The brilliance that is Hannah Arendt. She wanted to look deep in what made Adolph Eichmann tick – the proverbial scheduler of trains from – was it Budapest? – to the death camps during World War II. But first you have to bring it into a human focus. You collect people from their homes (imagine the horror), put them on trucks (smell it, hear it), hold them somewhere, take them to the rail yards (again the trucks), and then you put a frail little old lady into a cattle wagon (how is she ‘put’?). And a mother with a swaddled baby in her arms. Imagine it’s winter. The cattle wagons are packed tight. There is a bucket in the corner, and a small speck of light above their heads. The trip will take many days. If there are delays, weeks. Many will die. The baby perhaps. The frail elderly grandmother.
What do the officers and guards feel?
How could people do this? Arendt referred to “the banality of evil.” Collective action by people who are not necessarily even antisemitic. Ordinary folk. Cliche spouting, not too bright, unquestioning group thinkers (that is, non-thinkers).
And then think about today and our current blindness and cliches – the market will provide, there is no alternative, it will all trickle own, we live in a meritocracy, the private sector does it better, John Key knows what he’s doing, Labour taxes and spends, the Greens are a bunch of fruit loops (JK said so). Arendt is highly, highly relevant today.
This is what she wrote about collective action. The unthinking mob. The technocratic madmen and women who simply function without deep thought.
“I want to talk about Eichmann. Collective action, where many act together – generates power. You are never powerful when you act alone, no matter how strong you are. The feeling of power generated by acting together is in and of itself absolutely not evil. It’s a normal human trait. But it’s not good, either. It’s simply neutral, something that is simply a phenomenon, a phenomenon of being human that must be described as such. There is a pronounced feeling of pleasure involved in such action. I’m not going to start quoting you examples – I could go on for hours just with examples from the American Revolution. And I would now say that the *real perversion of action is functioning*; that the feeling of pleasure is still present in such functioning; but that everything that is present in action – namely, we confer with one another; we arrive at certain decisions, we accept responsibility, we think about what we’re doing – *that is switched off in functioning*.
You have here [with Eichmann] a pure function without a goal, a running in neutral. And the pleasure in pure function – that pleasure was quite evident in the case of Eichmann.”
Quoted in Marie Luise Knott (translation 2013) Unlearning with Hannah Arendt p7.
This ‘functioning’ – becoming a functionary – is human trait, not particular to any one people. We have it. How do we avoid it other than by recognising it, and setting up strong cultural institutions that identify it in the thoughts and actions of others, and when it is without moral compass, temper and shape it to do good? It is why so many of us talk about being outcome-focused, not – ever – simply task-focused. “Doing my job,” is not a reason for anything. The broader purpose is the reason.This dangerous cult of functioning is tied up with another human trait of our age – Peguy called “the family man” “the grand adventurier du 20e siecle … an involuntary adventurer, who … for wife and children … was ready to sacrifice his beliefs, his honour, and his human dignity.” Ibid p27.
Arendt was deeply uneasy about one question: Could it be that there were people who had never had any convictions, honour, or human dignity in the first place?And that question is more and more relevant today as Neoliberalism raises to powerful positions the unethical, self centred, and avaricious personas at the expense of those with honour.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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