Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hannah Arendt and the Canadian Neoconservative Movement

A CULTURE OF DEFIANCE: History of the Reform-Conservative Party of Canada

My favourite political philosopher is Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), who wrote extensively on the nature of power, politics, authority, and totalitarianism. Unlike Leo Strauss, who invokes the ancients and uses "hidden dialogue", intended to speak primarily to the intellectual elite; Arendt writes in a clearer language.

And no matter how many times I read an essay or passage that she has written, I continue to have light bulb moments.

In one chapter of The Origins of Totalitarianism (my copy, 1968), she discusses Ideology as the basis of a political movement. That is a word heard often when describing Stephen Harper and indeed the neoconservative movement as a whole, and I was able to draw many parallels between her book and our current government.

We could argue that we are not really living in a true totalitarian state, but we are moving toward a form of totalitarianism, in it's broadest definition. I'll call it "Totalitarianism Lite".
Wherever it rose to power, it developed entirely new political institutions and destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country. No matter what the specifically national tradition or the particular spiritual source of its ideology, totalitarian government always transformed classes into masses, supplanted the party system ... started to operate according to a system of values so radically different from all others, that none of our traditional legal, moral, or common sense utilitarian categories could any longer help us to come to terms with, or judge, or predict their course of action. (p. 158)
Arendt says that this is not the same as a one-party dictatorship, but is rather a mass movement. Harper MP Rob Anders refers to their brand of politics as "movement conservatism", which has taken over the Tory Party in Canada and the Republican Party in the United States.

And while the best opportunity for the success of such a movement is the 'failure of the traditional political forces—liberal or conservative, national or socialist, republican or monarchist, authoritarian or democratic' (p. 158), these failures can also be contrived.

In post-war Germany, the time was right for Nazism, because of the failure of the Weimar Republic to create order after the devastation of the Great War. Unemployment and underemployment was high and crime was escalating. But in Canada and the U.S., when neoconservatism first entered the political arena, there was no real crisis, so one had to be created. In it's early stages it was the threat of communism. Then it became "Deficits", "Taxes" and "Government" that had to be annihilated.

And they have spent several years building an infrastructure of think tanks and foundations, while taking over the bulk of the media, especially in Canada, to sell their message.

Arendt refers to ideologies as "isms", and following are a few points made in the book, and their modern manifestations.

Not before Hitler and Stalin were the great political potentialities of the ideologies discovered ... Ideologies are known for their scientific character: they combine the scientific approach with results of philosophical relevance and pretend to be scientific philosophy. (p. 166)
It is now accepted by most, that neoconservatism is in part, an anti-intellectual movement. Things like "facts" only get in the way of the "idea". Their ruling elite has defined the premise that they will spoon feed to the masses, so "University types" are vilified and shunned.

In order to impose an ideology, transforming an idea into a premise, you must allow no contradictions or interruptions. It is a "coercion of logic" that will assume that the "idea" is "sufficient to explain everything".


Anytime I discuss politics, whether in a group or with a friend, one of the common complaints I hear is that people are so self involved now, making mass movements difficult. Gone is the sense of community.

This is not an accident.

Though not really libertarianism, neoconservatism promotes the libertarian notion of the freedom of the individual. Everyone must take care of themselves. If the government engages in group policies, it creates collectivism which leads to socialism/communism

Individualism creates '...a situation in which I cannot act, because there is nobody who will act with me.' (P. 172)


Though "terrorism" has come to define a radical Islamic movement, the definition of terrorism is simply:

- the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
- the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
- terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

In totalitarian movements, terrorism is used to keep people in line. It can be state sanctioned witch hunts, brutality and mass arrests, or something as simple as the fear of losing your job or career.

In Canada it has been called the "politics of fear".
Dictatorial terror [is] distinguished from totalitarian terror insofar as it threatens only authentic opponents, but not harmless citizens. (p.20)

Another important element to the success of totalitarianism/neoconservatism is a sense of isolation. Canada is gradually becoming isolated from the rest of the world. This became evident when we lost our bid for a seat on the UN Security Council.

Stephen Harper's neocon Reformers, always detested the United Nations, feeling that they had become too intrusive. So while he postured over the the loss of the seat, it was actually a blessing.
Isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar its power always comes from men acting together, [it] presses masses of isolated men together and supports them in a world which has become a wilderness for them. (P. 172)
Under George Bush the American people became extremely isolated, in a "you're with us or against us" climate. They soon learned that most of the world was against them, but 9/11 gave the neocons the necessary "crisis" that allowed the majority of Americans to be OK with this, at least for a while.

And it allowed them to accept unheard of measures to suspend civil liberties, creating a "fertile ground" for totalitarian measures.
It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences.
And that loneliness was filled with unbridled patriotism and an unnatural sense of superiority.
Totalitarian government does not just curtail liberties or abolish essential freedoms; nor does it, at least to our limited knowledge, succeed in eradicating the love for freedom from the hearts of man. (P. 164)
Though personal freedoms were all but abolished after 9/11, many Americans believed that it was actually their enemies: Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Islamic fundamentalists, who were trying to destroy their freedoms.

And this mindset created what columnist Dan Gardner recently called a bigger threat to liberty than terrorism.
On Sept. 12, 2001, George W. Bush said something he had avoided saying the day before. “The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror,” he told reporters. “They were acts of war.” The decision to frame the response to 9/11 as a “war” was a fateful one.

Before that moment, Western democracies would never have sent their soldiers to fight endless battles in distant and obscure deserts. Imprisonment without charge or trial would never have been advocated by leading politicians. Torture would never have been supported by much of the population. And calls for the assassination of a man who leaked documents would never have been heard from leading journalists.
This beating of the war drum became the means of isolating the American people, not only from the rest of the world, but from the truth.
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 and the distinction between true and false no longer exist. (P. 172)
Arendt reminds us that the threat of totalitarianism as a movement, did not end with the deaths of Hitler or Stalin. It's potential is too phenomenal to ignore.

That's why it's important to recognize that this is not a traditional political party, but is a radical movement, that stands to drastically alter the traditional legal and moral foundation of our just society.


  1. Thanks for this, Emily.
    Hannah Arendt's is still the voice of a remarkably clear conscience in a dark and troubled world. I wonder if she would be shocked at the havoc wrought by her University of Chicago contemporary Leo Strauss, whose scholarship she held in very low esteem. Is it mere irony that someone who dealt so honestly with the predicaments of remaining true to humanity within a totalitarian regime should find herself teaching at the same university as another refugee from Nazi oppression who became the intellectual godfather of the newest strain of that political malaise? Or is there some larger political/grammatical mechanism at work? "Arendt’s most influential work was The Human Condition (1958), in which she rejected the Western philosophical tradition from Plato through Marx, arguing that the apex of human achievement was not philosophical thought, but active life. She argued that Western philosophical tradition had elevated contemplation and ideas over actual appearances and the human activity which responds to appearances. She took a phenomenological approach to politics, attempting to uncover the true character of lived political experience which had, for the most part, been obscured and distorted by philosophical tradition, and hoping to reinstate the life of public and political action to the apex of human values and goals."- http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Hannah_Arendt
    Leo Strauss, who was Jewish also, revered Plato's justification for totalitarian rule, considering "The Republic" to be the paradigm for American governance. Strauss's blend of Hebrew and Greek hermeneutics "Doctrine of the Veil" lies at the heart of the Neo-Theo Con mindset, fomenting a vicious intolerance and contempt for mere humanity.
    Hannah Arendt's Men in Dark Times is a personal favourite. In it she tells the story of Walter Benjamins's ill fated attempt to escape Vichy France from Marseilles by the same route she herself took in 1941. The film "Varian's War" in which her character appears, deals with these events.

  2. She was amazing and speaks to so many generations. An excellent counter to Straussians.