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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Grasso

Reading The Origins Of Totalitarianism in 2020: Mass Society (Part 2 of 7)

Who are the Masses?

Arendt begins her book in the distant past: if not necessarily in number of years, certainly several worlds away in terms of culture and politics. Beginning prior to the French Revolution, Arendt analysis features names and dignitaries familiar to us: Napoleon Bonaparte, Benjamin Disraeli, Prussia, and an imperialist Britain. In order to condense hundreds of pages of detail I offer a more generalized--and quite honestly-- diminished summary as preface below.

It is this social history that Arendt takes as her starting point and explores in detail. Beginning with feudalism, she slowly tracks how kings and the landed aristocracy were dethroned, whereby equality was declared and social classes were de-stratified. In this way, Arendt traces how democratic nation-states arose, in addition to determining how nationalism became central to one's identity as a citizen. Finally, Arendt investigated how a tangled web of inter-connected alliances led to the warring of these nations, one against another in the Great War. What was left after WWI was a litany of international fragmentations, highlighted by stateless national groups in Eastern Europe, war-torn economies, and failures of the international community to comprehend how to effectively proceed.

The world’s current population has always lived in a modern or postmodern world. The idea of the masses is ingrained in all we do, it has become the prefix par excellence in our daily experience: mass-communication, mass-production, mass-markets, and even mass-shootings. Yet it is not only quantity that makes a population a mass, because there was a disintegration of the old social order that precipitated the advent of mass-society and its skyrocketing global population, decrease in fatality rate, and explosion of economic production due to technological innovation.

Arendt argues that in post-war Europe--in a "new" world of crumbling social structures--a label emerged that more aptly describes the pseudo-class now set adrift that had previously existed within the old structure: the masses. The masses are not to be confused with what Arendt dubs “the mob.” She characterizes the mob as the riff-raff, Bohemians, and thugs who come from the dregs of society. The mob is characterized as those who are embittered, envious, and vindictive towards decent society. Arendt says the “mob always will shout for the ‘strong man,’ the ‘great leader.’ For the mob hates society from which it is excluded…”[1] The masses are not the mob, but they are the people who no longer have a place within the “normal” society the mob hates. Due to a changing social structure and international strife, these previously rooted and “normal” people found themselves suddenly adrift.

What does being cut from societal ties look like? In America it may look like the fear of a “dwindling middle class,” i.e. the blue collar, family orientated, and stable section of the population that have rejected the values that once made it the bedrock of American life. Arendt suggests a way to check if this section of society is breaking (and the population drifting into atomized masses) is to look at a civilization's political life. In pre-modern times, classes--be it noble, artisan, guildsman, or common laborers--were well defined and grounded by social and economic ties. Politically, they worked within the loosely organized feudal apparatus with a specific platform, seeking limited and self-interested goals from the state in order to improve their way of living. The goal of each class was to lobby together by persuading the monarch and nobility to rule in their favor, or at least not compromise their interests. Arendt suggests that the new mass society in contrast, has failed in this respect. As the great mass of humanity could not be called what had been hithero considered a social or economic class (as it does not have a single goal or interest in its collective mind), the masses cannot act within the political system with the same focused action as true classes did before.

Arendt understood the masses as ill-defined, fragmented, disconnected, and atomized--whatever common goals they do share are vague and ill-defined. Before the Great War, the number of outcasts included the classless, the previously non-political, and the stateless. In the aftermath of WWI, this "class" of those who did not fit into the mass grew as social bonds were weakened when governments and entire economies disintegrated. Arendt describes the modern masses as disconnected from a firm and shared political reality and as a kind of shifting and shapeless sand, unable to connect or join together in any meaningful way towards a common end. She colors the masses as a despairing, disillusioned, and disparate group. Arendt's inquiry is not solely interested in economic and material goods, but also inquires as to how modernity and the loss of the old social structure brought an existential crisis of sorts, which manifested in a new craving for the teleological, which rejected the new arbitrariness of life. This feeling was captured by Carl Jung in a series of lectures given in 1937:

But one thing is certain- that modern man, Protestant or not, has lost the protection of the ecclesiastical walls carefully erected and reinforced since Roman days, and on account of that loss has approached the zone of world-destroying and world-creating fire. Life has become quickened and intensified. Our world is permeated by waves of restlessness and fear.[2]

If “mass” is the suffix of the current day, then “post” was theirs. The environment described above was post-WWI, post-Christian, and post-Belle Époque, leaving the world a confusing, uncertain, and pessimistic place. Arendt described the key features of this disoriented and suspicious modern mass as below:

They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.[3]

What this new mass of disbelieving and uncertain people were looking for was not necessarily truth, for how could they believe after not even the Church could provide certain truth when their own states had led them into a disastrous world war? What these masses wanted was an answer to their suffering, the vicissitudes of fate, everything--not more facts that did not add up to anything more. A world newly defenseless against coincidence and contingency, broken from their last bastion of safety (i.e. the old social structure), turned to consistency: for it made life more bearable and comprehendible at a glance. The solution was not truth in all its messiness and detail, but consistency--a clean, total, and consistent system of reasoning that could explain everything--even their suffering and confusion, and bring meaning back to the masses.

The Masses Politicized

By their very nature the individuals of the new masses were politically apathetic or disconnected, for they belonged to no class and therefore had no party to represent them and no role to play. Because this mass of people had no specifically articulated platform, no close common ties, no political experience, and no diplomatic etiquette in statesmanship, it was discovered that when they did become political, they were less likely to play by the rules. They were more likely to be unwilling to compromise and more likely to intimidate through violence and sheer numbers than to persuade through argument or diplomacy. Instead of work through the system, they were more likely to smash and overwhelm it. This uncompromising attitude lends the inarticulate (yet justifiable), mass movements an undeniable ethos, which is that of simple, authentic, and persistent indignation. This revelation begs the question of what would happen when these previously silent and inarticulate masses were made political when an organizer could mold them into their image?

If the masses are fundamentally different from political parties or classes, and are by nature politically apathetic, how do they become politicized? The explanation can be explained by an image put forth in a series of essays against moral relativism by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, which was originally given as a series of lectures in 1943. In Aboliton, Lewis puts forth the character of the Conditioner, whom Lewis warns is a figure of great authority, who by promulgating and propagating his own system of values, persuades, organizes, and eventually rules over a mass-population. What makes the Conditioner dangerous is that his final goal is not education or freedom but the remaking the masses in his image. This prescient warning was clearly an observation drawn by Lewis looking outward at the world as it existed in 1943, but nonetheless accurately portrays the totalitarian organizer, who has proclaimed the superiority of his own values and thus seeks to inculcate and implant them in others.

These values and ideologies are persuasive because they begin from a self-evident shared emotional weight and aim towards a common and broad purpose: nationalism, historical progress, racial theory, etc.. But Lewis argues that what the Conditioner (in this case the totalitarian leader) hides until it is too late is that these values are not based on anything firm or foundational. Instead these values, couched in a reassuringly consistent ideology, which originally were backed by something as self-evident as instinct or emotion, have devolved simply into whatever pleases the Conditioner. The values are arbitrary and may consequently change as frequently as the wishes and whims of a totalitarian leader do. Lewis's Conditioner is encapsulated in the totalitarian autocrat, who--during the disastrous 20th century--frequently transformed human citizens into comrades to fit the Conditioner's vision. In this way, the mass of humanity is treated as raw material by the Conditioner, and is aptly able to be molded--like clay--into various social elements in order to fit a preconceived vision that the Conditioner has for them. As Arendt conveys, this process is something truly and intentionally inhumane, but is made possible because the totalitarian leader has ample material (i.e. the masses as described above) to work with.

Arendt argues that as the previously non-political masses grew, they became an ideal target for totalitarian leaders: the perfect material to be conditioned, organized, and set in motion for the former's cause. But what cause could they be organized around, besides a general anger of the status quo? For it was the lack of a specific and unifying purpose that these individuals felt a sense of isolation and longing for something better, i.e. a tangibly rich web of real-world connections and communal responsibilities. In something like the Bolshevik Revolution, the great mass of humanity found its collective and unifying common purpose--artificial or otherwise. Certainly, individuals can bond over (and share in) righteous indignation in the face of great wrongs like the Corn Laws for instance, which by restricting the importation of grain into the British Isles led--in no small part--to the Great Irish Potato Famine. Nonetheless, this bond cannot replicate the rich bonds of genuine humanity, i.e. the reliance of a son on his father, or that of a cobbler on his guild of fellows, or even a farmer on his neighbors during the harvest season.

These conditions of isolation that remain in mass society are what Arendt described in her 1961 book, Between Past and Future" as:

A society of men who, without a common world which would at once relate and separate them” destined to “either live in desperate lonely separation or are pressed together into a mass . . . For a mass-society is nothing more than that kind of organized living which automatically establishes itself among human beings who are still related to one another but have lost the world once common to all of them.[4]

The loss of a tangible common reality and connection had irrevocably broken the formal structure of a communal society. Just as when a house is demolished, not only have walls and the roof been turned into rubble, but also the very materials involved have been irreversibly destroyed for the purpose for which they were once suitable, i.e. that of a safe and warm domicile. As broken and separated building materials lay around waiting for a new new purpose, so too did atomized individuals who waited restlessly for a new form. Little did they know what their new builders, conditioners, and organizers, had in store.

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951; repr., New York: Harcourt, 1985), 107. [2] Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion (New York: Yale University Press, 1960), 59. [3] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 351. [4] Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (1961; repr., New York: Penguin Books, 1993) 90.


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