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Elites and the Mob

I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s “Origins of Totalitarianism,” within which is a section on the affinity of the Western elites for the mob and the mob’s values (or anti-values), goals, and methods. By “mob,” Arendt means those who, by choice or circumstance, stand outside civilized society and against the most basic values of civilized society, particularly the simple values of security, continuity, and predictability. Arendt traces the now gruesomely fascinating affinity of Western intellectuals and elites for both fascism/Nazism and Communism in the period between the World Wars, despite the fact that both ideologies, both by word and by deed, made abundantly clear that they were indeed incarnations of the mob, that terror was their essence and not merely their method.

My thesis is that a similar phenomenon is occurring now, post 9/11. The “mob,” is this instance, are of course the terror groups and their support organizations: Hamas, Hezbelloh, Islamic Jihad, Al Queada, etc. My thesis questions whether Western intellectuals (our “elites”) display an affinity not only for these groups, but for their values, goals, and methods.

In this context, the term “elites” can include artists, writers, journalists, public intellectuals, professors, scholars, media pundits, and even celebrities.

Simple negative evidence for my thesis rests in so-called “anti-totalitarian liberals,” as if it is necessary for a liberal to make clear that he/she is opposed to totalitarianism. Christopher Hitchens is an example of this type of character, as is Oliver Kamm, who specifically adopts the moniker of an anti-totalitarian liberal, as if the adjective is necessary in today’s Great Britain. http://oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog/

Here is what Arendt said about the inter-war phenomenon, which is strikingly appropriate for today:

“What is more disturbing to our peace of mind than the unconditional loyalty of members of totalitarian movements, and the popular support of totalitarian regimes, is the unquestionable attraction these movements exert on the elite, and not only on the mob elements in society. It would be rash indeed to discount, because of artistic vagaries or scholarly naivete, the terrifying roster of distinguished men whom totalitarianism can count among its sympathizers, fellow-travelers, and inscribed party members… .

“The pronounced activism of the totatarian movements, their preference for terrorism over all other forms of political activity, attracted the intellectual elite and the mob alike, precisely because this terrorism was so utterly different from that of earlier revolutionary societies. It was no longer a matter of calculated policy which saw in terrorist acts the only way to eliminate certain outstanding personalities who because of their policies or position had become the symbol of oppression. What proved so attractive was that terrorism had become a kind of philosophy through which to express frustration, resentment, and blind hatred, a kind of political expressionism which used bombs to express oneself, which watched delightedly the publicity given to resounding deeds and was absolutely willing to pay the price of life for having succeeded in forcing the recognition of one’s existence in the normal strata of society… .

“There is no doubt that the elite was pleased whenever the underworld frightened respectable society into accepting it on equal footing. The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price—the destruction of civilization—for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it… .

“The temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability… . The attraction which the totalitarian movements exert on the elite, so long as and wherever they have not seized power, has been perplexing because the patently vulgar and arbitrary, positive doctrines of totalitarianism are more conspicuous to the outsider and mere observer than the general mood which pervades the pretotalitarian atmosphere. These doctrines were so much at variance with generally accepted intellectual, cultural, and moral standards that one could conclude that only an inherent fundamental shortcoming of character in the intellectual, … or a perverse self-hatred of the spirit, accounted for the delight with which the elite accepted the “ideas” of the mob… .

“What appealed to the elite was radicalism as such. Marx’s hopeful prediction that the state would wither away and classless society emerge were no longer radical, no longer Messianic enough. If Berdaev is right in stating that “Russian revolutionaries had always been totalitarian,” then the attraction which Soviet Russia exerted amost equally on Nazi and Communist intellectual fellow-travelers lay precisely in the fact that in Russia “the revolution was a religion and a philosophy, not merely a confluct concerned with the social and political side of life.”

Obvious analogies exist between Arendt’s observations of the Western elites between the wars and our current situation. Radical Islam is obviously totalitarian (even Hitchens says so), despite the efforts to portray it as a social movement, or as mere religious fanaticism, or what-not. It also uses terror as not only its primary political method, terror is its only political method. In fact, its very existence is defined by terror.

So, we might ask, why or how could any Western thinker possibly sympathize with it, given that its expressed goals are not only opposed to Western civilization, its central expressed goal is the utter destruction of Western civilization (and everyone who lives within that civilization)?

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