It’s a long story, but I spent last week on Ramsgate’s beaches reading the writings of the philosopher Hanna Arendt. As holidays go, this was grown up. A patchwork of writing-to-deadline, anxious heavy dreams and the annual game of re-establishing a sense of belonging amongst a dispersed and motley crew of genetically related people.
In other circumstances an Ian Rankin would have sufficed but in preparation for a Freud Museum event about cultural unthinking and everyday fascism organised by the remarkable Greek Psychologist, Daniella Angueli, I return to a lifetime of reading political tomes on the beach. For someone who has carried Michael Harrington’s Socialism Past and Future to every Greek Island holiday since the 1990s, reading Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism on the Isle of Thanet didn’t seem all that weird.
The Kent coast is a place of profound beauty. The peninsula where St Augustine brought Christianity to England, white chalky cliffs, rock pipits and wild tides, now a neo-Dickensian society overwhelmed with deprivation and drugs, split 40/40 between Boris and Corbyn with the only UKIP office still openly in business. Eleven of Ramsgate’s sixteen town councillors are UKIP representatives. There were thirteen but one didn’t pay their council tax and another was arrested for shop lifting. A bleak house.
For someone who cut off any direct contact with the BBC and the mainstream press during the elections, reading The Isle of Thanet News is a chin-drop experience. Tucked in amongst the stories of the social consequences of forgetting a thing called regional development, was a story about how NHS Professionals, the NHS internal labour agency, is being sold off to the private sector. You read that right. Despite the chronic cost of private agency labour to the NHS, the only price controlled agency managed directly by the NHS is now being privatised. Quietly, without any resistance.
I guess its no surprise that I read about this stunning policy mistake in a part of the world where the social contract was broken somewhere in the 1980s.
As I’m watching a gang of seagulls mug a German English Language student in possession of some chips, I read a prophetic phrase about Europe in the 1930s by Arendt “It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organise masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.”
Hanna Arendt received heavy criticism for her cold analytic writings about the Nazi administration, specifically Adolf Eichmann during his trial in Jerusalem. Observing this silent thoughtless man she famously proposed the concept of the banality of evil. Her work importantly proposed the use of bureaucracy and administrative processes to build an unthinking following-of-orders strong enough to secure the logical conclusions of fascism.
Although I wouldn’t rate her chances of surviving a Friday night in Ramsgate, her capacity for understanding fascism, at the cost of trashing social norms, is a growing commodity. Arendt’s writings are experiencing a revival in part because of her proposal for consciousness raising about the slow steady policy steps that we are taking towards an everyday fascism in the UK. She explains something that is hard to follow in our current pseudo-democratic state, that the steps towards a totalitarian order are paved not with good intentions but no intentions at all.
In the anti-communist era in the USA it was a criminal offence to be ‘prematurely’ anti-fascist. To see the emergence of a fascist regime somewhere on the horizon was enough to get one grey-listed, if not fully black-listed in the black and white thinking of McCarthyism. One of the uncomfortable realities of having your consciousness raised, whether involuntarily or not, is that some people can see what’s round the societal corner before it can be expressed in polite or impolite company.
As a profound culture of unthinking emerges in the UK, the ability to think about and speak about an anti-fascism becomes a responsibility rather than a choice.
“Comprehension, means the unpremeditated attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality- whatever it may be.” Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism.
We increasingly face realities that we find hard to think about. Traumatic experiences immobilise the natural flow of thought or make its use operational.These effects are not just the result of individual “pathology”; they arise from our relation with other people, the social world and reality.
Join us on the 15th July at the Freud Museum to discuss The Unthinkable.
Elizabeth Cotton on Hanna Arendt: Unthinking Politics and Fascist Blocking of Thought
David Morgan: Nameless Dread – Somatic Manifestations of the Unthinkable and the Use of the Other
Daniella Angueli on Violating the Mind
Christos Tombras on Βody and the Limits of Language: Articulating the Unthinkable
To book tickets click here
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