Superfluous People, the Ideology of Silicon Valley, and The Origins of Totalitarianism

There’s a passage from Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism that has been cited frequently in recent months, and with good reason. It speaks to the idea that we are experiencing an epistemic crisis with disastrous cultural and political consequences:

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 (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Jay Rosen recently tweeted that this was, for him, the quote of the year for 2017, and one can see why.

I would, however, suggest that there is another passage from the closing chapters of The Origins of Totalitarianism, or rather cluster of passages, that we might also consider. These passages speak to a different danger: the creation of superfluous people.

“There is only one thing,” Arendt concludes, “that seems discernible: we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous.”

“Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men,” Arendt furthermore claims, “but toward a system in which men are superfluous.” She immediately adds, “Total power can be achieved and safeguarded only in a world of conditioned reflexes, of marionettes without the slightest trace of spontaneity.”

Superfluity, as Arendt uses the term, suggests some combination of thoughtless automatism, interchangeability, and expendability. A person is superfluous when they operate within a system in a completely predictable way and can, as a consequence, be easily replaced. Individuality is worse than meaningless in this context; it is a threat to the system and must be eradicated.

So just as the “ideal subject” of a totalitarian state is someone who has been overwhelmed by epistemic nihilism, Arendt describes the “model ‘citizen'” as the human person bereft of spontaneity: “Pavlov’s dog, the human specimen reduced to the most elementary reactions, the bundle of reactions that can always be liquidated and replaced by other bundles of reactions that behave in exactly the same way, is the model ‘citizen’ of a totalitarian state.”

Arendt adds that “such a citizen can be produced only imperfectly outside of the camps.” In the camps, the “world of the dying” as Arendt calls them, “men are taught they are superfluous through a way of life in which punishment is meted out without connection to crime, in which exploitation is practiced without profit, and where work is performed without product, is a place where senselessness is daily produced anew.”

It may be obvious how Arendt’s claim regarding the inability to distinguish between truth and falsehood, fact and fiction speaks to our present moment, but what does her discussion of superfluous people and concentration camps have to do with us?

First, I should make clear that I do not expect to see death camps anytime soon. That said, it seems that there are a number of developments which together tend toward rendering people superfluous. For example: the operant conditioning to which we submit on social media, the pursuit of ever more sophisticated forms of automation, and the drive to outsource more and more aspects of our humanity to digital tools.

“If we take totalitarian aspirations seriously and refuse to be misled by the common-sense assertion that they are utopian and unrealizable,” Arendt insisted, “it develops that the society of the dying established in the camps is the only form of society in which it is possible to dominate man entirely.”

I would suggest that having discovered another form of society in which it is possible to dominate people entirely may be the dark genius of our age, a Huxleyan spin on an earlier Orwellian threat. I would also suggest that this achievement has traded on the expression of individuality rather than its suppression.

For example, social media appears to encourage the expression of individuality. In reality, it is a Skinner box, we are being programmed, and our so-called individuality is irrelevant ephemera so far as the network is concerned. In other words, people, insofar as they are considered as individuals, are, in fact, superfluous.

Regarding automation, it is, from my vantage point and given my lack of expertise, impossible to tell what will be the scale of its impact on employment. But it seems clear that there is cause for concern (unless you happen to live in Sweden). I have no reason to doubt that what jobs can be automated will be automated at the expense of workers, workers who will be rendered superfluous. What new jobs are expected to arise will be of the micro-gig economy or tend-the-machine sort. Work, that is to say, in which people qua individuals are superfluous.

As for the outsourcing of our cognitive, emotional, and ethical labor and our obsessive self-tracking and self-monitoring, it amounts to being sealed in a tomb of our revealed preferences (to borrow Rob Horning’s memorable line). Once more, spontaneous desire, serendipity, much of what Arendt classified as natality, the capacity to make a beginning at the heart of our individuality—all of it is surrendered to the urge for an equilibrium of programmed predictability.

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“Over and above the senselessness of totalitarian society,” Arendt went on to observe, “is enthroned the ridiculous supersense of its ideological superstition.” As she goes on to analyze the ideologies that supported the senselessness of totalitarian societies, discomforting similarities to strands of the Silicon Valley ideology emerge. Most notably, it seems to me, they share a blind adherence to a supposed Law driving human affairs. A Law adherence to which frees a person from ordinary moral responsibility, raises the person above the unenlightened masses, indeed, generates a barely veiled misanthropy.

Consider the following analysis:

Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth executes the law of History [as understood by Communism] or of Nature [as understood by Nazism] without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior. It applies the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behavior of men. The law of Nature or the law of History, if properly executed, is expected to produce mankind as its end product; and this expectation lies behind the claim to global rule of all totalitarian governments.

Now substitute the “law of Technology” for the law of History and the law of Nature. Tell me if it does not work just as well. This law can be variously framed, but it amounts to some kind of self-serving, poorly conceived technological determinism built upon some ostensible fact like Moore’s Law, and it dictates that humanity as it exists must be left behind in order to accommodate this deep law ordering the flow of time.

“What totalitarian ideologies therefore aim at is not the transformation of the outside world or the revolutionizing of society, but the transformation of human nature itself,” Arendt recognized. And so it is with the transhumanist strains of the ideology of Silicon Valley.

As I write these words, an excerpt from Emily Chang’s forthcoming Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys Club of Silicon Valley published in Vanity Fair is being shared widely on social media. It examines the “exclusive, drug-fueled, sex-laced parties” that some of the most powerful men in Silicon Valley regularly attend. The scandal is not in the sexual license. Indeed, that they believe their behavior to be somehow bravely unconventional and pioneering would be laughable were it not for its human toll. What is actually disturbing is how this behavior is an outworking of ideology and how this ideology generates so much more than drug-addled parties.

“[T]hey speak proudly about how they’re overturning traditions and paradigms in their private lives, just as they do in the technology world they rule,” Chang writes. “Their behavior at these high-end parties is an extension of the progressiveness and open-mindedness—the audacity, if you will—that make founders think they can change the world. And they believe that their entitlement to disrupt doesn’t stop at technology; it extends to society as well.”

“If this were just confined to personal lives it would be one thing,” Chang acknowledges. “But what happens at these sex parties—and in open relationships—unfortunately, doesn’t stay there. The freewheeling sex lives pursued by men in tech—from the elite down to the rank and file—have consequences for how business gets done in Silicon Valley.”

“When they look in the mirror,” Chang concludes, “they see individuals setting a new paradigm of behavior by pushing the boundaries of social mores and values.”

If you’re on the vanguard of the new humanity, social mores and values are for losers.

Arendt also gives us a useful way of framing  the obsession with disruption.

“In the interpretation of totalitarianism, all laws have become laws of movement,” Arendt claims. That is to say that stability is the enemy of the execution of the law of History or of Nature or, I would add, of Technology: “Neither nature nor history is any longer the stabilizing source of authority for the actions of mortal men; they are movements themselves.”

Upsetting social norms, disrupting institutions, destabilizing legal conventions, all of it is a way of freeing up the inevitable unfolding of the law of Technology. Never mind that what is actually being freed up, of course, is the movement of wealth. The point is that the ideology gives cover for whatever depredations are executed in its name. It engenders, as Arendt argues elsewhere, a pernicious species of thoughtlessness that abets all manner of moral outrages.

“Terror,” she explained, “is the realization of the law of movement; its chief aim is to make it possible for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action. As such, terror seeks to ‘stabilize’ men in order to liberate the forces of nature or history.”

Here again I would argue that we are witnessing a Huxleyan variant of this earlier Orwellian dynamic. Consider once more the cumulative effect of the many manifestations of the networks of surveillance, monitoring, operant conditioning, automation, routinization, and programmed predictability in which we are enmeshed. Their effect is not enhanced freedom, individuality, spontaneity, thoughtfulness, or joy. Their effect is, in fact, to stabilize us into routine and predictable patterns of behavior and consumption. Humanity is stabilized so that the law of Technology can run its course.

Under these circumstances, Arendt goes on to add, “Guilt or innocence become senseless notions; ‘guilty’ is he who stands in the way of the natural or historical process which has passed judgment over ‘inferior races,’ over ‘individuals ‘unfit to live,’ over ‘dying classes and decadent peoples.'” All the recent calls for the tech industry, then, may very well fall not necessarily on deaf ears but on on uncomprehending or indifferent ears tuned only to greater ideological “truths.”

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“Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.”

Perhaps that, too, is an apt passage for our times.

In two other observations Arendt makes in the closing pages of Origins, we may gather enough light to hold off the darkness. She writes of loneliness as the “common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology and logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims.” This loneliness is “closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of the modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution [….]

“Ideologies are never interested in the miracle of being,” she also observes.

Perhaps, then, we might think of the cultivation of wonder and friendship as inoculating measures, a way of sustaining the light.

Finding A Place For Thought

Yesterday, I wrote briefly about how difficult it can be to find a place for thought when our attention, in both its mental and emotional dimensions, is set aimlessly adrift on the currents of digital media. Digital media, in fact, amounts to an environment that is inhospitable and, indeed, overtly hostile to thought.

Many within the tech industry are coming to a belated sense of responsibility for this world they helped fashion. A recent article in the Guardian tells their story. They include Justin Rosenstein, who helped design the “Like” button for Facebook but now realizes that it is common “for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences” and James Williams, who worked on analytics for Google but who experienced an epiphany “when he noticed he was surrounded by technology that was inhibiting him from concentrating on the things he wanted to focus on.”

Better late than never one might say, or perhaps it is too late. As per usual, there is a bit of ancient wisdom that speaks to the situation. In this case, the story of Pandora’s Box comes to mind. Nonetheless, when so many in the industry seem bent on evading responsibility for the consequences of their work, it is mildly refreshing to read about some who are at least willing to own the consequences of their work and even striving to somehow make ammends.

It is telling, though, that, as the article observes, “These refuseniks are rarely founders or chief executives, who have little incentive to deviate from the mantra that their companies are making the world a better place. Instead, they tend to have worked a rung or two down the corporate ladder: designers, engineers and product managers who, like Rosenstein, several years ago put in place the building blocks of a digital world from which they are now trying to disentangle themselves.”

Tristan Harris, formerly at Google, has been especially pointed in his criticism of the tech industries penchant for addictive design. Perhaps the most instructive part of Harris’s story is how he experienced a promotion to ethics position within Google as, in effect, a marginalization and silencing.

(It is also edifying to consider the steady drumbeat of stories about how tech executives stringently monitor and limit the access their own children have to devices and the Internet and why they send their children to expensive low tech schools.)

Informed as my own thinking has been by the work of Hannah Arendt, I see this hostility to thought as a serious threat to our society. Arendt believed that thinking was somehow intimately related to our moral judgment and an inability to think a gateway to grave evils. Of course, it was a particular kind of thinking that Arendt had in mind–thinking, one might say, for thinking’s sake. Or, thinking that was devoid of instrumentality.

Writing in Aeon recently, Jennifer Stitt drew on Arendt to argue for the importance of solitude for thought and thought for conscience and conscience for politics. As Stitt notes, Arendt believed that “living together with others begins with living together with oneself.” Here is Stitt’s concluding paragraph:

But, Arendt reminds us, if we lose our capacity for solitude, our ability to be alone with ourselves, then we lose our very ability to think. We risk getting caught up in the crowd. We risk being ‘swept away’, as she put it, ‘by what everybody else does and believes in’ – no longer able, in the cage of thoughtless conformity, to distinguish ‘right from wrong, beautiful from ugly’. Solitude is not only a state of mind essential to the development of an individual’s consciousness – and conscience – but also a practice that prepares one for participation in social and political life.

Solitude, then, is at least one practice that can help create a place for thought.

Paradoxically, in a connected world it is challenging to find either solitude or companionship. If we submit to a regime of constant connectivity, we end up with hybrid versions of both, versions which fail to yield their full satisfactions.

Additionally, as someone who works one and a half jobs and is also raising a toddler and an infant, I understand how hard it can be to find anything approaching solitude. In a real sense it is a luxury, but it is a necessary luxury and if the world won’t offer it freely then we must fight for it as best we can.

There was one thing left in Pandora’s Box after all the evils had flown irreversibly into the world: it was hope.

A Lost World

Human beings have two ways, generally speaking, of going about the business of living with one another: through speech or violence. One of the comforting stories we tell each other about the modern world is that we have, for the most part, set violence aside. Indeed, one of modernity’s founding myths is that it arose as a rational alternative to the inevitable violence of a religious and unenlightened world. The truth of the matter is more complicated, of course. In any case, we would do well to recall that it was popularly believed at the turn of the twentieth century that western civilization had seen the end of large scale conflict among nations.

Setting to one side the historical validity of modernity’s myths, let us at least acknowledge that a social order grounded in the power of speech is a precarious one. Speech can be powerful, but it is also fragile. It requires hospitable structures and institutions that are able to sustain the possibility of intelligibility, meaning, and action–all of which are necessary in order for a political order premised on the debate and deliberation to exist and flourish. This is why emerging technologies of the word–writing, the printing press, the television, the Internet–always adumbrate profound political and cultural transformations.

A crisis of the word can all too easily become a political crisis. This insight, which we might associate with George Orwell, is, in fact, ancient.

Consider the following: “To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member,” so wrote, not Orwell but Thucydides in the first half of the fifth century BC. He goes on as follows:

… to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man, and to plot against an enemy behind his back was perfectly legitimate self-defense. Anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted, and anyone who objected to them became a suspect. To plot successfully was a sign of intelligence, but it was still cleverer to see that a plot was hatching. If one attempted to provide against having to do either, one was disrupting the unity of the party and acting out of fear of the opposition. In short, it was equally praiseworthy to get one’s blow in first against someone who was going to do wrong, and to denounce someone who had no intention of doing any wrong at all. Family relations were a weaker tie than party membership, since party members were more ready to go to any extreme for any reason whatever. These parties were not formed to enjoy the benefit of the established laws, but to acquire power by overthrowing the existing regime; and the members of these parties felt confidence in each other not because of any fellowship in a religious communion, but because they were partners in crime.”

I came across a portion of this paragraph on two separate occasions during the past week or two, first in a tweet and then again while reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s A Short History of Ethics.

The passage, taken from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War, speaks with arresting power to our present state of affairs. We should note, however, that what Thucydides is describing is not primarily a situation of pervasive deceitfulness, one in which people knowingly betray the ordinary and commonly accepted meaning of a word. Rather, it is a situation in which moral evaluations themselves have shifted. It is not that some people now lied and called an act of thoughtless aggression a courageous act. It is that what had before been commonly judged to be an act of thoughtless aggression was now judged by some to be a courageous act. In other words, it would appear that in very short order, moral judgments and the moral vocabulary in which they were expressed shifted dramatically.

It brings to mind Hannah Arendt’s frequent observation about how quickly the self-evidence of long-standing moral principles were overturned in Nazi Germany: “… it was as though morality suddenly stood revealed in the original meaning of the word, as a set of mores, customs and manners, which could be exchanged for another set with hardly more trouble than it would take to change the table manners of an individual or a people.”

It is shortsighted, at this juncture, to ask how we can find agreement or even compromise. We do not, now, even know how to disagree well; nothing like an argument in the traditional sense is being had. It is an open question whether anyone can even be said to be speaking intelligibly to anyone who does not already fully agree with their positions and premises. The common world that is both the condition of speech and its gift to us is withering away. A rift has opened up in our political culture that will not be mended until we figure out how to reconstruct the conditions under which speech can once again become meaningful. Until then, I fear, the worst is still before us.

Dark Times

“I borrow the term [“dark times”] from Brecht’s famous poem ‘To Posterity,’ which mentions the disorder and the hunger, the massacres and the slaughterers, the outrage over injustice and the despair ‘when there was only wrong and no outrage,’ the legitimate hatred that makes you ugly nevertheless, the well-founded wrath that makes the voice grow hoarse. All this was real enough as it took place in public; there was nothing secret or mysterious about it. And still, it was by no means visible to all, nor was it at all easy to perceive it; for until the very moment when catastrophe overtook everything and everybody, it was covered up not by realities but by the highly efficient talk and double-talk of nearly all official representatives who, without interruption and in many ingenious variations, explained away unpleasant facts and justified concerns. When we think of dark times and of people living and moving in them, we have to take this camouflage, emanating from and spread by ‘the establishment’ – or ‘the system,’ as it was then called – also into account. If it is the function of the public realm to throw light on the affairs of men by providing a space of appearances in which they can show in deed and word, for better and worse, who they are and what they can do, then darkness has come when this light is extinguished by ‘credibility gaps’ and ‘invisible government,’ by speech that does not disclose what is but sweeps it under the carpet, by exhortations, moral and otherwise, that, under the pretext of upholding old truths, degrade all truth to meaningless triviality.

Nothing of this is new.

(Hannah Arendt, Preface to Men in Dark Times)

The Miracle That Saves the World

are-233x300“Hannah Arendt is preeminently the theorist of beginnings,” according to Margaret Canovan in her Introduction to Arendt’s The Human Condition. “Reflections on the human capacity to start something new pervade her thinking,” she adds.

I’ve been thinking about this theme in Arendt’s work, particularly as the old year faded and the new one approached. Arendt spoke of birth and death, natality and morality, as the “most general condition of human existence.” Whereas most Western philosophy had taken its point of departure from the fact of our mortality, Arendt made a point of emphasizing natality, the possibility of new beginnings.

“The most heartening message of The Human Condition,” Canovan writes,

is its reminder of human natality and the miracle of beginning. In sharp contrast to Heidegger’s stress on our mortality, Arendt argues that faith and hope in human affairs come from the fact that new people are continually coming into the world, each of them unique, each capable of new initiatives that may interrupt or divert the chains of events set in motion by previous actions.”

This is, indeed, a heartening message. One that we need to take to heart in these our own darkening days. Below are a three key paragraphs in which Arendt develops her understanding of the importance of natality in human affairs.

First, on the centrality of natality to political activity:

[T]he new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities. Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought

Natality was a theme that predated the writing of The Human Condition. Here is the closing paragraph of arguably her best known work, after Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Origins of Totalitarianism, written a few years earlier.

“But there remains also the truth that every end in history also contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom. Initium ut esset homo creatus est–”that a beginning be made man was created” said Augustine. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”

In a well-known passage from The Human Condition, Arendt refers to the fact of natality as the “miracle that saves the world.” By the word world, Arendt does not mean the Earth, rather what we could call, borrowing a phrase from historian Thomas Hughes, the human-built world, what she glosses as “the realm of human affairs.” Here is the whole passage:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.”

Arendt well understood, however, that not all new beginnings would be good or just or desirable.

If without action and speech, without the articulation of natality, we would be doomed to swing forever in the ever-recurring cycle of becoming, then without the faculty to undo what we have done and to control at least partially the processes we have let loose, we would be the victims of an automatic necessity bearing all the marks of the inexorable laws which, according to the natural sciences before our time, were supposed to constitute the outstanding characteristic of natural processes.

In fact, Arendt attributes “the frailty of human institutions and laws and, generally, of all matters pertaining to men’s living together” to the “human condition of natality.” However, Arendt believed there were two capacities that channeled and constrained the power of action, the unpredictable force of natality: forgiveness and promise keeping. More on that, perhaps, in a later post.