In the short extract below, the NYT writer refers to my favourite political theoretician of the last century, Hannah Arendt (my most popular piece, The Philosophy of the Flesh, borrows her words for the title and is a lengthy analysis of her “The Life of the Mind”).
Here is the extract:
“The experience of reading Hannah Arendt’s 1951 classic “The Origins of Totalitarianism” in the year 2022 is a disorienting one. Although Arendt is writing primarily about Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, her descriptions often capture aspects of our present moment more clearly than those of us living through it can ever hope to.
Arendt writes of entire populations who “had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” She describes “the masses’ escape from reality” as “a verdict against the world in which they are forced to live and in which they cannot exist.” She points out that in societies riddled with elite hypocrisy, “it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard of human values, and general amorality, because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest.”
[You can listen to this episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” on Apple, Spotify, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]
It’s hard to read statements like these without immediately conjuring up images of Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Donald Trump’s presidency or the QAnon faithful. But that’s exactly the point: The reason Arendt is so relevant today is that her diagnosis doesn’t apply just to the Nazi or Soviet regimes she was writing about. It is more fundamentally about the characteristics of liberal societies that make them vulnerable to distinctly illiberal and authoritarian forces — weaknesses that, in many ways, have only become more pronounced in the 70 years since “The Origins of Totalitarianism” was first released.”
Note that the writer refers to Putin and Trump…but not to Xi! Unforgivable.
But the biggest omission is that the reason why Western publics are ripe for authoritarian turns is that the “normality” of their everyday life has been SHREDDED by the elites (to facilitate “globalisation”). From social media, to cancel culture to sexual and gender trauma, citizens emit “a verdict against the world in which they are forced to live and in which they cannot exist [wherefore in societies riddled with elite hypocrisy] it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard of human values, and general amorality, because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest.”
This systematic destruction of, first, normality, second, solidarity, and third, security is the reason why our societies are becoming utterly and irreparably ungovernable!
The mistake of the “liberal” elites is to think that the real problem is populism when in reality populism is a REACTION to the social devastation of bourgeois “liberalism” both in the ethical-moral AND in the political-economic spheres!