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Bureaucratic fanaticism

Adolf Eichmann
Adolf Eichmann

It might seem wrong to maintain, as I have in many writings, that the modern predominance of bureaucratic social structures and their ethos—for which industrial capitalism (broadly defined, including the Soviet Union and even “Communist” China) has been largely responsible, in that it is an anti-personal social order in which people tend to be treated as instantiations of such categories as “wage-laborer” and “capital-owner,” everyone being a means to an impersonal end, one’s humanity necessarily being subordinated to the systemic imperative of accumulating capital, which, moreover, necessitates the proliferation of bureaucracies for the sake of keeping order, regulating workers and society, policing dissent, redistributing resources toward business interests and, occasionally, toward disadvantaged elements of the citizenry that might cause trouble if they aren’t mollified, etc.—bears, ultimately, the principal responsibility for the horrors of totalitarianism (or is at least among the most important conditions of it). It might seem that ideological fanaticism, as exemplified by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, has little in common with bureaucratic atomism and inhumanity. But in fact they are related. This kind of ideological commitment—which is also displayed by the contemporary Tea Party and many mainstream economists and politicians, who have been perfectly happy to sacrifice millions of lives around the world in the service of their Free Market ideology—is facilitated by atomistic and bureaucratic social structures, which foster the tendency to think and act in terms of “reifications,” abstract categories, labels. In a society that functions by categorizing people and subordinating them to overwhelming institutional dynamics, the leap to mass ideological commitment (subordinating humanity to ideological considerations) is not terribly difficult. It is natural, being effectively a sort of extreme subjectivization of what is already the case in institutional functioning. The Free Market ideology is a good example, as is the antisemitism of the 1930s (which grew out of decades of institutionalized discrimination and institutional/social inequalities for which Jews were the scapegoat). Atomization and bureaucratization are among the conditions for mass ideological mobilization, which is a condition for totalitarianism.

—But, in fact, it turns out that the masses’ fanatical antisemitism wasn’t as important to the success of Nazism as is commonly thought, precisely because this fanaticism didn’t exist to the extent you’d think. After the war, Germans were able to move beyond the past more easily than might have been expected, going about their ordinary lives and appearing not to be dedicated antisemites. Much or most of their earlier behavioral antisemitism (killing Jews, etc.) had been due simply to their following orders, fitting into the institutional and social environment, being good bureaucrats. So, you see, that’s the horror, that’s the origin, that institutionalized atomistic alienation, a much more fundamental thing than “ideological” alienation, fanaticism.[1]

[1] Note: In those reflections I confused two issues, a bureaucratic etc. society as an essential condition for the emergence of totalitarianism, and extreme bureaucracy etc. as the most important and most destructive manifestation of totalitarianism. Both claims are true, I think. Mass ideological commitment is more important in the “movement” stage than in the “state” stage of totalitarianism.


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