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The spectre returns

Several important thinkers have thought about the genesis and the acceptance of dictatorial leaders by the people they governed, Hannah Arendt perhaps being the most important

G.N. Devy Published 16.06.23, 04:12 AM
Hannah Arendt: Decoding demons

Hannah Arendt: Decoding demons

The twenty-first-century world is so much different from the twentieth-century world. The nature of individualism has changed over the last hundred years. The characteristics of ‘capital’ have changed. The complexities of urban settlements have changed too. Yet, any attempt at understanding the unrestrained state and the global menace of totalitarianism in the present time is not possible without understanding its twentieth-century manifestations.

Several important thinkers since the times of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have thought about the genesis and the acceptance of dictatorial leaders by the people they governed. Among those thinkers, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) is perhaps the most important. Having seen the mindless violence of the Second World War and the inhuman treatment of Jews, Poles, gypsies and the coloured population in the Third Reich, as well as having thought deeply about the Stalinist liquidation of large numbers of people and the destruction of millions of peasants in the erstwhile USSR, Arendt developed a matchless inwardness towards the psychology and the politics of totalitarian regimes. In her landmark books, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958), she presented an acute analysis of twentieth-century totalitarianism, which she clearly distinguished from the feudal violence and the wars of the past era. She showed how twentieth-century totalitarianism was founded on terror and, more importantly, on ideological fiction. The new totalitarian State was, in her opinion, brought to life through manufacturing a sense of great historical injustice and insult and promised retribution and revenge through semi-formal mobs acting in the name of the State. It lured the masses — for whom the Supreme Leader had nothing but disdain — by promising to change the majority people’s status from that of the ‘historically offended’ to that of ‘being capable of offending’. Lured by these promises, the majority people were ready to offend ‘the imagined past offenders’ even without any explicit command from the Leader. Providing ‘the key to unlock history’ to the nation, because the nation was ‘the chosen one’, was the stated life-mission of the Leader. His terror-generating authority extended to claiming that he was specially born to achieve the majority community’s vengeful goal. They applauded him, knowing well that his actions hurt them, destroyed their families and enveloped society in an atmosphere of ever-growing hatred.


The world knows how the Supreme Leaders’ hatred-driven totalitarian States of the twentieth century came to an end and how much shame is attached to their memory. Yet, in less than a century, the totalitarian State has emerged, once again, all over the world. The phenomenon cannot be understood merely by placing it in the ‘Right’ or the ‘Left’ of political categories; nor can its essential nature be fully grasped by looking at it as merely an extension of gluttonous corporate capitalism. It is necessary to add that the twenty-first-century brand of totalitarianism is aided by the new challenge arising from Artificial Intelligence; but that is only a part of the problem.

Mattias Desmet, from Belgium’s Ghent University, has now come up with an explanation for the widespread totalitarianism in the twenty-first century. In his recently published work, The Psychology of Totalitarianism, which is now available in English translation, Desmet proposes that people all over the world are gripped by irreversible loneliness (a point drawn upon by Arendt) and have rendered themselves incapable of facing risks. The craving for risk-prevention and risk-mitigation has become, in his view, a pervasive tendency. He calls it the 'insurance syndrome', with the normalisation of not just the insurance of life and assets but also an “insurance of insurance.” Desmet argues that citizens now look up to the State for imposing regulations on them in the hope of making life risk-free. In such a situation, a clever politician can rise first by creating fear of attacks by unnamed ‘enemies’ (terrorists, aliens, or even viruses) and, then, by promising protection to citizens by imposing stringent regulations. In the process, the privacy, autonomy and sanctity of individuals get sacrificed. The State comes to be seen as far more important than any of the traditional rights of individuals.

The twenty-first-century brand of totalitarianism grabs control over populations in the name of protecting the majority; it also demonises minorities. Desmet demonstrates this by discussing the coronavirus epidemic and the related regulations in various countries to show how the social and the political costs of remedy for prevention and mitigation of risks can often be much higher than the costs people would have paid had they faced the risks themselves. In short, while twentieth-century totalitarianism emerged from the perceived sense of historical injustice, its twenty-first-century version has been born out of the people’s perceived sense of isolation and fear and their utter unwillingness to face risks. The violence of the dictators of the last century was more tangible, more scarlet in colour. But the violence perpetrated by twenty-first-century Supreme Leaders is not just blood-soaked. It is also generated in cold regulations by the technocratic State and it seeks justification in the large-scale manufacturing of entirely fictitious data.

We are not too far from completing the first quarter of the twenty-first century. We know that like all regimes in the past, the current regime in India, too, will be a story of the past. It is true that we do not know when exactly that would happen or how soon. But after it is over, scholars of political history should think about the genesis and the exact nature of totalitarianism that India has faced since 2014. It is quite likely that they will notice that the Indian variety had a strange mixture of the peculiarities of twentieth-century totalitarianism as well as of twenty-first-century totalitarianism. In India, many centuries live together in every form of life and expression, in our expression of freedom, and in the way we face domination, patriarchy, discrimination and dictatorships. The works of Arendt and Desmet can help us understand how those who claim India as the mother of democracy have brought the mother and the daughter to stand in fear and agony.

G.N. Devy is the Obaid Siddiqui Chair Professor, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

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