, Schocken Books is issuing a new collection of her writings, its fifth publication of her work in four years. Penguin has reissued On Revolution, Eichmann in Jerusalem and Between Past and Future. And Yale has inaugurated a new series, ‘Why X Matters’, with Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s Why Arendt Matters.
Arendt would undoubtedly have been pleased by all this. She didn’t like attention, but she did love birthdays. Birth meant the arrival of a new being who would, or could, say and do things no one had said or done before. The appearance of such a being, she thought, might move others to speak and act in new ways as well. There was always a certain pathos to this notion. Whatever its promise, birth is a fact of nature. And nature, Arendt insisted, is the sphere not of novelty or freedom but of repetition and routine.
Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the centenary of Arendt’s birth should have devolved into a recitation of the familiar. Once a week, it seems, some pundit will trot out her theory of totalitarianism, dutifully extending it, as her followers did during the Cold War, to America’s enemies: al-Qaida, Saddam, Iran. Arendt’s academic chorus continues to swell, sounding the most elusive notes of her least political texts while ignoring her prescient remarks about Zionism and imperialism. Academic careers are built on interpretations of her work, and careerism, as Arendt noted in her book on Eichmann, is seldom conducive to thinking.
The lodestone of the Arendt industry is The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951 and reissued by Schocken in 2004 with an introduction by Samantha Power. Divided into three parts – ‘Anti-Semitism’, ‘Imperialism’ and ‘Totalitarianism’ – the book was composed at two different times and evinces two conflicting impulses. Arendt wrote the first two sections in the early to mid-1940s, when Fascism was her fear and a federated, social democratic Europe her hope. She considered calling the book ‘Imperialism’ and the title of her intended conclusion, on the Nazi genocide, ‘Race-Imperialism.’
By the late 1940s, however, Arendt’s hope for postwar Europe had waned – it was a victim, as she had predicted in 1945, of the anti-Communist drive for collective security, which she compared to Metternich’s Holy Alliance – and the Soviet Union was her preoccupation. She wrote the last third of the book in 1948 and 1949, in the early years of the Cold War. Racism merged with Marxism, Auschwitz with the Gulag, and Fascism morphed into Communism.
This last section is the least representative – and, as historians of Nazism and Stalinism have pointed out, least instructive – part of the book. But it has always attracted the most attention. Young-Bruehl claims that the section on imperialism is of ‘equal importance’ to the one on totalitarianism, yet she devotes a mere seven scattered paragraphs to it. Samantha Power uses the last section to examine recent genocides, despite Arendt’s insistence that totalitarianism seeks not the elimination of a people but the liquidation of the person. And when Power tries to explain al-Qaida or Hamas, she also looks to the last section, even though Arendt’s analysis of imperialism would seem more pertinent.
Arendt saw totalitarianism as the product of mass society, which arose from the breakdown of classes and nation-states. Neither a political grouping nor a social stratum, the mass denoted a pathological orientation of the self. Arendt claimed that its members had no interests, no concern for their ‘wellbeing’ or survival, no beliefs, community or identity. What they had was an anxiety brought on by loneliness, ‘the experience of not belonging to the world’, and a desire to subsume themselves in any organisation that would extinguish their ‘individual identity permanently’. With their insistence on absolute loyalty and unconditional obedience, totalitarian movements filled this need: they fastened mass man with a ‘band of iron’, providing him and his fellows with a sense of structure and belonging.
Ideology and terror reinforced this grip. Racism and Marxism confined their adherents in a ‘straitjacket of logic’, lending the world a spurious consistency and relieving people of ‘the freedom inherent in man’s capacity to think’. By reducing men and women to the barest animal life, terror ensured that no one would resist ideology’s law of nature, in the case of Nazism, or history, in the case of Stalinism. Because ideology ‘may decide that those who today eliminate races’ – or classes – ‘are tomorrow those who must be sacrificed’, terror must ‘fit each of them equally well for the role of executioner and the role of victim’. The purpose of totalitarianism, in short, was not political: it did not fulfil the requirements of rule; it served no constituency or belief; it had no utility. Its sole function was to create a fictitious world where anxious men could feel at home, even at the cost of their own lives.
Arendt’s account dissolves conflicts of power, interest and ideas in a bath of psychological analysis, allowing her readers to evade difficult questions of politics and economics. We need not probe the content of a particular ideology – what matters is not what it says but what it does – or the interests it serves (they do not exist). We can ignore the distribution of power: in mass society, there is only a desert of anomie. We can disregard statements of grievance: they only conceal a deeper vein of psychic discontent. Strangest of all, we needn’t worry about moral responsibility: terror makes everyone – from Hitler to the Jews, Stalin to the kulaks – an automaton, incapable of judgment or being judged.
During the Cold War, Arendt’s text allowed intellectuals and officials to avoid any reckoning with the politics of Communism and its appeal. Today, it offers a similar detour. ‘If one could pierce the cloak of mystery that shrouds al-Qaida, Hamas or Islamic Jihad,’ Power writes in her introduction,
one might well find some of the qualities Arendt associated with totalitarian movements: ‘supreme disregard for immediate consequences rather than ruthlessness; rootlessness and neglect of national interests rather than nationalism; contempt for utilitarian motives rather than unconsidered pursuit of self-interest; “idealism”, i.e. their unwavering faith in an ideological fictitious world, rather than lust for power’.
Power makes the occasional nod to American policies in the Middle East and to terrorism’s local causes, but she cannot resist the psychological thrust of Arendt’s analysis: ‘Arendt wrote of German and Soviet selfless devotion to the idealised collective, but what greater testament to such selflessness can there be than martyrdom of the kind that thousands of young Muslim men and women are queuing up to undertake today?’
Young-Bruehl also believes that the anti-political ‘elements of totalitarianism have continued to be with us’. Unlike Power, she finds these elements on both sides of the war on terror: in militant Islam and neo-conservatism; in 9/11 and Shock and Awe; in the ‘supranationalism’ of bin Laden and Bush; in the Republican and Islamist push to submit the private sphere to public scrutiny.
But as virtually every intelligence analysis has shown, Islamist radicals are driven by hostility to the state of Israel and repressive Arab regimes, US patronage of Israel and those regimes, and, in Europe, discrimination against Muslims and support for US policies in the Middle East. Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of MI5, recently said that British suicide bombers ‘are motivated by perceived worldwide and long-standing injustices against Muslims; an extreme and minority interpretation of Islam promoted by some preachers and people of influence; and their interpretation as anti-Muslim of UK foreign policy, in particular the UK’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan’. The Islamists’ grievances are local and specific. They are not the flotsam and jetsam of mass society or a globalised world; they come from and return to mosques, schools, parties and close-knit neighbourhoods. Suicide bombing is primarily a response to foreign occupation, and terrorism is, as it always has been, the weapon of choice for people with little power or no mass base.
The Bush administration is committed to the interests of its main constituencies: corporations, evangelicals, the military and big oil. It has revived the most toxic elements of American nationalism – not supranationalism – and though neo-conservatives may savour war for its own sake, Bush has folded their ethos into the rhetoric of national security and human rights. His party’s intrusions into the family and sexuality don’t reflect a general desire to dissolve the public and the private – Republicans happily respect the freedoms of employers – but are rather an effort to shore up the power of husbands and fathers. Whatever one may think of these warring antagonists, it is difficult to see how their aims are anything but political, their weapons anything but strategic and rational.
By the Cold War’s end, Arendt’s account of totalitarianism had been so trashed by historians that Irving Howe was forced to defend her as essentially a writer of fiction, whose gifts for ‘metaphysical insight’ enabled her to see the truth that lay beneath or beyond the verifiable facts. ‘To grasp the inner meaning of totalitarianism,’ Howe wrote in 1991, ‘you must yield, yourself, a little imaginatively.’ That fiction is again in vogue, but where once it was passed back and forth between intellectuals and officials, today it appeals primarily to the belligerati, who ignore the more informed analyses of Manningham-Buller or the former CIA officer Robert Baer.
If Arendt matters today, it is because of her writings on imperialism, Zionism and careerism. Composed during the 1940s and early 1960s, they not only challenge facile and fashionable applications of the totalitarianism thesis; they also eerily describe the dangers that the world now faces. By refusing to reckon with these writings, the journalists, intellectuals and academics who make up the Arendt industry betray her on two counts: they ignore an entire area of her work and fail to engage with the unsettling realities of their own time. The latter would not have surprised Arendt: empires tend to have selective memories. The history of ‘imperialist rule’, she wrote at the height of the Vietnam War, ‘seems half-forgotten’, even though ‘its relevance for contemporary events has become rather obvious in recent years.’ America was so transfixed by ‘analogies with Munich’ and the idea of totalitarianism that it did not realise ‘that we are back, on an enormously enlarged scale … in the imperialist era.’
In the second section of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argues that imperialism’s animating impulse is expansion for expansion’s sake. Against the claims of some Marxists, she insists that capitalism provides a model, not a motive, for the imperialist, who patterns the acquisition of power on the accumulation of capital. The capitalist sees money as a means to more money. The imperialist sees every conquest as a way station to the next. Cromer looked at Egypt and saw India, Rhodes looked at South Africa and saw the world. ‘I would annex the planets if I could,’ he said. So it is today: Afghanistan leads to Iraq leads to Iran leads to who knows where? ‘The famous domino-theory’, Arendt wrote, is ‘a new version of the old “Great Game”’. As Kipling said, the Great Game finishes only ‘when everyone is dead’.
Despite its claims during the Cold War, Arendt argued, the United States was never threatened by Communism. World War Two had made the US ‘the greatest world power and it was this world power, rather than national existence, that was challenged by the revolutionary power of Moscow-directed Communism.’ I wonder what Arendt would have said about Islamist terrorism, which poses even less of a threat to America’s survival.
She was also sceptical of imperial professions of benevolence, and during the Cold War mocked both superpowers’ ‘hollow assurances of good intentions’. And though she had much to say about the threat to human rights from an international system that prized sovereignty above all else (a point Power discusses at length), she had little patience for great powers insisting on limiting the sovereignty of weak states while refusing to accept any comparable limitation on their own (a point Power never mentions). Few developments bred more cynicism and contempt for human rights than this double standard.
More important, the language of moral responsibility and humanitarian concern in the 20th century reminded Arendt of the racism that was ‘the main ideological weapon of imperialistic politics’ during the 19th. The British Empire achieved the most successful combination of racism and responsibility and thus served as an instructive example for the American. Arendt identified Burke, arguably Britain’s greatest critic of imperialism, as one of the empire’s subterranean inspirations. Against the Jacobins, Burke insisted that there were no Rights of Man, only the rights of Englishmen. That union of inheritance and freedom, Arendt believed, turned Britain into a ‘kind of nobility among nations’ and was ‘the ideological basis from which English nationalism received its curious touch of race-feeling’.
In the 19th century, Burke’s successors turned his criticism of messianic liberalism into a charter for racist imperialism. With their notion of a ‘national mission’, which had ‘a peculiarly close affinity to race-thinking’, British imperialists sought to export the rights of Englishmen to the rest of the world. Imagining themselves as ‘dragon-slayers who went enthusiastically into far and curious lands to strange and naive peoples to slay the numerous dragons that had plagued them for centuries’, colonial administrators and secret agents – the empire’s emblematic figures – took on ‘a responsibility that no man can bear for his fellow-man and no people for another people’: to protect those who are ‘hopelessly one’s inferiors’.
For a while, it seemed as if today’s rhetoricians of empire had dropped racism from the language of responsibility. But the quagmire in Iraq has reversed that. ‘Arab societies can’t support democracy as we know it,’ says Ralph Peters, a retired US army officer and prominent columnist. Rather than build a liberal society, the Iraqis ‘preferred to indulge in old hatreds, confessional violence, ethnic bigotry and a culture of corruption’. According to the New York Times columnist David Brooks, after the fall of Saddam the Iraqis succumbed to their native ‘demons: greed, blood lust and a mind-boggling unwillingness to compromise … even in the face of self-immolation’. Liberal hawks such as Leon Wieseltier believe much the same thing:
The security situation is at bottom the social-cultural situation. It seems increasingly clear to me that the blame for the violence in Iraq, and for its frenzied recoil from what Fouad Ajami hopefully called ‘the foreigner’s gift’, belongs to the Iraqis. Gifts must not be only given, they must also be received … For three and a half years, the Iraqis have been a free people. What have they done with their freedom? … After we invaded Iraq, Iraq invaded itself.
Looking back on 12 years of Nazi waste and ruin, Arendt wrote in 1951: ‘There is hardly an aspect of contemporary history more irritating and mystifying than the fact that of all the great unsolved political questions of our century, it should have been this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem that had the dubious honour of setting the whole infernal machine in motion.’ There was something outlandish about the discrepancy between the size and significance of European Jewry and the war that resulted from the animus against it. Yet this would not be the last time that the world’s oldest pariah would be the focus of international attention.
Though Arendt had a long, often sympathetic involvement in Zionist politics, she was wary of the project almost from the start. ‘I find this territorial experiment increasingly problematic,’ she wrote in a 1940 letter, just one of the fascinating documents gathered by Jerome Kohn and Ron Feldman in their splendid collection of Arendt’s Jewish writings, many of which have been translated for the first time. In 1948, she confessed to her complete ‘opposition to present Zionist politics’. Her opposition was rooted in three concerns: the correspondence she saw between Zionism and Fascism, the Zionists’ dependence on imperialism, and her growing awareness of what she called ‘the Arab question’.
Of all the co-optations of Arendt for contemporary political purposes, none is more outrageous than the parallel, drawn by Power and others, between Palestinian militants and the Nazis. Arendt firmly rejected that analogy (in a 1948 letter to the Jewish Frontier), and few of the protagonists in the struggle over Palestine so reminded her of the Nazis as the Zionists themselves, particularly those of the Revisionist tendency, whose influence Arendt was among the first to notice.
From its inception, Arendt argued, Zionism had exhibited some of the nastier features of European nationalism. Drawing ‘from German sources’, she wrote in 1946, Herzl presumed that the Jews constituted neither a religion nor a people but an ‘organic national body’ or race that could one day be housed ‘inside the closed walls of a biological entity’ or state. With its insistence on the eternal struggle between the Jews and their enemies, she wrote in the 1930s, the Zionist worldview seemed ‘to conform perfectly’ to that of ‘the National Socialists’. Both ideas, she added in 1944, ‘had a definite tendency towards what later were known as Revisionist attitudes’.
Initially a minor current, according to Arendt, Revisionism poured into the Zionist mainstream in the 1940s. The Revisionists knew what they wanted and used guns to get it. Far from denying them legitimacy, their violent audacity provoked only token disapproval from mainstream Zionists, who secretly or unwittingly supported their initiative. Revisionist violence spoke to a new dispensation among the Jews, which Arendt described in ‘The Jewish State’. After centuries of settling for ‘survival at any price’, the Jews now insisted on ‘dignity at any price’. Though Arendt appreciated the shift, she also detected a secret death wish in the spirit of machismo: ‘Behind this spurious optimism lurks a despair of everything and a genuine readiness for suicide.’ Many Zionists, she claimed two years later, would rather go down with the ship than compromise, fearing that compromise would send them back to the humiliating days of silent suffering in Europe.
In 1948, the leader of Herut, Israel’s Revisionist party, travelled to America. Arendt drafted a letter of protest to the New York Times, which was signed by Einstein, Sidney Hook and others. Herut was ‘no ordinary political party’, she wrote. It was ‘closely akin in its organisation, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties’. It used ‘terrorism’, and its goal was a ‘Führer state’ based on ‘ultra-nationalism, religious mysticism and racial superiority’. The letter also decried those ‘Americans of national repute’ who ‘have lent their names to welcome’ the Herut leader, giving ‘the impression that a large segment of America supports Fascist elements in Israel’. The leader of Herut was Menachem Begin.
The second failing of Zionism, according to Arendt, was that its leaders looked to the ‘great powers’ for support rather than to their future neighbours. Her disagreement here was both moral – ‘by taking advantage of imperialistic interests’, she wrote in 1944, the Zionists had collaborated ‘with the most evil forces of our time’ – and strategic. At the very moment that imperialism was being challenged throughout the world, Zionism had attached itself to a universally maligned form. ‘Only folly could dictate a policy that trusts distant imperial power for protection, while alienating the goodwill of neighbours,’ she wrote. In a 1950 essay, she declared that Zionists simply ignored or failed to understand ‘the awakening of colonial peoples and the new nationalist solidarity in the Arab world from Iraq to French Morocco’. Self-styled realists, they were profoundly unrealistic. They ‘mistook decisions of great powers for the ultimate realities’, she wrote in 1948, when ‘the only permanent reality in the whole constellation was the presence of Arabs in Palestine.’
Arendt did allow for one imperial future, however. ‘The significance of the Near East for Britain and America,’ Arendt wrote in a 1944 article entitled ‘USA – Oil – Palestine’, ‘can be expressed nowadays in a single word: oil.’ With America’s reserves dwindling, control over the world’s oil supply would ‘become one of the most important factors in postwar politics’. After the war, America would control roughly half the world’s shipping, and ‘that fact alone will force American foreign policy to secure its own oil hubs.’ Because of Europe’s reliance on Arab oil, she added, ‘America’s future influence on intra-European matters will depend to a large extent’ on its control over an intended pipeline in the Middle East. Though she hoped that America would not pursue an imperial policy, she had no doubt that oil would be a key factor in its deliberations. And with Israel responsible for the ‘caretaking of American interests’ in the Middle East, she wrote in ‘Zionism Reconsidered’, ‘the famous dictum of Justice Brandeis would indeed come true: you would have to be a Zionist in order to be a perfect American patriot.’
While Arendt had worried about Zionism’s darker tendencies and imperial dalliances from the beginning, her awareness of the Arab question came slowly. By 1944, however, she had come to see it as the ‘most important’ challenge. Without ‘Arab-Jewish co-operation,’ she wrote in 1948, ‘the whole Jewish venture in Palestine is doomed.’ Zionism left the Palestinians with no options other than emigration or ‘transfer’, which could be accomplished only using Fascist methods, or second-class status in the land of their birth. This last option, she remarked in 1943, assumed ‘that tomorrow’s majority will concede minority rights to today’s majority, which indeed would be something brand new in the history of nation-states’. In the mid-1940s, she warned that the Arabs would soon ‘turn against the Jews as the Slovaks turned against the Czechs in Czechoslovakia, and the Croats against the Serbs in Yugoslavia’. ‘In the long run,’ she added, ‘there is hardly any course imaginable that would be more dangerous.’
Many people believe that great crimes come from terrible ideas: Marxism, racism and Islamic fundamentalism gave us the Gulag, Auschwitz and 9/11. It was the singular achievement of Eichmann in Jerusalem, however, to remind us that the worst atrocities often arise from the simplest of vices. And few vices, in Arendt’s mind, were more vicious than careerism. ‘The East is a career,’ Disraeli wrote. And so was the Holocaust, according to Arendt. ‘What for Eichmann was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world.’ Genocide, she insisted, is work. If it is to be done, people must be hired and paid; if it is to be done well, they must be supervised and promoted.
Eichmann was a careerist of the first order. He had ‘no motives at all’, Arendt insisted, ‘except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement’. He joined the Nazis because he saw in them an opportunity to ‘start from scratch and still make a career’, and ‘what he fervently believed in up to the end was success.’ Late in the war, as Nazi leaders brooded in Berlin over their impending fate and that of Germany, Eichmann was fretting over superiors’ refusing to invite him to lunch. Years later, he had no memory of the Wannsee Conference, but clearly remembered bowling with senior officials in Slovakia.
This aspect of Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann is often overlooked in favour of her account of the bureaucrat, the thoughtless follower of rules who could cite the letter of Kant’s categorical imperative without apprehending its spirit. The bureaucrat is a passive instrument, the careerist an architect of his own advance. The first loses himself in paper, the second hoists himself up a ladder. The first was how Eichmann saw himself; the second is how Arendt insisted he be seen.
Most modern theorists, from Montesquieu to the American Framers to Hayek, have considered ambition and careerism to be checks against, rather than conduits of, oppression and tyranny. Arendt’s account of totalitarianism, too, makes it difficult to see how a careerist could survive or prosper among Nazis and Stalinists. Totalitarianism, she argued, appeals to people who no longer care about their lives, much less their careers, and destroys individuals who do. It preys on the dissolution of class structures and established hierarchies – or dissolves those that remain – and replaces them with a shapeless mass movement and a bureaucracy that resembles an onion more than a pyramid.
The main reason for the contemporary evasion of Arendt’s critique of careerism, however, is that addressing it would force a confrontation with the dominant ethos of our time. In an era when capitalism is assumed to be not only efficient but also a source of freedom, the careerist seems like the agent of an easy-going tolerance and pluralism. Unlike the ideologue, whose great sin is to think too much and want too much from politics, the careerist is a genial caretaker of himself. He prefers the marketplace to the corridors of state power. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism may be as lethal as idealism, that ambition is an adjunct of barbarism, that some of the worst crimes are the result of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas: these are the implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem that neo-cons and neoliberals alike find too troubling to acknowledge.