An article in today’s New York Times reports a rise in attacks on immigrants in Greece by extremists associated with the far right. What is especially frightening about these attacks is the response of the police and government.Victims of the recent attacks have contacted police and encouraged the government to intervene, but their requests have been met with indifference.
The widespread political apathy of the masses in Greece and the use of violence as a means of political expression by far right extremists are reminiscent of the twentieth-century proto-totalitarian movements in Europe that Hannah Arendt identified in Part III of The Origins of Totalitarianism, in which she described the rise of a violent “mob” from the disenfranchised and indiffernet “masses” of post-war Europe. Totalitarian movements succeeded, Arendt said, because of the failure of “two democratic illusions”:
The first was that the people in its majority had taken an active part in the government and that each individual was in sympathy with one’s own or somebody else’s party. On the contrary, the movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, that therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized only by a minority. (Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 415)
The political apathy and inaction of the masses provided the soil for growth of totalitarian movements. Economic issues and private interests took precedence over political issues and the masses exited from the political arena, creating a vacuum, which the mob sought to fill. Arendt’s description could be easily applied to the situation in Greece, where the ultra right part Golden Dawn has won 18 of the 300 seats in the Greek Parliament. The mob is now beginning to emerge from the indifferent masses in Greece, who have been displaced and disenfranchised by the European financial crisis.
The second democratic illusion that failed was that “the indifferent masses did not matter”:
…they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation. Now they made apparent what no other organ of public opinion had ever been able to show, namely, that democratic government had rested as much on the silent approbation and tolerance of the indifferent and inarticulate section of the people as on the articulate and visible institutions and organizations of the country. Thus when the totalitarian movements invaded Parliament with their contempt for parliamentary government, they merely appeared inconsistent: actually they succeeded in convincing the people at large that parliamentary majorities were spurious and did not necessarily correspond to the realities of the country, thereby undermining the self-respect and the confidence of governments which also believed in majority rule rather than their constitutions. (Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 415)
The mob became the leader of the aimless, atomized, and apathetic masses. While Golden Dawn is denying any connection to the recent surge in violence in Greece they are not attempting to stop it. They are silently becoming the leaders of the marginalized masses in Greece. Fortunately, national organizations like Expel Racism and international groups like Human Rights Watch are embedded in the communities to resist the rise of the “new mob,” but more needs to be done.
What might be on the horizon in Greece? Although it is perhaps spurious to speculate on what might happen, the recent violence in Greece could, if unchecked and with the support of wider political forces in Greece, turn into terror. Arendt identified terrorism as the preferred means of political expression by the mob. She explains:
What proved so attractive was that terrorism had become a kind of philosophy through which to express frustration, resentment, and blind hatred, a kind of political expressionism which used bombs to express oneself, which watched delightedly the publicity given to resounding deeds and was absolutely willing to pay the price of life for having succeeded in forcing the recognition of one’s existence on the normal strata of society. (Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, p. 439)
The intoxication of violence that the mob experiences becomes a self-perpetuating reign of terror. The recent events in Greece deserve a strong international response, now rather than later, before the violence escalates to terrorism. The resistance on the ground in Greece from national and international organizations is a start, but governments from around the globe need to send a strong message to the Greek government that the emergence of totalitarian movements in their country is unacceptable and must be stopped.