Saturday, 10 January 2009

The Origins of Totalitarianism

The Speccie this week has belatedly cottoned on to a significant revival of interest in Ayn Rand, and all to the good. Although, unlike many, I don't regard Rand as an important philosopher, she had some very prescient insights, one of which makes up some of the words on Old Holborn's blog banner.

Can I offer another generally neglected work? Hannah Arendt's 'The Origins of Totalitarianism' published in 1951 has been regarded as amongst the most influential non-fiction works of the twentieth century. It remains a delight to read. I suggest as an example:
It was Disraeli who had discovered that vice is but the corresponding reflection of crime in society. Human wickedness, if accepted by society, is changed from an act of will into an inherent, psychological quality which man cannot choose or reject but which is imposed upon him from without, and which rules him as compulsively as the drug rules the addict. In assimilating crime and transforming it into vice, society denies all responsibility and establishes a world of fatalities in which men find themselves entangled. The moralistic judgement as a crime of every departure from the norm, which fashionable circles used to consider narrow and philistine, if demonstrative of inferior psychological understanding, at least showed greater respect for human dignity. If crime is understood to be a kind of fatality, natural or economic, everybody will finally be suspected of some special predestination to it. "Punishment is the right of the criminal," of which he is deprived if (in the words of Proust) "judges assume and are more inclined to pardon murder in inverts and treason in Jews for reasons derived from . . . racial predestination." It is an attraction to murder and treason which hides behind such perverted tolerance, for in a moment it can switch to a decision to liquidate not only all actual criminals but all who are "racially" predestined to commit certain crimes. Such changes take place whenever the legal and political machine is not separated from society so that social standards can penetrate into it and become political and legal rules. The seeming broad-mindedness that equates crime and vice, if allowed to establish its own code of law, will invariably prove more cruel and inhuman than laws, no matter how severe, which respect and recognize man's independent responsibility for his behaviour.
A full online text is available HERE for those can comfortably read books on screen.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ayn Rand, I'm sorry to say, was not by an stretch of the imagination a libertarian nor was she an objectivist. The fact that she laid claim to those word (as both noun and adjective) and capitalised them does not change the fact that what she is, at the end of the day, is an old-fashioned Russian reactionary trying to apply pure Nietzschean theory to pre-1945 high industrial economics.

If the libertarian right is to have a philosopher or a theorist around whom we rally, that figure cannot be Rand, someone whose concept of "liberty" extended no further than her bank account. Let von Mises be our figurehead, a man who understood not only economic freedom but also pure human liberty.

Anonymous said...

Also, naturally, Hayek's Road to Serfdom is a key text for anyone who cares about personal freedom and who opposes totalitarianism and authoritarianism from all parts of the political spectrum. A key text which is also considerably better written than anything of Rand's and by a far, far superior mind than Rand's.

Raedwald said...

Agree - von Mises and Hayek for a solid foundation.