< Summary >
This paper seeks to analyze totalitarian thinking in the context of modern continuing education and self-help texts. Of all the calamities of the 20th century, none presented such a grave threat to the ideas of democracy and citizenship education as totalitarianism. In Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” it is suggested that the rise of totalitarianism owed much to the plight of so-called “superfluous men” – rootless people who’s acts of will cease to matter.
Arendt sees totalitarianism as an effort to reduce the pain of these superfluous men. In order to do this, the totalitarian regime radically divorces notions of goodness from notions of action. That is, in the totalitarian schema one is good or bad only through the circumstances of birth irrespective of his or her actions. Since the superfluous man is defined by the inconsequential nature of his actions, this is comforting indeed. This paper seeks to understand the effects of totalitarianism on citizenship or democratic education in the modern world. In particular:
1. What are the characteristics leading to superfluity and how prevalent are those characteristics in the 21st century?
2. What are the effects of totalitarian succor on traditional democratic or citizenship education strategies?
3. To what extent are totalitarian strategies present in modern continuing education/self-help texts?
In order to understand the interactions of totalitarianism and traditional citizenship/democratic education strategies, this paper considers John Dewey’s 1916 “Education and Democracy,” Hannah Arendt’s 1954 essay “The Crisis in Education,” Plato’s “Republic” and Xueji (part of the “Book of Rites”) and contrasts them with Adolf Hitler’s 1938 “Nazi Primer,” a textbook intended for the Hitler Youth.
In order to measure the extent to which totalitarian thinking impacts modern eduction, this paper surveys four self-help books. Self-help texts have been shown have a considerable impact on education in general and continuing education in particular. This analysis integrates Arendtian, Machiavellian, social justice, cognitive psychological, stoic and feminist perspectives. In order to cast the widest possible net, the books were chosen for their diverse viewpoints and their distinct intended-audiences. They are “We, A Manifesto for Women Everywhere(2017)” by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel, Lisa M. Schab’s “Self-Esteem for Teens”, “milk and honey(2015)” by Rupi Kaur and “Mastery(2013)” by Robert Greene.
Keywords: Hannah Arendt, “Origins of Totalitarianism,” Superfluous Men, Totalitarianism, Existential Crisis, Citizenship Education, Self-Help
Hannah Arendt’s classic “On the Origins of Totalitarianism(1951)” is one of the foundational texts of 20th century political philosophy. In Totalitarianism, Arendt traces the origins of the world’s first two fully totalitarian states – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – through their beginnings in imperialism, their comings of age during the pan-German and pan-Slavic movements and their full maturities in extermination camps and gulags. Arendt’s most surprising finding, is that the system of totalitarianism arises in response to the needs of a group she calls “superfluous men.”
In Arendt’s analysis, superfluous men are those whose lives have no action-dependent reason to be. That is, superfluous men cannot point to any action, accomplishment or project as a justification for their lives and thus experience existential crisis. “Why should I continue to live?”
In earlier times, the predecessors to the superfluous men were able to turn to religion or notions of nature. God could be said to have a plan for every life and, thus, the superfluous man was thus not actually superfluous or, in the case of nature, the superfluous men could be said to partake in the logical movement of the universe. However, the rise of scientism (Nietzsche’s death of God) cast doubt on both religion and “nature.” With the rise of evolutionary theory people who were previously “parts of God’s plan” suddenly became “unfit specimens” in a game of “survival of the fittest.” With the rise of modern physics, the previously safe “movement of the logical and orderly universe” became a chaotic and meaningless series of collisions and annihilations.
The totalitarians offered succor to these superfluous men by challenging the idea that one’s actions have any connection to one’s value. This, according to Arendt, began as a type of romanticism. That is, a focus on the “true personality” and “innate self“ rather than the “less genuine” identities like work, belief or action. To the unemployed German worker the Nazis said, effectively “you are valuable because you were born as an Aryan.” To the frustrated Russian serf, Stalin effectively said “you are “born proletariat” and so you are good.”
Death camps and gulags served as the ultimate expression of this principle. Only innocent people were eligible for extermination in most cases. That is, the death camp inmates became the lowest of the low, the “scum of the earth” to borrow Arendt’s phrase, not because of what they’d done but rather because of what they unalterably were. Thus the camps proved that action and badness had no connection. Second, in order to show that actions and goodness had no connection, totalitarians implicated as many “good” people as possible in the destruction of said innocents. Jewish council leaders (who provided his address and financial information), the police (who would arrest him without cause), the military (who would ship him to and fro naked and covered in filth), his fellow Jewish prisoners (who would operate the gas chambers and conduct the tortures) and his neighbors (who would steal his belongings) would combine to destroy the average holocaust victim, for example. When the entire society participated in these crimes but remained “good,” it proved that action (murder, theft, torture, etc) was meaningless in comparison to inborn traits (being Aryan, being a member of the “born proletariat,” etc). Thus, by radically discounting the relationship between doing good/bad and being good/bad, totalitarianism focuses all energy on unchosen and unalterable facts of birth in order to make the superfluous man feel valuable and/or good.
The literature focusing on Arendt’s conception of the superfluous men contains numerous examinations of how human beings become superfluous once inside the context of totalitarian systems (Keeney, 2015)(Walker, 2016)(Honkasalo, 2017). However, Arendt repeatedly points out that superfluous men precede totalitarianism. She further emphasizes that totalitarianism legitimately serves the needs of these superfluous men – a fact the literature neglects.
Further, according to Kohn (2001), totalitarianism creates a problem for scholars and lay people alike because it “explodes traditional standards of judgment.” Totalitarianism is a sort of upside down politics – a society in which external reality is consistently and systematically subjugated beneath the deductive predictions of the “inevitable” progress of natural or historical forces and individual actions don’t matter.
As pointed out by Hill (2018), this conquest of reality by ideology was carried out according to one of two major ideological tracks – Darwinism and Marxism. Court (2013) and others point out that these ideologies are both attempts to “scientifically” eliminate “merely subjective” understandings in favor of an “objective,” totalitarian worldview. These would comprehensively predict the future, answer all possible questions and provide an “insane consistency that exists nowhere in nature.” Darwinian totalitarians such as Adolf Hitler and Arthur de Gobineau “explained” the totality of history through the rubric of evolutionary theory. Likewise, Marxists (including Friedrich Engels, who declared Karl Marx “the Darwin of History”) and later Marxist totalitarians such as Josef Stalin, Pol Pot and Kim Il-sung were able to declare the “laws” of dialectical materialism and class struggle as universal rubrics. Both Darwinian and Marxist totalitarian varieties, according to Arendt and Kohn, served as solution to Nietzsche’s “death of God” and its accompanying existential crisis. If everything is inevitable and individuals don’t matter, the superfluous man’s inability to meaningfully act likewise ceases to torment him.
However, this paper shows that totalitarian methods of succor render both citizenship education and democratic education impossible. The philosophical and practical underpinnings of democratic education as specified by Arendt’s “Crisis in Education(1954)” and John Dewey’s “Democracy and Education(1916)” are investigated to show this. Confucian and classical Greek perspectives on citizenship education are also consulted. All four are contrasted with Adolf Hitler’s “Nazi Primer(1938)” textbook.
Lastly, this paper explores the relationship between Arendt’s superfluous men and modern books in the self-help/continuing education genre. Like totalitarian succor, books in the self-help/continuing education genre often give feelings of goodness to struggling populations. This paper analyzes four self-help/continuing education books to find the extent to which their approaches mirror totalitarian movements and, thus, how likely they are to undermine citizenship/democratic education traditions. Self-help is included because McLean and Kapell (2015), McLean (2015), Bergsma (2007) and McLean and Vermeylyn (2013) find it is an important component in both adult education and transmitting academic research to the public at large.
In this study we consider feminist-inspired “We, A Manifesto for Women Everywhere(2017),” by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel, cognitive psychology-based “Self-Esteem for Teens(2016)” by Lisa M. Schab, intersectional oppression-influenced “milk and honey(2015)” by Rupi Kaur and the Machiavellian “Mastery(2013)” by Robert Greene.
Ⅱ. The Superfluous Man, Origins and Explanation
Superfluous men are people who’s actions do not matter to the community. While a politician can point to his laws as a justification for continuing to live, a stay-at-home mother can point to her orderly house and happy children, the artist can point to her work, but the superfluous man can point to nothing at all and thus experiences a profound existential crisis.
Arendt believes most people prefer to justify their existences through work, projects, family or religion – that is, through acts of will. However, many long-term unemployed people, welfare recipients, homeless populations and refugees lack access to work, projects or family. Combined with the Nietzschean death of God (Nietzsche, 1883), the superfluous men are also denied the religious justifications of old. Without god they are brutally and nakedly confronted with their own uselessness.
While the specific conception of superfluous men as “human debris” left in the wake of capitalist recessions is Arendt’s (Arendt, 1951. 150) the idea itself is much older. Alexis DeTocqueville in “Democracy in America” (1835) and Plato in “Laws,” mention similar phenomenon. Indeed, Cyrus the Great allowing his inferior troops to be massacred in the war against Tomyris, Qin Shi Huang and the medieval Catholics’ use of mass castration, Egyptian policies to work their excess young men to death on building projects etc can be understood as efforts to liquidate superfluous men. The pre-Colombian Meso-Americans achieved perhaps history’s most elaborate system of superfluous-man-disposal with their flower wars – specially arranged battles without territorial goals conducted exclusively for the procurement of sacrifice victims. (Rank, 2019) In this sense, totalitarianism is merely a new solution to an old problem.
Totalitarianism never arose in Britain or the United States because overseas colonies (in Britain’s case) and easily displaced natives (in the US’ case) allowed the export of superfluous men into new lands. (Arendt, 1951. 150) Alexis DeTocqueville’s analysis of American westward expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries shows this “export” in action. White Americans, whose “passion for equality is ardent, insatiable, eternal and invincible,” would have happily destroy themselves rather than submit to conditions of inequality, DeTocqueville claims. The Americans avoided this fate by continually displacing the Indians. When the potential superfluous men built up in the East they could simply move west, appropriate Indian land, and start over. As such, generational hopelessness was never allowed to establish itself (obviously, this was only among the white majority).
“The first thing that strikes a traveler in the United States is the innumerable multitude of those who seek to emerge from their original condition … no Americans are devoid of a yearning desire to rise … All are constantly seeking to acquire property, power, and reputation.” (DeTocqueville, 1835: 522)
The American pre-superfluous man was able to define himself by actions leading to property, power and reputation and thus avoid superfluity. All he had to do was displace the Indians. (DeTocqueville, 1835: 530) Likewise, the British shipped their “human debris” off to Australia, Canada and India. Arendt mentions Rudyard Kipling’s heroic colonist mythologies and the large numbers of young English men who took “the white man’s burden” completely seriously. These imperialist adventurers went out to “spread civilization” and “overthrow despots.” Regardless of how racist and quixotic their quests had been, they always had meaningful actions available to them. Plato similarly addresses superfluous men in Laws (Book V, 735).
“Take, for example, the purification of a city … the milder form of purification is as follows: when men who have nothing, and are in want of food, show a disposition to follow their leaders in an attack on the property of the rich—these, who are the natural plague of the state, are sent away by the legislator in a friendly spirit as far as he is able; and this dismissal of them is euphemistically termed a colony. And every legislator should contrive to do this at once.”
The interwar Pan Germans and Pan Slavs had no “Indians” and limited access to overseas colonies. They could not follow Plato’s advice or appropriate indigenous land. German and Slavic superfluous men were left, generation after generation, to stew in their superfluity with neither hope nor opportunity. This fundamental alienation, explains Arendt, is why the bottled up German and Slavic territories later became home to the Nazis and Bolsheviks while the English and Americans were able to avoid or easily overcome totalitarian movements of their own. (Arendt, 1951: 225)
Ⅲ. The Reduction of Suffering and Totalitarianism’s Comforting Effect
The most surprising part of Totalitarianism is the idea that totalitarian regimes truly, legitimately serve to lessen the suffering of superfluous men. Totalitarianism does this by replacing the concept of “doing good” with the idea of “being good.” (Arendt, 1951: 234) For superfluous men, people defined by the inconsequential nature of their actions, such a formulation provides great relief.
“[Totalitarians] began to tell the mob that each of its members could become such a lofty, all-important walking embodiment of something ideal if he would only join the movement. Then he no longer had to be loyal or generous or courageous, he would automatically be the very incarnation of Loyalty, Generosity, Courage.” (Arendt, 1951: 249)
So long as the Aryan remained a member of the Aryan community or the born proletariat remained a member of the born proletariat, his actions had no effect on his goodness or badness. The superfluous man’s alienation from meaningful action, in the totalitarian framework, ceases to be bad. However, this comes at the price of his human agency. Arendt uses the example of a “negro” living in a white community. If the community explains each of this “negro’s” actions with reference to his genetic makeup or class background, they deny his agency and treat him as “some specimen of an animal species.” (Arendt, 1951: 302)
It is for these reasons, both creating the “new species” and for relieving the pain of superfluous men, that the totalitarian movements continually emphasize the automatic, the unchosen and the inevitable. If a totalitarian observed a Frenchman ordering tea and a Mexican ordering coffee, the totalitarian would explain that tea drinking is genetically French or that coffee drinking is an expression of the Mexican soul, beyond the power of persuasion, outside the control of the individual, and therefore immune to reason. (Arendt, 1951: 312)
Nazi physician Karl Brandt employed this bizarre logic during his war crimes trial. US prosecutors suggested that he’d designed the gas chambers in order to reduce the population and thus the amount of food consumption in Germany. That is, the prosecutors accused him of committing a war crime – exterminating civilian populations – for a utilitarian goal – preserving food. Dr. Brandt was horrified and insisted that he’d pursued gas chamber extermination on “purely ethical grounds.” (The US against Karl Brandt et al. Hearing of May 14, 1947) Brandt’s “ethical” work consisted of helping into the grave races of people who, according to the “inevitable laws of genetics,” were already doomed. By designing a painless and efficient means of disposal, Brandt was saving the inferior race the pain of dying out naturally and protecting the chosen Aryan race from contamination. Without a theory of human agency, without the belief individual choices matter, gas chambers make perfect sense.
In addition to solving the existential crisis of superfluity, the totalitarian ethos also serves to alleviate the pain superfluous men experience in a seemingly random, uncaring universe. That is, many of these superfluous men would rather surrender their freedoms and lives if only it provides some sort of meaning. Indeed, this preference for meaning (even totalitarian meaning) over comfort or liberty explains how economic development, the expansion of human rights and increased access to education can have such surprisingly small correlation with self-reported levels of happiness or satisfaction. (Clifton, 2015)
Ⅳ. The Suppression of Doing in Service of Being and Anti-Utilitarian Policies
A key element of early totalitarianism is the establishment of systems of “being rather than doing.” That is, the “chosen” races/classes of people must be removed from the normal context of competitive society. Arendt uses South Africa, one of the world’s first race societies and a major precedent to the Nazi movement, as an example. South Africa had been dominated by the (originally Dutch) Boers since the 17th century. The Boers anointed themselves the divinely chosen and inevitable masters over the black Africans in the 18th century. As inevitable masters, there was no longer a reason to act. Agriculture slipped away to near nothing. Industrialization was studiously avoided. Anything that might incentivize South Africans to place merit above race was carefully excised. The British, expecting to find ‘typical Europeans’ in South Africa, had quite the surprise upon meeting the Boers.
“They [missionaries and businessmen in South Africa] … were shocked if Europeans settled in Africa were to act like savages themselves because it was the custom of the country, and to their simple utilitarian minds it seemed folly to sacrifice productivity and profit to the phantom world of white gods ruling over black shadows … (higher and lower motives) lose their meaning and appeal in a society where nobody wants to achieve anything and everyone has become a god.” (Arendt, 1951: 197)
This fear of recognizing practical concerns was rational because the Boers, correctly, understood that any “normal market for labor and merchandise would have liquidated the privileges of race.” (Arendt, 1951: 199)
Later German and Slavic the totalitarians took this farther and tried to actively demonstrate the meaninglessness of talent, virtue and achievement. It was not enough to glorify the innate. The willed must also be denigrated.
“Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.”(Arendt,1951:339)
The Marxist proletariat-bourgeoise concept seems to escape this totalitarian tendency. A person who became wealthy could be considered responsible for this “sin” and likewise a person who remained poor could be considered as acting “virtuously.” However, Stalin avoided this trap by adopting and perverting Hartmut Zwahr’s “born proletariat” concept. (Arendt, 1951: 356/ Kocka, 1999: 217) Stalin made membership in the proletariat a condition of birth. In summary, whether Darwinian or Marxist, totalitarians must demonstrate the uselessness and inconsequentially of human agency in order to glorify the innate, unchosen and inevitable.
Ⅴ. The Death Camps as the Ultimate Expression
of Being Over Doing
Death camps and gulags are the central “legal” institutions in totalitarian societies. They exist for two reasons, both in service of the superfluous men. First, by punishing innocent, “objective” enemies, death camps show that punishment and criminal action have no connection. Second, the death camps serve to implicate the greatest possible numbers in the worst imaginable crimes. This serves to show the “good” people of the regular population that their goodness in no way diminishes when they become accessories to murder, theft, torture, etc. The death camps are, in these two senses, the ultimate expressions being over doing.
First the meaning of “objective enemies” must be explained. In the Soviet Union, these people were at various times members of the (former) nobility, business people, the children of business people, the children of anyone who’d had any significant success at all, Jews, Poles, Koreans, people who had worked for the Russian branch of the Ford Motor Company, Greeks, Tartars, Romanians etc. In Cambodia they were ethnic Chinese, people who wore eye glasses, city dwellers, ethnic Cham, ethnic Vietnamese and people associated with religions. In Nazi Germany they were the Jews, the Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, people with mental illnesses, the disabled, Slavs, men of short stature and Africans. These people were never enemies because of their crimes, only because of their births.
While most polities view the future as uncertain – and thus do not arrest people for crimes they have not committed – the totalitarian movement’s central goal is to eliminate action as a meaningful category. As such, the “inevitable forces of history” (Marxist totalitarians) or the “unquestionable laws of genetics” (Darwinian totalitarians) must replace action as the standard of lawfulness. This is expressed through objective enemies and “scientific prophecy,” which this paper discusses later. Arendt uses one of Stalin’s numerous purges to illustrate the point.
“The totalitarian version of the possible crime is based on the logical anticipation of objective developments … Behind the fantastic, fabricated charges (of the Moscow Trials) one can easily detect the following logical calculation: developments in the Soviet Union might lead to a crisis, a crisis might lead to the overthrow of Stalin’s dictatorship, this might weaken the country’s military force and possibly bring about a situation in which the new government would have to sign a truce or even conclude an alliance with Hitler. Whereupon Stalin proceeded to declare that a plot for the overthrow of the government and a conspiracy with Hitler existed. Against these “objective,” though entirely improbable, possibilities stood only the “subjective” factors.” (Arendt, 1951: 427)
That is to say, the ideology’s “inevitable” progress overwhelms all standards of evidence – whether or not an actual Russian plot to help Hitler existed mattered less than the ideological imperative that one should exist – and that the victim’s “objective” qualities – race, location, ancestry – overwhelm and replace the unimportant, “subjective” details like innocence or guilt, action or agency, individuality or will.
It’s important to remember that the death camps were explicitly anti-utilitarian from the beginning. Stalin famously purged his army on the eve of World War II and the Nazis accelerated the costly and resource intensive extermination campaigns after Stalingrad. (Arendt, 1951: 410) Hans Frank, “the butcher of Poland,” spoke of the problem here.
“Not unimportant manpower has been taken from us in form of our old proven Jewish communities. It is clear that the working program is made difficult when in the middle of this program, during the war, the order for complete annihilation of the Jews is given … We have to be content with the consequences and can only report that the (extermination) has caused tremendous difficulties with regard to the work-program … this would not have happened if the many thousands of Jews working at it had not been deported. Now the order is given that the Jews will have to be removed from the armament projects. I hope that this order, if not already cancelled, will soon be cancelled, for then the situation will be still worse.” (Minutes of the meeting of the Office of the Governor General, August 24, 1942)
The Nazis, in accordance with their anti-utitlitarian principles, ignored Frank’s complaints. According to Arendt, the explicitly anti-utilitarian death camps are justified because they create an otherworldly environment that destroys the “judical man.” That is, the death camps serve to completely sever the link between crime and punishment and render action completely insignificant.
“(Victims) are deprived, not of the right to freedom, but of the fight to action; not of the right to think whatever they please, but of the right to opinion. Privileges in some cases, injustices in most, blessings and doom are meted out to them according to accident and without any relation whatsoever to what they do, did or may do.” (Arendt, 1951: 296)
In order to completely destroy judical logic, any objective enemy who commits a real crime is ineligible for extermination until he or she has completed the sentence in normal prison. That is, only after they have paid for their sins can they be truly punished. As such, “Jews, carriers of diseases, representatives of dying classes have already lost their capacity for both normal and criminal action” before extermination. (Arendt, 1951: 447)
VI. The Totalitarian Moral Hierarchy
– Scientism and the Death of God
The death of God was completely unacceptable to superfluous men. In earlier centuries the useless and outcast members of society justified their existences as “part of God’s plan” or as “partaking in the logic of the universe.” Darwinism (particularly social Darwinism) and Marxist “scientific history” rendered these justifications uncertain.
Fundamentally, the post-religious superfluous man’s suffering is a symptom of science’s essential nihilism. Unlike religions or ideologies, science is merely a tool. It prescribes no values and has no morality. It certainly is not concerned with the meaning of life or existential questions. The superfluous man’s homelessness becomes utterly, devastatingly complete in a nihilist vacuum of science.
In order to overcome this, the totalitarians embraced ideological science. In the case of the Nazis, evolutionary theory replaced God. In the case of the Bolsheviks, God gave way to “the forces of history.” In order to fill religion’s traditional functions – prescribing morality, providing meaning, forming a cultural hub for the community – the totalitarians used a combination of logical positivism (scientism) and what Arendt calls “prophecy.” First, the totalitarians propose a model of humanity that is perfectly consistent. They then argue that truth and consistency are the same thing. From there, the totalitarians use their perfectly consistent (and frequently wrong) models of reality to spread prophecy.
The Nazis’ prophecy predicted the rise of “chosen” races and the destruction of “lesser” races. Upon this foundation, the Nazis were able to threaten non-believers with the “deterioration” of their racial purity. Likewise, the Soviet Union prophecied the inevitable rise of the proletariate and destruction of dying classes. They then threatened heretics with being left behind on the march to classless utopia. Both Marxist and Darwinist totalitarians then explain that their discovery of the hidden principle of all reality makes them ultimate arbiters of good and evil. (Arendt, 1951: 345)
While it would be tempting to dismiss totalitarian “science” as nonsense, and they are frequently wrong, doing so ignores the role mainstream scientists and logical positivists played in the run up to totalitarianism. Marx, for example, was described as the Darwin of history and the academic community commonly repeats his “rise of the proletariate” prophecies even into the 21st century. Older biological articles, and modern brain science, overflows with prophecy. Consider P. Charles Michel’s 1896 paper “A Biological View of Our Foreign Policy” and “Lost Dominion (1925)” by A. Carthil.
According to Michel’s interpretation of evolutionary theory, each of the ethnic groups on earth is a budding new species cut off from the rest. He then explains that these new species are largely competing in the same ecological (or economic) niches and that, as such, must drive each other into extinction. Therefore, the British need to move quickly to drive rival races, the Germans in particular, into extinction.
“Were every German to be wiped out tomorrow, there is no English trade, no English pursuit that would not immediately expand. Were every Englishman to be wiped out to-morrow, the Germans would gain in proportion. Here is the first great racial struggle of the future. Here are two growing nations pressing against each other, man to man all over the world. One or the other has to go; one or the other will go.”
Carthill’s “Lost Dominion” (1925) proposes a similar, though less apocalyptic, biological fatalism. Evolution has rendered large chunks of humanity intellectually and physically allergic to the rest.
“Unhappy is the individual who is the result of a physical cross between two disparate stocks. Every cell is the theatre of a civil war. Hardly less unhappy is he whose intellect has accepted, but whose instincts reject, a foreign culture. It is therefore among the Orientals who are educated in Frankish lore, and particularly among those who have been educated in Europe and have returned thence to the East, that there is to be found the most bitter hatred of the Frank and of Frankish civilization.”
Josef Stalin’s Marxist prophecy shows a similar fatalism.
“The more accurately we recognize and observe the laws of history and class struggle, so much the more do we conform to dialectic materialism, the greater will be our success.” (Hill, 1980)
According to Arendt, these scientific prophecies are attempts to replace religious faith. Religions commonly prescribe universal morals, heavens and hells and systems of carrots and sticks. However, the death of God has challenged these. Since most people are unable to live without fear, hope or a universal moral code, difficulties arise. As such, the scientific prophets create artificial heavens – superhuman racial paradises and classless utopias – and pair them with artificial hells – gulags and death camps – in order to provide systems of meaning to the subject people. (Arendt, 1951: 446-447)
VII. Totalitarianism Summary
Totalitarianism came into being according to the following factors:
1. The hopelessness and superfluousness of large numbers of human beings.
2. The “death of god” and rise of scientific nihilism robbing the superfluous men of even theoretically meaningful existence.
3. The extremely inconsequential impact of the superfluous men’s actions.
Totalitarianism alleviates the pain of superfluous men in the following ways:
1. It proposes the inherent goodness of inborn, unchosen traits like a “chosen race,” a “born proletariat” etc.
2. It proposes the meaninglessness and futility of action, releasing the superfluous men from his own impotence.
3. It divorces the idea of “doing good” from the idea of “being good,” reaching its ultimate expression through the systems of death camps.
4. It removes the “judical man” from human consciousness, releasing the superfluous men from guilt and responsibility.
VII. Democratic or Citizenship Education
When Subjected to Arendtian Totalitarianism
In order to establish the incompatibility of totalitarian succor with democratic/citizenship education I examine Arendt’s 1954 essay “Crisis in Education,” Plato’s Republic, the Xueji (part of the Confucian “Book of Rites”) and John Dewey’s 1916 book “Democracy and Education.” For contrast, this section also consults an English translation of “The Nazi Primer(1938),” a textbook (supposedly) written by Adolf Hitler.
Arendt, though not an education scholar, is important because her ideas about citizenship are unavoidably informed by her earlier work on totalitarianism. She conceives of American education as being fundamentally based on the idea that each new life, each instance of “natality,” presents a radical new beginning. These new beginnings are not aimed at some sort of “inevitable” result, but rather at the indeterminate process of liberating and enabling human beings to grow and adapt in response to changing, unforeseeable futures.
“For America the determining factor [in education] has always been the motto printed on every dollar bill: Novus Ordo Seclorum, A New Order of the World.” (Arendt, 1954: 2)
This is fundamentally incompatible with scientific prophecy or fatalism in any form. Arendt proposes that proper education ought to foster newness and indeterminancy in the young. (Arendt, 1954: 3) The school’s function, therefore, is to help the young person transition from the safety and stability of the home into a dynamic and unpredictable outside world. Adults take responsibility for the child at this stage by teaching their accumulated knowledge and their social norms but they also foster the development of the “uniqueness that distinguishes every human being from every other” and the newness “of which he is not only a stranger in the world but something that has never been here before.” (Arendt, 1954: 9)
Arendt also comprehensively rejects the totalitarian idea that there is a static and perfect “finishing point” for history, racial purity, evolution or whatever else. Instead, proper education prepares the young for participation in a world which is always wearing out and being renewed, where ideas come and go and should come and go.
“Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands to serve mortals for a limited time as home … Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child, education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world.” (Arendt, 1961: 11-12)
John Dewey’s influential and explicitly democratic conception of education forms an important modern framework in which to analyze citizenship education. Dewey justifies education as a utilitarian thing designed to make the society happier, more just and more equal.
“Dewey had an inspiration from Habermas’s thoughts, which are in the traditions of Kant, and emphasize the role of education to transform the world into a more humane, just, and egalitarian society … He saw education as a means of serving the democratic process through making corrections in the economic evils and by obtaining political ends that would lead to progression of a society.” (Sikandar 2015)
In Democracy and Education (1916), Dewey explicitly argues in favor of cultural, religious and ethnic diversity as a means of creating a society with greater utility. “The intermingling in the school of youth of different races, differing religions, and unlike customs creates for all a new and broader environment.” (Dewey, 1916: 26-27)
Dewey further suggests that education is supposed to make students more able to organize models of the world on their own, rather than merely accept models imposed upon them by communists, race theorists or other ideologues. The student should develop a cognitive loop wherein they build conceptual schema with which to understand the world and then subject these schema to concrete happenings, editing and revising as they go. The ultimate goal being the student gaining the ability to accurately and independently perform reality testing. (Sikandar 2015)
“When we confuse a physical with an educative result, we always lose the chance of enlisting the person’s own participating disposition in getting the result desired, and thereby of developing within him an intrinsic and persisting direction in the right way.”(Dewey,1916:32)
Dewey also rejects the being-focused idea of identity in favor of a teleological approach. For Dewey, education is a process of learning to turn ideas and objects to one’s advantage through use. Young people develop dispositions – to mathematics, to ethics, to literature etc. An orange, in Dewey’s schema, is not best understood as a Kantian noumenon, but as a thing which tastes sweet, grows in Florida and can be made into juice. (Dewey, 1916: 34)
Ancient Greek and Confucian thinkers come to similar conclusions with regard to the education of their citizens. Plato argues that education is the primary (perhaps only) way to make most people virtuous. While Plato does not believe in a single, universal education – famously advocating separate tracks for philosophers and guardians in the Republic – he does universally treat education as instrumental for both meeting a society’s utilitarian needs and for infusing the citizens with virtue. Further, from the very structure of the Republic’s dialog, we can see Plato’s educational method in action. The path to truth, throughout Republic, takes learners and teachers on a journey through various trials, potential answers and investigations before arriving at provisional conclusions. (Dillon, 2004)
Similarly, the Confucian tradition is heavily invested in citizenship education. From the Xueji (I): “If a ruler desires to transform the people [and] perfect [their] customs, [the ruler] can only do so through education.” To Confucius the perfection of custom and rule is the path to dao (or tao), which is the process of coming into harmony with the universal principle. “Although the ultimate dao is present, [one] does not know [its] goodness if [one] does not learn it.”(Xueji III) Therefore, Confucius and his disciples consider the journey towards the perfection of self, taken through education, as a central human duty. Ng (2009) explains that “for the Confucians, personal cultivation of character and virtue is the basis for family harmony and social order. The Confucian self is where common good is transmitted.”
All four these citizenship educational approaches incorporate the 文質彬彬 framework mentioned by Cho Yong-hwan, (2012). 文質彬彬, refers to a virtuous back and forth between theory and practice where practice modifies theory and theory modifies practice, bringing one ever closer to perfection. That is, whether in Plato, Confucius, Arendt or Dewey, theory is valid only so long as it responds to and usefully interprets practical realities. This contrasts markedly with the totalitarian methods suggested by Nazi Primer.
“The reasons [Germans have diverse opinions and agendas] lay, not only in the fact that the past had no unified and common world outlook. It also lay in the fact that the innumerable so-called outlooks on life were themselves so unclear and perplexing that no information of a political will could proceed there from … By reason of this opposition between theory and practice all questions of national life soon become so entangled and obscure that even the “leaders” of such philosophical systems did not know how to establish order amid the confusion … The exact opposite is the case today. All questions of our national life have become so clear, simple, and definite that every comrade can understand them and cooperate in their solution.” (Hitler, 1938: 7)
As opposed to “creating anew” and embracing a broadened perception as recommended by Arendt and Dewey, Nazi Primer prophecies everything a “comrade” needs. The broadened mind Dewey mentions is, from Hitler’s perspective, confusion, fantacism and obscurity. Instead of experience and creativity, the Nazi Primer explains that comrades focus on the only two principles needed, “blood and soil.” (Hitler, 1938: 8)
Further, in contrast with the Confucian idea of approaching dao through education or the active approaches of Arendt and Dewey, the Nazi Primer insists on a scientific and deterministic accounting of human personalities, dispositions and actions, basing all their policies on “the teachings of genetics.” (Hitler, 1938: 9)
As opposed to the traditional ideas of education unifying and assimilating people, the Nazi Primer criticizes Christian educational practices for their tendency to esteem the chosen – in this case choice of religious faith – over unchosen traits – race in this case.
“The Christians, above all the Roman Church, reject the race idea with the citation ‘before God all men are equal.” All who have the Christian belief, whether Jews, bush niggers, or whites are dearer to them and more worthwhile than a German who does not confess Christianity. The one binding bond, above and beyond all restrictions, is the Belief which alone brings salvation.” (Hitler, 1938: 10)
The Nazi Primer goes to great lengths to put all of this racial determinism in scientific terms, explaining how Gregor Mendel makes the mixing of races “incontrovertibly” wrong (and self-correcting according to the “Law of Segregation”) on pages 21-25. Hitler then drafts Darwin into the process of scientifically “proving” the inevitable triumph of genetic inheritance over nurture, education or culture.
“A Jew both in Germany and in all other countries remains only a Jew. He can never change his race by centuries of residence with another people, as he often asserts, but just as often contradicts by his own actions … All arguments and political demands, which are founded on the belief in the power of environment, are therefore false and weak.” (Hitler, 1938: 27)
Where Arendt and Dewey demand education should create new opportunities to modify and remake the systems of meaning, the Nazi Primer denies students the chance to remake anything. Reason is purely the slave of the “clear and simple” truths scientifically prophesied. (Hitler, 1938: 34)
The goals of totalitarian education and the characteristics of totalitarian succor are unable to coexist alongside traditional educational frameworks in at least four ways:
1. The totalitarian subject’s missing “judical man” eliminates judgment except within the framework of the ideology. Dewey’s emphasis on independence and reality testing, Plato’s philosopher-training, Arendt’s insistence that education foster flexibility and the Confucian belief in wisdom as the fundamental ordering principle of good society all directly contradict the totalitarian conception of education.
2. Totalitarianism is anti-utilitarian. Confucian, Platonic, and modern citizenship education approaches are irreducibly utilitarian.
3. Totalitarian succor operates in the realm of inevitabilities, continually arguing that human actions are the unavoidable consequences of essential features. It insists that history is a mere chain of fatality progressing on towards some ideologically defined end point – communism, racial purification etc. By contrast, the Confucians, Plato and Dewey emphasize the need for citizens to improve themselves through reflection, action, reality testing and independent study. Their rejection of inevitability is impossible to remove without destroying the entire edifice.
4. By focusing on the reduction of suffering rather than strengthening the independent cognitive powers of individual students, totalitarian methods deny the young the opportunity to remake the culture or alter the course of the future.
The provision of totalitarian succor to superfluous men annihilates the education of citizens as it has been traditionally practiced in democracies, classical republics and Confucian societies. Coexistence is impossible.
VII. Totalitarian Elements in Modern Self-Help/Continuing Education Books
In order to determine the extent to which totalitarian elements influence modern self-help/continuing education materials, this paper considers popular, modern self-help texts from diverse standpoints. Rupi Kaur’s “milk and honey (2015)” is an intersectional feminism-focused collection of poetry that details the author’s struggles with abuse and healing. Robert Greene’s “Mastery (2013)” is a Machiavellian work focused on empowering the reader to succeed in and subjugate the workplace. Third, Lisa Schab’s “Self-Esteem for Teens (2016)” is a cognitive psychology based guidebook intended for young people. Finally, “We, A Manifesto for Women Everywhere (2017)” is intended to help 21st century women overcome the sufferings of the “universal female experience.”
Self-Esteem is by far the lowest register of the works, written in a style similar to many young adult fiction novels, with easy vocabulary and simple sentences. We is not quite as simple as Self-Esteem, but still uses a generally low register, frequent repetitions and simple grammar. Both are seemingly intended for relatively low-status members of the middle class – housewives and teenagers respectively. Mastery is still easy to read but incorporates considerably higher register vocabulary and adds frequent unabridged quotations from highbrow figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and Wolfgange Von Goethe. It seems intended for a more literary and certainly higher status audience than We or Self-Esteem. Finally, milk is by far the most artistic in intent and delivery. If the subject matter were not so laser-focused on female victimhood and recovery, it would resemble the work of E.E. Cummings or Shel Silverstein.
IX. milk and honey by Rupi Kaur
This book is the least traditional self-help of the four considered. It is written in verse and depends to a surprising degree on illustrations. However, it merits inclusion in this paper because it is overwhelmingly concerned with healing and recovery and because it is marketed towards marginalized and powerless groups – minority women who’ve survived abuse in this case.
milk and honey details Rupi Kaur’s personal journey. This includes her early escape from India, her childhood in Canada, the long series of male relatives who molested her, her sexual affairs and spiritual crises.
Kaur’s book is strikingly similar to the totalitarian succor suggested by Arendt in many ways. Kaur repeatedly stresses the importance of racial and gender identity, she presents goodness as an inevitable quality of being an holds the reduction of suffering in higher esteem than the implementation of positive values.
The Role of Blood and Annihilation of the Individual
On page XVI of the foreword, Kaur explains the importance of learning from and connecting to members of one’s own race and gender. She strongly implies that connecting with members of other races and genders can never fill the role a racially pure connection can.
“i need access to words written by people who look like me writing about the things i am going through. at that moment i realize the importance of representation and know this must be different for my children. they must have access to their own literature.”
This has obvious parallels to the racial theory of P. Charles Michel’s “A Biological View of Our Foriegn Policy” and A. Carthill’s “Lost Dominion” – particularly in reference to Charthill’s idea that people are effectively allergic to the cultures of different races. Kaur reinforces this feeling of fate and genetically determined destiny, along with a very superfluous-man-like description of her father, below.
“father. you always call to say nothing in particular. you ask what im doing or where i am and when the silence stretches like a lifeline between us i scramble to find question to keep the conversation going. what i long to say most is. i understand this world broke you. it has been to hard on your feet. i don’t blame you for not knowing how to remain soft with me. sometimes i stay up thinking of all the places you are hurting which you’ll never care to mention. i come from the same aching blood. from the same bone so desperate for attention i collapse in on myself. i am your daughter. i know the small talk is the only way you know how to tell me you love me. cause it is the only way i know how to tell you.” (Kaur. 2017. 2017)
Kaur also desires to annihilate her individual identity in favor of a biological identity. In the following passage (156), a lover attempts to compliment Kaur for being “not like other girls.”
“you tell me
i am not like most girls
and learn to kiss me with your eyes closed
and something about the phrase – something about
how i have to be unlike the women
i call sisters in order to be wanted
makes me want to spit your tongue out
like i am supposed to be proud you picked me
as if i should be relieved you think
i am better than them.”
This poem is fascinating. Would Kaur have been happy if the lover had said “you are a completely average woman with no distinguishing characteristics and this is why I love you?” It’s like she is demanding to be treated as a mass produced and replaceable cog in the machine of femininity. The sentiment Kaur expresses here is eerily similar to the one expressed by proto-totalitarian fatalists in Totalitarianism.
“Bakunin had already confessed, ‘I do not want to be I, I want to be we,’ and Nechayev had preached the evangel of the ‘doomed man’ with ‘no personal interests, no affairs, no sentiments, attachments, property, not even a name of his own.'” (Arendt 1951. 330)
The Inevitability of Goodness and Reduction of Suffering
Like the romantics and the totalitarians, Kaur explains how her goodness emanates from her unchosen, biological characteristics. Femininity, in the passages, below, make her holy, good and complete.
“when my mother was pregnant
with her second child i was four
i pointed at her swollen belly confused at how
my mother had gotten so big in such little time
my father scooped me in his tree trunk arms and
said the closest thing to god on this earth
is a woman’s body it’s where life comes from
and to have a grown man tell me something
so powerful at such a young age
changed me to see the entire universe
rested at my mother’s feet” (Kaur, 2017. 37)
“i like the way the stretch marks
on my thighs look human and
that we’re so soft yet
rough and jungle wild
when we need to be
i love that about us
how capable we are of feeling
how unafraid we are of breaking
and tend to our wounds with grace
just being a woman
makes me utterly whole
and complete.” (Kaur, 2017. 161)
This has obvious parallels with Arendt’s description of totalitarian movements. Particularly when totalitarians tell their followers that there is no need to do good things, do honest things or do brave things when they can simply embody those qualities through their essences.
Finally, like the superfluous men of old, Kaur esteems the reduction of suffering over the accomplishment of goodness or pleasure. Figuratively, Kaur’s heaven seems to be less a triumph and more a morphine drip.
“you look like you smell of
honey and no pain
let me have a taste of that” (Kaur, 2017. 58)
X. Mastery by Robert Greene
Mastery is, in some ways, a very traditional self-help book. It purports to help readers on the path to self-actualization, happiness and meaningful life. However, it differs from genre norms in several ways. First, it proposes no universal goodness or equality in human beings. Greene often implies people can and do become bad. In Greene’s schema, the superfluous man is simply contemptible. Second, it dismisses the desirability of blood communities. Greene advocates abandoning racial, familial or class connections whenever they become inconvenient. Third, it treats essences and innate souls with deep suspicion. Fourth, Mastery owes much more in spirit and content to political works like Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” or Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince” than to the self-esteem movement or therapeutic tradition. Fifth, as opposed to the majority of self help books, it appears to be marketed primarily to men. (McLean and Kapell, 2015)
Mastery focuses on how an individual can dominate their field of work. Greene’s examples include Leonardo DaVinci’s mastery over portraiture, Temple Grandin’s mastery over livestock management, Cesar Rodriguez’s mastery over fighter jets and Daniel Everette’s mastery over languages. Greene dismisses the “true soul” of genius entirely, arguing that masters achieve their virtuosity through discrete sequences of willed actions. They devote themselves to life’s work, connect to effective mentors, learn to navigate and exploit workplace politics, learn widely in order to connect outside ideas to their life’s work and combine the rational and intuitive to achieve creatively. Greene’s book is almost perfectly anti-totalitarian.
The Role of Potentiality
Greene begins Mastery with a quote from Wolfgang von Goethe.
“Everyone holds his fortune in his own hands, like a sculptor the raw material he will fashion into a figure. But it’s the same with that type of artistic activity as with all others: We are merely born with the capability to do it. The skill to mold the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated.” (Greene, 2013. 1)
This theme permeates the entire book. A human life is only as good as the work that goes into it. On page 14, Greene cites research on brain plasticity before explaining that unhappy, dull and ineffective people are unhappy, dull and ineffective because they have made themselves so. Rather than pointing to some Aryan soul or feminine essence, Greene insists goodness is achieved by working really hard for a really long time.
The Superiority of Doing over Being
Greene seems to dislike people who derive self-worth from inherent traits. Mastery is decidedly unimpressed with the superfluous man’s inevitable forces of history and immutable laws of genetics.
“We live in a world that seems increasingly beyond our control. Our livelihoods are at the whim of globalized forces … A natural response when people feel overwhelmed is to retreat into various forms of passivity … the less we attempt the less chance of failure. If we can make it look like we are not really responsible for our fate, for what happens to us in life, then our apparent powerlessness is more palatable. For this reason we become attracted to certain narratives: it is genetics that determines much of what we do; we are just products of our times; the individual is just a myth … This passivity has even assumed a moral stance: ‘mastery and power are evil; they are the domain of patriarchal elites who oppress us; power is inherently bad; better to opt out of the system altogether.” (Greene, 2013. 13)
Greene goes on to call this way of thinking a disease in the very next paragraph, explaining that essence belief infects its victims, making them complacent and lazy, sapping their discipline and making them. Greene predicts such essence thinking will lead to a bad life and unhappy death. Instead, he suggests action as the best way to escape existential crises.
“What we lack most in the modern world is a sense of a larger purpose to our lives. In the past, it was organized religion that often supplied this. But most of us now live in a secularized world … Without a sense of direction provided to us we tend to flounder. We don’t know how to fill up and structure our time … Feeling that we are called to accomplish (a life’s work) is the most positive way for us to supply this sense of purpose and direction.” (Greene, 2013. 28)
The Desirability of Pain and Discomfort
While Arendt describes the totalitarian program as a way to avoid pain, Greene advises his readers to embrace hardship, danger and discomfort, pointing to the life of Darwin in particular as a model.
“(Darwin) constantly looked for challenges, pushing himself past his comfort zone. He used danger and difficulties as a way to measure his progress. You must adopt such a spirit and see your apprenticeship as a kind of journey in which you will transform yourself, rather than as a drab indoctrination into the work world.” (Greene, 2013. 56)
In later chapters, Greene advocates a mild form of masochism. The path to happiness and fulfillment, he argues, requires toughness and continual effort rather than the passive “innate soul” suggested by totalitarians. Readers must resist the urge to be nice to themselves, they should criticize themselves, they should find their own weaknesses and take pleasure in overcoming these painful shortcomings. (Greene, 2013. 81)
XI. Self-Esteem for Teens by Lisa Schab
Schab’s book is the most traditional self-help text of the four. Schab argues for inevitable goodness, the importance of self-love, self-esteem independent of achievement, the importance of heritage, the importance of individuality and the need to establish independence. She draws heavily from the self-esteem movement and mainstream cognitive psychology.
However, in advancing these disparate goals and values, Schab ends up with a number of (seemingly unnoticed) contradictions and paradoxes. First, Schab repeatedly explains that teens need to devote themselves to action in order to be full human beings while simultaneously explaining that they will be good regardless of what they do. Next, Schab stresses the needs for teens to “be your true self” while also condemning “acting out.” She seems to believe no “true self” ever wants to “act out.” Last Schab assumes that teens can always arrive at a socially acceptable lifestyle by following their natural desires. She continually points to a “true ideal” without ever specifying what that ideal might be.
The Division Between Worth and Action
Self-Esteem explains that teens sabotage themselves when they base their worth on accomplishments. (Schab, 2016. 1) She seems to imply that the process of setting and achieving goals is not within the teenager’s power – a very dark picture of human agency. The confusion about agency continues in Schab’s example of healthy self-esteem.
“Adam believes he has equal value to everyone else and a chance at succeeding in most things he tries. He tells himself he’s inherently just as good as, but not superior to, other people, and if he doesn’t succeed at one thing, he’ll try something else.” (Schab, 2016. 12)
This quote is striking in that it rejects chosenness, but also rejects an earned or action dependent reason to be. Being is sufficient, action is possible, but doing good does not raise one above those who do nothing. This becomes even more confusing when Schab argues that a person’s perceptions have the ability to determine “how we experience everything in life, including ourselves.” (Schab, 2016. 13) It’s not clear why Adam needs to “try things” if he’s already equal and can create reality through perceptions. Schab contradicts this when she explains that goodness is inherent, not a matter of perceptions. (Schab, 2016. 58) In short, Self-Esteem has a paradoxical mishmash of active and essence thinking.
The Contest Between “Being Your True Self” and “Acting Out.”
Schab claims the true self is completely in the hands of the individual. By controlling one’s thoughts, a person can build their identity and self-image without any interference from the outside. (Schab, 2016. 15) However, book also argues that all human beings have intrinsic value and a natural goodness. On page 51, Schab includes an “affirmation.” “My differences contribute to the perfection of the universe,” and adds on page 56 that “the idea that some people are ‘better’ than others runs contrary to the belief that everyone has intrinsic value and worth. We all arrive here as equals, and there’s no child, teen, or adult who has more value than another.”
While dubious on its own – explaining to a homeless Pakistani teen that he has equal value to an English princess seems incredibly cruel and/or delusional – the issue becomes fraught on page 70 where Schab claims we have very limited power to alter our “authentic selves” and even more problematic when Schab abruptly reverses course and advises those who’ve become a little too comfortable with their authentic selves as follows:
“If you think you’re being true to your authentic self but are getting into trouble, talk to an adult you trust about how to stop and rethink your choices.” (Schab, 2016. 72)
At first glance, this seems to imply a Confucian belief in innate goodness. However, the Confucians are adamant that people can and should change their natural and/or authentic selves in order to be more in tune with dao. Taken through the lens of Totalitarianism, Self Esteem bounces back and forth between a proto-totalitarian romanticism and an almost libertarian and certainly stoic-influenced approach to self-mastery.
XII. We, A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel.
Anderson and Nadel seek to ease the suffering of females. We particularly focuses on how women can stop criticizing themselves and how they can form a universal sisterhood. While We tries to exclude male perspectives, it seems to espouse a stoic world view that, traditionally, has been more associated with masculinity. Anderson and Nadel advocate meditation, letting go of things beyond a woman’s personal control and the conscious mastery over expectations in ways almost identical to Seneca, Epictetus or, if we prefer to exclude males, Fannia. However, Anderson and Nadel do propose a spiritual connection between all women similar to the blood connections in Nazi Primer and they affirm the action-independent goodness of all women.
The Reduction of Suffering
We proposes the reduction of suffering as one of two universal values in “An Invitation to You,” the first of We’s six forewords.
“Perhaps our heart tells us there is a better way of living; that we need to stop ignoring what really matters – the suffering of others and our planet’s future.”
The suffering reader surrenders to the benevolent and gentle book, allowing herself to be passively carried on to a place free of pain. When things get too overwhelming, as they often do, the reader uses We to create a nice, tranquil hiding space. Where Mastery recommends ruthless self-critique and embracing difficulties, We advises women to shut off almost all potential sources of discomfort. In this sense, it seems to serve a similar function to totalitarian succor, though from a different angle.
Inborn Traits and Stoic Self Control
We proposes a wide set of opinions, beliefs and philosophies that all females supposedly share. The following comes from the second foreword, “The Journey.”
“All of us start out in life with a strong internal value system: a sense of what’s right and wrong and what’s fair and what’s unjust.”
We is skeptical that women in different situations might legitimately differ in their views of equality, environmental protection, social redistribution and economic policy. Like the “comrades” in Nazi Primer, women seemingly require one “true” opinion.
“The gap between rich and poor is widening, causing social division and ill health, but instead of investment and redistribution we have cuts and austerity. Large swaths of humanity are threatened by climate change, yet our governments fear tackling it lest they offend big business and consumers. The list goes on and on, and every one of us knows that it’s crazy and it’s wrong.”
We was published in 2017. In 2017, female British voters split exactly equally between the pro-business, anti-redistribution and pro-austerity Conservative Party and the anti-business, pro-redistribution and anti-austerity Labour Party (Curtis, 2017). If we take Anderson and Nadel at their world, millions of British women are acting against their essences. The parallels between this and the “negro characteristics” tragedy Arendt pointed out in Totalitarianism are obvious.
Furthermore, Anderson and Nadel propose the formation of a global community based on inherited traits (gender in this case) in the fourth foreword, “We’s Vision.” This seems very similar to the “chosen people” narratives like the Boer “New Zion” and Benjamin Disraeli’s Jewish chosenness concept. (Arendt, 1951. 68-79)
While We betrays a deterministic and essentialistic bent in many ways, it also incorporates a great deal of classical stoic ideals regarding the control of one’s own mind. Conscious gratitude and the pruning of useless thoughts as described in We might just as easily come from Seneca or Epictetus. Page 7 advises the reader to make daily lists of the things they feel grateful for and page 89 shows a very high estimation of a woman’s ability to overcome “innate” feelings and problems.
We can’t really change people, places, and things. When we try to control someone or something, even if it’s with the best of intentions, we often end up being controlled by that person, thing or situation … the more we start to accept the things we can’t change in our lives, the more effective we become at changing the things we can: namely our own attitudes and actions.
The Division Between Action and Goodness
Like Self-Esteem, We sends mixed messages about the relationship between doing good and being good. On page 17, We assures women that whatever they happen to be doing is enough. On the next page Anderson explains how she has banished self-critique in order to feel better about her essence.
I’ve found great benefit in creating an internal intolerance towards self-criticism … The second a negative thought even reaches the periphery of my mind, I try to banish it. (Anderson and Nadel, 2017. 18)
It’s very hard to reconcile this with the adaptive and critical pedagogies suggested in Dewey, Plato and Arendt. The critique of self, and reflection in general, seems to be bad in We. Anderson and Nadel later explicitly state that action and goodness should be divorced.
And then I remember the truth: that who I am is not dependent on any things I own, have, or do. That I exist beneath and beyond the facts of my life – that I’m a spiritual being on a human quest. (Anderson and Nadel, 2017. 20)
This is spookily similar to Arendt’s observation that superfluous men tend to throw off all action and declare themselves divine.(Arendt, 1951: 241) In spite of all the fatalism in We, page 40 sees Anderson and Nadel recommending meditation and/or prayer in order to take control of one’s mind and self-direct. We tells the reader that their actions and their goodness have no relationship on one page and on the next explains to the reader that she ought to exercise her will, embrace action and make herself better. They even quote Joan Baez on page 51. “Action is the antidote to despair.” It is very difficult to reconcile this with “who I am is not dependent on any things I own, have or do.”
XIII. Conclusions and Suggestions for Further Research
The comparison of totalitarian education and traditional citizenship education shows that totalitarian succor annihilates the education of citizens as traditionally practiced in democracies, classical republics and Confucian societies. Since self-help books form an important part of continuing education and help to diffuse educational ideas, it is important to understand how much those books incorporate elements of totalitarian succor and, thus, how much they threatened or support systems of citizenship education.
This paper finds that all the self-help and continuing education texts considered were targeted at groups at least potentially contiguous with Arendt’s superfluous men. At least three of the four texts shared with totalitarianism a significant emphasis on the “natural” separation between actions and goodness. All embraced at least some of Arendtian “romantic” notions regarding human uniqueness and the “cult of the genuine personality.” Nonetheless, approaches range from heavily totalitarian (Kaur) to almost perfectly anti-totalitarian (Greene).
For future research, this paper suggests more detailed investigation of the demographic traits of a wider variety of potentially superfluous people. There seemed to be a greater totalitarian influence in female-targeted self-help even though superfluous men have almost always been male historically, for instance. In addition, researchers might search for distinctions between disadvantaged but healthy communities and the truly superfluous. Lastly, and far more ambitious, it seems clear that educational researchers should work to find alternatives to totalitarian or totalitarian-like succor when dealing with the rapidly increasing ranks of superfluous students.
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< Abstract >
Hannah Arendt’s classic “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (1951) is one of the foundational texts of 20th century political philosophy. In it Arendt traces the origins of the world’s first two fully totalitarian states – Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union – through their beginnings in imperialism, their comings of age during the pan-German and pan-Slavic movements and their full maturities through the systems of extermination camps and gulags. Arendt’s most surprising and educationally significant find, however, is that the system of totalitarianism seems to legitimately serve the needs of a group she calls “superfluous men.”
In Arent’s analysis, superfluous men are those whose lives seem to have no action-independent reason to be. That is, superfluous men cannot point to any action, accomplishment or project as justification to for their lives. The totalitarians offered succor to these superfluous men by challenging the idea that one’s actions have a connection to one’s value as a human being.
This paper first explores how the totalitarian imperative to privilege unchosen essences like race, parentage and nationality over chosen things like work, active achievement or belief explodes traditional democratic or citizenship educational methods. Second, this paper shows how totalitarianism and citizenship education cannot coexist. Finally, it explores the commonalities between totalitarian methods of succor and the characteristics of modern self-help and continuing education books.
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