Totalitarianism as a novel form of “government”

by Massimo Pigliucci

“Totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny, and dictatorship.” (H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, ch. 13)

With a small group of friends I run an informal book club that uses the Signal chat platform. For the past several months we’ve been reading and discussing Hannah Arendt’s classic, The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published in 1951. The book is challenging and yet well worth a reading, or two. Here I’d like to focus on the last chapter, entitled “Ideology and terror: a novel form of government.” In it, Arendt clearly articulates what has slowly been emerging from her 700-pages long analysis: totalitarianism is a novel form of government, invented in the 20th century and never seen before during the course of human history.

This is a rather startling claim, so let us analyze it a bit more closely. Arendt herself acknowledges that the ancient Greeks had discovered and catalogued all of the perhaps surprisingly few forms of government that humanity has tried out. According to Plato, these are:

Aristocracy (government by the best)

Timocracy (government by the brave)

Oligarchy (government by the rich)

Democracy (government by the people)

Tyranny (government by one)

The list is in descending order of desirability, the rather low ranking of democracy being the result of the fact that Athenian democracy was based on simple majority rule: 51% of the votes in the assembly could get a Socrates killed. Aristocracy is on top by definition, since t means rule by “the best,” not by people like Charles of England. The classic example of timocracy was the warrior state of Sparta. … (continue at Substack, FREE)

10 Comments

  1. This is a fascinating post that deserves careful reading. It has greatly expanded my understanding totalitarianism. In the sub-title to the article you say

    The last chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism raises a disturbing possibility
    You hint at this possibility when you say

    the Bolshevik conception of the laws of History are simply secular variations on the older theme of (certain) religions attempting to build a totalizing society based on the laws of God. And what is God if not the creator of Nature and History?

    I wonder if you could expand on this? It seems to me that ‘totalizing’ can be a matter of degree. All social systems use various degrees of inducements, persuasion, coercion or compulsion to achieve a certain unity of purpose and cooperation. Societies simply fall apart otherwise. And which is why I have several speeding fines(sigh).

    It seems to me that this ‘totalizing’ impulse is always present but we call it totalitarianism at the extremes of compelled belief and compelled behaviour.. There is a triad which encompasses high levels of compulsion, rigid enforcement of a belief system and rigidly enforced patterns of behaviour. I call this totalitarianism since it encompasses the totality of one’s life.

    Coming back to my question, I am intrigued by your hint at a “a disturbing possibility” in the light of all this. I would be grateful if you would expand a little on this.

    Once again, thanks for a most stimulating essay.

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    1. Peter, the disturbing possibility of the subtitle is that we may have invented a whole new form of “government” made possible by never seen before levels of alienation.

      I get what you are saying about there being a continuum, but Arendt’s position is that totalitarianism is really novel because no other kind of ideology, not even fascism, is, in fact, totalizing. Most ideologies attempt to convert people to one idea or another. A totalizing ideology’s goal is to eliminate the very possibility of human beings holding ideas of their own.

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  2. I am intrigued by your mention of Signal as discussion forum for book readings. How good has the experience been? And what is the modus operandi?

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    1. Peter, I use two chatting platforms, Signal and Telegram because I like to stay away from the two most popular ones, WhatsApp and Messenger, both owned by Facebook. Signal and Telegram work in pretty much the same way as WhatsApp.

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  3. use two chatting platforms, Signal and Telegram because I like to stay away from the two most popular ones, WhatsApp and Messenger

    Yes, agreed. Anything tainted by Facebook is suspect. I use Telegram to maintain contact with a small tightly knit circle of friends.

    Where the book chats are concerned. Do people take turns in reviewing chapters and the others comment on the review. If so, what is the frequency?

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    1. Usually I lead the discussion, chapter by chapter. People chime in when they feel like they have something to say. Very informal, a small group of friends.

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    2. Usually I lead the discussion, chapter by chapter. People chime in when they feel like they have something to say

      This is a marvellous idea and it is putting the chat apps to good use. I should imagine that exposing your reading in this way is a powerful discipline that concentrates the mind since you must analyse the material more thoroughly and organise your thought to put them down.

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  4. we may have invented a whole new form of “government” made possible by never seen before levels of alienation.

    I think there are two ideas here. One is that electronic communications media is destroying tangible interaction. Tangible interaction is what anchors us in a stable world of mutual trust. Without that we are no longer anchored by the mutual bonds of trust. The loss of these anchors result in alienation.

    The second idea is that alienated people lack common purpose and meaning. The totalitarian system finds this fertile ground.

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  5. never seen before levels of alienation.

    This may explain why I am increasingly turning to the exchange of voice messages. Without knowing it I have been trying to restore the human contact so devalued by the social media. And it might also explain why churchgoing has become central to my life.

    Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, describes in chilling detail the collapse of social capital. This was written before the advent of social media so the problem must be much, much worse now. His book is worth careful reading. It documents the decline of social capital very well. But he gives short shrift to an explanatory understanding of the process.

    What is interesting is that the process has been underway for decades, long predating the advent of social media

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