If you asked me to name the most important political theorist of the 20th century, my answer would be Hannah Arendt.
You could make arguments for other philosophers — John Rawls comes to mind — but I always come back to Arendt. She’s probably best known for her reporting on the 1961 trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann, and for coining the phrase “the banality of evil,” a controversial claim about how ordinary people can commit extraordinarily evil acts.
Like all the great thinkers from the past, Arendt understood her world better than most, and she remains an invaluable voice today. Arendt was born into a German-Jewish family in 1906, and she lived in East Prussia until she was forced to flee the Nazis in 1933. She then lived in Paris for the next eight years until the Nazis invaded France, at which point she fled a second time to the United States, where she lived the rest of her life as a professor and a public intellectual.
Arendt’s life and thought were shaped by her refugee experiences and by the horrors of the Holocaust. In massively ambitious books like The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition, she tried to make sense of the political pathologies of the 20th century. Reading her today can be a little disorienting. On the one hand, the way she writes, the regimes she describes, the technologies she’s worried about — it all feels very distant, from a totally different world, and she does have blind spots, namely on identity and race, that are glaring today.
And yet, at the same time, the threats she identifies and her insights about our inner lives seem as relevant today as they were 70 years ago. After Donald Trump was elected in 2016, her 1951 book on totalitarianism was selling at 16 times its normal rate.
So I reached out to Lyndsey Stonebridge, a humanities professor at the University of Birmingham, for a recent episode of Vox Conversations. Stonebridge has written two books about Arendt’s legacy and just finished a third about her life and ideas, coming out early next year. We talk about the relationship between loneliness and totalitarianism, what it means to really think, and what happens when the space for genuine political participation disappears.
Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Arendt was a political theorist who spent a lot of time thinking about loneliness, which seems like a subject for psychology, not political theory. Why did Arendt consider loneliness to be a political problem?
It’s important not to separate loneliness from the material conditions that produce it. She’s talking about things like the disillusionment of people with the elites who are running Europe, unemployment, the end of the bourgeois dream, inflation — all these things. And like other thinkers, she understood loneliness as this peculiarly modern problem. It’s a problem that comes with individualism. It’s a problem that comes with capitalism. It’s a problem that comes with modernity.
Karl Marx will talk about alienation. Max Weber will talk about disenchantment. Simone Weil, another brilliant woman thinker who doesn’t get nearly enough attention, will also talk about uprootedness in the same way as Hannah Arendt. But [Arendt] talks about loneliness as a distinct modern problem.
When she finally gets to loneliness, she’s already been in America for 10 years and she’s looking in two directions. She looks both to Nazi totalitarianism, which just ended, but also to Soviet totalitarianism, which is still going mightily strong at the time. And she also looks toward her new home in America.
What she sees everywhere she looks is that loneliness is the result of a lack of a common ground of experience. This is what she’s getting at when she writes, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, in other words, the reality of experience, and the distinction between true and false … people for whom those distinctions no longer exist.”
In her book on totalitarianism, Arendt talks about the emergence of “the masses,” which is distinct from what we might think of as classes or interest groups, because those are groups that are by definition fighting for some common interest. She’s talking about the rise of an “unorganized mass” of “mostly furious individuals” with nothing in common except for their contempt for the present order. She calls this “negative solidarity” and it’s the raw material of totalitarianism, because it’s a world without connection and friendship, where the only basis of collective action is some kind of awful combination of anger and desperation.
How did the world get so lonely in the first place for her? Was it just the rise of capitalism and individualism?
Yeah, it’s that, but also much more. When I was re-reading Origins of Totalitarianism a couple of months ago, I was astonished by how often the word “hate” came into her conversation about the creation of the mass. She noticed that it’s really easy to work with people’s anger and whip up a mob, and she has this great statement in the book about the alliance between the mob and the elite and how the elite are quite good at spotting and using the hate that’s already there.
I mean, she’s a historian, so she’s going to say it is things like unemployment. It is things like not being able to keep your home. And when you look at the early 20th century and look at those rates of inflation and unemployment, and then you have the World War and the civil wars across Europe, and then you have miss migration and so on, we’re not just talking about some kind of ennui here. This is raw, real stuff. It’s easy to raise a mob in these conditions. You’re starting with real anger.
This is the creation of the mass and it isn’t just fascism. This isn’t just populism. This is totalitarianism proper in Arendt’s mind. She says at one point, and this is a quote that’s resonated with me for a few years now, that “the masses’ escape from reality is a verdict against the world in which they’re forced to live.” Often the question is, well, how can people be so stupid? How can anyone fall for this? That’s the wrong way to think about it. Totalitarian politics is a verdict against the world in which people are forced to live. It’s a slap in the face. It’s a finger up against the real conditions of existence.
People will often refer to the masses as if they’re gullible and stupid, which on the one hand is just terrible politics. But on the other hand, it’s actually stupid. I mean, people aren’t stupid. A term that’s just as important as loneliness is cynicism. Totalitarianism works through cynicism. It’s crucial because it allows people to say, “They’re all the same, it’s all bullshit, isn’t it? It’s just politics, isn’t it?” What cynicism allows you to do is be gullible and disbelieving at the same time.
Arendt thought that before a totalitarian ideology could overwhelm reality, it had to first ruin people’s relationship with themselves and others by making them so skeptical and so cynical that they could no longer rely upon their own judgment. So there’s that part of it.
And then she imagines thinking as much more than an activity. She imagines it as a way of being. It is obviously something we do with ourselves, but the real gift of thinking isn’t all the great ideas and grand theories that intellectuals come up with. The gift of thinking is that as long as you’re doing it, you have the capacity to judge. Why is that so critical?
So let’s just start with thinking, because getting from thinking to judgment is tricky in Arendt. Thinking, for her, is radically democratic. Everyone, she says, has that dialogue with themselves — not all the time, because obviously if you stop to think about what you’re doing all the time, you’d never get out of bed. But a lot of the time, we all have the capacity to think.
We walk around the street. We lose ourselves in our thoughts, and being lost in thought is a gift for Arendt. She says this isn’t time-wasting. This isn’t frivolous. This is what thinking is and we need to take it seriously. She has this beautiful quote where she says, “What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self, which can be realized in solitude, but confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of my equals.”
Solitude is very different from loneliness. Solitude is where I go to hear myself think, where I re-gather my thoughts, which makes me fit to return to the world, because I’m not clicking on a bloody “like” or “dislike” or I’m not following another pattern. I am thinking for myself, which, when things are really bad, is all we have.
But going back to judging, she argues that without the ability to think, there can not be any judgment. When she really saw that is when she looked at the Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961 in the courtroom: a self-important man chattering away, talking self-importantly, not even realizing who he was facing — the relatives and survivors of people he had murdered — and he just spoke in cliches. The longer she listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was totally connected with his inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of someone else.
Arendt fled Nazism twice and eventually landed in New York in 1941. What did she make of America when she got here? Did she think we were lonely? Did she think Americans were thinking in ways that might help them avoid the totalitarian horrors she left behind in Europe?
She had two visions of America. I often refer to Hannah Arendt having pigeon eyes because she tended to look at both sides of life. On the one hand, she was concerned about American culture, because she saw in the rise of consumer culture a tendency toward social conformity that had already been there.
When she arrived in America, she wrote to Karl Jaspers, her old teacher, and said, “It’s amazing. I can’t understand why a culture that has such a brilliant political foundation can be so socially conservative.” The more time she spent in America, the more worried she was about public relations and consumer capitalism and how that was taking America further and further away from what she understood to be its revolutionary tradition.
She lays all this out in a speech shortly after the Vietnam War ended, right?
Yeah, the last paper that she published was based on a talk that she gave in 1975. She was asked to speak a few weeks after the fall of Saigon, and she says, “this is what America has to face: It’s gone further and further away from itself into a culture in which politics is marketing, in which politics is PR.” For her, the fall of Saigon revealed that America had just suffered a humiliating and outright defeat.
Then she listed the things that led up to that. She talked about the Pentagon Papers and how they revealed that there was no purpose to that war other than maintaining the fiction that America was an all-powerful free nation — a fiction, by the way, that was good enough for other people’s children to die for. Watergate showed that this whole thing was being cooked up by a bunch of second-rate crooks. This was politics. This was American politics.
She insisted that we had to recognize that reality. And the reality was that America was not great and free and wonderful, it was not that powerful. We had just suffered a catastrophic loss, and we had jeopardized our politics at the same time. That’s what she called the “big lie,” a phrase that was picked up again when Trump pushed his own big lie about the election. She said that this is how totalitarianism works. You just invent an outrageous big lie and you stick to it.
Would she say the algorithms are doing the thinking for us today?
Yeah, she would. You know, Arendt was often appalling on American race relations. She didn’t get Black America at all. But what she would’ve liked about Black Lives Matter, what she liked about the student movement at the time, was that it demonstrated the power of free people acting in concert, and she thought that would always be the saving grace because it was about the possibility of new beginnings.
What she would’ve thought was tragic was everything being algorithmized into social media because then you don’t get the very messy business of politics, which is about sitting in rooms with people who are really pissy and annoying and trying to get something done. It’s not about clicking on theories. You actually have to deal with the messy reality of politics and action. What really would’ve appalled her today is the hemorrhaging of so much political energy.