Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
For Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism is rooted in loneliness (aeon.co)
148 points by ALee 12 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 74 comments

"But in order to make individuals susceptible to ideology, you must first ruin their relationship to themselves and others by making them sceptical and cynical, so that they can no longer rely upon their own judgment"

As much as I am sure this does happen quite a lot, something that does not get enough emphasis is how much people's relationships to themselves erode under the very ordinary conditions of quotidian life with its stresses, indignities, and disappointments. Nothing so deliberate as a propaganda campaign is needed for this first step to already take hold of people through the subtle misery of their personal relationships. This is not to say that institutions and ideologies are not involved with this process, but I think the unconscious subtleties of this all too easily get overlooked when we culturally take a normative view of what it means to be mentally healthy as successfully living a normal life.

Arendt, in the same book, also argued that personal resentments fueled the rise of fascist regimes. I think in general, if, as a society, we want to curtail the rise of totalitarian politics, we have to really address the very personal individual antagonisms that arise in people's everyday lives; loneliness among them, but not alone as the sole culprit by a longshot.

I'm over-commenting on this thread, but this is a pet topic of mine. A controversial observation of hers was that both fascism and communism were mere national movements, limited to their nation states, where what distinguished totalitarianism as a new form itself was using those nations as stepping stones and vessels for global domination. She gives some examples of totalitarian leaders rejecting both of these ideologies as not sufficiently ambitious, after using them as stepping stones.

My own interpretation is that it begins by inculcating an identity of shame and powerlessness, which respectively create the necessary righteous cruelty and infinite appetite for power to get a totalitarian movement going and neutralizing opposition to its aims, e.g. "for good men to do nothing." It is systematized, and simple enough to iterate and scale, because what it truly was is directed chaos. Defeating it is also simple set of rules, and is in fact related to defeating loneliness as well, but that's a much longer topic.

I think you're quite close with the inculcation of identity of shame and powerlessness. I'd go one step further and say it's inculcating of identity in general. As well as manufactured desires to keep power systems in place.

People are not encouraged to find their own identity or explore inner mind. It's all bread and circus everywhere, to stop you from paying attention to your inner self. We have ancient teachings on this topic dating way, way back (like Upanishads), yet we still haven't found a good way to actually teach and implement them.

If anything the socialist movement foundered in the 1920s in that internationalism didn't sell politically.

For instance, Lenin and Co immediately surrendered to the Germans because "it is not our war" and the Germans said "Great! Here's our list of demands!" and it was an embarrassment given that Germany lost the war a month later.

See the Chris Harman classic


to see what went down in Germany afterwards.

Where does humiliation factor in. I think this is one of the most powerful emotions and likely a big factor in the rise of totalitarian leaders.

That's a clever observation. To put it simpler, a dictator is a magnet that aligns individual resentments of citizens. People can't align resentment themselves without an external guide. But loneliness isn't the cause of resentment, it's rather the feeling of being excluded. Without the anchor of inner philosophy, one can be easily manipulated into building up the resentment and directing it at a false target.

That aspect of her thesis was called political "atomization," which was the creation of this lonely state by isolating people from each other, and ultimately from truth, so that they become neutralized to the totalitarian agenda. The destruction of communities, families, and social connections is a totalitarian process and agenda.

It was the result of a campaign of arbitrariness and farcical lying because the real target and conquest of totalitarianism is truth itself. When nothing can be believed, all opposition is neutralized. This neutralization and eventual liquidation is the totalitarian process. Activists project this as "stochastic terror," these days, but the technique goes back over a couple hundred years. What was exceptionally notable about that book, and is a bullet point in the article, is that the very idea of history as progress itself is the initial condition of ideology.

The final chapter "ideology and terror," is the distillation I think people should read today, but the whole book, particularly the initial chapters that are an unblinking view of antisemitism, colonial thinking, and the nation state are sound foundations for thinking about the 20th century.

It would be nice if public health agencies formally considered the public cost of such atomization from covid lockdowns. They may find in the end that the cost is worth paying, but it should be part of the analysis.

But what kind of study could yield valid, reproducible data about how much atomization is caused by how much lockdown, and how much authoritarianism is caused by how much atomization?

Useful data points I think would include: - Suicides, attempted and successful - Calls to suicide hotlines - Overdoses - Phone call data, assuming a sufficient database of people's relationships -> anecdotally, people are calling each other way less - Following what people are watching online- I bet youtube and facebook have an extremely good measure of how many general segments of viewing population there are, and I bet these have increased. Amazon book sales might do the same. - Alcohol sales, obviously. Friends in the industry say volume has quadrupled while unit price has dropped by a similar magnitude.

> When nothing can be believed, all opposition is neutralized.

I'm gonna recommend watching Hypernormalization by Adam Curtis. In it he talks about Vladislav Surkov basically turning the Russian political scene into a bizarre post modernist theater, where he would publicly proclaim to fund left wing, right wing or other, centrist parties and NGOs, to give the impression that everyone is working for Putin.

>That aspect of her thesis was called political "atomization," which was the creation of this lonely state by isolating people from each other, and ultimately from truth, so that they become neutralized to the totalitarian agenda. The destruction of communities, families, and social connections is a totalitarian process and agenda.

You can see this so clearly in any video of Trump rallies, or their protests. There is no conversation, conviviality, or sense of community happening between the attendees. It's a collection of completely disconnected individuals taking selfies and angrily screaming platitudes to the general crowd. It's quite disturbing to see.

A prime example: https://youtu.be/L5hksM_R59M

That is not what I've seen from the crowd except during speeches. I, too, naturally tend to believe the worst about these people but there's definitely a sense of Trump supporter community there.

There is a community there, but for many the process of joining this new community has involved the destruction of their existing links to family and local society. QAnon is the most extreme example of this kind of cultish separation among Trumpists.

I think there is a push and a pull going on. Many people feel like outsiders or are otherwise unfulfilled with their communities, making new associations more attractive

This. A slow toxic rot of self that erodes the family and community links until their thoughts and actions seem alien to the outside.

Sounds like my ex-wife (fell victim to QAnon). :/

Since you brought it up, what factors do you think made you ex-wife susceptible to qanon ideas?

She was always susceptible to misinformation. When we moved to Central Florida a decade ago, they have what’s called “Love Bugs”. An invasive flying beetle from Central America. While on the job as a barista, someone told her they were genetically engineered at UCF. She believed him. Arguing with me that was the truth until I pointed her to science articles and Wikipedia.

Fast forward a few years and the thought of sex-trafficking rings took root. She was convinced that girls were being abducted for sex slavery and that people in government were supporting them.

This twisted even further when I confronted her about it, told her that what she thinks is real isn’t, and she immediately jumped on me for gaslighting her.

Needless to say, it was she that filed for divorce. I’m way happier now.

Those that downvoted my comment above because my ex-wife, you should meet her, she’s completely crazy now.

Thanks for sharing, it’s really interesting to hear your firsthand perspective on how people end up in these circles.

Btw, the downvotes are not related to the specifics of what you posted. It’s simply that there are a bunch of people on HN who downvote every single comment that’s somehow critical of Trump or the alt-right. They come back even into old threads to do this. It’s absurd.

Thanks for the candid response! Sounds like a possible psychological disorder.

Yeah. I’m sure it is. Borderline personality disorder or something. We need to talk about this though because it’s not an instance of someone waking up one day and thinking “save the babies”, it’s a slow systemic grooming with ever increasing outlandish claims. Slowly warping the mind to believe what you want them to. To control their actions and behavior. It does no one justice to fight them head on. You have to acknowledge their views, empathize, and slowly unravel the web of lies.

I don’t have the qualifications or experience to know how to do that effectively. I’m happier now.

It should be recognized that the left, especially neoliberals, has played just as much a role in atomization of the public as the right.

Indeed, it is usually conservatives that actually, in practice, attempt to promote community and family values.

Although portions of the right have contributed to atomization via the 'free market', the left's project of scientism and eschewing of tradition arguably has also contributed significantly to this.

> the left, especially neoliberals

It seems kind of funny to see these two lumped together ... I don’t think neoliberalism would be considered left by left people ...

I think the confusion arises from the different interpretation of liberalism on either side of the Atlantic.

Neoliberalism is an economic movement rather than a social one (unlike neoconservatism, the political ideology that funnily enough advocates neoliberalism) and it’s an iteration of classical economics aka “economic liberalism”.

Liberal economics is actually more like libertarianism which is paradoxically more closely aligned with the “right wing” mindset.

Neoliberalism does incorporate some notes about redistribution of wealth for reasons of economic expedience but this is rarely seen in practice.

This all goes to show that words are slippery and labels are bullshit and you’re far better off trying to understand where the people you’re disagreeing with are coming from than be lazily painting them as this or that.

I'm not sure what the point you're driving at is; it seems you did understand the gist of my point.

It seems like you want a semantics debate about how neocons and neolibs are are equivalent terms? Sorry, not the conversation for me, nor the main point I was making.

I think what he's driving at is that your point relies on the assumption that neoliberalism is left wing, when this is not true.

To be honest all I think I was really driving at is that he sets the tone in the first sentence that he’s uninformed about what he’s talking about. I kind of get the impression also that he’s trying to be divisive rather than understand the issues at hand. I kind of feel he goes against the hacker ethic on both points ...

> your point relies on the assumption that neoliberalism is left wing, when this is not true

I didn't say that all neoliberals were left wing.

I said that there were some people on the the left that were neoliberals.

Please understand this difference.


> Early roots of neoliberalism were laid in the 1970s during the Carter administration, with deregulation of the trucking, banking and airline industries,[144][145][146] as well as the appointment of Paul Volcker to chairman of the Federal Reserve.[21]:5

> During the 1990s, the Clinton administration also embraced neoliberalism[130] by supporting the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), continuing the deregulation of the financial sector through passage of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act and the repeal of the Glass–Steagall Act and implementing cuts to the welfare state through passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act.[147][149][150]

You seem to presuppose your claims are de-facto correct; I don't think that is true.

Nope, sorry, not convinced. There’s something askew in your outlook and I think it’s affecting your ability to make your point. I’d suggest reevaluating your fundamentals and going from there. Take care brother

Feel free to respond with reasons for your claims, thanks and take care

The answer is the left has a long history of opposing globalization, union breaking and neoliberalism in general. In particular the left attacks on centrist democrats embrace of neoliberalism has be vicious. They were the reason why Obama won the primary over Clinton in 2008. And why Sanders showed well in 2016 even though Clinton won. And Clinton despises the left for it.

See the 1999 Seattle WTO protests as an example of the left opposing neoliberalism.


You say "the left" like it is a well-defined thing or a single entity.

Just because those that were further-left than centrist democrats existed and opposed their centrist democrats policies doesn't mean centrist democrats weren't considered "on the left" by a great many people, who would also be considered left of the Republicans at the time.


> Deregulation, cuts to welfare, NAFTA. Again, you fail to demonstrate the left point.

"No true Scotsman"

You didn’t make it very well it seems.


> It should be recognized that the left, especially neoliberals, has played just as much a role in atomization of the public as the right.

Neoliberalism is a center-right, corporate capitalist economic ideology. It has nothing to do with the Left, which it sees (and is seen by as) an enemy. (Americans are particularly likely to get confused by this because the dominant, more centrist faction of the Democratic Party is neoliberal, and the Democratic Party is the left-most of the US’s major parties.)

But, yes, it has played a central role in atomization of society.

> It has nothing to do with the Left

Well, nothing to do with the left may be a bit of an overstatement, imho.

If the "Left" is such a problematic term, then let's just agree to avoid using the term, since you seem to be of the position that the "more centrist faction of the Democratic Party" is not Left.

I would assume the term "Left" includes both the "more centrist faction of the Democratic Party" and the more left-leaning social-democratic ideologies.

The left is a big tent composed of many factions.

also, linking this for citations: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=25850671

> since you seem to be of the position that the "more centrist faction of the Democratic Party" is not Left.

It's not.

Also, neoliberalism was the economic ideology of the dominant faction of the Republican Party prior to Trump, too, and few would call them “the Left". (There were differences in social ideology, of course, between Republicans and Democrats.) Hence the “neoliberal consensus” of the 1990s and beyond.

I don't think anyone is confusing the Republican party with the left.

However it seems who gets to be in "the left" and who doesn't seems to be very up for debate these days.

I'm fairly certain if you asked anyone in the 90's if the clinton administration was on the left they'd answer in the affirmative.

I understand the social democratic part of the left has evolved and differentiated itself since then. This is great, but I think it problematic to retcon the history exclusively this view.

Just because the social democratic faction would like complete ownership on the term "the left" I think does not make it so, or at least can be agreed to be a subjective claim.

Growing up, the internet did not feel real to me. Just a collection of memes fighting each other, fire-walled from reality. It seemed like an entertaining farce but not real.

This was relatively true for the internet I grew up with, but it is certainly not true now. What happened in the capital was quite a wake up call. And much of the blame for it does look to be the result of things like click-through maximization and engagement maximization pushing people towards extremes, things like karma and likes allocating status to those staking out extreme positions. It is a terrifying thing to think about, but if you start thinking of social media influencers and followers as a sort of client-patron relationship, the historical precedents are not comforting.

For myself, I am coming to terms with the fact that I cannot really trust any opinions that have been inculcated in me during the wild years of social media. I have deleted my Reddit and Facebook accounts, have diligently trained the YouTube algorithms to avoid any even remotely political content. I no longer trust myself to develop sensible opinions in such an adversarial environment and am doing my best to just not have political opinions and focus on simple things like maths and programming.

Steve Omohundro had a talk recently where he described the need for "personal AIs" to help individuals resist manipulation from corporate AIs maximizing engagement. Perhaps once such things like this exist, I will allow myself to have opinions. But until then, I don't think I have any hope of making sense of this cacophony tuned for my engagement. Until I get such a thing, this will be my last post on HackerNews.

> Steve Omohundro had a talk recently where he described the need for "personal AIs" to help individuals resist manipulation from corporate AIs maximizing engagement.

This reminds me of The Big Promise of Recommender Systems (2011) [1]:

> However, when we look at the current recommender systems generation from the point of view of the “recommendee” (users’ side) we can see that recommender systems are more inclined toward achieving short-term sales and business goals. Instead of helping their users to cope with the problem of information overload they can actually contribute to information overload by proposing recommendations that do not meet the users’ current needs or interests. ...

> The window of opportunity is now open to innovate in a third generation of recommender systems that act directly on behalf of their users and help them cope with information overload.

I'm working on something in this space myself[2] (an essay recommender system). I think part of the solution is having recommender systems that are decoupled from publishing; e.g. a video recommender that suggests videos across multiple, unaffiliated sites, instead of the recommender that's built into YouTube.

[1] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Marc_Torrens/publicatio...

[2] https://essays.findka.com

You are making a political statement and following a defined political outlook without realizing it.

In any case, I would not worry as the chance of being in a situation where political opinions actually matter is quite low for most people

So you are withdrawing yourself from having political opinions or learning about it. It also means you will follow what feels right, for example in promoting equality or getting rid of USA’s extreme elements at work. Since you do not decide for yourself, you will accept whatever is introduced to you as extreme elements.

Isn’t that the very definition of totalitarianism? People who won’t make decisions based on ideas they articulate, but rather let themselves go to accept other people’s decisions?

Some passages that stood out to me:

> Isolation and loneliness are not the same. I can be isolated – that is in a situation in which I cannot act, because there is nobody who will act with me – without being lonely; and I can be lonely – that is in a situation in which I as a person feel myself deserted by all human companionship – without being isolated.

> Totalitarianism uses isolation to deprive people of human companionship, making action in the world impossible, while destroying the space of solitude.

> One is taught to distrust oneself and others, and to always rely upon the ideology of the movement, which must be right. But in order to make individuals susceptible to ideology, you must first ruin their relationship to themselves and others.

> Amid the chaos and uncertainty of human existence, we need a sense of place and meaning. We need roots. And ideologies, like the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey, appeal to us. But those who succumb to the siren song of ideological thinking…can’t confront themselves in thinking because, if they do, they risk undermining the ideological beliefs that have given them a sense of purpose and place.

What this analysis misses is the role of individualism. Probably because individualism = unquestionably good is perhaps the single most foundational belief of modern Western civilization.

Twentieth-century totalitarianism could only have arisen from an industrial world in which the local social networks of family, village, and church were destroyed in the process of urbanization. Subsequently the less local social bonds one has, the more one becomes susceptible to mass political movements and extremist ideologies.

Unfortunately the internet has only exacerbated this, where it’s not uncommon to have more social interaction (even if it’s only watching someone else) online than in person.

The American style of individualism in its traditional form is hardly anti-family/village/church. In fact, one of its notable characteristics for early observers used to European values was that Americans were prolific joiners. Want to do something? Start a club for it! That has broken down over the last decades, but blaming it on individualism seems questionable at best.

Nowhere in my comment did I say American.

The point is that urbanization and industrialization encouraged individualism. Today, the market itself does so.

Right, and individualism isn't necessarily what you describe it as.

This misses other major factors including the role of ideology itself. People are thinking beings and ideas drive a great deal of human behavior. The 20th century saw the rise of collectivist utopian ideologies.

Last but not least it's important to remember that humans have always been fighting and trying to control one another. 20th century war, genocide, and totalitarianism is new only in its scale.

Interesting this is trending on hackernews when a few days ago an article on using Tulpas to alleviate loneliness was trending. Hackernews zeitgeist - are you alright?

I read Origins two weeks ago. Talk about couching overstatement in wordy layers of psychobabble. This piece is similarly long-winded and "in my feels" speculative.

For a treatment of the subject that remains firmly grounded in examples from history -- Martin Luther, Napoleon, Hitler -- try Eric Hoffer's The True Believer.

Probably why government around the world like lockdown so much.

You are aware that the vast majority of countries are democracies, right?

Was there even one government that let their citizens vote on quarantine measures? That's what democracy is, or originally was, right?

Here's a list of elections that occurred in 2020: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_elections_in_2020

If voters disagreed with quarantine measures, they were free to vote those governments out.

In general, people in representative democracies don't vote on every single government decision. Voters elect representatives who vote on issues. I don't see why temporary health restrictions due to a pandemic would be any different.

In the U.S. the president at the moment got to decide how we'd respond to the pandemic as it happened. Lots of people disagreed. They got to vote in a new president, but that one vote is for a whole basket of issues. Not exactly a referendum on the pandemic, more like a decision on which faction/ideology will be in control of the federal government until the next election. Calling the pandemic response a democratic decision seems like a bit of a stretch to me.

I'm sure the situation is the same in many of the elections that you linked, most countries are republics, not democracies.

Admittedly I wonder about the modern use of the word "democracy" being used to legitimize what was supposed to be a republic, was never meant to be a real democracy, and has drifted into being a plutocracy.

> In the U.S. the president at the moment got to decide how we'd respond to the pandemic as it happened. Lots of people disagreed.

This is the case for every single decision that any election official makes. The general public doesn't vote on individual laws, unless you live in Switzerland. Calling quarantine measures "not democratic" is dishonest for this reason.

If the people vote on something I'd say that is a democratic decision. Electing the U.S. president is a democratic decision. Referendums, where they have them, like in California, are democratic decisions. I would not say that quarantines in the U.S. have been democratic decisions.

Like I said, I think the word democracy is abused. Is the U.S. a democracy? The word appears zero times in the constitution. Is the Democratic Republic of North Korea a democracy, just because they say it is? Is Russia a democracy because people get to vote?

In the U.S. we don't vote on issues, we vote on which one of two factions will be in power any given year, the same two parties for the last 150+ years, increasingly the same people over and over, rotating in and out of corporate board rooms and the media, a political class bought and paid for, seemingly more concerned with keeping the population distracted rather than representing them, happy to take on more and more responsibility even thought the population trusts them less and less. Why the need to defend this hot mess and everything it does as democratic, when technically it is not?

Thanks for the Switzerland call-out, I'll be reading more about their system.

> Why the need to defend this hot mess and everything it does as democratic, when technically it is not?

If we're arguing technicalities, the US is "technically" a type of democracy - specifically a representative democracy. If we go by your more exacting standards every government decision, ordinance, or law except those by referenda isn't democratic. Which is neither technically correct, nor is it correct as generally understood by laypeople. I agree with all the problems you pointed out but those are orthogonal to the question at hand.

DPRK is not a democracy because it fails several criteria. Russia is a de jure democracy but not a de facto one.

I see where you are coming from, but I still object. Based on all the problems in our system I don't know that the U.S. deserves to be called a democracy, unless the word has lost much of its meaning.

Candidates are effectively preselected via funding by .02% of the population before people can vote, and gerrymandering districts is rampant so that political parties are selecting voters, instead of the other way around [0].

Would you say that things like that make the U.S. a de jure democracy, also?

I think the problems with our so-called democracy explain why Trump has had the following that he does. He had the money and media experience to get elected based on the outrage so many people have for all other politicians who do not really represent them. The establishment seemed more interested in getting rid of him than addressing the sentiment that brought him to office. I'm not a Trump supporter myself, and I loathe his demagoguery, but I think that understand why he got elected. He's popular with a lot of politically apathetic people because they really believed he would "drain the swamp" and that he wasn't like every single other politician - not another Bush, not another Clinton, another insider, not someone who was going to bail out Wall Street again, etc.

Apologies for nitpicking and spouting off a bit, but like I said this has all very much been on my mind lately. I know that I may be tilting at windmills here, but words are important and shape our thoughts, which led me to throw my original comment out there.

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJy8vTu66tE

> Would you say that things like that make the U.S. a de jure democracy, also?

I mean 2 choices is more than 1, which is usually the case in Russia. Could the US be more democratic? Certainly. Does it have 0 democracy? I don't think so.

You make a good point. I appreciate the discussion.

This has been an interesting rabbit hole. I just took a look at democracy ratings, comparing different countries over time. I'm still reading about Switzerland, how it works, the pros and cons, etc.

Back to the original post in this thread, implying that governments were being totalitarian with lockdowns, and the reply saying that these governments were democracies... I would now say that being a democracy doesn't mean leaders couldn't implement totalitarian measures (using the term loosely), but it should be easier for a population to change course in a democracy than otherwise.

Yes, lockdown gives them the power to be little totalitarian.

Sorry, but you make no sense.

The lockdown gave leaders emergency authorization to make decisions without waiting for votes.

In other words, leaders got authorization to bypass democracy.

Do governments put every single decision they make to a general vote? You're confusing representative democracy with direct democracy. How many countries postponed or cancelled elections due to the pandemic? Only those would be considered to have "bypassed democracy".

You mean like the German state of Thuringia?


It's in German, I don't know what that says. Assuming it says "Thuringia postponed elections" I guess sure, lockdowns in Thuringia past the term of the existing government were not democratic. That is, if Germany has statewide Covid restrictions, rather than national ones.

Forgive me but Google Translate Exists (and not everything is reported internationally :)

And yes Germany is a weird mix of state and federal responsibilities and authority (sorta like the US just different). States are responsible for schools for example. But now Merkel wants to close _all_ schools in all of Germany. Some states object and want to keep them open. Bavaria introduced a requirement to wear FFP2 masks now, while no other state does etc.

Didn't Rebecca West also write about Authoritarianism about the same time as Arendt did? How did they view the topic differently?

"Mother should I build the wall?"

Such a poignant song about that generation and it foretold how they would run things.

It is disappointing Arendt is considered to be some kind of authority on totalitarianism (or worse still: evil). Unsurprising, though: TPTB find her conclusions useful, almost like she works backwards, telling powerful people what they want to hear…

Make of that what you will.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact