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The Roots of Totalitarianism

The totalitarian movements offered the promise of not just belonging, but total belonging. The individual would be swallowed into the movement, becoming a single homogenous mass with one’s fellows.”


“’My dear young friend,’ said Mustapha Mond, ‘civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended-there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense. But there aren’t any wars nowadays. The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your mortality about in a bottle.’”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

The two great dystopian novels of the twentieth century were 1984 and Brave New World by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley respectively. The first and more optimistic book depicts a world where everything that we hate destroys us. Totalitarian governments rule over the world with brutal force and a hunger for absolute power. The more pessimistic book depicts a world where everything we love destroys us. For Huxley, though a totalitarian government is in power, it is not especially malicious or evil. Instead, it controls the population through a hedonistic combination of drugs, entertainment, and the elimination of all complexity and works of spiritual depth. In Huxley’s world, the population surrenders is freedom willingly in exchange for comfort—a chilling prospect when one looks at the history of mass movements undergirding support for their masters. 

These literary themes are echoed in the theoretical works of the great commentators of totalitarianism, from Hannah Arendt to Erich Fromm. Their interest was not simply on the horrors inflicted by totalitarian regimes against their unlimited victims but, also, why so many people would willingly flock to them, knowing the consequences. These arguments resonate now more than they should, given the retreat of democracy in many areas of the globe and its replacement by new forms of authoritarianism.  

Hannah Arendt and Loneliness 

One of the great commentators on the attractions of tyranny was Hannah Arendt (well described by Henry George here). In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt discusses the foundations of totalitarian practices in the violence of worldwide European colonialism and anti-Semitism. But the most innovative chapters come at the end when she tries to understand why such a sinister form of government would emerge in the 20th century. After all, colonial violence, racism, and anti-Semitism had persisted for centuries or millennia (depending on how one defines the issues). Arendt’s conclusions were that it took a unique combination of modern technology and systems of governance, combined with the emergence of new kinds of ideologies and personalities for it to come to a head like it did in the 20th century. In particular, totalitarianism was able to institute a regime of total terror because modern individuals had lost the ability to trust their very selves because they had abandoned any sense of relation to one another. This is a complex point that speaks to the brilliance of her work. Arendt makes the argument that our capacity to know things for ourselves and think, even in isolation, depends, in part, by making meaningful connections with others. The common ties that bound communities had become uprooted, destroying the “common sense” we shared with one another and which was a prerequisite both to know who we are and to be criticize and become more. The result was a society where people were fundamentally lonely. Arendt, as the philosopher of loneliness, spoke of this with great poignancy:

“What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realized only in solitude, but confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of equals. In this situation, many loses trust in himself as the partner of his thoughts and that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experience at all. Self and world, capacity for thought and experience are lost at the same time….A lonely man, says Luther ‘always deduces one thing from the other and thinks everything to the worst.’ The famous extremism of totalitarian movements, far from having anything to do with true radicalism, consists in this ‘thinking everything to the worst,’ in this deducing process which always arrives at the worst possible conclusions.” 

For Arendt, the loneliness of modern society creates the ideal conditions of the emergence of totalitarianism, as individuals left by themselves and increasingly not knowing who they are (or how to think) are yearning to submit themselves to anything which can provide a sense of fullness. The totalitarian movements offered the promise of not just belonging, but total belonging. The individual would be swallowed into the movement, becoming a single homogenous mass with one’s fellows. The price to be paid for this belonging would be total terror: the insistence by the state that all differences and true individuality be eradicated. What would come to distinguish totalitarianism from lesser tyrants past was precisely this demand for absolute submission. Where previous authoritarians had merely insisted that subjects obey, the totalitarians wanted even the thoughts of their subjects to become beholden to their wishes. The aim was to produce figures like those described in Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem:one who had so abandoned himself to the cause that even the capacity for normal thought became erased. The banality of evil lay precisely in the desire of the devout Nazi to cease being a person and instead become an empty void carrying out the logic of destruction. 

Erich Fromm and the Yearning for Submission 

What is occasionally under-addressed in Arendt’s pioneering arguments is how the loneliness of modernity could come about. How could entire societies emerge which were fertile ground for the banality of evil? Here, Erich Fromm, the Marxist psychoanalyst can help us. Fromm was, like Arendt, as Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who spent much of his life reflecting on the open wounds left by the Holocaust. As I discussed in more detail elsewhere, Fromm’s contention was that many of us do not truly wish to be free. We come into the world dependent on authorities, from our parents to school systems and government, who attend to our personality and direct our actions and thoughts. With the advent of adulthood comes the insistence that we must become free and economically rational individuals independently pursuing our self-interest. We become cut off from society as a whole and are told to regard other individuals as fellow competitors in a complex and chaotic world where only the strong survive. This fosters the development of what Fromm called a masochistic-sadistic authoritarian personality, which simultaneously yearns for the power to inflict upon master the chaos of the world—while also wishing to submit to any power which can finally bring the world into complete order

For Fromm, this potential hunger for abject submission to authority can be highly exacerbated under the conditions of competitive capitalist societies. Part of this is because, under such conditions, we are told to regard other individuals in our society as potential competitors for scarce goods. This not only generates a tremendous sense of resentment towards others (particularly when it comes to foreigners who already look like they do not belong), but it also creates the conditions for the loneliness well diagnosed by Arendt. One could even go further and examine how we become alienated and alone within ourselves. As Arendt observes, the difference between isolation and loneliness is that a person can be content, even reflective in isolation. Isolation for a brief time is necessary for any individual to dialogue with themselves and their deepest inclinations. Loneliness, on the other hand, occurs when a person is so emptied of inclinations that they can no longer rest easy within themselves. For Arendt, loneliness is distinguished from isolation by the lack of identity the lonely person feels. In a world where our deepest inclinations are transformed or “reified” in line with social capitalization we become “one dimensional” or flat beings. All of the most profound inclinations of the human soul (its desire for meaning, aesthetic beauty, and even a yearning God) become abandoned due to their lack of economic value or commodified into a Jamesonian pastiche or kitsch. In such circumstances, we are unable even to dialogue with ourselves in isolation since there is nothing behind us. In our loneliness, we become the hollow men.  

The irony of this development is the connection between the pursuit of our desires and the emptying of the self (that is required to desire anything at all). This is well-described by Huxley. The justification for the competitive system where each pursues his own self-interest was that it often enabled both tremendous freedom, while also generating great wealth and prosperity. This is undeniably true, and even a critic like Marx would agree. But the myopic fixation on self-interest creates the conditions for our fall into loneliness —and also a return to the social whole. Moreover, it generates a need for the competitive and disordered state of the world to become mastered through dominance: a drive which can only end in the pursuit of death. Death, after all, is the final and ultimate form of order: the silencing of chaotic life. For Fromm, this at least partly explains why Arendt’s lonely fascists all but committed themselves to come together in a masochistic suicide pact, compensated only by the sadistic knowledge that they would exterminate countless innocents along with them.


Nothing in this piece is meant to imply that the emergence of post-modern conservatism is analogous to the appeal of the totalitarian movements in the 20th century. This is occasionally the warning sounded by intelligent commentators like  Timothy Snyder, and while valuable, I think they miss what is novel and challenging in our contemporary epoch. What I do think can be taken away from these analyses is the fact of loneliness within post-modernity, as well as a desire for belonging that contemporary liberal capitalist societies have not fulfilled. With the advent of the 21st century and neoliberalization, society has become an ever more competitive place where individuals are encouraged to organize all elements of their personality and lives according to the dictates of social capitalization. This is compounded by the emergence of digital technologies, which are simultaneously both an entrepreneurial advantage and occasionally a liability to be managed depending on the circumstances. In some respects, the problem runs even deeper than this. To give one example, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate work from life within digital media, with entrepreneurial figures readily presenting aspects of their personal lives for marketing purposes. What this indicates, in turn, is a desire for both economic gain but also to form meaningful connections with others in a world where authenticity is increasingly at a premium. A world without authenticity is one defined by loneliness.

Given this, it should come as no surprise that many people are turning to nostalgic movements which promise the rejuvenation of shared identities and belonging, while claiming  their efforts are being undermined by foreign groups and their various “elite” allies. Nor should it be entirely surprising that these individuals would lack sufficient confidence in the reality of the world to resist the dishonesty of politicians who lie and deceive them many times per day. What needs to be recognized is that these movements cannot really deliver the sense of belonging needed to eliminate the loneliness of the post-modern world. To truly belong with one another, one needs to face both the starkness of the world and others with an openness that respects freedom and difference. The desire to eliminate that difference in favor of artificial homogeneity can only reinforce the tendencies such a worldview claims to oppose.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via @MattPolProf.

One thought on “The Roots of Totalitarianism

  1. “civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism”

    In James Donovan’s “Militarism USA” (1970), the author noted that after that American Revolution, which was fought against autocracy & monarchy, the federal army & navy were formed, which curiously chose to mimic the caste system of the … Prussian army with regard to rank & privilege. The groundwork for our new “nobility” was laid.

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