How Totalitarianism Is A Total Nightmare (Hannah Arendt)

Life is but a dream. Totalitarianism is, to Hannah Arendt, someone else's dream invading your body, until it becomes a nightmare. You wake up, screaming, because you are just one of a million heads making up the body of a real-life Leviathan.

"For by Art is created that great LEVIATHAN called a COMMONWEALTH, or STATE, which but an Artificiall Man" (From Leviathan, Buy / Borrow)

The traumatizing image above is from Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. His concept was that all of our implied consent as citizens created this Voltron with a sovereign at its head. This could just as well portray Arendt's idea of totalitarianism. She describes it as "One Man of gigantic dimensions."

Imagine yourself waking up inside this One Man, no longer a legal, social, or even personal person yourself. You're just the third-faceless-thing-in from Leviathan's armpit. Do you even have a mouth to scream? In a totalitarian state, Arendt, would say, the answer is no. In the concentration camp, the laboratory of totalitarian control, it's not that people are killed. It's that they never existed at all.

Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism

For a human to die in a totalitarian state is just Leviathan sloughing off some skin cells in the shower. Who cares? One life is just a thing, replaced by other things in a state that will live for a thousand years, a movement fated to take over the world. This is how the totalitarian state views every human being. Just a mindless cell in the body of one gigantic man in constant, frenetic motion.

Let me take a small digression across the world (and over 2,000 years back in time) to explain the reality of this unreality.

A Brief Digression Into Ancient Philosophy

The idea that reality is created is a novel idea in western thought, but entirely mundane in most global philosophy. To understand it quickly, just go to sleep. We use the exact same hardware for both dreaming and waking and we are equally convinced in either state. Try it for yourself, I'll wait...

As Zhuangzi observed 2,300 years ago:

Around 300 BC, Zhuangzi relates the story of how he dreamt he was a butterfly and woke up utterly confused. 

This is also the stuff of much modern film. How do you know your waking identity is real and the dreaming one is false? The truth is that what we call reality is a simulation just as much as a dream is. Your brain takes cues from the environment but ultimately runs the experience in your brain, the same as a dream. Life is but a dream.

Thus in Buddhism, the Buddha is called the 'awakened one', one who awakened from this dream, the one we call reality. As the Dhammapada says:

Who looks up on the world as one who views a bubble and as one who views a mirage, them the king of death does not see.

One story goes that the demon Maara (illusion personified) offered the Buddha universal monarchy, ie totalitarianism, which he rejected. Jesus was also offered worldly power and chose to die instead. The 20th century showed us that this power really exists. You don't need meditation or a powerful father, just enough mass propaganda, surveillance, and incarceration to make illusions real.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Just as much as we believe in our own dreams, we can be made to believe in the shared nightmare of totalitarianism. Reality is only different from dreams in terms of consistency and consequences; precisely the levers that totalitarianism controls.

Row, Row, Row (Consistency)


As Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels said, "Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth." If your dream world was consistent every night, who's to say that it wasn't true? What would make it any different from your 'waking' reality? If you have a dream wife, and she's there every night, which one is true?You, while dreaming, certainly wouldn't know. If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes indistinguishable from truth.

Totalitarianism also turns ideology into infrastructure, what Arendt calls a "living organization." Jews being subhuman was not an idea in Nazi Germany. They literally made it concrete. They built buildings, set up departments, distributed badges, an idea was built into reality. The inferiority of Jews is not just something someone is saying. You walk on the street and Jews actually step into the gutter, wearing a badge. Thus your experience of reality becomes consistent with the propaganda dream. The dream becomes real and, for many, a nightmare.


Why people accept this alternate reality is somewhat simple. We all escape reality in some way, and reality is always socially constructed. Look at your standard religion or the banknotes in your pocket. In times of turmoil, when our regular hallucination starts to suck, accepting the lies of a Hitler, a Stalin, or a Trump is a satisfying way of giving the finger to self-satisfied bourgeouis elites, who are also full of shit. This is much of the appeal of Trump.


You can see this today in America. While Trump was wantonly and gleefully cruel to migrants, the brutal border police and concentration camps still operate under Biden, just with more hypocrisy. Trump at least spoke how America actually behaves, "cleansed of hypocrisy." Trump may have been evil in speech, but at least he was consistent.

Democrats make noises about values but keep doing the same shit. Trump was unapologetically cruel and self-interested, and people could identify with that. He made it OK to be proud of who Americans actually are. He destroyed the duplicity of existing society and many people were happy to watch it shatter.


In a world of uncertainty and turmoil, this doesn't start as a nightmare. For many people, the certainty of propaganda is a relief. This isn't history. Just turn on Fox News to feel the cleansing bullshit wash over you right now. Enemies are always bad and you are always the best and everything is fine. It sounds stupid, but remember this. It's a consistent lie.

Consequences (Your Boat)

The other thing that separates dream from reality is consequences. If you jump off a roof in real life, you really die. In totalitarianism, of course, consequences can be supplied. This is actually a characteristic of every government. It's all hallucinated reality, with real beatings if you don't comply.

Laws, police, and concentration camps supply very real consequences for every ideology. The subhumanity of Jews, communists, or migrants is not an opinion, it's a reality, inflicted upon very real bodies. Legally, extra-legally, they're treated as less than other human beings. Thus the nightmare has very real consequences, it will steal your freedom, your children, your very existence. Who is to say, then, that this is not real? Every state's fever dream of power makes people really die.

Thus the last barrier seperating the dream world from ours comes down. It was never up to begin with. Every political reality is a shared hallucination, and they all kill. Totalitarianism is just the worst possible nightmare.

Life Is But A Nightmare

The totality of totalitarianism is that it doesn't just kill people. It takes away their power to dream. It replaces the oppression of human beings with the destruction of human being entirely.


And so we return to Leviathan. One whole made out of atomized people, made out of their broken bodies and dreams. Such is the nightmare of totalitarianism. You wake up into a Leviathan made brutally real through consequences and consistency, through "a band of iron which holds them so tightly together that it is as though their plurality had disappeared into One Man of gigantic dimensions."

And so I'll end with the lullaby that puts a body politic to sleep, no chance to dream.

Row, row, row your boat,
Violently down the stream,
Terribly, terribly, terribly, terribly,
Life is but a scream.

Arendt's book Totalitarianism (which is part of three) is amazing. She's a great political theorist but it's really a psychological study of Leviathan, and the damaged societies that dream him into being.

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