Since the inception of politics and its practices in the form of government, the world has seen a variety of social–political orders, which have been determined by the political action of both the masses and the rulers of political institutions. The way in which people are treated, the exercise of power, the political view towards the people and society, and the role of the people in politics have all varied from one system to another. Over time, governments have taken on an ideological face; for instance, at one point in history, communism was the leading ideology of regimes, and later, the methods of Hitler and Stalin in the form of totalitarian governments dominated a part of the world and its political geography. With the failure of these systems, which were essentially a kind of cannibal machine, philosophers and political scientists began to question why the world experienced such forms of governance. What is the primary basis of totalitarian governments? What role does the grey layer play in creating such governments? How are societies and geographies susceptible to the emergence of such governments? This paper seeks to address this important issue from the perspective of Hannah Arendt, a German–American philosopher.
The Normalization of Evil and Social Indifference
Evil is the antithesis of good and is a general term for immoral behavior, errors, corruption, and oppression. Arendt argued that people in modern times have lost the sense of purpose in life, leading to a state of emptiness or a false sense of purpose, or they have become estranged from themselves. The two world wars, with their immense destruction, death camps, forced labor camps during Stalin‘s regime, and, most significantly, the trial of Eichmann at the end of the war, all served as evidence for Arendt‘s assertion. All of these have caused a particular type of evil to emerge in modern times, which Arendt referred to as “the vulgarity of evil“, meaning a lack of reasoning and thought.
In order to address such a challenge, Arendt draws on the thoughts of Austrian Philosopher Martin Buber to propose the idea of “two souls in one body“, that is, the confrontation of man with his own conscience. She believes that the key to preventing the occurrence of evil is the continuous involvement of human action and conscience, so that a manifestation of self–knowledge emerges to prevent the occurrence of evil. Taking into account the context of creating evil (lack of reason), it can be concluded that the greatest evils do not come from those who are forced to confront their conscience, but rather from those who are forgetful and never consider the consequences of their actions. Arendt views the normalization of evil and social indifference as a result of the formation of a gray layer in society, which lacks wisdom. This group does not recognize evil for what it is, and therefore, it is not treated accordingly. Arendt calls this process a kind of social indifference. When evil is normalized in society, it attracts the mob, although Arendt does not consider the attraction of evil in the mind of the mob as something new. She notes that “acts of aggression are looked upon with admiration: “He may be mean, but he is very shrewd.” However, she asserts that the shocking factor in the victory of totalitarianism is the selflessness or alienation of the masses, who promote social indifference and thus facilitate the normalization of evil.
The Gray Layer and Its Impact on Totalitarianism
Within every society, there is a large group of people who exist in a state of neutrality. These people do not take part in either good or evil, nor do they engage in politics or participate in the political process. They remain unseen by political parties and movements. They are not actively involved in political movements. Arendt refers to this mass as the “gray faction“, which aids totalitarian movements. The gray layer actually contributes to the establishment of totalitarian governments, and in turn, totalitarian governments create the gray layer. This relationship is analogous to the chicken and the egg.
Totalitarian movements can arise in any place where a large group of people have developed a strong interest in politics. This group does not come together due to a shared purpose, but rather due to a lack of a sense of belonging to a specific, limited, and achievable goal. The term “masses“ refers to those individuals who are not part of any organization, political party, local government, professional organization, or labor union based on a shared interest. These people can be found in any country and make up the majority of people who are politically apathetic and do not participate in any political activities, such as voting.
The Impact of Geography on the Rise of Totalitarian Regimes
Arendt argued that in societies where evil is normalized and the people are passive, totalitarianism or the government of the masses is likely to form. In such societies, the leader has complete control and the people are deprived of their human rights. Crime becomes systemic as the ruling group interferes with the lives of the people by appointing the secret police and keeping everything under surveillance. Totalitarian governments justify their oppression through ideology and often show no mercy to their own members. As these governments last longer, the society becomes increasingly passive.
In the modern world, there is less acceptance of totalitarianism, but in the developing world, where people are more concerned with economic matters than politics, the idea of politicizing the economy is a driving force behind the rise of totalitarian governments. According to Arendt, one of the defining features of mass societies is that individual values are often disregarded, and people are more focused on earning money than engaging in political, civil, and social activities. In a mass society, having a job is paramount and is more important than being politically, civically, and socially aware.