Totalitarianism, Loneliness and Meaning

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is a broad-ranging and powerful description of the rise of totalitarianism in Russia/Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the first half of the 20th century. Born into a Jewish family, she experienced firsthand the Anti-Semitism that that came with those totalitarian regimes. The book was first published in 1951 and is considered by many one of the most important non-fiction works of the 20th century.

The more I read about our current cultural condition the more I run across Arendt’s work. It seemed to be prescient, so I am spending some time with the philosophical work myself. I am concerned that there are stirrings of the same problems in American culture, and I want to hear from one of the century’s brightest minds about how totalitarianism comes to be and how it maintains power.

Outside of the cultural references to 1930s and 1940s Germany and the Soviet Union, the book could have been written yesterday.

The book is separated into three long essays, the third of which is devoted to the rise of totalitarianism. The first chapter in this third part is titled, “A Classless Society”. I think a couple of her observations are especially important for us right now.

One of her observations in the first half of the chapter is that totalitarianism feeds off of, and will even create, a hyper-individualistic culture in which people are “atomized” and separated from normal family, friend, and local bonds. An atomized people lack coherence and meaning to their lives and are easily pulled into a State that promises such cohesion and meaning, even if it involves violence and bloodshed. When the normal bonds of society are weak or broken the State can step in and fulfill those roles for disenfranchised and lonely people.

She says:

The truth is that the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual has been held in check only through membership in a class. The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.

People began following tyrants and obviously destructive ideologies not because they themselves were given to violence and ignorance, but because they did not have a strong circle of friends, family, or faith. But once they followed, they became people of violence and falsehood (she makes that case in the second section of the chapter).

Why do we have so many well-educated young adults rioting in streets alongside felons and gang members? Every one of them shares the same social isolation and existential meaninglessness. They have not found personal grounding in family and friends, and their education has only worsened their already jaundiced view of truth and other people. Our modern politics are riddled with suspicion and hate, driving more atomized individuals into the “mass” and further away from genuine personal connection with other human beings.

Loneliness, drug overdoses, family break down, and suicidality are at all-time highs in our culture, meaning we face one to two generations of young people who have not been given homes in the literal or metaphysical sense of the term. When homes and churches fail, the State stands ready to fold people into the mob and give them plenty of things to be angry about.

Totalitarianism takes atomized individuals and demands complete, unquestioned obedience. She writes:

Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals. Compared with all other parties and movements, their most conspicuous external characteristic is their demand for total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable loyalty of the individual members…It usually precedes the total organization of the country under their actual rule and it follows from the claim of their ideologies that their organization will encompass, in due course, the entire human race.

And you can’t argue with the totalitarian.

But within the organizational framework of the movement, so long as it holds together, the fantasized members can be reached by neither experience nor argument: identification with the movement and total conformism seem to have destroyed the very capacity for experience, even if it be as extreme as torture or the fear of death.

We are currently surprised by the number of otherwise intelligent people who have completely ignored the Antifa and BLM riots of 2020 which have destroyed over a billion dollars of property, countless personal businesses, minority neighborhoods, murdered innocent people, and created a whole new slate of ghettos for the next two decades. But Arendt tells us that we should not be too surprised. The experience of the riots of the 1960s did not teach them these lessons. Argument and evidence are not what they are after. The point is politics; the point is for the rest of the population to fall under the sway of the State (“their organization will encompass, in due course, the entire human race”).

Do you think single, educated, white women who roam city streets at night screaming in the faces of black police officers calling them racists are open to reasoned argument? Of course not. The system they have become part of gives them meaning and enough passion to behave like animals, and any moment of reflection will bring the whole system down, including the meaning they have found for themselves. Genuine reflection is precluded by a loose grasp on sanity. “Total conformism” is required to maintain one’s stability until they have the strength to face their own emptiness and find a better place to store their souls.

Genuine reflection is precluded by a loose grasp on sanity.

What Churches Can Do

We have reached a point where persisting in gathering the people of God to worship and pass along the teaching “once and for all delivered to the saints” is an act of cultural re-creation. If a family has broken down, the spiritual family of God is ready to wrap their arms around people in love and truth. Where men and women are atomized and disillusioned, the church needs to not only be authentic, but rooted in the truth of the Gospel, giving us a connection to reality and something to live and die for.

And churches, pastors, and Christians need to resist the strong undertow of modern-day totalitarianism. We know that their goal is to bring all of civilization under their sway. Many nations have tried exactly that, but it is always the way of destruction and falsehood. We cannot allow ourselves to live by lies.

The Jesus way is the better way. He said that the enemy comes to steal, kill, and destroy, but that he has come so his children may have life and have it more abundantly.

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