Tag Archives: politics

The Origins of Totalitarianism Chapter 1

In my first post, I went over the prefaces and provided some background to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Today, I’ll dive into the first chapter of the first book.

Arendt opens the chapter by taking aim at the “hasty explanations” of antisemitism, most of them in the vein of thinking that it was a coincidence that Nazi ideology centered around antisemitism.

This line of thinking is at least understandable. That the “Jewish question” led to such a catastrophe seems incomprehensible, and the explanations offered for how that came to be, in Arendt’s mind, “Look as if they had been hastily and hazardously contrived” (3).

The first of these, is that antisemitism is a natural outgrowth of nationalism and xenophobia. This fails as an explanation on several fronts. First, the antisemitism reached its peak at the same time that the European nation states were defeated, and absorbed into Nazi Germany.

But, weren’t the Nazis nationalists? Not according to themselves. They saw their movement as one with in an international scope, much like the Bolshevik’s.

(As a modern-day aside, I think modern-day neo-Nazis, who spout antisemitism in the United States, are evidence for this. The ideology is not bound by borders on a map.)

If not simple nationalism and xenophobia, then what? It would be oversimplifying to say that antisemitism or the decline of the nation-state could be explained by one thing. But Arendt does think that de Tocqueville’s insight from L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution is helpful. In that work, he points out that the Revolution happened at a time when the aristocracy had lost much of their power, but not their wealth. In Arendt’s words, “Neither oppression nor exploitation as such is ever the main cause for resentment; wealth without visible function is much more intolerable because nobody can understand why it should be tolerated” (4).

Similarly, Jews had lost much of their influence and power, but not their wealth, by the time Hitler came to power. The same is true for the rest of Europe as well, though not in such catastrophic ways.

Another fallacy that Arendt wants to falsify is that Jews, because they were powerless, could be blamed as the cause of hidden evil. In other words, they are an easy scapegoat. However, saying that Jews were the scapegoat implies that anyone could be a scapegoat. Or, to put it another way as Arendt does in this retelling of a post-World War 1 joke (page 5):

An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? asks the one. Why the Jews? asks the other.

The scapegoat theory is internally inconsistent. If we try to explain why Jews were well suited to being the target, then they’re not being scapegoated. They are one group among many, who all have an effect on the world. They all have agency. And despite being the victim of unmeasurable cruelty, they retain that agency.

(Modern aside: this seems very close to victim blaming. See a bit later in the post for why Arendt wants to take this route.)

In other times, this would suffice to refute the scapegoat theory, but the use of terror as a weapon of government has made it necessary, in Arendt’s view, to refute it in another fashion.

In both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia (under Stalin, at least), terror strikes at objectively innocent (individual) victims, who are chosen arbitrarily. However, this terror in this sense is the end state. (pages 6-7)

In order to establish a totalitarian regime, terror must be presented as an instrument for carrying out a specific ideology; and that ideology must have won the adherence of many, and even a majority, before terror can be stabilized. The point for the historian is that the Jews, before becoming the main victims of modern terror, were the center of Nazi ideology. And an ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily.

Arendt’s argument (I think), is that while Jews were innocent victims of the Holocaust, before that, they were deliberately targeted by Nazi ideology. And that wasn’t done arbitrarily.

Another way of putting it, would be that if Nazis had targeted the bicyclists instead, they wouldn’t have risen to power.

The opposite of scapegoat theory, which Arendt also seeks to falsify, is that antisemitism, is in one form or another, eternal. In this theory, outbursts of violence are simply the natural state of affairs.

It’s not surprising to Arendt that professional antisemites adopted this view. But she is perturbed that many historians, and many Jews, have adopted this. In her view, the reasons that both antisemites and Jews adopt this view is that both want to escape their share of the responsibility.

As for why Arendt finds the scapegoat theory and the ‘eternal antisemitism’ theory so abhorrent, she says that “In this inherent negation of the significance of human behavior, they bear a terrible resemblance to those modern practices and forms of government which, by means of arbitrary terror, liquidate the possibility of human activity,” (8). Both these theories, as well as state sanctioned terror, deny human agency, not only to the victims, but to the murderers as well.

(To bring it back to the victim blaming aside, it seems she would rather keep agency for the Jewish people, than to hold them free of responsibility. To do the latter is to leave the fate of the Jews, or anyone, out of their own control.)

So what does Arendt propose as an explanation for “Why the Jews?” in a way that preserves human agency? She proposes a couple over-arching points:

  • Modern antisemitism must be placed in context of the development of the nation-state, and the relationship of Jews to the state.
  • The idea that Jews are the ‘key to history’ and the cause of all evil is rooted in the previous relationship between Jews and society at large.

From there, she will look at the Dreyfus Affair, as she considers it a dress rehearsal for what came afterward.

The Origins of Totalitarianism – Background and Prefaces

I’m reading through Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, and in an effort to restart this blog, I’m going to try posting my thoughts about the book here.

I first thought of reading the book after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, but the Charlottesville protests last weekend pushed me to get the book and start reading it. While I hope that Trump’s election is the high water mark of the alt-right movement today, I don’t think the possibility of white racial resentment becoming more widespread is one that can be dismissed.

The most relevant bit of Hannah Arendt‘s background is that she was a German-Jewish political philosopher who was forced to flee Germany due to the rise of the Nazi party. So we’ll see how her first person experience in that regime shows up in the book.

Let’s get started. For reference, I’m reading the version with ISBN 978-0-15-670153-2.


The book is divided into three sections. Part one is on Antisemitism, part two on Imperialism, and part three on Totalitarianism.

The book includes four separate prefaces. The first, written in 1950 for the first edition. The rest were written later, in 1966 and 1967, one for each part of the book.

The difference in tone in the 1950s preface from the later ones in striking. While the prefaces for the 1966-67 prefaces reads like what one might expect from an academic preface, the 1950s version has a more urgent tone.

Part of that, can be attributed to the uncertainty of whether the just started Korean War would turn into a World War Three. After two world wars, human civilization seems at its breaking point, driven by “political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules common sense and self-interest…” (vii).

The main argument of the book seems to be the following:

Antisemitism (not merely the hatred of Jews), imperialism (not merely conquest), totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship) – one after the other, one more brutally than the other, have demonstrated that human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its power must remain strictly limited, rooted and controlled by newly defined territorial entities. (ix)

I think what is coming in the book is that antisemitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism are modern phenomenon that are distinct from what preceded them. Hatred of Jews doesn’t neatly lead to Antisemitism along a linear path from one to the next. Hatred of Jews must be mixed with modern phenomena to become Antisemitism. The same for conquest and imperialism; and the same dictatorship and totalitarianism.


Campaign Finance in Arizona

I’m super excited that FiveThirtyEight has relaunched. This article about why Arizona has a very conservative state legislature reminded me of another article I read about campaign finance a while back.

Public financing is seen as a way to get rid of the influence of money in politics, as well as a way to give legislators more time to legislate, rather than fundraise. Arizona has gone with full public financing of state-wide races.

Arizona has one of the most advanced clean election laws in the country. As long as a candidate for the state legislature reaches a minimum fundraising level ($1,250), the state essentially funds her campaign. (Only Connecticut and Maine have similar laws on public financing for state legislature candidates.) That allows candidates to stay viable even if they don’t have connections to the state party or local business leaders.

(emphasis mine)

With the example in Arizona, it seems that one of the consequences of that is a decentralization of power, and more extreme candidates. 

What about a middle ground, like financing floors, but not ceilings?

I used to believe that a campaign regime of floors-not-ceilings would help; by allowing candidates to raise money in larger chunks, they could reach their fundraising goals in far fewer hours of work. And given diminishing returns (that is, in that more spending produces relatively fewer and fewer votes), the incentive to just use the same time but raise more money wouldn’t be all that high. I think that was, alas, wishful thinking. The evidence seems to be that they all raise whatever they can, even if it’s a waste of their time. Moreover, if floors-not-ceilings succeeded in bringing viable candidates to more districts, even more incumbents would be even more obsessed with the theoretical possibility of a future plausible nominee who had to be scared away by building even larger warchests.

So it seems that financing floors wouldn’t help, full public financing results in more extremism, and campaign spending limits were down by the Supreme Court.

While I’m less sure that big money is a huge problem in politics than I was in the past, reducing the sheer amount of time that politicians spend raising that money is still something I want to see, and there don’t seem to be good solutions to that.

(As an aside, the FiveThirtyEight article can also be seen as a counter argument to “big money leads to polarization.” If public financing leads to polarization/extremism, then surely we can’t lay the blame on big money.)


More on a Guaranteed Minimum Income

To follow-up on my previous post on the GMI, here are a few more links to other thought pieces about them.

Here’s a piece about an interesting thought experiment from Warren Buffet:

My political views were formed by this process.  Just imagine that it is 24 hours before you are born. A genie comes and says to you in the womb, “You look like an extraordinarily responsible, intelligent, potential human being. [You’re] going to emerge in 24 hours and it is an enormous responsibility I am going to assign to you — determination of the political, economic and social system into which you are going to emerge. You set the rules, any political system, democracy, parliamentary, anything you wish — you can set the economic structure, communistic, capitalistic, set anything in motion and I guarantee you that when you emerge this world will exist for you, your children and grandchildren.

What’s the catch? One catch — just before you emerge you have to go through a huge bucket with 7 billion slips, one for each human. Dip your hand in and that is what you get — you could be born intelligent or not intelligent, born healthy or disabled, born black or white, born in the US or in Bangladesh, etc. You have no idea which slip you will get. Not knowing which slip you are going to get, how would you design the world?

It really highlights the role of luck in people’s lives. There are simply many things that are out of your control, starting with who your parents are and where you’re born. Nobody gets to choose those.

That’s not to say that those obstacles are insurmountable, but that they play a part, sometimes a very large part, in our lives.

And the welfare state deals with specific instances of this. We have programs so children have health insurance (much of Medicaid), programs to reduce poverty among senior citizens (Social Security, Medicare), and programs to help low-income families (EITC, TANF).

These programs came up in a piecemeal fashion, in response to specific problems which were prominent at the time.

With rising income inequality, I’m not surprised that something like a GMI is now being discussed.

The second pair of articles discuss the guaranteed minimum income from a libertarian perspective.  The first attempts to find libertarian arguments in favor of a GMI.

1) A Basic Income Guarantee would be much better than the current welfare state.


2) A Basic Income Guarantee might be required on libertarian grounds as reparation for past injustice.


3. A Basic Income Guarantee might be required to meet the basic needs of the poor.

 It’s interesting reading, even though I’m not one of the intended audience, for its attempt to reconcile what, if implemented, could be one of the largest parts of the welfare state with a view that seeks to reduce the size of government.

The second is a response to that, and doesn’t agree that there can a be a case made on libertarian grounds for a GMI.

Concluding, so while I have a lot of sympathy for Matt’s suggestion for a Basic Income Guarantee I have major problems with his arguments for income redistribution. Hence, I continue to think a Basic Income Guarantee or a Negative Income Tax is a good idea as adenationalization strategy that could bring us (a little) closer to the ideal of a non-paternalitic classical liberal society.

The last article is the liberal case against the GMI (Universal Basic Income, or UBI in this article’s parlance).

Like good fiction, the way to read the UBI is not as a real proposal, but as a message about something else: our existing system. But the implicit critique of the existing system underlying UBI advocacy is not well-founded.

The alternative put forth in the article is to work with, and improve, the existing system.

I’m of the mind that the GMI is a proposal worth at least thinking about. As the author of the last piece says, GMI proposals are proposals, with none of the details worked out yet. But I can see the attraction in implementing one.

Modern Vice-Presidents

Two thoughts struck me  while reading this article on Joe Biden as VP.

  1. The Carter Presidency seems to be where a lot of modern stuff in politics started (today’s political conventions, the President-Vice President relationship).
  2. It’s a long shot, but if he doesn’t get the nomination, he could stick around as VP for the next administration. I doubt it, but it’s interesting to think about. Looks like this has happened twice before in the US, with George Clinton as VP for Jefferson and Madison, and then John Calhoun for John Q. Adams and Andrew Jackson.


Elizabeth Warren Pushing the Overton Window

Good read on what most pundits are missing on Senator Warren.

But while Waldman is right, he’s answering the wrong question. It’s not his fault! Most pundits writing about “Warren versus Clinton” are answering the wrong question, because of the political media’s fixation on national elections and presidents. But the “economic populism” fight isn’t about Hillary Clinton and 2016. It’s about the entire Democratic Party and every policy fight and campaign it will be involved in in the foreseeable future.

(Emphasis mine)

It’s more about Warren pushing the Democratic Party toward adopting “economic populism”, rather than her getting elected because she holds her views. She has said that she wasn’t going to run for President, but I think that a single-issue (sort of) candidacy focusing on such an agenda would be a good way of pushing that agenda.

Filibuster Reform

Every day I’m blusterin’

Good post on from the Monkey Cage describing how the Senate will function in the future:

 Short version: A Senate majority banned filibusters of executive and judicial branch (save the Supreme Court) nominees.  Majorities now need a majority– not a supermajority– to bring the Senate to confirmation vote.  Long version: Senate majority set a new precedent (by majority vote) that reinterprets the chamber’s cloture rule to require only a majority to invoke cloture (cut off debate) on nominations rather than requiring 60 votes.  So, what changed? The number of votes required to cut off debate on nominations.  (Confirmation votes have always been by majority vote.)