Totalizing Ideologies, on Campus and Off

Totalizing Ideologies, on Campus and Off

Recent events in the United States and Europe make it valuable to remind ourselves of the lessons learned in the seemingly so quickly forgotten twentieth century regarding how ideologies can enable staggering evil. One of the masterworks on this account is The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. This was her exploration and explanation of the ideological underpinnings of how the Nazi Reich and Stalinist Russia functioned while annihilating human life in the millions.

Arendt defines ideologies as concepts of describing the world and people in it, as ‘isms which at least as far as their adherents are concerned, can explain virtually every event and norm in social life by deduction from a single premise. They are worldviews that collapse nuance and contradiction, and simultaneously promise a means of refining and perfecting the world in a fashion that is promised to significantly improve it for its adherents and their progeny. Ideological systems like this are obviously not rare, rather it is the elevating of one such school of thought into a totalitarian movement where the mischief occurs. Seized by such a movement as a templates of a future perfected, an ideological system of belief becomes transformed into a deductive principle of action.

The axiomatic ‘ideas’ that underpinned Nazism and Stalinism were obviously different, but when put into practice these ‘ideas’ of race or class perform the same function of collapsing societal problems into a simple script, and organizing clear calls to action, and are thus essentially interchangeable. As Arendt put it,

It is "in the nature of ideological politics … that the real content of the ideology (the working class or the Germanic peoples), which originally had brought about the ‘idea’ (the struggle of classes as the law of history or the struggle of races as the law of nature), is devoured by the logic with which the ‘idea’ is carried out."

There is also a significant discussion of whether a ruling totalitarian system is "lawful" or "lawless". Arendt find that it is actually neither, as a totalitarian system ‘explodes’ the opposition between lawful and lawless government. While a totalitarian rule is "lawless" in a conventional sense of disregarding explicit rules of conventional law, that passed by prior legislatures or the courts, for example, and may frequently even ignore the expressed laws that it had itself passed when expedient to do so, unlike tyranny where such 'lawlessness' is arbitrary for the pleasure of the ruler(s), a totalitarian system is

‘not arbitrary insofar as it obeys with strict logic and executes with precise compulsion the laws of History or Nature’

What this means, is that unlike the deeply arbitrary and self-interested rule of a pure tyrant, ‘law’ is no longer a stabilizing legal framework governing human actions, but instead everything is driven by a higher sweep of history from the ideology's first principles. Making individuals in the system caught up by the forward momentum of the ideology's logic,

‘either riding atop their triumphant car or crushed under its wheels.'

This totalitarian "lawfulness" applies what it sees as the undeniable the laws of Nature or History "directly to the 'species', to mankind [and] if properly executed, are expected to produce as their end a single 'Mankind’", according to Arendt. This ideology’s function is to transform the vast complexity of Nature and the History of peoples "from the firm soil supporting human life and action into supra-gigantic forces whose movements race through humanity".

In the beginning, the ideology's seductive simplification of society, its all-encompassing explanation of life and the world and promise of a path to a better life for those that embrace it, is something many find attractive. It is from this popular attraction the ambitious leader of the movement secures his role as "the functionary of the masses he leads". The leader here is not a 'tyrant', but rather an enforcer of the sweep of history that the ideology demands. And it is his enforcement of this principle greater than himself that provides him his legitimacy and appearance of constrained action; his "lawfulness".

Once a people are seized by a totalitarian movement, the ideal of a classless society or a master race, implies its shadow: ‘dying classes’ or ‘unfit races’. Again, it is the appearance of a ‘monstrous logicality’ that is the core of these ideological constructs that dictates whoever accepts their initial premise but does not draw the logical conclusion of exterminating ‘class enemies’ or ‘inferior races’, is ‘plainly either stupid or a coward.’"

Unfortunately this risk of totalizing ideology has not fallen away even after the horrors of the 20th century unwound into history. The obvious example is ISIS, a religious quasi-theocracy based on simplified, vicious Salafi-jihadist Islam that employs constant terror and violence to maintain itself. But the risk need not be ignored until it risks bloody political revolution. The temptation toward simplistic, totalizing ideologies comes up in much smaller, far less violent, contexts as well.

In the United States on the flagship campus of Missouri University, student and faculty protesters concerned with perceived racism among the students and inadequate administrative response to it, attempted to monopolize a portion of the campus' public space by keeping out members of the media, calling the result a "safe space". Two journalists (one of whom was a fellow student), attempted to gain access to this area and the protesters in response physically pushed one of them away, and threatened the other with getting "muscle" to similarly remove him.

Last week, other student protesters at Amherst College "issued a list of demands to administrators that includes making them apologize for signs that lament the death of free speech." This fairly remakable development of students protesting free speech and freedom of the press has generated significant comment. In particular, Jonathan Chait, writing for New York magazine has noted:

"P.c. thought substitutes a model of group rights for the liberal model of individual rights. It dismisses liberal arguments for universal rights as a defense of privilege. And since it places the conflict between privileged and oppressed classes at the center of its thinking, it treats political rights as a zero-sum conflict — any defense of political expression from members of privileged classes threatens the rights of the oppressed... If you believe in liberalism, the p.c. left’s rejection of liberal ideals is its defining feature. From the liberal standpoint, the liberal respect for individual political rights provides an essential guardrail against abuse. A liberal would predict that illiberal ideologies will inevitably abuse whatever power they obtain. And that prediction has been borne out repeatedly... Its illiberal actions spring inevitably from its illiberal theories."

Obviously, the American Left's increasing obsession with identity politics have not lead us to within an inch of Kristallnacht, this is not written to draw an equivalence. It is highlighting the underlying appeal and force the totalizing ideology of identity politics provides, however. It is a system that invites wallowing in narratives of victimization and oppression that its adherents rely upon to explain virtually everything in the sweep of modern human history, while promising a deceptively simple utopia to its member if only they can overcome the rule of patriarchal/racist/homophobic/transphobic oppressors who keep them down. And so, in Missouri the first inklings of how such an ideology could become violent and oppressive, in the calls for "muscle" to resist journalists, can be seen. It is a rather remarkable moment as it so clearly permits seeing a damaging ideology at the moment of first blossom into the potentially dangerous phase of forceful politicization.

Significant blowback to the movement has already begun however, through mainstream writers such as Chait, and so this blossom will hopefully fail to reach its anthesis.