I’ll be discussing selections from Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism with my students next week, and in having an initial read through the text, I ran across a thought which jumped off the page. Discussing the upheaval that resulted from the Great War of 1914-18, Arendt wrote the following.
“Such visible exposures were the sufferings of more and more groups of people to whom suddenly the rules of the world around them had ceased to apply. It was precisely the seeming stability of the surrounding world that made each group forced out of its protective boundaries look like an unfortunate exception to an otherwise sane and normal rule, and which filled with equal cynicism victims and observers of an apparently unjust and abnormal fate.
“Both mistook this cynicism for growing wisdom in the ways of the world, while actually they were more baffled and therefore became more stupid than they ever had been before. Hatred, certainly not lacking in the pre-war world, began to play a central role in public affairs everywhere, so that the political scene in the deceptively quiet years of the twenties assumed the sordid and weird atmosphere of a Strindbergian family quarrel.
“Nothing perhaps illustrates the general disintegration of political life better than this vague, pervasive hatred of everybody and everything, without a focus for its passionate attention, with nobody to make responsible for the state of affairs—neither the government nor the bourgeoisie nor an outside power. It consequently turned in all directions, haphazardly and unpredictably, incapable of assuming an air of healthy indifference toward anything under the sun” (267-268).
One could point to chilling similarities to our political culture in these early years of the twenty-first century, in which our institutions are proving increasingly inadequate to the task of handling our national ideological differences, let alone giving people any prospect of power over their wider economic lives, pummelled by global forces that shift shape more quickly than we can understand no less act on them.
If it is very clear that our political framework is straining under the weight of the demands placed on it, it remains most uncertain how people will ask those institutions to respond. But for all the talk of intense ideological polarisation, I suspect that cynicism is fast becoming the dominant ideology of our polity, probably to the extent that it will soon warrant capitalisation.
And, as Arendt suggested, cynicism is taking the form of disillusionment with our institutions and our governing frameworks. But the critique is, as it were, an uncritical one, in the sense that it is indiscriminate, lacking the older meaning of the term that suggested the judgment, evaluation, and positioning of that criticism in an operational context, even a medical one aimed at remedying the anatomical body or the body politic.
It takes the form of a smirk and a trite “they’re all the same”, “the system is rigged”, and an attack on institutions as things inherently antithetical to individual well-being. But because it ends as well as begins with this kind of cynicism, it cascades into frustrated powerlessness, which in turn is also spawning the kind of hatred that Arendt identified. We, like our ancestors from an era which was also seen as being somehow both historically humdrum and civilisationally epochal, don’t know where to turn. Our teetering economies and politics are in danger of pushing ever more people out of the bounds of Arendt’s “otherwise sane and normal rule”, into positions of acute difference.
I’d like to think that, if invested with a collective spirit and an ambition to recreate our public sphere as a space for the practise of democratic politics and for the effecting of progressive economics oriented towards a world in which it is increasingly easy for the well-being of communities and even societies to be lost or sacrificed in our age of aimless, purely ameliorative politics, we could refine our institutions so that they are able to answer to a wide range of needs while providing a bulwark against currently unhindered threats to our social and economic well-being.