As we live through the coronavirus lockdown, some surprisingly diverse sources — from The New Yorker to Tucker Carlson — have begun referring their audiences to an alarming word: “totalitarianism.” In this context, journalist and activist Masha Gessen, writing in The New Yorker, recommends the work of Hannah Arendt, for her “complicated and precise descriptions of isolation, solitude, and loneliness.” The reference is apt, and worth exploring, not least because of Arendt’s insights linking totalitarian ideology with Darwinism.
Hannah Arendt was the leading philosopher of totalitarianism in the 20th century. Her writing, especially The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), is always interesting and relevant, and her insights into totalitarianism are chillingly accurate. She explicitly links totalitarian ideology to Darwinism — naming Darwin often as a cornerstone of modern totalitarianism. She distinguishes between different forms of government, as a function of the set of predicates by which a nation is governed. Some governments rule by deontological rules — theocracies that use the Ten Commandments, etc. Some rule by positive law — written laws established by legislation. Some rule by tyranny — the arbitrary rule by the opinions of one or a few individuals. Each of these has its advantages and disadvantages.
The Radical Difference
Totalitarianism is something radically different, even radically different from tyranny. Totalitarianism is rule by natural laws — she means by laws of nature, not natural law in the scholastic sense. Nazism ruled by biological “natural laws” drawn from Darwin and his followers — concepts of racial superiority, survival of the fittest, etc. Communists rule by “natural laws” of class, history, and economics — the class struggle, struggle against capitalism, etc. Marxists draw parallels between these laws and those established by Darwin. “As Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature,” said Friedrich Engels, “Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.”
It’s noteworthy that while we think of Hitler and Stalin as tyrants, Arendt would say that they weren’t really tyrants in the sense she means. Tyrants are arbitrary, and totalitarians aren’t. For example, Caligula (a classic tyrant) could make his horse a senator, just by whim. Hitler could not have made a Jew his minister of defense, and Stalin could not have made a capitalist his minister of the interior.
Tyrants are less dangerous because they are not wedded to unalterable ideology. In this sense, Augustus was a tyrant, too — he had complete personal power — but his rule was for the most part rational and humane. Totalitarians are much more dangerous than tyrants because they are absolutely committed to an ideology, and that ideology takes precedence over all other considerations — over positive law, over moral law, over personal relationships. Germans were expected to turn in Jews to the Gestapo, even if the Jew was a friend. Soviet citizens were expected to turn in relatives who didn’t buy into Communism to the Cheka, even close relatives such as parents.
Totalitarianism is uniquely dangerous because it is objectively driven and unchecked by any other considerations. It is very effective in the sense that it systematically destroys opposition in an organized way that tyrants, theocrats, etc. tend not to do.
Rule by Fear
Arendt noted that totalitarians work using terror. She defined terror as the completely arbitrary use of fear. Anyone could get a knock on the door at 3 a.m. from the Cheka, for any reason. Guilt in the sense of legal violation plays no role — the accusation is the conviction, and there is no recourse to law or reason. The goal of terror is to utterly disorganize society and disorganize individual thought. You never can predict, you never can know what is coming next. This disorganization is essential because it leaves only the ruling ideology — the natural law — as a guiding principle. The struggle is the only organizing principle, and that is the essence of the totalitarian system. Only the natural law — only the struggle — matters, and war is perpetual. Under totalitarianism, people are terrified and paralyzed — Arendt often used the word “paralyzed.” People in a totalitarian state are like panicked livestock, to be bred, culled, slaughtered, and used to advance the ideology and win the perpetual struggle. Terror and paralysis are the cornerstones of public policy in totalitarian states.
The COVID-19 lockdown isn’t fully totalitarian, of course. Dennis Prager notes that while “we are closer to a police state than ever in American history,” a “‘police state’ does not mean totalitarian state. America is not a totalitarian state; we still have many freedoms.” But you can get a flavor. Proponents of radical lockdown instill fear (as you may be aware if you have followed events in California). They are arbitrary (you can go to the liquor store but not to church, or in Michigan, you can buy vegetables but not seeds for a garden). A noteworthy example of this arbitrariness is New York mayor Bill de Blasio’s threat to arrest Orthodox Jews who attend funerals, while he issued no such threat to spectators who gathered in crowds to watch the Blue Angels fly over a few days ago.
Darwin at the Root
For Arendt, Darwin was at the root of modern totalitarianism, because he offered the most pervasive natural law — natural selection. Logically, Darwin influenced both Nazi and Communist totalitarians. The highest qualities of human beings were, according to Darwin, the direct consequence of a struggle built into nature. Darwinism offers a scientific validation of totalitarian natural law, on which a totalitarians system could be built. For Arendt, Darwin was, in a way, the prophet of totalitarianism.
From The Origins of Totalitarianism:
Darwinism met with such overwhelming success [in totalitarian systems] because it provided, on the basis of inheritance, the ideological weapons for race and well as class rule…
Materialism is an indispensable boost to Darwinian and totalitarian ideology. That’s why Darwinist Jerry Coyne’s denial of free will is so dangerous — it removes the idea of guilt or innocence, and makes us livestock to be managed and culled according to ideology. In Coyne’s world without free will, a man cannot coherently say “But I’m innocent!” Without free will, there is no moral innocence or moral guilt. There is only matter in motion, to be controlled by the state for the state’s (ideological) purposes.
In this COVID crisis, we need to carefully consider the social and political implications of the measures our government takes to stem the pandemic. As Hannah Arendt so masterfully explained, a nation paralyzed by fear and locked down by government-by-edict has moved in a subtle but undeniable way toward totalitarian dynamics. Fear and involuntary quarantine carry more than just an economic price. Totalitarianism is no less deadly than a pandemic and is just as easy to misdiagnose in its early stages.
Photo: Hannah Arendt died in 1975 and was buried on the campus of Bard College, by Loslazos / CC BY-SA.