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20th Sep 2014 from TwitLonger

Hannah Arendt & the Colonial Origins of 'Totalitarianism'

In an essay published in 1984 – early enough in the development of postcolonial studies to be entirely neglected – William Pietz brilliantly unpacked the racialist, orientalist thinking of
George Kennan, Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt, and George Orwell. These
were the founders of Cold War discourse and ‘totalitarianism’ their chief concept;
it remains the lynchpin to the entire Cold War discursive edifice. Arendt’s 1951
Origins of Totalitarianism endowed the concept and the entire project with an
academic respectability that it still enjoys today. Pietz’s argument, backed up
through a rigorous explication of key texts, is that Cold War discourse displaced
colonial discourse in the aftermath of World War II (when not least thanks to
China, decolonization was the order of the day). It substituted itself for “the language
of colonialism” (55). By drawing on colonial discourse, albeit in a less
immediately racist, modified disguise, Cold War, totalitarianist discourse became
not just intelligible but persuasive and popular. Note that it is not that colonial
discourse disappeared, but that it was articulated to the Cold War.
As the postcolonial critique of “totalitarianism” is at the center of this book, it is worth pausing
on Pietz’s essay. As Kennan, Koestler, and arguably Orwell are of little scholarly
value today, we will focus on Arendt. But the achievement of the first three was
to map onto Russia classic orientalist stereotypes about despotism, inscrutability,
deceit, detachment from the real world, disbelief in objective truth, and so on. For
Kennan et al., totalitarianism was “traditional Oriental despotism plus modern
technology” (Pietz 58). Here is Kennan writing in Foreign Affairs in 1947:

“[Russian] fanaticism, unmodified by any of the Anglo-Saxon traditions of
compromise, was too fierce and too jealous to envisage any permanent
sharing of power. From the Russian-Asiatic world out of which they had
emerged they had carried with them a skepticism as to the possibilities of
permanent or peaceful coexistence of rival forces. Here caution, circumspection,
flexibility, and deception are the valuable qualities; and their value
finds natural appreciation in the Russian or the oriental mind.”

Simply put: totalitarianism lies in the oriental mind (race). This raises a number
of interesting questions about why the concept endures, and none of the answers
would be flattering to the allegedly liberal, tolerant, and democratic nature of
Western intellectual–political culture.
But it is Arendt to whom we must attend. Here Pietz’s critique, quoting
Arendt at length, is especially strong in showing the centrality of an essentially
racist understanding of Africa and “tribalism” to her theory of totalitarianism.
Both racism – which Arendt clearly wishes to oppose – and totalitarianism have
their origins in colonialism and in European (the Boers) contact with Africa and
Africans. That is, “we” learned these things from “them.” In short, Arendt offers
a narrative about the African/Other’s contamination of the white, decivilized
European mob:

“When the Boers, in their fright and misery, decided to use these savages as
though they were just another form of animal life they embarked upon a
process which could only end with their own degeneration into a white race
living beside and together with black races from whom in the end they
would differ only in the color of their skin. They had transformed themselves
into a tribe and had lost the European’s feeling for a territory, a patria
of his own. They behaved exactly like the black tribes who had roamed the
Dark Continent for centuries.

My point is not the awful, Conradian diction or even the stark conceptual separation
between the European and the African. It is the effect upon the Boers and
thence – so the retrograde diffusionist argument goes – upon Europe. We
“degenerate” into a race-based, primitive and nomadic, rootless “tribe” (or “race
organization”) no better than them. Thanks to this contact with the primitive, not
only do we come to think in terms of race (i.e. in a racist way), but this mode of
thinking later morphs into a tribal nationalism that, in turn, becomes modern
anti-Semitism and totalitarianism (“a whole outlook on life and the world”).49
This last phenomenon “lies in the nature of tribalism rather than in political facts
and circumstances” (Arendt, cited in Pietz, 69)

Thus anti-Semitism and totalitarianism in general originally lie outside
Europe (Pietz 69). This certainly helps “save” the West and helps constitute its
identity as the better half of the Orient/Occident, North/South divides. This is all
to say that, even in the relatively sophisticated hands of Arendt, totalitarianism is
not only a concept with rather shaky logical foundations (turning upon a simplistic
logic of contamination and diffusion), but one with a distinctly racist and
colonial genealogy. We should therefore be far more circumspect in deploying
the concept, if at all. It would be excellent philosophical hygiene to simply
abandon the concept altogether, and give it a properly Christian burial.

From China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the PRC
by Daniel Vukovich

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