Surviving the Age of Gloom

Reflections on Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, Trumpism and the War in Ukraine

The post-truth zeitgeist relentlessly haunts us as meaning becomes ever more detached from representation, as signs now refer not to conceptually settled ‘signified’ meanings but only to other signs, vanishing in an endless chain of time-worn signifiers devoid of inherent intelligibility. Such languishing fragmentation profoundly weakens the unity of signs and their capacity to anchor meaning, leaving individuals floundering in a desolate, topsy-turvy-tilt-a-whirl world where meanings are reduced to mere hackneyed opinions and conspiratorial conjectures, backed up by evidence no more solid than the aerosol mist from a Victorian perfume atomiser, only smelling more fishy than floral.

Our culture of gratuitous consumption exacerbates this plight, stripping individuals of the diverse ‘languages’ or ‘discourses’ necessary for those wayfarers and vagabonds digging relentlessly in the shifting sands of time to find some singular proof of being. We find ourselves denied the necessary means to excavate our world for meaning and thus more fully comprehend our capabilities and capacities for participating in it. In education, we are moulded into consumer citizens rather than aspiring towards critical citizenship. Consciousness is treated as raw material, eclipsing the brute materiality of dust and dirt, constantly severing the connection between concrete experiences and conscious thought.

Contemporary ideological structures struggle to make sense of certain subjective experiences, unearthing little of consequence to human freedom other than the mimetic violence at the heart of human history. We continue to live within the brutal containment of specific ideological frameworks, but these no longer resonate with our emotional states, failing to articulate them effectively. Consequently, we watch with molten eyes how the alienation of the subject associated with modernism has given way to a blistering dismemberment of the subject in the age of gloom, where each fragment exists independently, detached from a cohesive whole, ready to seed a new lost generation.

Can anyone wonder why we refuse to engage with the present or to think historically, so long as we are armed only with random cannibalisation of past styles and an increasing incapacity to represent current experiences, both individual and collective? Can this explain why we witness the penetration and colonisation of Nature and the Unconscious by multinational capitalism?

In the age of gloom, we find ourselves unable to resolve the contradiction of being both the subject and object of meaning, caught in the diachronic tension between fundamental existential questions: Does meaning generate life, or does life generate meaning? Or both? And in what ways? With what effects? Or are such questions increasingly irrelevant in a world of ‘alternative facts,’ a world in the thrall of QAnon and Goebbels’ The Big Lie? In whose interests does this ambiguity serve? The answer to that last question is most urgent: Those who profit from any distraction from the gloomy fact that those guilty of crimes against democracy must be held accountable, or democracy will not survive.

The age of gloom generates further questions: Do we assume life should explain a pre-existing, transcendental meaning codified in metaphysical truth, or should we live as if life indiscriminately generates meaning from some undirected cause, and thereby embrace the contingency and uncertainty of the present? This last approach reveals ethics, tradition, and agency to be social constructions and little more.

This tension raises further questions: Do we act to represent pre-established meanings, or do we exercise our agency for its potential impact on the world? And what impact might that be? Does our agency create our identity, or does our identity dictate action? While these questions have long preoccupied philosophers, the current post-truth condition in the age of gloom forces us to confront them with renewed intensity, if not a more nuanced and granular scrutiny.

It is precisely by critically engaging the dialectical tension between these questions that we embrace our role as active social agents. To live as a critical social agent is to navigate life contingently and provisionally, without the certainty of absolute truths, yet with the courage to take a stand on issues of human suffering, domination, and oppression. This constitutes the task of the critical educator – to live with courage and conviction while understanding that knowledge is always partial and incomplete.

Ineradicable plurality is now a fundamental aspect of existence, leading some to forfeit differences for the sake of uniformity. The values central to modernity – uniformity and universalism – have been ruptured, replaced by an uneasy coexistence and tenuous tolerance. In the pluralistic world of the age of gloom, every form of life is permitted on principle; no agreed-upon principles exist that render any form of life impermissible.

Questions such as ‘How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?’ have been replaced by post-truth questions born in the ether of pre-epistemological ‘alternative facts’: ‘Which world is it? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?’ Inquiries like ‘What is there to be known? Who knows it? How do they know it and with what degree of certainty?’ are supplanted by questions that seek to locate the knower: ‘What is a world? What kinds of worlds are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ?’ Questions demanding certainty, such as ‘How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?’ are juxtaposed with ‘What happens when different worlds confront each other, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?’ We know that, for Trump, the breach of national boundaries forced thousands of children to be locked inside a cage at the southern border. And the Biden administration has not addressed such horrors:

After passing through CBP [Customs and Border Protection] custody, children who arrive without their parents are then transferred to Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities around the country. In some cases, they end up hundreds of miles away, and the relatives who brought them to the United States are given no information about their whereabouts and no way to contact them. This experience is terrifying, completely unnecessary, and very harmful. Paediatricians and psychologists report that such early traumatic experiences can disrupt the building of children’s brain architecture, causing them lifelong harm problems.

Questions related to oppression and liberation risk being overshadowed by a new form of relativism, where ‘How can we eliminate suffering?’ may devolve into ‘What is suffering?’ These are questions that I attempted to engage in my 1995 book, Predatory Culture, during debates over what, exactly, constitutes the postmodern condition. Whatever problems existed then under the name of ‘postmodernism’ have only intensified, with little left to fill the vacuum in our everyday lives, other than the recursive preponderance of the predatory culture embedded algorithmically in today’s social media.

‘The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways,’ Karl Marx famously declared. ‘The point, however, is to change it.’ Marx wrote these powerful words as part of his ‘Theses on Feuerbach,’ a set of notes destined for a later collaboration with Friedrich Engels. While Marx critiqued Ludwig Feuerbach’s work specifically, his dissatisfaction extended to the intellectual trends embraced by the Young Hegelians of his time. The essence of Marx’s critique is captured in the second, third, and eighth theses, where he articulates a profoundly practical approach to social life and thought. For Marx, the role of thought – and therefore philosophy – is not merely to interpret the world but to actively transform it. This is why the final thesis, the 11th, resonates so powerfully as a call to action. But what kind of action? Michael Lebowitz argues that it is real human beings who change circumstances, and in doing so, they also transform themselves. We, therefore, follow the praxiological trajectory of what Marx referred to as ‘revolutionary practice’ – the ‘simultaneous changing of circumstance and human activity or self-change.’

The concept of human development through practice is a cornerstone of Marx’s thought, first articulated in his 1844 Manuscripts. Critiquing Hegel’s idealist emphasis on activity, Marx underscored that it is through tangible, concrete human activity that individuals shape themselves. He explicitly described ‘real man’ as the product of human labour. This theme of simultaneous transformation of circumstances and self-change runs throughout Marx’s work. For instance, in the Grundrisse, Marx asserted that in the very act of production, ‘the producers change too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, and cultivate new powers, ideas, modes of interaction, needs, and language.’ This helps to explain my assertion that critical consciousness, as Paulo Freire conceives it, is not a precondition for revolutionary action or praxis but an outcome of revolutionary praxis. Because engaging in social action changes us, bringing out new qualities in ourselves and helping us to cultivate new powers and habits, we begin with an engagement with the world and reflect on that engagement.

Again, this is what Marx referred to as ‘revolutionary practice’ – the ‘simultaneous changing of circumstance and human activity or self-change.’ Along the way, we develop a theoretical language, which leads to what Michael Lebowitz refers to as protagonistic agency or democracy. We develop ourselves not primarily through intellectual labour but through praxis, something that became more obvious to me during my time working with the Chavistas in Venezuela, where I had the good fortune of meeting President Chavez, Lebowitz and Chavez’s educational advisor, Luis Bonilla Molina. We begin with action, with protesting, organising and involvement with social movements. In that process, we discover and create theories that both challenge and provide explanations for our political involvement and help us to deepen and refine our understanding of what kind of political engagement is necessary to achieve our short-term and long-term political goals. Americans have real grievances. For far too long, America has failed its ordinary citizens, and the situation has only deteriorated. The dream of a dignified job, a secure future for one’s children, and basic health and well-being – those once fundamental pillars of American life have become elusive luxuries. When I was growing up, these were the bedrock of our society. Today, they seem like distant memories. Ordinary Americans are being relentlessly hammered from every direction, with no respite in sight.

As the nexus between meaning and representation is progressively disintegrating in this age of gloom, there are more openings for fascism to take root. Conventional ideological frameworks appear inadequate for making sense of certain lived (emotional) experiences, leading to the fragmentation of the subject, a motivated amnesia regarding the political obstacles ahead, and an escalating inability to think historically. To live life as though our lived experience generates meaning is to exist within the contingency and uncertainty of the present, a present where ethics, tradition, and agency are unveiled as social constructions or cultural fabrications. It requires courage to live in these times, but we can draw some strength from the knowledge that we can unmake capitalism and remake it again, strengthening democracy even further through socialism. But before we can do that, we must break the chains that are drawing more and more Americans to the prison house of fascism. And history has shown us that it is a short walk from the prison house of fascism to the slaughter bench of history. Growing up in the 1940s and 50s gave me the opportunity to learn first-hand about the horrors of fighting the fascists from my father and uncles and their friends.

Lyndsey Stonebridge vividly reminds us that, following Donald Trump’s election in 2016, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism experienced a dramatic resurgence, with sales soaring by over 1,000 per cent during his first year in office. Arendt’s quotations became ubiquitous online, and opinion pieces about her work proliferated. This resurgence of grotesque and cruel politics underscored Arendt’s enduring relevance.

First published in 1951, Arendt’s masterpiece, The Origins of Totalitarianism, dissects how historical conditions in Europe allowed genuine evil to assume a disturbingly modern political form in the twentieth century. Arendt’s classic text illuminates how political lies have triumphed over facts, leaving power, violence, and ideology in their wake. Her work posed vital questions surrounding the history of totalitarianism: What happened? Why did it happen? How could it have happened? Arendt argued that conventional political and historical narratives no longer offered plausible explanations.

Stonebridge warns that although the totalitarian regimes of Arendt’s time have fallen, the underlying contexts and mindsets might persist, adapting to new circumstances while rooted in long-standing political and cultural decay. While twentieth-century totalitarian regimes had not re-emerged when Trump took office, commentators observed that many aspects of totalitarian thinking Arendt identified had resurfaced in contemporary political culture.

Stonebridge describes our era as one marked by a cynical disenchantment with politics, not unlike Arendt’s, coupled with an inchoate hate ready to be directed at anyone. Today, conspiracy theories run rampant, self-censorship has returned, and many of us experience profound loneliness. Stonebridge reminds us that the looming climate apocalypse now accompanies the threat of nuclear catastrophe. The tacit acceptance of certain groups – refugees, migrants, the uprooted, the occupied, the incarcerated, the perpetually poor – as superfluous has remained unchanged since World War II. The locations, names, and appearances of camps and ghettos have shifted, but the misery and thoughtlessly cruel treatment of human beings as mere freight persist.

Hannah Arendt is confirmed by Stonebridge as a profoundly creative and complex thinker who writes about power and terror, war and revolution, exile and love, and above all, freedom. Reading her is not merely an intellectual exercise but, as Stonebridge puts it, an experience. Stonebridge has engaged with Arendt’s work for over thirty years, first discovering her as a graduate student in the late 1980s, just as the Cold War was ending. It was only when she contemplated why we should read her now, in the age of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, that she realised the profound lesson of Arendt’s stubborn humanity and her fierce, complex creativity.

Stonebridge makes some important insights about Arendt and the thematic impact of her work: For Arendt, the problem of freedom was neither abstract nor merely theoretical. She embraced the human condition in all its facets: its terribleness, beauty, perplexity, and amazement, seeing it as exquisitely precious. She steadfastly believed in a politics that could be true to this condition. Her writings offer profound insights into how we arrived at this juncture in our history, exposing the madness of modern politics and the horrifying, empty thoughtlessness of contemporary political violence. Yet, according to Stonebridge, Arendt also teaches us that it is precisely when the experience of powerlessness is most acute, when history appears most bleak, that the determination to think like a human being – creatively, courageously, and complexly – becomes essential.

Having been forced to leave Germany in 1933 and live in Paris for the next eight years, working for several Jewish refugee organizations, Arendt was well-placed to understand the profound implications of a world where people no longer share a common reality. While recent years have starkly reminded us of both the fragility and the destructiveness of the human condition, Arendt teaches us that to truly love the world (as she did) requires the courage to protect it.

Stonebridge further asserts that contemporary authoritarians, like their mid-twentieth-century predecessors, deliberately foster widespread cynicism through their indifference to reason and reality, clearing the political landscape of challengers. Hannah Arendt envisioned a different kind of politics – one that Stonebridge describes as crowded, dynamic, lively, and unpredictable.

Engaging with our political reality begins with trusting our aversions to prepackaged political and social narratives. ‘I hate to be so difficult, but I am afraid the truth is that I am,’ Arendt once wrote, declining to participate in a public debate she perceived as mere spectacle designed for a polarised audience. In truth, Hannah Arendt envisioned a world where the majority could find happiness and, when necessary, embrace the difficulty of moral and political resistance.

Stonebridge describes Arendt as an intellectual who uniquely understood that a vibrant political life depends on the plurality and unpredictability of human interactions. She rejected the monolithic and the simplistic, advocating instead for a political arena filled with diverse voices and perspectives. This plurality, she believed, is the antidote to totalitarianism, which thrives on uniformity and the suppression of individual thought.

Arendt’s commitment to thinking critically about our actions is crucial in an age where the line between reality and illusion is often blurred. Stonebridge describes how Arendt reminds us that our freedom is ultimately intertwined with our ability to think independently and resist the easy allure of conformist narratives. In a world increasingly dominated by authoritarian tendencies, Stonebridge affirms Arendt’s insistence on the importance of plurality and independent thought and how it remains a powerful and necessary call to action.

In his trenchant exploration of Arendt’s work, Jerome Kohn rekindles the searing revelations of Hannah Arendt’s magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism, transporting us back to a post-World War II landscape where Hitler had fallen, yet Stalin’s shadow still loomed large. Arendt’s aim, as Kohn vividly recalls, was to unveil the chilling reality of totalitarianism – a seismic shift in governance that she portrayed as both terrifying and unprecedented.

Delving into the intricacies of Arendt’s masterwork, Kohn illuminates how she unearthed the clandestine roots of modern antisemitism and European imperialism, deftly weaving them into the fabric of totalitarian movements. Kohn describes how, with meticulous precision, Arendt dissected the inner workings of Nazism and Stalinist Bolshevism, laying bare their insidious claims to total domination and global hegemony.

Yet, the allure of The Origins of Totalitarianism transcends mere scholarly intrigue – it lies in its fusion of erudition and imagination, as Arendt employs vivid examples to illuminate the darkest recesses of totalitarianism’s grip on the human psyche. Kohn emphasises that at the centrality of Arendt’s work is the rejection of simplistic causal explanations for the rise of Hitler or Stalin. Rather, she discerned a complex interplay of factors – antisemitism, the erosion of the nation-state, and the unholy alliance between capital and mob – that coalesced into the monstrous regimes of her era.

Kohn describes Arendt’s depiction of totalitarianism as a soul-crushing abyss that extends beyond physical or emotional torment – it is a metaphysical hell on earth, where humanity’s darkest impulses reign supreme. Positioning totalitarianism alongside ancient forms of governance, Arendt’s work serves as a stark reminder of its unprecedented malevolence – a crisis of our times that defies conventional categorisation. With chilling precision, Kohn delineates the mechanics of totalitarian power – a brutal, unyielding force that obliterates individuality and extinguishes freedom, paving the way for a nightmarish vision of humanity as interchangeable pawns in a totalitarian chess game.

Yet, amidst the despair, Arendt offers a glimmer of hope – a call to arms for individual acts of judgment and a steadfast refusal to succumb to the tyrannical logic of totalitarianism. In her clarion call for resilience, Arendt beckons us to remain fully present, neither dwelling on the past nor succumbing to utopian fantasies of the future. As Kohn concludes, Arendt’s exploration of totalitarianism serves as a beacon in the darkness – a testament to the enduring struggle for human plurality and freedom against the encroaching shadows of tyranny. In an age where the spectre of totalitarianism still looms large, her work remains a timeless testament to the indomitable spirit of human resilience and resistance.

In a riveting exchange with renowned Arendt scholar Samantha Rose Hill, Joanna Weiss unveils a chilling reality – that the US as a nation is grappling with a loneliness epidemic, teetering on the brink of political upheaval. As Weiss lays bare, loneliness isn’t merely a personal affliction; it’s a ticking time bomb with far-reaching consequences for society at large.

Drawing from the unsettling insights of the US Surgeon General and a trove of research, Weiss exposes loneliness as a breeding ground for anger, resentment, and susceptibility to extremism. But the true danger, as Samantha Rose Hill ominously warns, lies in its potential to serve as a gateway to tyranny – a notion eerily echoed by the prophetic words of Hannah Arendt over half a century ago.

Recalling the seismic impact of The Origins of Totalitarianism in the wake of Trump’s ascent, Hill paints a harrowing picture of a populace adrift in a sea of economic uncertainty and social alienation, desperately seeking solace in the embrace of political movements. Today, she suggests, loneliness casts its shadow not only over the rise of Trump but also over the fractious battlegrounds of modern identity politics.

Arendt’s haunting vision of loneliness as a state of mind – a suffocating mental isolation that blinds us to the diverse tapestry of human experience – finds chilling resonance in the echo chambers of social media and the relentless pressure to conform to rigid ideological dogmas. As Hill somberly observes, wherever the siren call of simplistic solutions beckons, totalitarianism lurks in the shadows, ready to seize upon our vulnerability with merciless precision.

In the face of this existential threat, Weiss’s interview serves as a clarion call to action – a stark reminder that the battle for democracy is waged not only in the halls of power but also in the recesses of our own minds. Only by confronting the demons of loneliness and embracing the messy complexity of human existence can we hope to stave off the spectre of totalitarianism and forge a path toward a more resilient, inclusive future.

But the stakes extend far beyond individual well-being – loneliness poses a grave political threat. It serves as a sinister gateway to demagoguery, mob mentality, and pernicious ideologies – a prophetic warning initially sounded by Arendt in her seminal work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, back in 1951. Today, Arendt’s prescient insights reverberate anew as readers and scholars revisit her profound analysis.

Hill astutely observes that The Origins of Totalitarianism surged in popularity in 2016 for its piercing elucidation of a key facet of Donald Trump’s ascension: the erosion of societal bonds amid economic and social upheaval, plunging individuals into a void of loneliness and disconnection, ripe for exploitation by political movements offering solace and purpose. And as Hill suggests, Arendt’s wisdom transcends partisan lines, implicating not only Trump’s rise but also the fervent activism of groups like Moms for Liberty on the right and the identity politics fervour on the left.

Hill’s reading of Arendt is highly relevant for our times. According to Hill, Arendt’s conceptualisation of loneliness transcends mere emotional isolation; it encapsulates a perilous state of mind – a cognitive entrapment that stifles critical inquiry and blinds individuals to diverse perspectives. This mental fortress, observed in the echo chambers of social media and the pressures of ideological conformity, serves as fertile ground for totalitarianism to take root. Hill’s ominous warning echoes through the ages: wherever simplistic solutions masquerade as panaceas for complex problems, the spectre of totalitarianism lurks ominously, ready to seize upon the vulnerabilities of the lonely and disaffected.

In Arendt’s lexicon, loneliness transcends mere solitude – it’s a profound existential state she dubs ‘Verlassenheit,’ an elusive term embodying a sense of abandonment in the vast expanse of existence. It’s a shutting down of the cognitive faculties, a desolate confinement of the mind. For Arendt, loneliness isn’t just about physical isolation; it’s the imprisonment of thought itself. It’s the mind stagnating in solitary confinement, cut off from the flow of ideas and experiences that nourish it.

In this bleak landscape of isolated thought, political movements emerge as beacons of belonging and purpose. They promise refuge from the desolation of individualism, offering a collective identity and a chance to carve one’s mark on history. Yet, for Hill, Arendt’s penetrating gaze sees through the allure of these movements, whether on the left or the right. She exposes the insidious nature of Stalinism and Hitlerism alike, dissecting the very concept of a ‘movement.’

To be swept up in a movement is to surrender to an ideological current that divorces thought from reality, fostering a warped alternate universe where conformity reigns supreme. Ideology becomes a tyrant, dictating what to think rather than nurturing independent thought or presenting diverse perspectives as in critical pedagogy. In this ideological maelstrom, individual agency is eclipsed, drowned out by the deafening chorus of conformity. For Hill, Arendt’s warning rings clear: beware the seductive allure of movements, for they offer not liberation but enslavement of the mind.

Hill vehemently argues that ideology breeds a dangerous delusion of an alternate reality lurking beyond the tangible world. She cautions against the insidious grip of movements like QAnon, the feverish fantasies of Pizzagate, and the alarming number of Americans ensnared in the delusion that Donald Trump emerged victorious in the last presidential election. Illustrating her point with the vivid memory of Trump’s inauguration, Hill exposes the surreal spectacle of truth-bending to fit the contours of ideology. Despite the irrefutable evidence of rain pouring down, Trump brazenly declared, ‘It isn’t raining.’ Astonishingly, many echoed his falsehood, not to reflect reality but to affirm his ideological supremacy.

Furthermore, Hill elucidates how such movements as Trumpism furnish adherents with prepackaged responses – prescribed by their leaders – to any political query. This removes the burden of critical thinking, ensuring these political movements always possess a ready-made retort sanctioned by an authoritative source. In response to an inquiry by Weiss about the interplay between totalitarianism and authoritarianism, Hill draws a sharp distinction between authoritarianism, fascism, tyranny, and totalitarianism. According to Arendt, totalitarianism hinges on the radical disintegration of society, culminating in the absolute obliteration of all spontaneity. Under its iron grip, fear reigns supreme without reprieve, even among party loyalists, with the goal being total global domination.

Conversely, according to Hill, within an authoritarian regime, a semblance of political freedom persists. While domination is prevalent, it falls short of the all-consuming terror characteristic of totalitarianism. Rather, authoritarianism seeks to exert political control within the confines of a state, devoid of persuasive means. Thus, Hill interprets Trump’s endeavours to overturn the 2020 election results as a textbook example of authoritarian power-grabbing. Ron DeSantis’ push for book bans in Florida and his attempts to regulate college curricula echo the sentiments of Moms for Liberty, forming a troubling trend in American politics. This trajectory, Hill suggests, traces back to the cultural conservative movement of the 1980s, which took aim at multiculturalism and challenged traditional liberalism while stoking fears of communism, the left, and socialism.

However, Hill cautions against hastily labelling this as a precursor to totalitarianism. According to Hill,

I don’t think that lays the groundwork in itself for totalitarianism. There’s a nice quote buried in Arendt’s correspondence from the 1970s where she says something like, ‘let us not jump to totalitarianism too quickly.’ This is not 1933. The phrase ‘it can happen here’ assumes an identifiable ‘it.’ There is no identifiable ‘it.’ Our world today is remarkably different from the world of the mid-20th century. It has been radically reshaped by technology and trade. If and when a form of fascism emerges in America, it is not going to look the same as it did in Europe.

Weiss asks Hill the following question: ‘Would Arendt be concerned about phenomena we’re seeing on the left, as well? Are there other orthodoxies of thought she would be worried about?’ Hill answers as follows:

Those arguing against identity politics – or what I would call the tyranny of individualism – are not wrong to point out the ways in which forms of hyper-individualism destroy the common fabric of humanity. At the same time, these arguments are also fodder for MAGA politicians, and they are helping them to win elections while fueling real political violence.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure that MAGA supporters are any more tribal than liberals. One of the identifying features of tribalistic thought is believing one is absolutely on the right side of history. And to believe that is to believe that the other side is absolutely wrong.

MAGA is a reflection of very real political problems: economic stagnation, loss of mobility, alienation from the Democratic and Republican parties. Arendt says that wherever people desire simple solutions to complex problems, totalitarianism will always be a threat. That’s what we’re experiencing now. We’re also experiencing the collapse of the Democratic and Republican parties as we’ve known them in our lifetimes. Historically, this is not exceptional, but politically, right now, it is destabilising. Many people don’t feel like they can look to a party to represent their interests, and so movements are appearing in those cracks.

In response to a question about more people than ever being trapped in digital filter bubbles, Hill delves into the profound impact of technology on human existence. She paints a stark picture of how our everyday experiences are now filtered through digital devices, breeding a pervasive sense of alienation. Even in solitude, privacy is a luxury of the past, as one is constantly tethered to the digital realm.

This loss of personal space, Hill argues, erodes the very foundation of thought itself. Without the solitude necessary for deep reflection, individuals become detached from their own selves, vulnerable to the relentless currents of external influence. In Hill’s words:

I wouldn’t say the problem is bubbles. I would say it’s appearances. Technology has transformed the nature of appearance and being in the world so that one’s everyday experiences are mediated through some form of device or apparatus, which creates a baseline level of alienation. The other side of this is a loss of privacy. Even when one is alone, they are never really alone, and this means that the space necessary for thinking is lost. And when one loses that space for thinking, one is driven further away from themselves and more likely to get carried away by the tide.

When asked about the social media mob in connection to Arendt’s warnings, Hill responds:

Sometimes, social media mobs are mobilised by ideological political movements. Sometimes, they’re mobilised by what we might want to call an ideology. Sometimes, they’re a collection of isolated individuals who find some pleasure, excitement or relief from the boredom of everyday life in collectively ganging up on someone for no particular reason.

I might argue that the phenomenon of social media mobs is a prelude to joining a political movement. There’s an interesting fact in the data on social media and loneliness: the more time someone spends on social media, the more likely they are to report feeling lonely. At the same time, the more time someone spends on social media, the more likely they are to participate in a real-life political movement.

Weiss ends her interview with the question: ‘We recently emerged from a strange social experiment in which we experienced physical isolation at the same time political and cultural forces were leading us toward single-minded thought. Did the pandemic make our loneliness problem worse?’ And Hill answers:

Maybe this is a good place to distinguish between solitude and loneliness. Solitude is the pleasurable experience of keeping company with oneself. Solitude is a retreat from the world of appearing before others. The phone is off, the computer is off, the television is off, the company is gone, and one is actually alone with themselves.

The pandemic worsened an already dire mass addiction to technology. The average American spends 7 to 8 hours a day with the television on and another 5 to 6 hours a day in front of a computer screen. There is constant noise. Loneliness is very loud. People often turn on the TV or reach for the phone to avoid the voice in their head, but it is that voice that allows one to think for themselves, hold themselves accountable and make changes where changes need to be made in their lives. Listening is a vital habit for democracy.

Zoe Williams offers an incisive insight into Arendt and the dangers inherent in pan-ideology. She cites Griselda Pollock, another expert on Arendt, who writes: ‘She [Arendt] talks of the creation of pan movements, these widespread ideas that overarch national, political and ethnic elements – the two big pan movements she talks about are bolshevism and nazism. There is a single explanation for everything, and before the single explanation, everything else falls away. She gives a portrait of how you produce these isolated people, who then become susceptible to pan ideologies, which give them a place in something. But the place they have is ultimately sacrificial; they don’t count for anything; all that counts is the big idea.’

Here, Williams underscores Arendt’s contention that the left, in other words, isn’t necessarily unequal to the task of creating a pan-ideology, but anyone who believed in pluralism or complexity would have no currency on this terrain. We should be glad not to have been effective in this space, even if it feels like a failure. Pollock leaves us with some important considerations concerning Arendt’s work and how it relates to our increasing susceptibility to Trumpism, courtesy of Williams:

Arendt has two core beliefs about the human condition (not to be confused with human nature). First, Pollock explains: ‘Every human life is the potential beginning of something new. Unlike animals, which are predictable – each will behave as its parents behaved – something has begun in a human that could be completely different. This is ‘natality.’ As a result of that, the human condition is plural.’ The consequences of this are vast: as we communicate and use language, we show ourselves to one another in our difference, and it’s in this disclosure that action is generated: we can do something to change the world.

Then comes a really important dichotomy, taking its roots from Greek philosophy: the difference between this action and labour, which is what we do to survive. Work is the economic, ‘which comes from the Greek word oikos, which is the household. But they imagined this other source, the political, the source of speech and action.’ This is what constituted, for the Greeks, the human, and through Arendt’s prism, natality and plurality are the spurs of that political self; that is, the political recognises the infinite potential of each human life, while the economic recognises only that element of the human that works, that produces. As Pollock says: ‘What she was afraid of was the tendency to devalue action, for the economic to overtake the political.’

Taken to its logical end, the economic overtaking the political results not in the extermination camp but in the concentration camp; the difference is crucial, Pollock explains. The concentration camp exists not to extinguish life but to extinguish the human. ‘You are removed from moral action, you become a number, and, finally, you are reduced physiologically to a bundle of reactions as the body struggles to survive extreme emaciation.’ If politics is only a set of economic decisions, then the person is no more than the work they do and the infinite preciousness of every person’s potential cascades into a brutal homogeneity, one person indivisible from the next.

To put this in a modern context, ‘official political reality is now being enacted by the modern capitalist businessman.’ Politics and economics are, in Trump, indivisible. ‘And although it looks wonderful that people are demonstrating, it’s actually rather frightening because it’s generating a crisis situation in which, ultimately, the protection of law and order justifies the government in extreme measures. For some of us, it’s repeating the proto-fascist scenario.’ It’s an old Leninist stunt, the generation of civil unrest in order to attack civic society. In that sense, we are all playing into Trump’s tiny hands.

Williams concludes that ‘perhaps Arendt’s most profound legacy is in establishing that one has to consider oneself political as part of the human condition. What are your political acts, and what politics do they serve?’

The answers to these questions, it seems to me, will drive us either to a transcendent protagonistic politics or to a radioactive oblivion. In an essay entitled, ‘Hannah Arendt: On the Spectre of Nuclear War,’ Maurits de Jongh warns that in the grip of a totalitarian regime, the bounds of what is deemed possible and permissible are stretched beyond recognition. Regarding the war in Ukraine, the recent atrocities in Bucha and Kramatorsk, the relentless bombardments from Kharkiv to Mariupol, and Putin’s chilling nuclear threats, lay bare the stark reality: for this man, there are no limits. His unchecked brutality serves as a stark validation of Arendt’s chilling prophecy: the totalitarian creed that everything is within reach merely demonstrates that everything can be torn asunder.

This notion of boundless possibility isn’t confined to the annals of history; according to de Jongh, it haunts our modern age with equal ferocity. While human courage and innovation have propelled us to unparalleled heights in science and technology, the hubris of despots threatens to turn every triumph into a Pyrrhic victory. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of nuclear science. While nuclear energy promises boundless power, the spectre of nuclear weapons and radioactive waste serves as a grim reminder of our capacity for destruction.

De Jongh emphasises Arendt’s warning against the dangerous illusion of standing on Archimedes’ mythical point, where we believe ourselves masters of the universe. This arrogance blinds us to the fragile intricacies of life and the delicate balance of human civilisation. We ignore our earthly tethering at our peril, notes de Jongh, for in our relentless pursuit of power, we risk unravelling the very fabric of existence itself.

The age-old debate rages on: does brandishing the threat of nuclear warfare truly confer omnipotence? Arendt’s penetrating analysis suggests otherwise: rather than empowering, nuclear weapons possess an uncanny knack for sapping strength from those who wield them. De Jongh confirms that in dismantling the conventional equation of power with violence, Arendt strikes at the heart of our ingrained beliefs. Traditionally, power has been equated with the ability to impose one’s will upon others, as epitomised by Mao Zedong’s infamous dictum that power grows from the barrel of a gun. Yet, according to de Jongh, Arendt offers a radical departure from this paradigm, challenging us to rethink our fundamental understanding of power.

De Jongh cites Robert Dahl’s seminal definition of power as the ability to compel others to act against their will, a definition that encapsulates the prevailing ethos. In this framework, power is construed as a unilateral exercise of dominance, wherein one exerts control over another. It’s a worldview that champions power over all else, elevating violence as its ultimate expression. By this logic, nuclear violence, as the zenith of coercive force, emerges as the ultimate manifestation of power.

However, Arendt urges us to transcend this narrow conception of power. She contends that such a perspective perpetuates a vision of the state as a hierarchical structure built upon command and obedience, where power is wielded as a cudgel to subjugate the masses. Instead, notes de Jongh, she posits a radical alternative: a vision of governance founded upon the principles of shared power among free and equal citizens, tempered by the rule of law. This paradigm shift challenges us to reimagine world politics not as a Darwinian struggle for dominance but as a collaborative endeavour aimed at fostering mutual prosperity and security in an interconnected global community. De Jongh comments:

The question arises of whether threatening nuclear warfare indeed makes one omnipotent. In dealing with this question, Arendt’s second insight seems right: instead of manifesting power, nuclear weapons are much more likely to undermine it.

With this insight, Arendt challenges the common reduction of power to violence – the notion that power, as Mao Zedong claimed, grows from the barrel of a gun, or as Clausewitz put it, that war is essentially the continuation of politics by other means. The understanding of power behind such notions is that my exercise of power consists of imposing my will on others. The American political scientist Robert Dahl’s definition is telling: ‘A has power over B,’ he writes, ‘to the extent that he can make B do something that B would not otherwise do.’ The usual way we think about power thus emphasises power over. Viewed this way, it makes perfect sense that violence, the ultimate means of me imposing my will on others, is seen as a manifestation of power. And to the extent that nuclear violence is the most violent form of violence, it is easy to conclude that it must also be the most powerful manifestation of power.

Our thinking about both domestic politics and international relations is saturated with this understanding of power. According to Arendt, it reinforces our image of the state as a hierarchical relationship of command and obedience – of power over – sanctioned by the threat of violence, rather than as an association of free and equal citizens in which shared power – power with – is checked by law. In line with this picture, world politics is presented as power struggles between states pursuing their self-interest – security and prosperity – in an international state of nature. World politics is nothing but an anarchic race for raw power over.

The neorealist’s fervent belief in nuclear deterrence hinges on a troubling equation: conflating power with violence, thereby reducing power to domination. Arendt vehemently challenges this fallacy, advocating for a paradigm shift towards a collective understanding of power – power shared among the masses. She dissects the fallacy of viewing power as the sole domain of individuals, emphasising its communal essence, rooted in public endorsement. Power emerges from the coordinated efforts of people rallying behind a common cause. In contrast, violence leans on tools – weaponry – detachable from public consensus. Arendt’s aphorism from ‘On Violence’ crystallises this distinction: ‘The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All.’

De Jongh emphasises Arendt’s notion that political power springs from ‘communicative action,’ fostered by public discourse and collective action. Its legitimacy hinges on leaders articulating reasons palatable to the masses within the bounds of legality. Herein lies the crux: violence, far from a manifestation of power, signals political frailty. Tactics like blackmail and physical coercion betray a deficit in persuasive prowess, compelling resort to force. However, this doesn’t imply, according to de Jongh, a categorical exclusion of violence from legitimate power exercises. It underscores the imperative for violence to serve as a means to a collective end, subject to scrutiny for proportionality and legality.

Yet, the spectre of nuclear warfare underscores the peril of weaponised violence. The escalating destructive potential of violence increasingly risks subsuming political objectives under its cataclysmic shadow. Indeed, aspirations for freedom and peace, borne from collective endeavour, hold little significance in a world marred by nuclear annihilation. The Bomb obliterates the conventional dichotomy of means and ends, upon which the rationale for violence precariously rests.

According to De Jong,

It is equally difficult to dispute that the neorealist’s optimism about nuclear deterrence rests on equating power with violence and thus on understanding power as power over. Arendt argues that a more accurate understanding of political power must instead emphasise the collective dimension of power – power with. Power, she says, is never the exclusive prerogative of one person. Of course, we can say in a metaphorical sense that a political leader is ‘in power,’ but the basis of this lies in the legitimation of that power by the public. So power is in both the first and last analysis shared: it rests on the ability of people to organise for a common purpose. Public support underpins power, while violence leans on instruments – weaponry – which, in principle, can be deployed without political support. As Arendt put it in On Violence (1970), ‘The extreme form of power is All against One, the extreme form of violence is One against All.’ The exercise of political power is a form of what Habermas called ‘communicative action’: it arises out of the public exchange of arguments and concerted action. Its locus is, therefore, in what German philosopher Rainer Forst calls the space of reasons. Power gains legitimacy when leaders provide reasons that are acceptable to the public, and that respect legal boundaries. Understood in this way, violence is anything but a manifestation of power. It is usually a sign of political weakness. When you resort to tactics such as blackmail, threats, or physical violence to get your way, these are rightly seen as acts of desperation, for only when we fail to convince others of our will does the temptation arise to impose it on them by force.

This does not mean that the legitimate exercise of power – which is always power with – categorically excludes the use of violence. Nor does it mean that we should deny the state a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Nor that we should question the duty of a government to defend its citizens against foreign aggression. It does mean, however, that violence can never be a substitute for public support as the basis of power and that the political use of violence must stand tests of accountability and legality. Violence can only be publicly justified when it is seen as a proportionate means to achieve a common goal. Where power is thus communicative, violence has a strictly instrumental character: it is a means to a given end. There is little reason to break eggs unless this would enable us to make an omelette to build on one of Arendt’s favourite metaphors. However, she underscores how violence as a means to an end always risks overshooting its goal. This risk only increases as the instruments of violence become capable of greater destruction. Thus, the political goals of security and freedom are in constant danger of being overwhelmed by violence. With the threat of nuclear war, the tension inherent in political violence reaches an absolute climax. Indeed, political goals such as freedom and peace, and the power of citizens joining hands to achieve them, are meaningless if the world falls to nuclear pieces. The Bomb, then, blows up the whole category of means and ends – the category upon which the justification of violence rests.

In the face of ongoing Russian terror, de Jongh maintains that leveraging the courage of Ukrainians on the battlefield for our own psychological solace is nothing short of perverse. De Jongh divulges Arendt’s adamant assertion that true courage is indifferent to our inner struggles; its essence lies in the profound care for the world. It demands a willingness to sacrifice oneself not for personal gain but for the greater good of humanity and the planet. Crucially, Arendt contends that embracing our mortality is a prerequisite for genuine courage. Without acknowledging the inevitability of death, there can be no meaningful risk or sacrifice. Yet, this sacrifice must stem from a belief that preserving dignity and freedom is worth more than mere existence, especially in the face of oppressive regimes.

However, notes de Jongh, true courage transcends individual mortality; it is rooted in the endurance of the world and the collective survival of humanity. By courageously defending freedom, preserving our planet, or upholding the dignity of life, individuals etch their legacy into the fabric of history. Thus, courage does not seek eternal life but aspires to what Arendt terms ‘worldly immortality’ – the assurance that one’s sacrifices will be remembered and respected by posterity.

The looming threat of nuclear war ruptures the very foundation of human courage. How can one remain courageous when the survival of humanity hangs in the balance, when there may be no world left to inherit and no future to honour our sacrifices? Arendt asserts that in such precarious times, the traditional concept of courage loses its significance. She urges future generations to redefine political courage in light of these challenges. In a world teetering on the brink of self-destruction, where the stakes have never been higher, the call for political courage resonates more profoundly than ever.

In a commentary published by The Hannah Arendt Centre for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, Roger Berkowitz offers some learned insights from Arendt about the price of freedom:

There is, Arendt argues, a ‘reckless optimism’ on both sides of the war question today. On one side, proponents of fighting can justify the killing and murder of thousands and even millions of citizens in war because of the ‘frightening increase of population.’ On the other side, those who would submit simply ‘forget the concentration and extermination camps and with them the terrible prospect of freedom vanishing from the earth forever.’ A recent Quinnipiac University poll supports this second bit of reckless optimism, finding that 38% of Americans would flee if Russia attacked the United States, and only just over half would stay and fight.

That so many Ukrainians are staying in Ukraine and resisting the Russians shows that the one real justification for war today in the face of potential annihilation and destruction is freedom. The Ukrainians – and many others in the former Soviet bloc – remember life under the Soviet Union and have little optimism about life without freedom. But freedom means, for Arendt, both the freedom from tyranny and the freedom to found a new body politic based on the experience of self-government. Insofar as Ukrainians are willing to fight for freedom, they are the truly revolutionary force that might remind Europe and the United States what freedom means.

In the Quinnipiac University survey, ‘of the Americans who said they would join the fight if the US faced the same situation, most were men in older age groups. While 45 per cent of men between the ages of 18 and 34 said they would stay and fight, that number increased to 57 per cent for those in the 35-49 age range and to 66 per cent in the 50-64 age range. Also, 40 per cent of women said they would fight, compared to 70 per cent of men.’

In the age of gloom, the boundary between census tracks of those who are willing to fight against totalitarianism and those who would seek comfort elsewhere runs right down the middle of the quest for freedom. We are reminded by Arendt that we live at a time when we must give political courage new meaning and encourage future generations to do the same. Only in this way can we hope to survive the age of gloom.

We know that we are well into the age of gloom when we awaken to a report that Donald Trump has again ignited a firestorm with his Nazi rhetoric, this time by sharing a video on his Truth Social account that ominously referenced a ‘unified reich’ in the event of his victory in the upcoming presidential election. Despite immediate backlash, the video remained up for a contentious 15 hours before being removed. In the controversial clip, a narrator poses the question: ‘What happens after Donald Trump wins? What’s next for America?’ Hypothetical headlines flash across the screen, including: ‘Industrial strength significantly increased … driven by the creation of a unified reich.’ The term ‘reich,’ meaning ‘empire’ in German, is indelibly linked to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, known as the ‘Third Reich.’

The video’s disturbing implications and its prolonged presence on Trump’s platform were not lost on Sarah Matthews, former deputy press secretary in Trump’s administration, who warned: ‘Trump’s continued use of Nazi rhetoric is un-American and despicable. Yet too many Americans are brushing off the glaring red flags about what could happen if he returns to the White House. When someone shows you who they are, believe them.’

The incendiary video brazenly displayed fabricated newspaper headlines celebrating a Trump victory in the 2024 presidential election. It is worth reading at length the reactions to the video by David Badash:

The 30-second video, which Mr Trump posted on his social media site, Truth Social, features several articles styled like newspapers from the early 1900s – and apparently recycling text from reports on World War I, including references to ‘German industrial strength’ and ‘peace through strength,’ the New York Times reported. ‘One article in the video asserts that Mr Trump would deport 15 million migrants in a second term, while text onscreen lists the start and end days of World War I.’

‘Another headline in the video suggests that Mr Trump, in a second term, would reject “globalists,” using a term that has been widely adopted on the far right and that scholars say can be used as a signal of antisemitism.’

Political commentator and former Clinton White House aide Keith Boykin posted an ABC News segment on the ‘unified reich’ video and remarked: ‘Donald Trump is openly copying Hitler’s Nazi language about a “unified reich” and warning about “poisoning the blood” of America, and people are still acting like this is a normal election.’

In that ABC News video, reporter Rachel Scott says, ‘It is normal, of course, for presidential candidates to share videos with their vision for the country. It is not normal for those videos to have references to Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. The Trump campaign tells us this morning that this was a video that was shared by a staffer while the former president was in court, saying that staffer missed the reference, but, as of this morning, that video has not been taken down.’

The Biden-Harris campaign quickly responded to the video, posting another video of ‘Trump saying that only he and his top right-hand man, Dan Scavino, have access to post on his social media accounts….’

‘Trump previously used rhetoric echoing Adolf Hitler when he said immigrants entering the US illegally are “poisoning the blood of our country,” and called his opponents “vermin.” The former president has also drawn wide backlash for having dined with a Holocaust-denying white nationalist in 2022 and for downplaying the 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists chanted “Jews will not replace us!”’

The Biden-Harris campaign also released this statement:

‘America, stop scrolling and pay attention. Donald Trump is not playing games; he is telling America exactly what he intends to do if he regains power: rule as a dictator over a “unified reich.” Parroting Mein Kampf while you warn of a bloodbath if you lose is the type of unhinged behaviour you get from a guy who knows that democracy continues to reject his extreme vision of chaos, division, and violence.’

Overnight, responding to the ‘unified Reich’ video, popular historian Heather Cox Richardson warned: ‘It is not clear to me how anyone can any longer deny that Trump is promising to destroy our democracy and usher in authoritarianism. But it is also not clear that he is still a figure that any but the extremes of his base will follow to that end. Hence his emphasis on turning them to violence.’

Journalist Gil Duran, who covers ‘tech fascism,’ and ‘billionaire extremism,’ says Trump’s ‘unified Reich’ video was not an accident.

Former FBI Assistant Director Frank Figliuzzi, now an NBC News National Security Analyst, also noted that the ‘reference to Hitler’s regime in Nazi Germany is not an accident.’

Former CIA analyst Gail Helt, responding to the Trump campaign’s claim it was posted by a staffer who didn’t see the ‘unified Reich’ text, wrote: ‘Of course they knew. Of course, they saw it. I hate Nazis.’

‘Historian here,’ wrote Professor of American history Dr. Manisha Sinha, snarkily responding to the Trump video. ‘Trump calls for a unified Reich, but, hey, we are all being paranoid by calling him a wannabe fascist supported by neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates.’

Professor of history and expert on fascism and the Holocaust, the extreme right, and neo-Nazis, Dr Federico Finchelstein, responding to a report on the ‘unified Reich’ video, called it, ‘Wannabe fascism in motion…’

Danielle Kurtzleben notes that the video adds to a long line of connections between the former president and antisemitism, which are worth quoting at length:

Last fall, Trump called his opponents ‘vermin’ and, in an interview with a far-right website, said that immigrants were ‘poisoning the blood’ of the nation – language that echoed Adolf Hitler.

Then, not long after the ‘vermin’ speech, Trump hosted a dinner attended by Nick Fuentes, an outspoken antisemite. Fuentes was a guest at that dinner of Kanye West, another Trump ally with a history of antisemitic views.

In all of these cases, Trump denies wrongdoing. For example, he later posted to Truth Social that he ‘knew nothing about’ Fuentes and that West brought him uninvited to the dinner.

These antisemitic connections stretch back to the 2016 campaign. In early 2016, he at one point declined to disavow the support he was receiving from white supremacists, including former KKK grand wizard David Duke.

Later that year, he shared an image on Twitter featuring a six-pointed star with text declaring Hillary Clinton to be the ‘most corrupt candidate ever!’ The star was placed next to Hillary Clinton’s head, photoshopped over a background of money.

And as president in 2017, he responded to the violence during a Charlottesville, Va, white nationalist rally by declaring there to be ‘very fine people on both sides….’

In a Philadelphia speech to members of the Service Employees International Union, Vice President Kamala Harris blasted Trump for posting the video: ‘This kind of rhetoric is unsurprising coming from the former president, and it is appalling. And we’ve got to tell him who we are. And, once again, it shows that our freedom and our very democracy are at stake.’

It is clear that Trump sees something in vast swaths of the American public that signals to him and his advisors that fascism has a special appeal to his followers. Trump envisions himself as a strongman leader, and he is giving us signals all the time about how he expects to run his ‘reich’ if he is elected.

I can only imagine Trump, late at night, naked except for a pair of spit-polished knee-high boots, sweating profusely while pulling on a pair of jodhpur-cut riding breeches, adorned with cavalry stripes, over his fleshy, dimpled rump. In one hand he grasps a riding crop with which he practices crisp blows on a vinyl MMA grappling dummy sporting a Biden mask. With the other hand, he gingerly places upon his varnished tufts of tangerine hair a German Allgemeine SS General’s visor cap, complete with gold piping, a black peak, a specially designed leather chin-strap to accommodate his jaw juts, cap eagle and skull badge. And then he starts goose-stepping across his bedroom, his brazen buttocks flinging about to the strains of Wagner’s Der Ring Des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), only to begin twerking to Shake That Monkey. The problem is that this wannabe fascist that we can so easily lampoon today is likely to become the leader of the free world tomorrow.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2024). Surviving the Age of Gloom: Reflections on Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, Trumpism and the War in Ukraine. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.