The Origins of Totalitarianism

The same thought trajectory that brought me to Le Bon’s work on crowds has led me to something I should’ve read a long time ago: Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism.

The Origins of Totalitarianism is Arendt’s thoughtful and relentlessly critical dissection of totalitarian movements and nations. In a later chapter called “Totalitarianism in Power,” Arendt argues that the ultimate goal of totalitarian governments is “to conquer the globe and bring all countries on earth under their domination.”

As a result, Arendt argues, a totalitarian government rules as if it were only a matter of time until the world is in fact under its control. Totalitarian regimes, Arendt writes,

conduct their foreign policy on the consistent assumption that they will eventually achieve this ultimate goal, and never lose sight of it no matter how distant it may appear or how seriously its “ideal” demands may conflict with the necessity of the moment. They therefore consider no country as permanently foreign, but, on the contrary, every country as their potential territory. (p. 415)

Let me be clear here: Arendt is specifically talking about Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. She’s not talking about any other nation. And I don’t mean to imply–as one might infer from my politics–that Arendt’s argument can be applied to today’s powerful nations.

The United States is not Nazi Germany. Bush is not Hitler.

Yet Arendt’s remark is nonetheless highly illuminating for the present situation, if only because it underscores how power now operates in the world.

For all the bombs’ bursting red glare and all the talk of bunker busters, the new regimes operate in a fundamentally non-dominational spirit. Or at least (in most cases) the domination assumes a form more alluring than the military occupation that Arendt wrote about. The most striking difference between a totalitarian government like the Nazis and imperial powers today is that the new Empire does not seek to conquer the globe by force, but rather, by a hegemonic false sense of consensus.

In the end, it’s much easier to convince people they want to do something (through powerful media strategies, educational policies, religious orthodoxy) than to hold a gun to their head and force them to do it. That is, essentially, the definition of hegemony.

And the hegemony that has been most wildly successful, the hegemony that is the cockroach of all ideologies, the hegemony that not only convinces people they want to do something, but more importantly convinces them they want to buy something, is global capitalism.

Globalization is the new totalitarianism.

They Rule: Mapping the Power

Lately I’ve been exploring They Rule, an interactive database of the largest American corporations and their interwoven boards of directors. The site is an example of what creator Josh On (from the Futurefarmers collective) calls “database visualization.”

They Rule opens with these words:

They sit on boards of the largest companies in America
Many sit on government committees
They make decisions that affect our lives
They rule

Quite simply, the site allows you to map connections between various corporations, using members of their boards as nodes, or relay points. It’s Six Degrees of Separation for multinational corporations. One popular map, for example, documents the connections between Halliburton and major media outlets. Aylwin B. Lewis, we find, is on Halliburton’s board of directors and Disney’s board too. Meanwhile William R. Howell sits on the boards of Halliburton and Pfizer. On Pfizer’s board is William H. Gray, III, who in turn is also on Viacom’s board. There is a direct line, then, from a war-profiteering energy conglomerate to the owner of MTV and CBS news.

They Rule makes no claim that there is a grand cabal among Halliburton directors, controlling the mass media. There is no conspiracy here. Nonetheless, it is unsettling to see so much corporate power concentrated in the hands of so few individuals. It seems that above the daily lives of most Americans there is a free-floating network of corporate entities and wealthy individuals to which we have no access. They, in turn, have little accountability to us. Their chief loyalties are to each other.

Another revealing map is Why Citicorp Really Rules, which shows a diverse group of banks, government institutions, media outlets, and consumer retailers, at the center of which is Citigroup, the world’s largest bank. (Not far behind is JP Morgan Chase and Bank One, who will soon be merging into one bank.)

The best part of They Rule is that you or I can create and save our own database visualizations for others to see. That is, we can archive these connections, print the maps, or email them to others. Some of these user-created maps can be truly informative, like the maps I refer to above. Others can be misleading, such Time Warner Has Their Hands in Everything. This map shows how members of Time Warner’s board also sit on the boards of companies like Dell, Chevron, or FedEx. This much is true, of course. What is misleading is the map’s title. Time Warner the company doesn’t have its hands in everything. Its people do. It’s essential to remember that behind every faceless corporate entity there are people. This is at once discouraging and liberating. Discouraging, because you begin to realize that there exists a class of people who seem untouchable, a world unto themselves, making decisions based on bottom lines rather than less tangible motivations, like dignity and sustainability. Liberating, because you begin to realize that power, whenever it is held by mortals, is fluid and transformable. There is space for resistance whenever humans are involved.

They Rule is one front of this resistance.

Mergers and Acquisitions

The recently proposed merger between JP Morgan Chase and Bank One has got me thinking about the ways that multinational corporations work. Never forget that these two “banks” are really corporations — meaning that their primary concern is, always, to make more money. And, ironically, to make more money at any cost. The cost, unfortunately, is almost always measured in human lives. Who can forget the 1995 Chase Manhattan memo recommending that the Mexican government “eliminate the Zapatistas” rebels in Chiapas in order to secure foreign investments? Who can forget? Apparently most everyone.

Multinational banks are not the only corporations that keep the balance sheet of bodies hidden from view. Indeed, we almost expect it from banks. But from a record label? The phenomenal indie band Godspeed You Black Emperor! offers a homemade diagram (full-size diagram) on their website that details how major defense contractors have holdings in record labels like Time Warner, Sony, and BMG:


So in addition to Britney Spears albums, this network of companies produces bombs, missiles, and fighter jets. These corporations form a node that GYBE! calls “Yanqui U.X.O.” — a phrase which is not so difficult to understand once you know the language. UXO is a military term which means “unexploded ordnance.” In other words — a bomb waiting to go off. And Yanqui is Yankee, seen (and spelled) from the colonized’s point of view.

These corporations deal in real violence, but there is also a kind of metaphysical violence going on in the way that their interconnectivity and culpability is obscured. Britney’s smash CD comes out on a Jive Records label. Jive Records is owned by BMG. BMG in turn is connected to the Franco-Belgian oil giant TotalFinaElf. And TotalFinaElf owns Hutchinson Worldwide, a company that makes, through its subsidiary Barry Controls, essential avionic and missile components for the defense industry.

I am reminded of a scene in Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Somebody asks the serial killer/Wall Street bigshot Patrick Bateman what he does for a living. She thinks she hears him say “mergers and acquisitions.” Which makes sense, because he does work for an investment firm. What he really says, and what she chooses not to hear is this: “murders and executions.”