The Sandstorm of Repression02-27-2012
"If this practice [of totalitarianism] is compared with that of tyranny, it seems as if a way had been found to set the desert itself in motion, to let loose a sand storm that could cover all parts of the inhabited earth. The conditions under which we exist today in the field of politics are indeed threatened by these devastating sand storms."
-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Arendt's concluding image in The Origins of Totalitarianism leaves us with a bleak sense of how the mass of lonely and isolated individuals in modern society – the desert –can readily be swept into the "sandstorm" of totalitarianism.
The book sketches the forces that drive this new form of frenetic political motion, as well as the traditional resources that prevented it earlier: the loneliness of the frightened person as opposed to the solitude of the reflective individual; the community of discussion instead of the techniques of "mass movements."
Of the specific principles of totalitarianism that Arendt raises, few are as intriguing as her recasting of what is now termed polycracy [Neumann/ Hüttenberger/ Broszat], the notion that at every level individuals in a totalitarian society found themselves within overlapping systems of bureaucracy and power, unsure which level was of the most import. "All levels of the administrative machine in the Third Reich," she notes as a principal example, "were subject to a curious duplication of offices, with a fantastic thoroughness." At every level of society, individuals were unsure of how to calibrate actions and statements to their context for self-promotion, defense, or simply to be left alone, since there were often two or more overlapping systems of organization defining their position. The average worker, for instance, might be unsure what factor was decisive for their fate: the role of their actual boss, the party connections of colleagues, the intrigues of the secret police, the family connections of acquaintances, or even their role in apparently secondary organizations such as an automobile association. Ultimately, "regular" politics could never pertain, while the politics of the "movement" always had some traction.
The result in Arendt's telling was often a necessary striving beyond proscribed roles to express alignment with the ideals of the party and in the quest for advantage or mere safety. Unlike aspects of her later argument for the "banality of evil," here simply "fitting in" was not enough. In this manner, later scholars have argued, the decisive feature of totalitarian societies was neither the passive "structure" of organization nor the simple "intent" of members, but rather a new middle term created from the ill ease of masses of individuals.
The "conditions under which we exist today" no doubt still include the original possibilities of totalitarianism, but Arendt would also have us ask what has changed, what new aspects of society facilitate or act as windbreaks, so to speak, for such "sandstorms." Earlier windbreaks passively functioned, as Arendt suggests for even relatively dystopian societies such as tyrannies, through the exercise of clear lines of authority, the existence of an active private sphere of life, and the possible formation of a discursive community of individuals, even if only in small groups.
At first glance, the new social technologies credited in recent uprisings and protests suggest a strengthening of these windbreaks by giving voice to critiques of incompetent and unjust administration, the solitary opposition of conscience, and, perhaps most decisively, the possibility of organizing coordinated discussion and action on wide scales. Yet, apace with these changes there are also darker transformations allowed by vast increases in computing memory and power that make tracking information and people on social media progressively easier. In repressive societies this is already occurring through the aggregation of past communications, the profiling of individuals, and guilt by association with members of one's social orbit.
By definition secret, statistical, and yet deeply connected with personal preference and affiliations, the aggregation of data concerning the individual in the context of social networking presents a real potential for abuse by any number of outside powers. Although most apparent in directly repressive societies, this transformation has the potential for abuse in numerous forms of governance. For if not managed properly, the laws and infrastructure of the internet could increasingly give rise to the sense – and reality – that one's words and actions could be interpreted in any number of contexts and by many forms of institutions. The malign influence of polycracy on individual decision, previously a signal feature of totalitarian regimes, might start to appear in any political system whatsoever.
As data about the individual becomes potentially available to a spectrum of interests and parties, ranging from credit agencies and divorce lawyers to political opponents and work rivals, it is easy to imagine individuals (and software) attempting to "mask" or redefine preferences, interests, and affiliations.
The result would be a pervasive self-censorship, but also – in light of this confusing secondary power – a corollary attempt to act out in the manner that seems most open to reward. The ability of individuals to first believe in the honesty of their own choices and speech, and with this the honesty of others, could be profoundly altered, as would the nature of civil society.
Precisely in first connecting the private and public spheres in new ways, groups of friends and political action, social media has the possibility to atomize anew. Debates over the role of law and infrastructure in shaping these contexts takes on a new relevance for preserving the basis of the windbreaks of civil society, ranging from recent initiatives such as "do not track" to the separation of terrorist investigations from other forms of surveillance (such as occurs in Germany), to larger innovations such as the E.U.'s "right to data privacy" or plan for the "right to be forgotten." Although integral perhaps to preventing the "sandstorms" Arendt warned of, these innovations may also prove critical to amplifying the positive features of individual conscience and civil society allowed by social media.