The Invisible Armada

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Supplement to Potemkin: Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism and derealization (1/2)

By Alain Brossat and Alain Naze

22 April 2022

In Chapter 11 of The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The Totalitarian Movement,” Hannah Arendt constantly puts forward the motive of flight from reality [1]. The characteristic of totalitarian movements and what sets them apart from authoritarian movements is their propensity to escape from reality, to produce a fictitious reality, to alienate the masses from the real world, to make a functional or operative reality (“functioning reality”) prevail, to create, through propaganda, the conditions under which lies replace reality and erase it – these formulas and this vocabulary come up hauntingly throughout this chapter.

The conquest of the masses (individuals atomized in the mass, which supposes the dissolution of social classes) goes through this process of erasing reality and replacing it with fictions intended to acquire the consistency of an alternative reality. The leaders of these movements spare no effort to make their prophecies and fantasies come true; that they do not content themselves with rearranging or transforming the existing reality, but manage to abolish it in the being-in-the-world of the masses – this is in particular the role played, in their propaganda, by the self-fulfilling prophecies (like: if the world Jewish conspiracy does not give up activating itself against us, the Jews of this country and of Europe could well pay the price...). This alternative reality which takes shape in the dynamics of the expansion and the march to power of totalitarian movements has as its stake not only the seizure of the masses, but also their confinement in the sphere or the bubble of this fictitious world. The interferences of the worlds outside the totalitarian sphere in these closed spaces must be eliminated as much as possible, so that the current existence of the people on whom the movements take place and then of the totalitarian regimes finds itself totally swaddled in the fictions produced by the rulers and apparatuses of these systems.

This is indeed a process of derealization of the lives of the masses. These, says Arendt, come to no longer believe in anything they see (“they do not believe in anything visible”), to no longer believe even in the “reality of their own experience”. They enter this “second” state, this state of narcosis or somnambulism where they find themselves completely merged with the movement, blinded by its propaganda and carried away by its dynamics.

What makes this operation possible is the very fact that people have, under the effect of the successive shocks recorded during recent history, lost all rooting in the solid ground of an organized society and the political system attached to it – parliamentarianism, for the most part. The masses that will captivate and capture the totalitarian movements are not only disoriented, they have become, in their very world and in their very present, homeless, says Arendt. By letting themselves be enveloped, de-subjectivated and re-subjectivated by totalitarian propaganda and recruitment, by entering the colorful world of totalitarian fictions, they escape their essential homelessness – an expression very difficult to translate literally – their new uprooted condition, "homeless", without existential landmarks (social, political, cultural, religious...) in the present - a process of generalized deassignment, a state of wavering and suspension which leads them to cling to the buoy of totalitarian propaganda and to see in it the exclusive means of salvation. This will offer them substitute systems of explanation, imaginary assurances; in the absence of tangible facts, they will be able to rely on the coherence (everything is connected, everything is explained) of the discursive constructions proposed by the system that encompasses them. Thus put back in the saddle in the most biased way possible (it is in an imaginary world that they find their foundations), they will be able to burst into the disrupted spaces of European politics.

Hannah Arendt emphasizes here the need for security that totalitarian propaganda fills: “What the masses refuse to recognize is the fortuitousness that pervades reality. They are predisposed to all ideologies because they explain facts as mere examples of laws and eliminate coincidences by inventing an all-embracing omnipotence which is supposed to be at the root of every accident. Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction, from coincidence into consistency”[2]. The world thus becomes not only perfectly explainable, but predictable. The problem is, notes Arendt, that this construction has its limits: the more perfect it is, the more it goes into detail, the more it draws a closed world – and the more it comes into open conflict with common sense. Moreover, what can persist, in the minds of the masses, of common sense is likely to instil doubt: and if, precisely, it was not the very perfection of the system of explanations provided by the discourse of power that bore the mark of pure fabrication, that is to say of fiction?

But the fact remains, she insists, that if the masses are so irresistibly inclined to let themselves be carried away by the wave of totalitarian propaganda, it is because they have experienced such a violent derealization, such a loss of reality (both of their foundations and of their bearings in it) that this real world has become unbearable to them. They just can't exist there anymore . The very fact that totalitarian propaganda "so outrageously insults" common sense is not enough to discredit it - in a world where common sense, precisely, has "lost its validity." In this regard, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between “isolation” and “desolation”. This is because isolation, if it constitutes a central concern for tyrannical regimes (so as to render isolated human beings powerless), and the certain result of terror, nevertheless remains “pre-totalitarian”. Indeed, this practice of isolation does not encroach on private life;the whole sphere of private life with its possibilities of experience, invention and thought is left intact, she argues. However, what totalitarian systems inaugurate, according to Arendt, would be desolation (loneliness), that is to say not a simple isolation, in the political sphere, with its psychological effects, but a real uprooting, a deprivation floor, this time concerning the sphere of human relations. The totalitarian regime, she says, like all tyrannies, could certainly not exist without destroying the public domain of life, that is to say without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian rule is a new type of regime in that it is not content with this isolation and also destroys privacy. It is based on desolation, on the experience of absolute non-belonging to the world, which is one of the most radical and desperate experiences “man” can have to face.

Therefore, continues Arendt, it is obvious that the simple idea of a common world wavers: devoid of my belonging to the world, how could I share any world whatsoever with others? The human condition supposes, on the contrary, this sharing with others of a common world: Even the experience of the material and sensitive given depends on my being-in-relation with other men, on our common sense which regulates and governs all the other senses and without which each of us would be locked in the particularity of his own sensitive data, in themselves uncertain and misleading. Only a “common sense”, which we share with others, allows us to inhabit the same land and to rely on the immediacy of our sensory experience [3].

It is not, specifies Arendt, that the masses are, by nature, "stupid and wicked", it is rather that, in this generalized disaster, the headlong rush supported by totalitarian fictions is what allows them to maintain "a minimum of self-respect". Totalitarian propaganda erects an impermeable wall that separates them and protects them from the aggressions of the real world.

It is also because propaganda offers, for the individual atomized within the mass, new possibilities of reintegration, of assembly, of presence in the collective – mass meetings, gatherings, processions placed under the sign of the cult of the Leader and the repetition of slogans and mobilizing songs. As long as this world is expanding, no principle of reality can oppose this collective flight into the imaginary. It is when, coming up against other forces, in the test of war in particular, it begins to stall and then to regress that the weakness of totalitarian propagandistic apparatus becomes blatant. As soon as the failure of the force begins, the propulsive power of the movement, the individuals composing the mass begin to demobilize, their eyes begin to open, they leave their state of somnambulism and “cease at once to believe in the dogma for which yesterday they still were ready to sacrifice their lives” [4].

In this very sense, totalitarian systems are not only placed under the sign of permanent exception insofar as they would impose on those who submit to their rule a regime of terror and violence. A step further, they establish the conditions for an artificial “normality” based on the substitution of a fictional world for the real world. The promotion of this terrifying "normality" most often proceeds from the inversion of the norms and values in progress in the world before, the one from which the atomized/massified/derealized subjects were torn away. Informing, the persecution of minorities, murder, become normal and valued behaviors; the meaning of the words is reversed – as Victor Klemperer points out with regard to the adjective “fanatisch” which becomes, in Nazi jargon, a highly positive term [5]. Totalitarianism, in this very sense, presents itself under the exterior of this staggering paradox: it maintains the most constant and the closest of affinities with fiction. Arendt evokes “the essentially fictitious character of totalitarianism”. But the salient feature of this fiction or rather of this intrinsic "fictivity" of totalitarianism is precisely to be endowed with an extraordinary dynamic power to produce massive, disruptive effects of reality, both destructive and constructive. The Nazis, just like the Stalinist regime, upset the societies they ruled from top to bottom, before, by dragging the entire European continent, then the whole world into the war, the former (with their Japanese allies) brought the whole planet Earth in an unprecedented cataclysm [6].

In totalitarianism therefore two factors appear inseparable, in the most enigmatic way possible: the headlong rush into fictions (the imaginary, phantasmagoria) and the production of the most powerful effects of global and collective reality that political entities or concretions of power have produced in the 20th century. It is undoubtedly this indissoluble alliance of the real and the fictitious which constitutes the very, inimitable signature of the totalitarian. It will be noted that what is at stake here lies well beyond the traditional oppositions between truth and lie, even though Arendt often evokes lies as the natural element of totalitarian propaganda, "enormous" false fabrications like the brand fabric of the discourse of leaders and totalitarian elites. In its traditional meaning or texture, lying distorts reality, it hides part of it – it does not abolish it. Reality can continue to assert its rights – to the lies of the abuser, of the tyrant, of the powerful, to the artifices of the sophist can counter other discourses, other arguments, other evidence endowed with a restoring power of the truth. The totalitarian clearly ushers in another era, another regime under which it is no longer only the true that must fiercely defend its rights against ignorance, lies and falsifications – but the real (Arendt, with the language English, does not elaborate a differential space between reality and the real) whose integrity is now totally exposed.

The question up to which we must therefore hold ourselves today, in our present, could be formulated in the following terms: of what kind are the insistent affinities that are emerging between the massive and catastrophic effects of derealization produced by the totalitarian systems of the 20th century and those of which we are witnesses overwhelmed in our very societies – a world and an era whose specificity is precisely to place itself explicitly, affirmatively, under the sign of the postulated antagonist of totalitarianism – democracy?

For Arendt, the very first of the apparatuses that anchors the disoriented masses to the movements and then to the totalitarian regimes and which, in doing so, leads them on the path of derealization, is propaganda. In our societies, what feeds the perpetual disenchantment with democracy, in all its forms, is not primarily a device, it is the experience of democracy itself – as an institution, regime and even way of life. What is therefore cast off is disenchantment, just as it is the disorientation of the masses which makes them, in the pre-totalitarian configurations, vulnerable to the propaganda of these movements. What comes first is not the fake news that proliferates on the Web, it is not the disarray accentuated by the proliferation of statements and biased messages on social networks, it is the experience of loss of trust in authority and in the world, as the ordinary subject of contemporary democracy knows it. What exposes it to the harmfulness, to the toxicity of fake news, is in the first place the fact that the speeches, knowledge, statements and messages emitted and conveyed by the authorities of all types no longer constitute for this subject a solid ground on which he can lean or rest.

When the promotional discourse of politicians and people in government sticks as closely as possible to the slogans of the big transnational brands ("Do it!" prospers on electoral propaganda posters in Taiwan), when they never stop denying what they proclaimed loud and clear the day before, when leading medical,

scientific and academic authorities cultivate climate skepticism and denigrate vaccination as a means of combating Covid – then, we are slowly but surely approaching the configuration in which, according to Arendt , “everything is possible” becomes the word of the hour; in its contemporary version, adjusted to democratic conditions, we will stick provisionally to: “Everything is credible” (since, moreover, any discourse of authority can be called into question) – but from “everything is credible” to “ everything is possible”, the sequence occurs without any particular difficulty – from the loss of all markers of certainty over the course of the Covid pandemic to the invasion of Ukraine by Putin.

The fake news which would be the equivalent in a democratic situation of what propaganda would be in the pre-totalitarian and totalitarian context is therefore here only the tree that hides the forest or the tip of the iceberg. It is not fake news that abolishes the discernment of the individual from the masses in democratic conditions, it is the fact that the apparatuses of democracy have let it down; people's lives, the need to orient themselves in their existence and in the world, despite everything, all this having horror of a vacuum, fake news comes to fill the gaping spaces produced by this general relaxation, including the dereliction of the democratic apparatus of contemporary subjects.

What can be detected here are great affinities between the “landscape” described and conceptualized by Arendt and the contemporary situation; not that the threshold which separates totalitarian systems from the democratic institution has disappeared; our societies, obviously, are not fueled by mass terror, the cult of the Leader and extermination camps. It is rather that surreptitious but increasingly manifest forms of hybridization are at work between totalitarian gestalt and democracy – discourse, practices, images inscribed on the same line of force of derealization.

The central figure of the individualized mass, disarmed in the face of devices for disseminating contrived truths, finds its full consistency in our societies. Everywhere, in the countries of the Global North, the organization of society into classes and the arrangement of parliamentarism around this order (visible, named, recognized) has yielded not the disappearance of classes but the organized and formalized denial of their place and function in the social and political institution; the workers, (the proletariat) have lost their name, they have become “disadvantaged strata”, “lower middle class”, “immigrants” or assimilated; the capitalist bourgeoisie has disappeared in favor of the “well-to-do classes”, the “upper middle class”. Division has become unnamable, replaced by the most diverse forms of stratification, hierarchy, taxonomies. The “middle class” has become the gimmick of journalistic sociology which organizes drum beating the denial of the class struggle.

On the other hand, Hannah Arendt emphasizes the fact that the essence of totalitarian propaganda is to propose elements of reorientation, to re-establish, in a perfectly illusory way, a semblance of intelligibility of the world – propaganda offers simple explanations destined to be constantly taken up and beaten down, by whose grace everything that had become unintelligible and dark becomes clear again - the "everything is explained", of conspiratorial essence, which supports totalitarian propaganda is at the foundation of its hit with the masses. However, the specificity of fake news is to play, in democratic societies in their late age, an analogous role: they offer an intelligibility of compensation where confidence in the authorities and legitimized speeches have collapsed. They imitate legitimized speeches by referring to collections of alleged “facts”, supposedly attested events and by mobilizing the name and reputation of all sorts of proclaimed authorities; the fakes news, it's the carnival, or rather the charivari of speeches and authorities in principle guarantors of the truth and solidly established in reality – in the era of the collapse of confidence. They are made up of a tight network of references and arguments, of reasoning, of paralogisms, of more or less dressy sophisms, they relentlessly appeal to the critical spirit of the ordinary man, to his refusal to let himself be fooled, to his now entrenched allergy to the window dressing relentlessly spread by those on high, the people in power. They appeal to his maturity, his discernment, his courage – so many virtues supposed to support his ability to face repressed and minority truths, repressed precisely insofar as they threaten the established order and the reign of the profiteers and corrupt ones.

This entire register, this soil on which fake news thrives, maintains a close affinity with what supports totalitarian propaganda and ensures its success. And what is in question there is essentially the same issue or the same effect: the flight of the atomized mass towards alternative worlds, fictions, its refuge in a derealized reality. The "mutilated" (Adorno) world of those who firmly believe in conspiratorial reasoning thriving in the shadow of the Covid 19 pandemic is basically not very different from that of this dust of humanity which, in times of the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, adhered to the idea that their country's misfortunes owed much or all to the global Jewish conspiracy.

What differs radically from one constellation or from one era to another are the figures and forms of the apparatus of loss of trust in the world and authority. Nazi propaganda is inseparable from arch-molar and vertical forms of power – it is inseparable from the cult of the Leader, from the myth of his infallibility, of his omniscience. In the era of fake news and the war of narratives, derealizing propaganda borrows the garb of information and communication - or more exactly, it becomes indistinct from them - and it is molecular, devoid of center, protoplasmic. It does not descend on the confused subject like a leaden screed, it does not “bludgeon” – it diffuses and infuses, insinuates itself through all the pores of society. In the classic age of totalitarianism, Nazi propaganda aimed to separate those it enveloped from the real world by wrapping it in fictions[7]. It is obsessed with the persistence of an outside against which it must immunize those it has seized, but which it cannot abolish. The persistence of this outside is the weak point of totalitarian discourses and powers.

In the time or the world of fake news and the saturation of intelligibility by “narratives” at war with each other, there is no longer any outside. Fake news circulates without encountering any major obstacle from one "world" to another and the war of narratives is global. The processes of derealization therefore encounter no other obstacles than what can, on occasion, bring the masses back, more or less brutally, to the real – where, in particular, the expansion of the totalitarian powers encounters resistance such as the dynamic of their expansion is checked.

In the present world, on the contrary, the increasing digitization of the existence of the masses continues unabated through innovations and the improvement of their equipment by intelligent machines which become prostheses, that is to say direct extensions of individual bodies and the agents of their networking; the transindividualization of existences and subjectivities advances at the same pace as the processes of derealization. In reality, the bubbles and the spheres in which these existences and these subjectivities are locked up and where this figure of individualism at the terminal stage that is the self-selfism (of which the selfie is the emblem) thrives, these bubbles and these spheres are porous and the me-me, as the supposed current form of the modern subject, is a trompe-l'oeil - it is mass-produced, under the conditions of its apparatus by digitalized communication technologies, to the point that the motif of the irreducible singularity on which the cult of the modern individual thrived is being effaced in favor of that of the pure circulation of intensities - the me-me as a simple relay and common thread of the message, of the "narrative" which prevails in one dream or another, far from reality.

Derealization passes through flight into the imaginary, which operates in the mode of contagion. Fake news circulates like the different variants of the Covid virus and produces the same effects of loss of grip on reality. The individual finds himself fundamentally reduced to the condition of transmitter, agent of contamination. In this very sense, contemporary phenomena placed under the sign of the apparatus, ever more enveloping, of digital existences, present affinities that we will say are different from totalitarian phenomena - difference and repetition: it is today a molecular fascism which is the accompanying music of derealization, while, in the general configuration of the totalitarianisms of the 20th century, it is obviously a fascism of the most molar which imposed its conditions. Molar fascism was linked with a brutalization of the government of the living which involved the implementation of unprecedented forms of violence to the detriment of the populations – mass terror, camps, exterminations.

An intimate link is established in this configuration between the order of discourse (propaganda, in the strict sense) and the violence exercised by the rulers on the governed. By contrast, in contemporary landscapes, the brutalization of domination passes through a combination of violent forms (the militarization of the police or the external operations conducted by the democracies formatted by universalist imperialism) and the placement of the existence of the governed under the condition of technological devices.

Molecular fascism progresses according to surreptitious methods, as much as molar fascism cultivated the spectacular style destined to produce effects of staggering amazement. Imperceptibly, over the course of the pandemic, it turns out that the hyper-impaired individual is now at fault if he-she is not only able to produce his-her identity documents but to be equipped with a mobile phone and knowing how to use it as a magic tool under imposed conditions. In truth, the smartphone has become the "intelligent" and interactive double of his identity card, a kind of electronic bracelet which equips him-her "for his own good" - in the context of the pandemic - but dedicated, of course, to establish themselves permanently in the condition of an indispensable prosthesis, accompanying all the gestures and moments of their existence, both private and public. Molecular fascism thrives in the era of the “free” – and perpetually localizable – individual.

[1]We follow in this development the original version of the book: The Origins of Totalitarianism , 1950 (revised and enlarged edition: 1958).

[2]Op.cit. p. 351-352.

[3]It will be added that in this, Arendt takes up the positions of Husserl, as to the possibility of a world which is common to us: the "targeted syntheses", always dependent on a particular point of view, to open on "completed syntheses », always ask for a confirmation that only others can give us. A sphere of objectivity then emerges, certainly not dogmatic, but resulting from an intersubjective concordance. It is basically the experience of "desolation" experienced by Friday's Robinson or the limbo of the Pacific ( a novel by Michel Tournier), and commented on by Deleuze ("A world without others"): how to ensure stability of the world, of its persistence, in the absence of others?

[4]Ibid. p. 363.

[5]Victor Klemperer: LTI, Lingua Tertii Imperii, notes of a philologist (1947),

[6]One might note that totalitarianism and fascism exacerbate or “hysterize” here a constitutive feature of capitalism: capitalist production is inseparable, in modern market societies, from commodity fetishism. Now, the very characteristic of the commodity as fetish is indeed, precisely, to make illusion inseparable from reality. Merchandise is not a simple material object, it includes its “dream” as it is also sold to the buyer – we can follow Benjamin's trail here, but this path also leads us to Baudrillard's. Capitalist production consists in putting into circulation all sorts of objects which only become real, that is to say acquire an ontological consistency, through the programmed needs and desires they arouse. It is the paradigm of the "shower gel" substituted for the good old soap of yesteryear and become a basic necessity product while remaining of a revocable ontological density - just as the emperor of China is never only a warlord on whom fate smiled. The “shower gel” is a successful advertising fiction, an inescapable reality – but as a fiction carried by pure commercial strategies, by the sleepwalking dream of the market. Capitalism sells “products” which are as much fictions as objects in the strict sense. It can be said that totalitarian regimes “sell” their phantasmagoria to the masses according to the same procedures of converting fiction into reality. But isn't this also what global democracy does insofar as it is above all essentially logocratic and illusionist in essence or form ? It is not for nothing that, in contemporary democracies, heads of state and leading politicians increasingly come from the entertainment world – television, cinema, television sets, etc. Before becoming a warlord adored by the West, Volodymyr Zelensky officiated as a comedian in a TV series where he achieved great success by interpreting the role of a... President of the Republic in buffoon mode. Similarly, in a remarkable scene from Bruno Dumont's latest film, France , Emmanuel Macron finds himself "embedded" in the plot of the film in such a way that it becomes impossible to disentangle the part of the real and the fictitious - true or fake Macron, real or fake press conference, real comedian or fake president, etc. The figure of generalized imposture emerges behind these vertiginous exchanges of what we were once reassured to distinguish – reality and fiction.

[7]In his diary (Joseph Goebbels, 1933-1939 , trans. Denis-Armand Canal, Paris, Tallandier, 2007), the man who had been appointed " Reich Minister for Popular Education and Propaganda" on March 14, 1933 wrote, in a form of slip, on May 31, 1933, relating to his visit to Rome, in the company of Mussolini: “The new route in ancient Rome. Here also reigns the spirit of order of Mussolini. All of this sounds like a fairy tale to me” (emphasis added). Of course, by "fairy tale", he wants to designate what he could not have imagined as possible, but, inseparably, he states something about this "order" that he admires: it is phantasmagorical. Continuing in this vein, we can see an admission: society is divided, but here we have managed to create the illusion of unity. He could have spoken of an appearance of "paradise", but the expression "fairy tale" coming from his pen, the unreality of the situation is as if pierced bare by his words.