In the months following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism crashed onto the Amazon US bestseller lists. In the first year of his presidency, overall sales of the book increased by over 1,000 per cent. Tweet-sized quotations from her writing began to flutter through the internet, and regular Arendt-themed opinion pieces started to appear in the press. A politics of the absurd and grotesque, the cruel, mendacious and downright incredible had returned, and Arendt seemed to have something to say about it.
First published in 1951, The Origins of Totalitarianism described how historical conditions in Europe conspired to give evil a shockingly modern political formation in the twentieth century. Political lies had triumphed over facts. All that remained were power, violence and ideology. What happened? Why did it happen? How could it have happened? Arendt asked. The old political and historical narratives no longer gave plausible answers.
Arendt also warned that whilst the totalitarian regimes of her time would invariably fall, the contexts and thinking that permitted them might well linger into the future, taking on new forms in response to new circumstances, certainly, but building on a political and cultural rot that had taken hold some time earlier.
Creeping back into political culture
There were few marching jackboots on the streets of America when Trump took the presidency, political dissidents did not start disappearing into torture cells at 3am in the morning, although in Aleppo, Syria and Maidan, Ukraine and elsewhere, there were already both boots and terror. Twentieth-century-style totalitarian regimes hadn’t returned. But as commentators noted then and since, many of the elements Arendt first identified with totalitarian thinking have crept back into our political culture.
A cynical disenchantment with politics characterizes our times as it did Arendt’s, as does an inchoate hate ready to be directed at anything and anyone. Conspiracy theories flourish. Self-censorship is back. Many of us are lonely. We have now added the reality of the climate apocalypse to the threat of nuclear apocalypse. The tacit acceptance that there are certain categories of people – refugees, migrants, the uprooted, the occupied, the incarcerated, the permanently poor – whose lives are essentially superfluous has not changed much since the Second World War. The camps and ghettos have changed their locations, names and appearances, but the misery remains, as does the thoughtlessly cruel administration of human beings as though they were little more than freight.
Hannah Arendt is a creative and complex thinker; she writes about power and terror, war and revolution, exile and love and, above all, about freedom. Reading her is never just an intellectual exercise, it is an experience. I have been reading Arendt for over thirty years, first discovering her as a graduate student in the late 1980s, just as the Cold War was ending. I liked her style, her boldness and directness, her confident irony and worldly wit. She came from a past close enough to touch (she died in 1975, ten years after my birth), but spoke with a voice so utterly her own, and in such lucid prose, that she also seemed to come from out of nowhere.
But it was not until I sat down to work out why we should be reading her now, in the age of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, that I realized it was the stubborn humanity of her fierce and complex creativity that I had most to learn from.Dr Lyndsey Stonebridge
But it was not until I sat down to work out why we should be reading her now, in the age of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, that I realized it was the stubborn humanity of her fierce and complex creativity that I had most to learn from.
What is freedom?
Arendt is best known for her analysis of politically dark times, but her abiding question is one that is again being asked in a series of defiant, creative and extraordinarily courageous responses to contemporary terror, occupation and ideology: What is freedom?
For Hannah Arendt that question was neither abstract nor simply theoretical. She loved the human condition for what it was: terrible, beautiful, perplexing, amazing and, above all, exquisitely precious. And she never stopped believing in a politics that might be true to that condition. Her writing has much to tell us about how we got to this point in our history, about the madness of modern politics and about the awful, empty, thoughtlessness of contemporary political violence. But she also teaches that it is when the experience of powerlessness is at its most acute, when history seems at its most bleak, that the determination to think like a human being, creatively, courageously and complicatedly, matters the most.
Because she had lived in a post-truth era, Arendt saw what it meant when people no longer share the same basic sense of the world they inhabit together. We need her now because she understood, as few political thinkers have done since, what we have to lose when we allow our politics to become inhuman. The last few years have again shown us both how destructive and vulnerable the human condition is. Arendt teaches that if you really love the world (and she did) you must have the courage to protect it – to disobey. For Arendt we can only be free so long as we have free minds.
There is a reason why current authoritarians, as they did in the mid-twentieth century, deliberately cultivate widespread cynicism with their indifference to reason and reality: it keeps the political field clear of challengers. Arendt wanted politics to be more crowded, busier, livelier, more unpredictable. ‘Hannah was always more for the Many than for the One,’ wrote her friend, the novelist Mary McCarthy: ‘which may help explain her horrified recognition of totalitarianism as a new phenomenon in the world.’ The ‘many’ was not the masses, but the plurality of the human condition which she believed to be the natural enemy of totalitarian thinking – would that we could see it.
Thinking about what we are doing begins with trusting our aversions to ready-made political and social narratives. I hate to be so difficult, but I am afraid the truth is that I am, she once wrote, declining to take part in a public debate which she knew was being staged for a boo-hiss audience and which she therefore wanted no part of. In truth, Hannah Arendt dreamt of a world in which the majority were happy and able to be difficult whenever it was morally or politically necessary.
It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives, she wrote in the 1951 preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism. It was then and it is now. But towards the end of her life she also wrote: We are free to change the world and to start something new in it. That freedom begins not with what she once called reckless optimism, but with the determination to exist as a fully living and thinking person in a world amongst others.
This is an extract from “We Are Free to Change the World: Hannah Arendt’s Lessons in Love and Disobedience” by Lyndsey Stonebridge. It will be published by Jonathan Cape on 25 January 2024.