Fascist ethnography and the importance and limits of Arendt’s ‘Banality of Evil’

Writing the white ethnos

For more than a year, media outlets have gone out of their way to publish profile pieces on, and wide-ranging interviews with, self-described white nationalists and Nazis. Accompanied by articles and books which purport to reveal some authentic insight into fascism by interviewing fascists, readers have not learned anything that could not have been gleaned from other sources. The only thing of value in these articles, invariably written by white journalists and writers, is seeing how their authors are unable to critically reflect on their own affiliation with whiteness. That is, the less these journalists and writers feel in any real, personal danger when they encounter Nazis, the less insightful they are. As much as they have sought to rationalize their writing of these pieces—and not one rationalization I’ve come across has withstood a moment’s honest scrutiny—they amount to facilitation at best, and Nazi-empathic at worst.

In drawing a circle around white people (journalists) talking to white people (fascists) about white supremacy and fascism, they actively perform the reconstruction of ‘a public sphere’ that is as exclusive as the ethnostate of which fascists dream, but which for many of us is a nightmare.

The most recent of these was an article in the New York Times which, rightly, came in for sustained criticism. It never ventured further than a wedding, cats, and supermarket shopping. The Times disingenuously responded to its critics by stating: “What we think is indisputable, though, is the need to shed more light, not less, on the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them.”

It is false that ‘illuminating’ the significance and appeal of fascism can be accomplished by giving fascists a platform, let alone directing readers to a site which sells fascist paraphernalia (as the Times did). This is not simply about poor journalism. It is also about technique. The fabrication of an ethnographic presence, which furnishes access to a presumable truth through techniques, is conducive to claims of validity derived from the fiction of an unmediated everydayness (a false concreteness). But few journalists or editors are capable of reflecting on what that entails and facilitates in this context, let alone understanding the tacit links that can be forged between the techniques of ethnography (observing, conducting in-depth interviews, and writing about an ethnos or culture) and the politics of ethnonationalism (a belief in the existence of a singular, homogeneous culture).  That link, as most anthropology scholars know, is that conventional ethnographic methods suggest these techniques (of the interview and so on) in order to be able to write about an ethnos (a culture) from within that perspective.

We know that the Times‘ response is patently false because the article never once diverged from the media strategy which the article itself outlined:

the … alt-right movement are hoping to make those ideas seem less shocking for … normal people …. / the movement will be looking to make use of people like the Hovaters and their trappings of normal life—their fondness for National Public Radio, their four cats, their bridal registry. / “We need to have more families. We need to be able to be just normal” …

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A detail from a photo in the New York Times article, all of which were deliberately framed as scenes from an ordinary suburban life in the “heartland”

In the wake of the Times’ article, there have been attempts to guide journalists through the minefield without giving up on the practice—in effect, a number of journalists have been making a case, albeit with caveats, but it still comes down to an argument that journalists can exempt themselves from the anti-fascist principle of ‘no-platforming.’ I am not persuaded, certainly not by allusions to Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil.” For one thing, the term emerges in the wake of a military defeat and not a political ascendancy. But I want to dig down a little more than that into both the importance and limits of Arendt’s approach.

The Arendtian ‘public square’

Arendt was commissioned by the New Yorker to write a series of articles on the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann had been a Lieutenant Colonel in the German Schutzstaffel (SS). From 1942, it was his role to organize the logistics that would ensure millions were sent to concentration camps. Arendt had fled Germany in 1933, the year in which Hitler became Chancellor.

Arendt did not seek Eichmann out, invite him to opine in a setting of his choosing, offer him a platform to give an account of his Nazism. She did not approach her subject as an ethnographer might, presuming a spurious, detached objectivity on her part. Nor did her readers expect her to. After all, Eichmann was on trial for mass murder. He had already been excluded from public space.

Still, the central claim in Arendt’s book, Eichmann In Jerusalem published some years later, has never been uncontroversial. Its description of Eichmann is of a mediocre conformist, an ordinary, mechanical joiner who becomes a member of the National Socialist Party in 1932, and then joins the SS not—according to Arendt—out of any discernibly fanatical or sinister conviction but because he is unable to imagine a reason to not do so (“why not?” join the SS). What she observed in the dock is someone who claims to take orders and gives them. A loyal and efficient servant of the Reich.

Before the trial, Arendt had said of Eichmann that “[h]e was one of the most intelligent of the lot.” During the trial, Arendt found it difficult to “extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann.” She concluded that he was neither the fiendishly charismatic mass murderer she had anticipated nor, quite, the stupid bureaucrat of a murderous regime so much as a functionary who acted without thought, someone for whom “extermination per se (was) more important than anti-Semitism or racism” (in Young-Bruehl 1982, 367).

In many ways, Arendt’s thesis of the “banality of evil” is an argument with her own preconceptions, constructed largely by way of newspaper reports. It marks a shift from the assumption that atrocities must be motivated by a conscious, extraordinary malevolence to something more like the outcome of a faithful cog playing its role in an exterminating machine. Coming from Arendt, who placed such emphasis on the importance of thinking, this must have deepened the horror of the circumstances that resulted in the slaughter of millions.

But, it should not go without saying that such a view aligns with Eichmann’s deliberately-crafted legal defense through which he sought to evade liability, to present himself as someone who was motivated, above all, by a desire to follow orders rather than conscious, racist animus. The picture of Eichmann that emerges instead from mountains of documents released a decade or more after the trial is not, however, that of a grey, thoughtless bureaucrat but of an enthusiastically vicious anti-Semite and racist who relished the spotlight, who boasted of his racism, and welcomed any inflated account of his role in atrocities (cf. Stangneth, Eichmann before Jerusalem).

This does not mean it would be better to treat fascism as if it were unconnected with the everyday functioning of racism, white supremacy and anti-Semitism. Accounts of the rise and murderous teleology of fascism as a kind of malign, satanic possession mystify the banality of fascism’s appeal. Such explanations dangerously ignore the ways in which that appeal is facilitated and sustained. Every chronicle of fascism as an inexplicable deviation from the ‘ordinary’ daily life in capitalism or as the working of supernatural forces obscures its tangible pay-off for some.

There is nothing secret about what those benefits were for parts of the population. Parts of the Left dislike talking about this aspect because denying that some working class people support fascism keeps a fetishistic, homogeneous, implicitly white view of ‘the working class’ intact, and maintaining that view is treated as far more important than addressing the racism that is pivotal to cross-class, nationalist alliances around the possession of whiteness.

But it is nevertheless an open secret that, from the mid-1930s in Germany, that pay-off involved the elaboration of a generous, racially-exclusive welfare state supportive of ‘Aryan’ families and ‘productive’ workers. That understanding of economics and welfare involved the Malthusian fabrication of a ‘problem of overpopulation’—the Nazi obsession with ‘parasitic bankers’ and ‘unproductive’ populations (such as ‘lazy Poles’) in the occupied zones—that culminated in the logistical organization of an industrial-scale ‘final solution’ (cf. Aly and Heim, Architects of Annihilation). It is a reminder that when the ugly premises of population theory and (racial-sexual) productivism are given credence as ‘legitimate concerns’ and economic truths, the worst horrors can be redefined as harsh but reasonable solutions to a seemingly self-evident ‘problem.’

If there are lessons to be drawn with the present moment, it begins by not avoiding the connection between claims about the economic interests of ‘ordinary’ people and fascism. For while ‘economic anxiety’ is certainly a euphemism for the bundle of evangelical racism, white supremacy and misogyny that swept Trump into the White House, there is surely a lot more that could be written about how this ‘economic anxiety’ links to the economic nationalist (oikonomic) dream of a racially-exclusive, normatively familial welfare state. Arendt’s discussion of oiko-politics in The Human Condition is an important, if fleeting and limited, contribution to this. I part company with, among other things, her elision of the enslavement that makes her idealization of the political possible (cf. Contract and Contagion, 60-61). The other side of that idealization is her appalling disparagement of black university students, whose function it is to reinscribe the whiteness of the Arendtian public-political sphere (cf. Kathryn Gines, Hannah Arendt and the Negro Question).

In any event, Arendt’s deconstruction of her own assumption that only exceptional monsters engage in monstrous acts may well be useful to someone who has never come across a Nazi in person but, more importantly, someone who is nevertheless convinced from the outset that Nazism is grotesque. But even if we leave aside the fact that the circumstances in which Arendt observed Eichmann occurred during his trial for mass murder are not the same as interviewing Nazis who, today, are engaged in recruiting, it has to be admitted that the writer who has never encountered a Nazi is a very narrow category.

Even if they approach this from some kind of anti-fascism, it is one that has had the luxury of being hypothetical, constructed at a distance and capable of imagining a scenario where encountering a fascist does not carry immense danger to oneself. Not everyone is afforded the indulgence of assuming there is something novel about encountering committed racists, if not explicit fascists, in daily life. Being able to treat fascism as unusual or an enigma (which somehow requires meeting with a fascist in order to ‘discover’ its truth) presupposes a white, middle class existence, an utterly dubious epistemology, and more than a little bit of undeserved arrogance.

The point is this: if someone were able to meet a fascist who did not wish their destruction, then that already suggests that the encounter is not as ‘edgy’ as is supposed. On the contrary, it is far too safe to result in any meaningful insights because it involves no palpable sense of the danger that fascism presents, to oneself or anyone else. Call this ‘privilege’ if you like, but that term barely captures the implication.

As noted, Arendt focuses on Eichmann’s (self) presentation as a cog in an exterminating machine. As it happens, that is also reference to Eichmann’s remark, cited during the trial: “I will leap into my grave laughing because the feeling that I have [about the deaths of] five million enemies of the Reich on my conscience is for me a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” Eichmann quibbled with the Prosecutor over the meaning of “enemies” but at no point did he disavow either the laughter or satisfaction. The pleasure that Eichmann took from the deaths and destruction of those whose very existence, as he saw it, made them enemies of the German ethnostate linked the negation of actual lives with his positive affirmation and enjoyment of a Way of Life.

That is, Arendt’s depiction of Eichmann as an ordinary, thoughtless bureaucrat sets aside the intimate, racial-sexual economy of fascism in a hasty attempt to reinscribe the nobility of the political and of philosophical thought. It pretends, among other things, that fascists do not take pleasure in their racism or that philosophy makes someone immune to fascism—though Arendt knew very well that this was untrue. Indeed, Arendt’s attachment to and understanding of the ideal public sphere as a space of freedom, equality and rational debate does not explain or grapple with its own racial-gendered conditions, in that while she renounces such she also assumes that these are anomalous to an ideal that has never existed.

In most of her writing, Arendt treats economics as a domain of brute necessity from which politics counts as elevation into contemplation. I have nothing against contemplation, but this distinction between economics and politics circumvents an exploration of the racial-sexual implications of National Socialist policies because it presumes a dichotomy. Economics is defined as a primordial, pre-political utility that, in Arendt’s philosophy, is unlinked from what could be an exploration of the intimate, sexual economy gathered around the reproduction of whiteness.

Ultimately, that approach makes it impossible to see how much Trump’s ascendancy to the US Presidency is hinged on the promise of making racism, misogyny and bigotry enjoyable ‘again,’ for some, and just how that links to other techniques and practices whose explicit or unconscious purpose is to recreate the exclusive public-political sphere of a white ethnostate.

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