Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 30 November 2020

THE IRRATIONAL STAGE OF TOTALITARIAN REGIMES

 

Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism, so problematical for the earlier stages of fascism, fits here. For here we enter a realm where the calculations of interest that arguably governed the behavior of both the Nazis and their allies under more ordinary circumstances in the exercise of power no longer determined policy. At this ultimate stage an obsessed minority is able to carry out its most passionate hatreds implacably and to the ultimate limit of human experience. (R. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, p.170.)

Our strident critique of historicism as a method for the theorization of revolutionary movements that degenerate into totalitarian dictatorships was meant to highlight its fatal flaws both from a theoretical standpoint and from a practical political one – flaws that we preliminarily and cursorily contrasted with the merits of the historical materialist approaches to the theory of these historical phenomena. From a theoretical standpoint, we can show that all the historicist elements of analysis of revolutionary movements can be traced back aetiologically – with the due caution to be exercised whenever we invoke “causation” in historical events that are intrinsically aleatory – to historical materialist theoretical notions starting with the mode of reproduction and production of given societies, or what may be more generally described as “social relations of production”. This is not a matter of replacing “politicism” with “economism” and reproducing thus the Cartesian and Kantian antinomies of Matter or Nature, on one side, and Thought or Spirit, on the other. Nor do we seek to lend support to the Diltheyan distinction between Natur- and Geistes-wissenschaften. It is rather an attempt to show that human needs are universal, and for that reason alone all human cultural activities can be shown to adhere to fundamental requirements for their satisfaction which thereby determine those cultural or ideological manifestations. Furthermore, from a practical political standpoint, were it otherwise, were we to accept as an ineluctable fact that human beings do not share needs that can be assessed and satisfied in an intersubjective manner, then we would have to acquiesce in the conclusion that human conflict is ultimately irresolvable and must result in the total annihilation of humanity! Philosophically expressed, our reasoning maintains that transcendence is inimical to human interests and that only an immanentist, materialist assessment of human needs can lead to a future civilization capable to live in harmonious freedom and peace.

The problem with historicism is that its chief analytical notions – “the masses”, nationalism, racism, leadership cult – either have other causes traceable to human material interests, or else they are reified as ineluctable aspects of human existence – which means that we must resign ourselves to the imminent annihilation, in a nuclear age, of the entire human race! As Aron put it in connection with Khruschev’s account of Stalinism,

[f]or the time being Khrushchev gives only one answer, one interpretation [for the terror unleashed by the Bolshevik Party-State from 1929 onwards] — the cult of personality. This explains nothing. As a very distinguished Marxist, Togliatti, the late General Secretary of the Italian communist party has said, to explain it by the personality cult is not a Marxist explanation. To explain such important phenomena by one person is the kind of explanation that Marxist doctrine by definition does not allow. (R. Aron, Democracy and Totalitarianism, p.192)

Before we leave this topic, and as a further illustration, if any more were needed, of the insidious traps of historicist thought, let us examine briefly a long paragraph from Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition regarding “mass society”:

The laws of statistics are valid only where large numbers or

long periods are involved, and acts or events can statistically

appear only as deviations or fluctuations. The justification of statistics

is that deeds and events are rare occurrences in everyday

life and in history. Yet the meaningfulness of everyday relationships

is disclosed not in everyday life but in rare deeds, just as the

significance of a historical period shows itself only in the few

events that illuminate it. The application of the law of large numbers

and long periods to politics or history signifies nothing less

than the wilful obliteration of their very subject matter, and it is

a hopeless enterprise to search for meaning in politics or signifi-[43]-

cance in history when everything that is not everyday behavior

or automatic trends has been ruled out as immaterial.

However, since the laws of statistics are perfectly valid where

we deal with large numbers, it is obvious that every increase in

population means an increased validity and a marked decrease of

"deviation." Politically, this means that the larger the population

in any given body politic, the more likely it will be the social

rather than the political that constitutes the public realm. The

Greeks, whose city-state was the most individualistic and least

conformable body politic known to us, were quite aware of the

fact that the polis, with its emphasis on action and speech, could

survive only if the number of citizens remained restricted. Large

numbers of people, crowded together, develop an almost irresistible

inclination toward despotism, be this the despotism of a

person or of majority rule; and although statistics, that is, the

mathematical treatment of reality, was unknown prior to the

modern age, the social phenomena which make such treatment

possible—great numbers, accounting for conformism, behaviorism,

and automatism in human affairs—were precisely those traits

which, in Greek self-understanding, distinguished the Persian

civilization from their own.

The unfortunate truth about behaviorism and the validity of its

"laws" is that the more people there are, the more likely they are

to behave and the less likely to tolerate non-behavior. Statistically,

this will be shown in the leveling out of fluctuation. In reality,

deeds will have less and less chance to stem the tide of behavior,

and events will more and more lose their significance, that is,

their capacity to illuminate historical time. Statistical uniformity

is by no means a harmless scientific ideal; it is the no longer

secret political ideal of a society which, entirely submerged in the

routine of everyday living, is at peace with the scientific outlook

inherent in its very existence. (The Human Condition, pp.42-3)

 

 

There are two obvious hypostatic errors that Arendt commits here: the first is that she attributes the stultification of the behaviour of political constituencies to their sheer number. Arendt’s statement that [l]arge numbers of people, crowded together, develop an almost irresistible inclination toward despotism” is almost incomprehensible coming from an intellect as refined as hers – it is a blatant and reprehensible falsehood which supports the charges of “aristocratic thinking” often moved against her. The second error Arendt incurs is to attribute “statistical uniformity” – which, as she rightly reminds us, “is by no means a harmless scientific ideal” – to “a society entirely submerged in the routine of everyday living”. Again, this proposition is entirely false, and in conscience entirely inexplicable coming from such a perspicacious mind as Arendt’s: the crude reality is that throughout history it is not and never has been an abstract “society” that has become “submerged in the routine of everyday living”: quite to the contrary, it has always been at the behest and under the coercive impulse of specific social agencies that humans have engaged collectively in varying levels of brutal behaviour. Once again, as with her critique of Marx on the importance of “the social question” as the real material springboard to political freedom, Arendt has made the colossal “aristocratic” mistake of separating “the social” from “the political”:

 

Politically, this means that the larger the population

in any given body politic, the more likely it will be the social

rather than the political that constitutes the public realm [my emphases].

 

Arendt’s obvious equation of “large population” and “the social” with the abandonment or decadence of “the political” is as misguided as it is false. We linger on these flaws in Arendt’s reasoning not to inveigh against a person and intellectual toward whom have feelings of respect, if not reverence, but rather to draw attention to the misguidedness of historicist analysis in this sphere of historical inquiry.

 

 

But let us return to the periodization of revolutionary movements. When it comes to the theory of revolutionary movements, we saw earlier that a periodization of their evolution is in order, starting with their origin and formation, through to their seizure of political power as Party-States, until their ultimate apotheosis and apocalypse as totalitarian dictatorships. It is at this last stage that, as Paxton affirms with remarkable lucidity in the quotation above with reference to Arendt’s great intuition, ”we enter a realm where the calculations of interest that arguably governed the behaviour of both the Nazis and their allies under more ordinary circumstances in the exercise of power no longer determined policy”. This is a conclusion of the utmost importance: the way we should interpret it, in line with all of our foregoing analysis, is that prior to the final apocalyptic stage of totalitarian dictatorship, revolutionary movements – from Fascism to Nazism to Bolshevism – had responded to, and acted in accordance with, “calculations of interest” that “determined their policies”. But once these movements reach the final stage of totalitarian dictatorship, these calculations of interest no longer determine policy and – much worse, catastrophically worse – “[a]t this ultimate stage an obsessed minority is able to carry out its most passionate hatreds implacably and to the ultimate limit of human experience.”

 

Clearly, therefore, for Paxton, as for us, this “ultimate stage” of totalitarian dictatorship may be distinguished from earlier stages by the progressive relinquishment and indeed abandonment of any rational policies or of any rationality in the policies that these totalitarian regimes had adopted in the earlier phases of their development. Of course, the imminent effect of this growing irrationality is to hasten the demise of these regimes, as their respective histories have shown abundantly. (Maoist China may be thought to be an exception, but there are obvious intervening factors – the opening-up of the economy to Western capitalist investment until the renewed turn to totalitarian irrationalism with Chairman Xi from 2012. We shall deal with these factors later.) In the theorization of these regimes, then, it is well to remember the gist of our thesis here – namely, that the origin and formation of revolutionary movements is explained best with the adoption of a historical-materialist framework of analysis rather than a historicist one – even because, as we have shown, historicist analytical categories themselves can easily be explained by historical-materialist ones -; whereas the “ultimate stage” of Party-State regimes, the totalitarian stage, is noteworthy precisely for this progressive or regressive jettisoning of rationality in all spheres of social and military policy.

No comments:

Post a Comment