20 February, 2017

Contempt for what you have.

Hannah Arendt
Just over 40 years ago, German political scientist and philosopher the late Hannah Arendt wrote: "Totalitarianism begins in contempt for what you have. The second step is the notion: 'Things must change—no matter how, Anything is better than what we have.'Totalitarian rulers organise this kind of mass sentiment, and by organisng it articulate it, and by articulating it make the people somehow love it....... Totalitarianism appeals to the very dangerous emotional needs of people who live in complete isolation and in fear of one another". As a German born Jew who had grown up as Hitler rose to power and had fled the persecution of the 1930s and the holocaust war years she knew what she was talking about.

Through the 1930s and into the war years Arendt watched as Hitler and other fascist leaders moulded public opinion by infiltrating the free press, setting up ministries of propaganda and ultimately by the use of physical violence via groups like the fascist blackshirts or brownshirts against those who disagreed or challenged their ideas. The experience encouraged Arendt to write in 1974   “.....the moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please”.
Arnedt was not wrong in her analysis and it would certainly have worried her greatly that we stand today in 2017 at a point where we are witnessing in the UK, the USA and in some other European states – most notably the Netherlands and France – a repeat of what occurred in the interwar years.
Not 1930's Nazi Germany but the UK
in 2016
What we now glibly term the post truth era or the age of alternative facts hides a sinister trend on both sides of the Atlantic. The lambasting by Donald Trump of the media, the falsehoods put out by the Brexit campaign in the run up to the Referendum, the scorn and vitriol poured upon the judiciary by the right wing press in this country, the rise in hate crime and rampant nationalism are all reminiscent of pre-war times.  And what pulls all this together are Arnedt’s initial points – namely that “Totalitarianism begins in contempt for what you have. The second step is the notion: ‘Things must change—no matter how, Anything is better than what we have.”  This was precisely the message hammered home by Trump in his campaign and it was the same message put out in the UK by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Nigel Farage and the rest: "we have 'American carnage' cries Trump or we are subject to 'faceless  politicians in Brussels' say Brexiteers - we must be free of it, anything is better than this". The same message is now being broadcast increasingly loudly by Marine le Pen in France and by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Against this back drop, just as Arnedt had witnessed in her youth in Nazi Germany and later recorded we are increasingly seeing in the UK and the USA and elsewhere the " [organising] of mass sentiment, and its articulation so that the people love it."
A seminal book -without doubt
one of the creators of the modern world
Richard Hoggart the author of the seminal work  “The Uses of Literacy”, an in depth study of the impact and use of mass media, would, too, have recognised this trend and been appalled. “‘We all need to remember, every day more and more, that in the last resort there is no such thing as the ‘common man’” he  wrote  in his book published seven years before the birth of Nigel Farage. “If we do not, we may in the end have allowed individual decision to slip away in our dutiful democratic identification of ourselves with a hypothetical figure whose main value is to those who will mislead us.” Hoggart, who died in 2014, at the age of 95, spent his working life urging us to watch out for men such as Farage and Donald Trump; “mass persuaders”, Hoggart called them, “whose cynicism and self-interest knew no bounds”. Hoggart, like Arnedt would have recognized instantly how those who follow the doctrine of the Trumps, the Farage’s, the Johnson’s and the Gove’s and who voted for them and their “Make America great again” or “Give us back control of our borders”  emotional propaganda – have been brain washed and misled; “deprived”, as Arnedt suggests, “of their capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please”.
Finally, Arendt suggested another dimension to this trend. "Since these mass persuaders tell us that things must change and must get better" she argued "the law of progress holds that everything now must be better than what was there before. But if you want something better, and better, and better, then you potentially lose the inherent  good in what you already have. The good is increasingly sidelined and perhaps no longer even being measured."  In short we  forget what it was like to not have the very goods and benefits that we today enjoy: Brexiteers tells us that things are so dreadful as members of the EU that we must leave and take back control; Trump tells the citizens of the USA their land is filled with “carnage” and they must make America great again. Professor Tony Judt in his “Ill Fares the Land” , however, is clear – we have, he suggests, reached a paradox and have forgotten why we wanted these beneficial things in the first place. The EU was established to bring peace and prosperity to a continent ravaged for centuries by wars; the welfare state across the world introduced so that citizens no longer had to struggle the deprivations of poverty, ill health, lack of education or insecurity; the great talismen of modern times: free education, equality before the law, human rights, equality of pay, gender and the rest, and the great freedoms such as that for religion or political belief were put in place for the equal benefit of all men and women. True, everything was not and is not perfect, things can always improve but ask someone who grew up in the 1930s or before and who fought for these things that we take so much for granted today and they will look at you askance  tell you that to go back to those far off days would be a very bad idea indeed.
Oswald Mosley and his blackshirts in the 1930s - with Brexit
and Trump, le Pen and Wilders we are close to a return
to this madness.
But, today, as Judt and Arendt suggest, we have forgotten just why we wanted these benefits in the first place; we have lost the ability recognise and to measure “the good” which we have, as we blindly follow the mantra of Trump and Brexit that things are so terrible  that  we must dismantle the very institutions and beliefs that gave us this paradise in the first place. We continually look for this mythical place where the grass is greener and in doing so neglect and increasingly despise that which we have. Trump tells Americans that Obamacare is to be ditched, that the public schools are to be privatised or that walls are to be built to keep out foreigners and millions cheer; Brexit politicians tell us that we must get rid of the Human Rights Act, privatise our NHS and set ourselves free from the constraints of Europe and throughout the land their unthinking acolytes  think  it sounds wonderful, the panacea for all life's ills. As nationalistic alarm bells ring across the free world, just as they did in the 1930s, we should all be very afraid. All those who march to the tune of Donald Trump or the Brexit politicians and who now mindlessly regurgitate their propaganda of isolationism, nationalism and extremism  are, as Arendt suggests, sad, desperate and dangerous cogs in a machine where “....totalitarianism appeals to the very dangerous emotional needs of people who live in complete isolation and in fear of one another.” 

At the end of last week ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair pessimistically, and for me terrifyingly, said, when making a speech about the Brexit situation "In the long term, this is essentially [about] values: liberty, democracy, the rule of law. As the world changes and opens up across boundaries of nation and culture, which values will govern the 21st Century?.... The one incontrovertible characteristic of politics today is its propensity for revolt… Today, for the first time in my adult life, it is not clear that the resolution of this question about liberty, democracy and the rule of law will be benign."  Quite; if you are not worried then you  should be.

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