In times of massive political upheaval such as what we now are witnessing, German philosopher Hannah Arendt might be worth revisiting. She lived to see World War II and the totalitarian Nazi regime up close and wrote “The Origins of Totalitarianism” to warn the world of the terrible fate of those who embrace authoritarianism. She states that a totalitarian government becomes even worse than a dictatorship, because in a dictatorship, the elites openly kill those they do not like. Individuals who show resilience and do not submit to the politically correct views of the state are ruthlessly bullied, defamed, lose their jobs and ultimately get killed in order to silence opposition. This creates a massive fear in the population; people fear for their lives and are silenced. The fear of Gulag or the death camps in Siberia does the trick.
Arendt makes a distinction: While a dictatorship openly kills dissidents, the elites in totalitarian regimes strive not only political power but also to dominate every aspect of human life ideologically. The aim is to control every thought process to the smallest detail – what people think about family, sex, relationships, religion, school, church, law, ethics and morals and so on. Arendt points out that this is a terrifying system, as even your personal opinions, intellectual beliefs and what you do inside your own house now is to be controlled by the state.
This brings to memory the gruesome society described in English novelist George Orwell’s “1984” as the hero in the story is gradually terrorized, tortured, demeaned and questioned until he asserts that he will be killed. No, says Big Brother, the point is never to kill you, but to quench your will so strongly that it ceases to exist. The state wishes to kill your will, not your body, to create an obedient slave to Big Brother. The book ends as the hero is totally broken, crying for genuine happiness as he sees Big Brother on the screen. He now truly believes in everything Big Brother tells him, be it two plus two is five or whatever else.
The purpose of the elite in such a society is to gain control over all social developments, with a universal desire that the whole world should evolve into a unified system where religions and traditional faith in God no longer exist. This is the aim of authoritarian atheism, as defined by Karl Marx and others.
Arendt spent her entire life trying to understand how man’s cruelty could be systematized and institutionalized to such an extent during World War II. This was a massively intolerant time in history when unwanted minorities that represented other values than those of the establishment were openly terrorized. It was a society reeking with fear.
She analyzed the rise of Nazism in the democratic Germany of the 1930s and discovered that the people who carried out bestial actions, were not per se extremely evil. In fact, most actions of this nature were performed by common men and women who simply followed state orders. They were obedient to “Big Brother.” They neglected to reflect on the morality of their own actions, feared repercussions from the authorities and hid behind those bureaucrats who gave the orders.
When attending the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, Arendt suggested that one of the effects of a strong state is the de-responsibilization of its citizens. She used Eichmann as an example, noting that he steadily hid behind precisely this idea – that he followed orders and chose not to disobey them, considering the harsh times of war. Of course, it was beyond evident that Eichmann was one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. His excuses, nonetheless, point to the grave dangers of lack of individual responsibility in institutionalized societies where citizens become desensitized regarding personal morality, as they hide behind “only following orders.”
Arendt concluded that in systems where the state demand for consensus thoroughly controls its people, fear of the authorities is greater than individual sense of justice. Complacency, a passive attitude and lack of personal morals permeate those who should have stood up against injustice, but did not. “People become silent about things that matter,” to quote Martin Luther King – that is if the fear of unbearable repercussions is perceived to be imminent, Arendt argued that it was not hate that motivated brutality, but indifference and apathy. And a lack of empathy. People felt that “the system” was so authoritarian that there was no way a single person could make a difference.
Welcome to Big Brother.