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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Grasso

Reading The Origins Of Totalitarianism in 2021: The Failure of Human Rights (Part 3 of 7)

A Great Declaration

We live in an America where individual rights have become the last bastion of indubitable and universal truth. In light of this axiom, the left is pushing for more and more universal "human rights" than ever before: "free" healthcare, "free" education, "free" child care, and some are even calling for universal basic income. Living in a 21st century democracy (in a land that was founded upon the notion of universal human rights), we always risk forgetting that the very assertion of individual human rights--a bedrock of our society--is a young and radical idea. As the perception of what constitutes a so-called human right, increases in number in 2021, the very idea that the source of their legitimacy was man qua man--not custom, history, or even God’s explicit command--only came about at the end of the 18th century.

These newly declared human rights were proclaimed to be “unalienable” and their canonization formed the bedrock of an individual’s self-worth. While these rights may have been “endowed by their Creator” in the case of America, or declared “under the auspices of the Supreme Being” in France, they resided firmly in individual man, with no need for appeal to a higher source--whether peasant or king. Because the conception of unalienable rights were established on the basis of being self-evident--and because they were the foundation for sovereign self-government, i.e. for all other laws--this metaphysical declaration had no special law to protect it: after all, it was assumed that, like man, it tautologically proved itself.

Arendt astutely noted that this new experiment, i.e. the idea that individual man without appeal to any larger authority other than his own individual human dignity, led to an unforeseen problem--a problem that made itself known after the Great War in Europe. The problem is something of a paradox that lies within the basic premise: if a nation declares, on behalf of its citizens, a universal and self-evident truth that every individual is endowed with certain unalienable rights regardless of ethnicity, social class, or religion, it seems to speak of an abstract human being who exists in some state of nature, as opposed to the citizen of a concrete state tasked with upholding the aforementioned human rights. It almost speaks of abstract man as potential, but not actual. But this abstract man seems to exist nowhere except when he is materialized within a social structure, state, or nation: the very things he was supposed to be able to stand outside of. The liberal premise to the contrary, maintains it is not that France or America gave the individual person rights, but, instead, they respected the inherent dignity in each and every individual.

According to the declared logic, the citizen and the stranger should both have the same human rights, by virtue of their humanity, even if they do not share equal civil rights. It would take a crisis of stateless people, i.e. people that actually embodied this abstract humanity, to show how abstract individual human rights--when tested--fell flat; that when push came to shove the nations of the world “found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human”[1]

Individual human rights, within a nation, immediately morphed back into specific and enumerated civil rights guaranteed by individual nation states. It became self-evident that “the people, and not the individual, was the image of man,”[2] at least the imagined man for whom these declarations of individual rights were made. Arendt traces the real-world 20th century implications of this slippery paradox, or that the more abstract and universal human rights became in theory, the less protective and applicable they actually became in practice.

The Declaration Tested

Post WWI Europe was an atmosphere of disintegration. Many countries not only were ravaged by war but some ceased to exist. The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, for instance, broke apart into Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia; the fall of Czarist Russia created Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states; and national minorities struggled in Eastern and Southern Europe as they lived under the flimsy protection of international Minority Treaties. These minorities were the beginning of stateless groups that were left outside of any nation-state of their own (and eventually the pale of the law as well), which allowed these minority groups to become rootless and unprotected and therefore open to the scorn of totalitarian propaganda and villainization.

With a crisis of stateless and denationalized people groups, the very premise of individual human rights was tested internationally. The two historical approaches nations had always used towards stateless refugees had been either repatriation or naturalization. These previous policies were put to the test and failed as great waves of foreign refugees poured in: Armenians, Russians, German and Austrian Jews, and Spaniards fleeing civil war. These hundreds of thousands of stateless people declared the ancient right of asylum: surely the most visible symbol of the Individual Rights of Man in international relationships. Yet this symbol faltered under the weight of numbers, with nationalization failing first. More and more ethnic groups entered, giving up their previous citizenship, yet stubbornly retaining their ethnic nationality. It became clear that due to both quantity and stubbornness, naturalization would not solve the problem.

Their only other proven solution was repatriation. The problem was that these refugees were truly stateless. Their country of origin had expelled them, would not recognize them, and would not agree to take them back. Indeed, due to the political organization of the modern world, there was no unclaimed territory left that a group could take to form a community of their own. With the current host country refusing them legal entry, their previous country refusing to recognize them as their own, and no neutral ground to stand on, these stateless peoples were outside of the law and were truly, by definition, outlaws. Arendt frames the situation thus:

“The stateless person, without right to residence and without the right to work, had of course constantly to transgress the law. He was liable to jail sentences without ever committing a crime. More than that, the entire hierarchy of values which pertain in civilized countries was reversed in his case. Since he was the anomaly for whom the general law did not provide, it was better for him to become an anomaly for which it did provide, that of the criminal. The best criterion by which to decide whether someone has been forced outside the pale of the law is to ask if he would benefit by committing a crime.”[3]

So here stood the test of the idealism declared over a century ago: the nations that had promised all individual human beings the dignity and Rights of Man, now faltered on an international scale. The human rights that were supposed to exist independent of individual governments turned out to be completely reliant upon the good faith of government, public and private institutions, in addition the passage of new legislation to keep these groups and their customs within the law to allow them to subsist and exist legally. It turned out that loss of national rights inevitably meant the loss of individual rights and that the former entailed the latter. While civil rights were only supposed to spell out in tangible laws the metaphysical and eternal Rights of Man, the eternal and immaterial nature of these alleged rights proved unattainable and unenforceable whenever non-citizens (of any country) appeared. It appeared that just as man is both eternal and temporal, so his laws must be also.

The End of the Rights of Man

Residing outside of the law and their supposed individual rights, Arendt argued that these stateless peoples were essentially forced outside humanity. Her argument for this claim is based on a detailed assumption of what it means to truly have human rights. While not stated in the Declaration of Independence or the Declaration of the Rights of Man in France, the basic underlying assumption is that each individual would have the ability to make their opinion significant and their actions effective within a public life; that they could fully share in what Aristotle describes as the nature of man, a political animal, i.e. a creature meant to share in action with others. The drafters of these documents did not foresee the future world in which the right to have rights would first be necessary.

Rejection of outsiders from a legal and safe human community shattered these assumptions, leaving hundreds of thousands of stateless peoples not only outside of the law, but more importantly outside of any meaningful and self-determined human community, thereby in essence disintegrating a crucial part of human nature. While it may be true that regardless of human or governmental action there are inborn and actual unalienable rights that belong to every man, it still appeared that it was his political status and communal qualities that make it possible for him to be treated as such and to participate as if he did.

It seems obvious to say that the stateless individual still shares in human dignity and human rights, after all nothing changed but his geographical location and bureaucratic designation. The stateless man was still flesh and blood like naturalized peoples, but governments found it one thing to acquiesce metaphysically in a charter of principle, yet another to accept it tangibly and legally. The problem of stateless and rightless individuals is not one relegated to the past, but unfortunately no easy solution has appeared in the last century.

The irony of rightlessness is that the victims were innocent and it was easier to deprive a completely innocent person of legal (and thus communal) place than someone who had actually committed an offense. There were systems in place for criminals, but there was no system for innocents whose only crime was being expelled by their own government for no other reason than their ethnicity or social class.

Outside of definition and outside of the law, they existed in some unholy purgatory fading from the face of the earth. In another great irony, the whole problem was created not out of a lack of civilization or savagery, but instead was born from geographical gridlock caused by the fact there was no uncivilized place left on earth. And “only with a completely organized humanity could the loss of home and political status become identical with expulsion from humanity altogether”[4]

The tragedy of rightlessness is “not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them,” as entire peoples became superfluous and noisome by their very existence. Once a human loses their political status they should--in theory--step into, and be covered by, those unalienable rights of the individual, yet the opposite occurred. A man with no qualities other than his humanity found no way for others to treat him as a fellow-man. He was outside of the equalization that politics brings to human interaction. Equality is not simply given to mankind, but instead is administered through human organization that, “we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights.”[5]

Thus stood the abstract man who was outside of the law, lacking both legal and physical place--not even able to be identified as a slave, but only a human animal. Arendt argues that in the timeline of totalitarianism, it was this condition of superfluous and rightless peoples that dovetailed with certain radical ideologies regarding race and class, that brought power and force to the questioning of their humanity--and finally to their right to live. In an era marked by hyper-nationalism and tribalism, these rightless people became easy targets and fodder for totalitarian ideology. These groups were simply the superfluous: the pests that belonged nowhere, that were shuffled around but protected and wanted by no nation. Eventually, Hitler could target these rightless groups with more than deportation, finding instead a quite literal final solution.

[1] Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 299. [2] Arendt, 299. [3] Arendt, 286. [4] Arendt, 297. [5] Arendt, 301.


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