The groundbreaking work of Hannah Arendt, The Origin of Totalitarianism, should be on the reading (or rereading) list of every politically engaged citizen – no matter country. The book, written right after WW II, is deeply analytical, opinionated, too extreme – and fantastic! Tragically, it provides so much food for thought of relevance for our societies today.
There is one key observation that permeates all her analysis, and that we need to reflect on much more, and that is Arendt’s concept of ‘surplus men’ (which nowadays should be understood as ‘surplus people’, given the role of women in the employment market), and what such surpluses lead to.
Arendt explains in a most brutal fashion, but correctly, how the surplus of employable men drove imperialism, since those who could not find a foothold in their home countries turned into adventurers without morals abroad. They became buccaneers in the far-flung regions that they and imperialism made their own. The boys of Cecil Rhodes and the East India Company. The lesson is grosso modo that morals vanish in step with the marginalisation that flows from being ‘surplus men’.
Between the two World Wars there were evidently many surplus men, and they became the breeding ground for the extremism that ultimately led to the Nazi regime. If you doubt Arendt’s view then look at the SS: Himmler, an obvious failure in civil society; the circle around him, Wolff, Eicke, Heissmeyer, Wege, for whom the common glue was their previous failure! And Adolf himself was, of course, an unsuccessful postcard painter. Social class was, however, not the determinant for becoming a surplus man, the surplus cut across all classes – something we would be wise to remember today. The liberal elite likes to think that populism is a ‘no high school diploma’ thing but obviously that is wrong. Populism is a surplus thing.
The loss of morals that flows from being surplus, that flows from having to fight with all means to retain social status, is also not primarily an issue of material sufficiency – it is about not being surplus as a person!
Nowadays, the erosion of middle class status is a clear driver of the acceptance by its denizens of the maxim that fighting dirty is alright. The middle class was always the protector of the rule of law, but it now sees that the law no longer protects, because the middle class rather than being threatened in its privileges is itself increasingly becoming surplus. No good reason to adhere to ethics norms then is the logic. Inequality and eroding social status is internalised to mean that it is neither possible nor necessary to uphold moral standards. Where screwing the system used to be the preserve of the upper classes (and the absolutely destitute) it is now entirely salonfähig.
This should give us pause. In the future, we will all become surplus because AI and machines will eliminate the human being as a part of productive processes. When we have all landed there, social status will no longer be determined by profession. A new status system will have to be invented. On the way there, will we see an ever increasing abandonment of moral considerations in our individual decisions?
See also blog posts: ‘The Proletarisation of the Middle Class’ and ‘Capital in Any Century’