Hannah Arendt, the Nazis and the Banality of Evil


It’s been a while since I read a book that made me think as much as Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil. Her central premise is of course well known: that evil is almost boring in its  expression. She writes,

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, terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgement, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together for it implied that this new type of criminal commits his crime under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or feel that he is doing wrong.

Evil is not located in a few psychopaths but rather can be found in most ordinary human beings given the right conditions. It is this focus on the conditions that create or bring out evil that makes this book fascinating.

My favourite part was when she goes through each European country to discuss the details of how they tackled the “Jewish problem.” Here what seemed to matter above all was the extent to which the general population itself was anti-Semitic; and following this, how deep this anti-Semitism was and whether it was directed at foreign Jews or native Jews. In countries such as Italy, Bulgaria and Denmark, almost no Jews were deported or killed because the general population rebelled against directives from Germany to deport their Jews as part of the Final Solution. Denmark above all is an extraordinary story, where the King himself said that he would be the first to wear a yellow star. When Denmark was basically forced to hand over their Jews, they managed to sneak half of them into Sweden where they would be safe, and the other half went into hiding in Denmark and survived. In Bulgaria there were massive strikes against the government when Germany began to demand the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.  And in Italy, although the government did not outright disobey Germany, they played a cat and mouse game which resulted in almost no Jews being deported.

Compare this to countries such as Germany, Poland, France and Romania where almost the entire Jewish population was murdered. Romania in particular, which Arendt designates as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe, actually began killing its Jews before Germany did, and many of these killings were done by ordinary Romanians in unorganized pogroms that were especially violent. In fact when Germans found out about this, they were disturbed (!) stating that killing should not be done in such an uncivilized manner.

Arendt’s discussion of Holland was particularly interesting. A large number of Dutch Jews were killed and I had always assumed this was because of Dutch collaboration. She points out that because Holland’s government had fallen and the country was effectively under German command, the Nazis were able to infiltrate and identify and deport most Jews. She points out that Holland was the only country where students went on strike when Jewish professors were fired from universities. The Dutch also offered hiding places to almost half of all Jews in the country. The only reason so many were discovered is precisely because the Nazis had infiltrated the country so well.

What is perhaps most shocking about her report is her consistent demonstration of the central role played by Jewish leaders in orchestrating the destruction of European Jewry. In almost all countries, a Jewish council was formed which basically allowed Jewish leaders to decide who to save and how (usually based on financial leverage) and which almost always resulted in the majority of Jews being sent to concentration camps. Highlighting the role  Jewish leadership in the Holocaust got Arendt into a lot of trouble and yet seems central to understanding how the Holocaust happened the way it did.

To conclude, I want to return to this idea that the level of anti-Semitism in a country played a major role in determining the fate of its Jews. How does this reflect on Europe today where we not only see rising levels of anti-Semitism but also high levels of Islamophobia and anti-Black racism. What does this mean about constructions of European selfhood, identity and nationalism? Why did some countries resist the Nazis while others went even further in exterminating Jews? Returning to Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust, how can we connect particular discourses of race, modernity, nationhood, belonging, rationality, science and development to events such as the Holocaust, and indeed to continuing tensions in Europe related to the creation of an us/them dichotomy?

And above all, how have many of these dynamics been reproduced in Israel itself? Indeed Arendt’s warning at the beginning of the book about how the Israeli state was setting itself up as extremely strong and repressive state is above all important in our current time. She notes that because Jews felt so weak after the Holocaust, Israel was the means through which strength was to be projected outwards. This has, of course, happened at the expense of Palestinians. One act of ethnic cleansing has led to another. And yet, when we think of the banality of evil, it makes sense in the context of Israel even more: it is the belief that the killing and torturing of Palestinians is not wrong; it must happen for a whole host of reason. This is precisely what evil is and how it materializes – in the everyday acts and acquiescence of whole populations who believe that a certain thing is necessary.


Over the past few days I’ve had several discussions around the same topic: the role of race and gender within capitalism. Even phrasing the question that way reveals an assumption that race and gender are within capitalism and therefore not systems outside of or co-existing with capitalism, and so somehow subservient to the main system: capitalism. This represents a major debate within Marxism, but also outside of it. Many people seem to agree that racism and sexism existed before capitalism, but this is where the agreement ends. While some argue that capitalism merely instrumentalizes race and gender for its own ends and could exist without them, others point out that capitalism would not exist without racism and sexism – the three systems are closely dependent on one another. I tend to lean more towards this second point of view.

Marxist calls for the working class to organize as a class have always made me wonder about specific historical periods during which this was simply not feasible. In one recent discussion there was the example of the Black Panthers, with the statement that they should not have organized around a subjective identity – race – but should have organized around an objective one – class. But taking America in the 1960s and 1970s, how exactly were the Panthers supposed to organize around class when the racism of the white working class was so deeply entrenched? Were they supposed to devote their energy to addressing this racism in order to win the white working class over? Or wait until white workers realize that they had been duped into a false sense of superiority? It seems to me that Black Power was a response to the deeply racialized nature of American society that took class into account (many were Marxists) but that did not privilege class in a way that downplayed race. I don’t think that overthrowing capitalism at that moment would have ended racism. Indeed some have noted that in the US today, respectability politics gets you nowhere: you could be upper-class and Black and still get killed by police brutality – class doesn’t simply trump race, although it does have its effects.

At the same time, we can also see that organizing around race has its problems. How can a Black Power movement today organize around race when there are major class divisions that have led to the emergence of a Black elite who hold white ideals (see: Obama)? Or without acknowledging that American capitalism depends on a Black underclass? What I am getting at is that organizing around one or the other is almost impossible because of the ways in which race and capitalism are interconnected today. And yet there is a clear racial element to the emergence and consolidation of capitalism: slavery as a racialized mode of production almost single-handedly built the American and European economies.

A second example that comes to mind is the idea that the working class around the world should unite, despite imperialism placing workers in a specific hierarchy that privileges workers in Western countries. Marxist work has shown that part of the reason workers in Europe were able to achieve a social democratic bargain is because elites and multinational corporations found masses of exploitable labour in the “Third World.” In other words, Third World workers paid the price for the benefits European workers started receiving. Bearing this in mind, how are “workers of the world” supposed to unite? Should the struggle be a class struggle divorced from an imperialist struggle, as if capitalism is not imperial? And again, who bears the burden of raising the consciousness of European workers to the global division of labour from which they benefit at the expense of other workers?

A third example is that of gender. White feminist calls to organize around gendered oppression have been critiqued endlessly and rightly for assuming a universal woman. But don’t Marxist calls for organizing around class oppression assume a universal woman worker – and more, a universal worker? What about the ways in which women’s reproductive labour is a central means through which capitalism reproduces itself? This alone makes it difficult to speak of a class struggle that does not look at the ways in which class is gendered (and gender is class-based).

I understand the difference between objective and subjective identities. Belonging to a certain class is objective because it directly affects our ability to survive and reproduce ourselves. But aren’t ideologies such as race and gender also material? Don’t they have very material effects, just like class? Are the three even separable?

The idea that even if we had gender and racial equality, capitalism would still oppress us is a tempting theoretical idea, but I somehow doubt that it is that simple. We are at a point today where we cannot get rid of sexism or racism or capitalism individually because of their interconnectedness. Much gender inequality today is capitalist in nature, but capitalism also needs gender inequality to reproduce itself. Racism is often a result of global capitalism, but global capitalism needs racism to maintain itself.

It seems to me, drawing on an idea put forward by Sara Farris, that when we deal with this question theoretically, it seems easy to draw distinctions between race, gender and capitalism and to then assume that the first two are merely instrumental for capitalism. But when we instead look at historical instances, it becomes clear that racism and sexism have indeed been integral to capitalism from the beginning. Starting with slavery as a mode of production – a clearly racialized mode – and moving to the ways in which women’s unpaid reproductive labour is been used for capital accumulation, we see that throughout struggles over the past century, it has not been easy to simply organize around class.

These are difficult questions precisely because capitalism, racism and sexism have managed to create deep divisions among and between groups that are not easily dissolved through action or protest.

I realize there is no simple answer, but just wanted to write down these thoughts in light of the continuing idea within certain Marxist strands that racism and sexism are not integral to capitalism. They have not only been integral to capitalism – capitalism would not be what it is today without them – but they are also deeply intertwined with it and with one another.

Racialized in Europe

I am back in Europe for a month and this time around it struck me how the intersections of race, gender and class are becoming more and more clear in the European context(s) as the economic crisis deepens in some places and fades away in others. Being back in the Netherlands and seeing the major changes happening within my own institution as well as other Dutch universities vis-à-vis the continuing neoliberalization of education, where critical knowledge is being pushed out through early retirement schemes or more intense competition for funding, and where formerly critical departments are slowly being transformed into places where ‘responsible’ and ‘useful’ knowledge is produced. After spending one year in the US, it seems clear that the US model is something that not only spread to the UK but is now also becoming somewhat dominant in some European contexts, where the connection between knowledge and commodification is explicit. This is not to say that in these critical departments knowledge was ‘free’ or not tied to capital, but rather that in some European contexts knowledge production in these critical centers was tied to the social democratic project that is now being dismantled.

Going to Frankfurt for a few days made some of these changes even more clear. Frankfurt, the home of Critical Theory, is now also undergoing major changes in terms of critical academics being pushed out of the academy. Here, as in Holland, the gendered and racialized effects of this are clear. Whereas for a period gender and racial ‘minorities’ were permitted into these centers of knowledge production, it seems that they are now being pushed out. This is different, it seems to me, from the US context, where gender and racial ‘minorities’ are quickly co-opted, either by placing them in isolated departments such as Gender Studies or Area Studies (Middle East Studies is a clear example here) and then using the existence of these departments as proof of an academic institution being critical; or when gendered and racialized academics themselves become intellectually co-opted and therefore simply reproduce dominant narratives.

Another fascinating experience in Germany was hearing about the rise of Pegida and how once again these fascist and racist movements are designated as exceptional or a minority, even though the racist discourse they mobilize is extremely widespread in Europe. Similar moves are made in Holland when the PVV and Wilders are constructed by Dutch liberals or leftists as a tiny minority of “crazy people” who have nothing to do with “normal Dutch people.” Dutchness here of course refers to tolerance, liberalism and non-racism. And yet…the ways in which certain events are covered; the ways in which ‘migrant populations’ are referred to or spoken of; and the ways in which everyday racism functions demonstrates that in fact what distinguishes Pegida or the PVV from the mainstream public is perhaps its extremity and its fascism but certainly not its core belief that there is a subject—a European—that needs to be preserved. And there is no doubt that this subject is racialized. Indeed the ridiculous discussions and performances surrounding Charlie Hebdo should make this clear, and should also make clear the complex intersections between race, gender, class, nation and imperialism in European contexts today. It is the mechanisms by which a European self is produced and reproduced that are interesting and that rely on very old distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ even while those critiquing this racist view are accused of binary thinking. And yet…the “failure of multiculturalism” or the “limits of European tolerance” vis-à-vis the endlessly inassimilable migrant point to nothing except the desperate need on the part of many forces within Europe to maintain binaries even as they slowly slip away.

At a conference on ‘diversity’ and ‘intersectionality’ in Frankfurt the discussions revolved around these issues and around the ways in which diversity is being mobilized to completely depoliticize discrimination in Europe and to make it seem as though institutions are attempting to ‘be inclusive’ even while they become increasingly exclusive. Again this strikes me as something imported from the US context, where the narrative of a “melting pot” or this idea that diversity is good (read: profitable) is so strong, and where programs such as affirmative action are imagined to be radical interventions that are enough to fix the problem of representation. This is not to say that affirmative action is not needed, but that it is certainly not enough. And it will not be enough in the European context either.

Perhaps the only consolation here is that after spending on year in the US, it is clear that the gains made by European leftists that led to the institutionalization of social welfare policies can never be underestimated. America’s capitalism is explicit, brutal, suffocating. Europe’s capitalism—for now—is hidden behind walls of welfare and social democratic values and must navigate through leftist and labour movements that are still relatively strong. Although, that said, from the perspective of the Global South, this difference between US and European capitalism makes no difference; Europe’s social welfare policies benefit Europeans on the backs of non-Europeans, and even non-white Europeans must fight to be seen as deserving of welfare. In any case, the dismantling of the welfare state is well under way and we will probably not have one to speak of generations from now in places like the Netherlands.

This trip, and all my others to Europe, make me think about intersectionality from the perspective of a master category, because it seems to me that in the European context – especially among “migrants (a term used for anyone not white, even if they have been there for generations) – race is the underlying cause of multiple forms of exclusion. Not to say that class, gender and so on are not part of this or do not affect this, but in the Global North race continues to exert a tremendous influence on the ways in which the subaltern in these places are treated. Perhaps this also explains why so much of the intersectionality canon – created by activists and scholars mostly in Europe and America – focuses on race and on race in particular contexts, without looking at the globalized nature of racism or capitalism. As Spivak has mentioned, intersectionality is problematic because it often ignores the global division of labour. Again it shows that even when critical theories are developed, they can be Eurocentric and reproduce concerns found in specific locations while erasing others. Definitely more to think about here.

A special thanks to Vanessa Thompson for the inspiring conversations and the lovely Frankfurt trip mentioned in this post.

The reproduction of racialized systems of social control

Over the past few days I’ve been reading two sets of texts and I couldn’t help but notice the striking similarity between them. The first text is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and the second set of texts are articles on human rights and democracy as the new standards of measuring how civilized countries are.

In her book Alexander argues that the prison industrial complex is basically a transformed version of the Jim Crow system. Her main point is that following the civil rights movement and the collapse of Jim Crow, white supremacy had to find a new way to maintain racial inequality. This was done through two related processes: the War on Drugs and the expansion of the prison system. In other words, white supremacy persisted in a different form, and is perhaps even more dangerous because it is not overt anymore. No one is speaking about race the way they did during Jim Crow; but the systemic effects are the same.

An extraordinary percentage of black men in the United States are legally barred from voting today, just as they have been throughout American history. They are also subject to legalized discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service, just as their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents once were (1).

Around the same time, I began reading articles on the shift in global politics in the 40s and 50s where a “new international society” was created. This meant that what constituted civilized or barbaric countries was no longer explicitly stated along racial or cultural lines, but instead was made dependent on new markers, such as human rights and democracy. So just at the moment when it seemed like the international system was opening up and that any country could be an equal member, and just when decolonization was happening and states were no longer using the language of civilized vs. barbaric, an entire new system of subjugation was being introduced. This new system still ranked countries and still reproduced a civilizational hierarchy, but instead relied on different standards: human rights, liberalism, democracy, gender equality. So just as Michelle Alexander points out in the US post-Jim Crow, a new way of speaking about civilization was emerging, but the systemic effects are exactly the same.

As Buzan (2014, 588) notes:

Because the doctrine of human rights sets benchmarks against which all can be assessed, it naturally generates a performance hierarchy among states. That tendency is endlessly reproduced as the standards of human rights themselves evolve. So as the human rights issue becomes more influential within international society, it probably cannot avoid resurrecting something like the ‘standard of civilisation’.

Development and aid are naturally part of this new system. “The colonial obligation of the metropolitan powers to bring the natives up to a European ‘standard of civilisation’ morphed into an obligation on the part of the rich world to assist in the development of the ‘third world’ or ‘less developed countries’.”

The key point in both set of texts is that nobody is talking about race anymore (except those who oppose these new systems). As Michelle Alexander says, “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind” (1). This can be extended to the ways in which the development industry or human rights discourse do not explicitly speak of race, and yet the norms they employ clearly refer to a civilizational hierarchy which, following John Hobson, is clearly a racialized one. Another similarity between these two cases is the formative place of anti-blackness within both systems. In the US, it is anti-blackness that underlies slavery, Jim Crow, and now the prison industrial complex, just as globally, the racist system underpinning notions of development, democracy and human rights is intricately tied to anti-blackness as well as other forms of racism such as Orientalism.

What this shows is why we should be apprehensive when certain trends, concepts of systems are presented as “over” or “dead.” As an ideology that has structured the world for centuries, it is unlikely that white supremacy or Eurocentrism will disappear without attempting to morph or transform itself. As Alexander shows, in the US it has successfully continued the same system in place during slavery and Jim Crow, except it has relies on implicit and covert racialized language and narratives. For example, the idea that a Black man can be president of the US is used as a rhetorical tool that deflects attention away from the fact that most Black men can’t become president of the US. And, as Alexander says, white supremacy doesn’t mean that there can’t be exceptions to the rule. Similarly, the new international regime of neoliberal capitalism relies on new markers of civilization that relegate countries of the Global South to the category “underdeveloped.” And it would be a mistake to not see this as related to white supremacy and race.

All of this is not to say that we should not be nuanced in the way we speak about white supremacy, and it is also not to say that other groups do not have agency or power. But often when we are called on to be “nuanced” it is a call to stop complaining about hegemonic systems and instead accept that we are somehow all equally responsible for what is happening. We can be nuanced about white supremacy in terms of pointing out its variations, the ways in which it differs according to context, and the ways in which it can be fought. But this nuance should not include accepting that white supremacy is no longer hegemonic, or accepting that groups oppressed by white supremacy hold some kind of responsibility for what has happened to them. While it is true that there is agency everywhere, this agency is not equal, because people are not equal, and it would be naive to pretend otherwise.

 As Alexander writes, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.” However as long as the narrative continues to be one of separation and elimination – i.e. racism as something that is in the past and no longer exists – as opposed to continuity and reproduction, it will become increasingly difficult to fight against white supremacy in all of its formations. Moreover, as long as we continue to speak of racism as something some people do (often accidentally), we continue to mask the systemic and institutionalized nature of racism. White supremacy is a system of racialized social control that continues to structure the globe today just as it has for the past few centuries.