After World War I, and resulting in part from the Versailles Treaty, ethnic groups found themselves within the national territory of other ethnic groups. The Jews found themselves in this position, but this had been the case for 2,000 years.
Now there were others, particularly Slavs, who did not have a national home. These organized into “pan-nationalist movements” that were not interested in being absorbed into the nation-states in which they were living, but wished to remain part of their own nations, even if stateless.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes:
“The pan-movements preached the divine origin of their own people as against the Jewish-Christian faith in the divine origin of Man. According to them, man, belonging inevitably to some people, received his divine origin only indirectly through membership in a people. The individual, therefore, has his divine value only as long as he belongs to the people singled out for divine origin….
“In the absolute contrast between the divine origin of one’s own people and all other non-divine peoples all differences between the individual members of the people disappeared.”
Arendt points out that this kind of thinking is a “veritable theology” that had a significant influence on the development of totalitarian movements.
Is there an essential difference between the pan-movement “theology” described by Arendt and the evolving identity ideologies of the contemporary progressive left? There are those who are in, and those who are out.
As opposed to a former American ideal, where “people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” people are judged by their membership in a group and are expected to conform to the dogma of the group as it rapidly evolves, almost without direction, but via emotional exhortations over social media.
The totalitarian mentality of these identity movements is explained by Arendt:
“The tribalism of the pan-movements with its concept of the ‘divine origin’ of one people owed part of its great appeal to its contempt for liberal individualism, the ideal of mankind and the dignity of man.
“No human dignity is left if the individual owes his value only to the fact that he happens to be born a German or a Russian; but there is, in its stead, a new coherence, a sense of mutual reliability among all members of the people which indeed was very apt to assuage the rightful apprehensions of modem men as to what might happen to them if, isolated individuals in an atomized society, they were not protected by sheer numbers and enforced uniform coherence.”
If we consider people whose groups who have historically suffered humiliation and lack of respect, it is not surprising that they have contempt for the dignity of man apart from his group. Being human beings was not sufficient for them to be respected and treated with dignity. Absent respect as an individual, one loses little by identifying with a group, placing his meaning there, and submitting to an “enforced uniform coherence.”
Is it not more reassuring to disappear into the group than to exist isolated in an atomized society, which is precisely what liberal democracy has produced as it has lost its historical and religious basis? An abstract individual has no God-given right to respect if there is no God. But if his group has power, and therefore respect, he can partake in that respect.
Given that ever greater numbers of people have been raised in the socially stunting environment of social media, the conditions are ripe for pan-type movements in which individuals can find comradeship under identity-group ideologies (theologies). As Arendt points out, these movements set the stage for totalitarianism because they feed a totalitarian us-versus-them mentality that cannot be pierced by reason. The ideology and the individual’s adherence to the ideology are deeper than reason.
We see in the progressive movement the political as understood by German philosopher Carl Schmitt in his book The Concept of the Political, published in 1932. For Schmitt, the political is characterized by the friend-enemy relation. Those within my group are friends; those outside are enemies. Groups are perpetually at war or in preparation for war.
Professor Steven Smith of Yale University notes that Schmitt is thinking in terms of politics in extreme situations. But with all the anger and violence, and groups rejecting integration within society, with growing numbers going so far as to hate those who accept the basic premises of the society, are we not at least entering an extreme phase? Are not those creating narratives that undermine the founding of the nation clearly stating that the Founders are their enemies?
Schmitt rejects liberal society in which differences can be ameliorated, and his view is more a return to a tribal structure where the safety of the group depends on its ability to defend itself. One can see this in the pan-movements. One can also see it today where demonization of those who disagree is swift. This is smart politics because if the other side cowers, then it cannot mount a counterattack.
As is well known in war, often the best defense is a strong offense. As enemies are silenced, the road is cleared for the emergence of totalitarianism.
Many, including those in prominent positions, hate US President Donald Trump. Large numbers of people rejected his election and immediately began resistance. In a normal situation envisaged by liberal democracy, the losers would not have been happy, but they would not have been willing to ignore national well-being just to undermine the president.
There are many substantive reasons to disagree with him, but today we see personal hatred. When pressed for reasons based on actual policy, nothing drastic is substantiated. If the essence of the political is friend and enemy, then the hatred is understandable: I hate my enemy.
For those who wish to draw back from the brink, it is easy to say that we all have many things in common and within that commonality we should strive for happy and productive lives. But that would be acceptance of basic American pragmatic politics, exactly what is being rejected by the left. Such a position is certain to bring derision and a charge of racism or some other ism. From the perspective of identity politics or the pan-movements, the charge would be accurate because the solution involves weakening the cherished identities.
The American political experience is based to a great extent on the writings of John Locke, and it was Locke’s intent to create a system in which the ecclesiastical animosities of different religious sects would be mitigated. At the heart of contemporary progressivism is the desire to accentuate differences, not soften them.
Perhaps the moment of greatest harmony in the US was Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He articulated the essence of a society based on mutual respect and liberty. Many who heard it thought that they had heard the future. In fact, rather than portend the future, it marked the end of a dream.
Great changes have been accomplished since then, but the rise of pan-type movements among different groups and the degeneration of political dialogue into invective and intolerance are negating the import of those achievements. They are of only marginal interest to the movements. If my identity, my worth, and my meaning lie in my identity group, then the interests of the group, as a group, are what matters most, and that ultimately means the power of the group relative to the rest of the population.
In the 1930s, the pan movements led to totalitarianism and war. Where will they lead today? With the progressive left controlling academia, the media, the government bureaucracy, and many powerful corporations, it is not likely that it will simply go away.
In fact, as the older generations pass from the scene, it seems likely that the left will rule in the not too distant future. It will give rights and privileges to its constituent identity groups and penalize others, as today it penalizes Chinese students applying to universities. It will take its rationale from among its “theologies.” The rule of law will be secondary to the decrees of judges and bureaucrats.
Where will this lead? On this point, Arendt’s words are chilling:
“The nation-state cannot exist once its principle of equality before the law has broken down. Without this legal equality … the nation dissolves into an anarchic mass of over- and underprivileged individuals. Laws that are not equal for all revert to rights and privileges, something contradictory to the very nature of nation-states….
“The greater the extension of arbitrary rule by police decree, the more difficult it is for states to resist the temptation to deprive all citizens of legal status and rule them with an omnipotent police.”