Hannah Arendt argues that Totalitarianism was unleashed by Imperialism which in its turn unleashed the power of a subterranean stream of globalising forces that surfaced and began to flow with a power that the nation state was unable to harness or control: forces such as the will to colonise, the omnipotent will which felt that there was nothing which could limit its power, and the mass feeling of powerlessness in the face of powerful institutions. Running deeply in a part of this stream is a paradoxical current: a belief amidst an educated middle class in the actualising potential of the moral personality and the universal importance of an ethical imperative.
In relation to the above thought consider an interesting Philosophical and Historical perspective which relates to Ernst Cassirer’s work “The Myth of State”. Cassirer claims that all political theories of the 17th century have a common metaphysical/mathematical background. Metaphysical thought in the following century, amidst philosophers, took precedence over theological thought which in its turn was already being undermined by the subterranean stream of Stoical belief in a moral personality that surfaced first in the form of the thought of Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence which began with these famous words:
“We hold these truths to be self evident. That all men are created equal: that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The above experiential reflection on the rights and dignity of man preceded their philosophical/ethical justification through the works of Kant, a few years later, which put the final nail in the coffin of speculative metaphysics of all kinds ,and also provided a philosophical foundation for both human rights and the inevitable philosophical consequences: the idea of a United Nations and cosmopolitanism. Further the Kantian “Copernican revolution” provided a rational, non experiential foundation for religion and politics and superseded the social contract theory of Hobbes and Locke which originated from the empirical/scientific method: the method of resolving a known whole into less known elements and synthesising these elements back into a constructed whole again. In this methodical process an individual’s moral personality mysteriously disappeared especially in the case of Hobbes who claimed that there was a legal bond between subjects and their sovereign which amounted to a pact of submission on all issues related to the sovereigns power and authority.
Cassirer argues that what we were witnessing during these years of the Enlightenment was a revival of Stoic ideas which
“seemed alone equal to the task of providing principles admitted by every nation, every creed, every sect.”
One critical element of this revival was the idea that if a man was forced to give up his personality he would cease to be a moral being, he would become a slave of the Prince or the sovereign. Kant found a middle position between an experiential view and a foundation in Cartesian thought. He favoured a position with a foundation in action that maintains a trust in non mathematical and non- speculative theorising.
“Kantian” Actions were evaluated in terms of theoretical standards and it was these standards that provided the 18th century with its strength, inner unity and Spirit. This absolute Spirit unfortunately resulted in Romanticism and its attempt to poeticize the world in all its aspects in defiance of the political and philosophical ideals of previous Kantian generations. The poetic spirit reduced history to a romantic account of the portraits of great heroes and reduced ethics to reliving the spirit of the Homeric pre-Socratic era. This Romantic focus probably diverted the Kantian emphasis on free ethical action and the dignity of man into subterranean experiential caverns . The Romantic spirit dominated and Carlyle´s historical theory of hero-worship was transformed into race worship in which it was maintained that only the white man possessed the will power to build a cultural and political life(Gobineau). The black and yellow races, it was claimed, did not have the energy or the spirit for such work. Thus was born:
“the totalitarianism of race that prepared the way for the late concept of the totalitarian states”(Cassirer,The Myth of the State”).
Romanticism was opposed by Academic Philosophy and Science which, in its turn attempted to continue the project of Hobbes: subjecting politics to the scientific method. Psychology, instead of focusing on the Philosophical idea of action preferred to use a scientifically determined concept of behaviour which was value neutral and for that very reason could not be used in the debate about the moral personality and the ethical imperative.
According to Arendt, the negative sub-currents of globalisation transformed a doctrinal religious prejudice against the Jews into a racial prejudice which manifested itself into the anti-Semiticism of the first political parties in Europe in the 1870’s . For Gobineau , Kantian ethics and its categorical imperative with its universal condition and assumption of a universal moral personality was a contradiction of the facts: there was no universal ethical attitude or personality. Behind such conviction was a scientific and epistemological claim that only the facts would reveal whether such a personality was a reality. If the claim was that such a personality was a universal phenomenon it would suffice to use the scientific method and engage in scientific observation to detect one actual case in which this was not true. One case observed sufficed for the universal theory to collapse. But all this teaches us is that a scientific and epistemological claim searching for the truth is a very different kind of claim to an ethical judgment relating to the idea of the good which is behind all ethical action. The idea of the good situates us in what modern philosophers call the “ought-system of concepts” in which arguments are constructed in terms of an ought major premise and an an ought in the conclusion. We ought to have ethical self knowledge but the fact that many people do not is still consistent with the major premise that we all ought to develop ethical personalities and the conclusion that an individual ought to develop his moral personality, that an individual has a duty to develop their moral personality.
The relevance of this article to the Trump-phenomenon is the following: there is as yet no totalitarian goal to rule the world but the claim “Make America Great again” and the total disrespect for other heads of states in Mexico, Australia etc suggest a move in that direction. Purges are limited and non fatal : they were more common during the election campaign.The “America first” slogan is built on a simplistic understanding of the political intentions and economic consequences of Globalisation and a simplistic response of regression back to an imaginary comfort zone when things were better and simpler. Globalisation itself is a complex process of historical dimensions the various stages of which may be capable of simple projections and simple interpretations which look to the untrained eye as if they are facts. In the populist reaction to this complex process of globalisation , is an absence of belief in the ethical imperative with its respect for the truth, respect for the equality of man and respect for human rights. Kant believed that the ethical imperative would take one hundred thousand years to actualize into reality. Prior to the Trump phenomenon many commentators had claimed that we will reach Kant’s “golden age” sooner than Kant predicted . I wonder if they might be prepared to alter their correction of Kant in the light of current events. Arendt would be relishing what is happening in a positive light and would probably claim that what we are witnessing will force many, who otherwise would remain passive, to reflect upon what is happening and perhaps also reflect upon their passivity. Otherwise she would regard the idea of a future “golden age” as superstition.