Totalitarianism as a novel form of “government”

The last chapter of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism raises a disturbing possibility

Philosophy as a Way of Life

--

Which one is the totalitarian leader? Image from opendemocracy.net.

“Totalitarianism differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny, and dictatorship.” (H. Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, ch. 13)

With a small group of friends I run an informal book club that uses the Signal chat platform. For the past several months we’ve been reading and discussing Hannah Arendt’s classic, The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published in 1951. The book is challenging and yet well worth a reading, or two. Here I’d like to focus on the last chapter, entitled “Ideology and terror: a novel form of government.” In it, Arendt clearly articulates what has slowly been emerging from her 700-pages long analysis: totalitarianism is a novel form of government, invented in the 20th century and never seen before during the course of human history.

This is a rather startling claim, so let us analyze it a bit more closely. Arendt herself acknowledges that the ancient Greeks had discovered and catalogued all of the perhaps surprisingly few forms of government that humanity has tried out. According to Plato, these are:

Aristocracy (government by the best)

Timocracy (government by the brave)

Oligarchy (government by the rich)

Democracy (government by the people)

Tyranny (government by one)

The list is in descending order of desirability, the rather low ranking of democracy being the result of the fact that Athenian democracy was based on simple majority rule: 51% of the votes in the assembly could get a Socrates killed. Aristocracy is on top by definition, since t means rule by “the best,” not by people like Charles of England. The classic example of timocracy was the warrior state of Sparta.

Interestingly, for Plato any given type of government had a tendency to degenerate into the next lower one in the sequence. He had observed multiple times a democratic government in a Greek polis turning into a tyrannical one, for instance. By comparison, we could say that the modern US is a hybrid between…

--

--

Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at https://massimopigliucci.org/essays/