September 26, 2019 - 10:06am

On Newsnight last night, Paul Mason quoted the philosopher Hannah Arendt on “the alliance of the elite and the mob”, (see 39:55 here) with reference to Boris Johnson’s incendiary language in the House of Commons.

I looked up the relevant passages from her book The Origins of Totalitarianism. He’s right that her description of the shredding of respectable norms is highly pertinent to today, but she is much more nuanced in understanding the appeal, as well as the danger, of that atmosphere. She doesn’t put it down to cynicism but to an initially righteous instinct to burst through a culture of “fake sincerity, fake culture, fake life”:

Simply to brand as outbursts of nihilism this violent dissatisfaction with the prewar age and subsequent attempts at restoring it… is to overlook how justified disgust can be in a society wholly permeated with the ideological outlook and moral standards of the bourgeoisie.

Yet it is also true that the “front generation”, in marked contrast to their own chosen spiritual fathers, were completely absorbed by their desire to see the ruin of this whole world of fake security, fake culture, and fake life. … Destruction without mitigation, chaos and ruin as such assumed the dignity of supreme values.


The attraction which the totalitarian movements exert on the elite, so long as and wherever they have not seized power, has been perplexing because the patently vulgar and arbitrary, positive doctrines of totalitarianism are more conspicuous to the outsider and mere observer than the general mood which pervades the pretotalitarian atmosphere. These doctrines were so much at variance with generally accepted intellectual, cultural, and moral standards that one could conclude that only an inherent fundamental shortcoming of character in the intellectual … or a perverse self-hatred of the spirit, accounted for the delight with which the elite accepted the “ideas” of the mob.

What the spokesmen of humanism and liberalism usually overlook, in their bitter disappointment and their unfamiliarity with the more general experiences of the time, is that an atmosphere in which all traditional values and propositions had evaporated … in a sense made it easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which had become pious banalities, precisely because nobody could be expected to take the absurdities seriously. Vulgarity with its cynical dismissal of respected standards and accepted theories carried with it a frank admission of the worst and a disregard for all pretenses which were easily mistaken for courage and a new style of life.

- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.