One of the 20th century’s greatest political scientists, Hannah Arendt, wrote a controversial book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the man accused of leading the Nazi genocide of 5 million Jews.
The German-born thinker had a revelation after studying his case: “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.”
Eichmann was no different than most state bureaucrats. The difference was that the German state had the support of an incensed mob looking for a scapegoat. Arendt felt troubled not by the distinctiveness of the Nazi official, but rather by how closely he resembled ordinary citizens.
Arendt tore down the comfortable narrative that separated the good German people from an evil government.
She helped us understand that it doesn’t necessarily take some sort of demon to carry out despicable state crimes; all you need is for an individual in power to lose himself in a mob and act without thinking.
Any collective fueled by state resources can transform regular people into monsters. Taken to an extreme, this can lead to the kind of genocide seen in Nazi Germany. However, in everyday life, it manifests itself in the state’s restraint of individual freedom.
The state can turn citizens into common criminals, and in turn, citizens accept that the state holds a legal monopoly on violence. The problem arises when the responsibility of executing this monopoly is handed over to collectives.
“The state is all of us,” right? Well, no, not all of us. State action boils down to a conflict among groups, all hoping to use state power for their own benefit and interests. These groups push the boundary on what the state can do to the individual, and eventually, individual responsibility fades away. The chaotic mob then seizes power.
“With us, there are no limits,” Nazi propaganda once said. “With us, the people attain power,” Chavistas and other populists chant today. This is how the mob, lost in demagoguery, becomes prey to an agitator: the one who yells fire in a crowded theater, so that the mob will trample anyone standing in its way.
Demagogues don’t actually “love the poor so much, they want to make more of them,” as the saying goes. Demagogues love mobs: those flocks of unquestioning sheep that effectively destroy individuality. They prefer dependent, uninformed groups, rather than independent, knowledgeable individuals.
In the end, the lifeless mass grows and grows, and it doesn’t care who it crushes along the way. The mob tells us we’re all equal, and that no one is allowed to take control of his or her own life. The asphyxiating bureaucracy trudges on without asking or even thinking; all bureaucrats know are excuses, and that they must crush their enemies.
Mob rule is a society built for whoever yells the loudest. There is no place for individuals where the masses reign.
Totalitarian collectivism, which we call populism today, is a way to suppress individuals through a supposed collectivist utopia. In Nazi Germany, the mobs sought to destroy those who were different; in Venezuela, Chavismo undermines individuals’ private property.
The common denominator is the destruction of individuality through appeals to useless sentiments and resentment. The mob takes care of conscience, drowning it out with noise.
Collectivist rhetoric is alarmingly present throughout the region, and becoming less subtle in some countries more than others. The only way to combat this attack on the individual is to raise awareness and place limits on the state.
Olmedo Miró is a Panamanian farmer and economist residing in Chiriquí, Panamá. Follow @olmedovirtual.