Theater of Cruelty

Hannah Arendt and the totalitarian

SOCIAL MEDIA / While the public is a place where free individuals have the right, and perhaps also the duty, to participate in a free exchange of opinions, the social is more about herd and control. Are we now faced with a social control that does not invite disagreement and diversity, but only obedience or exclusion? The rise of the social can threaten both freedom and individuality. MODERN TIMES prints here an extract from Einar Øverenget's new book, Intoleransens intog.


Hannah Arendt was never on Facebook, she never sent a tweet – and she never posted a photo on Instagram. The reason is the simple fact that she died in 1975. At that time the concept of social media was meaningless, because media was public, not social, and that is a significant difference – even if today we are no longer able to see what it the difference is

For Arendt, however, the distinction between the public and the social was central to understanding how currents that totally reject our freedom and individuality can grow at all. In both cases it is a question of a kind of intercourse between several people, but the core of that intercourse is of a completely different nature. While the public is a place where free individuals have the right, and perhaps also the duty, to participate in a free exchange of opinions, the social is more about herd and control. When in our time the social has taken on a dominant meaning, it is in the process of redefining what we previously understood as the public. In many ways, "liking" is indicative of this change. While the public sphere used to be a place for agreement and disagreement, it is becoming a place where we like and dislike each other.

This means that the possibility of a free exchange of opinions becomes very difficult. The process that was supposed to enable people to jointly develop an opinion that corrects and challenges power is weathering. The community no longer invites diversity and disagreement, but rather encourages obedience and exclusion.

Arendt has drawn a thought-provoking picture of the development of the modern world which shows how the rise of the social can threaten both freedom and individuality.

There is a risk that social media, as we use them today, could lead to the development of increasingly large intolerance – and in this sense also affect all forms of communication in all media – and over time also lead to increasingly stronger symptoms of totalitarian power structures.

The private

While the public space is a place where you express yourself individualuality by making one's opinions known – and thus also disagreement as well as agreement – the social space appears rather as a place where one expresses one's identity by making one's group affiliation known. If the social space displaces the public, the opportunity to express individuality is also displaced. There simply won't be room for it. Opinions will still be expressed, but they no longer come across as opinions I have that you can agree or disagree with, regardless of whether you like me or not, whether you identify with me or not. Instead, they become a marker of identity and group affiliation. Slowly but surely, exchange of opinions and disagreements are displaced. What remains is a narrative around which a given group gathers, and which is reinforced, which leaves no room for discussion, but rather gives reason to exclude those who disagree.

But this development also affects the private sector. Traditionally, the private has been a place to retreat to, a place where no one else can exercise control or demand anything from you – a place where you are protected. But when the social gets the upper hand, it is not only the case that the public is narrowed down. The boundaries that surround the private also disappear with the result that the individual ultimately has nowhere to seek refuge – nowhere to hide.

The private is a boundary between me and all other people. This border protects me a bit in the same way that the border around a property signals that this property is owned by someone – and that others cannot therefore take advantage of it. The private is a boundary that protects me from other people. It prevents others from accessing information about me and thereby influencing me or taking control of me in such a way that it violates my right to govern myself and make my own personal decisions. This information can apply to everything from my medical condition to my sexual habits and inclinations, and for most people feelings and experiences are genuinely private.

Flood strategies

Given that the social breaks down the distinction between the private and the public in a way that replaces freedom with social control. Also given that the social media are owned, and that the owners may have strong financial and political motives. Given that purely technologically, with the help of certain algorithms, they have the opportunity to influence which expressions are given space, and how much space they are given, and also censor others. Then there is at hand a very powerful mobilization and control tool that can effectively undermine real freedom.

A targeted use of social media provides an adventurous opportunity to build narratives that are so strong that they function as ideologies: a total explanation of the very goal of society's development – which does not invite disagreement and diversity, but only obedience or exclusion.

The combination of social media and the fact that each and every one of us is constantly online makes us vulnerable to so-called flood strategies. This means that without being aware of it, we are mobilized and activated through being continuously flooded with certain perspectives and disciplinary signals. The fact that this possibility exists today means that the totalitarian undercurrents that Arendt points out characterize even Western democracies are nearing the surface. As she sees it, a people can be driven into a totalitarian direction if a certain narrative is elevated to an ideology that indicates the very goal of society's development. Mass communication has long been a prerequisite for being able to unify people. With the dominance of social media, this has been taken to a new level. Previously, there were no guarantees that people actually read and listened. But today, each one of us is equipped with a technological device that keeps us online, and which ensures that we continuously absorb whatever comes our way. Algorithms do not control us directly as they can control hardware, but by controlling the flow of information they control us indirectly through certain ideologies that build up under discipline and control. What is left is a world populated by individuals who are probably capable of thinking for themselves and making their own decisions, but who will never think of doing so.

But at the same time suggests Arendt that a person will still never quite be able to shake off a feeling of being unfree. The experience of being an individual, of being a self – as one of whom there is only one – lies within us as a germ of rebellion against the group. That experience manifests itself in various ways. Each one of us represents a new beginning, a possible world that we do not know. It means that we are not entirely a product of the world as we know it. Having a future that is not predetermined is an existential trait of man. This means that the individual will always be able to break with the existing, with the established truths – with what is generally accepted – and start something completely new.

The fact that each and every one of us is constantly online...means that we are unwittingly mobilized and activated through being constantly inundated with certain perspectives and disciplinary signals.

But it requires practicing the ability to also find a point of view a little outside the world, a little outside the demands of everyday life to simply follow up one useful action with another. What Arendt is hunting for is a freedom from the contemporary that can enable us to correct it – through being able to see it. You have to have an outside point of view to be able to see in, and perhaps to be able to see at all.

The encounter with the totalitarian

Hannah Arendt is undoubtedly one of the 20th century's most significant intellectual figures. At a time when totalitarian ideologies such as Nazism and Stalinism attacked the distinctiveness of man more systematically than ever before, she appeared as a defender of man's freedom and dignity.

She asked the question: How can political systems of government that totally ignore our freedom and individuality grow among people at all? Here we are at the core of Arendt's intellectual activity, and she made a terrifying discovery: Faced with a contemporary era where totalitarian ideologies attacked human dignity more systematically than ever before, she discovered that it was not hatred or ignorance that lay at the basis of that inhumanity which took place. It wasn't evil demons that kept the machinery going. There was something even more dangerous, namely quite ordinary people – who had stopped thinking.

In the book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), which immediately established Arendt as one of the leading contemporary thinkers, she points out that totalitarianism rests on undercurrents that are present in modernity. These currents are eroding away a shared world where the individual can step forward in his or her own way, and replacing it with a mass society where the individual is redundant. What ultimately characterizes totalitarian ideology is that it seeks to eliminate man as we know him, in favor of completely predictable human-like beings who are capable of reacting, but not initiating anything on their own. Totalitarianism is humanity's most complete attempt to free itself from itself.

A cornerstone of Hannah Arendt's philosophy, as she presents it in the book active life (1958), is that every human being represents a completely new and unique beginning. Every time we shop, we can introduce something new and unexpected. Man is an unpredictable being who evades the lawfulness that otherwise applies in nature. In an age when science's ability to predict what will necessarily happen around us takes an increasingly elevated position, however, a political thinking is emerging that wants to do the same. This policy has no place for unpredictable individuals. It wants to become a tool for what it believes is the necessary course of history. Thus, politics becomes an ideology that seeks iron-hard consistency and total predictability both backwards and forwards in time.

The picture Arendt paints of developments in the modern world seems very bleak at times, but she is no pessimist on behalf of humanity. Arendt's supervisor and later close friend, the philosopher Karl Jaspers, once said it in the following way: "On the whole, you paint a tragic picture – which nevertheless does not deprive us of all hope." Arendt believes in man's ability to create freedom, and in her book On Revolution (1963) she emphasizes how the spontaneous political uprising is suitable for regaining the freedom that modernity itself helps to undermine.



This is an extract from the chapter "Hannah Arendt and the totalitarian" from the book The rise of intolerance, from Manuskript forlag. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. The book has recently been published.

Einar Øverenget
Einar Øverenget
Øverenget is professor of philosophy at Høgskolen i Inlandet. He is also an active social debater and a widely used speaker.

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